Tag Archives: cannes

Route Irish (2010)

10 Sep

Ken Loach has doggedly ploughed his own furrow since ‘Cathy Come Home’ (1966) shamed a nation; though he continues to be more highly regarded amongst cineastes in the rest of Europe than on his home soil. Whether you agree with his ideological leanings or not, the sheer breadth of Loach’s oeuvre has to be admired: his work encompasses subjects as diffuse as the Irish war of independence – ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’ (2006) – the present-day troubles – ‘Hidden Agenda’ (1990) – the machinations of rail privatisation – ‘The Navigators’ (2001) – and the plight of undocumented workers – ‘Bread and Roses’ (2000) – as well as raft of films that deal with the struggles of everyday people. For better or worse, there is a political bent to everything Loach does.

Which makes it all the more surprising that ‘Route Irish’ is Loach’s first feature to address the ‘War on Terror’ – he provided the British segment for the film ‘11’09’’01 September 11’ (2002) – though he comes at the subject from an oblique angle here, delving into the murky world of ‘private security contractors’ and their role in the Great Game.

Fergus (Mark Womack) is one such contractor; he returns home for the funeral of his old friend and fellow contractor, Frankie (John Bishop), with whom he was as close as a brother. Frankie was killed in Iraq on the infamous Route Irish – the ‘most dangerous road in the world’ from Baghdad airport to the heavily fortified Green Zone – in the employ of a contractor who lauds him and his kind as ‘unsung heroes of our time’, ‘patriots’ and ‘soldiers of peace’. Fergus, who recruited Frankie, isn’t convinced by the contractor’s explanation of how Frankie met his death. He comes into possession of Frankie’s mobile, which unearths a video that contradicts the official story and forces him to investigate further.

‘Route Irish’ is shot with the subtle, egalitarian élan for which Loach is rightly lauded, pulled off with the easy assurance of a master. Once again working with cinematographer Chris Menges and writer Paul Laverty, Loach has fashioned a gritty conspiracy thriller that lies somewhere between Alan J. Pakula and Roberto Rossellini. Loach’s camera hovers in the middle distance throughout, this unfussy approach ceding centre stage to the story and its message.

Actual footage of the carnage in Iraq is used to ground events in reality: bodies dragged from buildings and pulled from rubble, ripped apart by gunfire from above and brutalized on the street. Menges’ photography brings home the horror of the mercenaries’ activities and strips the violence of its rhetorical power, while Laverty’s screenplay is typically well crafted, strenuously researched and brimming with angry insight; the dialogue has a firm grasp of the argot but lays down an informal pitch, the narrative pregnant with cumulative presentiment.

Loach has never had much use for stars – unless you count Eric Cantona – preferring instead to cast actors who fit the roles. Womack is a familiar face to British TV viewers, appearing in many long-running series, and his gutsy performance here hints at greater things to come. Fergus was the facilitator of Frankie’s happiness and pain, and Womack devastatingly conveys the weight of remorse and recrimination Fergus must carry; living in a sparse, unfurnished apartment that is a perfect metaphor for his desolation. Stand-up comedy’s current flavour-of-the-month Bishop brings his everyman charm, and surprising intensity, to a brief role, and Andrea Lowe provides impressive support as his widow, her grief quickly transitioning to anger.

‘Route Irish’ articulates the toll of PTSD on military personnel, and the difficulty its sufferers have in readjusting to civilian society, with greater lucidity than ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009); which, for all its acclaim, veers towards bathos at times. There is a danger of the Iraq/Afghanistan paradigm being reduced to a handful of hackneyed tropes, its survivors reduced to sitcom stereotypes like the ‘Vietnam Vet’: there are a lot of essentially good men trapped in impossible situations, their sense of duty exploited, which makes this and the ever-dwindling number of films like it crucial to our understanding.

‘Route Irish’ is an important story, well told; something in increasingly short supply, positing that our kneejerk, strong-arm strategies to curtail extremism are guaranteed to lose hearts and minds, mutually assured destruction. Iraq is shown to be a Wild West where cowboys of all stripes operate with impunity, blinded by the spoils of occupation; the Cradle of Civilisation debased by an efficient, quotidian death machine. Much to the chagrin of his detractors, Loach has lost none of his fire, and long may he continue to hold power to account.


Route Irish Premiere, Cannes, 2010


Another Year (2010)

11 Apr

With a minimum of fuss, Mike Leigh has become one of cinema’s most fascinating auteurs, crafting a rich and diverse body of work in the face of growing hostility towards distinctive independent voices. At a time when world cinema is becoming increasingly beholden to the trends emanating from the USA, Leigh’s uniquely British meditations on the tragedy and absurdity of everyday life manage to be artistically rewarding, critically lauded, commercially accessible and economically viable.

Divided into seasons, ‘Another Year’s’ premise is as slight as one would expect from Leigh, following a year in the life of Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a geologist and counsellor who have been together since meeting at university. Tom and Gerri hold regular get-togethers at their home, inviting an assortment of people who seem to be struggling to find their way – there is Mary (Lesley Manville), a manic, garrulous receptionist, Ken (Peter Wright), a hard-drinking, lugubrious old friend of Tom’s and Joe (Oliver Maltman), Tom and Gerri’s bachelor son.

‘Another Year’ focuses on people and predicaments that are so often neglected by mainstream cinema – the lives of those over the age of forty, particularly women, are often invisible to the film industry, and Leigh seeks to redress the balance. Overlapping, conversational dialogue combines with Dick Pope’s sterling cinematography to chart the year’s transition, with each season given a distinct mood. The scenes that occur between the major plot points in most other films take on a deeper significance here by dint of some stellar performances and Leigh’s mastery of establishing tone. The seemingly informal intent of Leigh’s directorial choices are in fact carefully crafted to impart something about the characters’ situation throughout – for instance, Tom and Gerri are together in the majority of shots, while Mary is seemingly stranded in the centre of the frame.

What sets Leigh apart from almost any other director is his approach to actors, giving them the latitude to construct a reality for their characters out of the detailed back stories he concocts; however minor the role. This strategy probably explains why his films are stacked with great performances from top to bottom, but also why the ‘Leigh grotesque’ has also become a fixture of his oeuvre. Indeed, it is one of the chief complaints of his work that the freedom he affords his cast often precludes him from reining them in; David Thewlis’s scenery chewing in ‘Naked’ (1993) being a case in point. Manville takes the mantle here, delivering a grandstanding turn that frequently errs on the wrong side of broad.

Manville’s theatrics are contrasted with a raft of assured contributions across the board. Broadbent and Sheen are the foundation which holds the various narrative strands together, lending depth and subtlety to the almost chocolate box depiction of wedded bliss, their inherent likeability preventing the minutiae of domestic routine from becoming repetitive. Leigh regulars Imelda Staunton and Phil Davis make brief appearances, while David Bradley is quietly devastating as Tom’s Brother and Peter Wight commits so fully to the role of the lonely, overweight, embittered mass of self-loathing that you will genuinely worry for his wellbeing. It speaks to Leigh’s standing amongst actors that he was able to get an actor of Staunton’s calibre to appear in two brief, insignificant scenes.

‘Another Year’ exults in the quirks of behaviour and intricacies of interaction, sticking to a few key locations and relying on the strength of the material and the ability of its cast – traits that put it amongst Leigh’s best work. This is as much a paean to fidelity and stability as an elegy to the ageing process, exploring the various ways in which people deal with the loss of their youth – Mary latching onto the vaguest male approbation, Ken complaining that ‘everything is for young people’, Tom and Gerri seeking solace in each other – with Leigh’s customary tragicomic eye. ‘Another Year’ profoundly states that ‘time is unkind’ and all we have to mitigate its impact is each other’s support.

Time is unkind.

Trash Humpers, Enter the Void and the Sensory Shocker

23 Nov

As the horror genre slides ever deeper into a formulaic torpor, two arthouse darlings may just have struck upon a whole new way of disquieting audiences – the sensory shocker. Genre purists aside, most would agree that the essence of horror is the ability to elicit fear, revulsion, panic, discomfort and uncertainty. Regardless of content, it is the emotional response that counts. In an attempt to rouse a jaded audience from its cine-literate ennui, Harmony Korine and Gaspar Noé have resorted to technical extremism in their war on convention, hijacking the means of production to initiate the next leap forward. In doing so, they have upset their staunchest defenders and added grist to their detractors’ mill – Noé’s ‘Enter the Void’ (2009) was pilloried by critics at its Cannes premiere, and Netflix – the ultimate arbiter of taste and bastion of decency – refused to distribute Korine’s ‘Trash Humpers’ (2009) due to its objectionable content. But the rancour of tastemakers only serves to vindicate their stylistic radicalism and bolster their resolve to further push the envelope. Both ‘Trash Humpers’ and ‘Enter the Void’ are designed to repel a generation weaned on high-concept spectacle, sanitized remakes and sniggering plagiarism masquerading as deconstruction – the medium itself is a weapon against the middlebrow, revelling in discomfort, occupying a cinematic hinterland populated by the damaged and abandoned.

Like fellow agent provocateur Lars Von Trier, Korine and Noé take pleasure in goading, even berating, their audience; testing the limits of its tolerance and forcing them to confront some unpleasant truths. Indeed, the sensory shocker philosophically has its roots in the Dogme ‘95 movement, which was a reaction against cinema’s growing profligacy that propounded a ‘year zero’ akin to punk rock – but alas turned out to be more of an elaborate prank against credulous critics than a creative revolution. Though their methods differ wildly, Korine and Noé share Dogme’s aesthetic intransigence; presenting ideas with an implacable purity of purpose, untainted by concessions to popular taste and sentiment. In Korine’s sly primitivism and Noé’s baroque solemnity we see this unwillingness to adulterate their vision in the face of critical derision and public rejection. In an industry that seems content to churn out an endless stream of mediocrity, ‘Enter the Void’ and ‘Trash Humpers’ only serve to highlight the Hollywood machine’s paucity of ambition and dearth of innovation.

It is a horror truism that storytellers can conjure up all manner of beasts and apparitions, but the ultimate figures of terror are the marginal and powerless – the lonely motel owner, inbred redneck, angry teenager, etc. With ‘Trash Humpers’, indie cinema’s idiot savant could be said to have taken the genre back to its heyday – which ran approximately from ‘Psycho’ (1960) to ‘Halloween’ (1978) – in his belief that the real monsters are in our midst. A twisted amalgam of ‘Man Bites Dog’ (1992) and ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980), ‘Trash Humpers’ has the feel of a grisly VHS artefact retrieved from a crime scene, or the home movies of a sociopathic family. Its utter lack of technical refinement immediately removes the viewer from any accepted norms of presentation; refusing to meet them half way with its worn, washed out ‘video nasty’ visuals, intermittent bursts of static, frame rolls, on-screen functions, murky sound, sudden cuts and blackouts. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a consciously ugly, wilfully amateurish, malformed cousin of ‘Gummo’ (1997) that exemplifies Korine’s abiding love for jetsam in all its forms.

We learn that the film’s eponymous gang derives pleasure from simulating sex with garbage receptacles – or ‘trash pussies’ – but their identity is never explained. The lack of exposition makes them all the more menacing. Whether they are young people masquerading as old people or vice versa, the gang’s appearance comes across as a parody of youth culture, satirizing our stultifying obsession with the latest fad or affectation. No doubt to avoid claims that these characters are nothing more than conduits for his iconoclastic agenda, Korine strives to lend them a dimension. One gang member avers that he can ‘smell the pain’ of suburban Nashville and another implores God to guide her, but Korine draws the line at taking a stance, neither portraying them in a sympathetic light or castigating their actions. The film’s erratic tone has a disorientating effect – the banal, ludicrous and horrific mingle to the point that the distinction becomes irrelevant, lulling us into accepting their excesses by largely excluding the world beyond. It is only in the fractured snippets of everyday life occurring around them that we begin to get a sense of the gang’s complete isolation from the mainstream of society.

The gang meets a variety of classic Korine eccentrics that serves to mitigate their abnormality and place them in a social context, bolstering Korine’s assertion that you don’t need to look very far to find the detritus of a society built on the principles of predacious consumption and heedless self-gratification. ‘Trash Humpers’ is a broadside against rampant consumerism, a treatise on the nature of obsolescence – the gang is openly hostile to any symbol of youth and vitality, destroying dolls and toys while idolizing the discarded and useless to the point of erotic frenzy. They have transferred their affections to the yielding contours of plastic and steel, wallowing in a world of kitsch certainties. ‘Trash Humpers’ mercilessly slaughters sacred cows and busts taboos, from the narcissistic attention seeking of ‘reality’ TV and YouTube, to our voyeuristic obsession with celebrity, to our retreat into cultural inertia and gleeful juvenilia. Korine has created a set of monsters that hold a mirror up to the folly of a society slowly drowning in its surfeit – a new kind of predator spawned by our greed, feeding on the by-product of our abundance.

Gaspar Noé’s excoriating oeuvre explores the overlap between sex and violence – lust and revenge are equated in films like ‘I Stand Alone’ (1998) and ‘Irreversible’ (2002) – and the visceral intractability of human impulse. Coming from the opposite end of the technical spectrum as ‘Trash Humpers’, ‘Enter the Void’ has been described as a ‘psychedelic melodrama’ and a ‘metaphysical thriller’. From its seizure-inducing titles, this is an attack on the senses. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his Sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta), live in Tokyo, eking out a living as a small-time drug dealer and a lap dancer respectively. Seen from Oscar’s point of view, Oscar and his friend, Alex (Cyril Roy), discuss the Tibetan Book of the Dead on their way to a club called The Void, where Oscar is to transact a drug deal with Victor (Olly Alexander), whose mother he has an ‘arrangement’ with. As Oscar enters the tenebrous environs of the club, police swarm into the building. Oscar flees to the bathroom and hides in a stall, where he is shot after refusing to give himself up. His breathing ebbs, his vision blurs, all sound recedes and his heartbeat slows to a halt. His spirit rises from his body and hovers above the scene – much in the manner of the post-shootout scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1974). Devoid of form, Oscar observes those he has left behind from his existential no man’s land.

Structurally, ‘Enter the Void’ echoes Film Noir in its non-linear narrative and use of multiple flashbacks – indeed, one of the film’s primary inspirations was said to have been Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film of Raymond Chandler’s ‘Lady in the Lake’, which was shot entirely from the point of view of its protagonist. Noé recreates each stage of being with a keen eye for detail. The twittering subconscious and fractured perception of the scenes in which we occupy Oscar’s corporeal form perfectly captures his chemically impaired state; while the blurry, flickering photography and throttled sound of the ethereal scenes play like a cosmic Nickelodeon film, alternating frame rates for maximum unease. The scenes from Oscar’s past are shot from over his shoulder, as if, removed from his physical form, Oscar is watching them back in an attempt to make sense of his life. Jean-Andre Carriere and Kikuo Ohta’s production design is a work of staggering bravura, a feat not seen since ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), and the visual effects may well come to be regarded in the same light as Douglas Trumbull’s ground-breaking work on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). Tokyo is transformed into a decadent theme park, a garish Day-Glo maelstrom where all earthly pleasure can be purchased, a repository of turpitude where everything is out of kilter. ‘Enter the Void’ is a film for which the use of the term stylized is not pejorative. The film dispenses with the condescending travelogue feel of ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003), gawping in wonderment at the neon metropolis. This version of Tokyo is a simulacrum on which to dramatize man’s gluttonous death wish.

‘Enter the Void’ is a dizzying journey into the heart of corruption; a world where individual freedom is conflated with self-annihilation, whose citizens are engaged in a desperate quest for endless sensation, sheltering from its iniquities in a torrent of narcotics and meaningless sex. Like Korine, Noé doesn’t shy away from charting the bleakest recesses of the human psyche – Oscar is a composite of our failings; a greedy, self-serving Sybarite who leaves a trail of debris in his wake. There is a palpable sense of disgust for, and queasy fascination with, the mechanical act of copulation; Noé presents a series of deeply joyless sex scenes from which he defies the observer to derive any kind of erotic thrill. That Noé is able to maintain our interest in such a downcast setting over the course of the film’s lengthy meditation is a testament to his skill as a storyteller. Noé navigates the labyrinth and stares into the abyss, but ‘Enter the Void’ ultimately veers away from the brutal nihilism of ‘Irreversible’ – the film seems willing to envisage a renewal of humanity’s beleaguered spirit. ‘Enter the Void’ has astounding ambition and intellectual curiosity, dealing with concepts and ideas that most mainstream films would shrink from for fear of alienating or confusing its audience – after all, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public. Noé harnesses a myriad of techniques to realize his vision, creating an amazing yet horrific landscape that lingers long in the memory. It will be interesting to see how their peers respond to the gauntlet thrown down by the originators of the Sensory Shocker.

Gasp and Harm take a moment from offending your sensibilities to enjoy the sights of Skegness.