Just seen: Enter The Void (2010)

Enter The Void

What in fuck’s name can you say about Enter The Void? Words seem laughably insufficient. They certainly seemed so to Gaspar Noé, who uses them sparsely and incidentally in his 160-minute maybe-masterpiece. Instead we are left to ponder surreal, nebulous, frequently breathtaking imagery, around which a bleak, impressionistic and occasionally baffling melodrama is fashioned. Plunging headfirst into the fuzzy, dreamlike urban cosmos of Tokyo, Noé brushes through the themes of Freud, Oedipus, and Tibetan reincarnation beliefs, of troubling sexual politics and inner-city isolation, framed through psychedelic drug trips and out-of-body experiences, barely stopping for breath.

Plot (in as much as there is one) invariably plays second fiddle to style. Benoît Debie’s camera begins in the head of an American drug dealer living in Tokyo’s neon jungles, and from his POV we spend ten minutes in the grip of a powerful hallucinatory DMT trip. Later, the camera leaves his head and floats just above the action, where it largely stays for the remainder, occupying a strange, floaty observer viewpoint. Sometimes it occupies other heads, sometimes it swoops into objects, lights, flashbacks. The transitions are always seamless. Never static, the camera moves in ways you never thought a camera could, and visually, Enter The Void is without parallel: a thrilling demonstration of cinema as visual art and a defiant statement of untapped possibilities still lurking in a versatile medium.

Nothing quite matches the promise of the gobsmacking opening half-hour, and after two hours of rather joyless meandering, it becomes an onerous watch. As Irreversible‘s uncompromising rape scenes earlier confirmed, Noé is a born provocateur, and here, graphic depictions of a fatal car crash or an abortion seem to be testing the audience’s mettle as much as anything else.

Is it a pretentious, incoherent jumble sale of ideas and imagery, a two-and-a-half-hour drug trip writ large, or a stunning, inimitable opus of visual art? The jury’s still deliberating. What cannot be disputed are the dazzlingly original heights Enter The Void manages to climb: from the retina-blistering opening titles (on which Art of The Title have a fascinating feature), to the often unpredictable plot machinations, to the seemingly physics-defying crane shots. It demands a second viewing but would take a stout constitution to return too soon. But, my God, you should watch it.

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Just Seen: The Cabin In The Woods / The Dictator / You’ve Been Trumped

The Cabin In The Woods

Everyone raved about this meta-horror earlier this year, and I have to admit, the ersatz clichéd marketing worked too well, all but convincing me it was just another run-of-the-mill scarefest featuring a bunch of implausibly attractive teens and accompanying tropes in the dependable old cabin. Of course, it’s anything but run-of-the-mill: everything from the title onwards takes the mill and positively twists it inside out, until you’re not quite sure what just happened. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon (who, with this and The Avengers, has had a terrific year) have by some means managed to both make a highly original genre pic, and vociferously skewered said genre at the same time – a bold, brazen feat.

As many commented at the time, it’s funnier and cleverer than it is scary, and if you go in hoping for a cathartic 90 minutes of horrific emotional trauma, you may be disappointed. But though the light touch and self-reflexivity dampens the scares, the hook is too intriguing, and the conclusion too satisfying, for any meaningful protest about the lack of shit in your pants. I found myself laughing at both carefully-timed visual gags, and with exhilarated surprise at the ingenius and increasingly improbable plot developments. This is undoubtedly a film that rewards ignorance of the ‘twist’ – the less you know about this film, the better. In a horribly overcrowded genre that splutters up the same old phlegm at a prolific rate, The Cabin In The Woods is less a breath of fresh air than it is a tank of pure, undiluted O2.

You’ve Been Trumped

Real-life billionaire tyrants are disappointingly detached from those depicted in our favourite fictions. Donald Trump may share Charles Foster Kane’s penchant for naming everything after himself, and Mr Burns’ aggressive hostile takeover tactics, but he possesses none of the wit or humility of Kane, nor the malevolent evil genius of Burns. Trump is just an asshole, as evidenced in Ant Baxter’s soaring documentary (which aired on BBC 2 last weekend, despite the best efforts of Donald Trump’s team of lawyers), exposing the property developer’s aggressive attempts to plonk a garish golf course and hotel resort on an area of outstanding natural beauty and scientific interest in Aberdeenshire.

Baxter is pretty unambiguous in his bias, but you excuse it – it’s fairly unambiguous who is in the right. Trump uses heavy-handed bullying, and his endless supply of cash, to ensure that politicians and police are bought and paid for, whilst residents helplessly watch their land torn up and destroyed. The film alludes throughout to Local Hero, another story of belligerent billionaires set against humble villagers; sadly, You’ve Been Trumped does not share that film’s happy ending.

The Dictator

Borat is one of the funniest, smartest, most original comedies to have been made in the last twenty years. The Dictator, on the other hand, is one of the worst. Sacha Baron Cohen makes the error of returning to scripted comedy, his first since the diabolical Ali G Indahouse, and it’s a serious misstep: immediately, we lose that manic, anarchic off-the-cuff comedy from tricking bigots and idiots and Americans (usually all three) into thinking his character is real.

Here, he cack-handedly casts his gaze on oppressive middle-eastern regimes, which, save for a half-hearted closing speech poking fun at American politics, mainly takes the form of sub-schoolboy humour about boobs and virgins and jews and such. Despite the weight of an inflamed budget and a prestigious cast (what in criminy is Lord Sir Ben “Ghandi” Kingsley, CBE, trading lame gags about blowjobs? Does he need the pay cheque?), it’s laboured, dull, and gratingly unfunny.

Just Seen: Jackie Brown / Tyrannosaur / Mad Men

Jackie Brown

Tarantino’s third film was the only one of his I hadn’t yet seen. It’s a curious sidenote on his career, Tarantino at his most reserved and subtle. For some reason he Benjamin Buttoned his way back into homage-heavy gore-schlock – not necessarily a bad thing, but you wouldn’t predict a career trajectory like this. Jackie Brown is the kind of film a director might make towards the end of his career: a legacy piece. A measured, sprawling crime epic.

Sure, the pop cultural touchstones are there – the casting of Pam Grier, the blackspoitation soundtrack, Samuel L Jackson’s use of the word ‘motherfucker’ – but they’re definitively muzzled, in service to the meandrous plot. Elmore Leonard’s original story is so dense and meaty that Tarantino even has to eschew his trademark off-kilter narrative, playing it smooth and linear. The result is something quite unusual; you feel like you’re watching a David Fincher film from the 70s. Devoid of the expected tawdry bloody pleasures, I found a rather sweet middle-aged love story acted with lashings of heart and soul from Grier and Robert Forster. Here’s hoping Quentin’s got another one of these in him.

Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine’s debut was unforgivably overlooked by nearly every major award ceremony, and plenty of critics. Who the hell knows why – Tyrannosaur knocked me for six. I sincerely can’t remember the last time a British drama has affected me as much.  Peter Mullan plays Joseph, a lonely, violent drunk who befriends Hannah (Colman), a troubled Christian charity shop manager, and together they forge an unlikely allegiance confronting their respective pains. It’s something of a cliché to call a performance a ‘revelation’, but Olivia Colman really did reveal a great deal more than she had let on in the myriad of lighthearted sitcom roles she’s thus far been known for. (Bucking her film’s trend, she did win a much-deserved Empire award, and her tear-sodden acceptance speech is just lovely.)

Within such a modest framework, Considine’s astonishingly assured scope spans class, alcoholism, religion, marriage, domestic abuse, death, and murder. And beneath the grim kitchen-sink exterior it bears all the traits of a dark, surprising thriller. Few ‘character studies’ are are as gripping as this. I mean, quite frankly, Considine can piss off – seriously, no one man deserves that amount of talent, the bastard. Not only is he one of our greatest working actors, but he has the potential to be one of our greatest exports behind the camera, too. What a dick.

Mad Men (season 5)

[HERE BE SPOILERS] After five seasons, I remain to be convinced that AMC’s awards-laden drama isn’t much more than a glossy, big-budget, high-production-value soap; the issues of 1960s America continue to be handled a little too heavily (it’s as if the word ISSUES flashes up on the screen sometimes), and precedence continues to be given to soapy relationship dramas and over-sensationalised storylines. Lane’s tragic exit from the series is yet another rather stagey incident to take place in the SCDP offices – remember this?.

But, Lord help me, soap or not, I’m hooked. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. It is one of the slickest, sharpest things it’s possible to watch on telly, and every element – from costume to acting – is of premium quality. I just wonder whether Don Draper’s marital problems is the fleshiest plotline they can muster. I’ll still wait with baited breath for season 6, of course.

Just Seen: God Bless America / Jackass 3D / Futurama

God Bless America

Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray) is a depressive middle-aged loner with Larry David-esque grievances. When he’s diagnosed with cancer, Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as Frank takes revenge on society’s ills, or as Chris Morris once put it: “they don’t deserve punishment…they deserve GUNISHMENT“.  Bobcat Goldthwaite’s self-indulgent wish-fulfilment fantasy is essentially a platform to air his misgivings with the state of 21st-century America, and through Frank imagines how he could right some of these perceived wrongs.

It’s capably made, but the script is overrun with stilted, preachy soapbox-style dialogue. And its central argument – that civillisation is uncivil – is flawed. Most of Frank’s irks are found on television. Can’t he just turn the telly off? I hate most of the stuff Frank hates too, but I try not to worry about such fripperies by actively avoiding reality TV. And he labours under the ever-enduring misconception that things used to better – “golden age thinking” as Michael Sheen put it in Midnight In Paris. Such wistful sentimentality of a better yesterday forgets the barbarism and bigotry of earlier civilisations – traits far more deplorable than the ‘annoying habits’ of Frank’s ire. (Is talking in a cinema really worthy of a death sentence?).

Jackass 3D

After an absurdly heavy Friday night (finishing up at around 7am), I found myself in the market for a specific grade of brainless hangover viewing, come Saturday afternoon. Well, they don’t make ’em more brainless than Jackass, that ragtag bunch of gleeful idiots who willingly fling their bodies (and their dignity) into the line of fire – be it paintballs, dildos or feces – all in the name of preposterous, grotesque, hilariously juvenile entertainment.

The Jackass formula remains largely unchanged since its MTV days, though the budget is a little more swollen and an extra dimension was added for the theatrical release of this third outing. Like the first two movies, this is essentially a feature-length episode of the TV show, without the spectre of censorship looming. And by God, it still ticks the boxes. It’s horrendously puerile, scraping below the lowest of all denominators, and about as cinematically lucid as a portaloo full of dogshit (such a toilet makes an appearance in the movie, incidentally), but barely a minute went by where I wasn’t guffawing like an idiot or screaming in disbelief. Unsophisticated gut-level gratification at its most distilled level.

Futurama (season 7)

Getting cancelled by Fox and reincarnated by Comedy Central was maybe the best thing to happen to Futurama. Whilst Matt Groening’s crankier, older creation languishes on into perpetual staleness, its younger cousin remains in rude health, shark definitively unjumped. There’s been some golden moments in this first half of season 7 (the second half airs next year).

Though I’d hesitate to call it a golden age, the writers have flexed some lofty ambition in their sci-fi storylines (Bender confronting his own lack of free will a particular highlight), along with some of the best puns and wordplay you’ll find on the small screen. (“There’s a damn!” “Damn!” “There’s a grate!” “Great!”) The season finale which re-imagines all the characters as animals in a nature documentary is perhaps a bold experiment too far, but it remains the only animated sitcom to fully utilise the limitless possibilities of its medium, to glorious effect.

Just Seen: Looper / Bill Cunningham New York / The Avengers

Looper

Rian Johnson’s third film is assuredly his best effort to date. The genre-bending director, having tackled film noir by way of adolescence (in Brick) and screwball comedy by way of conmen (in The Brothers Bloom), turns his hand to action by way of Philip K Dick-esque sci fi. In the future, time-travel has been invented, outlawed, and appropriated by criminal gangs who send marked men back thirty years in the past so their corpses will never be found. The assassins, known as Loopers, go about their time-warping work aware that they may one day be forced to confront, and murder, their future selves.

While the thrills are loud and bloody, the ideas floated are quietly philosophical. Some hefty ethical dilemmas amplify the ambiguity of our two leads, leaving us continually undecided which Looper is the true hero: present-day Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) or future Joe (Bruce Willis). Muscular and consistently unpredictable, this is genre filmmaking at its most confident and sophisticated.

Bill Cunningham New York

I went into Bill Cunningham New York knowing practically nothing about the eponymous Bill, nor the alien planet known as Fashion on which he inhabits.  To some degree, many of my prejudices about New York high society were quickly confirmed: a spoilt land where snobby socialites and nasal-voiced WASPs complain about the hors d’oeuvre at benefit galas, forever air-kissing. But sitting largely outside this pack is Bill, a humble eccentric who goes about as he has done for years – diligently photographing street fashion by day, and society parties at night, for his two columns in the New York Times, a toothy smile never far from his face.

Even in his ninth decade, Bill’s workload remains relentless. Fashion’s great and good speak of him in reverent tones (“we all get dressed for Bill” says Vogue‘s Anna Wintour, nasally). At Paris fashion week he’s ushered past a queue because one dogsbody designates him “the most important person on the planet”. To see such high esteem for a sweet old man makes Bill Cunningham New York utterly joyous to watch, even for fashion luddites like me.

The Avengers

Marvel’s dream team has lost none of its muster or bluster in the journey from the big screen to the small – it is still, unquestionably, the most entertaining two-and-a-bit hours Hollywood has conjured up all year, standing tall against plenty of other years, too. Joss Whedon’s sparkling confidence is spellbinding. How the hell did the guy behind Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog summon the masterful dexterity to give so many swaggering super-egos an equal footing on a humongous stage? With a billion in the bank and universal acclaim, giving Whedon the gig will go down as one of Marvel’s smartest moves.

Yes, it is hardly the most unique of plots, and yes, it goes a little saggy in the middle, but what elevates The Avengers above all other cinematic superhero jaunts is its infectious, bubbling sense of fun. Nowhere is that better embodied than in the undulating green muscles of the Hulk, who smashes up New York City, and its alien invaders, with the glee of an sugar-intoxicated 8-year-old in a jungle gym, and we all find ourselves dizzy from the fun fumes. This is what comic books were supposed to look like on screen.

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