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The Only Safe Thing is to Take a Chance. Mike Nichols

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1931 - 2014 R.I.P

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Contents p6. WHIPLASH / Dark Magus p18. INHERENT VICE / Endless Bummer p26. BIRDMAN / Under the Hood p34. FOXCATCHER / Triple Crown Championship p40. SAFE / Remembering Safe p48. Top 1o Films of 2o14 p70. WILD TALES / The Wicked and the Wonderful p76. ERNST LUBITSCH / Manners Maketh the Man p82. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II / In Defence... p88. SE7EN / In the Frame

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Editor's Letter

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e’ve counted down from ten, sang Auld Lang Syne and made numerous resolutions we don’t intend to start, let alone finish. It must be the New Year. A bonus, or a curse – depending on who you ask – of this period is that it allows us to reflect on the preceding twelve months. As lovers of the silver screen, this normally manifests itself in lists of our favourite films, in a conscious attempt – everyone being their own miniature Academy – to label something the best film of the year. As well as plucking out personal favourites it allows us to evaluate the year as a whole and wonder what its place within cinema history may be in years to come. To be critical, there was a distinct lack of standout breakthroughs or mind-bending debuts - a freshness of voice was sorely missed. But what we were left with was still worth savouring; great filmmakers making good and sometimes great films.

And 2015 has got off to a flyer already. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a blistering, breathless examination of what it takes to reach perfection; Bennett Miller’s austere and foreboding Foxcatcher; the return of Michael Keaton in Birdman, Iñárritu’s critical satire of the mainstream. All eagerly awaited since making their festival debuts in 2014. And a certain Paul Thomas Anderson has a new release out this month too. It’s an embarrassment of riches. For those regular readers who’ve missed Vérité over the last couple of months, we hope this issue will satisfy your thirst. And we hope you like the new look too. 2015 sees us move from our monthly cycle to a quarterly one and the extra time should allow us more time to plan our issues and deliver you the best content possible. There may be less of us during this forthcoming cinematic year, but we’re aiming for quality over quantity. Viva Vérité.

Thanks for reading, Jordan McGrath and David Hall

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ALL ABOUT

THE JAZZ 6

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Dark Magus writer CRAIG WILLIAMS

Craig Williams searches for the Spirit of Jazz in the American Cinema

“Either way you’re bound to function / Fifty-Second Street’s the junction.” From Parker’s Band by Steely Dan

I. Acknowledgment

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ll paths lead to God”. This handwritten annotation appears on the first page of John Coltrane’s sheet music for A Love Supreme. Jazz - the sole American art form - is the pathway to God. Its conception is the shame of a nation, but its trajectory is its salvation. Cinema, on the other hand, is the great pretender; the bastard son raised as the prodigal. It was created in France but cultivated, coddled and indulged by its adopted nation. The movies entered the popular consciousness as the primary American art; a regal, striding creation of the country’s finest pioneers. Cinema whitewashed the essence of jazz because it was the art born of violence; the sound that started in the cotton fields and

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grew up in the slums, saloons and whorehouses. This article is about the pretender and the pilgrim, and how the former represented the latter. It is a search for the true spirit of jazz in the American cinema. We cannot define what we mean by jazz, and nor would we want to. To do so would be to lose oneself in a mire of sub-genres and tedious etymological debate. “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know” said Louis Armstrong. So let us ignore unnecessary divisions and demarcations. There is no ragtime, bop or fusion. No blues, swing or Dixieland revival. Like Coltrane, we are transcending place and time. Kansas City, New Orleans and New York are one. We are chasing jazz as a mood, a stance, a mindset. We’re here for the improvisation, the syncopation and the polyrhythms. We’re here for swung notes and blue notes, dissonance and chromaticism. Because somewhere in that sound there’s a yearning; a

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reach for something just beyond the player’s grasp. Did the movies understand this? Could they find that place, if only for a fleeting moment? How do you catch a revolution on screen? It’s not in the background music of coffee shops and wine bars, nor in the endless establishing shots of that Manhattan skyline. It’s not in that lavishly decorated ballroom while the big band snoozes through the standards for the amassed gentry at an Upper East Side wedding. It’s not the in the prissy parade of resume-boosting a cappella groups for ambitious high school students. It’s not there in the silences of the adulterous bourgeois couple seeking shelter in that unfamiliar underground dive. It’s not in the cavernous shopping malls, innocuously soundtracking the consumerist hysteria of Christmas. It’s neither tastefully peppered nor unassumingly refined. And yet that’s so much of jazz in the movies.


What we’re looking for is in the desolation of Art Pepper’s bedroom in Notes from a Jazz Survivor (1982). It’s in the mania of Bill Pullman’s dissonant saxophone freakout in Lost Highway (1997) and in the nervous sweat running down Harry Belafonte’s face as he watched his gangland paymasters in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). There’s plenty of it in Carl Lee’s cool swagger through the grotty flat of The Connection (1962), as there is in Jeanne Moreau’s midnight walks in Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and in the impending violence of Robert De Niro’s eyes in New York, New York (1977). It can hardly be contained in Bobby Darrin’s face as he watches his old band play in Too Late Blues (1961) or in Frank Sinatra’s veins in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). This article is about understanding the fleeting perfection of these moments and harnessing the unruly noise around them. We will

see jazz as a narrative of emancipation, from slavery, from society, from this mortal coil. We will document cinema’s empathy, understanding and partnership, but we will also witness its antagonism, petulance and colonial aggression. Chronology be damned; this is a heady thematic canter through the dual histories. We will find the racial narrative set by a tortuous marriage of the forms, and the cinema’s subsequent colonialist take on the medium. We will riff on the power of the image and query the line between documentation and fetishisation. We will question the meaning of that yearning at the heart of the music, and where the camera found it. Most of all, we will hold the mirror of cinema up to jazz, and consider the fidelity of the reflection. If jazz is searching for God in an American wasteland, then cinema is its unreliable companion in that pilgrimage. Uneasy lies the art that shoulders the burden of history.

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II.

C

Resolution

inema and jazz grew up together. By the time the Biograph Company sent D.W. Griffith to that lot on Georgia Street with his repertory company in tow, it was already in full swing. The fateful meeting of the forms happened early, and it set the tone for the way they would intersect for decades to come. Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first feature film with synchronized dialogue sequences, meaning that the talkies were born of jazz. The picture is symbolic of the narrative of this relationship in a number of ways. Cinema’s first words were those of the titular jazz singer, and the resonance of this is unquantifiable. The Jazz Singer’s connection with the musical form is built on blunt symbolism in the foreground, and more

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complicated narratives bubbling away in the background. The music is unlike the jazz that will be covered elsewhere in this essay, but it’s self-identification as jazz is important. Al Jolson plays a young singer breaking against the traditions of his devout Jewish family to sing in bars. He runs away from home and becomes a popular jazz singer, but is increasingly troubled by the conflict between his new lifestyle and his heritage. The picture is of course notorious for the use of blackface, a distressing trend that came to prominence in the American theatre in the 19th century. The legacy and significance of this element of the film has been well-documented elsewhere, but let us consider it in the context of jazz in the movies. By the 1920s, jazz had become an economy, and the social and financial power of white America came to bear down on black artists. Racism started to govern the daily business of jazz, with black artists subjugated in a number of ways, from prohibitive hurdles blocking access to high-end bookings to economic exploitation at the hands of the gangs that ran the shadier nightclubs of New York and Chicago. The gradual alleviation of these conditions only began to occur as the form grew in popularity, with the increased media coverage drawing critical attention to the blatant

The Jazz Singer is one of the most notable examples of cinema's neo-colonialist approach to jazz.

inequalities. At this stage, the racist counter-narrative of jazz takes on a subtler, but equally insidious form. The Jazz Singer is one of the most notable examples of cinema’s neo-colonialist approach to jazz. It takes the racial identity of the art and, through the use of blackface, desecrates it. It anaesthetises a violent history of slavery and exploitation by turning the victim into caricature. This is the cinematic whitewash of jazz’s legacy; the seizing of narratives to alter their course. The Jazz Singer may be a product of its time, but it also takes ownership of contemporary prejudices and steers them in its desired direction. Its legacy in cinema was unshakeable for decades. While blackface was quickly rendered obsolete, the sidelining of black culture in jazz remained prevalent throughout cinema’s history. It manifested itself in different, often ambiguous ways. Take, for example, a duo of films from two great studio auteurs; The Glenn Miller Story (1954) by Anthony Mann and Young Man with a Horn (1950) by Michael Curtiz. Both are excellent, but they are part of the neo-colonialist narrative, albeit inadvertently, in that they represent the tendency of the musical biopics of the 1940s and 1950s to focus on the white jazz player. In doing so, Hollywood consciously ignored the truth of the music, and built an image of the jazz world that was divorced from its real life counterpart (in the same way it would do with boxing movies). The trend can also be seen in more minor works like Melville Shavelson’s The Five Pennies (1959) (starring Danny Kaye) and Victor Schertzinger’s New Orleans-based Bing Crosby picture Birth of the Blues (1941).

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Even the films of the period that have been celebrated for their racial sensitivity form key parts of the same narrative. There is no doubt that Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943) – with its all-black cast – was a step forward, providing an important showcase for the overlooked black actors of 30s and 40s Hollywood. It was a big risk for Arthur Freed’s MGM stable, with many cinemas refusing to show the film, but its attitude to black culture though undeniably well-meaning - is still beset with types and caricatures. Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (1943) similarly featured prominent roles for black actors, but was hindered by sequences reprising worrying elements of minstrelsy. While the music is largely terrific in both pictures, they are compromised by the same cultural filters and crude racial signifiers. The spirit of jazz is there, but it’s kept in check by the established ideals of the contemporary attitudes to race.

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The first significant blow to cinema’s neo-colonialist slant on jazz was delivered by Martin Ritt’s exceptional Paris Blues (1961); a pioneering work starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as two musicians in Paris. A key scene involves a stirring pas-a-deux between Louis Armstrong’s trumpet player and Poitier’s sax player. The room is in raptures and the band is struggling to keep up as Newman’s trombone player looks on in delight. Jazz is the great unifying force here, drawing everyone in the room (and the frame) to the source of the heat. The shift from America is hugely symbolic too (and was used to similar effect by Bertrand Tavernier in ‘Round Midnight (1986) twenty-five years later). The players are removed from the neo-colonialist narrative to a context where the music – and therefore the individuals themselves - can thrive. Paris is the equalizer, but it still feels achingly temporary. When Newman’s Ram and


Poitier’s Eddie fall for two American tourists, they are faced with the decision of whether to stay in their adopted city or to return Stateside to be with the girls; a decision which is particularly agonising for Ram given the racism he routinely experienced there. Paris Blues shows us a place where jazz can flourish, but simultaneously mourns the fact that this place is not home. It recognises the painful irony inherent in the jazz scene; the creators of the American art could only find room for their art in exile. Ritt’s picture draws the central relationship between Eddie and Ram with such remarkable delicacy that it actually starts to recontextualise the films that preceded it. The pair are brothers in arms; pilgrims in search of the sound. If we shift our perspective slightly and view jazz in cinema from the 1930s to the 1960s not in the context of racial identity, but in that of the outsiders, the outlook is marginally more encouraging.

Consider The Jazz Singer in this context; Jakie is waging his own cultural war. He is an outsider in showbusiness because of his religion, and the black sheep of his family because of his art. When viewed as a cultural stocktake of Judaism and showbusiness, the film takes on a very different slant, and Jakie’s rise becomes the case of an outsider working his way up in a culture that has previously excluded him. While this doesn’t mean that the blackface elements should be read exclusively within this context (as many critics have), it does perhaps allow for a slightly more palatable legacy for The Jazz Singer; that of jazz as the gospel of the outcast. Later pictures such as Clint Eastwood’s masterful Bird (1988) and Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990) bring the painful legacy to something approaching a resolution, by using The Jazz Singer’s biopic bones, but applying them to those ignored by the film.

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III.

Pursuance

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hat does jazz look like through the lens of a camera? In the popular consciousness, the word will evoke forgotten worlds of smoke-filled, underground bars; of suits, ties and greased-back hair. For many people, jazz is an image before it’s a sound. It’s the aesthetic appeal of the cool. As Gaslight Anthem sang; “Like Miles Davis, I’ve been swayed by the cool.” The cinema is almost entirely responsible for this evocation, but what does it say about the music? The romantic connotations of these images are in stark contrast to the desperation that can lurk beneath the photogenic surfaces. They are akin to a form of myth-making; creating heroes out of tortured artists and turning an often grim reality into a creative utopia. One film tackles the dichotomy head-on, and it is arguably the greatest jazz movie ever made. Let’s Get Lost (1988) is a portrait of singer and trumpet player Chet Baker by acclaimed photographer Bruce Weber. Baker rose to prominence in the 1950s West Coast scene, playing with legendary saxophonist Stan Getz before joining the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in 1952. The group played standards with a spectral sense of intuition, becoming the very essence of the cool jazz movement. Towards the end of the 1950s, Baker’s heroin use became

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a severe problem, resulting in a slow decline over the subsequent decades. Let’s Get Lost, which was finished in the year of Baker’s death at the age of 58, is a beautifully poetic picture that sees a ragged, fragile Baker looking back at his life and coming to terms with his art and abuse. Let’s Get Lost is the defining picture about jazz as an image and the gulf between that image and the reality. It implicates the camera in the fetishisation of a lifestyle of loneliness and squalor. This is a film born of an image; the first time Weber became aware of Baker was when he saw him on the cover of the record Chet Baker Sings and Plays with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman and Strings as an impressionable teenager. He met him in the mid-80s during a photo shoot. He wasn’t the first person to be struck by Baker’s face; in the early 50s, he became the icon of the West Coast jazz scene with his handsome, chiseled features. Even Hollywood was seduced by his façade, with Baker declining the offer of a studio contract in order to focus on his music. Let’s Get Lost acknowledges the indefinable fascination the aesthete within us has with jazz. Baker in the 1950s is an image; a signifier of elusive cool. He is a modern outlaw; a loner, a pioneer, an artist. Weber’s genius is in replicating the same evocative lighting and framing to shoot the emaciated, drug-ravaged Baker in the 80s. It forces us to consider that distorting lens of cool and how it is central to the jazz myth. The film is the ultimate document of cinema’s role in the image of jazz, and how

it is pre-determined to present its own vision of an art that can be seen as the creative manifestation of Freud’s death wish. Behind the image, there’s that search. The search for God through jazz is really a yearning for transcendence; heaven or hell, but nothing in between. The severely underrated Shirley Clarke captured this in two key jazz films, The Connection (1961) and Ornette: Made in America (1985). The former is a pioneering mockumentary set in a squalid Manhattan apartment as a group of musicians wait for their heroin dealer. The music by saxophonist Jackie McLean punctuates the scenes, giving us the sense that heroin and jazz are inseparable. Death or creative glory; it’s all a part of the same yearning. The traditional cinematic image of jazz is miles away from Clarke’s moody, guttural classic, but it allows her to find the real truth between the camera and the music. In the latter, God is the creative frontier; the elusive boundary just beyond the reach of one’s artistry. It’s an astonishing picture, structured with the same syncopated edges as one would expect in a piece written by its subject - free jazz trailblazer Ornette Coleman. With its breathtaking use of image repetition and non-linear editing, Clarke defines Coleman by his music. Biographical details are scattered throughout but we are left with the image of a true original striving for the outer reaches of musical consciousness. The film even charts Coleman’s fascination with space; he is a man with his eye literally on the heavens.

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I V .

I

P s a l m

n the 21st century, jazz’s gradual marginalisation continues and we find ourselves looking increasingly to the past. In many of the films considered here, jazz was a cultural force to be reckoned with, and the way cinema tackled it was entwined with that notion. Cinema was facing its forbearer as the primary art of a nation, and it approached it with brute force, petulance and, ultimately, something resembling humility. There is no clash between the forms now, but neither is there anything approaching creative simpatico. We’re left in a bland nether region, with jazz dozens of rungs below cinema in the popular consciousness. But all is not lost; Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) brings back the urgency of jazz for the first time in well over a decade. It is a modern form of reconciliation; a bloody, bruising and punishing homecoming for the great form. It is a picture about giving oneself over entirely to jazz, and is notable for doing so in spite of the phoney moralising and inflated outrage of our day. Whiplash reminds us of a time when, for many people, jazz was life itself. And, most importantly of all, it respects that notion. In the decade where the form’s relevance has never been more remote, jazz once again rises as a worthy adversary to its bastard younger sibling. The rest is all blue notes looking for something it couldn’t grasp in the tumult of the last century.

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Whiplash reminds us of a time when, for many people, jazz was life itself. And, most importantly of all, it respects that notion.

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Endlessssssssssss Bummer Inherent frustrations and incoherent vices in P.T. Anderson’s thickening plot

writer TIMOTHY E. RAW

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ecently interviewing Paul Thomas Anderson on his popular WTF Podcast, standup comedian Marc Maron expressed exasperation at having to frequently re-visit films in a body of work he routinely failed to get a handle on in a single viewing and which left him clueless as to what they were actually about. Critically and generally speaking, Anderson isn’t the first name most of us consider when thinking about disorienting and perplexing cinema (despite a discernable shift in that direction ever since Magnolia’s plague of frogs) and yet, the fact that so many critics are owning up to needing a second or third viewing to parse even a surface understanding of Anderson’s adaptation of postmodernist author Thomas

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Pynchon’s cult novel Inherent Vice, suggests that this time, Maron isn’t the only one. Not since London Times critic Stephen Dalton called Punch Drunk Love “an open-ended oddity” are an audience as likely to be baffled by a P.T. Anderson picture. “Don’t worry, thinking comes later”, gonzo gumshoe (or more accurately, gum-sandal) Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) says when his ex-old lady Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) re-materialises out of the blue like a surfside mirage, insisting he investigate her current boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), the billionaire land developer whose riches are being swindled by his wife (and her toy boy!) in a kidnapping plot that sees Mickey carted off to the nut house. Still carrying a torch for Shasta in the form of an always lit joint, Doc unthinkingly agrees, and just a few puffs later, the convolutions of the caper mushroom into a byzantine misadventure involving surfers, dopers, rockers, the Aryan Brotherhood of bikers, and a shadowy syndicate of dentists know as the Golden Fang whose front could mask a consortium in the Bahamas, a vertically integrated Indochinese heroin cartel, and that same nut house called Chryskylodon.

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That’s the problem with not thinking. It only takes you so far. As a pastiche of California noir it’s tempting to let the waves crashing outside Doc’s place on the beach take us to whatever shaggy dog destination they might break at, but unlike updated riffs on Raymond Chandler like The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski (from which Anderson lifts way too liberally, man), the madcap connective tissue is not as deceptively distilled, nor as tight as either of those two cases, whose obfuscatory machinery all fits together perfectly in the end. The inherent frustration of the film’s absurdly incoherent vices on first viewing, is the pharmaceutical strength plot, attended by none of the expected psychedelic visions of substance abuse. It’s already been widely suggested that every ticket to see the film should come with a big fat doobie, but you’re more likely to find yourself tripping over who’s who. Very much like its protagonist and source material, the film lives moment to half-remembered moment through flights of hippie metaphysical fancy. A cranked up Vibrasonic tuned into unlisted frequencies off a set of notso-good vibrations, Vice is an exercise in mystification with a ephemeral perimeter of clarity that’s hard to stay inside of, and to which


the application of too much logic can cause a serious brain freeze. Better to turn on, tune in, drop out and buy another ticket to ride when it’s all over. To quote the novel, the necessity for repeat viewings is “like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.” Sure, it’s a groovy sound, but perhaps also too far out for its own good; the state of low level fog Doc often finds himself wandering through (both naturally occurring and exhaled) is analogous with a viewer’s probable visibility issues on a first watch. It’s certainly hard to know where to focus your attention on a perpetually spinning merry-go-round of all-star cameos, each spouting high density, unabridged paranoid monologues as a deepening narrative conspiracy spins out of control. Deliberately paced, but frantically asking us to make connections, the film’s ether can quickly become too overloaded to enjoy the high. The stacked stunt cast is part of the problem. In The Long Goodbye you’re able to better concentrate on the complications of the case, owing to the fact that all the various ins, outs and interested parties aren’t played by stars. The dawning disillusionment felt by characters about their culture being adrift and at a

tipping point where flower power is wilting, is what many audience members will feel about such an impressive ensemble cramped into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turns and not given the necessary space to play, which Anderson achieved so miraculously in both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. The mounting multiplicity is far easier to process as an episodic page-turner that can be picked up and put down according to how zoned out you might feel, but by the same toke, considered together as a pure hit head rush, the outsized caricatures and insane scenarios that have precious little to do with the caper at hand, come to embody the altered states of consciousness of a particular time and place that’s accurately gnarly. A rude awakening to the nostalgic representations on film of free love and feel-the-music good times (including Anderson’s own Boogie Nights) Inherent Vice may have the sprawling cast and cocksure comedy of that earlier films’, but capping an informal trilogy that began with There Will Be Blood and continued with The Master, its stumblebum narrative is deeply embedded in the cultural ambivalences of American history and a present political reality of subversion and counter-subversion,

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reaching back into the country’s shady past when peace love and understanding squirmed beneath the weight of greed, surveillance and covert networks of infiltration. In this way Inherent Vice conforms to what Jason Sperb, writing about Anderson’s first five features, identifies as “the fear of morality that underlines most forms of nostalgia.” Behind its bong smokescreen of Cheech & Chong style stoner gags, Inherent Vice is another epic (and sometimes ponderous) meditation on the historicity of traumatic transitions within U.S. culture at the dawn of a new century. With the consistent talk of hallucinations and visual staging strongly suggesting that Gordita’s own astrological oracle, the film’s narrator and one of Doc’s closest friends Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), is a figment of an imagination pickled in cannabis fumes, there’s an underlying question about the authenticity of the sixties as a California beach that never was, and pointedly, Gordita is never presented as a groovy collection of palms, bikini blondes or surfboards. In this way, Anderson simultaneously plucks inspiration and recognisable tropes from the PI genre to which his film is indebted, whilst rejecting the mediated images of film and television that largely inform the sixties written about in the novel. From the beginning, Anderson has told stories founded on shaky American dreams. His first four films were made up of dreamers and seekers looking to be loved for who they were in the warm embrace of surrogate families —and by coming to terms with father figures who loomed large over their destinies, hoping to outrun their troubled pasts and reinvent themselves. The protagonists of Anderson’s last three films feel less like characters than manifestations of the era from which they emerge, operating not off desperate, diffuse longing, but the primal providence of pre-programmed mission objectives, entwined in the manifest destiny of a nation. From his myth-

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ical vantage point on Gordita Beach in 1970, Doc has a clear view of the concrete future and the bulldozed neighbourhoods that will pave over the sand, surf and supposed joy of the previous decade, alluded to in the novel’s epigraph that’s emblazoned across the movie’s end credits and was drawn from a famed splash of graffiti scrawled during the May 1968 protests in Paris: “Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the pavement, the beach!”). Doc sees what’s going on but doesn’t have the considerable influence wielded by Daniel Plainview or Lancaster Dodd, who heed the call of that future’s upheaval and do everything in their power to bend it to their will. Seen from the most despairing angle, There Will Be Blood’s Plainview birthing an industry of oil in 1911, that will henceforth reign as the new religion and bear the responsibility of more death and destruction over the next hundred years than U.S. soil has ever known, is the beginning of a cinematic cycle of American brainwashing. Dodd takes the already polluted religion and poisons it further with his seductive rhetoric of faux spirituality, a transparently lucrative form of conditioning, while the Golden Fang’s omnipresence permits them to do all their brainwashing without relying on fiery oratory. As capitalists they crush the counterculture from both sides, providing the drugs that get dudes and dudettes hooked and turns ‘em into dropouts, easily controllable through a recurrent cycle of recovery and relapse from one of many for-profit ‘recovery’ centres. Unlike the painful pangs of Anderson’s early films, which were overly sensitive, yet swooningly sincere, to the likes of Plainview and Dodd, feelings aren’t there to be felt; they’re merely another set of terms to be negotiated. Doc negotiates the times that are a-changin’ in his own small, but no less forceful way, by seeking to change those around him. As Brad Stevens wrote of Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe


before him, Doc commits himself to “abstract notions of integrity and loyalty”, as absurd as the upside down morality of the early Nixon years, spent running from the man and Charlie Manson. All Anderson’s previous films put salesmen front and centre of the narrative and though almost every scene in Inherent Vice features a transaction of information, Doc isn’t inherently materialistic like the protagonists that precede him. Unlike many of the downtrodden and despondent who populate much of the Anderson oeuvre, Doc is severely bruised rather than damaged, and stuck in the past rather than trying to atone for it (Sydney in Hard Eight), outrun it (Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights) or being punished by it (the entire cast of Magnolia), and he is rarely overcome by, the futility of volatile emotions (Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love). But like Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell in The Master, the more time we spend with Doc (and at 148 minutes, that’s plenty), the less we know about him. The actor inhabits Doc’s world so thoroughly that he feels like part of the furniture, as if the performance were carved from all the taupe carpeting, suede upholstery and teak of production designer David Crank’s sets, but all too often Phoenix presents a blank hippie stare that like the shamus wary of being too trusting, withdraws any specific details about his motives. Too much time is spent physicalizing amusing bits of business from the book, such as the brief lapse Doc has when the phone rings and he forgets how to pick up the receiver, and while Phoenix’s inaudible stoner’s mumble and dozily delayed punch lines demonstrate the depths to which he ingested the texture of Pynchon’s neon colours, he rarely penetrates the weed-induced haze to plumb Doc’s deepening disillusionment with both his one-sided love affair and an equally dismissive society. As such, that fatalistic downbeat strand of

film noir Inherent Vice self-identifies itself as belonging to, is lost. Phoenix does a good line in disconnected denial that encourages us to infer how affected he is by lovelorn disappointments, but it’s so good, it causes us to disconnect too. A sparse film with no clear reads or unity of themes, it’s often in danger of mis-positioning the relationship intended to give it a human heartbeat, that’s as murmured as much of the dialogue. Not established as firmly as it needs to be, when Doc and Shasta are briefly reunited in a sadomasochistic love scene, she taunts him with the conditions of her submissive servitude under Mickey Wolfmann. We understand that it’s getting Doc off only because he has a thing for Mason chicks, but as far as being the woman he can never shake, we don’t know what it is about Shasta when she isn’t naked that does it for him. In the tradition of much noir, the scene attempts to animate a sexually primitive, all-consuming tension, conveying the idea that anything for a moment with Shasta, even death on the job is desirable to Doc. He’s the patsy whose investment in the case is solely defined by a dame, a twisted emotionality the movie wants, if only Phoenix’s passion was remotely believable. Frankly, he has more heat with Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master than he ever does with newcomer Waterston, who Anderson has talked of in terms of having a “low screen mileage which helps keep her mysterious”, when in fact she comes across mostly as just another bland, blond beach bunny with none of the magnetism or allure of the director’s other love interests, be they Gwyneth Paltrow’s prostitute in Hard Eight, Julianne Moore’s porn star in Boogie Nights or Emily Watson’s manic pixie stalker in Punch Drunk Love. There’s not a sufficient amount of bittersweet nostalgia here either. Their fling that never worked and wasn’t meant to, only lasted as long as Shasta’s short hippie phase,

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Doc being the only doper Shasta knows who doesn’t do heroin. If this meant more to Doc than it does Shasta he doesn’t seem visibly pained, and at no point does Phoenix employ any of his patented sulky intensity or wounded scowl. The first time we meet Shasta, she’s dressed as a square, already having clearly moved on. It’s this more than any single exchange which indicates Doc isn’t really looking for the meaning of why his ex-old lady left him, but searching for meaning in a world that’s left him behind. These are the reciprocated feelings of hippie-hating, mad dog flatfoot Bigfoot Bjornson (a barnstorming Josh Brolin), a “renaissance cop” (according to the LA times), who uses his door-kicking interrogation techniques and nose for civil rights violations to build a minor cult of celebrity within the department, allowing him to moonlight as an actor. A lone wolf ever since the mysterious death of his partner, a recent lack of headline-grabbing arrests (due to colleagues covering for the crims he’s collaring) means no TV rights, extra work or movie deal, for Bigfoot; his unbound ego gradually laying bare all his flaws and disappointments in the institution he’s worked so tirelessly to uphold. The steady blurring of American morality blurs the line of the law, and all

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Bigfoot wants is respect, the same way Doc craves love. Each finds a meaningful measure of both in an antagonistic love-hate relationship bought about by the ideological collusions of the age and the multifarious bad batch of previously opposing forces. Filmed in medium and tight close-ups that give a righteous precedent to the text, Inherent Vice is adaptation at its most intense, and it’s often not readily apparent, as with so much of his virtuosic work, where Anderson is in a scene. The material hardly demands the self-important grandiosity of There Will Be Blood or The Master, but re-teaming with cinematographer Robert Elswit after the only instance of the two not working together in their careers on The Master, and harkening back to the kind of big ensemble work Anderson hasn’t directed in fifteen years, you might hope as I had, that PTA would revert back to some of Magnolia’s charging headlong dynamism. Confined mostly to small, dingy offices, riding shotgun in Impalas or cramping together down alleyways, Vice is comparatively plain, its unobtrusive but incrementally investigative camera, preferring to slowly push in close to people, all laying on a heavy combination of face ingredients hard to read at all. Similar to Elswit’s use of lens flare on Punch


Drunk Love (an abstract flourish to push a drab aesthetic realism into the realm of fairytale), flashes of sunburnt lighting disrupt Inherent Vice’s low-key reality, underlining blissed out moments of confusion and clarity. Emotions, just likes clues, are fleeting and hard to grasp, so Vice never tips over into the earlier film’s whirling, tilting, rushing cameras, despite all the drugs. Doc being constantly zonked out, the commotion of whooshing whip pans denotes a more volcanic kind of emotional outpouring, the type Magnolia’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith is overcome by in which blood is poundingly pumped through a busted-up, tear-stained heart, worn on a torn and ragged sleeve. Another ensemble underpinned by the logic of random chance (only this time much fuzzier), Doc’s search for meaning in a meaningless world, might have benefited from the anchorage of a few extended steadicam shots finding a visual order in the political chaos, but for a character whose purpose still results in largely aimless wandering, this is an inappropriate form of maximalism. The unendurable colour of sun-bleached daylight seems to stifle such movement, and that same hot, cloudless depth of day with no rain in sight, frames a sunset behind charac-

ters in every shot, glowing with a luminous but ominous edge. Like Hard Eight, the sympathetic affectation Anderson has for his characters are at odds with noir’s hopeless cynicism. In both films there’s a chance of redemption for the discarded detritus of society, but the smog-filtered sunshine doesn’t burn quite so bright as the glittering lights of Reno’s casinos, blinding those to whom they offer a way out. In so many ways Inherent Vice feels like the starkest departure of Anderson’s career — much more so than the oft-cited ‘odd film out’ Punch Drunk Love, but taking a closer look on second viewing, Anderson’s signature is writ large everywhere: The aching loneliness of Hard Eight, the grand historical recreation of Boogie Nights, Magnolia’s vast scale and impressive cast, Punch Drunk Love’s single protagonist and the historical consciousness of There Will Be Blood and The Master. There’s a sustained focus on consumer culture and people selling themselves, the yearning for celebrity, social alienation, and as memorable a final image as Melora Waters’ cathartic smile at the end of Magnolia. This time, the master behind The Master has gone up in smoke, and it can drive you mad trying to grab hold, but listen to Pynchon—it’s groovy to be insane.

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Under the Hood writer BEN NICHOLSON

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iggan Thomson is the real deal. At least, that is what he is told by the gravelly voice in his head that speaks to him when he’s alone in his dressing room - cross legged, in Y-fronts, and levitating. From its opening second, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) places the audience before a projection of its protagonist’s own perspective – a self-written myth as warped and fractured by fame and failure as such a thing is likely to be. The underpants are worn by Tim Burton’s very own Batman, Michael Keaton, playing an aging actor who has never escaped the shadow of a superhero cloak worn decades before. When he was Bruce Wayne, Keaton donned an elaborate animal costume to battle his

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demons; this time, the character’s demons are the ones suiting up. The disembodied voice (also Keaton’s) offering advice and encouragement from the ether belongs to Thomson’s long past starring-role, the eponymous Birdman - who also lends the mild-mannered actor who once played him, impressive telekinetic powers at opportune moments. So is Riggan wearing the mask, or is the mask wearing him? And all the more pertinently: if the mask has become such a fixture, what exactly remains beneath? From some critical quarters, the answer to that last question is a big round nothing. Lambasted by some as self-satisfied, the film seems to be more generally considered to have very little depth at all – just a showcase for marvellous technical whirligiggery. It’s true that there is emptiness at the heart of Birdman, make no mistake: but it is not the emptiness of style over substance. It is a lonely void wandered by

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deluded, lost souls that reverberates throughout the film and wraps itself around the audience. The blurred lines between self and persona, between reality and performance, are what make this breathless and fantastic circus of a character study tick - it’s in dissecting surface that the film mines depth. Our hero is quite literally overpowered by the rubber beak he cannot seem to shed, and his obsession with staging an ambitious and pretentious adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on Broadway is rooted entirely in that mental battleground. The unfurling narrative sees him attempting to use a tour-de-force turn on the boards to remind the world that he exists. Thompson wants to forge himself a new identity, and convince onlookers of his legitimacy as an actor. Of course, this all sounds very knowing and ‘meta’. Michael Keaton is cast as what is essentially an alternate version


of himself; one who made a different choice when faced with the opportunity to don a famous cowl for the third time - and has paid for it with any semblance of reputation. That metatextuality is certainly one element of what is happening on screen but, despite the aforementioned criticism that hurls around labels such as ‘shallow’ and ‘smug’, Birdman is actually working on a number of different levels and to multiple ends. One such example can be found in the dual title and the semi-comic exploits of its egotistical characters. With Riggan and cast laid bare before the audience with cool precision, there is an echo of the eighteenth century novel to be found. Revelling in the ridiculous, the pitiful, and the farcical excess, the film exposes faults within us with an unblinking eye. The target here is not just the external satire of Hollywood or stardom (though they are deliciously skewered throughout) but our own selfish egos

and self-deceptions. Speaking of self-deception, back to the levitation. This early gravity defiance takes place in the St. James Theatre in New York, the venue for the self-financed vanity production for which Riggan is naturally writer, director, and lead. Surrounding him in the cramped backstage corridors is a cast of other players including his co-stars, facilitators, and his sullen daughter (played with bilious aplomb by Emma Stone). Iñárritu’s camera, guided by the expert eye and steady hand of Emmanuel Lubezki, weaves its way through the shabby labyrinthine location, floating from one person to the next as and when it pleases. But it always finds its way back to Riggan, as he is the hero of his very own tale of (hopefully) triumph over adversity, navigating constant setbacks in the drive to get his vision - and his face - onto the stage, and to bask in rapturous applause.

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The adulation of the masses may be what he is ultimately chasing, but his delusions are mechanisms subconsciously employed to keep ahead of the crushing realities that are forever a few paces behind him - realities usually flung at him with abusive gusto by a man in a ridiculous bird outfit. While his magical powers and the manic verve of Keaton’s performance provide laughs aplenty, it is when the perspective shifts momentarily, and we see a real-world demonstration of his telekinesis from the vantage point of a nonplussed onlooker, that the depth of his own denial and tragedy are painfully writ large. Keaton has always had the ability to imbue his characters with a bristling, wild-eyed quality that wears inner turmoil on the sleeve without forsaking his natural charisma. His iteration of the Dark Knight had a barbed intensity that poured decades of angst and regret into an isolated, idiosyncratic millionaire. Riggan must also

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find an outlet for his pent up emotion and it manifests as a leather-clad invisible friend, and a desperate need for approval; from his embittered daughter, estranged ex-wife (Amy Ryan), critically lauded co-star (Edward Norton) or public opinion, in the form of Lindsay Duncan’s disdainful theatre critic. His world no longer spreads more than a few blocks from the rambling glamour of this play and his career, so he cannot fathom that there may be alternative ways to gain what he so desires. Keaton retains enough pathos, however, that the audience is always onside, never quite giving up on Riggan despite his myopia. His outlook is echoed in the formal techniques employed by Iñárritu and his collaborators. Presented as one single unending shot, it suggests a stream of consciousness, playing to an imaginary staccato jazz drumbeat that brims with twitchy energy, and magically siphons out unimportant events. Time jumps


(at what seems like our protagonist’s will) to only the pertinent rehearsals and conversations of the several days of narrative duration. The almost dreamlike quality is amplified by cuts cunningly concealed. It’s a film laden with technical mastery presented as razzle-dazzle to stop the audience catching wise (to the fact it has nothing to say, detractors would argue). As the camera swoops down from the rafters, however, we’re left wondering just who the unreliable narrator of this particular story truly is; Riggan, or Birdman? In fact, this distinction is a moot point as it becomes increasingly clear that the ego (in the Freudian sense; Riggan’s reality mediator) has been subsumed by the ego (in the sense of his inflated self-worth) during years of internal sparring. There is now just one conflated and conflicted role to play, who lives in the drab confines of the real world and yet possesses supernatural powers, and converses with a fictional character he used to

play. It may be Riggan’s bedevilled psyche that is embraced in the filmmaking but the idea of constructed outward persona, and the ways in which it is nurtured and pandered to, is hardly limited to a single character. Edward Norton’s Mike is another apposite casting choice and a prime example: the actor sending up the version of himself often presented in the media. A performer to the last, he begins rewriting the script as soon as he is cast (a famous ‘Edward Norton’ trait) and claims to seek the truth of every line of dialogue, or pause between them. A critical darling and a true thespian, he already has the legitimacy that Riggan craves – “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige” – and pushes his colleague to strive for similar heft. His ease with his life and career are perhaps not as cut and dried as all that, though. Mike is the kind of actor who has lost himself in so many roles that once he leaves the stage and

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the theatre, he’s a shell; a blackboard smudged with rubbed-out chalk, unable to discern legible lines or symbols. His relationship with Naomi Watts’ Lesley (one of Riggan’s other cast members) seems to have reached a sexual nadir with Mike physically unable to perform. When on stage however, blood rushes to where it should be. Without an audience, he is not capable of existing so he, too, maintains the fiction, in this case, ‘Mike, the breathtakingly talented actor’. Indeed, he only lets down his guard, and behaves genuinely, in his interactions with one person when off the stage: Riggan’s daughter, Sam. Although she may not be driven by the same thirst for stardom that many of the other characters are, she still craves personal recognition and adoration. In her instance, a sarcastic and caustic personality has been forged to combat the neglect that she feels from her father, who may as well be an absentee for all of the affection he truly shows her. His solipsism has engendered in her a need to steel herself and reject him in return, creating a

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self-defeating cycle in which she lashes out at him, or anyone for that matter, whenever they come close because she feels isolated and alone. Not even the drugs have helped. In one particular scene, she lets rip at Riggan, tearing down his carefully constructed idol with the savage tongue only a family member can get away with – after all he’s not even on Facebook, how can he possibly take himself seriously? In her interactions with Mike, she also peers from behind her parapet, giving fleeting glimpses of something flowering through the cracks of a stony wall. Even the theatre critic, played for only a few moments by Lindsay Duncan, is purposely striving to live up to the reputation that her readers, and the Broadway professionals, expect. Lots of commentary has condemned the bitter confrontation between her and Riggan as a filmmaker, as taking a thinly-veiled swipe at his own critics. The scene in fact sends up both characters as the worst excesses of what they are considered to be, by one another and the public. She gloats that she will destroy his


play before the curtain is up purely because of his entitled, vapid Hollywood background; he angrily rejects the notion of a critique coming from twisted cynics, unable to create and destroying others’ achievements. Neither of them is entirely correct in their assessments of one another, but the personas they adopt like armour are once again the crux of the conflict. Much like its titular character, this is a film about the notion of people wearing masks. They do so for a variety of reasons, and then struggle to remember who was behind them in the first instance: what, and who, really lies beneath. To take it a step further, it may not be that they cannot remember, but that when they drop their performance, the true depth of the void is revealed. Birdman offers no answers, nor does it bear the soul of Riggan Thomson; it is searching for it. The overwhelming sensation is of emptiness, but that is not the vacuity of Iñárritu’s film so much as the hollowness of his subjects. It is a film about surfaces that in itself, is far from shallow.

Birdman offers no answers, nor does it bear the soul of Riggan Thomson; it is searching for it. Vérité Jan-Mar 2o15 edition

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Triple Crown Championship writer DAVI D HALL

In Bennett Miller’s airless psychological sports horror movie, three men (and the actors that inhabit them) grapple for their own piece of the American dream

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auded at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where it locked down the Best Director prize, and the subject of typically early (and somewhat wearisome) Oscar buzz, Foxcatcher has had some of its positive oxygen slowly dissolve over the past few months. This is not an unusual occurrence, particularly when awards talk begins so early these days, but it is perhaps surprising and somewhat ironic that a film which slowly, insidiously (and quite deliberately) drains its audience’s energy over a somnambulistic 130 minute runtime has itself been robbed of momentum over the long haul. A film at once stately and grandiose, it uses a sport rarely afforded such serious attention, as the backdrop to a treatise on American class and power struggles. In Steve Carrell,

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Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher boasts a trio of interesting character actors (not leads), all of who give committed (and in the case of Carrell) surprising performances. Yet Miller’s distanced and overtly serious approach practically embalms his principle cast within a chilly echo-chamber of a movie. The result is a film that frustrates as much as it impresses. The real-life story of wealthy old money magnate John du Pont’s relationship with, and endorsement of, working class wrestling siblings Mark and Dave Schultz in the buildup to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was until recently barely known of in the UK. But it is a fascinatingly odd and tragic one – laced with the potential for rich, dark satire or psychological investigation. My first viewing of Foxcatcher was as cold as is currently possible in our long-lead, teaser-trailer obsessed climate. I’d ignored the Cannes hoopla and not seen or read anything on the film, other than the frequently used still of Carrell and Tatum framed against the teal and yellow backdrop of Team

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Foxcatcher’s training compound. At the risk of working against my own article, I would urge viewers to approach the film from the same perspective. One of the film’s strengths is its escalating sense of dread; E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script slowly turning the screws in a narrative that has a sickening undertow of impending doom and unease. Foxcatcher wastes no time in setting up an uneasy triangle that oscillates around the inevitably corrosive relationship between sport and finance; an uneasy but necessary co-alliance that brings with it a veritable bonfire of vanities, ego and, in this instance, tragedy. A credit sequence shows hounds and hunters; the very stuff of privilege, class distinction and old money. As its title implies, the film introduces both hunter and prey pretty much immediately. From the onset, wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum) could not be more vulnerable or easily exploitable. Giving pep talks to school kids (as a second string replacement for his elder sibling) for twenty dollars a time, he lives in a shoddy apartment and exists in the


shadow of his more successful and well-adjusted brother, who has found regular employment as a coach and enjoys a stable home life with his wife and children. Enter Mephistophelean chemical company heir and deluded fantasist John E. du Pont (Steve Carell). Inevitably, when a man with power and money who craves respect collides with one for whom financial stability and fame are the pinnacle, and whose sport is a niche one that relies on independent financing for survival, bad things will surely follow. The Faustian pact is presented; in exchange for accommodation and training facilities at his lavish estate (itself an homage to the farm where du Pont and his mother live) Mark need only to agree to head up Team Foxcatcher in anticipation of glory at the next Olympics. There’s one catch – du Pont wants Mark’s brother Dave (Ruffalo) as head coach, but the older sibling cannot be bought so easily. Or can he? The intervention brings familial tensions to the fore, particularly in the case of the younger

brother, who envies his elder siblings’ comfortable life and relaxed demeanour. But du Pont needs both men if his social experiment is to cement his lofty ambition. It’s never clear exactly why du Pont has decided to build this sports empire; but the clues lie in a life of isolation fuelled by underachievement and reliance on familial wealth and standing. Du Pont’s dream also brings him into direct conflict with his disapproving mother, the stiff matriarch Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who feels her son should not concern himself with such ‘low’ sports. Director Miller has sports form, of sorts. His Moneyball (2011) was a far sunnier, engaging work about US baseball; with a typically buffed script from Aaron Sorkin and a super charismatic turn from Brad Pitt. Foxcatcher on the other hand is in a different ballpark entirely, its solemn treatment and austere trappings never letting up for a second. The casting has been a major talking point of Foxcatcher’s buzz and this brings us to the film’s principle surprise package (and Oscar

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contender) Steve Carrell as du Pont. Carell would appear to be playing firmly against type and his physical transformation is distracting in the extreme. At first glance the film feels like a clean break for its principle cast, but closer inspection reveals three character actors inhabiting exactly the ‘types’ one would expect (and you could easily imagine a flipside comedy wrestling movie, in the mould of Dodgeball, with exactly the same leads). Carrell essays the man from behind a nosferatu-like hooter, and with a creepy, vacant monotonous delivery that initially feels a world away from The Office’s Michael Scott. Yet the same need for approval and social ineptitude remain; a man encased inside a shell he seems permanently on the verge of wanting to break free from. Jump Street’s Tatum, whose career choices will always at least in part be defined by his physique, is a shuffling, insular figure, desperately uncomfortable doing anything other than the sport he is enslaved to. Ruffalo plays to his strengths for everyman figures; breathing some warmth, light and shade into the film’s endless corridor of introspection. It’s the kind of salt of the earth schtick this capable and likeable performer can do in his sleep – and a welcome presence in a film whose emotional temperature starts out chilly and gradually reaches sub-zero. The screenplay is sparse, but gives du Pont much lofty verse about his vision for a great America that adds to his demented self-delusion. On the flipside almost no dialogue is given to Tatum, who remains a husk like figure – easily exploitable and tragically malleable. The Foxcatcher estate, and du Pont’s dynastic ambition, has a ritualistic, masonic lodge feel to it. Initiation ceremonies are played out and Team Foxcatcher is a sycophantic coterie prepared to placate du Pont’s every whim and big up this curious, socially inept weirdo, out of fear rather than any kind of respect. His wealth and social standing mean he has police and military at his disposal. The only area of his life du Pont has no control over is his mother, whose disapproval

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provides fuel to his feverish fantasy of sporting greatness. Du Pont has all the wealth anyone could wish for yet lacks so much of what he craves and that money can’t ultimately buy; a mother’s love and affection, social approval and standing, even friendship. Romantic entanglements are completely off the menu in this film, which hints, in the coyest terms imaginable, at homoerotic urges within the unit, but backs away from taking them any further. In an interesting recent twist, the real Mark Schultz (who was a champion of the movie initially) had a very public Twitter meltdown, largely inspired by an overwhelmingly negative Armond White review and attacking Miller for making it look as though he and du Pont had some kind of sexual connection. If he really was offended at the implication he needn’t have gone public – whether they did or didn’t, the film simply isn’t interested. This is the most extreme of Miller’s films that focus on protagonists looking for something that will placate their need for approval. And in a stylistic break with his previous work he, along with the superb cinematographer Greig Fischer (who lensed Zero Dark Thirty) really commit to an austere visual approach. There’s a chilly Kubrickian feel to Foxcatcher; particularly in the vast compositions and framing choices; expansive, near-empty gymnasiums, sterile rooms, vast stately interiors. The sound editing is busy but supple, overlapping dialogue with an Altman-like dynamic range. The effect is draining; this big and ‘important’ picture holding you in its slow, muscular, suffocating grip; a prolonged narrative chokehold throughout until the inevitable, late in the day body blow is delivered. The film’s best, and most interesting scenes, which leave you wishing there were more of them, hint at how a more expansive, nuanced approach might have made for a more enriching work. When du Pont arranges for an expensive dinner where Mark is to deliver a speech lauding him as a mentor and a father figure, he introduces the young man to cocaine while aboard his private helicopter and has


him recite the speech, which requires Mark to introduce him as a “philanthropist, philatelist, ornithologist”. While du Pont huffs cocaine and repeats the mantra incessantly, he chuckles manically as his charge gets lost in a confused, coke-fuelled blizzard. It’s a scene pregnant with comedy, dread and disdainful class bullying. We learn more about both men in that one moment than almost the entire film. It is equalled for chilling comedy only by the film’s other sequence of quiet horror, which sees older brother Dave reluctantly partaking in du Pont’s self-funded documentary. An incredulous and increasingly exasperated Dave is goaded into parroting the scripted platitudes about du Pont’s achievements but simply can’t bring himself to call him a coach and a mentor, no matter how many takes they try. It starts out funny, gets painful very quickly and ends up plain disturbing. Moments like these are all too fleeting in Foxcatcher. You don’t have to offer cheap psychological insights or trite explanations where there are none, and a straightforward telling

of the Schultz story clearly wouldn’t have worked, but perhaps it would’ve been more interesting and satisfying to have attempted to get under the skin of these characters a little more. All too often Foxcatcher becomes lost in its own whirlpool of gloominess; working away at a very limited, and convenient, pathology (dimensions of one with almost each and every character here) and engulfed in an atmosphere of dread and gloom so pervasive it almost borders on comic. There’s no denying Miller has made a committed and often intriguing picture here; one that I suspect will eventually prove too glacial and removed for the Academy’s tastes come February. Some early enthusiasts were (perhaps too) eager to tag Foxcatcher as one of the year’s best; an outstanding critique of the corrosive nature of the American dream. Others are beginning to voice doubts that it’s more akin to superficially important high-end Oscar bait. On second viewing I’m still not sure how I feel about it, but I’ll say this much; I’m in no hurry to go for a third round.

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Aidan 40 Gillen Jan-Mar photography by Izabela 2o15 edition Vérité Szczutkowska


sa fe Remembering

Antonia Bird’s 1993 feature debut is crying out to be released on DVD or Bluray. Christopher O’Neill talks to Aidan Gillen and Kate Hardie about making the film and working with the director writer CHRISTOPHER O’NEILL

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afe, the first feature-length from director Antonia Bird, was made for television and ran only 66 minutes. Despite the relatively short running time the film leaves a strong impression since every minute, every frame of this 1993 production bleeds harsh sincerity. It focuses on the clientele of a short stay hostel for the homeless and follows two troubled youngsters: Kaz (Kate Hardie) is a refugee from domestic sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. Her boyfriend Gypo (Aidan Gillen) is barred because he has been allocated a suburban flat but repeatedly seeks refuge at the hostel instead. Unsentimentally tough and often harrowing, Safe could easily screen side-by-side with Mike Leigh’s Naked, produced in the same

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year, since both films illustrate characters who find themselves lost amidst the unforgiving London metropolis. It was the kind of British political filmmaking that was rarely seen on television in the early nineties and was best represented on the big screen by the work of Ken Loach. Sadly, as with many one-off dramas that were produced by the BBC, Safe has faded into obscurity. Never released on VHS or DVD, and not repeated on television for many years, at the time of writing the film can only be seen on Youtube, sourced from a home video recording someone made when it was originally broadcast over twenty years ago. This is an unfortunate fate for a film that won awards at the Edinburgh Film Festival (First Film Award) and a BAFTA (Best Single Drama TV) as well as earning much critical acclaim. As Hardie noted when we spoke, Safe left a strong impression on many who saw the film

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at the time: “I’ve had actors like Samantha Morton say it was the thing that made them want to act; when I worked with Maxine Peake it was the first thing she said to me. People who we now think of as huge British TV and film actors were affected by this tiny, weeny little film that is currently on Youtube in the worst quality”. For this article, I spoke to the two lead actors of Safe, Kate Hardie and Aidan Gillen, about the making of the film and working with Antonia Bird, who passed away in October 2013. What became abundantly clear from our conversations is that they both consider the experience to have not only resulted in an important film, but that it influenced them long after as they moved onto other projects. The aim of this article is to not only pay tribute to a great British filmmaker (whose later work includes Priest, Face, Ravenous, Care and The Hamburg Cell), but also to promote awareness


When I look at it now, I see my performance could be better, but it was more about the gut feeling. Which is pretty unique, actually.

try and get noticed, and I remember at one point thinking “I’m not doing anything here”. I was watching and listening what the others were doing. I think there was a dramatic, aggressive outburst from me at one point, but I can’t remember exactly what. A lot of the people were in that room that day: Robert Carlyle and Kate Hardie were there. Jimmy Gallagher, Aidan Gillen: I’d probably been in London Marc O’Shea, I think Steven Mackintosh was for three years at that point, working in theatre mostly. I had actually done a couple more there. Nearly everyone who ended up in the BBC Screen Two films before Safe. They were film was there. I had been the lead in a Play on One film all shot on film, 70-80 minute one-off TV dramas. I can’t remember exactly how I ended called Killing Time, which was a two-hander based on Dennis Nilsen, so I had already had up going in to audition, but I’m pretty sure it was the traditional route of going through my a decent role on the BBC, but this just felt like something else. Being around Kate, who had agent and they had a casting director. What was unusual was there was no typical process, worked with Antonia a few times, was a positive thing. She really did show me some ropes no script there. I remember being in a room of 20-25 people and we were just improvised there. People were encouraged to do stuff that they hadn’t necessarily done before. There’s a some scenes. I didn’t do much. When people scene, for example, where I had to take all of are improvising they tend to do too much or of Safe. Even seen in its merely-adequate form on Youtube, the film still packs a punch. The final image of Kaz, smacking herself in the head, as she walks through Leicester Square in the early hours of the morning, lingers long in the mind after viewing.

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my clothes off which I’d never done on stage or on screen but it was like “Okay, that’s what has to be done”. It wasn’t any big deal because you trusted the people that you were around and you knew the thing you were making was about something that mattered. You were in the moment at that time and it felt very exciting to be a part of it. Antonia didn’t use many close-ups in that film, there aren’t many at all, there were lots of long scenes. There was a script but there was improvisation too. There were certain scenes, like the ones in the hostel, where there would have been a good bit of improv going on, and then there were scenes back at the flat with Kate where it was changed around a bit, to get the lines to suit the people saying them. Things weren’t fixed or dead set, it wasn’t like “this is the way the scene is going to be”, it was much looser than that. It was shot over four weeks, a lot of it was nights, and it was exciting to feel like you were putting it out there and coming home from work at 6:00am. When my girlfriend at the time saw the finished film six months later, she was mystified that I had been going out at night and doing that, it was quite heavy. I remember when we saw it for the first time, the screening was at this little studio in London. Antonia, Kate and myself were there, Billy Bragg (who’s song ‘This Gulf Between Us’ plays over the end credits – Ed) was there, and Ronan Bennett, who I think Antonia was about to work with (he later wrote the screenplays for Face and The The Hamburg Cell – Ed). Afterwards there was this awkward silence and to break it I passed a comment about how it felt like watching a movie on a plane in this small room, and Ronan said “You’d never see a fucking movie like that on

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a plane!”. I learnt a lot from that experience, and it pushed me in a certain direction of wanting to be around that kind of serious political project. Antonia was a political director, but not in an overtly obvious way. I mean people weren’t talking about political theory when we were doing it, but years later, because of Safe, I found myself being attracted to similar kinds of scripts or projects, in some of which the politics was more to the fore like The Wire, or Some Mother’s Son, or Queer As Folk. Whatever career path you follow, there’s one job that shunts you forward a little bit more, it pushes you that little bit more, and that was definitely the case with this film. Looking back at Safe now, my performance is awkward, it’s kind of scrappy, but our hearts were really in the right place and I think that’s what comes across. We were trying to do something, even if we didn’t know what we were doing. Antonia would never try to say “your acting is bad”. If it was me directing I might say “you look half asleep”, or “you need more energy”, or “less energy”, or whatever. When I look at it now, I see my performance could be better, but it was more about the gut feeling. Which is pretty unique, actually. I can’t imagine how it would have been acting with someone other than Kate, though. I felt sad at the end, when we were lying in pools of blood down the alleyway. When the job ended it was like “fucking hell, what was that?”. Kate Hardie: There are many directors who describe their projects like “it’s interesting, we’re exploring this or that”, there’s a level of being slightly removed from it. But Antonia was intense, it felt like somebody was asking you to look after their baby. She cared so much about what she was doing that you knew


that if you were going to be involved, you had to care as much as she did. While Antonia was incredibly artistic and loved cinema, it was never just “I’m doing it for artistic reasons”. When she discussed a project it wasn’t like “I’m doing this thing for the BBC”, she’d be like “I’m doing this thing for homeless people” or “I’m doing this thing to wake the government up about how many people there are on the streets”. She was political with a massive, neon sign ‘P’. Antonia was very smart when it came to casting. Not only would she think “Are they right for the part?”, but as a director she’d think “Are they right for me? Can I talk to them?” and how would they would function together. I don’t think a lot of directors do that. Sometimes she could also be manipulative, thinking “these two will spark off each other?”, and that there might be something naughty or mad achieved by putting them together. Nowadays it’s usually a case of “cast them and they might meet the day before a rehearsal”, which means there’s often no natural chemistry and it’s all acting. Antonia wasn’t averse to really making sure that the people she’d put together would have proper relationships with each other. She was astute about people, Antonia. There’s a lot of similarities between me and Aidan, we’re both thoughtful and there’s a lot going on and it was a smart move putting us together I think. I do remember the rehearsal time being a lot of set-ups with Antonia improvising with the people who played other characters in the overnight shelter. It was a mixture of actors and people from the homeless theatre group Cardboard Citizens, so we spent a lot of time getting to know them and seeing how they wanted to work. It sounds terrible, but she

was very good at setting up a lot of games that we’d all play and work out each person’s status in the group. We spent a lot of time getting to know one another so we all really bonded, so it was quite weird when me and Aidan went off to film the scenes away from the shelter, because a lot of the film is actually about us by ourselves. Me and Aidan were attached to the hip when we did Safe, we wandered around driving each other mental and grow very close. Antonia was clever like that, she’d send you off to look at things or do things, and you’d suddenly realise that I’d spent a lot of my time wandering around with Aidan, so we knew each other pretty well by the time we came to shooting. I adored him, I was really in awe of his very funny, dark and brilliant imagination. Antonia would pull her hair when she was directing, she would stand with her own hair in a fist, pulling it, and sometimes she’d have this look on her face, like pain, and it made you want to go “Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to make this better for you?”. We were shooting on long lenses on the streets of London so me and Aidan could be in amongst crowds, we just looked like kids in the middle of town, and no one could see a film crew anywhere near because they’d be very far away. Antonia would have headphones on listening to our radio mics. I can remember very clearly the scene had ended so we’d stand there and wait, and we’d see Antonia coming from miles away, crossing the road, and she’d get to me, and on that occasion she was about to give me a note and, before she had even said anything, I said “I know”. And she just went “Okay”, turned round and walked away! I just remember thinking “fucking hell, that’s confidence!”. There are certain people who see your wounds and your fragility and they’re not

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scared of it but they don’t patronise you either. Mike Hodges, who I worked with on Croupier, and Adrian Shergold, who I haven’t worked with but he’s been a mentor to me as a director, are like that, and so was Antonia. I had known her since I was 15, and I wasn’t a particularly balanced teenager. I had left home when I was 14, I was troubled, very emotional and complicated. In Safe when my character is hitting herself, that was something I use to do, I’d hit myself quite hard. In the script it probably said “Kaz gets raped by her stepdad, goes outside and cries” but I said to Antonia “this is how I might react to this situation” and she said “shall we put that in?”. What I found fascinating and heartbreaking in my own life and in the life of this character is that people hurt themselves, they take it out on themselves. Kaz turns it in on herself and I thought it was really important thing to put into the film. I was with Antonia a little bit before she died and we chatted about her work and she was incredibly disciplined and pragmatic about taking her own work apart. She was a perfectionist and she analysed things so thorough-

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ly, including herself, and she did that about all of her jobs when she was dying. She was brilliant to listen to, she would say “I got this right there, that wrong there”. She made an ingenious comment for a director: She said on some projects “I indulged the actors too much”. She didn’t cut scenes with actors she loved very, very much because she wanted to protect their performances, rather than protect her own directing. Any actors I know who worked with Antonia said you felt very bereft afterwards because she created something so intense, so quickly that when it finished you were like “Oh blimey, I don’t know what I’m going to do now”. Hence why I went on and worked with her quite a lot, and got confused about the business and I wasn’t sure if I could do this anymore because the experience with Antonia was very unusual. In a way I guess I never fully recovered from Safe. It was such an intimate and extraordinary experience and working with someone like Aidan on that level was a brilliant thing. It was a bubble of time where everyone felt incredibly committed to what we were doing.


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Interstellar director CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

writer JAMES MARSH

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fter successfully piloting a hot potato superhero franchise through a trilogy of hugely influential real-world blockbusters, British director Christopher Nolan was given carte blanche to create whatever he wanted next. He had already proved he could sell a complex multi-layered dream heist thriller to the multiplex masses and have them walk away feeling pleased with themselves for watching it - despite Warner Brothers’ initial misgivings. This time, Nolan’s follow-up would be a deceptively simple story of loss, regret, guilt and time’s inescapable clutches, disguised as an intergalactic space epic featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest hitters. For the perfect combination of A-list bankability, critic-proof credibility and audience-friendly compatibility, you can’t do much better right now than Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon. Robustly supported by veteran thesps Michael Caine, John Lithgow and Ellen Burstyn, trumped by an astonishing turn from precocious youngster Mackenzie Foy and Interstellar, if only on paper, looks as sturdy as, well, the last Nolan ensemble. Thankfully, Interstellar proves even more accomplished behind the camera as it is in front, even without Nolan’s regular collaborator Wally Pfister. The mesmerising cinematography from Dutch lensman Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her) presents a breathless viewpoint from which to gaze into the endless blackness of space. But even when gliding over

cornfields, across the alien wildernesses of Iceland or into conceptual, five dimensional realms, Nolan’s universe is always grounded in a tangible reality. It is Hans Zimmer and his ethereal, omniscient pipe organ, resonating with evocations of Philip Glass, Richard Strauss, Edward Artemyev and the Almighty himself, who transports us beyond the infinite. Visually, aurally and thematically, Nolan pays lip service to the great intellectual triumphs of science fiction cinema throughout his film, while keeping his own narrative rooted firmly in human-focussed melodrama. Rumbling criticisms have cited considerable changes from brother Jonathan Nolan’s allegedly more cerebral first draft, or questioned the dumbing-down of conversations on quantum physics despite Kip Thorne’s heavily publicised involvement. In fact, those wishing for more conceptual, ambiguous and profound philosophising from Interstellar were left cold by Nolan’s grand, yet relatively simplistic work. Granted, Interstellar is not a perplexing mind bender that questions our place and metaphysical worth when pitted against the infinite emptiness of the universe. On the contrary, Nolan ensures we marvel at the epic splendour that surrounds us, the incomprehensible magnitude of Everything. And then he prods us squarely in the chest to remind us that it is precisely the seemingly insignificant puny individuals - our children, our parents, our partners - the ones only we care about, for whom the universe could not care one iota, who matter more than anything else.

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Leviathan director ANDREY ZVYAGINTSEV

writer BEN NICHOLSON

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hat Andrey Zvyaginstev’s latest film, Leviathan, arrived at this year’s Cannes Film Festival with the support of the Russian Ministry of Culture hardly prepared audiences for the sublime and bleak satire that it transpired to be. Given its quality, it is hardly surprising that it has since gone on to be shortlisted for the Foreign Language Oscar – i’m still dismayed that it was ever selected as its country’s official nomination to the award in the first instance. A scathing indictment of Putin’s contemporary Russia, it is a drama both intimate and epic tackling governmental corruption in landscapes primeval and thematic concerns both biblical and Hobbesian. The title evokes both the Old Testament sea monster – featured most prominently in the Book of Job which the director cites as a loose inspiration – and Thomas Hobbes’ 17th century mediation on legitimate government. While the poster and press images have focused on the skeleton of a whale that bereft a young boy happens upon on a windswept beach, the leviathan whose power and weight dominates the film itself is the unstoppable force that is the Russian state. The allegory may not be subtle, but it is deployed with incredible power as Zvyaginstev’s elliptical narrative style portrays the corruption of an administration and the Orthodox Church, each willing to ruthlessly devour their own flock. It’s Hobbes’ social contract in action as the beleaguered Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) desperately tries to hold on to his home against the overwhelming might of the despicable local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Their struggle is for a piece of land in the midst

of a littoral landscape strewn with carcasses: abandoned buildings; wrecked fishing boats; the aforementioned sea creature. It is wanted for building work, and there is nothing that Kolya or his family – son Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), and younger second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) – can do to avoid it. They have acquiesced just by being Russian citizens to the state stripping them of their home and offering measly and utterly unsatisfactory compensation. Kolia is advised to hunker down and accept his suffering, like Job, but the stubborn patriarch decides to contest the mayor’s dominion, aided by old army buddy-turned-hotshot lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov). The scenes of legal wrangling are presented like courtroom clerks administering incomprehensible rites and unintelligible speed. Meanwhile Madyanov imbues Vadim with a suitably toxic odour of far fouler transgressions ambiguously suggested by Dmitri’s own digging: “a horror movie with you in the lead”. The far subtler horror comes as all in Vadim’s path seem to be swallowed - or perhaps more aptly - drowned in vodka and the same is true of Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography which engulfs the exposed characters in their visually staggering surroundings. All may be lost, but with Leviathan, Zvyaginstev is using poetic imagery and emphatically compelling storytelling that is rhythmic and naturalistic to rage against the system and send a harpoon flying at the behemoth looming over him and his people. Let’s hope Oscar glory means it is seen by even more people than those rightly singing its praises already.

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Nymphomaniac Vol I & II director LARS VON TRIER

writer JORDAN McGRATH

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ne of the undoubted highlights of the 64th Berlinale Festival was sitting in the third row of the Palast cinema, the huge screen engulfing my peripheral vision, as the Director’s Cut of Lars von Trier’s latest master work – at least the first half of it – unfolded. The collected audience laughed, cried, winced and, in some cases, left early. Nymphomaniac is an odyssey. It’s an epic tale of sex, desire, guilt and morality that has so much of each it’s practically biblical. The perfect concoction for cinema’s most famous living provocateur and delivered in his now customary style - relentlessly vicious, piercingly honest and poisonously humorous; Von Trier frequently locating the funny-bone as he dissects the story of one woman’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) life-long obsessive promiscuity. Nymphomaniac Vol I is still one of the funniest films of 2014 and it’s gleefully evident Von Trier is having a ball as he examines Joe’s life under a magnifying glass, embracing the obscurity and absurdity of the story. The two-hander of Joe and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård), who is aiding her wounds (after finding her beaten in a nearby alley to his apartment) while she narrates her life-todate, is a glorious dynamic. Seligman loses himself in ludicrous metaphors to relate Joe’s story to his own generally tame experiences in an attempt to understand and define her behaviour. A memorable anecdote about Joe

and her friend B as teens playing a game on a train is comparable to fly-fishing in Seligman’s eyes. Von Trier’s self-awareness manifests itself in sly meta-critique. “I think this was one of your weakest digressions” Joe tells the subdued Seligman after one of his many attempted rationalisations. But even with this comical aura, Nymphomaniac has the ability to delve into effective, authentic tragedy. One of its eight chapters – depicting the disintegration and subsequent death of Joe’s father (Christian Slater) as he falls into delirium – is shockingly naked stuff. And its Joe’s endless quest for a loveless connection that lends itself to the fog of melancholy that haunts the film. “For me, love was just lust with jealousy added” Joe explains. Joe’s vulnerability for affection confuses situations, especially her relationships with Jerome (Shia Lebouf) and K (Jamie Bell) - both harmful but for many different reasons. Nymphomaniac is equal comedy, tragedy and drama and it weaves between each with a potency and ease that frequently disarms. It is also further evidence that von Trier still has the ability to provoke and take his audience to places they wouldn’t expect in mainstream cinema. It’s about sex but it doesn’t titillate or eroticise; it’s the story of an addict, each fuck like the plunging of a syringe into the vein of a junkie. It’s tough but rewarding cinema, exactly what we’ve come to expect from this crazed Danish genius.

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Starred Up director DAVI D MACKENZIE

writer KELSEY EICHHORN

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ric Love, a 19-year-old “starred up”, violent, high risk youth offender, exits the transport van outside the adult prison to which he has been transferred, beginning an eight-minute sequence which subtly, yet irrefutably, sets the tone for the entire film. With resigned indifference Love strips naked, submits to a search, accepts his prison kit and follows the hardly discernible commands of various wardens with the easy swagger of one who has the routine down. After his cell door ominously slams he methodically constructs a shiv from a razor before stocking his small shelf with bottles of baby oil and eventually condescending to a task as mundane as making the bed. The dialogue is minimal. We know nothing of his past; have no clues as to his crime or the severity of his sentence. Yet it is obvious that at 19, Love is a seasoned veteran of the prison system – a kid who is old beyond his years. At times cooperative, yet bubbling with rage, he is quick to challenge perceived threats with an explosive violence that is always disproportionate. His relatively short life has taught him to trust no one and the result is a human grenade waiting for the pin to be pulled. What unfolds is a taught, spellbinding story of basic human need, illustrated through Eric’s entrance into his new prison ward, replete with the unwanted influence of his estranged convict father. Even within the UK, commentary on Scottish director David Mackenzie’s film seemed to revolve around the obstacle that accent and

prison slang poses to comprehension of the story. But the question of language seems to me to be a red herring, much as the validity of the father-son proximity detail is almost irrelevant to the point of the film. A majority of reviewers conclude that the film was both powerful and successful, despite the clipped, fast-paced foreign tongue, while merely a handful of naysayers argue that the implausibility of Eric and his father serving time in the same prison ward undermines the authority of the film. While the dynamic between Eric and his father is essential to the film’s plot, the real meaning of Mackenzie’s film lies not in the details, but in the drama. Eric could be anyone as a prototypical offender primed for violence and chaos, he is dropped into a world that has revolved around loyalties and bribes long before he arrived and will continue so long after he has gone. As Eric weaves his way through the maze of hallways, cells, wire fencing and steel cages, (expertly presented by DP Michael McDonough as an overcrowded, constricted compound of impregnable horizontals and strict verticals), he is a disruptive force in an already volatile environment. The film provides a brutal but profound window onto an often-ignored world where career criminals, rejected by society, struggle with the same emotional pressures we all face. Rife with empathy, in a genre that routinely portrays the dehumanising influence of incarcerated life, Starred Up impresses because of its honest and unapologetic sentimentality.

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Calvary director JOHN MICHAEL MCDONAGH

writer STUART BARR

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n one of his paintings depicting Christ carrying the cross, Hieronymus Bosch depicts the figure’s serenity by surrounding him with a crush of hostile, sneering, and laughing faces. A cavalcade of caricatures revelling in his impending torture, suffering and death. John Michael McDonough’s outstanding film Calvary similarly strands its protagonist in a hostile environment – beset on all sides by hostility and cynicism. Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a ‘good priest’ who cares deeply for his parishioners and treats them with respect and wit. Given an ultimatum in the confession booth by one of his flock, Father James is informed that he will be killed as an act of vengeance for childhood sexual abuse the unseen accuser suffered at the hands of a now deceased priest. “Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.” Given a week to put his affairs in order, Father James knows who it is making the threat, but the audience does not and there is no shortage of suspects. Rather than take the matter to the police, Father James seeks to make peace with his troubled daughter (from his marriage prior to joining the priesthood), and to continue with his duties. Typically of McDonagh, James’ own Garden of Gethsemane is the local pub. While there is no shortage of the caustic comedy one would expect from writer and director of The Guard, Calvary is a serious work that grapples with questions of sin, redemption, and faith. The dark stain of abuse that

has rocked Catholicism is ever present and the film questions how the good priest can morally reconcile this. It is very dark material from which the filmmaker does not flinch. What makes this palatable and ultimately moving is the character of Father James and Gleeson’s wonderfully humane and nuanced performance. As much as he is warm and kind, James is also flawed. His relationship with his daughter is loving but difficult, it is clear they have history. Kelly Reilly is terrific as the daughter, damaged but defiant. Among the supporting cast, Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran are particularly good as two of Father Jack’s more troubling parishioners. Moran is utterly vile as a wealthy former banker who sees salvation as a commodity. Aiden Gillen chews up the scenery as a cynical humanist in a turn that has struck a bum note for some, but it fits the tone of the film. McDonagh has the lyrical brilliance of Tarantino in his scripting but a far less casual attitude towards violence (which is primarily off-screen). At its heart Calvary is, like The Guard before it, a western, the engine of the narrative a High Noon countdown to violence. Calvary subverts genre conventions by refusing to celebrate revenge in favour of exploring virtue and forgiveness. The film’s cruel early wicked humour gives way to something that feels far more profound. An emotionally devastating film, Calvary rejects cynicism. Against a background of institutionalised horror it finds hope in the courage and love of the individual.

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Only Lovers Left Alive director JIM JARMUSCH

writer SHELAGH M. ROWAN-LEGG

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hat a drag,” bemoans Adam, a vampire who finds immortality so unbearable he has a bullet made out of wood in a symbolic attempt at suicide. Jim Jarmusch dips his toe into horror in this vampire ode and yet still maintains his effortlessly smooth narrative style; documenting the minutiae and frequent tedium of living, when living has no end. Jarmusch sets the scene as the difference between the old and new worlds, between an ancient society that understands and has just the right level of fear of the dark, and a newer one that is now crumbling and losing itself in drugs and music. Adam hides away in Detroit, a near-empty city that provides a perfect setting for his ennui, teetering on the edge of a quiet apocalypse. Adam’s only contact with the world is a music business lackey who runs his daytime errands, and a doctor who provides him with blood so he doesn’t have to kill. Compare this existence with his wife, Eve, who lives in old world Tangiers, surrounded by artists and musicians who also live in a somewhat crumbling world, but one that embraces this

edge in its strange beauty. What is left after you have seen and done it all? Wouldn’t death be a welcome release, even if you have the perfect partner to share things with? Eve’s sister (of a sort) Ava shows up; young and fresh and still excited by the vampire life, to show the contrast in approaches, but really it’s Jarmusch’s expression of the weariness of the world that is most effective. Despite that weariness, the film completely engages the audience. If we can find some beauty in living, looking through another person’s eyes, then that can keep us alive, even if alive is forever. As one city crumbles, another awaits, perhaps returning from its crumbling form. Jarmusch’s work always has the strange feel of minimalist narrative, a literary sensibility reflected in sparse but effective dialogue and the barest of plots that makes the audience feel as though they are floating along beside the characters, in a dream state. Couple this with the vampire metaphor and Only Lovers Left Alive feels like a hipster-goth fever dream, where music, love and sex still offer solace to those who witness the decay of civilizations.

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The Wolf of Wall Street director MARTIN SCORSESE

writer CLARISSE LOUGHREY

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artin Scorsese’s monument to human greed is a problematic one, but a monument it remains. As the months have crept past our eyes to plant this year’s crop of cinematic gold, the shadow cast by this monstrous, yet beguiling figure has refused to fade. Twelve months down the line, and the memory of The Wolf of Wall Street still burns. Trust a guy like Scorsese to do a thing like that, eh? Yes, the number of people who have come to hail Belfort as some kind of strange spiritual champion is alarming, and there’s an understandable motivation to question Scorsese’s own burden of moral responsibility. It’s hard to deny The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t glamourise this life of greed and corruption, but is it Scorsese’s own inherent responsibility to sit us down and patronisingly tell us that stealing is bad and nothing good can come of it? Because that’s a straight-up lie, as much as it may pain us to accept. Belfort’s life was glamorous: you can’t deny a never-ending line of beauties and a constant drug high makes for a largely euphoric experience for the common man. And as much as we may crave karmic justice, the real Belfort is still out there somewhere living the high-life, with minimal repercussions, because that’s exactly the kind of depressing world we live in. Tell your kids whatever you like: stealing is terribly bad, yes, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun while it lasts. Scorsese doesn’t deny truth, but neither

does he see fit to blankly idolise Belfort: the unconvinced should simply count how many times the man is compared to a wild animal or drooling baby. At his best, Belfort is irresistibly charismatic; but for the most part he spends this movie either flailing like an upturned turtle or a crawling around like a snotty, infantile mess. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s created something fascinatingly unique: turning the unparalleled second-hand embarrassment of bro-comedies towards the untested powerhouses of Wall Street, and the most insidiously powerful men of the world into walking parodies of juvenile frat-boys. This movie is a three-hour prestige epic of dick jokes: featuring a scene in which Jonah Hill screams “smoke some crack with me bro”. In fact, swap Leonardo DiCaprio for Channing Tatum and you’d have Jump Street’s third, darker installment. If you’re laughing at Jordan Belfort then, good job, you’re taking power away from the people who have far too much. If you’re laughing with Jordan Belfort, well then, you’ve proven a sad fact about humanity’s empathy for greed that no single film was ever going to change. In fact, The Wolf of Wall Street’s best critique comes from studying the dissonance of viewer reactions, gifting the world the ability to determine whether you want to borrow money from someone with a single question: “Hey, what did you think of The Wolf of Wall Street?”

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Boyhood director RICHARD LINKLATER

writer CHRISTINA NEWLAND

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ichard Linklater has always been a director concerned with words; dialogue fills the spaces in his films, whether it be casual conversation or inane chattering. It’s all indicative of an auteur who seems to forever be trying to bridge the gap between his characters. He does this so successfully - and so organically - in Boyhood that the family dynamic is not only wholly convincing, it broaches the distance between the audience and the characters onscreen. Linklater does this, in part, by adopting a far more naturalistic approach to dialogue; shedding most of the abstract, dreamy philosophizing of his previous films. It seems, judging by the wide response to the movie, that in spite of age or geographical difference from noughties Texas, many have found some gem of bittersweet familiarity in this tale of growing up. In some way linked to his passion for loquaciousness, Linklater is also fascinated with cinematic time; from the real-time experimentation of Before Sunset to the compartmentalized 24-hour framework of Dazed and Confused. In this context, the dozen years in the making and the grand ambitions of periodically filming the young star Ellar Coltrane from ages 6 to 18 feel like the next logical step. And so Mason grows up, incrementally, over the 164-minute running time. The film tumbles through Mason’s years as a cherub-faced child to a gangly, floppy-haired teenager, and eventually to a self-aware high school senior with artistic pretensions. The film is a marvel of editing, as it is almost imperceptible; there are no dissolves or fade-outs, no onscreen cues

or dates to inform of the passage of time. We notice someone’s haircut has changed, they’ve sprouted up a few inches; that they look awkward in their own bodies. The film’s structure sprawls loosely and generously. But it isn’t, ultimately, the director’s masterful manipulation of time that makes Boyhood so remarkable. Partially through such committed performances from his actors, Linklater entrenches the audience in the family, making us feel the vagaries and losses and achievements as if they were our own - and hell, there’s a good likelihood we may have shared them. The tremendous intimacy of Boyhood almost forces us to take the same position as Olivia, Mason’s stricken mother. Patricia Arquette’s final scene in the film of saying goodbye to Mason before he leaves for college, is funny and tender; it seems to her son that she’s overreacting, but the audience here intuits more than the boy does. For that reason, it is heartbreaking. Boyhood - like growing up - is a long dream, revelling in the smell of cut grass and childhood summers spent rolling around on the backyard trampoline. Punctuated by the distant tremors of adulthood, buoyed up by our loved ones, unafraid of growing pains, it allows us to get the dirt under our fingernails. The passage of time is something all at once bright, terrifying, and unyielding, that Linklater and Mason both face with optimism. With all its boundless warmth and sensitivity, Boyhood captures life in a way that is quietly revolutionary. It feels like something that will endure.

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Under the Skin director JONATHAN GLAZER writer JOSEPH FAHIM

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o one expected Jonathan Glazer to produce an accessible, conventional picture after 2004’s Birth, one of the most underrated films of the past decade. And no one expected a faithful, straightforward adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, the project that became his third film in 14 years. Yet at the same time, no one expected a resultant experience so elusive, cerebral and ravishing. At a time when the gap between the art-house and the mainstream seems impossibly unbridgeable, Glazer’s latest coup emerges as the unlikeliest of beasts — an unclassifiable erotic sci-fi thriller conforming to no genre trope; a hypnotic meditation on sexuality, death and the burden of being a human, starring one of the biggest film stars on the planet. Excising the satirical tone of Faber’s story and underscoring its social commentary, Glazer strips the narrative down to its bare essence: an alien luring men to their death in Scotland. Like every narrative strand in the film, the nature and purpose of her mission is hinted at but never fully disclosed. Using Mica Levi’s eerie, distorted score to frame Laura’s (Scarlett Johansson) state of mind, Glazer paints an impressionistic picture of a post-industrial world where aliens and humans are indistinguishable from one another. Laura is a one-track minded creature. Unlike The Man Who Fell to Earth, Starman or even Species her quest has no great purpose or meaning. The course of her actions may be carefully calibrated, yet a primal instinct is what moves her and what defines her predatory/self-protective behavior. The gender roles Laura and her men assume are a byproduct of a cold, austere world where

sex is commodified to cater for the ravenous needs of its consumerist inhabitants. Laura is no different than the star playing her: she’s the unattainable sex symbol; a burning desire impossible to extinguish. Film is the greatest purveyor of sex as a fantasy; a device that deceptively bridges the distance between the sex object and the ordinary consumer. Laura’s victims end up realizing that she’s a mirage, always finding themselves thrown into the abyss of unfulfillment. For those men, death functions also as a tool of self-awareness: a late recognition not only of their failing masculinities, but of the crushing limitation of their worlds. And just like the men’s gluttonous desire leads to their downfall, the compassion Laura starts experiencing leads to hers. Empathy becomes the alien’s forbidden fruit; an accidental diversion from the role and mission ascribed to her that eventually leads to self-discovery and ultimately, realizing the tragedy of her existence and deformed nature. What truly elevates this film to a distinct level of its own are the grand ideas and themes it communicates. Glazer employs the subtlest of nuances to suggest Laura’s transformation, injecting his picture with a touch of warmth that turns the story over its head. What transpires at the end is a sad fable about a creature saddled and crushed by humanity. There’s nothing poetic about Laura’s transformation, nothing comforting in the kindness she experiences from others. The biggest burden of being a human, she ultimately realizes, is the inevitability of pain: pain of knowledge, pain of sympathy, pain of violence. When she at last sheds off her skin, when she finally unloads this unbearable weight of her existence, she finally ceases to be: she finally becomes free.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel director WES ANDERSON

writer DAVI D HALL

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ould this be Wes Anderson’s finest work to date? It is surely the one in which this remarkably singular auteur’s world vision synthesizes most perfectly with its source material. I’ve remained an admirer of Anderson throughout his remarkable career without always truly connecting with the material (although moments in various films, particularly The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, hit home hard). Strange then that The Grand Budapest Hotel - without a doubt Anderson’s most extreme example of his artificial, prettified worldview – is the one that finally won me over, and sent me rushing back to the earlier works with a renewed, puppyish enthusiasm. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson’s imagination and confidently realist aesthetic are yoked to a truly moving and wistful narrative about loss of national identity and personal freedoms. This unexpected emotional heft is woven elegantly throughout a breezy, brightly-coloured shaggy dog story involving international spies, espionage, murder and blackmail. This is an exquisitely realised confection of a movie; as intricate and lovingly created as one of the Menzel patisserie goodies that are proffered throughout this delicious, bittersweet caper. Anderson has always striven to create a miniaturized universe of colourful eccentricity. In Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the preening proprietor of the establishment that was “once the seat of an empire”, he may have found the perfect foil. In contrast to Bill Murray’s deadpan but now overly familiar

weariness, Fiennes injects Gustave with a deranged comic gusto. The film matches Fiennes in terms of sustaining a breathlessly entertaining, near-manic pace for the most part, only to ramp up the emotional stakes just as the very point you fear it may descend into whimsy. The mythical Zubrowka is as rarefied and precious a place as Anderson has ever created. It’s a fictional Europe of course, but one deeply rooted in real tragedy and a bruising history. The film’s fairy tale dimension(s), taking direct inspiration from the life and works of German writer Stefan Zweig, are superbly realized; with miniature sets, stop-motion sequences and the Hotel itself, a tremendous detailed feat of imagination. But it’s that air of sadness, delicately released like a perfume (perhaps the ‘L’Air de Panache’ Gustave insists upon wearing throughout) that lingers long in the memory. The film is also crammed with throwaway gags, innovative detail, and a grab-bag of Anderson’s ever-extending repertory, with room for newbies Lea Seydoux and Tony Revolor who impresses as the as the lobby-boy trained by Fiennes’ concierge, who becomes a true friend, companion and equal. Robert Yeoman’s delicate cinematography and a score by Alexandre Desplat that oscillates between cheerfulness and melancholy compliment. Stylised it may be, The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t lose any of the things that make Anderson such a unique talent, housing these affectations warmly, with affection and wistfulness. I await his next confection with renewed excitement.

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the Wicked and the Wonderful writer EVRIM ERSOY

Will any other black comedy in 2o15 have more of an impact than Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales - a collection of ever-escalating stories of everyday madness

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arlier last year, when Wild Tales was announced to compete in the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, there was little buzz around Damián Szifrón’s latest. As the first screening ended, what followed was a ten-minute standing ovation from the audience, and the film instantly becoming the festival’s hot ticket. It’s now been screened around the world at the Toronto, Sitges and San Sebastian Film Festivals and was recently chosen as Argentina’s entry for the Best Foreign Film category at the 87th Academy Awards. The film – produced by Pedro Almodovar, which will come as no surprise to anyone who sees it – goes some way to addressing the situation that comedy as a genre tends to end up in; receiving less respect than other genres and overlooked come awards time. The director, Damián Szifrón, has been working within the Argentine film industry

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for a number of years, both as screenwriter and director, and Wild Tales can be seen as a distillation of his themes and technical style in one exceptional package. Wild Tales is an omnibus film but, unlike other films of this type, does not boast a central, linking narrative. None of the stories or characters are in any way connected – other than all going through some of the worst experiences you could imagine. The brilliance of the humour comes from Szifrón’s ability to escalate it in a way that never seems unreasonable – however ridiculous the unfolding events get, it’s hard not to be swept up in the momentum and high-octane energy of the script. The common themes are violence and vengeance. Each one of the characters is either wronged, or has wronged, and in due course comes across either a comeuppance or a way to deliver justice. The opening segment, ‘Pasternak’, concerns a plane of passengers who very quickly discover they all share something

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in common. It’s a clever conceit and a fitting way to open the film. The final frame of the vignette sees the title appear on screen over a dynamic freezeframe, leaving you in no as to what kind of movie you’re about to experience. This explosive opening plunges the audience headfirst into Szifrón’s violent world. Finding humour in such horrific violence is what really makes this director special; in previous films Bottom Of The Sea and On Probation he has already explored the same territory of violence, jealousy, obsession and the unexpected. For Wild Tales he has distilled the essence of these themes into mini-explosives, each one catching the audience unawares. The second story, ‘Rats’, perhaps doesn’t have the audacity of the opening segment, but still demonstrates an approach that is both amusing and horrifying. When a waitress recognizes a man in a restaurant as the person who ruined her family, the cook urges her to take revenge by spiking the man’s food with rat poison. What ensues is an unexpected trag-


edy that finds cruel comedy in the extremes it reaches. Szifrón’s central characters are angry at being ignored by the world, cheated by it and they’re distraught at having lost so much. This is a nation of put-upon losers who are finally taking their fate in their own hands – and the results, however deserved, are always violent and unexpected. In the next story, ‘The Strongest’, Szifrón re-imagines Spielberg’s Duel as a pissing contest between two men; an act of macho posturing that gets so far out of hand it’s hard not to be amused by the level of excessive violence on display. But perhaps the real coup here is Szifrón’s use of what Billy Wilder called the superjoke – a punchline so wonderfully droll that no-one can expect it. It’s back to the heart of the city for the next segment ‘Bombita’, with Ricardo Darin as a put-upon lawyer with troubles at home. A constant battle with the city’s powers sees him slowly edge towards an unimaginable act. The

idea that a shadow of a man can discover himself through violence is both scary and truthful. If Peckinpah hammers this home through the finale of Straw Dogs, Szifrón delivers the same conclusion with a sly wink. The next segment of the film, ‘La Propuesta’, features humour so black it’s makes this one the furthest-out of all the assorted madhouse stories. In a rich and affluent part of the city, a spoilt kid returns home after having perpetrated a hit-and-run on a pregnant woman. What follows is a trail of corruption that grows ever darker, and an indictment of the class differences that bring home some uncomfortable truths. Szifrón balances the comedy and the drama sublimely, with the horror of what is occurring occasionally diffused by the sheer outrageous, hilarious ridiculousness of it all. The last segment of the film, ‘Hasta Que La Muerte Nos Separe’ is Szifrón’s masterstroke, the pinnacle of the entire film and an intense combination of everything that has occurred before it.

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wife discovers an ugly truth moments after the two have tied the knot: her husband has been cheating on her with a work colleague who is also at the wedding. What follows is an ever-escalating series of events which go a long way to showing us the worst wedding party that anyone could ever imagine, and much further than any embarrassing moments we might have witnessed in our own lives. However the masterstroke here is Szifrón’s ability of not losing sight of his characters. The behavior of our leads is determined by their personalities and however out-there their actions may be, what they do somehow makes emotional sense. The manic energy of this last segment makes it an ideal place to finish the film, and represents perhaps the funniest 25 minutes of any movie released this year. Szifrón’s handle on the material is so masterful, the editing so achingly tight, it’s hard not be reminded of the

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masters of slapstick like Tati or Chaplin. As a thrill ride, Wild Tales succeeds beyond all expectation, but there’s also another element here – the joy of violence. Time and time again we watch average people give in to baser instincts and let violence take over and dictate their actions. Though the end results may not always be pleasant, there’s a beautiful, illicit thrill to watching it all unfold. Szifrón clearly fulfills the promise he showed with his earlier films and TV work here – crafting stories of everyday madness around characters who are easy to identify. Wild Tales marries the best of the work of Almodovar with the sheer insanity of early Mel Brooks and the slapstick violence of The Three Stooges to create something entirely fresh. This is mankind’s capacity for violence viewed through an askew mirror that dares, and even encourages its audience to laugh at the sheer absurdity and horror of it all.


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Ernst Lubitsch PART ONE

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In the first of a two-part retrospective, Evrim Ersoy tips his hat to one of the true masters of screwball Ernst Lubitsch

Manners maketh the man writer EVRIM ERSOY

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hile due attention is paid to the screwball comedies of Hollywood, fewer examine the works of Ernst Lubitsch. Yet, just as being unable to delight in the visual and aural madness of the gialli, without the mysteries of Edgar Wallace, without the comedies of Lubitsch, the screwball comedy would not be what we think of today. Born in Berlin at the turn of the century, Lubitsch was the son of a tailor; a well-off and prosperous individual. Growing up, the young man was drawn to the stage – a problem for his father who wanted Ernst to take over the family business once he finished school. This led him to create a ‘double life’, in a move that almost certainly foreshadows the many devices from his future films – working by day as a book keeper in the store and appearing onstage at night.

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Alongside a stint in the Deutsches Theatre, the young Ernst also worked as an apprentice in the Bioscope Film Studios in Berlin, which led to a number of bit parts in some of the early comedies the studio made. These gave Lubitsch the chance to gain the attention of his peers and it wasn’t long before he was given the chance to write and direct some films himself. Soon after, Lubitsch gave up acting altogether and focused on a wildly successful career that was to lead him from Berlin all the way to Hollywood. It’s important to pay due attention to Lubitsch’s early films before venturing any further into his Hollywood period, because the trademark wit and ingenuity are all present. Like the silent films of Hitchcock, the early works of Lubitsch showcase the spark of what is to come. Working with actresses such as Pola Negri, Lubitsch would make his mark on early cinema with hits such as Madame DuBarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920), alternating these dramas with the sort of escapist comedies

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that would later become his trademark. In films like The Oyster Princess (1919), it’s quite easy to see the glimpses of what would later be called the Lubitsch Touch. One of the key sequences is a wedding ceremony in the third act, featuring the dance choreography of a fantastic Foxtrot that slowly engulfs the guests, the waiters and even the kitchen staff, while the band keeps playing a forever-more frantic tune using unusual instruments. The success of his films would see Mary Pickford reaching out to Lubitsch to get him to work in Hollywood – a move that marked a new start for his career. Arriving in 1922, he directed Pickford in Rosita (1923), a silent film based on an opera by d’Ennery and Dumanoir. A resounding success, this would also be the only vehicle Pickford and Lubitsch would make together due to clashes between the two. A free agent after the film, Lubitsch would be signed on by Warner Brothers for a six-picture contract with great creative freedom. Settling into his new role, Lubitsch would craft sophisticated comedies such as Lady


Cameron Crowe on Lubitsch

The LUBITSCH Touch is... The ELEGANT JOKE, full of character, that becomes... ANOTHER surprising joke, which becomes... AN EVEN FUNNIER joke, which becomes... THE ULTIMATE joke you never expected, which becomes... THE MOVIE you can’t wait to see again. VIVA LUBITSCH

It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied but then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn’t expect. Billy Wilder on Lubitsch

Windemere’s Fan (1925) and So This Is Paris (1926). However, with the films providing only meagre returns, the contract was dissolved with the remainder being bought out by MGM and Paramount. It’s at this stage that Hollywood saw the unstoppable march of the talkies. Sound-onfilm was a concept which, although exciting, also spelled the end for many directors, actors and actresses who never managed to make the transition. The effect of this new technology on Lubitsch’s career would be somewhat different. Like a duck to water, Lubitsch wholly embraced the creative possibilities of the new techniques. His output for the next few years would represent beginning of his meteoric rise and the Lubitsch Touch became firmly established. But what is the Lubitsch Touch? Dissected by film scholars for years, there still isn’t one definitive description. It is, in simplest terms, the director’s ability to blend elegance, sophistication, cynicism, wit and humour to create

commentary on unusual subjects. But the Lubitsch Touch is also much, much more, a cinematic trademark best expressed through the sequences in Lubitsch’s films where he demonstrates time and time again, the most unexpected and brilliant way of approaching a subject. Lubitcsh’s first film after moving into the talkies was the 1929 musical Love Parade, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald in a partnership that would endure throughout a number of films. The story was adapted from a French play titled ‘Le Prince Consort’ and had been staged on Broadway prior to the filming. In the film, Chevalier plays Count Renard; the military attaché to the Sylvanian Embassy in Paris who is ordered back to Sylvania to report to Jeanette Macfonald’s Queen Louise to be reprimanded. However the Queen is more intrigued by Count Renard than she lets on and slowly their relationship turns into a romance. Blessed with some terrific songs, including

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‘Paris Stay The Same’ and ‘Let’s be Common’ as well as the titular ‘My Love Parade’, the film is joyful, charming, sophisticated and unexpectedly romantic. Chevalier, although unsure of the role at first, excels as the devil-may-care Count Renard and Jeanette Macdonald in her debut, is sparkling and vivacious. But most importantly, the film is full of Lubitsch moments: whether it’s the idea to integrate songs into the narrative – a first in Hollywood – or the chorus of the Queen’s advisors and servants who comment on the budding romance between the Queen and the Count from details gained through peeping and spying! Perhaps the only criticism of Love Parade is the static nature of many of the numbers – the early sound equipment meant a lot of the shots had to be stationary in order to avoid problems. Still, this is a minor complaint for a film which still holds up in terms of sophistication and humour. Lubitsch’s next effort for Paramount was another comedy of manners titled Monte Carlo (1930) and based on a novel by Booth Tarkington titled ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’. Jeanette Macdonald once again takes the female lead, though Chevalier this time is replaced by Jack Buchanan, who though a fine actor, is not nearly as urbane as his predecessor, which is one of the reasons the film shows its age. The plot of Monte Carlo concerns Countess Helene Mara, who on the cusp of being married to Prince Otto Von Liebenheim (a fantastic Claud Allister with an almost perfect shtick) runs away from the wedding – and not the first time either! She arrives in Monte Carlo and is spied by Count Rudolph Falliere, who in order to get closer to the Countess takes on the persona of a personal hairdresser named Rudy. Slowly a romance develops between the odd couple until the witty climax. Monte Carlo was one of the first musicals to

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feature a song written especially for the film (in this instance ‘Beyond The Blue Horizon’ as sung by Jeanette MacDonald which became a breakthrough hit. The song was also one of the first musical numbers which used diegetic sound as the beginning of the melody) in this instance the chugging of a train which slowly morphs into the beat of the tune, now accompanied by the orchestra. A brilliant method, this would be used many times in the musical of the legendary Freed unit at MGM. The second notable Lubitsch Touch moment occurs during the musical number ‘Give Me a Moment Please’, in which Buchanan’s character is pleading with the Countess to let him see her. When she abruptly ends the number by slamming the hotel door in his face, there is a momentary silence and suddenly the phone in the bedroom rings. The countess walks over, answers it and we immediately hear the voice of Buchanan, continuing the song as if nothing has happened! After Monte Carlo, Lubitsch’s streak would continue with his next project The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), another musical. Chevalier was once again back as the lead while Miriam Hopkins and the ever-brilliant Claudette Colbert completed the love triangle. A raunchy comedy of manners, The Smiling Lieutenant finds Lieutenant von Preyn (Chevailer) beginning a romantic affair with Colbert’s Franzi, the leader of an all-female orchestra. However, when a wink by von Preyn intended for Franzi is mistakenly interpreted by Princess Anna as intended for her, the confusion results in the Lieutenant forced to marry the prudish Anna. However, he continues to see Franzi and when this is discovered by the Princess, she confronts the mistress, only for a bond to develop between the two women. Franzi then takes on the task of teaching Anna how to win the Lieutenant’s heart.


The notion of ‘the wrong girl getting the man at the end’ serves as a fantastic indication of Lubitsch’s approach to creating what David Thomson called ‘truly amoral’ romantic comedies. Subverting the classic romantic approach, Lubitsch refuses to make his characters submit to any social mores – instead he gives them happiness based on their own circumstance and desires. Perhaps the best depiction of this is in Lubitsch’s next film Trouble in Paradise (1932), a romantic comedy which could have only been made pre-code, and features amoral central characters who lie, cheat and steal from each other without any moral scruples whatsoever. Even during the credits sequence Lubitsch winks at the audience, placing the word ‘Paradise’ above an ornate double bed! The story concerns thief Gaston Monescu (a brilliant Herbert Marshall), who meets his true love in pickpocket Lily (a wonderful Miriam Hopkins) when the pair embark on a journey to con the lovely Mariette Colet. Monescu subsequently falling for their mark sees tensions rise, as the two women fight for the heart of the thief.

The world Lubitsch creates in the film is exquisite; a sophisticated and elegant arena of cocktails, beautiful houses, staircases, nightclubs and witty dialogue. It’s as frothy as can be and yet full of emotional truths which resonate even after all these years, and with a sexual undertone which remains shocking to this day. Whether it’s the first kiss between Monescu and Lily, which quickly becomes a game of one-upmanship, or the first meeting between Mariette and Monescu, the dialogue always sizzles with innuendo. A major problem with modern films that attempt to imitate screwball comedies is their creators’ (and performers’) eagerness to allow the delivery to go way over-the-top. Lubitsch created films that are both light of touch and carry an emotional weight, always remaining dignified. With these three titles under his belt, Lubitsch had not only saved Paramount’s fortunes during the destructive Wall Street Crash but had ably demonstrated he was one of the best craftsmen working within the field. But the best was yet to come...

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In

DEFENCE MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

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writer MICHAEL EWINS

The John Woo directed second entry in the Cruise franchise is the purest and most misunderstood action picture of the millennium, argues Michael Ewins

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f Tom Cruise’s latest star vehicle, the darkly satirical time-loop actioner Edge Of Tomorrow, is a belated but imperative rejoinder to the mass dehumanization of new millennial blockbuster cinema, its pulse-pounding polemic may prove a useful framework through which to reconsider John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II. In the years of his comeback (following an infamous ‘meltdown’ on Oprah’s couch, and his subsequent sacking from Paramount), Cruise has been obsessed with exploring his own mortality onscreen. In Rock Of Ages he plays the aging glam-rock libertine Stacee Jaxx, caught in a existential tailspin before regrouping with his band (read: Paramount); Oblivion upends its last-man-on-Earth

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premise by threatening the megastar’s identity with a doppelgänger; and Edge Of Tomorrow, a metaphor for the day-to-day life of a movie star (repeating the same emotions and behaviour film after film), examines his physical and cinematic permanence. But in M:I-2, the masterful sequel to Brian De Palma’s 1996 spy reboot, Cruise is the classical Adonis; handsome and athletic, perpetually self-renewing, and universally adored. The first time we see his IMF super agent, Ethan Hunt, he is conquering the elements, grappling with the sheer cliffs of Utah’s Dead Horse Point. Encircling and isolating him in the vast landscape, and intercut with one great Leone-style close-up, Woo’s camera makes love to Cruise, and we consider that few films in history - perhaps Von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, or Hitchcock’s Marnie - have been so carnally receptive to their star’s image. Cruise and Woo, both cineastes obsessed with American movies of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and constantly pursing the ideal of a pure action cinema, turned out to be perfectly matched, and conceived M:I-2 as a

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“romantic action-adventure,” riffing on the premise of Hitchcock’s 1946 classic Notorious. Hunt is enlisted to recover the Chimera virus from rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (a deliciously OTT Dougray Scott, who relishes the exaggerated diction on each syllable), and falls in love with a civilian thief named Nyah (Thandie Newton) recruited to infiltrate Sean’s home and relay information back to the IMF. Trickily, though, she’s his ex-lover, and Sean is determined not to let her slip through his fingers again. But it’s not just Notorious which contributes to M:I-2’s DNA. Old Hollywood saturates almost every frame. From the Hawksian architecture, wherein a love story subjugates the adventure narrative it ostensibly supports, to the “Lubitsch Touch”, embodied by Newton’s svelte lady thief (she reminds me of Miriam Hopkins in Trouble In Paradise, but is modelled after Audrey Hepburn in How To Steal A Million), and Minnelli’s romantic formal abstraction and love of rhythm. The flavour of Hays-era Hollywood is most evident in Robert Towne’s sparkling dialogue, and particularly


in one savage exchange where Ethan protests Nyah’s suitability for the mission, questioning her lack of experience. “To go to a bed with a man and lie to him,” retorts Commander Swanbeck (Anthony Hopkins), “she’s a woman; she has all the training she needs.” The casually misogynist wit of a thousand screwballs and noirs, reduced to one glorious throwaway line in a film full of them (before shooting Ethan, Ambrose quips about disguising himself as the super agent: “that was the hardest part about having to portray you... grinning like an idiot every fifteen minutes”). Woo’s set-pieces are also loaded with connotation. Nyah and Ethan fall into bed following a cliffside car pursuit, but Woo doesn’t bother staging any boudoir action, framing their post-coital bodies in a two-shot, having already implied through subjective camerawork and a dissolve that all the sex happened on the road, in the thrusting of engines and a shunting steel 69; 1940s innuendo retooled for the year 2000 (but as elegant as Trouble In Paradise’s popped, slumped champagne bottle). Woo’s action is purely physical, even sensual, as his wide compositions and slow-motion effects emphasize bodies in motion, and in one sequence, after aggressively unloading an entire pistol round, Ambrose, who it is subtly implied is impotent, cooly remarks “that’s what’s known as getting your gun off.” Even the face-swapping antics (which Woo was experienced in from his last Hollywood project) between Ethan and Ambrose are imbued with a homosexual subtext about Sean wanting to become and replace the super agent, complicating the central love triangle; and the mano-a-mano finale, where the pair tussle like gladiators on the beach, is typical Woo, taking subtext and making it literal, physical, sensual action. But Woo doesn’t just trade on the nostalgic rendering of form or homage, and far more than his diagnosis of the hyper-active

M:I-2 owes its brilliance to the successful homogenization of classical and heroic bloodshed styles, and the subsequent purification of form results in an action film which is at once elegant and cheesy, sublime and ridiculous.

contemporary action cinema Edge Of Tomorrow is responding to, which he terms “intensified continuity”, M:I-2 is closer to critic David Bordwell’s definition of “classical cinema”, which he outlines through five key concepts. Goal Orientation: Usually hinged around the Hitchcockian “MacGuffin”, in this case the dual Chimera/Bellerefon virus. The Double Plotline: As with Hawks, a narrative composed of parallel lines of action in which a romance is entwined with the central thriller plot; i.e. pursuit of the MacGuffin. Discrete Part-Structure: An approximation of the textbook three-act structure; here, the discovery, pursuit and capture of Chimera/Bellerefon. Planting Causes For Future Effects: Or dangling causes – the final realisation of events foreshadowed during earlier stages of the film. Deadlines: In M:I-2, the 24-hour clock started when Nyah injects herself with Chimera. This archetypal structure also allowed Woo to embolden his aesthetics after several years of diluting them for American audiences. Hard Target, Broken Arrow and Face/Off are fine action pictures in their own right, but M:I-2’s closest relative in the auteur’s canon is The Killer. Consider, in each film, the first meeting between the protagonist and his love interest. The Killer’s Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat) eyes Jennie (Sally Yeh) across a club, their faces illuminated by bold red light, and a series of dissolves underlining the immediacy of their connection. In M:I-2, Ethan tracks Nyah to Seville and meets her gaze across a stage, where

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flamenco dancers thrust their red dresses into the foreground of the frame, and a series of dissolves spark a flame of sexual attraction. Earlier in The Killer, Ah Jong accepts a mission in The Church Of Salvation (redemption is the film’s recurring theme), while Ethan meets Commander Swanbeck at a fiery Day Of The Dead ceremony (death and the chance for renewal are M:I-2’s), and the parallels continue right up until the gun-fu pyrotechnics of the final act (dual pistols!), which mix the motifs of American action cinema with the aesthetic of Hong Kong’s “heroic bloodshed” genre, to which Woo introduced slow-motion and doves. Lots of doves. M:I-2 owes its brilliance to the successful homogenization of classical and heroic bloodshed styles, and the subsequent purification of form results in an action film which is at once elegant and cheesy, sublime and ridiculous. In its own way, it’s one of the most madly ambitious films of its time, so pompously overblown and romantically self-involved that it literally becomes action opera, complete with a melodramatic love story at its core. Fourteen

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years on and this distinct tonal fusion dates the film as much as a classic of Hawks or Lubitsch. Wide framing and clear cutting to aid geographic orientation and emotional engagement in action scenes; practical effects and in-camera stunts; witty, adult dialogue... these are not elements one would find in the modern action film, and it’s here that we return to Bordwell’s concept of intensified continuity. It’s possible that M:I-2 is the last great celluloid action film, made before the genre’s aesthetic concerns became intrinsic with those of digital production, a transition completed with 2006’s fantastic Crank and Miami Vice. But the style they helped usher in, seen in films like Transformers (2007-2014), Battle: Los Angeles, Clash Of The Titans and The Expendables, of close-up and flurried violence, rapid editing, and enhanced sound design, have made action cinema unintelligible; sensorial, but not sensual. The most unsettling offshoot of this development has been the proliferation of a broad ethical deficiency, where the cost of a human life has been reduced to that of a cinema ticket. Our moral


consciences have slipped through brains like wet butter to the basal of the popcorn stand; the unimaginable toll of death is now only imaginable but rendered for imagination, and the more catastrophic the apocalypse the more we whoop and cheer. A sad and strange irony given how quickly the movies gained a humanity post 9/11 (especially in one of Cruise’s best films of that decade, War Of The Worlds), only to be shunted for indifference within the very same arena. Edge Of Tomorrow is the corrective, a plea for humanity within the audio-visual and literal warzone, actually challenging the worth we, as an audience, place on an individual human life. It’s a film which forces us to feel rather than tally the death count, which recent blockbusters like Man Of Steel, Die Hard 5 and The Avengers have been dangerously oblivious to; but they are perfect examples of the modern form. So presenting M:I-2 as the last great celluloid action film is one thing - perhaps that’s not hard when an overwhelming number of action films are now shot digitally. But maybe its classical structure, mushy heart, rampant

innuendo, and riveting, comprehensible action could present it as the last great studio action film, wherein a definition of the studio action film explains modes of classical form, wit, invention, and a certain humanism (I can’t think of a single action film made after the year 2000 which has as much emotional urgency as M:I-2, especially after Nyah injects herself with Chimera). Woo’s first director’s cut of M:I-2 came in at three-and-a-half hours, and one can’t help but think he was trying to make a great Hollywood epic in the vein of Gone With The Wind (the films do share a colour scheme!), where the troubled human condition is placed front and centre of a gorgeously artificial and escapist story. Of course, these devastating cuts do reduce M:I-2’s plot to sheer nonsense and the middle section of the film drags its heels, so not even I could argue it as a perfect film. But contrary to its enduring reputation as an awful one, remember that it was Hawks whose definition of a successful film was “three good scenes, and no bad ones”, a standard which Woo more than surpasses.

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In the

FRAME

Se7en (1997)

writer STUART BARR

director DAVI D FINCHER

W

hatever you hear, stay away! John Doe has the upper hand!” These words are the fulcrum upon which David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Se7en tips away from the stylised police procedural it disguises itself as, and descends into a dark pit of suffocating horror. Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) are assigned to investigate a possible homicide of a morbidly obese man discovered dead in his filthy apartment. It should be a routine case, a simple crimescene investigation for detective Somerset as he approaches retirement, and for Mills as the young replacement who has transferred in from outside the city. A further murder and several pointed clues lead Somerset to believe they are the work of a serial killer and to theorise that he is creating murder set-pieces based on the seven cardinal sins (gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath).

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The two detectives are archetypal crime fiction characters. Somerset is the veteran, approaching retirement with a mix of relief and exhaustion. The geniality and warmth Freeman brings to the part is tempered by his habit of keeping a switchblade on his person (just like Harry Callahan). Somerset has been worn down by the unrelenting conveyor belt of atrocities the city provides. Mills is the ambitious young detective, full of piss and vinegar, brimming over with fierce conviction. Freeman and Brad Pitt do great work bringing these stock characters to life, greatly aided by Andrew Kevin Walker’s sardonic hard-boiled dialogue. If the characters and set up appear the stuff of hokum, Walker’s wickedly cruel, deceptively clever plot uses familiar tropes against the audience, building a sense of the familiar that for all its shock tactics is, in genre terms, apparently formulaic. An accumulation of procedural detail and Chandler-esque sleuthing lulls the audience into a sense of security that is suddenly obliterated when, rather than

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being captured by the guile of the detectives, the killer simply walks into the fourteenth precinct of his own volition and surrenders. It is a moment of narrative transgression; the heroes are instantly emasculated, robbed of agency. It is the first real sign we are watching a horror film. Known only as John Doe; the killer has been built up as the absolute personification of evil by each of the meticulous and horrific crime scenes he has left in his wake. Somerset warns Mills, “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil - I mean if he’s Satan himself - that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.” For his part Mills is unimpressed such gravity towards their quarry, “C’mon, he’s insane. Look. Right now he’s probably dancing around in his grandma’s panties, yeah, rubbing himself in peanut butter.” Detective Somerset’s dialogue can be read as a self-reflexive commentary on the inevitability of anti-climax in the mystery genre. The chase is often the greatest thrill, and when the


killer is revealed as a mere mortal, the detective (and by extension) the audience is left deflated – this problem is endemic to Se7en’s plethora of imitators. The Denzel Washington starrer Fallen even went so far as to have its killer actually be a demon. Putting aside disruptions of genre caused by the killer’s surrender, Doe’s physical entrance in the shape of an uncredited Kevin Spacey (a trick it is hard to imagine being successfully mounted today) appears to confirm that Somerset was correct. He is rather ordinary, the sort of man your eyes slide over without registering. Spacey was a notable actor in 1995 but not yet a household name and his ability to move from ‘white-collar bland’ to ‘personification of capital E evil’ was not yet something to which an audience was accustomed. With perverse visual irony, as the film sloughs its crime movie skin to reveal glistening scales beneath, it also moves out of the darkness in which cinematographer Darius Khondji has shrouded its vision of Los Angeles – less a City of Angels and more a purgatory whose denizens are in bondage to their basest vices. Although in custody, Doe informs the detectives that he will lead them to the bodies of his final two victims. Reluctantly they agree and begin a journey out of the uncannily rain soaked streets of LA and into the blazing sun of the Southern Californian desert. It is a visual journey that echoes a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost that is prominently featured in the movie, “long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light”. Doe and Fincher reverse Milton’s pilgrimage from the darkness of hell to the light of heaven, and create a movement where the illumination of light exposes greater gulfs of horror. Mills continues to be unimpressed with Doe, mocking him “I’ve been trying to figure something in my head, and maybe you can help me out, yeah? When a person is insane, as you

clearly are, do you know that you’re insane? Maybe you’re just sitting around, reading ‘Guns and Ammo’, masturbating in your own faeces, do you just stop and go, “Wow! It is amazing how fucking crazy I really am!”? Yeah. Do you guys do that?” As they stop on Doe’s command in the literal middle of nowhere, a delivery van approaches and the killer begins his endgame. Doe has been gradually chipping away at Detective Mills’ mental state throughout the journey, and now reveals a worrying level of knowledge about his life and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). As the van driver explains to Somerset that he was paid off the books to deliver a box, Doe turns the screws on Mills, revealing the final two sins. Doe envied Mills’ life, but is scornful of the detectives’ indifference to his domestic bliss and his committment to career. Envy is Doe’s sin. Somerset sees the shape of impending doom approaching at precisely the same time as the audience, Fincher and Walker springing the film’s final trap. It’s not a twist as such, in fact in some ways it is thuddingly obvious, but it is the sort of ending that you might consider, before dismissing as just too hideously bleak for a major Hollywood picture, ‘there’s no way they will go there’ you think to yourself. Then... ...They go there. “She begged for her life” smirks Doe… “and the life of the baby inside her.” When Mills guns Doe down, and in the process commits murder, he becomes the final sin, wrath. Se7en is a horror film because of inevitability. It allows no shaft of light to penetrate its bleak view of society as a scurrying hive of insects consuming one another in a frenzy; Somerset and Mills never had a glimmer of a hope of catching Doe. This was his design, executed with brutal perfection.

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Jordan McGrath

David Hall

Editor-in-Chief / Designer

Managing Editor

jordanmcgrath@veritefilmmag.com

davidhall@veritefilmmag.com

Contributors Criag Williams Timothy E. Raw Ben Nicholson Christopher O’Neill Evrim Ersoy Michael Ewins Stuart Barr James Marsh Kelsey Eichhorn Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg Clarisse Loughrey Christina Newland Joseph Fahim

Proofing Dan Auty and Jessica Chamberlain

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Image Credits Sony Pictures UK - 1,6,10,12,13,16, 93 / Warner Bros - 18, 20,21,24,25,50 / 20th Century Fox - 26,28,29,30,31,33,56,68 / eOne Entertainment - 34,36,37,39,58 / Izabela Szczutkowska - 41,46 / Artificial Eye - 52,54,70,72,73,74 / Soda Pictures - 60 / Universal Pictures - 62,64 / StudioCanal UK - 66 / Paramount Pictures - 82,84,86, 87 / New Line Cinema - 88,90

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