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

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Review: While We’re Young

while_we're_young

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

Music In Motion: Movie Soundtraks Of 2014

music in motion: soundtracks of 2014

When listening to an original movie score I often wonder what it is that draws me to re-visit it outside of its intended accompaniment to an overall viewing experience. As appose to a soundtrack built out of existent songs, such as the feel good nostalgia heavy yester-pop of Guardian’s Of The Galaxy, an original movie score does not contain any pre-attained social signifiers to riff off or subvert. Guardian’s Awesome Mix was a tool for indicating not only the time from which Quill originated from but also how far he was from home (both the songs and the means of listening to them – a cassette tape). But, while it is a grand selection of tunes and has probably exposed a younger generation to a series of older classics, it is still possible to listen to Cherry Bomb without thinking of a gun wielding racoon (just about).

This is the fundamental difference between a ‘Music From The Motion Picture’ soundtrack and an original score: a direct link with, and signifier of, the atmosphere of a movie. It aids in creating the mythos of the world the story is set in and can transport a listener to that place without actually watching the movie itself.

One of 2014’s strongest soundtracks, Gone Girl, was extremely successful at this and was almost destined to be so as a result of the workflow Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross take in composing soundtracks together. For The Social Network, their first ever film score collaboration, and first collaboration with Fincher, Reznor’s and Ross’ lack of film scoring experience led them to create a series of extended mood-scapes from the tone they felt reading the film’s script. As appose to writing themes for characters or even scoring scenes, they composed music which fitted into, and reflected, the world the story was revolving around (source). The results won them an Oscar, and their approach continued into subsequent Fincher projects The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and, most recently, Gone Girl.

The tone throughout Gone Girl is one which holds an unsettling air that things are not ever what they seem. There is a sinister underside to every seemingly sincere moment, with the movie’s first half in particular suggesting an artificial quality underpinning all of the sentimental flashbacks. The soundtrack captures this perfectly. Drifting ambient tones create a feeling of unease, calculated and methodical but remaining inscrutable (embodying the opening lines of the movie: “What are you thinking? How are you feeling?”). Even some of the sweeter melodies feed slowly into building waves of aggressive distortion which engulf and mute the harmonies.

 

The best example of this is the track Gone Home. It starts so innocent, almost wholesome, seeming to invoke a feeling of love enduring and uniting all. But the notes slowly begin to drift off-key, and the static swells up into a schizophrenic mess that abruptly cuts off to restrain and re-compose itself. In creating their world reflecting mood-scapes, it would seem that Reznor and Ross have inadvertently created one of the character’s themes after all.

Another interesting origin to one of the year’s soundtracks was Christopher Nolan’s space epic, Interstellar. Hans Zimmer was brought in once again to score and has spoken of Nolan approaching him before production even began with one page of typed dialogue depicting a message from a father to a child, asking him to produce a piece of music inspired by that. From this, Zimmer composed the main theme to Interstellar without ever knowing the plot or that it contained any sci-fi elements whatsoever (source).

Once fleshed out and worked around, the soundtrack to Interstellar reflects very much the ambitions of the story. The comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey are apparent, and the soundtrack does have those long powerful organ notes that emulate the closing of Also Spranch Zarathustra, but Interstellar attempts to inject a deeper emotional element than Kubrick into both its story and, subsequently, its soundtrack. It is a story not only about discovery but what is left behind, the relationship between families and generations and the bonds they create being infinite and unquantifiable. The “epicness” of the film stems from a small emotional core, and while Zimmer’s grand booming orchestrations very much match the striking cosmic visuals, the main refrain directing much of the soundtrack is a heartfelt melody that is played as both a subdued melancholy piano piece and a great organ crescendo head rush.

 

From grandeur to minimalism (and my personal pick for best soundtrack of 2014), Under The Skin took the polar opposite approach to science fiction in almost every way from Interstellar. Fantastically dark and subtle while remaining ambiguous enough as to maintain respect for its audiences’ intelligence, Jonathan Glazer’s film saw a malignant alien masquerading as a beautiful woman, roaming the streets of Glasgow seducing men whom she traps and harvests for their meat. The film takes a methodically slow approach, drenched always in the waking presence of dread.

A unique film which is accompanied by a wholly unique soundtrack. Mica Levi, of Micachu and The Shapes fame, was commissioned to create the score after Glazer heard her Chopped and Screwed project with the London Sinfonietta, which, as the name may suggest, involved warping and looping various sounds into a disorientating assembly (source). Her work on Under The Skin certainly carried over this same mentality of experimentation, with shrill violins playing out a chilling three note refrain distorted and pitch shifted over a dark minimalist rhythm. The whole effect is one of constant unease, watching as men helplessly submit to the forces of seduction from an alien intruder, blissfully unaware of their own impending demise.

 

The track Lipstick To Void best demonstrates this. With very little dialogue and absolutely no hand-holding in its execution of the story, the film really relies on Levi’s soundscapes like this to bridge the gaps and give viewers the suggestion of events through the ambience. The muted drums slowly giving way to the hypnotic strings, it sounds alluring, almost erotic, but all the while carrying a sinister femme-fatale edge to it that forebodes the piercing pitch bends towards the end.

Those were some of my favourite soundtracks of 2014. Here are a few I’m looking forward to hearing in 2015 (both original and not):

– Inherent Vice, Jonny Greenwood (Not yet released in UK)
– Birdman, Antonio Sanchez (Not yet released in UK)
– Enemy, Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans (Not yet released in UK)
– Star Wars Episode 7, John Williams
– Hateful Eight, Various
– Knight Of Cups, Various

The Review As An Artform

The Review As An Artform

 

What is it about the internet that makes opinions so entertaining? Since its birth and integration into the everyday there has been a surge of widely consumed entertainment that now seems almost indicative of the internet itself – The Video Review. Whether it’s the lack of necessity for high production value or the ability to get recognition based on popular search terms, the internet is full of playthroughs, commentary tracks, vlogs, top 10s – entire production companies dedicated solely to media journalism. But rather than a traditional approach to a review (i.e. a list of pros and cons with the final thumbs up or thumbs down verdict), the internet has given rise to a type of review which transcends the idea of simply ‘consumer advice’ and instead takes on a level of entertainment themselves which is entirely unique.

Take the Red Letter Media review of The Phantom Menace. Running at ninety minutes, we are taken on a moment-by-moment deconstruction of the movie by the uncomfortably creepy character of Mr Plinkett: an impossibly old man with a taste for pizza rolls, whose review is constantly interjected by spliced together apparent home-movie footage of various female kidnappings.

 

The movie is picked apart in astonishing depth over a feature length running time, and the video is humorous enough simply on this level. But what becomes clear fairly rapidly is that the character’s creator, Mike Stoklasa, really knows his stuff. All of his observations on character motivation and story structure are well articulated and backed up with watertight evidence from the source itself. He has a way of pointing out the subtler pitfalls of the movie which many will agree with but would fail to fully identify themselves (the absurd number of ‘multiple endings’ for example). If ever there were to be a definitive explanation of why The Phantom Menace was terrible, this would be it.

But it’s something more than just a list of criticisms, the choice to channel them through a reprehensible character adds something to how they are received and processed. There is conflict going on between what is said and who is saying it. It generates friction and humour and allows Stoklasa to make profane un-academic statements like “The Phantom Menace is the greatest example of cinematic blue balls in the history of motion pictures”, without losing any credibility to his overall arguments. The whole thing is darkly comic, ironically a lot more enjoyable than the film itself, and cannot be described as wholly a review or wholly a character study. It exists in the murky waters somewhere between opinion and fiction.

This idea of enjoying others articulate their opinions is not something inherently exclusive to the internet (Charlie Brooker, Siskel and Ebert, Andre Bazin – all examples of reviewers who have prospered beyond the idea of consumer advice within traditional media). But to trace the evolution of the online video review is not a single linear line running from print to bytes. It is style and form of filmmaking which, in my opinion, is limited to, and only made possible by, qualities which are entirely exclusive to the internet.

Since its birth at the tail end of 2005, YouTube has always been from the get-go a (relatively – depending on your relationship with copyright infringement) consequence free platform for amateur filmmakers to try out new ideas without the pressure to appeal to a wider audience. In those exciting dawning years after its launch, around 65,000 videos were being uploaded to YouTube every day [1], and what it lead to was a surge in fringe entertainment hitherto undiscovered and untested by traditional media. Reaction videos, vlogs, mashups, Rick Rolls, remixes, live playthroughs and, yes, video reviews – all of them owe their existence to the creative freedom on the internet. To use an advertising phrase, the internet is very good at exploiting ‘gaps in the market’. In fact, it’s probably what it’s best at.

On top of this, the early twenty first century has seen the phenomenon of social media grow to become a stature of daily life. With the ability to created updates, micro-reports on ourselves and events, social media offers an outlet for its users to become opinionated and expressive. The opportunity to have your own rhetoric immortalised on the internet is a tantalising one, and what distinguishes it from, say, having your letter published in a magazine is that the independency permits, even actively encourages, everyone to take a turn. Twitter reports an average of 500 million tweets sent every day [2]; a never ending stream of observations, criticisms and witticisms made under topical hashtags. “What’s On Your Mind?” read the luring words in Facebook’s status box. Whether it’s written or read, interaction with social media always leans towards a sharing of opinions. It is used as an alter to speak from and, conversely, the pews from which to listen. By its very nature this means that all content is user generated, built entirely out of what is fed into it – something comparatively absent from traditional media.

From this, it is possible to trace the birth of the video review from a pregnancy between these two of the internet’s most liberating qualities: being a platform for creativity, and being a platform for opinions. And when these two inevitably fuse together we get creative approaches to how a review can be delivered.

Consider next one of the many video reviews by Ben “Yahtzee” Crashaw, creator of the Zero Punctuation video game review series. Well known for his pleasingly simple animation design and fast talking, his videos contrast the long-winded dissections of Red Letter Media in favour of brevity and cutting quips. His videos only ever run at a maximum of five minutes on a weekly basis and, for the space of time (both production-wise and running time), he manages to find an impressive number of new creative ways to deliver his reviews.

Take his review of Wolfenstein (2009) for example, where the whole review is delivered in the form of a limerick. As well as being well written and extremely funny, here the form of the review actually helps to affirm the opinions it contains – so bored is Yahtzee by the mediocrity of the game’s “safe and comity designed” nature that in order to review it he is forced to engage in something creative just to find something worthwhile to say, or even to compensate for the game’s own lack of imagination.

 

Here then we have two contrasting examples of online reviews which demonstrate just how versatile the genre’s form can be. This is without touching on the amateur skit based reviews of The Nostalgia Critic, the animated compare and contrasts of Sequelitis or the trope exposing parodies of Honest Trailers. However, as versatile as all of these are from each other, what becomes abundantly clear when grouping these types of videos into a genre is that very few of them are positive. Angry Video Game Nerd, Cinema Sins, Your Movie Sucks, Everything Is Terrible – internet audiences seem drawn to the scathing putdown. Why is this? Perhaps it is infinitely more entertaining to witness someone’s disappointment than their appreciation. Or maybe there is only really humour in exposing something’s flaws. Finding the merits in something is incredibly subjective, even divisive, but everyone likes to nod and laugh to a good moan about ‘the-worst-movie-ever’. On the internet, there is very little joy in the joyful.

– Dan Noall (Dec 2014)