Criterion Sunday 175: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

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)

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Crossroads (2002)

It’s probably different to watch a screening of this in a central London cinema followed by a Q&A with the director than to see it on TV at home, but I find it difficult to say anything too harsh about what is evidently an earnest attempt to move Britney out of a certain (virginal) stereotype, while also making a film far more concerned with women’s friendship over time. Some of the plot points are a little leaden, and at times strain too hard for melodramatic resolutions (the script is written by TV stalwart Shonda Rhimes), and there’s some overburdened symbolism (waves crashing to indicate female sexuality comes to mind). However, the film cannot help but exceed all these quotidian referents, by which I mean (and I’m no theorist) that it’s not just a film with actors playing characters following a narrative, but the very definition of what I suppose we would call ‘camp’. For, by virtue of its production and cultural moment, it is above all a Britney vehicle, with all the baggage that entails: it’s an important cultural text of the 2000s (not unlike perhaps Desperately Seeking Susan in the 80s, and indeed Madonna is referenced in the very first scene), so your usual film criticism canards won’t work here. That said, while I do feel Britney’s acting is perfectly credible, Zoë Saldana is the break-out star, stealing all her scenes. It’s an underrated film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: London Short Film Festival
Director Tamra Davis | Writer Shonda Rhimes | Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards | Starring Britney Spears, Zoë Saldana, Taryn Manning, Anson Mount, Dan Akyroyd | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 15 January 2017

Terra Sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land, 2007)

I never usually have much time for ‘magic realism’ but it does seem to make sense in the face of bloody civil war and a pervasive feeling of hopeless waste. This film follows two refugees travelling ceaselessly — an elderly man, Tuahir, formerly a railway worker (Aladino Jasse, channelling shades of Ventura in Pedro Costa’s films) and a young boy, Muidinga (Nick Lauro Teresa), searching for his family. It is set against the background of events in Mozambique, alluded to but not shown graphically (except for an early, shocking scene in a burnt-out bus, as the two stretch out amongst corpses). The sense of magic — encompassing storytelling, memory, nostalgia, sexual awakening (that’s a very weird scene), and life looping back on itself — can perhaps be taken as doomed hope, but it makes an otherwise grim subject matter (a la The Road) bearable.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Teresa Prata (based on the novel by Mia Couto) | Cinematographer Dominique Gentil | Starring Nick Lauro Teresa, Aladino Jasse | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a pub while killing time waiting for a train (DVD), Dundee, Sunday 30 October 2016

Burn Burn Burn (2015)

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

American Honey (2016)

It’s a long, meandering journey across parts of America that too few other films have documented, and there’s a lot here that really is beautiful and diverting. To see those boundless roads, those sprawling suburban homes, the strip malls and motels that lie in the interstices, the young people living precariously, dumpster diving, doing rubbish jobs, all to make ends meet. It’s not entirely new exactly — exploring the lives of the young, suburban precariat seems to be something of a niche sub-genre these days — but there’s a genuine energy to Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and her beloved Academy ratio to box up an unpalatable society. At some level it’s possible to develop an empathy towards most of the characters — even Shia LaBeouf’s exploitative, slightly creepy boss Jake (and he is definitely on the abusive side at times, for all his charm at others), who himself reports to an even more venal and demanding one (in the form of Krystal, as played by Riley Keough) — not least newcomer Sasha Lane in the central role of Star, who does very well indeed.

And yet, for all that I admired about it (loved even at times, more than in many of Arnold’s films), I can’t say I fell for the film in its entirety. Much of the weakness I think lies in the script. Indeed, I didn’t really believe that the job the characters are doing (selling magazines door to door) still exists, and for me there was a strong sense that issues were being raised along the way that were never really tackled. For example, others have written persuasively (here’s one piece at Fishnet Cinema and here’s another at Gal-Dem, both by women of colour) about Arnold’s deployment of race: Lane is half-black, yet there are no other significant black characters in the film (a crack-addicted mother, and the almost-dreamlike — because so fleeting — encounter with another, black, crew). Much of the music is excellent, but a lot of it comes from a specifically black perspective, and using African-American vernacular which is parroted by Krystal’s crew without any apparent self-awareness (undoubtedly due to their youth; one gets the sense that the music itself may have come from the cast rather than Arnold). Krystal wears a Confederate flag bikini at one point, but her ‘redneck’ status never comes into play at a dramatic level. Moreover, there are no racialised conflicts in the film, though as a strategy Arnold seems in general to be avoiding overt conflict in favour of setting up situations that seem to be going that direction, before defusing them or taking another route. Structurally, the film does this continually: building up an impression for the audience of where it’s going before feinting in another direction. It’s a strength and a weakness, to my mind.

For all the reservations I have, though, as a loose, rambling take on the American journey in quest of an ever-illusory American Dream, it has a compelling quality.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough | Length 163 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 19 October 2016

Near Dark (1987)

Following in something of the grainy exploitation footsteps of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) — his 1986 film Aliens even gets a name-check here, though he was after all Kathryn Bigelow’s then-soon-to-be- and now-ex-husband — Near Dark takes instead the vampire mythos and reconfigures it into a dusty, grungy road movie with Western overtones. The word “vampire” is never uttered, so what we are presented with is a motley band of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells blazing a path across the mid-West, killing random locals and draining their blood for sustenance. One such is naïve farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who is smitten with drifter Mae (Jenny Wright). She for her part takes pity on him and just bites him rather than draining his blood, meaning he survives but is turned into one of her kind. At this point, the entire crew is introduced, led by Lance Henriksen’s Jesse, although it’s Bill Paxton as the loud-mouthed and dangerous Severen who makes the most impact in the film (and so is given prominence on the posters). Even 30 years on, the film still looks excellent, with a score by German electronic group Tangerine Dream which is at once both an archetypal example of scoring from this strain of 1980s genre cinema and also somehow avoids seeming really dated, like a lot of the era’s soundtracks now tend to. Undoubtedly the film is playing with contemporary fears around AIDS and other epidemics — isn’t that what they always say about vampire films? — but it works as an enjoyable genre piece, if a rather nihilistic one.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kathryn Bigelow | Writers Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow | Cinematographer Adam Greenberg | Starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Taxi (aka Taxi Tehran, 2015)

Of all last year’s films I’ve belatedly caught up on, this is the most likely to have been top-10 rated. For all the difficulties of its creation — its director, after all, is still officially banned from making films, and so this one is released without any credits — it never feels anything less than fresh and insightful. The set-up, which undoubtedly has a documentary-like flavour to it for official censorious reasons, is that director Jafar Panahi is driving a cab around Tehran while surreptitiously filming his fares from a hidden dashboard camera, which he occasionally manipulates to turn around and face out to the street (though there appears to be a second camera somewhere in the roof). Needless to say, it’s not at all clear that all of this isn’t staged, but it’s a fascinating insight into a hidden society every bit as damning as, say, The Circle (2000), or one of Panahi’s earlier, licit, films, while being on the surface fairly sunny and easygoing — no little thanks to Panahi’s friendly, smiling presence in the driver’s seat. There’s also, as is de rigueur for a certain strand of Iranian filmmaking (his first two films were The White Balloon and The Mirror, the latter referenced here), an adorable young girl, Panahi’s niece, who seems pretty on-the-ball about filmmaking, and is the conduit for explicitly introducing the Islamic State’s official self-censoring rules about it. The film may never leave the confines of the car, but it never feels claustrophobic or limited as a result, but is instead a free-wheeling portrait of a society, and a ripose to Panahi’s official critics.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Jafar Panahi | Starring Jafar Panahi | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 19 January 2016

Grandma (2015)

I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Paul Weitz | Cinematographer Tobias Datum | Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015

Carol (2015)

There’s always been plenty for film fans to fetishise about their favourite medium, whether the unstable nitrate stock used in early cinema (I seem to recall David Fincher’s Se7en was initially released on some kind of ‘silver nitrate’-enhanced print), the threading up of 8mm home movie footage, or the epic splendour of 70mm. In this modern digital age, just seeing a film on 35mm celluloid is enough of a treat for plenty of film fans, and the fact that some screenings of Carol have been on this antiquated stock has been enough to get many excited. Resistant as I’ve been to this level of film stock fetishisation, the cinematography of Ed Lachman (who used 16mm cameras when shooting) does come across particularly nicely, and there is a sort of cultish mystique to seeing Carol projected on film stock, though it still works fine on digital too. No, scratch that, it works great, because I’ve seen the film three times already in the last week, and I continue to want to go and see it. I love Carol, certainly more than any other film this year, possibly more than any film this decade.

As for explaining why, it’s not just the film, and it’s not just the period clothes and settings — although those are, it has to be said, fantastic. There’s seldom been so powerful an advertisement for the joys of sipping gin martinis in plush hotel bars, or lighting up a cigarette, for that matter. That grainy film stock really gives a tactility to this evoked world, just as it seems to make it impossibly distant. Director Todd Haynes emphasises this by frequently shooting his actors through glass, often fogged up or dirty, using reflections which fade away into darkness or into the film grain. Carol, more than anything else perhaps, is a seance with something unattainable — whether the texture of the historical past, or the ineffability of rendering something so fragile as love on screen. But in acknowledging this distance, it also heightens the emotion of evoking it.

Still, all this would be for nothing without the performances. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet does her best to hold herself in check despite a sort of giddiness to her youthful acceptance of the world at times, and you can see those emotions fighting within her, especially evident in that opening scene which the movie at length loops back to. Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, though, is acting in almost a different world, yet her connection to Therese remains palpable, other characters seeming to fade away in their exchange of glances. Blanchett modulates her voice, giving an almost neutral flatness to some of her line readings, though it’s in her eyes and the curl of her lips that the real heavy lifting is done. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend Abby, who surely remains the best supporting actor around. Abby’s exchange with Carol somewhere in the middle of the film — “Tell me you know what you’re doing.” “I don’t. I never have.” — pretty much destroys me every time and feels like the film’s emotional core (that and Carol’s “living against my grain” in the custody hearing).

I’m unequal to telling you all the ways I love this film. I haven’t even really conveyed the story, but it’s fairly straightforward in some ways (two people fall in love). Still, there are moments here that are as rich in magic as any other film I know (although I’ve already seen a number of critics resisting the film’s charms, so I can’t claim these effects are universal). Still, it works for me, and perhaps yes there is a level of fetishisation to it. Maybe I’ll go see it again tonight, or tomorrow, while I can, before it disappears forever, lingering only in distant, impossible memories.


© The Weinstein Company/StudioCanal

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Todd Haynes | Writer Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith) | Cinematographer Edward Lachman | Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central [35mm], London, Monday 30 November 2015; Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015; and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015 (so far)

Mississippi Grind (2015)

Searching for images from the film to put at the top of my review, there’s a lot of the two stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn at the craps table, or playing poker, and it’s true these images have a hint of glamour to them. But that’s not what I think of when I think about Mississippi Grind. It’s a film that lives more in the moments at the bar after the game, as these two sup on a bourbon, get drunk and fantasise about what could be. Because, yes, this is indeed another movie about the faded lustre on the American Dream, which channels a story that touches on the peculiar way that class manifests itself in America via money, the pursuit of it, and more often the lack of it, the difficulty in getting it, and how not having it can ruin your life.

The gambling plays its part in this allegory, but is not depicted as inevitably doomed (though of course that does colour the tension going into a lot of the scenes), but rather as having its ups and downs, as indeed it does in life. And these two guys have their personal ups and downs as they travel the byways of the American heartland, down the Mississippi River and a series of small, faded American gambling towns. For Mendelsohn’s Gerry, you get a sense of a lot more downs, but part of the film is in teasing out exactly what’s behind Reynolds’s mysterious Curtis, who shows up at Gerry’s poker table at the start and is quickly seized on by him as a sort of lucky mascot, into which fantasy Curtis is happy to play for a while. As a marker of his aspirations is his insistence on drinking Woodford Reserve bourbon, both a product placement and something that plays a role in defining their relative paths. Narratively, though, this isn’t tight in the sense we’ve come to expect from US cinema, but has a meandering looseness that harks back to an earlier era (I’ve seen the 1970s mentioned a lot by critics, and that seems fair).

The charm of the film — in a quote that’s recited by the characters a few times — is that it’s about the journey, and in that sense it has a lot of false endings: in a way you can choose whether these guys are successes at life, or losers, and you get the sense that it will continue to go either way for them if they keep at the gambling. But for a couple of hours, it’s an enjoyable amble through some of the less lustrous landmarks of the American Dream at its most capricious.


© A24 Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck | Cinematographer Andrij Parekh | Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 26 October 2015