The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

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Retrospectively, it’s pretty much impossible not to look at The Ides of March and not see it as existing almost purely as the personification of the gestative period between two crucial political thrillers: Michael Clayton and House of Cards. However, whilst both Clayton and Cards stand as testament to the fact that thrillers made of 90% conversation and a maximum of 10% murder can, through artful use of cynicism, irony, misdirection and deception, still turn the dial up to 11, Ides of March never really goes far above a middling 5 or 6.

Clooney’s direction is competent if uncharismatic, and the editing’s looseness does little to dissuade the typical parodic critiques of Gosling’s dispassionate performance. However, the capital-A Acting is without a doubt as consistently impressive as you would expect from a line-up of Clooney, Gosling, Seymour Hoffman, Tomei and Giamatti, with Rachel Wood very much holding her own. Still, the characters all feel too archetypal for the cast to find anything particularly new or interesting to, other than be good on the back of their talent alone. Combine this with a story that never really has anyone acting comparatively that badly, nor the repercussions (save for one character, whose fate is written on their forehead from the get-go) that punishing, and you soon see that the stakes just plain aren’t high enough to demand any serious attention be paid to it. No matter how well acted it may be, a House of Cards with its teeth removed is, at the end of the day, just a lot of grey.

 

**

 

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

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Still pretty hot on the tails of his previous, similarly named revenge subversion, Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a triumph of his increasingly signature style of adding mumblecore sensibilities to genre-flick settings and, in so doing, establishing a surprising synthesis that eschews the navel-gazing of one and the repetition of the other. I’m reminded of the myriad youtube parodies of West Anderson’s instantly recognisable style, applying it to the tropes of pornography and horror – there’s a brilliant fake trailer for, I believe You’re Next as directed by Anderson – were Saulnier not already rapidly establishing himself as an auteur in his own right, one could easily describe Green Room in terms of premise, execution and success, as “Straw Dogs, as directed by Richard Linklater.”

Hardcore band The Ain’t Rights’s tour of the Pacific Northwest comes disastrously a-cropper and they find themselves the hapless opening act for a neo-Nazi skinhead club. (Sidenote: the person who books the gig describes them as “far right, well, technically far left,” which might actually imply the members adhere to a violent wing of the perpetually embarrassing and 99.9% of the time just as racist National-Anarchism movement. However, there are Swastikas abound, so it clearly has, at the very least devolved into full-blown neo-Nazism, whatever the original intentions allegedly were. It’s in no way relevant to the plot, but it did get me thinking, nonetheless.) Following a set that starts off defiantly bumpy due to a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ anthemic “Nazi Punks Fuck Off!” the band stumble upon a grisly murder scene in the eponymous green room and quickly find themselves barricaded, fending off attacks from the nastiest members of the movement, not to mention their bloodthirsty attack dogs, all led by the silver-tongued and scheming Darcy (Patrick Stewart).

True dialectical materialism demands both thesis and antithesis to be at a climactic stage of development for the synthesis, andGreen Room is absolutely no exception – the film is a masterful balancing act of bloodiness and gore which extracted a fair few gasps from my fellow audience members, and a genuinely humanist attitude, spending time and energy on establishing inner conflicts and contradictions in even the most minor of characters, allowing for motives to “justify” everyone’s actions to a point of sense, but never having it be so clear-cut to a point of 2-dimensionality. Thus, this world of brutal violence is immediate and inherent, purely for the reasons that the writing, direction, editing, acting, even the mise-en-scène (“performance” not in fact being a simple synonym for acting, but the cumulative effect of all formal elements onto acting) contribute to a holistic reality that all individuals congregate towards a singular ideology for largely personal reasons. Whilst in most slashers, the actual motivations of the killer/s are irrelevant if they known at all, these motivations become the driving force, in some cases bringing enemies together and splitting allies apart. Such character complexity within a horror on the most primary level allows the increase of pathos to make every death be felt by the spectator and count all the more. On the secondary level, it defines trope expectation and allows even the most abhorrent of bad guy ideology (and Nazism is nothing if not that) to remain at the very least a sign of a consistent integrity which, if and when broken by some of the antagonists for individualist ulterior motives, deepens certainly the narrative evil and, arguably, the moral evil itself.

Add to this all an amazing punk soundtrack – my personal favourite being Bad Brains’ “Right Brigade” over the end credits – not to mention a wonderful original score, and stellar acting across the board, and Green Room truly becomes yet another vital milestone in the apparent international horror golden age the 2010s are swiftly becoming.

Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

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Every time the LGBT+ film festivals come around, I tend to give something of a groan. Sure, there’s the occasional Tangerine, the occasional Tropical Malady, but the grand majority are always mumblecore-esque coming-of-age romantic drama snoozefests. So, I hadn’t really be in much of a hurry to check out Pariah – a coming-of-age (semi)-romantic drama – any time soon.

Pariah‘s story assuredly does not take us anywhere new: the same largely-uninitiated protagonist finding her feet, the same outgoing best friend who’s more interwoven with the community but is on a lower rung of society, the same repressive, shouty mother, the same kid sister, the same creative outlet, the same supportive teacher etc. However, adherence to generic conventions only limits a film’s originality on the level of narrative; Pariah still manages to win on all other counts. Indeed, I would have described any other film with so much that we have seen so many times before as cliché; thus Pariah existing in my mind as simply “a bit tropey” is, frankly, a feat in and of itself.

Pariah‘s highest achievement is assuredly its deft creation of a believable universe, using Brooklyn’s geography as a referential chart for the emotional topography, traversed by so many characters that, even when some of the younger stars’ acting is a little – and, I do stress, a little – patchy in places, all the other formal elements of Pariah align to bolster the actors into a compelling and distinctly real performance. That said, on a wider level, I can’t help but feel somewhat irked by the film’s promotion of an already very much extant suspicion of bisexual/non-monosexual queer orientation.

Pariah is by no stretch of the imagination a game-changer, but its mixture of attractive cinematography, uniformly impressive performances, great soundtrack and, yes, elevation of a young Black queer experience helps it play the game awfully well.

 

****

Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, 2015)

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There are certainly many arguments to be made about what makes the cinema the cinema, what makes a film a film. A popular argument does rest on editing: the complementation and/or juxtaposition of images. Still, as a well-known fan of post-intellectual montage Socialist cinema (e.g. Tarkovsky), and indeed the cinema post-that (e.g. Tarr), the long take, in which the cameraman effectively becomes the editor is hardly a new concept to me; nor one that presents many inherent hurdles I need to “get over” to enjoy the film.

Nor should it be: the single shot – even the single frame – film has existed, both in concept and reality, bouncing in dialogue between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema for decades now. From Frampton to Hitchcock to Sokurov to Iñarritu. However, Victoria is certainly one of the first genre films I’ve encountered, filmed in one take; generic devices so often by definition relying upon traditional filmic conventions such as editing. I would tentatively suggest that one of the main events that has happened in the 13 years since the release of Russian Arkin 2002 and Victoria, first released in Germany in 2015, was the found-footage-horror boom (The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, but the explosion of this style to ubiquity only really happened in about 2007). It only was a matter of time, therefore, before the steady increase of genre film with the atmosphere and simulation of an unedited, real-time occurrence would result in a film like Victoria, the moment the technology was there.

The film can, more or less, be split into thirds: before / after Victoria decides not to end her night by opening up the café at which she works, and instead to help her new friends out, with what she doesn’t yet know, and before / after that event itself. I certainly enjoyed the first two-thirds, and found the last section certainly more than watchable. It is in no way unimpressive to see a film develop so seamlessly from a Before Sunrise walk-and-talk to a high-octane crime drama. However, as will all films, it is important to ask: is a film more than its formal elements, even if we understand acting and narratology as a formal element? Does it matter that the story and motivations, divorced from the formal devices – fabulous as they may be – are largely workaday and a little unsatisfactory, or should we just allow them to blend in our minds, as indeed they should inherently do?

One of the ways in which the effect and affect seem most connected is the phenomenological impression left on the viewer. By the last section of Victoria, the shaky camera and high intensity of the storyline combined to make me feel utterly seasick and a little anxious for the film to end, though I was acutely aware that this was quite likely a genuine empathetic connection with the protagonist. However, the fact that Victoriadrew my attention to the formal process of itself, even as it had an emotional, even haptic, effect on me left me with the impression I had seen a gimmick – an engaging, well-acted gimmick – but a gimmick nonetheless.

However, Victoria still wins on many levels: Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gets billed in the end credits above director Sebastian Schipper, as is only correct – as good as the majority of the acting is (and it really is), the camera work can really only be classed with one word and that is “heroic.” The fluidity not only of its movement (how Grøvlen wasn’t tripping over himself constantly through all the location changes on foot and in automobile is beyond belief in and of itself) but its focus changes provide a film in which the whole frame is constantly vital: moving deftly from exactly those sorts of close-ups Hitchcock famously likened to crash cymbals to a shot that utilises foreground and background simultaneously, with the spectator encouraged to study both, even when one is highly blurred. Such an effect is truly harmonious in the context of a film in which the protagonist is a non-German-speaker, surrounded by Germans, affording the spectator a slight upper-hand in terms of understanding over Victoria, even though we are constantly aligned with her. Aptly enough, the recent found footage (esque) horror Unfriended, set entirely on a computer screen made use of the spectator’s ability to read messages the protagonist would write and delete before sending them, as way of giving a unique point of access to her interior monologue.Victoria‘s use of Sonne, Boxer and Blinker’s frantic German discussions, going right over Victoria’s head give a similar effect, albeit in reverse.

There is an awful lot going for Victoria, thus I don’t want my labelling of it as a gimmick to be seen as pure dismissal. Rather,Victoria should stand proudly as testament that, just because a film may be groan-inducingly characterised as a “rollercoaster ride of a movie” doesn’t mean the rollercoaster can’t have a little depth.

 

***1/2

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

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The “charming psychopath” trope is truly one of the tropiest out there, and yet we never really see it. Usually you can divide them between your Dexter Morgans – who are much less “charming” than they are “awkward,” a little bumbling, convincing all around that they are totally harmless anoraks, despite their ripped abs and blood on their shirt – and your Hannibal Lecters, whose definition of charm seems to be “hang your class privilege over absolutely everyone’s head and intimidate people into sucking up to you, even when you’ve killed people making less than minimum wage for being uncouth.” Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally, more than any other character I can recall, embodies the charming psychopath.

The main thing about them of course, is that the charm is studied, mimetic – forced, even – and, through its inorganic nature, will always eventually run its course for the people around the performer, much like a TV show that’s been on too long, relying on re-runs and unimpressive updates. (Did someone say The Simpsons?) Thus, whilst Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely stellar, it absolutely relies upon the support of the increasing unease on the faces of Rick (Riz Ahmed) and Nina (Rene Russo) to establish Lou’s relationship with the outside world.

Without a doubt, Nightcrawler‘s gritty sideways look the rubbernecking industry does owe something to Network but, frankly, I refuse to compare them: it’s uninspired and boring and there have been plenty of other journalistic satires over the years. What Nightcralwer does, to my mind pretty uniquely, is keep the narrative located almost entirely through Lou’s nocturnal eyes. This means – and praise God – none of those catatonically dull shots of people in diners asking the waitress to “turn it up,” or toast falling out of businessmen’s mouths at the breakfast table. Instead, Nightcrawler follows the stringer business as a business of the most objectivist: subjects are subjects of interests, human beings are human capital, even and especially in death.

I was, apparently mistakenly, under the impression before I watched it that Nightcrawler was based on the true story of Wallace Souza, a Brazilian anchor who ordered killings to ensure he could report on them before anyone else, including cops, could reach the crime scene. Thus, especially in the light of the film’s opening, in which Lou attacks, possibly kills, a security guard to steal scrap metal and a nice watch, I was waiting for his pursuits to escalate to straight-up committing murders. That his actions remain – arguably, and for the length of the film – just below that didn’t actually disappoint me; rather, it allowed Lou to be the icon of journalism bending the rules right up to breaking point, but not necessarily over it. That said, the ending and final image could have been a little more enigmatic.

As is the modern LA noir way, the film glows in the naturally unnatural lighting of the city, which – following Inherent Vice  arguably is becoming just as much cinematographer Robert Elswit’s signature as it is Nicolas Winding Refns’. However, just as Lou’s neoliberal loquaciousness stands in opposition to The Driver’s near-mute levels of laconism, the neon incandescence of Drive remains unchallenged by Nightcrawler, whose atmosphere still rests on the surrounding natural beauty, and all the human treachery hidden within. My – possibly only – complaint about Drive has always been that there just isn’t enough driving, which contributes to a slight skewing of the film’s climax. Nightcrawler successfully delivers the driving I felt Drive held out on me, which makes me desperately want to watch these two, back-to-back, at my earliest possible convenience.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy Nightcrawler quite as much as I did, and maybe a second viewing will lower my rating, but it’s left me a very satisfied customer today.

 

****1/2

Circle (Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione, 2015)

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If the Cube series taught us anything, it was that the point about Kafka-esque locked-room sci-fi scenarios is that, if you want to know what’s on the other side of the door, it’s because you really don’t know what you want. This fact absolutely remains set in stone for Circle. A motley group of 50 find themselves in a circular room that kills a person at random every two minutes, until they quickly realise they have the ability to vote for who dies next.

Unlike the first and best Cube, which does in fact hold an escape route found within a savant’s ability to perform mental arithmetics to the level of prime factorisation, both the survival stratagem and plot ofCircle is at once more accessible and more cruel, on the basis of it coming down to a considerably more human element: personality, prejudice, biased consideration.

There is an exceptionally strong potential, just bubbling below the surface of Circle in which racism, classism and queerphobia, not to mention the more abstract inner-workings of the human psyche could have really been addressed, but all we get is, well, surface. A couple of easy stereotypical bigot lines you could have lifted from a youtube comments section on a very, very slow day and you start to wonder why the majority lets some of the assholes live for as long as they do, especially considering they decide to kill all the people in their 70s and 80s first, then turn instantly to a 52-year old woman, even though one of the biggest douches of the bunch is clearly never going to see 60 again.

Circle, particularly on account of its shape and the almost farcical hopelessness of the plight did make me think not only of Kafka but Foucault and his panopticon, and was certainly diverted by how quickly and earnestly the characters establish pathetic voting rituals and teams, making threats and promises, all constantly talking about “buying time” to work out how to fight back, but never even bothering to do so… there’s a lot to read into, there, and a lot of allegories to make.

However, there just isn’t anywhere near enough meat on the bones to inspire anyone to bother to do so, and the ending is a really disappointing deflation. Oh well.

**

Slow Action (Ben Rivers, 2010)

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Fascinating and deceptive, Slow Action is a pseudo-anthropological essay film that combines legitimate documentation with fiction direction and an entirely fantastical, almost completely separate, commentary, read by multiple voices.

Accordingly, Slow Action seems prefigured on a number of established ambiguities of fiction and reality, exotica and mundanity. There is arguably slightly too much of a cognitive dissonance between the images and commentary for the spectator to receive both simultaneously, thus they are in a certain competition which can be understood as indicative of a larger question relating to the white, western gaze and the rivalry between the Bazinian indexicality of the photographic / cinematographic image and the colonial and othering attitude that informs that image’s reception, time and again.

The competition between narrative and image may, however, be most often won by the image, on the basis that the very old-school narration technique of Slow Action is not read evocatively at all, but it is clearly modelled on a pre-Attenborough mode of pedagogy that certainly increases a sense of that colonial gaze, but arguably at the expense of reading much into the disjunct available. However, Slow Action, especially at 45min running time, should be able to hold your attention enough to get enjoyment out of a mixture of all its parts. Whether the whole is as great as them I leave to the individual spectator, but I’ve liked it both times I’ve seen it, especially as I’m currently re-reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

****