In a field of its own

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We are gathered here today to celebrate what I’m going to have to go out on a critical limb and call “the genius” of Ben Wheatley. I have never met the man – although I’d like to – but his work has given me much to chew on since making his no-budget debut in 2009 with Down Terrace. I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t see this at the time, but the sizzle it created drove me to Kill List in 2011, which sealed the deal. (And I’ve seen Down Terrace since, on the telly, which is herewith significant. This means I have discovered Wheatley in the wrong order, but I plan to atone for that sin.)

A Field In England comes only about seven months after the aggressively marketed release of Sightseers, one of my Top 10 films of 2012. (I put Kill List into my Top 10 of 2011.) How can this be? It’s a faster turnaround than Woody Allen. Well, A Field In England is a little different. It’s not as if Kill List or Sightseers were CGI-dependent blockbusters, but A Field is more like a first feature than a fourth, in that it’s been shot on a shoestring in a single location and has a principal cast of five. (It’s difficult to get hard numbers, but it looks as if this cost £300,000, compared to Kill List‘s £500,000. It doesn’t take a studio accountant’s understanding of the film business to know that this is not very much.)

What’s actually unique about the film isn’t the film, but its release. It made history on Friday when it debuted at selected arthouse cinemas, on DVD, on-demand and, most thrillingly, on free-to-air TV (namely, Film4). I say “thrilling” not just because a film this earthy should by rights be seen terrestrially, but because Freeview is surely the riskiest channel, as it were: it’s tantamount to inviting people to see it for nothing. As a film writer, I am able to see films for free, but often choose to see them at the cinema, where I pay for them, so I hope I haven’t scuppered the experiment by watching it on Film4. Having seen the trailer at the cinema a number of times, I know that Laurie Rose’s black-and-white cinematography is stunning, and merits a larger canvas. (It’s also pretty amazing on a small screen, at once making this 17th century period piece seem old and musty, yet digital-clarity new.)

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

Even Sightseers, Wheatley’s most accessible film, is challenging viewing. And that’s all to the good. But you’d have to say that A Field is his most “difficult” work, despite feeling more formal in certain ways. It’s not going to be for everyone, and nor, one suspects, is Wheatley (until he sells out and directs an X-Men movie!), and there are moments here that descend, or ascend, into hallucinogenic experimentalism. It’s a history play only in that it cleaves to 17th century-sounding speech patterns and makes a backdrop of the Civil War against which our four deserters embark upon a misadventure into witchcraft.

Reece Shearsmith is impeccable as the scholar on the run from his master, the “coward” who cannot handle weapons who succumbs to the orders of Michael Smiley’s Irish alchemist. If I tell you that the other four men literally drag the talismanic Smiley into the field by pulling on a thick rope, you’ll have to run with it. This field is one from which there is no escape, ringed as it is by a forcefield of magic mushrooms that cannot be crossed. Shearsmith, who at one point seems to fall under Smiley’s spell and becomes a divining rod for buried treasure, is captive of a soldier who believes he can reach a fabled alehouse, but too gets distracted by Smiley’s promise of riches. You may not recognise actors Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope and Richard Glover, but you’ll have glimpsed all in various character roles (Ferdinando was in The Mimic; Pope in Ideal, which Wheatley directed; Glover in Sightseers), and all immerse themelves here, looking suitably mud- and shit-stained.

There is violence. There are visions. There is cruelty. There is scatology. There is humour. But how to categorise a film whose visual and thematic reference points – so exhaustively catalogued by Kim Newman in Sound & Sound – range from Peter Watkins’ Culloden to Witchfinder General? What Wheatley and his screenwriting/editing wife Amy Jump have created here is something new. How often does that happen in a medium that sometimes – like pop music – feels exhausted of possibility? I found myself transfixed, not just by the imagery, and the down-and-dirty acting, and the vast leaps between dots that refused to join up, but by the decision to have the actors form still-life tableaux, and by the music from Martin Pavey and Jim Williams, which blended ancient folk song with rumbling unease.

Wheatley’s career does not hinge upon the success of A Field In England, as it’s Film4’s pioneering experiment (or, more specifically, that of its innovative Film4.0 arm), not his, but the collision of one couple’s oddball vision and one company’s equally groundbreaking business plan, strikes me as vital and encouraging. (You know how much the current government hates the arts, except for the bits of the arts it does like? This feels like a bit they won’t ever like, and for that reason, it matters.)

While interviewing Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright last week, we fell into discussion (for self-evident reasons) about films you could watch again and again. I watch a lot of films, and I have long concluded that some films are perfectly good, and not theft of two hours of your life, but at the same time you never need to see them again. Ben Wheatley’s films demand to be seen again.

It’s good to get that down in black and white.

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Writer’s blog: Week 23, Thursday

Secrecy, pilots, filth, Clash songs, film maths and the Stone Roses …

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I spoke to my Dad on the telephone yesterday (with Mum in the background), and he said that they’d assumed I was busy as I hadn’t blogged much recently. It’s cool that they understand how this works. It’s a Thursday. I am still busy, attempting to panel-beat this latest pilot sitcom script into a recognisable shape, but I’ve just this moment sent off the latest draft of a remodelled story breakdown, from which to build the second draft of the script.

It’s weird; I read a Guardian blog yesterday by Caitlin Moran in which she talked us through the entire set-up of the pilot of her first, autobiographical sitcom, Raised By Wolves, which is being developed by Big Talk and co-written with her sister. If you follow Richard Herring’s daily Warming Up blog, you’ll be well up to speed on the content and progress of his latest pilot, Ra-Ra Rasputin, too. The British Comedy Guide publish an exhaustive, constantly updated list of all the comedy pilots currently in development with the proviso, “most pilots are never seen”. There are about 80 at present. It makes depressing reading if you’re in the business of developing comedy with a view to it ever “being seen.”

It’s possible that I am alone in never revealing the details of projects I have in development, for fear of jinxing them. Am I simply superstitious? Or realistic? I was at a social gathering on Saturday night and the question, “What are you working on?” came up. I explained in basic terms what my sitcom was about to the person who asked me, with the same proviso, “It may never get made.” This is the business I work in. (When, in 2005, I “helped” Lee Mack develop Not Going Out – his phrase – we actually shot a non-broadcast pilot at Thames, with a studio audience and a fully functioning set, with no guarantee that the show would be commissioned to series. It was, so we re-cast, re-wrote and re-shot that episode.)

Anyway, if I mentioned the title of my sitcom, or the broadcaster, or production company who are funding its development, I guess it would be in the public domain and would go onto the demoralising British Comedy Guide list. On points, I’d rather keep it to myself. Needless to say, it’s a largely solitary process, with occasional bursts of feedback with actual other human beings, and by turns enjoyable and dispiriting. But you fight on. Because I am waiting for my two immediate managers to sign off on the new story, I am reluctant to forge on with the new script. So I’m writing a blog about not writing a sitcom instead.

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So, what other stuff have I been doing that’s not shrouded in superstitious secrecy? I saw the new Irvine Welsh film, Filth, last night, although it’s not out until October, so I’m not sure reviewing it would be the done thing. I don’t mind revealing that it features perhaps James McAvoy’s best performance in front of a camera, certainly one that’s vanity-free, as his character, the depraved Edinburgh detective Bruce Robertson, descends into a private hell before our very eyes. Welsh was at the screening, and got up to introduce the film, by saying, “I hate these preambles … so why don’t we all just watch the fucking film?” (The director Jon Baird was also in attendance, and one of the stars, the mighty John Sessions.) I’m interviewing Welsh tomorrow, and looking forward to it.

While we’re on the subject of development, if you’re lucky, your pilot will move from the British Comedy Guide’s pilots list to its new comedy list, where shows “in production” are logged. (There are fewer shows in production than at pilot stage, although by their rules because the pilot of Raised By Wolves is being made, it counts as “in production”, which it sort of isn’t, strictly.) I am more cheered by this list as two shows I’ve script-edited are included: Badults, the six-ep Pappy’s sitcom which is shot and edited and ready to go on BBC3 in July, and the Greg Davies vehicle for C4, Man Down, whose pilot I script-edited and whose title I came up with – fame, autographs later etc.! (I may or may not be editing the series, we shall see, but I’d like to.) What I will say for Badults and BBC3 is that it was commissioned last August, while we were all in Edinburgh, and that’s a pretty rapid turnaround from script meeting to edit suite, so let’s all be grateful for that.

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I have become obsessed with Springwatch on BBC2 and, in particular, presenter Chris Packham’s now-traditional song titles game. In previous years he’s slipped in titles by the Smiths, the Manics and the Cure; this year, it turns out, it’s the Clash. I managed to pick up on five on Monday night, but, by contacting him via the miracle of Twitter, was able to establish with the man himself that there were nine! (That said, two of them were 48 Hours and Deny, which do not leap out of a link in the same way that Drug-Stabbing Time does.) I’m enjoying the rest of the content – birds in reedbeds, weasels raiding nests, sandhoppers under seaweed – but it’s the Clash songs that are keeping me on the edge of my seat.

I am keeping a watertight register of all the films I see this year, new and old. We are nearing the end of May and this is what the month looks like with a day to go:

The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Fast & Furious 6 | Justin Lin | US
The Eye Of The Storm | Fred Schepisi | Australia
I’m So Excited | Pedro Almodóvar | Spain
Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
Star Trek Into Darkness | JJ Abrams | US
Rockshow | Paul McCartney | US
The Great Gatsby | Baz Luhrmann | Australia/US
Miracle | Gavin O’Connor | US
The Hangover Part III | Todd Philips | US
Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Filth | Jon Baird | UK

That means 11 new films (some of which have yet to be released), and two old ones: coincidentally, the Wings concert film Rockshow, originally released in 1980 but shown at the Curzon; and Miracle, a 2004 Disney movie about the American ice hockey victory over Russia at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, a politically charged event I learned about on an American National Geographic documentary about the 80s. Not a storming total, 13, compared to the 23 I saw in January and the 20 I saw in March, but should you care, that means I’ve seen 78 films this year so far. But never mind the quantity, feel the breadth! I’m all about variety and it’s usually the smaller, not necessarily English-speaking films that give the most sustenance. (Not a vintage month in this regard, May; in April I went to Russia, Denmark, Israel, Argentina and Ireland.) I wish I’d never seen The Hangover Part III, for instance; the experience subtracted from my total life experience.

The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films

When I was teenager, and first becoming obsessed with films, I started to log them in my diary. At this stage, it was mostly films I’d seen on telly, or on video, and so voracious was my appetite – fuelled by filmographies in assorted film books, like The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The World’s Great Movie Stars And Their Films, which I got for my 15th birthday, or David Quinlan’s Illustrated Directory of Film Stars, which I got for Christmas in 1981 – a film’s age did not matter. Bring on the films, old and new! Thus it is written that I saw a total of 83 films in 1980, the year my cinephilia almost eclipsed my love of punk rock. My final tally for 1981 would be 121 films. In 1982, when video rental really kicked in, it was 144, and in 1983, I managed a storming 175. As I wrote in Where Did It All Go Right?, I have never stopped being proud of myself for this intense self-education.

As today is the day that Shane Meadows’ Stone Roses documentary Made Of Stone premieres, beamed around selected arthouses by satellite (it goes on general release on June 5), I thought I’d reprint an expanded cut of the review I wrote for Radio Times.

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Shane Meadows, a teenage fan when the Stone Roses shook the world with their potent blend of psychedelic rock and swaggering Mancunian groove in the late 80s and early 90s, never saw them live. Thus, this potentially conventional feature-length chronicle of their 2011-12 reunion becomes something more personal. Shadowing the well-preserved four-piece on the road to triumphant shows at Greater Manchester’s Heaton Park – via bonhomie-fuelled rehearsals, a joyous secret gig in Warrington and some bumpy European warm-ups – Meadows gains access-all-areas, his camera often skulking in corridor and dressing room. The band are at the top of their game, musically (and the sound mix does them proud), but Meadows puts the largely middle-aged fans centre stage; their heartwarming stories dominating the Warrington section as grown men leave jobs, families and errands to get in the queue for a golden wristband. Eschewing obligatory talking heads (backstory is told via archive interview, with some genuinely unseen home movie footage), artfully moving between crisp monochrome and glorious colour, and with footnotes-to-camera by the wide-eyed director himself, Made Of Stone replaces hagiography with infectious empathy. A witty, honest and valuable tribute.

Raymond reviews: bah!

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Well, I went in to see The Look Of Love with expectations at ankle-height thanks to all the below-par reviews, which ran the gamut from lukewarm to cold-shower, enough to give anyone a winter bottom. A straightforward biopic of Soho porn baron and property magnate Paul Raymond, built, or so it seemed, around Steve Coogan’s desire to impersonate him (which he does well), and regular collaborator Michael Winterbottom’s desire to capture to pre-enlightenment days of London’s former sex district, The Look Of Love turned out to be very good.

Maybe the critics turned on it because it seemed to arrive rather engorged with self-confidence, as if asking to be pulled down a peg or two. (The string of TV comedy cameos – David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Miles Jupp, Stephen Fry – may have added to the perceived smugness.) Both Coogan and Winterbottom are prolific, and much admired, so it’s easy to knock them while celebrating their other triumphs. So, too, with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Control, which was feted across the board and given a Bafta, and Nowhere Boy. I actually wondered if I was going to love it after seeing the trailer; it had the hallmarks of being “perfunctory”, as many reviewers maintain that it is. I respectfully disagree with them all.

Aside from David Sexton’s virtual lone voice of praise in the London Evening Standard (well, it is a very “London” film), few could even strain up to a three-star rating. Philip French of the Observer called it “crude”, “shallow” and complained that Raymond’s world and life lacked illumination by a “larger social context”. He also said it lacked “wit … insight and … detail”. Our own Stella Papamichael in Radio Times named Winterbottom “a co-conspirator in Raymond’s objectification of women.” Emma Jones in the Independent reported from Sundance, saying it “lacked soul” and calling it “an interminably dull orgy”, but at least recognised that this was probably Winterbottom’s intention. Tim Robey in the Telegraph, another trustworthy critic, used the words “perfunctory” and “hollow”, not to mention “flaccid”, and wondered aloud what Scorsese would have made of it. (Again, he’s clever enough to spot that a British porn baron’s tale is never going to have the crackle of Boogie Nights or Larry Flynt.)  The Mail‘s Chris Tookey stamped it a “turkey” and called it “unobservant, unerotic and dull,” and went further with “dishonest”. Though only awarding three stars, Empire at least identified its “healthy sense of naffness.”

Maybe that’s the problem, although not a problem for me: it does not make apologies for Raymond, as he rises from “entertainer” to impressario, and makes his money through property and pornography. He is plainly depicted as a cad and a sexual cheat, unfaithful in a sort of industrial manner to his first wife (Anna Friel) and his live-in girlfriend Fiona Richmond (a frequently nude Tamsin Egerton) by decree. Yes, he took a showgirl for his wife. Greenhalgh’s script presents Raymond as a man of natural charisma and wit, but doesn’t deify him; he made his living in a sleazy business in what was a sleazy part of town (“welcome to my world of erotica”), using tits to put bums on seats in theatrical sex farce and disrobed revue alike, always pushing against the boundaries of what the Lord Chamberlain allowed.

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If he was any part of a libertarian or champion of free artistic impression, this is soon eclipsed by his greed for more flesh as he buys into Men Only (whose coke-snorting editor, Tony Power, is skilfully played by Chris Addison, for whom The Look Of Love may provide a more fruitful shopfront than it ever could for the better-established Coogan, whose Raymond does brings to mind an X-rated combination of Partridge and, as per The Trip, Coogan). It’s grubby stuff, mostly, with any glamour tarnished by a combination of 60s and especially 70s naffness (the space-age telly watched by the almost-beaten 90s Raymond after his daughter’s sad death, brilliantly encapsulates the datedness of that metropolitan notion of James Bond cool that only James Bond could pull off).

In terms of the randy threesomes and the magnetic pull of the shag-pile boudoir, you get the sense that Coogan understands this self-destructive cock-led compulsion. The constant refrain of “house champagne” is a nifty way of exposing the cheapness beneath the largesse. (Raymond does keep insisting he’s the boy from Liverpool who arrived in London with “three bob” in his pocket.) If anything, on occasion, Coogan possibly makes Raymond too amusing and suave, in what must be improvised scenes, including impressions of Brando and Connery. (Maybe he was an excellent mimic, but I doubt as adept as Coogan!)

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It’s not life-changing. It is, deliberately, unerotic. And it doesn’t tell us anything new about the history of porn, which was done with more seriousness when Our Friends In The North ventured down south. But at least, for all the flesh on display – including a 70s-appropriate bush of pubic hair that’s foregrounded purely for reasons of nostalgia! – it features a strong, driven, successful woman in Richmond, through whom Egerton rises above the exploitation of her own body and compensates for all the insipid, giggling dollybirds, as they used to be called.

If it has anything to say, it’s that a vast property portfolio, enough money and assets to be named the richest man in Britain at his peak (and before the foreign money took over), doesn’t bring happiness. You’ll still be trying to impress people by telling them that Ringo Starr designed your flat (which Raymond does), and measuring your worth via notches on the bedpost. Raymond ends the film sad and introspective, and minus his beloved daughter (Imogen Poots, who steals much of the film with her rounded, likeable, unspoilt portrayal of a beneficiary of nepotism who rose above it, only to fall victim to cocaine and heroin abuse).

It may sound glib to say it’s a bit of fun, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Winterbottom shoots on the hoof, keeping budgets low, on location (Londoners will love, as I did, the sightseeing aspect), and encourages improv, and while Raymond’s story doesn’t have the innate cool or bangin’ soundtrack of 24 Hour Party People, he may happily file The Look Of Love alongside: a breezy portrait of an essentially naff English success story who charmed his way through a number of scams and left his mark. It’s a bit of a useless title, and it’s a pity Ramond’s estate owned the rights to its intended one, The King Of Soho. What about 24 Hour Porno Person?

The world at war

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Two films at the weekend which I intend to line up for arbitrary comparison because they are both new, both are foreign language and both were premiered at Cannes last year, where they competed in parallel for the Palme d’Or and Un Certain Regard: from Russia, In The Fog, or В тумане, and from Argentina, White Elephant or Elefante blanco.

They formed a sublime, if challenging and counterintuitive double-bill for me at the Renoir, a subterranean refuge from a sunny Sunday afternoon in London’s Bloomsbury. A barbecue and a beer are not the only ways to celebrate the late arrival of spring; you can retreat underground, on your own, and immerse yourself in Russian and South American poverty. Each to their own!

In The Fog first, a long and courageously ponderous fable set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during the Second World War; 1942, to be precise, where the hanging of three partisans sets the scene in an apparently unbroken tracking shot that discreetly turns away from the moment of death and alights upon a cart piled high with bones instead (animal bones, but you get the idea). Such is the skill and precision of relatively new Belarusian feature director Sergei Loznitsa announced. He previously worked on documentaries, but despite the handheld opening, do not expect a story built with the improvised looseness of photojournalism. In The Fog is in many ways a formal piece, in which three central characters move slowly through the forest, their individual backstories illustrated in flashback.

Not much happens. In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Waiting For Godot. The three main characters seem also to be archetypes, the central protagonist, Sushenya, played by Vladimir Svirskiy, a stoically noble and fatalistic embodiment of the Russian spirit, perhaps. (I am no student of Russian classical literature – this film was based on a 1989 novel by Vasil’ Bykaw – but I’ve seen the films, and I get a sense of the ideological and political forces that shape the national temperament, particularly in times of war or struggle.) There are few laughs to be had – alright, none – this is a fable of death and punishment and separation and hardship. An early scene has one partisan emptying his boots of water and squeezing out his sodden socks, which seems to sum the film up.

Sushenya’s wife, from whose comfort he is taken early on in the film (he also leaves behind the carved wooden animals he made for his young son and the warm bathwater), begs him to take food when he is called in for questioning by two partisans after a fatal misunderstanding. She suggests some lard, or an onion (“Everything tastes better with an onion”); again, this sets the tone of humility and gratitude for only the bare basics of subsistence living in occupied Belarus. It’s hard going. Between the occasional bursts of action, it’s largely men in hats murmuring in a forest. But it feels oddly poetic and certainly measured and sincere, and although the Nazi occupiers are clearly the “baddies”, the internecine conflicts between partisans and collaborators make it morally ambiguous. My favourite kind of cinematic morality.

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For the far more conventional but no less stimulating White Elephant, writer-producer-director Pablo Trapero, who made last year’s memorable ambulance-chasing thriller Carancho (released in Argentina in 2010 but released here last year, and also Cannes-selected), returns to Buenos Aires and to the two excellent stars of that film for a more socially conscious piece about “slum priests”. Ricardo Darín, a big star at home and familiar to international audiences from Nine Queens and The Secrets In Their Eyes, is a likeably crumpled presence with a twinkle in his eyes, here playing what we would call a “community leader” in a shanty town that has grown, like mould, around an abandoned hospital project. (I think I’m right in saying that this is the Ciudad Oculta in real life – it’s clearly a genuine location and the shell of a hospital makes a striking image throughout, a hollowed-out symbol of civic failure and economic collapse – instead of making people better, it houses self-destructive drug addicts.)

We first meet Darín’s Father Julián, a selfless, tireless beacon of commonsense and charity among the dispossessed who live in the slum, when he fetches the younger, Belgian priest, Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) back from a horrific paramilitary massacre at a jungle mission. His own mission is to train up the junior to eventually take his place. It’s a nice touch to show the real-life memorial to Fr Carlos Mujica, shot – and martyred – in 1974; his sanctified spirit lives in Julián, although he cannot perform miracles and make the inevitable drug war go away.

If you’ve seen the Brazilian film City Of God, set in Rio, you’ll know the fatal, bullet-riddled milieu and will not be surprised to see young kids at the centre of it. One school-age addict, Monito (Federico Barga), forms a focus for the priests’ efforts to stem the body count, although their techniques differ: the older priest wants to stay out of the politics of the drug trade, the younger wants to get his hands dirty. Disaster this way comes.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot. The director’s wife and co-producer, Martina Gusman, who was so vital as the flawed emergency-room doctor in Carancho, plays a dedicated but non-Catholic social worker trying to get new housing built, a key player in the conflict between the priests. White Elephant has the same liberal, do-gooder feel as any number of white British or American films about aid workers in Africa, but without the colonial guilt. These slums are local problems on the doorstep of Buenos Aires, and there is something terribly old-fashioned about the Church having to solve society’s ills. The easy banter of the volunteers, and the law-abiding citizens (many of whom must be non-actors) stops it being too earnest or grim, although the conclusion feels a little bit Hollywood.

Still, another important glimpse of life during wartime.

Glock holiday

Spring-Breakers

Spring Breakers, the new sensation from Harmony Korine of Kids, Gummo and Trash Humpers infamy, reminds us once again how different American youth culture is from our own, no matter how hegemonic and irresistible its occupation feels, as our defences fall like pathetic dominoes before exported concepts like prom night, seasons, sweet sixteens, EDM, “Can I get …?” and local elections for police chiefs. Lord, save us from Spring Break. Were this film to be set in this country – or in Ayia Napa, Ibiza or whatever latest fleshpot British sixth-formers and gap-yearers flock to for sun, sex and sexually transmitted disease – it would be called The Easter Holidays. Not quite as alluring, is it?

The very phrase, “Spring Break … Spring Break,” is uttered again and again through Spring Breakers like a mantra, as if it’s Mecca or Oz calling, as opposed to Florida. The film, whose sense of occasion is never in doubt, even if its motives are, depicts a beach babe bingo Bacchanalia, the kind seen in rap videos, or, these days, cameraphone footage, where arse-cellulite vibrates to booming bass, liquid refreshment is siphoned through rubber tubes or simply applied to the skin, and flesh is fancifully fried like a human barbecue. It’s Club 18-30 without a rep in sight.

I have never been on a holiday like this. But you have to hand it to Korine, who’s 40 now: he “gets” what goes on away from prying parental eyes between the second and third semester, and it looks for all the world like the one captured in The Inbetweeners Movie, except without the bidet jokes and the failure to score drugs or have sex.

The music – “Electronic Dance Music” or EDM, the umbrella term over there for house, techno and/or dubstep, so it seems – is key, as it doesn’t just soundtrack these adventures in the skin trade, it provides the pounding, pulsing rhythm of their all-out, non-stop, heads-down hedonism. During their Easter hols, pleasure is their guiding principle and nothing else. If that pleasure might require danger to spice it – cocaine, armed robbery, drive-bys, premeditated murder – so be it. A quick call home to Mom and Dad will cover the cracks. (The wilder this vacation gets, the more demure, innocent and spiritual the calls home become.)

The girls whose story is told in Spring Breakers are played by previously wholesome Mouseketeer types – inspired casting, if you know their CVs, which I’m afraid I didn’t – Candy is Vanessa Hudgens, previously known for High School Musical, Brit is Ashley Benson from Days Of Our Lives, Cotty is the director’s wife Rachel, whose background is less apple-pie, and Faith is Selina Gomez, as famous for being the ex of “the famous pop singer who likes Anne Frank” as being in Disney’s Wizards Of Waverly Place. They are spring broke at the end of term and are forced to rob a Chicken Shack to afford the trip to Tampa, where the action is.

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I’m no student of Korine’s work, but I understand that this is being marketed as his most accessible film. It certainly may appeal on a base level to – presumably – the spring breakers whose hedonism it surely seeks to satirise and critique. I certainly felt, at the outset – and the film is a compelling riot of colour, music and movement – that we were in for a debunking of the moral and intellectual vacuum occupied by moneyed American teens. When the film takes its inevitable darker turn – when the Miami PD turn up, basically – and this particularly thin American dream morphs into a nightmare, I thought I knew what was going on.

But, without giving away the plot (such as it is; Spring Breakers feels like a dream sequence unmoored from hard reality come the final reel), Korine winds up complicit in MTV-gangsta-rap fantasies.There may be a price to pay for earlier pleasure-seeking, but there is little redemption or comeuppance.

Although full of flesh, and dictated by a rhythm of grinding hips and bottoms, it’s not as sexually explicit as you might expect, and Selina Gomez, in particular, does not do as much to shock or scorch her own image, as, say, Benson or Hudgens, but as far as you can tell, very little actual sex takes places. Maybe this is a comment? That the lifestyle is all bump and grind and no sexual congress?

If the film is a comment upon “Spring Break” itself, I would argue that, in the end, it’s not much of one. In its favour, it is visually splendid, however, all bright pinks and pastel oranges (and that’s just the skin tones etc.), and runs on a pretty persuasive energy. And James Franco is, as well as unrecognisable, thrilling in the main male role of silver-toothed charmer Alien, a drug dealer who manages to be appealing as well as repellent. His “Look at my shit!” speech, surely improvised by Franco, is a highlight of the film.

The needles and the damage done

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I hope you are able to see The Place Beyond The Pines without finding out too much in advance about how the story plays out. I innocently read the review by the seasoned and should-know-better David Denby in the New Yorker and found out exactly what happens in it. (I’ve read long-form reviews in UK publications, such as Philip French’s in the Observer, where the writer has expertly skirted around one key issue, so it can be done with discretion.) To be honest, it’s still a fine film, in my opinion. But the less you know the better.

It’s a melodrama, and that’s not anything like a criticism. I would argue that the definitive films noirs are melodramas, and this third feature from writer-director Derek Cianfrance (I never saw his first, but my review of Blue Valentine is here) certainly fits into that approximate genre. It’s also a grand family saga. It has the feel of an old-fashioned American miniseries, something like Rich Man, Poor Man, which older readers may remember fondly.

Because it’s showing at the Curzon, which is a small arthouse chain of which I am an enthusiastic member, I have to put up with the same fairly narrow range of trailers on a loop each time I visit. The Place Beyond The Pines has a striking trailer, in which Ryan Gosling is revealed as a stunt motorcycle rider (as opposed to the stunt car driver in Drive) and the father of Eve Mendes’ baby son, which he wishes to support. The trailer also reveals that robbing a bank is what he does to raise some funds, and that Bradley Cooper’s cop in some way confounds this plan. I commented to my friend Lucy that it gives too much away, but, having seen it, she assured me that it doesn’t.

So … the bare bones of the film – sexy images, by and large, of the main protagonists – are all that we who have seen the trailer actually know about The Place Beyond The Pines. Unless we have read David Denby. I tell you this so that, if you intend to see it, you avoid reading any more reviews (although you’re safe to read on here). The trailer gives away only half the picture. It’s a very clever trailer.

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And it’s a very ambitious film. Indie by nature, it ticks the credibility boxes by casting Gosling in the lead, but casting him opposite Bradley Cooper, who is a much more mainstream star, with cred of his own after Silver Linings Playbook. (Gosling started out as a cool actor in challenging stuff like The Believer and Half Nelson, but his commercial appeal grew, whereas Cooper hit big with broad-appeal movies like The A-Team and The Hangover and has been working hard to improve his licks, which is bearing fruit.) It’s a film about men, and these two are the men it’s mainly about, but not exclusively.

With its diners, carnivals, trailers, auto shops, car lots and 1st National banks, it’s almost a caricature of smalltown America as seen in the movies – as such it takes on mythic properties, and is lovingly shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose beautiful work you’ve already seen in Hunger and Shame. Set and shot in and around the former Mohawk settlement Schenectady, it has a realism of place that’s hard to replicate, and despite the melodrama unfolding within it, it lends authenticity to the performances, which might otherwise tip into camp. (Many have likened Gosling’s brooding brute in a white t-shirt to Marlon Brando in his ape-like prime, and you can see where they’re heading.)

I think I bought into the film more than other critics, who’ve variously questioned the length (it’s two hours and 20 minutes, which is long for an indie), the third act (of which too much must not be spoken for fear of neutering its revelations), the paucity of anything much to do for the decent female actors (Rose Byrne is underused, too) and Cianfrance’s lack of control with the material as it expands outwards. I forgive it these sins. It’s bold, high-minded American cinema that isn’t afraid of having a character stop at a crossroads on his motorbike and fail to respond to a green light at the point when he is at a crossroads in his life. Neither is it afraid of visual rhymes – again, which should be savoured without me listing them here – or big themes like fatherhood and honour and, just maybe, the poisoning of the American dream.

Oh, and the music is superb. The score is by Mike Patton, formerly of Faith No More, and its haunting theme, The Snow Angel, pressed into effective service for the trailer, is a pre-existing tune written for a previous film, but no less fitting for it. There are also numbers by Bruce Springsteen, Suicide and Hall & Oates, and some passages by Arvo Part. It’s all put together with maximum care and attention. (And Hall & Oates’ Maneater has a hook in an earlier line of dialogue, it’s not just a hit song for its own sake.)

This and Compliance are my favourite American films of the post-Oscars year so far.

You’ve been shamed

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Wow, this is a film with a takeaway message. Compliance is an American. Sundance-stamped indie from writer-director Craig Zobel, who’s pretty new to feature films (and totally new to me), and it’s surely the talking-point movie of the year. I’m going to do everything in my power not to give too much of the story away, as the experience of watching it unfold is devastating, and all the more so for not knowing how far it’s going to go.

Based on true events, conflating a number of hoax calls to fast-food restaurants in America and one particular case at a McDonald’s in Kentucky that went to trial in 2004 (I knew nothing about these appalling “pranks”), it takes place over a day in the working life of an Ohio chain fast-food restaurant, fictionalised as ChickWich. Shot in a real restaurant, with fake livery, Compliance is a realist study in human nature, in particular the worst recesses of it. We begin the day with a meeting of the outlet’s small staff, led by middle-aged manager Sandra (a totally convincing Ann Dowd, who’s played “the mother” in so many films and TV shows you’ll feel you know her already). She’s not a jobsworth in the worst sense, but she’s a franchise boss, and as such exists in deference to a managerial supply chain that goes right up to “Corporate”. She’s already on the back foot for a batch of bacon that’s been spoiled due to a freezer not being closed properly, and she’s not about to break any protocols.

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A call comes in, once the working day is underway (it’s a Friday, it’s a busy day, adding to the stress of Sandra’s lot), apparently from a police officer, Daniels, who claims he has the regional manager on the other line and a customer with him who swears she had money stolen from her purse by one of the counter staff. He describes her as young, female, blonde … and Sandra does the rest, offering up Becky (Dreama Walker – you may recognise her as Zach’s girlfriend from seasons one and two of The Good Wife). We’ve seen some tension between the older, unmarried manager and the young, sexually promiscuous server (Sandra boasted of her fiancé “sexting” her after Becky revealed she has three boyfriends on the go, and Becky and a workmate were overheard mocking her).

From here, the situation builds to a grim, depressing crescendo. (When Sandra reports the story back to anyone, she mistakenly says that Officer Daniels knew Becky’s name; we know that Sandra gave him the name.) Daniels remains on the line while Sandra is instructed to apprehend Becky and take her into a back room where she is to be held until the police arrive. Daniels, authoritative and gruff, flatters Sandra and imbues her with a sense of civic responsibility, as well as subtly filling her with fear: for her own job, for punishment from head office, and for the consequences of standing in the way of a broader police inquiry into Becky. Sandra becomes the willing accomplice in the caller’s crime. It is no spoiler to reveal that “Officer Daniels” may not be an officer at all, and as the “prank” (more of a sadistic social experiment, you surmise) escalates, along with the blameless and cowed Becky’s humiliation, we the audience becomes suspicious and eventually learn things that – in a skilfully constructed script – various characters are not party to.

The acting is naturalistic and all the more haunting for it. I must admit, I had my face in my hands at the more uncomfortable parts. It’s been a while since I was so glued to the screen and affected by what I was seeing. You buy into the fact that this is really happening. Sandra remains calm, and compliant, while other staff react in different ways to what Daniels requires of them, as the phone is passed around, and a busy Friday at ChickWich grinds on. Zobel seems to be offering a critique of fast-food and corporate culture in America, constantly cutting from the back room to actuality of the burgers being chomped down out of their waxed-paper wrappers and shakes being vacuumed up from brightly-decorated pails.

It may seem a soft target, junk food, but Zobel isn’t criticising the individuals who choose to put something called a “cookies and cream shake” into their fat faces, but the system that has mechanised our eating habits into one big battery farm, with ample car parking out front. The music, by Heather McIntosh, is stealthily built from deep, melancholy strings, lending a tragic inevitability to the events that occur, and a poignancy to Zobel’s regular, beautifully-framed stills of discarded cups in puddles, ploughed snow, bent drinking straws.

You won’t see what’s coming. And you won’t guess the way the denouement to the crisis plays out, but it’s not a thriller in the conventional sense. You’ll wish it was a fantasy, but, apparently, it’s not. Even if it was a pure fiction, and had never happened, you’d start to wonder if it could.

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I defy you to see Compliance and not still be thinking about the what-ifs days later. It’s hard to watch at some points, but not because, like other films that seek to shock, it involves seeing somebody having their skull caved in – the fashionable money-shot of our times. The violence herein is not gory, or heightened, it is subtle, insidious, terrifying in its banality, disturbing because of the brightly strip-lit surroundings of a fast-food joint’s unlovely office, and all the more horrific for largely happening away from our prying eyes. Bravo to Walker for an uninhibited performance – this was a brave role to take, especially when one audience member at the Sundance Q&A seemed to imply that Zobel had effectively exploited her and another accused him of (beware spoilers in this link) “making violence against women entertaining.” He hasn’t. This is not “entertaining” in the traditional sense.

Some will say that Becky is weak. But she is young, and she is in fear for her job, and if you accept that she believes Officer Daniels is legit and that his threats are real, you have to wonder what you might do in the same ugly, disorienting circumstances. Go and see this film. It’s difficult to get too specific without spoiling it. (Incidentally, I’d read Hannah McGill’s long and thoughtful review in Sight & Sound – not available online – and knew the whole plot, but as I say, my heart was in my mouth nonetheless.)

Big Mac, lies to go.

 

PS: Do not read this is you haven’t seen the film, but there’s a Wikipedia entry about the real-life prank calls, including the one in Kentucky in 2004 that formed the basis of Compliance. It makes the film more disturbing that it actually happened, not less. Shame on McDonald’s, too.