#272: Nuts in May (1976)

As one of the most significant British filmmakers all time, Mike Leigh is known for his dowdily naturalistic, unscripted approach to presenting human relationships. From his most recent film, Another Year about post-midlife crisis, to his appropriately titled, torturously slow 1971 debut Bleak Moments, his work is often intrepidly emotive; getting right under your skin and difficult to shake loose.

But, on the flip-side, he is also a master of dry, ever-so British wit. Although it stems throughout his work, the 1976 teleplay Nuts in May is perhaps the most plainly funny movie of his career.

A mixture of situational comedy and comedy of manners, Nuts in May follows a smug middle-class couple who head out of the suburban smog for a camping holiday in sunny Dorset. It’s a rural paradise for control freak, preachy husband Keith and his dimwitted hippy wife Candice Marie: they can trek across the open quarries, nibble on vegetarian rabbit food, drink unpasteurized milk straight from the teat, and whip out the banjo and guitar for a round of folk songs (not around the campfire, however, that would be against the codes of nature, you see).

But their dream vacation is destined to be ruined. For a start, there’s the typically British rainy weather putting a dampener on things. Then the unwelcome arrival of neighbouring camper Ray–and his pop music blaring radio–is set to spoil the bird song and push the pompous Keith over the edge.

Much like the rest of Mike Leigh’s oeuvre, Nuts in May was devised through improvisation, rather than scripting. A craft that has become synonymous with the filmmaker, it’s quite incredible to see it working so successfully at such an early period in his career.

That’s probably in some part a product of brilliant performers too. Forgotten British radioplay thespian Roger Sloman is great as the militant husband and stickler for the rules, whilst Alison Steadman (who would become not only a frequent collaborator with Leigh, but also his wife) is an absolute delight, wearing patchwork flares and speaking with that quintessential bourgeois slur. There’s far too many brilliant scenes to drop them all off in this review, but Keith attempting to put a fellow pesky camper under civil arrest is a highlight. Better still, hearing the pair harmonise ‘I want to see the zoo, she said, I want to see the zoo’ / ‘I want to take you there, he said, I want to go with you’, is so cringe-worthily hilarious that I was reduced to tears.

With the dispassionately married couple leading such stale, ascetic lives, Nuts in May is Leigh’s social critique on the stuffy British elite. Those who are ideologically ‘libertarian’, but ignorant to any inevitable changes in modern society. Although it may be a heritage piece, Nuts In May still holds up as one of Mike Leigh’s best.

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#263: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

A kid’s movie with adults in mind, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a funny, politically slanted computer animation feature that is well worth devouring.

Lightly adapted from Judi and Ron Barrett’s children’s book, it’s playful storyline is brought to the big screen by another dynamic duo, writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who recently directed the 21 Jump Street movie remake, which I’m still yet to see!).

It’s the larger-than-life story of a small town dreamer. Flint (voiced by SNL stalwart Bill Hader) is a teenager longing to invent the next big thing. He lives on a small New England island called Swallow Falls, a place going through hardship after it’s premier sardines factory was forced to shutdown. Sick of eating the tinned leftovers, Flint sets out on a humanitarian cause:  a contraption that turns rainwater into food.

His first major scientific breakthrough, the invention works a treat. Putting in daily requests, Flint makes burgers, pancakes, ice cream, waffles and even a Las Vegas-style buffet. All of which drop from the sky and straight onto plates at open-air restaurants. From geek to hero, he is also mitten over the strawberry-blonde weather girl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris). With the machine malfunctioning, the portions getting bigger and the neighbours demands more glutinous, his perfect storm is set to take a turn for the worse.

It may not be the best CGI you’ll ever see, Cloudy makes up for it with a hilarious script; close to reaching the joke-a-minute Aardman claymation The Pirates! from earlier this year. The sublime Hader and Faris are met with an equally brilliant supporting cast, including Bruce Campbell as the power-hungry town mayor, The Lonely Island’s Andy Samberg as a child star turned burn-out, the ever-arresting voice of James Caan as Flint’s stern sardine selling father, and Mr. T playing an animated, jewelery-free incarnation of Mr. T (who else?).

As if that wasn’t enough brownie points, Lord & Miller hire Devo-frontman, turned accomplished film composer Mark Mothersbaugh to produce the whimsy, orchestral score.

With the sequel right around the corner, 2009’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is definitely worth the revisit. Kids or no kids, it’s fun for all, and all for fun.

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#261: Thirst (Bakjwi) (2009)

Inspired by this rather excellent article from Eat Sleep Live Film’s Garry McConnachie, I picked up Park Chan-Wook’s 2009 vampire flick. Following his quirky, Michel Gondry-like comedy I’m A Cyborg from 2006, Thirst sees the South Korean provocateur return to more sinister territory with a theatrical study of romance, melancholy and the macabre.

Do-gooding priest Sang Hyeon (Song Kang-ho) spends most of his days visiting the hospital beds of parishioners afflicted with a death deducing curse known as Emmanuel Virus. Longing to find life’s purpose, Sang selflessly volunteers to be a guinea pig at an African laboratory dedicated to finding a vaccine.

Sang suffers from blood haemorrhages and skin lesions; close to death’s door, he is resurrected by an emergency blood transfusion, but at what cost? He has become a vampire. A bloodsucking, semi-man of the cloth, Father Sang returns to the hospital he works in to give personal sermons and get access to his cannibalistic vice.

Every Dracula needs an object of desire, and that’s when the Tae-joo (Kim Ok-Bin) drops into his world. The young wife of Sang’s foster brother, he cannot resist his vampiric instincts and longing for companionship, and the pair start up an insidious, haunting and often hilarious romance

In keeping with Park’s previous work with ‘The Vengeance Trilogy’ and I’m A Cyborg, I was totally stunned when I discovered that Thirst had been made on the modest bunch of $5 million. Working so stringently, the Korean auteur manages to deliver the dirty, often crude goods with the help of his gifted cast and crew. Song & Kim make for an unlikely, yet totally capitivating double act. Then there’s the baroque score from Jo Yeong-Wook, dazzling Kubrick-esque cinematography from Chung Chung-Hoon and the grandiose production design work of Ryu Seong-Hie.

Thirst is crammed full with Cronenberg style body horror, vampiric eroticism, Grand Guignol farce and lots, and lots of blood. One nonchalant scene in particular which involves Sang, a flute, and vomiting red stuff is just about the grossest thing I’ve seen all year. But, you know, in a good way.

Indeed, if there’s a problem with Thirst, it’s perhaps that Park bites off more than he can chew. Although it’s 133 minutes may not be completely successful, it’s still ballsy, beautiful and never boring; hitting you in the heart, head and jugular.

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PS – Park’s upcoming movie, Stoker, looks equally unsettling and brilliant. See the trailer here.

#245: In A Lonely Place (1950)

Humphrey Bogart was the First Gentleman of Hollywood’s Golden Age. As much of a superstar as a victim to the industry, the Casablanca actor had a lifelong battle with alcohol, smokes and celebrity. Far from the glitz and glamour, his performance in In a Lonely Place is not only the best of his career, but also the one most painfully close to the fragile man behind that famous hard-boiled exterior.

From Rebel Without a Cause‘s Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place is an intelligent, if a little perplexing picture. Genre-hopping, he adopts the aesthetics and resilient sleuth tropes of film noir with a thwarted love story, finished with a hint of satirical indictment on the hollywood industry.

Much like the Joe Gillis character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. of the same year, Bogie is a washed-up screenwriter by the name of Dixon “Dix” Steele. Falling fast into alcohol-fuelled obscurity, his tired agent Mel (Art Smith) manages to snap up a deal to adapt a trashy bestselling novel. An odious task, Dix has hat-check girl Mildred (Martha Stewart) read the book and tell him the story in her own words during a midnight aperitif at his bachelor pad. A few hours later, Mildred is found dead by the roadside and Dix is a prime suspect; his record of belligerence when angry, macabre sense of humour and blasé outlook on the crime don’t work in his favour. Fortunately enough, lovely neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) gives him an alibi that mutes the investigation for a while. An angel arriving in his darkest of hours, the pair’s unlikely kinship blossoms into a love that is both passionate and destructive.

Adapted from the novel of Dorothy B. Hughes (which is equally marvellous, by the way), Andrew Solt and Edmund H. North not only know how to write  fantastic drama, but they’re unsurprisingly great at creating a complex screenwriter character. Initially, we expect that Dix is an innocent man, but the writing duo manage to get the audience–and the doubtful Laurel–to question the veracity of this emotionally cold and uncaring figure.

Although it could appear as a rather vapid and forgettable film title in the first instinct, it soon becomes apparent that existential isolation and lack of purpose is a key component to the film’s story and production background. Firstly, there’s Dix – a man on the brink of giving up with life until he finds true love. This raw emotion that he has only ever written of overwhelms him and –afraid of that lonely place–Dix desperately tries to control Laurel.

But Laurel is no subordinated housewife, and neither is the magnificently cast Gloria Grahame who manages to toy with melodramatic moments but never oversteps the mark. Perhaps her screen restraint is a product of her fiery and problematic real life relationship with director Nicholas Ray, who reportedly ended up sleeping in the studio dressing room’s after their disclosed separation.

Lastly, we’re back to the start – our beloved Bogie. Sick of being a profitable puppet in the Hollywood system, In a Lonely Place was financed by his own studio, Santana Productions. With more creative freedom comes greater performances, and Bogie is magnetic as Dix, a performance that is better than the film itself. Moving from the cool and charismatic comedian to the threatening and unpredictable maniac, he never loses a trace of that natural screen presence. A true icon, it must feel awful lonely being in a class of your own.

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#242: 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums) (2008)

Narratively slim, 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, in French) is an unflinching relationship drama from one of France’s finest filmmakers Claire Denis. Like all good termite art, its smallness and relatively innocuous appearance conceals a complex, harrowing story which burrows deep into your psyche long after its final shot.

Growing up in French Colonial Africa, the auteur Claire Denis has never shied away from themes of identity, conflict and race. With 35 Shots of Rum, she tackles it directly with the setting of a predominately black community of outer Paris. We first meet Lionel (played with a quiet yet gentle intensity by Alex Descas) a train conductor who is at risk of being edged out of the locomotive business by old age and modernity. He goes home to his daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), a university student who spends time working in a record store and venturing on a somewhat bizarre  who has a somewhat undefined relationship with the wanderlust dreamer living upstairs Noé (Grégoire Colin). The last of our locked-in protagonists is Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), a cab driver and ex-lover of Lionel’s who tries to regain his interest by unconditionally mothering Joséphine. All four characters are wrestling with transition and arrested development, and their relationships with each other.

What is so refreshing in 35 Shots of Rum is that Denis never feels the need to drive home her stories’ motives, exploring human interactions with an uncommon clarity of vision. It all unfurls so plainly with observational scenes made up largely of the silent and wordless interactions of everyday life, a portrait of actuality shot elegantly by Denis’ longtime cinematographer Agnès Godard.

A series of happenings then, it can seem a little languid in places, but the most heartrending moment is also it’s most orchestrated. In an unlikely occurrence that sees all four of them heading to a concert in town, the car breaks down and they are left stranded in a Caribbean diner after hours. Not letting their rain soaked clothes put a dampener on the evening’s festivities, the soulful grooves of The Commodores booms out of the cafe speakers and Noé dances seductively with a less than willing Joséphine. Registering the discomfort on her face, Denis’ lens never averts from the situation, it’s such close character proximity that we only witness previously when her father embraces her in a tender paternal moment. Looking on from the sidelines, a wounded Lionel later dances in the self same way with the diner’s proprietor. We’re not quite sure whether he is doing this out of raw sexual passion, malice or a melange of both, but his intentions are just as distressing for the now motionless Gabrielle watching on; disapproving, embarrassed and jealous of the woman in Lionel’s arms.

As a collaborative artist, Denis becomes the facilitator for a truly compositional movie. Over 1oo minutes, she manages to present four brutally true acting performances, some fantastically unique, body-gazing cinematography and an emotively rich score from Tindersticks’ main-man Stuart Staples.

I’ll avoid the alcoholic/shot/binge drinking quips that are filtering through my head, 35 Shots of Rum deserves better than that. It’s an affecting, unsettling and accomplished movie, sending Denis right to the top of her métier.

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#238: Down by Law (1986)

For some stupid reason or another, I seem to have missed out on Down by Law, the 1986 cult from Wu-Tang Clan fan and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. A fact made even more alarming when it stars a musical hero of mine and renowned Wu-Tang naysayer Tom Waits. Throw in a boat, some bourbon, a hilarious Roberto Benigni and a wisecracking Jarmusch regular by the name of John Lurie and you’ve got yourself a mini masterpiece.

Jim Jarmusch exudes a certain level of cool right from the off with a set of tracking shots filming the barren New Orleans’ landscape filmed from the window of a moving automobile. As if the luscious black-and-white cinematography wasn’t enough, Jarmusch makes this beatnik realm all the more squalid with the addition of Tom Wait’s “Jockey Full of Bourbon” soaking up the soundtrack. Eventually the car fades out and we settle in on a set of characters who are livelier, but only just.

Waits plays Zack, a former late night radio DJ. His scantily clad girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) has had enough of his bummed out lifestyle and throws him out on the street. Changing into his best shoes, he drunkenly wanders around until he is offered a job: to drive a stolen car out of town for $1000, without getting himself, or the incriminating cargo in the car’s boot caught by the police.

Elsewhere in Crescent City, Lurie’s Jack is a small-time pimp headed for the big time. Far from a nice guy, he is unjustly framed by a local business man and arrested for suspicion as a child-sex proprietor. Zack and Jack are thrown into the slammer and shack up in a cell as broken and beaten as their high-flying dreams. As days become weeks, the pair go from brotherly fighting to mutual ignorance, until a third cellmate is thrown into the mix – the Italian tourist Bob (Benigni) whose inquisitive nature and pocketbook of English idioms are set to disrupt the peace.

Plotting their very own ‘Great Escape’ the three flee from prison through the sewers and out into the swamps of rural America, where civilisation is overruled by snakes and alligators. We know that the law is on their tails, but it never feels like they’re in any true danger. This is just another stage in their ongoing journey to the next destination, and the kindling to their unlikely friendship.

Enigmatic figures away from the screen, Waits and Lurie play themselves as macho, grunting beatniks. But Down by Law moments of hilarity come from the spectacularly silly performance from the now-crestfallen Roberto Benigni as the affable and surprisingly practical Bob. Hatching the jailbreak, catching their swap dinner and starting the fire, he injects some life into Zack and Jack and keeps them, and the film altogether, from turning too dour. 

Just over twenty-five years young, Jarmusch’s familiar black-and-white style has transcended time and space. But never before have I seen it all look so purely cinematic. The opening in New Orleans presents the extravagant idiots as products of this film-noir world, with cinematographer Robby Müller (Dead Man) making all their ugliness so striking with bizarrely-angled close-ups. Müller continues to amaze by expanding the frame later on with luscious landscape shots of the wastelands our three men in a boat find themselves trapped in.

Much like his Finnish counterpart Aki Kaurismaki, Jarmusch has always been a genre-bender; here idosyncratically mixing a little bit of muted gritty drama, mood piece and bleak comedy. A remarkable third feature, Down by Law doesn’t portray a filmmaker still carving out a niche, but an auteur that had already arrived.

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