I can’t really imagine anyone else adapting this work, and what Gilliam does feels about as faithful as one is likely to get to the tone of Thompson’s novel: it’s a constant barrage of surreal, warped visions of drug-addled psychedelia shading over endlessly into the bleak darkness of the American Vietnam War-era psyche. And yet it’s so exhausting to watch, so unrelentingly ‘gonzo’ in its approach. Surely this is the genesis for the rest of Depp’s later career, as his director makes no effort to rein in Depp’s absurdist tics whatsoever (he probably demanded more), and so his Thompson/Raoul Duke is bouncing off the walls — apt for the character no doubt, but as I say, tiring to watch. Which probably makes this film adaptation some sort of masterpiece, maybe even Gilliam’s best work (he’s certainly not done anything since that, to me, matches it), but it’s also a weary, weary descent into a very specifically American madness.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies (based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson) | Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini | Starring Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 3 October 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 October 2017)
Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.
Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde | Writers Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier | Cinematographer André Bonzel | Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017
There’s a tradition of British comedy that we’ve seen already in the Criterion Collection of revelling in over-the-top satirical absurdity, with silly voices, musical sequences, delusions of grandeur, all that bit (think Monty Python’s Life of Brian or How to Get Ahead in Advertising as two examples), and this film clearly fits into that tradition. It’s certainly enjoyable, with Peter O’Toole on fine form as a delusional Christ-like aristocrat who comes into his inheritance. The film is made in a self-consciously theatrical style, with frontal framing, addresses to camera, no end of soliloquies, though it adds a few fine camera flourishes for cinematic effect. I just wish I could believe in the power of satire as something other than simply a way for an out group to laugh self-satisfiedly at entitled people they deem infra dignitatem but who retain the reins of power even so. It’s very hard in 2017 for me to be anything but angry at the self-appointed upper crust inveighing against immorality whilst revelling in it, invoking white imperialist legacies to justify their authoritarian tendencies. Still, there’s a lot to like if you’re willing to allow it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Medak | Writer Peter Barnes (based on his play) | Cinematographer Ken Hodges | Starring Peter O’Toole, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Carolyn Semour | Length 154 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 November 2016
There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.
Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016
I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…
Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014
There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.
Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier | Writers Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson) | Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn | Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert | Length 128 minutes || Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016)
A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ngozi Onwurah | Writer Sharon Foster | Cinematographer David Katznelson | Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird | Length 89 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016
I fundamentally liked this film, even if there was a lot of stuff I didn’t believe at all: because it’s set up as a sort of kooky comedy, it often seems a little too cutely precious in the way characters come together, while some of them seem to have been introduced just to push along a magical sense of healing (particularly re: mothers, which provides a little bit too much sentimentality towards the end for my personal liking). Indeed the entire framework — a road trip by two women to scatter a dead friend’s ashes, who addresses them via self-recorded videos (and quotes Kerouac) — could easily be too much self-conscious quirk. And yet there’s something about those three central performances (by Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie as Seph and Alex, and as Jack Farthing as their dead friend Dan) that gets to a kernel of emotional honesty that I found unexpectedly moving. At its best it reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis (a film I adored) in acknowledging the way that emotional pain can cause people to act horribly to one another. Meanwhile, gosh, British filmmaking has no shortage of tall pretty posh young women with cut glass accents acting atrociously while being funny (see also the Fleabag TV series just for a start), though it also makes the all too brief appearance of Alice Lowe (most recently seen as director/star of festival favourite Prevenge) all the more delightful.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Chanya Button | Writer Charlie Covell | Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho | Starring Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 November 2016
Two films after work on Thursday 13 October, both of them very solid outings, and seen in the same cinema, but with quite a different vibe. The first was a rammed, sold out house who responded with glee to the film, whereas the second was very much a half-empty auditorium with a sense of detached weariness (maybe that’s me just projecting onto French arthouse lovers, or maybe I was just grumpy because of the smell of someone’s kebab behind me).
Prevenge (2016, UK, dir./wr. Alice Lowe, DOP Ryan Eddleston)
At this point in my life there are plenty of films which only remind me of other films, and that’s fine, but it’s nice to see something that feels a bit unexpected. Prevenge is a film made by a pregnant woman about a pregnant woman who is systematically taking her murderous revenge on her perceived enemies (to say more would probably constitute spoilers), and it somehow feels a bit new. Both those pregnant roles are taken by Alice Lowe as director/lead actor, who threw the project together very quickly for biologically obvious reasons. In its blend of black comedy and jagged emotional turmoil, it is never unwatchable and sometimes both affecting and very funny, and Lowe is particularly good at turning suddenly from chattiness to a deathly unsettling stare. It seems to be allegorising aspects of motherhood, but it’s also good fun if you can stand a little bit of gore — a staple of both horror cinema and maternity. [***½]
Voir du pays (The Stopover) (2016, France/Greece, dir./wr. Delphine Coulin/Muriel Coulin, DOP Jean-Louis Vialard)
This is a film about French soldiers on the way home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, who go on a three-day retreat in Cyprus on what their army bosses call “decompression”, though I can’t think of a word further away from what happens in this film. Instead it’s very much a pressure cooker environment, as the soldiers go through group therapy reliving key incidents in their recent tour in which it quickly becomes clear that lives were lost and bad decisions were taken that various members of the group feel either responsible for or powerless in the face of. It’s also a film about women in the military and the specific pressures on them, not just in their job but especially from their male colleagues. Throughout there’s a tense atmosphere, as if hostilities are about to kick off at any moment, emphasised by the tight shot framing and the glass prison mise en scène of the luxury hotel, whose vistas promise such illusory freedom. In truth there are a lot of ideas kicking around here that never quite (for me) come together fully, but the actors are all excellent, not least Ariane Labed as Aurore — the reason I booked a ticket to the see the film in the first place, for she is among the finest currently working — and her tightly-wound friend Marine (played by a singer known as Soko). [***]
The actor and comedian Elaine May was only allowed to write and direct three films between 1971-1987 (she directed one other with no writing credit), but the narrative that built up around her was one of impecunious budgetary blow-outs, and that story was allowed to largely define her work for a long time after the commercial failure of Ishtar (1987). However, I think there’s generally a sense nowadays that this narrative is quite unfair to her directorial legacy, certainly on the basis of the two films of hers I’ve seen (1976’s Mikey and Nicky, and now this one). A New Leaf is a black comedy that revels in deadpan laughs, of which there are plenty if you’re attuned to its rhythms. Walter Matthau plays Henry, a bored playboy who’s run through his inheritance and is now desperate for a plan to keep the lifestyle to which he’s been born, and so latches onto Henrietta (Elaine May), rich but timid and socially awkward, someone he feels he can easily win over and then kill off. And so he sets about his task with a kind of macabre relish (though that seems too melodramatic a word given Matthau’s laconic and unsmiling performance) that reminds me of the blacker moments in the same year’s Harold and Maude, but where that film has already accrued a sizeable cult following, it’s May’s film that I think is the real star of its era and feels like some kind of summation of the American spirit. Whatever its troubled production history, this remains a towering achievement of a turbulent era.
Director/Writer Elaine May (based on the short story “The Green Heart” by Jack Ritchie) | Cinematographer Gayne Rescher | Starring Walter Matthau, Elaine May | Length 102 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 14 January 2016