Dutch director Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr. may not be a household name, though the shape-shifting alien of his first feature, the big-budget “The Thing,” a prequel to John Carpenter’s cult classic of the same title, is. Starring Joel Edgerton (last seen in Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior”) the movie also marks the filmmaker’s first foray into Hollywood. Prior to the film’s release in Holland I spoke with the engaging studio newbie about everything from making art from commercials, to taking inspiration from Polanski, to why the next big thing might not be emerging from his homeland anytime soon.
“Miss Bala” is a bad trip into the dark Wonderland of Mexican drug-cartels. Our Alice is Laura Guerrero, an innocent girl living with her father and brother, who dreams of entering the Miss Baja beauty pageant with her best friend Suzu. On Laura’s wall is a collage of beautiful stars, Madonna, Shakira and Audrey Hepburn, merged with her own happy snaps of carefree days. In the centre a cutting in bright pink reads, “Fashion Victim.” If only Laura knew how much she would have to suffer for her art she’d stick to selling clothes.
The Devil’s Double is a new film, a fictionalised version of the real-life story of Latif Yahia, who served as the double of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Unlike Jona Lewie you will never find Uday Hussein in the kitchens at parties. No sir, this disco meerkat is the life and soul all right, rocking the mike with his fly honeys, a gold AK47 and a Bowie coke mirror. In the 1980s the son of Saddam and his Baghdad massive were kicking it by night and torturing by day. While thousands of his countrymen were giving their lives for his father in the bitter Iran-Iraq war Uday was busy picking out hand made suits to match whichever of his fleet of a 1000 sports cars he chose to drive that day.
Whisked through the desert by twin black Mercs (de-rigueur travel if you’re summoned by a maniac play-boy) is Latif Yahia, an Iraqi officer and former classmate of Uday. Flanked, ushered and intimidated, two sharkskin heavies dump Latif in Uday’s pristine office but Saddam’s heir is absent. A single brilliant red stiletto sits opposite a small photo of Saddam on Uday’s desk-it’s a simple but staggering deep-focus composition that reveals much about Uday’s character and the nefarious dynasty he represents.
Uday lurks out of thin air, a phantom Freddie Mercury haunting the mirror near Latif. The physical resemblance is uncanny but Uday reeks of corruption, the perversion and insanity seeping through his clammy pores, clinging to his Versace fibres, spilling out of his high-pitched voice. This tyrannical Tigger needs a double, a decoy to take the heat off. “We were friends” leers Uday; “Classmates” corrects Latif physically recoiling at the thought. The proposition doesn’t sit well with Latif, but that’s an irrelevance when you’re dealing with the devil.
“30 love” reveals the tennis professional as Homeric demi-god, the camera shimmering off his cotton-armour, close enough to see through the delicate links of his shirt. A flash of red glints as he flicks his racquet, ready to unleash his serve and destroy the early morning bird song.
We see the service action, hear the retort and, off screen listen to the ball chink off the chain fence. No opponent. Off beat our hero glides into space leading with his Kirk Douglas chin, a hard court Spartacus not deterred by the lack of a Lacoste nemesis stalking the net opposite him.
The camera lingers a little too close for comfort, the delicate footfalls, his golden torso, and the rhythmic flow of his serve, a voyeuristic montage that leaves us uneasy in the Tarkovsky sunlight. Will a player emerge from the clear to challenge our hero and give purpose to his game? His life?
Instead a DVD rests on his towel, “tennis maN” tagged roughly across the fragile silver disc. The plastic artifact cheapens our hero; his purity of form molested by the modern age. An extreme wide shot confirms we are now in Michael Mann territory, a daylight thriller where our hero is suddenly vulnerable; vulnerable but intrigued.
Rollo Wenlock’s stylish short is an ingenious take on the sweaty sexuality inherent in tennis. The orgasmic grunt of a serve is cleverly edited to bring the audience a Lynchian twist on “Hot Rackets” or the iconic “Tennis Girl” poster for the Mac generation. Is our hero being stalked or does he know the smouldering face smirking back at him on his laptop?
“30 love” is a score like second base, nearly home but not quite, sexual conquest in its inception and what every great short film should feel like–foreplay. It could be the way white middle class 30-somethings court each other, at once sexually liberated and inhibited, swinging but stifled.
The last frame is provocative, a partner finally ready to test our hero in the flesh. After all, “Tennis begins with love.” But with what emotion does it end?
Early on in Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian” the Emperor Hadrian, now 60, muses, “This morning it occurred to me for the first time that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be after all a sly beast who will end by devouring his master.”
Could Hadrian be describing the Roman Empire in Neil Marshall’s bloody return to form, Centurion? The realisation that there was a finite limit, an edge at which the eternal glory of Rome had to teeter at, for to go on would end in its self destruction?
Far away from the Eternal City, Centurion Quintas Dias freezes in the most inhospitable backwater of the Empire, Britannia. “Soldiers do the fighting and soldiers do the dying and the Gods never get their feet wet” narrates Dias. Men like Dias are the poor bastards who cling to the precipice, defending Roman civilization from the barbarian hordes of the Picts,who use guerrilla tactics alien to antiquities superpower and their conventional military might. Sound familiar?
“This is a new kind of war,” laments Dias, “a war without honour, a war without end.” The ironic similarities between the invasion of Afghanistan and the Roman occupation of Britain are sharply observed when the governor of Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, wants a quick military victory so he can get back to Rome. “This place is the graveyard of ambition” he snarls. Agricola promptly disobeys clear tactical logic and orders the full might of the 9th Legion to wipe out the Picts once and for all.
The 9th, led by their beloved, tavern-brawling General, Titus Flavius Virilius, is cocksure and up for the fight. “He’s a ruthless, reckless bastard and I’d die for him without hesitation,” barks Septus of his commander to Dias, recently escaped from a devastating raid by the Picts on his border fort.
Of course, such scar-faced bravado from Septus and his battle brothers can only ever end one way in these films, and the 9th are massacred, betrayed by their beautiful, mute tracker Etain. Marshall shoots this major set piece with stunning savagery, flooding the screen with a wash of blood and a fearsome rhythmic montage of hacked-off limbs, slashed throats and staved-in heads.
Dias and a motley crew of survivors at first try to snatch back the captured Titus but their botched attempt quickly descends into a hunt that mirrors Deliverance, Southern Comfort and even Cross of Iron as Etain and her warriors are unleashed by the Pict king to avenge a horrific crime committed by one of Dias’ men: “Her soul is an empty vessel which only Roman blood can fill.”
Centurion firmly places Marshall back on track after the self-indulgent and ramshackle Doomsday, that was such a disappointment when compared the expertly crafted menace of The Descent. Michael Fassbender continues his climb to A-list status with yet another riveting performance as Dias, ably supported by a great cast including David Morrissey and Noel Clarke, and Olga Kurylenko as the lethal Etain continues Marshall’s obsession with deadly women.
Long may it continue.
The Tribeca Film Festival, Robert De Niro’s annual glam-fest on the Hudson, is glitzy and obnoxious and very L.A. – which is exactly why I enjoy covering it. It’s like traveling to the West Coast to get a glimpse of how exotic Hollywood lives without leaving New York City. It’s a fun lark, a break from the heavy-handed sobriety of “Film as Art” that defines New York Film Festival and The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films, which TFF arrives fresh on the heels of.
Like most festivals there’s a lot of dregs to sit through to discover the gems, but when you emerge from a screening of Soul Kitchen from Fatih Akin, the most exciting director Germany has produced since Werner Herzog, or the under-the-radar (though not for long) doc Sons of Perdition you remember just how powerful cinema can be. De Niro founded the fest to lift spirits after 9/11, after all. In other words, to remind us of the joy that got all of us – even the most hard-nosed film snobs – going to the movies in the first place.
The best case in point this year is Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me. As a big fan of the author Jim Thompson, whose pulp novel it’s based on, and an even bigger fan of Thompson’s collaborator Stanley Kubrick (for whom he wrote the screenplays for both The Killing and Paths of Glory), I was initially skeptical that even a wildly talented director like Winterbottom could do the book justice. Even more so when he cast pretty boy Casey Affleck in the role of Lou Ford, the charming, small-town West Texas sheriff’s deputy and cold-blooded psychopath inside whose head the entire tale takes place. When the director of A Clockwork Orange has been quoted calling the book “Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered,” you know the adaptation bar has already been set sky high.
And Mr. Winterbottom has risen to the occasion, crafting an early 50s noir that is so faithful to its original source that the director hasn’t so much adapted as just straightforwardly filmed the book, smartly getting out of the way so Thompson’s twisting and twisted vision can fully shine through. Using a script from John Curran that itself lifts the juiciest nuggets from the novel, such as the ominous line “It’s always lightest before the dark” and a beautiful monologue that begins “A weed is a plant out of place” (Thompson was also the guy who penned the pulp classics The Getaway and The Grifters so he knew how to turn a cinematic phrase) Winterbottom goes beyond telling the story of a man whose sadomasochistic relationship with the prostitute Joyce Lakeland (played by Jessica Alba, thankfully the only weak link in the cast) sets into motion a wave of serial killings.
The director in fact builds an entire atmosphere, starting with the exquisite production design and period costumes, a score that includes everything from sultry jazz to soaring opera, and Marcel Zyskind’s evocative cinematography that captures the vast expanse of the western landscape (Oklahoma substituting for Texas) in long shots and Lou Ford’s steely lying eyes in close-ups. Fortunately, Casey Affleck’s boyish looks, slow mumbled drawl that strangely sounds a bit like Bill Clinton, clenched mouth and stiff body language are pitch perfect for the outwardly laidback and inwardly hyper-alert Lou.
Surrounding Affleck is a knockout, supporting cast (minus Alba) that includes Kate Hudson as Lou’s clueless, well-bred, often horny girlfriend Amy Stanton, Ned Beatty as pompous good-old-boy Chester Conway and Elias Koteas as the corrupt union leader Joe Rothman. And then there’s Bill Pullman in a cameo as loudmouthed lawyer Billy Boy Walker and Tom Bower as Sheriff Bob Maples, whose awakening to Lou’s true nature unfolds onscreen with believable heartbreaking subtlety.
Indeed, the only true digression from Thompson’s book might be Winterbottom’s and Affleck’s choice to cleanse Lou of the remorseless contempt and downright joy he gets from playing his cat-and-mouse game, from toying with the townsfolk, all of whom he believes to be his intellectual inferiors. But by the time we reach the “Bonnie and Clyde” style blowout ending – after so much impersonal, fast and sudden violence straight out of a Scorsese hit – the proof is in the gleeful hardboiled mayhem.
Halfway into the new remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the young heroine disrobes and steps into a hot bath. As she peels off her robe, some men at the screening I’m sitting in holler, “Yeah! Alriiiiiight!” in anticipation. But before her garment can complete its descent, the image cuts to a shot framed above the waist, of her naked back.
The crowd: “Ahhh, maaan!” In a film that has thus far rubbed our faces in a series of graphic stabbings and assaults, NOW the filmmakers suddenly get shy? That’s all right: The next shot parks the camera smack between her wide open legs, at water level in the tub. “Awriiiight!” After a contemplative interval, Freddy Kreuger’s razor glove rises out of the water like a stainless steel erection. “Woooo!”
One thing about the new Elm Street: It gets the crowd hooting better than a Yankee Stadium pipe organ.
Like most men, I have very limited insight into the higher neurological functions of the American female. So, as far as discussing the themes that women find appealing in their television and movies, I have to take a scientific approach and only hypothesize about why the ladies like the things they like.
I do know what escapist fantasies dudes harbor, and why. We crave excitement, adventure, speed, and an unprecedented level of nudity. We crave movies based on comic books or similarly unrealistic premises. And summer blockbusters love to oblige us.
They don’t delve into the possible downsides of being incredibly wealthy, intelligent, and having your own cybernetic battlesuit with rockets in the arms and emergency flares in the nipples. There’s just the right amount of adversity; a prosaic and straight-forward evil villain generally puts the hero in a tough spot, and then forces the hero to do something epic. Not so secretly, my ilk envies the hero. We would love to clench our fists and solemnly vow not to rest until justice is delivered to every ass within a 2 mile radius via our mighty feet.
But movies aren’t enough for me anymore. As a dude, the appeal of watching a crime-fighting, justice-avenging hero has simply become mundane. As such, I’ve designed my own super team.
I’ve put a lot of though into this. A lot. For instance, as many of you may not know, there is inevitably a rivalry between the team leader and the resident loose cannon that doesn’t play by the rules and goes his own way.
That will not be an issue here, however, as I plan to be both the leader and the loose cannon. I might sometimes disagree with myself, but I’m sure I’ll be able to resolve the issue by dropping giant boulders onto myself, and then watching them shatter on my abs. Additionally, my biceps will be named Zeus and Odin, and they will probably star in their own spin-off movies. Continue reading
I want to provide you with a mariner’s chart of my character: the contrasts and topography of my chipped, flawed personality. What the hell, you ask?
Well, this is based on that narcissism that all writers have – or ought to have. Maybe it also has something to do with the fact that I’m besieged by academic deadlines and need something to laugh about.
But the main reason? I’m sitting in a class that I am having trouble caring about (we’re watching a movie on bowel diseases. I just looked up, and was greeted by the sight of a very charming endoscopy).
Some of these tempt me severely, and some of these just make me cry: Continue reading