LFF 2015 – Being Evel

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I’m old enough to have one of those wind-up Evel Knievel motorcycle toys, but too young remember him as a performer. I didn’t even know what the guy actually looked like. Just the outfit. An Elvis in Vegas style white jumpsuit with the stars and stripes emblazoned across it. That’s probably for the best because Being Evel shows the man wearing that suit was kind of a dick. While you have to admire Knievel’s reckless endangerment of his own being to liven up the drab sports coverage offered by 70s sports channels there’s no getting away from the fact he was a narcissistic, money-orientated, womanising, violent bully. Born Robert Craig Knievel, he got the nickname ‘Evel’ because of his frequent run-ins with the law as a youngster, and he seems to have carried his mercenary instincts with him throughout his career.

Also, and this is unforgivable, he once held a gun to George Hamilton’s head. Who does that? Seriously? Who threatens the star of Zorro: The Gay Blade with a loaded firearm? Hamilton had hired John Milius to write a screenplay based on Knievel’s life, but the stunt rider took exception to Hamilton asking him to read it. Pity he didn’t try that manoeuvre on Milius who would probably pulled a much bigger gun and shot him in the face. That film, Evil Knievel (1971, Marvin J. Chomsky), was actually made and there are clips here which suggest it’s probably terrible. Knievel hated it, but as Hamilton wryly notes he appropriated lines from the film into his own act hyping up his stunts with macho Milius-style language.

Being Evel is a fairly perfunctory documentary mixing talking head interviews with archive footage. It’s a great snap-shot into the all-encompassing fame the 70s’ seems to have offered with the limited amount of media available to a mass audience. Though the film tries hard it can never convince that Knievel was anything more than a loud-mouthed obnoxious American show-off in the Donald Trump mould. It also raises difficult questions but never follows through on them; did Knievel have a death wish? Did people go to his events because they wanted to see him crash? Undeniably brave, although in a way that is almost entirely pointless, Evil Knievel was certainly one of a kind.

LFF 2015 – Ryuzo & the Seven Henchmen, Yakuza Apocalypse

Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen

“What’s gone is gone, right?”

After his crowd-pleasing Zatoichi remake back in 2003 Takeshi Kitano’s output suggested a filmmaker struggling to find new stories to tell. Both Takeshis’ (2005) and Glory to the Filmmaker! (2007) felt like navel gazing with Kitano reflecting on back on his career, while his recent Yakuza movies Outrage (2010) and the sequel Beyond Outrage (2012) were tired rehashes of themes he’d already covered in his early films. Though ostensibly a Yakuza movie Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen sees Kitano returning to his comedy roots for a broadly comic farce about ageing.

(Tatsuya Fuji) is a quick tempered former Yakuza enforcer now living with his salaryman son’s family and something of an embarrassment to them. Frequently told to cover up his tattoos for fear of damaging their reputation in their nice neighbourhood Ryuzo ambles around with Tokyo with his best pal and former lieutenant (Masaomi Kondo) gambling in arcades or betting on what customers will order in fast-food restaurants.

After almost falling for a telephone scam organised by the young Keihin Rengo gang who run their criminal empire like it’s a corporate business, Ryuzo reunites the few remaining members of his old Yakuza clan. These include street con-artist Mokichi (Akira Nakao), Steve McQueen fan ’Mac’ (Toru Shinagawa), and ‘Stick’ Ichizo (Ben Hiura) who like Zatoichi carries a cane with a hidden blade. Later they’re joined by a kamikaze obsessed pilot (Akira Onodera) they meet at a protest rally.  

Kitano gets plenty of comic mileage out of a group of pensioners being violent but there’s an obnoxious lowbrow element of toilet humour present. Fuji (once the star of In the Realm of the Senses) is in great shape for a 74-year old and could easily have played this straight had Kitano opted for a more serious approach. Kitano turns up briefly as a cop who preferred the old days when you knew who the criminals were.

Ryuzo and his Seven Henchmen might not quite be the return to form admirers of Kitano’s sublime 90s’ output (Scene at the Sea, Sonatine, Hana-Bi) are hoping for but it does at least suggest there might still be time for him to deliver a late career renaissance.

Yakuza Apocalypse

Another Japanese veteran with an erratic track record, Miike Takashi, also offered an atypical approach to the Yakuza genre. Yakuza Apocalypse is a chaotic gangster/horror movie mash-up featuring vampires, martial arts mayhem, and a supernaturally-powered ruthless killer in a giant frog costume. Personally I prefer Miike on more restrained form, (Audition & Hara-kiri) but Yakuza Apocalypse is good fun with some interesting ideas, vampirism as a metaphor for crime (civilians taste nicer), prisoners taught knitting to control their tempers, and a Yakuza refusing to get a clan tattoo because his skin is too sensitive.

LFF 2015 – ‘High Rise’ & ‘Black Mass’

High Rise 

Back when they were originally designed high-rise buildings were supposed to be the future of urban living. Adapted from J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel the high rise building becomes a metaphor for not only British society but the relationship between man and creator. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) (presumably named after R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist whose unusual methods in treating mental illness were highly controversial) is a newcomer to the building. Moving between the various floors, which are organised in terms of social hierarchy without ever being accepted by either group he seeks only to observe. Though set in an unnamed time period everything’s been retro-fitted to look like the 70s’ which stylises it too much and makes the film seem weirder than it should and therefore less believable when society eventually breaks down after a power failure paralyses the building. 

While the first half of High Rise is highly entertaining the film degenerates into an incoherent mess long before the end. What it does have going for it is an amazing cast. Hiddleston is melancholy and funny and can wear the hell out of a suit. Sienna Miller has quietly moved on from the tabloid nonsense that surrounded her and become the best British screen actress of her generation. Then there’s Luke Evans as a side-burned moustachioed rampaging alpha-male, James Purefoy as an upper-class bounder, and Keeley Hawes as a country house girl whose recreated her garden on the roof complete with a horse, Best of all nobody seems to have told Jeremy Irons he’s no longer playing Pope Alexander VI in The Borgias which means he’s awesome.

Black Mass

The trend for retro crime stories impersonating 1970s’ cinema continues with this true life tale of Boston crime boss James ‘Whitey’ Bulger who ran the city with help from the FBI who paid him to inform on his rivals. Depp has impressive form when it comes to gangster films. Mike Newell’s tense and ultimately moving Donnie Brasco (1997) about an undercover FBI Agent and his close relationship with the mafia foot-soldiers he’s trying to bring to justice remains one of Depp’s finest movies, and he’s very good as John Dillinger in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009). Black Mass isn’t quite in their league. Although this has been hyped as a return to ‘proper’ acting for Depp after the fancy dress costumes and silly accents of the last decade or so the make-up for Whitey (dyed slicked-back receding hair, contact lenses) still makes him look like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Black Mass is gripping enough though and a vast improvement on Scott Cooper’s last film, the godawful Out of the Furnace (2013).

LFF 2015 – A Bigger Splash

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Inspired by Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider as a beautiful couple whose idyllic getaway on the French Riviera is interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative ex-boyfriend (Maurice Ronet) and his daughter (Jane Birkin), this beguiling remake relocates to the Sicilian island of Pantellerria. Rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her younger filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts) are enjoying a quiet life in their beautiful Italian villa. Marianne is recovering from an operation to repair her damaged vocal chords and is unable to talk. Paul is pretty quiet so they happily spend their days lounging around in the sun and communicating through unspoken physical intimacy.

Their blissful solitude is ruined by her ex-Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arriving unexpectedly with his newly discovered daughter Penny (Dakota Johnson) and suddenly there’s a lot of talking at the villa. Most of it coming from Harry, a music industry spiv with an ability to zone in on what makes something work, whether it is a record he’s producing or the relationships between the people around him. There were hints Ralph Fiennes had a knack for comedy and all-out weirdness in his performance as an over-familiar butler in Bernard and Doris (2006, Bob Balaban), but with Monsieur Gustave H in Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson) and now this he’s transformed his reputation as a miserable stiff-upper lipped English Patient type.  

In the face of Fiennes manically engaging performance the rest of the cast have no choice but to show restraint. A long time collaborator with Guadagnino on several low budget short films and features culminating in the sublime I Am Love (2010), Swinton’s burnt-out Bowie-esque rock star is happy out of the limelight but still beguiled by Harry and there’s still a chance he might win her back. Schoenarts is great at strong silent types, uneasy in their own skin and he simmers quietly in the background. Johnson is the wild card thrown into the mix, and her passive aggressive behaviour and her unusual relationship with Harry unsettles both Marianne and Paul.

The early scenes in the film emphasise the beautiful landscape and the actors bodies as the camera lingers over their naked torsos. While the Mediterranean lifestyle led by the group certainly looks seductive, there are portents hinting at the darkness to come. A menacing-looking black whip snake moves across the villa’s patio, Fiennes tears the guts out of the fish he’s preparing for a meal, and at one point Penelope briefly goes missing by a rock pool echoing Monica Vitti’s fate in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960).

Some may find the shift in tone in the final act hard to reconcile especially as there’s an added element of farce thanks to the arrival of a police inspector whose incompetence is played for laughs. Even the weather turns melodramatic. The sky darkens and the film moves from bright warm colours to dull blues and greys. Rain lashes the island. I’m actually surprised given Pantellerria is volcanic they didn’t have the damned thing erupt. I appreciated the film’s ambiguous denouement though. It’s refusal to explain why certain characters behaved as they did or why they were even there. As with I Am Love the film deals with seemingly close relationships tearing apart and the effects are shattering.

LFF 2015 – Trumbo

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Entertaining if insubstantial biopic of the great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten jailed for refusing to cooperate with the House of Un-American Activities and blacklisted by the movie industry for his Communist sympathies. Trumbo (played here by Bryan Cranston) defied this ban by writing under various pseudonyms. During this time he won two Oscars, for Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler) which he persuaded his friend Ian McLellan Hunter to hand in to Paramount as his own work, and The Brave One (56, Irving Rapper) which written under the name Robert Rich. The latter proved awkward when the non-existent Mr Rich didn’t show to collect his Academy Award and it became an open secret in Hollywood Trumbo was still working. Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger, mercurial talents and both tough sons-of-bitches weren’t the type to be intimidated gave Trumbo a screen credit on their movies. Trumbo became legend, helped in no part by the huge success of Spartacus (60, Stanley Kubrick), a film about a man defying the might of an Empire.

The McCarthy hearings and their effects on the movie industry are such a fascinating complex period in Hollywood history this story is perhaps worthier of the long-form storytelling offered by television. Trumbo settles for the tropes of the biopic, famous people impersonating other famous people and a skilful mixture of archive footage and recreations of historical events. It does this quite well. John McNamara’s screenplay has some great lines and it helps that many of the most valuable players are as adept at drama and comedy. Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird, as the most strident Communist among the blacklisted writers, Alan Tudyk as McLellan Hunter, John Goodman and Stephen Root as B-movie producers the King Brothers, David James Elliot whose performance as John Wayne avoids caricature suggesting a man whose right-wing views are genuine and tempered by compassion for fallen colleagues, unlike Helen Mirren’s admittedly entertaining Hedda Hopper who comes across like an anti-semitic, Commie-hating Disney villain. Dean O’Gorman’s Kirk Douglas is the stand-out though and gets the film’s best line albeit one borrowed from another picture.

Trumbo described the blacklist in his WGA speech as a period when “no-one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.” There’s a great dark drama waiting to be made about this period in American history when in defence of ‘freedom’ people were encouraged to inform on their neighbours and work colleagues in a manner not dissimilar to those living under Communist rule. Lives and careers were destroyed and while Trumbo doesn’t downplay the ruin brought about by the McCarthy hearings tonally the film is as breezy as one of Roach’s Austin Powers movies and as pleased with itself as his HBO movie Recount (2008).