‘The French Connection’ or — The Perfection of Exhilaration.

‘The French Connection’ or — The Perfection of Exhilaration.

(Contains one use of very strong language)

The films starts with the blaring of dissonant horns, thumping percussion and woodwinds seemingly spluttering out a warning in Morse code as though trying to tell us we’re entering dangerous territory and we should really be nervous as hell.

I love ‘The French Connection’; it might be my favourite film. It contains what I consider the best chase sequence in movie history: it’s the one that starts ten minutes into the picture and doesn’t let up till the closing credits, leaving us a shivering yet exalted mess on the floor. It all starts when New York cops “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo are sitting in a downtown bar trying to wash the grime of the day from their throats when they spot small-time crook ’Sal’ Boco living it up big time. Almost immediately “Popeye” knows something fishy is going on with Sal with Popeye’s radar for trouble being almost as acute as his antenna for women in boots. That’s when they decide to follow him. That’s when everything changes.

What happens next is the best example of pursuit, cat-and-mouse, evasion, elusion and obsession put to film and once we enter into it we can’t get out, even at the end when we are left still flailing in the darkness.

Like most of Friedkin’s best films it starts with an almost dialogue free prologue where we’re not quite sure what’s going on. Everything is set up precisely so when the pieces need to click into place we hardly notice they’ve done so. We only know as much as Doyle and Russo so we get to admire their detective work and doggedness, those long nights in cars paying off. It’s not until we’re just over twenty minutes into the movie that we start getting some concrete information about what is going on. We know drug smuggling is involved and we know who is carrying it out but just how, when and where is a complete mystery. That’s how the film weds us totally to Doyle, that’s how we accept his behaviour and immorality.

And we need to accept Doyle because he is a racist, violent, nasty piece of work. In short, he is a cunt and that’s not an exaggeration. How do we jump on board with him? It can’t be under-estimated how much Gene Hackman brings to this role as, without him, it just wouldn’t work. Hackman, somehow, humanises Doyle enough for us to cheer him on, to pound that steering wheel in rhythm with him as he blasts after the bad guys. That is no small feat for an actor.

William Friedkin’s use of “induced documentary” also helps as, sure, Doyle is a piece of work but compared to the social havoc “Frog 1”’s junk will have on the streets it is nothing. That approach also ramps up to almost insane levels the tension and the almost unbearable pressure we experience. Everything feels so real. Friedkin admitted he was inspired by the documentary style of Pontecorvo’s excellent ‘The Battle Algiers’ (1966) and it shows as this film is European verite spliced with the hard-boiled thrill of Jules Dassin. This approach that inspired directors such as Paul Greengrass but even Greengrass at his best with the Bourne franchise still doesn’t come close to matching this degree of unstoppable force. The effect is overwhelming.

And the film works as a total whole. Despite the various set-pieces it’s almost impossible to isolate them and separate them out. This is why even though the film has a chase sequence it isn’t a chase sequence — it’s just the film firing a shit-load of rocket fuel into what is already going on and shooting off into the stratosphere and all the air is forced from our lungs.

But some words do need to be said about that chase sequence. A minute before the chase starts we see the after-effects of a car-crash reminding us, as if we need it, of the bloody consequences of metal smashing into flesh. And when the chase does happen, between car and train, it is the best car-chase put to film, not just because of the sheer exhilaration of speed and momentum (Friedkin nails the camera-work by keeping the camera as low to the ground as possible making everything feel MUCH faster than it is) but the context in which it is place as well as Hackman’s screaming, almost sexual, desire to get that motherfucker. And when the chase is over we’re thrown, almost without time to catch our breath, back into the thrust of the larger pursuit. “Don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet, I’ve not done with you” we can almost hear Friedkin telling us with that sly grin you can always hear in his voice.

Then there’s the psyche-out in the subway station. Has there ever been a scene so beautifully staged and executed for tension, infuriation and humour? The influence of that sequence on the cinema of thrillers and police films should not be overlooked in the slightest. That would not be good detective work after all on our part, after all.

Something should also be said about Don Ellis’ excellent score where his typical use of micro-tones and quarter tones, which are usually used for humour in his music but are here applied to signify obsession, mental collapse and the fragmentation of the (our?) mind. It is seamlessly blended into the world of the movie feeling almost like a foley track: is that the grinding metal of heavy machinery lifting a car or is it the actual soundtrack? Turns out it’s both and it just amplifies the already blistering feel of it all.

‘The French Connection’ is a masterpiece. It is, in my opinion, the best cop movie of the 20th Century and easily one of the greatest films ever made. There is, still to this day, nothing else like it and I’m not sure there ever will be again.

The film led to a very good sequel where we get to see a more human side to Doyle, very much insisted for by Hackman himself. Yet, great though ‘The French Connection II’ (1975) is for me it isn’t the same Doyle that is appearing in it. It is a more sympathetic “Popeye” and while that makes for a nice contrast and variation the Doyle from ‘The French Connection’ is still out there, in his own darkness, shooting FBI officers without remorse or any form of humanity, disappearing forever into his own darkness and, most frighteningly of all, taking us with him.

‘Bird Box’ or — Just About Worth a Peek At?

‘Bird Box’ or — Just About Worth a Peek At?

The wind blows, leaves swirl menacingly whilst people start committing suicide in ever increasing numbers and we, the audience, are struck by a stomach-churning realisation of terror as we wonder — are we watching a remake of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Happening’ (2008)?! Please god, no!

This is both one of Susanne Bier’s ‘Bird Box’s (2018) biggest weakness but also one of its main strengths: it seems to draw inspiration from many sources, some it transcends (in the case of ‘The Happening’ how could it not?) yet pales in inevitable comparison to others. But first, what’s the film about?

Sandra Bullock plays Malorie whom we first encounter talking directly to camera warning us about the film’s plot and set-up. It seems Earth has been invaded/infected by aliens/beings that are so horrifying/dazzling that the very sight of them compels anyone who glimpses them to kill themselves. Scary, although not as scary as realising she’s talking to two young children who should already know all this and we’ve just been hit by a clunky exposition dump so hard it could leave a bruise. Ouch!

From there the film jumps back in time 6 years where Bullock, heavily pregnant in a pre-monster world (get it?!), is visiting hospital as reports of sporadic social unrest unfold on TV screens and once the calamity hits it is down to her and a group of survivors to, well, survive and the only way to do this is to wear blindfolds and cover all windows. Its terrain so familiar that the audience could easily traverse it blindfolded ourselves. There are no great surprises here.

What it does contain are some parallels to the fear of pregnancy such as in ‘Alien’ (1979) and moments when ‘Bird Box’ feels like it’s heading in the direction of Frank Darabont’s far superior ‘The Mist’ (2007), yet these characters here never engage in much conflict between themselves. So there’s never any point where ‘Bird Box’ really ventures into the pressure-cooker, people tearing themselves apart from fear that we feel we’re being led into. Instead moments are undercut by flashing forward to Bullock in the boat and back again. This means the film loses some steam when it should be building it as we already know what’s coming. Because of this there is the constant atmosphere not so much of pure horror but pounding frustration and it’s not from the lack of creatures featuring but more the fact that scenarios and characters are set up only to be either dispensed with or just jettisoned and left behind for almost no reason whatsoever.

The most interesting dynamic in the film is not between Bullock and any of the adults but with the young girl in the boat. It’s interesting, and pretty scary, to see a young child gradually realise that because of who she is (or possibly not) could be the reason that Bullock, her surrogate mother, might actually find her life expendable. It’s the most genuinely chilling moment in the film.

Unfortunately this is followed by one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in the film — a double labour and birth scene and we suddenly feel the film creaking again. John Malkovich also has a truly heavy-handed Trump joke and there’s a brief section about Iraq with both feeling crowed-barred in simply to give the movie a possible satirical and political edge (it hasn’t got one at all incidentally). For a movie going for a stripped back approach it’s amazing how many unnecessary angles it throws in and there’s also something about isolationism going on here but that also gets lost in the mix.

Fortunately it is by any means not all bad. It’s always great seeing Sandra Bullock lead a film and she’s her usual great self here. John Malkovich is fun if a little disappointingly restrained, yet it is Tom Holland who possibly steals the show with a creepy performance even if, unlike the creatures, you can see what he is coming a mile off.

The sound design and music are also particularly good — this definitely could have worked better on radio but where’s the money in that?! There’s a great sequence when they have to drive with the car windows blacked-out and using only the sat-nav to navigate the roads. We don’t see anything, only the sounds of possible monsters outside and the crushing of the skulls of the dead bodies littering the roads they are driving over. It’s grisly, gruesome and not without a nice veneer of dark humour. It’s moments like this that keep the film engaging. The camera-work, directing, acting, sound design and score especially are all top-notch demonstrating that the something that is lacking is emanating from the script, plot construction and characters. Bier also handles the societal break-down at the start very deftly and really giving the sense of everything going to hell.

In closing, and at the risk of making a crass joke, the ending is literally blindingly obvious and raises the question of — “Why wasn’t this touched on earlier?” It’s a very convenient denouement and a little pat. It also doesn’t reveal various aspects regarding the relationship between Bullock and the two children till the very end simply so they can be brought up at the close of the movie for some feels making it all somewhat preposterous and manipulative. But hey, it’s is a movie after all.

‘Bird Box’ is not a great film, feeling too much of a patchwork of various other ideas and stories, yet at times, it is better than a number of the films it could be compared to. It’s not a total success but there’s enough going on here to entertain and creep you out. Just don’t go looking for too much depth or originality as, like the monsters, you won’t see any here.

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The Political Implications of Fucking an Octopus

The Political Implications of Fucking an Octopus

Ever thought Sam Neill’s performances in ‘Event Horizon’ and ‘In The Mouth of Madness’ were too subtle and underplayed? Ever wondered what it would be like if ‘High Fidelity’ was directed by David Cronenberg? Ever watched a Terrence Malick or Ingmar Bergman meditation on the disintegration of a relationship but also wanted to see a woman fuck a blood-covered octopus too? Then Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 ‘Possession’ is the film for you!

Set in early 80s West Berlin, ‘Possession’ tells the tale of Sam Neill and his wife, played brilliantly by Isabelle Adjani, as they struggle to hold onto their sanity as infidelity rips and mauls their marriage apart. He suspects her of having an affair with a pretentious, arty guy, has her followed and jealousy ensues. And that’s pretty much it… apart from the body-horror, shrieking existential terror, tentacle sex, the infinite darkness made flesh, liberal politics and the film cranking up its tension to such unbearable levels that you want to tear your own skin off. And that’s pretty much all I want to say about Possession because its always best to discover this films delights for yourself… fresh… like just out the refrigerator. And yes, I do mean that refrigerator. Anyway, it’s no surprise to say the film is about possession. Whether its sexual possession, psychological or the possession of a state over its own people.

Now it could be easy to describe this film as Cronenberg (psychosis made flesh) meets Lars Von Trier (married couples quoting lines to each other such as “God is a disease.”) and while that’s totally true it also reminded me of William Freidkin’s Bug with its cooker pressure manic intensity and paranoia, and a sort of more intelligent, politically inverted version of Brian Yuzna’s Society. But Possession is really a unique experience all of itself. The unease starts in Żuławski’s analysis of married life, relationships and the potential emotional violence that very often is simmering underneath any two beings in close proximity with each other. Are you married? Have you ever thought of murdering your significant other? Again, this is the film for you. The horror then begins to take shape as that emotional violence starts to physically self-manifest. And to be technical, it’s most certainly not an octopus she has sex with but something more Lovercraftian in tone.

This is a fantastic film. Truly unsettling, thought provoking, pessimistic (or is it?!), stomach-churning and nerve-jangling. The directing and camerawork are nothing less than extraordinary at times. The comment about this being almost Terrence Malick like at times was not just a cheap gag as there are sequences where a wide-angle steady cam will follow the husband and wife throughout their apartment in an almost To The Wonder like way. The only real difference is to give a nightmare rather than a dream-like feel. But the technical panache is just as impressive. And even though most people praise Isabelle Adjani’s performance in this, and rightly so, for me its Sam Neill who almost steals the show, delivering one of the most utterly insane performances I’ve seen in ages. It’s great.

But the film isn’t perfect. Żuławski wrote this film after breaking up with his wife and leaving his native Poland and both these themes are what drive this film and his anger and bitterness towards both can become slightly grating. Then towards the end of the movie one of these themes comes heavily to the fore and for me, it was the less interesting one (apparently this film was criticised by the far left on release and whilst that might seem like a crazy thing to think about an octopus fuck-fest movie there was a point near the end of Possession when for a split-second I thought “Hang on! Is this actually a reactionary, bourgeoisie tract?!” Of course the film isn’t in anyway whatsoever, its simply a heart-felt liberal cry against insidious control along with a whole host of other themes, but with an ending that’s maybe a little too on the nose and leaving slightly less room for personal interpretation as well as a sort of “Oh, so that’s what its all been about” shrug. Unlike the octopus I was left slightly underwhelmed at the climax).

But this is nit-picking. I adore ‘Possession’ and for any film to have you thinking about all the above issues, especially one that is known as the “octopus sex movie”, is a blast. It’s bizarre, insane and easily one of the most genuinely intelligent horror movies I have ever seen. This film has substance… albeit with most of it splashed about all over the floor as it gushes out of a screaming woman’s body.

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‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ or — Suture Selves

‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ or — Suture Selves

I grew up hearing tales of people passing out and fainting at the cinema for years, usually during ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ or thinking the train is going to come out of the screen and run them over. Yet despite my delicate frame I have a pretty robust constitution when it comes to cinematic excess so always thought these stories of people passing out at the movies were either exaggerated or urban myths, usually created by the studio’s publicity department.

That was until last night when someone fainted/collapsed/died(?!) during the screening of Guy Maddin’s ‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ (The Blue Hands).

It was three quarters through the film and, during a scene in which a character is having their falsely sutured hands removed by a saw after looking at his father’s penis, someone in the audience stood up to leave, got as far as the aisle and then BAM!, slammed straight into the floor. My friend Graham, whom was sitting closest to the incident, said that, apparently, it was the sight of the hands being cut off that did it for them. But considering how intense Maddin’s editing is and the fact that the film was accompanied by a live musical performance that was as crunchy, crazy and overwhelming as the visuals then the candidates for causing sensory overload were many and varied.

Several people immediately got up to help and gathered round the poor person, making them as relaxed and comfortable as possible as behind them, up on the large screen, limbs were severed, penises unsheathed, violent fisting engaged in as the live musical accompaniment blasted us with savagely intense digital noise. If the poor guy had come back round he more than likely would have immediately passed straight back out again waking up to all this going on.

Afterwards, the contrast of emerging from the back and white world of Maddin to the blazing red and blue of De Palma-esque lights of the ambulance illuminating the CCA lobby through the windows only helped emphasised that we’d been at a cinematic experience that resulted in a medical emergency. We hoped the guy was okay and we engaged in a 25 second long moment of concern for our fellow man before hitting the pub. The only time I’d heard of something like this actually happening was when an ex-girlfriend went to see ‘The Lion King’ live and somebody in the audience had a seizure. Being a dental nurse and hence, medically trained, she was obliged to help, although she did state that all she could do was give them a scrape and cleanse.

And the film itself? ‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ was good, very good in fact, but it didn’t blow me away like ‘The Saddest Music in The World’ did, which is a film of delirious, Monty Python style lunacy and humour. ‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ is still fantastical but is more a sort of autobiographical account of Maddin’s life in Canada and revolving around sex, sperm, memory, fertility, masturbation, guilt and hockey and how these have effected Maddin’s psyche with Greek overtones (the archetypes of the mother and father etc) thrown in too. There is a story here but it is viewed through the prism of not just a dream but the memory of a dream.

Shot on super 8mm on a low-budget yet highly imaginative visual aesthetic and with quite a few sexually provocative moments, ‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ bore a striking similarity to James Bidgood’s ‘Pink Narcissus’ and with a healthy dose of the work of Bill Morrison too.

However, myself and my friends all felt that the best part of the experience was the live score by Ela Orleans which was, quite simply, absolutely stunning and made a perfect counterpart to Maddin’s visuals with a brooding intensity and Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble style staccato bursts and information dumps of sound. Orleans studied composition under David Shire in New York which testifies to the high standard of her work. She has also composed a score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ which I am now dying to experience. Maddin’s film was great but, for me, Orleans’ music was the highlight.

‘Cowards Bend The Knee’ at the CCA was a pretty overwhelming experience and, to be honest, I’d like to revisit it again as there was a lot to take in. Although my abiding memory will be hoping that guy who passed out is okay. I mean, he really hit the deck hard and I feel kinda bad making light of it and I still don’t know exactly what happened to them. I just hope he doesn’t wake up with blue hands.

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Pasolini’s ‘Theorem’. Or — Sexy Jesus Destroys the Bourgeoisie System by Fucking it to Bits

Pasolini’s ‘Theorem’. Or — Sexy Jesus Destroys the Bourgeoisie System by Fucking it to Bits

Okay, so I’ve just watched ‘Theorem’ in which a middle-class family have their lives transformed by Terrence Stamp turning up and having sex with each of them in turn. But is there actual transformation going on? Is there a cost? Does transformation necessarily lead to something positive or just reveal the void within? It doesn’t matter as, either way, General Zod is going to inevitably fuck you.

So Terrence Stamp turns up at the family’s house. He has no name and we know nothing about him except that he has a bulge in his trousers, like Clint Eastwood with a hard on. The most apparent aspect of the family is sexual repression so when sex does happen it is always the family member that instigates it, never Stamp. They are drawn to him as a potential escape from their existence (he reads Rimbauld with his legs open giving signs of an exotic, debauched life that they could never imagine) and it does seem as though contact with him has some sort of liberating and transformative process. After having sex with each of them he then departs, leaving them stripped bare of their societal roles and underwear. The rest of the movie then deals with how these transformations play out whilst raising, seemingly, the question of whether or not transformation is actually possible… I think.

Oddly enough, ‘Theorem’ plays out like an inverted version and companion piece to Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’. It also seems very pessimistic. Each family member desires escape yet they seem to willingly further escape into more extreme versions of the roles that “society” has already given them: the mother, yearning sex, pursues this end with abandon but almost without her own volition; the servant/maid becomes a literal martyr; an already withdrawn daughter becomes catatonic whilst the father (spoilers!) ends up in the ever present void. Is this his comeuppance, a consequence of choice (or lack of) or just the way things are? This is Jesus in the wilderness except there is no Jesus, just the wilderness, the pre-religious void. For an atheist Pasolini sure has a fascination with religion and fate.

Although it has left me with the slight nagging doubt that Pasolini could have been an asshole. I mean, here he is dumping on the middle-class when he was dicking about Italy with Bertolucci making movies and more than likely having a grand old time in a suitably decadent style. And christ, his films are utterly devoid of humour.

But it is beautifully shot, has some lovely Morricone music (nice to hear his ability to write pop music being demonstrated in this), a pretty devastating ending and yes, you do get to see Terrence Stamps cock… briefly.

So anyway, I have NO idea if that’s what ‘Theorem’ is about but that’s what I came away with. I could have completely the wrong end of the stick with this one and find out in a few days its actually a zany sex comedy. I don’t know. But it’s an extremely interesting film very much worth checking out.

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