American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

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All in all, it’s pretty difficult to watch American Psycho as anything other than an adaptation of the novel. Beyond some good performances – naturally, Bale’s above all else – the film doesn’t add anything to the narrative whatsoever. It does, however, subtract an awful lot. The book worked primarily as a document of obsession – particularly, obsessive attention to detail. Nobody walks into a room without Patrick Bateman describing in full and minute detail what each character is wearing, where they bought it, and how much they paid. At the drop of a hat, he can provide a virtual PhD thesis on why one should only ever drink mineral water out of glass bottles. With this same level of inhuman meticulousness does Bateman describe unthinkable levels of rape, torture, murder, cannibalism and necrophilia at levels rivalling and quite possibly besting Bataille and Sade. Degrees of repugnant atrocity that defy understanding and thus flatten the relief of phenomenological perception, and are merely delegated to emotionless description.

And in the film? A couple of out-of frame and/or dimly lit stabbings and a couple of shootings, breaking the monotony of Bateman out and out telling us how crazy he is, and that he does terrible things. In essence, this is the problem – although the film is narrated by Bateman, and there is hardly a single scene without him, American Psycho betrays film’s status as a visual medium, by consistently telling us what it should be showing us, and maintaining too great a distance from the protagonist’s mental state. Having an unreliable narrator, as American Psycho assuredly does only works when the spectator has first undergone a required process of alignment with the protagonist’s subjective position, first.

American Psycho thus remains, to my mind, an unfilmable novel, its film adaptation doing nothing to sway this opinion: in order to work, the film would need to show levels of violence stretching beyond that of August Underground’s Mordum or Melancholie Der Engel and yet, in doing so, it would have no budget required for the plethora of conspicuous consumption that dominates the characters’ lifestyles. It’s not simply a question of violence, of course: the amount of time that would need to be devoted to the dogmatic description of food, drink, men’s fashion, social etiquette etc would render a legitimate adaptation more 24 Hour Psycho than American Psycho. Goodness knows, I’m the first person usually to argue with anyone who believes the success of an adaptation should be measured by its fidelity to the source text, but the heart and soul of this story is devotion to minutiae which, in the film, are passed off as diversions and vagueries. Beyond there being no blood in American Psycho, there’s considerably little meat – it’s a largely glossy, rather funny, and certainly very well-executed advert for the book, complete with fine acting and a wonderful John Cale score. It’s an enjoyable watch, but far too bland to offer anything incisive in the way of social satire or, at least, a good horror.

At the end of the day, American Psycho‘s essential if enjoyable failure – much like The Neon Demon‘s – reveals what may at first seem like paradox, but later seems like common sense: if you want to investigate shallowness, you have to have your film go deep.

⭐⭐⭐

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Cat’s Cradle (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

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The thing about works of “lyrical film,” such as Brakhage’s is that the artist’s ideology can be understood in many ways to permeate the film to an extent often far surpassing the majority of mainstream cinema’s most recognisable auteurs. Cat’s Cradle is by no means an exception to this rule. Brakhage was, without a doubt, one of the most formally and aesthetically accomplished key figures in the world of artist’s film throughout the entire latter half of the 20th Century and, goodness knows, when his striving to open the door to a cornucopia of visual experiences, as far removed from ideology as cinematically possibly was successful, it was really successful. However, there are also nigh-countless examples of him almost bizarrely making use of archetypal signifiers that act in total accord with the standard symbolic order. Thus, Brakhage may earnestly believe that Cat’s Cradle is an example of “sexual witchcraft involving two couples and a ‘medium’ cat,” but what appears before us is two women, doing womanly duties, and two men lounging around, smoking. The only things missing are a couple of martinis and pairs of slippers.

Thus, although Carolee Schneemann does specifically point toWindow Water Baby Moving as the film against which her ownFuses can be said to fight back, it would seem highly remiss not to mention Cat’s Cradle, not least of all because it involves Stan, Jane, Carolee, James and Kitch the Cat – the latter 3 all having starring roles in Fuses. Window Water Baby Moving assuredly is problematic in taking a film of Jane giving birth and successfully making it all about Stan, it is Cat’s Cradle that so clearly assigns men and women traditional, hetero-patriarchal roles, with which Carolee and James look particularly uncomfortable.

The formal elements of the film, from the red glow to the rapid, chaotic juxtapositions and visual dialogue from gaze to gaze is as beautiful as it is impressive – enough to gain it 3 stars in my estimation – but, with regard to the “sexual witchcraft” remit, it ultimately fails.

***

 

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

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The Nice Guys is a genuinely enjoyable action comedy neo-noir which is tragically let down by the fact that the combination of director, cast, setting, premise and plot puts the films LA Confidential, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice so firmly in one’s head as to make them irremovable and, sadly, they are all much better and much more memorable films than The Nice Guys ever was going to be. There are some great moments and child actor Angourie Rice, playing the Penny to Gosling’s Inspector Gadget is in my opinion the film’s secret weapon in mixing comedy with charm, but held in particular against Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, its flaws do shine through. For one, The Nice Guys dwells for too long on the “buddy movie” angle, which inevitably blunts its neo-noir edge. This is a real shame, when the charming implausibility of the central conspiracy, if finessed and explored further might well have made this a real contender in this slowly expanding sub-sub(?)-genre. Instead, by spending too much time following the leads, despite the scene-stealing support, The Nice Guys comes across as a little too economically conscious as it sacrifices story for stars, thus leaving the impression that lightning very rarely strikes twice. It can hit reasonably close, though.

***

The Scapegoat (Robert Hamer, 1959)

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A compelling and enjoyable little film, with solid performances all-round, The Scapegoat is one of myriad stories about doppelgängers switching roles, from The Prince and the Pauper through to Dave and beyond. However, The Scapegoat kicks off with a little more of a North By Northwest vibe, as depressed provincial university professor John Barratt (Alex Guinness) is constantly taken for Jacques de Gué (also Guinness), despite all protestation, following being drugged by Jacques and left with his familial and financial responsibilities, including an alienated wife, a daughter who threatens to self-defenestrate simply to start a conversation, an invalid morphine addict of a mother (Bette Davis), and an amorous Italian mistress.

Not simply for Alec Guinness in multiple roles did I however feel a startling connection to Kind Hearts and Coronets, so I’m completely unsurprised to discover this film is in fact a Robert Hamer film. Sadly, I am also unsurprised to discover this was his penultimate, and last film he completed (being sacked during School For Scoundrels‘ production) due to his alcoholism being in full swing, Wikipedia informing me Guinness himself having to take on directorial duties when Hamer was too inebriated.

I wouldn’t call The Scapegoat‘s direction necessarily lacklustre, but it is certainly – and unsurprisingly – non-committal. There is at least one strong narrative turn that demands considerably more suspense than it receives, and an ending which should address a startling ambiguity and conflict of interests, but casually glides over them to make the viewer somewhat unsatisfied, rather than on the tenterhooks I believe they should be. Instead, The Scapegoat is left largely at a point of pleasant viewing, simply because the majority of the story is, well, pleasant: John does a very impressive job of settling into his new life, as long as you ignore all the plot holes – as you are encouraged too. Ignoring the big one at the end, how is he going to continue supplying his mother with illicit morphine, without Jacques’ presumably Parisian connections?

Thus, The Scapegoat is absolutely fine in an afternoon-viewing sort of way but, with Hitchcock at the helm, or even just a sober Hamer, this might have been elevated to something much more memorable.

 

***

Legend (Brian Helgeland, 2015)

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Legend is either a truly fantastic star vehicle, or a fairly by-the-numbers gangland biopic. I prefer to think of it as the former, though the Sunset Boulevard-esque narration from Frances (Emily Browning), existing as it does on a see-saw between unnecessary and obnoxious, does rather coerce me at points to see it as the latter. Strong performances from pretty much all involved, inevitably overshadowed by Tom Hardy’s exhilarating, if slightly cartoonish, twofer performance (I also cannot shake comparisons from my mind between his Ronnie Kray and Peter O’Hanara-hanrahan from The Day Today), although I believe that Paul Bettany’s role in the film is perhaps all the more transformative.

A lot of very nice direction and cinematography, though not much of it original – many shots felt directly lifted from GoodFellas and The Long Good Friday – both of which are films that strike me as having considerably more re-watch value – Legend is a standard 3-star film that, when I first reviewed it, gained an extra half on the basis of  the aesthetic positives of Hardy’s attractiveness. However, as I remember just how pointlessly drawn out the final act was, and the ripeness of Browning’s narration, I feel inclined to remove it.

***

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

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A neatly written, well acted horror film that operates fully on the “girls to the front” ethos, The Descent would be excellent, if it weren’t for the fact that it isn’t in the slightest bit scary. Annoying as it is, the film’s noble intention to showcase regular female badassery renders the encounters with the vampire-esque monsters much more like an action film than a horror film, complete with frankly stupid Bourne Identity-reminiscent rapid editing techniques that completely alienate the spectator from any form of empathic involvement in the panic and fear these characters are supposed to be, reasonably, feeling as they are trapped underground, sharing space with bloodthirsty creatures unlike anything they’ve seen before. The psychological aspects of the protagonist Sarah’s potentially self-destructive emotions, surrounding the death of her family are referenced sporadically enough to consider them little more than a half-hearted afterthought to the narrative at large, and the whole experience comes across as rather sub-Whedon-esque. Enjoyable and exciting viewing, complete with decent monsters, but little substance under a variable style.

***

Ransom (Ron Howard, 1996)

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Rewatched 2nd July 2015

 

An actually very solid kidnapping thriller with some fantastic supporting cast, both in terms of the kidnappers, and the people trying to get the kid back. However, under the most basic level of class-based analysis, Ransom‘s moral fortitude crumples like tissue paper. I will never forget that reaction shot of the kid seeing the Lili Taylor character’s neck tattoo, and pulling this facial expression that just screams the moral of this film: “PEOPLE WITH TATTOOS ARE BAD NEWS. FEAR THE PROLETARIAT. IGNORE THEIR VERY REASONABLE CRITICISMS OF THIS MULTI-MILLIONAIRE’S ANTITRUST-DODGING CORRUPTION AND BELIEVE THE THROWAWAY LINE THAT IMPLIES ONLY RICH CHILDREN ARE KIDNAPPED AND DON’T THINK TOO HARD ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO ALL POOR CHILDREN WHO ARE KIDNAPPED BY PEOPLE WHO WANT SOMETHING MUCH WORSE THAN MONEY.” Seriously, like, when you think about Hollywood’s awful history of promoting Red Scare and doing business with the Mafia to physically assault union members who would exercise their right to strike and protest working conditions, you do start to realise what the underlying message is and what this film is all about.

***

As Above, So Below (Jon Erick Dowdle, 2014)

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As Above, So Below actually has quite a few things going for it. First things first: it’s a treasure-hunting adventure movie in the vein of Tomb Raider, National Treasure or perhaps most appropriately, Les Adventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc Sec done as a horror film, and manages to avoid pretty much all obvious references to films such as The Mummy and The Relic. Also, something that’s always rather important for the found-footage sub-genre, explanation for the constant filming is handled pretty well. Perhaps the most important distinction between As Above, So Below and a great many other horror films (or films, just generally) is the fact that it manages to establish every character as likeable and worthy of your attention and care for when they come to a sticky end. That’s a pretty winning formula, especially when you have a genuinely interesting premise thrown into the mix.

But good god, the ending. I’m going to avoid spoilers here, but the ending really is a brilliant explanation as to why so many writers like Arthur Conan Doyle made a habit of writing their stories backwards: a great and reasonably original first and second act does not necessarily guarantee your story will simply evolve into a great and original third. Sadly, As Above, So Below does come across as a pretty classic example of what happens when you have a bunch of good ideas, with no plan. I understand why many would simply write off the film on this basis (and, goodness knows, many have) but, just as good sex is not centred around the orgasm, perhaps a good film should not be centred around the ending, so I still enjoyed this film enough to give it a 3 star rating, and do feel really rather tempted to give it another half, out of admiration for its spirit.

There are a couple of funny flubs before the ending, but ones that I personally believe add to its charm (George translating an Aramaic script directly into a quaint AABB rhyme for instance) – whilst I certainly don’t consider it to be as good as other found-footage horrors like [REC] or The Last Exorcism I found this film a great late-night watch and I’m pretty positive I’ll do so again.

***

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

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I first heard executive producer Elijah Wood mention “a black and white vampire film, shot entirely in Farsi called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” in, I think, a promotional interview for Maniac like, two years ago. And then I somehow completely missed the opportunity to see it at the London Film Festival, like, one year ago. So the anticipation to seeing this film, as it slowly gathered more and more stellar reviews as it tried to get widespread distribution, was pretty intense. With such a build-up, it could only be absolute perfection or a total disappointment, right?

Well, not quite. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is good. But not great. It’s beautifully shot, with a really interesting mixture of Killer of Sheep-esque post-italian-neorealist aesthetics, gothic expressionist inflections and a considerably more modern Indiewood vibe. The soundtrack is great and it plays with the diegetic / non-diegetic binary in a way I’ve rarely seen happen. The horror element is sporadic but strong and the sound design is intense – most cinemas’ speakers have been really struggling to handle the bass. The only problem is the relatively 2-dimensional quality of most of the characters. The Girl announces at one point that she has “done many bad things,” but there is no real evidence for this – the promotions for this film say she “preys on men who disrespect women,” but then she goes and kills a rough sleeper for no reason whatsoever and traumatises a small boy who has done nothing wrong. However, despite these inconsistencies, it’s a fine film.

I do, despite disappointment I pretty much knew was coming, anticipate a second viewing. However, there is a strong chance that it might result in a lower rating.

 

***