2014

20,000 Days on Earth (2014)

Written for RAF News September 2014

A conceptual music documentary that follows Nick Cave on the supposed 20,000th day of his life as he reflects on the past and ponders the meaning that he finds in performance.

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Through a number of constructed set-pieces, the film frees itself from the duty of capturing authenticity and presents instead something more fitting of the Melbourne-born, now Brighton-based performer. And though Cave has many strings to his bow by way of his music, poetry and writing, he says that he can’t act. Perhaps it is this quality that gives the film a sense of realism without the need of shaky hand-held cameras.

Interviewed by a psychoanalyst on a set, under lights too bright, Cave remembers his father and reveals his biggest fears, namely: losing his memory. This set-up – a staged performance – is fitting of Cave, managing however to capture an honesty, which also explains the purpose of this documentary. The film seems to be an attempt for Cave to capture the past, to reflect on his purpose in performance, or in life perhaps, all captured in this dreamlike construct that appears at once self-aggrandising and self-aware – a humorous angle on the inevitable pretension that usually follows an artist talking about their art.

The fictitious day in which Cave journeys into the past and has happenstance meetings with old friends (Ray Winstone, Kylie Minogue among them) whilst driving his black Jaguar XJ, is fitting of the performativity that Cave talks about so passionately. At one point he reads from an old diary that contains rants about the weather of bleary old Brighton. He says of these writings that they are based on truth but ultimately a lie; a dramatisation. Following this, it seems that the film too is fantasy. One which is personal enough to reveal his thoughts on the transformative power of performance, but without ridding of its potency or tarnishing the image that he has come to embody.

A little more arty and knowingly contrived, the film playfully subverts the typical fly-on-the-wall music documentary, managing to create something more self-aware and yet somehow more sincere.

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2 (2014)

Some thoughts on the structure of Nymphomaniac – sidestepping comments on some truly bizarre performances including Shia LaBeouf, whose accent genuinely provoked laughs from the audience I sat amongst.

With his tongue still firmly in cheek, Lars von Trier continues to try and shock audiences as he explores female sexuality in the early stages of a young nymphomaniac’s life – humorous for the first volume at least until it starts to run dry. Drifting from the more serious, though it certainly retains a level of dramatic darkness, von Trier plays with the audience as he his known to do and tries for shock so blatantly at points that it begins to feel like a parody of his own style.

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The crowd I sit with in this odd Friday matinee, while the sun shines bright outside, is made up of mostly guys on their own. A few couples and the odd scattering of fems but predominantly men on their own. I am one of them. Still this is strange – I feel strange. Whether through discomfort from the subject matter, or from the lack of give in the material of our collective crotches, there is a lot of shuffling between laughs. Alan Moore, author of graphic novel The Lost Girls which would perhaps fall under the self-same categorisation, has commented on the idea of ‘intellectual pornography’: that it is a difficult feat that has to fight for the blood to rush to either of the brains; that you will ultimately be stimulated on one level only. Men anyway. Us lone men fidgeting in the dark. So maybe von Trier has an alibi for the film not satisfying audiences intellectually…

What I found intriguing about Nymphomaniac was its place in the context of von Trier’s films as subverting the form of storytelling and preventing escapism.

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Blue Ruin (2014)

Written for RAF News April 2014

Dwight (Macon Blair) is a simple man of few words, who sets out to even the score when he discovers that the man charged with the murder of his parents is soon to be released from prison. Returning to his rural Virginia hometown in his run-down car, Dwight hunts down the freed murderer to exact his revenge. There is little time to process the events however as he immediately becomes the subject of another retaliatory hunt, and thus the inevitable cycle of revenge prevents escape for anyone involved.Blue Ruin

Unlike Drive (2011), which had a sleek and purposefully silent Ryan Gosling as its anti-hero, Dwight just doesn’t really have anything to say. Where Gosling was a professional stunt-driver, Dwight is in fact homeless and lives in his car – the titular blue ruin which is seen rusted and riddled with bullet holes. He has nothing else and as such has nothing to lose. As a result, Dwight’s vacuous nature is given a volatile edge that keeps you in prolonged suspense.

Sudden moments of violence take you by surprise in their spontaneity as well as their graphic detail. They create a sense of unpredictability that keeps you in the moment and immersed in the tension, whilst dwelling on the results of violence that are usually glossed over in cinema. This is a film that revels in the complications and failures that stem from revenge.

Dedicated purely to his pursuit, Dwight can make you feel locked out and lacking any real connection with him. However, perhaps for this very reason, it feels genuine – believable almost. Almost. Comedic relief comes eventually in the form of Ben (Devin Ratray) an old school friend who decides to help Dwight without asking too many questions – not that he would get much from him anyhow.

Blue Ruin’s masterful element is in its moments of comedy that punctuate the bleakness. A sigh of relief before you return to the dark reality of the film. Though it is tough to connect with Dwight, the naturalism of the story and its cleverly reserved delivery keep you captivated.

The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014)

Written for RAF News April 2014

The Amazing Spiderman 2 sees the alliance of vengeful enemies, this on top of the continued unravelling of Parker’s family secrets and a complicated relationship with forbidden love Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone) but first.. graduation. From the off we are shown that juggling the social life of awkward and anxious Peter Parker against the wise-cracking Spiderman has its complications and are becoming near impossible to keep separate.

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Garfield’s Peter Parker is a little more comfortable in himself since the first instalment though he certainly still shows signs of a neurotic, angsty young-adult. He can sometimes come across as conceited and slightly unlikeable, which is understandable really for a superhero.

Whilst Spidey is not without his faults, his soon-to-be enemies are acquaintances who seem to have their own psychological problems – their grudges spawning from their own fears and insecurities. Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) an electrical engineer for Oscorp feels overlooked and unimportant: the faint whisper of the voice in his head accompanies pangs of social anxiety. This is until an accident leaves him with the ability to control and contort electricity, leading him to discover that creating chaos is rewarded with attention.

Initially idolising Spiderman for saving his life and actually acknowledging him when he was the humble Max Dillon, the now literal electrical engineer Electro has a sudden change of heart. Although Electro brings with him a cinematic presence his motive appears misplaced and sudden, feeling more like a connector to the far darker villain Green Goblin.

Dane Deehan’s descent from Harry Osborn the old school friend of Parker to the monstrous Green Goblin is commanding. A twisted performance that stems from Osborn’s fear of death upon discovering that he has a genetic disorder. As his illness takes over the threat becomes more horrific than spectacular, unlike Electro. The lighter, more comedic tone that the film invites can be misleading at times during these sudden plunges into darkness.

With so much going on Peter Parker seems to struggle with where his focus should be and where his priorities lie – just like the film which seems to spread itself thin and spend too much time away from the compelling characters and storylines.

Pioneer (2014)

Written for RAF News April 2014

Based on the events that took place in the early 80s, when huge oil deposits were discovered in the North Sea, we follow the team comprised of competing Norwegian and American divers who must build a pipeline at never-before reached depths.pioneerDetermined Norwegian diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) and his machismo brother must work with a team of Americans who are in on the deal. Joined by a competitive American diver (Wes Bentley) they undertake a series of tests and trial dives. The initial test involves undergoing pressure changes whilst under an anaesthetic gas – soon revealed to cause hallucinations. So when his brother is involved in a fatal accident during the first test dive, Petter is plagued by uncertainty as he aims to find the cause of his death and the truth behind the gas formula concocted by the powers above.

Pioneer takes on the style of a 70s American political thriller with slowly unfolding conspiracy dragging Petter into the depths of paranoia. Director Erik Skjoldbjærg’s debut film Insomnia (remade by Britain’s own Christopher Nolan) built tension through paranoid hallucinations – but clearly favouring the style of the political thriller these delusions are disappointingly reduced to a few subtle tweaks in Pioneer.

It is the subtlety and slow pacing that seem to unite the Scandinavian style of cinema with classic American thrillers such as The Conversation – which Skjoldbjærg states among others as a major influence. The underwater scenes serve perfectly as an extension of the slow tension building pace. With beautiful use of scale and light Petter clings to his ‘umbilical cord’ that keeps him from being engulfed by the black abyss of the North Sea.

Despite the aesthetic accomplishment of these scenes, and the masterfully crafted score which communicates the claustrophobia and pressure of the environment, the understated drama plays out for the most part above water. As a result the film lulls between dives – ultimately detracting from the drama at the heart of the story.

The Armstrong Lie (2014)

Initially following Lance Armstong’s return to compete in the 2009 Tour de France, The Armstrong Lie redresses the man at the heart of the scandal following his eventual confession to blood-doping.

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Armstrong became a symbol of Americana: winning the Tour De France a record 7 times after being diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen and lungs. Through chemotherapy and brain surgery he was a true underdog turned champion. A mythic character.

It’s hard to lose sight of the accomplishments of Armstrong, as an athlete and also as founder of the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised over $300 million toward cancer research and supporting cancer survivors. However, opening with his confession in an interview with Oprah Winfrey early last year, the film is careful to not to be sympathetic as it revisits his history of competitive cycling alongside his extensive involvement with performance enhancing drugs.

Interestingly the film seems to ground Armstrong’s actions as understandable – viewed within the context of drug use in the sport – focussing instead on his ability to lie and the sheer audacity with which he does it. This audacity, that dovetails with Armstrong’s characteristic arrogance, shines out from archived footage and interviews that take a very different tone with the knowledge of what was happening behind closed doors. At one point we see Armstrong and the team as they board their bus to receive blood transfusions that would aid their recovery – surrounded by fans and press.

The Armstrong Lie is a fascinating reexamination of a man – looking at the capabilities endowed by ego. Shown adamantly denying accusations, so convincingly in fact that all sense of sincerity is lost. His unbelievable competitiveness and uncompromising nature blend into a fabric of deception and mistrust.

Perhaps he was lying for so long that he began to believe it, or as with cycling – he just got good at it.