After a one-week hiatus to facilitate my coverage of the Irish Film Institute’s annual Horrorthon, This Week on Demand is back with November’s primary content surge plus a brief selection of the very best titles missed out on last week. As first-of-the-month batches go, this is perhaps the weakest we’ve seen so far; there is here a strong selection of good and great movies to enjoy, but not nearly so many in number as prior months: for once, the new month has started in curiously manageable fashion. It’s a relatively even balance this week, weighted in favour of New Hollywood classics, but also incorporating a brief foray into Irish cinema, ‘90s independent features, and a trio of shiny new foreign releases, with this year’s Best Picture winner included among a strong pool of Oscar gold.
Conceived and scripted during a period of difficulty in the formulation of Miller’s Crossing, the Coen Brothers’ follow-up is one of the quintessential cinematic texts on the subject of writing: a glorious metatextual tome steeped in allegorical significance and defiantly straddling several generic divides. Operating at his barmy, bemused best, John Turturro shines as the eponymous playwright motivated by the allure of money to make the move to Hollywood, a setting which allows for plentiful barbed satire. John Goodman has scarcely been better as the travelling salesman who neighbours Barton in his hellish hotel, the mysterious nature of his character serving as one of the primary points of debate in the film’s huge variety of readings. Winner of the 1991 Palme d’Or, Barton Fink is a rich masterpiece of cinematic art, as frightening as it is funny, as difficult and demanding as it is unendingly entertaining. MUST SEE.
Fully funded by, and intended for, broadcast television, Paul Greengrass’ breakthrough earned a UK cinema release after it won the audience award at Sundance in 2002. The signature shaky handheld style its director would go on to become known for in his Hollywood action films benefits Bloody Sunday greatly, being as it is an intimate account of the 1972 shootings of 26 unarmed civil rights protestors by the British army. Centred on a hugely impressive performance by the great James Nesbitt, Greengrass’ film employs a distinct documentary aesthetic to make its plea for justice: none of the offending soldiers were ever disciplined for their roles in events; indeed, the commanding officers went on to be decorated by the Queen. It’s indicative of the film’s power that a new inquiry followed its release, a fact which goes some way to excusing the extreme and reductive subjectivity Greengrass displays from the start. RECOMMENDED.
After 16 years and 7 features, Wes Anderson has risen to become the de facto quirky darling of American independent cinema. It all began with 1996’s Bottle Rocket, an extended remake of Anderson’s own short of the same name from four years earlier. Co-written with Owen Wilson, and starring he and brother Luke as friends eager to join a group of low-rent criminals, the film offers an interesting look at the development of the now-recognisable Anderson style, several key scenes indicative of the meticulous framing and arch humour to follow in later years. Those particularly fond of Anderson’s work will likely be enticed; it may be less confident, perhaps less funny, but Bottle Rocket should certainly fulfil the desires of the director’s fans. The less devout may be discouraged by the roughness of the material, its staid storyline and cautious comedy a little harder to engage with than the more assured later efforts. SO-SO.
Praised plentifully for his shocking black comedy in this year’s Killer Joe, William Friedkin first collaborated with playwright Tracy Letts on an adaptation of Bug, the story of a man convinced he is under government surveillance, and the woman who falls for him after he arrives at her hotel room. The great master of unhinged performances, Michael Shannon might be said to be at his best here, the hectic mania the film throws his character through made harrowingly real in the eccentricities of his performance, both minor and major. Ashley Judd is equally effective, consummately embodying the same conflicted mixture of pity and fear Friedkin forces upon his audience, the claustrophobic effect of his direction hammering home the central concepts of Letts’ story just as well as the writing itself. A genuinely disturbing, ingeniously constructed, and ambitiously ambiguous work of horror cinema, Bug proves Friedkin still one of the genre’s most formidable presences. MUST SEE.
Having to its name a grand total of four Oscars, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s lasting legacy in the history of the western is assured, its immortal story of the eponymous outlaws seeing it remain among the genre’s most popular films. George Roy Hill’s biographical retelling of the pair’s highly successful career as train robbers propelled Robert Redford to Hollywood stardom, he and Paul Newman forming a formidable double act together in the lead roles. Spanning the Americas in the course of its plot, the film travels from Wyoming to Bolivia, Hill finding plenty of time to capture the iconic imagery along the way. While Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a ferociously fun western, dramatic and amusing from its opening right through to its famed conclusion, it doesn’t quite belong among the true masterpieces of the genre, offering little other than the enjoyable nature of its story toward the claim for classic status. RECOMMENDED.
A Russian reflection of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena examines the social gulf in the country through the life of one woman. Nadezhda Markina gives a fine performance as the title character, wife to a wealthy industrialist and mother (from a previous marriage) to a scrounging working-class son, eager to financially help the latter despite the former’s disdain for being made to support the family of a man he detests. Zvyagintsev’s is an exceptionally well-shot film, the sense of coldness he contributes to Elena’s home life essential to an understanding of this character and her actions, the poised pace of his direction inviting cautious consideration of his underlying themes. It’s unfortunate, given this aesthetic prowess, that they’re quite so undercooked: Elena is an interesting film, but once its economic and moral standpoints are established there arise a number of issues, not least the sheer simplicity thereof, leaving the film little more than a pretty but simplistic morality play. SO-SO.
No matter how many I watch or how deep I dive, I never fail to be surprised by the staggering subversion displayed by the films of the New Hollywood movement. Hal Ashby’s almost obscenely dark 1971 comedy offers a satirical yet scabrous critique of contemporary society, its young protagonist’s unsettling obsession with death and mortality audaciously juxtaposed with the expectations and demands of his prudish mother. Harold is a marvellous creation, and one brought to the screen by Bud Cort with exceptional conviction. His romance with the elderly Maude is so deeply felt in Cort’s entrancing interaction with the inestimable Ruth Gordon that it seems positively ludicrous of their peers to criticise the relationship. Ashby’s is an especially daring film even for its revolutionary time, dwelling constantly on themes of death and suicide, sagely ruminating on ideas of existentialism and fatalism. Armed with a classic soundtrack, it’s an essential film not only for its age, but for all others too. MUST SEE.
It’s a wonder how rapidly a skilled director can pull you into a mystery. Leave begins with a sense of ethereal intrigue, its eerily shot and oddly edited opening treading a line between dreams and reality, paving the way for the psychological drama to follow. Robert Celestino makes his presence behind the camera known early, and maintains a stronghold on the viewers’ attention throughout. What a shame, then, that the screenplay by leads Rick Gomez and Frank John Hughes should struggle so hard to keep up. Satisfactory for its opening act, the story begins to fall apart at the seams once it starts to show its hand, its mysteries unravelling in disappointing fashion, hardly helped by the hysteric histrionics of Gomez. Hughes does far better, but his skills just aren’t enough to support the entire weight of a collapsing plot, tethered as it is to the heftiest, most obvious of twists. SO-SO.
Infamously dismissive of his own work after the fact—he considers only a handful of his films to actually match his original vision—Woody Allen has long claimed bafflement at the praise showered upon his 1979 romantic comedy masterpiece Manhattan. However the film might differ from that envisaged in his head, it could scarcely be a more visually resplendent one: cinematographer Gordon Willis does arguably his best work capturing the streets of New York in gorgeous black and white, the iconic opening scene a striking collage of gloriously photographed scenes to the tune of Allen in voiceover, humorously revising over and over the opening of his novel. He plays Isaac, a man torn between the love of his intellectual equal and a feisty younger woman, in what could be his strongest performance; typically hilarious as he is, Allen is here a wholly flawed and fragile man, the comedy this time a mask to hide the vulnerable, confused, conflicted human being beneath. MUST SEE.
It’s a good indication of Monsieur Lazhar’s tone that it begins with the discovery of a teacher’s suicide by one of her pupils. Philippe Falardeau’s is a dark film indeed, its overall mood never straying far from the bleak note on which it begins, yet its dedication to the reality of life never robs it of the key moments of touching humanity peppered throughout. Mohammed Felag is nothing short of incredible as the titular replacement teacher, a man beset by his own tragedies of life, hoping through his nurturing of these grieving children perhaps to heal his own wounds too. Falardeau and Felag together create an immensely sensitive portrait of grief, the scene wherein we learn Monsieur Lazhar’s backstory a perfect combination of attuned writing and adept delivery that ensures utter devotion to this character. Aided too by a host of astonishing child performances, this is a tremendous piece of filmmaking, searingly emotional right to its bitter, brilliant end. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Neither the pandering Oscar bait its detractors labelled it nor the dazzling reinvention its celebrants claimed, Michel Hazanavicius’ Academy-adorned classical Hollywood homage is just that: a joyous celebration of days gone by, of the simpler times of silent cinema. It’s perhaps The Artist’s greatest achievement that its portrayal of the period is not so simply rendered, though, the stark darkness of its third act and emotionally wrenching arc of its protagonist contributing a grander complexity that allows it plentiful drama to accompany its broad comic style. Jean Dujardin is a delight as George Valentin, the beloved star whose fall from grace upon the arrival of the talkies provides the momentum of the plot. Beautifully directed—particularly in an ingenious scene almost surreal in style—affectionately packed with references, and undeniably alive with a vibrant love for the world it portrays, The Artist is one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of recent years. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
There’s no better time than the present, with the remake’s release just around the corner, to cast our minds back to the film that started it all: 1981’s The Evil Dead. Launching the careers of writer/director Sam Raimi and star Bruce Campbell, the first of their cult trilogy is far more a straight horror film than the series’ collective legacy might have one believe, its black comedy only minor in comparison to the flat-out uproarious approach of its follow-ups. While remaining a perfectly interesting, entertaining genre outing, age hasn’t been as kind to The Evil Dead as to Evil Dead II, a better film in the first place and one whose more comic stylistic leanings have remained more subversive and playful over time. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here, not least of all the famous tree rape scene and the reliable charisma of Campbell as he guides us through this first tangle with the undead. WORTH WATCHING.
Genre has never quite been a strength of Irish cinema, but if there’s one particular set of tropes to which the country’s filmmakers have adapted well it’s those of the gangster picture. Arguably the best of the bunch—certainly before In Bruges—is The General, John Boorman’s biography of Dublin gang leader Martin Cahill, played with unending hilarity by a career-best Brendan Gleeson. Boorman earned the Best Director award at Cannes, and it’s not hard to see why: shot in splendid monochrome, The General has the visual feel of a film noir, cinematographer Seamus Deasy’s gripping use of shadow doing far more to suggest the moral complexity of this story than ever does Boorman’s script. It’s the film’s most significant issue that Cahill emerges a workaday hero of sorts; much as Gleeson manages to make an enjoyable character of him, this was a man of unabashed criminality, a fact Boorman seems happy to gloss over for entertainment value. Luckily, it’s very entertaining indeed. RECOMMENDED.
When not busy being kinda funny looking in the films of the Coen Brothers or ruling the 1920s in Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi likes to spend his time in the director’s chair, his highly successful helming of episodes of The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, and 30 Rock proving him as talented behind the camera as before. His feature debut came with 1996’s Trees Lounge, the bittersweet study of an alcoholic fixture at the titular bar, played by Buscemi himself. It’s a charmingly funny treat of a film, the resigned weariness of its character as his life continues to crumble around him as funny as it is pathetic. Working from his own script, Buscemi does well on directorial terms: he has a firm grip on the tone of the piece, keeping it dark without ever stooping to drudgery. Only reaching a real depth of drama in its closing moments, Trees Lounge isn’t a great film, but it’s a promising start to a second career that has continued with considerable success. RECOMMENDED.