Millenium Movie: A Clockwork Orange (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Each weekend I will be bringing you my considered opinion on important films. This weekend’s Millenium Movie – a true cult classic, that is impossible to forget. 

I first saw this incredible film at Exeter Picturehouse in 2001, after it was finally considered fit for public consumption after a 25 year ban. Having read Antony Burgess’s original novel the previous year, I was delighted to see that Kubrick kept closely to the text, and had brought this horrific, disturbing, warning parable to life. In the current social climate, with paranoia about gangs, crime and state interference at an all time high, I can’t help but wonder if the reason it shocked people’s sensibilities was because far from being fantasy, too much of this film seems all too real. There are so many things that make this film mesmerising, that if I included them all I’d be here all night, but here are a few key points.

Essentially, the film is split into two halves, to show the behaviour Alex embarks on and the consequences it accrues.The opening scenes are arresting – solid frames of red and blue, with a harsh synthesiser soundtrack. It then opens to a lingering shot of the face of Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) barely suppressing a smirk. It then opens to encompass his three “droogs”, as Alex’s narration intones their intentions to leave the milk bar for a “bit of the old ultra-violence”. It begins with their violently beating a drunken tramp, assiting a rival gang in the rape of a young girl, then moving on to find a comfortable, bohemian home. The couple inside are gagged, then the husband is beaten and forced to watch the rape of his wife. All the time, Alex sings “Singing In The Rain”, leering over the line “I’m in the mood for love”, before exposing his genitalia. The camera does exactly what the audience does as the rape is about to be committed – it swings away. The real horror is left entirely to the audience’s imagination. All of this occurs in the first 16 minutes. The audience is bludgeoned with this, showing the escalation of violence and the dismissive contempt it incurs. The “droogs” reign of terror comes to an end one night, when a break-in at a health farm leads to unintended murder.

The second half of the film concentrates on Alex’s time in prison, in which he is volunteers for a new experiment in stopping violent behaviour – the imposing of pain in order to curb vicious tendencies. He informs the Chaplain that he doesn’t care about the dangers, he just “wants to be good.” What I loved about Burgess’ original novel is the theological/philosophical discussion about free will between Alex and the Chaplain, and though it is condensed in the film, the basic points are retained, with the Chaplain pointing out that choice is the ultimate freedom in regard to goodness. If a “man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Being good because otherwise it will hurt you is not the same as deliberately deciding not to misbehave out of respect for others. By being bombarded with continual scenes of rape and violence on a screen, Alex begins to suffer pain and nausea. He is particularly horrified when he discovers his beloved Beethoven is the soundtrack for the films they are showing him.

After discovering that pain and anguish occurs in reaction to all violence he wishes to commit, he is considered “cured” by the State. But as the Chaplain points out, it is a hollow victory. He is not a good man – only one who is in fear for his own well-being. Its the clash of state-sanctioned interference against human will. As the Prison Officer starkly informs the Chaplain, they are not concerned with ethics. All they care about “is cutting down crime.” Which leads in itself to disastrous consequences.

The film comes full circle, with Alex arriving back at the house he terrorised as the arrogant, confident leader of a gang. He returns a bloodied, frightened wreck.

The set designs for this are a twisted, futuristic nightmare. Decaying cityblocks are given a new sheen. Kubrick creates a world of glowing colour, in which the novel is brought vividly to life. From the silver lined living room of the DeLarge’s flat, to the electronic hum of the music store, to the glistening sterile white walls of the prison, every shot pushes the plot forward. There is tremendous use of phallic symbols, from a young girl sucking on a lolly in the music store to the hideous mask Alex wears in committing ultra-violence.

The dialogue fully utilises Burgess’ original text, incorporating the language that Alex and his droogs speak. The score encompasses the starkness of electronics to the thunderous crescendo of classical.

There have been complaints about the mysogyny of this film, from the female statues and furniture of the milk bar, to the girls Alex casually picks up for sex, to the rape scenes. Frankly, I feel this film is contemptuous of humanity in general. There is not a single sympathetic character in this film. Its a world of paranoia, suspicion, and control.

40  years ago, this film was considered shocking. It still is, mainly in the concepts it raises and how they can be dealt with. The questions of state control versus free will are more relevant than ever. This film does not need to be remade. Its timeless in its themes and always disturbing in its depictions.

See it.

Elysium (dir. Neil Blomkamp, 2013)

Watched today at Vue.

I’m genuinely pleased that someone gave Blomkamp the money to make this film – his District 9 was a bold splicing of sci-fi with social commentary, and one of the surprise hits of 2009. Elysium could be seen as more formulaic, but make no mistake – when it comes to giving audiences a warning, Blomkamp is sharper than a bonesaw.

Set in 2154, the world is a burned out, desolate place. Stricken by disease, hunger, and poverty, the remaining inhabitants can only wistfully look to a space born habitat – Elysium. A playground for the super-wealthy, in which cocktail and tea parties are held and disease can be cured in a second, the distance between the haves and have-nots has never been pushed so graphically on screen. On Earth, Max (Matt Damon) is a factory worker who suddenly becomes terminally ill. His only chance of survival is to reach Elysium – but there’s a price to be paid. Because on Elysium, Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster in perhaps her most sinister role to date), is desperately trying to keep the inhabitants of Earth out, even if this means a potential political coup.

This is where Blomkamp, a native Afrikaans, excels. Its not in the set pieces of death and destruction – although the fight scenes are well choreographed and Sharlto Kopley, as a rogue agent, is clearly having the time of his life – its in the message embedded in the script. The wealthy, Blomkamp warns, may not feel obliged to help those in need – instead, they might just shut their doors, and bolt them. And through the character of Delacourt, you see fear – fear that protecting your own kind comes before helping others. But Elysium is also a metaphor – it is a world of fantasy. This film asks can certain lifestyles really be maintained, when the truth of inequality is staring people in the face? Clearly, much more money is on the screen than in Blomkamp’s previous film, and the hiring of two Hollywood names for the lead roles only confirms this. But, this is a blockbuster with guts, and brains.  Brutal, clever, and gripping, Elysium is more than a sci fi thriller. Much more.

Side Effects (dir. Stephen Soderberg, 2013)

After having spent a day packing my life into cardboard boxes – I’m moving house – I needed to relax. Although this,  one of Soderberg’s most recent and last films, is not exactly relaxing. The fact he is leaving film making to focus on TV is a real blow – Side Effects shows a director who isn’t afraid to take risks, and challenge his audience.

First point: this is a disturbing film. Its disturbing in its portrayal of psychiatrity and mental illness, and also in its swipe at the pharma industry.

Second point: its very, very good.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a troubled young woman. About to welcome her husband home after four years of jail, she is desperate for help to ease her depression, which she eloquently describes as a “poisonous fog” enveloping her every afternoon. After a failed suicide attempt, she meets the suave psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), and begins treatment. But her newly returned husband (Channing Tatum) is noticing some disturbing side effects of the new wonder drug. And then it all swings on a shocking twist…

Part psychological thriller, part noir, Side Effects doesn’t let up. It goes for the jugular and sharpens the blade. The crisp, clean cinematography only heightens the sense of surrealism – the idea that this is a reality that is somehow warped – which trust me, is how I felt when I was suffering from depression. The performances are excellent – Mara is exquisite as the fragile Emily, whilst Tatum turns in a sweet performance as the caring but increasingly bewildered husband. But the stand out performance is from Law, as a man who realises that things are not as they seem, but the clues are there if he looks hard enough. A sharp take on an very modern problem, Side Effects is a film that needs to be watched. It makes you question how acceptable it is to seek treatment for mental illness –  and you may never want to go to a pharmacy again.

Good Vibrations (dir. Lisa Barras D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, 2013)

Watched today, on a library rental.

The 1970s is often characterised in flims as a naff-but-fun era of platforms, flares, and orange – but the truth could not be more removed. For Britain, it was also characterised by national strikes, a failing economy, devaluation of sterling, and power shortages. And if you lived in Northern Ireland, it was brutally coloured by a civil war between two sides. And musically, its seen as the era of Disco – but whilst that was firing up the transatlantic dance scene, something more aggressive and spirited was happening on this side of the pond: Punk. But while everyone lauds the Sex Pistols and the Clash, some of the most interesting bands came from Northern Ireland, thanks to the hard work and belief of one man. Good Vibrations is the tale of Terri Dooley, a record store owner and entrepreuner who saw another way of trying to heal ripped relations in the community – music. 

This film very much watches as a collection of vignettes – Dooley’s attempts to set up his shop; his pushing to get local bands signed; and his attempts to try and stage concerts despite the threats and intimidation occurring nightly. But there are some wonderful moments – the discovery of the Undertones, whose “Teenage Kicks” was described by legendary DJ John Peel as the greatest ever song recorded. His pushing to get Belfast bands Rudi and the Outcasts on to television. And it finishes with a packed Ulster Hall, with Dooley informing the audience – “there are no leaders. We’re together.” This is the spirit of Punk – the DIY, anyone can do it attitude that now seems to have found a home on the internet. But it also shows how precarious his position was – the scene were Dooley is threatened by a pair of NF members was chilling. Real footage of bombings is interspersed with the film. 

The film is well crafted – the setting of 70s Belfast is spot on, and Richard Dormer, as Dooley, radiates charisma. This is a tale of hope – the hope that in a fractured, violent atmosphere, something can pull people together and make them realise that something is worth joining for. Music. If you ever wondered if music is a universal language, then watch this film. Right now. 

Sunday Millenium Movie: Requiem for A Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2001)

Every Sunday, I’ll be exhuming a review from my archives of a film I think is important. Opinion welcome. 

I first saw this twelve years ago, at Exeter Picturehouse. And frankly, its scarier than any slash n’ gore horror flick. 

Requiem for a Dream falls into the category of “films you only need to see once to make an impact.” Based upon Hubert Selby Jr’s cult 1976 novel of the same title, it follows four individuals – Sarah Goldfarb, her son Harry, his girlfriend Marion and best friend Tyrone – all of whom are determined to pursue their own version of the American Dream. But, the script warns – achieving a dream can turn into a nightmare. And in the case of this film, its a brutal, graphic one.  The sheer horror and misery of human desperation has never been displayed as graphically as this. 

It starts in a normal domestic setting – widow Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is settling to watch TV when her son Harry (Jared Leto) and Tyrone (Damon Wayans) burst in, taking the set. This immediately highlights the tension between mother and son – Harry is a drug addict who needs to pawn possessions for money, whilst Sara is a TV addict, dreaming of the day she gets to appear on the shows she watches. As an watcher, do you feel contempt for these people – or pity? Its an uneasy balance which remains for the rest of the film. 

As it progresses, Marion (Jennifer Connolly) is introduced. As the foursome is now complete, Aronofsky splits the script into two stories – Sara has received a letter saying she will be on a TV show, and decides she needs to diet to fit into her special red dress; Harry and Tyrone decide on a way to get money to support their, and Marion’s habits. And at first, everyone seems to be succeeding. But then the cracks begin to appear: Sara thinks the fridge is talking to her; her son and girlfriend are becoming paranoid. And all more dependent. 

The most chilling scene in this film, to me, is not the actual scenes of drug use, or the later scenes of institutionalisation and treatment. It is the scene in the kitchen, when a seemingly healthy Harry visits his mother to inform her of his success. Part of this scene is in silence, as he watches her behaviour. The subtle movements of Leto’s face, as he shifts from relaxed to concern, is beautifully done. At this point, the audience becomes aware that this character is beginning to realise that his world is cracking apart. Ellen Burstyn is a triumph – her outwardly jaunty persona is crumbling, yet she cannot admit even to her own son what the problem is. Lies twist and feed on each other. 

The cinematography reflects this. Aronofsky uses spinning camera angles,conveying a feeling of dislocation. Split screens are used to ensure that stories are compared. And there is also the soundtrack – Clint Mansell’s pulse pounding electronica conveys a feeling or urgency, a sense of panic. And it all comes to a terrifying conclusion. 

Dark, disturbing, and haunting, Requiem for a Dream is both impossibly sad, and sadly possible. Watch it. 

 

The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright, 2013)

Seen at Vue.

This is the third and final installment in Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, which witnessed the duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost taking on Zombies and mad villagers. This, the minty green cornetto of the pack, is ultimately a warning against nostalgia. 

Gary King (Pegg) is a truly sad sack of a man. A 40 year old with no job or purpose, he still wears Sisters of Mercy t-shirts and listens to the Soup Dragons. Pining for the days of his youth, he calls up his four old mates – Oliver (the generally wonderful Martin Freeman); Peter (a brilliantly subtle Eddie Marsan); Steve (Paddy Considine) and Andy (Nick Frost, who turns in his best performance in these films.) On Gary’s prodding, the fivesome head back to Newton Haven, a small town that boasts the Golden Mile – a 12 pub pub crawl. But, en route, something rather sinister is happening to the residents…

This is a clever film, as it manages to pull together many threads and yet still make you laugh like a goon. The theme of small town weirdness is one that Wright has explored before, but this time its given a new twist – the rapid homogenisation of all our towns and cities. It also explores another unpalatable truth for anyone approaching 40 – everyone grows old, but when do you accept it and grow up? One scene that did make me uncomfortable was Gary challenging his married, solvent, business and home owning friends as to why they looked down on him.  Its hard not to feel sorry for the shifty, untrustworthy Gary, who wants to carry on living like a teenager – but also hard  to admire him. Rosamund Pike does a decent job as a love interest, and Pierce Brosnan has a sly cameo, but this is definitely Pegg’s film, and in telling the story of a broken man who only wants to stay in the past, its riveting.

Highly recommended.

Compliance (dir. Craig Zobel, 2013)

Watched yesterday afternoon on a Lovefilm rental.

To say this is a shocking, disturbing, compelling film is not an understatement. It left me gripped, wanting it to end but also desperately wanting it to end happily. Based on the bizarre true story of the strips search prank call scam, this really will leave you wondering what to do the next time the phone rings – and it claims to be the police. The way that people will jump if they feel they are being addressed by a figure of authority is fascinating, and Zobel cuts to the heart of this.

Its another day at a fast food retailer, ChickWich, in an anonymous retail park in nowheresville, USA. The manager, Sandra (a terrific Ann Dowd), is already harrassed by a broken down freezer and fearful of a secret shopper. Barking orders at her staff, she is called by “Officer Daniels”, a cop who claims an upset customer has accused pretty 19 year old Becky (Dreama Walker) of stealing from her. Sandra takes Becky into the back, and agrees to help the police until they get there…and a nightmare starts, which escalates from questioning to searching to a sexual assault. As other employees, and finally, Sandra’s fiance are dragged in, the caller is revealed – an ordinary suburban Joe, who is never identified except under his psuedonym. More creepily, he is shown making sandwiches, drinking from his Dad mug…whilst giving out orders of abuse. Finally, burly trucker Harold realises its a scam, and alerts the actual police.

What makes this shocking is that Zobel has used a true story. This happened 70 times across 30 states, until an arrest was made in 2004. Frightening and disturbing, Compliance makes you wonder why we automatically jump if someone claims to be the police…and why we do it.

Brilliantly disturbing. Watch it.

Lovelace (Dirs. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2013)

 

Seen today, at Bristol Watershed.

Its pretty safe to assume that most people have heard the name Linda Lovelace…even if they’ve never seen the skin flick classic Deep Throat. In 1972, Lovelace became the first pornographic superstar, with the film becoming a success and making over $600 million dollars. Her fresh faced girl next door looks were a selling point in a world of plastic blondes. Lovelace found herself thrust to the forefront of the 70s Sexual Revolution – although many feminists argued she was a pawn peddling a mysogynistic fantasy. Lovelace is a brutal and grimily compelling look at her life. And unlike previous films about porn, this isn’t a day glo fantasy of wacky eccentrics and lustful women. This is dark, sleazy, and disturbing.

Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) is a 21 year old living with her Catholic, working class parents, and craving excitement. She finds it in the form of the older, somewhat mysterious Chuck Traynor (Peter Saarsgard). After leaving home, her life suddenly starts taking on a new dimension. Taken to an audition, Boreman finds herself thrust into the world of porn, leading to the shooting of Deep Throat. Hailed as a celebrity, she parties with Hugh Hefner (James Franco) and makes money…

…Except we then flip back to the beginning. On her wedding night, Traynor beats her up. At a club, he pimps her out to a travelling salesman. And as for the audition – she has no idea what she’s doing. And when she protests, Traynor – a violent coke head and part time pimp – beats her. One of the most disturbing scenes is the wrap party – the producers are next door, hearing thumping sounds. They assume the couple are having sex. They’re not – Traynor is repeatedly throwing Lovelace into a wall.

The film is beautifully made. The eye burning colours of the early 70s are present and correct, and the film also shows the making of Deep Throat. It gets it pitch perfect – the wooden acting, banal dialogue, and glossy production. Its worth remembering that Throat was popular due to its attempts to incorporate character and humour into what were previously just shots of people fucking. And the performances are excellent. Chris Noth is a fatherly producer. James Franco is typically eccentric as Hefner. Robert Patrick and Sharon Stone are subtle as Lovelace’s worried and estranged parents. But the real powerhouse is Saarsgard, whose Traynor, a thug motivated by greed, is disturbing and shocking. Seyfried conveys both naivety and despair. And if you’ve never seen Deep Throat, you really won’t want to watch it after this. The film also nukes some commonly held social myths about the early 70s. The perception that women were liberated is scotch – Lovelace is told by her mother, in one painful scene, that a husband is “to obey.” Liberated woman or sex slave? Hmmm.

Highly recommended.