A rare musical interlude, as I have secured a lucrative new contract in deepest darkest Lambeth I went celebratory clubbing last night for the first time in a very long time, and saw the titan of electronica Andrew Weatherall at the Xoyo club – it was quite an experience;
I haven’t danced like that for many a moon, the club had a great atmosphere, and bizarrely I don’t even have a hangover today – that four hours of throwing shapes must have sweated the impurities out I guess. Just to confirm the rumors yes he has lost his epic beard, and for some real old school nostalgia here is his classic Essential Mix from the last century;
Serendipitous timing as always, as we head into my birthday weekend a lovely compendium of rarities of one of the greatest films of all time washes up at the Menagerie shore;
So, things should be a little quiet for a few days as one celebrates one’s irreversible slow creep toward oblivion, we will have a Man Of Steel and a John Carpenter movie review published early next week – everyone seems to be refering to the former as ‘The Clark Knight’ which has been making me chuckle. Now, as it’s my birthday and some of you have been reading my portentous opinions for free over the past few years, may I humbly suggest you contribute just a little to the drive for my Canadian colleagues to appropriately cover the Toronto International Film Festival this year? I’m flying out there under my own steam so its nothing to do with me, but this does help the site purchase film tickets (which creep as high as $50 a pop) to distribute amongst it’s staff, a lifeline which helps the site keep going for another year. So don’t be a fucking cheapskate, just a fiver would help here……
My first and probably only music gig of the year this week, the almighty Depeche Mode at my local Greenwich squatting venue. The Basildon bred boys are on the road to promote their latest album Delta Machine, the closest they’ve come to my mind in equalling their two most prosperous albums Violator and Songs Of Faith & Devotion a mere twenty years and change ago, to be charitable their output has been somewhat erratic ever since musical bulwark Alan Wilder fled the scene after the obliterating Devotional tour which left one of them in a loony bin, and the other two of them in rehab – you can take the boys out of Essex etc. So as I’m sure I’ve previously mentioned I’ve seen them on tour every time since 1990 (apart from the greatest hits tour which doesn’t count – I was on holiday OK?) and this was one of their strongest performances in line with one of their strongest albums of the past two decades, so here’s a few selected highlights of the night;
One of my favourite post 1990 tracks there, and the first time they’ve played in live in quite a while. Similarly for the first time in a very long time I actually quite enjoyed the new album tracks, the openjng chords of ‘new stuff’ usually signal a run for the bar to replenish dwindling alcohol stocks, but they worked this time around and actually filled the space, with this little bruiser being quite effective in getting the crowd going after the mid-set ‘slow’ track Martin Gore section – although he did serenade us with a terrific stripped down version of Higher Love.
I’m guessing most people don’t pick up on these things and pay attention to parochial things such as the music and performance (I’m joking) but as always the visual design of the tour is fantastic, something that the band is renowned for pioneering with their groundbreaking early world tours, with a through line in triangular graphic design which runs through the lighting patterns, screen projections, set design and marketing compositions of sleeve design, posters, t-shirts and other merchandise – although what really got the crowd roaring was of course the music, specifically some of the older stuff;
I do like the O2 as a venue, all too often with stadium gigs the tension of the music can get lost in the cavernous space (Earls Court anyone?), Dave Gahan’s tumultous vocals were clear and powerful, and they were smart enough close the main set with arguably their two best known singles Personal Jesus and Enjoy The Silence, possibly the best version of the latter I’ve ever seen them perform;
OK, I’m starting some (forgive me) ‘Blasphemnous rumors’ here as they actually finished the main set with this which is a new one and it was alright, I’d have preferred something a little more upbeat but here we are. Overall the set list was solid, although I’d have preferred some substitutions you can’t have everything, and even the presence of one of their very early bubble gum pop didn’t quite elicit the groans it normally does – although I do wish they’d look into reviving more of their 1984 – 1986 material for future shows. Good interview here, gig review here, but let’s finish predictably with one of the all time greatest audience participation tracks – yup you guessed it they finished on the obvious;
Given this perpetual winter weather, a persistent mild cold which refuses to be cured and continual economic trembling I reckon I’m due for a laugh, and numerous laughs I got from Louis CK who made his first UK stage appearance in six years at the o2 venue last night. Outside of hardcore comedy aficionado circles he’s perhaps not as well-known here as he is in the States, across the pond he’s something of firmament of the comedy culture and his recent series Louis – now onto its third season – has been securing howling praise across the board, a series which has proved impossible to legally source in the UK until Season 1 began broadcasting on some satellite channel earlier in the year. Other than a few scattered random clips I haven’t watch a single stand alone episode yet, I much prefer waiting for boxed sets to become available and then voraciously devour them in a weekend or staggered over the course of a week (Just mainlined Season 2 of Game Of Thrones, better than the first I thought and great fun) here’s a good example which like the rest of his material is very NSFW;
I’m not sure the gargantuan venue of the o2 was best suited to his brand of slightly confessional, vaguely dirty, mirthfully risqué material, but once he got into his stride he won the 12,000 of us over with particular highlights being the exquisite, ‘c’est magnifique’ status of freshly born ‘straight out of the pussy’ tuna for sharks spinning out from how lucky we are as a species to have evolved beyond the food chain, the usual subjects of sex and dating during middle age, how terrific post divorce life can be, and he even managed to be genuinely insightful and hilarious about one of the most tediously obvious subjects of current debate – social media, the technology and communications revolution and how that is fucking transforming our behaviour and relationships. Now I’m betting my chin-stroking analysis is just lubing up your funny bones isn’t it?;
I like him ‘cause he isn’t just occasionally ‘offensive’ by common cultural standards for the sake of being controversial, it’s clearly in service of making you look at the world and certain issues and aspects of life from a different perspective , the fact that he’s a well honed stage presence, has terrific timing and is a calm improviser doesn’t exactly hurt either. Like any good comedian he left the strongest material for last, fans will be aware of his excellent ‘of course…but maybe’ set closer, if you’re easily offended then it’s probably best to give this strand of his material a miss;
This was the first stand-up show I’ve seen since Doug Stanhope about three years ago, given that I’m remotely fascinated with the stand-up comedy world and the types of people it attracts – I’m a voracious listener to the WTF podcast after Reginald D. Hunter mentioned it in some interview – I really should try harder on the comedy front, I mean jeez, I’ve never even set foot inside the famous Comedy Store after twelve years of London living. Finally, just a very quick RIP to British horror maestro James Herbert. Like any spooky kid the ancient triumvirate of Herbert, Stephen King and Dean Koontz pretty much encapsulated my first graduation to ‘adult’ literature at the age when any young weirdo was graduating from YA material, inquisitively encountering an exciting secret world of gruesome violence and eye-opening sex scenes, particularly in the case of Herbert with some scenes from The Fog warping my adolescent brain. It’s been amusing reading similar reminiscences of my peers across the internet, I’m glad I’m not the only one who has scenes indelibly etched in my mind, and yes one can only hope that the residents of Bournemouth don’t decide en masse to walk into the sea nor the priest administrating his funeral decide to amusingly re-enact that scene from the book. In terms of the movies yes he was adapted a few times but without anything of real merit being summoned, although I was surprised to see that an adaptation of perhaps his best known book The Rats finally got made, or more specifically not that a film had been made but that I’ve never seen or heard of it before this week’s sad news – I don’t think I’ve missed much;
Interesting timing to stumble across a few shiny new things. Well, one of the Menagerie’s Melbourne correspondents is in the UK and we caught up over a few beers on Friday, in fact we caught up to the point that I spent all of Saturday in recovery mode. I did however manage to catch a movie today which was a bit of a disappointment, not that I had huge expectations or anything but it was a very pedestrian affair, more on that later next week. In the meanwhile this pleasant slice of retro goodness surfaced on my twitter feed, and here’s the new teaser for Sofia Coppola’s next movie – it doesn’t look to me like she’s moving very far away from her interest in the beautiful people;
That Gondry videoshop link brings back some fond memories of old jobs stacking shelves and serving idiot customers, my career was a lot easier back then when yelling at people didn’t result in reports to HR for ‘interpersonal training’ and ‘behaviour realignment’ – fucking Philistines eh? As if early Peckinpah wasn’t appropriate material for a 12 year olds birthday celebration, I mean I was watching the likes of this at that age and I turned out OK (twitches)….right? Finally, as a little tribute it’s amazing how alcohol can loosen the tongue, who’d have thought that this classic scene would be our Melbourne based colleague’s favourite sequence in cinema history;
I was never a massive fan back in the day but understood the incendiary importance, I have seen them live during that strange reunion which was quite the sonic experience, so I’ll join the electronic choir and admit this is an amusing meander down memory lane;
Nevertheless this whole enterprise strikes me as nostalgia porn which my generation is as afflicted with as much as the last two or three cultural displacements, please enjoy this distraction as our glorious leader launches a new generation of combat in North Africa. Fuck it, I might have been reading too many political sites this week, this track is immortal though;
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;
Forgive me for posting a personal moment or two, away from the usual film stuff. My friends know me all too well, it’s my birthday today and I’ve been blessed (+1) with a DVD rip of the second season of this;
…..combined with a magnificent aquistion of this;
….alongside the critical escapades of my favourite group;
Ah, sweet nostaglia. I may very well regret this post in hours to come, but Byrne’s run on FF was classic, no?
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;
Do you spend your life getting into, or avoiding tense situations? If you’re of the latter persuasion then get the fuck out of here you goddamn hippy square, we’re here to talk about Repo Man, one of the more genuinely niche cult movies of the irremediable eighties, the spiky debut of British born director Alex Cox whose patchy career has never equalled the delirious highs of this original, delinquent drive. I use the phrase ‘cult’ movie advisedly; it’s a notoriously slippery and elusive phrase that requires some clarification in this context, given its wide net of interpretations and assignations it is sometimes deployed lazily by commentators and critics like yours truly, so bear with me while I briefly accelerate down this tangent. The moniker ‘cult’ denotes a slavishly devoted and committed fan-base, passionate fans who devour every morsel of information on a favourite film’s production, who obsessively hunt down alternate versions of the film across numerous territories, habitué’s who can parrot details of the film’s production designer, gaffer or location manager, and more often than not also regale their terrified audiences with a half-dozen other releases that such crew worked on, or interject fascinating information on the numerous movie posters they have and the specific track listing on the Dutch soundtrack import they recently acquired which has a slightly extended version of track seven which is not available on the original Hong Kong imprint. OK, I exaggerate slightly but under that broad definition Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings could all be termed as cult movies given their notoriously obsessed acolytes, despite these being the most successful films ever made which are household names, what I’m driving it are films off the beaten track, films with unique and unusual ingredients that appeal to specific fans for specific reasons, I’m talking Detour or Turkey Shoot, Matango or Night of The Hunter, Fear & Desire or The Day The Clown Cried, oddball, offbeat and obscured episodes of cinema that don’t exactly end up on a Sunday afternoon terrestrial television but movies when dropped into casual conversation will immediately give you a signal as to the relative discerning merits of your companion – I don’t think I could dislike anyone who enjoyed The Keep for example. This is a very long, circuitous journey of coming to probably the most ‘cult’ of my favourite movies (although on reflection Assault On Precinct 13 probably flags a close second), a movie which has finally bagged a long awaited Blu-Ray release under the highly regarded Masters Of Cinema home entertainment imprint, so let’s begin with those scorching, shrieking titles;
In cinemas finest example of a Sci-Fi inflected, nuclear nightmared, LA centred, punk-surf-comedy-romance Repo Man features the adventures of Otto (Emilio Estevez), a disenfranchised and disaffected teenager who quits his soul crushing retail job in a pique of existential ennui, before being hoodwinked by the grizzled Bud (Harry Dean Stanton in iconic cult movie gear) into stealing a car under the illusion that it’s his property and he needs to get it out of a bad neighbourhood. Yup, Otto has suffered his first introduction to the inalienable laws of supply and demand, and soon he is indoctrinated into the seductive, dangerous yet lucrative world of the Repo Men, those crazy, independent souls who live by their own twisted brand of ethics in pursuit of the reclamation of vehicles from recalcitrant clients, a motley crue of reprobates who operate on the fringes of the law in a sweltering, Reganite Los Angeles which is ‘Morning in America’ with a pulverizing hangover and amphetamine fuelled comedown. When a ’64 Chevy Malibu hits the news with a juicy $25K bounty Otto’s colleagues and their vicious opponents the Rodriquez brothers are soon on the case, little do they realise that the (literally) radioactively hot vehicle has been sequestered by the insane nuclear scientist J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris, evidently Dennis Hooper was too expensive) who is transporting a lethal top-secret cargo, as the Feds and a miasma of different groups close-in on their quarry Otto may have a few lessons to learn from some unlikely auxiliaries;
It’s difficult for me to be neutral when commenting on this jalopy as it was and remains one of my all time favourite vehicles, not because of its innate technical qualities or daring narrative functions, not because of its groundbreaking characterisations or genre bruising dexterity, it’s just the fact that I grew up with my best friends quoting the dialogue, digging on the soundtrack and most importantly appreciating the films irrelevant ethos, it still has a genuine, irrepressible spraycoat of authenticity that half the contemporary Sundance or other US independent movies lack, a throbbing purity under the hood which delivers misappropriated mirth, automatic amusement and some slight political commentary in a final, glowing aperitif. Cox managed to catch lightning in a bottle with this one, from Robby Müller’s terrific photography (he of course went on to illuminate the films of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch with such brilliant passion), from the soundtrack which is a sampler snapshot of the alternate music scene of the time, and most importantly a genuine sense of place and time both politically and culturally, if you recall this was the year that disembodied spirits were being hilariously tracked through the big apple and incompetent crew of buffoonish civilians were being training for law enforcement, so its nice to remember that there was some more credible, unusual, leftfield material on display.
A great cult movie usually makes up for areas it can’t possibility compete in – expensive production values, starry casts, technical elán – with those elements which cost nothing, chiefly great characters, salient dialogue, and if they’re particularly daring some ingenious, experimental use of locations and locales. Repo Man hits all three of the targets with unnerving accuracy, from the collection of junkyard oddballs that comprise Otto’s new crew (its taken me 25 years to finally realise that they are all named after American brands of beer), some convivial repartee (‘Nice friends Otto….’ ‘Thanks, I made them myself’) and memorable utilisation of both the Los Angeles storm drain infrastructure and my beloved Second Street Tunnel which crops up in numerous movies of note. The chaotic plot has links to UFO cults, incompetent government goons and brainwashed baby boomers, it’s very much a product of its era which still resonates today, and Cox’s subsequent attempts to weld together his Bunuelian flashes of surreal inspiration (plate of shrimp anyone?) with his anti-corporate manifesto haven’t achieved such giddy heights, from the product labeling prefiguring Naomi Klein by fifteen years to the dense plethora of cultural in-jokes populated throughout the movies mise-en-scene. You only need to look at a movie like Southland Tales to see how difficult it is to achieve such a tricky, accidental balance of entertaining exegesis, I’m also fond of the end titles inversion which has birthed its own mini movie genre,Repo Man would be ideally placed as the middle installment of a cult movie triple bill prologued with Buckaroo Banzai for a vision of what other neon oddness was on offer in 1984 followed with Dr. Strangelove for a subsequent dose of devastatingly radioactive humor, here is the genius ‘repo code’ which was partially concocted by the legendary Harry Dean Stanton in his most memorable of performances;
This Masters Of Cinema Blu-Ray imprint of the film is as handsome a hardtop of the movie as you could expect, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and 5.1 sound remix it holds enough horsepower to leave memories of those crushed small screen BBC2 viewings that I’m sure some of you joined me in back in the eighties and nineties coughing in the dust. There are plenty of extras for the aficionados to pilfer, as well as a deleted scenes montage with explanatory linking footage recently shoot by Cox we get a brief introduction that sets the context for the film, paying particular attention to how parent distributor Universal wanted to bury the film as potential subversive propaganda until the pre-release soundtrack started to get attention in the alternative music sub-culture network, with incremental word of mouth starting to build a modicum of buzz. A reminiscence themed documentary with producers Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, and actors Del Zamora, Sy Richardson and Dick Rude are complemented with a feature commentary with Cox and the crew, I haven’t listened to that yet but I’m sure it will have a few amusing nuggets and insights for all the movies disciples who are literally ‘out there’. The prized steal however is a unique copy of the notorious ‘melonfarmer’ TV cut of the film which is a rare treat given its incorporation of alternate footage and hilarious swear word substitutions, an exclusive treasure alongside a hilarious half hour discussion with Harry Dean Stanton in which he is revealed as the cantankerous, difficult, prickly shaman that we all suspected him to be, at one pontificating that ‘Iraq, Napoleon, serial killers, everything is predestined man, nobody’s in charge and it’s all gonna go down the way it’s gonna go down’ – so take the man’s advice, submit to the irrepressible mysteries of our alchemist universe, and hot wire a copy of this cult classic as soon as possible;