for the Christmas issue of ‘Tribune’ : Review of 2009, and some new releases including SPREAD [5/10]

Published on: December 21st, 2009


According to Chinese astrology, the Year of the Rat ended on January 25th and the Year of the Ox started on January 26th. But in terms of new releases in UK cinemas, the Year of the Ram had already begun on January 16th: that was the day on which Darren Aronofsky's masterpiece The Wrestler powerslammed its way onto our screens, setting a standard which nothing in the intervening months has threatened to match, never mind excel.
   For my money one of the top half-dozen feature-films of the decade (see below), never mind the year, Aronofsky's rousing fable of perdition and redemption is based on a script by Robert D. Siegel (remarkably, his first big-screen credit), and built around what's quite literally a powerhouse performance by a heartbreaking and justifiably Oscar-nominated Mickey Rourke as Randy 'the Ram' Robinson – or rather, Robin Ramzinski.
   Rourke lost out to his pal and fellow 80s survivor Sean Penn (playing Harvey Milk) in what must have been a very tight race all the way to the wire – whereas his co-star Marisa Tomei was always a longshot against hot favourite Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) for Best Supporting Actress.
   At least the duo were nominated – future generations will surely be baffled by the omissions of Aronofsky and Siegel from their respective categories, not to mention cinematographer Maryse Alberti and editor Andrew Weisblum, among other unsung behind-the-scenes heroes and heroines. Because The Wrestler was always about much, much more than Rourke's performance – the one element that everyone, understandably, seized upon as being the major talking-point.
   Brutal and hilarious by turns, it's an analysis of American success – and its painful downside – that cuts just as deep as more obviously "high-toned" fare such as There Will Be Blood and Raging Bull, and it's still shockingly rare to come across a relatively mainstream from this country that deals so intelligently and unpatronisingly with individuals at the rougher end of the socio-economic spectrum.
   As I've said, for my money The Wrestler is head and shoulders above everything else that obtained British distribution this year. And in trying to come up with a Top Ten of 2009, I could find only seven more features that I would call especially outstanding. Another in the top three, Revolutionary Road, came out two weeks after The Wrestler, – but Sam Mendes' savagely uncompromising adaptation of Richard Yates' classic novel set in mid-50s Connecticut suburbia somehow got lost in the 'Awards Season' rush. 
   It notched "only" four nominations at the BAFTAs and three at the Oscars, despite being on paper the kind of prestigious, well-mounted fare that traditionally appeals to such bodies. This year the awards-panels opted for supposedly "grittier" fare via the Mumbai fairytale Slumdog Millionaire - a competently-made little film which would share Tribune's "most overrated of 2009" gong (with Swedish vampire love-story Let the Right One In) if such a gewgaw was within our gift.
   Like The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road had premiered in 2008 over in the States – as did James Gray's superbly-modulated Two Lovers , a kind of romantic/psychological drama which came and went with dismayingly little impact at the end of March (in France, Gray is regarded as the next Scorsese – in English-speaking countries, he's still Joe Soap.) 
   We had to wait even longer for Werner Herzog's outlandishly entertaining documentary, the Oscar-nominated Antarctica travelogue Encounters at the End of the World - pick of the year's non-fiction releases, ahead of Agnès Varda's The Beaches of Agnes; Sacha Gervasi's Anvil! – The Story of Anvil; Gideon Koppel's sleep furiously; and Robert Cannan and Corinna Villari-McFarlane's Three Miles North of Molkom
   Encounters debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in September in 2007, but didn't make it to our arthouses until the end of April. Let's hope there isn't a similar delay until UK ticketbuyers get to feast on Herzog's deliriously unhinged Nicolas Cage collaboration, The Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call : New Orleans , which promises to be one of the multiplex highlights of 2010. Summer has long been popcorn season, and this year the mid-year's mainstream-oriented deluge included a trio of particularly noteworthy engagements with genre. 
   Dennis Iliadis' expectation-confounding remake of Wes Craven's gore-classic The Last House on the Left (June 12), and David Twohy's gleefully self-deconstructing thriller A Perfect Getaway (August 14) both wildly surpassed what were admittedly somewhat meagre expectations; but Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (September 4th) was something else again, a violent and cruelly funny example of politically-engaged science fiction that played like some dream collaboration between Nigel Kneale and Paul Verhoeven (and is the third of my personal "big three" alongside The Wrestler and Revolutionary Road.) 
   District 9 also featured an astonishing, entirely improvised central performance by Sharlto Copley – who had reportedly never acted in any capacity before landing the role, and whose alien co-stars were added in later via the magic of computer-generated imagery. Rooted very much in the realm of the human, the Coen brothers' A Serious Man (20th November) is the latest of my "outstanding octet" to be released – maybe not their very best work, but not far off – it features a truly sensational last shot (their finest such since Blood Simple?) and brilliant, movie-stealing supporting work from the previously-unheralded Fred Melamed.
   Among 2009 releases, other top-drawer performances came from the aforementioned Rourke (The Wrestler) and Shannon (Revolutionary Road), plus Timothy Olyphant in A Perfect Getaway, and Rebecca Griffiths as the little sister in Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank.
   The latter was one of the standouts in what must be reckoned a somewhat ho-hum year for British cinema – along with Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, Michael Winterbottom's Genova, Duncan Jones' Moon, and the previously-mentioned documentaries sleep furiously and Three Miles North of Molkom. All rock-solid, but nothing that you could really label "world class."
   Speaking of which, while it's still a little early to have a proper overview of the decade, for me there were half-a-dozen genuine masterpieces released for the first time in the UK during 2000-2009: Elephant by Gus Van Sant (2003), A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005), Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002), United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006), plus Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich (1999), which was released here on St Patrick's Day 2000 and, of course, The Wrestler.

1. THE WRESTLER (USA 2008) Darren Aronofsky
DISTRICT 9 (USA/NZ/SA 2009) Neill Blomkamp
TWO LOVERS (USA 2008) James Gray
5. A SERIOUS MAN (USA 2009) Ethan and Joel Coen
A PERFECT GETAWAY (USA 2009) David Twohy

Neil Young

13th December, 2009

written for the Christmas triple-edition of Tribune magazine

also for the Christmas edition: three festive-season releases

Dogging – A Love Story
Director: Simon Ellis

Director: David Mackenzie

Tokyo Story (re-issue)
Director: Ozu Yasujiro

BOXING Day seems a decidedly odd juncture to release mirthless British sex-comedy Dogging – A Love Story. But, then again, so lacking in merit is Simon Ellis's feature-debut that the real mystery is why it's being given a spin on our screens at all. If the intention was to cash in on the semi-forgotten 2003/4 tabloid frenzy related to "dogging" – which, as you may or may not recall, was/is the practice of having in-car sex in lay-bys or semi-secluded lanes while voyeuristic strangers peer through the fogged-up windows – then the moment has surely long since passed.
   Nor does the screenplay – credited to Brock Norman Brock (also responsible for Nicolas Winding Refn's smart Bronson) and first-timer Michael Groom – manage to say anything interesting or illuminating about dogging, treating it instead as the pretext for a rather dull north/south culture-clash story and a couple of underpowered romances.
   These mostly involve aspiring journalist Dan (Luke Treadaway), who moves from his native south-east to Newcastle to stay in an implausibly opulent quayside flat occupied by his hedonistic Geordie cousin Rob (Richard Riddell). When Dan hears about the area's underground dogging 'scene', he scents the possibility of a story – and overcomes his initial prurience to take a "hands on," participatory involvement, rather in the 'New Journalism' style of Hunter S Thompson or George Plimpton.
   Dogging had its world premier at the prestigious Rotterdam Film Festival back in January, an event renowned for envelope-pushing, cutting-edge fare. Attending journalists expressed bemusement that such a thoroughly undistinguished enterprise should be the sole British picture in competition at the festival, especially given the convoluted script's tut-tutting, reactionary approach to anything deemed sexually "unorthodox."
   Seemingly designed to appeal to that elusive demographic who take both Nuts magazine and the Daily Mail, Dogging is redeemed only by Bob Hardy's cinematography – which makes Newcastle look like downtown Sydney – and by Riddell's gleefully unbridled performance as the priapic satyr Rob, an innuendo-prone jack-the-lad who could easily have wandered in from a saucy Donald McGill postcard. Speaking of which, given the geographical setting, a trick was surely missed with the title: Go Forth, Tyne Dogger might at least have lured in the Shipping Forecast crowd.

VIEWERS who are in the mood for a saucily salacious urban romp this festive-season will be better served by Spread (released on New Year's Day), which sees highly-regarded Scots director David Mackenzie film outside these shores for the first time. His four previous features The Last Great Wilderness (2002), Young Adam (2003), Asylum (2005) and Hallam Foe (2007) generally proved more popular with critics than audiences, but the shift to Stateside locations for the genial but forgettable Spread seems unlikely to boost his standing with either constituency.
   Set in the kind of sun-blasted, pretty-vacant Los Angeles familiar from David Hockney's canvases, it is clearly intended as a morality tale for our culturally-debased times. Barely off-screen – and when we can't see him, we hear his narration – throughout the 90-odd-minute running-time is toothsome, well-endowed, perennially cash-strapped  twentysomething Nikki (co-producer Ashton Kutcher), a gigolo servicing the bored wives of Beverly Hills and its swanky environs.
   Scriptwriter Jason Dean Hall clearly swotted up on American Gigolo, Shampoo and Midnight Cowboy before turning on his word-processor – but he provides Mackenzie, who on all available evidence is no Paul Schrader, Hal Ashby or (even) John Schlesinger, with a thorny little puzzle: how to make a non-vacuous film about a vacuous, shallow character.
   He doesn't quite manage it. What should ideally have been a kind of cool Bret Easton Ellis universe of shimmering surfaces brought to life via Michael Mann-style digital-neon, is instead an episodic, only fitfully involving affair that gives Kutcher rather less to play with than, say, 2004's The Butterfly Effect (still one of the decade's great B-movie guilty-pleasures). The plot such as it is, sees solipsistic, keffiyeh-bedecked dreamboat Nikki drifting amorally between various bored, rich women – including Anne Heche's tough-but-sympathetic lawyer  Samantha – before meeting his match, in more ways than one, in the form of "waitress" Heather (Margarita Levieva).
   Playing itself, Los Angeles looks pretty good in the background, especially the hilltop house which supposedly once "belonged to Peter Bogdanovich" – an amusing little in-joke aside that goes absolutely nowhere. Then again, what can you expect from a movie that doesn't even seem to know how to spell its own main character's name? He scribbles a note and clearly signs it "Nikki", but he's identified as "Niki" in the end credits. A sly commentary on the fickleness of late-Bush-II-era identity? Or just plain old-fashioned sloppiness?
   Of course, in these days of 'txtspk' such flubs are very small beer. Indeed, devotees of Twitter may well prove the most receptive target-demographic, given Kutcher's status as the uncrowned king of that social-networking phenomenon – over four million worldwide "followers" at the time of writing, more than triple Stephen Fry's current tally, lapping up prouncements such as the following, dated August 15th: "Help me #SPREAD the word. We R a little movie w/ a big heart. If U don't like it U can tweet me about it."

ACCORDING to the most recent Sight and Sound critics' poll, Tokyo Story (re-released on New Year's Day) is one of the half-dozen greatest feature-films ever made. Admittedly it was as long ago as 2002 that the magazine sent out its questionnaires, the cumulative responses ranking the picture behind only Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Rules of the Game and the first two Godfathers, but in the interim the reputation of its director Ozu Yasujiro has remained sky-high.
   The story is simple: elderly couple Mr (Chishu Ryu) and Mrs (Chieko Higashiyama) Hirayama travel – via Osaka – to Tokyo from their home in far-off Onomichi, for visits with their grown-up children. They find that the hectic pace of the overcrowded capital means that their presence is more imposition than delight – although they are most impressed by the kindness and hospitality shown by their daughter-in-law Noriko (Setsuko Hara), widowed during the war. Realising that blood isn't necessarily thicker than water, the stoic Hirayamas return to Onomichi – but their happy relief at getting home proves sadly short-lived…
   Ozu, who co-wrote the script with Noda Kogo, has a clear-eyed view of human fallibities and foibles: the characters are either good or bad eggs from start to finish, and while the Hirayama children may be selfish to the point of 'Nikki-ish' solipsism [see Spread review, above], they perhaps aren't to be judged too harshly. As Mr Hirayama tells Noriko at the end of the film, it's natural for people to eventually grow apart from their parents – especially given the ever-accelerating pace of the modern world.
   It's also fascinating that so many key events occur off-screen – Ozu frequently cuts away to some landscape shot or other and, when we return to the Hirayama family's story, several days may have passed and crucial plot-related developments may have transpired. Ozu's direction is likewise very careful about what we're shown at every stage: his camera very seldom moves, but its placement (and the boxily intricate, multi-layered structure of Japanese houses) ensures we're always intimately conversant with the various cramped interiors which the characters inhabit. Credit should therefore also go to production-designers Hamada Tatsuo Hamada and Takahashi Itsuo, and cinematographer Yuuharu Atsuta. All in all, it's no mystery why the delicate and wise Tokyo Story should have been such a resonant film for so many for so long – though to rank it among the top six ever made seems like a wild over-reaction.

Neil Young
13th December, 2009

DOGGING – A LOVE STORY : [3/10] : aka Do99ing – A Love Story : UK 2009 : Simon ELLIS : 108m (BBFC) : seen 28th January at Cinerama, Rotterdam (IFFR – International Film Festival Rotterdam) press show : original review : {6/28}

SPREAD : [5/10] : USA 2009 : David MACKENZIE : 97m (BBFC) : seen 24th June at Cineworld, Edinburgh (Edinburgh International Film Festival) – complimentary press ticket : original review : {13/28} 

TOKYO STORY : [8/10] : Tōkyō monogatari : Japan 1953 : OZU Yasujiro : 136m (BBFC) : seen 6th January 2008 at The Tyneside Cinema, Gatesheshead (paid  £5.50) : original review : {23/28}