That was the week in which...
The Oscars were dished out, with all of the big prizes going to the predicted winners.
There’s something disconcertingly depressing about being a British actor who has been nominated for their first BAFTA or Oscar. Your career will have gone something like this:
You’ll probably have graduated from drama school as one of the hot picks among your contemporaries. After a couple of minor roles, you’ll get a break in a respectable indie or as part of an ensemble cast in a TV period drama. Suddenly you’re relatively hot property despite not being all famous in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps your next step will be a supporting role in a superhero movie, or maybe you’ll play the lead’s best friend in a big rom-com.
It doesn’t really matter because you’ll be juggling the profile earned from the former with growing credibility earned from a succession of “serious” films from respectable directors. You’re thirty-ish and you’ve landed the dream role as the lead in a heart-rending true life tale that’s got enough of a budget for both slick production values and powerful marketing. It’s a critical smash. The audience isn’t as large as that of your secondary role in the comic book adaptation, but it’s still pretty big.
You win! Years of dedication to your art has been rewarded. The celebrations pass like a glorious daydream.
You leave the party. Someone poses a question about your film that’s so perfunctory that they can’t have seen it. The next day you’re on breakfast TV. The presenters are talking about whether you looked good or not. The conclusion? Of course you did! The next day you head to the airport for a holiday where you’re papped before you’ve even had a chance to check whether you’ve remembered your passport.
Two weeks later you’re back home. The papers have been full of photos of you on holiday. The gossip columns are speculating about your love life. Whereas interviewers would ask about your acting, now they only want to ask about your celebrity status and your famous friends.
You have a choice: retreat into theatre and try to get cast in Harmony Korine’s latest moment of commercial suicide. Or you do it all again.
The big film...
In keeping with the attitude above, why tackle Will Smith’s Focus or Jennifer Lopez’s The Boy Next Door when we could allocate the space to three imaginative indies?
If you’re a teenager whose only friend is a dog, you have problems: problems which are only accentuated when your father decides to dump your pooch on the motorway in order to avoid having to pay a newly introduced tax on mixed breed canines.
So far that sounds suspiciously like territory which has been well-pawed by the likes of Marley & Me and Lassie Come Home. Fear not, though, for White God’s family-friendly synopsis results in something more akin to a woof-centric Watership Down mixed with a “down, boy!” twist on The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia.
Lili is the unfortunate owner left to scowl the streets after her cutesy four-legged pal Hagen is abandoned in traffic. Her story - the usual rebellious teen traits, if we’re honest - pales next to Hagen’s new life. Tortured and tormented in his training to become a fighting dog, Hagen gathers his fellow mutts in a barking mad plot to avenge the cruelties that have been bestowed upon them by their two-legs-bad human overlords.
It’s a film that commences in stunning fashion, as many of the film’s 247 live action dogs hurtle through an abandoned Budapest in scenes that recall 28 Days Later if Cillian Murphy had been a huge pack of over-excited animals. Elsewhere we have cinematography which captures a hound’s eye experience and dark human-killing humour which is a ragtime’s score away from being an outtake from Gremlins. Beyond a tale of man versus beast, White God is an allegory for Europe’s political and social tensions.
As director Kornél Mundruczó explains: “A cluster of the elite reserves its right to power while, as if in a political reality show, politicians are stars that we vote on and off. If we don’t pay attention, one day the masses will rise up.”
It’s a story that remains universal enough to apply to other forms of societal imbalance. It’s a film with undeniable flaws: the initial melodrama is compromised by the brutish idiocy of each adult character; Lili’s woes drag the running time way past what would be ideal for such a story; and the balance between reality and fantasy works better than a sense of humour which doesn’t always feel deliberate. Yet the audacity of creating something so distinctive means that its fails are soon forgotten about. If you have an interest in cinema’s wilder edges, this is a must see.
Also out: Catch Me Daddy
Best known in these parts for encouraging Jake Gyllenhaal to rub out a bunch of hipsters in The Shoes’ promo for Time To Dance, Daniel Wolfe and his brother Matthew have taken a similar gnarly attack on their feature-length debut Catch Me Daddy.
The film’s time-honoured narrative tropes don’t suggest anything out of the ordinary - at its core this is a chase film in the oldest traditions of the western - but such ideas are radically recontexualised. Yes, it’s a case of drifters being pursed by bounty hunters, with the distractions mostly of the circumstantial kind. Emotively, however, it’s something else as caravan-dwellin’ British-Pakistani teenager Laila is forced out on the run to escape the clutches of a gang who aim to deliver her back to the family from which she’s already escaped.
Its nerve-jangling stop-start tension is drawn from what’s at stake: it’s evident that Laila’s fate if caught would be savage in nature, and the desperation of the man on her tail is symptomatic of the fact that poverty can lead people to extreme behaviour. What’s more, it’s stylistically stunning. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography imbibes the rain-swept Yorkshire moors with a barren elegance that’s only interrupted when the chase detours to a small-town club or a remote fast-food joint. The Wolfe brothers’ use of music is similarly imaginative with cross-genre sounds inventively underlining the visceral horrors of the hunt.
As the film edges towards its conclusion, the mystery is how this can be resolved. After rich layers of misery, will Laila’s be as horrendous as she fears? Will there be a glimpse of optimism in a black fog of gloom? Or will there be a curveball? Not only have the siblings have delivered a film that’s dramatically powerful and with an evident sense of flair, but they’ve done so while respecting the seriousness of a harrowing real world issue. It’s a great debut.
Also out: It Follows
Not again, you might lament when presented with It Follows which is - yeah, you guessed it - another horror in which sexuality, defined narrative rules and a complete absence of adult role models are all in place. The credibility of all such films should be rendered pointless given that Scream lampooned them almost twenty years ago.
Thankfully it’s not long before it’s apparent that this is a film that cleverly alters its themes to be slightly out of kilter with more hackneyed expectations. Jay (The Guest’s Maika Monroe) receives an unwelcome surprise after having sex with her new boyfriend, and this one can’t be solved with antibiotics. She’s hit with a curse that spreads like an STD: a follower that can be anonymous or ominous that will steadily stalk its victim to an eventual death. And unlike It Follows’ spiritual predecessors, the quickest way to avert the curse is to pass it on...
The premise itself provides enough thinking matter to overcome a lack of immediate visual terror. When it comes it can work brilliantly - there’s one house-bound moment as creepily disconcerting as anything from the late 90s / early 2000s Japanese horror scene - but it can also fail dramatically: an encounter with a hidden follower on a beach is almost kitsch.
Mostly, however, its obvious atmospheric reference point is Halloween - especially so as Rich Vreeland’s soundtrack feels like a thunderous laptop-based reboot of John Carpenter’s foreboding synths. If you’re expecting the bolder bombastics of a typical teen slasher, this is going to be disappointingly understated. If you prefer a conceptual update on 80s aesthetics, It Follows will be worth hunting down.
“I’ll be back,” groaned Arnie Schwarzenegger back in 1984’s original Terminator film. And he’s been back time and time and time again with several sequels. And he’s adapted the line when he’s been back in numerous other films too. Now it looks like he’ll be back once more with yet another Terminator film. Is it really worth telling us you’ll be back when you hardly go away?
It’s rumoured that Russell Crowe is interested in buying long past it soccerball club Leeds. Russ, a bit of advice: even if we disregard wages, debts and ground improvements, it’ll cost you £300 million in transfer fees to get the club back to anywhere near their early Seventies glories. Feel free to give it a go, though, it’ll make for more entertaining viewing than Noah.
For the second week running, last weekend’s UK box office is spectacularly uneventful. This time I’ve taken the executive decision not to bother to report on it. If you’re really missing my update, have a crack at it yourself. The formula? 1) Google the stats 2) add some crap puns.
Finally! So you’ve read this column to help kill the last few hours of the working week, yet - nuts! - it’s still another 30 minutes before you can get away with going to the pub. So why not watch a video in which MythBusters’s Adam Savage builds a replica model of the maze from The Shining?
Words: Ben Hopkins