094: Bullhead (2011)

Garnering an Oscar nomination and buzz on the film festival circuit, this magnificently stylistic Belgian crime drama rolls onto Denmark’s shores like a boisterous bull in a china shop.

Set in the various farmlands of Belgium, a hotheaded cattle farmer goes into corrupt business with a West-Flemish beef trader. A recipe for disaster, the allies, along with a series of menacing cohorts, fail to keep a lid on the proceedings when things start to boil over and the consequences prove fatal.

Starting off as a bull-dosing patriarch of a local Belgium cattle-farming family, Jacky’s rash actions and scary demeanor have the makings of a perfect anti-hero. Difficult and seemingly irrational, Roskam turns the story completely on it’s head via a painful to watch, and no doubt painful to experience, flashback halfway through the film, exploiting the reasons for his animosity. From here on in, Jacky’s fiery character and actions are given a motive, making him an unlikely hero of this idiosyncratic crime drama.

Central to the film’s acclaim is the powerhouse performance of Matthias Schoenaerts as no-nonsense cattleprodder Jacky. When it comes to meaty leading man parts in cinema, it’s difficult to look past the camel-hump biceps of Ferrigno, Schwarzenegger and Stallone to roles that pack a punch on an emotional as well as a visceral level. Taking a supposed two years to beef up before filming, Schoenaerts is an effortlessly absorbing, muted presence in Bullhead. Acting almost solely through intense expressions and body language, it’s a primal performance that leaves Ryan ‘smug-mug’ Gosling’s turn in Drive left totaled by the roadside, crying uncontrollably and writing a nammy pammy pop song about the whole experience. Probably.

The other unquestionable star of the film is its writer and director. Michael R. Roskam. With Bullhead only his debut feature, he has a surprising ability to generate an inexplicable tension and anxiety in the audience, pushing us into unexpected territories and making the timely plot turns all the more rewarding and refreshing. As much as a discovery of an interesting new filmmaker, Bullhead premieres a talented newcomer in cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, whose expressive and luscious interpretation of rural Belgium juxtaposes with the ugly characters that slug it out in the seedy storyline.

If there’s one criticism one could pass down on Bullhead is that, over the case of two hours, Roskam might be attempting too much. Part crime drama-cum-Mafioso movie-cum-unrequited love tale, the director also comments on the cultural divide of Belgium; from the French speaking, buffoonish south to the humble, Flemish Flanders region of the north. Although these weighty ideas aren’t granted the time they deserve, even attempting such controversial issues are an example of a director who is able to tackle difficult, universal subjects through gripping roots’ stories.

The bottom line, Bullhead is a ferocious film. Embodying a raw animalism that is fearsome, entertaining and leaves you floored. Just like a Stone Cold Stunner.

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093: Recreation (2011)

Yoshihiro Nagata steps away from his regular producer role to write and direct this minimalist debut focusing on the rebellious youth of Japanese suburbs, their indifference to society and each other. 

Finishing school for the summer break, four teenagers parade the streets of Kyushu desperately trying to find interesting ways of filling their spare time. With stealing scooters and bicycles not quite cutting the mustard (or should that be miso?), they go on a hunt to find a new, rebellious gang member. Their hasty decision leads them to local weirdo Tachibana, who provides more savagery than they were anticipating.

Made up predominately of improvised dialogue and handheld, budget-friendly cinematography, Recreation has an intrusive quality that is both appealing yet uncomfortable. That aside, the film has an obstinate line of misogyny throughout, with women used as pawns of sexual desire and Peeping Tom escapades. Although this adds to the disenchanted nature of adolescent culture which Nagata is presenting, it doesn’t therefore make it justifiable.

At it’s core, Recreation feels more like a tedious work in progress rather than the defiant, sluggard movie that it could’ve been. Don’t be a fool, stay in school.


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092: Dark Horse (2011)

King of cruel comedy Todd Solondz returns to the arthouse cinema screen with Dark Horse, a surprisingly lightweight and ultimately unsatisfying take on unhappy, neurotic middle America, thwarted aspirations and going nowhere fast.  

The Dark Horse in question is the inexorably white and stoutly Abe, played excellently by rotund caucasian Jordan Gelber. Living with his parents in their wood paneled cabana home, and approaching middle age like it’s tomorrow’s dinner; he is surprisingly busy for someone with no life. Spending his days looking busy at his father’s real estate firm, collecting rare action figures, cheating his mother out of backgammon winnings and driving around in his grotesque yellow Hummer, with all the trimmings, he’s every young nerd’s nightmare future self. Abe finds solace in arrested development when he meets the equally morose Miranda (Solondz’ regular Selma Blair) at a wedding after-party. Sitting sheepishly at a dinner table onlooking the festivities, the two strike up an unlikely and partly reluctant romance. 

A central theme of Dark Horse is the sickly concoction of dreams with the mundanity of real life. For Abe, his life is only interesting for him, and also for us, when he’s catching some shut-eye and his dreams can take over. Heavily dosed on anti-depressants, Miranda has lost the ability to feel anything in either realm, apathetic towards her soon-to-be husband and their uncertain future. All the while, the two’s ambivalence is humorously counter-balanced by an ironic soundtrack of ghastly and saccharine pap pop.

Similarly to that surreal darling David Lynch, director Todd Solondz has carved out a filmmaking career exploring the dark depths of suburban America that undoubtedly exist, yet no one is willing to talk about. This style has lead to criticism that he’s a bit of a one trick pony, going full circle in 2009’s Life During Wartime, an unsuccessful but relatively enjoyable remake of his 1998 breakthrough Happiness. Feeling the strain of this predicament, Dark Horse is a lightweight affair; a Todd Solondz film on ketamine where you can’t help but sit around anxiously waiting for it all to turn delectably sour. Even with revelations of Miranda’s ex-boyfriend dreamboat Mahmoud back in the frame and Abe dropping a cancer bomb, Dark Horse isn’t the black beauty one expects nor craves from American oddball.


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091: Project Nim (2011)

Disappointed with his recent dabble in fiction with Shadow Dancer at this year’s Berlinale, I was excited to see James Marsh fall back on familiar documentary territory with Project Nim.

Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee who managed the unique feat of learning sign language after being raised like a human by behaviour scientist Herb Terrace and his team of lab-coat lackeys. Interviews with Nim’s trainers and other key researchers are combined with archival footage to offer incredible insight into the experiment that would forever alter our perceptions regarding the differences between man and beast.

As with all his films, Marsh displays a comprehensive attention to detail, often verging on the superfluous. Fortunately enough, the facts are balanced with a hefty heart and soul in Project Nim, much like all the participants who were fortunate enough to meet the exceptional primate. 

In short, Project Nim is a tragic and gripping documentary, telling as much about the domestication of animals as well as the complex, meddling and possessive nature of human anthropology.

Go on, have a banana!


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090: The Hunger Games (2012)

Unless you’ve been competing in some sort of fight-to-the-death contest, you’ll be well aware of Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games. The biggest film of the year so far, it’s questionable whether such successes are worthy testament to the film itself or a by-product of the tweenie fandom for the lauded trilogy of novels from which it is adapted.

Although it may be beguiling, the plot of The Hunger Games is relatively simplistic. Set in a singular dystopian realm, twenty four children are chosen at random by the ruling capital to battle to the death live on television, with the last man or woman standing becoming a worldwide celebrity and beacon of hope. 

Desperate for the 12A certification in the UK, the brutality and viciousness of the novel is underplayed in the film, meaning that the games themselves are more character explorations rather than fast-paced action. This also means that the love story, which is introduced half way into the film, feels like an overwrought and contrived plot continuum; sentimentalising the sadistic games and in the process humanising the cold nature of the story. 

If there’s one element of The Hunger Games that is deserving of acclaim is Jennifer Lawrence’s striking take on heroine Katniss. Already developing a strong screen presence in the exceptional drama Winter’s Bone, the young actress grabs the character’s ruthless independence with both hands, yet still with an admirable poise. You better get used to seeing her beautiful face, it’ll be gracing multiplex screens for many years to come.

Regardless of it being a tad too long and the ending relying too heavily on the next instalment of the story, The Hunger Games is a remarkable, unconventional blockbuster. The film is likely to be a Hollywood game changer too. Proving that teenage audiences aren’t as infantile as their pimpled complexions imply and film financiers need not rely on formulaic tales of vampires to get them to fork over their pocket money. 

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089: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

Although I’ve always enjoyed virtually everything that has come out of the Aardman studio over the last seventeen or so years, I would never class myself as a claymation connoisseur. With their latest feature film, I could soon be a fully committed member of the fan club.

Along with his steadfast loyal seamen, the approapriately named Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) goes on a quest to find his biggest booty of the year in a last ditched attempt to become the winner of the coveted Pirate of the Year award. Not really striking it lucky, the crew stumble across a piteous scientist called Charles Darwin (voiced by former Mr Who ‘that’s doctor who, to you!’ David Tennant), who promises to turn their rags into riches in ol’ Victorian London. 

Suffice to say, The Pirates! is both my favourite Aardman feature to date, and also the company’s funniest. Even if the story is hurried and the depth of the gags, which come through thick and fast, mostly went unnoticed by my three year nephew, I was left rolling around in my seat. The film is so meticulously crafted that everything from script, to voices, to animation, is nothing short of perfect. 

Pirates are great. Plundering excursions, sailing the seven seas, conversational poultry and unshakeable scurvy, what’s not to love?

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088: Elite Squad (2007)

Another day, another film, another Mondo Movie podcast recommendation. 

Elite Squad centres on the perplexing, corrupt mentality of the Rio underworld. Captain Nascimento is a superior officer within an alternative police group which attempts to eradicate the slum land streets of drug pushers and the risk they can bring to the community, considering leaving the front line, Nascimento goes on a hunt to find his replacement, bad-ass law enforcer.

Although Nascimento’s running voiceover is authoritative, you grow increasingly tired with it being used as a cheap and ineffective way of rashly contextualising an otherwise simplistic storyline. This earnestly plain narrative is also outlived by the worryingly realist subject matter, with the political issues briefly skimmed over being left dormant without more than superficial scrutiny. 

With the gruelling military training regime for the captain position, parallels with the superior first half of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket training sequence are obvious. Similarly to Kubrick, Brazilian director José Padilha is able to unflinchingly illustrate the horrid nature of war in a totally graspable, even enjoyable fashion.

Controversially, the film has a broken moral compass and as an audience we don’t know whether to route for the pot-smoking students, drug pushers, domestic police force or SWAT team hunters. What is made explicitly clear that, in these harsh and dangerous conditions, violence is the only appropriate remedy to fend off more violence. This cyclical process, while not favoured, is presented as the only means of protection. Don’t trust anyone, don’t go anywhere, just sit in front of the TV and watch this entertaining crime drama instead.

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PS - Before the trolls start troll-la-la-ing, the sequel, Elite Squad: The Enemy from Within (2010), is on my ones to watch. Pipe down now.

087: This Must be The Place (2011)

What can be said about this film that hasn’t already been said elsewhere? Well, not much, but I’ll give it a go.

Many people have already mentioned just how offbeat Sorrentino’s debut film in the English language is, polarizing audiences with it’s intrinsically European take on celebrity isolation. Sean Penn plays mopey retired rock star Cheyenne who goes on a quest to hunt down a former Nazi officer and, in the process, validate his tormented and superficial existence.

The biggest insult that the film could receive is that, even through all the strangeness, it is increasingly boring. Although it is devoid of political stance, the holocaust context is dealt with rather carelessly as a comedic, narrative advance, when it could have added some emotional attachment and interest to the difficult central character. Working his ass off, as per usual, Penn tiptoes on the border between merited kookiness and annoyance in what is a far too willingly blatant Robert Smith impression.

If one thing can be said in This Must be the Place's favour, it is ruthlessly anomalous. Although he may come across as coy and modest in interview, Sorrentino is uncompromising, creating the film exactly as he intended it to be. He wants Sean Penn in the lead and Frances McDormand in a wasted, supporting role as Cheyenne’s committed wife – Sorrentino gets it done. He wants David Byrne and Will Oldham to create the soundtrack - and throw in an inexplicably awkward cameo from Bicycle Byrne for good measure - Sorrentino makes it happen. Maybe it’s brash, vespa-riding coolness from the Italian, or maybe it’s a passion for artistic expression that seems to rub off on anyone he’s lucky to surround himself with.

Cerebral, rhythmic and indulgent, This Must be the Place is a directorial tour-de-force, even if the final destination may be indeterminable.


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086: Down Terrace (2009)

Before reaching FrightFest successes with Kill List, British filmmaker Ben Wheatley debuted with this idiosyncratic crime drama. Down Terrace follows afamily of auspiciously amoral criminals who try to identify the police snitch amongst their regime.

Although the script might not be as lavish and darkly humorous as his second feature,  the three central performances from Julia Deakin and Robin & Robert Hill are nothing short of sublime. Down Terrace is testament to Wheatley’s ability to create a new style of cheap, British cinema which chews on familiar gritty realism and spits it back out again. The result is messy, but surprisingly enjoyable.


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085: Kosmos (2010)

This fantastical turkish drama centres around a miracle-working, traveling thief called Kosmos who is heralded a village hero when he saves a local boy from drowning.

Although a shoestring storyline like this doesn’t instinctively equate to an uninteresting film, Kosmos unsuccessfully attempts to force the audience into inferior philosophical submission with a common disregard for the lofty thematic elements of existentialism and phenomenology. The result, like the central character, is annoying, ostentatious and almost entirely unfulfilling.


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084: David Holzman’s Diary (1967)

A hermetic New Yorker becomes obsessed with voyeur culture; filming the mundanity of his everyday life and trying to establish a sense of personal attachment to the indifferent world going on outside his apartment.

Long before Christopher Guest’s This is Spinal Tap, whilst only sporadically funny, David Holzman’s Diary is a first in mockumentary filmmaking. Presented as a poorly veiled, yet futuristically actualised critique on the cinéma vérité documentary movement, director Jim McBride succinctly raises the Orwell-like, prevalent question of authenticity in the media and societies’ fascination with recorded reality. 


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083: Less Than Zero (1987)

Painfully outdated, this eighties TV-movie is a wet blanket adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ obdurately frosty debut novel. Cali college kid Clay returns home for the summer break to find his best friend and ex-girlfriend spiralling out of control under the influence trust-fund financed cocaine.

Infamously remembered as the film which spawned Robert Downey Jr’s obsession and later addiction to hard drugs, Less Than Zero doesn’t have much else to offer, other than a laughably cheesy soundtrack and yet another awkward and creepy James Spader performance. 


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082: Benda Bilili! (2010)

This small, cinéma vérité documentary follows a ramshackle busking band on their onward plight to worldwide success. Made up of community centre paraplegics and one Kinshasa street kid, the harsh backdrop of Congo slum-living doesn’t dampen their ebullient spirit, devotion for free expression.

Although the intrusive documentary isn’t remarkable in itselfthe music of Benda Bilili! is politically poignant and ceaselessly enthralling. Get down on it. Now. Please.


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HEY, I quite like music too…

Friends of mine and potential friends of yours, Mint Magazine invited me onto their weekly music podcast last weekend. I chose some choons, spieled all over the place, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time scoffing the complimentary Kettle chips and TexMex dips. If you like things - let’s be honest, who doesn’t? - you can listen to the result of my sonic endeavours right HERE. Follow their website for all things cultural and otherwise. 

Exciting posts soon to follow. Very soon. Give it five.


081: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (2009)

Back on the #366movies course with a masculine bang. A mascu-bang. Ignore that.

After a tough break-up, an unnamed, female grad student conducts interviews with men from all walks of life, trying to comprehend the inferior sex and cathartically forget her promiscuous ex-boyfriend. 

Directed by the effortlessly affable John Krasinski (The Office's Jim Halpert), Brief Interviews with Hideous Men feels like a celebratory labour of love to the collection of David Foster Wallace short stories from which it spawned. Made up mostly of straight-to-camera vignettes, the film has a very emotive, theatrical quality. Often described as the simpler sex, Wallace’s short stories unearth the hidden depths of man, with each character wearing their hearts (or lack thereof) on their sleeves. The result is inevitably uneven, with the more conventionally brash macho-figures appearing hackneyed and the idiosyncratic, more fragile interviewees feeling genuinely refreshing and new screen presences. Even still, there’s a lot to be desired here, most notably Krasinski’s pacing and richly adapted screenplay.

Passing by art house cinemas without very much critical attention, Brief Interviews is another forgotten gem from the Sundance Festival, indie alumni. Comic, tragic and in all ways independent, the film is an exciting and accomplished directorial debut from Krasinski and, even through all the ugliness, has a lot to say about the public perception of ghastly men. I mean, we’re really rubbish, aren’t we? 

Less The Vagina Monologues, more The Penis Soliloquies.


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