Some Thoughts On… The Debt (2010)

Best known as the director responsible for such safe, middle brow, award-bothering prestige productions such as Mrs Brown (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin (2001), John Madden returns with a thriller written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. As might be expected from the writing team behind X-Men: First Class (2011) and Kick-Ass (2010), The Debt is a kinetic thriller that is forever promising to erupt into something a good deal more complex. However, much like both Kick-Ass and First Class, The Debt is a film that works best when it is in movement as its quiet character moments are under-written and under-powered despite some decent performances by two eye-catching casts.

Split between two timelines, The Debt tells the story of a group of 1960s Mossad agents who are sent into Soviet-controlled East Germany to kidnap a Nazi war criminal. Forced to live together, the three agents quickly stumble into a love triangle that finds the quietly intense Rachel (Jessica Chastain) having to choose between the introverted idealist David (Sam Worthington) and the arrogantly ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas). When the kidnapping goes wrong, the three young people find themselves having to babysit an aging but fiercely intelligent Nazi who relentless probes their weaknesses and tries to set them against each other. Bookending this middle section is the film’s second timeline. Set in the 1990s, this timeframe explores the psychological consequences of the events of the film’s middle section. Still physically and psychologically scarred by her ordeal, Older Rachel (Helen Mirren) shifts uncomfortably as her daughter pays public tribute to her heroism. Meanwhile, Older David (Ciaran Hinds) is crippled by the burden of guilt and secrecy while Older Stephan’s (Tom Wilkinson) arrogant bluster has turned into tyrannical will-to-power.

The Debt features some excellent action direction and powerful sound-design that lends its fight sequences a brutal clarity that is terrifying when compared to expanses of quiet emotional desolation that dominate the rest of the film.  The scenes in which a manipulative Nazi confronts the agents are similarly impressive even though Quentin Tarantino did the same thing only better in Inglorious Basterds (2009).  Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond such genre staples, the limits to both the script and Madden’s direction start to become painfully evident.

Much of the film’s drama rests upon the tension of the plot colliding with both the characters’ back-stories and the bonds of affection that tie them together. While this occasionally works quite well (in particular the scene where Stephan seduces Rachel at the piano while the introverted David flinches in pain with every note they play), the film does not manage to pull off the bulk of its dramatic moves and because many of the film’s emotional beats fall short of the mark, many of the film’s sequences seem overly long and hopelessly flabby. Indeed, there were huge expanses of this film where time seemed to stand still as characters pouted and bemoaned some inner turmoil that never managed to feel real let alone seem particularly compelling.

The problem is that while The Debt had the potential to be an interesting genre film, the filmmakers clearly want it to be quite a bit more. Having secured a good deal of top-notch acting talent, you can sense their desire to make the most of it and maybe push for a few awards but, at the end of the day, both the script and the direction of The Debt fail to support these lofty ambitions and so a promising espionage thriller finds itself transformed into an over-long and dramatically dysfunctional exercise in thespian posturing. This film has nothing much to say about the human condition and its insistence on trying to say it for close to two hours is both depressingly and frustratingly tedious.

Some Thoughts On… Hunky Dory (2011)

Set in a Welsh comprehensive during the long hot summer of 1976, Marc Evans’ Hunky Dory tells of a bohemian drama teacher (Minnie Driver) who returns home after the death of her father and the collapse of her long-strived for career. Hoping to inject a bit of sunshine into the lives of her pupils Viv starts to pull together a version of The Tempest filled with musical numbers culled from the albums of David Bowie, Beach Boys and The Byrds. Faced with institutional hostility on the one hand and student indifference on the other, Viv strives to convince everyone of the importance of expressing oneself even when one’s life is falling apart.

Marc Evans is very much a journeyman director whose work in film (1998’s Resurrection Man and 2002’s My Little Eye) and television (2009’s Collision) has elicited some praise but not enough to make him a director with much of a following. Despite Evans’ somewhat patchy track record, Hunky Dory finds him on fine form as every shot screams ‘Long Hot Summer’ through sweat-glazed sepia tones while the film’s pacing never once slows or drags. Indeed, despite the fact that I did not think very much of this film, there is no denying that Evans perfectly understands the ‘string of pearls’ nature of genre plotting and so we are never more than a few minutes from a song or a big dramatic scene. On a purely structural and cinematic level, Hunky Dory is a very effective piece of filmmaking.  Which is strange given that pretty much every other aspect of this film fails to deliver.

The biggest problem affecting Hunky Dory is Laurence Coriat’s script. As one might expect from a coming-of-age teen musical, Hunky Dory is littered with Big Dramatic Scenes where characters learn about themselves and about life. Unfortunately, despite these scenes popping up quite frequently, Hunky Dory lacks the requisite amount of characterisation to lend these scenes the dramatic substance to which they so obviously aspire. For example, there is one scene in which the school hall burns down and Driver’s Viv rounds on her fellow teachers in order to challenge their hostility to the play. But because neither the sports teacher nor the social studies teacher are properly fleshed out, Viv’s grand exit from the room feels like a laughably childish flounce. Like most of Hunky Dory’s Big Dramatic Scenes, this was the pay-off to a dramatic arc that simply does not exist. Another example of this is the scene in which Viv finds an engraving of her dead father’s motto ‘Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down’. This discovery is clearly supposed to rekindle Viv’s faith in the stalled project but because neither Coriat’s script nor Evans’ direction bother to flesh out Viv’s relationship with her father, the scene feels like nothing more than a dishonest and undeserved emotional contrivance. By repeatedly trying to milk the pay-off to dramatic arcs that simply do not exist, Hunky Dory comes close to achieving the levels of hysteria found in Michael Bay’s Transformers 3 as Everyone! Is! Very! Upset! All! The! Fucking! Time! For! No! Apparent! Reason!

The weakness of Hunky Dory’s characterisation also carries across into much of its plotting as the film is littered with tensions and conflicts which, though useful in terms of moving the narrative forward, lack anything approaching psychological verisimilitude or emotional resonance. For example, when the school hall burns down the police decide to question Darren Evans’ ‘troubled’ skinhead Kenny. Discussing the fact that Kenny could not have done it, a couple of kids are confronted by Kenny’s skinhead brother who asks whether they shopped him to the police. Rather than simply saying No and going on their way, the pair decides to run off and a pointless chase ensues. Well… I say pointless but this race across town does serve to set up one of the kids discovering that his best friend is dating his sister. Because this is deemed unacceptable (for reasons that are largely glossed over), people get upset and this causes a Big Dramatic Scene with running and shouting. A scene that, again, feels utterly contrived and dramatically undeserved.

Aside from its weak characterisation and clunky plotting, Hunky Dory is also weighted down by some of the ugliest line-by-line writing that I have ever encountered. Coriat’s script is a wasteland of flaccid zingers and awkward exchanges littered with dull expletives in a desperate attempt to make it all seem a bit more real and a bit more urgent. Also deeply problematic is the film’s use of words such as “poof” and “paki”. While there is no denying that people in the mid-70s did use those terms, Hunky Dory not only strips them of their context but also fails to hold the people who use them to account. For example, one of the main characters becomes a skinhead but unlike Shane Meadows’ This is England (2006), Hunky Dory never explains what this means or why it might be a bad thing. Instead, the film presents racism and homophobia as mere local colour no different to a love of rugby or the quaintness of growing up without a telephone. Similarly, while I realise that Julia Perez’s Sylvie is supposed to be a comic character, her character’s comic impact lies in its stereotypical nature: French people have sex all the time and smoke! Ha Ha Ha! Period setting is no excuse for that kind of lazy and xenophobic writing. It simply has no place in a modern British film.

Of course, Hunky Dory is ultimately a genre piece and while it fails as both a comedy and a musical, the film might have been redeemed had its musical elements been successful. Unfortunately, they are not. Much of Hunky Dory’s marketing bumf stresses the fact that the film features classic works of 60s and 70s pop. While this may conjure up images of High School Musical (2006) meets Mama Mia (2008), the truth is that Hunky Dory’s songs are mostly quite obscure. Indeed, despite being in my mid-30s, I only recognised one of the tunes and even then it was because the tune was covered by Nirvana. Equally unimpressive are the performances of the mostly youthful cast who both lack charisma and display a terrifying tendency to wander off the note. Though some of the musical numbers are okay, none are particularly memorable and a few are faintly embarrassing. A lot of the singing in Hunky Dory is so flat that it could be Holland.

Clearly, I am not the target audience for Hunky Dory but I do see what it is that the film is trying to achieve. Inspired by the massive success of High School Musical and the TV series Glee, Hunky Dory is an attempt to do something a bit similar but set in Wales and with a slightly cooler soundtrack. Hunky Dory should have been about the power of music and performance to guide and transform teenaged lives, to find those that are lost and fix those that are broken. Hunky Dory should have been, as Driver’s character says, about the heroism of self-expression in a time and place where everybody wants you to shut up and knuckle down. Sadly, because of its weak performances, unimpressive musical numbers and astonishingly weak script, Hunky Dory is none of these things. All it is is a mess.

Some Thought On… Last Screening (2011)

Reminiscent of both Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and the genre-art house hybridisation of Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive (2011), Laurent Achard’s Derniere Séance deconstructs the traditional horror film only to reassemble it as a dark and brooding meditation on the delights of cinephilia.

The one thing that unites all members of a cinema audience is the fact that they are members of a cinema audience. Because of this simple tautology, audiences tend to respond well to films that praise them for their decision to go to the cinema.  What do Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) have in common? They both pander to their audiences by validating their love of film. Achard’s Last Screening is also about loving the cinema but rather than praising his audience for their good taste, Achard lambasts them for their toxic self-indulgence.

Sylvain (Pascal Cervo) is the manager of a repertory cinema in provincial France. Utterly devoted to the cinema, Sylvain seldom goes out except to kill women and cut off their ears. Much like Powell’s Peeping Tom, Last Screening muses on the voyeuristic nature of cinema and Achard repeatedly assails us with shots of people staring blankly at the camera setting up a similar mirroring effect to that of Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008), where the audience sat watching a cinema audience that could just as easily have been watching them. Achard also litters his film with images of darkened figures staring at illuminated performers, further extending his explicit comparison between the voyeurism of the cinema-goer and the voyeurism of the predatory serial killer. Postmodern cinematography aside, Achard’s critique of cinephilia also extends to the film’s plot as Sylvain’s crimes turn out to be motivated by a desire to recapture the film-viewing moments of his youth. For Achard, cinephilia is clearly a source of genuine joy (he obviously adores Renoir’s French Cancan) but that joy can also turn toxic as a love of old film can result in people becoming stuck in the past or shut off to new forms and experiences. With Sylvain, Achard offers us an image of twisted cinephilia.

Though marketed as a horror film, Last Screening is really more of an art house project. Seldom frightening, seldom tense and only occasionally gory, its murders are not sensationalist ends in themselves but props in Achard’s wider exploration of Sylvain’s twisted mental state.  As you might expect from an art house character study, Last Screening’s pacing in slow, deliberate and filled with languid extended takes in which nothing much happens and nothing is said. Elegantly shot and intelligently conceived, Last Screening is a combative and genuinely thought-provoking film whose absolute lack of sentiment about film itself serves as a timely antidote to a medium that can be altogether too swift to pat itself on the back.

BG44 – The Shameful Joys of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column devoted to Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.

A lot has been made of this game’s boss fights and the myriad niggles and irritations that conspire to make its game-play something of an uphill struggle. I will not deny, this game inspired more rage-quits than any game in recent memory. However, rather than seeing these irritations as products of genre-confusion and outdated game design, I decided to consider these problems as part of the game’s central aesthetic and sub-text. I conclude that, whereas the original Deus Ex games were all about empowering the player, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is all about claustrophobia, prejudice and being forced into a position of willing servitude:

Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.

All too often, reviewers tend to assume that any mechanic that is not fun is broken. I simply could not disagree more, all mechanics tell a story… you just need to open your mind and play the story that the game wants to tell.

Ludwig II… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest column on You Higuri’s manga series about the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Despite having a real fondness for GLBT film, manga and the occasional GLBT-infused anime series, Ludwig II was my first serious encounter with the genre known as Yaoi. Written mostly by women for other women, the yaoi genre tells melodramatic love stories involving ‘beautiful boys’, by which I mean young men with feminine physical characteristics. Ludwig II tells the story of the so-called ‘Mad King’ of Bavaria and his complex relationships with both an aide and reality as a whole. While Ludwig II is very much a melodramatic love-story in the romantic tradition, Higuri juxtaposes the demands of the yaoi genre with the demands placed on the historical Ludwig II as a means of exploring the concept of escapism. Indeed, Higuri presents Ludwig’s madness as an increasingly self-destructive desire to escape from reality into a world of imagination and beauty:

By highlighting both the heroic nature of a refusal to completely submit to the mundane and the devastating consequences of shifting one’s intellectual focus away from the problems of real life, Higuri speaks to our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Clearly, Ludwig was an intelligent and gifted enough politician that he could have done more to protect his subjects from the harshness of that world.  In one particularly heavy-handed moment, Higuri points out that Ludwig’s failure to defend Bavarian independence helped propel the German people along a path leading to the Death Camps.  Had Ludwig done more to check Prussian ambition then perhaps Germany might never have united and had Germany never united, then Hitler might never have gained a powerbase sufficiently strong to begin the Second World War.

Having recently worked my way through the six translated volumes of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, I was delighted to discover in Ludwig II a similarly complex and compelling interweaving of traditional genre with historical fiction and romance. Ludwig II is one of the best things I have read this year, it cuts to the bone of why it is that we find ourselves attracted to escapist media.

Some Thought On… Kill List (2011)

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to attend a British film festival designed to find foreign distributors for British films. While only a few of the festival’s films showed any promise, what they all demonstrated was the relative ease with which British thrillers were able to secure funding. Jean-luc Goddard once said that all you needed to make a film is a girl and a gun and low-budget British filmmakers seemed to be proving exactly that. Over the last couple of years, this financial trend has blossomed into a full-scale British genre revival including such works of psychological tension as J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), Matthew Hope’s The Veteran (2011) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). All of these films speak to the darkness of the human soul with a style and grace that elevate them above predictable exploitation narratives into something altogether more interesting.  Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is yet further proof of the intellectual vibrancy of the British thriller, it is one of the most effective films I have seen this year.

Wheatley began his feature-length directorial career with the micro-budgeted crime film Down Terrace (2009).  Grounded in dysfunctional human psychology, Down Terrace blurred the line between genre and traditional drama by embedding its narrative in a seemingly banal working-class environment. Wheatley’s desire to ground his films in the mundane details of everyday life continues with Kill List. Kill List opens by introducing us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a working-class man enjoying a comfortable middle-class life with his son and beautiful Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Claiming to be suffering from back pain, Jay has not worked for eight months and the couple are now running in to the sorts of financial difficulties that put strains on even the most loving of marriages. Aware that Jay may not be completely ‘ready’ to go back to work, Shel invites Jay’s old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) over for dinner in the hope of luring her husband from retirement.

Having painted a scene of mundane domesticity in beautifully vibrant colour, Wheatley then sets about filling in the shadows. When Gal’s date for the evening pops to the loo, she turns the mirror over and carves a strange rune into the back of it.  Meanwhile, Gal and Jay chat about the old days in evasive terms until one of them pulls out an assault rifle.  Clearly, Jay and Gal’s mundane lower-middle class existence is supported thanks to a decidedly unusual career. The oddness of the boys’ day job is made all the more clear in an extraordinary sequence that transforms a mundane business meeting into an occult rite by having the boys sign their acceptance of the contract in blood. From there, the film becomes progressively more and more weird, and more and more disturbing.

As in Down Terrace, Wheatley breaks the action down into chapters by filling the screen with text.  Thus, the first hit on the kill list is ‘The Priest’ and then we move on to ‘The Librarian’ and ‘The M.P.’ before concluding with ‘The Hunchback’.  Ostensibly quite a crude piece of meta-narration, these inter-titles serve not only to anchor the narrative as the film’s narrative structures begin to fray, they also serve to heighten the sense of unreality surrounding Jay’s working life. What kind of professional to-do list features hunchbacks, priests and members of parliament? The further the film progresses, the more the fantastical encroaches upon the lives of the characters and the more the characters begin to crack under pressure with cinematography, sound-design and narrative working in unison to present a powerful and psychotropic voyage into the outer darkness.

Looking at the critical coverage this film has received, it is clear that critics have struggled to pin down the argument behind Kill List. Though beautifully realised and almost insanely tense, the film’s profligate use of familiar themes and images make interpreting it something of an uphill battle.  Is the film about Jay’s nervous breakdown (fore-shadowed by early trips to the supermarket and the doctor)? Is it a tale of morality set against an ink-black British underworld filled with mercurial figures?  Or is it simply a beautifully made thriller that borrows from the crime and horror genres to produce a cinematic experience that pushes all of the audience’s buttons at once? Obviously, Kill List is all of these things (and none) but my impression was of a film that ventures onto the same territory as the work of Thomas Ligotti.

Thomas Ligotti is one of the finest American horror writers of the last fifty years. Unfairly overshadowed by ancestors such as Lovecraft and more commercial contemporaries such as Stephen King, Ligotti’s collections of short fiction are seldom in print and seldom easy to write about. However, one of the recurring motifs in Ligotti’s work is the horror of the workplace. Short stories such as “The Town Manager” and “Our Temporary Supervisor” as well as longer pieces such as the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, reflect upon the surreal brutality of an institution that consumes most of your waking life whilst humiliating and dehumanising you from dawn till dusk. Kill List vocalises the same sense of surreal disconnection as the work of Ligotti; Jay is called upon to carry out tasks that he does not comprehend (his employer calls him “a cog”) and these tasks carry a heavy psychological burden.  Ideally, Jay would not have to work at all but in order to feed his family and keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, Jay must return to work and do what it is that he has to do. Even when Jay wants to quit and go home, work follows him to his door.  There is simply no escaping the workplace. The film’s final denouement offers Jay the possibility of escape but makes it abundantly clear what price he will be expected to pay for his freedom.

Kill List’s denouement encompasses all of the strengths and weaknesses of Wheatley’s film: beautifully shot and powerfully scored, Kill List’s final scenes are a master class in pure cinematic tension. However, the impressionistic quality of the direction and the embarrassment of symbolic riches also create a distinct sense of directorial profligacy. Rather than restrain himself and pin Jay’s experiences down to a singular precise meaning, Wheatley ends his film in the broadest way imaginable: we know that Jay is unhappy, we know that his unhappiness is linked to issues of sanity, morality and family but beyond that the film’s emotional and psychological content is vague and elusive. Kill List makes its point with considerable style and power but as the smoke clears and the credits roll, it is by no means clear that that point might have been.

 

Walking Hadrian’s Wall 2011 – Day Eight: Carlisle to Bowness-on-Solway

Steps: 35,550

Distance: 21.33 km

Even with hindsight, the walk out of Carlisle remains the low-point of the holiday. Insufficiently caffeinated, under-rested and struggling to digest an almost preternaturally greasy breakfast courtesy of the Hallmark hotel, The Sheep and I greeted the rain with no small amount of ill humour.

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