Thursday, 22 September 2022

Article: Refrigerator Prize




By Leslie Byron Pitt

The best thing that Charlie’s Angels (2000) did for me was introducing me to Sam Rockwell. I had seen him in films before McG’s sugary gloss fest for sure. He was fun in Galaxy Quest (1999), intense in The Green Mile (1999) and I’m sure he knocked it out of the park as “Head Thug” in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (1990). I don’t remember. I’ve only seen that film once over 20 years ago. I was more of a Secret of the Ooze guy. I digress. It was Rockwell’s performance as Tech Nerd/Draw Barrymore’s love interest Eric Knox that grabbed my attention.  Moreover, it was his shimmying and shuffling to Pharaoh Monche’s Simon Says after becoming a turncoat to the angels and dear old Drew which piqued my interest. It was suave villainy that was not only enjoyable for the outlandish movie it appeared in. It deserved to be in a better movie. The kind of movie moment which convinces an impressionable young mind to track this actor and see whatever film they might be in next.

The next notable performance for Rockwell was Welcome to Collingwood (2002) directed by Marvel stalwarts The Russo Brothers. A film which had desires to be Coen-like and ended up being mildly enjoyable yet wholly forgettable. Collingwood teamed Rockwell up with George Clooney who soon embarked on his directorial career with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, released in the same year. I was fortunate enough to catch both movies at the UCI cinema where I worked. At the time, the cinema had a weekly slot named “The Director’s Chair” in which films, both old and new, which were worlds apart from things like Charlie’s Angels, were allowed one showing for supposedly more discerning cineastes. Collingwood faded from my mind quicker than the running time of its end credits. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, however, bored me. Still perhaps Clooney’s most interesting directorial feature, the film solidified Rockwell as a preferred performer of mine. His freewheeling performance is still a notable turn in my cinema-going. The film itself I still consider one of my favourites.

The story of Confessions of Dangerous Mind is the semi-autobiographical, fully bat-crap crazy memoir of one Chuck Barris (Rockwell). Known to American audiences as the creator of The Dating Game (U.K folk, think Blind Date) and The Gong Show. Barris was a multi-faceted performer and producer who did everything from hosting the shows he produced to writing hit pop songs. What his cult autobiography reveals however is that he also led a double life as a C.I.A operative. Utilising his hit T.V show as cover, he moonlighted as a hitman for his country. So, he says.

David O Russell allegedly turned down the chance to direct Confessions saying that the film was “just not about anything but a guy who liked to fuck girls and say that he shot people in the head." It’s slightly amusing that Clooney, who had an altercation with O Russell on the set of Three Kings (1999) due to his treatment of cast and crew, clearly saw something within the story and picked it up as his debut feature. Clooney doesn’t do anything too radical in terms of insight. At the base level, Barris is a man who is struggling with his feelings of inferiority. However, Confessions of a Dangerous mind still stands out as Clooney's most playful movie since he moved into directing. It’s hard not to sense a feeling of mimicry when watching Confessions. There’s Coen-lite energy to things. Something that makes sense given Clooney’s then-recent collaborations. Yet Clooney’s indulgent decision to overload the movie with a flurry of visual flourishes is not just a sign of the first-time director revelling in the creative sandbox. Even now it still feels like the last time Clooney let loose behind the camera.

Confessions is less engaged with its directors’ political leanings, yet much like Clooney’s sophomore effort Good Night and Good Luck (2005), the film delves into a period when television rubbed up against communist ideals. Good Night and Good Luck stoically focuses on McCarthyism and press freedom.  Confessions toys with the idea that gains could be made in the cold war via the host of The Dating Game shooting agents in the face while acting as a chaperone for his unwitting contestants.  Both films utilise American TV as an instrument to either reflect or neglect the fear and paranoia the American people had with communism. Albeit Confessions stays broadly focused on Barris’ sexual and mental fragility, with the Cold War as a side dish


The Barris story's madness and what could be Clooney’s naivety behind the camera instead of in front of it allow the Ocean’s 11 star to deliver a film that is off the chain with visual “moments”. A Delightfully assured tracking shot has Barris touring the halls of NBC only to be the host of the same tour an instant later. Meanwhile briskly cold silhouettes situate the frosty European countries that the TV presenter must navigate to find his targets. When time allows Clooney slots, Rockwell, in front of mirrors to implicate the duplicity. That’s not when he’s having telephone calls meld into the same location or having C.I.A agents bleed artfully into swimming pools while sitting on diving boards.  A late sequence has Barris having a mental breakdown in front of an imagined slaughtered audience. A terrifying vision of a CIA hitman losing the plot? Or are we watching a deeply troubled producer seeing his brain-dead shows kill off the smarts of the audience? This is contrasted with an earlier scene in which a desperate Barris sits in a full auditorium glumly watching a movie while everyone around him is kissing. When Barris meets the free-spirited love interest Penny (An enjoyable Drew Barrymore), they’re seen necking in the theatre while everyone watches the movie intently. Seems that ol' Chuck never seems to fit in with the crowd. So why not envision them dead? It’s a moment which feels strangely apt for such a cracked mind. All this is delivered with a brightly lit retro colour palette and a wink to his usual collaborators. Blink and you’ll miss some friends of Clooney’s looking flummoxed on the dating game.

It's no surprise that it can all feel a bit much for some. Maybe a feeling of Clooney enjoying himself a copious amount. The film’s screenplay was written by Charlie Kauffman, the misanthropic creator of such gems as Synecdoche, New York (2008), and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). Two incredibly cynical mind benders. Kauffman has stated his frustration with the finished film, with talk of a drug addiction subplot excised from the final film. Confessions is all a bit too sprightly for the dark trappings that inhabit most of Kaufman’s work. The screenwriter highlighted that this was more of a script on order, which had lounged in development hell for years than anything else. Jumping from director to director before finally landing on Clooney’s lap. As accomplished as Kaufman’s creations usually are, this is far from his more sardonic imaginings. And considering the grimness which inhabited I’m Thinking of Ending Things, that’s perhaps for the best.

Weirdly enough, Confessions still has enough Kaufman DNA inhabiting it to remind you of the scribe. This is a film about a self-loathing white male talent, wracked with self-doubt despite his success. This of course runs through the likes of Adaptation (2002) and Synecdoche, New York (2008). Although what’s perhaps lacking in this over the likes of films such as Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Anomalisa (2015) is the element of communication breakdown between the film’s lead and everyone around them. If anything, Chuck Barris is a superb communicator. With the likes of Dick Clark leading the famous parade of known talking heads informing us of Chuck’s brilliance. Barris perhaps has too keen an ear on what the people want. His shows are not only still being observed in similar ways today, but also seem to be the type of “low culture trash” that can draw in huge crowds. The Gong Show feels no different from the most popular element of X-Factor. Praying on normal people who seek attention, despite maybe not having the inherent media talent for true success.

“…To mock some poor, lonely people who just crave a little attention in their lives. To destroy them. So everybody’s not brilliantly talented. They’re still people. They deserve respect and compassion. I mean, who the hell are you? What the fuck have you ever done that elevates you above the pathetic masses? Oh, I forgot, you created “The Dating Game”. Wow, right up there with the Sistine Chapel.”  - Pretty Woman

This quote is perhaps the most stinging moment of the film. And perhaps one of the most crucial. A withering blow to the strutting male ego. A beautiful, unknown woman dissecting Barris for what he is. Suddenly no matter how often we frequent Barris’ more dangerous alternative life, this woman’s burning critique feels seared onto Barris like a branded cow.  This is a man who wished he was more than what he became. Even when at the point of success, he is haunted by what could be considered imposter syndrome. George Clooney is interested in the moment where media & politics collide. But that truly comes later. In Confessions, this is the filmmaker going down a road well-travelled. That of a mad male talent and his demons. Is Barris telling the truth? The answer perhaps lies in how much you feel about appealing to the lowest common denominator and when you’re called out on it.  The film ends with perhaps one of my favourite quotes as the actual Barris is sat down, much like the docu-style talking heads from earlier. The lighting is harsh and bright. Blasting out any wrinkle or detail. The final moments are as earnest as they are depressing. Barris’ last quote is as follows:

"I came up with a new game-show idea recently. It's called The Old Game. You got three old guys with loaded guns onstage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn't blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator."

I think it tells us all we need to know.


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is on various streaming platforms. I dug out an old DVD.

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Sunday, 17 April 2022

REVIEW: X

Year: 2022

Director: Ti West

Screenplay: Ti West

Starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, and Scott Mescudi.

Synopsis is here:

 

I’m not sure at what moment Ti West’s X got me once again frustrated at film awards. It was possibly around the point in which the film delivers a tender split-screen involving Britney Snow singing a cover of Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. It might be the moment when a character tugs at a light switch. The film suddenly cuts back to the aftermath of a violent attack. An almost innocuous moment that becomes the film's most effective jump scare. West has always been an exciting horror filmmaker. However, watching the filmmaker’s maturity grow as a craftsman within these small moments reminded me of how much film organisations do the dirty within areas of the genre. Do I expect Ti West to win an Oscar? Not at all. But watching West create such an entertaining provocation on a tighter budget and with less pretension than some of the more typical prestige movies Hollywood tries to inflict on us reminded me of just how much horror should get more kudos.

X riffs hard on Tobe Hooper’s gruelling 70s opus; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Like its predecessor, this slasher tale of an amateur porno crew embarking on a doomed feature starts innocently enough. Aspiring Porn actress Maxine (Goth) and his producer boyfriend Wayne (Henderson), head up proceedings with fellow actors Bobby-Lynne (Snow) and Jackson Hole (Mescudi), Director RJ (Campbell) and girlfriend Lorraine (Ortega) in tow, as they gallivant off to a rural Texas homestead to film footage of their movie The Farmers Daughter. They arrive at their location, which is home to elderly couple Howard and Pearl (Ure and Goth again). The abrasive nature of the shotgun armed Howard does little to deter the gang from performing their visual carnality. However, the day’s antics stir something within Pearl. Which soon quickly morphs from sexual to murderous, with tragic consequences.

Ti West coming off the back of a few years of TV work has come back with a horror throwback that holds a compelling use of form. The filmmaker seems to be in his element. Playing with classic inspirations as he’s known to do.  The homages are evident. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is noted in both the dialogue and visually.  Maxine’s opening moments of preparation pay subtle homage to the mirrored finale of Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn drama Boogie Nights (1997). Albeit without the large penile appendage. The religious fervour peppered on old televisions holds shades of Michael Parks’ crazed priest in Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011) as well as the likes of noted, real-life televangelist Billy Graham. Such moments appear in the film’s neatly detailed 70s aesthetic as lived in aspects. It never feels that the nods are cheap.

X spends a good deal of time allowing its characters to be people. Let’s be honest, this is a 90-minute slasher movie, so we’re on the lookout for grand opera. But what the film does have is characters with valid intentions. The film’s cast is headed up by Mia Goth, whose dual role as both adult movie starlet Maxine, and elderly host Pearl, highlights the young actress’ incredibly versatile range. Never one to shy away from the sexual (2013s Nymphomaniac), strange (2016s A Cure for Wellness), and horrific (2018s Suspiria remake) Goth is remarkable here. Playing both titillating temptress and spiteful, murderous OAP with more nuance than one would expect. 

From repressed sound girl Lorraine (Ortega) whose curiosity about the sexual exploits she’s being shown shifts almost 180 degrees, to the rudimentary yet liberating sexual politics of porn stars Bobby-Lynne and Maxine who are more than happy to toast to the perverts who are paying their bills. The film is just as wry with its topical conversations about sex as it is with its sympathetic commentary of its rueful antagonists. West’s maturity has the director blending in modern tropes of sex positivism along with its scattered movie references to a more seamless effect. The film's overarching theme, however, involves ageing and regret. Howard and Pearl rue the fact that the passage of time has removed their youthful vigour. While the porno scooby gang has only angered up the blood. If only they could see that such frustrated desire will occur to them too.

West has been around the block for so long that fans are wise to his trademark approach to horror. Slowly placing block upon block of slow-burning dread tentatively on each other before everything collapses into chaos. The deliberate manner is reminiscent of West’s Satanic panic feature The House of the Devil (2009). Much like House, X takes its time presenting its characters, giving them time to breathe before the mayhem starts. What stands out is just how well everything is staged. Much like Hereditary director Ari Aster, West isn’t afraid to make the whole thing look beautiful. Delivering picturesque wide and overhead shots so pretty, they make you forget about the unnerving isolation of the surroundings. Backlit closeups and grim set pieces are equally well envisioned. And there’s never a feeling that a scare has taken an easy way out.

 All the scuzzy feel of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be felt in X. But with none of the cumbersome “gen-z” pandering made by the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel. X certainly enjoys touching on topical sexual politics of the present and playing Don’t Fear the Reaper in a slasher film is just one of the few obvious gestures that X decides to make. However, West directs X with the kind of care that is needed in the genre. Creating a horror film that folds in eroticism, voyeurism, and the ravages of time with a sensitivity that a lesser film would bypass.

There is always talk about whether the horror genre is in a period of boom or bust. With no awareness that for the most part, the genre is nearly always steady. However, what makes the horror of the current age interesting is its strength in variety. There’s a genuine feeling that the genre and its filmmakers aren’t resting their laurels on just one thing. There’s also a strong crop of filmmakers who have something to say about the world. Even when mining into nostalgia to do so. X displays West’s deft ability to take what’s come before him and invigorate it with modern freshness and energy from unexpected places. An effective shocker with something to say. X proudly makes its mark screaming at the top of its lungs. It deserves credit.


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Thursday, 14 April 2022

Review: Barbarians

Year: 2022

Director: Charles Dorfman

Screenplay: Charles Dorfman, Statten Roeg

Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Tom Cullen, Iwan Rheon, Will Kemp

Synopsis is here

There’s an element of wickedness when a Barbarians is released a few weeks after news of the U. K’s cost of living reaching the lowest point in 50 years. Charles Dorfman’s home invasion thriller deals with a country home being purchased by a toxic real estate influencer, who looks set to pass everything on to his younger screenwriter brother and his artist girlfriend. Moments of some of the self-absorbed behaviour track well. Tom Cullen who plays Lucas, the laddish older brother has an obnoxiousness that slaps you in the face like a bad smell. Lobbing words like viral and engagement around like marketing hand grenades, even as he prepares to offload this dream home to his brother, he does so with some arsey hardball negotiation. In watching the earlier scenes, the unattainable nature of what’s occurring feels all too real.    

This is a distraction to what Barbarians wishes to talk about. Taking cues from earlier films such as Straw Dogs (1971), while leaning into the more recent ‘millennial dining thrillers’ such as The Invitation (2015), You’re Next (2011), Ready or Not (2019) and Silent Night (2021) Barbarians observes the often-touched themes of primal violence under the veneer of civilized culture. The film’s early segments have Adam and Lucas sitting down to dinner to seal the deal. Joining them are their attractive, Mediterranean significant others Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) respectively. Their inconsequential chatter about current affairs, soon turns hostile between the two brothers, before their meal is interrupted by some imposing large men wearing animal masks. As these films go.  

Toxic Masculinity is mentioned in so many internet articles, Twitter threads and Instagram stories, that it’s starting to feel like a buzzword. However, Barbarians is invested in exploring the topic. And does so efficiently if although slightly typically. Cullen’s Lucas is unattractively fuelled by his machoism and self-absorption from the start. It’s impressive how quickly his live social media person begins to grate. As does his alpha posturing in front of the other members of the party. He’s the kind of man you just want to punch in the face. Of course, he’s also the kind of man who invites that type of aggression. Iwan Rheon, who plays the watery-eyed subordinate brother; Adam (make note of the name) is in familiar territory here. Rheon came to fame as the withdrawn arsonist Simon in the E4 Superhero show Misfits. His personality was so introverted, that his chosen power became the ability to become invisible. His role here is not much of a stretch. Playing a docile “beta” to his louder brother, his subservience is so profound that he holds no ability to stand up to anyone. Later revelations quickly have the writer swiftly emasculated with a dismissive “good boy”. Establishing his lowly position on the totem pole.

While being a relatively predictable piece, Barbarians deals in its fair share of violence and melodrama with energy and style. It’s worth noting how Charles Dorfman is more than happy to have the middle section of his film have a rather minimal amount of dialogue, allowing the visuals to tell the story over dull, expository verbiage. The film may only be a simple update on themes of emasculation and home invasion. Yet it does everything with an assertive amount of confidence. It’s a genre piece that does the basics rather well. Sometimes. That’s all you need.    


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Thursday, 31 March 2022

Article: Dog Day Afternoon - Blind Watch of Dobermann


I’ve been trying to find something that would shake me out of semi-doom scrolling the socials as we enter yet another day of the Chris Rock/Will Smith Crap Joke/Stupid slap discourse that has been running since the Oscars played out on March 27. This first-time watch of Jan Kounen’s hyper-kinetic, heist actioner Dobermann was just the right thing to jolt me out of award season malaise and push me into babbling some paragraphs down on this semi disused blog. It shouldn’t take me third-party hot takes of some badly behaved actors to get me back on the blog horse. However, the fresh prince’s slap heard around the world once again reminded me of how so much of film culture is now dedicated to talking around films, but never about them. I’m sure I have my own opinions about the utter nonsense that occurred on Oscar night. But that’s far too wrapped up in my disdain for the Academy Awards themselves. I will note, however, with all the people of colour making clear gains with their wins, this was ruined by a moment of macho madness which screamed bad optics to many in the silent majority. If you think reading by reading this paragraph, you know how I feel about the whole shebang. Guess again. But thanks for helping my SEO gain marginal footfall to my lowly page.

Back to the reason for this post. Doberman. A 1997 crime flick that was recommended to me by my dear friend and Hustlers of Culture podcast co-host: Hugh David. I remember Hugh excitably telling me of this wild, French slice of madness almost 10 years ago. I purchased the out of print, Tartan Video DVD almost 5 years ago. Which highlights a point for me: If you passionately recommend a film to me, I usually put it on a list, and I do try and get around to watching it. Just don’t expect a reaction a week later.

Dobermann is a product of Dutch-born French film director Jan Kounen who is now possibly more known for his Shamanism than his films. After working in advertising and creating two critically acclaimed shorts, Kounen drummed up the clout to create this first feature. From the film's first frames in which a Dobermann saunters through a church graveyard, we are ensured that subtly is not found here.

A smattering of plot. The wild-haired Yann Lepentrec (Vincent Cassel) otherwise known as Doberman arranges a complex heist with his misfit friends and deaf girlfriend "Nat the Gipsy" (Monica Bellucci) which leads to a large manhunt by the Parisian police.  The hunt is led by Christini (Tchéky Karyo), a cop whose moral bankruptcy is as deep as a sandworm’s stomach on Arrakis. Once Christini catches a whiff of the gun-loving thief, chaos ensues, building up to a frenzied and brutal climax.

I thought Doberman would leave me shook up. My overall response was more muted than expected. It’s a film that certainly has its moments. Watching a stray Doberman run into the church and attack a criminal, leading him to throw the gun that he was holding into his crying son’s pram, is certainly a way to introduce the character of Dobermann. The film certainly enjoys trying to lob grenades of craziness into its atmosphere. Many scenes feel as if ripped out of an angry teenager’s graphic novel. Doberman excels in nailing a wild comic book style energy, despite not pushing the boat out in other needless things such as plot. I was taken aback by how lightweight the film felt overall. With the film’s eager dynamic action covering a rather ho-hum screenplay.

Perhaps with Dobermann appearing nearer the back end of the era which delivered us the birth of one Quintin Tarantino and a strain of post-modern crime flicks, the film found itself under unfortunate circumstances. Watching Doberman's dated opening titles, which features a CGI-suited dog who chomps cigars, and urinates on actors' credits all the while holding a magnum, it’s difficult not to shake off some of the film's try-hard attempts of transgression. Tarantino chopped up his narratives and made gangsters a bunch of lads who nattered about tipping waitresses and chomping burgers with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) respectively. Elsewhere, Michael Mann decided to go for all-out operatic. Pitting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together in a long-anticipated showdown with Heat (1995). Doberman features a cameo from one Gasper Noe, one of the leading lights in the New French Extremity movement coined by Artforum critic James Quandt. Noe’s film I Stand Alone (1998) coming a year after Doberman, shows where boundaries began to get pushed. Doberman sits awkwardly in between the brash philosophies of the Americans and the aggressively nihilistic visions of directors like Gasper Noe. While Tarantino decides to cut the heist because it doesn’t matter., Doberman merely has all its characters yelling like nothing matters. But they have no interesting thematic provocations.



However, Doberman is about looking cool first and asking questions on morality much later. Best viewed as a cult curiosity, it’s the kind of lower-budgeted movie which makes use of its limited number of locations. The action sequences hold a frenzied momentum, while the film's triple-headed cast of Cassell, Bellucci, and Karyo gnaw wildly at what scenery exists. There’s a dark charm that inhabits much of the film's craft. From locking a grenade into a cop’s bike helmet while still wearing it, to a dance DJ blasting out tunes ecstatically while a full-blown gunfight is taking place beside him. Both Cassell and Bellucci enjoy themselves while being somewhat short-changed considering their talents. But it’s Karyo who fully revels in sadistic narcissism with his role of a rogue cop gone off the deep end. Like Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield in Leon (1994), he gets all the film's best character moments.

For the most part, Doberman serves itself well as a morbid sugar rush, which would be worth a new generation of hipster films to seek out, if they don’t mind the volume of homophobia exhibited by some of the characters. The film isn’t a crowning achievement for its well-known cast, but it’s not a bad late-night watch that would make an interesting double bill with Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe (1994) if you’re up for a little bloodshed.


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