Ashtray Dirt 15

Kicking off with a sad point, director and writer Jose Ramon Larraz passed away this week. Best known for 1975 release Vampyres, Larraz also directed Whirlpool, The Coming of Sin and Black Candles. He was 84…

José-Ramón-Larraz-y-2 (1)

The full line up for the London Film Festival has been announced. Films playing include Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, Alfonso Cauron’s Gravity and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. The festival’s ‘Cult’ strand will also play host to The Sacrament, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, Grand Piano and All Cheerleaders Die. The full line up can be read on the official website

One Way Static Records have put up their release of the Last House On The Left soundtrack by David Hess for pre-sale. Formats include vinyl, cassette and digital…

Arrow have announced their November releases. Coming to Blu-ray will be Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs, Rabid Dogs aka Kidnapped, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Cinema Paradiso. All are available for pre-order…

cooties

The first image for horror-comedy Cooties has dropped. Directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion, written by Ian Brennan and Leigh Whannell and starring Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill, Cooties is slated for a 2014 release…

It’s yet to be released, but it seems that Eli Roth is already working on a sequel to The Green Inferno. Titled Beyond The Green Inferno, Roth is likely to produce the feature and hinted that Nicolas Lopez (Aftershock) might direct…

David Cronenberg’s Shivers is getting the remake treatment, with Dutch director Rie Rasmussen apparently at the helm…

On the subject of remakes, a trailer has dropped for the new Robocop reboot…

Welsh horror film festival Abertoir have announced their participation in Wales After Dark. Part of the BFI’s Gothic Season, Wales After Dark will see  genre screenings and events happening across the country. A line up of the different events can be found here

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LFF 2011: DREAMS OF A LIFE review

It’s interesting to note that two of the most feted films at this year’s LFF are haunting studies of urban numbness; first the operatic despair of SHAME and now DREAMS OF A LIFE, an even more disturbing film on account of it being, you know, real life and everything.

While I have huge respect for the craft of documentary film-making, let’s face it: most of them live or die on the strength of their subject matter, and DREAMS OF A LIFE first and foremost has an incredible story to tell. It’s perhaps the most remarkable subject matter for a documentary since MAN ON WIRE, yet while that film showcased humanity at its best and most hopeful, DREAMS OF A LIFE is an exploration of an occasion where it comprehensively failed.

In 2003, the body of 38-year-old Joyce Carruthers was discovered in a tiny studio flat overlooking Wood Green shopping centre by members of the council chasing thousands of pounds of owed rent. After doing tests on her body it was ascertained that Joyce had been dead for nearly three years.

So far, so heartbreaking. But the cruel twist in this story is that Joyce wasn’t a loner, or a societal outcast – she was extremely attractive and outgoing, with an active social life and many friends all over London, not to mention four sisters who were alive and well. DREAMS OF A LIFE interviews many of her colleagues, associates and ex-boyfriends, while also dramatising many of the defining moments in her life in an attempt to make sense of her enigmatic, almost contradictory personality, and to explore why she was able to slip off the societal radar so easily.

The case of Joyce Carruthers would seem to suggest a total failure of humanity on a par with the Kitty Genovese incident, where a woman was murdered in broad daylight in front of 27 witnesses. But director Carol Morley seems uninterested in pointing fingers and decrying humanity, instead focusing on providing a comprehensive portrait of Joyce as a person. From the beginning, it’s noted that she was a ‘social chameleon’ – changing up friendship groups and moving to different areas of London regularly – and as the film progresses, it is increasingly hinted at that Joyce had serious issues with trust and commitment, and in the end actively wanted to withdraw herself from everyone. I’m not sure which is the most disturbing – that her friends forgot about her or that she felt alienated enough from them to want to disappear. For those of us who live in big metropolitan cities, the case of Joyce would appear to be a chilling confirmation of our darkest fears regarding our ultimate insignificance.

However, all our evidence on this comes from the people interviewed; these are people who are obviously harboring a significant amount of guilt about the circumstances in which Joyce died, and there’s always the lingering thought that they may be colouring their perceptions of her in order to assuage their own culpability.

It’s in these interviews with the people that knew her that DREAMS OF A LIFE is at its most riveting. There’s an interesting cast of characters who line up to talk about her, though none are more interesting than her two serious ex-boyfriends: the first, a nebbish, white, balding and incredibly good-natured man who was also her longest and closest friend; and the second, a slick, black, dreadlocked music manager who introduced her to Isaac Hayes and Nelson Mandela. The stark contrast between them only reinforces the view of Joyce as a woman who enjoyed trying to ingratiate into vastly different social groups, while committing to none of them.

The interviews are presented as if the interviewees have just walked in off the street – we see them learn new revelations about Joyce’s life at the same time that we learn them. The inter-cutting between the talking heads is skillfully done – there’s a great sequence where the interviewees are all unexpectedly played a tape of her voice that is totally gripping.

I was less convinced about the dramatised aspects while I was watching it, which occasionally seemed needlessly elaborate (the dramatised Joyce watching documentary footage of her real life friends discussing her on her bedsit TV). However, Zawe Ashton gives a good performance as Joyce, and some of the moments are extremely effective – a scene where Joyce sings the entirety of Carolyn Crawford’s ‘My Smile is Just a Frown’ into her hairbrush seemed self-indulgent at first, then tragic in retrospect, and ultimately has haunted me for days afterwards.

It’s become one of the most-talked about films of the festival, and with good reason: it’s an exceptionally powerful and thought-provoking work. The reaction has led to distributors bringing the release date forward to Christmas, which is certainly an interesting scheduling choice, if an appropriate one. Forget THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO – this is the real feel bad movie of Christmas.

LFF 2011: THE KID WITH A BIKE review

THE KID WITH A BIKE is another excellent film from Belgian brothers the Dardennes, and as a study of the awkward purgatory between childhood and adolescence it its right up there with its obvious forebears in KES and THE 400 BLOWS.

11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret) spends his days in a children’s home, his mother dead and his father temporarily absent. When he discovers his bike has been apparently stolen, he escapes from the home and sets about searching for it. Whilst on the hunt, he meets a young woman who he forms an immediate and literal bond with (you’ll see) – with his dad still missing, she agrees to look after him on weekends, and thus begins a relationship that proves to be tumultuous but ultimately life-changing for them both.

The reason why THE KID WITH A BIKE is ultimately so successful is in its total disregard for sentimentality – so often films about childhood descend into saccharine, rose-tinted nostalgia that bears little resemblance to actual experience. The best ones, including the films already mentioned along with more recent examples like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THIS IS ENGLAND, aren’t afraid to show that the being a kid, particularly in the nascent adolescent stage, if filled with as much if not more ugliness and confusion than at any point in their adult lives.

Cyril is, essentially, a Bad Kid – he attacks and insults people with a frequency and a ferocity that is startling – but as played by Doret he is an immensely watchable screen presence. His tiny, fragile frame and angelic features play in stark contrast to his anti-social behaviour, and as the film progresses we see that, much like Antoine in THE 400 BLOWS, the Kid just can’t catch a break. And when he’s subjected to some intense emotional abuse in the film (which is often), his gruff exterior dissolves into hurt, uncomprehending confusion in a way that is utterly believable and totally heartbreaking .It’s in these moments that we see that instead of being an inherently bad seed, it’s more that there’s something about Cyril’s nature and background that makes his peers and elders assume he’s trouble: as a result, it’s suggested that his abrasive nature is ultimately the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not exactly breaking new ground with this story, then, but it’s done with a level of sensitivity and piercing emotional directness that we’ve come to expect from the Dardennes that render it a powerful and rewarding experience. There’s also some delightful moments of humour throughout (including a highly unexpected series of nerdy video game references) and some well-judged supporting performances, including Cecile De France as Cyril’s would-be foster mother, Jérémie Renier as the father ill-suited to caring for him, and Fabrizio Rongione as a sleazy local hood.

Overall THE KID WITH A BIKE feels less powerful and affecting than something like THE CHILD, but then given the respective subject matter that’s perhaps understandable. One new element of film-making that the Dardennes explore for the first time in this film is non-diegetic music, with mixed results – the operatic strings occasionally feel out of place and instrusive with the film’s almost documentary like sense of realism. Also, although the film is a brisk 90 minutes the film has one too many false endings – however, the film’s final note is absolutely brilliant and the perfect way to conclude Cyril’s story.

THE KID WITH A BIKE is another brilliant piece of work from the Dardennes, and one that comfortably enters the pantheon of great films about childhood. Be sure to catch it when it goes on limited release early next year.

LFF 2011: A DANGEROUS METHOD review

Probably the most disappointing film of the festival, this – in my eyes, Cronenberg’s track record is nigh-on flawless, and unlike so many horror directors of his generation time hasn’t dulled his knack for getting under people’s skin, with some his most recent films (Eastern Promises and A History of Violence in particular) being among his best. So my hopes were high for this marriage of a fascinating subject (the birth of psychoanalysis), a great cast (Michael London Film Fasstival and Viggo Mortensen in particular), and one of my favourite directors in A DANGEROUS METHOD.

With such a pedigree behind it, what went wrong? It’s hard to say: A DANGEROUS METHOD is just a tepid, deeply average film, with one, egregiously terrible aspect that drags into down into the just plain bad category.

In the early part of the 20th century Carl Jung (Fassbender) tries out Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) controversial new treatment of psychoanalysis on the disturbed young woman Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), admitted after demonstrating compulsive behavior and undergoing violent fits. The treatment proves successful, and Sabina embarks on a career as a psychoanalyst herself. However, she and Jung have embarked on a tumultuous affair, one facilitated by the arrival and persuasive powers of committed polygamist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell) – this affair leads to a number tensions and recriminations between Jung and Freud, by now both his friend and intellectual rival.

A DANGEROUS METHOD was adapted from a stage play, and it really shows. It’s an extremely talky screenplay – understandably, given the film’s protagonists – but the conversations are surprisingly lifeless and dull – there are also a number jarring shifts between time periods that would work a lot better on stage than on screen. We seem to always jump forward in time by several years every time the story begins to get interesting.

Cronenberg doesn’t utilize the camera to show us anything that we would have been prevented from seeing on stage – for example, the frequent dream sequences that are described – and the material isn’t strong enough to support the film up by itself. It’s bizarre that a director responsible for some of the most memorable cinematic images in history could make such a visually unadventurous film.

The script is also heavy with dramatic irony and references that require a decent rounding in the early history of psychoanalysis to make much sense – on the other hand, the film isn’t enlightening or incisive enough to say anything new to someone already familiar with the basic concepts, which makes you wonder exactly who this film is aimed at.

Fassbender, Cassell, and Mortensen all put in decent performances, and when they’re onscreen the film putters along reasonably enough, and if it was just scenes with them the film would be passable if rarely rising above the level of a good TV movie.

I should probably preface this by saying that I am by no means a Keira Knightley hater – there’s plenty of stuff I’ve really liked her in, like ATONEMENT and NEVER LET ME GO – but her performance in A DANGEROUS METHOD is historically bad. She’s not the only one to blame – clearly Cronenberg told her to ‘go for it’ – but it’s one of the most nails-on-chalkboard irritating things I’ve seen in a cinema for a long time. Her portrayal of madness hinges on a non-stop barrage of flailing limbs, guttural noises, a stammer more over-the-top than Michael Palin in A FISH CALLED WANDA, and relentless gurning, wrapped around a ludicrous Borat-by-way-of-Robbie Coltrane in Goldeneye accent. It’s less a convincing portrayal of madness than it is a cartoonish imitation of someone found wandering around Glastonbury at 6AM on a Sunday morning. It’s not a screen performance – it’s a theatre one. Everything should have been dialled down by about thirty notches, and ultimately Cronenberg has to take as much responsibity for this as Knightley. It’s nothing personal against her, and I’m positive the next film I see her in she’ll be great, but fuck me if she isn’t unwatchable for large swathes of this.

It’s a shame A DANGEROUS METHOD turned out the way it did, because there is little in the film to ultimately recommend it. One day a great film will be made about this subject – but this sadly isn’t it.

LFF 2011: THE DESCENDANTS review

If there’s one generic label guaranteed to make me run for the hills it’s ‘comedy-drama’. I wish people who apply the label would stop being disingenuous and just call out the vast majority of these films for what they are – unfunny comedies. Film-makers- in an absence of jokes from your comedy, fill your film with aimless whimsy, weird-looking actors, avoid much happening for the majority of its running time, toss in a couple of tears and arguments, then hey presto: your film is a nailed on Sundance smash and will be snapped up by Fox Searchlight before you can say ‘charmingly offbeat’.

The only person who consistently makes good movies in the uninspired of realm of comedy dramas is Alexander Payne, perhaps because he infuses his films with a caustic wit that nicely counterbalances the sentimentality that so frequently drags down this genre, writes scripts that are actually funny, and, in perhaps his most overlooked attribute, makes films that actually look great, with a keen visual style. He’s never made a bad film, and I’m pleased to report that he’s extended his perfect record with THE DESCENDANTS.

Clooney plays against type as Matt King, a workaholic lawyer living in Hawaii who, after his wife is put into a terminal coma after a speedboat accident, is forced to take an active interest in his two daughters for the first time. His youngest, a ten-year-old, is hyperactive and destructive, while his eldest, the 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), is an angry young woman, to put it mildly. As Matt attempts to prepare for a life-changingly lucrative land deal while preparing for the last few weeks of his wife’s life, he and his daughters are forced to address their family demons head on.

That description makes THE DESCENDANTS sound pretty formulaic and trite, and indeed if I gave you three guesses at the ending you’d probably be able to figure it out. But the journey that it takes getting there is more unconventional – there’s a twist at the beginning of the second act that sets the film off down a different tangent than the ‘Clooney and his wacky kids’ plot we think we are heading down, and is all the better for it.

There is a surprisingly sensitive and insightful assessment of familial grief alongside some wicked black humour. Payne is the master of making absolutely desperate and heart-breaking moments for his characters laugh-out loud funny, without ever betraying either emotional side for the other. He’s the perfect director for the material, providing some genuinely moving moments without ever descending (hey!) into schmaltz.

The aforementioned keen visual style is also put to excellent use here, with some beautifully composed cinematography of some breathtaking Hawaiian scenery, alongside his brilliant eye for comic detail – everyone in Hawaii wears flip-flops, which leads to hilarious consequences anytime anyone has to run or chase something.

The performances are excellent, with an eye-catching performance from Woodley as King’s abrasive daughter striking just the right note – this is a troubled teenager you can believe exists, rather than the door-slamming clichéd archetype the character easily could have been. There are great supporting roles from Matthew Lillard, Rob Heubel, and particularly Robert Forster, who is always fantastic.

It’s Clooney’s show, though, and at first it’s weird to see him play the subdued, awkward type. He’s deprived of the easy charm and bravado that make him such a watchable screen presence, yet as he portrays a character who has metaphorically had the rug pulled out from him, this actually works in the film’s favour. It’s a great performance – understated, funny, and considered – and it’s hard to imagine another actor pulling the role off so well.

THE DESCENDANTS is flawed – it starts very slowly, with a terrible, exposition heavy voiceover nearly capsizing the film before it begins. Also, while the lack of a more traditional narrative works out in its favour in the long run, there are sections that occasionally feel unfocused.

To say that THE DESCENDANTS is probably the most lightweight film from Payne to date (it’s certainly no SIDEWAYS, but about on a par with ABOUT SCHMIDT) is more a sign of the absurdly high quality of his output so far than it is any slight on the movie itself: on its own terms, it’s an excellent comedy-drama. *shudder*

LFF 2011: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE review

When it’s done well, there’s fewer genres I enjoy more than the psychological thriller. I love in particular the sub-genre of movies where reality (and therefore the narrative of the film) is always treacherous due to the mental state of the protagonist/narrator slowly unraveling. If you’re after a pithy label for these movies, I suppose ‘headfuck’ is as good as anything.

After a heyday in the seventies with Polanski’s Apartment trilogy of REPULSION, ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE TENANT, the genre underwent a renaissance towards the end of the nineties with films like AMERICAN PSYCHO, FIGHT CLUB and PI, before coming to prominence again with the huge critical and commercial success of BLACK SWAN earlier this year.

At the LFF this year we have two high-profile headfucks in TAKE SHELTER and MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE – I haven’t yet seen TAKE SHELTER (I’m currently trying to pull strings to make a screening) but I have seen the excellent if irritatingly titled MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, and there’s no doubt it’s one of the most interesting and powerful films screening this year.

In the film’s chilly, wordless opening scenes, we see a rural household that is home to dozens of people, and we watch as they go about their business. Right from the off there are clues that something is up – the men all eat together, and only once they have finished and left the dining room are the women allowed to eat. In the small hours of the morning, a young girl (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes the house and runs off into the woods, as a voice calls out “Marcy May!” behind her. Eventually she makes contact with her only remaining family, sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson), who lives in a grandiose beachfront Connecticut home with an irritable property developer (Hugh Dancy).

We learn that the girl’s real name is Martha, and that she has been estranged from her sister for over two years. We flash back and forth between her new home in Conneticut, where she begins to display increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior as her fragile psychological state worsens, and her increasingly dark and unpleasant memories of the communal home.

It’s interesting how both TAKE SHELTER and MARLENE are set in pastoral middle America – I think this is ultimately a more disturbing film than something like BLACK SWAN (a film I’m a huge fan of) precisely because the psychological horror is presented in such a mundane, grounded context. It’s the David Lynch effect – the foreboding sense that the niceties of small-town USA are plastering over the cracks of a sordid, perverted reality.

There are some genuinely horrible moments in MMMM, but it’s never exploitative, or gratutitous. The camera avoids much in the way of explicit material, and huge amount is implied and suggested, which is ultimately a great deal more horrifying. There’s no operatics, literal or otherwise; no American Werewolf-esque transformation scenes, or softly lit lesbian sex – just a precise, totally credible account of the depths of mental abuse that can be inflicted on a young girl by a charismatic sociopath.

That charismatic sociopath is Patrick, played by the brilliant John Hawkes, fast becoming one of my favourite actors currently working. Here his role is like Teardrop, his incredible character from WINTER’S BONE, pulled inside out – whereas Teardrop was a sensitive soul buried deep within a prickly, violent exterior, in MARLENE he’s…well, you can probably figure it out. In any event he’s just as memorable and effective as he was in that previous, Oscar-nominated role, and continues to prove that he has more charisma in one of his ridiculously bulbous arm veins than most A-listers have in their whole bodies. All I’m saying is that if they ever make an Iggy Pop biopic he’s plainly the only candidate.

As great as Hawkes is this will be a film remembered for two debuts. The first is English-American writer-director Sean Durkin, who has produced a remarkably accomplished film for a debut feature. It’s lyrical yet intense, visually stunning, and crammed with incidental visual clues and details that I’m positive will reward further viewings. He demonstrates a remarkable eye for composition, and a grasp of claustrophobic tension and suspense that would suggest he’s been doing this for years. His storytelling style is occasionally abstruse and difficult – in particular, some of the ending scenes are almost Haneke-like in their sadistic refusal to provide any traditional sense of climax – but also (like Haneke) thought-provoking, intelligent and unsettling. Durkin is certainly a talent to watch.

Undoubtedly another talent to watch is Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of teen favourites Mary Kate and Ashley. While she has appeared in films before as a child star, this is her coming out party as a ‘serious’ actress, and it is absolutely stunning. It’s a demanding role – due to Martha’s borderline personality disorder she’s required to shift between a variety of personas, whilst still providing the human center of the film, something she does impeccably. At various stages in the film ‘Martha’ is alternately vampish, when meeting Patrick for the first time; child-like, when being taking out for a boat ride; and intense and calculating, when firing pointed and personal barbs at her bewildered sister. Yet all the while her sad eyes belie the paranoia and confusion raging inside of her. It’s a mesmerising performance, and it will be an outright scandal if she isn’t rewarded with an Oscar nomination at the very least.

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE will likely prove too cold and enigmatic for many – the title alone will scare a lot of people away. However, for those of us who can handle it, it’s a technically brilliant, superbly performed and perfectly executed movie. Headfucks don’t come much better than this.