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Too many American filmmakers these days portray the Poor as a cavalcade of "Redneck" or "Hillbilly" stereotypes. There is a tendency to sentimentalise them, while at the same time sniffing through the dirty laundry of their poverty; or present them as a kind of burlesque freakshow of bad hair, bad teeth and bad manners. Even directors with a genuine sensibility can fall into the trap of showing rural folk as a bunch of ignorant pig-fuckers, or worse, endow them with some mawkish sense of magic-realist nobility, as in Benh Zeitlin's patronising "Beasts of the Southern Wild". In "Winter's Bone", featuring Jennifer Lawrence's breakthrough role as an Ozark girl determined to look after her family, director Debra Granik masterfully manages to avoid these pitfalls. She observes her characters with empathy, and without comment. The people of "Winter's Bone" are isolated, almost detached from society in a bleak, impoverished landscape, but their hardship is presented as a statement of fact, rather than a mere plot contrivance. If it was a more political work, you could read it as an elegy for the American Dream. These people are poor, but they're surviving, and "Winter's Bone" has a clear eye on the banality of evil - people are not always driven to evil acts because they're crazy, cruel, depraved or psychotic. Sometimes they're driven to those acts just in order to keep living, and lesser directors might have been tempted to take the routine thriller route with "Winter's Bone", and turn it into something more like "A Simple Plan". Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a teenager living on an isolated homestead somewhere in the hills. Her mother is mentally estranged and her father absent, leaving her to bring up her little brother and sister. There is no money and little comfort, and she soon learns that her crook father has put the family home up as his bail bond, and that they will lose the house if he misses his court date. Ree decides she is going to track down her father. However, people are reluctant to tell Ree where he is. Her neighbours are hostile when approached, and it is clear that her father was in with a bad crowd. People aren't talking, including her uncle Teardop (John Hawkes), who seems more reluctant than most to go poking around after his brother. Ree is not afraid of these people, although the implied threat of violence hangs in the air during almost every encounter in Winter's Bone. Almost every violent act has already happened, or happens off-screen, but there is a real sense of danger here - you really get the sense that if these people wanted to dispose of this snooping teenage girl, she wouldn't be found again. "Winter's Bone" is a grim and captivating film. It feels honest. Whereas even Cormac McCarthy tends to spin off into lyricism in his books when it comes to depicting simple folk, Granik's vision is unsentimental and unflinching - certain scenes have an almost cinema verite feel to them. Jennifer Lawrence is magnificent as Ree. She is not looking for any sympathy or any charity. She just wants to look after her brother and sister, ready to walk to the end of the earth if it means finding her father and keeping the house. She is tender and tough, and old beyond her years, but never bitter. The film ends in a hopeful note, because you feel Ree is resourceful and bright enough to use the outcome to the best of its advantage. Lawrence plays her with dignity and understated grace. Grace and dignity are something she brings to all her characters, which makes her so exciting to watch. When Jennifer Lawrence is on the screen, you believe her and you want her to win. In that respect, she reminds me of James Stewart - no matter which direction his character took him in, you always instinctively sided with his innate goodness, and rooted for him. "Winter's Bone" isn't perfect. Dickon Hinchcliffe's score over eggs the sinister aspect too much - at times it sounds as though it would be better suited to a serial killer thriller. And Granik's restrained approach makes two things - a dream sequence and a chainsaw moment - seem out of place. The dream sequence, involving trees and squirrels, is perhaps the most low-key dream sequence I've ever seen, but against the almost kitchen sink realism of Ree's life, it leaps off the screen as a stylistic flourish. Chekhov's famous pronouncement that if you introduce a gun in a story, it absolutely must go off. Lots of dangerous-looking things are on the screen in "Winter's Bone" - rifles, axes, log splitters, chainsaws, etc. The ominous tone and our own awareness of standard thriller tropes make us eye each one of them suspiciously, as if the board is being set for a game of Hillbilly Cluedo - was it Cleavon in the Chicken Coop with the Monkey Wrench? So when one finally does go off, although in a way completely logical to the film's plot, it seems uncharacteristically ghoulish compared to the rest of the movie. These are small criticisms. "Winter's Bone" is stark and gripping, anchored by a gravely beautiful performance from Jennifer Lawrence. (This review was first posted on my movie blog, Video Krypt - http://videokrypt.wordpress.com/ - please feel free to visit!)
What happens if you fall in love with a vampire? Released the same year as the first installment of the Twilight saga, Tomas Alfredson's low-key adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel attempts to answer the same question. While the conclusion reached may frightening, the central romance is certainly more touching. Set in a humdrum Stockholm suburb in the early Eighties, Let the Right One In tells the story of Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a lonely twelve year old boy who lives in a small apartment with his single mother. Oskar is a bright kid with no friends, and is bullied at school. He hasn't told anyone about it, and at night he fantasizes about taking revenge, and making the bullies squeal like pigs with his pocket knife. One night he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), a scruffy girl of around the same age who recently moved into the apartment next door to Oskar. Eli is also lonely; she lives with her "father" Hakan (Per Ragnar) and also has no friends. She looks poor - she has a funny smell and walks barefoot in the snow. Eli is a vampire. Hakan, a combination of pedophile lover, father figure, guardian, and familiar, dutifully attains blood for her by waylaying locals, stringing them up, and bleeding them into a container. When Hakan is disturbed by passersby in his latest attempt to gather blood, Eli goes hungry. Unable to control herself, she shanghais local drunk Jocke on his way home from the pub, and feeds. As Oskar and Eli's friendship develops, Hakan's attempts to cover up her true nature and provide blood become more desperate. After another disastrous attempt to tap blood, Eli ends up on her own, and her interest in Oskar intensifies. Oskar and Eli's relationship feels very natural, aided by the open, unguarded performances of Hedebrant and Leandersson. Although Eli initially tells Oskar they can't be friends, they are drawn together anyway through their isolation. The friendship and burgeoning prepubescent romance can be taken at face value, although Eli's motives remain ambiguous. Does she want Oskar as a boyfriend, or does she see him as a replacement for Hakan? Does she encourage him to stand up his tormentors because she cares for him, or does she want to stoke the violent tendencies in him? The answer is likely a combination of these things. What happens if you fall in love with a vampire? Let the Right One In's answer is infinitely more sobering - and makes more sense - than the Twilight saga. In Twilight, Bella falls in love and marries into a beautiful, affluent, civilized, intelligent, family of vampires. They are benevolent toward humans and tactfully do their blood sucking off screen. Bella loves Edward so much she begs him to turn her into a vampire, unperturbed by the ramifications - becoming undead, living forever, never sleeping again, and having to suck blood from living flesh to survive. It probably helps Bella's decision that Stephanie Meyer found all the actual vampire stuff rather distasteful, and sanitized it to the point of ludicrousness. In Let the Right One In, the answer in more complex, but also more mundane and frightening. At one point, Oskar asks Eli how old she is. She answers the same age as him "...But I've been twelve for a very long time." Which begs the question, how old was Hakan when Eli picked him up? If you want to know what happens when you fall in love with a vampire, Hakan's last few days is your likely answer. You end up moving from town to town to evade capture and protect your undead loved one. No friends, no family, you live in anonymous apartments which aren't your home, and kill locals to provide blood. You are lonely and devoted, you grow physically older than your vampire lover, and become their parent and their servant. And, when things finally go bad, you become an emergency ration pack. Will this be Oskar's fate? The final moments suggest this, but as with many things in this beautiful film, the answer is left open to interpretation. Let the Right One In is also happy to embrace vampire lore. Unlike Twilight, the vampires in this film have a more traditional reaction to sunlight. As hugely successful as the Twilight Saga is, someone at the studio should have had the courage to stand up to Meyer and tell her her vision of what happens to vampires in sunlight sucked. It is perhaps the most belief-buggeringly dreadful moment of flaccid revisionism in movie, or indeed fiction, history. The title alludes to a lesser known clause of the vampire myth - vampires cannot cross a threshold without first being invited. Almost all Alfredson's decisions are the right ones. The film is gorgeous, luminously lensing the dreary suburb as a magic kingdom. The initial view of Oskar, reflected in his bedroom window looking out over the courtyard below, brought to mind Rapunzel - Oskar trapped in his tower, waiting for someone to come along and rescue him. Every shot is carefully framed to provide an isolated, snowy backdrop from Oskar and Eli's unnatural romance. Alfredson's depiction of Oskar's lonely childhood reminds me of Spike Jonze's interpretation of Where the Wild Things Are. A few moments of child nudity - a naked cuddle, and Oskar catching a glimpse of Eli changing - might raise an eyebrow in UK or US cinema, but are handled as matter-of-factly as the violence. There is blood in Let the Right One In, but it is handled in a frank, understated manner - about as titillating as watching someone eating a steak. Let the Right One In works as a horror romance, as a haunting coming-of-age tale, and would work almost as well without the vampire aspect. The central relationship between these two lost children is touching, and will stay with you for a long time afterwards, even if the conclusions you draw may not necessarily be happy ones. (This article originally posted on my Wordpress blog,http://videokrypt.wordpress.com/)
The Showdown. As integral to the Western as hats and horses, bat wing doors and the piano player who stops when a stranger walks into the saloon. For a Few Dollars More is a movie by a director fascinated by the possibilities of the showdown - two men facing one another, until one finally pulls his gun and shoots his opponent dead. For A Few Dollars More is Sergio Leone's equivalent of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth, endlessly thrashing out different variations of the same few notes until he reaches some sort of catharsis. The middle installment of Leone's legendary Dollars Trilogy, ...More tells the story of a very bad man. El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte) is a vicious bandit, murderer and rapist sprung from prison by his ragged, sweaty gang of desperados. On Indio's trail are two men, bounty hunters, with very different motives. One is the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood), concerned only with the price on Indio's head. The other is Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee van Cleef), linked to Indio by something other than material rewards. Both men are in possession of a silver pocket watch, which contain the picture of the same woman, and play the same melancholy chime... In Unforgiven, Eastwood's aging, haunted Will Munny ruminates on killing someone: "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have." Indio is a far worse antagonist. He takes away all a man has before he kills them, and it is his relationship with Mortimer which gives the film its heart. A Fistful of Dollars was groundbreaking and announced Leone's arrival on the scene with his spaghetti westerns, and many critics cite The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as the superior film of the three. I'm sticking with For a Few Dollars More, because it means something more personal, and is more moving. Everyone has loved ones, everyone can empathize with the characters unfortunate enough to veer into Indio's path. Because of Indio's fondness for starting his duels at the last chime of the watch, the question is repeatedly asked: If a bad man came along and took everything dear to you, and you had the chance to kill him, would you, could you be quick enough to take it? Indio is a complicated character, played with such lustful, malignant intensity by Volonte. Leone's camera loves looking at him, with his strange blue eyes and wisp of white hair. His goal appears to be his date with destiny, and Mortimer, rather than the vast material rewards of the film's central set piece, the heist at El Paso. It is clear that Indio was in love with the girl in the pocket watch portrait. Unfortunately, in true movie psycho tradition, he skipped flowers and an invitation to dinner and went straight for the gunning down of her young husband and rape. The other half of this relationship founded in grief is Lee van Cleef as Mortimer. The aging colonel turned bounty hunter carries himself with extreme dignity, and is not concerned with the large sum of money offered for Indio. The man with no name is initially perturbed to find there is another man on Indio's trail, an older, more calculating gent with superior firepower and an even harder squint than himself. Eastwood, well on his way to being a huge star, has relatively little to do in this movie. He looks cool in his poncho and his battered jeans, but has little to do but referee between two men with real passion and motives. Eastwood's star was forged somewhere between a sheriff's badge plucked off a lily-livered town custodian in the Dollars Trilogy and a San Francisco police badge tossed into a pond in Dirty Harry, but for most of For A Few Dollars More, he is a laconic onlooker. Then there is Leone and his fascination with the showdown. He plays through a series of intriguingly inventive variations on the motif, from the comic to the tragic before he finds his catharsis in the final, elegant, mournful standoff. Firstly, consider No Name and Mortimer's initial confrontation. Trying to run the older man out of town, No Name sends a frightened Chinese immigrant into Mortimer's room to pack his bags and take it "To the station". Out in the street, the classic location for a showdown, No Name shoots the hat off Mortimer's head, and again as the elder tries to pick it up, until he is out of range. Mortimer then retaliates, playing keepy-uppy with No Name's hat with his superior artillery from a longer distance. Later, when the two are united and riding into down, some local bad asses step out to confront them. Rather than get into a gunfight, the two demonstrate their prowess by helping a couple of village scrumpers, shooting apples out of a tree. A pause, and the local bad asses think better of it, and retreat. At the other end of the scale is Indio's fateful visit to the grass who sent him to jail. Indio has the snitch's wife and baby dragged outside and shot. Close up on the snitch's agonized, tear stained face. Indio's men free the victim's hands, and the chimes play. The newly bereaved husband and father has his chance of vengeance... Throughout the sequence, the camera not only crash zooms on the duelist's faces, but also flits between members of Indio's band, registering amusement, apprehension and distaste. They may be in allegiance with Indio, and may be murderous scum themselves, but you get the sense that none believe they are as hell bent as Indio in that moment. Ennio Morricone's score is indelible, not only counterpointing the action - for much of the film, it is the action. Packed with springs sproinging, shotguns ratcheting, organs piping, horns blaring and pocket watches tinkling, it is impossible to imagine the movie being so evocative without his fine work. Morricone's score matches Leone's direction stride for stride, accompanying the bawdy and grotesque moments of humour, to the drama of the operatic final showdown, where the last few moments of two men's lives are chimed away by the relic of a long dead loved one. Critics can have their Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or their Once Upon a Time in America. For a Few Dollars More hits me harder at an emotional level. It may be set 150 years ago, but it concerns a simple, heart-rending truth that anyone can relate to. Not only my favourite western, but also one of my favourite films of all time. (This article was first published on my blog, Video Krypt - http://videokrypt.wordpress.com/)
There is a man in a cage. Naked, covered in filth and blood, circling, fists ready. "I always knew I was made for better things. I had a calling." The skin-headed, straight-faced Bronson (Tom Hardy) tells us, direct to camera. The gates open, and riot police pile into the tiny cell. The naked man launches himself into battle. He isn't trying to escape, he's fighting because he has anger and violence built into him, and he sees himself as an artist of mayhem. Anyone going into Bronson expecting another British Guy Ritchie-esque Right Old Cockney Barrel of Monkeys will be suitably devastated by Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn's first full UK feature, an incendiary, exhilarating character study of Britain's most infamous inmate, Michael Peterson/Charles Bronson. A petty crook who copped a seven-year stretch for holding up a post office with a sawn-off shotgun, one-man-riot Bronson brawled his way to thirty-four years inside, thirty of them in solitary confinement. Bronson didn't have the usual back story of cinema psychos. He had an ordinary upbringing in a middle class family, grew up in suburban boredom of 70's Britain. He wasn't abused or deprived, just had a restless urge to throw himself against the system. Once inside, Bronson admits he loves it - "It was finally a place where I could sharpen my tools." A Clockwork Orange is the most obvious antecedent of Bronson. Like Burgess' Alex, Bronson sees violence as freedom of expression, and the movie generates its friction by how the authorities seek to contain the brutality within a man. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, there is no philosophical McGuffin. A Clockwork Orange asked, what is more evil? A man performing evil acts, or a society depriving that individual of the free will to commit them? Based on a true story, Bronson tests the sensibilities of even the wooliest liberal: If you have a man who unrepentantly terrorizes everyone who crosses his path, even those who place their faith and trust in him, what can you do but lock him in a cage? Tom Hardy portrays Bronson in an electrifying, balls out (literally) performance, easily as good as Malcolm McDowall in Orange, or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. I mention these characters because Bronson falls into the same category of intellectual-psycho movies, which perform a valuable service to society. A Clockwork Orange dared the viewer to paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall's famous quote: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Heath Ledger's Joker, with Gotham City trembling in his nihilistic grasp, forced the protagonists and citizens to make agonizing moral decisions. In between, we can talk about Seven's John Doe (Kevin Spacey), digging up the original deadly sins to hold a mirror to a morally bankrupt, alienated society. Hannibal Lecter originally depicted cold, calculating evil, but as the series ran, he eventually became a kind of super-antihero with impeccable manners, punishing those with insufficient intellect or etiquette. It is also worth mentioning Jigsaw from the Saw franchise, whose grimy labyrinths of fiendish death threw his banal victims into a high-stress nightmare of live-or-die existential crisis. No matter how depraved or despicable these intellectual psychos get, their acts are reassuring. So many real life crimes are grubby and meaningless, it at least lifts our battered spirits to imagine the killer might have a loftier purpose for his crimes. Bronson, although fitting the category, is more problematic. Bronson doesn't know what he wants. He strives to become Britain's most violent criminal, is dismissed as Britain's most costly, and is released. On the outside, he is lost, and after a short-lived career of bare-knuckle fighting, gets banged up again. The last third of the movie focuses on Bronson's desires. After taking a prison librarian hostage, he's passed a phone. The governor patiently asks him what he wants. He's perplexed. "What have you got?" The response echoes Brando's famous line in The Wild One - "Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?" Johnny: "Whaddya Got?" There is no answer to Bronson, and it thrives on the viewer's desire for the maniacal and destructive. Hardy makes this a cause worth backing, creating a character so vibrantly alive and strangely charming that it's hard not to root for him as he launches himself into another self-provoked battle he can't win. Apart from the central theme as violence as an art form or freedom of expression, Bronson shares other similarities to Kubrick's Clockwork Orange. Classical music provides the soundtrack for most of the film's violent scenes, and Larry Smith's cinematography does a grand job of emulating Kubrick's chilly gaze with wit and panache. There are some loose ends, some questions. The young Peterson, before the post office stand up, has a missus and kid, which are never mentioned again. His artistic temperament drifts him into artistic circles of a different kind - the three characters he doesn't beat up on sight range from camp to outright queer. Is the film trying to steer us towards deducing repressed homosexual tendencies? Scenes involving Bronson's foppish uncle recall the territory of another unreconstructed cinema nutjob, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet, whose eye-popping rage subdues somewhat in the environs of "suave f*cker" Ben's (Dean Stockwell) retro 50's apartment. In the end, Bronson is the victim of his own behaviour, the joke is on him, which ultimately makes him a comical figure. Every prison movie has a governor as nemesis for the hero or antihero, from Porridge through to Runaway Train. It's rare to find one we agree with, but it's hard not to nod with Jonathan Phillip's sneering guv when he witheringly says: "You're ridiculous." Although you might not want to say it to his face, Bronson is ridiculous. For all his desire for fame and attention, he ends up as Britain's most self-defeating prisoner. If violence is his art, it's a losing vocation, because a show isn't anything without an audience. Thirty years in solitary confinement means a lot of empty seats.
Squirrels, alligators, monkeys and rainbows - Werner Herzog has always been fascinated by mankind's relationship with nature, and in his deathrow doc "Into the Abyss", nature bizarrely bursts into the testimonies of his subjects. Although the Director declares his objection to the death penalty early on, he is less interested in creating a polemic against capital punishment, and more concentrated on seeing how ordinary people live with broken lives in extreme circumstances. In 2010, Herzog interviewed Michael Perry, a 28 year old Texan convict, eight days before he received a lethal injection. Perry and his accomplice, Jason Burkett were convicted for gunning down a 55 year old widow, Sandra Stotler, in her home to steal her car. Later, they also murdered her son and his friend, also taking his motor. Perry received the death sentence, but Burkett narrowly avoided the same penalty when his jailbird father, appeared in court to plead for his son's life. His testimony swung two jurors, and Burkett Jr received forty years behind bars instead. Herzog strips things right back with "Into the Abyss", favoring long, talking head interviews with not only the condemned and the bereaved, but people involved in the "process" of capital punishment. Every one of them is broken, haunted or doomed. Luckily, Herzog's peculiar interview technique often takes his subjects on surreal tangents, breaking the unremitting catalogue of failure and despair. It's a clever technique, and one suspects Herzog uses it to find what he is really after - evidence of life in the abyss. He is respectful but fearless in his interviews; "I don't have to like you." He frankly explains to a man about to die, but then goes on to lead Perry to happier memories, and shares a joke with him about the absurdity of a medical check up before an execution. A sincere prison chaplain, clearly troubled spiritually by his role in the system, is filmed in front of rows of headstones - it's the prison cemetery, and there are no names, only numbers. He takes comfort in offering spiritual guidance to these lost men, but Herzog wants to talk about the squirrels the chaplain saw on the golf course. The Chaplain's face lights up as he describes how he almost ran over two of the little fellas in his golf cart, hitting the brakes just in time - then his face clouds over again, as he seems to see some peculiar metaphor in the story. These peculiar tales and moments of absurd humour seem to be what Herzog is digging for - trying to mine these basic nuggets of hope that keep life going, no matter how dimly. Herzog avoids using too much grisly footage from the police archive on the crime, instead selecting clips which highlight a life rudely and brutally interrupted - the TV plays eerily in the background as the police camera investigates the Stotler home. The victim was baking at the time of her fateful callers, and egg shells remain on the worktop, a tray of cookies ready to go in the oven. He also manages to find dignity and heroism in unlikely places. He talks to a young man, Jared Talbert, who once ran with Perry and Burkett, and shrugged off getting stabbed with a screwdriver so he wouldn't be late for work. Talbert spent some time inside, and used it as an opportunity to learn to read and write, and go straight - Herzog clearly takes a shine to the shy, droll mechanic, giving him ample screen time to display some disarmingly dry humor. At the other end of the scale is Burkett Senior, a serial offender who has spent most of his life behind bars, and will probably die there. The old man's story is a tale of poor choices, failure, drug and alcohol abuse, and crime to support his habit. He is open about his failure in life and as a father, and thanks God for the help he received getting his boy off the death sentence - although he should probably take the credit for that, as his repentance appears sincere. Most disturbing is Burkett's wife, Melyssa, who worked on his appeal and first met the convict when he was in jail. While they've only ever held hands, she happens to be pregnant with his child. Herzog chases her down on this subject quite ruthlessly, suggesting "Contraband" coming out of the prison. While she denies she is a "Death Row Groupie", there's a disturbing glint of insanity in her eyes, and is the most deluded person involved. At one point she describes seeing a rainbow on the day she met him, arching from inside the prison to the free world, and saw it as a sign. This is clearly bullshit, but she seems to believe it. When the documentary takes a break from the talking heads, the images are heavy with stillness - Herzog visits the car four people eventually died over, and finds it rusting away in a police compound, with a tree growing inside; Peter Zeitlinger's camera stalks around the gurney where convicts lose their lives for the crimes they committed, and silence vibrates from it. Herzog is guilty of a few cheap shots. I was disturbed by the insistence of goading grieving relatives to hold up pictures of their murdered loved ones - I'd be interested to know how much of that was their decision, and how much the Director's. In such a hardcore Christian stronghold as Texas, he also has a cheap shot at the expense of Sandra Stotler's daughter, who attended Perry's execution and suggests it was more Old Testament-style retribution, and that Jesus probably wouldn't like it much. She deflects the question back admirably. "Into the Abyss" is a grueling, challenging documentary. Herzog keeps himself off camera, and for once there is none of his pretentious navel-gazing in voice over. The chapter titles are a little bit grandiose, but for the most part lets the ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances do the talking - and they are grimly, rudely alive. For a film that spends most of the running time in the shadow of death, it is curiously life-affirming. The film concludes with the thoughts of a former captain of the death house - this man was responsible for making sure over 120 got their last meal, but were also strapped down good and tight to receive their final injection. Now retired, he is solemn and eloquent about his thoughts on the death penalty, and on the importance of "living your dash". I'd never heard that phrase before, referring to the hyphen between your date of birth and death on your headstone. I found it extremely moving, but then he was off talking about watching the hummingbirds...Herzog loves his nature. (This review was first published on my movie blog, Video Krypt - http://videokrypt.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/into-the-abyss-live-your-dash/)
Swotting up for this review, I checked out a list of crap jobs, and I was a little surprised to find "English Monarch" wasn't in there. I mean seriously, who would want to be King or Queen? I tried making this point recently, a little naievely, to a Scot, but he wasn't very sympathetic. I wasn't trying to make a point in a imperialist or royalist way, I just genuinely feel sorry for the Queen. Poor old boot. Someone born into extreme poverty can make it to wealth and fame through a combination of hard work, talent and luck; someone born into extreme privilege will find it virtually impossible to make it to anonymity. I mean, do you ever get the feeling the Queen actually enjoys being the Queen? She's still at it now, plugging away at public duties with that strange tight-lipped smile and hoping Prince Phillip will keep his mouth shut, when she should be retired like all the other codgers and at home watching the snooker. "The King's Speech", Tom Hooper's handsome, Oscar-heavy historical drama, touches upon some of the loneliness and frustration suffered by a normal human being trapped in this most public of gilded cages. Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, the Queen's father, or Bertie to his close family and friends. The Prince has a problem which makes his public duties a particular torment for him - he suffers from a terrible stammer. The film opens with his humiliation at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition, when his stuttering in front of a packed Wembley stadium brought him to an embarassing standstill. Bertie's been to various quack doctors with various outlandish "cures" without success, and gives up, seemingly happy to let his father, King George (Michael Gambon) and flash, dashing brother Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) hog the airwaves. However, his wife Elizabeth locates another therapist, an Aussie failed actor operating out of a shabby basement, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue is a generous and loquacious character; his own failure as a Shakespearean actor, implied to be because of a prejudice against an Australian accent on a thespian playing the Bard, doesn't outwardly shake his self-belief. Logue is relaxed in the presence of Royalty, and his methods unorthodox - as is his insistence on calling the Prince by the familiar "Bertie" Bertie is resistant to Logue's methods at first, until he is goaded into reading a soliloquy from Hamlet while listening to music to drown out his own voice. Logue records it, and when the Prince eventually plays it back, is stunned to hear the stammer all but gone. The Prince and the Therapist become good friends, and Logue gently coaxes the possible pyschological reasons behind the impediment. In these scenes, we see a glimpse of a lonely boy with health problems, tormented by his nanny and terrified of his strict father. The film only gains any sense of dramatic urgency when the King dies, and his older son takes the throne. However, the new King's relationship with Mrs Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) is a grave concern - as head of the Church of England, which opposes divorce, he cannot marry a divorced woman. Meanwhile, war is approaching, and Bertie is left in the lurch when his older brother abdicates and runs off with Mrs Simpson. The climax is the nervous King's radio address to the Empire as Britain declares war on Nazi Germany... "The King's Speech" is thoroughly a respectable, entertaining, rainy Sunday afternoon movie. It is about as square as a film can get, and is just the kind of film the Academy loves throwing skiploads of Oscars at. Colin Firth has spent much of his film career playing outwardly square characters, with a hint of passion smouldering away beneath the surface. Here he does pretty much the same, just with extra misery and awkwardness because of the stammer, which seems convincing enough. However, he probably deserves his Best Actor doorstop for the moments when the Prince's pent up frustration and anger bubble to the surface, usually provoked by Logue. Geoffrey Rush as the therapist puts in some of his least irritating work here, portraying a warm-hearted family man with a huge hint of mischief in him; he hides his personal disappointment and relishes pricking the Prince's wounded pride. Helena Bonham-Carter is delightful as the young Queen Mother, lively, beautiful and down-to-earth, and it's refreshing to see her do some ordinary acting outside of one of Tim Burton's increasingly dreary freak shows. Michael Gambon makes the most of a relatively small role as the ageing King, a hard, stern man, product of an older, more rigid era and monarchy. Guy Pearce enjoys himself as the despicable older brother, although his plummy English accent veers dangerously close to parody. Derek Jacobi crops up as the Archbishop, the closest thing the picture has to a villain, and almost everyone is virtually flawless, in a square old-fashioned way. Apart from Timothy Spall, horrifically miscast as Winston Churchill - it's a broad impression, and would seem more suited to an episode of "The Fast Show". Tom Hooper handles the material well, keeping the twee pace of the film bubbling along nicely. He doesn't go for anything flash, and gives his actors time to explore their characters and relationships with each other. In an attempt to convey the suffocating nature of the Prince's condition, he goes for a lot of low angled close ups, getting his lens right up Colin Firth's nostril. It works some of the time. Other times, it looks like the kind of shot you might go for in a film if a character has woken up in a deserted hospital, and ran outside to discover he's the only person left on the planet. The overall production looks very well-heeled, although in a muted, modest way - dark greys and blues are the colours of choice, and the most striking image of the entire film is the sofa in Logue's consulting room. "The King's Speech" is effortlessly enjoyable, although it's not very exciting and doesn't really say anything about anything. I would give it four stars, except the more I thought about it afterwards, the more it angered me. This is a film where we are supposed to stand up and cheer that the King managed to overcome his speech impediment in time to announce we were going to war. The World suffered a conflict that lasted six years, and cost the lives of tens of millions of people - and we're supposed to feel warm inside because poor old Bertie can hold himself together for ten minutes on the radio. What a relief! I understand he was a popular figure during the war, but I found the whole concept rather tasteless. It might have seemed a little less crass if it started off with our battle weary boys stooped around a wireless, getting all inspired by the King's words, then flashing back to that poorly little boy bullied to the point of psychological damage. So it loses a star because of the film's inherent thoughtlessness. Apart from that, it's worth a watch if you've got nothing better to do. (First published on Ciao! under Midwinter)
It's not easy being a vegetarian in Brno - it's hard enough being in a relationship with one and finding decent places to go for a bite to eat. Around here you still get the sense that the older generations don't really know what a vegetarian is, and even some modern restaurants will think nothing of listing fish, or even chicken, in their "Bezmasa" section. So going out for a meal with my hardcore vegetarian girlfriend can be a real ordeal, and I suffer with her. She made the moral choice to come off the flesh when she was about ten years old, and I respect her willpower - she is so strict with herself and how her food is prepared, but is not some tofu totalitarian. She has never once tried pushing me to change, and would never dream of trying to convert a carnivore to the ways of the cauliflower. The options usually available to her tend to be fried cheese, fried cauliflower, fried broccoli, or sometimes just fries. It's not fun trying to have a nice meal with your loved one while she's poking around in her risotto to make sure there's no rogue sausages lurking around in there. And if she does find a stray piece of meat, then that's it, you're spending the rest of the meal on your own while she's out back purging herself. So thanks to the heavens for Kupe, a sweet little cellar bar-restaurant on Veveri, which opened in the spring of 2011 and gave Saladheads and their familiars a place of refuge. There are other veggie restaurants in Brno, but they tend either to be the spartan, threadbare, Hare Krishna HQ-style joints serving up meager platters of Indian inspired fodder; or else expensive, belligerently healthy, buffet-style canteens like Rebio, which always smell like the inside of a pet shop. There are no such problems with Kupe - they specialise in serving up super fresh, meat-free interpretations of classics from the Middle East and Turkey, and the smell of herbs and tasty cooking wafting up the stairs to greet you beckons you down into a warm, chatty cellar space below. It's a small restaurant, with the non-smoking section occupying the front part of the cellar by the bar, while the smoking area occupies a lounge at the rear. The lounge area is more relaxed, decked out with mismatched retro furniture, with comfy armchairs to slump in. There is space on the walls for contemporary art by local artists (available to purchase), and mellow tunes on the stereo, creating a warm and intimate atmosphere, inviting you to take your time perusing the generous selection on offer in their plush, hard bound menus. The menu is in Czech, and you can't help but get the feeling you're missing out on something, because their descriptions of the dishes are quite detailed. However, rudimentary Pub Czech should see you through the basic ingredients, and if not, the pictures tastefully and accurately depict what's going to be on your plate. It's good fun in Kupe to just order a bunch of dishes between you and share, and they do have an option to order mixed platters of the starters, which include favourites such as hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed vine leaves and falafel. The falafel is actually the most disappointing thing on the menu, served in rather hard, dry little pucks covered in sesame seeds. Far more enjoyable is the chunky baba ghanoush, served with fresh homemade arabic bread, although sometimes the chef gets a little excited with the lime juice; creamy tarator, topped with walnuts; or crispy Sambousek, cute little pastries filled with spinach and feta cheese. For daredevils, there is a ridiculously hot muhammara dip - if you can finish it off, you get to choose something for free off the menu. A selection of starters to share are usually ample for a light bite, so it's very rare I delve into the Mains - but there you will find shish kebabs of marinated and grilled vegetables, couscous dishes, kashmiri rice with cashews and raisins, moussaka, and my favourite, Kushari - a popular Egyptian dish of lentils, rice, chickpeas and macaroni, doused with a spicy tomato sauce and topped with fried onions. There is also a section of lunch salads, and some excellent Turkish pizzas to chose from - served on a board, these narrow, footlong pizzas come with toppings such as bell pepper and feta cheese; spinach and sheep's cheese; protein based salami substitute (not as horrible as it sounds); and a spicy option with muhummara, olives, red onion and cherry tomatoes. It's all very tasty and filling, and you can take away any left overs with you for a nominal charge. Almost everything is freshly prepared, fragrant with herbs, and may take some time to reach you - the service at Kupe is pretty laid back anyway, but during busy periods it can take up to an hour to receive your food. The menu helpfully specifies dishes that will take a while to prepare, but Kupe is perhaps not the best option if you're in a rush, or if you're starving. The menu also highlights dishes that are suitable for vegans, and gluten-free meals. A chilli pepper symbol denotes how hot certain dishes will be, but be warned - their assessment of what's hot and what's not tends towards the higher end of the scale. I can handle pretty spicy food, but their muhummara topped pizza, rated only a three on their chilli scale, scalded the roof of my mouth and almost burnt my lips off! Drinks on offer range from Cerna Hora beer and wine through to ginger ale, fruit juices, coffees and leaf tea. Prices are extremely reasonable - for a light bite, a couple of starters to share and a couple of drinks each, expect to pay around 300kc (Approximately ten pounds). Brno is gradually improving in terms of food on offer, although so many pubs and restaurants in this town offer the same old variants of the same Czech menu. It's hard to find other cuisine of any quality as an alternative, so Kupe is one of the brightest things to happen to the city's food scene in the three years I've lived here. It's a meat free restaurant, but in terms of quality, flavour, choice, atmosphere, and service, it also provides a happy alternative for all us carnivores, too. Other Info: English Spoken Stravenky (Lunch Vouchers) - Accepted Website: www.kupeorient.cz - (not finished yet) Facebook - Links to daily lunch specials Tram: 3, 11, 12, & 13 - Zastavka (Stop) - Grohova (This review originally posted on Ciao! as Midwinter)
The Bosnian capital Sarejevo spent three years under siege during the Bosnian War; photographer and lecturer Paul Lowe was there to cover much of it, and the result is "Bosnians". A collection of black and white photographs focusing on the ordinary people of an encircled city, the result is frightening, harrowing, but ultimately life-affirming. I was lucky enough to pick up my copy in Sarajevo, and had the pleasure of lugging this handsome, hard-bound monograph around the Balkans and Eastern Europe with me. The subject might sound a bit weighty for a casual coffee table book, but Lowe's approach is summed up by the cover image. A young bride is congratulated on her wedding by a friend, while her new husband gazes out over the battered city below. Like a lot of photographs in "Bosnians", there is an ambivalence to the photo, and Lowe as a photographer seems happy to take the shot, then stand back and let the viewer read their own meanings into it. Is the groom looking out over Sarajevo, caught in a reverie about how on earth they managed to survive a siege where 10,000 of their fellow citizens died? Or is he simply peeved by how friendly his beautiful bride is with the old friend? Another feature of Lowe's collection is he focuses on life, and the possibility of returning to a normal life after the war. Sure, he spends time looking at the victims of war and genocide, particularly in the aftermath, but it's not the main focus of the work - there are, unfortunately, a lot of books out there which are almost pornographic in their detail of death and bloodshed during the conflict, and are quite gratuitous in the levels of gore on display. I was in my teens when the Bosnian War raged; I remember the grainy images from the news, but didn't really understand what was going on, and if I'm honest, didn't really care. Between 1992 and 1996, Serb troops occupied the hills and mountains surrounding Sarajevo and laid siege to the city. It was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, and the Serbs didn't confine their shelling and sniper fire to military targets - in fact, they actively targeted the civilian population. My girlfriend and I have sat on the same restaurant terrace as the happy couple on the front cover of "Bosnians", and looking down on the city spread out in the valley below, it's amazing it held out so long. It's a picturesque place to have a city, surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides, but must suck from a defensive point of view, constantly defending the low ground. From the vantage point of that restaurant terrace, you can see along the streets and watch people crossing at intersections - no wonder sniper fire accounted for so many of the civilian casualties. Lowe's photos of the siege are in contrast to many of the others in the book, which are still, calm and contemplative. His shots of people running across streets to avoid sniper fire are real, raw and immediate - you can feel the panic in these photos, perhaps because Lowe himself was in the firing line while taking them. These images of the violence and panic of war had the interesting effect of linking in with my memories of the TV coverage as a teen, while the later images of the surviving Bosnians getting on with their day-to-day lives blended in with my real experiences in Sarajevo and Mostar, and of the people themselves. The violence is more harshly felt in Lowe's pictures displaying the effects - the painted toenails of a corpse in a morgue; an old woman grieving by a graveside, while sunlight through the trees creates a strange, spectral effect over the grave; a recovered skull being compared to a photo, as forensic scientists try to match corpses to missing people. Although Lowe's sympathies lie with the Bosnians, his photographs remain remarkably detached and impartial to their subjects. The selected text throughout the book, which is provided mainly in thought-provoking, bite-sized chunks, makes it clear Lowe isn't on the fence at all. One of the most telling is a snippet of a speech from US President Bill Clinton, opening a Holocaust museum, warning people of the dangers of forgetting genocide - while it was actually happening in Bosnia. The last section of the book covers the survivors returning to their homes and rebuilding their lives. These are some of the most moving photos in the book, portraying people who have suffered and grieved and survived, and now must move on and find a way of living a normal life. These range from refugees of the Srebrenica massacre in newly built shacks, poor virtually homeless but alive and relieved, to a family returning to the home they were kicked out of, an old lady weeping in one room while the others fetch things from the car. As I said before, this is not a casual coffee table book of photography, but an immersive experience that rewards time spent studying and contemplating the images. In his non-obtrusive style, Lowe allows you to investigate the people and characters he has captured in these glorious black and white images and discover their story for yourself. A moving and and heartfelt portrayal of a people beset by the horrors of war, emerging the other side, and somehow carrying on. (This review was first posted on Ciao! as Midwinter)
Magnus Mills follows up his sublimely droll black comedy "The Restraint of Beasts" with another deadpan curio, "All Quiet on the Orient Express". Told from the point of view of a nameless, faceless protagonist, we follow the luckless hero as he manages to ensnare himself in a loop of obligation, misunderstanding and casual work, without ever being rude enough to escape. Our "hero" is camping by the lakes somewhere up north at the tail end of the holiday season, enjoying a few weeks relaxation before heading off traveling. He is living simply, just him, his vintage motorbike, a small tent, and a tin of beans for his meal. The weather begins to turn, causing all the other holidaymakers to head home, leaving the hero by himself - suddenly he becomes prone to the attention of his landlord, Mr Parker, and of the locals in the village. The regulars at the pub he's taken a liking to seem friendly enough, to the point of buying him rounds and even enlisting him on their darts team, but they always seem to know his business and defer to his new "boss", whose bad temper is legendary around these parts. Mr Parker offers him a little bit of casual work, starting with painting his front gate green. He is interrupted by the local milkman, who is always trying to catch the landlord for a word, but always in vain. The interruption causes the protagonist to spill the can of paint on the driveway, which he decides to tidy up by converting the splash of paint into a square. "All Quiet on the Orient Express" is a difficult story to summarize. All the incidents and events that take place are so ordinary and innocuous when taken individually and out of context. The hero also gets to saw some wood, paint some rowing boats, replace some planks on a jetty, as well as order some groceries and flirt with Mr Parker's fifteen year old daughter. Yet each incident only serves to draw him further into a situation out of his control. The story is told in a deceptively simple style, and it is quite easy to dash through "All Quiet on the Orient Express" in one or two sittings. Mills' speciality is to exaggerate the banality of everyday conversation to comic or sinister effect. A typical exchange goes - "Nice place you've got here." "Yes," He said, "We like it very much. Of course, I've been here all my life, so I don't know any different." "Suppose not." "But everyone who comes here says they like it." "I'm not surprised." As an author, Mills seems to have the knack of picking up on the underlying awkwardness in much of English small talk - after all, we are a nation brought up not to talk to strangers, and that advice seems to carry through to our adult lives as well. The stilted conversations always seem to end short or with an unseen "...", which creates the impression that something is being left unsaid, or some ghastly secret is being kept from us or the hero. Many of the chapters end in cliffhangers, if you can call them that - a typical "cliffhanger" in "All Quiet on the Orient Express" would be "It would seem Tommy Parker had arrived in the top bar." Gasp! Again, out of context these events seem innocuous enough, but put together have a cumulative effect, a building sense of smothering horror as the hero becomes more and more obligated and trapped. "All Quiet on the Orient Express" is an engaging read, but it lacks the heart of "Restraint of Beasts". In his debut novel, Mills told the story of two Scottish fence builders down for a job in England with their foreman. They lived together, worked together, went to the pub together...and, in similar style, got trapped in a peculiar murderous situation together. While the style of the first novel was virtually the same - mundane situations elevated to surreality, humdrum conversations exaggerated for comic effect - it was easier to feel sympathy for the main characters. OK, so they may have been two moronic fencers whose only interest was smoking and drinking, but their affection for one another was genuinely touching, which made it easier to root for them as they became ensnared in Mills' labyrinth. The hero of "All Quiet on the Orient Express", however, is a victim of his own making, a nameless character with almost no back story, and virtually a cipher for Mills to hang his mystery plot. In fact, he's one of those strange characters in fiction you almost end up relishing the misfortune they encounter - basically, the hero's too polite, and if he actually stood up for himself, then he might stand a chance of escaping. As it is, he ends up getting sucked deeper and deeper into the work ethic and the politics of a small village, and only stands up for himself once - in a tense and hilarious exchange involving ordering tins of beans. Aside from the protagonist, the other characters are vague, and deliberately so - the nature of the story means we can only see it from the hero's point of view, and it's important that we don't know what anyone else is thinking. Plus Mills' simple style means he doesn't go in for much physical description, which leaves the reader to fill in the gaps. "All Quiet on the Orient Express" is an engaging and devious read; while it won't last long in the hands of a regular reader, it rewards numerous re-reads. Although Mills' style is very simple, it's actually packed with detail, and it's fun picking up the clues hidden away which were missed first time around. It also makes an excellent gift - I am actually on my third or fourth copy of the book, having given previous copies away to friends. It's always interesting to see people's reaction to the book. They're always, "Well, he's painting some boats now." and seem a bit puzzled about what they're reading or why; but something always compels them to carry on to the end...then they get it!
So, is everyone looking forward to "The Avengers" next year, then? You'd better be, after Marvel Studio's ambitious and expensive build up - five big budget superhero movies (Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) establishing the principle characters in next year's main event, The Avengers. The big question has got to be, does anyone apart from Marvel fanboys actually give a toss? Sure, Marvel have made their money back - and then some - with the project so far, and the films so far have been an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours. But how excited can you get if you know the hero must survive in order to fulfill their role in The Avengers, and how excited can you get about these superheros anyway, given they are all pretty much B- and C-Listers on Marvel's back catalogue? (As a non-comic book geek, before all this begun, I'd heard of exactly 50% of the above line up). "Iron Man 2" opens at the conclusion of the last film as billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) announces to the world that he is Iron Man. This breaking news is watched by a dying old man in a dark, dreary Moscow apartment - he is Anton Vanko, who we will learn had a grudge against Tony's father, Howard. The old man passes away, and his son Ivan (Mickey Rourke) sets to work, using blueprints conspicuously marked "Stark Industries". (Although set in the modern day, it's interesting to note how this credit sequence clings to American Cold War-era cliches about Russia - there's some Red Army Choir-like music on the soundtrack; it's grey, freezing, miserable, and knee deep in snow; everyone looks poor; all there is to drink is vodka.) Six months later, Stark has used his Iron Man suit to broker world peace; he's as conceited and facetious as usual, and as he re-opens the expo established by his late father, appears to be a man riding the crest of a wave. However, Stark is a man with problems - he is subpoenaed to a Washington Senate commission, led by the loathsome Senator Stern (played convincingly by the loathsome Garry Shandling), who wants him to turn his Iron Man tech over to the military. Stark is also dying. The Palladium core of the reactor in his chest, which keeps him alive and also gives his suit all its fancy powers, is slowly poisoning him. Despite his friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) being forced to testify against him, Stark manages to demonstrate projects in unfriendly countries such as North Korea and Iran to develop a similar suit are years behind - as are the experiments of rival weapons contractor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). As Stark modestly puts it, "I have successfully privatized world peace." However, as Ivan Vanko is about to spectacularly demonstrate at the Monaco Grand Prix, Stark's assessment is grossly over-exaggerated... "Iron Man 2" trundles along entertainingly enough without ever being as fresh or refreshing as the original. This is partly due to Stark - the man's dying, so obviously he's a bit down in the dumps. In the first film, most of the fun was due to the anti-heroic nature of Stark, an unrepentant hedonist and narcissist, who's enjoying himself discovering what he can do with his indestructible flying suit. This time round, Stark's not enjoying himself so much, so neither is the audience. It's also down to director Jon Favreau, who seems caught in two minds where he wants to go with this, the bridging chapter between "Iron Man" and "The Avengers". The eventual outcome is pre-defined, but he seems unsure whether he wants to go for more of the same, and stick with the light, irreverent fun of the original, or go darker and expand on the characters, like "Spider Man 2" or "The Dark Knight". In the end, he doesn't really do either, so "Iron Man 2" follows pretty much the same story arc as its predecessor, without adding on any darker psychological layers to make the characters anymore interesting. The film has one stand out set piece, as Vanko unveils his new equipment at the Monaco Grand Prix - which Stark has decided to race in, as you do when you're a billionaire playboy superhero who's dying. Mickey Rourke looks awesome, standing fearlessly in the middle of the race track, tearing cars apart with lashes of his electric whips. It is the film's only genuinely exciting and inventive moment, and the later climax pales in comparison. Rourke, as usual, transcends the material he is surrounded by, although is tragically under used in "Iron Man 2". Vanko is underwritten for a supervillain, and Rockwell's Hammer gets to do most of the talking, leaving Rourke to do most of his work with his eyes. However, Rourke does what Rourke does best - Vanko in his hands becomes a weary soul weighed down with hard won wisdom. It would have been nice for Rourke to share more screen time with Downey Jr, to see what would happen - both men fell from grace after bright starts in their career, and fought back from obscurity to become two of today's most interesting and watchable actors. Both seem to use their troubled pasts to inform the characters they play, no matter how well scripted or directed. Downey Jr seems relatively restrained this time around, which perhaps is inevitable given his character is dying, so is understandably a little more introspective. His performance is never less than interesting, though, and despite the excellent cast assembled, Favreau still seems content to let the film coast along on his star's unpredictable charisma. Sam Rockwell has fun as Justin Hammer, a loquacious, smarmy gobshite who wants to be just like Tony Stark, only to have his ambitions trumped at every turn. Rockwell plays the part mainly for comic relief, although subtly gives the character a sinister edge - this man may not be the fool he seems. Gwyneth Paltrow is as dependable as her character, Pepper Potts, still running around tidying up after her capricious boss, still the obvious unspoken love interest; however, this time Stark's eye is caught by newbie Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), hired to replace Potts when Stark promotes her to CEO. Johansson doesn't have much to do apart from look sultry, and plays what at first seems like a small part as transparently more than it seems. She gets to do some pretty slinky, cat-suited butt-kicking later on, when she forms an unexpectedly effective partnership with Favreau, reprising his role as Stark's chaffeur and bodyguard Happy. Don Cheadle has the most unforgiving role, as a man caught between duty and looking after his anguished friend; the performance comes across as rather one note, for the most part Cheadle looking like a dog does when it's owner nips down the shops for a paper and leaves it at home. Samuel L Jackson rolls up at one point, in the film's most overt reference to the upcoming "Avengers", as S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (That's Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Department for those of you who don't know...) Strangely, for a big summer blockbuster, it's the action sequences that let the movie down. All credit to Favreau for keeping the characters the main focus, but apart from the Grand Prix sequence, the action moments are the movie's most forgettable, and the climax is the worst of the lot. It degenerates into a flashy but unengaging punch up between Stark, Rhodes and an army of Vanko's drone creations, and Vanko himself is dispatched with embarrassing ease. There's no sense of danger to the characters, especially as their facial expressions to the action is registered via a disembodied "in helmet" shot - their face against a black background, with the suit's dials and read outs projected against it. As a result, the ending falls flat, with a disappointing shoulder shrug rather than a big bang finale. "Iron Man 2" is a friendly and non-threatening way to while away a couple of hours - but then, it's nice occasionally to have a superhero movie that doesn't feel the need to go all dark and broody ("The Dark Knight", "Watchmen", etc). Having said that, without that psychological edge for non-superhero fans, isn't it all just comic books? (First posted on Ciao! as Midwinter.)
So it must have been around '96 or something, because England were doing alright in the football, and it was the last time I can remember when everyone in the country didn't hate each others guts. We were all driving along on this big double decker bus painted with the Union Jack. Liam and Noel were there, wearing their little round shades, and they were like, "Is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there's nothing worth working for?", and we all agreed it wasn't, because all we needed was cigarettes and alcohol. Jarvis was there too, in his felt jacket, and we were singing along with the common people, singing along because it might just get us through; Damon was up on the top deck talking to Tony - you could tell they didn't think much of that Northern lot. Even Keith from The Prodigy was there, doing his mad dance where he jumped around and slapped his head a lot - you had to stand back a bit if you didn't want your pint spilled when he was about. Then I don't really know what happened after all that, I think the bus went off the road and tipped over in a ditch somewhere, and I must have been in a coma for a bit, because when I woke up half a generation had gone by. Everyone was in their Thirties all of a sudden, and quite some time must have passed, because nothing seems as nostalgic as a fuzzy guitar riff on an Oasis track on a summer's afternoon, something to take you right back to when you were young and jobless and didn't give a toss. Then there was Trainspotting - the good ship Britain was riding high on the crest of a wave, Oasis were having tea at Number 10 with Tony and his mates, and from north of the border came our answer to Pulp Fiction. (If it was crap, it would have been Scotland's answer to Pulp Fiction...) If I'm fair, Trainspotting was probably the film that really got me into movies - the hype was enormous leading up to it's release, especially after the sleeper success of Danny Boyle's debut, Shallow Grave, and the buzz surrounding Irvine Welsh's novel. The first movie magazine I ever bought was the Trainspotting edition of Empire, and it kind of went from there. Britain's answer to Pulp Fiction - choose Miramax, choose a teaser trailer, choose a catchy ad campaign, choose a must-have soundtrack album, choose quotable dialogue, choose posters for every teenager in the country's bedroom wall...apart from those things, Trainspotting didn't have too much in common with Tarantino's second feature, and has dated badly in comparison. While Pulp Fiction was set in an unspecified netherworld of hipster hitmen in suits, surreal situations and esoteric tunes on the soundtrack - in other words, set inside Quentin Tarantino's head, Trainspotting was very specifically of it's own time and place, and I couldn't help the nagging sensation it was dated by the time it was released. Fifteen years on, certain scenes look about as cool and edgy as a re-run of Rab C Nesbitt. (Yes, yes, I know Rab was Glaswegian, but you get my point...) Trainspotting opens with a burst of unadulterated energy as Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his so-called mates leg it along Edinburgh's Princes Street from the police, to the restless rat-a-tat of Iggy Pop's Lust for Life. The track became synonymous with the film, and was vital in giving it it's feeling of urgency - a feeling that it sporadically flirts with throughout the rest of the running time, but never fully recaptures. Like many so-called "unfilmable" novels, there is very little plot and suffers from an episodic nature, heavy on voice over and low on actual dramatic situations. I believe there is no such thing as an unfilmable novel; it's just a matter of how you approach it. There is plenty of drama in Welsh's novel, most of it seething off the page in the scalding dialogue. If anything, screenwriter John Hodge has been too faithful to the novel, as if scared to veer too far away from it's chief asset, that vitriolic narrative voice - as a result, big chunks end up piled on top of the images as a voice over. Because of this, the characters suffer - there are very few scenes of any real length, or scenes where the characters actually converse with each other. Like the iconic orange and black poster campaign, the characters are isolated figments, restricted and constrained by the bite sized anecdotes they appear in, with no room to grow. The only character that really develops is McGregor's Renton, and that's partly because McGregor is a magnificent actor, and partly because you can't actually get away from Renton in Trainspotting - not only is he the main character, he's also the narrator, and has a certain omniscience, even offering a spot of V.O on other character's stories. Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) looks cool alright, but basically spends the whole film talking about Sean Connery - there is nothing to touch upon his selfish, bitter soul like the novel; Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has a few moments, but is more of a cartoonish presence than the malevolent, psychotic wifebeater of the book. Diane (Kelly McDonald) matches Renton for smarts as his jailbait girlfriend, although is limited to a few small scenes, and sympathetic Spud (Ewan Bremner) is basically in it to provide some incomprehensibly motormouthed comic relief, and also prick Renton's conscience. Trainspotting begins at a sprint, then runs out of puff pretty quickly, and Boyle occasionally tries to inject some energy with some flashy scenes, with mixed results. Most notable is a sequence where Renton loses his heroin suppositories down a filthy toilet in a bookies. In the book, it is a squalid, pathetic scene as he rummages desperately through other people's muck to get them back; Boyle turns it into a fantasy sequence where he disappears head first down the toilet, swims along to some nice music, and re-emerges with his bum bullets. It looks cool, but loses all its impact. Shorn of the detailed dialogue and characterization of Welsh's novel, it pretty much boils down to drugs are brilliant, then you get addicted, then drugs are bad. Thanks! 1996 and all that - Cool Britannia, crest of the wave, a curious mix of fatalism and optimism. Is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job, Oasis asked, when there's nothing worth working for, while taking tea with Tony at Number 10. England were doing well in the football, but what caught the spirit of the Nation during Euro '96 was Three Lions, a song about how bitter and disappointing it was to be an England fan. Trainspotting, our answer to Pulp Fiction, pretended to be the most nihilistic of the lot - Choose Life, it ironically said - but turned out to be the most vaporous and intangible of them all. (This article was first published on my Wordpress blog - http://wp.me/p1XeiS-2o)
Like many of you I'm sure, Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are" is part of my childhood wallpaper - peel back the layers stuck to the inside of my skull, beneath the old horror movie posters and Italia '90 stickers, and there, somewhere, will be those indelible, strangely peaceful monsters of Sendak's original book. I know I never owned a copy, but I recall it being one of the books being fought over in the reading corner at School when I was little - it was the book equivalent of the James Bond Aston Martin toy car with the ejector seat and the missiles. Then when I went to work at a Primary school years later, it was always "Where The Wild Things Are" the kids were scrapping over.... I'd heard about a film adaptation, which I quickly forgot about, thinking the usual pessimistic thoughts about how much of a mess they were likely to make of another childhood classic. It's been over a month since I watched Spike Jonze's effort, and it's such a curious, affecting piece it won't quite go away - I've been straining to think of another "kid's" film it resembles, but it's pretty hard. In some ways, I think the film it resembles the most is the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs' beloved "The Snowman". Sendak's original tale tells of a young boy called Max, who gets into so much mischief that he is sent to bed without any dinner. In his imagination, he sets off on an adventure across the sea to a strange forested land, where he encounters the wild things, a tribe of huge fierce monsters. Max proves himself to be the wildest thing of all and becomes their king, and after the "wild rumpus", he soon becomes lonely and heads back home to the comforts of his family life. One of the most impressive things about Jonze's adaptation is that he hasn't tried to pad out such a slim story into a massive feature length adventure - rather, he uses the original tale to inform a realistic portrayal of a lonely young boy who's imagination sometimes gets the better of him. The Wild Thing Max, played by newcomer Max Records, is initially caught in a scene of such alarming anger and vitality it's a bit of a shock - dressed in the book's famous wolf costume and followed by Jonze's handheld camera, he chases and wrestles the family dog which such ferocious abandon there's no doubt who the wild thing is here. These early scenes of Max's childhood are among the most effective of the film. Max is not an abused or neglected kid - it's just he's a bit lonely. His older sister is off out with her friends all the time, and his single mother (played warmly by Catherine Keener) loves him dearly, but has now reached the point in her life when she now wants some new male attention in her life. Some purists may be upset that the book's transmogrification of Max's bedroom into a jungle has been missed out, because it would certainly be within the realms of today's special effects, but it doesn't make too much of a difference. Once Max's journey has begun, he's off across the sea and winds up in a wintry woodland, not unlike one he might find at the bottom of his garden - into his imagination, and Max is limited by what he already knows. Apart from the woods, the strange land is bordered by cliffs and beaches that recall the forlorn shoreline of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. Max encounters the Wild Things, huge lumbering creatures in the midst of smashing up their nests, led by the impetuous Carol, who is in a fury because his girlfriend-thing KW has left. Max tries to join in, and soon finds himself surrounded by a pack of looming, hungry-looking creatures threatening to eat him. Max is able to convince them he is actually a king, and after the "wild rumpus", tries to bring order and harmony to the desolate group of monsters. The creatures themselves are wonderful - I was initially put off by their "American" voices, but the vocal actors really bring the performances to the fore and do a brilliant job of voicing each creature's foibles and insecurities. The creatures themselves are a seamless blend of CGI and animatronic suits designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. So often these days I find myself dragged out of a story by how fake the special effects look - "Where The Wild Things Are" is one of a few examples I can thing of where the effects look exactly right. There is not much plot to speak of - the drama of the story is whether Max can really unite this band of fierce, lonely creatures into a loving group, and whether he can do it without getting eaten in the meantime. Because the creatures are figments of his imagination, the rhythms of their relationships has the same uneasy shifting of tantrums, boisterousness and shifting alliances of the playground...except this time, Max's playmates are eight foot tall monsters who use eating each other as a way of settling disagreements. There is an early scene which shows what can happen to Kings of the Wild Things who displease their subjects - it's a brief, chilling moment, and again Jonze uses it wisely. While this is Max's imagination, Jonze imaginations are deep and dark places, and sometimes people who immerse themselves fully into a fantasy world don't always come back. "Where The Wild Things Are" is a peculiar, moving and haunting film; I don't think it is suitable for really young children, who may find it too slow or just plain frightening. Older kids, particularly those old enough to be allowed out to play on their own, should relate to it's themes well. If not, then the film is left to us grown ups - those of us with the knowledge that no matter how well we were brought up, there were moments when being a kid was a bewildering and lonely place. A beautiful film. (This review was first posted on my Wordpress blog, http://wp.me/p1XeiS-2g)
I always thought I was going to live forever - I'm thirty-three but feel the same as I did when I was eighteen, and I've got through a relatively hard-drinking, hard-smoking lifestyle without any troubles to this point. I was a bit suspicious of my balls, though, because I had an operation when I was five years old to bring them down into my scrotum - undescended testicles, I believe the term is. Therefore I was straight on the case when I felt a lump on my right testicle about two months ago while taking a piss. I always take those hands-on moments as an opportunity to check things out, and found a marble-like protrusion sticking out of my right nut. I gave it a day or two, just to see, while also working myself up into a panic about testicular cancer, and all the things that might involve. I wasn't hanging around, though - unlike some guys, I don't have any pride when it comes to these kind of things. I got myself an appointment to get it checked out. However, I live in the Czech Republic, and a visit to the doctors is not the easiest thing for someone who doesn't speak fluent Czech. The urologist I visited was a man who looked like he smoked in his office, and we communicated through a combination of mime and shouting. He originally treated it as an infection, and put me on antibiotics, which did nothing at all. On my third visit, after many facial expressions which you might make watching skateboarders fall on their face during "You've Been Framed", he referred me to the hospital with the suspicion of a tumor. Once at the hospital, things moved pretty quickly. In less than a week, they'd taken blood and decided that I should have the offending testicle removed, as it was most likely a tumor. I did all my crying that day; I've grown up enough to know how my emotions work. When I left the UK to live abroad in 2009, once I knew for definite I would be going, I got pissed up in town and had a tearful conversation on the phone to my mum. It was a bit embarrassing in hindsight, but when it came down to the final day, I was calm while my family broke down in tears. I got my tears in early so I could deal with that final wrench more effectively. The day they said I had a tumor, I went home, sat about for a bit, then went back to work, thinking I'd be better off there rather than sit around by myself worrying. I lasted approximately three minutes, before someone asked if I was OK, then I dissolved into bitter tears. After that, I was fresh and ready to go, although the times waiting for action were much worse than anything that actually happened to me. I'm a huge wimp, and have a very low threshold for pain, or any physical discomfort. Before checking into hospital, I was terrified about three things - 1. Injections/Blood Tests - the last time I had a blood test, around ten years ago when I had glandular fever, I blacked out and needed to lie down for about half an hour. 2. Hospitals - My beloved Grandmother and Great-Grandmother both passed away in hospital, so I had an inbuilt fear and distrust of hospitals in general. 3. The Operation - I'd be knocked out for the actual Op, but was terrified of any drips or tubes sticking out of me when I awoke. When the nurse took six blood samples for the first test, I tried to counteract my blood test wimpiness by trying to be the big man and jump straight up afterwards. This led to a draining of blood from head to foot, and flaking out on the table in a big sweaty puddle of dizziness and despair. Once it was decided I should have the testicle removed, the doctor sent me to another hospital to deposit some sperm, in case further treatment - ie. Radiotherapy or Chemotherapy - knocked out the other testicle. Before I could do that, I needed to give MORE blood, so I could be tested for HIV. I took that one more calmly, and laid down for five minutes before attempting to get up. The sperm deposit was the saddest wank I've ever had. For this, they sent me to another hospital, and I envisioned scenes from movies where a character will go to a gleaming clinic, and get put in a room with a little pot, a drawer full of glossy jazz mags, and a porno playing on a TV in the corner. I've always tried avoiding porn due to my partner, who considers it a form of cheating. But I figured she would forgive me this one. The woman handed me a little tub through the window and gave me a key to a small annex across the courtyard. Once in there, I discovered a couch and a coffee table covered in porno mags. Despite my troubled state of mind at this point, a little pervert somewhere in my mind shouted "Game on!" It was a bit distressing, though. I knew countless blokes in similar situations had sat on that sad little couch knocking one out over these mags, so first off I felt the need to sit on my jacket. And the mags were all what I would describe as "Communist Era Porn", very dated, and from approximately the mid-Eighties, which didn't help. Even when I was into my porn, I always had trouble with bad haircuts, and here I had nightmare perms and neon colored naughty underwear to wank around. I've never been a prolific cummer, but I managed to eke out a few drops into my pot, and it was sad to think my chances of having a family in the future might rest on this meager little offering. But, I've always liked a good story, so I consoled myself with thoughts of telling my future children that they lay in stasis in a clinic in Brno, Czech Republic, a bit like Wesley Snipes in "Demolition Man", ready to be thawed out and take the world on. Even after all that, I couldn't resist a little joke to myself as I left the cabin, thinking; "Maybe I'll keep the key and pop down for another one later on." When I got back to my apartment, I got a text - "Mr Adams - you forgot to return the key to our room." And had to run back to the hospital to return it. The hospital itself was a huge barrier for me, and in some ways I was more worried about spending a week on a ward with a bunch of other men than I was about the operation itself. I was booked in on the Friday, and luckily a friend took the day off work to come along and help translate. Once on the ward, waiting to be admitted, my concerns gradually faded - for one thing, the place didn't smell as bad as hospital back in England. It didn't have that ground in smell of sickness you encounter in UK hospitals, and apart from lunch - overpowering cabbage stench - it was actually quite fresh, and I'd bagged a bed by the window. The waiting, as always, was the worst, and I was actually quite jovial when things were moving ahead - getting issued with my pyjamas, having an ECG, an X-Ray, and blood pressure taken. The downer was, they couldn't fit me in that day, so would have to go home and come back Sunday. This was an annoyance and a blessing - while I wanted to get things sorted out as quick as possible, it also gave me time to absorb what was happening. At this stage, even with my operation on the Monday, it was still less than a week between diagnosis and removal - this was going way, way too quickly for me. Into hospital, I had a few more indignities to deal with - I was shaved down below by a cheerful middle-aged nurse with an amazing dry razor. I'd been growing a beard through the whole time from around when I discovered the lump, and shaved it off because I associated it with the problem. That took four razors. This old girl had a razor with comb-like prongs, and my pubes came off like a dream. If only I'd had a razor like this when I shaved my beard! It was a weird experience, especially when she was blowing off tufts of shaved pubes with her mouth. Then she gave me an enema, pumping about a liter of water up my arse to flush me out. I was expected to hang on twenty minutes before going for a shit, but there was no way I could clench that long. Twenty seconds was more like it, but I felt very refreshed afterwards. My first night on the ward was actually OK, and I was looking forward to any drugs they might give me. I'd heard good things from my mum and other people about morphine, but unfortunately didn't get to experience that. Instead, they popped me a Diazepam, which gave me a lovely warm buzz. I knew it would help me sleep when I put my head down, but sat up for a bit, enjoying the feeling, and even walking around just for the hell of it, just to have a laugh bumbling around on it. Things moved quickly when they took me down, and the scariest part was actually seeing the operating theater with all the equipment. The anaesthetist was talking to me as they put the drip in my arm, and that was it. I woke up in my bed on the ward. I'd stated very clearly to my partner I did not want her to be there when I came round, as I knew what it was like coming out of general anaesthetic and being a complete incoherent, gibbering mess. However, the first thing I did when I came round was try to text her - that was way too hard, so I called her. I called her again later on when I was more with it, and only found out then about my earlier drugged up phone call. They let me out the following day, and the worst thing about the whole experience was removing the drainage tube from my testicle. That was a horrible sensation - not that painful, but a really horrible feeling as they dragged it out of my nether regions. I was very sore at first, and had real trouble getting myself from a laying down position to upright, as I had problems getting my arms under me to lever myself up without putting any pressure on my stomach muscles. My back ached dreadfully, and on my second day home, decided to walk down to my local pub for a non-alcoholic beer and get some exercise. The walk would normally take thirty seconds, but took more like ten minutes, and I regretted the decision half way. It really took it out of me and wish I'd stayed at home. It's two weeks later and I'm still waiting on the final result of the histology report, but I wanted to share this experience. Firstly, because I know a lot of guys have certain hang ups when it comes to the "family jewels", and in some cases will hang on until it's too late to get it seen to. And secondly, because I always considered myself an absolute coward when it came to this kind of thing, and I've inadvertently proved to myself it's not a big deal, and I can be brave when it comes to it. It's an important lesson to learn - the doctor says my remaining testicle will remain high risk because of it's origins, but now I won't feel as scared if the worst comes to the worst. This story is not finished yet; I desperately hope it will have a (semi) happy ending, but hopefully it will be of some comfort to anyone else suffering the same problem.
I have some friends who would rate "Black Swan" five stars simply because it features a scene where Natalie Portman gets licked out by her evil twin; and, perhaps if I was part of Fox Searchlight's marketing department and was targeting a certain demographic, I might even get that in the tag line somehow. As I'm sure you're aware, "Black Swan", Darren Aronofsky's much-hyped companion piece to 2008's "The Wrestler" was one of the most eagerly awaited, talked about and critically acclaimed films of last year. Despite all the award nominations the film received, "Black Swan" rides on the back of "The Wrestler"s almost unanimous goodwill and respect, and is an inferior film; it's certainly an entertaining, atmospheric psychological thriller, but starts off in the realms of Polanski's "Repulsion", and ends up more like Dario Argento's "Suspiria." In other words, it's actually an intense, hysterical, bonkers piece of schlock dressed up as a serious Oscar-contending character study. Natalie Portman's Oscar winning turn sees her as Nina Sayers, a brittle and beautiful young dancer for an illustrious New York ballet company. The company is gearing up for a fresh, modern take on Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake", and the arrogant and charismatic Director, Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel) is looking for a new Swan Queen. Nina is devoted to her craft and practises incessantly at home in front of the mirror; she lives in an apartment with her mum, Erica (Barbara Hershey) who was also a ballet dancer before she fell pregnant with Nina. The mother and daughter have a rather suffocating, touchy-feely relationship that feels a bit unhealthy, particularly with Erica's extra edge, pushing Nina to succeed where she didn't. She's like an ultra competitive "Soccer Mom" crossed with Norman Bates's Old Dear. Nina is a contender for the Swan Queen role she craves, although has a problem - Thomas acknowledges she is perfect for the part of the pristine, virginal White Swan, but lacks the sensuality in her dancing to convince as the passionate Black Swan. That side of the role seems more suited to one of Nina's rival dancers, Lily (Mila Kunis), who is everything Nina isn't - a carefree, promiscuous wildcat, who is not afraid to invest her innate eroticism into her dancing. The ballet company is portrayed as a tense, bitchy, ambitious group of young women, and as Nina is seduced by Thomas and works her way into the role, she also draws venom from the company's previous principle dancer, Beth (Winona Ryder), an over the hill ballerina forced into retirement by the enigmatic director. As the pressure of attaining this prestigious role takes it's toll on Nina's already fragile state of mind, she begins to suffer hallucinations, as she starts to catch glimpses of a dark doppleganger apparently dogging her footsteps. Aronofksy uses virtually the same technique here as in "The Wrestler" - he sticks a handheld camera behind the central character, and follows them around through their daily lives. This technique puts the viewer right in the character's personal bubble - with Randy the Ram, we were so close to the aging wrestler we could hear his grunts and laboured breathing, smell the peroxide in his hair and the jockstrap stench of the crowded locker rooms he got changed in, and almost feel the creak of his protesting muscles. Here, the technique is far more uncomfortable - it's one thing following around a well-pumped man, not adverse to getting slammed through a table covered in drawing pins to entertain the crowd, but another breathing over the shoulder of a petite, frail young woman. It's far more voyeuristic, which means during the sex scenes, the viewer is also right in on the act, and in the context of a psychological thriller, it is effective building a sense of dread - we're so close to Nina that we can't see anything that might be about to jump out on her. This quiet, insistent feeling of menace it beautifully sustained for the first two acts of the film, with a few jolts thrown in for good measure - Aronofsky embraces the use of mirrors for cheap scares, as well as hammering home the theme of evil double images. Unlike "The Wrestler", "Black Swan" betrays it's super-confident, ice cool exterior and feels more like an amalgam of previous films - Aronofsky pays homage to the Powell-Pressburger masterpiece "The Red Shoes" with a 360 POV whip-pan borrowed directly from the earlier film; there's a shock cut to Nina's mum at an unexpected moment that recalls Hitchcock's reveal of Mrs Bates in "Psycho"'; and a bathtub scene that feels simultaneously like a moment in "A Nightmare on Elm Street" or from the underrated Pfieffer/Ford shriekfest "What Lies Beneath". The performances are mostly excellent - Natalie Portman brings her usual intelligence and frosty sexuality to the role of Nina. Portman is one of the most fearless contemporary actresses at work in Hollywood these days, unafraid to tackle adult roles, be it in the inconsequential sex comedy "No Strings Attached"or as a stripper in Mike Nichols' "Closer". She's thoroughly believable as the ambitious, feeble-minded Nina, although the role feels rather linear and two dimensional - Nina goes from focussed to frustrated to turned on to shrill, shrill, shriller. Cassel is typically intense as the egotistic and charismatic LeRoy - it's hard to believe is over fifteen years since he seared his image on the screen in 1995's "La Haine". LeRoy is a man of passionate perfection, big ideas and flashy concepts, and is an unapologetic predator of the beautiful young women in his control. Cassel believably makes LeRoy the type of arrogant, romantic rogue of an older man young girls would fall for. Kunis makes the most of a limited role as the fun-loving, uninhibited Lily, endowing the character with an undercurrent of vulnerability and hard knocks wisdom that the naive Nina is drawn to and envies. Hershey has the unforgiving nutty mum role, which means she acts like a woman dangerously in love with her child, cloying and controlling, and probably drinks too much when she's by herself. I've already mentioned Mrs Bates - the other movie mum she resembles when she's around is Sissy Spacek's mother in "Carrie", played by Piper Laurie. There's very little room for breath in "Black Swan" as it builds and builds towards it's frantic, hysterical, schizophrenic final third. In the meantime, we can also draw further comparisons with the superior "Wrestler", and ballet and wrestling generally - the punishment placed on the body to acquire the physical and aesthetic perfection each profession demands; the artifice and performance of both dramas; the desire to be wanted and to please the audience, the almost pathological dependency on the crowd's approval. "Black Swan" is not a perfect film by any means, but has the weight and confidence as well as the visceral thrills to make it as close as you get to a must watch these days. **************************************************************** Basic Information - Black Swan (2010) - USA Fox Searchlight Certification: 15 Running Time: 110 Minutes Formats: DVD, Blu-Ray Director: Darren Aronofsky Screenplay: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin Music: Clint Mansell, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Principle Cast: Nina Sayers: Natalie Portman Thoma LeRoy: Vincent Cassel Erica Sayers: Barbara Hershey Lily:Milas Kunis Average Rating on MRQE: 80 (Posted on Ciao! as Midwinter.)
The opening montage of Julien Temple's "The Filth and the Fury" is like getting sucked through your screen and down a time tunnel to the Seventies. Static, then focus on BBC One's old revolving globe. The announcer tells us it's time for a late look at the weather, and then over to poor old Michael Fish, who's having trouble getting his "weather" to stick to the map of Britain. Then it's over to Johnny Rotten, who gives a brief introduction over the opening credits. In his distinctively sneering and lucid way, he gives a few thoughts on what it's like to be in a band, how much hard work it is, concluding: "We managed to offend all the people we were f*cking fed up with." Temple's previous documentary about the Sex Pistols, 1980's "The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle" was biased in favor of the Pistol's shamelessly self-promoting manager, Malcolm McLaren, and was perhaps made too close to the events and initial fame of the band. "The Filth and the Fury" gets to look at the Sex Pistols phenomenon down the length of a further twenty years of history, and Temple allows the remaining band members to tell their side of the story, albeit in silhouette, as if they're somehow protecting their identities. As you'd expect, Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon, now making lucrative butter commercials) gets most of the choice lines, although guitarist Steve Jones, who instigated the scandalised "Filth and the Fury" headlines which shot the band into the stratosphere by swearing on live TV, runs Rotten a pretty close second. It's Rotten's voice and viewpoint that is the predominant feature, and he also gives a narrative of Britain in the Seventies. Here it is shown as a grotty, wheezing, failing country of derelict tenements and grim blocks of flats, betrayed by a Labour government out of touch with what is going on in the country around them. (....!) It's a Britain of grim, relentless unemployment and rubbish piled up in the streets, riots and powercuts. "When you feel powerless, you will grab any power you can to retain some kind of self respect." Rotten describes this time of social upheaval as the seed of the Sex Pistols; as he says: "I don't think you can explain how things happen, other than sometimes they just should. The Sex Pistols should have happened, and did." These opening moments are perhaps the strongest part of the documentary, giving such an urgent feel of time and place, the newsreel footage intercut with TV commercials for Cadburys Flake and soap powder, and clips of Laurence Olivier being deliciously despicable as Richard III, who Rotten compared his performances to. This feels like the Britain I grew up in, even though I was a few days short of my first birthday when Sid Vicious died, so wasn't really conscious of the world around me until well into the early Eighties. But the country felt the same to me as it looks like in this opening montage, and a lot of the detritus from the Seventies washed through and was recycled even as I was a child - the telly still finished at midnight, Charley the cat was still telling us not to go off with strangers, and men in tights were still teaching us the green cross code. The band members give a brief overview of their working class childhoods, tales of poverty and petty theft in the ramshackle estates of London; then how they grew up in awe of the likes of David Bowie and Roxy Music - "I thought musicians fell from the sky." Jones remembers. The group gradually formed, with Jones and Cook self-teaching how to play on knocked off or stolen equipment, and became friendly with McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, who ran a counter-culture clothing store on King's Road at the time. McLaren is a presence in the film, although not in any talking head form like the rest of the band; there are clips of him spouting his usual pretentious nonsense. After his shop transformed to "SEX", selling rubberwear and fetish gear, McLaren is portrayed in the rest of the documentary as a looming inflatable gimp mask. However, under McLaren's tutelage, the band gradually formed, dropping some original members, and almost by accident picking up a lead singer in Rotten, who hadn't even sang before but got the gig because of his distinctive look and attitude. "I always did view myself as one ugly f*cker." admits Rotten, and this self-effacement or self-loathing transformed into his grotesque postures and bug-eyed, snarling performances as the Sex Pistols' frontman. After initial distrust - Jones' first impression of Lydon: "I thought he was a w*nker for taking the p*ss." the band eventually came together. Lydon wistfully remembers: "We were the very first people to call each other c*nts." There's plenty of early footage of the band playing in grubby pubs and clubs, and of the scene that sprouted up around them - including a very young looking Billy Idol and Shane MacGowan. Rotten continues by describing their performances as music hall, and identifies the vein of humour that runs through the core of "Englishness". And then, to fame - "The first line I wrote was: I am an anti-christ." remembers Lydon, the first line of "Anarchy in the UK", their first hit that ushered them towards a two year record deal with EMI and a clash with Bill Grundy, the lecherous old school host of ITV's "Today" programme, which in turn would lead them to headline-grabbing infamy. The Sex Pistols were already attracting negative press by that point; the Britain of the Seventies was deeply mired in the prudishness and hypocrisy of the stuffy, buttoned up establishment, who saw the Pistols and their spotty, filthy-looking followers as a threat to the neatly established order. The Grundy incident is replayed in full, as the tatty, edgy Sex Pistols and a few groupies - including Siouxsie Sioux - are offhandly introduced by a brusque, drunk and arrogant Bill Grundy. The first swear word is overlooked by the host - "because he was drunk himself, and wasn't paying attention." according to Jones - but when Lydon utters "Shit." and Grundy latches on. Lydon clearly realises his mistake and tries to gloss over it, but Grundy makes him say it again, telling him off like a headmaster talking to a naughty schoolboy. When Grundy then appears to hit on Siouxsie Sioux, suggesting meeting up backstage, Jones apparently leaps in to defend her honour, lashing into Grundy, calling him a "dirty old bastard" and a "f*cking rotter." Looking back, it's easy to feel Jones' reaction to Grundy's smug and complete lack of respect was completely justified. Of course, Britain was a very different country then, and the Pistols' uncouth look and attitude on national TV was seen as an affront to decency and stuck up, old fashioned morals, and the papers went to town on them. The middle section of the documentary covers the band's simultaneous rise to fame and infamy - approximately in equal measures - including one hilariously Orwellian moment when there officially wasn't a UK Chart number One. "God Save the Queen" was banned, so Number One slot was left blank when they topped the Charts with the song. It also covers the introduction of Sid Vicious to the band. Vicious was a poorly educated, occasionally violent friend of Rotten, and the band's number one fan. Vicious could only play a few chords when he replaced bass player Glen Matlock, who left the band after fall outs with Rotten and becoming uncomfortable with the direction the Pistols were going in. Vicious perhaps became even more synonymous with The Sex Pistols than Rotten, with his looks and attitude making him a punk icon. Even as the pressure of fame began to show on the band, and cracks started to appear, each member was fairly unanimous in their utter condemnation and hate towards Nancy Spungen, an American heroin-addict and sometime prostitute who hooked Vicious on the drug, leading to his addiction and downward spiral. After the band split, he was arrested for stabbing her to death in a hotel bathroom. He was released on bail and died of a heroin overdose. The most poignant moments of the documentary relate to Vicious's decline, and Johnny Rotten, in his comments on him, reveal a man still plagued by guilt and regret for not being able to protect his friend. It's in these moments you realise most powerfully that the Sex Pistols weren't the anarchic, violent menace to society they were portrayed at the time - they were kids, products of that society, who were angry and fed up and were willing to shout down a microphone and let everyone know it. They were kids, and they were the most famous and infamous people in Britain, and they weren't being looked after by anyone. While labels were cashing in, Rotten was left to walk the streets by himself, and was stabbed in a brutal attack by skinheads. The Sex Pistols ended on 14th January, 1978 at a gig in San Francisco. Divided, Vicious back on the smack and Rotten increasingly demoralised by McLaren's handling of the band, they ended with a defeated Rotten singing "No Fun" and ending by asking the audience, "Ever felt like you've been cheated?" "The Filth and the Fury" is perhaps ten minutes too long, but is an essential film for anyone even remotely interested in one of the most influential bands who ever "happened". Even if you're not into punk, music, or "The Sex Pistols", you should maybe watch it anyway, because it's a damn good story. Of all the characters, Rotten comes across the best - apart from his lacerating wit and shrewd, hard-won wisdom, there's something generous about his honesty and scorn, and a truthfulness to his hatred and dismay - particularly that felt towards McLaren and those he felt cashed in on the band, and Vicious' addiction and death. It is fitting that he finishes with the final line, "All I wish is for future generations to go, 'F*ck it! I've had enough! Here's the truth!", and you can't help get the feeling we are starting to see that happening now, in a different form, with the August riots. I've lived abroad for almost three years, and viewed from overseas, Britain looks more and more like the Britain shown in the clips at the beginning of this documentary. All I see when I go home to visit is a country regressing to how I remember it when I was growing up, but with more shops boarded up and more holes in the road. And the youths rioting in London, smashing up shops and nicking what they could get hold of, more and more look like a youth betrayed and ignored by an ineffective, apathetic government. Lydon says things can't always be explained, and happen because they should...I can't help feeling the London riots "should" have happened. Who knows, perhaps out of all this, we might get another Sex Pistols? (Review first posted on Ciao! as Midwinter.)