One last post before we hit Sundance, Malick’s latest has recently opened in the States and if you thought he had split critics in Europe then the reaction across the pond has been even more divided. Still, this is good news for us armchair cinephiles as we get some interesting articles for contextual consumption, and a few clips to nourish upon until the film gets a Blu-Ray salutation;
Just revisting these brief fragments has got the brain juices flowing again, I really must see this again if it is still playing in London. Before then though I have a programme of ten movies over the next four days, given the absurdly talented programme manager that I am in the day job (joking) I think I’ve managed to cover all the essentials of the schedule, and even managed to assign a viewing slot of Iron Man 3 in between a breathing space in the afternoon – after all one has to keep appraised of other developments doesn’t one? Did I mention that I got tickets for tomorrows UK premiere of Upstream Colour? No? Oh, well, then let me advise you that I got a ticket to tomorrow nights UK premiere of Upstream Colour. Can’t. Fucking. Wait. Until then, more Malick and wish me luck;
Can a movie change the world? Over their long and illustrious history they have certainly provoked non-fictional responses, shamefully screenings of DW Griffiths still controversial The Birth Of A Nation aligned with an upsurge in lynchings in the deep South, and Spike Lee’s incendary Do The Right Thing is claimed to have sparked a plague of public clashes in New York. Ronald Regan reputedly begin to chill to the prospects of discussions with the Soviets after being moved and stunned by seeing the TV movie The Day After*, but then again he also asked to see the War Room that was depicted in Dr. Strangelove, once he was inaugurated, a tale that one assumes was apocryphal as the alternative is too terrifying to entertain. Closer to home and sticking with TV movies Ken Loach’s brutal Cathy Come Home led to questions in the House Of Commons and new legislation to modernise social service provision, I’m sure there are many other examples where the fictional has influenced the real, where an issue or subject, an event or is brought to the radiating and excoriating sunlight. This brings us to Beyond Rangoon, John Boorman’s scathing portrayal of the military junta in Burma, as seen through the eyes of a naive American traveller played with a sweltering charm of Patricia Arquette. Released in 1995 this was one of the first films to spotlight the regime’s appaling behaviour – atrocities which still occurs daily by the way – and is partially credited with accelerating the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, an event which raised the previous invisible issue to the world media and all the attention that has subsequently been directed to that beautiful corner of the planet.
I wanted to revisit this film for a couple of reasons, first of all I remember seeing this on VHS back in the late nineties and being floored by an unexpected slap of a film, a powerful yell for justice and hu, excoriating a litany of violations and suppression which had previously been unknown to me. Secondly I wanted to select something a little of the beaten track for my Boorman season, it would have been too easy to cover the usual suspects of his career – Deliverance, Point Blank, Excalibur – plus if the film was as good as I remembered then maybe a humble review might just prompt some readers to hunt it down and widen its exposure, however infinitesimal. Set in 1988 the film charts the brutal suppression of that years pro-democracy uprising, transmitted through the eyes of audience surrogate Laura Bowman (Arquette) who travels to Burma with her sister Andy (Frances McDormand who is always great) to repair her soul after the murder of her husband and son by burglars. After losing her passport she stumbles into one of the 8888 protests and is tarred with guilt by association, the junta accusing of her of aiding and abetting the insurgents for foreign exploitation, and she is soon on a desperate mission to flee to the safety of Thailand with her new friend U Aung Ko, a persecuted professor whom was one of the central revolutionaries protesting the scripture of Democracy .
Any film that achieves an ‘awestruck’ achievement from the notoriously grumpy Andrew Sarris has to be doing something right (it even got into his top dozen for 1995) but memory is a funny old thing, and I found this film to be a rather turgid affair, with only a few scattered high points of sweltering interest. Maybe it’s the cynic that has festered in me in the past twenty years since the film was released, the idealistic scales falling from ones eyes after two decades of real world events and political experience, or that this movie’s style of storytelling seems clumsy in comparison to today’s hyperkinetic norms, but Beyond Rangoon suffers from a rather patronising tone which takes the time to show just how IMPORTANT it is as if speaking to an impatient child, rather than letting the story unfold organically through Laura’s eyes as witness to the horrific events and struggle for liberty. I’ve always liked Patricia Arquette although she seems to have dropped off the radar in recent years, for some reason the screenwriter has encumbered her with a redundant voiceover which tells us exactly what she is thinking, when this should really be expressed through her performance as she comes to terms with her bereavement through supporting and assisting others. Similarly the Burmese protesters and activists are little more than ideological ciphers, spouting their concerns through political speeches rather than human beings covertly discussing their experiences with a sympathetic alien , overall it’s all quite forced even as you admire the ambition to weld together an important ‘issue’ film with a convincing character study, to make the tonic more palatable for an unsuspecting audience.
As I mentioned before Boorman likes to use a journey as a narrative structure, with his protagonists subtly changing and morphing as their sojourn unfurls, the experiences of life and the people they meet altering their world view and ideology over the course of their odyssey. This is the trajectory of Beyond Rangoon and the film gains a new momentum as it hurtles into its second hour, when John Seale’s expressive photography expands the vista of the film and it actually starts to arrest the attention with drama and peril, the expedition generating some missed heat and drive as Laura frantically navigates the wilderness with her wounded compatriot in tow. Unfortunately an early Hans Zimmer score hobbles some of this liberty with the obvious employment of Far Eastern chimes and wistful panpipe warbling, as one of my favourite contemporary composers (alongside Howard Shore and Clint Mansell since you ask) he falls seriously into cliché mode here, as it is the most obvious choice to employ the native instruments of the culture you are unearthing, especially in such a doe-eyed, sentimental fashion. To be fair though the film’s heart is in the right place and its position as possibly the first serious work to shine a light on the horrendous abuses in Burma shouldn’t be faulted, even if the delivery method of the movie doesn’t match the historical bravery that the movement should be assigned. It seems as if Boorman was the go to guy in filming movies with a mixture of action and issues, usually in difficult foreign climates (see also The Emerald Forest as well as Deliverance), smuggling a little political persuasion amongst the characterisation, which charitably speaking yield mixed results. Whilst we’re on the subject can I also recommend the surprisingly moving Luc Besson biopic The Lady which centres on Aung San Suu Kyi’s extraordinarily brave fight for justice, it’s a much more nuanced presentation of the political intertwining with the personal with a terrific central performance from Michelle Yeoh an achievement which really deserved some award kudos but was sadly overlooked. So that’s my knuckles rapped for being a bit creative isn’t it? Next time I’ll stick to the formula and focus on the agreed ‘classics’ I guess, thinking logically there is a reason why the likes of Hope & Glory and Point Blank are remembered and Beyond Rangoon is relegated to the back benches of cinephile scrutiny….
*One speculates what he would have made of Threads, the UK equivalent which remains one of the most harrowing and terrifying pieces ever submitted to film in my opinion. My entire school generation still shudder at the mention of it…..
As it’s light out, a little warm and sunny, and London is feeling frisky, always remember those streets can be deadly;
What a week eh? I think we can all agree that this is a period we’d all like to get behind us, whether it’s the nauseating hagiography of the worst and most destructive entity to assault my country since the Führer’s Luftwaffe or carnage inducing explosions over in North America, not to mention the mind-boggling decision not to acquiesce to the vast majority of the public’s demand that something needs to be done to control the horrific proliferation of massacre and murder implements – exactly how the fuck can those Senators ever look their constituents in the eye again? Simply unbelievable. Still, we’re here to talk about the movies of course and today saw the unveiling of this years programme for the worlds most prestigious film festival, and whilst I can’t say I’m jumping up and down with excitement there are some appearances which deserve mention. Looking at the list of films in competition I am struck by the same response I experience whenever I receive a new edition of Sight & Sound, namely that I rather arrogantly assume I know a lot about cinema until confronted with a dozen directors and filmmakers that I simply have never heard of – like clockwork this occurs pretty much every month. There is still so much to learn and see, and of course this is a good thing. So forgive me for a rather Westencentric and English language orientated look at what’s on offer, here’s the latest sight of the opening gala selection;
Just posting this makes my skin crawl but one strives to be neutral, as you have gathered I loathe Baz Luhrmann and all the atrocities he has visited upon the cinema, especially Australia and Moulin Rogue which are worthy of particularly venomous scorn. It’s nothing personal, I’m sure he’s lovely chap whom is kind to pets and children but I simply can’t stand his films, and even the threat of repeated molestations by a horde of famished rapedogs couldn’t drag me to the cinema to see this. It wasn’t always this way, I was entertained by Strictly Ballroom for example when that came out back in nineteen ninety whatever, although upon reflection I was smoking a lot of weed then and my critical facilities may have been somewhat warped. Gatsby is a big, prestige product however and some quarters are really looking forward to it, so I’ll pinch my nose and let you make your own mind up.
I think we’re all looking forward to this, it looks ravishing and Refn seems to be powering from strength to strength as his career accelerates, one wonders if he can take the material to the next level or if this will just be a pleasantly violent and stylish thriller yarn. Now, is he still on board for the long languishing Logan’s Run remake or not? I heard that Gosling had bailed but maybe he’s looking at replacements….
This looks like a slightly different tack for the Coens, it’s difficult to articulate but this looks a lot more ‘realistic’ and less mannered than most of their recent output, I can’t say I’m chomping at the proverbial bit to see this but one has to see everything new of theirs at the flicks doesn’t one?
I quite like Sophia Coppola’s movies but this looks a little samey, but then again if it ain’t broke don’t fix it I guess? The woeful travails of the incredibly wealthy, those poor souls navigating their empty lives as they are ferried from fashion show to red carpet premieres, the poor little darlings, it must be so horrid…
And finally as I don’t have the time to delve further at the moment, I don’t want to be a complete philistine and will actually post some foreign language competition, so let’s go with the always reliable Mikke Takashi – looking amusing as always. I didn’t even know Alexander Payne had another film in the can so that’s a nice surprise, a new Polanski is always worth a look and if like me you’re a little lukewarm on this schedule as there isn’t anything which really leaps out as a must see – other than Only God Forgives maybe - there may be some hidden gems tucked away under those directors we’ve never heard of. Now, if you’ll excuse me in keeping with the spirit of the week I’m off to laugh uproariously at some innocent youngsters get torn to pieces by a pack or slavering hell beasts, it’s the only way to keep sane….
What a relief. Yes, the good news that after last years unforseen setback we’ve corrected the course of the good ship Menagerie, and we will be covering this years Sundance Film Festival at the O2 in sunny Greenwich. I’ve been waiting with bated breath to hear about this, whilst I was quietly confident you really never know, but the schedule has just come through so now we have to decide which films to cover. Looking at the programme over the four days and weighing up screening times my current plans revolve around The Look Of Love, Touchy Feely, Sleepwalk With Me, Blackfish, Mud, and In A World, and a certain other picture that we’ll come to shortly. It looks similar to the LFF in that there’s a twin track of Press Screenings which start on the Monday, or you can apply for tickets for the public screenings – tricky. I’m actually working up until Wednesday next week which somewhat throws a spanner in the works in terms of the press screenings, which I assume will be early in the morning or at lunchtime – we shall see. Then again every single one of the 22 films I saw at the LFF in 2012 were at press showings which really isn’t ideal, it’s much more fun seeing movies with a paying audience, there’s certainly more chance of a tangible atmosphere which very rarely materializes when a bunch of jaded old hacks get together for a group grumble. Then again with the great unwashed you’re taking your chances with some Doritos munching, phone fiddling cretin whom might sit next to you and destroy the ambiance through their selfish behaviour, it’s a tough life sometimes. Anyway, there’s still not a great deal around in terms of video trailers for the festival, although I have sourced this which may get the celluloid blood pumping;
Not wishing to leave anything to chance I have separately purchased tickets to a certain Upstream Colour, as there is simply no fucking way on god’s green earth I am missing this film, especially since all of the numerous podcasts I listen to have essentially claimed it as the greatest American film of the past five years which in its own quiet way ‘revolutionizes cinema’. Now, granted, these chaps like myself can veer into the dense waters of hyperbole from time to time but it really does sound extraordinary, and one hopes that the hype can meet the movie. The good news is the Sunday screening is at the O2 Super Screen which to put it bluntly is fucking massive, so I’ll try for press tickets first and we’ll have this screening as our fallback – deal?
I’ll probably wanna see it twice anyway, does this give me an excuse to post the trailer again? I mean, it’s not like I watched it half a dozen times over the weekend or anything. I wonder if Shane Carruth is actually gonna be around for promotional purposes, if so then I might bravely broach my first interview opportunity ever…
‘Pearl Harbor” is a two-hour movie squeezed into three hours, about how on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle’ – now that’s how you open a movie review. So farewell Roger Ebert, perhaps the last ‘famous’ film critic, an inspiration to many whose movie lore expanded past the mainstream to the arthouse, a tireless campaigner for cinema appreciation and education. It was only when I got onto the web back in those twilight years of the 20th century that I fully appreciated his enormous position in North America as simply ‘the’ face of modern mainstream film criticism, growing up in England my movie eduction revolved around Empire Magazine, the film section of my local library, Barry Norman and the now sadly defunct phenomenon of BBC and yes even ITV film seasons, an educational resource which peaked with those precious few years of Moviedrome. As such I can’t say that I’m enormously moved by his passing on an emotional level as many of my North American colleagues seem to be, I didn’t grow up watching him on the box as my formative cinema tastes were maturing, but I can appreciate the unparalleled impact and influence he had on the movies, and some of the recollections and tributes that I’m seeing are really quite moving. As the plaudits quite rightly stroll in – this Herzog response is probably the best I’ve seen so far – I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t offer something a little more substantial than a couple of sentences and a montage tribute, so lets start with this infamous exchange of fire over what else – a Kubrick movie;
I’m at the age when I prefer to have my preconceptions challenged, not to get angry like a petulant child if someone slates a movie I love or admires a movie I hate, but to make me pause in my opinions and perhaps take a look at something from a different angle, and many of Ebert’s reviews manage that difficult feat. This may sound like damning with faint praise but when I’m throwing together one of my inferior efforts that Chicago Sun Times library is my immediate fall-back position for any links, as I can rest safely in the knowledge that even if his review isn’t positive it will at least be interesting, well written and illuminating, and hopefully make me look as if I know what the hell I’m talking about through sheer osmosis. When scathing, he could also be very funny.
By all accounts he was an upbeat and optimistic guy, even when ravaged by the cruel cancer that took him, unpretentious and modest he walked into the cinema with an optimistic mood, with no hidden agenda to settle scores or stir controversy purely as a profile raising exercise. Enormously prolific he churned out a staggering 300 reviews last year alone, even on the day of his passing no less than seven reviews sprang up on his blog, and he was renown for supporting and encouraging younger writers, taking the time to foster colleagues when he could quite easily remained aloft his perch as the worlds most famous film critic. His politics were also sound, he was a great advocate for Universal healthcare and his writing was excellent beyond the world of cinema, I was directed to this article about a London hotel a few years ago which I thought was fantastic. Unlike many critics he actually had some direct experience of writing for and the production of the movies, working with Russ Meyer no less he was the wordsmith behind the cult classic Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls;
Like any critic he had some personal favourites, he was an early champion of dismissed fare such as Grave OF The Fireflies when Japanese anime was usually dismissed as juvenile (incidentally prefiguring that sudden tsunami of affection for the likes of Studio Ghibli) as he came to every piece with no preconceptions, whether is was animated or documentary he invested the same critical facilities, neither high or low brow, taking each movie on its own, individual terms. Did he always get it right? Well no, quite famously among cinephile circles he hated Blue Velvet in 1986 but was modest enough to revisit the movie some years later and accept that he was wrong (how rare is that in a critic of any field?) and he had a strange affection for the work of Alex Proyas, particularly his choppy Dark City, I love that when someone for whatever reason has an almost unexplained connection with someones work which they can’t quite explain or vocalise, it’s one of those difficult to articulate mysteries of the relations between movie and spectator sometimes, and anyone who also defends Joe Versus The Volcano is OK in my book – here’s his top ten list, and this is oddly sweet.
So his passing marks the passing of an era, there is no-one remotely qualified to step into his shadow in terms of populist, widespread appeal, which is just another symptom of film criticism in the era of the internet I guess – I wonder if 90% of your friends and family could even name another film critic other than Barry Norman or Jonathan Ross, at least if you’re in the UK. Here’s a fine quote summarising his world view which I think is apt, this ideology ain’t a bad way to be remembered ““Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” – Amen to that, finally this was one of his favourite films of the past decade, so this seems apt to wrap things up;
Fuck. Damn. I thought it didn’t sound good when just a few days ago he mentioned he was withdrawing for another round of treatment but this is sudden. I’ll put something more substantive together at the weekend but for now given his American heritage;
One of the all time legends of film criticism and appreciation. FUCK cancer…..
Let’s take a quick break between the reviews as the next assault is going to be quite a lengthy effort, suffice to say Spring Breakers is one of the films of the year, an instant cult classic in the vein of Drive or Monsters that I’ve also attempted to devote an appropriate level of detail, for prosperity’s sake of course. Whilst I get myself all worked up over that lets take a quick look at other developments, first of all this has been doing the rounds and is quite an amusing read, I’m all for the spearing of sacred cows and welcome any alternative to the tedious retreading of hagiographic wisdom, but it does help if you get your damn facts straight. Not wishing to sound patronising or anything (which always makes me think of people who start sentences with ‘I’m not racist or anything but….’) but you can almost picture these twentysomething young whippersnappers, fresh faced out of film / journalism school, their tongues lodged firmly in their cheeks as they enthusiastically sharpen their critical pencils and muse over making a name for themselves via whipping up some controversy by claiming that ‘Citizen Kane? Citizen Lame more like’, or ‘The Godfather?’ that’s like a really rubbish soap opera, yeah? And it’s all in the dark, you can’t even see what’s happening’… I mean c’mon, how you can possibly electronically show your face after claiming that The Third Man is a ‘far superior Welles film’, when of course it wasn’t a bloody Welles film, he’s in three scenes, one of which with dialogue which admittedly is a stone cold classic sequence, yet the controversy rages still on whether he ever wrote or ad-libbed his speech. OK, OK, I’m deliberately being combative, I have no idea about most of these people’s ages or credentials other than recognising some of the sites they contribute to, and seriously I’d quite like to read more expansive reasons for their dislikes (some of which I fully agree with, Jules Et Jim? Most of Fellini? I also fucking loathe Moulin Rogue! with the intensity of a trillion suns so I’m an instant supporter of Jonathan Lack) but this Drew Hunt chap? Sterilisation* springs to mind, to protect the future gene pool. Now, here are some lesbians;
So then rest in peace Jess Franco, one of the worst directors ever to pollute the movie screens. Now I don’t necessarily mean that in a derogatory way, like Ed Wood the man has many devoted supporters as of course sometimes things that are very bad can be thoroughly entertaining, then again having sat through both Oasis Of The Zombies and more recently his bloody awful Dracula picture I’m afraid I’m not one of ‘em. But he is quite a titanic figure on the exploitation fan front, as Kim Newman quite succinctly put it ‘RIP Jess Franco, maker of 200 movies, some of which he hadn’t even seen’. Next, NSFW beware, here is the legendary John Holmes documentary which inspired P.T. Anderson to make Boogie Nights, including his commentary – I haven’t watched it yet but I’m told the similarities are quite revealing, if you’ll excuse the pun;
Sometimes I think I think about movies too much, just this morning during the commute I was idly flirting with the notion of a film festival curated by title alone, showing Trance, Vertigo, Sleeper, Dazed & Confused etc. if you catch my drift – can anyone think of any others? Now, if you’ll excuse me I’m off to the BFI for part three of my recent cinematic odyssey, before a brief respite of a few days when I see by the marketing blitzkrieg swamping London that Oblivion has crept up for next weekend, then the Evil Dead remake should hit and then there’s Iron Man 3 and then we’re into May and my BFI tickets have just been confirmed for that month and oh god will this ever end…..
*This is a joke of course. A simple hanging would be cheaper……
BBC4 recently repeated its series on early Hollywood which was curated and presented by Paul Merton, a comedian who leapt up my admiration chart when I first heard about his absolute love and devotion to early cinema. Being the BBC it is an entertaining and vaguely informative dissertation on the first three decades of American cinema, but three hours of covering the visible peaks of the Hollywood iceberg – Edison & Biograph, DW Griffith, Edwin S. Porter and The Great Train Robbery, the establishment of the big studios, Mack Sennett and the early comedies, the emerging star system including Mary Pickford, Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and others – well it’s a fine overview but kinda Film Studies 101 for us cinema snobs, and all it left me with was an appetite to delve under the waters and get deeper into the murky depths of the early twentieth century. So, after putting it off for many years I finally launched a full inquiry into Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood, a 13 hour exhaustive documentary series on the birth of the movies, I’ve had this bookmarked for a few years since stumbling across it on youtube, and finally over this long Easter weekend I satisfied my celluloid fix with some prime vintage cineaste wallowing. The series is considered one of the most exhaustive and brilliantly executed enquiries into the period, and Brownlow is considered one of he most informed scholars of the ‘flickers’ currently drawing breath, I have to say this was simply fantastic if you just overcome your prejudices of silents being those boring, badly cranked, wheezing, primitive efforts of cinema persuasion then there are bounties to be devoured, for the real connoisseur it’s not just the films themselves which are terrifically illuminated in this series but the execution and evolution of an entire industry and art form, a new way of regulating and regurgitating our myths and legends,dreams and desires which have been shared around campfires since the dawn of Homo sapiens – it is really that simple.
As a cinephile it’s just hypnotic to see the likes of Henry King, Byron Haskin, Allan Dwan, Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Agnes De Mille, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Henry Hathaway, King Vidor and many, many others offer their recollections and anecdotes unfiltered through the lens of a textbook or dry academic dissertation, this was produced by Thames Television back in the midst of time when ITV actually produced anything of merit (or 1980 as its more commonly known) and crucially Hollywood is quite the historical document in its own right as a repository of footage of many figures of that era for the final time on camera, even by then a half century since the silent period closed. It skillfully intersperses lengthy sequences of the movies with talking heads and stock footage, this might be standard issue documentary technique but its the sheer scale and time they have to lavish on every facet of the phenomenon, plus James Mason’s loquacious narration is also a joy to behold, he himself was an inodorous cinema aficionado and in fact found some abandoned old Buster Keaton two reelers when he purchased Keaton’s old mansion in the 1950′s, like any decent sort he paid to have them restored before donating them to the US National Archive. I’ll admit I wasn’t fully contingent of the likes of Colleen Moore or Wallace Reed so the series does serve as an educational tool as well, and given that I only got around half through the series in between other leisure time (including making a start on this* which is also stunning after just a few chapters), I’m positive there are more informative nuggets to extract with the determined with the grizzled dedication of a hungry, gold crazed turn of the century pick-axe wielding prospector.
You can see how film grammar was built step by step like teaching a petulant and unruly child to walk, every week a movie would pioneer a new form of cutting, of lighting or set design, a new death-defying stunt, a risqué gag or a close-up, a series of innovations begetting an evolution. Over a few years in that astonishingly creative fulcrum of the West Coast the form moved from those static, mid-shot, one-take photographing of stage plays to embroidering sequences together to build character and emotion, with meaning and awe constructed through images yes sound, as many of the of the pioneers elucidate these movies were never ‘silent’ but played to live action accompaniment which was critical to their seduction and security. I love how from its very conception just how self-reflective cinema was, sixty, seventy years before the phrase post modernism’ was even uttered the ‘flickers’ were riffing on their own existence in their own hermetic universe, being playful and subversive and ever so slightly political, drawing on a mélange of influences and techniques to mould a new cultural instrument – theatre, literature, music, painting, comedy, poetry, and of course photography.
It’s not just the moves and the pioneers themselves which are fascinating, it’s also the culture and wider society of the time which the series takes the time to contextualize. The fact that people attracted to the burgeoning industry were loathed by the indigenous populace at the time and adverts for apartments and houses would state ‘no movies’ alongside traditional bigotry such as ‘no coloureds’ or no jews’ was eyebrow raising, they really were seen as a sacrilegious celebration of decadent society by the tedious moral majority, isn’t is amazing how their complaints have changed over a hundred years? Then again they were kinda correct in their assumptions, as in this era of prohibition and more strict moral structures you suddenly had these twentysomethings becoming literal overnight millionaires, throwing lavish three-day parties and snorting and sucking, drinking and fucking everything in sight, whilst the more sober moguls established financial empires in full service to Mammon, holding their vassals in virtual slavery and populating the screen with violence and titillation before the MPAA was formed in the Twenties following the Fatty Arbuckle scandal – plus ça la change?
Although it is widely acknowledged that European cinema of 1895 – 1915 was more innovative , more creative and more revolutionary than the aligned American product of the era with Europe devastated by the First World War the stage was set for a Hollywood holocaust across global theatres, with their production line techniques, their financial muscle and the birth of the ubiquitous advertising and marketing infrastructure combining into an unholy trinity, a cultural stranglehold which remains to this day. I also loved the series emphasis on how during this crucial adolescence the three distinct phases of the industry – production, distribution and exhibition – were intrinsically linked in a monopolistic manner, and how particularly the later transformed in a mere couple of decades from being absorbed by uncomfortably standing up and inserting a dime into a rattling Nickelodeon for a thirty-second clip had transmogrified to the ornate and gaudy picture palaces of days gone by – the 6,200 seater Roxy Theatre in New York was purchased by William Fox, as in 20th century Fox, for a mind-blowing $15 million in the late twenties.
However you cut it the scale of ambition and the blockbusters themselves remains unsurpassed to this day, move over Lean or Spielberg as it is astounding to think that everyone in the popular biblical films of time was clothed, fed and watered for months on end, how those vast sets were built brick by brick and beam by beam, although yes there was naturally some trick photography you actually had thousands of people at the beck and call of the Jodhpur and eyeglass sporting tyrants , So that’s that, I have to say that the series has been quite an elixir and primed me for a challenging movie schedule on the way with three movies over the next three consecutive days, and the now we’re in April blockbuster season is swiftly approaching…..
* The most striking sentence so far, in reference to Stroheim’s Greed - ‘ remorse is a recurrent emotion in silent cinema, as if the system felt guilty over its liberation of fantasy’)
Like a genuinely electrifying trailer which doesn’t give the entire film away here is a welcome little piece on opening titles, a rarely utilised crucial strand of movie art. This is a compact little history which grazes the subject, someone should really construct a full 90 minute documentary on the phenomenon, and quite rightly it’s heavy on the Bass;
Any excuse to post a link to this fantastic site should be exploited….now, let’s take an amusing look at the explosive power of editing;
Well, we’ve all been waiting with bated breath since January but today the Sundance Institute and The O2 announced today the programme of panels, feature films and short films for the second Sundance London film and music festival, due to commence on the 25-28 April at The O2 in Greenwich. If you’re so inclined then passes and ticket packages are available at www.sundance-london.com, and individual tickets will be on sale from 9:00 a.m. GMT Friday 15 March. The Sundance Institute, which annually presents the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, U.S.A., selected the film and panel programming for this second year of the best in American independent cinema and music programming, and this years schedule continues its 2012 focus on presenting new work by independent filmmakers and exploring the interplay between independent film and music. The programme announced today includes 18 feature films and nine short films across four sections, including a new UK Spotlight. Twenty-three films will make their international, European or UK premieres at Sundance London. Ten are by female filmmakers and six are by first-time feature filmmakers. The films collectively received 12 awards when they premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, U.S.A.. Among the artists expected to attend Sundance London are Lake Bell, Mike Birbiglia, Jimmy Carr, the Eagles, Barbara Kopple and Peaches, as well as Sundance Institute President & Founder Robert Redford.
Now we’ve got the blurb out-of-the-way I’m enormously relived to see one inclusion on the schedule which we’ll get into shortly, on the other hand I’ve a bit glum that the terrific sounding Escape From Tomorrow isn’t included, I wonder if that films guerilla shooting tactics has resulted in potential trademark problems from the evil house of mouse, or perhaps it was considered too slight a feature for international selection? I’m still waiting to hear on my potential press credentials so we’ll just have to keep the extremities crossed, I have however booked the time off work so that’s one hurdle overcome. Questions about my sanity in spending the first time off in four months by evading any relaxing lie-ins and charging over to the O2 for four days straight of eight to ten hours of movie watching coverage could not be confirmed as of press time. In any case here’s what we have on the cards;
Oh well, not the most exciting promo I’ve ever seen, hopefully that’s just a placeholder and something more official and slightly more assertive will be circulated shortly. I think I have an idea on how to grab your attention, here’s one of the short films that’s screening which a friend sent to me a few weeks ago, I assure you this will burst your Sundance bubble;
Heh, that makes me laugh every time – looks like someones angling for a potential Scanners remake? Right, so what’s on the Minty hit list? Firstly, I’ve been vaguely following the release of this as I’m a fan of the This American Life and associated podcasts, Birbiglia gets around and can be amusing so this could be a pleasant diversion;
After that it gets pretty short on the trailers list, these films are so hot off the press they haven’t even concluded their marketing strategies. I really enjoyed Your Sisters Sister last year from director Lynn Shelton, she’s followed this up with another one of those slightly quirky relationship dramedies Touchy Feely;
After Mea Maxima Culpa (a fantastic, gruelling and important documentary) and almost weekly revelations about the crimes and corruption of various Church factions around the world anything else illuminating these financially self-serving, medieval ideological peddling criminal conspirators gets a holy blessing in my book;
In terms of special events there is a screenwriters panel featuring the exalted presence of Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Tideland, In This World, Death Defying Acts), Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Debt, Men Who Stare at Goats), the aforementioned Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely, Your Sister’s Sister, Humpday), and an afternoon with David Arnold, musical score composer of Bond movies Casino Royale and Tomorrow Never Dies, as well as Independence Day, Stargate, Godzilla, Hot Fuzz and The Stepford Wives. Now, hands up if you liked Take Shelter? Good, well then, here’s the trailer for Mud, director Jeff Nichols follow-up;
There is a UK strand to the festival which highlights indigenous work, naturally a repeat collaboration of Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan on the sordid sounding biopic of Soho magnate Paul Raymond is an early riser;
The horror themed In Fear also sounds like its worth a go, alas no trailer yet. Finally thank god Upstream Colour is on the list, this is one of the ‘hottest’ films of the year and I’m pretty sure this is going to sell out immediately given the cult prestige of Carruth’s earlier effort, with one skim-read exception I’ve avoided all reviews but the general feeling out there is that this is an astonishing piece of work which hasn’t aligned with everyone’s sensibilities, so that sounds like Primer II to me…
Does anyone know where I can get a copy of this? There have been a couple of those ‘film criticism is dead’ articles flying around again, one of which sent me to this which is supposedly a reasonable overview of the form, I don’t however fancy shelling out $25 plus shipping for a DVD that probably won’t work on my infernal European machines;
In other news in these austerity starved time can I suggest that discerning film fans goe for a poke around their indigenous retail sectors charity shops for potential bargains? I just picked this DVD up for the princely sum of £2, with an introductory piece from Cronenberg and copious film notes by Kim Newman this looks like quite the quivering acquisition;
We continue. Not wishing to sound dismissive, but let’s be brief to get this out-of-the-way for the weekend, where we have the Oscars and the third big cinephile release of the year to consider – more on that shortly. We also have the likes of Cloud Atlas, Stoker and Mama slowly materializing on the horizon, plus I still have a BFI visit to compose, alas there is no rest for the wicked. I know I’ve mentioned it before but I was I must repeat myself ad nauseam, if you are in any way a fan of Mr. S. Kubrick esquire then you need to be following this twitter account, essentially it’s an information stream with the express purpose of sourcing anything and everything Stanley related that happens to hit the web, I realise there are such things as ‘Google Alert’ functions but I’ve always found them clunky and miscommunicative in comparison to an ‘old-fashioned’ twitter feed. But now of course you will be aware that Visual Memory is the most comprehensive source for all things Stanley, although this and this have their own intriguing conclusions and propositions. One thing that struck me when finalising the entire list was the general theme of tone and subject matter which runs through the list, they are films of ideas which are submerged in the text which build tangible atmospheres, rather than professing any single viewpoint or position on the experiences and lives they are recreating, either fictional or fantastical. But as previously divined this is only a brief list of fifteen pictures which he was quoted as admiring over his long career, as a lover of the form throughout his life he regularly had new prints of all sorts of films shipped to St. Albans for private screenings, and was notorious for calling filmmakers around the world for long, 6 hour plus discussions of their movies he liked to register his appreciation, usually before interrogating them on how certain effects and techniques were achieved – a true, inquisitive connoisseur.
6. The Spirit of the Beehive (Víctor Erice | 1973) – Here’s a curious confession, I think I’ve seen this but I’m not entirely sure. Having watched that trailer I think I had this confused with this, in any case I shall add both to my viewing schedule for a quiet mid-week consideration.
5. La Ronde ties Le Plaisir (Max Ophüls | 1950, 1952) – It’s no surprise to see Max Ophüls on here, one of the most influential, if not the most influential filmmaker on Kubrick on a formal level, whose dizzying and delirious tracking camera can be seen replicated in those trenches of World War I. You’d think that I’d be something of an expert on Ophüls given the influence and inspiration he provided to Kubrick wouldn’t you? Well, to my eternal shame you’d be wrong, I have seen and throughly enjoyed the emotionally advanced Letter From An Unknown Woman and The Reckless Moment but that’s all I’ve seduced over the years, one really must try harder…..
4. Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau | 1946) – This wonderful, magical film has inspired many creatives and storytellers across many artistic fields, I think the fairy tale qualities can be detected in the less overt, yet faintly apparent fable like constructions of both A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut.
3. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman | 1957) – I’ve seen this once and I do need to watch it again, if memory serves (no pun intended) the cinematic representation of aging and recollection was quite revolutionary for the time, and Stanley was so impressed that he wrote a fan letter. The snivelling little sycophant…..
2. I Vitelloni (Federico Fellini | 1953) – This crops up a lot in directors favourite lists, truth be told like much of Fellini’s work it quite simply doesn’t work for me. Like Wild Strawberries it is another one of those autobiographical tales that is expertly imagined , but it just doesn’t engage with me at any emotional level – as Stanley once said ‘Eisenstein seems to be all form and no content, Chaplin is all content and no form’. This for me languishes in the latter section, despite seeing 80% to 90% of Fellini’s work I remain immune to his alleged genius…..
1. Henry V (Laurence Olivier | 1944) – This may occupy the top spot but I think that’s more to do with that any specific hierarchy of quality. The only attraction I can see for this is the ambitious choice to meld the fiction of Shakespeare’s play which evolves from a staged performance of the play within the film, that was quite shocking for 1944 when modernist structures were still the status quo – see also Joe Wright’s recent take on Anna Karenina which employs an identical conceit. The film is also renown for its bold use of colour which probably caressed Kubrick’s photographers eye, after he displaced Anthony Mann as the director of Spartacus, his first colour feature, one speculates whether he consulted Oliver on exactly how he mastered the visual options available with a Technicolour palette…
I’ve finally found the time to see Hitchcock, the recent biographical stab at the Master of Suspense© sharpest of celluloid creations. Starring Anthony Hopkins as the titular terrorist and Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife and constant creative partner Alma Reville the film has naturally been on my radar since it was announced back in 2010, and although I didn’t find the time to see it at the flicks I have sourced the film through alternate means, as I really do have to keep the credentials going after last years exhausting film season now don’t I? Given that the reviews have been lukewarm at best from last year’s festival cameos and Sight & Sound didn’t even bother to commission any accompanying articles or coverage other than a standard review I suspected this was going to be a limp corpse, and my suspicions were proved accurate which justified my evasion of a cinema visit. As you probably know the film focus on the period immediately following the release of the breathless North By Northwest in 1959 and the pre-production, shoot and final difficult release of 1960’s Psycho, a major risk for Hitch and Alma as no studio would finance the film up-front due to its grisly subject matter culled from the notorious antics of serial killer Ed Gein, and even Paramount who agreed to distribute the film had severe reservations of the marketability of the material after the gruesome twosome mortgaged their Bel Air mansion as collateral for the production budget;
What a ‘bloody’ fiasco. I was somewhat tepid to the recent Hitchcock HBO drama The Girl but that’s a masterpiece compared to this dramatically impotent, clumsily written and badly arranged picture. Like many of Meryl Streep’s recent acting excursions for me there is a crucial difference between inhabitation and impersonation, and Hopkins follows this route by giving us no sense of depth to the man as he almost sleepwalks through the movie, rarely giving any sense of the man’s artistic drive, mental make-up or twisted ambitions – he doesn;t even get the voice remotely right. Crucially the entire film pivots on two dramatic conceits, the first that Ed Gein is visiting Hitch as some sort of guiding, hallucinatory apparition during the difficult genesis of this controversial picture, and in their wisdom screenwriter John J. McLaughlin has invented a potential affair between Alma and a Lothario screenwriter played by Danny Huston which serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to distract attention from making of the movie toward an emotionally void snapshot of a marriage in crisis. Worst of all is the extinct exposition, horrifically delivered through some terrible dialogue forced into the mouths of supporting executives, members of the press and the production crew with lines like ‘Gosh Mr. Hitchcock, don’t you think you’re a little too old to make any new film which could shock an audience?’ climaxing on a penultimate scene, facepalm inducing line of dialogue which made me want to stab myself – if you’re seen the movie you know exactly what I’m talking about. Then again like any red bloodied male I have a bit of a thing for Scarlett Johansson and she is perhaps the only pearl amongst the swine, in a mannered and convincing portrayal of Psycho’s prematurely doomed starlet Janet Leigh;
Delving into the psychological depths of such a landmark cinematic figure whose career essentially spawned its own cottage academic industry of psychologically attuned cultural critical theory should be a potent area of nervous exploration, but frankly documentarian turned feature maker Sacha Gervais is simply out of his depth, stringing cold and frigid scenes together with all the dexterity of a mummified mannequin. There’s been enough analysis of Hitch’s personal life with his adoration for his mother and antipathy to his father (whom died when he was young) aligned with his subsequent placing of women on a deistic pedestal or ridiculing older females as harpyish shrews throughout his films, quite why McLaughlin invented this Ed Gein persona or invented this possible cuckold romance seems like a fatal error. Finally, whilst I appreciate that the details of the making of the film are well versed to aficionados like yours truly they never really broach any of the semi-famous production tales including a complete disregard for the ongoing Saul Bass shower sequence authorship debate, preferring to opt for presenting Hitch as some out of control tyrant, personally wielding the blade against Janet Leigh during a hysterically overweight sequence which massacres any dramatic licence it may have embezzled, it’s the coup de grace of a film which offers no insight, no drama and no illumination into either the filmmaker, his coterie of collaborators or the making of this deranged masterpiece. Rather than waste your time with the fictional failure may I humbly suggest you follow this non-fictional route which provides much more light than heat, and here’s the background to that aquatic abattoir;
It’s been a while since we conducted a list post isn’t it? Well, you can imagine my glee as mulling over a portfolio of possibilities this little article arrived and started gaining traction amongst the on-line film fraternity, of course the opinion of one of the most influential and coveted filmmakers of all time was bound to generate a dense cloud of commentary, and being a self-confessed obsessive of the man and his work I naturally found the inspiration for a new trawl through cinema history. Before we get started allow me to construct some context for our scan of past triumphs, firstly it should be noted that any claim to this being a definitive statement of Kubrick’s all time favourites is absurd, this should be taken as a fun exercise rather than any serious academic collation such as the decennial Sight & Sound poll for example, and anyway I suspect that Stan would dismiss any reductive exercise such as making a ‘top ten’ with the contempt it deserves – exactly how is Rashomon less brilliant in its own unique way than say Les Diaboliques? The spine of the list springs from a 1963 submission to Cinema magazine that Kubrick made when he was 35 years old, a recent permanent émigré to leafy East Anglia from the States, plotting his designs and working up the script for Dr. Strangelove which was to strafe theatres a year later. It’s a fine collection which sprawls over cinemas first seven decades, in many ways you can map the films to Kubrick’s own work in many fascinating and illuminating ways, but before we get into that lets just consider the pictures which didn’t quite make the cut.
As my fellow fanatics have barked it also omits some core films which Stan is on record as admiring, the elusive Funeral Parade Of Roses (which I ordered from Japan a decade ago to see) was an influence on A Clockwork Orange’s techniques for example, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and An American Werewolf In London also prompted one of those surprising impromptu six-hour conversations with fellow industry colleagues – in the latter it’s not difficult to see the ironic use of music to counterpoise the horror and the technical achievements which would appeal to Stan – but most glaringly there is no mention of Kielowski’s expansive Decalogue series which legendarily actually convinced the so-called recluse to write a short introduction of praise for the accompanying screenplay folio. As I’ve noted before he cited The Godfather as the best cast film of all time – one wonders what he would have made with Brando had their initial discussions on One Eyes Jacks ever coalesced into anything – and I love the quote that one of his daughters made (I think it was Katharina) that she fondly remembers sitting with him watching movies like White Men Can’t Jump on the BBC which just goes to show he wasn’t always this imperious Prospero wrestling with the great themes of humankind in his isolated St. Alban’s mansion, sometimes he could just enjoy a well made story with suitably sketched characters, or maybe he just enjoyed the sport as he was a fairly big sports fan, he’d have Basketball and Baseball matches recorded and shipped to him well before the advent of Satellite broadcasting. So we have much ground to cover so lets begin in descending order, starting with an early Achilles heel in my film knowledge armour;
15. Blood Wedding (Carlos Saura | 1981) – I’ve never heard of this and I’m not sure where they gleaned Kubrick’s passion for the film from, but nevertheless here we are. I can only assume that the supposed ’incredible’ camera work cited in reviews is what impressed him, he certainly liked to keep his cameras prowling through his sets, with the attendant strains on operators, focus pullers, set designers and actors that such gruelling shooting techniques could engender, so I’m looking forward to this which has been placed on my priority Lovefilm queue. Strange that people have been whining about the films lack of availability and claiming ebay copies go for $350 though, it was the first thing that cropped up in the search result…..
14. The Bank Dick (Edward Cline | 1940) – W.C. Fields seems to have been relegated to the comedy nerds as he doesn’t exactly spring to mind like say the Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges, and I wonder if this wasn’t just a little twinge of nostalgia on the part of Stanley as a movie which he could have seen in theatres at the tender age of twelve? Then again it is considered something of a formal classic in its comedic design, and there is a quiet strain of comedy running through his body of work, yes of course there’s Strangelove but I’d argue that Barry Lyndon, Lolita, The Killing and even The Shining all have their comedy moments – granted we’re talking hysterical, nervous, cackling laughter – but laughter none the less. Fascinating comedy themed factoid – original potential couples for Eyes Wide Shut when Stan was working on it during the Eighties were Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, and Steve Martin and his then missus Victoria Tennant - evidently he was going for a lighter approach at the time?
13. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski | 1968) – Firstly, a confession. Yes I made a vague promise about crafting a Polanski trilogy didn’t I? Well, I did have tickets to see this which would have been great on the big screen, but the screening fell on the January Friday when that strange frozen substance fell from the sky and paralysed London’s transport infrastructure, so I counted my blessing at getting home in one piece to Limehouse rather than pressing my luck with a yomp over to the South Bank as well. The other film I had planned was Repulsion, but I actually revisited that last year so I was terribly excited at seeing it again so soon, I shall make amends with the quite ambitious plans I have for the upcoming John Boorman season. Anyway, I’m sure Stanley loved this for it’s all to difficult to replicate chilling tone, it’s creeping unease and impressive framing and compositions, I think he had less of an ego of making his riposte to this and The Exorcist as he felt he could ‘make the greatest horror movie ever made;’ than he really had one eye on the box office and saw thew astonishing returns that relatively cheap horror movies could provide. Then of course he went on to make The Shining in a swift turnaround (for him) of three years from Lyndon, and made one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Smug bastard…..
12. The Fireman’s Ball (Milos Forman | 1967) – I hang my head in shame as yet another glaring omission in my filmlore arsenal is exposed, truth be told there is a whole sequence of films which emerged from under the Iron Curtain during the Sixties and Seventies which I’m not particularly au fait with, material such as Andrejz Wajda’s cinema and indigenous films which the likes of cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs cut there teeth on before repatriating to the West, and providing illumination to a decade of America’s finest cinema. Everyone knows Milos Forman for the classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, itself a political a social parable like this movie, I think Cousins touched upon it during his Film Odyssey and I’ve just ordered myself a copy - death by bureaucracy sounds like an ideal companion piece to Strangelove, no?
11. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström | 1921) – We’ve moved beyond being ashamed and straight into penitent flailing now, friends of mine won’t be surprised to hear me give myself a good beating over Kubrick’s favourite movies. I’ve heard of Sjöström as an early pioneer of cinema back in the days of Griffith and Chaplin, I know that he’s the main actor in Wild Strawberries, but I confess I’ve never heard of this. Above is quite the most illuminating extract, it just goes to show the breadth and depth of material that the real cinema greats draw upon for their own material and scenes. It is curious, is it not, that the 1921 scene plays out in mid-shots of both lines of action, but sixty years later the same scene is played out in a variety of framing choices and cutting rhythms, the latter being slightly more terrifying….
10. The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme | 1991) - Now I’ve heard of this, in fact I can smugly assert to not only seeing this at the cinema during its initial run, but also having my very own Direct Versatile Disk copy – thus my Kubrick credentials are restored. It is a terrific thriller with glimpses of horror (rather than vice versa) with great lead performances, I wonder if Hopkins slithering, over the top portrayal of Lecktor didn’t appeal to his embrace the gallery of grotesques which populate his work? There’s a couple of terrific feints in the movie which Demme expertly pulls off, the first being the face as above, the second the cut between Clarice knocking at Buffalo Bill’s yard and the SWAT team preparation in a different location – great stuff, these are techniques which more recent movies could learn from….
9. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky | 1972) – Shall I be lazy and post the most obvious clip, Tarkovsky’s alleged filmic response to the 2001 Stargate sequence? Well, this seems as good a place as any. I wonder what Stanley made of the slightly more challenging Stalker which is probably regarded as the more immortal film, I just like the idea of directors having these ‘feuds’ and remarking upon and rebutting each others work through their own projects, it reminds me of whole swathes of the history of fine art where entire movements have been created and potent phases of work emerged from such chest beating intellectual mêlées – cinema it seems is no different and just as valid.
8. Closely Watched Trains - (Jiří Menzel | 1966) – And we’re back to my shameful, tearful confession – nope I ain’t seen this either. Watching that trailer and the first thing that springs to mind is of course the abandoned Aryan Papers project, I don’t think there’s much more to say other than I think you’ll have to be in a very particular mood to absorb this movie, a black & white Czech coming of age art-house drama set against the fading pains of World War II – sounds hilarious….
7. If…. (Lindsay Anderson | 1968) – Rather a strange inclusion this, Stanley liked the film a great deal and it was purely on the strength of the scene above at 04:53 that he cast McDowell as the Mephistophelian Alex, in a career defining role which Malcolm will be chiefly remembered for once his glazzies mist over. We in Britain should be ashamed of ourselves as we haven;t made as subversive and savage a film in half a century, and if the current social and political upheaval isn’t the accelerant for such material then I don’t know what is. OK we’ll leave it there and I’ll come back and finish off the list next week, I’m off to the BFI for a visit for a simply divine experience…..
Velcome my fiends, please leave your cowls with Ygor and let ve provide you vith some vreshment , yes we are finally continuing with my ungodly and unholy trawl through the original lifecycle of Universal’s classic monster movies – let the fainthearted flee. A quick trivia question before we tuck into this tasty morsel, how many actors can you name who have played Dracula over his long and decrepit on-screen life*? I managed 11 without electronic assistance which I think is a reasonable haul, for a fictional figure whose iconic appearance is so thoroughly etched into popular culture he has made numerous appearances over the decades across many international boundaries, from comedies and exploitation, from horror to humour, and that was without knowing the names of the dudes who played him in Scream Blackula Scream, or the bizarre Kung-fu hybrid The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires which would have taken me to the unholy number of thirteen. I was going to park this series during
January well we’re already into February and appropriately enough Canary Wharf is being sheathed in lightning amidst a raucous downpour which seems appropriate timing, and despite a serious downturn in home movie watching due to work demands and the pleasures of the early year distributors choking the multiplexes with intelligent fare one doesn’t prosper if you don’t set yourself some ravenlofty ambitions, so I’ve moved heaven and earth to also get the first significant gravestone of this programme buried, burned and the consecrated ground salted to prevent any future resurrections, as it’s time to gaze upon the hypnotic visage of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula of 1931;
It’s taken a little longer to beguile these thoughts together for a number of reasons, chiefly the outstanding first disk of the boxed set is bloated with juicy morsels including documentaries on Bela Lugosi’s accursed career and a rather stilted half hour studio approved anemic piece on the movie from 1999, the former has much more bite with talking heads commentary from the likes of Joe Dante, Clive Barker, Ramsay Campbell and Chris Frayling which is well worth sacrificing a few precious minutes of your limited time on this Earth. Some so-called ‘experts’ out there probably smugly assume that this classic was the second on-screen iteration of Bram Stokers 1863 gothic classic, invoked a few years after F.W Murnau’s deeply creepy and eeriely influential Nosferatu silent picture, right? Well, they’d be wrong as in fact a slithering progenitor preceded both these generations, the sadly lost Dracula’s Death which one hopes will arise from the dead just as other allegedly lost movies have been recently unearthed. The film was the brainchild of Carl Laemdale Jr. the son of studio founder Laemdale Senior, who as a fan of all things macabre on stage and in print recognised the potential for a creeping blockbuster after the success of the theatre version of the novel which first brought the tale to a wider audience. With a reduced budget director Tod Browning, a stalwart of the silent movies was devastated when his first choice of Lon Chaney took himself out of the running for the titular part by dying of cancer in 1930, leaving Lugosi begging for the part – a part which he had made his own through hundreds of stage performances it should be stressed – for a paltry $500 a week. Given that the Great Depression was still biting and production budgets were being slashed both Laemdale and Browning had to work within the parameters of severely reduced resources, so they accepted his offer and a screen legend was birthed…
Naturally the film has dated quite considerably but it retains a strange and unearthly gothic charm, as one of those films birthed during the perverted period when cinema was shifting from silent to sound it is stilted and stammers in places, but that can actually add to the strange brooding atmosphere in which certain scenes unfold in a pregnant silence. Today of course you must have any manner of Foley artists and ADR running all over the underlying orchestral score which instructs you just how to feel and react to the scenes and sequences – just witness the three spooky handmaidens which prove that sometimes less is more. This first appearance of Van Helsing is also a departure from subsequent Dracula lore, he’s more a nebbish librarian that the fearless and steely eyes hunter we’ve come to know since Peter Cushing inherited the role in the 1950′s, and both Lucy and Mina are the theatrically clipped, upper middle class sexless clones at the mercy of the Count’s hypnotic urges. Nevertheless there is something about seeing all these icons on-screen for the first time, this was quite the controversial shocker for the pre censorship code afflicted 1930′s, and Lugosi is one of the legendary figures of horror cinema as well as being a hysterical ham with his grandiose theatrical movements and that dripping, glacial intonation. Crucially though he does emit that eeriely elusive screen presence in the role, there is a diabolical aura to the performance that has haunted the screen for over eighty years, as you still imagine him as the Count whenever the name is mentioned, as the ultimate icon of those foreign devils invading our countries and literally stealing our women’s virginity and purity. The restoration gives the picture a fresh reinvigorating new pallor, although there is something to be said for the slightly unnerving atmosphere provoking by a stuttering, cobwebbed and distressed print the significant efforts deployed by Universal to exorcise the infection accrued over the decades as part of their centenary celebrations last year is welcomed by the horror community, including the resurrection of the elusive Spanish version of the classic……
I’d never seen the Spanish version before which was quite a surreal experience to excavate, of course when the talkies swept away the silents the format of films which were previously international by virtue of their lack of dialogue and easily translated title cards suddenly had to battle international language obstacles, and it was a fairly common practice for films to be made for alternate territories with indigenous casts, utilising the same screenplay and storyboard framework, the same sets and technical infrastructure. When Browning, Lugosi and the crew wrapped up the days shoot at 6.00pm the Spanish crew would commence at 8.00pm and film throughout the night, the similarity yet slight amendments to the visual presentation of the tale refracted through two directors imaginations is quite an instructive experience, with the Spanish version certainly being a more risqué and daringly sexual translation, with more in the way of optical tricky yet a laughable figure of the Count portrayed by a mugging Carlos Villarías. Tod Browning on the other hand musters his talents through Lugosi’s immortal performance and cameraman Karl Freund’s dexterous camera which prowls the sets like a bloodthirsty wolf, they both have their strengths and weaknesses which make for a intriguing viewing exercise.
The English language film is now widely considered a classic in a myriad of ways, firmly embedding the vampire mythology in popular culture, when our minds ponder the concept of a vampires the first terrible version conjured to mind is a noble blue-blooded, angular featured member of the aristocracy with a clipped pronunciation and leering persona, the 1% parasite on the body politic in opposition to the cosumer obsessed zombie or poor blue-collar working class Wolfman, although I guess we must concede that for some the phrase ‘vampire’ now denotes a jealous, elderly pederast boyfriend who hangs around schools in order to control every function of his young mate’s life – whom she sees and socialises with, her future career, her relationship with her family - and culturally and socially speaking that’s pretty horrific stuff. The marketing of the original film also introduced a new weapon in the arsenal of the Hollywood advertising blitzkrieg, it never fails to amuse me when some relatively lurid new horror movie is released and the press eagerly devour some ludicrous story of disturbed patrons passing out or being removed from theatres in straitjackets, it’s the oldest marketing gimmick in the necronomic book which we’ve recently seen deployed in the likes of the Paranormal Activity franchise and some the later Saw movies, it’s a tradition that started over eighty years ago with Dracula although to be fair these incidents did actually occur and ambulances were called for screenings of The Exorcist. I should also vocalise the numerous scores available on the disk, I opted for the special Philip Glass composition which was commissioned back in 1998 which gives the movie a pulsating tempo, there is a choice of other soundtracks and commentaries which provide a wealth of aural accompaniment. I can’t imagine a more perfect way to begin this long and treacherous trawl through the Universal monsters folio than with this absolute classic, a superb transfer and lovingly restored update of one of the silver screens most nourishing classics, don’t be afraid as we still have a long road to travel, and it’s not as if the Pope has abdicated now is it?
* *In a vaguely historical order, Max Schrek, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Udo Kier, Klaus Kinski, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, Leslie Nielsen and Gerard Butler, I’m sure there is a whole nest of others….?
Just in case you missed it, here’s my review of No which I caught at last years LFF and which opens today in the UK, I went in completely sight unseen I didn’t know anything about it other than it was set in South America and had that Gabriel-Garcia chap in it. I was very pleasantly surprised at a very contemporary political drama, and a compelling historical archive as well;
You’ve got to love coincidences, right? This morning I was conducting my gruelling commute, absorbed by this fascinating story about a distant group of Siberian humans who were discovered in 1978 and didn’t even realise the Second World War had been fought – crazy stuff. Tonight I get home and pop this list of 10 minute shorts from world-class directors on, and eventually get to the Herzog section;
Food for thought, as the march of progress powers inexorably on….
I netted a superb twitter buddy recently, some fellow droogies out there are putting together a Kubrick documentary and consequently tweet some interesting Stanley related articles and material with an appropriate mechanistic perfection, now doesn’t this take you back to the early days of the Menagerie?
Looking forward to Django Unchained at the weekend? For the first time in maybe twenty years I’m fairly excited by a Tarantino movie, mostly due to the glitering praise but we shall see, expectations are however high. Snow permiting I shall make one curious expedition to the local flicks, apart from that I shall be hibernating after my first week back in the world of corporate espionage…..
I can’t quite make my mind up about this one, on the one hand it’s right up my alley what with being about the mob and suchlike and the HBO documentry on Richard Kuklinski was fairly fascinating in a terrifying sort of way, but this just feels a little flat to me;
Still, Michael Shannon can do no wrong so I think I’ll give it a whirl if it picks a distributor here in the UK….
Fascinating lecture on early cinema from one of the greatest contemporary film scholars, David Bordwell;
Having read Charles Bukowki’s Post Office some years ago I finally got around to reading Women over the festive season, a pleasantly sordid affair of dive bars and grunting trysts, he’s an accessible and vivid writer whose words prompted me to track down this Sean Penn produced documentary;
It’s probably the most exhaustive account of the poet of the American underclass, it also features Bukowski’s personal friend Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits, thus this is essential viewing. If you’re interested in film adaptions then there is Barfly (which I haven’t seen in years) and Factotum which is very good, with Matt Dillon in a rare leading part. In other news I strolled along to Somerset House en route to the BFI on Saturday and took in two excellent photography exhibitions, firstly Tim Walker whom I can soundbite as Lewis Carroll with an Olympus E-5, and a Henri Cartier-Bresson themed collection which was also thought-provoking and visually provocative. Both are free admission and they’re running until the end of the month…..
Well, whilst I can’t speak for you illuminated souls I’ve had better years. A brief spell in hospital wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, and my growing suspicions that my meatspace world career has been finally wrecked by the 2008 bail out, the slow economic tsunami finally emanating out to gouge local government resources seem to have been finally and depressingly realised. For the uninitiated that was where the powers that be and the politicians in thrall to the wealthy and powerful took my and your tax payers money that we have invested into the system, into society for the universal benefit of all was plundered to bail out the malignant thieves, liars and crooks who now continue to pay themselves millions and millions and millions of pounds of bonuses whilst the rest of society stagnates – quite honestly the pharaoh kings of old can only be looking down on this new class of self entitled, greed driven liars and shake their heads in quiet respect, at least they didn’t collude with terrorists and murdering drug cartels which are raping an entire series of South American countries. I’m really not sure what on earth I’m going to do in 2013 and frankly it’s pretty fucking scary, so let’s dispense with the politics and ignore the mass shootings, devastating weather events, incompetent and destructive right-wing economic and social politics and….well I could go on, it’s been a wretched year in many spheres but let’s take succor in the eternal movies….
Halfway through the year and this was looking like a particularly poor cycle, a few highlights to be sure but on a consistency level a fairly erratic beast, but the Autumn and Winter months has reassuringly seen an explosion of talent across the board with a number of works that have thankfully raised the median to higher levels. Of course I’ve delivered my two most proficient film seasons, the David Lynch series back in February which I’m immensely proud of and my subsequent oodles of spare time gave me the opportunity to delve much deeper into the BFI Hitchcock retrospective that previously anticipated, with no fewer than 15 reviews and 7 associated features which is now the ballistic baseline to beat. My best screening experience of 2012 was unquestionably that ravishing digital print of Vertigo – more on that technological division later on – following Camille Paglia’s fascinatingly enthusiastic lecture, if I have one regret it has been in not visiting many new cinema locations in London, an oversight that I intend to rectify in 2013. We also have my 1,000th post zeroing in with the unerring accuracy of OCD afflicted kamikaze pilot, although I think I’ve finally cracked the subject matter of that significant milestone, all I need to do now is select the examples and write the damn thing. I managed to cover some bona fide classics – Jaws, Lawrence Of Arabia, Casablanca, The Evil Dead - and although I missed quite a few festivals the LFF was a sanity saviour, and on the smaller screen I managed mini-retrospectives of Theo Angelolopous (I can see the adoration but he mostly left me cold), a shotgun scattering of David Mamet films (before he went right-wing loony brigade he made some great films) and Louis Malle which was a treasure trove of gallic gems, as I was particularly uneducated on his early continental films. I bookended these activities with a second look at some of Dennis Hopper’s lesser known material from both sides of the camera, ignoring the likes of Easy Rider, Speed and Blue Velvet in favour of the likes of The Hot Spot, Hoosiers and Catchfire (AKA Backtrack), a curious blend of twitched performances in unremarkable films, and sultry toned neo-noirs which made a pleasing change to my usual auteur led traditions. I’d quite like to repeat this with another actor or actress next year, maybe Gloria Grahame or Robert Ryan for a historical change of pace. I’m also thinking about changing the graphic design format of the blog, using larger photos for a start and maybe a change a WordPress theme in terms of the colours, fonts and design, thus I’d welcome any feedback – but for now let’s get on with the business of show…..
The Films Of The Year
A mixed bag as usual, veering from the art house to the blockbuster, the genre busting to the horrific, as usual the auteurs are out in force as is my preferable idiom – it’s just what jacks my celluloid concerns. So let’s start proceedings with this list which I’ve expanded out to a full ten for the first time ever, I warn you now that this is predominantly a very grotesque year of occasionally challenging material, if the movies reflect the current temperature and agenda – and of course they do – the malfunctions run deep and one hopes the influx of SF material warping in for 2013 may redress the gloomy balance. As always these are presented in no specific order of merit, simply kicking off with one of the years biggest films, SPOILERS BEWARE and a very sad tale of computer malfunction;
The Dark Knight Rises – From the autumn browns of Batman Begins to the electric blue of The Dark Knight I did predict a seasonal drift to the icy ivory of The Dark Knight Rises, and if I hear one more pedantic idiot whine about the lack of explanation of how Bruce got back to Gotham then I’ll fucking scream. This triumphant peroration of the psychological nitroglycerine of Bruce Wayne’s furtive odyssey pummeled that all so elusive demographic mix into submission, both the passing cinema-goer and the fanboys being given the respect and treated with the intelligence that Hollywood frequently abhors. How the Nolan brothers with David S. Goyer have circled the story into a self-contained chronicle of how one tortured man mastered his demons is state of the art Hollywood filmmaking, smart enough to know where you need the gadgets and pyrotechnics alongside the character development and core narrative, commissioning elite-class technical crews and core creative collaborations (I think Hans Zimmer’s scores are 25% of the brilliance of these films), with a firm grasp of new technologies such as IMAX formats and visual effects, all nested within a visual and thematic iconography that permeates from film to film.
It’s scenes such as this where Nolan and his team didn’t so much as nail but crucify their take on the iconic Batman, his dark heroism and neurotically driven crusade, toying with the very notions of what it is to be a hero in the modern world, all lacquered with a throughly electrifying action thriller which has the audacity to blend in some pungent political commentary. That scene above is the moment when it comes to this trilogy that I passed from Batman fan into eternal champion mode disciple, for first time ever, ever, I genuinely was moved and cared about a character in such a cardboard comic book multiverse, and that is the ultimate and unique achievement of this blockbuster series. In terms of material I have spent the past six months accruing links and articles, but due to some malfunction they’ve all vanished in some anarchic electronic massacre, from memory however I humbly submit this and this, here is a side post on costume design and this has been doing the rounds (Not as funny as it thinks it is, but Bruce’s Batwing driving music made me laugh) and finally here is a terrific interview with Nolan which may answer some key questions on his ideas and purpose throughout the trio of films, a brilliantly epic nocturnal compendium here.
Killer Joe – I was recently reading Pauline Kael’s 1971 review of The French Connection, in which she remarks that the film is as fundamentally existential as Popeye Doyle is reprehensible, a racist goal-driven character who is compelled to get that sweet smack off the streets not due to any personally derived civic or social duty, but because he is a twisted obsessive and that is the only motivation for his unorthodox methods. It’s a useful insight that we can apply to Killer Joe, Friedkin’s most compelling work for thirty years, a film which keeps surfacing out of the subconscious to remind me of its wicked, draining and giggling power. Amidst the summer when one is besieged by movies designed for kids and adolescents it was a pleasure to be brutally assaulted by this powerful little bastard, this slimy, ugly, deep-fried tale of sexual malevolence, treacherous greed and seething Grand Guignol glee, making you laugh in uncomfortable uncertainty as Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar worthy lawman goes about his hysterical business – more like this please Mr. Friedkin who has recently become my Facebook friend, I’m anxiously waiting for updates on his legal case to finally get Sorcerer released in an appropriate restored format as I’m ashamed I’ve never seen it. Finger licking good etc….
West Of Memphis - As much as I love a good documentary it’s rare for them to crack my yearly top ten, however two candidates emerged this year, although I was deeply moved by the celestial scrying of Nostalgia For The Light the more earthly concerns of the horrendous West Memphis 3 miscarriage of justice yields closer to current concerns of institutional, bureaucratic corruption. The arrangement is exquisite – firstly just telling the facts from an independent perspective – who was killed, when, who was arrested and charged on the basis of what evidence – before delving beneath the surface to obliterate the prosecutions claims, and in the best tradition of the likes of The Thin Blue Line decouple the empirical facts of the case and its protagonists ulterior motives, before finally identifying a credible culprit. I’m told my review went as they say viral and got plastered onto their official Facebook feed which is encouraging, and a sober thought is that such incidents happen all the time, this just happens to be one occurrence when the authorities were exposed.
The Master – Harking back to transformative, robust performances of James Dean and Marlon Brando The Master has an umbilical connection to an earlier period of American cinema when the performance was the nucleus of a film rather than any high concept idea, and this is clearly a film of dense characterisation and mutual symbiosis. Having seen this twice it remains mysterious and is slightly more elusive on repeat, the widespread speculation on the ‘a-roving’ scene baffles me though as it is pretty clearly signalled that it’s all in Freddie’s chaotic head. Here’s a strange and sad connection – Jeremy Blake, the visual artist responsible for the colourful kaleidoscope mood interludes in Punch Drunk Love committed suicide with his girlfriend, both were scientologists who reputedly fled the church and were then remorselessly hounded to their death. P.T. Anderson once again displays what Sight & Sound cite as his ‘gun-slinging’ artistic bravery – think of the unexpected doughnut shop bloodbath in Boogie Nights, the pulverizing climax of Blood or the biblical rain of frogs in Magnolia, moments of bizarre and unexpected interlude that puncture the established realism, the auditing exchange and that long take as Freddy approaches the Master’s yacht for the first time are amongst the greatest single sequences of the year.
Amour – As cinema screenings go this was a smothering experience, a combination of sheer terror, grief and perversely exhilaration, as I realised I had just absorbed a melancholic masterpiece that was meticulously planned and executed. Amour is a deeply moving masterpiece – and I use that word with the respect deserves – like a film such as Irrerversible it’s a film that I hugely admire but never want to see again, you know those stories about Normandy veterans who were refered to a therapist after watching the opening of Saving Private Ryan? I imagine the same reaction for anyone who has had to nurse a loved one to their inevitable void. In a recent interview Haneke who is edging into his Seventies stated that his only professional regret is not making a SF series – the mind boggles.
Excision - It’s a rare occurrence these days given my iron cinematic constitution but sometimes a film can be genuinely and absolutely shocking, even for an old-school gore hound such as yours truly. This high-school horror film from debutante Richard Bates is a staggering debut, if you’ll forgive me I’ll go to the writers cliché dictionary and describe it as Heathers on meta-amphetamines or perhaps a better metaphor would be Todd Solondz fisting a Chuck Palahuink screenplay under the bleachers during the big homecoming game (if you find that excessive image troublesome then you need to avoid this film), you don’t cast teenage porn starlet Traci Lords as a conservative, self-righteous mom or John Waters as a sneering priest unless you’re clearly aiming to broach truly transgressive territory. There is an astonishing central performance from Anna Lynne McCord as the deranged Pauline, as a metaphor for the pain and awkwardness of your adolescent years Excision works as a terrific teen movie, before wrenching you down to a vision of suburban, clinical hell in a brilliantly orchestrated, incredibly horrifying and fitting finale to an occasionally uneven but uniquely idiosyncratic piece of work – this is a new talent I’ll be keeping an eye on.
Killing Them Softly - We continue with the comedy, (Jesus, looking back over this list it has been an extraordinarily bleak year) with Andrew Dominik’s pilloried crime tale, I am immensely discouraged at just how savaged this film has been in the US by critics who really should know better – it just shows goes to show the nerves that the film has politically and culturally grazed. Now, as agreed the film is very much a blunt force instrument and not very subtle, but criticisms such as James Gandolfini’s assassin ’never doing anything’ – presumably uttered because he doesn’t go on some ‘cool’ killing spree – well, this level of intellectual rigour should be dismissed with the contempt it deserves. Yes it’s an exceptionally bleak and sour evisceration of the American dream and the current world we live in, fractured through the lens of a criminal genre piece, but that’s what effective crime and criminal movies have always been about on one level, on economic and social realities which shine a light on the margins of society where we won’t like what we see. It’s rare enough to see such a serious genre piece on-screen with such an uncompromising position in almost forty years, so as a major fan of urban material on both the printed page and silver scream this has definitely grown on me and will be more rewarding with future viewings, if this was Domink’s immediate sequel to Chopper I’ll bet my meagre pay cheque it wouldn’t have been quite so stigmatized. An ideal festive companion piece to Killer Joe on the ‘developed’ worlds body politic during this incrementally declining decade, although you may wish to have the Samaritans on speed-dial….
The Cabin In The Woods – Whilst many critics have been going crazy for Holy Motors serpent eating its tail post-modern deconstruction of cinema I have to opt for this frequently hilarious evisceration of the horror genre, this perhaps being the closest beast on my list to a comedy movie, a laugh-riot which just happens to feature the brutal massacre of young students and the annihilation of mankind – like I said it’s been a tough year. It is certainly diminished on a small screen re-watch and does shrink to the diminutive dimensions of a special extended episode of Buffy or Angel, but as an unprepossessing cinema visit this was just so much darn fun, dreadfully entertaining and amusing with a central bloody mystery which kept my neurons firing in uncertain anticipation. Heck, I could also get into how like all good horror it does confront some uncomfortable issues of the day, in this case the sacrifice of a younger generation in order to maintain the status quo and the exalted position of the elite baby-boomer generation but let’s not get into that here….
Headhunters – Clearly I’m a fraud as this is probably the real ‘comedy’ on my list, and who’d have expected a Norwegian thriller to infiltrate the top ten? I love a good caper movie and Headhunters takes a risk in portraying its hero as an arrogant bastard who identifies potential marks by posing as a senior CEO recruitment consultant, acquiring intelligence to steal and fence their expensive art portfolios, usually the protagonists in this pedigree of pictures are loveable rogues such as Clooney in the Ocean’s movies or Robert Redford in The Hot Rock. This was just a brilliant script with more twists than a spaghetti supper at M.Night Shyamlan’s lair, and a gruesome line of pitch-black gallows humor which had me roaring in disgusted mirth. It’s also got a neat line in corporate espionage and malfeasance which gives the nightmare a contemporary edge, Hitchcock would have loved this MacGuffins and all, and you can’t praise a thriller higher than that.
The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey - Yeah, it just made it. This might be a surprise inclusion given my initial tepid to warm review, but on a second and indeed third 2D, 24fps view many of my disagreements faded into insignificance, and on reflection this is another superb addition to the beloved franchise. When you think about it, what other film series has been lavished with six three-hour movies (not to mention the Extended Editions, an extra 25 minutes has been confirmed for TH:AUJ already) with a consistent team of director, screenwriters and core creative personnel who display such an obvious love, reverence and understanding of the source material? I have my issues that I won’t rehash here, but the fanboy wailing over certain changes and amendments to make these films more cinematic are absurd, and I charge them to think of exactly which world they would prefer – the Jackson take on just one three-hour movie which was always the anticipated treatment? In this case the 3D and 48fps works beautifully and not since Avatar has an event movie delivered the goods in such a ravishing fashion, narrative, tone and pacing issues aside this is genuine cinema as event, film as spectacle, and how this installment sets up the next two episodes is a truly glorious achievement – I’m starting the petition for The Silmarillion in 2021 now.
Special mentions to God Bless America, Moonrise Kingdom, Berberian Sound Studio, Haywire, Margaret, End Of Watch, Silver Linings Playbook, Argo, Dreams For Sale and Looper, as I said I was despairing at how poor this year was maturing but then there was an abrupt volte face after Summer season when a whole crop of stronger material was harvested. I have to say the small screen still out distances cinema by a small margin when you factor in their ability to develop character and themes over numerous hours of transmission, Mad Men, Justified, The Walking Dead, Treme, the overrated but undeniably entertaining Breaking Bad and my personal favourite Boardwalk Empire have all had superior seasons, although I think I might finally drop the likes of Dexter and True Blood as they are both anemic parodies of their earlier, entertaining incarnations. For comparison purposes on the film front, this is useful.
I warn you now, anyone looking for some festive cheer best look elsewhere, it’s been a fucking tough year and these films continue in that dark vein of experience (sobs uncontrollably)……
Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz, 2008) – In this psychological horror a distressed couple – Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart)- travel to the remote jungles of the Thai-Burmese border to look for their young son who was swept away in the 2004 Asian tsunami, a choking starting point for the real horror to come. The final images of those pint-sized, mud cloaked wraiths swarming around a steamy, misty jungle ruins obviously brings to mind Apocalypse Now, but this is more of a companion piece to Antichrist or Possession with the devastating loss of a child driving an increasingly emotional and violent wedge between the two frantic parents. This also treads similar mud-caked ground to next years The Impossible by the looks of things, but this is a much more submerged piece of work that gnaws at the very souls of the protagonists, a genuinely unsettling work that cautiously descends into a sweltering heart of darkness.
Son Of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939) – As I’ve mentioned I’ve been on a trawl of the Universal horror movies, whilst the majority of them are clearly swiftly lensed, badly written movies designed as a quick cash cow that would be knocked out if the studio were in financial danger, Son Of Frankenstein is a genuine sequel after 1935′s Bride Of Frankenstein (considered as superior to the original in some circles), as this third entry to the cycle was clearly considered and designed with those evocative expressionist contours (the stairs of the Baron’s castle remind of a horizontally arranged tombstones), evidenced by its expansive run-time – most of the knock-offs average about 70 minutes, Son being a fully fleshed 100 minutes. With Basil Rathbone as the Frankenstein’s genial son, Boris Karloff’s last appearance as the ‘monster’ and Bela Lugosi as the snivellingly malicious Ygor this is terrific fun, with a fairly exciting and explosive finale. If you dig mist shrouded moors, pitchfork and torch wielding baying mobs, and monosyllabic, misunderstood monsters then you can’t go wrong, even if one can’t fail to be reminded of Young Frankenstein which culled many of its characters from the picture.
Spartan (Mamet, 2003) – ‘Where’s the girl? Where’s the girl?’ David Mamet’s rare foray into action cinema may sound clichéd on paper – the presidents daughter is kidnapped and Val Kilmer is despatched as an elite special forces officer to bring her back – but like a great Michael Mann flick it’s the attention to detail that makes this work. The infiltration techniques, the survival skills, the combat clinician, the clandestine tricks of the trade, all these elements have been impeccably researched and are superbly portrayed through a state of the art warrior operating at the peak of his profession. As you’d expect from Mamet some of the narrative twists and turns will have you questioning what has gone before, and some faintly ludicrous reveals are subsequently fleshed out to make all the pieces drop into place like a well oiled plot machine, sure you have to abandon any pretence to realism early on but as action movies go this is nourishing slug of water in the dehydrated desert of recent American combat conflicts. Considering Mamet’s lurch to right-wing politics after 9/11 it is surprising that this dossier remains intensely critical of the American war machine whilst celebrating its fearless soldiers, a taut and tense combat flick that knocks both Taken movies dicks in the dirt.
The Turin Horse (Tarr, 2011) – At two and a half hours of gloomy insights into the empty, bruising and difficult lives of two peasants which centres around their deeply repetitive daily tasks of pure survival, of getting dressed, boiling potatoes, chopping wood, drawing water from the well and conducting chores this will not be for everyone (that’s the understatement of the year) but this caught me in exactly the right reflective mood, and I loved the repetitive yet lyrical score reminiscent of Philip Glass from the brilliant ears of Mihály Vig, this example from the earlier collaboration on the Wreckmeister Harmonies has entranced me for the past few months. The Turin Horse is more Tarkovsky than Bresson in terms of pacing and its wider religious questioning, yes it’s a very academic, parched and dare I say it depressing film but if you embrace its monochromatic idiom of the absurd and abyssal pointlessness of life then you might just achieve some strange, infinite nirvana. Apparently Tarr has exhaustively hurled down his viewfinder and abandoned his fruitless quest for artistic succor in the face of overwhelming disgust of the modern world, sometimes I know how he feels…..
The Keep (Mann, 1982) – Where to begin with this rarely exhumed Nazi inflected Grimm’s fairy tale that received a rare UK screening on Film4 last month? Sandwiched between the twin urbanity of Thief and Manhunter this is the one true oddity in Michael Mann’s clenched career, a film he has completely disowned due to its butchering in the editing suite by the film’s philistine producers, consequently it’s a difficult behemoth to track down with only inferior region 1 DVD’s available to the truly committed fans of Mann. It’s very much a film of two halves, the dialogue and performances are simply atrocious, particularly Ian McKellen’s Jewish academic and Robert Prosky’s Romanian Priest out chomping each other to decimate the Lovecraftian scenery, but it eclipses these barbarities with the evocative obsidian production designs of UK legend John Box, some eerie mist drenched haunting cinematography, and a palpitating score from Tangerine Dream which has become a cult collectors item in its own right. The editing is horrendous with characters arriving with no prior explanation (Scott Glen’s Jesus inspired saviour being particularly egregious) and it’s apparent how much of this languishes on the cutting room floor, but that barbarity is what alludes to its potential as the shell of a terrific film is incorporeally evident, it has a very odd, itchy vibe, and even the old school optical printing and reverse cranking SFX hold a strangely magnetic fascination for us cult movie aficionados. It’s an angular companion piece to Prince Of Darkness (or even Prometheus for that matter) with a grinding fairy tale aura, with notions of the seduction of overwhelming power lurking over the titular citadel like disembodied charcoal clouds, a pale cult item that is obsequiously flawed yet nebulously fascinating.
Films To See In 2013
Some repeats from last year and some material that has already been blessed with an international release, we Europeans might get certain texts early – Killing Them Softly for example only just opened in the States yet clipped the UK months ago – yet we must be patient with other material. Django goes without saying, its been getting extraordinarily good reviews, even from those who aren’t usually enamoured with Tarantino’s celluloid circle-jerks. I am filled with a quiet gnawing horror at the prospect of one of my favourite ever books finally galloping its way to the screen, on the one hand it does have some talent involved – Hans Zimmer on symphonic strides, Caleb Deschanel on lighting duties – but it’s being directed by the cretin who wrote the rightly loathed Batman & Robin and is responsible for a host of retch-inducing Ron fricking Howard pictures – uurrgghh. I guess we’ll see a trailer soon and the budget being slashed to $46 million also doesn’t bode well, then again Jennifer Connelly is in it and she’s always worth watching – and once that restraining order is lifted etc. etc. Anywho, the main theme is fairly obvious for 2013 – there must be something lurking in the distant grinding nebula as a glut Science Fiction projects are finally warping in for battle;
Gravity - Well, maybe this will actually dock next year, still no scans of the trailer so we’ll have to look back to Children of Men to remind ourselves of Cuaron’s astounding camerawork. Pushed back from an initial November 2012 release schedule the project seems to be beset with production problems, with supporting players to George Clooney’s lead orbiting through Scarlett Johansson to Sandra Bullock in the female astronauts chair, and detecting the merest fragment of production photos, SFX designs or that rarest of treasures an actual trailer has been as elusive as detecting H2O on the dusty plateaus of Mars. Still we SF fans are a patient breed, and we await this potential new evolutionary step in genre machinery and robotics with a baited, audible breath. It’s been granted an MPAA certificate so it must be in the can, perhaps they’re just polishing some of the visuals and then nervously deciding when to launch it into the stratosphere….
The Grandmaster – The wildly talented Wong Kar Wai returns to the screen after the disappointing My Blueberry Nights with this martial arts biopic of the legendary sensei Ip Man who famously taught Bruce Lee his memorable skills. This film has been beset with production problems and delays, as I understand it re-shoots are currently being conducted for the international market, but it opens in China next week and should secure world-wide distribution in the new year. A look at that trailer promises some ravishing images, with his frequent muse Tony Leung in the title role and the elfin Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) one guesses that a passionate love affair will also be on the cards. This has also reminded to finally track down Chungking Express, I can’t believe I still haven’t seen that supposed classic of world cinema yet…..
Stoker - Well, something else with an actual trailer, so that’s nice. How will a director with Park Chan-wook’s affectations and obsessions translate into an English language dark mystery drama, with a reasonably heavyweight cast including Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode? That’s an intriguing cast combination in this film which is supposedly inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt which gives me some signals as to what it might be about, I’m pulling something of an embargo on this now to keep expectations fresh. Stoker also has a Clint Mansell score and this is always a good thing.
Upstream Color - Shane Carruth, he of 2004′s Primer fame finally returns to the big screen (Where has he been? Stuck in a box somewhere?) with this Sundance premiering paradox, very little is known on this other than this curious tagline – ‘A man and woman find themselves drawn together as they struggle to reassemble the fragments of their wrecked lives’. Carruth seems to have been paying the rent with script consultant duties on the likes of Looper, whether he’s back in time travel territory remains to be seen. There’s no-one particularly famous in the cast, thus I assume it’s another lo-fi budget effort, I hope he can match the confusing yet alluring heights of his debut – Sundance hits in January so not long to wait for initial reactions. For those confused (obligatory Primer link) about the prospects of his long gestating A Topiary I hear that film would be very expensive given the SFX requirements inherent in the script, so this is probably a ‘bridge’ film where he has to prove himself as a filmmaker with talent and a certain degree of critical popularity – he has after all been off the scene for eight years – before the purse holders at the major studios are persuaded to break out the cheque books…..
Cloud Atlas – Yesterday’s papers for our US and Canadian cousins, the more I’ve heard about this box-office failure (which can mostly be attributed to its misjudged, staggered release pattern) the more I’m curiously intrigued. Opinions have verged from a horrendous muddled mess with embarrassing Charlie Chan make-up to the more Aint It Cool style breathlessly gushing sites citing the film as a ‘life changing experience’ – although that does not bode well truly ambitious cinema of the $100 million plus range is all too rare, and I look forward to making my own mind up come February. At the very least Cloud Atlas is going to be a different experience with articles citing the current experimentation with traditional film structures mapping the film with the likes of The Master, Holy Motors and Life Of Pi, the very fact that the Wachowski’s got this made at all through private funding – one possible reason for the lack of screens and poor advertising hobbling the films opportunities – is a minor miracle in itself. I just hope that with their supposed disregard of narrative continuity that they haven’t thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
What does next year hold in store retrospective wise? Well the BFI are hosting a Polanski retrospective in January which I’m musing over, and I have this rather strange urge to revisit the Hong Kong John Woo gangster films of the Eighties and Nineties, I have no idea where this impulse has sprung from but I like the idea of also seeking out ancillary material by other filmmakers of the era, a period of genre cinema I’m not entirely au fait with. I’m also going to see what I can do about covering more festivals, I’ve had opportunities which I failed to follow-up on due to sheer laziness (the Nordic Film Festival, the South Korean Film Festival), and certainly Sundance O2 which returns to the UK in February. The two biographies Hitchcock and Lincoln are of course on the playlist as is the new Malick picture To The Wonder and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, on the genre front I’m also looking forward to The Canyons, Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, a Cruise to Oblivion should be surpassed by Del Toro’s thundering Pacific Rim, the Star Trek sequel should be fun, romantics will get woozy as Linklater concludes his international romanticism with Before Midnight and the epic Cornetto trilogy closes with World’s End, hopefully a re-teaming of Frost and Pegg with Edgar Wright will actually, y’know, make them funny again after the horrendous failure of Paul.
So finally let’s wave a melancholic goodbye to analogue film which is certainly what 2012 will be remembered for, with Kodak ceasing major production of film stock and theatres now all but abandoning 35mm projection, I’m no Luddite as I do embrace the technical marvels of 3D and CGI when used effectively and appropriately, but I can’t help but feel that something tangible has slipped away, a physical capture of reality through a tactile storage and delivery device. Holding a frame of 35mm or 70mm film stock up to the light to judge its contents is obviously more romantic and idyllic a symbol of the magic of the movies, of letting light pour and permeate through an image to illuminate a fantastic illusion is infinitely more affecting than plugging a hard drive into a throbbing bank of hardware but that’s just me, a digital beeping of zeroes and ones simply can’t cut it as the world shifts to a more impersonal and diffused fashion of communication, ‘social’ media be damned. The format won’t completely die out of course, certain films will continue to be shot photo-chemically on a probable sliding, declining scale – I’m not entirely sure what the status is with shooting practices away from Hollywood in the likes of Bollywood, in the strong indigenous industries of Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, or even the recently emerging powerhouses such as Nigeria – but commerce is always the watchword and if costs are reduced in the never quenched search for product then the writing is clearly on the wall. I think there will always be some movement of analogue lovers who demand traditional projection from original, physical masters and dupes, maybe like formats such as vinyl it will become increasingly marginalised but that loyal and rabid fan base should stick around for another generation at least – so farewell film, Rest In shattered, indiscriminate Pieces;
Chesnuts are roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost is prematurely terrifying your nose, and this annual strain of festive cinematic material has incrementally started early, all shall worship at the capitalistic gang-bang of Christmas;
As a movie nerd I do enjoy these montages so I guess I shouldn’t be such a Scrooge, when appropriately edited with symmetrical match, mood and formal cuts these celebrations of another year of the form can be elegiac wonders, it would however be more amusing to see an art house mirror of the hysterical action beats and pulverizing tempos that might just be a bit more of a reflective representation of the year of images, consider that a gauntlet well and truly hurled down. Now, with that fascinating fun-filled observation I will be happily accepting your invitations to your eminent Xmas party, just sequester me in the corner with some fucking Merlot and I’ll be fine…(psst) – my opening conversation piece shall be the brilliant Haneke twitter feed, I’m bound to pull, right?……