Sunday 1 January 2012


I seem to have written about films less than ever last year (at least ones without live soundtracks). I’m not quite sure why what as once a staple of ’Lucid Frenzy’ should get such a poor showing, except for the obvious point about them being crowded out by other things. It’s not like I stopped seeing films, so let’s try and belatedly redress the balance a little now...

After the trailer for ‘Brighton Rock’ showed Pinky riding with the Mods, I was all set to lay into the film. It felt like it was playing to mid-America by sticking together the two things commonly known about Brighton. (Perhaps we should be grateful the Levellers weren’t featured, maybe playing a gig in the Royal Pavilion.) Yet, as anyone whose seen the original or read the book can tell you, it’s not only set two full decades before the Mods and Rockers era – it has to be set them, it’s a story about that era.

Actually they turn this to their advantage by updating everything around Pinkie’s gang, but leaving them as relics. Their hovel-like hideout could be from the Forties film, while their enemies’ palatial HQ at the Grand exemplifies the way crime has become professionalised – no room left for the furtive amateur and his pocket knife.

And the Mods play the same role as the storm in ’Othello’, their massing an accelerating barometer of the impending violent tragedy. (Pinky riding with them, however momentarily, is still pretty silly, however.)

But actually the best thing about the film is Andrea Riseborough’s Rose. She’s not Carol Marsh’s well-meaning good girl, but a sullen no-hoper, a thick-specced victim. After being so rigorously kicked by life, she seizes with relish her first chance to kick back. In the scene when she opens Pinky’s draw stuffed with knives and knuckledusters, it’s like she’s opening a door in her mind.

‘Attack the Block’ was probably lucky to come out in the spring, before the summer riots. After that it seemed okay to hate black kids in hoodies again, with the media in witch-hunt mode and previous liberal people like Mark Millar saying idiotic things like all rioters should be shot. I’ve a feeling it will now become shelved in the collective memory for a while, but hopefully not forever.

...for it’s actually quite a well-constructed film, balancing the humour with just enough pathos to carry you without swamping you in syrup. But perhaps it needed a plot tweak. There’s the line where the gang member calls the alien “the blackest thing I ever saw, even blacker than my cousin.” In urban coding, where black equates to ‘hard’, along comes another gang who are both blacker and harder.

So rather than the pheromone arousing mating instinct the aliens should have been specifically after revenge, their dead herald like a wasp giving off an attack signal in death. Without this the gang leader is dosed with the pheromone just by encountering the first alien, whereas everything should have been a consequence of his decision to kill it.

‘Kill List’ was probably quite flawed, but at the same time its one of those films where the flaws become part of what makes it compelling. There’s nothing neat or tidy about it, you can’t call it done and close it away, it lingers in the mind.

As most people will know by now, it performs an abrupt left-turn part-way through. Admittedly, I’d heard this before seeing the film, but unlike others I didn’t find that at all jarring. If we’ve not specifically seen anything similar up to that point, virtually everything had been marinated in that atmosphere. (Just check out the trailer below!)

However, something about that left turn does feel strangely Seventies. I’m not quite sure why that era is currently so dominant in our culture. While this is of course far superior to those pointless Seventies remakes that fill the multiplexes like landfill, it does seem strangely at odds with the desire to put the initial scenes so much in the real world.

It was one of those films which stimulated debate, and I do have a (kind of) take on what its all about. But to avoid too many spoilers all I’ll say here is – to get a good man to go bad, pepper his path with tasks which seem in the name of good.

I suppose I should be too grown-up for superhero films nowadays, but I find I keep enjoying them like some middle-aged fanboy.’ X-Men First Class’ was a successful excursion into Sixties spy thriller territory. ’Thor’, however was perhaps the greatest feat in that fans would naturally look forward to the other two, but scarcely for a character who was at most the Captain Peacock of the Avengers. (Too powerful, too remote, stuffed shirt personality etc.) It also means I liked a Kenneth Branagh film, whatever next?

Just as Rose was the surprise highpoint of ’Brighton Rock’, so Loki was to ’Thor’. (I wonder how many also saw Tom Hiddleston in the quite different ’Archipelago’?) His malevolence was less a given and more the product of a conflicted character. (Though alas, they didn’t quite have the courage of their convictions and by the finale had made him more of a melodrama villain.)

’Captain America’, if more a fan fave, can be a harder character to write than is sometimes acknowledged – for the opposite reason to Thor. He’s kind of ‘just super-powered enough’, not enhanced enough to measure against other super-types yet also more than human. (To the Avengers what Batman is to the Justice League.) This can work its worst in his war-setting stories, yet the film made a good fist of this – both super and gritty.

Marvel have generally done a good job of weaving their own-universe films together with invisible thread, so they can work standalone but also add to a bigger picture. (Presumably one to be presented in the forthcoming ’Avengers’ movie, for ’Captain America’s full title has ’The First Avenger’ appended to it.) Yet this first installment to be set in the past does suffer from a less-than-climactic final battle, which is clearly only there as a set-up device to take Cap into the present. So you remember not the battle with the Red Skull but the final scene of him in modern Times Square, which shouldn’t really be climax so much as coda. Still, that caveat aside, it’s a successful film.

Though Miyazaki only wrote ’The Secret World of Arrietty’(it was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayash), it may be his most successful film since ’Spirited Away.’ Based on Mary Norton’s book ’The Borrowers’, on the “little people” living beneath our floorboards, it’s incredible the way it creates such strange and compelling landscapes out of ordinary domestic rooms – the familiar rendered strange again. The only problem is, so compelling is this set-up that when the film later goes into plot mode it can’t really compete.

(I would post a trailer, but the only ones on-line seem to be dubbed into intrusive American accents. You can see the film sub-titled – I did!)

‘True Grit’ and ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ could both be classed as revisionist Westerns. Literally so in the case of ’True Grit’, as its a remake of an old John Wayne film. It was ’Meek’s Cutoff however which most audaciously tried to make us back to that era. A bold attempt, but not an entirely successful one.

’Tree of Life’ and ’Melancholia’, conversely, are so dissimilar they end up becoming similar again. A spiritualist (and heavily Christianised) meditation on upbringing and existence versus a dark fantasy on depression and the end of the earth. ’Melancholia’ has its moments, but I can’t help finding something adolescent about it’s endless insistence on the ‘fact’ we’re all going to die and deserve it, it’s the art movie equivalent of death metal. Perhaps what the two had in common was an inability to really engage me.

’We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and’Wuthering Heights’ could make another pair. Two British directors (Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold) break with their normal environments – into America (a Columbine-style school massacre) and historical fiction, respectively. I’ve been an admirer of both directors in the past, but perhaps preferred them when they stayed on home turf.

The medical disaster film ’Contagion’ stuck determinedly to its procedural convictions, never succumbing to hyperbole or melodrama. It almost gleefully casts Hollywood stars like Gwynth Paltrow and Kate Winslet then gives them no actual emoting to do. In fact everyone’s about as clipped and as calm as some British Forties film. In short, ’Contagion’ is the antidote to apocalypse porn. As always, the fact that people aren’t really acting like they’re in a film makes the whole concept more chillingly credible.

...but it has a strangely conservative undertaste to it. It implicitly links the virus’ spread to a wife’s extra-marital philanderings (even if the coda formally points the finger elsewhere), before going off on a subplot about the most date-restrictive father this side of the Southern Baptists.

Similarly, the Jude Law character seemed too blatant a bad guy. Okay, I got the fact that he spread a secondary contagion through his internet conspiracy theories. But surely you can suspect the motives of multinationals and government agencies without succumbing to those daft conspiracies? After the virus of Communism in the Cold War and then the fundamentalist Muslims, maybe actual viruses will be our invisible enemy in the next few years...

I also took in ’Film Socialism’, Godard’s latest up-yours to the internationalist capitalist order and film narrative. This is the one set on a cruise ship and a petrol station, respectively, and is subtitled in ‘Navaho English’, a kind of half-assed baby-speak apology for a translation. Quite why I bothered now escapes me. (Patti Smith is in it, perhaps for almost a minute.)

I also managed to take in ‘Black Swan’, ‘Inside Job’, ‘Archipelago’, ‘The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams’, ’13 Assassins’, ‘A Separation’, ‘The Guard’, ‘Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy’, ‘The Turin Horse’, ‘Shame’ and ‘Carnage’ - all recommended, albeit to mixed degrees. I did see ‘Tyrannosaur’ (Paddy Considine’s directorial debut) but despite being a fan of his acting was agnostic at a few points, as for a realist film some of it seemed a little over the top.

I missed seeing a few films I intended to, ‘Poetry’, ‘Troll Hunter’, ‘Take Shelter’, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ and ‘Another Earth’ – hopefully I’ll catch up with most of them. I did think of seeing both ‘Green Lantern’ and ‘Tin Tin’, but I’m told I didn’t miss too much...

For Part 1 (Visual Art) click here. Extra stuff on gigs and theatre incoming...

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