Sunday, 29 April 2012

Damsels In Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011) Review

Carrie MacLemore, Greta Gerwig and Megalyn Echikunwoke in Damsels In Distress...

If Metropolitan (1990) proved anything of its writer-director Whit Stillman, debutant extraordinaire and all-round indie darling, it's that he was once destined to become the next great American novelist, but somehow got sidetracked writing screenplays. With one stroke of the pen Stillman redefined the term comedy-of-manners, centering his after-dinner drama around the social lives of six living, breathing affectations; young intellectuals lost in the swell of Manhattan's debutante season. One of their company, the "walking op-ed column" Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), coined the term which describes them best - U.H.B (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) - and kicks off the thread which defines Stillman's celebrated directorial decade, also including Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days Of Disco (1998). In all of these films, but particularly in Metropolitan, the characters talk in a way which is very written, employing adjoining words such as "therefore" and "nevertheless" to link chains of thought which, come the closing frame, provide an overall thesis for the picture. This technique is present in much of the director's work, and it's something which I've found hard to get along with in the past. What I have enjoyed is the bite to his screenplays, the intellectual barbarism, zingers and self-deprecation, but there's always been a twinkle in Stillman's eye waiting for the proper treatment - best exemplified by the impromptu dance number which closes Last Days Of Disco. Damsels In Distress, the director's first film in fourteen years, finds him mellowed and perhaps embracing that twinkle - after all, at 60 years of age he's just made his first college comedy...

The premise revolves around Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a daffy trio of do-gooders at Seven Oaks College. They're a well intentioned but deeply misguided bunch, and loathed by a campus majority - especially the persuasive Complainer editor Rick DeWolfe (Zach Woods; very much a young Chris Eigeman). Violet, the group's Mother Superior, believes that donuts and tap-dancing are the natural remedy to suicidal despair, and her lifelong mission is to create an all-new dance craze: The Sambola! (steps for which are included before the film's footnotes). The girls recruit a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), into their ranks, but this newcomer doesn't instantly take to the idiosyncratic behavior of her bunkmates. They share ideas about love and relationships, subjects which Violet knows little of but waxes lyrical on nonetheless. Her advice is for people not to date guys/girls they find physically attractive, or would rank as "cooler" then themselves, for this will inevitably end in tears and tragedy. The seeds of this idea (along with an instrumental variation on the film's main theme tune) were laid in Stillman's Barcelona, where stuffy Illinois businessman Ted (Taylor Nichols) resolves "to go out only with plain, or even homely girls", confessing to having "a real romantic illusion problem." The same could be said for Violet, who views the world in straighter emotional lines than most, but suffers from extreme self-delusion and emotional repression (she even changed her name before starting college, attempting to erase the memories of her previous life).

Oddly though, if it weren't for the specificity of Stillman's language, its hyper-intellectualism and parched wit, one might be forgiven for not recognizing Damsels In Distress as one of his works. The dialogue here still feels written, and still progresses with an overarching thesis, but it also operates within tonal boundaries which the director has not explored before. Visually it's a much cleaner, brighter film than anything in his back-catalogue - some shots are so bathed in light that they're practically blinding, and colours of pink and yellow prevail the palette. His camera is less static than usual; it glides through the action, producing a rhythm which is almost dance-like (although much slower than the Sambola!, or even tap). Even considering that this is the director's first film set in the "present", it feels like his most old-fashioned to date. As noted by Roger Ebert in his review, there's an element of P.G. Wodehouse at play here, as there is 40's musicals and 60's teen movies. There's an outright rejection of all that is deemed "cool" or even modern, with no mention of cell phones or Facebook but an abundant sense of joy and optimism, even in the face of overwhelming college suicide statistics. This really is a world where donuts and tap shoes can resolve the most worrisome of plights, or at least have the potential to.

With this in mind it's easy to understand why audiences have been charmed by Damsels, but for this reviewer the film's extreme artificiality and self-conscious whimsy became wearing. The biggest problem is Violet, and specifically Gerwig's monotone interpretation of the character, which emphasizes every syllable and nuance in her speech. Megalyn Echikunwoke is equally annoying as Rose, whose affected English accent makes the pronunciation of a repeated phrase, "playboy operator", particularly unbearable. It feels almost as if Stillman was searching with each character to find new ways of getting under my skin. Thor (Billy Magnussen), for example, is so imbecilic that he can't differentiate between colours, and suffers an emotional breakdown when facing a rainbow - honestly, he's the sort of lunkheaded frat boy who makes Spicoli look like Stephen Hawking. Some may find him endearing, but it's hard to care for such characters knowing that they're designed specifically by Stillman as projects for Violet's matchmaking initiative, which is cruller than it might initially seem. In fact, behind her cropped blonde locks and attentive eyes, Violet is a deeply unlikable protagonist, and her vulnerability a poor excuse for the most extraordinary prejudice and conceit. If this is truly Whit Stillman's Mean Girls, as some critics have suggested, then Violet is surely the answer to Rachel McAdams' Regina George, but to me the character seems much more in-tune with Pretty Persuasion's Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood). Violet isn't anywhere near as fickle or downright malicious as Kimberly, and certainly not as self-consciously so, but her principles are as deeply misguided and ultimately damaging.

It'd be unfair and perhaps even wrong of me to call Damsels In Distress a bad film, for its tone and characters are consistent, the writing sharp, and there are chuckles to be had along the way. Stillman has crafted the sort of film which will be sweet to some and sour to others, but for me its aftertaste was particularly unpleasant. The top-tapping finale feigns optimism, tying its character's arcs into a neat little bow and waving them off on, yep, a dance number, but I can't help wondering what'll happen to these people when they leave college, separate and enter the real world, or at least this kookily askew version of it. I suspect that the adorable Heather will be ripped to shreds, and Violet isolated and sneered at by her peers. She's the sort of girl you'd have moved colleges to avoid, and if she'd had any sense Lily would have done so in the opening minutes, saving us the pain of this maddening and often depressing picture.

Damsels In Distress is in cinemas now...

Monday, 23 April 2012

Il Boom (Vittorio De Sica, 1963) DVD Review

Alberto Sordi stars in De Sica's uproarious farce Il Boom (1963)...

Il Boom, Vittorio De Sica's riches-to-rags comedy set during Italy's miraculous post-war boom, is one of the director's most obscure titles, but also one of his best. StudioCanal are releasing the DVD today, and you can read my review at Cinemart.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

VHS Quest #16. Almost Heroes (Christopher Guest, 1998)

The original theatrical poster for Almost Heroes (1998)

Back when I was just a wee sprog (let's say between the ages of 8 and 12) there was no place I'd rather spend summers than Rainbow Video, my local rental store. During school holidays they'd introduce an offer whereby you could hire any five tapes for five nights for £5 (I'd imagined this privilege was designed exclusively for me, not fraying parents desperate to glue their kids to the telly), and with that the seeds of my film obsession were planted. Posters littered the store's walls, the smell of days-old coffee and buttered popcorn wafted out from behind the counter, and from upstairs crept the confounding aroma of sun-cream (oh yeah, the top floor was a solarium), ensuring that the sci-fi tapes stacked beneath the stairs remained permanently untouched. Actually, all of the tapes were stockpiled in the back room, and each film's cover art transferred into plastic sheeting, later categorized by genre and/or actor. It was during this time that Friends (1994 - 2004) was playing at its peak, and therefore each of its stars had their own sub-section next to the endless volumes of season tapes. This period led to the discovery of many guilty pleasures. Affection for Charlie's Angels (McG, 2000), Romy And Michele's High School Reunion (Mirkin, 1997) and Six Days Seven Nights (Reitman, 1998) arose from these confused years, as did a deep, deep love for Almost Heroes. They do say love is blind...

Honestly, Almost Heroes might be the best charity shop find I've ever had, not because of the film's quality, which we'll get around to, but because of the sentimental value this particular tape holds. Avid collectors will recognize the feeling; pennies for memories is a staple of the modern VHS experience. But watching this tape was an experience deeply reflective of the 25p it cost me, for Almost Heroes is the broadest, flattest and most insipid 'comedy' I can ever remember seeing, and attaching any material charge to it should be in breach of humanist laws. It's the cinematic equivalent of being promised a one-way ticket to the holy land and then being excreted from a plane, without a parachute, into the parched outback, forced to spend days wandering its vast, empty expanse and having vultures peck at your skull until finally - FINALLY - the possibility of insanity can release you from the trek's utter inanity. The film's director is Christopher Guest, best known as the writer/director behind Waiting For Guffman (1996) and A Mighty Wind (2003), but what he found funny in this screenplay - penned by Mark Nutter, Tom Wolfe and Boyd Hale - is beyond me. Looking back it's easy to see what I found funny, aged 10, as the movie is crammed wall-to-wall with pea-headed innuendo and slapstick, with most scenes ending in either Matthew Perry's gurning or Chris Farely's lewd rollerball falling over his and/or other people's feet. Guest feels like little more than a hired hand here, and I'm frankly amazed that he allows his name to remain associated with such terminally unfunny dross.

The year is 1804, and Leslie Edwards (Perry) is leading the first expedition to the Pacific Ocean. The problem is that this timorous, toffee-nosed twit has no knowledge of the seas or, well... anything outside of his crockery cupboard, and therefore requires an associate. With absolutely no suggestion of their history, Edwards saves the brash alcoholic Bartholomew Hunt (Farley), a veteran tracker, from public hanging. They quickly assemble a ragtag crew which includes the zany French interpreter Guy Fontenot (Eugene Levy) and his Indian wife Shaquinna (Lisa Barbuscia), whose name I actually had to look up and double-check, because the film simply requires that she bathe nude and never, ever suggest a personality. It'd be nice if I could tell you that a plot kicked in at this point, but Almost Heroes just wanders without a clue from Point A to Point B, stopping along the way to piss in the face of audience goodwill. The events which grace it's 90-minute running time couldn't even be called sketches, as that might suggest an attempt at humour. The film isn't even decent enough to establish Shaquinna as the clichéd love interest she plainly is, as Guest and co. employ their single female character as mere window dressing, requiring nothing of Barbuscia except to be stagnant and pretty, passive to the waves of sexism crushing over her, and the final cut (boy, does this print feel butchered) doesn't even provide the actress with the obligatory heart-to-heart scene in which she can fall hopelessly - and unbelievably - in love with our protagonist. In fact, I'm not even sure that's achieved by the final frame.

In the interest of fairness, Eugene Levy is fantastically deadpan as Fontenot, whose silly accent/mustache combo raises all of the film's giggles. The actor's screentime amounts to no more than five minutes, but that's all he needs to steal, rise above and make watchable the material. Everything outside of that screentime is a barren comedic wasteland; a dystopia of aborted half-jokes which have somehow been allowed to limp before the camera. For example, Kevin Dunn's cameo as the horny conquistador Hidalgo. The gag here seems to be that he wants to kidnap and bed Shaquinna, but the damsel is saved by Bartholomew, who offers her as the prize in a drinking contest. He wins, passes out, and the scene cuts to black. Where's the joke, I ask you? Consider another scene with Bartholomew, where he is tasked with locating an eagle's egg to save his pal Leslie from the ailment formerly known as plot convolution. So off he goes, climbing a tree to the nest, foregrounded against the worst green-screened landscape ever committed to celluloid, and steals an egg. Throughout the course of this gag he brutally assaults an eagle, maims a wild boar for bacon (to fry alongside the two eggs he can't resist eating) and then mounts the tree a third time. We expect the eagle to come back and abide by the rule of three, resulting in some silly punchline or slapstick extravaganza, but Guest just cuts to the next scene. Literally every setup goes like this, and none of them are connected by any thread of a plot.

Well, at least the scenery is pleasant, with locations such as California's Big Bear Valley providing the impressive vistas which our adventurers traverse. They never feel 1804 accurate and unexplored, granted, but at least some thought has gone into making the film look half-decent. Maybe if it weren't so inexorably, unforgivably, excrementally unfunny, that might actually account for something, but seeing as it is, it doesn't, and the only thing left to recommend is Eugene Levy's mustache. Now ask yourself... is that really worth 25p?

The full VHS Quest lineup can be found here.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The Edgar Reitz Collection: Lust For Love (1967) / The Tailor From Ulm (1979)

Heidi Stroh stars in Edgar Reitz's Lust For Love (1967)

On April 16th, Bluebell Films are releasing two formerly obscure titles from the acclaimed German filmmaker Edgar Reitz: Lust For Love (1967), the award-winning drama which launched him onto the international stage, and The Tailor From Ulm (1979), the last of Reitz's films to be distributed in the UK outside of his groundbreaking Heimat series (A Chronicle Of Germany, 1984; Chronicle Of A Generation, 1993; A Chronicle Of Endings And Beginnings, 2004; The Women, 2006). These releases are hopefully the first in a long line (it'd be great to see Reitz's early shorts get their own disc), but for now let's focus on this intriguing double-bill. Firstly, some context...

On February 28th, 1962, Reitz united with 26 fellow German directors to sign the Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration of independence which outlined new conditions for filmmaking in the post-war country, underlining the necessity for freedom in creativity and unshackling artists from the bureaucratic, commercially-minded studio systems. "The old film is dead", it declared. "We believe in the new!" Reitz set out the following year, along with Oberhausen co-founder Alexander Kluge (Yesterday Girl, 1966), to create the Institut für Filmgestaltung, a school where young filmmakers could hone and experiment within their craft. Furthermore, the Oberhausen 26 devised an organization called the Kuratorium Junger Deutscher Film, wherein they'd be able to produce and distribute their own pictures freely. The Kuratorium was "explicitly charged with putting the proposals of the Oberhausen Manifesto into practice", and its first fruit was Reitz's breakthrough, Lust For Love...

It's surprising to learn that this film was charged with carrying the torch of New German cinema's singularity, as Lust For Love shares much DNA with the early work of nouvelle vague luminaries Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, particularly the formers À bout de souffle (1959). Reitz employs handheld cameras, jump cuts, elliptical voiceover (from an external narrator) and P.O.V. shots to navigate the seconds, weeks, months and years of Elisabeth (Heidi Stroh) and Rolf's (Georg Hauke) heady love affair. The film opens with a Ulysses quote; "Intense desire, questioning wife, destroys us all." From here their amour spins out at an extraordinary pace, composed almost like a photographic flick-book. Elisabeth is 20-years-old when we meet her, studying as a photography student, and taking snaps of Hamburg's dockyards when Rolf wanders into her frame. He's a medical student, particularly interested in anatomy. The scene for their romance is set in glorious black and white, courtesy of cinematographer Thomas Mauch (the genius DP behind Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath Of God, 1972, and Fitzcarraldo, 1982), whose compositions are undoubtedly the highlight of Lust For Love.

Reitz's emotional mapping is precise but complex, interweaving issues of class and faith into the decade-span of Elisabeth and Rolf's relationship (in this sense prefiguring the structure of Ingmar Bergman's masterful Scenes From A Marriage, 1973), but the camera's free-form, often erratic behavior alienates rather than engages. The story is split into three chapters - Rolf For His Life, Rolf For His Poor Life and Rolf Given Up - but no suggestion is made of how much time has actually passed between each stage. This temporal displacement can be effective on a scene-by-scene basis, like in the whirlwind montage of their first dates, but when considering the full stretch of the film - which also sees the couple married and having six kids - it becomes wearing, and I couldn't help but feel that integral details had been allowed to fall through the aesthetics cracks.

A rhythm begins to emerge at the film's midsection, when Reitz's dramatic focus shifts away from the marriage and towards Rolf's rise and fall in the medical industry. In these scenes especially Mauch's compositions seem to foreshadow the vérité experiments of Lars von Trier and his Dogme cohorts, with the use of diegetic sound and (seemingly) improvised camerawork putting me in mind of Breaking The Waves (1996) and Festen (1998). Indeed, Lust For Love's formal playfulness cold be compared with just about any cinematic movement of its bookending half-centuries, but so many elements of its story feel compromised for style. For example, while Rolf is away at work Elisabeth is visited by two American representatives of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints, and briefly toys with the idea of Mormonism. The characters really shine in these moments, and Reitz's focus settles during an impressive baptism scene where his camera trains itself around Rolf's damaged, reflective eyes. When the film finally gets around to confronting his depression the result is underwhelming, and Reitz's flick-book feels less Scenes From A Marriage and more A History Of The Cinema.

Jakob Degen (Harald Kuhlmann) takes flight in The Tailor From Ulm (1979)

The Tailor From Ulm feels refreshingly straightforward in comparison, spinning the (true) yarn of Bavarian tailor Albrecht Berblinger (Tilo Prückner), who began constructing a flying machine after saving the beautiful Irma (Marie Colbin) from a near-fatal balloon accident. This young woman is fiancée to Jakob Degen (Harald Kuhlmann), the inventor extraordinaire who helps Albrecht with his blueprints for the machine, taking as their leapfrog the wingspan of a great eagle. The chaps tinker away for years, eventually becoming separated by war, but our protagonist remains determined to take off into the skies...

Reitz flirts with some interesting ideas here, especially when Albrecht joins forces with the Jacobin revolutionary Kaspar Fesslen (Vadim Glowna) and opposes Napoleon's regime. These scenes don't add anything to the story, but they do successfully underline Albrecht's idealism and naivety, also witnessed in the film's closing dilemma when he is asked by the Magistrate to use his machine as a bridge over the Danube river. The tailor knows in his heart that this would unite the people, and cannot foresee the possibility of manipulation - that is, until Jakob returns to his side, having become destitute in Paris. Reitz (co-writing with Petra Kiener) becomes lost in politics during the film's midsection, but it's worth it for a truly breathtaking finale, where all of Albrecht's passion and frustration is channeled into a palm-sweating public exhibition.

Honestly, it's actually proving hard to review The Tailor Of Ulm, as it never struck me as much more than a well-crafted historical fantasy, albeit one grounded in a quite remarkable truth. I can't help but feel that Albrecht is the sort of mad genius better suited to the directorial hands of Werner Herzog, where he could sit alongside Brian Fitzgerald and Kaspar Hauser. There's an underlying craziness to the character which Reitz never explores, and as such the tale feels - and looks, through the eye of DP Dietrich Lohmann - rather flat. Prückner's embodiment of Albrecht is also a little one-note, as he never really communicates the character's undying obsession; his ambition to soar among eagles. After all, in the opening scene his eyes set not upon Irma, the maiden in distress (although the screenplay clearly establishes her as a love interest), but the balloon from which he saves her.

The film's highlight lies in watching Albrecht and Jakob's friendship emerge. Their mutual admiration and rivalry establishes a lifelong bond, with each celebrating the other's work but secretly praying for personal triumph. It is during their scenes that The Tailor From Ulm soars, but overall the film remains a little too grounded, a little too safe to really sustain its flight.

The Discs/Extras
Beautiful restorations for both films, although the vanilla discs - boasting not even an image gallery, trailer or cast biographies - are hard to recommend at full price. The Lust For Love DVD looks especially good, and both films have excellent subtitles courtesy of Kenneth Mills and John R. Middleton, but Bluebell have definitely missed a trick with the extras.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992) Blu-Ray Review

Ethan Hawke in A Midnight Clear (1992)...

December, 1944. A severely truncated American Intelligence Squad, lead by the boyish Sgt. Knott (Ethan Hawke), are billeted to an unoccupied house somewhere in the Ardennes, tasked with monitoring enemy activity in advance of a rumoured assault. Once stationed, the squad make themselves comfortable, unearthing stashed caskets of wine and sardines and lighting a log fire for warmth. Later they draw up a shift pattern for the surrounding guard posts, located several paces from each corner of the house. On the first night, German voices ring out from the forest's obsidian frontline; "Sleep well..."

What's immediately striking about A Midnight Clear, adapted from William Wharton's semi-autobiographical novel, is the youth of its characters. The oldest member of the squad, Vance "Mother" Wilkins (Gary Sinise), is only 26, and the aforementioned Sgt. Knott just 19. In an affecting flashback we see them as boys on their last night of freedom, scouring bars for the right dame to cure them of their virginity. The woman they find, Janice (Rachel Griffin), turns out to be widowed and suicidal, but rescued by these four guys whom she can surrogate for her fallen sweetheart. She makes love with each of them, perhaps aware that any day now could be their last. In this scene the boys learn not only of sex, but the weight of the conflict they are about to enter, and the causalities it has left back home. "I'll always feel strange about my first sexual experience", narrates Knott. "Masquerading as a dead boy named Matt."

Back in 1944 we observe the relationships each man has forged on the frontlines, and the secrets they guard for one another. In the opening scene Mother learns of his son's death. He tears off into the surrounding woodland, chased by Knott, who eventually finds him kneeling naked in a freezing reservoir. Whatever shreds of sanity were left in Mother are now lost, but Knott promises not to tell the others of his breakdown. Their bond is the film's most immediately impactful, but the screenplay slowly evokes fears and dreams in each man, not least the kind-hearted "Father" Mundy (Frank Whaley), nicknamed for his post-war ambition to become a priest. In many ways one could look at these characters and approach A Midnight Clear as an alternative coming-of-age movie. This idea is especially pertinent to Knott, who in one scene dissects the army's approach to classifying its dead by likening "the lost" to Christopher Robin. It is only then, and in moments where Gordon focuses the camera around Hawke's pensive blue eyes, that we consider how much his innocence has been corrupted by this cruel, remorseless war.

Gordon frames the Ardennes like the scene from a beautiful nightmare, allowing Mark Isham's ethereal score to creep out over images of snow-capped trees and slushy, well-trodden tracks. The vistas here are astonishing in their scope, their silence interrupted only by gunshots and screams (especially effective during the opening scene, as Mother's despairing howl melts together with the score). In fact, despite the power of Isham's compositions, the film is most effective in its silences, as in the scene where Knott leads the men toward two frozen soldiers - one German, one American - entwined in a final death dance, mouths agape as if reaching for the final straws of life. Silence also permeates the house's forlorn walls, which are so well peeled as to suggest they haven't been inhabited for decades.

Gordon displays intuitive restraint in the film's action sequences, especially when the troop are evading mortar shells in a high-speed jeep chase toward the film's close, but the director's greatest command (also displayed in The Chocolate War, 1988, and Waking The Dead, 2000) is in drama, and exploring the intimate moments which his characters share. There's a particularly engrossing scene which finds Mother sat before a collection of paintings in the attic, admiring their beauty and the delicacy with which they were crafted. "Sometimes I didn't believe there was any love left", he says, fighting to conceal the emotional crack which appears in his voice. It's moments like these which Gordon captures so well, and it's for those moments that I truly miss not having him around. His last film was 2003's disappointing The Singing Detective, but with a steady stream of TV work there's still hope that he'll return to the cinema. God knows, the cinema needs him...

The Disc/Extras
The restoration is stunning, presented for the first time in Gordon's intended 1.85 : 1 ratio (previous home cinema releases have been in 4:3, distorting DP Tom Richmond's exquisite framing). There are patches on the print which show some wear, but for the most part Richmond's compositions look amazing, with the pure white snow appearing more striking than ever. Played through my 5.1 speakers the sound was also crystal clear, and Isham's stirring score is well served.

There are solid extras too. The US commentary, recorded in 2002, is ported over here, alongside 23-minutes of deleted scenes which have their own accompanying commentary. I'm pretty glad most of these scenes were cut, as some feel tonally miscalculated and others - extended variations on existing scenes - work better for being trimmed down to their essentials. Gordon expresses some regret in the commentary about cutting these scenes, but he also concedes that they don't actually add to the story. The highlight of the disc is a new feature called A Winter Wartime, which is a revealing 49-minute interview with Gordon where he reveals several interesting production tidbits, especially when he tackles the issue of the film's tragic opening weekend, where it grossed (approximately) $66 due to the Rodney King riots.

A Midnight Clear is out on DVD/Blu-Ray on April 16th...

Monday, 9 April 2012

The 24FPS / E-Film Blog Alternative Summer 2012 Preview: Part 1

Well, it's that time again. When I was in my pre-teens summer used to be the highlight of my year, but always for vastly different reasons than the other kids. While they were out riding their bikes and playing on the beach I was always stuck indoors, screening endless mounds of VHS tapes rented from my local store (5 films, 5 nights, £5) and nestling away in the leather seats of my local multiplex. The salt which piqued my nostrils interest belonged not to the sea but the popcorn, and I always went back to school mourning those six glorious weeks where the movies had whisked me away to lost or alien lands. It really was the best of times, but now, aged 20, I see summer for the desolate cinematic wasteland it really is. Now summer runs from April to September, and is brought to us by endless sponsors and product companies. It's a corporate event, plain and simple. Turns out sharks like the sun...

BUT! All is not lost, for the arthouse/independent circuits provide an exciting alternative to the studio behemoths which are currently polluting cinemas (in all fairness, I'm quite looking forward to Prometheus). So, I've teamed up with Sam Inglis (editor of the excellent 24FPS, and host of our weekly podcast The Picture Show) to deliver a suggested programming schedule for these months. We've each picked a potentially interesting title, written up some initial thoughts and hopefully we can uncover something which might have otherwise slipped through the cracks of summer. So, without further ado, here's the list...

April 12th
The Big Release: Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Edge (Carol Morley, 2010)
Haven't we checked in here before? The trailer for Edge, Carol Morley's morose-looking hotel drama, might not be playing with any original ideas, revolving as it does around the meeting of six strangers at an isolated cliffside getaway, but I've got my fingers crossed. Why? Because Morley's previous film, Dreams Of A Life, was one of 2011's best documentaries; the profoundly sad examination of the life of Joyce Vincent, a young woman who died in her London bedsit in 2003 and wasn't discovered for a further three years. The film highlighted our underlying dislocation in the technological age, considering our loneliness and detachment despite being more in touch than ever. Hopefully this, Morley's first dramatic feature, will display the same insight into human relationships as her compelling breakout doc. Even if all else fails, I'll still have the magnetic Maxine Peake to gaze at...

Sam's Pick: The Cabin In The Woods (Drew Goddard, 2011)
Okay, so this isn't exactly the most offbeat choice, but in a rather ropey looking release week it's probably the most promising choice. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon's horror comedy has been picking up admiring reviews which often seem to warn you off reading them until you've seen the film, because apparently even discussing it is a potential spoiler. For me the trailer has echoes both 'classic' (Evil Dead) and modern (not going to say, because if I'm right then that's a big honking spoiler). With Whedon and Goddard on scripting duties, wit is likely assured, but I wonder whether they can bring the big scares. As a Buffy and Angel fan it will also be great to see some cast members from those shows on the big screen (especially Amy Acker, whose adorable Fred is one of my favourite TV characters).

My concern is the weight of the good reviews, and that if this doesn't immediately wing its way near the top of my Best Of 2012 list (which, to be fair, says only 'The Muppets' right now) it will have to go down as a disappointment. At the very, very least there is good news in that the 3D conversion which was the first reason given for the delay in releasing this film (shot 3 years ago) appears to have been dumped for the cinema release. I'm crossing my fingers for this one.

April 20th
The Big Release: Salmon Fishing In The Yemen (Lasse Hallström, 2011)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Breathing (Karl Markovics, 2011)
The directorial debut of acclaimed Austrian actor Karl Markovics, Breathing won considerable acclaim during its 2011 festival run and arrives on UK shores with a glowing - almost worrying - critical reception. Markovics will be best known to UK audiences for his compelling turn in 2007's fantastic WWII drama The Counterfeiters, and hopefully he'll be able to draw out some great performances from a cast that includes Georg Friedrich and Luna Mijovic. The story centers around 19-year-old Roman (Thomas Schubert) and his attempts to reintegrate into society and confront his guilt after serving time in prison. It's not the most original concept, but the trailer suggests some off-kilter plotting as Roman takes work at a morgue and is spurred on to track down his absent mother. There are some beautiful compositions in the promo (the underwater shots are really impressive), so hopefully Markovics has a future behind the camera.

Sam's Pick: Elles (Malgorzata Szumowska, 2011)
I've always said that film is cyclical, and Elles is the third film in memory to take as its subject female students taking up sex work to pay for their education (the other being the very good Mes Cheres Etudes and the frankly awful Sleeping Beauty). Juliette Binoche plays an Elle journalist writing an article on the subject, while Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig are her interview subjects.

The French just seem to do this sort of adult storytelling well, with far less of a tendency to become preachy than American and even British filmmakers often exhibit, and that, combined with a quality cast, is why I'm recommending this. Binoche is, of course, always worth watching; an actress who really seems to lack a screen persona and change from role to role, and the younger actresses have both impressed me with recent work, Demoustier in Living On Love Alone, and Kulig as the only thing worth seeing in Pawel Pawlikowski's The Woman In The Fifth. I'm hoping for three powerhouse performances here.

April 27th
The Big Release: Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Being Elmo: A Puppeteers Journey (Constance Marks, 2011)
One of the most anticipated documentaries of 2012, Being Elmo tells the story of Kevin Clash, the life and soul behind one of Sesame Street's most iconic and beloved creations: Elmo. "I wanted Elmo to represent love" reveals Clash in the utterly charming trailer, and for thousands of viewers the jolly felt fella does exactly that. Certainly the character's spirit is what captured my heart as a kid, and now I eagerly await discovering Clash's own story, which seems to be a classic triumph-in-the-face-of-adversity tale. I'm not expecting the most revealing doc in the world, but the work of puppeteers - an artform unto itself - goes largely unappreciated, and hopefully Being Elmo will shine a light on the fantastic work of the people who bring so many dreams to life. I'm not expecting to come out dry eyed.

Sam's Pick: Damsels In Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)
I've cheated a bit here and picked something I've already seen (and listed as my third favourite film of 2011) thanks to its London Film Festival screening. Since I saw Damsels In Distress it's been one of the films I most want to revisit, and that feeling has increased now, having recently re-watched Whit Stillman's previous film, 1998's The Last Days Of Disco. This film is both a continuation of Stillman's style and a bit of a departure; the hyper-intellectual and incredibly specific dialogue remains, as does the concentration on upper-middle-class young people as characters, but this film is warmer and much more straight-forwardly funny than his others (which, unlike this one, never really had 'jokes' as such). It is, and your reaction to this sentence should be a reliable predictor of your reaction to the film, Whit Stillman's Mean Girls.

I adored it, didn't stop laughing for more than 30 seconds at any one time, and found myself amused, and ultimately charmed, by all the film's characters and all its quirks (right down to the footnotes in the credits).

May 4th
The Big Release: American Reunion (Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, 2012) / Beauty And The Beast (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1991)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Hara Kiri: Death Of A Samurai (Takashi Miike, 2011)
Anyone who read my review of Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins might find this pick surprising, but his remake of Masaki Kobayashi's incredible 1962 Seppuku (later retitled HaraKiri) could find the madcap auteur back on form. The story is fantastic, following an elder ronin who returns to his home in peaceful 17th Century Japan and discovers the dishonorable conditions of his son-in-law's death. A quest for revenge ensues. I'm not expecting this to be anything like as good as Kobayashi's masterpiece (for one thing, Miike has shot his version in 3D), but the trailer gives me hope. 13 Assassins bit off more than it could feasibly chew, losing dramatic focus for the size of its (largely faceless) cast, but the story of Hara Kiri demands a slower, more stripped-back structure. I have my apprehensions, but the action looks great, and if Miike can reinforce it with the emotion sorely lacking from 13 Assassins, he could be onto a winner.

Sam's Pick: Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011)
I love coming of age movies; there's just something that is inherently dramatic about them, and Europe seems to be turning out a lot of good ones right now. This one sees a teenager (Lola Créton) fall deeply in love for the first time, only to be crushed when her paramour leaves for South America, and thrown into turmoil again when, years later, he comes back. This seems to be the sticking point; having seen the trailer I feel like I've seen the film in the three minute digest version. Hopefully director Mia Hansen-Løve (who made Father Of My Children, which I enjoyed, but also found overrated, last) can spring some surprises which don't appear apparent from that trailer.

What really intrigues me is the tone (which looks refreshingly adult) and the lead. Lola Créton impressed me a great deal in Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, and from what I've seen of this it appears she gives a very different, equally strong performance here. Here's hoping for another coming of age tale to rank with Love Like Poison or Water Lilies.

May 11th
The Big Release: Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011)
Aleksandr Sokurov is one of those 50/50 filmmakers who irks and compels me in equal measure. Russian Ark (2002), while visually stunning, is insufferably tedious, but his 1999 drama Molokh, an affecting study of Hitler's relationship with Eva Braun, remains one of the most underrated films of recent years. Faust, yet another adaptation of the classic German legend, could honestly go either way, but I'm fascinated by Sokurov's approach. The cinematic adaptation to beat it still F.W. Murnau's 1926 masterpiece, but this interpretation looks unusually distinctive; the available clips display a soft, earthy visual tone, saturated in dreamy light and cut to an equally offbeat rhythm. The (un-subtitled) trailer is stranger still, unfurling in 4:3 tableaus and indicating absolutely nothing of how Sokurov has tackled the complex source material. It could be great, it could be awful, but it's certainly going to be talked about.

Sam's Pick: Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, 2011)
The Duplass brothers continue their move toward the mainstream with this, which looks like a much more comfortable ride for multiplex goers than their patchy Cyrus was. Happily this story of a man (Jason Segel) still living in his Mother's basement at 35 looks like it will boast both some real laughs and some strongly acted drama. The cast has good form in both, with Segel's brother played by Ed Helms (who made a charming and funny lead in the underrated comedy drama Cedar Rapids), Helms' wife by Judy Greer, who makes everything better just by being in it, and Segel and Helms' mother by Susan Sarandon. The key to keeping this movie afloat will likely be keeping (unearned) sentiment at bay. I hope the Duplass brothers can manage it.

May 18th
The Big Release: The Dictator (Larry Charles, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
Honestly, there's nothing I could say here that doesn't just echo all available plaudits which The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp has previously, and righteously accumulated, so I'll just be content with fawning over the film once more. Its re-release is going to be one of the cinematic highlights of 2012, and hopefully the restoration will do justice to Powell & Pressburger's visually stunning work, one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. It spans four decades in the life of Major General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), observing wars fought and friendships forged, especially with German office Theodor Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), which caused a stir with Winston Churchill when the film was released slap-bang into the middle of WWII. Needless to say, the film has endured and attained deserved classic status. And hopefully now some light can be shone on Deborah Kerr, wonderful in a challenging trio of roles.

Sam's Pick: The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011)
I love action movies. I know sometimes it seems like I don't, given my reactions to Hollywood's increasingly poor series of excuses for action cinema, but I'm actually a huge fan of the genre. The Raid looks like it's going to deliver the action goods in a wide variety of styles. The frenetic trailer is insanely fun, entertaining enough when it's showing us the fantastically violent gunplay (more about brutal expediency, it seems, than John Woo's dance sequences with added hot lead), but where it really amps up for me is towards the end, with glimpses of martial arts and machete fights. That's what I'm talking about.

Look, I'll appreciate it if it also has, y'know, a plot, and some good acting, but I'll also be happy if the film can cash the action sequence cheques the trailer is writing. This is my friend Marcey's favourite film of 2012 so far. I'd like it to be one of mine too.

May 25th
The Big Release: Men In Black III (3D) (Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
Wes Anderson is arguably the most distinctive American auteur working today, and certainly the one I find most interesting (well, him and P.T. Anderson; it changes day-by-day). Moonrise Kingdom finds him re-teaming with Darjeeling Limited (2007) co-writer Roman Coppola, and spinning the yarn of two New England lovers - Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) - who flee their hometown and are pursued by an eclectic search party, fronted by a dry police chief played by Bruce Willis. Anderson's picture-perfect framing, pastel-hued colour palette and gorgeous 60's soundtracking made a return in the trailer for Moonrise, which finds newcomers Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton playing alongside Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, members of the director's recurring troupe. My excitement levels are through the roof right now, and I can't wait to read the reports from the opening night of Cannes, where the film will premiere shortly before its UK release.

Sam's Pick: Free Men (Ismaël Ferrouukhi, 2011)
World War 2 has been a popular subject for cinema almost since it began, but there seems to have been a real rash of films set in that period in the last few years - my own theory being that the generation that fought it is now dying off, and the way to preserve the stories that have not yet been told from that time is through cinema; the world's cultural memory box. This film appears to tell another story I had no idea about, centering around the relationship between Jews and Muslims in Paris at the time the Nazis were rounding up French Jews.

Aside from the inherent interest in time period and story there's also an interesting cast. Tahar Rahim, who was indeed great in A Prophet, despite how ridiculously overpraised I found that film, and Michael Lonsdale, who brings quiet gravitas to everything I've seen him in recently, both take leading roles, but the real excitement for me comes from the female lead. Lubna Azabal is an actress I've been shouting about for a few years now, since seeing her in Paradise Now, and for me she's almost a guaranteer of quality; a total chameleon who is able to give shattering performances in many different languages. She's in this (seemingly as a Muslim woman Rahim is attracted to - who can blame him?) which means I'm there. This looks likely to be another quality addition to the recent range of European World War 2 cinema.

June 1st
The Big Release: Prometheus (3D) (Ridley Scott, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
Hungarian master Béla Tarr has claimed The Turin Horse will be his final film (only his ninth in thirty-five years), and it could be one of his best. Consisting of just thirty long takes, the film begins with the whipping of a horse in Turin which reportedly lead to the mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzche. Over the next two hours Tarr imagines the life of both the horse and owner, set against the backdrop of a small windswept village. It won't be for everyone, but The Turin Horse sounds like exactly my sort of film, and the trailer boasts some of the most extraordinary looking compositions I've seen all year. Anyone uninitiated with Tarr should probably check out Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) before seeing this one - its his most accessible, and certainly one of the most haunting, evocative films of the current century.

Sam's Pick: Himizu (Sion Son, 2011)
Is there a more vital, more exciting working filmmaker than Sion Sono? If there is I'm not sure I know his name. I discovered Sono through his insane four hour masterwork Love Exposure, which throws everything including the kitchen sink at you in a teen movie about original sin, cults and upskirt photography, and then began to go back through his catalogue (and to watch the films he's made since Love Exposure; Cold Fish and Guilty Of Romance). Walking into a Sion Sono film is an adventure; I'm never sure what it's going to be like, but I'm always assured he's going to grab me by the throat and drag me through a blazingly original story and world.

Himizu appears, from the trailer, to be a family drama set in the wake of a natural disaster, but this being Sono it's bound to be a whole more more besides. Many of his recent stock company appear, so you can expect top notch performances, perhaps some contemporary resonance (the film was made in the wake of the Fukushima disaster), and a whole lot of the unexpected. I simply can't wait to see it.

June 8th
The Big Release: Casa de mi Padre (Matt Piedmont, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike and Sam's Pick: The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2011)
Ti West's follow-up to 2009's fabulously retro House Of The Devil (his Cabin Fever sequel went straight-to-DVD), The Innkeepers looks like a classical 1960's ghost story, revolving around the last days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn and the two employees who seek to uncover the mystery of its spiritual guest - the hanged bride Madeline O'Malley (Brenda Cooney). The trailer ticks off an unfortunate number of clichés, but West is an intelligent filmmaker who really understands genre convention, and I'm hoping the distributor has just packed the promo with scares to pull in the largest possible crowd. House Of The Devil was a masterclass in build-up, eeking palm-sweating suspense from the setup, which toyed with audience expectations for a full hour before exploding into full-on satanic mayhem. I'm hoping this horror is equally creepy and low-key. If nothing else, it looks beautiful.

Well, I'm making a very heavily qualified recommendation here, based largely on good reports on this film from last year's Frightfest, from people whose opinions on horror I trust implicitly (though some of that same group also said The Innkeepers is terrible). IF you get a good ghost story right then they can be brilliant nerve jangling fare, but the trailer suggests to me that this is just the 387th recent identical noises-off horror movie. I hope House Of The Devil director Ti West proves me wrong, and in an awful release week this may be as good as it gets, but still, large pinch of salt with this one please.

June 15th
The Big Release: Jack The Giant Killer (3D) (Bryan Singer, 2012) / Rock Of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
As with Colonel Blimp, there's nothing I can really add here that hasn't already been covered by a thousand reviews, essays and retrospectives. All I can say is that Spielberg's tentpole masterpiece is one of those rare films which completely lives up to its reputation, delivering thrills and spills worthy of Hitchcock himself. Jaws is a terrifying, sentiment-free film, and easily the director's darkest blockbusting hour. It's evident even this early that filmmaking was in Spielberg's blood; a genetic talent which he would hone over the next thirty-odd years, but he's made very few films this good since. From the opening attack of John Williams' score, recalling that classic Psycho riff, this one grips you around the throat and never, ever lets go. "You're gonna need a bigger boat." And with that a legend was born... along with the current blockbuster culture.

Sam's Pick: Polisse (Maïwenn Le Besco, 2011)
I like French films, can you tell? Polisse has no English language trailer, and for some reason I missed it at last year's LFF, but from what I can tell Maïwenn Le Besco's directorial debut, about a journalist who has an affair with one of the policemen she is writing about from the Juvenile Crime Division, seems to be a gritty and down to earth look at contemporary law enforcement. The cast certainly bodes well, with Maïwenn (as she's credited) taking a supporting role alongside Karin Viard, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Marina Foïs, and further down the cast list Sandrine Kiberlain and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, so at the very least there ought to be some fantastic performances on show here.

For me the question will be how well Maïwenn handles the transition behind the camera, while also playing a prominent role in the film. With good and bad word out of festivals this is one of summer's unknown quantities so far, but I look forward to discovering it.

June 22nd
The Big Release: The Five-Year Engagement (Nicholas Stoller, 2012)

The Alternatives
Mike's Pick: Where Do We Go Now? (Nadine Labaki, 2011)
Honestly, I'm not quite sure how to recommend this one. Where Do We Go Now? was one of my highest priorities at last year's LFF, but due to some difficult scheduling I ended up missing it. The IMDB synopsis had me fascinated: A group of Lebanese women try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village. It sounded to me like a sociopolitical drama dealing with some subjects which really intrigue me, but the trailer actually pitches it as - and there's nothing inherently wrong with this - a whimsical, fluffy little dramedy. There are some unexpected plot turns which take the film into safer territory than I'd imagined, but the idea still holds interest for me, and Labaki is definitely a talent worth keeping our eyes on. Here's hoping this is yet another misrepresentative trailer, and the final film is a little thematically meatier...

Sam's Pick: Nothing.

No, that's not the title of a film. This is one awful, awful looking week of movies right now. I was supposed to recommend Red Lights, but then I watched (and couldn't finish) the awful, awful trailer. So, yeah, fuck all this week.

June 29th
The Big Release: Friends With Kids (Jennifer Westfeldt, 2011)

The Alternatives
Mike and Sam's Pick: Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011)
Although Friedkin's last film, the scuzzy paranoia thriller Bug (2006), was something of a letdown for me, it was notable for feeling fresher than anything the director had made in twenty years; bursting at the seams with the energy of a fresh-faced debutant, but handled with the skill of an old pro. Killer Joe is his second collaboration with the playwright Tracy Letts, and it looks to be another incisively dark picture, described by the tagline as 'A Totally Twisted Deep-Fried Texas Redneck Trailer Park Murder Story'. And if that doesn't have you excited, what will? Maybe a cast that includes the underrated talents of Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch, alongside one of the most exciting rising stars of the moment, Juno Temple. I'm expecting big things of this one, which has the potential to rank among 2012's best thrillers.

There doesn't appear to be a trailer for Killer Joe yet, so I watched a clip, and that's all I want to see before sitting down. In two minutes it sets up the situation (Emile Hirsch wants to hire Matthew McConaughey to kill his Mother, but has to offer his sister (Juno Temple) in lieu of a fee), it sets up the stark, black, and perhaps drily funny tone, it sets up what appears to be an economical style from director William Friedkin, and it hints at tremendous performances from McConaughey (great when he pushes himself) and Hirsch. I don't doubt that Temple and Gina Gershon will also be fantastic and this Southern fried Noir is right at the top of my must see list for 2012. Why can't it be June 29th now?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

La Grande Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937) Blu-Ray Review

Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stronheim in La Grande Illusion (1937)...

La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir's captivating wartime drama starring Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stronheim, is released on Blu-Ray on April 23rd, courtesy of Optimum Entertainment. My review can be found on Cinemart.