Friday, June 28, 2013


‘Sweetgrass’ drifts so far from the expected narrative or expositional tenets of the documentary format that it’s possible to forget you are actually watching a documentary and feel that, instead, you’re immersed in some kind of Tarkovskian art movie or film-poem.

‘Sweetgrass’ exists without narration or “talking heads” interview footage. For the first half hour at least, before a group of unnamed ranchers drive a sizeable herd of sheep through Montana’s Beartooth Mountains in search of pasture, barely a word is spoken. For the first half hour, the focus is entirely on the sheep. The ranchers float around on the periphery, but say barely anything. The camera insinuates itself amongst the herd and it seems for a while as if film-makers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash are going to remain with the sheep’s POV for the duration – a prospect nowhere near as unappealing as it may sound.

Incidentally: the use of “filmmakers” in that last sentence. ‘Sweetgrass’ bears no director’s credit. It was produced by Barbash and “recorded” by Castaing-Taylor. The credits are as spare as anything else in the film, and it’s immediately apparent that’s exactly what Castaing-Taylor did: let he his camera record what was happening.

Ah, but there’s the rub. ‘Sweetgrass’ was shot between 2001 and 2003 (it wasn’t released till 2009) and two years’ worth of footage, even if collected intermittently, still leaves the editor with subjective choices in terms of sculpting a 105-minute feature which, notwithstanding its jettisoning of conventional narrative techniques, still needs a rhythm, a flow and an overarching structure. To put it another way: language is the least of Castaing-Taylor and Barbash’s concerns, but grammar still applies – the grammar of cinema. And every cut, as Truffaut pointed out … well, you know the rest. There’s also an eminently sneaky non-naturalistic moment involving the overdubbing of an extreme long shot with soundtrack that seems like it might have been “lifted” from elsewhere during the two-years Castaing-Taylor recorded the work of the ranchers.

It’s a measure of how successful ‘Sweetgrass’ is, however, that these considerations didn’t come to mind until way after those stripped-down end credits had taken up their minute and a half of screen time (if that) and this exhausted viewer was giving thanks that he doesn’t have to herd sheep for a living. Granted, there seemed to be a total dearth of the kind of office politics, lying, backstabbing, and rampant careerist arrogance that makes my place of work such a Machiavellian shithole, but at least I don’t have to deal with grizzly bears, dead sheep, vertiginous mountainsides, adverse weather conditions, 18-hour days, amenities that redefine basic, and loneliness that must seem all the more crushing for the grandeur of the mountains and the endless emptiness of the landscape.

Maybe it’s the loneliness that informs the scene I mentioned earlier; maybe all of the above. Over a shot that reveals itself as ever more magisterial the further the camera pulls back, the sheep diminished to almost unidentifiable white dots making a slow progress, en masse, up a steep gradient in the kind of landscape that inspires epithets like “wilderness country”, the ranch boss lets forth with an expletive-peppered rant against the sheep, his dogs and probably every single thing under the sun, using the word “fuck” so many times in just a couple of minutes that a mash-up of ‘Casino’, ‘The Boondock Saints’ and ‘In Bruges’ would have a hard time staying the course.

It’s a curious moment – it rams home the thanklessness of the work and the wearying reality of the conditions, but it also feels out of place in a film where there has been no music, no narration, and the sound design up to this point has been rigorously diegetic. But, as entered into evidence earlier in this review, this didn’t occur to me until afterwards. So maybe the proof is in whether an aesthetic decision intrudes enough to throw you out of the film while you’re watching it. Besides, the doctrine of Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” – an intellectually and aesthetically valid option for the serious documentarist – can be said to apply.

‘Sweetgrass’, ultimately, is an elegy for a way of life. The film is offered in memoriam the very ranch it depicts: it ceased to be a going concern in 2004, just over a century after it was established. It depicts a way of life that was probably outdated several decades ago. There’s a scene of the ranch boss – a man of few words (when he’s not cussing, that is) and a chronic mumbler almost to the point of incoherence – is having a faltering conversation over a walky-talky. Between his linguistic deficiencies and a continual wash of static, it adds up to an awkward juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary. Remember Kirk Douglas riding across the scrubland in full cowboy gear in ‘Lonely are the Brave’, only to pull up his horse at the edge of a multi-lane freeway, huge Mack trucks thundering past? ‘Sweetgrass’ gives you that feeling for an hour and three quarters.

Friday, June 21, 2013


“Dear God, I have a lot on my plate at the moment: last week I had sex for the first time, my sister is slowly dying, and my mom – as I’m sure you know – is a total bitch.” Thus the prayer of sulky and socially inept teenager Pauline (Annalynne McCord). Prior to ‘Excision’, I was dimly aware that McCord was hugely popular in fuck-awful TV shows like ‘Nip, Tuck’ and the ‘90210’ reboot (and just typing “ ‘90201’ reboot” made me a little bit sick in my mouth). Post ‘Excision’, I have nothing but respect for the lady.

The objects of Pauline’s empathy and ire are, respectively, Grace (Ariel Winter) who is suffering from cystic fibrosis, and Phyllis (Traci Lords) who is suffering from being a stuck-up control freak suburbanite mom. Prior to ‘Excision’, I was dimly aware that Winter had done a hell of a lot of TV roles and been in ‘One Missed Call’, and was very significantly aware that Lords had a background in adult entertainment not to mention a shedload of equally exploitative B-movie roles. Both were infinitely better in this than I had any reason to expect.

In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that – with the exception of its somewhat abrupt ending – ‘Excision’ is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in ages, and one of the best comedies. Note, I keep the categories separate. ‘Excision’ doesn’t slot into the comedy/horror subcategory as easily as, say, ‘Tremors’, ‘Slither’ or ‘Dale and Tucker vs Evil’. The comedic elements – and don’t let that trite little turn of phrase undersell it: this film is funny as fuck – are redolent of ‘Heathers’ or a nastier, less day-glo version of ‘Mean Girls’, while the horror tropes bring to mind the body horror of early Cronenberg infused with the in-yer-face grotesquery of Takeshi Miike or Kim Ki-Duk.

The set-up is basically an extrapolation of the interrelationships mentioned above. Pauline’s all-consuming love for her sister is the one constant by which she offsets being high school pariah, piggy-in-the-middle during her parents’ arguments, a lank-haired virgin, and dealing with an almost constant onslaught of cold sores which she blames on her father. His sin? Giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after a swimming pool accident when she was younger. Pauline, in short has issues, and the film opens with the sublimation of her various psychological quirks into the dream state. It’s the first many dream sequences that punctuate the narrative, and they provide ‘Excision’ with most of its deliriously twisted iconography: dream sequences predicated on sexual imagery and clinical white backgrounds that generally don’t stay clinically white for very long. There’s also a lot of blood in Pauline’s dreams. Gallons of it.

But she’s not the kind of lass to dream her life away, is our Pauline. She quickly sets about resolving her issues. The virginity problem? Oh, look – there’s a football jock with an ice queen girlfriend who isn’t satiating his needs. Problem solved! (The payoff to this scene, channelling the imagery of Pauline’s dreams, will probably leave you feeling a little queasy.) The mom problem? A quick word with God: “Kill my mother. Kill her. You’ll probably want to make it painless. I get it – that’s your thing – but hear me out: a little pain never hurt anyone. And besides, you can always just blame it on the devil.” (Okay, jury’s still out on the efficacy of this method). Imminent death of beloved sister? Study to become a surgeon. Which is where Pauline encounters a couple of barriers: (i) timeframe, (ii) she’s a really crap student.

Can anyone guess where writer/director Richard Bates Jr is going with this? (And while you’re all jotting your answers on a postcard, let me take a moment to marvel at the serendipity of this fucked up little movie being directed by someone called Bates. Sometimes life is just priceless.)

‘Excision’ sets out its stall with such razor sharp efficiency (it clocks in at 81 minutes, five of which are the end credits) and sets up its denouement with such black-hearted delight that there are no real surprises on offer … except to wonder, as the sick jokes keep coming and McCord’s performance drills deeper and deeper into Pauline’s love-lacerated soul, just how far Bates and his anti-heroine can push things. And how they can possibly maintain the gallows humour.

The answer – without giving anything away – is that they know exactly when to cut off the laughing gas. ‘Excision’ is a body horror film with a surgery-obsessed protagonist. To use the obvious metaphor, once it’s finished operating on you, it doesn’t allow a gradual drifting awake in a recovery ward followed by a full clinical review before the ambulance carefully drives you home avoiding the potholes and speed bumps. No, siree. It stitches you up, tosses you back on the gurney like a sack of potatoes and sends you hurtling down the corridor, bashing through a fire door and out of the hospital, screaming.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Another thought on Now You See Me

Isla Fisher as a sexy escapologist? Check!

Really cool scene involving water tank, chains, padlocks and piranha? Check!

Major set piece later in the movie predicated on her escapology skills? D'oh!

Epic fail, all concerned; epic fail.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Now You See Me

Cineworld held a mystery film screening this evening, whipping up publicity by posting a series of downright oblique clues via Twitter. Messageboards were abuzz with speculation: many thought ‘Pacific Rim’, others plumbed for ‘The Lone Ranger’; when we booked the tickets, my wife was holding out for ‘The Wolverine’ while I had my fingers crossed for ‘The World’s End’. Ultimately, we were both disappointed. But at least it wasn’t two hours of CGI robots twatting aliens and then twatting each other. As we queued – interminably – I put a comment on FB to the effect that if it was ‘Pacific Rim’, I was going home.

We ended up not going home … well, not till the movie was over. We’d already agreed on the Half Hour Rule (if neither of us are digging a film at the half hour, we cut our losses and blow the joint). By minute thirty of ‘Now You See Me’, we were both enjoying it. By the time it was over, though, we had mixed feelings.

‘Now You See Me’ does several things right in very quick succession. It starts with a voiceover warning the audience that the closer they look, they less likely they’ll be to spot the trick. At the same time, a simple card trick plays out. The camera forces a very specific card on the viewer. It’s kind of a flipside to the opening of ‘The Prestige’. Where Christopher Nolan’s film clues you in to the three stages of an illusion, ‘Now You See Me’ deliberately sets out to obfuscate. It’s both a ballsy stroke of legerdemain and a self-defeating act: the longer ‘Now You See Me’ goes on, the more evident it is that director Louis Letterier wants his film to be a ‘Prestige’ for the Jerry Bruckheimer generation. But whereas ‘The Prestige’ has a genuine weighty human drama to anchor its more fanciful elements, ‘Now You See Me’ trades solely in the fanciful.

But let’s skip back to its opening reel. Having pulled a beautifully executed fast one on the audience, Letterier assembles his quartet of prestidigitatorial protagonists with superb economy, dealing out their vignettes like cards: street magician with a tendency to the theatrical J Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), hypnotist/shakedown artist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), glamorous escapologist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), and new kid on the block Jack Wilder (Dave Franco). The narrative flings them together and has them pulled into the scheme of an unknown benefactor so quickly – the title card is a perfectly-timed punchline to the whole sequence – that their ineffably stupid names didn’t even begin to annoy me till a good halfway into the movie.

In equally quick succession, our foursome have been reimagined as a sell-out Vegas act who make headlines (and get themselves arrested) on account of an illusion based around a bank robbery. What pisses off the authorities, and gets Interpol newbie Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) assigned to assisting rumpled sourpuss detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) – this really is That Movie Where Really Talented People Play Really One-Dimension Characters With Really Stupid Names – is the disappearance of a fuckton of Euros from a Parisian bank that tallies exactly with the magic trick.

The rest of the movie – or at least, the 75% of it that conspires to make you take your eye off the ball prior to the big reveal – is essentially Dylan and Alma vs. The Four Horsemen (thus the collective name the illusionists bill themselves as, notwithstanding that one of them is a woman), while vengeful impresario Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and professional debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman) hover in the wings nursing their own agendas.

‘Now You See Me’ is magnificently entertaining for a big chunk of its running time. Less than an hour in, I decided not to bother trying to second guess and just enjoy the ride. I’m glad I took that approach, because the whole improbably contrived plot pays off in a manner that, while not disappointing or in any way a cheat, is a little underwhelming. The essential problem with making a film about magic is that magic is a con. It’s smoke and mirrors; razzle dazzle; misdirection. It’s all surface and when you think about it too much, you dismiss it – rightly – as bullshit. ‘The Prestige’ is only superficially about magic – the real point of the film is the cost of the illusion; what you have to sacrifice to accomplish the seemingly impossible. To a lesser degree, Neil Burger’s ‘The Illusionist’ sets out its box of tricks as a backdrop to a tale of romance. ‘Now You See Me’ is entirely about the illusion, and as such starts to vaporise in a fog of its own insubstantiality the moment the end credits roll.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Iceman

Sometimes it’s the performance that makes a film. Off-the-top-of-the-head example: ‘Primal Fear’. An aesthetically redundant, narratively yawnsome courtroom drama transformed into something utterly watchable thanks to Ed Norton’s breakout role.

Notwithstanding that ‘The Iceman’ is an infinitely better crafted film than ‘Primal Fear’, much of it has the tang of the perfunctory while director Ariel Vromen never fully succeeds in engaging with the story’s key dynamic. Based on the true story (and if those words at the start of a movie don’t sound an alarm bell, then you’re probably a lot less jaded a film-goer than I) of hitman Richard Kuklinski, the story starts in 1964 with the inexpressive Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) having coffee with naïve girl-next-door Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder, so not getting away with playing a twenty-something in these early scenes). Later, at a pool game, an acquaintance refuses to pay Kuklinski off over a bet then compounds the offence by making ugly remarks about Deborah. For which he ends up with his throat cut in an alleyway. Shannon plays this pivotal moment to perfection: there’s a moment when he genuinely convinces you – never mind that you’ve just shelled out for a ticket to see him playing one of the most notorious contract killers of his time – that Kuklinski might just let it go and walk away. And when he does walk away, albeit after effecting a straight-razor/jugular interface, the sense of dispassion is shattering. It’s one of a handful of moments where Vromen absolutely nails the tone he’s looking for. He’s not quite so successful elsewhere, though.

Jump forward a couple of years – the first of numerous and often inelegant lurches through a two-decade timeline – and Kuklinski and Deborah are married, with a baby daughter and looking to better themselves. Kuklinski’s working on the periphery of the criminal underworld, cutting film and delivering prints for a low-rent pornographer. A disagreement over a delivery date spins him into the orbit of mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). Impressed by how little fear/emotion/give-a-shitness Kuklinski evinces in the face of his goons, Demeo hires him on the understanding that he works for no-one else. Kuklinski takes to the work like a duck to the proverbial. He doesn’t seem to relish killing, but it doesn’t bother him either. It’s just something that he happens to be very good act. Dude loves his family – “You and the girls,” he tells Deborah during the closest he comes to an emotionally-charged scene, “are the only thing I care about in this world” – but as far as the rest of humanity is concerned, he’s utterly cold. Ergo, the iceman.

After a brutally effective Kuklinski-straight-up-kills-a-fuckton-of-people montage, Vromen gets bogged down in the minutiae of underworld politics, mob hierarchy paranoia, rivalry, betrayal and bad decisions. It’s the kind of milieu that Scorsese or Coppola would sail through, sketching out the interrelationships and knife-edge tensions in a scintillating whirl of exposition of set-piece. Vromen isn’t quite in their league and there’s a palpable sense, as events snowball in the largely 70s-set mid-section, of the script stumbling and gasping for breath as it tries to keep up with everything. By now, Demeo’s fuck-up of a right hand man Josh Rosenthal (an almost unrecognisable David Schwimmer) has incurred the ire of another outfit whose consigliore Leonard Marks (Robert Davi) is putting pressure on Demeo to cut the kid loose (in the terminal sense of the word); Demeo’s pissed off at Kuklinski for not killing a witness (a 17 year old girl – his daughters are by now teenagers themselves); and Kuklinski, essentially unemployed, has teamed up with ice-cream van driving hippie assassin Mr Freezy (an equally unrecognisable Chris Evans) to pull in enough money to keep his family in the style to which they have become accustomed. Oh, and there’s also some business about Kuklinski’s nutcase brother Joey (Stephen Dorff), in prison for killing a young girl.

Buried in all of this is the film that the tagline on the poster – “loving husband, devoted father, ruthless killer” – hints at. Because here’s the fascinating thing: when the Feds arrested him after an undercover agent netted him in a classic bit of entrapment, his family genuinely had no idea that he was a mob-employed enforcer who had killed over 100 people. No idea. And if the mechanics of how an essentially amoral hitman not only kept work and home life separate but maintained a façade of domestic normality for two decades isn’t a great concept for a movie then I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, Vromen is too busy leaping through the chronology (not that the film even considers the real Kuklinski’s already notable criminal activities during the 50s and his association with the DeCavalcante crime family that pre-dated his involvement with Demeo) to focus on this aspect. The script throws out a few lines about Deborah thinking that he works in investment banking, and the whole family man persona is dramatised by means of his daughters hero-worshipping him (why they venerate him is never contextualised).

So why – with the mission statement of this blog being the love, not the criticism, of film – am I spewing 1,000 words on ‘The Iceman’? Three reasons, really. Firstly, its emulation of slow-burn 70s filmmaking is a welcome respite from the flashy tentpole nonsense that has dominated the screens of my local multiplex recently. Secondly, it looks great: akin to Roger Donaldson’s ‘The Bank Job’ and Tomas Alfredson’s ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, it’s a film predominantly set in the 70s that both looks and feels like it was made in the 70s. Thirdly, the performances. There’s an entire cluster of great performances, with Shannon’s towering slab of subdued greatness at the centre. Liotta, in a career based on casting directors exploiting his iconic role in ‘Goodfellas’, is as engaged as I’ve seen him since that movie. Sure, he’s doing the same old gimlet-eyed Liotta shtick, but here it seems authentically dangerous. Davi does his best work for a couple of decades, and Schwimmer and Evans physically lose themselves in their characters in a way I would never have anticipated from either of them.

Above all, though, there’s Michael Shannon. A man without a bad turn on his CV. Who spectacularly graduates from character actor to compelling and commanding lead. The film itself might struggle to achieve bronze on the podium, but Shannon takes the gold.

Monday, June 03, 2013


On the bus home from the cinema earlier this evening, I shared this little nugget on Facebook:

Populaire: enjoyably cheesy feel good typewriter porn. And that’s not a sentence I envisaged writing when I got up this morning!”

The above functions as a reasonable enough capsule review. Here’s the more considered version:

Populaire is the kind of film that, if I got made in Hollywood – okay, so a Hollywood studio greenlighting a romcom set in the high-stakes world of typing competitions is a tad unlikely, but bear with me here – would star Katherine Heigl as the ditzy but gorgeous typist and Gerard Butler as the smarmy failed-athlete-turned-businessman who sees her as a ticket to exonerating his lack of competitive edge way back when. There would be training montages, awkward banter that pirouettes gradually into the suggestive, and an all-or-nothing finale on the eve of the world championship competition. All of which, to be fair, can be found in the non-Hollywood Populaire that exists here in the real world, directed by Regis Roinsard and starring Deborah Francois and Romain Duris. The difference is that Hollywood would meld this material into a tame romantic comedy with no real stakes and the typing just a quirky backdrop to the boy-meets-girl predictability.

Populaire takes its typing seriously. The various tournaments Rose (Francois) competes in are depicted either as endurance tests (one in particular comes across as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with typewriters instead of dancing) or outright duels. At one point, Roinsard whips the camera back and forth between the blurred fingers of two finalists, the motion suggesting a tennis match.

Nor are the romcom elements necessarily tame, no matter how much the swirling, pastel-coloured stylisations of the first half might conspire to kid you otherwise. The sexual tension between Rose and the sullen, driven Louis (Duris) resolves in what the BBFC guidance text calls “one moderate sex scene”, as a prelude to which the protagonists have a toe-to-toe argument and treat each other to a good hard slap before they get en sac.

This is a good place to consider Populaire’s unreconstructed worldview, and to make a tip of the hat to Roinsard for utterly nailing the aesthetic. The film is set in 1959 – it has to be, given the subject matter and the development in typewriter technology that it pays off with – and it both looks and feels like it. There’s a casual sexism that was pretty much the norm in cinema (and literature … and, hell, in society itself) in the 50s and 60s. It’s there in the parade of wannabe secretaries vying for a job with Louis. It’s there in the man-hungry vamp who practically throws herself at a coolly unresponsive Louis in a bar. It’s there in the sneering, leering mambo singer who practically oozes his performance at a smoky club.

Fortunately, all of this is balanced by the sheer irresistibility of Francois’s performance. (The most likeable heroine French cinema has given us since Amelie Poulain? I’m calling it!) It’s balanced by a cluster of hilarious moments, from an impromptu dance sequence to Rose’s colour coded nail varnish, an aid to touch typing.

Narratively, Populaire offers no surprises. It reminded me of Papadopoulos and Sons in its use of tried-and-trusted plot points: with the story taking care of itself, the script is free to investigate the oddball psychological struggle between Louis’s need to compete and his fear of fulfilment, as well as the familial underpinnings to Rose’s inveterate clumsiness and lack of confidence. The baby boom materialism of the late 50s – highlighted by the presence of expatriate American Bob (Shaun Benson) as Louis’s rival-cum-friend – makes for an effective counterpoint to the human story.

Populaire isn’t perfect – Louis’s recollections of his wartime past as a member of the Resistance freight the script with something entirely at odds with everything else in the film, and there’s some cringeworthy national stereotyping going on in the world championship sequence – but it makes for an entirely entertaining and just-quirky-enough two hours at the cinema, its ostensible superficialities masking a well-crafted grown-up piece of filmmaking. An excellent choice for the discerning populist.