REVIEW – The Woman in the Fifth (2011)

VideoVista have my review of Pawel Pawlikovski’s The Woman in the Fifth. Based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy, the film is a meditation on the costs and benefits of artistic creativity. Grounded firmly in the old trope of a sensitive and broken man who is only saved by the love of a good woman, the film presents its central character with a choice between a woman who makes him creative but also insane and a woman who makes him happy but only at the expense of his capacity to write.

I have two main problems with this film. The first is that the vision of creativity the film proposes is based entirely upon an almost ludicrously self-indulgent and melodramatic vision of the creative process. Many gifted artists produce great work without lapsing into either madness, violence or depression. Frankly, seeing these psychological problems as an inevitable by-product of the creative process is nothing more than palliative bullshit put about by people who really need to start taking responsibility for their own mental health. Being an artist does not make it okay for you to be a complete prick.  The second problem is that while Pawlikovski’s direction is entirely watchable, it is also desperately boring. Seriously… what is going on in art house filmmaking? when did it all become so fucking boring?

We are currently undergoing the greatest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and the political decisions made today will shape the future of entire continents for generations to come. Given that the world is now continuously shifting beneath our feet and that our democratic institutions are positively crying out for an intelligent electorate that can understand and engage with the issues confronting them, do we really need another film about a novelist who is struggling with writer’s block? Do we really need another French film in which a bunch of listless Parisians tumble in and out of bed with one another? Do we really need another film in which a terminally passive and unattractive male protagonist somehow finds himself at the centre of a vortex of redemptive totty? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding ‘No!’

As I said in my piece about this year’s Cannes film festival, European art house cinema is rapidly becoming stale. A decaying boy’s club dominated by a shrinking clade of middle-aged white guys, both its ideas and its language are in desperate need of renewal and The Woman in the Fifth is yet further proof of the scene’s increasing creative sterility. Did we need another film about a novelist with writer’s block? FUCK NO! Nor do we need another polite little film directed by a middle-aged European white guy. Pawel Pawlikovski is not a bad director by any stretch of the imagination but he is a director who is part of the problem. Pawlikovski’s early works including Dostoevsky’s Travels and Tripping with Zhirinovsky were deeply personal reflections of a youth lived under Communist rule. However, as Pawlikovski freely admits in the Blu-ray’s extras, he has decided to set aside the things that made him unique as a director in order to churn out the same old derivative francophilic shit as every other art house director. Clearly… this shit needs to stop.

REVIEW – Shame (2011)

Back in 2008, I struggled with the religious imagery of Steve McQueen’s debut feature Hunger (2008). I struggled with it because it seemed too obvious and because the troubles had been cast in that particular light altogether too many times.  I have since rewatched Hunger and I now realise that I was wrong. I was wrong to read the film as being Catholic in sentiment and I was wrong to argue that it was simply retreading old ground. When I said that Hunger “cannot get out from under the weight of cinematic history”, I might as well have been writing about my own review. Given that my fondness for Hunger has grown over the years, I was somewhat reluctant to go and see his second feature Shame at the cinema. Aware of my history of not ‘getting’ McQueen’s films and concerned that the film’s subject matter struck me as over-exposed and boring, I waited for the DVD release… and then waited some more. In truth, I was happy to let this film slip away from me until I was offered a review copy. Just When I Thought I Was Out… As a result, Videovista have my review of Steve McQueen’s Shame and it is full of ambivalence.

Set in an economically prosperous but emotionally barren New York City, Shame tells of a successful man who devotes his life to the pursuit of orgasms. Orgasms by hand, orgasms by mouth, orgasms by any means necessary and to the exclusion of all other avenues of pleasure and fulfillment. Moving from one nameless sexual partner to the next, the character leads an admirably simple life and appears to experience none of the downsides traditionally associated with a hedonistic lifestyle. However, this simple existence is thrown out of balance when the character’s emotionally incontinent sister comes to stay. Suddenly plagued by feelings of shame, the character attempts to re-invent himself as a normal person only to fall at pretty much the first hurdle. While much has been made of the film’s interest in the question of sex addiction, my view is that the film is attempting to do what it says on the tin, namely examine the role of shame in making us do the things we do:

 What distinguishes Shame from the likes of Lost In Translation and Up In The Air is that it pointedly refuses to use the same psychological model as most films and TV dramas. Most film and TV writers create their characters using a somewhat simplified version of Freudian psychodynamics. In particular, they tend to be very fond of the Freudian concept of displacement whereby an irrational over-reaction to one thing is actually the product of a rational but socially unacceptable reaction to something else. For example, in Up In The Air, George Clooney’s character comes across as excessively hostile to a co-worker who is attempting to force him off the road and into an office job. Initially, this reaction seems perfectly understandable but as the movie progresses and Clooney’s character becomes more and more unreasonable; we learn that the true source of his unease is the fact that he has no social bonds and hates the hugely successful career that he has built for himself. Some critics have sought to interpret Brendon’s sexual escapades in light of an unmentioned childhood trauma, but McQueen pointedly makes no reference at all either to Brendon’s inner life or to the emotional life of his childhood. The reason for this is that McQueen wants us to focus only upon that which we can see and what we see is a man who is forced out of his comfort zone because he feels ashamed.

While I think that McQueen’s attempt to break new psychological ground is nothing short of heroic, I am not convinced that the film ever gains any traction on the concept of shame. Add to this the lack of visual firepower and what you’re left with is a quite traditional arty drama held together by two decent performances. Which is a recipe for Oscar-bait, not thought-provoking cinematic art.

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 – Spread (2009)

Videovista have my review of David Mackenzie’s Spread (a.k.a. Toy Boy).

Trapped somewhere between romantic comedy and a warts-and-all indictment of life on the Hollywood fringe, Mackenzie’s film garnered a good deal of festival buzz thanks to the presence of Ashton Kutcher and the insider-y nature of the subject matter.  Kutcher — whose career received a sizeable boost as a result of his relationship with the older Demi Moore — plays a pretty young man who lives off of older women.  On paper, this film promised a lot and initial reviews were strong but once the collective hysteria of festival season faded, so too did the film’s buzz and reality soon reasserted itself.  A reality of muddled tone, indifferent scripting and lack of sociological bite:

I suspect that these variations on the traditional romantic comedy theme are intentional and that, by breaking with generic tradition, the film is trying to make some wider point about the way in which we think our lives are going to follow these grand romantic arcs but, while Spread hints at this sort of deconstructive agenda, it ultimately fails to explore any of these themes meaning that the film comes across as broken rather than deconstructed.

All in all: Not nearly clever enough.

REVIEW – Hatchet II (2010)

Videovista have my review of Adam Green’s latter-day slasher film Hatchet II.

I requested Hatchet II because I had heard great things coming out of the film’s US screenings. Having enjoyed Hatchet’s ironic humour, I was hoping that Hatchet II might push the boat out that little bit further and be maybe just a little bit sillier, a little bit gorier and a little bit funnier.  Instead, I discovered a film that caused me to reconsider my view of the original film.  Suddenly I was reminded of that scene in The Simpsons episode where Moe builds a tunnel from the fashionable waterfront district to his bar in the slums in order to lure in yuppies. “Hey, this isn’t faux dive… this is a dive”.  Upon watching Hatchet II, I thought of Hatchet and exclaimed “Hey, this isn’t faux schlock… this is schlock!”:

Unfortunately, because Green struggles with both the campier elements and the more serious moments, Hatchet II never manages to find that sweet spot between postmodern irony and absolute sincerity. Because it is impossible to know when the film is being intentionally awful and when it is merely being awful, Hatchet II‘s moments of intentional self-parody feel more like defence mechanisms designed to allow the filmmakers to cry ‘irony’ whenever their attempts at tension and human drama fall wide of the mark. This makes for an uncomfortably defensive cinematic experience, like sharing a drink with someone who keeps putting himself down in the hope that you’ll tell him how wonderful he is.

Avoid it like the proverbial.

REVIEW – Black Butler, Collection One (2008)

Videovista have my review of the first ‘collection’ (which may or may not be the same thing as a series) of Toshiya Shinohara’s anime adaptation of Yana Toboso’s Black Butler manga.

Black Butler is a not particularly intelligent, not particularly inventive and not particularly interesting series that sees a young man form a pact with a demon to help him find the person responsible for the death of his parents.  The demon takes the form of an uber-competent Jeeves-style butler who not only helps the young man to manage his business empire but also to battle underworld threats to Victorian Britain. The steampunk fantasia that makes up the series’ foreground is, quite frankly, utterly derivative but the series is made watchable by a yaoi-inspired subtext that introduces a strong erotic charge to the boy’s relationship with his butler:

All of these elements (including the weird top-bottom, master-slave relationship) will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever encountered the Yaoi or Bishonen genres of manga but the fact that these elements are present in an ostensibly mainstream and youth-oriented series lends them a fresh and subversive feel that is undeniably attractive and engaging.

While the series just about held my interest, it did make me wonder why you would watch this rather than an actual work of Yaoi or Bishonen anime. Neither of these sub-genres is particularly marginal or all that subversive… why hide their influence in the closet of a mainstream anime series?

REVIEW – 5150 Elm’s Way (2009)

Videovista have my review of Eric Tessier’s slightly disappointing 5150, Rue des Ormes.

Based on a novel by the Canadian Horror writer Daniel Grou, 5150 tells the story of a young man who finds himself caught up in the internal struggles of a family dominated by a father who has decided to act as God’s instrument and in order to punish the unrighteous.  As a series of interlocking character studies, the film works quite nicely and boasts some creepy ideas and some nice performances but step back from the melodrama of zealots interacting with psychos and you have a film that really struggles to find a point:

Lacking a clear focus or the sort of directorial discipline that might allow the visuals to cut a swathe through a dense thicket of plotlines, 5150 Elm’s Way comes very close to being genuinely interesting only to fall apart in the final stretch. Lacking both the clarity required of genuine insight and the technical flair that’s required to be genuinely thrilling, this Canadian thriller is more like a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos than it is a game of chess.

That chess comparison is there for a reason by the way… it’s not just terrible writing and an excuse to mention Hungry Hungry Hippos.

REVIEW – Stolen Desire (1958)

Videovista have my review of Shohei Imamura’s first film Stolen Desire.

Given that Imamura is perhaps best known for his later films including the Cannes-winning The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997) it is perhaps unsurprising that this seldom-seen remake of Ozu’s A Story of Floating Weeds (1934) should have been overlooked. However, released by Eureka alongside his fifth film Pigs & Battleships (1961) as part of their Masters of Cinema series, Stolen Desire actually constitutes a fascinating introduction to some of Imamura’s methods and concerns, it also gives us some insight into Imamura’s attitude towards his former master Yasujiro Ozu:

Stolen Desire is a film that is full of rage not only at the old guard who refuse to let go of the past but also at the young turks who doff their caps and pay their dues like good little citizens. Stolen Desire is the film of a young man who is angry with not just his generation and his society, but also with himself. The question is: if Kunida is Imamura, does that mean that Yamamura is Ozu?

When I say that this film was re-released alongside Pigs & Battleships I mean it quite literally as it comes as a DVD extra when you buy the film! Bargain!

REVIEW – The Kremlin Letter (1970)

Videovista have my review of John Huston’s spectacularly misanthropic espionage thriller The Kremlin Letter.

Aside from its fantastically icy cinematography and its twisted multiculturalism, The Kremlin Letter is an extraordinary film in that it uses the noir idiom to call into question the utility and the morality of the Cold War cottage industry that was international espionage.  Again and again, Huston returns us to the idea that while there is something heroic in fighting and dying to protect one’s country, there is absolutely nothing heroic about destroying someone’s life in order to force them to give up a few useless secrets:

It is telling that Huston neither shows us the letter at the centre of the plot, nor spells out what the letter means. The letter, like any mcguffin, exists purely in order to drive the plot but, can the same not also be said for the ‘information’ sought by real spies? How can a letter ever hope to justify the racism, misogyny, homophobia and outright savagery of the spies? In truth, the letter is but a fig leaf allowing the spies to pursue old professional rivalries and line their pockets at government expense. There is no justifying what spies do… no ‘information’ is worth such savagery, particularly when this is a war in which no shots are ever fired and where military muscle is only ever for show.

Despite the failure of the post-WWII intelligence apparatus to predict either the fall of the Berlin War or the attacks of 9/11, it is still largely unheard of for someone to call into question the need for an intelligence service.  For Huston to do the same at the height of the Cold War shows not only remarkable character but also a rare amount of political and historical insight.  As unpleasant as it is, The Kremlin Letter remains an astonishing film that deserves to be considered alongside Huston’s greatest cinematic achievements.

REVIEW – Stranger on the 3rd Floor (1940)

Videovista have my review of Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the 3rd Floor, which was co-written by Nathanael West of Day of the Locust fame.

Another slice of film noir goodness, Stranger on the 3rd Floor is one of a number of films from that era that flirted ideas of madness and surrealism before eventually surrendering to the strictures of the genre. The root of the madness, in this case, is guilt.  Guilt for participating in an unjust system and guilt over feelings of hatred so intense that it is easy to imagine why someone would stoop to murder:

Mike’s guilt is so intense that it seems to take on a physical form as Mike stumbles across a strange man leaving the neighbour’s apartment. Was the man there? Is the neighbour actually dead? Did Mike murder the old man while drunk? Mike’s guilt and self-doubt are so intense that, without actually checking to see whether the old man is dead, Mike is already dreaming about the possibility of being rightly executed for being a murderer.

Part of what makes this surprisingly short film so satisfying is the fact that despite the film ending in such a way as to dispel the possibility of projection, the resolution is ambiguous and strange enough that we are left with more than enough critical space in which to dream.