ROAR – Review

roar

From its trailer alone it might be easy to draw the conclusion that the story surrounding the production of ROAR (1981) is more interesting than the movie itself. An eleven year project from Noel Marshall which involved his then wife Tippi Hedren and their children, filmed amongst a real menagerie of free roaming lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars in Africa during a period when Hedren and her family bred and lived with fully grown lions as a domestic pets. Seventy members of the cast and crew were injured during its making, in one instance resulting in facial reconstructive surgery for Hedren’s daughter Melanie Griffith, and so it has now become notorious as one of the most dangerous film productions in history. It is an unprecedented film relic whose mythology runs the risk of overshadowing the film itself.

If you harbour that view, the likelihood of it changing whilst watching ROAR will probably depend on the crowd, venue and alcohol consumption you saw it under. There is little plot to discuss or dissect, and all the talking points are really the spectacle of watching the insane stunts being acted out on screen. Watching it alone would likely diminish the absurdity of the events, which have their greatest impact on a room full of like-minded and giggly people, so it is with some efficient brevity that the film comes with a strong recommendation as a cinema experience/ party piece.

Noel Marshall plays Hank, a zoologist with apparently zero faults living out on an African ranch full of free roaming wild animals (some of which are not indigenous, which raises an eyebrow). Hank is awaiting the arrival of his family, played by Marshall’s then real family of wife Hedren and their respective children, who have made the journey out to live with Hank. But when Hank gets stranded fending off poachers, Hedren and the family arrive at the ranch and are unwittingly trapped in the middle of a home invasion from a pack of vicious predators. The story is really only there as a loose framework for the chaotic set pieces of the cast being continuously chased and mauled by real untamed animals, so, despite the blatantly recycled scenes and a water-treading narrative, the reminder of ‘wow, they really did that’ constantly reinvigorates what is on screen.

Shear entertainment value aside though, it is difficult to tell if the incredible, nerve-wracking laughs in ROAR are drawn from an ironic, so-bad-it’s-good, viewing mentality or one which actually falls in line with Noel Marshall’s sincere vision of the film. To add to the insanity of its premise, structurally the film appears to have been pulled in three very different directions at once. The bookends of the film bash the audience over the head with a ludicrously naïve, new age hippie philosophy of man and animals co-existing in harmony – set to the song Here We Are In Eden by Robert Florczack. But conversely, the main bulk of the film sees Hedren and the gang desperately attempting to flee the enormous jaws of some of natures deadliest creatures (the story of the film’s production itself completely obliterates any message of harmony!).

The juxtaposition of these two contrasting tones in a better handled film could conceivably be melded into a critique of man’s eagerness to anthropomorphise the animal kingdom and the wilful blindness of what Herzog calls “the overwhelming indifference of nature”. But, just to add more confusion to the mix, the film is also interspersed with skits of animals-do-the-funniest-things levels of shenanigans, such as lions skateboarding, talking, piling comically into frame, licking honey off of actors’ faces and adorable tiny cubs attempting to roar. All these, hilarious as they are, are peppered throughout the film in a way that creates a nightmarish Disney fever dream and really appears to suggests a lack of any structural understanding or focused direction from Marshall.

And yet its precisely this friction between three completely different tones which gives ROAR the bulk of its appeal. As a whole, the film is bizarrely schizophrenic, but taken in isolated scenes, which given the lack of narrative is very easy to do, there are some perfectly executed comedy sequences (through no fault of anyone involved) which are difficult to imagine being included in the film without a knowing smile from someone in the editing staff. The two which stand out the most are, as you might expect, down to the comically coincidental timing from the cast of animals. The first is just as Hank says to his friend Mativo: “The cats just get a little excited-” before getting brutally tackled and piled upon by five fully grown lionesses. The second is as Hedren and her family attempt to escape the ranch by boat, but as they cautiously attempt to row away from shore they are repeatedly pulled back in by a lion lazily pawing at the boat like a cat playing with a ball of twine.

The absurd humour in these scenes derives not only from the apparent danger of everybody involved but from just how far removed the animals are from all direction the film might have tried to take. At the beginning of the film, credit is given to the animals for their contribution to the directing and writing, as the crew had to simply “let them do what they want”. The film very much feels true to this sentiment. Watching a pack of lions sabotage a scene paradoxically only further enriches the experience of ROAR, though not necessarily in the way it was intended. Compared to something like Born Free, the amusement from watching ROAR is not marvelling at how they managed to train wild animals to act but instead recoiling in shock that they literally walked into a lion’s den and managed to somehow make a film around it.

Dan Noall, September 2015

Review: While We’re Young

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It is a continuing mark of achievement throughout Noah Baumbach’s career that he is able to craft the most likable of unlikeable characters. The problems of intellectual, white, upper-middle class culturists strikes on paper like the stuff of indie-movie parody, and yet his portrayal of these archetypes seldom becomes eye-rolling. Perhaps unlike other indie dramas Baumbach’s characters are rarely stuck so deep in the kind of philosophical ennui that becomes cringingly self-important in movies like Garden State (2004) or Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011). A handling which has carried over from his previous tragi-comedy Frances Ha (2012) into his latest feature, While We’re Young.

But if Frances Ha celebrated the exuberant aimlessness that comes with youth, then While We’re Young certainly advocates the wisdom which comes with age, though the coming to terms of which is a turbulence of denial and bargaining before finally reaching acceptance. Straight away Josh and Cornelia (Stiller and Watts) are introduced as a couple passing un-dramatically into the realms of middle age, but who’s choice or inability to bear children has segregated them empathetically from their peers. In the opening scene they dangle awkwardly over their friends’ crying child, unable to recite fairy tales properly, demonstrating their indifference to be a part of that lifestyle.

We are then given indication that while their friends have progressed into parenthood, the two have remained stuck in a rut of routine for the last decade. Josh is a documentary filmmaker who’s on-going lengthy, uncompromising project has lasted eight years without completion. The time seems to have passed them by so quickly but now suddenly warrants some dramatic change in their lives which they have been unable to realise. And like any couple facing age their reminiscence evokes a happier time in their youth.

It is this mixture of regret and directionless un-fulfilment that leads the bulk of film’s story. While giving a lecture Josh is befriended by the much younger twenty-something couple of Jamie (Driver) and Darby (Seyfried), and after several bizarre and trendy double dates the four become close friends. For Josh and Cornelia, this offers a surrogated return to their own youth and rekindled romance whilst dipping a toe into the young hipsters’ lifestyle. Josh speaks of them: “I like how enthusiastic they are about everything.” But as things progress and Jamie’s own ambitions of becoming a documentary filmmaker takes precedence over Josh’s, it becomes questionable to him whether their friendship was only ever a segue to reach Cornelia’s father, a cinéma-vérité documentarian of the old school.

The fact that vérité documentarians of the ilk of Wiseman and the Maysles were once considered the ‘new school’ is one of many illustrations of generational divide within the film, which ultimately seems to fuel Josh and Cornelia’s strive for console in their alienation and aging. And while the coming-of-middle-age drama is subgenre well established in modern filmmaking (This Is 40 [2012], Friends With Kids [2011]), here Baumbach directly contrasts his older characters with their younger counterparts, playing for comedy the hipsters’ preference for retro-analogue dead formats and the older two’s admirably competent adoption of modern digital services. Though they are well adjusted to using Netflix, smartphones and mp3s, connecting with the younger generation causes Josh and Cornelia to revisit all the things they thought were long obsolete. Jamie and Darby’s vinyl collection, VHS tapes, typewriters and preference of memory over search engines links Josh and Cornelia not only to more enthused version of themselves but to a specific era which they perhaps secretly wish to return to.

But this is not without its consequences. Jamie and Darby are so eclectic in their tastes and interests that it is easy to be taken in by their charm and enthusiasm for everything, but the fallout from this is that it is difficult to get a bearing on any of their moral compasses or political ideals (the revealing of Jamie’s dubious documentary ethics is particularly telling of how unknowable they are). They exist in a kind of bricolage limbo, making everything, listening to everything, appropriating adverts long before their time, to the point where their diverse interests are less charmingly extensive and more deceptively intangible. To Josh and Cornelia, getting married was the beginning of the rest of their lives. To Jamie and Darby, it is just another thing that they did.

This divide begins to create problems as it becomes clear throughout the film that Josh and Cornelia are stuck in an arrested state between two milestones: carefree youth and responsible adulthood, not wholly a part of either. Though Cornelia feels suffocated attending a baby dance class with her recent-mother friends, Josh also fails to keep up riding a fixy bike with Jamie without putting his back out. They struggle between an impossibility to revisit the past and an un-enthusiasm to move into the future.

When mid-way through at the point following a ridiculous ayahuasca party the film appears to be setting up a progression of maturity for Josh and Cornelia, though the movement into the final act feels less like a coming-to-terms with age and more of a bitter finger wagging as the adults teach the wiper-snappers a thing or two. What is possibly the weakest point of the film comes at the very end. References are made multiple times throughout that not only are Josh and Cornelia ill-suited to having children but that doing so would be little other than a faint attempt to fix their marriage. Their decision to follow suit of their peers and have a child regardless feels a little like a discounting of the film’s message of finding contentment with age outside of society driven milestone expectations, and instead seems to endorses parenthood as a cure for all ailments in both relationships and egos.

Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

A great deal of effort seems to have been dedicated to unravelling the plot to Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature. By some duality of design it seems to actively try to confuse to the point of incoherence while still enticing viewers to pick it apart and piece it together. If this is not its intent then perhaps this is a result of Anderson’s reputation. Since reaching a level of storytelling maturity with both There Will Be Blood and The Master, the critical acclaim surrounding Anderson’s films has deservedly elevated them to the level of film texts as well as pieces of entertainment, ranking him alongside Kubrick, Altman and Malick as one of the highest examples of American auteurs. And while this means his films certainly deserve a high level of viewing attention, it also acts as something of a hindrance when attempting to make sense of a nonsensical film.

The plot, as best can be made of it, is a fairly faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. We follow the Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a mixed up pothead private eye who is sent on the trail of a mystery by his ‘ex-old lady’ Shasta (Katherine Waterston) involving her current billionaire boyfriend and his wife’s plot to incarcerate him in a mental institution in order to get at his wealth. This fairly tight set-up proves only to be the jumping board though into an ensuing cavalcade of bizarre encounters with even more bizarre and eccentric characters: from outlaws to law men. Doc winds caught between drug smugglers, anti-subversive groups, shady FBI operations, nemesis cops and various femme fatales. All the while constantly playing catch up with their intertwining involvement with each other.

If all of this sounds like a return to the exuberance of Anderson’s earlier ensemble pieces, à la Boogie Nights, well, it is and it isn’t. The change in tone in Anderson’s work after the five year gap between Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood is undeniable, and his career can very much be split into two distinct halves, which leaves Inherent Vice sat uncomfortably somewhere in-between. It seems to attempt a return to the liveliness of his earlier work while holding onto the maturity of execution he has harnessed in the later. The genuinely funny comedy sequences play out between slow burning conversations and delicate scene pacing. One moment the Doc is getting knocked out by an anonymous baton emerging cartoonishly out of frame, the next he is meeting in an atmospheric smoke filled dockyard to learn more of the mysterious boat/ dentist tax shelter/ Indochinese triad-like entity known as the Golden Fang, accomplished all in one long hovering shot.

Simultaneously enjoyable and distracting, this rather awkward combination of tones could be interpreted as a fitting representation of the period in which the story is set and, potentially, what the film attempts to work into its overall thematic statement. Set at the tail end of the 60’s, the Hippie Revolution dying, the story inhabits a world moving awkwardly from one era into the next. The big comedown after the protests of ‘68 sobered up the youth of America, who found the world was more confusing and nuanced than their goals could ever have hoped to rectify. There are snitches hiding in political activist groups, elusive drug cartels, real estate tycoons wanting to become Nazis, actors suspiciously shifting in attitudes towards communism, contracted killers carrying out the dirty work of the law. All of it somehow connecting into one Hippie nightmare of mass conspiracy.

There are even references to the Manson murders, which, along with the violent outbreak at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont 1969, helped to nail shut the coffin on the dreams of peace and love prevailing throughout the ‘60s and woke America’s counter-culture up to the futility of fighting against the confusing terror which was lurking all around. Nothing makes any sense – to the characters or to us.

At the centre of it all is Doc, a relic of an age fast departing, still clinging to his lifestyle of long unkempt hair and continual dose of narcotics, trying to make sense of the things going on around him. Even he needs to physically map out the vast band of characters in the film and their involvement with each other, as well might the audience. The film is confusing almost to the point of farce, but it is conceivably done so by design.

Whether or not Inherent Vice deserves to be treated as an auteurist text (whether it even desires it) is up for debate. There is certainly something tantalising enough beneath the surface to scratch away at, but it feels more in service of an enjoyable Labowski-esque caper as oppose to anything which tries to invoke any deep reflection after leaving the theatre.

– Dan Noall, 2015