October’s London Film Festival gave us the opportunity to check out some of the more esoteric and unusual films coming your way over the next few months. There was little in the way of straight-ahead genre product of course, but there were new films from the likes of William Friedkin (interesting), Paul Verhoeven (great) and Takeshi Miike (we missed it – damn those late night parties / early screenings).
Much of what we saw over the two weeks did seem to constitute in some way the extreme or transgressive aspects of cinema – with movies featuring kinky nazis, deranged paranoia nuts, stalkers, porn queens, rampaging vengeful priests and possessed catholic students. Here’s our pick of an intense fest.
William Friedkin's Bug (early 2007) is a hysterical (in all senses) paranoia thriller that it’s best not to know too much about before viewing. So, other than to tell you that it’s based on a stage play and is about a mysterious stranger (Michael Shannon) on the run from the US military, hiding out in a shabby motel with a reclusive, damaged woman (Ashley Judd) and her abusive ex (Harry Connick Jnr), I won’t give anything more away about the plot.
Atmospherically – for the first half at least – Bug finds Friedkin back to his twitchy 70s best. Judd – an actress unafraid to abandon herself to a role – achieves a flaky, dirtily sensual intensity and newcomer Shannon displays major creepiness throughout. Although the film’s stage origins are apparent, Friedkin opens up the action occasionally to hint that what is going on in the world outside the confines of the hotel might just be as disturbing as the events unfolding within. Unfortunately when the penny begins to drop about just what exactly is ‘bugging’ the nutty Shannon, the movie effectively collapses. There’s nowhere left for the characters to go and a bathetic, ranting, insane final third left me exhausted rather than exhilarated.
By the time a hysterical Judd delivers one of the most hilarious and utterly nonsensical speeches in the history of film (culminating in the line “I am the super mother bug!”) I genuinely wanted to flee the cinema. An interesting movie without a doubt, but in all seriousness one I never want to see it again. That said, it’s good that Friedkin is making noises in American film again and Shannon has marked himself out as a name for the future.
Plus it’s always fun to watch Harry Connick Jnr – if only because the more solid character roles he turns in, the more you’re inclined to forget his past as a smug, prematurely middle-aged piano tinkling crooner. Someone get Jamie Cullum a movie career, now.
I’m a huge admirer of Paul Verhoeven but I absolutely hated his last film – the execrable Hollow Man (did anyone like it?). So it’s a pleasure to report that his latest, Black Book / Zwartboek (Jan 2007) is an absolute belter.
Returning to his roots (albeit with a sizeable budget - reportedly the most expensive in Dutch film history) the big man delivers the kind of film he always threatened to make in Hollywood – a bold, splashy, violent WW2 espionage thriller directed with all the consummate craft and technical mastery the barmy Dutchman can muster.
Beautiful Jewish singer Rachel Steinn (an explosive performance from newcomer Carice Van Houten – giving it some big time Garbo-meets-Harlow sensuality) is on the run from the Nazis in occupied Holland. The only survivor after German soldiers massacre her family, she joins the resistance and – using a saucy alias – successfully infiltrates the enemy by going undercover to get (very) friendly with the invaders. Her double life eventually has dire consequences for both herself and the impassioned resistance fighters.
With edge of the seat heroics and more twists than a bag of pythons let loose in a corkscrew factory, this absolutely rockets along at a clip that makes a mockery of its two and a half hour running time. It’s like watching a cracking 50s style espionage thriller with all the sensory overload, kinky sex scenes and snatches of brutality that Verhoeven can bung in. It’s not Enigma that’s for damn sure, avoiding the stuffy formalism associated with this genre to deliver a passionate, witty essay on identity and heroism, with some surprisingly weighty meditations on mortality.
Like a lot of films that arrive on a wave of controversial pre-publicity these days, Anders Morgenthaler’s Princess (early 2007) turned out to be considerably less shocking than we had been led to believe. The simple story –- that of a vengeful priest wreaking havoc on the pornographers that took the life of his sister ‘The Princess’, while playing guardian angel to his 5 year old niece – echoes earlier, better films. Key influences would appear to be Leon, Taxi Driver and particularly Paul Schrader’s little seen Hardcore in which calvinist George C Scott searches for his daughter in the porno industry of the 70s. The rub here is that this bloody revenge fable is told via a mix of minimalist anime and deliberately ugly dogme-style live action sequences.
Morgenthaler’s film is an ambitious project but it doesn’t really work. Taken as a straight revenge flick it adds no real depth to an already overcrowded genre. But the director’s intentions for the film are quite clear. In the sleeve notes accompanying the screening he declared Princess to be an attack on the inhumanities of pornography and that "to enjoy a porno film one must either be very dumb or be able to abstract from the fact that one is watching real people”.
It’s a good point but quite an odd thing to say given his decision to shoot the film as a mix of live action and animation – which actually makes it more distanced and abstract than if he’d made a straight live action film. The irony for this avowedly anti-porn flick is that its main audience is likely to be the anime fanboy crowd – whose usual fare is the kind of tits n’ tentacles nonsense Morgenthaler no doubt wants to distance himself from.
John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (on general release) qualifies as extreme cinema on the strength of its sex scenes – certainly the most explicit seen in a mainstream movie. I imagine the distributors were praying that this silly, sweet but overly self-conscious indieflick would turn out to be this year’s 9 Songs Daily Mail botherer. That it hasn’t is probably because it’s basically a romantic comedy – albeit one with three-somes, self administered blow jobs and orgies. Frequently earnest (the scenes involving its central gay couple veer from whiny prissiness to unwatchable self-regard) it flickers to life in the scenes involving Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) a prickly sex counsellor in search of her first orgasm.
Mitchell’s idea of coaxing unknowns over time (two years in the script process) pays dividends with some of the dialogue but he forgot to write any characters you might want to spend any time with. Ultimately much of your enjoyment of the film will depend on your tolerance of self-regarding Noo Yawk sensibilities, but it’s frequently funny and honest. And while I wasn’t entirely convinced by its allusions to post 9/11 NY spirit, the image of a three-way gay sex tryst in which one of the participants hums ‘the star spangled banner’ into his partner’s anus while being bummed somehow feels a more appropriate tribute to the city than anything in World Trade Centre.
Requiem (on limited release now) was one of the real finds of the festival. For a full appreciation of Hans-Christian Schmid arthouse take on the events that inspired Emily Rose see our review here.
Fans of Italian genre flicks may want to try and catch Romanzo Criminale (general release). Best to wait for the DVD I say. I went having been told by someone that it was reminiscent of the polizi - those magnificent crazy, misogynistic mid 70s Italian police dramas that Zomblee loves as much as I do. It isn’t. It’s well made, stately and rather dull. Nice looking cast though.
Finally the two best and most exciting films of the festival were both British, remarkably enough. You’ll have heard much of Kevin McDonald’s Last King of Scotland (12 January) and rightly so. Utilising Idi Amin's reign of terror as the basis for a thrilling, dramatic and – at times – blackly comic action drama, LKOS is the kind of pulsating thriller Oliver Stone used to make, although a lot less hectoring and ultimately more enjoyable. Anyone fearing a worthy ‘suffering through white western eyes’ liberal hand wringer needn't worry. From the moment James McEvoy’s newly arrived Scots medical student claps eyes on Amin at a village rally – shot like a rock concert with Amin as the star – you can sit back and enjoy a bumpy, complex ride that fuses the personal with the political and offers all kinds of juicy ironies amidst the carnage.
A permanently sweating, bloodshot, putty-bodied child monster, yet oddly loveable, Whittaker’s Amin is a fascinating portrayal. The early exchanges between the riled, fired up dictator and wide-eyed jock have a fizzy electricity that ignites an absolutely gripping first half. The final act descends slightly into melodrama but this is still terrific, vital entertainment. And much props to man of the moment McEvoy, who holds his own next to Whittaker’s grandstanding. As the mood darkens – and Uganda’s streets begin to wash with the blood of dissidents, dealers and members of Amin’s inner circle – his portrayal of a naive stuck in an increasingly perilous situation is both believable and compelling.
But you should always save the best for last. Shane Meadows' This is England (early 2007) is set in Falklands war-era Northern England and follows 12-year-old Shaun – a shy, likeable loner who befriends a young bunch of cool, ska-loving skinheads and becomes the catalyst for a divisive split in the gang, precipitated by the return of a local hero now turned on to National Front sentiment and violent xenophobia. The brilliant opening credit sequence – a barrage of gleeful 80s imagery (Roland Rat, Knight Rider etc) immediately sets the tone and successfully retrieves such nostalgia from ‘I love 80s’ ubiquity.
The first 45 minutes of this film are simply jaw-dropping. If the second half is messier – looser, jagged, more flawed – that’s because Meadows brings out the elephant in the room (the nascent rise of race-hate nationalism) and lets it run loose. As the film tips into tragedy the piquancy of its early nostalgia becomes even more resonant. Menacing and humorous in turns, superbly written (the banter is razor sharp) and with true feeling for its largely inexperienced cast, this film’s ultimate triumph might be its brilliantly recreated 80s aesthetic - Meadows and his DoP perfectly realising the look and feel of the period. Forget the ersatz stylings of 80s knock offs like The Business, this is the business.
Combining gritty Alan Clarke style realism with an ever improving grasp of narrative and unerring ear for dialogue, Meadows may have made his most complex, emotionally satisfying work to date.
With career making performances all round and some of the best children’s acting since Leone’s Once Upon a time in America, this tough, unsentimental and yet poignant portrayal of adolescence is an immediate modern British classic and THE film to watch out for in 2007.