The Lobster (2015)

2016 #114
Yorgos Lanthimos | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | Ireland, UK, Greece, France & Netherlands / English & French | 15 / R

The LobsterThe first English language feature from Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos (of Dogtooth) is set in a relationship-obsessed near-future dystopia. Any person not in a relationship is sent to The Hotel, where they have 45 days to find a partner among the other guests or they get turned into an animal of their choice. Guests can earn extensions to their time in The Hotel by shooting loners — singleton escapees who live in The Woods nearby — during regular hunting trips. The film begins with David (Colin Farrell) discovering his wife has left him, thereby automatically banishing him to The Hotel, where he arrives with his brother — who has been before and failed, so is now a dog. Not an anthropomorphic dog, just a dog. As David makes friends and tries to make a romantic connection, events push him closer to the loners…

The Lobster is the kind of odd movie that critics adore (90% on Rotten Tomatoes) and then, I always feel, spend some of their time looking down their noses at regular folk who don’t get it. In my experience, you have a 50/50 chance of such movies actually being any good. For me, The Lobster straddles that divide. At times it provides wryly amusing absurdist comedy, with the cast’s deliberately stilted performances and the strange situations the characters are subjected to. It also presents almost-thought-provoking observations on the objectively-bizarre rituals of social niceties, filtered through the prism of these unusual individuals and how they use, or don’t, methods of social interaction familiar from our world. If that all sounds a bit pretentious, well, that’s the level you have to engage with The Lobster on if you want to get anything out of it beyond a smattering of oddball laughs.

Even if you accept these goals, Lanthimos’ film eventually goes off the rails. Without meaning to spoil too much, David eventually falls in with the loners, who have their own very specific social rules designed to inhibit partnering up. Revelation: the outsiders are fundamentally the same, just with different rules! That’s about the extent of what I got from this portion of the film; unfortunately, it goes on for a really, really long time. Among this group David meets ‘Short Sighted Woman’ (everyone aside from David is similarly named) and falls in love with her — I mean, of course he does, she’s played by Rachel Weisz. They develop a secret mode of communicating, but will be harshly punished if caught. This storyline is what the film uses to occupy its remaining time, but what it lacks in the offbeat humour of the time in The Hotel it makes up for with… nothing.

At its best, The Lobster is like a Wes Anderson movie run through the mind of a sci-fi-loving sociopath (the dog even gets similar treatment to that of an Anderson movie, again with the same extreme filter). Unfortunately, as you might expect of a sociopath, it doesn’t know when to stop, leaving behind social commentary and alternative humour to drudge through an uninteresting romance to a limp ending. What starts well — though certainly an acquired taste — ends up feeling like a waste of time. Shame.

3 out of 5

The Lobster will be available on Netflix UK from Monday.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

2015 #152
Stanley Kubrick | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Yet more dystopian sci-fi! Who doesn’t love some dystopian sci-fi? Here we’re in the ’70s, though (makes a change from the ’80s), with writer-director Stanley Kubrick adapting Anthony Burgess’ novel into a film so controversially violent the director himself eventually banned it from release in the UK for decades. Almost 45 years on, it’s testament to the film’s power that it is still in parts shocking.

Set in a glum future Britain, the film follows eloquent juvenile delinquent Alex (Malcolm McDowell), whose violent acts eventually catch up with him when he’s imprisoned. Being the cocky little so-and-so that he is, he manages to get himself on a programme for rehabilitation and release… though that may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

The first half-hour or so of A Clockwork Orange is brilliant. I think there’s a reason this is the part that the majority of clips used when discussing the movie are lifted from, and it’s not just to do with spoilers: here is where the best imagery, and the most potent examinations of violence and the male group psyche, are to be found. It’s shocking and uncomfortable at times, funny and almost attractive at others (hence the perceived need for the ‘ban’), but the cumulative effect is precise and striking.

However, everything from Alex’s admission to prison onwards could do with tightening, in my view. It may be sacrilege to say this, but I think the film would benefit from having a good 15 to 20 minutes chopped out. All the prison bureaucracy stuff is funny, but is it relevant? “Relevance” isn’t the only deciding factor about what goes into a film, of course, but I feel like we’ve seen plenty of red-tape spoofing elsewhere. Maybe that’s just an unfortunate byproduct of the film’s age. Other parts just go on a bit too long for my taste — there’s barely a sequence after Alex’s arrest that I didn’t feel would benefit from getting a wriggle on. I don’t think this is me bringing a youth-of-today “everything must be fast cut” perspective to the film, I just found it needlessly languorous at times. Maybe I was missing a point.

McDowell’s performance is fantastic throughout. I’ve seen Alex referred to as a villain (not often, but by at least one person), which strikes me (and, I’m sure, many others) as remarkably reductionist and point-missing. He’s not a hero, certainly — a mistake I think some critics of the film made, in part because the use of voiceover invites us to identify with him, and I guess anyone other than the hero having a voiceover narration was fairly new 45 years ago (feel free to correct me on that point). But he’s not a villain, especially when he comes up against the terrifying forces of the establishment. McDowell’s performance, and Kubrick/Burgess’ storytelling, is thankfully more complex than that.

That continues right through to the ending, which is quite different in the novel and film — though I say this as someone who’s not read the book, so apologies if this is off base. Reportedly Burgess ends with Alex moving away from violence of his own free will, primarily because he’s grown up and grown out of it; the point basically being that all young men go through a violent phase (even if Alex’s is extreme) and then grow out of it. Kubrick ends on a much more ambiguous note… so ambiguous, I’m not really sure what it’s saying… or even what all the ambiguities actually are…

A Clockwork Orange remains a striking film, and not just because of the ultra-violence. It’s at its best early on, with the remainder not always working for me, but it’s a fascinating experience nonetheless.

4 out of 5

A Clockwork Orange was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Tank Girl (1995)

2015 #180
Rachel Talalay | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Critically derided, this anarchic adaptation of the rebellious comic has become a cult fave. You can see why: a ramshackle plot allows for plenty of outré zaniness, including a big musical number to a punky Cole Porter cover, and surely no one predicted the bizarre truth about the Rippers!

Malcolm McDowell chews scenery as only he can, a pre-fame Naomi Watts grabs attention, and Lori Petty’s looniness somehow holds it together, helped by efficacious design from Catherine “Twilight” Hardwicke and sporadic animated interludes.

Compromised in post-production but too wacky to fully suppress, it isn’t strictly good, but I enjoyed it.

3 out of 5

Rachel Talalay directs tonight’s Doctor Who season finale.

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Brazil (1985)

aka Brazil: The Final Cut

2015 #100
Terry Gilliam | 143 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

I normally aim for a “critical” (for want of a better word) rather than “bloggy” (for want of a better word) tone in my reviews, just because I do (that’s in no way a criticism of others, etc). Here is where I fail as a film writer in that sense, though, because I’m not even sure how I’m meant to review Terry Gilliam’s dystopian sci-fi satire Brazil, a film as famed for its storied release history as for the movie itself.

It’s a film I’ve long looked forward to watching, utterly convinced it was “the kind of thing I’d like”, but then almost put off by the fact that I should like it. I was rather pleased when it finally popped up on this year’s What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen because it’s precisely the kind of film (or “one of the kinds of films”) that project was meant to ‘force’ me to watch. And, thankfully, I did really enjoy it. It’s clever, it’s funny, it’s massively imaginative in both its visuals and its storytelling, and its influences on the 30 years of dystopian fiction that have followed is… well, fairly clear, because it also has influences of its own, so whether future works are influenced by the original influence or whether the influencee has become the influencer is an over-complex matter for over-complex people to discuss ad infinitum.

I can tell you, factually, that there are at least four versions of Brazil: differing European and American theatrical versions; the “Love Conquers All” version (which according to the Criterion DVD is a cut for syndicated TV that made all the changes Gilliam refused to make, but may never have actually been released outside of that box set (IMDb implies it was never shown)); and the “Final Cut” that Gilliam assembled for Criterion in 1996 that is now the version released everywhere always (to the best of my knowledge). I’m sure there’s a thorough list of differences somewhere, but one good anecdote from Gilliam’s audio commentary tells how the ‘morning after’ scene was cut from the European release so last-minute that it was literally physically removed from the premiere print. (Gilliam regretted it immediately and it was restored for the video release.)

I can also tell you that I now struggle to read the word “Brazil” without hearing the “Braaziiiil” refrain from the soundtrack.

Brazil was 30 this year, but its particular brand of retro-futurism hasn’t dated, and its themes and issues are as relevant as ever. It’s a bit of a head trip of a film, which is what one should always expect from the guy who did the cartoons for Monty Python, I figure. I don’t know if it always gets its due in the consensus history of sci-fi cinema — in “best ever” lists and that kind of thing — though I’m not doing anything today that will help improve that.

The best I can say is that, if you like a bit of dystopian SF but have somehow (like me, until now) missed Brazil, that’s a situation you want to rectify lickety-split.

5 out of 5

Brazil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Braaziiiil…