Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts (Rodney Ascher, 2012) * * * *

How ironic that a film set around a hotel named Overlook could be subjected to such rigorous, full, almost forensic analysis over thirty years after its general release. Ironic, still, that the continuity errors that fuel such speculation have come from the hands of Stanley Kubrick, a director so notoriously meticulous he insisted on over a hundred and twenty retakes for a simple swing of a bat.

That scene, and that film, is of course The Shining, Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel; in which a writer(Jack Torrance) and his family (wife Wendy and son Danny) accept caretaker duties of a remote hotel, only for boredom, paranoia and a smattering of the supernatural to creep like ivy inside their minds. Such is the film’s magnetism, its mix of slow-burn and scare-chords, and indeed, the mystery surrounding what really lies inside Room 237, that many fans have felt obliged to reach their own conclusions. That the documentary begins with a disclaimer, effectively distancing both Kubrick’s estate and The Shining’s production crew from the following opinions, seems a gentle reminder for the audience to expect entertainment over elucidation. Fortunately, for the most part, the results are, appropriately, enlightening.

Foreign correspondent Bill Blakemore recalls how his first viewing of The Shining left him literally paralysed in his cinema seat; gripping onto the armrests while crying out for an usher to release him. Although the film may pride itself on eliciting such a divine reaction, it became something approaching a celluloid Lourdes after Blakemore experienced his very own epiphany. Suddenly gifted with greater vision, he could now see the film for what it really was: an allegory for the genocide of the Native Americans. The hotel itself is built upon an Indian burial ground, a point its manager makes merely in passing, and while its corridors may or may not host several (almost subliminal) images of tribal chiefs, horses and buffalo, Blakemore believes the answer lies in the baking powder. The inclusion, and indeed position, of these tins (specifically, the Calumet brand; taking its name from a peace pipe and depicting an Indian chief as its mascot), is allegedly integral to understanding the film’s hidden message. And there’s slim chance anyone will forget the axe in a hurry. But, with his reading becoming unstuck as the film unfolds, Blakemore must surely concede that sometimes a tin is just a tin.

But a typewriter is never just a typewriter, argues historian Geoffrey Cocks, drawing reference to the fact that Jack’s beloved Adler (German for ‘eagle’), coupled with the film’s apparent preoccupation with the number forty-two, indicate the unmistakable shadow of the Holocaust; yet the significance of the continuity error that switches the device from grey to white remains to be confirmed. Stretching credulity further, playwright Juli Kearns suggests that the hotel maze, the topiary animals and Danny’s retracing his steps in the snow all point towards a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. And while musician John Fell Ryan takes a more experimental path, simultaneously playing the film both backwards and forwards to illustrate its spooky symmetry, his argument relies solely on coincidence- although the image of Jack as a clown, his make-up ‘provided’ by the blood-spattered twins dissolving across his face, is truly terrifying.  Somewhat inevitably, the film’s most ludicrous analysis comes from self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist Jay Weidner, who believes that Kubrick made The Shining as a coded confession for his cooperation in faking the Apollo moon landings. After utilising the front screen projection found in 2001: A Space Odyssey to fool the world, the director apparently saw fit to pepper his work with clues to his involvement. The reason the room number changed from 217 in the book to 237 in the film, Weidner explains, is simply because the moon is 237,000 miles from Earth. And so when Jack argues with Wendy, his lines, overladen with guilt and secrecy, are to be seen as portentously mirroring Kubrick’s own mea culpa. Further, the stuffed bears inside the hotel are, of course, a sly jab at the Soviet Union and the shot of Danny standing to reveal he is wearing an Apollo 11 sweater practically gives the game away. Weidner seems the most impassioned of those interviewed; understandable given his frantic conjecture, spilling from the murky corners of web fora to widespread furore, has placed him, allegedly, under covert NASA surveillance.

So it may come as some relief for Weidner that he need never show his face. In fact, all interviewees appear onscreen only in voiceover; a device which the audience must accustom itself to, even if, ultimately, it becomes a challenge to associate the theory with the theorist. Separating the film from the ‘talking head’ documentary (with narration typically strung together by interchangeable soundbites), presents the rather academic prospect of placing unparalleled weight on the ideas themselves, substance before style. Yet it would be intriguing to see just whether the sage who claims to detect Kubrick’s face hidden in the clouds in the title sequence is chuckling to himself, now that thousands of (re)visitors to The Shining will surely strain to see if he’s right (answer: he isn’t.) Without any input from anyone directly involved in the film, each statement is rendered to pure speculation. But this makes it no less interesting; the clashing conspiracies and opposing perspectives create an almost Barthesian treatise on authorship: The Shining as Rorschach test.   There’s clearly something inside The Shining that appeals to the inquisitive; the contents of Room 237 posing something of a puzzle (a Kubrick’s cube?), a compulsion that, in the absence of any substantial answers, seeks to find its own amongst the rubble of repeated viewings.  For Kearns, this requires spreading out the hotel’s blueprints in order to identify its architectural flaws: from the ‘impossible window’ situated in a central office yet somehow showing outside foliage to trailing Danny as  he circumnavigates each floor on his tricycle, highlighting the split-second when he switches from second- to third-floor corridors. While her particular reading of the film may differ, she shares the belief between her fellow interviewees that there is no such thing as a continuity error- only a clue.

Ascher himself remains impartial throughout, yet conveys a mischievous sense of humour in editing the picture from myriad film clips; whether rooting through Kubrick’s back catalogue (predominantly 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut) or pithily recycling footage of King raging against a TV set in Creepshow to highlight the increasingly strained relations between director and writer. Although initially disorientating, pitting Tom Cruise as a protagonist of sorts, the clips fit comfortably around the statements- sometimes so neatly as to suggest concealed similarities, a stylistic symmetry, coursing through all of the director’s work. Although that’s perhaps best left for another film. For in heralding a new breed of film criticism:  part fan-art and part essay, the prospect of re-evaluating every film that leaves its audience scratching, searching and stumbling for solutions seems just too enticing.

© D.Wakefield, 2012


Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) * * * * *

Insofar as an enfant terrible can still rattle the establishment at the age of fifty one, and despite having barely shaken a fist this century, Carax marks his return with a raging, often enraging earthquake of a film, where any attempt to search for meaning is akin to scratching at water. But still we try. Having taken his nom de plume from an anagram of his first (real) two names, Alex Oscar Dupont, it’s fitting that his protagonist (regular collaborator Denis Lavant) shares the same place between reorder and disorder.

Monsieur Oscar ( Lavant, in a captivating, chameleonic performance) wakes in the dead of night and casually, but curiously, opens a door camouflaged into the forest of his wallpaper, to emerge above a packed cinema. The film, King Vidor’s silent The Crowd, plays but the audience is lifeless, oblivious even to the fleeting- but no less frightening- vision of a giant dog stalking the aisles.  Such dreamlike (or nightmarish) effects follow Oscar through a tumultuous, but presumably typical, day in the life. Or, rather, lives. The first, a bored businessman driven around town in a white stretch limousine, may present a jolt of déjà vu to those who endured David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (coincidentally, both titles were in competition at this year’s Cannes festival), but the two films are separated by considerably more than a simple act of relocation. Exchanging the crawl through Manhattan for the boulevards of Paris allows Carax to not so much paint the capital in his colours but graffiti across every brick.

Oscar’s morning routine consists of small talk with his listless, glamorous chauffeur/secretary Céline (a delightfully droll Edith Scob), and studying a folder detailing the day’s ‘assignments’. Ten tasks, ten aliases, ten stories.  After disappearing into a bespoke dressing-room built into the rear of the limo, stuffed with costumes, make-up and all the necessary accoutrements to fully play the part, he is ready to perform. But getting into character requires more than persuasion and prosthetics; rather like the difference between simile and metaphor, Oscar doesn’t imitate his assignments, he becomes them. Each ‘role’, from beggar woman to motion-capture artist, both assassin and victim, essentially splinters the film into a series of vignettes; Oscar shape-shifting from one to another with only the occasional concern for consistency or clarification. The most grotesque being a reference and reimagining of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, with Oscar playing a half-Riddler, half-rat hybrid developed from Carax’s 2008 short Tokyo!, running barefoot (and amok) across a grey cemetery before kidnapping supermodel Kay M (Eva Mendes) from her photo-shoot pedestal and retreating to the sewers. Although the following scene is admittedly the film’s most flagrant attempt at deliberate provocation, its resolution is an uncomfortable punchline (of sorts) that takes the surreal, satirical swipe a step too far.  Such is the devilish revelry in dark humour that we anticipate the next assignment, an increasingly tense father-daughter conversation on a car journey home, heading toward all manner of tragedies. But instead the director diffuses the pressure with a sigh that could break shoulders, while simultaneously introducing the theme to the final third; melancholia.

A musical interlude presents something of a light relief, albeit in typically madcap fashion (Oscar leading an accordion band around an empty church) and, if seen as a detachment from the previous sensationalism of murder and monsters, opts for a more sombre, heartfelt tone. A deathbed melodrama takes an astoundingly simple but striking turn, invoking the concept recently expressed in Gillian Wearing’s Self Made; that everything, each character, each carefully constructed tableau is but a cathartic reconstruction, with Oscar a selfless slave to others’ wish-fulfilment. And the story of an old lovers’ reunion, she played by Kylie Minogue, has a devastating beauty in its denouement. As they walk through an abandoned department store, the mannequins strewn as though a massacre, their thoughts are weighed down by a tacit sense of nostalgia broken only by her haunting song of regret. Almost enshrouded in a long overcoat, Minogue turns a slight, sentimental role into one of the standout scenes. But, naturally, it’s Oscar’s final assignment that clings to the mind as the credits roll. While almost certainly played for laughs, there’s something nevertheless unnerving in his newfound domestic bliss…

Having left her passenger for the night, Céline drives to a garage bearing the film’s name in green neon lights. She joins the endless, noiseless stream of identical white limousines feeding into the garage doors before donning a mask redolent of Scob’s role in Eyes Without a Face and leaving the cars to discuss their day. I know. But it’s too late to start asking questions now.

Powerful, provocative and darkly playful, Holy Motors defies explanation. Instead, it asks the audience to begin each strand anew, to abandon disbelief on a hitherto unexplored level and above all, to follow the absurdity and cynicism of this Gothic fairy tale. Once he returns to the comfort of his limo, rather like the pumpkin coach on the stroke of midnight, everything reverts to its normal state. Everything is wiped, reset, default. And Oscar will wake up tomorrow with, presumably, a folder full of new assignments. Carax’s love letter to disguise, performance and cinema has ensured the medium has only grown richer, if not a little stranger.


Ruby Sparks ( Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2012) *

Well, isn’t this a love-in? Husband-and-wife directors cast real-life couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan to play onscreen twosome in schmaltzy shocker. There may be a precious symmetry in screenwriter Kazan writing a role for her partner, for him in turn to write one for her- but, having pilfered plotlines from Stranger than Fiction and The Twilight Zone episode ‘A World of His Own’, she has created a rather literal, and surely dangerous, take on intellectual copyright.

Dano plays precocious author Calvin Weir-Fields; with his breakthrough success a decade behind him, we find him cruelly inflicted by that most devastating and important disease of all, writer’s block.  Living with his dog, Scotty, in an apartment as IKEA-white as the blank page slotted into the typewriter before him, his days are spent begging for a muse while lapping up the last scraps of applause for anniversary-edition audiences. After his therapist (Elliott Gould, barely onscreen for five minutes) suggests a writing exercise about Scotty, Calvin suddenly finds inspiration from a red-haired girl (Kazan) who can’t get enough of the dog- or his owner. Her name is Ruby Sparks: she’s endlessly smiling, enchantingly spontaneous… and she doesn’t exist. Despite (or rather, due to) living purely in Calvin’s thoughts, serving only to transform his dreams into tomorrow’s chapters, Ruby is the perfect girl. Every night she declares her love for him, and every morning he rushes straight to the typewriter. After a few days of inexplicably finding items of women’s clothing scattered around his house like a trail of crumbs, Calvin wakes one morning to find her, exactly as he had described her, standing in his kitchen.

Ruby sees Calvin not as her maker but as her soulmate, as stunned by his astonishment as he is of her appearance. The fact that other people can see and hear Ruby only makes Calvin question his sanity further. Yet it seems the only way of convincing his sceptic brother, Harry (Chris Messina), is to invite him to see for himself. In doing so, the two men stumble upon an incredible discovery: Ruby has strangely, but spectacularly, sprung to life from the seeds of Calvin’s imagination. Whatever he writes about Ruby almost instantaneously takes effect. In the hands of a conceited creator, such omnipotence is irresistible, and, after briefly dismissing the ensuing pangs of guilt, Calvin soon finds himself in a relationship that he can control at the (keyboard) click of his fingers…

Mistakenly pitched as a romantic comedy, Ruby Sparks, like its titular toy, undergoes something of an identity crisis. How can a film that spouts such syrupy nonsense as ‘‘Falling in love is an act of magic. And so is writing’’ attempt to wring laughs from the malicious streak of misogyny that suffuses almost every scene? Ruby is created, essentially programmed, only to please Calvin; so of course she would be attractive, a great cook- and, most importantly, intellectually inferior to him. He resents her independence, so reduces her to a needy and insecure wreck who clings and cries like an infant. When this too becomes unbearable, he ‘grants’ her freewill but immediately misses the adulation and so reverts, literally, to type. This cycle continues until culminating in the film’s most repugnant scene; Calvin demonstrating his control over Ruby by making her scream all that she finds desirable in him, before collapsing and practically melting like the Wicked Witch. Such cruelty typifies his relentless narcissism (as both an author and a lover), yet it’s a trait he unfathomably shares with his creation. But then again, Ruby isn’t entirely of his own conception: her assembly-line whimsy and exasperating impulsiveness make her the most literal interpretation of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope yet. Despite Kazan’s aversion to the term being applied to Ruby, her attempt to emulate the charm of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer, after Zooey Deschanel had not only embodied but emphatically buried the stock character through her performance in the latter, does not invite flattering comparisons.

Calvin’s trademark misanthropy is practically excused by the sheer unpleasantness of his supporting cast. From his New Age parents, (Antonio Banderas, slightly oblivious to his surroundings, and Annette Bening, rehashing her role in The Kids Are All Right) to his shady agent (Steve Coogan), not a single character warrants our interest- or even their inclusion to the plot. Rarely has a film (especially a rom-com) required you to rank the necessity of every performance, but here the votes are undeniably tied between the leading couple themselves. With his permanently perplexed expression of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, unsure whether to expect a punishment or a reward, Dano has found a snug niche in the arm-flailing, over(re)acting  Chandler Bing school of smarm. And while there’s a hint of the clumsy cuteness of a younger Kristen Schaal in her turn as Ruby, Kazan’s script bears an uncomfortable sadomasochism in its portrayal of a woman suppressed by sexist ideals.

Ruby Sparks inhabits a place of wanton wish-fulfilment (although, for a writer, Calvin has a startling lack of imagination), peerless predictability and where conflict is caused, and resolved, with the frantic pressing of a typewriter. While the film’s obsession around the object itself evokes Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous aphorism about dangerous weapons (a finger hovering above the delete key would presumably be less dramatic), the wish for Calvin to type the film’s ending considerably sooner sadly goes unheeded.

©D.Wakefield, 2012.

On the Road (Walter Salles, 2012) * *

News that an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s most famous work has finally reached an audience comes loaded with over fifty years of expectation. Whether or not this is fair, or indeed deserved, is debatable, but such is the book’s incontestable stature among 20th century literature that anyone who has ever wondered precisely what made the bible of the Beat generation notoriously impervious to the silver screen may feel like they’re due an explanation.  For despite long-gestating- but ultimately abortive- efforts from the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Jean-Luc Godard, it seemed impossible to translate the tale of cross-country counterculture, the epitome of road movies, from the page to the multiplex. But Salles, having proven himself competent at combining idols and idylls in adapting Che Guevara’s formative years for 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, is circling a distinct lack of direction.

Kerouac’s ode to Americana, the sprawling wilderness seen through a rose-tinted windscreen, documented the late Forties from a largely autobiographical viewpoint; his protagonist, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and close friend Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) doubling as the novelist and his buddy Neal Cassady.  Dean’s free-spirited mischief and boundless hedonism provide a great source of amusement and inspiration to Sal, helping him to deal with his father’s recent death as well as reuniting pen with paper. After a brief jaunt around New York’s jazz clubs, Dean returns to Denver to see his sixteen-year-old sweetheart, Marylou (Kristen Stewart), leaving Sal to wander soullessly through a summer on the cotton fields before yielding to the open road. Together with mutual friend Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge , a cipher for a pre-fame Allen Ginsberg) , the group  dance, drink, smoke and sleep with each other – from New York to New Orleans, San Francisco to Mexico. Only the location changes; the cycle of insufferably chic starving artists on the path to self-discovery spirals ever inwards until, ultimately, it reaches full circle. This repetition reduces the men to self-regarding thrill seekers, the women whining in their wake. The latter camp seems crammed with the unnoticed and unloved, from Galatea (an excellent, if underwritten, Elisabeth Moss) – the distressed wife of Dean’s friend, Ed Dunkel ( Danny Morgan), to Camille (Kirsten Dunst), the pregnant and put-upon production designer lucky enough to share Dean with Marylou. A diversionary stop at the home of writer Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs, as eccentrically played by Viggo Mortenson) serves only for the men to shoot rifles and spout Nietzsche, leaving the women to scrub the floors and scorn their lovers. Such swift abandonment of significant others allows the development of a knowing (but crucially unaddressed) homoerotic undercurrent between Dean and Sal; although all the embracing, pining and drunk confessions do nothing to dent the former’s alpha-male status. There’s a tragedy hidden, or deliberately masked, by his excess- whether that be throwing himself into the film’s numerous (albeit rather coy) sex scenes or being thrown out after one indiscretion too many.

The open road rolls out before Sal like a blank page; his frantically transcribing his every thought almost an attempt to convince the audience it being such a terribly exciting time to be alive. With most of the group’s finances falling foul to speeding fines, there’s a racy desperation to be found in their shoplifting; scamming gas pumps or swiping a loaf of bread when the shopkeeper’s back is turned. Even the above cotton-picking is strangely romanticised; with sweat swapped for sunshine, it seems that the only downside to the summer is that it has to end. Yet it’s difficult to share their delight. The casting is undoubtedly to their detriment, but were these characters ever captivating to begin with? Marylou may have to struggle to win our sympathy, but her fading in and out of the plot like radio signal ultimately sees Stewart sleepwalking through yet another troubled relationship. Although Hedlund is by far the most watchable player in the cast, his cut-out charisma is greatly at odds with a reputation as, essentially, the inimitable muse of the Beat generation. And for all his impassioned platen-punching, Sal is but a staid spectator (fitting as he’s never spotted in the driving seat) content to yap and gaze out of the window like an overexcited puppy. The problem is, Yorkshireman Riley simply doesn’t look like an American. Despite a decent stab at a smoky Boston accent, this distraction single-handedly renders the film a flawed exercise from the very first reel.


Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) * * *

‘‘Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been,’’ explains Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), addressing the audience from a crumbling America of 2044. Such advances will belong exclusively in the clutch of the mob, who use a group of specialised assassins known as Loopers to dispose of the targets they zap back from the future. For Joe, this involves waiting beside a Kansas cornfield with a blunderbuss and blasting the hell out of whoever materialises before him; kneeling, hands tied, here and gone in a flash. As occupations (and executions) go, it isn’t particularly glamorous nor necessarily fulfilling; if the monotony of mass-murder doesn’t get you, there’s always the threat of your employers ‘closing the loop’. As time travel has been immediately outlawed, the unthinkable (yet inevitable) presents itself with a rather unique pension plan. Your contract is terminated with a generous payday, a sort of ‘golden goodbye’, as you discover that the next victim, thrown back from the future and fearing for their life, is you.

When such a fate befalls Joe, his hesitance on the trigger allows his future self (Bruce Willis) to escape, a mistake anyone familiar with the time-space continuum will know to have catastrophic consequences. Having fellow Looper Seth (Paul Dano) encounter a similar dilemma acts as a cautionary tale for Joe, who must now flee the city to pursue the one that got away. Realising that his younger self can not only change the events of his capture but also the death of his wife, Older Joe tracks down Joe and implores him to seek out the Rainmaker, an almost-mythical mastermind destined to destroy the mob and thus close all Loopers’ accounts. Suddenly the classic crisis of time travel emerges: to protect his past, Joe must defend his future. Or is it the other way around?

For a prologue as packed full of exposition as the genre naturally requires, later scenes are only too happy to gloss over the finer technicalities (an early reference to a genetic mutation that causes telekinesis is almost instantly forgotten) and potential paradoxes- a point audaciously made by Older Joe criticizing his understandably confused younger self for ‘overthinking’. Certainly, the split time-frame effects (such as one plot thread or perspective picking up where a previous one left off) and flash-forwards are considerably stronger for their lack of explanation. Indeed, a silent but stylish montage of just how Joe became Older Joe, seguing seamlessly into his eventual Shanghai idyll and the subsequent murder of his wife is the film’s heartbreakingly beautiful highlight. But the film’s initial complexities and dalliances with dimensions dissipate as soon as we follow Joe out of the city and into the sticks. His search for the Rainmaker sends him to a farmhouse tucked deep into the fields, whereupon owner Sara (a shotgun-toting, wood-chopping, Southern-drawling Emily Blunt) and her infant son Cid (Pierce Cagnon) swiftly cut the remaining hour adrift.  Even for a sci-fi, the ‘Just so’ of genres, the resolution is ridiculous.

After an Inception– style set-piece (Gordon-Levitt being the zero-gravity go-to guy, it seems), originality follows the furniture and literally flies out of the window. Of course, any film with a time-travel premise can expect the now-obligatory comparisons to Back to the Future, but it’s downright disheartening to count just how many other ‘inspirations’ are on show: the hunt for the Rainmaker is similar to the tracking of Sarah Connor in The Terminator, the premise of a police-state preventing future crimes leaps straight from Minority Report and sharing a character arc with Timecop should never be a compliment. But the most brazen influence must surely be lifting wholesale the well-known and oft-parodied Twilight Zone episode, ‘It’s a Good Life’; a story that shall go unspoiled here. What can be revealed, however (if revelatory it is) is that the fleeting romance between Joe and Sara is contrived at best, gratuitous at worst. Much like the film’s finale, it appears the template for a modern hero has been defined by a ‘twist’ that was fashionable, albeit fading, a decade ago. Looper presents a knowing and, initially, engaging fusion of the past (cornfields reminiscent of both slasher and supernatural horror) and future (dystopian anarchy reminiscent of practically every film set a few decades down the line) before delivering a conclusion that had, to the audience at least, suggested its appearance from the start. Every distraction along the way, such as the above montage, is another spinning plate in a story that threatens to topple over in the third act. Whilst its ambition is to be commended, the location change marks not only an inadvertent departure from the preceding hour but also the breaking point of our (already stretched) credibility.

Ultimately, Johnson has crafted a smart and striking sci-fi thriller from the blueprints laid out by Christopher Nolan, and his third feature – after The Brothers Bloom and Brick (which cast Gordon Levitt as another noir- throwback detective)- is destined for the oddly indefinable, if not slightly demeaning, status of ‘cult favourite’. It may be a film that requires a first-person narrator to simply explain away the intricacies of time travel but this is balanced, thankfully, with a wry sense of humour; most notably from Joe’s boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels, at his best since The Squid and the Whale), a future-sent kingpin who mocks Joe’s insistence on wearing a tie for work as a ‘‘twentieth-century affection’’ in one breath and breaks his workers’ fingers in another.

Gordon-Levitt, barely recognisable under a face full of prosthetics, is clearly enjoying a career trajectory that sees him swapping sidekick for star roles- even if his trademark grin has been wiped in his attempt to emulate Bruce Willis, a man who doesn’t look comfortable unless he’s holding a gun. Blunt gives her all to a peculiar dual role, her frailty and independence see-sawing to suit the needs of a rapidly thinning plot.  Comparisons with The Matrix seem unfounded at first, but the gun fetish, leather jackets and endless conjecture on reality and time really do suggest Joe and Neo to be half-brothers. Maybe both films’ dependence on special effects and shoot-outs are a ruse to prevent us, like our protagonists, from ‘overthinking’; a very dangerous thing to do, indeed.

©D. Wakefield,2012.

Berberian Sound Studio ( Peter Strickland, 2012 ) * * *

After winning the Berlinale Silver Bear Award in 2009 for debut revenge thriller Katalin Varga, British director Strickland has taken a surprising, and arguably less commercial, turn into the inner workings of the recording studio. Or, more specifically, the fluorescent blues and dusty greys of the Seventies Italian giallo studio; with its snaking cables, endless film reels and loudly flickering projector splashing all kinds of schlock across the silver screen.  In this case, it is The Equestrian Vortex;a fictional but finely-tuned supernatural horror in the tradition of Argento or Fulci. But, with the exception of a strikingly crimson title sequence, we never see a single frame.

Mild-mannered sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones, in his first leading role) has been summoned from his Surrey comforts to the Studio in Rome, enticed by the prospect of working with renowned producer Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino). Arriving as a stranger to the genre, as well as his  Continental colleagues’ conventions, his clumsy attempt to break the ice (and the language barrier) is to ask for immediate compensation for his travel receipts. Initially dismissed by Santini with a smile and a shrug, this request is met with increasing hostility throughout the post-production; uncooperative actors and unsatisfactory Foley effects are clearly higher on the producer’s list of priorities. While the former is remedied by Gilderoy’s introduction of a looping device- whereby the actress’ screams are warped and echoed ad infinitum, it is the latter that proves the most challenging for our Englishman abroad…

The Equestrian Vortex is essentially a low-budget, grand guignol  exercise in sorcery and torture;  in which the dialogue is typically terrible and the few snippets of action we hear mainly consist of unearthly groaning, blood-chilling screaming and the uncomfortable insertion of red-hot pokers. When Gilderoy is tasked with synchronising the Foley effects to the footage, he finds himself in a cycle of simulated savagery: a knife through a cabbage makes for a convincing beheading and the slow twisting of rhubarb stalks passes for the painful pulling of witches’ hair. A sledgehammer slammed upon a watermelon becomes a frequent necessity- to the extent that the studio is quickly filled with the splattered mess of green and red, a massacre at a market stall. The camera lingers over this detritus with an almost voyeuristic intensity; a clever touch, masking the onscreen (but unseen) carnage reflected in the engineer’s eyes.  Despite holding the crew in a state of rapture with his homemade impression of a UFO, Gilderoy slips away from the open-armed, cheek-kissing camaraderie of Santini and his entourage; choosing instead to redirect his frustration into his work. The recorded loop of screams soon melts into a loop of chopping, slicing and stabbing vegetables with perfunctory precision. But after falling, trance-like, into this routine he soon associates his actions with the unspeakable atrocities flashing before him. Amid the constant clashing between producer and leading actress, the capricious perfectionism of his employer and the claustrophobic corridors closing in on him, Gilderoy’s subservient demeanour shows the smallest signs of crumbling…

After voicing his concerns to the producer about working on a horror film, Gilderoy is told ‘‘It’s not a horror, it’s a Santini film ’’. One wonders if Strickland isn’t hiding behind a similar disclaimer? Rather like the frog facing dissection in a biology class, the film certainly resists to be pinned down by categorisation. Certainly no conventional horror, more an astute and warmly nostalgic deconstruction of how the genre was handled and hacked by the Seventies. There are subtle hints that suggest that the film-within-a-film is a loose pastiche of Argento’s Suspiria: from the cursed academy premise to the guttural howling from a voice actor known, somewhat enigmatically, as the Goblin. There’s even the implication that the entire film itself has been unwittingly cursed by a crew member’s rehearsal of a scripted incantation. During recording, the studio is plunged into darkness save for a red neon light practically screaming ‘silenzio’; its zooming towards the audience (like a finger pressed urgently against pursed lips) creating one the film’s finest examples of highlighting the creeping paranoia. There’s also an understated sense of dread in Gilderoy’s correspondence with his mother; her letters detailing her slow descent from overprotective to overwhelmed by a trivial (but spine-tingling) domestic matter that suddenly becomes an all-too-apt metaphor. But the film’s most frustrating point arrives at a crossroads in the third act; a tantalising turn towards a Mulholland  Drive-style identity crisis in which secret filming and previous scenes of Gilderoy are mysteriously overdubbed in Italian, is eschewed for a meandering and mostly tiresome attempt to portray Nietzsche’s well-worn warning about looking into the abyss.

Gilderoy arrives not only to the studio but to the audience with an aura of intrigue. For example, his surname is never revealed, nor the precise details of his relationship with his mother. The closest clue we get to his past is the suggestion, never made explicit, that his background lies in sound-editing documentaries and children’s TV. Whether the ghostly goings-on are real or simply a figment of his imagination is teasingly left unclear- as is the implication that his stint at the studio has changed him irrevocably- but alongside his growth in confidence runs a malicious streak hitherto kept hidden. After challenging his producer’s desire for the perfect take (at any cost) he, rather like Winston Smith, initially resists only to acquiesce with a conscience seemingly wiped clean.  Jones does a fabulous transformation from taciturn to tortured, often by the very slightest of tics; from the fractious frown fixed on his face to marking his physical, and mental, discomfort with a simple adjustment of his collar. His hangdog appearance (almost a literal, live-action interpretation of Droopy) has stood him well in such supporting character roles in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the Harry Potter franchise and it’s a welcome sight to see him tackling a complex but darkly comic leading part with such restraint.

Strickland may too have surprised his followers and flouted further success with what ostensibly appears to be one for the purists only. And although Berberian Sound Studio may not explicitly ask its audience for a working knowledge of (largely) now extinct recording techniques or an encyclopaedic history of giallo, it would do well to ensure all participants have brought their reserves of patience. Yet, despite its ultimate lack of direction and danger of becoming simply another film student’s blinkered homage to the greats, it offers a clever and often unsettling exploration of the sound of horror and the horror of sound.

©D.Wakefield, 2012

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012) * * *

 It’s appropriate that Dominik should follow up his western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with not only his leading actor but a story fundamentally closer to an update than a remake. It may be another gangster film set during an economic collapse, a climate of mistrust and an almost universal sense of opportunism, but, after romanticizing the train robbers of the late- nineteenth century, the Australian writer-director has turned his eye to the tangled travails of the modern mercenary; with the result sitting snugly somewhere between the Coens, the complex networking of Casino and the hard-up, hard-hitting Killer Joe.

Being an adaptation of George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade may account for all the headlights (and hurried prowlers) beaming into life as soon as the mark comes home- but we discover that it’s in fact 2008, a point made and then consequently laboured by all the buzz and bull of election year that besieges our anonymous American city setting. The campaign trail becomes an endless babel; Bush’s final term is marked by his broken record of buck-passing while the chants of saviour surrounding newcomer Obama have yet to reach this corner of discontent. As President, candidates and political commentators all cloud the air(waves) with their pessimism, the call for a new Robin Hood, another John Dillinger, seems wildly oversubscribed.

Small-time crook Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) is handed the perfect crime. After hearing that the host of a mob-run poker game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta,) had previously robbed his own game, the consensus amongst the aggrieved is that Trattman would naturally be culpable if such a threat were to reoccur. Enter Frankie and Russell (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn), two desperate down-and-outs who turn Amato’s tip-off into a fully-fledged, fool-proof, get-rich-quick scheme…Needless to say, complications arise when the pay-off unwittingly catapults the perps onto the top of the hit-list. To preserve the  mob’s public image, go-between driver (Richard Jenkins) recruits the help of hired gun Jackie Cogan ( Brad Pitt), whose aversion to all the emotions bundled up in contract killing provide not only the film’s title but a darkly humorous view on mor(t)ality. He in turn suggests sharing the job with fellow assassin ‘New York’ Mickey (James Gandolfini), but is dismayed to learn that the post-divorce blues have pushed the latter into a three-day cycle of prostitutes and self-pity, made him unpredictable. It therefore becomes Cogan’s sole responsibility to tie up all the loose ends; a task he both relishes and rejects, practically rendered impossible due to the labyrinthine chain of command and nagging doubt that a straightforward hit is quickly escalating out of control…

Understandably, for a film set during the recession, money dominates almost every corner. This is organized crime carried out by conversations in cars, an exploration of mob middle-management.  The heist itself is incredibly tense, made all the more volatile by the robbers’ discernible inexperience and Trattman’s wide-eyed realisation that he has become the man who cried wolf. And cry he does.  But aside from an astounding slow-motion drive-by and one of the most brutal beatings committed onscreen (even for the genre it’s a tough watch, exacerbated by a curious sound mix in which every blow sounds like shattered glass), the violence is, for the most part, implicit. The dense, sometimes diversionary dialogue seems to spark only when Cogan and Mickey get together; Frankie and Russell’s puerile, self-interested prattle quickly loses its charm once the job is done.

It would be an overstatement to say that Killing Them Softly has reinvented the gangster flick; merely modernised it. Yet the action sequences bear the unmistakable influence of Scorsese and Coppola, a strangely- Seventies tinged cinematography and a soundtrack ranging from the audaciously expositional ( such as Johnny Cash’s ‘When The Man Comes Around’ marking our impossibly cool introduction to Cogan) to the mischievous; the irony in the titles becoming something of a cruel running joke. While the ensemble cast certainly play to their strengths, watching a small number appropriating previous form runs perilously close to typecasting (although, admittedly, a film containing both Henry Hill and Tony Soprano is as enjoyably nerve-shredding as it sounds). Tellingly, the only female role in the entire film is that of a prostitute, whose one scene is spent on a post-coital spat.  But such fine performances they are, it’s difficult to determine who most deserves our sympathy- whether it’s Mendelsohn and McNairy’s hapless halfwits or the world-weary contract killers roped in to rectify their mess. Liotta, excellent as ever, reminds us just why he belongs so neatly in this genre and Gandolfini marks his return with a coarsely comedic charisma. But it’s Pitt who truly excels here; his superbly slick Cogan captivating in every scene. Affable but impatient; unflappable but outrageous; whether fruitlessly talking Mickey out of another martini-fuelled melancholy or pumping both barrels into the names on his list, it’s clear that he’s not a man to cross. So it’s unfortunate, then, that his contractors are less than cooperative…

The omnipresent political context is rather unnecessary, or at least laid on a little too thick. In small doses, it works wry wonders: such as when a television commentator plays over the poker heist, wads of dollar bills are stashed into sacks as the pundit points out ‘‘the key issue here is the distribution of wealth’’. And the final scene turns a throwaway comment about Obama’s inauguration into a treatise on America’s avarice before coming to an abrupt, and not entirely satisfactory close.  A standard thriller occasionally lifted by a streak of black humour but mostly bogged down by its own sense of satirical self-importance, the thought occurs: Cogan hasn’t been recruited to help the mob but the film itself.

© D.Wakefield, 2012.