Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Aurum Sci-Fi Quest

The side-street shops of London can herald some pleasant surprises, especially for cinephiles, and last week I chanced upon the Aurum Science Fiction Encyclopedia - a comprehensive guide to sci-fi cinema from 1895 to 1983; a real treasure. I've been powering through the book this weekend and realized just how many sci-fi films I haven't seen; whether they be established classics or obscurities not even on video. So I've decided, alongside VHS Quest and Cinema Strange (which, yes, I know I'm behind on), to review some of the more interesting titles from the encyclopedia for your reading pleasure. Below is a preliminary collection of titles due for immediate review; you can expect these within the next couple of months, and the first one will be up tomorrow. Some films are discoveries of my own, not present in the encyclopedia, and they will be highlighted in bold. Sometimes The Aurum Quest will cross over with VHS/Strange, notably with the upcoming review of Le voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902). So, check out the list below, and I'll see you in the not-too-distant future...

Voyage à Travers l'Impossible (Georges Méliès, 1904)
Paris qui dort (René Claire, 1925)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Frau Im Mond (Fritz Lang, 1929)
Things To Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936)
Destination Moon (Irving Pichel, 1950)
When Worlds Collide (Rudolph Maté, 1951)
Invaders From Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953)
THEM! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)
The Quatermass Xperiment (Val Guest, 1955)
This Island Earth (Joseph M. Newman, 1955)
The Mind Benders (Basil Dearden, 1963)
Robinson Crusoe On Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964)
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966)
Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
The President's Analyst (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967)
Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
Marooned (John Sturgess, 1969)
Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971)
THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)
Slaughterhouse-Five (George Roy Hill, 1971)
Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)
Coma (Michael Crichton, 1978)
The Dead Mountaineer Hotel (Grigori Kromanov, 1979)
Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981)
Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983)

Monday, 30 May 2011

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Maniac (Dwain Esper, 1934) DVD Review

It's contagious... madness reigns in Dwain Esper's deliriously entertaining Maniac (1934)

The 1930's exploitation market is still a treasure trove of undiscovered gems, and best of the bunch is this delirious horror from Dwain Esper, the director/producer most famous for redistributing Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) to the 70's grindhouse crowd under the shameless title of Nature's Mistakes. Esper was always one for boundary pushing and deserves much more credit that he currently receives, both as a promoter of bad taste and a semi-surrealist with touches of Lynch to his tales, 43 years before Lynch's seminal Eraserhead (1977) forever redefined our understanding of surrealism. After all, there's even a scene in Maniac where a creepy suburban neighbor discusses the business of rats eating cats and vice versa, for the profit of their fur. It could be a deleted scene from Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1984).

Maniac tells the Lovecraftian tale of an ex-vaudeville actor who, after killing a mad scientist obsessed with reanimating dead corpses, assumes the position of his old mentor and falls deeper into a pit of psychological dementia. So yeah, it's an interesting precursor to Re-Animator, properly adapted in 1985 by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, but in many ways this film is just as macabre, deranged and shocking as that hilarious splatter classic. For example, a scene where Maxwell (William Woods) throttles a cat, squeezing its head until its eyeball shoots out - not exactly what you expect to find in 30's cinema, is it? Nor do you expect to find intense portrayals of insanity and unashamed female nudity (there are two shots of exposed breasts in the film; wholly and unnecessarily exploitative), yet here they both are...

I certainly can't vouch for Maniac as some kind of forgotten masterpiece; the acting is woefully bad, with Horace Carpenter (as the mad Dr. Meirschultz) slurring between seemingly French and Irish accents, always shouting and with odd, sub-Christopher Walken pauses between his words. It's a completely OTT performance which at one point declares; "Once a ham, always a ham!" Indeed, Mr. Carpenter. But honestly the actors are not served well by the screenplay. One scene finds a high-pitched woman spring into action after talk of the national press; "Press? That reminds me, I have pressing business!" It would be embarrassing if it weren't so funny, but these scenes only make Esper's 50-minute spectacular all the more entertaining.

There are some really strange moments in the film, most notably concerning the symbolism that goes along with Maxwell's psychosis; Faustian hallucinations of clawed fingers, rising mist, devilish figures and fire-breathing dragons. It's really peculiar, but certainly interesting - and the effects are extremely impressive for the time. I have to praise the makeup effects too - Maxwell's transition to becoming Dr. Meirschultz is brilliantly handled and quite believable. Maniac's tale about the dangers of science may be underdeveloped but it's fascinating to see a Re-Animator style story in Pre-Code Hollywood, packed with screamingly mad performances, violence and nudity, some alarmingly shoddy dialogue and acting which would make Tommy Wiseau blush. Trust me: masterpiece or no masterpiece, you have to see Maniac... you just have to!

The Disc/Extras
For an Elstree Hill release the picture is actually pretty good here; nothing great, but certainly worth the £3.99 asking price at HMV; mere pennies for such an important slice of cinema history. What's really saddening is the lack of extras, for there's nothing on display... not even some notes, or the original trailer.

Love Like Poison (Katell Quillévéré, 2010) Review

Religion plays a big part in Anna's coming-of-age in Love Like Poison (2010)

Katell Quillévéré claims to have been inspired by the Serge Gainsbourg song Un poison violent for her debut feature, and an early lyric offers the perfect rhythm for a coming-of-age story; "an alternating movement from appetite to disgust and disgust to appetite, from appetite to disgust and disgust to appetite." The poison spoken of by Gainsbourg, and in turn by Quillévéré, is perhaps temptation, or love itself. Anna (Clara Augarde) is 14 and at the dawn of her sexual awakening. An early scene sees her talking with an older friend named Sabine (Margaux Louineau) who is going away for the summer and meeting a "hot" 19-year-old boy. She smokes, dresses skimpily and is clearly more advanced than Anna, if noticeably less mature. It's never explicitly stated but I gathered from this scene that Sabine plans to lose her virginity to this boy, and her sexual confidence inadvertently places pressure on Anna, a plainer yet prettier girl, who is struggling with the concept of love in the absence of her father. But Anna is certainly aware of boys; attraction is proposed in the very first scene when she swaps a glance with Pierre (Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil) during a Church service.

Quillévéré has acknowledged the influence of French auteur Maurice Pialat, especially his 1983 masterpiece À nos amours - not only in the stunning physical resemblance between Augarde and the young Sandrine Bonnaire, but also in details of the plot. Suzanne (Bonnaire) was already sexually active in Pialat's film, hopping from boy to boy in search of emotional fulfillment but falling deeper into carnal emptiness, yet her home life shares many similarities with Anna's - notably in the mother (religious) and father (atheist) who are separated and hold repressed resentment for the other, always fighting in each others company. The naturalism of Pialat is also present in this film, yet Quillévéré lends her story its own distinct quietness and sense of emotional space. The photography, by DP Tom Harari, is beautiful, but it never announces itself as such or overpowers the characters. My favorite scene saw Anna walking with the village Priest Father François (Stefano Cassetti) across a hilly green landscape, engaging in realistic conversation about her internal confusion. The mise-en-scène is simple but incredibly evocative. It takes skill to create intimacy in such wide spaces and hone in on the individual emotions of the characters, but Quillévéré manages the task like a pro.

What also impressed me was Quillévéré's dedication to each character. Many coming-of-age stories focus solely on the awakening protagonist, but Love Like Poison also spends considerable time with Father François, Pierre and grandfather Jean (Michel Galabru), who is sadly less developed but no less memorable. Pierre and Anna's relationship is drawn with flowering innocence - he wants to kiss her but at first is too forceful, inconsiderate of her delicacy. Later he gives her room to feel confident and relaxed, learning from his mistakes, and she makes the first move. "Take this off" she orders, pointing at his shirt with a stick. He does so, and asks that she do the same. She unbuttons her blouse and they kiss again. A few days later he plays her a song on his guitar. They kiss. She feels comfortable with her own form around Pierre, but less so at home - one creepily striking scene sees her presenting her crotch to grandfather Jean, who is dying and wishes once again to see the place he came from (Anna, in her naivety, first thinks he means the town where he was born). Father François is clearly struggling with a crisis of faith and in the most powerful scene breaks down on his bed, crying during prayer. The camera simply observes as he weeps into his hands; vulnerability is rarely evoked with such honesty.

But the real reason to see the film, which also contains a beautifully choral soundtrack, is Augarde's stunning lead performance, which is understated, thoughtful and naked - sometimes literally. It's a brave turn which will surely be remembered as one of the best debuts of all time, such is the control with which she unfolds Anna's sexual awakening. Her performance largely exists behind rounded, soulful eyes, which Quillévéré trains her camera on, aware of the intense emotion they hold. The film ends on a simple smile, to Scala & Kolacny Brothers' cover of Radiohead's Creep. The simple piano melody plays over her face as the screen fades to black and the song suddenly makes a different kind of sense. That's a rare feat to pull off too, and another reason to see Love Like Poison, a powerful and personal work from an interesting filmmaker who will surely emerge onto the world stage in a big way during the next decade...

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Silent World (Jacques Cousteau, Louis Malle, 1956) Blu-Ray Review

A visionary undersea adventure unfolds in Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World (1956)

55 years on from its original release and Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World feels just as futuristic and revolutionary as it did back in 1956, when it was awarded the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Co-directed by Louis Malle, two years before he kick-started the nouvelle vague with Elevator To The Gallows (1958), the film frequently feels like an alien voyage, recalling classic science-fiction - indeed, the spiky invertebrate species who inhabit sunken vessels could have come from the pages of Jules Verne. I often wonder why we invest so much time and money in trying to reach the far expanses of outer space when there are still so many life forms left undiscovered in the depths of our oceans. Cousteau seems to agree with me and he pioneered groundbreaking underwater technology in order to make The Silent World possible.

For those unacquainted, Cousteau was a French explorer, ecologist, scientist and researcher. After an automobile accident cut his career as a gunnery officer in the École Navale short he turned his attentions to documentary filmmaking. He also served as the primary influence on Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004; still underrated). But the innovator never left his Navy spirit behind, remaining an intrepid adventurer at heart; like the Indiana Jones of the high seas, on a permanent quest for knowledge and treasures. His prize is a connection with nature, which he explores from the ship Calypso - on the surface a standard vessel, but inside packed with complex technology that allows the crew to read their surroundings and observe the patterns of its life forms. The most interesting sections of the film centre around this technology and the home on the sea Cousteau has created for his crew.

The underwater sequences are visually breathtaking but the film isn't without flaws. Perhaps the main problem is the fact that information can sometimes get lost at the expense of Cousteau's imagination; some scenes feel a little recreated, for example, as if to highlight rather than observe the day-to-day happenings of the crew. I feel like Cousteau should be a subject or spectator rather than director, but the character he has built for himself takes centre stage. On a vessel the size of Calypso the camera can only move so quickly and take in so much - it's sad that some set-pieces feel compromised in this way. The ability to retake can damage the form of documentary and that's sadly true here. But now I must be a hypocrite, for the most thrilling scene in The Silent World is one which we would ordinarily associate with fiction; a shark attack on the carcass of a baby whale. A small team of divers lower themselves into the water using the shark cage to get an angle on the action for a genuinely gripping set-piece which uses editing to its advantage, to create pace and excitement. But I think the reason it feels so special is because a scene of that magnitude could not possibly be faked; it's a work of imagination done for real. I guess it's just a shame that I don't know how much of the film I can trust.

I'll still recommend The Silent World though; it's a visionary and ahead-of-its time experience led by a charismatic filmmaker who, despite my suspicions of authenticity, helped advance the form of documentary. The camerawork is brilliant, the Technicolour striking and the set-pieces exciting. I have big problems with this film but I can't deny its power and the grip it held over me. Regardless of whether or not some scenes are being acted out it's still a hugely important work, and you simply must own it on Blu-Ray.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Alice (Jan Švankmajer, 1988) Blu-Ray Review

Lewis Carroll's text gets a surreally grotesque makeover in Švankmajer's classic Alice (1988)

There have been so many adaptations of Lewis Carroll's classic 1865 novel Alice's Adventures In Wonderland that it's now hard knowing where to start. Disney have attempted it twice, with their latest re-imagination of the text being helmed by Tim Burton (2010), who grossly misused the platform to showcase his brand of deformed gardens and retrofitted 3D tomfoolery. But the definitive screen Alice belongs not in adaptation but interpretation; from the language of Surrealism and dream-weaving. Czech auteur Jan Švankmajer is a leader of experimental cinema (Buñuel also casts his eccentric shadow over this tale, especially in the sock-puppet caterpillar scene) and as such Carroll's story finds its own cinematic identity. In fact, Alice has more in common with that other Czech masterwork about female identity in a land of perilous fantasy; Jaromil Jires' Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders (1970). Švankmajer's tale is vitally not about sexuality though; more growing pains and the exasperating complexity of adolescence, both physical and psychological. Think of the way Alice keeps resizing for example; shrinking and sprouting like a youthful flower, confused in her own skin. That's why the classic Bible verse, Corinthians 13 (For now we see through a glass, darkly), hangs somewhat visibly over the story, no doubt directly influencing the title of Carroll's 1971 sequel, Through The Looking Glass.

Švankmajer has stated that children are "better understood by paedophiliacs than by paedogogues" and that he's interested not in psychoanalytical categorization but rather a direct "dialogue" with his own childhood; "all its particular obsessions and anxieties." Certainly, despite its advanced artistry, Alice feels like the work of a man who has not left childhood behind, but rather retained, or perhaps even found its true spirit in later life. He has carefully selected ideas and characters from Carroll's text (noticeably absent is The Mock Turtle and Cheshire Cat) and formed his own narrative; like rearranging the intended image of a jigsaw to make an abstract artwork devised but not wholly recreated from the existing pieces, designed to interlock in a much more specific fashion. Without compromising the artwork of Sir John Tenniel (who is frequently a reference point) Švankmajer has crafted something completely unique; something which is magical yet spiked with an uncompromisingly nightmarish visual code - check out the pots of jam laced with pins, for example, or the lip-smacking croissant which deliriously protrudes nails upon Alice's touch. The "alarmingly magnified" (Claire Kitson) sound design helps too, and along with the photography lends the story a purely visceral quality which simply can't be achieved by novelization.

The tone is established during the first trip around Alice's room. Creepy porcelain dolls and discarded teddies populate the dulled chamber; messy and cluttered, it also exhibits a white rabbit. He is not alive, skipping around a hutch in search of leftover carrot. Rather he seems to have been purchased from a taxidermist; motionless and cold, he is an eerie presence. The sequence where he comes back to life is strange to say the least. He rises from his pinned position (removing the nails from his paws with comically enlarged front teeth) and recovers a rather polished waistcoat from a secret hideaway in the glass case. He runs into the middle of a ploughing field to find, obscurely, an aged wooden desk, of the variety which you would find in a classroom. He hops inside and disappears. Alice chases him into the otherworld and throughout its corridors and chambers; most notably in the first shrinking scene where the room becomes flooded and a rat attempts to cook its broth upon her head. It's a bizarre moment, as is the brief scene of slithering red meat and the shelves of assorted skulls on an elevator descent, but they all create an unforgettable universe and confirm Švankmajer as a boldly individual talent.

My favorite scene is the house siege where Alice, innocently under the guise of a doll named Mary Ann, enters the White Rabbit's building-block establishment to recover a pair of scissors. Inside she grows back to normal size and, fearing for her safety, barricades the door. The Rabbit attempts to force his way in, eventually calling upon a nightmarish skeletal army, even including a winged bed, to drive her out. It's an exciting and freakish set-piece, and one of many which takes Carroll's story to bold new horizons. Whether our protagonist be floating down a beautiful stream or battling her own socks (no, I'm not kidding) Alice is always a film of wondrously grotesque imagery and compelling ideas; especially when the final scenes take on a scholarly mould, with the Queen's court operating like a classroom. Here Alice finds the ability to question and challenge authority, not wishing to condemn herself by a pre-written text. This is one of the only times that actress Kristýna Kohoutová engages in dialogue (her lips are focused on during narration) and she proves to be a very capable actress. But really it's her silence which proves effective; the language that kids speak with their eyes... not just a window to the soul, but also the imagination. Švankmajer's masterpiece has that in spades.

The Disc/Extras
This may be the best Blu-Ray transfer I've seen to date; the colour is dreamily absorbing and the detail of the environments, courtesy of art directors Jirí Bláha and Eva Svankmajerová, is astonishing - the early shots of Alice's room capture so much life, and the perilous wonderland she enters has specimen pots, peeling wallpaper, cabbage patches and sawdust-strewn floors which feel so authentic that you just want to reach out and touch them. The animation is brilliantly complemented by this transfer, as is the lighting, so you owe yourself a purchase even on a visual level. The BFI have done full justice to this now uncut classic, and truly set the restoration benchmark. The extras are hugely impressive too, as per usual led by an accompanying booklet, this time a 32-page collection of essays, reviews, profiles and an interview; all contextually fascinating and always flagging up new images to look for within the film. But best of all are a series of shorts, reviewed individually below...

Alice In Wonderland (Cecil M. Hepworth, Percy Stow, 1903)
British producer/director Cecil Hepworth was one of the leading pioneers of the early film age and Alice In Wonderland (pictured above) - although severely dated and in bad condition - showcases many of his ambitions and talents. Scenes of in-camera innovation are marred by period restrictions; for example, the appearance of the Cheshire Cat in a floating bubble impresses, but the fact that contained inside said bubble is an obviously bored household kitty lends the film an unintentional humour. The same goes for Hepworth himself who looks decidedly silly dressed as a giant frog in the opening scene. But those were the restrictions of the time and we shouldn't criticize the film too heavily in this regard. For Alice In Wonderland is also an essential cinematic document; originally running at 12 minutes, it was the longest film yet devised in Britain. The film is ambitious in its set/costume design too, with dozens of extras outfitted in playing card costumes filling the screen for the finale and the exteriors - especially the location of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party - complement Carroll's text perfectly. Most impressive of all are the techniques employed for Alice's famous resizing; as she shrinks and sprouts the camera remains focused and the (effective) special effects appear seamless. A flawed piece of work, but bold and indispensable nonetheless.

Elise And The Brown Bunny (London Press Exchange, 1921)
Carroll's classic fantasy proved an effective selling tool for Cadbury's in the 1920's, but this short film showcases yet another dodgy giant bunny (the one here is especially creepy when leading a little girl into the woods) and the advertising can feel a little heavy-handed, especially in the lingering last shot of a chocolate box. But this 8-minute commercial is actually more effective at selling Cadbury's as an advanced and accommodating working environment, highlighting the fact that they were a major employer of women. It's obviously dated, although cutely so, and provides another interesting document.

Alice In Label Land (Richard Taylor, 1974)
Essentially a government short about the correct labeling of food products, this odd little informational film is by turns surreal, comic and condescending; although period context is vital. Carroll's tale provides the perfect framework for this COI (Central Office of Information) film and the animation is actually pretty good - especially in the sequence of Alice falling down the rabbit hole and facing supermarket shelves of endless wonders. The film is obviously educational and therefore Alice spends much of the second half telling us where to look for labels on packaging and how much information the buyer should be properly provided with, but it's all done in a rather fun and colourful way, providing a cheerfully odd time capsule complete with a very 70's riff on the accompanying soundtrack.

Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (Quay Brothers, 1992) / Stille Nacht IV: Can't Go Wrong Without You (Quay Brothers, 1993)
These two music videos were produced for the American band His Name Is Alive; a dreamy, almost shoegazing experimental rock project hailing from Michigan. These are by far my favorite extras on the disc. Sure, I'm a fan of the band and 'Can't Go Wrong Without You' is one of my favorite songs but these short films stand up on their own terms. Beautiful, haunted and visually striking, they're endlessly re-watchable visionary nightmares, the latter in particular having a rhythmic peculiarity that's hard to shake; at one point directly referencing Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). They've been sharpened up for the Blu-Ray transfer too, so three minutes really isn't long enough to get lost in their worlds. If only the Quay Brothers had directed an entire album...

This review is also part of the Cinema Strange series...

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Tide In Portland: Cold Weather

Sherlock reinvented; mystery unfolds against a wintry backdrop in Cold Weather (2010)

An early scene in Cold Weather sees twentysomething amateur sleuth and college dropout Doug (Cris Lankenau) reading a 'Raffles' novel, by E.W. Hornung. Hornung was a brother-in-law to Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous for the 'Sherlock Holmes' novels which inspired this mumblecore mystery. Raffles, a gentleman cricketer and thief, is perhaps the anti-Holmes; a deliberate inversion of his character and moral code. Doug's hardback edition is hidden from direct view of the camera (I missed it first time around) and only by really examining the frame do observant viewers uncover the identity of this beautiful red book; it subtly reappears in other scenes too, such as the coffee non-date between Doug and his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), who is in town on business. Perhaps the man in the cowboy hat, whose true identity I shall keep enigmatic here, is like Raffles, and the man with the receding hairline he meets at a corner-side café is his Watson-like accomplice, "Bunny" Manders. I'm almost certainly reading too deeply into this 'theory', and I have no true evidence to suggest such a connection (as far as I know Holmes and Raffles never crossed paths, despite the authors' connection and a similar Victorian setting), but what's beautiful about Cold Weather is that it allows and encourages the viewer to think this way, and to become involved in its expansive and atmospheric universe.

But don't be fooled by that last sentence. Katz's film is an intimate one, and composed of small details. The typical detective movie cliché would find a hard-boiled alcoholic who's seen it all embroiled in a deep conspiracy at the whim of a femme fatale; they've stared into the void but keep their smarts as sharp as their suits. It's the noir tradition, right? But Doug is an affable young man, a kind soul and, as aforementioned, a dropout. He's not qualified and therefore doesn't have an office or a badge or even his own car. When he uncovers a secret code he makes his way to the local library to check out books on code-breaking. The beautiful detail here is that he gets there early and has to wait outside, sitting patiently on a concrete wall until the librarian calls him in. His resources are limited, but he does his best, and that's endearing. Study his clothing too: jumpers and raincoats mainly. But he belongs to that same tradition of movie detective, perhaps finding his closest alumni in Brick's (Johnson, 2005) high-schooler Brendan, who smart-talked his way through a breezy neo-noir mystery of his own, also revolving around an ex-girlfriend. But these small details expand to all areas of production. Keegan DeWitt's score, which in my original review I said played "like the most beautiful indie acoustic album in the world" occasionally introduces the soft sound of rippling water, adding to the cold atmosphere of the film. It does what all great scores do: underlines but not overpowers the action. It's subtle and evocative, and feels natural to the film; like its heartbeat, if you will.

How often do you see a crime movie without a love interest? I mentioned femme fatales but no such character exists in Cold Weather. Instead our central protagonists are brother and sister. Their relationship is a delicate and honestly drawn portrait of people growing into each others company. They each have idiosyncrasies, embarrassments and cherished memories that they'd rather not reveal to the other that they remember. I don't think Doug and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) really understand each other as adults, but they learn a lot through the course of their adventure and have a stronger bond by the end of the film. The ending of Cold Weather is about as perfect an ending as the cinema has ever produced. It revolves around a mixtape being rewound so that Doug can find a song he thinks Gail will like. He made her these mixtapes in High School, which must seem forever ago. At this point most films would be wrapping up the mystery and many audience members will be expecting that payoff. I love that it doesn't deliver, but instead cuts to black on a subtle glance between two people seeing each other for the first time. I love that it confounds expectations at every turn and delivers a well-rounded and engaging narrative which isn't in a rush to get you from Point A to Point B. I love that the people in this film are just nice, and I want to spend time in their company. How many films can you say that about? I can think of very few...

Cold Weather (Aaron Katz, 2010) DVD Review

Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Gail (Trieste Kelly) Dunn have a mystery to solve in Cold Weather...

There's a lifelike stillness to Cold Weather which can't quite be described with words, and as a film critic that fact perplexes me. Why is it that, given the tools at my disposal, I can't explain this Sherlock Holmes inspired slacker mystery to you? I mean, that hopeless summation gets close to the tone, but even if detailed the plot and characters, and analysed the ambitious genre intentions of writer/director Aaron Katz, I still wouldn't leave you with anything like a decent review, or an honest impression of the film itself, which is most closely related to the mumblecore movement (currently experimenting within the realm of genre filmmaking; see Kelly Reichardt's breathtaking Western Meek's Cutoff, 2010). I suppose the best way to summarize Katz's film is to quote American critic Roger Ebert, in reference to Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), when he described it as being "all genre and no story." But then, despite its meandering naturalism and devotion to character, Cold Weather does have a story. It kicks in somewhere around the 40-minute mark, and goes like this...

Doug (Cris Lankenau) is a twentysomething college dropout who has recently moved back to his hometown. His study was forensic science, but a job in an ice factory, where he meets geeky DJ/Star Trek fan Carlos (Raúl Castillo), now proves an easy way to make money. There's a beautifully judged scene where the camera observes Doug and Carlos at work, panning back and forth as they stack boxes of ice, discussing their careers, hobbies and aspirations. For five minutes the camera just floats between them as they engage in dialogue which has nothing to do with narrative progression. They just talk, as people talk, and I forgot that I was watching actors. Anyway, back to the 'plot'. Doug is now living with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn), and their relationship can be strenuous; growing into adulthood, they're learning both the limitations and strengths of their sibling bond, and becoming comfortable in each other's space. Doug goes about his daily routine, with days spent disposing of excess ice and nights reading fiction on the couch under a dim light. These details appear incidental, but they're vital, because they inform us of character. Exposition, thankfully, is non-existent in the world of Cold Weather. Doug soon meets up with his ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon), who says that she's in town on business and staying in a nearby motel. One night the four gather for a game of poker and get along well. Carlos and Rachel become close, but Doug doesn't mind; he's still friends with his ex, but romantic feelings have long since evaporated, likely adding to the dulled and moody air of the gorgeous Portland environments, lensed by DP Andrew Reed.

At this point something happens which suggests a conscious movement into plot, but the film retains its sense of naturalism, always being driven by character. Rachel promises to be at Carlos' DJ set, but she never shows. Carlos forces Doug to come with him to her motel room, for investigation. At the motel the lights are on but nobody's home; meanwhile a pickup truck stalks our characters from outside. Now we're in the realm of detective fiction, except that Katz's careful eye makes it seem like detective fact, deeply rooted as we are into the real world, and not once slipping into movie cliché. Sure, there are codes to break and cars to be followed, but we're miles away from even Holmes himself, or at least his filmic incarnations. Frankly, it's a breath of fresh air.

The score by Keegan DeWitt plays like the most beautiful indie acoustic album in the world. The soft tinkling and plucking of its tones would initially feel more at home in a Juno-esque rom-com (actually, the main suite reminded me of Alexandre Desplat's work on The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson, 2009), but that just adds to Cold Weather's covert playfulness. For the most part it's played completely straight, and at times the film is deeply moving. In one scene, while on a stakeout, Doug asks Gail if she has any friends. He asks politely, for the people in Cold Weather are kind and empathetic, but she is still disarmed by the question. A moment of sad silence lingers between them, as she slowly realises that maybe she doesn't have many friends. But there's a reason. Letting her guard down she confesses to her brother that she's just got out of a six month relationship. They'd never discussed it before.

I wonder what the point of a mystery is, because resolution isn't a factor on Katz's mind. The film comes to a close on a thrillingly low-key chase sequence, resulting in Doug and Gail sitting on the top level of a car park. There are so many questions left unanswered, and the fate of everyone hangs in the balance. Doug rewinds a mixtape and we cut to black. Credits. I don't mind that there was no resolution, because A) life doesn't always provide one, and B) maybe that's not what the film is about. What's it about then, I hear you ask. How the hell should I know, I answer. I can't even summarize the damn thing...

The Disc/Extras
A perfect little package, and the film looks fantastic. Extras include a commentary with Katz and producers Brendan McFadden and Ben Stambler, a stills gallery, original trailer and an alternate ending, which I like just as much as the existing one. Best of all is a three-minute live rendition of the track 'End Credits' from the score, performed by DeWitt and his orchestra. I almost cried with joy, and can't wait to download the whole thing. EDIT: Here's an official link to download the entire score.

Cold Weather is released on DVD on May 23rd. This review can originally be found at Flickfeast.

Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976) DVD Review

You can read my full review at flickfeast: Storm Boy

Friday, 20 May 2011

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Fire In Babylon (Stevan Riley, 2010) Review

Full review can be found at Essential Writers: Fire In Babylon

The Screening Room: Episode 11

You can listen to my appearance on the official MultiMediaMouth podcast here: The Screening Room, Episode 11

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011) Review

It's a journey too far for Captain Jack in Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

My oh my, where to begin? Despite the presence of Rob Marshall as director and the absence of Orlando Bloom as furniture - two factors which had piqued my interest in this fourth franchise installment - I still had two major concerns about POTC4 when entering the cinema this morning. The first was Oren Aviv's (Disney's Head Of Production) intention and promise that this be the first part of a new trilogy, and the second was the fact that Johnny Depp had signed onto the film before even reading a script. My best guess is that he never got one, and now regrets the decision, because a script for this mind-numbing shipwreck doesn't exist, and even the slightest sliver of an idea is as elusive as the Fountain Of Youth itself, which our 'characters' are on an unexplainable quest for. That said, they take about two and a half hours getting there, and you'll feel every second of those long, long minutes. Lets make this review short then: the film can't be arsed, so why should I be?

On Stranger Tides is better than At World's End (Verbinski, 2007), but then so is tertiary syphilis. And Marshall's film isn't totally without merit - Ian McShane is camp as a row of pink tents and it's biologically impossible for the beautiful Penélope Cruz not to hold my interest, although her considerable acting talents get lost here. But outside of that and the slick production design (I'll always praise the costume design in these films, they have genuine authenticity) On Stranger Tides is a completely vacant exercise in accountancy: it's not exciting, romantic or funny, and everyone is taking themselves infuriatingly seriously. If the film were tongue-in-cheek or even just a bit light hearted I might be able to relax into its lobotomized 'narrative', but it's just so plodding and earnest. From the overbearingly muddy cinematography (Dariusz Wolski) to the darkly stone-faced tone, this is about as far away from a theme park ride as you can get - there are no giddily thrilling highs, only a succession of tedious lows which everyone seems to be enjoying but the audience.

I'm not angry with the film either; I don't care enough about it to get that worked up. But I did want it to have learned its lessons from last time. Is it really so hard to imagineer a story which makes sense, has a narrative through-line and doesn't divert into pointless subplots all the time? On Stranger Tides doesn't have any narrative structure, it just has loads of bits. It's a film of stuff, like zombies and flame-throwing ships. By the way, why and how are the crew members zombified, and exactly how do those flamethrowers work? Y'see, absolutely nothing in the film works or is explained. The filmmakers attempt to flesh out Jack's backstory but they flounder in awkward exposition and can't muster up anything more than a predictable and clichéd love story. We ramble from scene to scene like a drunk nightclubber would stumble from bar to bar at 2AM on a Saturday morning: with no coherency or grace, and mumbling a load of incomprehensible jargon which nobody cares about. Depp's performance is still completely off the rails and nothing seems to be able to reign him in. But in a way his performance reviews the whole film. It's a film without focus or depth, and therefore one without interest. Even as empty headed entertainment I'm left baffled as to where exactly I was meant to engage with it and at what point I was supposed to be... well, entertained.

So, Aviv wants a new trilogy. I have no doubt that he'll get exactly what he wants when the money rolls in this weekend, but creatively the franchise is well and truly dead. In fact, to paraphrase John Cleese at the end of that classic parrot sketch, "It's kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible!!" In summation On Stranger Tides is myopic, bloated, insipid, irritating, nonsensical, soulless, clunky and boring. Does that about cover it me hearties? I hope so. Because I will not be doing this again.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Blind Date (Theo Van Gogh, 1996) Review

Tragedy dances behind a mask of performance in Van Gogh's dark drama Blind Date (1996)

Blind Date is a film about Pom (Peer Mascini) and Katja (Renée Fokker). We never meet them, but it is about them nonetheless. The film is a drama, yet it is shot, scored and acted like a horror movie, sharing the same ethereally malevolent air that The Shining's (Kubrick, 1980) Overlook Hotel bled from every wall. In fact, do you remember the Gold Room from that movie, where Jack (Jack Nicholson) met with the ghostly bartender? Well this could be the Gold Room sixteen years on, and it's no less terrifying. The dark tone is amplified by narration from a dead child; she died in a tragic accident, and Pom and Katja were her parents. Having failed to take their own lives they have sunk into a restless depression, and now channel their grief into a kind of performance art. They place ads, subtly relating to their grievance, and then meet up as characters in a dimly lit bar. That ghostly air stems from the fact that it's almost always empty, the characters channeling their anger and fears into a place of isolated darkness, always watched over by the same bemused barman, who at times engages in their role play.

I admired Blind Date, but I didn't like it. In fact, it's such an unrelentingly bleak and confrontational work that I struggled to connect with it on any level. But then I'm not supposed to; it's not asking to be loved. Pom's characters are increasingly disturbed and violent, lashing out both verbally and physically (his trashing of the dance hall is distressing), but in order to deliver a performance that big you really need to play it against a smaller, more sympathetic one. But Katja can be equally repulsive and upsetting, her intense sadness proving awkward more than empathetic. I didn't relate to these people, or care about their grief. But is Van Gogh reaching for larger ideas? Is he himself essaying the nature of performance? I wouldn't want to accuse him of not caring about his characters, but the duality of persona is a theme which recurs throughout his work; see Interview (2003) for example, which is a devious examination of deception and performance. Is Van Gogh trying to unsettle us, trying to make a point about fakery, or am I just reading too far into the film due to the absence of emotional investment? Because I wasn't engaged by the characters and their dialogue was my mind allowed to wander into the frame and create ideas of its own? Perhaps, but that would ultimately mean that Blind Date is a failure.

It's not a film without interest, and I would recommend that people seek it out - especially horror fans, funnily enough, as dead children appear everywhere from Don't Look Now (Roeg, 1973) to Antichrist (von Trier, 2009), and this places a fascinating twist on the classic genre trope. The atmosphere is inhabited by deeply disconcerting sorrow and anger, and if that sounds like your idea of a good night in then Blind Date might just be the film for you. Be warned though - it's a tough ride.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Attack The Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) Review

It's aliens vs. hoodies in Joe Cornish's urban sci-fi debut Attack The Block (2011)

With films like Eden Lake (Watkins, 2008), F (Roberts, 2010) and Ils (Moreau, Palud, 2006), not to mention tabloid fear mongering and headline hyperbole, hoodies (or 'chavs' as they're colloquially known) have garnered something of an ill reputation in the UK. Good-for-nothing criminals is the media manufactured cliché, but first-time filmmaker Joe Cornish knows better. Attack The Block does engage with social issues, but it is not social commentary. If anything it's a reactionary piece, as Cornish was encouraged to write the script after being mugged by a group of youths in London. The film opens with nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) being mugged by our protagonists but soon the threatening incident is interrupted by a bright light in the sky, followed by the arrival of some "big alien gorilla-wolf motherfuckers", and the film evolves into sci-fi in the classic 80's mould.

Rather than being angry with the youths who attacked him, Cornish formed a focus group of troubled teenagers and got to the roots of their disparate aggression. His research was not compiled into an academic essay but rather a screenplay, harking back to the beloved films he grew up on - The Goonies (Donner, 1985), Gremlins (Dante, 1984) and most importantly the cinema of John Carpenter. The way he frames the quasi-futuristic South London tower blocks recalls spacecraft from the likes of Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) or Alien (Scott, 1979), and the hoodies self-developed language (trust, blud, shizzle, innit, believe) is surely what Klingon would have sounded like had it been developed on a rundown council estate. The setup is pure Assault On Precinct 13 (Carpenter, 1976), right down to the electronic score, yet Attack The Block feels refreshingly original - certainly enough to quash the hollow comparisons to Edgar Wright's Shaun Of The Dead (2004).

Admittedly it's hard to warm to the gang once they've mugged Sam, but that wasn't my central problem with the film. Attack The Block actually relates to the work of John Carpenter in more ways than one - many of Carpenter's films took place over one night, confined to one location, and were fundamentally about forces of good fighting forces of evil. But the lines here are blurred, as we're never told the origin or intention of our furry antagonists (whose strikingly original design and neon gnashers are the highlight of the film) and the 'good guys' are introduced to us in a scene of confrontational violence which is quite difficult to engage with (certainly it's a brave move on the part of Cornish). There's an attempt to label the gang as victims of a warped society, at one point tackled in a tongue-in-cheek manner when crew leader Moses (John Boyega) theorizes that the monsters were engineered by the government with the specific intent of wiping out the black population, who aren't killing themselves fast enough with the drugs and guns also implemented into lower class environments. Like I said though, the film isn't social commentary, and that's all executed in jovial sci-fi fashion, leaving the true dramatics to Whittaker, who turns in a confident and emotionally compelling performance as Sam, clearly damaged and upset by her encounter with the hoods.

But back to that Carpenter comparison. The reason Attack The Block ultimately falls short for me is because its ideas and action sequences are nowhere near as developed as in a film like, for example, Assault On Precinct 13, and it all gets very tiring very fast. There's no real variety to the film, as we go from the block to the streets, block to the streets and repeat. A set piece involving a smoke filled corridor (the gang's primary weapon is a bagful of fireworks) creates tension and suitably evokes dread, and certainly there are some nice twists along the way, but I don't think Cornish is developed enough as a filmmaker to inject that shot of adrenaline into the film which it really needs; its environments, as interesting as they are within the mould of science fiction, just become a little stale, and I felt like the film would have been better retitled and reformed as Escape The Block. At least then I'd have seen more than the same street corner every five minutes, and the slick 90-minute running time might have been accommodated with some set-pieces to warrant that length. All the same, Attack The Block is a slick and visually compelling genre exercise, occasionally fun and heralding great things to come from its director... certainly one to keep your eye on.

The Shortlist: 8 Most Beautiful Films (Colour)

Full feature can be found at MultiMediaMouth: 8 Most Beautiful Films (Colour)

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Interview (Theo Van Gogh, 2003) DVD Review

Secrets are revealed or performed in the conversational drama Interview (2003)

Forgive me, but this is going to get complicated. In his 2003 conversational picture Interview, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (whose great-uncle was the artist Vincent) draws intriguing parallels between fiction and reality. Katja is a B-movie actress/soap star begging to be taken more seriously, as is Katja Schuurman, the actress Van Gogh chose to portray her. One scene sees the character of Katja watching herself on TV, commenting on how well she can cry on cue. It would be strange to imagine Schuurman sitting down to view Interview, watching herself watching herself crying. It's even stranger to us when she name-checks Theo Van Gogh in a tirade to aged political journalist Pierre (Pierre Bokma). The actors share a name with their character, and as such share an identity, or at least the perception of one. This makes for a fascinating subtextual essay on the nature of celebrity and the way we can never really know a person through the front cover of a magazine, despite our best efforts and profoundly misguided beliefs that in fact, yes, we can know a person that way. But the most rewarding thing about Interview is that you can enjoy the film without knowing any of this information, as viewers unacquainted with Dutch cinema won't.

Many complain that the film feels contrived and fake, but for a film about fakery, performance and lies that seems rather apt. In the same way that Orson Welles' F For Fake (1973) took the form of a documentary, Interview takes the form of a drama, when really it is a film about drama. I think that's why it feels, to an extent, uncinematic, showcasing no particular aesthetic style, despite the fact that Van Gogh can be classified as auteur. Katja and Pierre constantly lie to each other, even about lying. Katja could well be playing her character in front of Pierre but he, like us, would never know, because he's never seen any of her work (or has he?) They make a pact, to tell each other their deepest, darkest secrets, but how can such things be verifiable between strangers? What is the worth of somebody's word? "We are both mature adults" she says at one point. "You're a spoiled brat" he says at another. Contradiction, scheming, prejudice, fear, love and hate. These are all emotions bubbling under the unglamorous surface of Interview, a film whose title is even something of a lie, seeing as Pierre never completes his assignment. The ultimate contrivance is perhaps the ending, which feels wholly like a dramatic construction. That's because it is. What did you think you were watching?

The direction and editing are undetectable, except when they are drawing attention to parallel events - for example, when Katja retreats to her room for a private phone call and Pierre takes the opportunity to skim her diary. The performances here are excellent, especially because in many ways the actors have dual roles - the real and fake identities of their characters. They are both totally convincing, Schuurman in particular revealing layers I never knew she had. That seems rather apt too, don't you think?

Holy Rollers (Kevin Asch, 2010) Review

Full review found at essentialwriters: Holy Rollers

Holy Rollers is out in cinemas on July 15th.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Cinema 16: #4. Attack On The Bakery (Naoto Yamakawa, 1982) / Two Cars, One Night (Taika Waititi, 2003)

Attack On The Bakery (Naoto Yamakawa, 1982)
Loosely adapted from the short story 'The Second Bakery Attack' by Haruki Murakami, Attack On The Bakery is a film so weighty and vain it may as well be propaganda. Two 'existentially hungry' labourers decide to rob a Communist bakery. A woman stands, pondering over doughnuts, melon cake and croissants. Our two thieves analyze her choices, and my head began to hurt from the thematic battering. The characters talk to each other in snippets from Philosophy 101 and condescend the audience with a jesting narration on their attack, lecturing us on their motives. The film's existential plight is more than a little heavy-handed, even taking irony into account, and I was left underwhelmed but annoyed by its pretensions. It's technically unimpressive too, expressing very little through camerawork or editing, which are both very rough around the edges. It's not an ugly film, nor is it pretty, but the lead performances are fairly solid. On paper the idea is an interesting one, and has potential for some darkly comic satire. But Attack On The Bakery is a overbearing and clumsy bore, aggressive in its message and passive in its style. A real disappointment.

Two Cars, One Night (Taika Waititi, 2003)
Two Cars, One Night is a beautiful film; innocent and delicate, like youth itself. It has the visual poetry of a constellation, opening on rolling clouds as the camera pans through the serene sky to land at a car, parked in front of a pub. Time flies as headlights illuminate rare beauty in the nighttime, and fire from the butt of a cigarette being passed around a group of friends leaves a signature on their conversation; the pattern lingering like a work of art. In the car are two boys, one frustratedly fidgeting, the other contentedly reading a book. Soon another car pulls up, and left behind in it is a young girl, slightly older than the boys. At first, in simple shot-reverse-shot, the kids antagonize each other, shouting insults and swearing. Soon the older boy approaches the girl and they begin to talk. The acting is pretty terrible, truth be told, and I found much of the dialogue grating, but Two Cars, One Night is a technically accomplished work, and at 11 minutes can be enjoyed on a purely technical level. The black and white cinematography, by Adam Clark, is stunning, and the floaty score lends the film a lovely dreamlike atmosphere. The direction is smooth and stylish and the final shot, of the boy stood in the loneliness of the car park, is suitably evocative. Recommended.

Paranoiac! (Freddie Francis, 1963) Blu Ray Mini-Review

Intoxicating mayhem unfurls in a forgotten Hammer Horror classic... Paranoiac! (1963)

Paranoiac! opens on a shot of white cliffs hovering over an oily black ocean. It's from these cliffs that Tony Ashby (Alexander Davion) took his own life eight years ago; purity leaping into the waters of sin. Three weeks before his surviving siblings Simon (Oliver Reed) and Eleanor (Janette Scott) are due to inherit their parents money and property (they died eleven years ago) Tony returns from the grave. Simon and Aunt Harriet (Sheila Burrell) suspect him an impostor, but Eleanor - who shows signs of buried incestual emotion - embraces the man claiming to be her lost brother, and tensions dramatically unfold in a classically styled house of horror...

Except that the horror in Paranoiac! is psychological, riffing on the success of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) three years before it, and as such has become rather lost in the canon of the Studio That Dripped Blood, best known for colourful gothic horrors featuring monsters, mummies and cave girls. Francis produced many psychological horrors for Hammer, including Nightmare (1964) and Hysteria (1965), but this is by far his best. Maybe it's because of the stunning shadowy photography by Arthur Grant, or the magnetic lead performance from Oliver Reed? Or maybe because this is a psychological thriller with genuine depth of character and creepy intrigue? More than anything I think it's because this is the most purely entertaining film in the history of Hammer, and almost flawless on every level.

Francis is an economic director, which I intended as a compliment. Paranoiac! was developed on a very tight budget and as such he pared the story down to its most essential elements, leaving us with a brisk 80 minute thriller that never sags or becomes boring. Much of the action is kept to one location, which makes for a more claustrophobic viewing experience, and enhances the feeling of disturbance. The camerawork is often stylish, but you'll never pause to recognize the fact - movement is seamless, exactly as it should be. Whereas many contemporary films have money launched at them in the foolish belief that this will make them better, Paranoiac! succeeds on its very lack of financial stability, which allowed Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster freedom to create a stripped-down, scary and intelligent thriller.

I've already mentioned Reed, who's astonishing, but the performances by Davion and Scott are also confident and believable, especially when their eyes conceal illicit romance, and the lines in their relationship become blurred by small physical actions and facial ticks. Indeed, Scott's smile could launch a thousand ships. This trio of terrific turns also help to keep us involved with the ever twisting plot, which changes course every couple of minutes, ensuring that we can never predict its destination. The plot is really ingenious; there's just so much going on with the relationships that I could re-watch the film tomorrow and see a different story. Just focusing on one particular character will lend the film an entirely different tone. Psychosis, deception and alcoholism are the traits of the siblings, and watching them snap at each other in a house of haunted memory is but one treat on offer in Paranoiac! - a forgotten classic, resurrected.

The Disc/Extras
The film looks absolutely stunning on Blu Ray, where the restored image has a clarity unseen in any Hammer entry before it. Complemented especially is the lighting, a vital element for any horror movie. Extras are slim, sadly, but solid nonetheless. We get the original theatrical trailer and a beautiful collection of 56 production stills. It seems like a good time for all involved.