REVIEW – The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Mikkel Nørgaard‘s Scandinavian police procedural The Keeper of Lost Causes. Based on the novel Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olssen, The Keeper of Lost Causes is an entirely predictable and by-the-numbers Scandinavian police procedural. Its plot is entirely linear and generic, its characters are generic, one-dimensional stereotypes and nothing introduced by either the director or the writer complicates matters in any way. This is a solidly entertaining slice of Scandinavian noir that offers no surprised whatsoever:

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the Tesco Everyday Mild Cheddar of Scandinavian noir: Competently made and entirely free of anything in the least bit new or different, it gets the job done but leaves you yearning for something with a little more flavour.

I quite enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Causes but, as I point out in my review, I can’t help but wonder how much more Scandinavian noir the British market can endure before people start getting sick of it. How many more series of The Bridge can sit through before we start shouting ‘Oh for fuck’s sake get some colour on those walls and go and have a shave!’? The Keeper of Lost Causes is based on the first novel in a series meaning that the film feels a lot like a pilot. In fact, there is already an adaptation of the second book in the series by the same director and with the same actors. Will it be released in the UK? Almost certainly but Scandinavian noir is definitely starting to feel a little bit long in the tooth… time for someone to adapt Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and move us away from grizzled beardy Scandinavian men and towards grizzled beardy Mediterranean men instead! The Keeper of Lost Causes actually raises an interesting critical question as while the film does absolutely nothing even remotely new or different, it does it in a very competent and enjoyable manner. For as long as I have been paying attention to it, the conversation surrounding science fiction has portrayed genre boundaries and conventional narrative forms as something to be overcome but I think there is probably a case to be made for innovation being a somewhat over-rated quality. A lot has been made of the way that the gender of critics and gatekeepers tends to skew the conversation around a cultural scene but I think the same is probably true of scenes where the conversation is lead by creators and experienced critics. I suspect that a reader-focused conversation about books or an audience-focused conversation about film would see formal and narrative innovation as much less important than the competent deployment of established forms and story-types. The Keeper of Lost Causes is a solid piece of genre cinema, it does precisely what it says on the tin and absolutely nothing more.

REVIEW – The Killers (1964)

The-Killers-Blu-rayFilmJuice have my review of Don Siegel’s The Killers, an awesome character-based crime thriller starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.

Based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway and originally made for American television, The Killers poses the question as to why someone would refuse to run when confronted by two men who had been sent to kill him. Unlike the original short story (which is minimalist to the point of being nothing but negative conceptual space), Don Siegel’s adaptation functions as a kind of therapeutic process that buries into the past of a murder victim and tries to make sense of the decisions that lead him all the way to that refusal to run.

It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.

In the few weeks since I wrote the review, the thing that has remained with me is the threat of violence. Most thrillers wear their violence and law-breaking on their sleeves and derive most of their tension from the idea that violence and law-breaking might be deployed unsuccessfully: Will the heist fail? Will the hero walk away from the gun-fight? The Killers is very different in this respect as all of the film’s tension comes from the threat of violence. Though much of this threat is down to the film’s astonishing opening sequence, I have now come to realise that Marvin’s presence in the film would not have been half as effective if it hadn’t been juxtaposed against that of the wonderfully nervy and unconstrained Cassavetes. Done up in pitch-black shades and a steely-grey suit, Marvin broadcasts the same violent nihilism that followed him from film to film and made his career. Cassavetes, on the other hand, hides absolutely nothing: When he’s a race-winning driver, he swaggers. When he’s in love, he floats. When he’s afraid, he can’t keep still. The Killers is an incredibly tense film because we can see the fear of violence in every move Cassavetes makes. Brilliant.

Spring Breakers (2012) by Harmony Korine

SB1People fond of European and World cinema often accuse Hollywood of churning out safe, derivative crap whilst turning a blind eye to the fact that the vocabulary of art house film has remained largely unchanged since the 1960s. Indeed, if you have seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Renais’s Last Year at Marienbad then you are unlikely to be surprised by anything that appears in your local art house cinema. The truth of the matter is that cinema is an expensive medium and the conservative forces that compel American filmmakers to produce violently misogynistic popcorn movies are the same as the ones compelling ambitious non-American directors to produce beautifully shot stories of middle-class alienation filled with extended silences and psychological ambiguities. Given how many promising talents are crushed by the gears of these mature economic systems, it is always something of a delight when a director manages to follow their own path and find their own means of expression. Harmony Korine is just that kind of director.

Korine’s latest and most widely marketed work opens with a montage that is both completely out of character and utterly in keeping with the director’s favoured themes. The scene is one of oppressive revelry as American students drink, dance and grind up against each other in the Florida sunshine. Shot through a slightly greenish filter, the scene is gorgeously bright and yet oddly murky, as though someone had decided to open the Arc of the Covenant at the bottom of a garden pond. Korine is best known for such quirky portraits of impoverished dysfunction as Gummo and Trash Humpers but he was also the writer behind Larry Clark’s Kids and Ken Park. The sensibility that unites all of these films is that contentment (and even transcendence) is most likely not going to be found in all the usual places; churches, stable relationships, middle-aged men walking through fields of grass whilst talking in voices filled with hushed awe. Happiness is where you find it and chances are that the place you eventually find it is going to seem incredibly ugly and bleak to anyone who isn’t you. We see this in the squalid threesome at the end of Ken Park, we see this in the psychotic performance art of the Trash Humpers and we see it in the dub-step, boobies and beer bongs of Spring Breakers’ opening montage, which is best described as Ibiza Uncovered with better dentistry.

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REVIEW – Miss Bala (2011)

Videovista have my review of Gerardo Naranjo’s Mexican crime movie Miss Bala.

The film tells of a young woman who attempts to sign up for a beauty pageant but winds up getting involved with a gang of Mexican drug traffickers. In the hands of a less ambitious director, this set-up might have resulted in one of those horrific fish-out-of-water films like Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob (1988) or Donald Petrie’s Miss Congeniality (2000). However, rather than play-up the comic elements of the culture clash, Naranjo uses them as the basis for a coming-of-age movie that skewers the values of contemporary Mexican society:

The idea that Mexico is nothing more than an oceanic darkness lurking beneath a thin strip of human pretence is present throughout the film’s cinematography. Miss Bala is an intensely dark and moody film and the only time that Naranjo allows us to escape the darkness is in the few sun-kissed moments when Laura is attempting to pass herself off as an innocent civilian. Compared to the shadows of Laura’s day-to-day existence, the floodlit wonderland of the beauty pageants, shopping trips and garden parties seems both grotesquely fake and beautifully alluring.

Miss Bala is an intensely clever and absolutely beautifully shot film that must class as one of the best crime movies to appear in the last couple of years.

REVIEW – Rampart (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.

Written by the crime novelist James Ellrot and set against a backdrop of police corruption and political wrangling, Rampart tells the story of a cop on the wrong side of history. Played by Woody Harrelson, Dave “Date Rape” Brown knows all the angles and all the dirty secrets meaning that even when he fucks up and gets caught, the brass can’t touch him. All Brown needs to do is claim to have received a job offer from Fox News and his problems simply melt away. However, as the film progresses and the political climate shifts further and further from yesterday’s old pals and backroom deals, Brown finds himself struggling to keep his head above water:

The idea that there is no place for a person like Dave in a civilised society provides Rampart with much of its thematic power. Dave, we are told, is the son of an old school cop and his status as the son of an old school cop gives him access to a network of contacts embodied by the nameless retired detective played by Ned Beattie. At the beginning of the film, Dave has a place in the LAPD because the department is still in thrall to the old and brutal ways of doing business. Most of Dave’s problems stem from the fact that he simply cannot adapt to the new LAPD being built by ambitious politicians like those played by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi. Thus Dave’s fall from grace is not just about his own stupidity but also about power leaching away from the brutal white men who police the city.

Though Rampart‘s wonderful cinematography, engaging characterisation and some hugely entertaining and recognisably Ellrovian dialogue are more than enough to make for an entertaining film, one cannot help but feel that there is something increasingly generic about the existential art house crime film. Back in 1967, John Boorman’s Point Blank used the tools of the art house to delve into the police house and since then a steady stream of art house directors including Abel Ferrara, Werner Herzog and Nicolas Winding Refn have happily used brilliant cinematography to tell and re-tell the same stories of crime, madness and existential alienation. Indeed, Rampart‘s real problem is that it is ultimately nothing more than a well realised genre film. Great cinematography? Check! Enigmatic protagonist? Check! Long drawn out pauses? Check? Descent into madness? Check! Ambiguous ending? Check! Though entertaining, the art house crime film really has lost its power to shock or provoke… in its own way it is just as predictable and safe as the country house mysteries of yesteryear.

REVIEW – Angels of Evil (2009)

Videovista have changed their format.  Rather than spewing a torrent of reviews at you once a month, the site has moved towards a more selective approach to publishing in which they devote attention solely to a few note-worthy films.  My first shot at the DVD of the month is a piece about Michele Placido’s Angels of Evil (a.k.a. Valanzasca – Gli Angeli del Male), the follow-up to Placido’s 2005 crime bio-pic Romanzo Criminale. While I ultimately found the film a good deal less engaging than the politically thoughtful Romanzo Criminale, Angels of Evil remains a beautifully shot and stylishly produced crime thriller that sheds an intriguing light on the challenges facing the crime bio-pic genre. My review is HERE.

Though undeniably well made, Angels Of Evil suffers terribly from an overabundance of familiar elements: it is a film entirely composed of stock characters. Vallanzasca’s first wife Consuelo (Valeria Solerino) is a beautiful woman who doesn’t take any shit from anyone right up until the moment she meets Vallanzasca and promptly transforms into a long-suffering doormat with a sensible haircut. Similarly, the members of Vallanzasca’s gang are differentiated solely through their facial hair and their professional characteristics including the capacity to ride a motorcycle at 125 mph, and make good use of a sub-machinegun. Even Turatello is something of a cliché as his charismatic public persona masks a psychopathic fondness for violence and a rather predictable obsession with his hair that has him visiting women’s salons and sleeping in a hair-net. Anyone who has seen Goodfellas will recognise these sorts of characters and Goodfellas’ influence means that they have spent the last 20 years appearing and re-appearing in every crime thriller you care to mention. Aside from being faintly depressing, Placido’s refusal to depart from traditional genre stereotypes also serves to weaken his treatment of Vallanzasca himself.

Having damned the film for its generic nature, I then ponder whether the generic nature of the film’s characters might not be the result of deeper sociological forces. Indeed, if you watch The Sopranos, it is obvious that the characters have all partly modelled themselves on figures from the Godfather. This begs the following question: does the film’s depiction of Vallanzasca and his gang seem generic because of lazy script-writing or does the script capture the basic truths about a group of characters who modelled themselves on figures out of crime fiction and film?

REVIEW – Monk: Season 7

  Videovista have my review of season seven on Monk.

Given that Monk (in the UK at least) is a daytime TV detective series that appeals mostly to old people, I think it is fair enough to say that it is somewhat off the beaten path in terms of stuff I normally think and write about.  Hell… it’s not the type of thing I normally watch let alone review!  However, despite it being quite formulaic, quite repetitive and really not particularly intelligent, I rapidly found myself warming to the way in which the writers were able to take a small number of ideas and themes and keep returning to them again and again without those ideas ever coming across as in anyway tired.  Given that most of my genre-related reading and watching tends to focus upon works that transcend and question genre boundaries, I found it fascinating to watch a TV series that is quite content to play within the boundaries of the genre:

While Murder, She Wrote, The Father Dowling Mysteries and Diagnosis Murder may all feature crime-fighting pensioners; only Monk tells the story of a character whose life genuinely resembles that of an older person. Weighed down by fears, doubts and a variety of weird mental compulsions that make it difficult for him to deal with the realities of 21st Century life, Monk lives the sort of awkward and fragile existence common to older people.  He even has a carer and struggles with ‘new-fangled’ technology such as the Internet. While Monk may ultimately be little more than lightweight fluff that shamelessly panders to a demographic of which I am not a part, I cannot deny that I enjoyed watching it.  You simply have to marvel at a series that does so much with so little!

Cold Weather (2010) – The Eyes of the Sensitive Observer

Cold Weather is an experiment that does not quite work but which is all the more beautiful for its failure.

Aaron Katz is one of several young American filmmakers to be tarred with the Mumblecore brush. Neither a genre nor a movement, ‘Mumblecore’ refers to one of those rare and beautiful moments when a group of creative artists with similar tastes and interests come together and begin to learn from each other’s methods and respond to each other’s ideas thereby creating a series of works with a similar set of aesthetic priorities. While these aesthetics are still evolving, it is possible to see in the work of such directors as Andrew Bujalsky (2002’s Funny Ha Ha), Lynn Shelton (2009’s Humpday) and the Duplass brothers (2008’s Baghead) the development of a cinematic style that has been heavily influenced by the films of John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh and Maurice Pialat.

Mumblecore films tend to be made with small budgets, small crews and small casts composed of largely non-professional actors working from and improvising around a more or less pre-written script. The non-professional nature of the actors and the improvisational aspects of the dialogue along with the tendency to frame character development in such a way that the audience has to draw its own inferences about the characters means that Mumblecore films frequently feel remarkably rough, realistic, unpolished and spontaneous. Mumblecore films invariably feel as though they simply ‘happen’; a stylistic tic also that owes quite a lot to the tendency to use 20-something actors and unglamorous settings that make it look as though the films might have been made in the director’s spare time.

 Cold Weather is an attempt to move Mumblecore outside of its comfort zone by taking the aesthetics of spontaneous authenticity and fusing them with those of a cinematic genre that is defined by its careful plotting and its use of directorial technique to create a sense of tension. While this Mumblecore thriller never feels like more than the sum of its parts, it is difficult not to love a film that so perfectly understands the allure of a good mystery.

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REVIEW – Deadly Outlaw Rekka (2002)

Back around the turn of the millennium, Takashi Miike was the poster-boy for a new brand of cinephilia.  A cinephilia that used DVDs to traverse cultural boundaries in search of more sex, more violence and more extreme imagery.  Since then, Miike and his film seem to have fallen into relative obscurity, victims of a maturing DVD market and the director’s own refusal to abide by traditional genre boundaries.  However, as my Videovista review of Deadly Outlaw Rekka shows, there’s life in the old dog yet.

Deadly Outlaw Rekka is about a culture clash within the Yakuza.  A culture clash between the gangsters who see themselves as business men and the gangsters who cling to the old ways.  Ways of honour and blood.

Police, Adjective (2009) – Nobody wants Realism. Not Really.

In his excellent extended essay What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010), Gabriel Josipovici provides a spirited reading of Cevantes’ Don Quixote.  Quixote, argues Josipovici, is not merely the first modern novel, it is also the first post-modern novel as within the novel’s various framing devices lies the recognition that there is something profoundly false about the form of the novel.  A falseness that can never quite be expunged, regardless of  how full-throated an author’s commitment to realism might be :

“Don Quixote’s madness dramatises for us the hidden madness in every realist novel, the fact that the hero of every such novel is given a name merely in order to persuade us of his reality, and that he has giants created for him to do battle with and Dulcineas for him to fall in love with simply to satisfy the demands of the narrative.  And it dramatises the way we are readers collude in this game because we want, for the duration of our reading, to be part of a realised world, a world full of meaning and adventure, an enchanted world” [p. 34]

No genre has so proudly worn its commitment to realism as the police procedural.  From TV series such as The Wire through to books such as Izzo’s Total Kheops (1995), McBain’s 87th Precinct series and Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels.  The police procedural does not merely seek to entertain by providing us with a mystery that the protagonists can gamely unravel, it also seeks to reflect the reality not only of the books’ settings but also of the job of solving crimes and being a policeman.  However, as Josipovici wisely points out, there is a tension here.  David Simon’s The Wire beautifully captured the political realities of contemporary America, but is it not just a little bit handy that one of the police officers should have chosen to go and get a job teaching thereby allowing the series to devote an entire series to the problems of America’s schooling?  Similarly, Izzo’s Total Kheops does a wonderful job of communicating the texture and character of the town of Marseilles, but is it not convenient that the book’s protagonist listens to cutting-edge hip hop while drinking local wines and eating immaculately cooked locally-sourced produce rather than humming along to Johnny Halliday whilst enjoying a burger and a coke?

Clearly, the police procedural’s commitment to realism is in desperate need of being challenged and deconstructed.  Corneliu Porumboiu’s Poliţist, Adjectiv scratches that itch.  With long and delicately manicured finger nails.

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