Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Prevenge (2017)

Shot in 11 days while writer / director Alice Lowe was herself heavily pregnant, Prevenge is a bold and taboo busting piece of work that subverts many of the patronising stereotypes society still has around pregnancy, while still being a dark and funny thriller.

Lowe plays Ruth, a woman heavily pregnant and hell bent on revenge on the people who she blames for the loss of the father of her child. Both her script and performance manage the tricky balancing act of making Ruth sympathetic enough to be interesting, without ever condoning her actions, although the focus is never on whether or not she is going to be brought to justice.

The episodic structure and fast pace of the story means we are introduced to her victims just minutes before they are dispatched. It is a credit to the likes of Kate Dickie as a heartless job interviewer and Tom Davis as a hilariously sleazy DJ that they make a real impression and flesh out what could have been in other hands, rather two dimensional roles.

Prevenge is also very funny, although in a jet black way and many of the laughs comes from the voice in Ruth's head that commands her to kill, a voice she attributes to her unborn child.

As a writer, Lowe has a great ear for dialogue, capturing the sometimes banal feel of modern life and the condescending advice dished out by experts, both qualified and self-appointed. As a director, I'm looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Vinyan (2008)

Vinyan is frustrating, with a harrowing and believable performance by Emmanuelle Beart wasted in a film where writer and director Fabrice du Welz hints at things but seems unable or unwilling to commit to them

The story centres around Paul (Rufus Sewell) and Janet Belhmer (Beart), a European couple living and working in Thailand, trying to get over the loss of their young son Joshua in a tsunami. After Janet becomes convinced Joshua is in a video of orphans in Burma, the pair head out there to investigate, along the way getting mixed up with con men, Triads, and other assorted local characters, all the time slipping further and further into madness.

Beart gives an intense performance, very convincing as a woman suffering every parent’s worst nightmare and being unable to cope with the loss. The only real problem with this is that she starts as already disturbed and has nowhere to go with the character. Sewell just does his best to keep up, playing as a man watching his dream life turning into a nightmare.

As with his previous film, Calvaire, Fabrice du Welz is long on stylish visuals and short on strong gripping narrative that makes a lot of sense. From the opening sequence set underwater, with just a few bubbles going past the camera (foreshadowing the tragedy that strikes of Joshua), to the dingy neon lit underworld of Thai bars and clubs, to the menacing Burmese jungles, the film always looks great.

The problem lies with the script, which is all over the place. It hints at many things, but never properly develops any of them, and the lack of character development makes the denouement somewhat puzzling. The film's title refers to the belief that when someone's death is particularly horrible their spirit becomes lost and confused, and they become Vinyan. Obviously, we are meant to link this to the death of Joshua, but then nothing further happens with this idea.

The trailer for Vinyan may have led you to think that this is a straight horror film, and the subject matter and spooky atmosphere suggests Don't Look Now, although it has none of that film's emotional impact.

The jungle setting and gory scenes also hint at another horror connection, that of the gut munching likes of Cannibal Holocaust or more recent efforts like The Green Inferno. Like many of those, in Vinyan, there is very much an "us and them" feel, the civilised white people versus the savages, with the latter never being humanised, and nearly always being shown as a dangerous swarm of insects.

Ultimately Vinyan feels like a film that could have been either a haunting meditation on loss, a disturbing horror film or even just a simple gore fest, but the lack of focus means it is none of these.

Vinyan - Bande-annonce (VOST) by Ecranlarge

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt is well known for the astonishing car chase, rightly hailed as one of the best in cinema history, but there is more to this film than just one sequence. As well an action film and detective story, Bullitt is a character study of one man and how his survival tactics for dealing with the harsh realities of his job may have cost him his humanity.

Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) is a San Francisco cop who gets the job of being bodyguard to Johnny Ross, a mafia witness, due to testify at a high-profile hearing organised by publicity-hungry politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Unfortunately for him, said witness gets gunned down and later dies in hospital. While Chalmers is determined to make Bullitt pay, the detective starts to see that there is much more to this case than meets the eye.

Steve McQueen was one of those actors who were best playing a variation on their public persona, and Bullitt is no exception. Here he is cool, unflappable, and utterly unintimidated by anyone, from Senator to crook. But he is also something of an anomaly, also unable to fit in with anybody else's world, whether it's the power obsessed world of Chalmers, the buttoned-down world of his colleagues and superiors, or the sensitive arty world of his artist girlfriend. Instead, he has become emotionally disconnected, hardened and oblivious to the violent messy reality of his daily life. This is a survival tool, but one that may have cost him his soul. McQueen is in the vast majority of scenes, but his charisma is such that he never becomes boring to watch, and the focus on his character makes Bullitt more than just the standard clichéd maverick cop.

Obviously, that makes it difficult for the cast to make an impression, but Robert Vaughn acquits himself admirably as the oily, seemingly unstoppable Chalmers, switching from friendly to menacing in the blink of an eye, and the opposite of Bullitt in every respect, as perfectly summed up in Bullitt's famous retort, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine".

The chase itself is of course the highlight of the action, breathtakingly filmed with plenty of shots inside the cars, which help put the viewer right into the heart of the action. But it is the editing, which won Frank P Keller an Oscar, that makes it a classic. The actual filming took place over a five-week period, which Keller flawlessly distils to an adrenalin filled ten minutes.

Bullitt was the first American film for English director Peter Yates, and here he deftly blends detached stylish cool with fast paced editing, and gritty (and at times gory) documentary style realism. When combined with the quality script and riveting performances from the leads, the result is an exciting and unforgettable classic that rewards repeated viewings.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Django (1966)

Despite being fifty years old, Django remains a brutal and disconcerting entry in the spaghetti western sub-genre.

Across a bleak muddy landscape, a lone figure in a Union Army uniform drags a coffin behind him. The man is Django, a former soldier with a secret from his past and a secret in his coffin. These secrets will soon drag him into the paths of a prostitute named Maria, a racist confederate ex-soldier and his hood wearing henchmen, and an excitable gang of Mexican revolutionaries.

All Westerns are slightly surreal and somewhat stylised, especially with the excess or lack of blood, given the amount of bullets fired, but Spaghetti Westerns, the uniquely European appropriation of a uniquely American genre are even more so. Whereas the US versions may celebrate or explore both the light and dark sides of the modern history of the country, the continental equivalents are shorn of that cultural context, and seem to take place in a strange alien world, but the world of Django goes a step further.

The bleak, isolated muddy town looks like a post-apocalyptic war zone, a place where human life has lost all value, where unlucky men are used as sporting prey, the unlucky women used for pleasure, and the "lucky" women get to feel like "real" women and be loved by a man.

The script is offbeat, unpredictable, and shocking. Plot wise, barely more than half an hour and the big twist about the contents of the coffin is revealed, turning the focus of the story elsewhere, with the links between Django and the other characters becoming apparent.

Clearly modelled on the two criminal sides of A Fistful of Dollars, the two gangs in Django are both equally despicable, but director Sergio Corbucci takes things a disturbing step further. The confederate gang dress in in red Ku Klux Klan style hoods, and treat their Mexican prisoners like animals, to be hunted for sport.

Django himself is no angel, repaying the hospitality of Nathaniel the saloon owner by shooting up the bar to demonstrate a weapon to the Mexicans, then later cajoling Nathaniel into driving him to a massacre. It's a testament to Franco Nero that he can make a character like that likeable enough to keep us rooting for him.

What makes Django so compelling is the extremity of so many of the elements, even by the standards of the Spaghetti Western. The dialogue veers between the cringingly cheesy (“I felt like I was a real woman. Someone to protect, and to be loved), and the portentous (“His time hasn't come yet”). The violence is still shocking today, the tone being set in the opening scene of Maria being mercilessly whipped by the Mexicans, after which we get everything from an ear that gets cut off and fed to its owner, to the comical, almost sexual pleasure General Rodríguez takes from watching Django having his hands crushed. Not surprisingly the film suffered with the censors, especially in the UK, with the BBFC refusing a certificate for the film until 1993.

There are also two things in Django that are surprising for this sort of film. Firstly is a modicum of character development. As the end theme music swells, Django walks off into the distance, but in the foreground we see that he has left his gun behind, which throughout the film has been the main way for Django to define himself as a man. Secondly, as he walks off, he has Maria with him, signifying another change in how he defines himself, this time with the love of a good woman. Both of these thing point to a changed man, and a happy ending of sorts, for an audacious and forgettable classic.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

To Rome With Love (2012)

As enjoyable as it is inconsequential, To Rome With Love could perhaps have done with a second draft of the script, but Woody Allen turns out a pleasant and enjoyable piece of fluff.

The script cuts between four unconnected stories; an office worker who suddenly becomes a celebrity for no discernible reason; an architecture student who finds himself attracted to his girlfriend's actress friend; a young couple whose honeymoon turns into a farce involving a burglar and a prostitute; and an American Opera director who thinks he may have found his next big star - although there is one small but potentially serious catch.

The script has some of the problems that Woody Allen films all seem to have to some extent nowadays. The characters are two dimensional, and half of them are the standard issue American middle class liberal intellectuals, while the script feels under thought out and overwritten at times. However, with the stories being so slight, Allen is probably right not to try and stretch any of them further than he does.

The segments do all have differing styles, from farce to surreal comedy to more standard Allen territory of neurotic white men worrying about relationships, the contrast helping to keep things fresh. The best story is the one starring Allen himself as an Opera director visiting his daughter and her fiancée in Rome. The fiancée's father has the sort of tenor voice that should be on the stage - but he seems to have trouble performing outside of the privacy of his shower. The payoff to this takes the film into the kind of magical realism that Allen touches on every now and then, and as long as you can buy into it, it is hilarious.

As usual Allen seems to be able to scare up A-List celebrities at will, with regulars such Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz and Judy Davis, as well as Jesse Eisenberg trying out his Woody Allen impression.

The film looks great too, with Allen taking great care to show Rome off in a very flattering light.

Monday, 2 January 2017

And Now For Something Completely Different

A rather ironic title considering that this is simply a big screen rehash of some of the best and best known sketches from the TV incarnation of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The end result is sometimes frustrating but it is saved by the quality of a lot of the material.

As it is simply a Greatest Hits, there is no plot or unifying theme to speak of, although, as on the TV show, sketches sometimes run into each other, and there are occasional running gags, and Terry Gilliam's jaw-dropping animations.

The film is directed in a workmanlike fashion by Ian McNaughton, who was behind the camera for most the TV show. No attempt is made to expand on the writing or shooting of the original material, although this may have been down to the minuscule budget and schedule. The whole thing was financed by Playboy as a way to try and break Monty Python in the US, but with less money for the whole thing than Heff spends in a week on pipe cleaners. In addition, and it may be a subjective thing on my part, but some of the sketches felt a little flat without the laughter track that I was used to hearing on the TV show.

A nice introduction to Monty Python for the uninitiated, but no match for the later efforts such as Holy Grail and Life of Brian, where, unlike here, the team would have the chance to engage with and take advantage of the medium.