Jolly Good Thursdays – Nil By Mouth

Nil By Mouth (1997, dir. Gary Oldman)
Starring Ray Winstone, Kathy Burke, Charlie Creed-Miles, Laila Morse

I didn’t plan it this way, but Nil By Mouth is the perfect co-feature for yesterday’s Harry Brown. Both films take place in the government funded estate housing and focus on some of the harsh and brutal realities of life there. While Brown goes for a more Death Wish, hyper-violent tone, Nil By Mouth is a documentary-like look at the people Harry so eagerly murders. The film’s violence is not constant but comes in explosive and jolting moments. Every thing orbits around a single act of violence that takes place in the middle of the picture.

Ray (Winstone) is an ox, a violent brute of a man who is having his second child with Valerie (Burke). He maintains a disinterested relationship with her, going out at night with his mates, ingesting all sorts of drugs, drinking copious amounts of booze, and soliciting women at seedy strip clubs. When Valerie stays out to play pool with friends, Ray explodes. Also living in this war zone is Billy (Creed-Miles), Valerie’s brother and Janet (Morse), Valerie’s mother. Billy is a heroin addict who is constantly borrowing money from his mom and sleeping on a roulette wheel of couches. Janet is a helpless figure, standing back and watching her children’s lives decay and, in Billy’s case, driving him to drug dealers’ houses so he can score.

The most obvious element that carries the film is Ray Winstone. I’ve seen Winstone in films like Sexy Beast and The Proposition and in both of those he plays more of the simmering, muted type. Here he is like a British Jake Lamotta, exploding but never in a showy way, more of a man who has never seen men react anyway other than with violence. There’s a moment in the film when he has a conversation with his best mate Mark and talks about how unloving his father was. This monologue lays it out on the table that these men exist in a cycle of brutality. Why should we expect them to know how to show affection or control their rage when they have never seen a man do so, and when they live in a world where you prove yourself through the violence you inflict on others.

Not to be overshadowed is Kathy Burke as Valerie. Burke knows how to tap into the working class up bringing of her character. Valerie knows that her safety is dependent on Ray’s presence. She overlooks his nightly outings and has a pretty strong suspicion he cheats on her with other women. Their relationship has come to the point where she simply doesn’t care. She is pregnant with their second child and states that she wanted to have another child, but didn’t want to find a different father. There’s no love for Ray, he’s just there. And Ray is with her so he has an anchor point to return to at the end of the night.

The film is soaked in profanity, but that is an accurate depiction of this world and the natural grammar of the place. I was reminded of Mike Leigh’s films about the English working class and how often they are cited as “brutally true to life”. They really have nothing on the grim reality of Oldman’s directorial debut. It’s not an easy film to watch. The accents are thick and require the American viewer to play close attention, and the subject matter is not pretty. However, we have to see the full view of these people so that we don’t slip into the Harry Brown mentality.


Newbie Wednesday – Harry Brown

Harry Brown (2009, dir. Daniel Barber)
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Ben Drew, Jack O’Connell

In the States we call government housing The Projects, in the UK they have the Estates. This is setting of this bleak and tragic story of a man who is alone. The film doesn’t flinch from showing shocking acts of brutality and doesn’t raise up one figure as a champion over another. Harry does what he does, but why? The motives for the killing spree remain vague when you begin to examine things closely. Is it in retribution for his friend? Or is their something much darker going on?

Harry Brown, is ex-marine and pensioner living in the Estates. His wife is living in the hospital stuck in a catatonic state. He has one friend in the world, Leonard, whom he meets at the corner pub for a pint everyday. Leonard is fed up with the way drugs are sold openly and people like himself are harassed by the hoodlums that roam the estates. One morning, Harry wakes up to learn Leonard was found stabbed to death in a pedestrian tunnel. This seems to be the final straw for Harry and he embarks on a crusade to avenge his friend, killing young men where ever he goes.

The film eventually goes down a fairly predictable road with Harry’s action parallel by a police investigation about them. What is more interesting is all the subtext brought to the film, possibly not intentionally. There is a lot of work put into making the world Harry inhabits grimey and flithy and despicable. So we are naturally appalled by the various denizens he encounters. As an audience we are clearly set up to cheer for Harry and boo all those nasty villains (see Gran Torino). However, there is a moment near the end of the film where Harry asks a character to kill him. This immediately caused me to re-evaluate what had gone before. Here’s a man whose wife is gone and has just lost his best friend. He lashes out, presumably because he wants but he then wants to simply die at the end. His entire crusade was a nihilistic one. Harry lost all he loves and now he wants to explode, hitting what ever he can in his path.

If it wasn’t for Michael Caine this would have been a forgettable film. There is something about just his subtle looks that elevates the film. In one scene he sits across from a drug dealer whose girlfriend is overdosing on heroin. The slight glances and looks he makes around the room feed the audience tons of information. While Clint Eastwood seemed one note through Gran Torino, Caine delivers a multi-layered performance. Emily Mortimer is also wonderful as the detective in charge of Caine’s case. By the end, she’s the only virtuous character in the film. She has been devoted to her job and wants to solve the murders. However, we can see the world crumble around her.

Harry Brown definitely wants to be a lofty film, but its very much a continuation of the Death Wish premise. I admit there is some greater emotional depth here. The disappointment for me came from how undeveloped characters are. There is no motive for anyone save Harry and it left me feeling like the picture was very hollow.

Newbie Wednesday – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Starring Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare

After filming the first half of this picture, director Gilliam learned the tragic news that Heath Ledger had died due to an accidental drug overdose. Gilliam is no stranger to films having to overcome obstacles before their release. His 1985 picture Brazil was the victim of an unexcited studio and Gilliam had to break the law to get his version of the picture shown. His attempt to make a film version of Don Quixote at the beginning of the century was ultimately scrapped when financial and natural conditions fought against him. With Imaginarium Gilliam found a way that the film could continue without Ledger’s presence and it hinges on the movie’s core theme: Imagination.

The movie opens in modern day London and follows a old time traveling show made up of the ancient sage Doctor Parnassus, his daughter; Valentina, his right hand man; Percy, and the boy in love with Valentina; Anton. Their show is no longer captivating to contemporary audience and during the opening performance a drunk man stumble through a mirror on stage that places him inside his own imagination. Parnassus has been in a centuries old struggle with Mr. Nick, the Devil who is in a competition to see who can collect the most souls before Valentina’s 16th birthday. If Nick wins he takes Valentina from Parnassus. Into this scenario comes an amnesiac man found hanging underneath a bridge. The man slowly but surely takes over creative control of the show explaining he has Parnassus best interests in mind. As the date moves closer to the bet’s end more of this stranger’s secrets are revealed.

The film is better than much of Gilliam’s more recent films and I credit that to his choice of working with co-writer Charles McKeown. McKeown previously worked on the scripts for Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which are two of Gilliam’s strongest pictures. The story here can be a bit straining on the brain but its able to keep up with Gilliam’s visuals the whole way through. I also like the use of CG effects here not in an attempt to replicate reality (see Avatar), but to make surreal landscapes feel tangible. In my opinion, that should be the purpose of using CG in films. While I didn’t care for the story of The Lovely Bones is also did an excellent job of created fully realized surreal worlds.

The subtext in the film seems to be Gilliam’s own examination of his profession. Parnassus starts out as a man sequestered in a Tibetan monastery where he and his disciples sit around telling the story of the universe. He makes a deal with the Devil and travels out to make his fortune with these stories, being told he will be immortal if he does. Valentina is a living breathing creation and the idea of turning her over to the Devil is what drives Parnassus to fight for independence. In his desperation he turns to a smooth talker who assures him he will be present the show in the way the doctor wants, but instead we see the integrity of Parnassus slipping away.

Like most of Gilliam’s work this will never appeal to a mainstream audience. He is very much an artist who makes the things that amuse him and its always coincidental if they appeal to anyone else. If you are open to a film that prefers to play rather than dictate and hit plot beats then I think you’ll enjoy this picture.

Newbie Wednesday – Bunny and the Bull

Bunny and the Bull (2009, Paul King)
Starring Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Veronice Echegui, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett, Noel Fielding

Note: This film has no planned release date for either theaters or DVD in the US. So, your best bet is to torrent the sucker.

“Come with us now on a journey through time and space”. If you are familiar with the immensely popular British series The Mighty Boosh then those are familiar words to you. The director of that series, Paul King, embarks on his feature film debut, bringing with him some familiar faces in supporting roles as well as the quirky aesthetic sensibilities of his television series.

The premise puts agoraphobic Stephen in the midst a year long hermit period. He is dealing with a trauma that occurred in Europe while he was on holiday with his friend Bunny. The two follow Stephen’s idea of fun by touring the various museums of the continent, but once Bunny takes the wheel things become a lot crazier. They meet waitress Eloisa who is looking for a way back home to Spain, and Bunny decides that once they arrive there, he is going to fight a bull.

The strongest thing this picture has going for it are the inventive visuals. King is definitely a peer to a director like Michel Gondry, in the way he intentionally lets the audience in on the hacked together set pieces. A fast food delivery bag becomes the setting for a flashback in a restaurant. A snow globe becomes the Swiss mountain chateau the men stayed in. A photograph of their train becomes a chain of photos, set against a landscape made of similar snapshots. The Mighty Boosh did the same, and it caused the universe to feel like a timeless fantasy-scape.

The plot on the other hand is not very strong. There’s no real depth to the two main characters, Stephen is a very stereotypical neurotic and Bunny is the typical crazy risk-taker. There’s not attempt to give us more about these characters or attempt to explain their motivations. The rest of the film is populated with set piece characters, such as the dog-milking Polish man, an innkeeper overly fond of her stuffed bear, and a former matador who uses a shopping cart with horns for practice. The film is very pretty to look at, and showcases the cleverness of the director aesthetically, I just hope he can find a richer level of writing for his next film.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Son of Rambow

Son of Rambow (2007, dir.Garth Jennings)
Starring Bil Milner, Will Poulter, Jessica Hynes, Jules Sitruk

I can remember watching Ghostbusters (not the first time, probably the tenth) when I was seven, and afterwards taking an old backpack, a paper towel cardboard tube, and attaching the two with a long piece of a yarn. A shoebox with another piece of yarn attached served as my “ghost trap”. I was always doing these things as a kid. Not having the latest action figures of my favorite comic book or Saturday morning cartoon characters, I would draw and cut out figurines on paper to play with. My desire to tell stories was stronger than the limitations of economy. This is the same love of stories, and being forced to go low tech that informs Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow.

Living in the 1980s, young Wil Proudfoot is the son of a woman involved in a Mennonite-like religious sect. As a result, he is not allowed to view films or television, but has a strong sense of creativity, drawing intricate worlds on the pages of his Bible. Lee is the son of an absent mother, growing up in a nursing home owned by his step-dad, and has an older brother who forces Lee to bootleg movies for him to sell on the street. Lee and Wil meet each other during an incident at school and Wil follows Lee home and glimpses his first film ever: First Blood (the first Rambo film). Wil is smitten with the film and immediately sets about storyboarding his own sequel, Son of Rambow, which he and Lee decide to film together.

Jennings is a well known music video director (he’s worked with Blur and Radiohead) and is best known in film for his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That less-than-stellar flick bears some similarities in its quality to Son of Rambow. Rambow starts out with a crackling sense of excitement and possibility. Wil’s fantasy sequence right after seeing the film is brilliance; done in line drawings on paper and with the slashing speed lines that accompanies such artwork. There’s some great meta-textual commentary on filmmaking as well. As more kids find out about the production, and particularity with the involvement of hip French exchange student, Lee’s vision as director is co-oped. A brilliant scene where Wil is admitted into the upper upperclassmen’s lounge, which parodies the sort of upscaled celeb parties one would encounter in Hollywood (Coke and pop rocks are used to substitute alcohol and cocaine).

The flick is definitely worth a view, but wans near the end as it tries to make a “lesson” of the story. I would have enjoyed the sense of playfulness at the beginning to continue throughout. It was also wonderful to see Jessica Hynes, best known for co-starring with Simon Pegg in Spaced. If you get the chance, and were a kid who loved to imagine, check this one out.

DocuMondays – Young @ Heart

Young @ Heart (2007, dir.Stephen Walker)

The film opens with a jarring scene: a music video featuring a group of senior citizens performing The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”. The first reaction is one of amusement, it is “adorable” that these “little old people” are singing a punk rock song. However, once the lyrics sink in, the simple “aw, how cute” fades away and there is a profound expression that is created when these words come from those mouths:

“Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go….
Just put me in a wheelchair, get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane
I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my brain”

There’s something very honest and appropriate about a group of aged faces yelling out these lyrics. It seems more appropriate for them, than a group of young buck musicians. This is what the 2007 documentary Young @ Heart does so well, it balances the “cute, old people” moments with a rich and meaningful exploration of aging and confronting our mortality. 
The heart behind the Young @ Heart Chorus is Bob Cilman, a truly extraordinary person. Bob had dedicated hours of work to help organize and put on performances with the elderly, and he doesn’t coddle them. When his two featured performers have trouble with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, Bob doesn’t speak to them in hushed tones. He shouts at them, he gets angry and frustrated, and eventually decides to just work on another song. It can appear mean, but Bob has such a high level of respect and such lofty expectations for this group he can’t help but be intense about it. And those expectations pay off a hundredfold.
The performers bring a lot of love into their performances, and the film captures a very tumultuous year for them. Long-time and dedicated performer Bob Salvini takes ill and eventually dies in the middle of the group’s performance season. A profound moment occurs when, during their concert, Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”, a song he was meant to share with Salvini. The lyrics reflect the feelings of the the performers and Joe’s family who watch in the audience:
“And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you”

The documentary is deeply moving. In another scene the group performers for prisoners at a correctional facility. The way the camera shoots the faces of the chorus singing “Forever Young”, then cutting to the faces of criminals having to look down or cover their faces because of the tears welling in their eyes makes it impossible for the audience to not experience the same sense of compassion. Don’t discount this film as made for the old, or purely an attempt to exploit the elderly. This is a film made for the young to discover the depth and wisdom of their elders. This is one to be hunted down as soon as possible.

Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”

The Young @ Heart Chorus performs “Forever Young”

Jolly Good Thursdays – Peeping Tom

Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell)

Starring Karlheinz Bohm, Moira Shearer, Anne Massey

Released the same year as Hitchock’s Psycho, critically panned in Britain, pulled from theaters after an incredibly short run, and reviled by its director, Michael Powell. Peeping Tom sounds like it should have been forgotten. However, the film was years ahead of its time and is a masterful piece of commentary on voyeurism and the film audience. Infamous for containing the first nudity in British cinema (a nude model’s bare breasts are glimpsed for a couple seconds), but is about much more than seedy exploitation.

Mark Lewis is film studio cameraman by day, with side job taking nudie pictures for a corner newsagent. What no one knows is ,that from time to time, Mark takes to the streets with his camera and films the faces of women he murders. This is the result of a psychologist father who experimented on the compulsion people have to gaze, or be a peeping tom, on his own son. He fetishistically films young Mark, waking him up in the middle of the night by tossing a lizard in his bed or making him listen to the sounds of women being murdered. Now, with Mark alone in the world he has been lost in the damaged inflicted on him. He befriends a young boarder in his large mansion and fights his urges to make her gaze into the camera.

Peeping Tom  has some very clever camera play, especially during the murders where we see everything through Mark’s camera. And it does a very effective job of getting across the seediness of the world Mark inhabits. At the photo shoot over the newsagent’s shop, one model complains that Mark needs to hide her bruises from the camera, while another is frightened of people seeing her harelip. Powell creates exterior, physical deformities to emphasize the corruption infesting Mark. Are these women truly this scarred? Or it a manifestation of Mark’s psychosis?

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is, that despite Powell’s dislike of the picture, he weaves himself so personally into it. He plays young Mark’s father in old reel to reel footage, cast his own son as young Mark, and his own wife as the body of Mark’s lifeless mother in a funeral scene. In addition, the most elaborate murder is performed on actress Moira Shearer, famous as the prima ballerina in The Red Shoes. Powell and Shearer reportedly could not stand each other, he viewed her as an “airhead”. The film Mark is working on involves a director struggling with a red-headed flighty actress he is having to do retakes of constantly. In addition, Shearer plays the younger actress’ stand-in and is presented as an aging actress on her way out. A rather cruel, yet clever, way of Powell addressing his own problems in cinema.