I’m quite surprised at how much I enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom, the seventh movie from the auteur of the arbitrary Wes Anderson. I say surprised as when that initial trailer hit back in March I was prompted to revisit some of Anderson’s earlier works, namely Rushmore and Bottle Rocket, just to see how both movies which I had initially enjoyed stand up ten years down the line. This was not a happy exercise, as both films that I had remembered as amusing, inventive and idiosyncratically refreshing have vinegarised to being rather archly pretentious meandering slogs, with a cloying artificiality in characterisations which left me colder than a Vostok ice lolly. Having distinctly disliked both his past two efforts – The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Darjeeling Limited – I was not expecting much from Anderson’s return to live-action whimsical whining, and initial reports that his latest film saw his style and mannerisms pushed to almost breaking point tickled the Minty alertometer, but when you’re between assignments you’ve got to fill your days somehow, and given his adoring fan-base Anderson is something of a noted director whose work should be garnered with big screen viewing opportunities, and of course with my Cineworld card I’m not exactly paying for the picture, given that this is my fifth movie of the month I’m certainly getting my money’s worth. I’m glad I gave him a chance, as Moonrise Kingdom is a fairly entertaining, throughly amiable meander through 94 minutes of Anderson’s richly realised worlds, with a few laughs thrown in for good measure.
New England, 1965, and we’re on ensconced on the coastal island of New Penzance. Cupid’s aim is true as love at first slight blooms between the disquieted Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), the 13-year-old daughter of legal bickerers Laura (a disheveled Frances McDormand) and Walt (a low-key Bill Murray) and the alienated sister to her three younger brothers. Suzy has fallen for the odd charms of orphan eagle scout Sam (Jared Gilman in a weak debut), a slightly nebbish delinquent whose foster family decide not to renew their legal custody of his affairs once he disappears from his custodians protection. A meticulously planned elopement is conducted by the wayward Romeo and Juliet, their romantic roaming throwing the island into turmoil, as Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, officious yet affectionate) enlists the aid of local sheriff Sharp (a muted Bruce Willis) to retrieve his wandering charge and restore the morale of his flagging troop of adolescent explorers. With a scintillating supporting cast including the always terrific Tilda Swinton as simply ‘Social Services’, Bob Balaban as the tales metronomical narrator, Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman and a quite surprising Harvey Keitel as another Scout Leader you will appreciate that hefty resources are being deployed to return the inamorata’s to safety, as a major storm is brewing, the worst to hit the region in the century, which inclement intrusions gives the hunt for the duo an added sense of mortal urgency….
Moonrise Kingdom is a film that couldn’t be more like a Wes Anderson film if Bill Murray detonated a whimsical bomb in a pastel factory. It is mannered, it is populated with the unusual and arch figurines of his previous oeuvre, all paraded in another of his hermetically sealed worlds, but for me this worked as the sheer bravado operating in terms of pushing his own style into a critical mass hooked me into the tempo and mood of the picture, and most importantly of all it is genuinely funny, and that is a crucial distinction to his other more recent efforts. Newcomer Jared Gilman is a weak strut at the films core, as a half-pint Michael Stuhlbarg he seems uncertain and hesitant in the role, but fortunately the central romance of the piece is saved by Kara Hayward, also in her screen debut she invokes the aloof charms of the nouvelle vague’s chirpy feminine ubiety, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of her in the years to come. Anderson constructs the movie around his telltale tableau compositions and his whip pan and dolly transitions from differing elements in a scene, whilst he won’t be winning any innovation awards for stretching or morphing his own visual style the technique keeps the momentum progressing to charm the viewer before the mischievous antics wear thin, and to deliver a clutch of visually astute gags.
The film is like a fairy tale inflected with the apparel of Jacques Tati combined with a sense of playful, early Godard, shorn of any of his difficult politics that might complicate the benign comedy. Like many of Anderson’s films the piece is designed almost to death, with the mise-en-scene cluttered with detail and carefully attuned colours, from the costumes to the wallpapers, the make-up to the rugs, you can’t deny that Anderson and his production designer Adam Stockhausen have a keen eye for composition and the detailed layering of an image to keep fans coming back for future refreshment. I’m also sympathetic to the accusations of Anderson’s films being hollow exercises in style over content, and he certainly doesn’t neutralise those claims in this perhaps his lightest, most transparent film to date, but does every film have to illuminate a unique facet of the human condition? Maybe it’s the mood I’m in but I strongly suspect not. With its jaunty, gentle Alexandre Desplat score it’s a quaint chimera that is likely to delight his followers but not win any new devotees, a pale drama with a misting of gentle facetiousness, if Prometheus sells out this jubilee weekend’s multiplexes then you could do worse than spend an hour and a half in this eccentric company;
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of Ridley Scott related material spinning around cyberspace at the moment, whilst I am selecting a few choice nodes for my Prometheus review I figured this deserved its own post;
Gotta love that soundtrack, not exactly Vangelis is it? So press screenings for Ridders latest effort start tonight, can you resist the urge to read any reviews over the next few days? I’m just glad we don’t live in a world with strange weather patterns, and rogue governments conducting clandestine electronic warfare……
So here’s a quick round-up of what I think looks like the most promising stuff to come out of this years Cannes film festival, the biggest and still the most prestigious celebration of all things celluloid, although Toronto’s TIFF is really snapping at our gallic chums heels. As always a mixed pot pourroi from around the globe, I always skim read reviews (if that) and take in a few words from a few critics twitter feed for fear of spoilers, combined with a trenchant deconstruction of the trailer I think you can usually make an educated guess as to what works and what doesn’t. Being an amateur in the field myself I really don’t want to have my opinions steered until I’ve had the chance to make my own mind up anyway, but I do think you can make some assumptions from such careful following of the tsunami of reportage, if Geoff Andrews or Xan Brooks like or dislike something they tend to explain why, and that sort of intelligence instructs my choices for the LFF and later cinema visits of the year.
Of course there are some movies I’ll go see regardless of reviews, purely on the strength of a track record on the directorial or acting front, Killing Me Softly for example could have got one star slatings across the board and I’d still have given it a chance, purely due to Andrew Dominks perfect track record to date. By the same token something like Leos Carax’s Holy Motors would not have been on my ‘must see’ list despite liking some of his earlier work (Les amants du Pont-Neuf springs to mind), but the general chatter of his new move being ‘bonkers’ and ‘madly original’ really propels it up the watch list – and that of course is what critics are for in the first place. All that said it amuses me no end when the likes of Cosmopolis splits people almost directly down the middle, with one half accusing it of being pretentious twaddle with others nominating it as the clear Palme d’Or candidate, I guess there’s just no accounting for taste eh? I’m thinking about doing a large ‘essential film-makers in the world today’ post which would list the essential ladies and laddies whose work you must follow regardless of critical opinion, but that’s a whole other story, maybe its something I’ll put together before the end of the year. Anyway, let’s get on it with it and see what I hope will be replicated in the LFF schedule a few months hence, or at least eventually reach these emerald shores for a big screen airing;
Rust & Bone – Hmm, watch that trailer with a warning as I understand it reveals an unexpected plot twist that was divulged during the capsule review I’ve read, this may colour your experience. Audiard is one of the best French filmmakers working today and therefore he would be on he aforementioned essential list no matter what the film was about, but with strong notices this sounds like a slight change of direction, away from the people who operate in the margins of society but retaining a strong, romantic undertow.
Lawless – From France to Australia via some Hollywood funding as Ozzie violence maestro John Hillcoat follows up The Road with another grim journey through the American plains, that trailer is pretty terrible but the heavy-duty cast is a big enough sell for me, Hardy is supposedly outstanding and proves he’ not fully fallen down the US rabbit hole of dreck such as This Means War which one hopes was an agent enforced mis-step. A horrendously violent Nick Cave script underpins the gunfire, I’m just not sure this film hasn’t already been surpassed by Boardwalk Empire….
Moonrise Kingdom – Apparently this is the most Wes Anderson of Wes Anderson’s half-dozen movies, after revisiting both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore earlier in the year I can’t say that such ‘plaudits’ fill me with much excitement. It’s already opened here in London and there isn’t much else around so I might slot this in before Prometheus next Friday, anything with Bill in it is a draw so we shall see if my appetite for whimsical tweeness can be stomached…
Wrong – Quentin Dupieux’s follow-up to the bizarre Rubber looks even more mentalist, I don’t have the faintest idea what this is about, what on earth is going on or why this strangeness exists, but early reports indicate this ‘out odds’ his first effort and thus is essential viewing…..
Holy Motors – As I mentioned up-post this normally wouldn’t be on the radar but the glowing, confused and intense praise has rocketed this up the interest chart, it looks fairly unique.
Amour – Haneke’s latest since his prize-winning The White Ribbon looks like another laff-riot, and his second win is a rather predictable accolade given the reviews it had garnered. I will see this but I suspect I’ll have to be suitably mentally prepared beforehand, plus I’ll watch Isabelle Huppert in just about anything.
Antiviral – Yup, that’s Cronenberg’s son behind he camera – does someone has daddy issues? Well, it hasn’t exactly set the crosiette on fire but worth a look, to see if he’s a chip off the old block and inherited any of his old mans insights or flair for the flesh.
Killing Them Softly – Brad Pitt back with Andrew Dominik after The Assassination of Jess James By The Coward Robert Ford – sign me up. This was got the usual critics going through the cliché dictionary for any combination of ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, and ‘incredibly violent’, a proper trailer would be nice Mr. Weinstein to capitalise on the early buzz, not that Iwant to tell you how to do your job or anything.
Cosmopolis – This is the big one, the epic tale of one man’s heroic journey to get a haircut. No awards for David’smantelpiece but plenty of praise, I’m really looking forward to this. So special mentions to Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, his follow-up to Kill List which looks like another dangerous jouney, The Tall Man which is Pascal Alugiers long-awaited follow-up to Martyrs (no trailer yet, very little publicity, I suspect this is being buried) and I wonder if we’ll eventually get any UK screenings of the now five-hour restored cut of the opulent Once Upon A Time In America, the world premiere of which put De Niro in tears and James Woods claiming that the way that the film was originally fucked with eventually killed Leone, such was his heartbroken devotion to the project. So plenty to look forward to after summer season, another potentially strong year could be on the cards….
Just a quick post to point you Kubrickophiles in the direction of Movie Geeks United’s fantastic The Kubrick Series of podcasts, where they have spent the last eighteen months interviewing figures large and small who were involved in the great man’s work. What has been truly fascinating about this is that other than the usual suspects – the likes of Anthony Frewin,Vincent LoBrutto, Brian Cook and Leon Vitali – is that they have also got interviews with the likes of peripheral academics, bit players in Eyes Wide Shut and other lesser known collaborators who provide insights and anecdotes than haven’t percolated through to the usual media outlets, and some those nuggets are really quite illuminating in terms of his craft, his method, his personality and his legacy. Other than the dense and rather better known Visual Memory site this is the best and most concentrated Kubrick archive out there, as something of an expert in the field this treasure trove has unearthed a few surprises which is a rare treat these days. Just in the last tranche of podcasts they have published over four hours of material, and for that I shall be in their debt;
In other news I’m pulling a news blackout on Prometheus – I’m fully aware that further teasers, articles and associated material have surfaced – but enough is enough before next Friday’s final excavation. I’ve also got a Cannes post 2012 en route which I’ll probably post tomorrow, for the rest of this evenings entertainment I might just have to launch myself into the 18th century yet again, for a film that gets more potent and remarkable as the years slide away;
What’s your favourite action movie? Chances are its Die Hard, or that modern American classic will at least be barefootedly creeping around your top ten. What about one of Ahnoldt’s blitzkrieg’s when he was in his prime, quipping away in the jungle, in the future or in the mountain-top lair? If you’re of a certain age you may have fond memories of the men on a mission action films such as The Guns Of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare where Clint mowed down several divisions of Wermacht without seeming to break a sweat? Or maybe your tastes broaden out to the Hong Kong escapades of the pre Hollywood perverted John Woo with the likes of Hard Boiled or The Killer? Maybe it’s the action mash-up that really gets the pulse pounding, in the likes of the first or second Terminator or Matrix movies of the slow motion carnage of Peckinpah’s Western ballets? Maybe you’re more of a character driven sort, and prefer getting breathless with Bond, Bourne, or Indiana Jones? The history of cinema is the history of action and adventure – there’s a reason why they are called moving pictures after all – and without touching on the spritely maneuvers of Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks the movies are full of surprises, like a silent French film winning the best picture Oscar one wouldn’t immediately assume that an Indonesian film directed by an expatriate Welshman would be widely praised as the greatest action maestro of the past twenty-five years but here we are, as new film The Raid finally assaults UK cinemas. I’ve been looking forward to this since the early glowing praise heaped on the film from the exuberant Toronto Film Festival screenings last year, and as a particularly effective cartridge of summer ammunition its hard to beat, if you turn your brain to ‘overwhelm me’ mode when entering the cinema….
Like all great action movies the set-up is swiftly and simply embedded so we can get on with the good stuff, the squibs and stunts stretching credulity in the best possible ways – ruthless drug kingpin Tama (Ray Sahetapy) is holed up in the penthouse suite of a multi-story apartment building in a downtown Jakarta slum, a wretched hive of scum and villany where he rents rooms to the local criminal fraternity in exchange for their muscle and manpower – truly he is a force of evil as not only does he sell smack to schoolkids he’s also the second most hated profession in the world after the bankers – he’s a landlord. An opening scene sets up our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) as a committed family man who cares for his pregnant wife, before he meets a mysterious elderly figure and promises to ‘bring him back’. With this boredom out-of-the-way the assault begins, as Rama leads his black garbed SWAT team into the serpents nest, some with their own cloaked and nefarious reasons for volunteering for the deadly mission, and soon battle is joined as the forces of authority find themselves scattered across the dozen or so floors of the criminal citadel….
As much as I enjoyed The Avengers here is a film which grabs that expensive monstrosity by the scruff of the neck, blasts several hollow tipped rounds into its screaming face, and cackles maniacally before hurling its still twitching corpse off the forty-third floor to crash into the ground far below. Although the criticisms that the movie feels more like a computer game are pertinent, complete with level bosses, special moves and a level achievement narrative design it’s just damn good simple schclocky fun, as after the most perfunctory of set-ups the cast and hordes of expendable goons are soon ricocheting around the screen like the love child of Speedy Gonzales and Jackie Chan. There seems to be one of these every year these days, a breakthrough movie that a talented, innovative and improvisational film director – think Gareth Edwards in Monsters or Neil Blomkamp in District Nine – make a well admired and entertaining piece of work with a fraction of the resources and equipment at the beck and call of the major studios artisans. Debut director Gareth Evans managed to get government funding for ensuring he film was shot in its native Indonesian dialect and included their local martial art Pencak Silat amongst the cultural treasures on offer, a quite canny production move to bolster his already meagre $1 million budget which looks ten times that amount on-screen. The real stars are the choreographers and the suicidal stuntmen that provide the action pyrotechnics, whilst Evans stages the melee in all their full screen glory and rarely resorts to the epileptic editing techniques that pollute most of contemporary cinema. That’s why I think the film has obtained such a beloved affection in so short a period, it’s very much pulpy, throwaway stuff with little in the way of compelling characterisations – the core elements of longevity – but it kind of seduces you with the balletic violence and roaring pace, where you can appreciate the craft on-screen and innovative deployment of the combat designs and literal executions. The inevitable Hollywood English language remake has unsurprisingly been greenlit and Evans has wisely declined offers to direct this waste of time, I think he’s concentrating on a sequel in its native tounge and shot in Asia which sounds like a terrific next step to me. After the unexpected charms of Haywire I assumed that a film would have to be pretty explosive to get elected as the best action movie of the year, and The Raid is equal to, if not quite surpassing that film – but what a cardiac inducing double bill;
Finally a first look and all I can say is hallelujah;
Joaquin Phoenix looks totally different there I think, it took me a couple of seconds to place him, and along with Michael Shannon and Phil Hoffman I think we’re in for an acting feast. I’m also loving the clanky Jonny Greenwood score, I really can’t wait for this one….related. In other news, rumors are abounding that Robert Downey Jr. has been cast in PT Anderson’s next film, an adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice – I’ll throw a few bucks on that collection plate….
After the grinding ineptitude of The Quantum Of Solace I kind of swore off Bond movies, a franchise I have never been fond of anyway. I have to say though that the slow build to the next film has tickled my curiosity, particularly to see how a character atuned director like Sam Mendes is going to tackle the homicidal misogynist;
Could be OK, but I’ll bet it’s no Picasso Trigger;
Why do I do this to myself? The omens were clear when dragging my weary old bones over to the cinema that this was a vampire movie that was going to suck, and it was going to suck almost as badly as that pathetic pun. This augury was evident in the blatantly unfunny, CGI embalmed trailer for Dark Shadows, the latest tirade of the tiresome triumvirate* of Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and shivery composer Danny Elfman whose more recent collaborations have not wierded well, yet I still devoted two hours of my inexorably declining presence in this realm to this movie – what the hell was I thinking? Well, truth be told I am aiming to get as much use out of my Cineworld card as I can at the moment whilst I’m in-between assignments, I was at something of a loose end on Friday and a modicum of exercise can only help my recovery, and most importantly I haven’t actually given Burton the benefit of the doubt cinema visit wise since his Planet Of The Apes remake failure back in 2001. Say what you will of his recent output and believe me I will, but Burton is a talented designer and his films are usually a pleasure to imbibe from at least a visual perspective, his skills at conjuring an eerie, gothic cinemaspace through which his outcasts and outsiders travail their manifest destinies are second to none, even if he seems to be working on autopilot these days whilst churning out ‘Burtonesque’ pieces on a conveyor belt of commercially endorsed quirk. His latest film is a necrotic valentine to a beloved TV series he leeched as a child, the strange sounding gothic soap opera Dark Shadows which ran during the mid-sixties to the early seventies, here’s a quick peek at the original to whet your appetite;
Compare and contrast with the trailer which I’ve posted at the foot of the review and I think we can
detest detect a slight change in tone and atmosphere. So Johnny Depp is Barnabos Collins, a somewhat eccentric Nosferatu who has been entombed for two hundred years in the Maine coastal town of Collinwood, named after his capricious family whose pilgrim forebears established the hamlet with the wealth of their fishing empire. Barnabos was cursed to his undead limbo after he spurned the advances of sultry witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Geen) in favour of the chaste charms of relative newcomer Bella Heathcote in the role of Josette DuPres, an enchanted paramour who leaps to her death under Bouchard’s orders onto the windswept rocks of Collinwood in the films fairly promising prologue. Now pay attention because here comes the comedy premise, we cut to 1972 and the young Victoria Winters – Heathcote again so I think you can see where this is going – is en-route to Collinwood to take up a job as a nanny to the family whose fortunes have waned over the centuries, their mansion decayed to an echoing husk and the descendants a mere shadow of their ancestors eminence. The current matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is struggling with the families declining fortunes and is plagued by the strange demeanour of her impudent daughter Carolyn (Chloë Moretz who compounds her poor presence in Hugo) and son David (Gulliver McGrath) for whom she has retained the erratic services of headshrinker Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), because clearly this is the planet’s only destitute family that can afford a live-in psychiatrist. The arrival of Victoria coincides with the exhumation of Barnabos by a rather unlucky construction crew, entombed in a coffin for two centuries he sates his thirst and retires to the family domicile, vowing to return his dynasty to their long eclipsed prestige, and maybe his feminine nemesis may have also cheated the icy clasp of the reaper as well…
Now first things first, I am not a fan of the original TV series and it pains me to admit this as a self championed spooky genre expert, but I’d never even heard of Dark Shadows until this film was announced. That’s quite a confession but what can I say, it simply was never mentioned in the numerous horror media textbooks I collected and read as a kid when of course the likes of the other US TV genre brushing fare such as The Addams Family, The Munsters, Night Gallery, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone etc. all got their column inches and in most cases airings on terrestrial UK television. My point is that I have no stake to grind, there are no fond memories of the show shrouded in a misty nostalgic bliss, I went into this with an open chest cavity and a vain hope that Burton would be able to wield some of the old magic that graced many of his earlier efforts, before his movies got lacquered in that glossy, syrupy finish that has embalmed all the fun, originality and grotesque charm out of his effigies. We can consider that flickering candle of hope well and truly extinguished, as Dark Shadows is a toothless, neutered corpse of a film which could have been shot on the moon for all the atmosphere it contains.
What in the nine hells has happened to the man who made the delicious Beetlejuice, a genuinely resuscitating, stitchmarked assembly blend of macabre humor and eccentric ghouls, alas there’s not a shroud of that entertainment in this visually sumptuous but exceptionally expensive folly. The problems are multiple, to begin with Victoria Winter is initially set up as a main character of the film – and evidently Christina Ricci’s agent needs exorcising since she should have been a shoo-in for the part – whom is sidelined for the rest of the film in favour of Depp’s maudlin mugging , a mistake which evaporates any sense of urgency or potential catharsis for Barnabos or his families central fate. Scene after scene hangs lifeless on-screen like the grim portraits that litter the Collinwood mansion, two-dimensional, haughty and stuffed with their own smug satisfaction. But the final nail in the coffin is the ultimate damnation – it simply isn’t funny which is kind of a problem for a purported gothic comedy, not even the rather weak premise of a culture clash between an eighteenth century hellion transported to a twentieth century environment provokes as much as a wry smile. There is not one, I repeat not one, single, solitary laugh to be had in the entire two-hour picture, and if you don’t believe me then ask the few dozen or so people I saw it with who retained a mortuary level of silence throughout this unholy communion, apart from the chap who started snoring behind me around about halfway through it’s insipid run-time – alas no I’m not making this up.
Any residual affection that Depp generated throughout his sterling work in the nineties is now fully eroded after this horror and the aquatic monstrosities of the Pirates franchise, doesn’t he even read his scripts anymore? Anyone who has actually seen The Tourist would have to conclude not. His prancing and preening Barnabos is a gluttonous embarrassment and he needs a sabbatical amongst the likes of Jim Jarmusch, a Von Trier or even a Haneke to cleanse his soul, he’s been typewriting it in for far too long now and I’m not even talking about the disappointments of The Rum Diary. Eva Green vamps it up as best she can given the limited material, I’m a big fan of her icy charms but she’s not the worlds finest actress, in fact none of the cast distinguish themselves in any way, shape or form, and not even the likes of a Christopher Lee cameo – and I love Chris Lee – can salvage this baroque squib. Why does Tim Burton keep making the same god-damn movie? At the risk of repeating myself yet again, it’s a crying shame that anyone who can craft such a unique, unadulterated, perfect paen to cinema and the artistic impulse in Ed Wood can go on to utterly squander his talents on remake after ‘re-imagining’, I must confess to being shocked at the performance of Alice In Wonderland, pushing aside my reservations it was staggeringly lucrative as the
tenth eleventh highest box office movie of all time, and with all this clout and commercial freedom what does Burton do? He remakes old TV series and his next project is a remake of his student film? This truly makes me gloomy. The movies finale which has no build up or sense of anticipation does slightly raise the hackles in terms of a lightning strobed pulse of excitement, not dissimilar to the frantic deflibration of a corpse the more I think of it, but we’ve kinda seen this before in the climax of Death Becomes Her twenty years ago, thus Dark Shadows is one film that needs to be dismissed back from whence it came, and the celluloid salted to be sure that it never rises again;
*Apologies, it appears I’m still writing like a 1970’s Marvel comic book author, I thought I got this out of system with The Avengers review.
What’s better than an hour of Werner Herzog in conversation? Well, two hours of course;
Several million apologies for tha advert at the start (if it happens, I think it depends on your region), nothing I can do about it. I fucking hate adverts at the best of times, the increasing density of them all over the web is really, REALLY starting to get on my tits. In other news Cannes is starting to get going, my interest in the new Audiard film has been compelled with some strong reviews, Moonrise Kingdom I will see but I ain’t holding my breath. Finally, here’s an honest account of my one of my favourite yet flawed local cinemas. The Raid and Dark Shadows will be observed over the weekend, I’m guessing that’s gonna be a half empty experience….
May 1985, and picture the scene gentle reader – it’s a balmy Autumn Sunday morning and a pubescent Minty has just completed his shoulder bruising paper round. Having acquired the spoils of another week of backbreaking work he is curled up contentedly with a carton of chocolate milk, a packet of pickled onion Space Raiders, a Texan bar and the latest issue of Secret Wars, the epic tale of Earths Mightiest Marvel heroes and villains in crusading combat that will culminate in catastrophic changes and consequences throughout the centripetal contours of the comic book continuum. ‘Wow’, Minty muses to himself as his bamboozled eyes peered out to the horizon, ‘I wonder if they will ever make multi-million dollar, eye-gouging, mind-bendng special effect laden visual extravaganzas of the heroic escapades of these beloved print realm avatars?’ Cut to May 2012, over a quarter of a century later and Minty has finally got his answer, the fulfilment of a distant childhood dream, to finally see a well crafted, exciting and throughly entertaining bout of team superheroics, heck this may even have eradicated all memories of the feeble Fantastic Four movies from the databanks. The Avengers is far from perfect and I’m a little ambivalent to some of the gushing reviews that the film has generated, but there certainly isn’t a more purely entertaining couple of hours to be had at the flicks at the moment, SPOILERS ahoy as I’m going full, unapologetic fanboy with this one, and just what the hell are they ‘avenging’ anyway?
The tesseract, Earths Mightiest Mcguffin© which was last seen in the Captain America movie is evidently a valuable grimoire amongst the Marvel Universe ne’er-do-well’s, as this time the evil Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston, think Richard E. Grant on mogadons), adopted brother of the thunder-god Thor and self-proclaimed demi-god of deception and illusion materializes on Earth, steals the artifact and initiates his dastardly scheme to usurp the earth. Quite how and what this pusillanimous plan is or how it will work is never really explained, but it appears to be related to an alliance with some unrecognisable pixellated aliens who are in no way related to the Skrulls as the rights to that species rest with the holders of the Fantastic Four copyright. Anyway, after a particularly lacklustre opening affray S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L Muthafucking Jackson) realises that the odds are not in our species favour unless he can reactivate the dormant ‘Avengers’ project, an elite plan to bring together the disparate super-powered freaks and outcasts that we’ve been primed with throughout a patchy prologue of four movies, including billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his Iron Man weapon, Steve Captain America Rogers (Chris Evans) and his circular patriotism, Thor ‘Point Break’ erm, of Asgard (Chris Hemsworth) and his electric mallet, and Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner, now portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, who gets very very angry and flashes pensioners. The heroes are joined by two S.H.I.E.L.D agents, Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner) and Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) to complement the super-powered with the super purrfect, and the fight is on to thwart Loki and his extraterrestrial minions….
Everyone is naturally making the inevitable references to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy given that The Avengers galactic box-office has already eclipsed 2008’s paranoid haul, I have to say I am flabbergasted at this result as although comic book movies can do well and they have he benefit of a rabid fan-base this movie must have surpassed the core demographics to achieve such astonishing returns, both the Captain America and Thor precursors did not perform to expectations so I’m guessing it’s the combination of all the heroes in one that has securely positioned posterior upon placemats.The Avengers is of a day-glo, bright and exuberant flavour of heroics which stands in sharp contrast to proceedings in Nolan’ tortured shadowplays, I think what has really got the crucial word of mouth is the film’s unimpeachable combination of characters and deft one-liners, action heroics and sleek entertainment. It looks cartoony but that suits the material of course, with those vivid colours literally popping off the screen in perspective defying 3D which for once suited the material, this is one of those blockbusters that earns the visual depth that is absent in many of the summer movies foisted upon us these days, and the dazzling immersion was particularly entrancing during the films final carnage strewn mayhem. It’s always easier if I break these larger reviews into the good and bad portions so I’ll repeat that trick here, let’s get the negative zone moaning out-of-the-way first;
Firstly, this interdimensional threat that demands such crucial co-operation of our heroes are utterly marginalised and unidentified, I can’t even remember their name but it is clear than these Skrull simulacrums are the combat provoking excuses of the basest sort, the 21st century equivalent of the faceless, ponytail sporting and Uzi wielding goons of Ahnoldt, Dolph, Sly and Bruce, along with all the other testosterone fuelled masculine mercenaries. Samuel Jackson was terrible as Sgt. Fury, a tradition he seems to have maintained throughout his portrayal of the character, he just has no charisma in the role, no blistering dialogue highlights, although after a few plot setting early scenes he does retreat to the shadows for much of the film. One sequence in particular reminded me of Team America with its hamfisted heroism of the common man in the face of merciless tyranny – yes,I’m talking about the Berlin Opera scene – although Whedon didn’t fall into the obvious trap of having the old man reveal his camp tattoo before Captain America (who still looks pretty ridiculous in that fucking stupid outfit, although you get to ignore it by the final act) comes to teach us stupid Europeans about the meaning of freedom and justice. All of the gunfire in the film throughout the helicarrier assault and earlier fracas just seemed out-of-place to me and Loki was curiously absent for the final battle, but then again the manner in which he was defeated was pure, unadulterated fanboy genius in a moment that I’m positive has got the biggest cheer in the movie. Overall the pacing is just off, I was actually bored in places during the first two acts, it’s no easy task to balance a half-dozen characters and a villains nefarious schemes so it’s no surprise that the film has its zeniths and its nadirs, but these quibbles are eclipsed by Whedon and his technical crew’s final achievements during the movies pixel generated delirious detritus denouement.
One of my reservations about the film was the prospect of Loki as the ambuscade antagonist, in Thor he struck me as little more than a petulant, snivelling weed, and not for a macro second could I take him seriously as a supervillain of note and certainly not an immortal deity who is the very personification of deception. In Whedon’s hands he was so much better, I think Hiddlestone’s a decent enough actor given the other things I’ve seen him in (Warhorse, The Deep Blue Sea) although his plot was muddled he at least actually had some subterfuge to his wicked plan, he actually spun some lies and deceit, he actually fulfilled his namesake in the movie other than his central terror weapon being the deployment of some particularly merciless sarcasm. As for the heroes they all got their own character beats, moments and kinetic heroics in the final act, and this I think is Whedon’s central triumph as it makes the film a team movie, an ensemble combination where half the fun is the interaction between the characters as much as their connected fate. Of them all the angry big green guy gets the most kudos – there’s a lot of rage around these days – and as the credits role even peripheral characters such as Hawyeye and the Black Widow stand tall with the more recognisable luminaries, although I am starting to get quite exasperated with Downey Jr’s cocky schtick I have to say. Whedon just gets it, as with balancing act of characters in Toy Story (I always forget he wrote on that) he keeps all the balls in the air with the disparate, numerous characters, he keeps all the plates spinning, peppering the film with in-jokes and observations (Thor’s hammer, the scrap between him and the Hulk, the Galaga gag, ‘he’s adopted’, etc. etc.) that keep us nerds happy whilst remaining broad enough to not isolate the passing fans. As previously mentioned the film is also this years favourite for the Menagerie award for the smoothest and most amusing continuous SFX shot where cinematographer Seamus Garvey seems to have eclipsed his vision of the Dunkirk flotsam and jetsam seen in Atonement, and the cameos are also first class, from Jenny Agutter to Powers Boothe as the members of some sinister civilian cabal, before none other than Harry fucking Dean stonking Stanton turned up – as everyone knows that any film that he’s in can’t be all bad eh? Story behind that here.
As someone who stopped reading comic books religiously many years ago I think this was pretty much the best team film we could have expected which ensures you’ll leave the movie with a big smile on your face, inconsequential and throwaway stuff to be sure but throughly entertaining and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered. I’ve heard that the initial cut ran an extra thirty minutes which I’m sure will flesh out some of the glaring inconsistencies – the Hulk going away and then coming back as a team player, Thor just kinda arriving (although to be fair I can’t remember how his film wrapped up his journey) and some of the friction with his brother – sorry his adopted brother – needed a little more foreshadowing, and apparently Whedon crafted a monologue from Cap’s lips that outlined how America had ‘lost its way’ recently that was swiftly excised by the powers that be, all I’m sure will be reinstated in the soon to be best-selling home consumption format disk. It’s great news for Whedon fans – it shall be interesting to see what he levers next production wise after such a remarkable hit, thus its good news for us fans although I grow weary at the thought of certain dredging of the ‘C’ list superheros that will inevitably be rushed into production over the next twelve months – can’t wait for that Cloak & Shadow or Power Man & Iron Fist movie – and I’m sure its success will further marginalize original experiments such as Inception that don’t have their genesis in any pre-existing media. Be sure to stick around for the post credits sting for Avengers Assemble in 2014 as Whedon clearly throws down the gauntlet – or should that be the Infinity Gauntlet – for the next issue in this exercise in intangible Hollywood holography, an illusion with no depth but plenty to admire and entertain from its perfectly rendered cyberspace carpaced computerised chassis – Excelsior!!
Talk about having your finger on the pulse, or in this case the mortuary slab, as here is my review of a movie long departed from our cinema screens, I’m sure it well be terrorising your friendly neighbourhood video store before its shriveled husk starts to disintegrate…….or it starts to get hungry. It’s difficult to impress we jaded, disaffected horror fans as we’re a critical, vociferate bunch, deeply wedded to the perils of the uncanny and ungodly, and more than committed to sit through the dreck in order to identify the really tasty bloody treats on offer amongst the onslaught of direct to DVD and cheaply rendered sequels, genre guru Kim Newman even has his own regular almanac dedicated to the subject. Then again we are our own worst enemies, when someone does attempt something new, something different to worthless substitutions of ancient franchises – I’m talking The House of The Devil, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Mist, Orphan, Drag Me To Hell, Pontypool, Hostel 1 & 2, Slither, Trick R’ Treat and Wrong Turn – we tend to stay away in droves or nitpick the films minor failings, ensuring that the fiendish money men turn their attention back to horrendous barbarities such as The Last House On The Left or to a lesser extent The Crazies style retreads. The latest attempt at genre deconstruction is The Cabin In The Woods, a boisterous addition to the more flippant fringes of the genre which has been eagerly awaited due to the presence of current wunderkid Joss Whedon on scriptwriting duties, buried by MGM for two years due to the bankruptcy fiasco that also delayed the next Bond and Hobbit movies the project was finally exhumed in time to stalk multiplexes just ahead of Whedon’s stab at more mainstream offerings with The Avengers. I deserve an award for spoiler avoidance, I only watched the trailer once and even that exposure gave me some indications of what might be on the cards, rest assured I won’t be divulging into exactly what happens, what fates await certain characters or precisely what the films embalmed premise is, but I will (like the film) get partially into the machinery behind the plot which is incrementally revealed from the film’s opening moments, I would urge you however to go into this completely blind and come back here after you’ve seen the movie as this is one little bleeder that really rewards a fresh reception….
From the opening, bracing hard title cuts the macabre iconography is clear and we’re in familiar territory, as after a brief introduce-the-characters scene and trademark encounter with a local redneck miscreant we’re isolated at a secluded location far from civilisation and preferably these days any reliable cell phone reception – a cottage in the thickets if you will. A group of horny, immoral teens slot neatly into the stereotypes of the genre including virile jock Curt (Chris Hemsworth) and easy cheerleader Jules (Anna Hitchinson), decent guy Holden (Jess Williams) and stoner jester Marty (Fran Kranz), and a rather more intelligent, thoughtful and crucially resourceful ‘final girl’ Dana (Kristen Connolly) who seems to have come a long way from her previous horror role of ‘woman reading on bench’ in Shamalangadingdongs cosmically dreadful The Happening. The beers are toasted, the joints are blazed, and soon the scabrous scooby gang find themselves on the receiving end of the wrath of the domiciles reanimated denizens after the unwise chanting of a devilish latin prayer found in an abandoned 19th century diary, what seems doubly strange are the cutaways to a modern, bunker style office in which two white-collar technicians, amusingly played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, are surreptitiously spying on the cabin for mysterious reason, as some quasi-govermental agency seem to be engineering a potential massacre for uncertain, nefarious ends….
There have been a couple of antecedents to Cabin In The Woods in terms of self-referential genre tales over the past year or so, both Tucker & Dale Versus Evil and Rubber toyed with genre conventions with a nod and a wink to the contemporary, clued-up erudite audience, both these films were entertaining enough but for me Cabin pips them to the post due to its sheer quotient of gags, references, and all round genre dexterity, it’s simply more amusing, more knowing, its smarter and more sinister with a few stand out moments that are the best the genre has offered since the last ephemeral sacrifice. Debut director Drew Goddard, a writing stablemate of Joss Whedons and J.J. Abrams TV animas acquaints himself adequately with a direct approach to the nuts and bolts of the film, it’s actually difficult to discern whether a few of the truly memorable curlicues – particularly a pull back revelation that was the leader of the newly inaugurated ‘Minty’s most amusingly rendered single-take SFX shot of the year award’ until I caught The Avengers a week later – and a static moment of absolute carnage in the final act leapt from his or Whedon’s twisted imaginations, there are also a couple of other moments that will have fans depressing the pause button to revel in the genre celebrations on their prefered home viewing format – hey, at least we got to see the Merman after all eh?
Some critics have sneered at the movies somewhat confused premise (a not unreasonable accusation, it is muddled in places) and some of the films internal inconsistencies (erm, what did exactly happened with the heartbeat monitors?), more dangerous is the aura of a rejected script for Angel being stretched out on the torture rack to feature-length dimensions, utilising Whedon’s trademark hybrid of contemporary corporate culture and ancient Eldritch horrors of whom we do not speak, but I like Angel as I assume do many of the films target audience, it retains the interest and keeps events scything along its 95 minute expiry, it’s obviously not meant to be anything other than a fun distraction so I’m not entirely sure where is the problem. The film is drizzled with some gratifying meta-commentary that is neither forced nor trite, I particularly loved the J-horror stabs in particular and it was nice to see Amy Acker back in some sort of media, I’ve always been a fan of hers since the Angel days. A foreshadowed cameo from a serrated, favourite genre actress (it’s kind of a shame that Paul beat Cabin to theatres eh?) props up the surprise quotient as we transgress the final movie world reveal, it doesn’t really make sense but it’s all academic at this point, as the movie closes on a quieter, natural conclusion which is apt and doesn’t rely on the standard issue jump scare cliché. If you’re the kind of reprobate who found Joss Whedon’s answer to the question ‘What is your guiltiest pleasure?’ with the answer ‘killing drifters’, in last weeks Guardian magazine then The Cabin In The Woods will be one destination you won’t regret, that cheeky indiscretion still gives me the giggles;
*Before anyone starts whining I’m narrowing my selection to North American horror, let’s not open the bloody floodgates to the more acute Japanese, Spanish and French atrocities of recent years, that’s a whole other article….
My first musical endeavour of the year, and this is gonna be nigh on impossible to best. This was the first run of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s collaboration Einstein On The Beach in the UK after its international debut back in 1976, this is the first of Glass’s ‘portrait’ trilogy of Operas (you may recall I saw Satyaghara a couple of years ago), here’s a brief BBC primer. I’ll mostly let the music and performances speak for themselves, although I would say that the acoustics in the Barbican are phenomenal, I’m pretty sure this was the first ‘gig’ I’ve been to there – I’ve caught plenty of movies in the enclave of new brutalist of course – here are some reviews which articulate the event better than I manage. Nevertheless, here’s the best material I can trace from this run which is all on shakycam I’m afraid, but hopefully it might give you a flavour of the auditory assault;
I was a little hesitant at the four-hour and change runtime given my incapacitated condition but it rattled through its four acts and intermezzos – that’s me pretending to know what I’m talking about – in what felt like a quarter of the time. Now we all know that I love me some movie style entertainment – I think we’ve established that – but there is something to be said for the immediacy of a ‘live’ performance experience;
Words almost fail me, it really was quite an evening, just Akhnaten to see now and I’ll have achieved the full set. Proof positive that when we turn our minds to it, our species can produce some remarkable experiences;
William Friedkin has had something of a patchy career since his seventies heyday – think The Exorcist, The French Connection and cult favourite Sorcerer – but he’s back with a southern baked neo-noir that has done well on the festival circuit, see what you think of this;
Like most trailers that probably reveals too much, but it satisfies my crime criteria and McConaughey is meant to be fantastic in it. The BFI are conducting a screening late next month which I just managed to get a ticket for, my arm was twisted as yes Friedkin is flying over for a post viewing Q&A and he’s usually a good raconteur, it’s been a while since I managed to get along to one of those events and I bet they get Kermode to compère. Anyway that’s enough with the stopgaps, I have a backlog of reviews to muster over the weekend, yes there shall be some Whedon fanboy adulation here after The Cabin In The Woods and catching The Avengers today, alas it’s overrated but the last forty minutes are worth the price of admission alone – I’m still giggiling at puny Hiddleston, (a-hem) if you’ve seen it then you know what I’m talking about……
I demand tribute for finally spearing this elusive adolescent, after a painful six-week grounding and being confined to quarters I finally managed to evade my captors and hobbled along to my local Cineworld for the very last screening of The Hunger Games, adding my mediocre pesos to it’s incredibly lucrative big-screen run, given that the film is based on an extremely popular series of Young Adult novels who says that youngsters don’t go to the cinema anymore? That $600 million had to come from somewhere, I think the rumors of cinemas death are somewhat premature when coupled with the staggering take of The Avengers which has matched that financial threshold in an unprecedented three days in the US and one week overseas. Anyway, I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I missed the biggest SF film since Avatar, at least commercially speaking, and as a fan of dystopian misery this movie was certainly in my crosshairs, besides which I’m ravenous for my celluloid treats after two months of mobility enforced exile. So in terms of context there is nothing I can add that hasn’t already been examined, exhumed, prodded and poked over the past two months of release, so yes blah blah blah The Running Man, oops don’t forget Richard Bachman’s The Long Walk, gosh doesn’t the future world gladiatorial premise remind you of Rollerball with a drizzle of Riefenstahl’s fascist propaganda, everyone seems to have overlooked Punishment Park and finally doesn’t the spectre of バトル・ロワイアル lurk over the entire premise, despite author Suzanne Collins ‘claims’ that the idea came to her after semi-consciously channel surfing between Teen reality shows and Iraq war footage of barely pubescent soldiers, an origin story that sounds plausible enough to me. Thus *exaggerated gasp* it seems that a popular book series and successful film franchise has elements in pre-existing media, both printed and filmed – hold the fucking presses. If you’d like you can cast your originality detectors back to 1932 if you need to secure evidence of humans being hunted for sport and / or entertainment in the mongrel titled The Hounds Of Zaroff otherwise known as The Most Dangerous Game, or maybe you’d like to plunder the B-Movie survival drops of either Turkey Shoot or Death Race 2000, meanwhile I’ll be oggiling the uncertain charms of Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity whilst I’d urge you to impale the action packed antics of this Artemis adolescent, as all things considered this was a flawed but intriguing movie.
We’re twenty minutes into the future and after a brutal American civil war the victors have separated the country into the elites and the proles, with the Capital usurped by what looks to me like eighties New Romantic inspired hipsters via the tutelage of Ancient Rome – yea verily this is a terrifying vision of he future. You can tell it’s a cruel and decadent epoch as the fashion seems to be having your hair dyed prismatic colours, as everyone quaffs strangely hued beverages and the bourgeoise dandys sport ludicrous facial hair, as they all idly await the latest bloodthirsty entertainment to alleviate their privileged ennui. In district 12, an enclave that appears to have reverted back to a Steinbeckian, corrugated iron, out-house dust bowl echo of the 20th century Great Depression we meet Katniss Everdeen (a defiant Jennifer Lawrence), a skilled huntress who volunteers to take the place of her younger sister after she is unfortunately selected to represent her enclave in the Hunger Games, a televised tournament to the death where two young warriors from each of the twelve localities is pitted in mortal combat, in order to pay annual tribute to the defiant victors and ensure no dreams of treasonous revolution is ever entertained. Katniss is joined by her male compatriot Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and they are spirited away to the capital city to be pampered, preened and prepared by a rather unusual squad of adult counsellors, including previous winner and senior mentor Haymitch (a particularly confused Woody Harrelson), costume designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a flamboyant instructor whose role seems to be to stand around and look eccentric. After being paraded to the howling masses the juvenile superstars are thrust into the game of murderball with a slightly more homicidal twist, all presided over by a master of ceremonies with the rather bludgeoning name of Caeser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), and the gruesome games afoot…
After some economic world building and enough broad characterisations to get us on our heroines side the melee is joined, and the restrictions of the films 12A certificate soon surfaces amidst the carnage. The Hunger Games is effective, thrilling and gripping enough cinema of the blockbuster strain, but the SF aficionados might feel a little jilted by the framing device and societal concerns being relegated to the background of what emerges as a traumatic teenage tantrum, a diluted dystopia which just missed the mark for this aging, infirm viewer. Jennifer Lawrence is as feisty and quietly obstinate enough to make you cheer her on once the games finally begins to draw blood and the film’s production design quite wisely decided to soak the film in an effective mélange of ancient Rome and Edwardian degeneracy, I rewatched Logan’s Run during my convalescence which has dated quite badly with its late seventies bouffants and fashions, this movie however is pre-engineered to evade any future criticisms with its early adoption of alternate, modified designs in a world with just about the right temperature of theatricality to shade in the character’s source material silhouettes. Stylistically though the film shows its era, director Gary Ross deciding to broadcast the combat prologue and campaigns in twitchy handicam, with just enough spastic shielding to evade any moments of gruesome violence or any glimpse of puerile entrails, as the camera lurches away in an almost shy and embarrassed fashion.
It would have been much more effective to get a firmer grip on the wider world and societal pulse that is enslaved by this parade of ‘bread and circuses’, instead we get a rather tiresome romantic subplot which I’m sure has propelled the book and films popularity beyond the usual enclaves of the SF attuned pale skinned males, one hopes that this apparent concern with the desensitization to violence/reality TV culture finds more space in the sequels as sanitizing the very behaviour that you are critiquing results in a something of a voyeuristic escape hatch, a compromised buffet when we should have been force-fed the bloated horrors that we, the audience are so eagerly encouraging and endorsing. I just think they are not doing their target audience any favours and frankly it’s a little patronising, I’d wager that the cruelty in any local playground or sixth form common room is all too tangible and isolating than the fictional trials of these movie world avatars, and I’m not sure we need to be sugar coating the idea of youngsters fighting to the death for dwindling resources and opportunities in the current climate, given the accelerating cost of education, dwindling unemployment prospects, disintegrating environment, government incompetence and corruption and oh dear, my soapbox appears to be unsteady – but just what was it that made these novels so successful in the first place hmmm? Anyway it’s a little unfair of me to criticise a film for being something it’s not, and it is encouraging to see a resourceful, cunning, robust female protagonist who isn’t merely a starry-eyed, obedient companion to some faintly abusive male consort – yes I’m referring to that horrendous, dusky franchise – so with reservations I’d recommend The Hunger Games as a lightly satisfying Hors d’oeuvre, I just hope we are served more nourishing material on the next futuristic menu;
Although rare there are a few movie genres that I love unconditionally and will watch anything allocated under their gnarled aegis, regardless of the movies specific directors or stars, writers or critical prestige, I’ll always give them a chance regardless of fame, kudos, plot or origin. Casting your tired eyes over the past few years of activity on this quiet corner of the internet will reveal a deep affection for the horror and SF, fantasy or rather more accurately fantastical genres, but beyond those speculative frames there are other strands of cinema that I find deliriously intoxicating, as alluring and seductive as a cheap perfume in a lower West side flop-house – yes, I’m talking about Film Noir. As with one of my prefered choices of literature I’m infatuated with this specific subset of crime movies, and have been an ardent reader of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and Richard Price, James M. Cain and George Pelecanos plus numerous others since I was teenager, just give me a weary, cynical private eye half-cut on bargain-basement bourbon, a shambolic downtown office silhouetted in a blinking neon street advertisement and a mysterious, thermogenic dame offering time plus expenses for a job that might just violate that thin veneer of legality and I’m deliriously happy. Independent of these peccadilloes I find the genre fascinating as a historical movement, a genre that was instructed by a panoply of divergent forces both internal and external to the wider film industry, not many of the genres finest practitioners were even aware that they were contributing to this dark sister to the family friendly Hollywood melodramas, westerns and musicals of the era, it was only when European film critics were able to see a glut of foreign movies after 1945’s liberation that they detected a definitive, perceptible shift in American urban thrillers which they coined noir, and subsequent analysis over the years by cinema connoisseurs and early film students alike has identified the various constituents that defrauds this most fatal and fallen of all cinema movements.
Firstly there was the popularity of the cheap, lurid and trashy crime paperbacks that became popular in America and Europe during the period which formed much of the source material for the movies. Secondly the exodus of film talent to Hollywood from Europe, in particular the German expatriates from the UFA studios who fled the Nazi’s who brought with them both a predilection for expressionistic designs and a psychologically attuned, bleaker harmony to their art and designs that were co-opted and intensified when American filmmakers who were attached to the expeditionary force returned to the States after viewing the numbing horrors of World War II, most cruelly including the devastating horrors of witnessing the unbelievable inhumanity of the extermination camps. Thirdly were the technical innovations, as faster film stocks made the shooting more mobile, as lightweight cameras arrived promising easier location shooting in LA and to a lesser extent in New York was enabled, heightening that constantly strived for authenticity, and the emergence of faster capture rates also bred deep focus framing and compositions – leading to more nervous, collapsed and claustrophobic visual cues – and chiaroscuro lighting patterns which semiotically indicate the struggle of light and dark, offering a theatre of the soul against which these unsympathetic puppets struggle and twitch. That’s the real crux of properly tuned noir, these theatrical trappings are merely the subterfuge that obscures the real skinny, what we gloomy cynics really like in these films is their doomed ideology, the ideal of a cruel and inhospitable universe where all human mediations are transacted via greed or lust of any variety, an uncompromising nihilism that haunts these mean streets which are pregnant with menace.
I‘ve missed a few anniversaries over the past year (typical bloke eh?), I failed to celebrate my 750th post achievement a few months ago or last years 5th birthday in October, but given my current incapacitated circumstances there really is no excuse not to put some shady saturnalia together, so I’ve made an effort with this list of films which combines the well established with the slightly more obscure and marginal, with a few premiere viewings that I’ve shadowed over the past few weeks, just to keep this dossier as fresh as the blood smeared lipstick on a freshly clipped femme fatale. I’ve revisited the crime scenes of Double Indemnity and Out of The Past (AKA Build My Gallows High, is that not one of the greatest film titles ever?) to get the motors running, there is always plenty to admire in those pinnacles of the genre, but let’s begin with a less notorious suspect from 1946;
The Killers – Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway this is a truly hardboiled noir, with neither introductory appearances by a doomed Burt Lancaster or manipulative Ava Gardner offering much in the way of spirits to root for – everyone’s got an angle, everyone’s looking out for numero uno, and no-one is to be trusted. After a terrifically atmospheric opening – see above – a flashback structure emerges as insurance investigator Jim Riordan (a cautious Edmund O’Brien) tracks down and interviews the culprits in Burt’s gang, enquiries that unfold against some terrific mood photography and a one take robbery that director Robert Siodmak stages with his consummate, prowling camera. A terrific start as this is essential viewing.
Out Of The Past– That scene is pure, uncut noir – the moody lighting, the weary voiceover, the sultry dame, the sexual frisson in a terrific dialogue exchange. part-time gumshoe Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is despatched by syndicate heavy Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas in an early villain role) to bring back the feline Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who has absconded with $40K of his earnings. Naturally Jeff falls for her feminine charms, and soon as the bodies start to pile up as she plays the panting stooges against each other, expressing an almost sexual thrill when the dumb marks start with the fisticuffs over her affections. Y’know, as the years roll by Robert Mitchum inches up my all time favourite actors list, along with some of the other old school figures such as James Mason, Robert Ryan and Jimmy Stewart he’s such a terrifically natural screen presence, barely perceptibly ‘acting’, it’s a whole other blog post but the lives some of these guys led before they made it in the movies are pretty crazy. An interesting anecdote, Jane Greer was being groomed as a starlet at RKO in the vein of a new Lauren Bacall, when Howard Hughes brought the studio and set up his own little casting couch harem she refused his amorous advances, thus her career was killed stone dead as although she remained on the lucrative studio payroll she barely appeared in any other movies. Best line, apart from the exchange at 4:07 above – ‘Y’know, a dame with a rod is like a guy with a knitting needle’…..
Crossfire – I’ve heard about this movie for years, it’s always cited as an influential early noir, but I’m afraid it left me a little cold. Sure the lighting was quite brave and extreme for its era but the plot concerning the murder of a Jewish businessman and the suspicion thrown on a group of drunken GI’s who have to piece the confused evening together with the help of a wily detective simply wasn’t arresting, if you’ll excuse a lame pun. It does however feature the delectable Gloria Grahame, one of the great all time noir dames with her slightly tainted, brittle exterior obscuring a compromised but decent soul, we’ll be seeing more of her later on….
This Gun For Hire – Here’s an oddity. Veronica Lake is a sultry and strange combination of nightclub singer and amateur magician as you can see above, a bizarre espionage plot unfolds with some industrialists producing a new strain of military gas which degenerate and psychologically deformed criminal Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) has pinched the formula for through murderous means. It’s a disjointed, low-key entry to the genre with little in the way of compelling performances or incidents, but it an odd way it holds together as some gloomy WWII fable.
Murder, My Sweet – With a terrific title like that you suspect we’d be in Raymond Chandler territory, and you’d be correct. Dick Powell plays Philip Marlowe this time round, enmeshed in dual schemes to track down a hulking bruisers long-lost dame, and to track down a priceless jade necklace that a dark brunette, and her even darker blonde stepmother appear to have misplaced. This has got a really dreamy, narcotic atmosphere as the divergent threads come together, with its misty scrubland out in the wilds and the smoky apartments and bars of downtown LA, any film with lines such as ‘How do you feel Marlowe?…..Like a duck at a fairground’ or ‘She had a face like a Sunday School picnic…’ gets my vote.
Leave Her To Heaven – Although I’ve been aware of this strange beast – a film noir in crimson kissed Technicolor – this was a first time watch, despite long time champion Marty Scorsese extolling its merits for many years. Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) is a very, very jealous young woman who will not permit anyone to come between her and her beloved new husband, the author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), not even the prospect of his disabled brother or her own pregnancy will obscure her pathological instincts. Here’s a film that the Freudian’s seized upon with great vigour, from Ellen’s crimson seductive lipstick to her early confession that her new suitor is the spitting image of her dearly beloved father, this is quite a risqué number as it’s quite obvious that her homicidal jealousy is a manifestation of – well, now how can I put this delicately – by her overwhelming desire to get fucked senseless by her husband, with those repressed urges finding an alternate release of a rather horrific nature. The film has a strange, artificial pallor which reminds one of the decaying pigment on an old master, scratching beneath the surface to reveal the poison lurking below, with an icy plot twist that concludes events on a throughly surprising note I doubt even Hitchcock could have managed better with the source material and that’s praise which isn’t awarded lightly. Good to see Vincent Price in an early, non-horrific role as well and here is a fantastic article on the tortured career and life of Tierney, now a little known figure beyond us cineastes….
The Glass Key – This was another first time watch, although it transpires I wasn’t missing much. Dashiell Hammett provided the source code for this 1942 version of his mystery tale which was originally made in 1935 with George Raft in a starring role, it just goes to show that Hollywood has always been partial to remakes within a few years of a first innings. The backdrop this time round is politics, thus it just goes to show that even the most trustworthy and honest of professions is not free from the claws of this most nefarious of genres, as crooked politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) gets involved with the murder of his sisters degenerate gambler boyfriend, as his right hand man Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) investigates the killing he gets embroiled with the sultry Janet Henry (Veronica Lake, her again), the victims manipulative sister. Well, it’s a serviceable enough film which doesn’t distinguish itself in any meaningful way, specifically any potential noir elements are distinctly undercooked which leads me to belive that the movie is given that in an effort to get suckers like me to add them to the usual suspect list. Crucially there isn’t any chemistry between Lake and Ladd, so it’s probably best to avoid this ones waterlogged charms…..
Double Indemnity – Now this is more like it. Bathed in the gloomy narration from our doomed mark and peppered with armour-piercing dialogue loaded by writers Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder this isn’t just one of the great film noirs, its one of the best American films of the forties. Phyllis Dietrichson (the poisonous Barbara Stanwyck) traps horny salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in her algific plot to kill her husband after implementing a lucrative life insurance policy. Some clever casting made this a big hit at the time – Fred MacMurry was primarily known as a Disney TV star, the equivalent of the Tom Hanks of the era and I’m fairly sure this is one of Stanwyck’s rare villain roles – this is one of the films that set the iconography for the medium as it slithers along to its predestined, promiscuous execution, also look out for Edward G Robinson who steals the movie with his methodological dismantling of the conspiracy – it’s Wilder at his acidic best.
The Big Steal – Reuniting after the success of Out Of The Past five years earlier, this movie sees Lt. Duke Halliday (Robert Mitchum with the most ‘forties’ name I can recall) on the trail of some stolen GI payroll money, teaming up with the culprits disenfranchised wife Joan Graham (Jane Greer) the pair snake through Mexico in a film that’s more a caper / romance picture than a dark and moody film noir. It’s light and breezy, it speeds along with some adequate banter between the leads, but fades quickly in the memory and is of more interest to film fans as an early example of director Don Siegel at work, before he helmed the likes of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and later taught Clint Eastwood the basics of no-frills, direct, unflashy movie-making where the story trumps any artistic indulgences. One face that this little exercise has brought to my attention is William Bendix, he’s put in an appearance in this and three or four others of the movies above, he was basically the go to guy for any heavy faced, big-lug, intellectually challenged gangsters muscle roles, he reminds of an earlier Peter Stormare, one of those stable, reliable actors whose quiet but essential contributions are frequently overlooked.
The Blue Dahlia – Chandler again, this time with PTSD suffering GI’s Alan Ladd and William Bendix back from the war only for the former to discover that his feline, femme fatale wife has transformed into an easy living party girl who now spends her time hopped up on the joy juice, and she accidentally killed their son in a car crash a few months earlier. When she turns up ventilated and his service issue revolver is found on the scene the suspicion naturally falls on her reluctant hero, with his buddies in tow will he be able to trace the real killer before the bulls take him down? The GI’s float through the film like rootless wraiths but its light touch noir again, the culprit isn’t difficult to guess and despite the noir trappings no real nest of malice is weaved, although the film does have a great line which I’m going to try in the next bar I frequent – ‘I’ll have a bourbon back, with a bourbon chaser’…..
Since you asked my favourites apart from Double Indemnity and Out of The Past are Scarlet Street, The Lady From Shanghai, The Third Man, The Killing, On Dangerous Ground, The Big Heat, Detour, Stray Dog, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Odd Man Out, The Spiral Staircase and Secret Beyond The Door and of course Sunset Boulevard, then when we get into the second phase of neo-noirs there are the obvious candidates – Blade Runner, Point Blank, Chinatown, Body Heat (which I revisited last year and it really stands up well), Brick, House Of Games, The Last Seduction, Thief, Klute, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, The Long Goodbye, The Grifters, LA Confidential, almost anything by David Lynch circa 1986 onward, and well, I’ll just stop there – it’s time to finally play catch up with some more recent releases.
Well goddamn it, that’s a shock. I think I knew in the back of mind that one of the Beasties had cancer, not being their biggest fan I can’t say it merited more than a passing ‘oh, that’s a shame’, but this sudden news is still a little shocking. Obligitory obvious music links to follow;
I saw them live by accident just over a decade ago – a free spare ticket was going when I was working in Manchester – and I have to say they were pretty damn good, I’m not the worlds biggest hip-hop fan but they got me up and dancing along with the rest of the crowd with what were already iconic tracks;
They certainly managed to commission and craft some superb music videos, you’ve gotta give ’em that, right? And finally of course the obvious but as a kid I and my mates did love this track, and yes I may have even exceeded the bounds of legality with the whole acquisition of neckwear which makes me cringe with embarrassment now, by all accounts Adam and his buddies were and are talented, down to earth, generous and creative dudes, someone really needs to take charge of the whole fucking ‘obliterating cancer from human history’ programme pretty damn sharp;
‘maybe a suicide…..I dunno….’;
Happy Bank Holiday weekend y’all…..
Inspired by my impending Philip Glass assault I’ve been revisiting some recent muzak documentaries, here are a couple of the better ones of recent vintage;
This was pretty much one of the soundtracks to my mis-spent youth, before I left home when this sort of plinky, beepy nonsense kicked in when I was supposed to be studying for a future career;
And now I spend a small fortune going to the bloody opera – who’d have thought? Well, there is a thread of timbre, tone and repetitive arrangements which has always appealed to my musical palette, even without the assitance of mind bending narcotics. Regular readers will be happy to learn I’ll be back on the cinema front very soon, I’ve got a couple of visits planned just as soon as I’m a little more comfortable staggering around in my newly acquired moon-boot, and closer at hand I have a cunning plan to visit a certain cabin in the woods…..
After that Attack Of The Clones post I’d best reassert my cultural credentials with details of my first gig of the year, just to prove I’m not a complete and utter philistine I’m looking forward to this in a week and a bit;
Seriously though, I’m really looking forward to this. Then again, any excuse to get out of the house is positively electrifying these days. Here’s some excerpts of what’s in store;
And I’m just posting this because I can, it’s the piece of music that got me ‘into’ Glass beyond the movie soundtracks, it’s simply phenomenal;
I’ve just read that he’s scoring Park Chan-wook’s first American film Stoker, so that’s a good start.
And lo, on the 1st of May, the prescribed date of the global Occupy day of passive resistance, the new Dark Knight trailer was revealed to the universe. Coincidence? I think not;
I’m literally out the door to visit our glorious NHS and have this pesky cast removed so I’ll just say this – it doesn’t show a huge amount (which is a good thing), thank god they’ve cleaned up Bane’s mffighling, and I’m finally sold on the whole Catwoman thing and am intrigued to see how she slots into the enterprise – and boy did that ‘this isn’t a car’ quip elicit a laugh. This is gonna be a fucking great summer…..