The Suburban Nightmare: Five of the Best

When your story is projected onto a 30-foot screen, the truth has nowhere to hide. Cinema has frequently taken us beyond the veil of respectability, turning dreams into nightmares as it exposes domestic dissatisfaction, deception and even violence. The American Dream has taken a particular pummelling with its associated images of prosperous, identikit families living in suburban bliss.

In the style of the Guardian’s Clip joint series, here are some of film’s most memorable attacks on the aforementioned illusion.

1) Halloween

Michael Myers’ murderous spree on a quiet, leafy street proves that in suburbia no-one can (or wants to) hear you scream.

2) The Naked Kiss

In Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss a retired call girl (the statuesquely named Constance Towers) exposes a small town’s dark heart. This sequence set on the local children’s ward features a sweet but decidedly unsettling song.

3) Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet’s absurdly idyllic opening images give way to prosaic horror as a man collapses in agony, before the camera delves deeper into the deceit.

4) Revolutionary Road

Sam Mendes’ adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel has mental patient Michael Shannon seeing through a couple’s glamorous façade and repressed housewife Kate Winslet furiously rattling the chains of domesticity.

5) The ‘burbs

On a lighter note, after triumphantly – if messily – unmasking their reclusive neighbours as villains, amidst the cleanup chaos Rick Ducommun tells reporters, “Do not mess with suburbanites”.

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TV Gold – State of Play

(Hands up if State of Play is amongst your finest achievements)

Before Shameless, before Bill Nighy was recognised as a national institution, before John Simm (pictured above) woke up in the 70s in Life on Mars, before Polly Walker bared her teeth and more in Rome and before James McAvoy and Kelly Macdonald went to Hollywood. Before all of this there was State of Play.

For the uninitiated, State of Play is a riveting six-part political thriller, written by Paul Abbott and directed by David Yates, which first aired on BBC1 in spring 2003. As well as the aforementioned cast – almost a ‘Who’s Who’ of British talent in itself – it features Geraldine James (Band of Gold), Philip Glenister (Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes) and Rebekah Staton (Pulling) in supporting roles.

The series opens unforgettably with a professional hit and a young woman disappearing under a tube train. The woman, Sonja Baker, is the researcher of rising-star MP Stephen Collins (David Morrissey, pictured below), and his emotional reaction to her death reveals to the assembled press that the two were intimate. Journalist Cal McAffrey (John Simm) is Stephen’s former campaign manager who, with his team at The Herald – under the stewardship of their editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy) – makes connections between the two incidents, uncovering political corruption and what appears to be a murderous corporate conspiracy. The personal and professional become further entangled when Cal starts-up an affair with Stephen’s wife, Anne (Polly Walker).

If you’re thinking that a six-part political thriller is not really your cup of tea, then let me assure you it’s a rollercoaster; action-packed but peppered with wit and warmth and bursting with character, as you might expect from the creator of Shameless and Clocking Off. The opening ten minutes is breathtaking in its economy and exhilaration, ensuring audiences will be hooked from the outset.

Paul Abbott writes with his usual idiosyncratic verve and irreverence, refusing to let the unfamiliar terrain take the edge off his writing. When Cal’s colleague Della (Kelly Macdonald) turns up at the crack of dawn with a new piece of information he asks her, “what’s the matter, have you wet the bed?” Later, during a heated row with Collins, he spits at him, “you’ve been greasing your own arse since they gave you a shining star badge.” Abbott admits that he researched neither the political or journalistic arenas before setting about writing State of Play, and had never even set foot in a newsroom. His astonishing guesswork was vindicated when the script was checked by journalists from The Times and The Guardian and they had negligible corrections.

State of Play makes the case for journalism as a simultaneously seedy and righteous profession, with Abbott, as ever, the master of drawing out the pride and passion in the reviled. It moves with a thundering pace; frantic but assured, like a nervous heartbeat. Multi-faceted, it is at once a testament to the thrill and momentum of ‘The Story’, a blistering attack on the duplicity and disappointment of New Labour; a love story, murder mystery, comedy and caper. Nothing is as it at first seems and revelation after revelation confound, as the story swerves off in ever-more surprising directions. The cast of world-beaters are unsurprisingly exceptional to a man and woman, and director David Yates brings a cinematic sense of scale and story (he has subsequently gone on to direct the final four parts of the Harry Potter saga). The serial’s outstanding achievements were acknowledged with six BAFTA nominations and three wins; for Editing, Sound and a Best Actor gong for Bill Nighy. It is also no coincidence that 2003 was the year that Paul Abbott collected BAFTA’s Dennis Potter Award for exceptional writing.

Of further testament to its instant classic status is that it was quickly picked-up for an American feature film remake. Released in 2009, it stars Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck as Cal and Stephen respectively and is directed by Kevin Macdonald. It condenses the near six hours worth of story into a mere 122 minutes and is all the worse for it. Forgivable amendments include that Della becomes a blogger (a neat contemporary revision) and the shadowy UX oil morphs into nefarious US security contractors. However, it lacks the character, wit, excitement and crucially the emotional impact of the original; being utterly formulaic and, at best, reasonably efficient filmmaking.

State of Play, the serial, is quite simply amongst the best work of all concerned and was rightly heralded at the time as unmissable, ‘event’ television. It’s a fantastic advert for British TV as, despite its relative brevity, it can confidently compete with the best HBO has to offer. In the age of box-set consumption, go on – give it six hours of your time. You won’t be disappointed.

Watch the trailer for State of Play

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Film Review – Young Adult

Beauty’s a beast as Charlize Theron turns bitchiness into an art

Young Adult opens with the sound of sobbing, though it certainly ain’t the boohooing of hard-faced hack Mavis Gary. It’s coming from a reality show, and it’s in front of such shit that Mavis (Charlize Theron, above and below) snoozes away her life.

As she inadvertently reveals to the object of her affection’s wife, she’s a woman stuck in neutral – a woman who, if the wind changed, is likely to be left wearing a sizable sneer and who confesses with petulant pity, “It’s really difficult for me to be happy”. Aw, diddums.

This is the latest from screenwriter Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body) and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), who last collaborated on the sassy but sweet Juno. Young Adult marks a confident shift from nice to nasty, as Mavis (let’s make no bones about it) is a bitch. She’s an all-out, top-to-toe, scorn-spouting, magnificent bitch – brazen, judgemental and socially-retarded, both ample beauty and oodles of beast.

Seen sucking Diet Coke greedily from a family-sized bottle, Mavis lives her life either irritably drunk or cantankerously hung-over, her soulless career as a teen fiction ghost-writer is faltering and her failed marriage is best remembered for the reception’s knockout tiramisu.

With her perfectly poisonous personality nowt but a hindrance, “psychotic prom queen” Mavis depends entirely on her robust good looks; at 37 her face is still shotgun powerful, and it’s a weapon she shamelessly hopes will help snatch her a man.

Prompted perversely by a round-robin email announcing the birth of an ex’s son, Mavis returns to her home-town of Mercury to claim said ex, the naffly-monikered and goonish Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is unashamedly a small-town personality. Buddy, as well as being a new dad, is happily married to a darling special needs teacher, Beth (Elizabeth Reaser), yet Mavis – through a prism of her own misery – see’s him as a hostage, trapped in a marriage, trapped in a town.

Those who haven’t seen her multi-episode guest appearance as “Mentally Retarded Female”, Rita, in Arrested Development would be forgiven for thinking that Theron has yet to really prove her comic chops. In Young Adult her development is arrested again, though this time she’s at least past puberty and has mentally edged her way into her teens.

Mavis’s misadventures are amusingly punctuated by the creation of her last entry in her ghost-written opus, the Waverley Prep series. It serves as an outlet for her delusions and fantasies and is a way of reliving what she sees misguidedly as her glory years (years in which she in fact ignored or tormented countless innocent peers). It’s the most obvious manifestation of her stunted maturity.

In the process of her attempted seduction and hijack, this young adult forges a bond with the contrastingly diminutive and similarly embittered Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt, pictured above, making for a fabulous foil), whose beating by jocks (an attempted hate crime – they’d assumed he was gay) has left him crippled and unshakably resentful.

Integral to Mavis’s unlikely appeal is that she’s really quite brilliantly played by Theron. She’s a fabulously vile creation and chaotically entertaining; there’s something exhilarating about how little she cares and – when she puts herself unwittingly out there to be savaged and humiliated – it’s hard not to feel pity for someone so desperately unaware.

Theron turns her seasoned model’s pout into a permanent look of disdain and gloriously sends herself up in the process. She’s someone who has made an estimable career out of proving herself much more than a pretty face. However, in this honourable attempt to be taken seriously, Theron may have ended up looking just a little humourless. And so Young Adult sets the record straight with style.

Like Mavis, the film flails once she’s made the inevitable declaration to Buddy – a squirmtastic scene which involves a surprisingly emotional sucker punch. There are (extremely) fleeting moments of sympathy for, and glimpses of, the humanity in Mavis, though, to its credit, the film remains uncompromising in its denouement.

Young Adult lacks some swagger and works best if thought of as a vehicle for terrific performances from Theron and Oswalt. It does however have a tidy line in satirising both small-towns and the big city types who automatically deride the ‘losers’ who stay put, no matter how empty their own lives might be. It’s not a vintage black comedy I’m afraid – but a smattering of killer quips, some snappily delivered home truths and Mavis and Matt’s boozy shenanigans make for devilishly good fun.

  • Young Adult is released on Friday 3rd February

Watch the trailer for Young Adult

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BAFTA Nominations 2012 – A Whinge

No wonder she’s depressed: According to BAFTA, We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t a patch on The Help

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times – 2011/12 was a shit hot year for British film. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, Kill List, Archipelago, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tyrannosaur, Shame, Jane Eyre, Senna, Weekend, Submarine, Attack the Block, and the list goes on.

Many of us had hoped to see this dynamism and diversity reflected in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award nominations. So, when the shortlist was announced today, did this happen? Did. It. Bollocks.

With British films obviously eligible for inclusion in the Best Film category, as well as being considered for the Outstanding British Film gong, it’s a surprise and a disappointment to see only (the excellent) Tinker Tailor competing for the main prize, alongside The Artist, The Descendants, Drive and The Help.

This is particularly galling considering that it has – I think inarguably – been a disappointing year for US cinema, the ignored independents aside (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, The Tree of Life). When weak fare such as Hugo, War Horse and, god help us, The Help (five noms – really?) are in contention for awards it says it all.

In an ideal world we’d see grand British films like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Shame competing in the Best Film category and then perhaps lower-budget gems such as Weekend, Archipelago and Kill List (all ignored) fill out the Outstanding British Film category. Surely by anyone’s standards My Week with Marilyn – Michelle Williams aside – is a lacklustre choice for the latter.

Should Kill List have been ignored?

Actually, if I’m perfectly honest in my ideal world we would see world cinema in contention throughout – making the ceremony a true reflection of the best films of the year (see my Top 20 for how I personally saw the last cinematic year) but – I know, I know – that’s never going to happen.

So where do we go from here? Firstly, it would be nice to expand the category to allow for ten nominations in the style of the Oscars to (hopefully) showcase a more diverse range of films. Like the Oscars, it might simply encourage voters to usher in more mediocrity but it’s worth a shot. We’re less subtitle-averse than our American cousins – so there might even be the occasional global surprise (about 33% of the films that are released in this country are in a foreign language).

Is Weekend really less awesome than My Week with Marilyn?

I would like to see less pandering to the Americans. US cinema can of course be great but, with major productions slave to marketability, often it’s a little safe. American BAFTA members make up just under a quarter of BAFTA voters but the significant appearance of so-so US films is probably more a reflection of the ‘special relationship’ the British have with American cinema.

The positioning of the nominations means that they also tend to be a reflection of what’s been a hit at American award ceremonies (albeit with a British twist), many of which have their nominations or awards announced first.

Should Submarine have been confined to Outstanding Debut and where are the acting nods for Tyrannosaur?

I could go on quibbling for aeons but, whiny little moans aside, it’s not the worst list we’ve seen. The prominence of The Artist means – regardless of its Hollywood subject matter and convenient lack of language barrier – we are seeing a French film competing in major categories and it is well-deserved recognition. Furthermore, those up for Best Director comprise a Scot, an American, a Dane, a Frenchman and a Swede so there’s an international feel in parts.

Also, three of the five Best Film nominations are admittedly thoroughly distinctive works: The Artist, Tinker Tailor and, the flawed but enjoyably outlandish, Drive (The Descendants is perfectly good but, for me not quite up to the standard of Payne’s previous films).

And anyway, it’s an awards show – it’s supposed to be contentious, right?

Watch the nominations being announced:

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Film Review – Shame

“I find you disgusting. I find you inconsolable. I find you evasive.”

A piece of precision filmmaking, remarkable in its ability to turn sex into astringent commentary, Shame is the arresting second feature from director Steve McQueen. It reveals, with confrontational candidness, the vacuous life of a New York-based sex addict, whose increasingly desperate search for satisfaction, escapism – even solace – finds him smothered by a surfeit of seediness.

In Shame Michael Fassbender (main image) plays Brandon, a handsome New York executive, effortlessly drifting from one sexual encounter to the next and – with a can of Red Bull clamped in his hand – blagging it at a workplace where he’s his clueless boss’ drinking buddy. As well as sex with strangers, there are dalliances with prostitutes, obsessive masturbation and an addiction to internet porn so commanding it totals his work computer. He’s a man inches away from the edge but it’s the introduction of his chaotic younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, pictured below) which really serves to disrupt his sordid status quo.

We’re first introduced to Sissy, a wildcard chanteuse, when Brandon bursts in on her taking a shower after she’s let herself (uninvited) into his apartment. She’s viewed full frontal in his large bathroom mirror; as she stands with not quite enough modesty across from him, in her provocative nakedness she is a stark reflection of her brother. Similarly defined by her sexuality from the outset she is both Brandon and his opposite, female to his male, flame to his glacier.

“Shame’s oppressive score creates a sense of suffocation and pulsating anxiety from the film’s outset”

It’s a sibling relationship which runs the gauntlet of all that’s uncomfortable. Sissy inconveniences Brandon by intruding on his privacy and – though she offers little in the way of judgement – her intrusion draws constant attention to the humiliating nature of his lifestyle. She finds him masturbating furiously in his bathroom; appropriates an earring left by a prostitute; opens his laptop to find a naked woman awaiting instruction via webcam.

Sissy is shown to have a semblance of Brandon’s promiscuity but the fact that she can’t divorce her own encounters from emotion are a cause of further irritation to Brandon and, when she sleeps with his boss David (James Badge Dale), he judges her harshly and hypocritically. However, her overheard declarations of fervent love to an ex partner can’t help but fascinate him; her unabashed vulnerability is both endearing and an ugly inconvenience to his ordered, attachment-free existence.

Sissy is also a constant reminder of his past and family, and a likely reminder of further shame, given their transgressive physical relationship (she crawls into bed to snuggle up to him half-clothed after the aforementioned encounter with David). The exact nature of their history is not revealed but is alluded to when Sissy says, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”

The main cast comprises just four characters, two of whom are largely peripheral: as well as David there’s Marianne, played by Nicole Beharie who Brandon briefly and awkwardly dates, reflecting how his life is lived without ties. There’s a keen sense of focus as we’re drawn ever deeper into the wanton mire, with Brandon’s frenzied quest taking him into unexpected and even dangerous sexual territory.

Given the subject matter, Shame is impressively po-faced, with its oppressive score creating a sense of suffocation and pulsating anxiety from the film’s outset. McQueen takes us close enough to care but never close enough to fully know Brandon, who retains his status as an enigma right up until the final moments, which leave us with both the possibility of redemption and of the cycle beginning once again.

“Existing in the space where art and entertainment collide, Shame is provocative and earnest, dirty and distinguished”

As Brandon, Fassbender gives an extraordinary, unselfconscious performance; his considerable promise in such exceptional fare as Hunger, Fish Tank and Jane Eyre has been leading up to this searing display, where he takes us from suave charm to desolate depravity. Carey Mulligan impresses too: playing boldly against her coy, good girl image, she’s a ruined revelation.

With Shame (which he co-wrote with Sex Traffic’s Abi Morgan), Steve McQueen – the former video artist and Turner prize-winner – takes another stride towards cinematic auteurship. Not that it’s more powerful than, or superior to, his debut Hunger (2008), but it is pacier and, even in its comparable starkness, has without doubt greater audience appeal. There’s nothing to match Hunger’s formidable two-hander between Fassbender and Liam Cunningham but Shame has style and courage to spare and McQueen has taken something thematically mucky and spun it into filmic gold.

Existing in the space where art and entertainment collide, Shame is provocative and earnest, dirty and distinguished. McQueen and co are to be applauded for creating a film of significance – so distinctly of our age – with ample ability to reach and rack an audience.

  • Shame is released on Friday
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The Perpetual Picturehouse’s Top 20 Films of 2011

Greetings fellow screen slaves!

It’s about that time of year where us scribblers consult the mental archives – getting ourselves all tangled up in figurative cobwebs, all in an attempt to put together some kind of listy thing, before putting it out there to be slated by the GGP (Great Global Public). Because it is only one person’s ‘umble opinion after all.

A more detailed review of the year, also penned by me, can be found here.

This is based on only those films released in the UK between 1st January and 31st December 2011 and is in a very rough and already deeply apologetic order. Excuses now over, my films of the year are:

20) Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

19) NEDS (dir. Peter Mullan)

18) Cave of Forgotten Dreams (dir. Werner Herzog)

17) Las Acacias (dir. Pablo Giorgelli)

16) Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)

15) The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

14) Love Like Poison (dir. Katell Quillévéré)

13) Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)

12) Pina (dir. Wim Wenders)

11) Jane Eyre (dir. Cary Fukunaga)

10) We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

9) 13 Assassins (dir. Takashi Miike)

8) Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh)

7) Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

6) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

5) Animal Kingdom (dir. David Michôd)

4) Archipelago (dir. Joanna Hogg)

3) A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

2) The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)

1) Mysteries of Lisbon (dir. Raoul Ruiz)

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It’s Christmas at The Perpetual Picturehouse!

Welcome to my blog! It’s currently a work in progress but I will have a long old end of the year film list up, plus cult film recommendations within the next couple of weeks and some more musings will follow. Excited? Nah, didn’t think so.

Who the flip am I then? Well, my name is Emma Simmonds and I’m a London-based film journalist whose work has appeared in Time Out, Little White Lies, The Arts Desk, The Spectator, blah blah blah, and I’ll be posting my witterings here too.

For now, please enjoy the pic of Kim Novak avec a kitty to your left (from Bell Book and Candle – a thoroughly Christmassy film), as well as my header image featuring the ferociously awesome Constance Towers.

And here are some links to my recent articles to tide you over:

Reviews for The Arts Desk

Cult Film Club pieces (and reviews/interviews etc) for Little White Lies

Also, if you’re wondering what to watch this Christmas please let me guide you.

And finally, here are trailers for three fantastic films which rocked this year’s London Film Festival. They are out in the new year (or in the case of The Artist very nearly the new year) and I will personally vouch for the quality of them all.

The Artist (released 30th December)

Shame (released 13th January)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (released 16th March)

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