Monday, November 19, 2018

Random film review: Mandy

Dir: Panos Cosmatos | Canada & USA | 2018 | 121mins.

"He’s the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours."
—Ethan Hawke on Nicholas Cage, 2013

"I think Nicolas Cage is one of the few people in the history of acting that has really changed [the form]. I mean, he’s a true original—one of the greatest actors ever."
—Ethan Hawke, still obsessed with Nicholas Cage, September 2018

"All I care about is the transformation."
—Nicholas Cage on his acting, October 2018

No actor divides opinion more than Nicholas Cage. Even though he's always had a cult following, for many years he was a bit of a joke; you weren't even sure if fans were laughing with him or at him. This is despite winning an Oscar in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas and working with directors such as David Lynch (Wild at Heart; the filmmaker calls Cage 'the jazz musician of American acting'), Martin Scorsese (Bringing out the Dead), Werner Herzog (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) and Francis Coppola (yes, his uncle). But for every great film, there's a dozen turkeys—the man's still a workaholic in his mid-50s, though mainly to pay off his debts, it seems.

I'm still not sure he can actually act, but he certainly has a manic presence; and as someone in The Guardian wrote recently, they'd rather watch Cage's worst performance than any film with, say, the bland Ryan Gosling. I'm inclined to agree.

Nevertheless, whilst Cage is powerless to control the numerous 'Cage rage' memes or the reddit forum onetruegod (with 117,000 members), he doesn't exactly help himself when he describes his acting techniques as 'Nouveau Shamanic', 'German Expressionist' and 'Western Kabuki', none of which anyone knows what he's talking about. Most people just call him crazy.

*******

A cult film used to take years to germinate. Not anymore – Mandy comes ready packaged as a cult classic. Charles Manson meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre via Alejandro Jodorowsky and Dario Argento in this lurid, hallucinogenic doom metal psychedelic horror sci-fi revenge LSD trip of a movie. The first half has Nic Cage at his most laid back, playing Red, a lumberjack, living a peaceful, bucolic existence in a cabin in the woods with his girlfriend Mandy. (Sorry to be a party pooper but I would have enjoyed the entire movie if it was just the two of them pottering around, talking planets, watching movies and reading sci-fi novels...) Alas, of course, the tranquil bliss doesn't last.

A hippie cult—with help from a demonic biker gang, the least scary of the bunch looking like Pinhead from Hellrasier—invade his home, murder his girlfriend. And Cage, naturally, goes crazy. And (spoiler alert) kills them all in variously imaginative ways. That's it. But what distinguishes the film, aside from its King Crimson opening song and the doom metal soundtrack from the Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson (who died earlier this year, aged 48), is the extraordinary visuals, the set pieces—and Cage's crazed performance.

(If I say it’s Netflix's Stranger Things but for grown-ups, what I mean is: it has similar fonts, it’s set in the 1980s, mostly in a forest, it’s scary... yet where Stranger Things was a rehash of Spielberg et al, Mandy is a true original, even if its second half is somewhat predictable; a lusher version of Hobo with a Shotgun or a grindhouse movie. I also noticed shades of British filmmakers Ben Wheatley (in particular Kill List) and Peter Strickland, with their nods to vintage Euro-horror.)

4/5

Previously on Barnflakes:
Top ten Nicholas Cage films

(I was listening to Jóhann Jóhannsson's album Englaborn whilst I was writing this. Such a sad piece of music—and it suddenly dawned on me: films, reddit (I still don’t know what it is), the internet in general, TV, consumerism, most poeple’s pointless office jobs… all this stuff we do to waste our time and energy… and meanwhile, you know, climate change, 60% of wildlife wiped out since 1970, huge divides between rich and poor, all happening before our eyes. I guess we choose to ignore it most of the time...)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Notes on John Dahl, film director

Like most (if they’d even heard of him), I’d forgotten all about John Dahl – until I saw his name come up recently as director of a few episodes of Amazon Prime’s Outlander series. Could it possibly be the same John Dahl who directed a a string of superb but criminally underrated neo-noirs in the 1990s then seemed to vanish without trace? Yup, the one and only.

The original film noir (a term coined by French film critics retrospectively) was a certain type of thriller made post-war and up until the mid-50s, tapping into America’s pessimism and cynicism. Defined by expressionist lighting and shadows, starring laconic anti-heroes and fabulous femme fatales, with convoluted plots worthy of Shakespeare, some of the best include Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and Kiss Me Deadly.

In the 60s and 70s film noir came out from the shadows and into the L.A. sunshine with Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye, two of the best films of the 70s; Penn’s Night Moves, however, as the title suggests, kept things in the dark.

Like John Dahl, Alan J Pakula directed a trilogy of classics in the 1970s: Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men all contain elements of noir, fuelled by political paranoia and corruption in the States during the period. (Pakula died in noirish fashion, aged 70, when a metal pipe smashed through the window of his car and into his head in Melville, an affluent New York suburb. French director Jean-Pierre Melville was a master of the laconic noir; his masterpiece is Le Samouraï.)

Since the 1980s there's been a smattering of classic neo-noirs including Cutters Way, One False Move, Blood Simple, Fargo, LA Confidential, Brick and Mulholland Drive.

John Dahl's first three films – Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994) – all inhabit noirish worlds, full of duplicity and desire, and smouldering femme fatales. Kill Me Again stars Val Kilmer as a private eye hired by Joanne Whalley, escaping abusive boyfriend Michael Madsen, to fake her death. Red Rock West contains perhaps Nicholas Cage's least manic performance – well, he's up against Dennis Hopper for a start. Cage plays an out of work drifter who gets mistaken for a hitman, and goes along with it to make $5000. Things start to get complicated when the real hitman – Dennis Hopper – turns up.

The Last Seduction is the best of the three, with Linda Fiorentino as the most socipathic femme fatale ever to grace the screen, running rings around husband Bill Pullman and lover Peter Berg. Still slightly shocking is the scene where she sizes up if the guy in the bar (Berg) who hits on her is really 'hung like a horse', and the sheer fact that she's pure evil throughout, and gets away with it. As Roger Ebert says, 'This woman is bad from beginning to end, she never reforms, she never compromises, and the movie doesn't tack on one of those contrived conclusions where the morals squad comes in and tidies up'.

Dahl returned to the world of noir with 1998's Rounders, starring Matt Damon as a high-stakes poker player. Joy Ride (which spawned two inferior sequels), his 2001 thriller with a noirish, B-movie feel, is a tense, roller coaster of a movie, with two brothers travelling across the States to pick up a girlfriend. En route, one of the brothers, playing around with his CB radio, teases a truck driver who turns out to be a psycho killer. Imagine Spielberg's Duel, with teeth.

Most of Dahl's films received critical acclaim – there's even been a book written about his first three – but fared badly at the box office (I think it's because they all had awful posters), picking up fairly well on video later. His first three are nelgected classics: tense and steamy, with sizzling dialogue, lashings of black humour, an atmospheric sense of place, fine performances and labyrinthine plots. Everything a film noir should be.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Random Film Review: The Other Side of the Wind

Dir: Orson Welles | USA | 2018 | 122mins.

“We're born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we're not alone.”
– Orson Welles

Awesome Welles! The only thing more absorbing than watching an Orson Welles film is watching a documentary about Orson Welles. Along with the release on Netflix of The Other Side of the Wind, we are treated to two documentaries to accompany the film: You'll Love Me When I'm Dead, a feature-length film about the rise and fall of Orson Welles up to and including The Other Side of the Wind, and A Final Cut for Orson Welles, a fascinating 40-minute extra about the painstaking restoration of Welles' last film.

Welles shot some 100 hours of footage for the film between 1970 and 1976, and edited about 40 minutes worth of it before his death in 1985. By then the film had become wrapped up in legal and financial problems which wouldn't abate until, well, its release earlier this month on Netflix.

The Other Side of the Wind is a film within a film, taking place at the 70th birthday bash of veteran film director Jake Hannaford (played by veteran film director John Huston and presumably based on Welles), interspersed with scenes from the film Hannaford is making: an arty, Antonioni-esque parody. At the start of the film we are told it is Hannaford's last day on earth; he dies in a car crash at the end of the party.

The large ensemble cast of characters includes Peter Bogdanovich (director of The Last Picture Show) as Brooks Otterlake (based on, erm, Bogdanovich), Hannaford's protégé who has become more successful than him (à la A Star is Born). The party is a media event with various film people, journalists and fans filming the fiasco from every possible angle. There are actual directors at the party, including Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, Curtis Harrington, Henry Jaglom and Paul Mazursky. And there are actors playing barely concealed real life characters: I guessed the annoying female film critic (played by Susan Strasberg, daughter of drama coach Lee Strasberg, famous for his method acting teaching) was based on Pauline Kael, who famously wrote Raising Kane, the article which claimed Herman J. Mankiewicz, rather than Welles, was responsible for writing Citizen Kane. In a screening room, Max David (played by Geoffrey Land) is a dead ringer for legendary producer Robert Evans.

Shot in a cinema verite manner with handheld cameras, switching between colour and black & white, 35mm and 16mm, the film is Welles' return to the States after two decades of exile in Europe and a satire on both old and new Hollywood. Though stylistically dissimilar to other Welles’ films, it has typical Wellesian themes including the abuse of power and the betrayal of friendship. The editing of the film is frantic and kaleidoscopic.

The colour scenes of the film Hannaford is currently working on, shown partly in Hannaford's projection room and partly in a drive-in movie theatre, are beautifully filmed. The plot, as such, has a hunky young biker following Oja Kodar (Welles' lover and collaborator) around various locations, including an empty studio backlot, where they are naked. There is a highly erotic sex scene in a car between them (in typical Welles style, half the scene was filmed in L.A., the other half two years later in France). There's something about these sequences – maybe to do with a naked woman walking around, maybe something to do with the editing – but it reminded me of a Russ Meyer film. (One of the more surprising insights of the documentary was learning Orson Welles helped edit a low-budget porno film whilst shooting The Other Side of the Wind.)

I enjoyed the film a lot more than I thought I would; though it's obviously dated (whilst also being ahead of its time with the mockumentary 'found footage' aspect), it's a fascinating time capsule, and looks – and sounds – fantastic. What was almost more surprising than being able to see a 'new' Orson Welles film was the documentary about the Herculean post-production process, a labour of love for everyone involved. It probably wouldn't have been possible to edit the film twenty years ago – the technology wasn't available. I'm guessing more money was spent, and more people involved, in the restoration than the actual shooting. "It's all in the editing", Welles would have said, but that's only half the story. Hundreds of reels of film stock were organised, cleaned and digitalised, using the HDR (High-Dynamic-Range Imaging) process. They found an editor, Bob Murawski (editor of the Spiderman films), to replicate Welles' frenzied editing style of the footage he had cut before his death.

The negative print was generally in excellent condition; the sound, as is often the case in low-budget films and Welles' in particular (for some of his independent European films he didn't record sound at all, dubbing it all later on), was not. Sound editors spent months cleaning up the dialogue. Most bizarrely, actor Danny Huston, John's son, did ADR (Automatic Dialog Replacement) for his father's voice (who died in 1987), so there are scenes with John Huston speaking with his son's voice.

There was no soundtrack for the film so Michel Legrand, composer of many film soundtracks since the 1950s, including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Thomas Crown Affair as well as Welles' own F for Fake, provides the much-needed music for the film (only recorded in March this year), giving some consistency to the fragmented nature of the visuals.

Frank Marshall (producer of Bogdanovich's first four features as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and countless other blockbusters) worked as producer and production manager on The Other Side of the Wind and described the shoot like being in film school – everyone mucking in on it. Welles would spend years writing, shooting and editing numerous film projects at once. Unfortunately, the list of his unfinished projects – From Heart of Darkness in 1939 to The Dreamers and King Lear in the 1980s – is longer than the list of his finished films. As with John Cassavetes, another American auteur, Welles would act in other director's films to finance his own; hence his so-called fall from grace in his later years, acting in The Muppet Movie and appearing in adverts for frozen peas and sherry.

To have reached the heights of Citizen Kane at such a young age was Welles' curse – he would apparently never recreate such greatness again. But as someone says in the documentary, Citizen Kane is the best film ever made – but it's not even Orson Welles' best film.

4/5

Monday, November 05, 2018

Success and failures of the Eden Project

 
Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World by some, the Eden Project needs no introduction. I like it there, it's great, amazing, visionary, with a cool shop! It's a success, it's popular, so why was I so underwhelmed there? Mainly because it feels like the opposite of what it's meant to do. It's become an eco-Disneyland; though it calls itself a charity, it feels commercial and strangely soulless. We came out having had a good time, but learnt nothing. It feels like it's missing an opportunity, in this age of over-consumerism and climate change, to educate and enlighten on the natural world, on sustainability, on protecting the planet. It's taken the consumerist approach: buy, eat, drink, leave. It should be alternative. It should be about community, not big business.

For me it fails automatically as everyone takes their car to visit. Local traffic and pollution has become a problem in the area. There should be a free shuttle bus service from St Austell. The car park in the pit takes up as much room as the actual domes. (Okay, I have used public transport a lot in Cornwall and it's not that much fun; buses in particular are expensive – there are no subsidies like in London and other major cities – and infrequent; all that EU money was spent on, erm, Superfast Broadband, a few new roads, some business start up schemes, some new-technology based industries... you know, nothing useful for the locals.)

A lot of the negative reviews about the Eden Project on TripAdvisor I think are valid: overpriced, unfocused, disorganised, insufficient information, bad food, 'A theme park without rides', 'Greed is a terrible thing'...

Glassdoor reviews by people who work there say poor management, underpaid and overworked staff – the usual... but somehow you want it to be different at the Eden Project. It's just a business, and a badly-run one. To be fair, when we attended a day of TED Talks in Truro recently, we heard a passionate lady who works at the Eden Project talk non-stop for fifteen minutes about fungi; obviously a woman who loves her job. But we also heard from the charismatic Ollie Oakenshield, founder of Rogue Theatre, a group which has stayed small, local, community-based (as opposed to, say, Kneehigh Theatre) and cheap: tickets for a performance still only cost £8.50; food and drink is reasonably priced (rather than doubling the cost like most theatres, cinemas or Eden Projects do). Performances take place in the lovely Tehidy woods, it's family run, and the audience are encouraged to dance on the stage after performances.

Ollie Oakenshield, as he told us in his TED Talk, was born and raised on the Pengegon Estate in Camborne, where more than half the children live below the poverty line. Oakenshield talked about his childhood on the estate, where the local woods and his imagination were an escape from the harsh reality of estate life. Thirty years later, despite EU and council funding for charities, start up business and back to work schemes, little has changed: a third of working age people in the area are claiming unemployment benefits, violence and domestic abuse is rife, children are neglected.

Oakenshield is one of the lucky ones: many children from Pengegon or similar estates in the area (Camborne, Redruth and Pool make up the largest urban area in Cornwall, and also the most deprived 20% in England), who live three miles from the woods and beautiful beaches, have never seen either. This seems extraordinary when tourists travel hundreds of miles to experience Cornwall's wonderful rugged countryside and white sand beaches, but poverty, unemployment, depression, abuse, boredom and neglect are a potent mix in a county where many people see no hope.

Back at the Eden Project, towards the end of the day we saw staff chucking away all the day's unsold food (I have photos to prove it if you're interested). The area around the Eden Project is another deprived part of Cornwall; surely this food should be given to the community instead of discarded?

Obviously, I felt much closer to nature when I recently explored the nearby abandoned Baal pit, where it felt like a real – and free – adventure, where plants and birds are abundant, and commercialism hasn't yet reached it. Though it will – plans are going ahead for the 'eco village'.

Recently in the news...
• Cornwall council housed boy, 17, in a tent
• Gary Barlow apologises after littering the Eden Project with plastic confetti

(I moan about the internet sometimes and Instagram often but what happened was I was in the Eden Project shop – which is cool – and flicked through a lovely gardening magazine called Rake's Progress. Then at home I went to their website. Then I went to their Instagram page, then to Christoffer Dalkarls’s Instagram page because I liked his photos of pigment still lives in the magazine, then back to rakesprogress Instagram page and saw someone called augustabruce had left a comment with just the words @rigbygone (no idea why) so I looked at their page and liked (I don’t mean liked, I mean enjoyed) their photos, then went back to augustabruce but his or her account is private so I went to their website, which I LOVED, though didn’t spend enough time there to figure out what they do, but enough to work out that Taïs did the drawing so went to their website, which was lovely, then Googled the name Taïs and came up with Taïs Kuri’s Instagram page, though no idea if Taïs is Taïs Kuri, probably not, but didn’t really care (though I knew at a glance that this photo would have more likes than the others), and thought I’d quite like to go to Mexico again… and so it goes with the internet, into the night. I recommend it to waste your nights and days.)

Previously on Barnflakes:
The China clay pits around St Austell
Reviving Redruth (and environs)

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Notes on dog poop bags

At first I thought they were presents left by pixies in the forest. I was intrigued by them…. beautiful little black plastic bags tied neatly in a knot at the top, placed delicately on rocks or in grass along country paths. Were they gifts for me? I couldn’t resist a look. I opened one up and found to my dismay a pile of... dog shit. No, I didn’t really open it. I knew what they were.

It's just hard to believe that dog owner's leave them in the countryside. Quite frankly, I'd rather just see the piles of crap instead of the plastic bags. I'm not sure what the owners expect to happen to these bags – the aforementioned magical pixies to pick them up and dispose of them?

Anyway, even aside from selfish dog owners chucking their little black plastic bags of delight into the foliage, the problem of what to do with those bags – even if you're a considerate dog owner, i.e. you put them in a bin – is a problem that's been debated for years with no solution in sight.

Turns out, for a start, that so-called biodegradable black plastic bags aren't biodegradable at all, and won't degrade fully in a landfill site for anything from ten to 10,000 years. Besides which, animal faeces (which contain harmful pathogens) decomposing in a landfill release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. In modern landfill sites almost no decomposition happens at all.

The alternative is the little plastic bag ends up in an incinerator. Since China banned the UK importing its plastic waste for recycling earlier this year, we've been burning more plastic than ever before: shockingly, the UK now burns more waste than it recycles. Incineration creates harmful dioxins which contribute to climate change and holds back recycling rates which in the UK have stalled since 2013. Greenpeace says incinerating plastic is the ‘wrong answer’ and 'if you build incinerators it creates a market for the next 20 to 30 years for single-use plastics, which is the very thing we need to be focusing on reducing right now'.

I don't have a dog, or even like them, but when something so seemingly trivial as how to dispose of dog shit becomes a major issue lasting years, with no sustainable and safe solution decided, I see no hope for the human race and more importantly, the planet.

Flickagram #4