Shame (Dir: Steve McQueen)

Steve McQueen Shame

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Steve McQueen’s second feature is a visually arresting, thematically dense piece of cinema, that may, and probably will, prove to be an important film in years to come. That is, if enough people get to see it. Having been cursed with a NC-17 rating in the US and a limited release in the UK, it seems those it may have been intended for will be largely unaware of its arrival.

From the opening frames it becomes clear there is again, after Hunger (2008), a meticulous method at work, both in front and behind the camera; McQueen’s fine arts training fixes every image immaculately, as if leafing through a glossy (yet depraved) coffee table book, a look which works as irony for its subject matter, and the extension of McQueen’s intention to interrogate his audience.

Then there is Fassbender as Brandon, a long-time sex-addicted New Yorker running the hamster wheel of untameable urges and the subsequent self-loathing, his demeanour and quiet menace recalling fellow-pointy-face Christian Bale in American Psycho, only less cartoonish and more sinister.

Brandon’s condition worsens when his younger, ever-vulnerable and needy lounge-singing sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to visit. The pressure of her presence and her constant encroachments on his territory adds to the strain he already feels. Her re-appearance twists him in new ways, not helped by her dalliances with his boss, Dave (James Badge Dale). Brandon gradually crumbles into himself.

And there is much to admire in its telling. Shame is something of an orchestral symphony, all of the components coming together to form a cohesive and remarkable whole, made from the music, and the visuals, and (most of) the acting. One notable sore spot, however, is the mildly irritating dinner scene, in which Sissy performs a heart-wrenching number in front of her brother and Dave. The camera trained on Mulligan’s quivering face, the film’s flow is interrupted. A long long shot of just too much supplicatory ‘acting’. We are made fully aware that what we are witnessing is an actor’s attempt to state her claim as being ‘the brightest young thing’, the scene far too drawn-out to leave any sympathy remaining in this particular instance. That is not to say Mulligan won’t be praised. She surely will be; it is the kind of thing that critics go for, this false attempt at intensity behind a look of painful worldliness.

Despite this, what co-screenwriters McQueen and Abi Morgan have managed is to make real, living, breathing humans of Brandon and Sissy. You may not like them; one is an arrogant bully, the other a needy liberty-taker, but somehow you reach some state of empathy.

Of course, as you may have heard, a lot of the film is sex. That almost goes without saying. (It is like the filmed memoirs of Dan Fante.) But the way McQueen has worked it disconnects the viewer from the sex, even from the sex in other films, this sex for gratification, the cold relief sold as ‘love’. It is the same with Brandon, and we arrive again at empathy. He cannot resist his urges to abominate himself, using hookers, masturbating at work, spending the in-between watching internet pornography, sat with a beer as if looking at a football game, completely on automatic. While, at work, his computer is confiscated as a result of the material found on it.

As he goes on, Brandon has more and more emotionally numbing sex, his pursuit leading him eventually to physical injury and homosexuality (with an odd and subtle implication that homosexuality is rock bottom, if we are to go by the music and intended drama. But it is little trips like these* that make you realise this film was actually ‘made’, that it didn’t just fabricate to teach our society a lesson.)

Shame seems not only about sex addiction as a distancing affliction, but also about alienation in general, though it does too hint at familial problems, sexual or otherwise, as the root cause of the siblings’ troubles. But McQueen is less interested in working the psychological aspects, opting instead to document, not explain: Here is a man who is of no value to himself. He has lost touch with any sense of worthiness, any purpose, other than fleeting and momentary gratification. What is he worth, if he is nothing even to himself? This is why it seems as if this is an “important” film (in quotation marks as how important a film can get has its obvious limitations), and completely of this era of commodified sex. An issue of the times.

Quickly the glossy sex becomes abhorrent to watch, because we are with Brandon, and it’s as equally degrading to the viewer as the participant, made most obvious in the clips of porn flickering on Brandon’s screen. McQueen merely shows this to the audience, does not tell it, by taking us from our awareness of his commercial-like images, which open the story, to the grimy opposite, but filmed in the same style, while simultaneously the world that Brandon inhabits becomes as glossed over and false as the sex and pornography that clouds him.

“These days it is not realistic to limit yourself to one partner”, Brandon says at one point during a date with a girl from work in which he also expresses his pessimistic view of long-term relationships, that one becomes bored with the other. It is clear that he is constantly reaching for the now, the instant gratification. This is what makes this film of our time. It sounds like social commentary, and it probably is. Fassbender’s Brandon is an icon of modern man, a symbol, while the final effect of Shame has some kind of reverb with Tarkovsky’s (disappearing) idea of having a film hopefully make the viewer turn to ‘good’. Shame is the sound and sight of an artist speaking and moving, yet without didacticism or lame solutions. And by the end, we are given a sense of hope, of man resisting himself, gaining control. Shame that a lot of people probably won’t even get a chance to experience it.

[*How many times can the distorted reflection of a protagonist be used as a metaphor in film, without someone piping up and saying something?]

Take Shelter

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Take ShelterFrom Shotgun Stories writer/director comes a second feature on small town America, another portrait of troubled family which despite its flaws, reaffirms Jeff Nichols’ potential to become an independent cinema mainstay.

Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a family man in anytown, Ohio, father to a recently deafened girl, husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and son to an institutionalised mother, Sarah (Kathy Baker). Despite money worries surrounding his daughter’s rising healthcare needs and enrolment in special education, the couple are contented, even happy. The envy of his friends (it is said to his face) and a crew chief for a sand-mining company, everything seems to be under control. Until he starts to have increasingly disturbing visions of an apocalyptic storm coming over the horizon at him, his family and the world as he understands it.

Unsure whether the prophecy in his dreams is coming true, or if his mind is succumbing to inherited mental ills, Curtis begins to build a large underground shelter in his backyard, to the dismay of his family and friends.

By now, we’re already familiar with Shannon’s well-rounded ability to play a man set against society (or vice versa), having seen him play the wild-eyed and obsessive in a number of high- and low-profile roles (Revolutionary Road, Bug, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), but it’s with these independent pictures and through building a fruitful working relationship with Nichols since the director’s debut, that he is carving out a legacy of memorable performances, and surely lasting work. [Editor’s Note: Shannon is also well-known as Nelson, the compulsive, conflicted and compelling federal agent in Boardwalk Empire.]

His is a slow-burn of a breakdown and, though the audience is treated to the usual dream/reality blur of his visions, Nichols largely deals with it in a robust, humane and relatable way. Curtis is an ‘ordinary’ guy, he tries to understand his own illness by taking books out of the library and testing himself. He visits his ‘schizophrenic’ mother and generally does everything he can to understand what is happening to him. And, at first, he does it alone.

Of course, the central reason for Curtis’ breakdown, his prophetic dreams, also works as a metaphor for a wider anxiety that afflicts those who reach a certain point where there are people and things to protect, certain conditions of living that need to be maintained. But it’s hardly an apologist’s account of the seemingly inevitable slide into conservatism, (though it would be tempting to view it that way). Nichols details the general realisation that much too much is beyond any one man’s control, something Curtis comes to realise by eventually confiding in his wife.

Nichols, with his now-emerging trademark of slow-talking midwestern characters, realises his own anxieties through his creations, all plucked right out of real life and scripted with a style that seems to align his future with that of Terence Malick, while, visually at least, somehow recalling the quiet frenzy in the first half of Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces.

Take Shelter is, however, far from flawless. One glaring weakness is the unsure pace of its repetitive narrative, culminating in a rushed yet ultimately tantalising finale. The film seems to have a trajectory that frequently turns back on itself and, as much as the nightmares are entertaining to watch, they seem to stifle the story rather than advance it. Nichols uses the already-familiar language of dream/reality confusion to almost clichéd effect and, though there’s fun to be had in the making of it (there are some jarring images of displaced furniture and splattering birds), it feels like a tired, even over-simplified way of exploring these ideas with an audience. These are the moments where Take Shelter feels like a very small film not saying much about anything, apart from playing around with some substantial, ponderous issues.

But this criticism is mostly rescued by its performances. Chastain and Shannon are consistently impressive (save for some odd dry heaving), along with the rest of the supporting cast, most noticeably in the film’s turning point, a dinner scene that ends in confrontation and some over-turned tables.

Another of the film’s failings, and possibly its most noticeable flaw, is the distractingly executed visual effects, from the renowned Strause Brothers’ company, Hydraulx. The CGI is too flimsy, too hollow, and not made of the same grit that the rest of the film is covered in so that when they appear, the images pull the viewer right out of Curtis’ nightmare vortex and drops them back in their seat, left staring at a big screen.

Nichols’ film is absorbing regardless of these shortcomings, and is the work of a man honing his style, finding what works, while dealing with his own concerns. His third feature, Mud, will be the next in the Shannon-Nichols collaboration, making it a rough trilogy of small town America, which will also star Matthew McConaughey and Reece Witherspoon. Look for it in 2013.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Reviewed by Declan Tan

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s deranged adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s equally deranged novel (which Shriver quite garishly lauds on the film’s poster) is a decent stretch of film that concentrates more on the director’s ambition than it does on the novel’s. The result is a sometimes over-stylised but darkly entertaining genre-mix of gallows humour, psychological horror and suspense; likely to resonate more with shit-scared parents out on ‘date night’ than with their demonic kids, who have probably seen it all before, in more detail, and probably with gory special effects.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva, the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), a teenager imprisoned after murdering several students during a high school massacre. Switching back and forth in sequence, we’re shifted from post- to pre-rampage and back, as Eva visits Kevin, avoids humanity and generally tries to make sense of what happened, looking for the ‘Why’, and the reason for her continued estrangement from her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) and daughter, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).

Channelling Haneke for thematic matter at alternating moments, with echoes of Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments…, Ramsay manages a visually impressionistic swish every now and then, while intermittently falling flat by overpainting the image elsewhere. And, for all its heavy subject matter, Kevin plays a little light and airy. Which isn’t even a criticism.

It works as a reasonable horror flick of sorts, the kind that isn’t quite dumb enough for you to scoff at, but also not ‘new’ enough for you to still be discussing it by the time that once-a-week ‘date night’ draws to a close. There’s no groundbreaking exploration of ideas here; a re-treading of the line between nature and nurture while arguing for neither (though, perhaps, a mixture of the two), it begs of its audience the book’s dust-jacket praise of “intelligence” and “bravery”, merely by showing that every one of its characters abominates another in their own way, in an ever-developing culture of detachment and familial alienation.

Though Ramsay goes where Haneke didn’t, (i.e. the trite explanations of delusions of grandeur; the checklist of psychopathic behaviour; the roar of the crowd from the boy’s perspective; and Kevin’s commentary on television,) it’s when it tries on the big woolly jumper of social commentary that the film feels a little over-dressed, and at times the visuals match Ramsay’s overblown sense of impact and importance. Everything here but the dialogue seems to work, leading Kevin to overstep on occasion so rather than allowing its audience some interpretation by implication. It all gets a little too obvious. But there are successful moments in between, an example being Franklin’s advice to Eva that she “needs to talk to somebody” and get professional help, but that he is obviously unwilling to be the one to do it, a message that nods to the film’s increasingly ironic title.

Where the book was an example of an author creating an explainable context for their overwriting – Eva is herself a writer, it seems that Ramsay has gone for the same, silver screen style, with gaudy visuals that too frequently call attention to their cleverness. Further hindered by strained attempts at ironic music playing over an otherwise disturbing scene, the artistic and filmic references pile up a little too blatantly. Some other choices of music do, however, work well, and create a haunted idea of past and how it can never reached again fully, or for Eva, even partly. This demands that Swinton spend most of the film near-catatonic staring eyes through everything, while Reilly is wasted in a nothing part, a character without depth, a seeming requisite for a film like this; only one side sees, the other is ignorant/blind to the son’s behaviour (reminiscent of the also-competent Joshua and later Orphan).

In contrast to the cataleptic Eva, Kevin is a part an actor can go anywhere with, which, for the breaking-through Miller, means a heavy touch of the over-acting. So plenty twitching of the lips and shit-eating grins, while looking up menacingly from under your eyebrows, then.

But somewhere in here there is promise, if not intellectually, then at least as something reasonably pleasing to look at, as Ramsay’s certain (though loud) control of the camera looks to make a bigger sound in Hollywood and beyond. Let’s just hope for some meatier, less flowery, source material.

Steve Aylett: Lint The Movie

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Lint The MovieUntil recently, the promise of Steve Aylett’s £750 foray into feature-length film productions had seemingly been wandering desultorily around the Internet for quite some time, indulging in some shallow vanishing since 2009, popping up here and there on blogs, before triumphantly reappearing for its premiere in Brighton earlier this year. Followed closely by a London screening, it has since been saddled up for a couple more dates, in Northampton (October) and Portland at Bizarro Con 2011 (November).

If you’re not already familiar with Jeff Lint or Steve Aylett, then this paragraph is my opportunity to appear smug. Which is off-putting, isn’t it? If you are already a Lint obsessive then a review for this film is pointless, as the mere realisation that there is a Lint film in existence would mean you have now closed this window and opened a new one, searching for the next screening. Which puts this article in an odd place. Anyway…

In a quoted excerpt for Lint, Aylett’s 2005 book, the reviewer calls the creation a “laugh-out-loud funny mock biography of a pulp fiction writer who only exists in the author’s imagination”. But now, it seems, the character occupies also the minds of an array of esteemed Lintian pundits, who, riffing on the endless possibilities of such a character, clearly relish the chance in Aylett’s debut movie project.

Working both as an introduction as well as an extension of the Jeff Lint history, the film mixes in some of the speculation and anecdotes that makes up the original Lint book and its sequel, And Your Point Is? (2006) taking some of these ideas further and giving them worthy airtime. Thankfully they survive the transfer from page to screen and remain full of Aylett’s sly subversions.

Lint was the ultimate non-conformist, to the point of failure. A variable variety of talking faces (the shots are usually that close-up) gladly confirm this. Intercut with archive footage, the faces detail much of the Lint legend: his distrust of waiters, his failed Star Trek and Patton scripts and his ‘magic bullet’ theory. Further highlights include some startlingly demented clips of Lint’s cartoon Catty and the Major and recounted tales from a gravelly Lord Caul Pin, writers Alan Moore, David Harlan Wilson (Codename Prague), Mo Ali and Bill Ectric (Tamper), plus comedians Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Robin Ince, and Aylett himself.

Similarly to its source material, Lint The Movie runs episodically with nugget after golden nugget of supreme absurdity, which often go beyond the simple exposition of Lint’s antics and instead into the realm of something meaningful and satiric (despite Aylett himself noting, “Satire has no effect – a mirror holds no fear for those with no shame”). But exactly what this ‘something’ is is hard to define, making Aylett’s Lint all the less boring and all the more satisfying.

Appropriately disrespectful of power, institution and instruction, Aylett is a writer who makes it look as if he is at play, before cunningly twisting on you with sudden twists of truth which make Lint, in all his forms (man/book/movie), true originals.

Now all we ask for is a full series of Catty and the Major.

TV Eye: Bill Hicks, The Field of Blood and Page Eight

Jacob Knowles-Smith settles down for an original American comic and some not so original British drama

It might be a cliché for fans of Bill Hicks to reminisce about the man and wonder what he might have to say about the present day, but it isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination: he wouldn’t have to change much more than the names in his routines and, perhaps, amp up the bile. In American: The Bill Hicks Story (BBC 4) fans old and new were treated to an in depth account of the life of the comedian; from footage of his first gigs at the all-too-precious age of fifteen right up to the famous performances that most viewers will probably have known by heart, and find all the more hilarious for this.

The most interesting aspect of the film was the insight into how Hicks’ most well-known jokes – set pieces? – evolved into their final form; particularly so when noting that the anger first emerged as a result of seeing how much alcohol he could consume when first on stage and later honed this feature into a fine art when sober. A whiff of hagiography has been associated with the documentary but his unpleasantness as a drunk is noted and what would there be to gain by scrutinising his ‘dark side’ other than a cautionary tale that would be anathema to Hicks himself?

Visually, the film is an innovative and smooth blend of animations put together through family photographs and video footage of his live performances that give an extra aesthetically pleasing element to a fine film made by the people who loved the man most, and should stand as a primer for many years to come for all those who will fall in love with Hicks and his message of individualism and not giving those in charge an easy ride.

Less than a week since the final episode of The Hour the BBC seems to have known they were onto something and split the still-warm corpse of the programme down the middle, creating a period drama set in a newsroom and a spy thriller. Sadly, neither can be modified with tags such as ‘high octane’ or even, for that matter, ‘thriller’. The former was the adaptation of the novel The Field of Blood (BBC 1), the story of a jobbing young reporter trying to get to that ever elusive truth, and the latter was Page Eight (BBC 2), a tale of MI5 high jinks and skulduggery.

In The Field of Blood Jayd Johnson, who admirably carries the show on her young shoulders, plays plucky young copyboy-come-investigative journalist Paddy Meehan, embroiled in a murder implicating a family member. Whilst she seeks the real story, she subsists on a diet of hardboiled eggs and there are plenty of hardboiled reporters in the world of a 1980’s Glasgow-based newspaper to help – mostly hinder – her quest. However, even in this most unglamorous of settings the influence of Mad Men prevails – within the first five or so minutes there is gratuitous shot of some grizzled hack taking a nip from a flask – realism is one thing, but this felt like an all too knowing nod to Madison Avenue.

The dialogue rolls fairly well and amusingly along; though one look at McVie – another hack – and you could see the words “You’ll make a journalist yet” tumbling out of his mouth a few scenes later, which seems all too easy if one of the themes they’re trying to portray is the struggle of a young woman making it in a boy’s club.

This is forgivable though, when confronted with the clunky and often glib script of Page Eight: “Wake up, Johnny – 21st century” or, when musing on who has true power, “The bankers did, and look what happened to them.” Well, what exactly did? Such leaden lines were fortunate to have Bill Nighy, as Johnny Worricker of MI5, around to carry them even if he does curiously swing sociopathically from flat monotone speeches to sudden bursts of rage. And he walks a lot. Walks from this scene, walks to that scene. Is this to show his isolation, that he’s a man out of time? Or a clumsy attempt at pointless establishing shots?

The characters Worricker meets, between stumbling upon ‘too much information’, are equally random and bizarre: shoved together from clichés that are, one supposes, meant to be so blunt they trick us into assuming they’re some fresh take. There’s a predatory homosexual Financial Times journalist, a very wised-up Muslim secretary, and Johnny’s attention-starved artist daughter whom he just doesn’t ‘get’ but – dash it all – he never could refuse. And, not to forget, Michael Gambon keeps popping up, until he dies, before Nighy goes for another walk. I wonder if the BBC thought we should be grateful for this as our Bank Holiday treat – given that it undermines the goodwill of The Hour – flawed, but charming – and proves the sameness of both programmes to everything else on TV at the same time.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

A radical new direction for the acceptable face of art house cinema? Hardly, says Declan Tan

“Let’s open with one of those long, audience-testing shots, yeah, yeah, keep him driving around. Make about ten laps then we’ll cut.”

I imagine this is how Sofia Coppola speaks and I imagine this is how she sets up her anchored camera, after watching some ‘70s european art house cinema and listening to some French indie pop, before mumbling instructions to her Ray-Ban-wearing crew. She silently pats herself on the back with a studied expression of seriousness.

Wait. That’s a bit harsh. To be fair she has done some worthwhile work (Lost in Translation) then again, some bordering on disgraceful (Marie Antoinette), with the rest in between (The Virgin Suicides). But it’s this next one, starring Stephen Dorff and Elle (sister-of-Dakota) Fanning, that turns out to be simultaneously intriguing and self-satisfied, dropping in somewhere around the middle of Coppola’s so-far tolerable filmography.

Dorff plays Johnny Marco, an actor whose very name even sounds like a cliché. He has lived in the well-worn fast lane like many of his kind before, blitzing circuits in his Ferrari, habitually bed hopping in the Chateau Marmont, probably chunking his nose but certainly draining exorbitantly priced bottles. But (you guessed it) there is something desperate nagging at him. Do you see now? Miss Coppola wants to poke her golden stick at despair and existential angst again. Joyous day.

Plot? Easy. We have Johnny going from place to place, day to day, not knowing when or what, regularly booking the same blonde twin pole-dancers to perform for his amusement. He parties now and then, breaks an arm, cracks a smile occasionally (but only for the twins), not finding what he’s looking for anywhere, oh but his daughter, Cleo (Fanning), she appears and isn’t she so down-to-earth? Surely, their love for each other can help him find that somewhere. Right, right.

So, familiar territory and safe ground for Coppola, picking apart that theme again, allowing a repeat of those possible interpretations (from her own experience growing up in a similar position to Cleo, or from the perspective of Johnny, a reflection of Coppola in her own career), a subject that allows her to sharpen her already-cut teeth on the fluffily fake glamour of the movie business. Being a bit too repetitive for anyone that saw Lost in Translation, there is nothing said here that wasn’t said last time round. Perhaps this is the only life that Coppola has ever known, or can ever depict. So just as in her Tokyo story, the press and PR incompetents again receive the same treatment as before; they are evermore insincere, moronic and ridiculous. Sometimes laughably so, yet mostly it’s single-chuckle material at best.

Nevertheless, it’s subject matter with plenty of meat for the audience to chew over. We’re presented with the hollow man, a mould (literally, in one scene), who is neatly given purpose and meaning in his on-camera moments, by a script or a director. Outside of that, Johnny is the empty vessel that is filled only during the hours when he embodies someone else. When he is off-set, there is no dictated purpose or meaning or lines to deliver; he is vacated. He realises this, saying: “I’m nothing. I’m not even a real person”. This is where Coppola strikes the right notes. Even a character that has everything is still reduced to nothing, evoking the sympathy of the audience. There are moments when we can ourselves taste the bitter nothing, subdued performances allow these moments to poke through, but often the camera technique is what gets in its way, becoming a film never allowed to realise its considerable potential.

All of this works as a distraction to what could be something real, a message though heard before, still worth listening to. But instead we’re faced with the smugness that seems to underline it all. It’s hard to ignore the self-aware camera work that draws attention to itself with every static shot, every long take, topped with the conspicuously drawn symbolism. It also doesn’t help that the ending is a lazy one.

Route Irish (Ken Loach)

Often something of a cinematic conscience, Ken Loach turns the camera to the Iraq war. Declan Tan reviews

Ken Loach’s take on Iraq was always going to be one to look out for. After In Our Name, Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and a slurry of others sent hot and steaming down the pipe of supposedly cantankerous cinema, Route Irish is a welcome return to veracity that has undoubtedly been amiss in previous war-film efforts. This isn’t to say that those other films aren’t sincere. Surely their respective producers think and believe the things they project up onto the screen, supposed wisdom in a blindfold, it’s just that no one as qualified or well-informed as Loach has bothered to make a mystery/thrillerama like this, until now.

It’s immediately obvious. Loach’s is the film that Green Zone never could be; brash, confrontational, and with more than a Wikipedia source of research. Coming from the pen of Loach’s oft partner-in-crime, Paul Laverty, the script takes on adversaries others have shied away from in the past, as it reaches upward to the source of profit and other reasons for invasion, rather than lazily kicking stones into the faces of those at the bottom of the pile, the soldiers. While other films are looking over their shoulders to see whose jackboot toes they just farted on, Loach’s rolls dead ahead not even casting a look back to see all the faces he’s left in the methane smog. And there are plenty coughing up the guff.

The plot follows ex-sas Fergus (Womack) as he investigates the death of his childhood friend and fellow mercenary, Frankie (Bishop), killed on the deadly stretch of road, “Route Irish”, that joins the Green Zone and Baghdad Airport. Fergus slowly pieces together the reasons for Frankie’s untimely demise, through a furied investigation of private security contractors and big business, putting Skype and mobile phone videos to use like never before. (These technologies even become central to the plot.)

That the story is so routinely executed leads one to realise that this film is simply an excuse for an essay, on modern warfare, on moral ambiguity, concerning the Middle Eastern invasions. Not only satisfied to unglove corporate hands fiddling for profit, it works to question the audience’s complicit involvement in the subsequent revenge Fergus takes out on those culpable, questioning whether we too would succumb, becoming either a victim or hero of circumstance in the ensuing vengeance. Through this, the audience is implicated in the crime of torture. Though Fergus does it out of despair, a regrettable vendetta, because he knows that he is lost inside, we, the audience, enjoy the heavy justice he takes on those responsible. At least a little bit, be honest. Well, for a while, at least.

It’s these side dishes of commentary on the human condition, done well in the context of the surrounding images, that compliments the main of objective of honest storytelling, elevating this above the standard Iraq/Afghan “anti-war” film fodder that can’t help but preach an emptiness both obvious and pointless. The characters here are well-fleshed out and real, not caricatures or propagandists, and the performances well-rounded.

But to call it important is a stretch. Route Irish is the work of a director trying to say things more easily said in other, less subjective or interpretive mediums. And the argument is also there, that it is too late for this kind of film to have any effect, working more as a reader’s letter sent in by a concerned citizen that got lost in the post for a few years. Nevertheless, Loach’s film marks a significant turning point in the way these two invasions are dealt with in cinema, (though it isn’t likely that many other filmmakers will follow the same route) that the war is the Iraqis’ tragedy, no one else’s, not the Brit’s or the American’s, only the Iraqis’. One million war dead and countless others lost. This is the core of Loach’s film. Leaving us with the question: Is this the first honest British film about the invasion?

The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)

Is there anything left to say about The King’s Speech? Declan Tan thinks so

The King's Speech film posterWelcome to the throwback film of the century. You already know the story thanks to the BAFTA-soaked hype parade (and the ubiquitous trailers), and you’re vaguely familiar with the history, World War II and all that (though you won’t be too much the wiser by the end of this movie). On top of this, before even a single frame is set on the screen, prepare to be shunted into a retrogressive state of thinking: that the ruling of a pillaged Empire is something to take great patriotic pride in.

We’re thrown in right before our boy Albert/King George VI is about to give one of his silence-filled speeches, just after the film’s opened with a little heads up on where we are, 1925 England to be exact, the closing speech of the Empire Exhibition. Cue all the trendy framing a voguish director can muster of our reluctant King (later assuming the name George VI when taking the throne) with requisite plain spaces of nothing with our principal character poised at the edge of it, or maybe just the corner of his hat and an eye. Very modern and unimaginative but efficient, much like the film itself.

So Prince Albert (Colin Firth) has a stutter. Not good for a man who regularly has to stand in front of thousands and speak, nor accommodating in a time when the wireless has expanded the reach of said person’ stammer, thus multiplying his failings Commonwealth-wide. So his dutiful wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), gets him help. They’ve been through the struggle of correcting his speech with incapable doctors and therapists, until Elizabeth decides to seek out the man who will change all that. The result is a misfiring, very British stiff upper lip comedy of manners at the outset when we first meet loveable rogue Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). She calls for him, standing in his reception. He answers her from the shitter. It’s all very amusing.

Then there’s a montage of elocution lessons where he makes progress in the confines of Logue’s office but still can’t hack the pressure when it comes to it. Oh and he’s got a mean Daddy who doesn’t help. The story runs smoothly most of the time, kind of chugging along like a well-oiled BBC costume drama, the sort director Tom Hooper has been known for (along with some Byker Grove and EastEnders).

That’s not to say that some of the cinematography isn’t decent. But Hooper’s film, at its core, seems strangely confused over quite a simple story, purposefully evading any complexities to strike its broad brush at the canvas of World politics, finding it acceptable enough to merely shove in a few cameo appearances from Churchill, Baldwin and Chamberlain, occasionally name dropping Hitler and Stalin. Seidler’s script tries its hardest to humanise the King, to make him appealing to the common man with his common problems (a victim of child abuse, how can that miss?) but the tear-jerkers are ticked off one-by-one in supposedly heart rending conversations with Lionel like a film version of a Wikipedia page.

Rather hypocritically it makes the point that the King will never know anything of the ‘common man’, yet Seidler goes out of his way to pave that one-way street, as we the audience/the people are given the dubious honour of trying to understand what it’s like to be royalty (oh so very trying) when the same effort isn’t done from their end. The ruddy swines. It’s the film equivalent of a book that reads “blah blah blah blah b-b-b-b-b-blah” and a sadly condescending experience at that, where magical Disney music plays when a ‘normal’ person has an encounter with the King and Queen. It’s artificial and generally a bit doughy: a forced quaint kind of humour and over-exerted in its attempt at quirkiness.

Churchill (Timothy Spall) especially is played up with unnecessary fervour, too knowing of his potentially important role as if to say: “Yeah, I’ve got a winner here and I’m gonna milk the bastard for all its worth”, taking the part by the throat and throttling it. The same goes for the majority of the performances; Bonham-Carter acts too hard, Firth is almost irritatingly histrionic. Something should be said for Rush though, who carries off his part with dignity and is the only member of the ensemble who makes the thing watchable.

What’s most confusing about The King’s Speech is that it both argues for the importance of a King at a time of crisis, then at the same time passes him off in the main as a complete non-entity and just a speech giver. So which is it?

By the end, and by the time King G VI has to step to the mic, it’s a ruddy relief that he spits out the words, not so much because we’re with him on his dastardly journey, but that the film is nearly over. Amidst this, (of all things!) is the perpetuation of the myth that the people need the Monarch with the silver screen affair ending like a flood of hot turds run into the eyeballs. Hyperbole perhaps. But maybe that’s why it even earned the Queen’s approval. I’ll calm down now.

Alternatively: watch The Madness of King George.

Keeping Up with the Jones: Regarding Indiana

Indiana Jones poster

Whilst the Star Wars trilogy has embedded itself deep within our cultural mythology, Robert O’Connor wonders about George Lucas’ other classic serial, the Indiana Jones films

George Lucas made the first Star Wars movies as a throwback to the classic adventure serials like Flash Gordon. A few years later he did it again with the Indiana Jones movies. They’re all pure entertainment, the Star Wars movies have become a part of the cultural consciousness. The mythology in them has been given serious treatment by scholars, journalists and the like. What of the Indiana Jones movies?

For this discussion, I’ll be looking at the first and third Indiana Jones movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. These two have the most in common with each other in terms of plot and subject matter. After all, the artifacts at the center of the movies are central to Judaism and Christianity, respectively, which are in themselves closely related.

Both films, for example, begin with Indy in the middle of one of his adventures trying to acquire a new item for the museum. In Raiders, it’s a South American idol. In the second, a Conquistador cross.

The opening adventure in Raiders serves the purpose of introducing the villain, Rene Belloq. His relationship to Indy is summed up in his first line: “There is nothing you can find that I cannot take away”. He then warns Jones about choosing friends wisely, and holds up the idol for his native soldiers to grovel at.

Belloq is not obsessed with the relics he takes. Nor is he interested in selling them to a museum like Indy would have done. Belloq has a desire for power over others, which he gains when holding the idol above his head. When he calls the Ark “a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God”, that is the reason he wants his hands on it. And he’ll befriend the Nazis to get it.

In the end, Indy finds the Ark, and Belloq takes it away – only to be destroyed by the Ark.

As for Crusade, the opening adventure establishes a theme that runs through both movies: obsession. Indy finds the crusader cross and spends his entire life trying to get it back from the bad guy.

In both movies, an older man is obsessed with finding the treasured objects. In the first film, Indy’s teacher Abner Ravenwood had an obsession with the Ark, while in Crusade, it’s Indy’s father Henry that was obsessed with the Holy Grail. Indy’s relationship to both men had fallen out and he thinks of the objects of their obsessions with suspicions. Through the course of both movies he begins to believe both of them and reconcile his relationship with both, albeit in Raiders, Abner is dead by the time the movie starts, so Indy reconciles with his daughter Marion, who is implied to be the reason for Abner and Indy falling out.

Because of his obsession, Henry Jones knew the dangers that were to be faced on the way to the Holy Grail – the journey, the three tests. He had written all of it down in his diary which Indy used to get through the tests.

Another recurring motif in the movies is knowledge. In Crusade, Indy says in his opening lecture that “80% of archaeology is done in the library”, and that it doesn’t involve hair-raising adventure. Both Walter Donovan and Belloq know an awful lot about the objects they desire, but key misunderstandings cause them to fail.

In Crusades, Walter Donovan knows a lot about the Holy Grail. He says he’s passionate about antiquities, though his regular job is never revealed. But when he enters the Grail room, he is given a beautiful golden chalice – one that looks like most depictions of the Grail. He calls it “the cup of the King of Kings”. But when he drinks from it, he ages rapidly and dies. Similarly, Belloq knows a lot about the Ark, but doesn’t heed the warnings spoken most clearly by Brody at the beginning about the wrath of God.

Donovan believes from the beginning that the Grail is the cup that gives eternal life. Everyone else believes the Grail is more abstract. Brody believes the Grail is “the search for the divine in all of us.” Henry Jones, who knows everything there is to know about the Grail after 40 years of research and is healed by its powers, but in the end, he says the Grail gave him “illumination.”

Even Dr. Schneider, who hands Donovan the golden chalice knowing its the false Grail, who knows the real thing wouldn’t be made out of gold – “the cup of a carpenter” – didn’t really understand it. Henry says at the end that “she thought she had found a prize” in the grail. That’s why she reached for it and fell into the crevice. But a prize for whom? Her loyalty is to the Nazis for much of the movie, but when confronted by Indy in Berlin, she insists she doesn’t believe in any of it. The best answer is herself and Indy, since when she crosses the Grail seal with it, she calls to Indy that “[they] have it!” But what use would she, or anyone for that matter, have of it?

The Indiana Jones movies are entertainments first. Any analysis of them should keep this in mind. They are not brooding, introspective films that consciously try and explore deep themes. Any attempt to glean philosophical meanings from them is bound to yield shallow answers, if any answers at all. Questions necessary for these kinds of analysis don’t have obvious answers, since the primary aim of the films was not to deal with them, but to give the viewer a rocking good time. Which is exactly what I take from them.

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)

Eight years after One Hour Photo, music video director Romanek steps back in the ring with an adaptation of Ishiguro’s much-touted novel. Declan Tan reviews

In 1952, the breakthrough came. All disease and illness were cured, all disability wiped out. By the 1960s, age expectancy reached over 100 years.

This is the opener for Never Let Me Go, a love-triangular pseudo-sci-fi-drama in which mankind undergoes the dystopian treatment in an alternative history, where science and technology have made the simultaneous leap to put an end to all (physical) human suffering. This, we are shown, is achieved through harvesting body parts and vital organs, taken from mild-mannered clones, to transplant into and onto the broken bodies of the higher strata of society. By now you could be tempted to think Brave New World or possibly Gattaca, and ponder that we might already be well-acquainted with this plot.

Or at least we have seen these ideas before, and more proficiently explored. And that’s the main issue with Romanek’s latest, adapted for the screen by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) from the cult-ish 2005 Kazuo Ishiguro novel of the same name, though the premise is ripe with possibilities – questions of ethics and what it means to be ‘human’, questions of science and destiny, questions of soul and suffering and so on and so forth. Yet what we are presented with is a semi-complete dystopian vision, a world half-rendered by Garland’s script, and a sequence of scenes ironically devoid of any human emotion or completion of its big concepts.

The film opens in the 1990s with our 29-year-old heroine, Kathy (Mulligan) the carer, over-seeing a ‘donor’ ‘donating’. She delivers a solemn voiceover filling us in on her dulled recollections. We flash back to 1978, a twee-looking boarding school where the children talk through their noses and their starchy uniforms stifle free movement and free thinking. Introduced are Kathy’s classmates Tommy (Garfield), who she quickly falls in love with, and Ruth (a sedate Keira Knightley), her then-best friend. As we learn more about life at Hailsham school, a new teacher enters the fray and begins to undermine the control held over the children’s pre-determined fate. We quickly begin to realise that there is a darker side to the apparently parentless joy of regimented school life under Miss Emily (Rampling) with episodes showing playground bullying, their inability to think outside their boundaries and chorus-singing of mindwash anthems. But when the mystery of their purpose evaporates (after the first 40 or so minutes) we are left with little reason to hang on, and this is seemingly what the three protagonists are thinking, as they fail to kick up a fuss or do the human thing and rebel. But Ruth and Tommy make a go of it while they’re young, destroying Kathy in the process, leaving her to watch them from afar as they share their first kiss.

When the film jumps forward to 1985, not much has changed. Where the three used to inhabit a school they now live in ‘The Cottages’. They sit around with blank faces, impersonate characters from American television, go on day trips and exist in a kind of ennui on their next step to ‘completion’ (Ishiguro’s euphemism for death). On one of these road trips Ruth glimpses what she thinks might be her ‘possible’, the person for whom her organs and limbs are supposed to be harvested for, yet this event is passed over without much thought or delicacy. The subject of the wider society is also missed, as a short scene in which the trio shyly orders some food at a café merely demonstrates another example of the film’s self-imposed limits.

Frustratingly, the clones simply accept their fates without displaying any trace of humanity; they sink into misery and merely acquiesce to their destinies. And this seems more of a defect on the film’s part rather than an intentional comment on human nature. So, unremarkably, throughout the three decades that the film spans, the three friends experience almost no progression or development; they are static, which is not aided by the type of wispy acting on display from the three leads, and who could only fall flat as a result of the flaccid dialogue anyway.

Also a tad irritating is that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth talk of nothing but their situation, occasionally of ‘love’ but without ever showing it or saying what they seem to think it is (this being another opportunity to delve into the aspects of perceived and actual love) but again, this is brushed away, glossed over with stereotypical reflections. Yet the most implausible aspect must be the fact that the world they live in does not seemed to have changed at all, apart from people living longer. Perhaps this is the film’s intention, to reveal only the singular perspective of Kathy. Even so, it makes the film feel somehow incomplete. And Kathy’s world that Romanek and Garland have recreated is empty and bereft of humanity, the core of Ishiguro’s admittedly overrated book, in a place where man’s body is elevated in meaning and significance in light of his predicament, making it all the more ridiculous that these three fail to deal with anything, waiting years to find out the details of their fate.

Never Let Me Go also suffers from another massive disconnect throughout; a disconnect between its style and the content of its script. Warm hues carry an incongruously somber tone, giving an unintentional sense of discomfort, the sign of a project that does not know its purpose or its meaning. And in an attempt to wrench in some feeling to the one-note script work, the soundtrack plays out melodramatic strings and trite crescendos, telling you when and what to feel, when perhaps silence would say much more than the manufactured emotion.

And to compound these inconsistencies, Romanek seems to possess the extraordinary talent of finding the most conventional and tediously orthodox shot possible for every moment, with the film evidently too busy getting on and telling its tale to get any ideas across visually or verbally, leaving the possibility that perhaps the only cliché avoided here was to not save the twist for the end.

When the inevitable conclusion does arrive, you’re left trying to pick out the pieces that might have meant something. Is it all some treatise on the ramifications of stem-cell research? Who knows. Is it a religious bit of work, blending in (accepted) notions of the soul against man’s concept of law? Probably not. An intriguing concept that at first seems interesting is instead taken for a ride where only the end is sought, and not the journey. So by the time we hear the last grating after-thought of a voiceover trying to tie things up nicely, with too many aspects of the story taken for granted and with social context forgotten, the whole thing sounds like A-level metaphysics, bordering on self-parody: “We all complete. And somehow it never feels quite long enough”.

Miral (Julian Schnabel)

Julian Schnabel’s switch from painter to filmmaker was one of the more surprising reinventions in contemporary culture. For Declan Tan, however, his most recent effort is a serious anticlimax

Julian Schnabel has more than impressed, actually he has excelled in his past features, all biopics of wildly varied personalities and very different nationalities. First there was his contemporary, and fellow New Yorker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, for whom he made 1996’s ebullient Basquiat. He followed up with an Oscar-nominated performance from Javier Bardem in the Cuban-set Reinaldo Arenas biography, Before Night Falls (2000), before picking up more Academy award nominations and the Best Director gong at Cannes with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

Now Schnabel has transported his considerable skill to the Middle East. And unfortunately, it is with little or no impact. Too poorly informed to be a serious political film, too aware of its own possible significance in having any impact, and too clumsily written to be a comprehensive biography, Miral is simply a disappointment for what could have been a great cinematic statement. It’s like Schnabel finally wants to claim an Oscar for himself, by making a film that looks brave but only on the surface.

Miral doesn’t just try to tell the story of its titular heroine, but also Miral’s biological mother, Nadia (Yasmine Elmasri), a would-be terrorist in prison, Fatima (Ruba Bial), and Miral’s unofficially adopted mother, Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass). The latter is the core of the film, we start and end with her, and she is the reference point to all of the passing characters throughout.

We begin with Hind’s funeral in 1994 then cut back to 1948 in a kind of a how-it-all-began deal. Hind is walking to work and amidst gunfire and settling dust in the aftermath of the Deir Yassin massacre, she comes across 55 stranded orphans in the streets. She takes them to her mother’s home and feeds them, clothes them and eventually begins educating them. Over the years, this 55 turns to 2,000 until she has a bona fide school for girls, holding strong to a policy of non-participation in political struggle (in any overt way) and a complete commitment to “her children”.

Yes. This is an admirable story.

But Schnabel and Rula Jebreal, writer of the novel and the film, get muddled trying to mix the heavy story and politics, always stalling at a shallow depth on both. Schnabel freely admits he is no expert, admits he is not even trying to be. So he wants to use up the situation for an artistic experience, OK. Perhaps you don’t agree with that. Maybe he’s using the situation to get his hands on some awards. It’s hard to jump to that conclusion, but it looks that way. The politics are watered down, Schnabel and Jebreal seem to have redacted anything too controversial, anything that doesn’t fit in with this kind of fashionable social awareness where only the most superficial details are left in, the crimes of the Israeli government left without analysis, without debate, and only mentioned in clumsily didactic exposition.

As the movie unfolds we’re also offered a backstory for Fatima, the nurse turned activist, who plants a bomb in an Israeli cinema during a showing of Polanski’s Repulsion. Schnabel seems prepared to confront and condemn the thought-process behind an attack on innocent life by Palestinians on Israelis, but the other way round we rarely see the violence, Israelis only demolish buildings, imprison and then release. The murder of civilians seems far away and not immediate, contrary to the actuality of the situation.

In the Palestine that Schnabel creates, the Israeli army is not quite the belligerent occupying force that history has shown them to be. There are snippets of this poking through, some actual footage is cut in with the gloss, but it is ambivalent and afraid to come out and say what it is and say it straight. At the rushed conclusion we are told that the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 were a serious hope for an end to the atrocities. Perhaps this would have been an acceptable comment if the film was made in 1993. With the gift of hindsight Schnabel should or could have plugged the depths of this event for what it really was, another step in further dispossessing and systematically destroying the people of Palestine and as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe says: “to corral Palestinians in South African-style bantustans”. Instead the film laments that the accords have “not yet been honoured”.

Coinciding with the films political naivety, Schnabel seems also to have run out of ideas stylistically. The opening titles are atrocious, even amateurish. Then there’s the camerawork. It seems to try and show the possibility of hope, of freedom in its freeform style, often handheld and spinning looking up at blue sky or the trees, or whatever. But the whole experience is unconvincing, even insincere. These flourishes that made his previous films refreshing and even remarkable, are used to little or no effect here. Ultimately, the photography, mixed with a clumpy script and a removal of the US role in proceedings, amounts to what seems a poor understanding of the sheer desperation of the oppressed people in Palestine.

The Fighter (David O. Russell)

The Fighter film poster

Is there more to the Christian Bale Method than weight loss and accents? Declan Tan views his ‘return to acting’

As unimaginative and uninvolving as it is, The Fighter still manages to (insert boxing pun) throw a few punches before (here’s another one) the final bell, though admittedly it’s identical to every other underdog boxing movie you’ve ever seen. It couldn’t be more predictable, even if you already know the tale of “Irish” Micky Ward, with the only element of this different to any other pugilistic picture being that there’s a crackhead or two involved. And a greedy mother. Which both seemed to have gotten this one fast-tracked into production.

You can imagine the pitch in the Paramount offices, boxer Ward overcomes all the obstacles of his trainer/brother’s drug addiction and troubled upbringing to become the unexpected welterweight champion of the world. With a built-in audience that either like a good Dropkick Murphys track, play Xbox or have seen Rocky, the makers of The Fighter seemed to have realised early on it wouldn’t require much thought or craft to make a success. So if you’ve seen the trailer then there isn’t really any need to sit in front of it for two hours, is all.

But the acting is what it needs to be. The same cannot be said for the lazy script which does its best to confuse with a choppy timeline that skips long periods with no explanation, even leaping over less successful moments in Ward’s comeback career and ending before the much-lauded trilogy of fights with Arturo Gatti.

Bale (playing Micky’s half-brother Dicky Eklund) does his best to squirrel it up a bit, maybe too much, his familiar sunken eyes and weight loss doing most of the work for him, though when we catch a glimpse of the real Dicky during the credits he does appear to have the role down pat. But it isn’t really enough to carry it. Thankfully though, the two leads don’t compete for attention when they are on screen together. Wahlberg keeps it to quiet frustration and restrained integrity as the hero, having spent around four years training to ‘become’ Ward, even having the two brothers live in his home. We can’t knock that part of the production.

We can however take a second look at that script, with shared blame going to Scott Silver (yes, 8 Mile), Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, leaving us thinking who actually has dementia pugilistica in this story? The film presents a kind of a black and white world where people are either bastards doing evil, selfish things, or basically noble and valiant. There are no shades of morality to question here. And it comes out in the dialogue and the narrative, it wears thin and somehow gets a little tedious in spots.

And instead of having you sneer sanctimoniously at the working-class of Lowell, Massachusetts and more specifically the family of Micky Ward, it actually treats the whole familial fighting thing with an almost refreshing lightness of humour, while at the same time allowing you to, without guilt, despise and detest the scummy side of the family. So it does have its good points. Other highlights being the reconstruction of live television, using the appropriate video to give it the feel of live pay-per-view fights, the commentary intact, as it gets the point across that it’s just as much about the people watching Micky and not just Micky himself, as all their hopes rest on his supposedly “Irish” shoulders. Then there’s also Micky’s entrance music: Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’. Yep. Pretty good.

So it’s not all bad, but with the telescoping of film-worthy material condensing down to the last ten or so years, we’re left asking if Lennox Lewis is the next in line for the Hollywood treatment. Don’t do it, Paramount. Don’t.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (Banksy)

Declan Tan revisits Banksy’s documentary on street art and the transformation of Terry Guetta into  ‘Mr. Brainwash’

Pretension is a subject seemingly dear to Banksy. It’s all over his work, from his mordant stencils which inspired a boisterous surge in ‘street art’ popularity, to his grand socio-political satires plastered across the most daring of locations, Banksy takes the clichéd and turgid, shrewdly spinning it on its head.

With Exit Through The Gift Shop he has drawn up fresh targets for ridicule, and it’s telling that the original title for this documentary was How To Sell Shit To Cunts. For that is what he seems to do best and, quite ironically, these are the types who most swiftly beleaguer him.

This is particularly the case in LA. where the real subject of this film lives and gibbers. French fashion-store owner and videographer (he cannot be called a filmmaker), Thierry Guetta, has an obsession. He films everything he does without exception: his family life, his social life, even the final trails of a flushed turd. Without exception but not without reason as the film tenderly reveals and this is where the genuine vitality of the film seeps through. It is a forgiving and humane account of a man, directly involved, in the selling of crap to idiots.

After making enough money from the carnival world of fashion, selling vintage clothing to the uniformly individual fashionistas, Thierry (or Terry as he is constantly referred to) buys a video camera and simply presses ‘play’ on his life. Luckily for him, after endless home movies filling his cellar, it turns out his cousin is ubiquitous mosaic-making street artist, Space Invader. From this chance revelation Terry finally finds a worthwhile subject and, unfortunately for his understanding wife and children, he becomes an aborted father and his obsession is thrust deeper.

Shying away from nothing, Terry and the film roll on. Footage of his exploits with his cousin and crew follows; scenes that resurrect the spirit of seminal poet/artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his SAMO tag are particularly memorable, with their midnight missions become increasingly daring. Inspired, Terry begins to create his own work and after a meeting with pop-art idol, Shephard Fairey, finally gets into contact with Banksy who encourages him further still to put on an art show under his own alias, and thus ‘Mr. Brainwash’ is born.

Perhaps the only disappointment for those expecting a ‘Banksy film about Banksy’ is that he only appears briefly. Yet this purposeful and suitably self-aware approach abides the backseat rule of documentary filmmaking. Terry becomes what Banksy could have been, the sell-out and sold-out hype machine, believing the laughable publicity he has himself created.

On the surface it is a simple, undemanding and humorous film, jammed with great moments of inadvertent brilliance, Terry’s eloquent philosophizing on all manner of subjects (“It’s like I’m playing chess. I don’t know how to play chess. But life, it’s a chess game“) is always a highlight, peppered with impressive footage punctuated by witty commentary from a hooded and distorted Banksy.

Banksy’s debut film is poignant without pretentiousness. It delivers equal focus on the snotty and easily convinced art crowd of L.A. ridiculing the farce of the art world, posing question after question on the pompous seriousness fed into meaningless things but also questioning the received wisdom that a ‘street artist’ can make it big without selling out the message.

Conviction (Tony Goldwyn)

Reviewed by Declan Tan

Conviction is a sickly and cynical bit of force-fed fluff, masquerading as serious drama as it squeezes all life out of its once-dignified story, dragging it through the shit heap of Hollywood to exploit its working-class subjects with predictable execution. Not the first, and not the last time this will happen.

That Conviction has had an underwhelming box-office run in America so far seems like sweet justice to this brand of tracing paper ‘cinema’ cranked through the mangle of big name production houses year-in year-out. Taking its cues from past successes of the genre (Erin Brockovich) it proceeds to tell the real-life story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank), a divorcée mother of two who went through all workable avenues to acquit her brother, Kenny (Rockwell), when he was convicted of murder and given a life sentence in 1983.

The details of the actual case are interesting: the revelation of DNA evidence (introduced after his sentencing), the vengeful and corrupt activities of the police (particularly one local cop) and of course, Waters’ sustained dedication. She gets a high school diploma, then a degree, before finally enrolling to study law. The film, however, skips over vast areas that could have been mined with subtlety, instead going for the dulling effect of a race through the events, dashing them off in its attempt to crank up tension and tragedy whilst condescendingly celebrating the determination of ‘the little people’. Bastardly individuals are picked out as the source of the problem, blissfully avoiding the potentially daring approach of targeting the system itself.

We get to know the Waters’ only in the most superficial sense, a troubled childhood that has made Betty Anne seemingly indebted to her brother, who seems to like a drink and throw a few punches now and again. Instead of exploring the prospect that Kenny could have, in fact, committed murder, we have to sit through the blare of Swank storming about with her uni buddy, Abra (Driver) putting the pieces together in a kind of Columbo-esque fashion.

Just one more thing, without going on about it, in one of these films you know exactly how it will look and how it will play out without having to see it, here even the performances are too strained to admire. Miss it.

West Is West (Andy DeEmmony)

West is West film poster

A decade after its hugely successful predecessor, Declan Tan encounters an entertaining but lightweight imitation second time around

As the long-awaited sequel to the 1999 breakout hit that was East is East, comes scribe Ayub Khan-Din’s West is West, a continuation of the Salford-set story of Sajid (Aqib Khan), jumping us forward five years to 1976. Except this time the plot moves the family (or at least two members of it, initially) out from the bleak chip shop and terraces of Greater Manchester to father George’s motherland, Pakistan.

We’re quickly reacquainted with the principal characters with, among other gags, the expected Pakistani/English culture clash jokes. There’s an abundance of those, but only occasionally do they feel out of place or forced. It has to be said of director Andy DeEmmony, that his control over the tone and the narrative, having taken over the reins from East’s Damien O’Donnell, is stamped from the get-go. He’s obviously at home with this sort of thing, having directed episodes of Father Ted, Spitting Image and Red Dwarf and it’s competently shot, perhaps even well done, but it doesn’t venture to try anything new. The same can be said of the script, which seems happy enough to take on some serious issues with a light-hearted approach, and not to get swamped by social commentary. It tells its story and that’s that. But at least this seems purposeful, because West is West is genuinely feel-good. So we’ll ignore some of the less-than-inspiring acting that the film opens with, as it really starts to pick up when we land in Pakistan, as everything before it just seems like a short meet-and-greet before the story proper gets it’s boots on.

Sajid is at odds with his Pakistani heritage, forced upon him by his old-school father George (Om Puri). His mother Ella (Bassett) is a little more forgiving. But the kids at school aren’t. All of these elements create a state of alienation for the pubescent Sajid as he begins to reject the traditions George has tried to inculcate in him and his family. Recognising this, George whisks Sajid off to Punjab, to the family home of his first wife (whom he abandoned for England 35 years previous), to try and correct the crumbling of his values.

Here we go on the old coming-of-age story-train. Yes it’s all pretty soft, bit soapy even, but it has it’s moments when George’s anguish to repent gets the better of him and the audience. And it’s all pretty much down to the performance from Om Puri who is as commanding as ever. George must fix all the wrongs and face all the things he’s tried to forget over the years since moving to England’s hallowed North. There’s a lot going on: He’s got a son looking for a wife, a wife looking for her husband, his English wife looking for her husband, another son looking for meaning, and a load of other troubles that begin to make themselves known when he settles back into home life in Punjab. Oh and he starts losing his son Sajid to the local sage’s influence, who takes him under his wing with more understanding and tenderness than George can manage.

Suffice to say, if you didn’t like the first film then there isn’t any reason to get in on this one. It’s largely much of the same, a lot of crisp dialogue coupled with some truly affecting family moments (but nothing on a level with the previous film’s physical abuse). The problems is just that it’s instantly forgettable.

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

Derek Cianfrance’s labour of love reviewed by Declan Tan

If you’ve happened upon any of the interviews with director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance talking about his 12-year project, Blue Valentine, you’ll notice there’s a through-line to all of them. As wearied as his two main characters become of each other, Cianfrance, in his routine exchanges with the press, generally refers to his film as a “duet”. Probably because that’s the perfect way to describe it.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who both have the knack of turning up in films that lend themselves to repeated viewings such as this one, play the young couple of Dean and Cindy. Two people, seemingly given the plainest names possible (perhaps a starting point for their universally recognisable situation) who are beginning to see their relationship crumble. We learn of their circumstances which, we find out, are not exactly universal; the shotgun wedding, their daughter, their family problems, previous relationships, ambitions or non-ambitions, coaxingly revealed in flashbacks (actually shot six years ago) that don’t announce themselves or make it immediately obvious that ‘we’re in the past, now’.

Instead, and this is where the ‘duet’ bit comes in, Cianfrance opts for 16mm film to contrast the digital video of the ‘present day’, a delicately scored soundtrack (by the otherwise-disappointing Grizzly Bear) heard only in the ‘past’ sections of the film and of course, a slightly more trendily attired Cindy and Dean. All these techniques and the mise-en-scène subtly carve its narrative, as if sculpting time, without imposing answers on its audience, showing us something as close to real as you can get without setting up a CCTV system in an unsuspecting newlyweds’ home. Which no one seems willing to do these days.

In the opening shots the two are rarely found, in-focus, taking up the same frame, a deft touch to establish the frailty of the relationship’s current grounding, another example of “form illuminating content”, as Cianfrance puts it. Mix in the slow reveals of an intelligent and playful, if eventually unambitious, Dean, working as a furniture remover in New York, meeting Cindy the medical student, then tension between the pair’s wildly different purposes in life becomes palpable as it escalates.

It is one thing a director naming an influence in the hope that it adds more gravitas to his work, without said influence actually being remotely noticeable, but Cianfrance’s work here genuinely calls to mind the work of John Cassavetes, specifically A Woman Under the Influence which Cianfrance has said, in one of many chit-chats, is one of his favourite films. This being only his second feature makes it all the more impressive.

In other words: if you like films, see this one.

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Declan Tan takes a second look at Aronofsky’s tightly-wound psych-out

Recommending this film is not the easiest thing to do. You have those who already know and appreciate the prospect of a new Darren Aronofsky film, granted some of those fans fell off at The Fountain, his most personal and ambitious work, before being pulled back in by The Wrestler.

Then you have those yet to be convinced.

And the thing with his latest is, it will at once alienate part of the audience while at the same time dazzle the rest. But of course this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s surely not Aronofsky’s intention to simply make a film that everyone is going to love, to become the American Nolan; making dark, often subversive films that make big box office. (At least not this time round, as his next project is the follow-up to Hugh Jackman-produced X-Men Origins: Wolverine.)

But back to the film, which focuses on Nina (Portman) an obsessively committed ballerina in a New York City ballet company. She even dreams about her moment in the spotlight in the appropriately ominous introduction, the lead-in for a film that exists almost entirely in Nina’s mind. Through the first shots of her warming up, stretching in the early morning, we’re also entirely convinced of Portman’s commitment to the role. And the paranoia kicks in almost immediately as we watch her gradually disintegrate before our eyes. From the early scenes of her on the train, wearing her white scarf and looking into her faint reflection, we quickly get the sense of her vulnerability. As she rides the subway, she spots what she thinks is herself standing in an adjacent carriage. She is already beginning to fall apart, becoming a ghost under the pressure of her own mind.

She sees her own face looking back at her. Then in a flash it becomes her lookalike/double and newcomer to the company, Lilly (Kunis), all dressed in black. The mind fuck continues both literally and figuratively. She imagines (or does she?) an encounter with the sexually liberated Lilly, the Black Swan to her White. The atmosphere of unreality pervades, with Aronofsky often framing his actors trapped in the reflections of mirrors, mirrors which become significant by the end. At one point even a room of portraits, painted by Nina’s slightly twisted mother, begin screaming mad gibberish at her. It’s a relentless spiral downward as Nina and Lilly vie for the lead role in the troupe’s refreshed version of Swan Lake, led by magisterial director Thomas (Cassel), for whom they also compete.

But Nina has a problem, her dancing, like her mind before the fall, is too controlled. To lead the new season, she must be able to portray both the angelic White Swan and the cursed Black Swan. Lilly offers to help. But Nina struggles, her rigid mind so inextricably linked to her disciplined body, unable to let go and too concerned with perfection. Thomas tells her: “Lose your self”. She does her best.

If you know the story of Swan Lake, then you know where this is going. After a little while you realise the film is itself an updated version of the classic ballet by Tchaikovsky. So it’s got that postmodern thing going on. Which is nice. But even if you don’t know your 19th-century Russian ballet, you can probably work it out. But crucially, it’s not a twist that Aronofsky is going for. He relishes the slow build to the inevitably bleak ending, another glorious slice of his “there’s no escape” doctrine. So it’s the journey that’s to be enjoyed. And enjoy it we do.

Thickly layered with the destructive themes of obsession, passion and ego, a film that will inevitably be labelled as ‘existential’ (though Aronofsky denounces the “existential humanist” label that seems to have landed on him), we have here a masterful piece of immersive cinema. The sound and the visuals conspire in morbid harmony, creating a grim, confusing and often horrifying study of Nina’s crumbling psyche. And it’s the fine work in post-production that draws all these elements together: well-conceived visual effects and a deep soundscape that confidently play with the audience’s nerves, served up with a booming score from long-time Aronofsky-collaborator Clint Mansell, along with oneiric imagery that becomes increasingly nightmarish as we’re drawn into the pressure-cooker world of ballet. Even the details down to costume design have been finely tuned, plenty of contrasting black-and-whites, continually getting at us with ideas of good and evil, darkness and light, simultaneously real and imagined.

And it’s done seemingly with ease. The human mind is familiar territory for Aronofsky, his films are generally set within it, his oeuvre predominantly exploring disintegration of the self through passion or obsession or addiction. His characters find freedom through death, either of the self or of the body, or both, seemingly saying that one cannot survive without the other. And Black Swan might be his magnum opus. Its last, lingering line is: “It was perfect”. He just might convince you.

The Kids Are Alright (Lisa Cholodenko)

Good, great or just alright? Lisa Choldenko’s recent, acclaimed film is a little bit of each for Declan Tan

The Kids Are Alright film posterThe Kids Are All Right is a film that, like its two main characters, gets stuck in its meandering second half. And although it seems a sincere and even genuine slice of family life at first, Lisa Cholodenko’s latest directorial effort stumbles into a disappointing conclusion.

Cholodenko has fashioned her burgeoning career from some sharp, often perceptive work that gradually slides into mediocrity and unfortunately it shows again here, particularly in the film’s opening. Through some observational humour and witty dialogue superbly played by all involved, we get to know the family as a strong one: they’ve been married for years, both their parents support their lifestyles, and they live in generally freethinking harmony. Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) play the married lesbian couple who, after having two children via the help of anonymous sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), start to run into problems when their aforementioned Kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (MIa Wasikowska), decide to seek him out following Joni’s 18th birthday.

Then in steps Paul, the unpretentious and ingenuous donor, acted sensitively and with nuance by Ruffalo, most memorably in his introduction to the family in a tense barbecue scene. We come to realise that Paul represents everything opposed to what Nic has in plan for her children, namely higher education, direction and ambition. In a masterful scene in which, yes, awkward moments are the genesis of much of the humour, Nic and Paul come to intellectual blows when the latter suggests university isn’t for everyone. Nic casts disapproving looks across the table as she sips her perpetually full glass of wine. Secretly targeted for his easy-going attitude after their first meeting, Nic begins to conspire against what she sees as the subversive influence of a straightforward ‘dude’ such as Paul entering the fray. What we first understood to be an impregnable family unit then begins to slide further into fragility when Jules takes up working for Paul, who offers her a job landscaping his arid garden. This is where all the tightly woven good work in the film’s intro begins to be undone.

Co-written with Stuart Blumberg, Cholodenko’s script seems to want to keep the funnily observant streak running throughout, with the occasional witticism or clever line thrown in, but fails, as it ventures deeper into tedious soap opera territory. Platitudinous psychology is wantonly applied to the character of (among others) Jules: she wants attention or acceptance or validation or whatever it is, so she goes and sleeps with Paul. This is the main reason for the family’s rupture and we can’t help but feel something less than pity for characters we were once laughing with, as they cry themselves into the shower or pettily pick fights about who’s being supportive and who isn’t. And having sex with the wrong person is these people’s only problem, which makes this the sort of material that is hard to get stuck into emotionally or intellectually, with the word ‘bourgeois’ finding it hard to silence itself.

The initially softly played drama reverts into lazy melodrama, with the film failing to raise any questions that aren’t already presented in any other parentally focused movies. When Nic finds out about Jules’ infidelity the story boils down to a will-they-won’t-they stay together situation, and by this time any notion of interest has evaporated. But this isn’t to say the film is entirely forgettable. A sequence in which Nic discovers Jules’ hair in Paul’s shower during a dinner party, as she retakes her seat then sips from her wine glass, is deftly executed as it feeds in all of the claustrophobic nausea and sensuous acuity felt in a revelation such as that. It’s just that you can’t help but wish, for once, a film took its decent premise a little more seriously.

127 Hours (Danny Boyle)

… in which Danny Boyle gussies up the true story of Aron Ralston, adrenalin fiend and extreme sports enthusiast, who got himself stuck under a rock for five and a bit days. Review by Declan Tan

The vacant, feature-length hip-hop montage that is 127 Hours begins with an ill-advisedly selected Free Blood track (‘Never Hear Surf Music Again’), a failed attempt at excited and perhaps knowing ‘hipness’ that admittedly does fit the purpose, as the utterly nugatory feel of the subsequent experience soon amounts to another shining example of disposable, blunderbuss cinema.

Yet this is essentially what Danny Boyle does these days. Any semblance of interest in seeking truth or making art has completely vanished into a small gap between his laughing teeth. Even highly infectious (and possibly metaphorical) rage-filled lunatics have fallen by the wayside in his fast lane pursuit of sugary popcorn shifters. All has given way to flash and loud noises.

How to get over this, sitting there in the darkness with 127 Hours ahead of you?

Answer: You can’t. All the bombast up Boyle’s long, flowery and probably rolled sleeve couldn’t stop one fellow viewer snoring his way through the majority of the video. Which was confusing, as it isn’t so much that it’s boring, just that it’s annoying to almost be able to hear the grunts of thought that have gone into making every moment quite so agonising, and not in the way that Ralston must have felt, his arm lodged between a boulder and a cave wall, recycling his piss into a water bottle, hallucinating a history of regret, but agonising in its excruciatingly contrived ‘originality’.

Thus, in said manner, we’re given the brash, all-American Aron, hopping about from rock to rock, pedalling on his bicycle, regularly whipping out a video camera to capture himself on his escapades along the way. (Is this likeable behaviour?) That is all until a rock decides to land on him and his arm. And so the mystical journey of the self begins. Well, not really. Instead we’re fed this unconvincing melange of flashbacks, fantasies and apparitions that all lead full circle into one of those ‘it all makes sense now’ moments that are so fantastic and unexpected in cinema nowadays.

Every smash cut, every split-screen moment, every CGI effect with their typically Boyled-over mixture of strong colours, exaggerated framing and over-editing, only draw attention away from a probably compelling storyline, and a probably convincing performance from the chameleonic James Franco. We quickly lose sympathy with Ralston, if we ever had it in the first place, not because of his situation but as a result of the movie taking on a kind of airless sheen, empty of atmosphere and taken over by its ‘style’, becoming a form of trick itself, manipulating us into giving a toss. Which we don’t.

You’d get the same, less expensive, but probably more harrowing effect flicking from MTV every half-second to MTV Base and back again. But I wouldn’t recommend that either.

Spork (J.B. Ghuman Jr)

Colourful comfort blanket for social misfits or tacky cult-by-numbers debut? Declan Tan reviews J.B. Ghuman’s debut

Getting her nickname from that ingenious eating utensil that blends the undeniable benefits of both a fork and a spoon (for she, you see, is an intersex teenager), the titular character of this high school comedy/musical turns out herself to be a mere tool; for failing jokes; insipid, soulless ‘morality’; and plastic ‘life lessons’, with the film itself being a heartless portmanteau of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Mean Girls (2004).

When not tediously trying to earn that tiresome description of ‘quirky’, J.B. Ghuman Jr.’s film, his first feature, is trying its damnedest to make some form of strained social comment. However, his messages, both backward and hypocritical, seem so uninformed and poorly thought through that they fail on all counts to be funny, perceptive or to say anything.

The plot is a basic one (though there’s nothing wrong with that); Spork (Savannah Stehlin) is an outcast, as the other children know about her bits. She is bullied and left out, particularly targeted by a gang of bitchy glitter girls, who also happen to be obsessed by Britney Spears. Cue the trite commentary on pop star/celebrity obsession, where the ostentation of light-heartedness is buried by clumsy allegory.

It turns out Spork lives next to a schoolmate, a certain Tootsie Roll (Sydney Park), who, though not friendly at first, initiates her into the cult of booty-poppin’ before a big, cheesy dance off finale. Then cue the backtracking on all of that earlier ragged commentary on pop princess worship, to celebrate a whole other kind of obsession, more acceptable it appears, though no less mainstream, dangerous or mind numbing.

Spork, with its slapdash admixture of high-school hijinks and sophomoric sermonising, comes across as an insincere and even exploitative pseudo-parable of modern teen life as, after a few cheap early jokes, the whole ‘intersex’ thing is forgotten and left unexplored, adding to the superficiality of the break-dancing, friendship-finding, journey of no-discovery reels, which Spork and her new buddies are subjected to. And you’re left reminded that Paul Feig’s Freaks and Geeks (1999) handled it a lot more sensitively, with feeling, in the same context, and all in a single 45-minute episode. Even so, Ghuman’s film is a missed opportunity, one too desperate for the easy praise that comes to something offbeat, albeit artificially so and, most definitely, a bore.

Self Made (Gillian Wearing)

Declan Tan finds the artist Gillian Wearing lives up to her surname in the full-length film project Self Made

Gillian Wearing has a history of getting people on camera and making them open up. In the 1990s, she placed an advert in Time Out asking people to “confess all on video”. Now, she is doing it with a group of people – the focus still on individuals and their pasts, but in feature-length documentary form. The result is an anaemic piece of work, simultaneously annoying and manipulative.

The premise for Wearing’s debut feature is another advert placed in publications all over the country, something to the tune of: “anyone who wants to appear in a film, contact me”. And Self Made begins somewhat promisingly with a long tracking shot of a disgruntled gentleman seemingly on the edge of a breakdown. We find out more about him later. This is followed by a definition of method acting which flashes up to inform us on what is going on. We then meet a method acting coach, the enthusiastic and slightly new-agey Sam Rumbelow. We are also introduced to a group of seven people, all, we are told, with interesting or affecting back stories. And this is where the trouble with Wearing’s documentary begins.

As it unfolds, the group go through a kind of therapy in the method acting class, under the harsh lights of some nondescript warehouse. Here they act out scenes somehow related to their lives, their worries and their pasts. They are then given the opportunity to film their ‘end scenes’, which are professionally shot, with additional actors and an entire crew to produce a glossy, stylish bit of film. For now we will ignore the fact that none of these really work (with a few of the candidates even cut out of the film altogether, and without explanation).

Unfortunately, Self Made is the kind of insipid documentary filmmaking that seems to say that people are not ‘real’, ‘human’ or worthy of compassion until some artist puts a camera on them and makes them discuss their distressing experiences, then making them cry on screen. Is this for our entertainment? Because they certainly don’t seem to be coping any better with their problems by the end credits.

Wearing also seems to be saying that what we watch is immediately ‘good acting’ when someone manages to shed some tears. To cry is not to act. Are we to think that a distraught person releasing a solemn tear is art? Or even entertainment? Or perhaps this is Wearing’s point, to point out the mixture of reality and art for this reason; the mere ability to well up when the director shouts “action”. This might be true if the film did not carry with it this swagger of arrogance and self-righteousness.

The first of these ‘end scenes’ to be shown sums up this problem. A girl in her early-twenties drones out some Shakespeare (we are supposed to be impressed she remembers all the lines): King Lear on a moodily lit stage sat around a dinner table, with some hammy fellows supporting her. The scene wears on, until we finally reach that moment. The teardrop comes and rolls down her cheek. Bravo.

Other end scenes involve a seriously disturbed but discerning and genial guy called Asheq, who decides his scene should be about kicking a pregnant woman in the gut. Then there’s the one with the cringe worthy depiction of Mussolini, hanging upside down after he’s been executed. His scene lasts for about three seconds. And that is it. Oh, and the guy who used to get bullied. Now he is a belligerent and bitter man-boy. Then there’s another one with the middle-aged woman, Lesley, who actually comes to be the heart of the whole documentary, but her film also fails to blag any emotion. Who knows what happened to the others. Must have been especially tasteless.

The problem is not that we don’t feel for these people, of course we do, but that Wearing tries to manipulate us into a reaction with such cheap trickery. So just look out for those ads asking you to “confess all on video”.

Home For Christmas (Bent Hamer)

Yuletide films are a risky proposition (and reviewing them in summer equally so). Can a Norwegian director of note make his mark? Declan Tan finds out

Home For Christmas film posterOnly a shade darker than your standard Disney snow-and-Santa fare comes Bent Hamer’s latest, a surprisingly uninspired bit of yuletide flakiness from the writer/director who seemed to have adaptations down, with his earlier Bukowski-cover of Factotum being a wryly poetic example, but who we now see returning all-bells-jingling with a big wintry sack of schitty Christmassy schmaltz.

Occasionally intertwining disparate threads all running on the general theme of loneliness for those on the outskirts, and getting in skirts, at this time of year, Hamer’s mixed bag weaves in a do-good doctor, a besotted teenager, a grieving elderly man, an interloping couple, a dumped husband and a homeless wanderer (determined to get home for Christmas). At first glance it shows some suggestion of what we’ve come to expect from the Norwegian auteur’s past work. If you didn’t already, you’d know it’s a Hamer pic after a few scenes, yet his usually distinctive voice is gradually drowned out by the yelling Christmas-story conventions you see in just about every other Christmas movie (excluding Bad Santa). Not only this, it seems we can almost see the pen scratching the script desperately trying to crowbar in some bizarre events or, to employ one tired adjective, that ‘quirky’ quality.

On the brighter side, at least we’re offered a scattering of residents and passers-through of our small-town setting in Norway’s Skogli, all ages and varying social classes, diverse elements of society that Hamer had dealt with credibly in his previous efforts. Present here too is his lightness of touch that handles well the often-tangible absurdity of situations concerning bourgeois philanderers and their ilk, served with his visible respect for humanity seen in O’Horten and Kitchen Stories. We’re not forced to judge the ensemble of characters we’re presented with, we view them with a kind of objective eye, the stories at times delicately told, though a risible second half undoes any earlier subtlety forthwith; just a few too many indigestible filler moments (plus an outrageously over-sentimental ending) heap up over the duration of this festive feast.

Perhaps it’s the hope in all the melancholy of the season that Hamer wants to hammer home. There’s the doctor who ‘does the right thing’, a discarded father desperate to see his kids, along with the worn-out ‘child born on Christmas Day’ bit that shows this collection of Levi Henriksen’s short stories (Only Soft Presents Under The Tree), though possessing a message you can’t knock, merely demonstrates a way of being told that leaves you cold and yawning.

So it’s a different kind of sadness that welcomes Hamer’s sixth feature, a film that although showing a certain maturity in its form also grates with a kind of laziness in its delivery. Yes, it has the Hamer stamp all over it: the awkward silences, the off-kilter storylines, the dry humour and twisted characters pushed to melancholic despair in the face of life that are real and even believable. But in Home for Christmas there is a kind of bowing to the commercial pursuit of a filmmaker who now seems to want to make steps in that ignoble direction.

And it’s a finishing shot that leaves you perplexed, for all the wrong reasons, as to why it had to end on such a note of disappointingly realised cheesiness. All this leads to making you feel that by the credits you’re no longer sure what you just saw really was a Bent Hamer film, thinking to yourself that this is one adaptation that could have been left on the shelf and, though he seems to mean well, he proves that it isn’t always the thought that counts.

Thankfully we still have Bill Murray’s annually re-run appearance in Scrooged to come home this year.

Picco (Philip Koch)

Philip Koch’s harrowing prison drama reviewed by Declan Tan

When you watch Picco you get the feeling that former-critic and one-time film student Philip Koch knows his stuff. In his feature debut follow-up to the award-winning short Lumen, Koch skilfully blends the theory and artful subtlety that seems to have informed his Nouvelle Vagary from criticism to filmmaking.

Starting out like a German rendering of Audiard’s hit Un Prophète, the story drops us into the claustrophobic jail hell of a youth detention centre where we’re immediately introduced to our four leads. Chatting over the small table centred in their room is Marc (Frederick Lau), the most vicious and unrelenting in his tyranny and Andy (Martin Kiefer), the somewhat intellectual rebel who finds it easier than most to express himself in terms of his ejection from civil society. They excitedly discuss what they’ll do when they get out, often hinting at a return to the life of crime, a theme the film deals with throughout. Also in the cell is the depressive, sometimes suicidal Tommy (Joel Basman) and refusing to join in the conversation is our antihero ‘picco’ (meaning newcomer), Kevin, who soon gets wise to the fact that involvement in the debasement of prison life is unavoidable and inevitably devastating.

We’re steadily introduced to the quiet violence of prison life in sequences that drip with authenticity, afforded by the film’s setting in an actual disused detention facility. At first, Kevin struggles to adapt to the confined life in the borstal, psychologically and physically hectored by his cell-mates and the other prisoners, he struggles through the first days; they watch on and laugh as he cleans his teeth with a soiled brush; they steal his smokes; feign sympathy by giving him incorrect answers in class; call him “faggot”, and so on.

The terror slowly builds. At regular intervals, long tracking shots follow our boys one by one around the yard in moments that recall the impending doom of much classic horror cinema, The Shining being one prime example. At the end of one of these steady-cam shots, Kevin finds refuge in another prisoner who finally gives him a cigarette. He quickly becomes friends with the feeble-looking Juli, who is just another victim of constant abuse. When the others find out Juli was picked up for hustling, Kevin must choose between his forsaken friend or acceptance into the main group, a process during which he is repeatedly asked: “Are you a victim or what?” And this is the reality of the enclosed world that Koch reveals, a world where you’re either a victim or a tormentor, but actually you’re both.

Through this narrative device Koch builds up more and more layers of meaning in this seemingly straightforward story. The walled-in world of our inmates comes to reflect the outer, and vice-versa, with Kevin coming to the elusive realisation that individuals find themselves picked-on because every other detainee is out only to protect and help himself. But he cannot stand by his beliefs of dignity and selflessness, and this he realises when he fails Juli, doing nothing when he is raped in the washroom. After this, Kevin thinks he can become more assured in his values, we see him spurn the influence of his fellow bullies, with occasional violent that bursts like an abscess, until finally, in the last third of the film, he surrenders to his selfish survival instinct and becomes what he despises.

As the subject matter demands, Picco is difficult viewing. With echoes of the same disturbing events that make up Alan Clarke’s work on similar subjects (Scum and Made in Britain), you know that you’re in for a harrowing ending. And the final act is a long, unsettling one.

Tommy becomes the centre of a prolonged session of abuse, physical, sexual and emotional, with his three cell-mates deciding to force him to suicide by hanging. They cut him, beat him, violate him with a toilet brush, before tightening the noose around his neck and baiting him into finishing it. But he refuses, forcing one of the others to do it for him.

Despite its affecting conclusion, Picco is not merely another exercise in disturbing storytelling; it has an original visual style that demonstrates Koch’s eye for both a filmic reference and a unique shot of his own. In one particularly effective visual quote, we see a marijuana-filled boot swinging from window to window, conjuring Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour. The cold greens and greys that colour the many memorable shots work to invoke a permeating sense of alienation in the boys’ isolation that survives through the film’s entirety. And these subdued touches certainly make for a promising writer-director debut coming out of Germany at a time when Hollywood-looking rom-coms and tepid dramas seem to be order of the day, amongst some otherwise admirable work such as Koch’s.

Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski)

Essential Killing film poster

Vincent Gallo won acclaim for his silent portrayal and director Skolimowski has the pedigree. Declan Tan assesses whether Essential Killing lives up to its reputation

Jerzy Skolimowski (writer of Knife in the Water, writer-director of Deep End, actor in Before Night Falls) is clearly not a bad sort. His credits speak for themselves. And on top of writing one of Polanski’s greatest hits, he’s won a Golden Bear, Special Jury prizes galore and was even in Eastern Promises, which wasn’t such a farce either.

With Essential Killing he’s back in the fold-out director’s chair he seemingly carries around, popping it open when his mood so fits, and here he’s got the volatile talent of ‘Best Actor’ in Venice, Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66, Brown Bunny), heading it all up quite confidently.

And he leads it all alone, as it happens, hopping it bare foot a lot of the way, as a kind of spiritual Rambo on the run from all sorts. But there’s none of the Stallone-gushing at the end of Skolimowski’s minimalist survival story, as Gallo, (playing Mohammed, though he is never called this by name but only in the end credits) is silent throughout. Dialogue is mostly incidental and is never used to propel the story. We just have Mohammed and his quiet struggle.

Captured by the American army, he is taken from the geographically unspecified deserts of the Middle East, transported, not-so serendipitously, to harsh and unnamed European snows where he makes his fluky escape. The van he and other prisoners are travelling in crashes off the side of a hill, an episode inspired by a personal experience of the writer-director’s, when he skidded and almost tumbled in similar circumstances. When it happens in the film it seems a little implausible, the first of many unbelievable strokes of luck that Mohammed witnesses, but Skolimowski’s anecdote is a good enough antidote post-viewing.

Then he’s on his own, our Mohammed, in his orange overalls and barefoot, handcuffed, injured, still near-deaf. Sounds like a lot’s going on? Well, there is and there isn’t.

Essential Killing feels like a re-working of genre, like The American, kind of familiar but also original. And like Corbijn’s film it is thick with symbolism, though not as intentionally teleological in its conclusion, as Mohammed is a character who lives from moment-to-moment, killing by instinct and occasionally showing mercy, depending on the prey and its necessity toward his survival.

There are weaknesses, though. The moment of the first ‘flashback’ being one of them, so tamely plugged into the narrative that it almost turns your feeling for the film on its head. Imagine overblown-whites and shaky-cam, underscored by some cliché middle eastern music that would fit Russell Crowe running through a field slaughtering Romans. Neither imaginative nor revealing. Aerial shots go on too long (yeah, but they’re nice lookin’) and become tedious, thankfully they do allow you to ponder what you’re going to eat for lunch tomorrow. Then there are the dreams that foresee the future, and so on. But in the end, somehow it comes together in spite of its flaws and, despite its subject matter, it’s (disturbingly) entertaining, exciting and involving. There are even funny bits.

Howl (Friedman and Epstein)

The James Franco-Allen Ginsberg biopic is now available as a DVD. Save your money, reckons Declan Tan

As well as telling the story of the 1957 obscenity trial concerning City Lights Books’ publication of the seminal poem, Howl, Friedman and Epstein’s film attempts to navigate the murky juices of Allen Ginsberg’s life and work during the 1950s, with a little slick black & white reconstruction of some of 20th-century literature’s most seditious moments to boot. And it fails to do any of it convincingly.

Friedman/Epstein’s product, and that’s what it is, is plain inauthentic in its execution. From the banal opening credits to the pedestrian animations, it becomes an irritation to not only the eyes but also the ears, as it somehow manages to make the poem itself seem tedious and irrelevant.

Maybe it’s something to do with Franco’s phoney voice, where he forces the idiosyncratic inflections of Ginsberg to comic effect. Maybe it’s simply that the whole production is too polished and artificial to make it real or interesting (which in reality it most certainly is) but none of the trickery can hide the fact that Franco’s performance is mediocre. There are brief moments when he channels Ginsberg though the majority of his onscreen time is spent too visibly ‘acting’, throwing in mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that seem rigidly calculated and false. Ginsberg had a unique voice, not just in his writing but also in his delivery, and it’s turned into a party-trick impersonation here.

There’s more. Between the trial and the biopic interview sessions, we also have these interpretive animation sequences that either directly translate the poem’s words or make up their own flabby art-school meaning and force it on the audience. What was the point in that? Seriously. Poetry is for the reader/listener to interpret, to be digested and understood, not something to be fed on a colourful plastic spoon by slothful cartoonists who imagine angels and penises jetting around with the appearance of a flaming fucking saxophone every five seconds. I genuinely pity anyone trying to read this poem for the first time after having seen this film.

The best movies of this kind make the subject matter somehow relevant to the current day. Something seemingly easy with a man and a generation such as Ginsberg and the Beats. To watch this you’d think they all died out without so much as a whimper. But it’s particularly the animated scenes, thrown in to make something that’s essentially a filmed play become more cinematic, that turn this into unpalatable compote.

At one point Franco’s Ginsberg says: “There is no Beat Generation” and judging by the absence of most of the would-be expected cast, the filmmakers seem to agree. Only Kerouac, Cassady and Solomon get a nod, though next-to-zero lines. Just a whole load of posing. And sitting in the Six Gallery during the first public reading of Howl, whooping, laughing and nodding like the trilby-headed hipsters of today might do. And strangely there is almost no recognition of the Beat’s continuing influence as it endeavours to make out Kerouac as a one-hit wonder with his speed-whipped On the Road. Disappointingly there is no appearance of William S. Burroughs (with whom he had a complicated but lasting relationship), no scenes of the numerous other literary icons that made up the Beat generation, with the influence of Kerouac and the other Beats largely ignored.

Friedman and Epstein have turned an exciting and revolutionary cultural moment into a soulless affair that leaves one to question the reason for the film’s existence. And it’s definitely not a good precursor to Walter Salles’ upcoming On the Road. But here’s to hoping.

Alternatively: read/watch Factotum.