20,000 Days on Earth

20,000 Days on Earth | 2014 | Film Review | Movie Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★★ 

The 20,000 days on earth in question are the lifetime of the celebrated, multi-talented musician Nick Cave. As Cave approaches his 20,000th 24 hours, debut filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard direct him in a transcendent study not only of the man himself, but the life and transformative nature of every performer. This isn’t a documentary celebration of a career, it’s a lyrical dream that seeps under the skin amid spellbinding aural magic.

Rich in the textual depth of language and thought, a semi-fictional world is built around Cave as he embarks on the necessities of the day – a stint recording, watching TV with the kids, driving around his Brighton home town. These activities are unremarkable, but melded with his vivid narration and analysis, even the most humdrum passing second is transfixing. This routine is punctured by occasional archive footage and several staggering anecdotes from a life lived in transit – including the finest story about Nina Simone, champagne, cocaine and sausages you’re ever likely to hear.

The reason this experimental format is able to work is down to Cave as our host. His captivating presence and low antipodean voice softly guides us through his innermost thoughts and experiences. The words may be partially scripted (by the directors and Cave) but this uncynical, tenderly honest study never feels anything other than truth. Willing to discuss early sexual experiences, fears and the cannibalisation of his own life for songwriting material – the film's conversational tone allows it all to unfurl so naturally it’s as if the enigmatic musician is whispering into our ear. It shouldn’t be forgotten that although Cave is playing himself, it is still very much a performance – one that is vastly impressive, never once allowing its veil of authenticity to slip.

It plainly goes without saying that the musical accompaniment is tone perfect, becoming an intrinsic part of every moment. Intimately captured studio performances of Higgs Boson Blues and the recently released Give Us A Kiss are powerful enough to stop the hands on the clock, as the thick silence of the cinema and the recording studio are illuminated by the delicacy and raw emotion of The Bad Seeds. Aside from the recorded tracks an additional score by Cave and bandmate Warren Ellis knits the picture together alongside deep textual soundscapes designed by Joakim Sundström.

As with his music, the centrepiece of the film is the rich imagery contained within the artist’s lyrics and words. This is spectacularly well shot by Erik Wilson with a tactile minimalism, but the visual aspect of the production is rightfully muted in comparison to the audio. It isn’t required to work overly hard to create breathtaking vistas and illustrative moments: they are already present in Cave’s material. When he sings – “I'm tired, I'm looking for a spot to drop. All the clocks have stopped. In Memphis now in the Lorraine Motel. It's hot, it's hot – that's why they call it the Hot Spot. I'll take a room with a view”, you can feel it.

This is an ambitious, inventive debut project that all involved should be hugely proud of. It is now easier than ever to technically produce a documentary and get it widely seen, but this has severely weakened any creativity of form. Documentaries don’t have to be documentaries; they can be immersive unforgettable pieces of cinema like this. To have challenged convention so successfully at the first attempt displays the exhilarating future that Forsyth and Pollard have in the format – and further reinforces Nick Cave as an unstoppable creative force.


[ 2014 — Dir: Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard — 97 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]

A Dangerous Game

A Dangerous Game | 2014 | Film Review | Movie Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★☆☆ 

Just when you thought the smarmy bewigged billionaire Donald Trump couldn’t be more dislikable, Anthony Baxter returns with a follow up to his 2011 documentary, You’ve Been Trumped. Having spent time with the oppressed Aberdeenshire residents on the site of Trump’s multimillion dollar golf development in the previous instalment, the film picks up immediately after its release and the global media circus that ensued. 

While A Dangerous Game doesn’t push on much further than the previous outing it’s still a fantastically paced journey through the grotesque world of luxury golf resorts and all the corruption and environmental problems that surround them. The sight of lush green golf courses in the middle of barren deserts sustained by staggering amounts of water and pesticides is a pretty sobering one. With eloquent interviews with Alec Baldwin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Baxter’s 81-year-old lifelong golfer uncle, Denis Rice, the journey is an effortlessly absorbing watch that counterpoints the human and environmental consequences with equal weight.

While dedicating a large portion to reacquainting himself with the Scottish locals – as the billionaire announces plans to build a second course alongside the first – Baxter's central story here is Trump’s plans in Dubrovnik. An all too familiar situation for the Aberdeenshire residents – he has plans to build a sprawling luxury resort on a protected area of natural beauty overlooking the medieval, terracotta-roofed coastal town. This sparks a group of young articulate protestors into life, and they lead national demonstrations against the course and begin collecting the required signatures to force the issue to a referendum. A referendum that has completely unexpected, and utterly depressing, results.

The film is interspersed with other horror stories from the world of luxury golf excess including the Tiger Woods’ course in Dubai with grass flown in from Georgia, the illegality of every single Chinese golf course and the exclusive golf destination-cum-ghost town in the Nevada desert. This is clearly not an isolated or disposable issue. 

 “Whenever you see large scale environmental injury, you’ll also see the subversion of democracy. The two things go hand in hand. They always do.”
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

A Dangerous Game may well sound like a Steven Seagal film and, as Baxter sits down for the long awaited interview with Trump, you wish he was on hand to deliver a roundhouse to his toupeed head. As it is, the film may end in fireworks and a celebratory tone, but the overarching feeling is one of despair at our democratic systems and big business. The super wealthy will always play by different rules, able to place personal interests over environmental and social concerns whenever they wish. Trump will always get away with it. And on this evidence, Anthony Baxter will always be there to hound him. An impassioned call to arms for the 99%, and in fact anyone with a conscience.

[ 2014 — Dir: Anthony Baxter — 92 mins — PG cert — IMDb ]

Down by Law

Down by Law | 1986 | Film Review | Movie Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★★ 

A loving restoration of Jim Jarmusch’s hugely enjoyable Down by Law (1986) makes its way to UK cinemas this week, offering a chance to see just how influential the work of the vehemently independent director has been for every filmmaker with a taste for losers, dry wit and idiosyncrasies. 

An offbeat comedy, told as a film noir of unmade beds and scratched walls, Down by Law is a hard film to pin down. Initially surrounding itself in wandering bass-lines, wailing trumpets and the freeform drums and dialogue of beat poetry, Jarmusch’s own description of the film as a neo-Beat-noir-comedy seems to express it perfectly. But as we pass into the second act and the three men begin their tortuous prison life, much of this stylish hubbub fades away into the Louisiana badlands, and the glorious relationship between the incarcerated men takes over. Sparkling with wit and delirious soul-searching magic, Down by Law is a masterpiece of deadpan humour and pacing. Slowly building each scene Jarmusch permits us time to drink in the neighbourhoods and landscapes, but continually pushing character in the process. Every detail of speech feels considered (aside from the well-known misunderstanding of Sad and Beautiful Music/Word/World) but, underpinned by a warm regard for character, it avoids the pitfall of stylistic shallowness.

Small time pimp Jack (John Lurie) and deadbeat one-time DJ Zack (Tom Waits) are separately arrested for crimes that they did – but also didn’t – commit. It’s someone else to blame, and one more excuse to stick on the list of directionless lives. But while locked up a brightness enters their shared cell in the form of Roberto (Roberto Benigni), a small Italian prisonmate with wild hair, pidgin English and a notebook stuffed with idioms. Their prison life wears on for an indeterminate amount of time while they all lose their minds, and coincidentally find friendship.

Celebrating decay, Jarmusch revels in the graffiti on the walls, trash in the streets and tattoos on the arms – here is a film about lives wasted, chances missed and excuses made. While we have seen Jack and Zack fall foul to their setups, Roberto’s past is never quite so clear, but regardless of their individual innocence the hard time, and unexpected new friendships, are what the three convicts need – perhaps not finding salvation or better lives, but at the very least the chance to start again. Wading through the endless Louisiana swamp in circles after their sudden, unexplained escape, Rob learns the new phrase “I’m lucky to even be here”. The alligators, snakes and red ants stalking them through the undergrowth offer calamity at every turn – but they’ve got their freedom and in their miserable lives it’s time to be thankful for the little things. Maybe Zack no longer needs his fancy polished silver buckled shoes, maybe the ill-fitting clothes of a dead man will suffice.

Down by Law is an unqualified comic success, tinged with enough Deep South bittersweetness to touch the soul. It may have been slotted into the overstuffed file labelled ‘Cult’, but the early work of Jarmusch needs to be cherished for itself – and Down by Law is the perfect place to start.

[ 1986 — Dir:  Jim Jarmusch — 107 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]

Bound

Bound | 1996 | Film Review | Movie Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★☆ 

Before going on to shape the landscape of cinema with sophomore feature The Matrix (1999), the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry (now Lana), served up this impressive subversive noir debut – an ultra stylish affair that plays out like a classic 50’s thriller, but with a fun tweak in genders.

Corky (Gina Gershon) is a hardened female ex-con with a pout, tattoos and a wry smile that immediately piques the interest of the glamorous Betty Boop-looking Violet (Jennifer Tilly). While Corky is working in an adjacent apartment, the film takes on an early erotic thriller/soft porn vibe as Violet gets her round to help with the plumbing – cue close-ups of hands engaged in manual labour and flexing biceps. The two women fall into bed and into an illicit affair that sees them hatch a plan to rip off $2 million from Violet’s mobster husband Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) – but, as the opening flash-forward of Corky gagged and bound on the apartment floor tells us, not everything goes to plan.

As the name suggests Bound is a tight, claustrophobic experience that is predominantly set inside the corridors and bedrooms of the apartment block. While this restraint is probably more on account of the budget, it keeps the narrative sharply focused and forces the climax into the film’s woozy, intense highlight. Largely owed to a glorious script of pithy exchanges, callbacks and clichés all of its parts click seamlessly into place as the Wachowskis are able to find a thriller of violence and invention at the first time of asking.

Aside from the two strong – if stagey – lead performances, it arguably offers Pantoliano the best film role of his career. An actor who is many people’s favourite screen villain as Ralph Cifaretto in The Sopranos, Bound gives him the opportunity to demolish every scene he’s in with vitriol and weasly squirming. Playing a key role in the pulse-racing denouement it’s the two women who take the headlines, but playing against the hateful Caesar is what gives their journey the required bite.

Stripped of much colour, nearly everything is reduced to a palette of black, white and grey – aside from the ubiquitous woman in red and other flashes of red and green that sporadically lift the frame. To compensate for the minimal use of location and colour the Wachowskis turn to cinematographer Bill Pope to spark the picture to life with a catalogue of inventive angles, camera moves and transitions. The frame is treated with such playfulness and refinement that Bound is able to assume the demeanour of a higher budget affair. Extreme shadows are cast and husky dialogue is spoken, and it is able simultaneously to pay homage to the tone of a pulpy noir, yet retain its own fresh identity. Even now, 18 years later, it still has a daring edge to it and only the suits and haircuts have aged poorly.

If you look hard enough, there’s some neat foreshadowing of the brothers' future exploits (bullet time, colour palette, wallpaper) but Bound is a rollicking little debut that deserves attention in its own right. We don’t get many films from them, but as last year’s Cloud Atlas showed they are nothing if not wildly adventurous and unafraid of playing with genre conformity. Here’s where it all began.

[ 1996 — Dir: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski — 108 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]

BOUND is available on Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD from Arrow now.

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