0315 | Cadillac Records

cadillac_records08In telling the story of Chess Records, the Chicago label that specialised in blues, R&B, early rock n’ roll, soul, gospel and jazz throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records often follows the well-trodden path of the music biopic: we see artists leaving poverty behind for fame and fortune, while numerous scenes detail key incidents from their lives, trouble at home, arguments, fights and drug use, all interspersed with re-staged live shows and studio sessions to underline their genius.

The most famous Chess artists are given plenty of time on-screen: Jeffrey Wright turns in a fine performance as Muddy Waters, a key figure in the history of the label, while we also follow the early careers of Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker, captivating), Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer, who also narrates), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and more. Some of these actors also sing live; the record producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Jordan produced the soundtrack, employing a hand-picked band of blues musicians to re-record a number of backing tracks, and the results sounded good to me overall.

Martin – who also wrote the screenplay – attempts to get to grips with several race-related issues, from police brutality and segregation to more industry-specific problems: Berry is apoplectic with rage when the Beach Boys copy his Sweet Little Sixteen riff for their hit Surfin’ U.S.A, for example, although details about subsequent legal wranglings are left until the end credits, which also refer to later actions launched by Chess lawyers against a number of white rock n’ roll, blues and R&B acts. (There’s no truck given to Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s claim that he met Berry in Copenhagen and received approval for the surfing-related hit, though.)

The theme of white men getting rich off the back of black talent, or acting as kingmakers, becomes prevalent when Chess Records begins to enjoy moderate success. There are brief glimpses of the most obvious symbols of white artists ‘stealing’ the sound of black musicians and becoming far more commercially successful as a result (Elvis, The Rolling Stones), while the influence of DJ Alan Freed (Eric Bogosian), who was instrumental in introducing white radio audiences to blues, R&B, early rock n’ roll and much more, is also felt. Most importantly we have Adrien Brody in the lead role as Leonard Chess, the Polish immigrant who co-founded the label, and a man who had to regularly justify the stacks of cash that he was making from his roster of black musicians. The make of car in the film’s title is a reference to the vehicular gifts that Chess would bestow on his prize acts as thanks for their work, and some of the film’s most interesting clashes play out between the artists who happily accept the cars and the money (Waters, for example) and those who refuse (Howlin’ Wolf).

Though much of the acting is excellent, and the music is highlighted in a suitably reverent fashion, ultimately it’s a shame that Martin sticks so closely to the typical musical biopic template (though concentration on an entire label, rather than one individual, is arguably a novelty) and it’s also disappointing that the narration seems to have been penned with dimwits in mind. In addition there are also several glaring historical inaccuracies: the death of Leonard Chess is given an unnecessary melodramatic spin, for example, while his brother and co-founder Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) is unfairly reduced to bit-part status (though he fairs better than Bo Diddley, who doesn’t appear at all). The film also concentrates far too heavily on Etta James (co-executive producer Beyoncé Knowles) during the second half. The singer was an important act in the history of Chess Records but there are times when this feels less like an even appraisal of the label and more like a showcase for the career of Knowles — a versatile performer, sure, but there seems to be a whiff of contractual stipulations here.

Directed by: Darnell Martin.
Written by: Darnell Martin.
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Columbus Short, Beyoncé Knowles, Cedric The Entertainer, Gabrielle Union, Eamonn Walker, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Mos Def, Shiloh Fernandez, Eric Bogosian.
Cinematography: Anastas Michos.
Editing: Peter C. Frank.
Music: Terence Blanchard, Steve Jordan, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 104 minutes.
Year: 2008.

0314 | Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Sin-City-A-Dame-To-Kill-for-WallpaperThe warning signs were evident way before Sin City: A Dame To Kill For collected a haul of bad reviews in 2014 while plopping into the lives of the general public. A long period of gestation followed in the wake of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s original 2005 hit Sin City, which was based on Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, and a worrying amount of writing and re-writing (including some at the behest of executive producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein) took place between 2006 and 2011. Then, upon completion, Miramax put the scheduled release date back from 2013 to 2014 (supposedly to avoid clashes with Rodriguez’s Machete Kills). Eventually A Dame To Kill For found its way into the multiplexes, but one wonders whether enthusiasm for the project had gradually waned over the years, especially given the fact the Weinsteins seemed keener to discuss the development of a TV spin-off than the film itself.

Some actors – Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Powers Boothe, Jaime King – return for this second outing but others – Clive Owen, Devon Aoki, Michael Madsen, Michael Clarke Duncan – are not present for a number of reasons (Duncan, for example, passed away shortly before filming started). Added to the cast, however, are several medium-sized names: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eva Green and Dennis Haysbert have the prominent roles, while there are a number of blink-and-you’ll-miss-em cameos for Christopher Lloyd, Ray Liotta, Lady Gaga, Stacy Keach, Jeremy Piven and many more. Inevitably some work better than others.

While criticism of the film primarily seemed to identify the screenplay as the main problem, with disgruntled reviewers claiming to be bored, Rodriguez and Miller were always on a hiding to nothing. For one thing they had the element of surprise on their side a decade ago, and the impact that their hyper-stylized, monochromatic and ultraviolent world had on viewers could not be relied upon again; though still essentially one big red light district with token docklands and out-of-town mansions up in the hills, this city now seems a touch duller due to familiarity with the milieu. Ah, the lot of the sequel, eh?

The exploitation of women continues unchecked, and sadly only Eva Green’s repeatedly-naked femme fatale stands out, with the rest little more than a cavalcade of interchangeable strippers and badass prostitute-assassins. Meanwhile the men are, once again, a bunch of tough-talking noir exaggerations who bed the vamps and smash one another through numerous panes of glass (seriously, if you want to make it in Sin City, become a glazier). Some characters, such as Rourke’s brutish slugger Marv, have also lost some of the mystique that helped to make Sin City so enjoyable, although giving Boothe’s vicious and smug Senator Roark a more prominent role this time was a good move.

The new movie shares its predecessor’s episodic structure, with the Gordon-Levitt-starring The Long Bad Night split into two distinct (and distinctly underwhelming parts). That’s a story Miller penned for this film, and sadly it fails to capture the imagination in the same way That Yellow Bastard, The Big Fat Kill or The Hard Goodbye did ten years ago. Slightly better is A Dame To Kill For, a straightforward tale of double-crossing and revenge featuring Brolin’s Dwight McCarthy and Green’s calculating Ava Lord. It ends up in a pointless, violent war, with an army of disposable henchmen losing their heads, but I was entertained. Marv and Alba’s Nancy feature in another short, but this largely re-treads old ground without offering anything fresh.

Given that the style and the subject matter is largely the same as the first film, I suspect that fans will find sitting through Sin City: A Dame To Kill For less of a chore than the majority of reviews in 2014 suggested it would be. While it’s clearly not as good as Sin City, there is some fun to be had from seeing this pulpy, comic style once again, and to revisit this stripped back, contrast-heavy variation on New York City. I still like the flashes of colour that appear (red blood occasionally spatters across the screen, Eva Green’s eyes are green, etc) and the fact there’s no advertising anywhere (bottles of alcohol are simply labelled ‘Booze’), while there are several creatively-staged ‘end-of-panel’ moments. So even with the underlying sensation of déjà vu it’s not all bad; in fact if you compare it to Miller’s utterly dismal 2008 film The Spirit it feels like you’re watching a triumphant masterpiece.

Directed by: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller.
Written by: Frank Miller. Based on Sin City by Frank Miller.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jessica Alba, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Josh Brolin, Dennis Haysbert, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Bruce Willis, Christopher Lloyd, Jeremy Piven, Juno Temple, Ray Liotta.
Cinematography: Robert Rodriguez.
Editing: Robert Rodriguez.
Music: Robert Rodriguez, Carl Thiel.
Certificate: 18.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Year: 2014.

0313 | Slow West

30-slow-west.w1200.h630John Maclean, formerly a member of the Scottish group The Beta Band, begins his debut feature with a striking image that swiftly establishes the tone of this surreal, inventive western. Young Scot Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) points his bullet-less gun at the night sky, fires three shots, and in doing so lights up three of the stars that form the constellation Orion. That’s his guide as he heads west across America, searching for his lost love Rose (Caren Pistorius), but the fantastical nature of the scene also hints at Jay’s state of mind: wide-eyed and fanciful, it seems, and thus by implication unprepared for the dangers that lie ahead.

And danger is everywhere in Slow West, Colorado-set but filmed in New Zealand: camouflaged Native American horse rustlers fire arrows while blending into the trees, for example, and there are many more thieves and bandits to contend with besides, including several who seek the substantial dead-or-alive bounty on Rose and her father (Rory McCann, an actor who I am desperate to see more of) which  – like Jay – has followed the pair across the Atlantic. At one point Jay meets Werner (Andrew Robertt), a genial type who shares his campfire and explains he is there to document Native American culture before it disappears, having done similar work in Australia beforehand. He’s probably one of the most sympathetic people Jay meets on his journey, but he still steals the sleeping boy’s horse and leaves him with nothing but a glib note and an uncooked egg. The message is clear: it’s a tough place to survive, life is cheap and if you place your trust in anyone then, frankly, you get what you deserve.

Fortunately for Jay help is at hand in the shape of Michael Fassbender’s worldly outlaw Silas, a former member of a gang led by the flamboyant Payne (Ben Mendelsohn, adding to his repertoire of menacing villains). Silas and Payne are both after the reward mentioned above, and the two men independently realise that the unsuspecting, naive Jay is their best chance of pocketing the money. So Silas and Jay travel across the state together, chancing upon strange sights (Congolese men sitting in a plain playing music), violent incidents (a botched robbery of a general store is one of the more tense and affecting scenes) and surreal, often humorous events (Maclean’s literal rubbing of salt into wounds near the end nearly made me spontaneously applaud, while the sight of various outlaws taking turns to pop-up from a cornfield during a shootout weirdly brings to mind the whack-a-mole amusement arcade game).

It’s a bleak world, but the story gradually offers slivers of hope, most notably in the way that the relationship between Silas and Jay develops through mutual admiration. In its depiction of a young innocent growing wiser after partnering-up with an older, rougher man, Slow West obviously brings to mind westerns like John Ford’s The Searchers and both versions of True Grit, though there are hints of many more here, from Rio Bravo to McCabe & Mrs Miller. Like True Grit the younger character begins to show signs of a necessary toughness, and so we see Jay kill long before the inevitable gunfight that occurs when various parties meet, while the older man softens and eventually learns from the youngster. There is a mutual benefit here, even though Silas is unaware of it at first.

That said, Maclean goes to great lengths to ensure his movie retains a troubled edge, and the film’s ending successfully sums up the fragile balance in the old west between domestic happiness – i.e. a burgeoning civilisation of settlers – and the desperation that regularly leads to brutality. In a bravura move, just before a final, upbeat flash-forward, the director revisits all of the dead bodies that have stacked up during the short, 84-minute running time, emphasising the price paid for happiness. This strangely-moving bleakness, coupled with the sporadic moments of humour, ensures that Slow West feels like the creation of someone with a fresh, unique perspective on the American west, and the director certainly makes plenty of effort to sidestep certain conventional plot points that viewers may expect. The overall framework of the story is a familiar journey from A to B, but the details are highlighted in a way that is often thrilling and unpredictable, and the brevity feels welcome.

Shot in 1:66:1 in order to emphasise the characters rather than the landscape (though DP Robbie Ryan does a fine job of showing off the magnificence of New Zealand’s South Island nonetheless), Slow West is a welcome addition to the pantheon of modern westerns, its writer-director entertaining with wit and weirdness but also creating a setting that feels satisfyingly realistic, not least because of its emphasis on immigrants and sparseness. The performances are good and I can only see reason to encourage the director’s creative flourishes, of which there are many. A fine debut.

Directed by: John Maclean.
Written by: John Maclean.
Starring: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann.
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan.
Editing: Roland Gallois, Jon Gregory.
Music: Jed Kurzel.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 84 minutes.
Year: 2015.

0312 | Almost Famous

almost-famous-2000-philip-seymoure-hoffman-lester-bangsThis review is an entry into Jordan Dodd’s Philip Seymour Hoffman blogathan. You’ll be able to read more entries in mid-July but for now go here to find out more.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s supporting roles in the late 1990s and early 2000s are, with only a couple of exceptions, a pleasure to watch. It should be apparent to anyone who sees, say, three or four of them that he had the ability to take a minor role and make it far more interesting than it ought to have been; this he did consistently, turning in some of his best work during the period. Just look at the evidence from the years following his first notable appearances (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight – also known as Sydney – and Jan de Bont’s Twister): there’s the tragic Scotty in Anderson’s Boogie Nights; fusty PA Brandt from The Big Lebowski; obscene caller Allen in Todd Solondz’s Happiness; nurse Phil Parma in Anderson’s Magnolia; suspicious Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley; and, at the end of this great run, the inimitable Lester Bangs, the motormouth rock critic he played in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 coming-of-age drama Almost Famous. In every single one of these performances Hoffman grabs and holds your attention, regardless of who he is acting opposite, regardless of what’s actually happening and regardless of the short amount time he gets on screen (at least relative to his later career). And of all these minor roles his depiction of Bangs in Almost Famous is probably my favourite.

Not that I had read much by Bangs – who edited Creem after spending a couple of years in the late 1960s freelancing for Rolling Stone – when I first saw Crowe’s film. I was aware of his name because the music journalists that I cared about in the 1990s seemed eager to mention him as often as possible, but in the pre- or early internet age accessing his work wasn’t easy, at least not in the UK; this made seeing an actor’s portrayal of him (a relatively minor part in the grand scheme the movie) even more interesting for me. Hoffman initially plays Bangs as if he’s a rock star, because that’s what he is in the eyes of 15-year-old journo wannabe William Miller (Patrick Fugit), our way-in to this 1970s-set story of a rock band and its touring circus of hangers-on. Yet although Bangs only features in a few scenes outside of the first fifteen minutes of the film, the actor subtly softens him into a big brother type, less animated, almost sad, with advice readily available at the end of a phone line.

I’m not sure whether Hoffman saw or heard any of the interviews with Bangs that are now available on YouTube, but he captures the man’s passion for rock n’ roll and gives him a magnetic unpredictability. I don’t think there’s any great connection between the two beyond the fact one portrayed the other in a film, but there’s certainly a ghoulish comparison to be made about their deaths: both of accidental drug overdoses in New York City, both involving cocktails of substances, and both at an early age (Bangs was 33 when he OD’d in 1982).

Weirdly, Hoffman’s performance can itself be described as a more refined version of Jack Black’s offensive, cartoonish record store employee in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity, released earlier the same year, and the same broad over-passionate spirit resonates throughout Almost Famous. The film never drifts, and Hoffman is joined by the likes of Frances McDormand and Jason Lee – playing the lead singer of Stillwater, a group that takes William under its wing for a national tour – in giving the movie regular bursts of energy, of adrenaline.

I’m not a fan of the majority of Crowe’s films, although I remember enjoying Say Anything many years ago, and I concede that I probably ought to give Jerry Maguire a second chance at some point. However Almost Famous is, I believe, one of the very best of 2000, a relentlessly charming work that takes a few typical coming-of-age plot threads, lets them play out in a world that is far more interesting as a spectacle than high school, and then adds liberal doses of the kind of behaviour mercilessly lampooned by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap. Filled with memorable major and supporting characters and semi-autobiographical – Crowe went on tour with the Allman Brothers for three weeks at the age of 16 and his feature became Rolling Stone‘s cover story – you can sense the writer-director’s personal attachment to the story throughout, and though the incidents that occur often seem far-fetched there’s an underlying feeling that this is one of the definitive fictional depictions of a band’s life on the road.

The film lampoons rock n’roll clichés while also incorporating a huge amount of nostalgia-driven warmth toward this bizarre, outlandish world. Occasionally the idea of hanging around with a band and its crew, and enjoying the camaraderie, looks great: driving down the highway singing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer together, for example, or breaking free of a concert venue after a promoter has locked the gates during a dispute. Yet at other times Stillwater’s behaviour is awful, and we see them cruelly trading their groupies for kegs of beer or arguing as fragile egos combine with druggy late nights. Throughout Crowe delights in revealing the falseness of everybody involved in the music scene except for William and Lester: Penny Lane (a career-launching, Oscar-nominated turn by Kate Hudson) is a groupie who maintains she isn’t a groupie because groupies sleep around; but she’s sleeping with married guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup) and far less sure of herself than she initially seems. Russell himself gives her the impression that he is in love, which is untrue; he also claims that he is doing the other members of Stillwater a favour by staying loyal, though really he lacks the confidence to break out on his own. The band’s manager Dick (Noah Taylor) is out of his depth and hanging on to his job by a thread. Singer Jeff (Lee) reveals that the dynamic he shares with Russell is carefully planned (although there are fleeting moments where it seems genuine). These are people who spend all their time together yet are completely dishonest and unable to communicate their true feelings (at least not until a hilarious scene on a private jet forces all kinds of confessions from those believing they’re about to perish). Touring is repeatedly described by characters as being separate from the real world, and though much is made of William’s naivety throughout, he’s the only one who can identifies this way of thinking as a lie.

There are many great lines in this comedy-drama, often delivered with perfect comic timing by the cast, but Crowe doesn’t just rely on the script and the actors to raise laughs. The editing by Joe Hutshing and Saar Klein is often just as successful: when William and Russell attend a party and William calls the band to inform them that Russell has taken acid, for example, he asks ‘How can you tell when it has kicked in?'; queue a fast cut to Russell standing on top of a house screaming ‘I am a golden god!’ to the gathered crowd below. Later, when a jealous Penny overdoses in a New York hotel suite, the shots in which a smitten William watches her stomach being pumped are scored, rather amusingly, with Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour.

There are scores of similarly witty moments, but Almost Famous isn’t a straight up comedy; its serious moments also resonate and William’s trio of familial relationships (one with the band, one with the groupies he shares his hotel rooms with, one with his worried, over protective mother (McDormand) and his sister (Zooey Deschanel)) all carry weight, even if there are some criminally sickly-sweet scenes near the end. However the bond that interests me the most is the professional one William shares with Bangs, and Hoffman’s performance is the prime reason for that. Of those that I have seen, this is finest supporting performance.

Directed by: Cameron Crowe.
Written by: Cameron Crowe.
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Jason Lee, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Noah Taylor, Zooey Deschanel.
Cinematography: John Toll.
Editing: Joe Hutshing, Saar Klein.
Music: Nancy Wilson, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 122 minutes.
Year: 2000.

0311 | Adieu Au Langage (Goodbye To Language)

goodbyetolanguage‘Those lacking in imagination take refuge in reality’ declares a title card, somewhat ominously, at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language. This hyperactive arthouse film was met with critical praise upon release but will certainly cause many who see it to throw their hands in the air through sheer exasperation and return to their imagination-free diet of straightforward, conventional, easily-digestible films, presuming that’s what Godard is suggesting. If his latest is a challenge to cinema audiences – even those familiar with the ups-and-downs and abrupt about-turns of his career – then it is one that I took on enthusiastically, but ultimately its skittish, wilfully-difficult, abstract and experimental nature left me feeling weary, exhausted, irritated and resoundingly defeated. I must indeed be lacking.

At the end of 2014, somewhat predictably, angry accusations of pretentiousness poured in from one side while, on the other, a number of respected film critics queued up to laud Godard with dubious over-bubbly praise; Goodbye To Language topped (or came near the top of) many end-of-year polls in 2014, though the idea of lobbing this work into a chart rundown for comparison with other cinema releases seems somewhat pointless, as well as being rather amusing. Anyway: my own adverse reaction to the film means that I’m left scratching my head and wondering what exactly I’ve missed. Certainly I have little-to-no idea what Godard is trying to say by including the many clips nestled around the threadbare story, most of which were unfamiliar to me beforehand, while sadly most of the references to art and literature – whether oblique or direct – went right over my head. Trying to appreciate Goodbye To Language at home, on a normal TV set, also puts me at a disadvantage: many of the film’s fans vociferously cited its ability to make them think differently about the medium of 3D, whereas I merely struggled to make sense of the jumble of overlapping images, text and saturated footage.

At the heart of the film there are two similar stories covering the relationships of two couples, both of which are affairs (or perhaps it’s the same story … with the same characters … but played by two different actors … and shot from different angles). One is named “1 Nature” while the other is “2 Metaphor” and, amusingly, an epilogue is given the untypically rule-following number “3”. The stories are told in a non-linear fashion and I struggled to follow them with anything approaching success, though I suspect I’m not the first and won’t be the last. The couples are often naked and there’s a dog in there, too; Godard’s own, Roxy.

Meanwhile there are regular digressions: shots of water (waterfalls, rain forming puddles), sudden cuts to black with white dots in the middle of the screen, freeze-frames, brief orchestral interludes, a few lines of Byron, a spot of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, archive footage of Hitler and Chairman Mao, all of which leaves me scratching my head and wondering why the exact same mélange gives other such pleasure (and that remains the case despite the fact I have read well-written, illuminating articles about the film such as this one).

My inability to get to grips with even the most basic content of this film means that I cannot offer anything approaching meaningful insight. I simply do not get it, although without wishing to sound patronising I have flickers of admiration for anyone able to make a film this challenging and different 50 or 60 years into their career. So despite my own apparent ignorance I don’t quite feel the same hatred toward Goodbye To Language as some but, equally, I don’t particularly feel the need to overly-celebrate Godard’s famed idiosyncratic, mischievous nature either. I’m more inclined to cling to the words of one respected filmmaker who often sails against the prevailing critical wind: Werner Herzog’s assertion that ‘someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film’ never seemed truer. I’m also left thinking about a cartoon I saw in a newspaper years ago, in which a serious-looking middle-aged white man wearing headphones sports an exasperated look. “Shhhh!” he exclaims to someone outside the frame, “I’m trying to appreciate Dizzee Rascal.”

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Written by: Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring: Héloïse Godet, Kamel Abdeli, Richard Chevallier, Zoé Bruneau.
Cinematography: Fabrice Aragno.
Editing: Jean-Luc Godard, Fabrice Aragno.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 69 minutes.
Year: 2014.

0310 | The Rover

rover2With a post-apocalyptic Outback setting coupled with an emphasis on brutal revenge and the rapid disappearance of morality – not to mention the open roads, dusty settlements, wheezing vehicles and value placed on food / water / petrol / ammunition – David Michôd’s sophomore effort obviously brings to mind George Miller’s Mad Max. Not the mega-carnage of this year’s Fury Road, I hasten to add, but the leaner, cheaper, nastier Mad Max of 1979: The Rover has a similar line in intriguing odd-bods, innocent-looking waifs and criminal gang members, while the simplicity of its story shares the earlier film’s debt to exploitation cinema. There are elements here seen many times before in spaghetti westerns, Roger Corman’s biker gang movies of the 1960s, the American carsploitation flicks of the 1970s and, naturally, the Outback-set Ozploitation flicks of the 1980s, all brought up-to-date by a director with a burgeoning reputation and a cast containing a few notable names-du-jour.

Little is given away by Michôd with regard to the exact time or place in which his story unfolds, though presumably we’re not too far in the distant future. Something referred to as ‘the collapse’ occurred ten years earlier, according to a title card, though Michôd refrains from explaining what exactly happened. The word ‘collapse’ obviously suggests an economic disaster rather than an environmental issue or a world war, and tellingly characters prefer to be paid in American dollars rather than Australian, but The Rover is short on detail and how ‘the collapse’ has affected other parts of the world is unclear. All we find out is that people still live in the Outback, some have travelled from afar to work in the mines, while state security is seemingly within the remit of the Army, who are occasionally seen patrolling in Humvees in lieu of a police force. Being armed looks to be a necessity rather than a choice: other men with guns, who could be mercenaries, guard freight trains as they hurtle across the flat land.

The director sets his story up superbly with a gripping opening 25 minutes, in which Guy Pearce’s Eric – the nearest thing this film has to a Max Rockatansky – has his car stolen by a criminal gang who are themselves making a getaway from a botched robbery. We see the aftermath of their initial crime, and discover that the brother of one of the gang members, Rey (Robert Pattinson), has been shot in the gut and left for dead. Further down the road Eric sets off in pursuit of his own car using a truck that has been discarded by the gang, chasing down the thieves for a tense confrontation. Later he has to rely on scraps of information from others as to their whereabouts, but eventually Eric’s path crosses with that of Rey, who is captured and forced to reveal the gang’s whereabouts.

The first act is further enhanced by the (understandably guarded) characters Eric comes into contact with: Gillian Jones’ creepy opium den proprietor makes the strongest impression, but we also meet assorted members of a travelling circus, jumpy, shotgun-wielding shopkeepers and Susan Prior’s kind-hearted doctor. The sense of strangeness is heightened by Antony Partos’ original soundtrack and the presence of skronky post-rock outfits like Tortoise. Sadly the film tails off after its thrilling opening, and the story becomes more concerned with the trust that develops between Rey and Eric, but it’s hard to sustain such tension across a full feature (and that’s not to say the rest of the film is poor, either, though it is underwhelming by comparison). The occasional images intrigues – shots of figures crucified on roadside electricity pylons, for example – but the incidents that occur on Rey and Eric’s journey lack the impact of the drama at the beginning of the film, and the punctuative scenes of the pair driving become wearing. By the end the occasional surprise, such as the use of Keri Hilson’s Pretty Girl Rock, is more than welcome.

Where Mel Gibson’s eyes were wide and wild, suggesting the ‘madness’ in Max wasn’t simply to do with pure rage, Pearce has a fixed, piercing stare, present throughout. At times he makes it look as if the character no longer cares whether he lives or dies, but something is driving him on nevertheless: key details about his past are revealed but his motivation isn’t fully understood until the deadpan final scene. Way before that, however, Eric is revealed to be ruthlessly brutal, and typical of road movie protagonists he has that kind of steely determination which means nothing will stop him from getting from A to the inevitable showdown at B.

Pearce impresses yet again, though Pattinson seems to be trying a little too hard, filling each scene with a series of tics, head movements and sideways glances that overplays Rey’s nervousness. That said, taking into account this performance and his two David Cronenberg collaborations to date, there’s enough evidence to suggest that the man who played Edward Cullen could turn into a fine actor yet. As for Michôd, this doesn’t quite hit the heights of his well-received debut Animal Kingdom, which also featured Pearce, but at times it certainly comes close and The Rover‘s status as a confirmed box office flop is both unfortunate and undeserved. Interestingly two of the standout characters in the writer-director’s opening brace of films have been women, operating confidently within worlds that are incredibly violent and otherwise male-centric. A long, successful and hopefully diverse filmmaking career should lie ahead.

Directed by: David Michôd.
Written by: David Michôd. Story by Michôd and Joel Edgerton.
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, Gillian Jones, David Field, Tawanda Manyimo, Susan Prior.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Peter Sciberras.
Music: Antony Partos, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Year: 2014.

0309 | Les Combattants

les-combattants-adele-haenel-kevin-azais 2Thomas Cailley’s quirky and engaging romance Les Combattants (released in some areas with the dismal pun title Love At First Fight) crosses the Channel with quite a reputation: in addition to a haul of awards during last year’s Cannes Film Festival, as well as some high profile nominations, the film achieved considerable success at this year’s Césars. There Adèle Haenel was crowned Best Actress for her performance, beating the likes of Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard and Catherine Deneuve, while her co-star Kévin Azaïs was named Most Promising Actor. In total there were nine different nominations for Les Combattants and its cast and crew, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It’s rare to see a film like this, a well-written but ultimately slight love story, receive such a degree of acclaim. But Les Combattants is deftly-constructed, subtly addresses certain problems faced by young, modern French people (‘France is dead. There’s no future here,’ says one) and yes: the lead performances in this tale of blossoming affection are excellent.

Azaïs’s character, the gentle Arnaud, runs the family carpentry business with his older brother Manu (Antoine Laurent). They live with recently widowed mother Hélène (Brigitte Roüan) in a small Bordeaux coastal town which seems to be fairly popular with tourists; there’s a vibrant nightlife scene at the beach, for example, but tellingly the French Army has targeted the area for recruitment, presumably in the hope of attracting bored, unemployed local kids. It’s at the beach that Arnaud first meets Madeleine (Haenel), a serious, complex college drop-out back living with her parents. The two end up wrestling during a self-defence class organised by the Army but Arnaud, bested and suffering the taunts of his male friends, surreptitiously bites Madeleine in order to save face. These sparring partners are reunited when Arnaud is tasked with building a shed at Madeleine’s house; he can barely conceal his attraction to her while working, but she is cooler, at first meeting nearly everything he says with a spiky put-down or rebuttal.

This behaviour is completely in keeping with Madeleine’s character: she is guarded, tough and independent, so it comes as no surprise to learn that she is keen on joining the military, partly because she believes the apocalypse is round the corner. Her reasons for joining up are entirely for self-preservation: she wants to be able to survive and the protection of French national interests at home or abroad is not part of the equation. However the ‘super-hard’ training camp she joins in preparation turns out to be more like an Outward Bound course with added camouflage, led by inept officers who are gently mocked by the screenplay. An infatuated Arnaud signs up with her and actually shows more of an aptitude for life as a soldier, earning a promotion while Madeleine struggles with certain physical tasks and authority, but in doing so he leaves his brother swamped with work and struggling to keep the family business afloat.

The story takes an unpredictable turn in the final act, but the slow, believable development of the relationship between Arnaud and Madeleine keeps Les Combattants on an even keel and the suggestion that something terrible is coming to modern France is skillfully built up throughout the film (with some early shots echoed later on a much grander, more terrifying scale, and much foreshadowing of certain events). Cailley structures his film in three parts, first showing ‘Arnaud’s world’, then showing ‘Madeleine’s world’ and finally showing a world that they build together. It’s a risky move – I must admit to preferring the more conventional first half of the film, set in the town, to the second – but by the end the characters seem so familiar, and so well-drawn, that the slightness of their story does not seem to matter all that much. Credit due to Cailley and his co-writer Claude Le Pape, obviously, but also to the actors: Azaïs is excellent and Haenel turns in one of the better performances I’ve seen this year. Her next job is with the Dardenne brothers.

Directed by: Thomas Cailley.
Written by: Thomas Cailley, Claude Le Pape.
Starring: Adèle Haenel, Kévin Azaïs, Antoine Laurent, Brigitte Roüan.
Cinematography: David Cailley.
Editing: Lilian Corbeille.
Music: Lionel Flairs, Benoît Rault, Philippe Deshaies.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 98 minutes.
Year: 2014.