Saturday 29 January 2011

Presenting: VHS Quest

I know E-Film Blog is about to get very busy with Cinema Strange, but this feature is too tempting to pass up. VHS Quest is neatly summed up by its title, but there are a few specifics that need to be ironed out. The feature will be a series of reviews for titles that aren't currently available on DVD in the UK (R2). In some cases, they can be sourced - it's just that the company doesn't actually produce them anymore, so any DVD copies you can scrounge will be from independent sellers, and usually at an incredibly unreasonable price. Therefore, they justify an entry on VHS Quest, as that will be the easiest way to locate that particular movie. Some films in the list aren't available, to my knowledge, on any format in any region - for example, the 1991 Western Clearcut (Ryszard Bugajski), which I picked up today for just 25p. The short list below is merely a taster, as this feature will exist as long as I'm still writing and there are video tapes to be found. There may be long gaps between reviews, depending on what I can find, but rest assured - there'll always be something of interest on the VHS Quest. So, for starters (alphabetically)...

3:15 - A Time To Die (Larry Gross, 1986)
A Breed Apart (Philippe Mora, 1984)
A Return To Salem's Lot (Larry Cohen, 1987)
Action Jackson (Craig R. Baxley, 1988)
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr. (Bryan Spicer, 1993)
Almost Heroes (Christopher Guest, 1998)
Angel Of Fury (Ackyl Anwari, 1992)
Babes In Toyland (Clive Donner, 1986)
Backflash (Philip J. Jones, 2002)
The Bedroom Window (Curtis Hanson, 1987)
The Being (Jackie Kong, 1983)
The Believers (John Schlesinger, 1987)
Billy The Kid (William A. Graham, 1989)
The Bite (aka Curse II) (Frederico Prosperi, 1989)
Bitter Harvest (Duane Clark, 1993)
Blind Fury (Phillip Noyce, 1989)
Bloody New Year (Norman J. Warren, 1987)
Body Count (Ruggero Deodato, 1987)
Cat And Mouse (Daniel Petrie, 1974)
Charlotte (aka La jeune fille assassinée) (Roger Vadim, 1974)
Chinatown Kid (Cheh Chang, 1977)
Cut And Run (Ruggero Deodato, 1985)
Cyclo (Xich lo) (Anh Hung Tran, 1995)
Dark Angel (aka I Come In Peace) (Craig R. Baxley, 1990)
Dead-End Drive In (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1986)
Deathstalker And The Warriors From Hell (Alfonso Corona, 1988)
Death Of A Snowman (Christopher Rowley, 1978)
Death Vengeance (aka Fighting Back) (Lewis Teague, 1982)
Dragon Lord (Jackie Chan, 1982)
Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen, 1996)
Fallen Angels (Wong Kar Wai, 1995)
Female Vampire (aka Erotic Kill) (Jesus Franco, 1973)
The Final Jeopardy (Michael Pressman, 1985)
The First Power (Robert Resnikoff, 1990)
Freedom Road (Ján Kadár, 1979)
Full Eclipse (Anthony Hickox, 1993)
Galaxy Of Terror (Bruce D. Clark, 1981)
Ghost Story (John Irvin, 1981)
Hawkeye (George Chung, 1988)
Hot Pursuit (Willem van Batenburg, 1983)
The Iron Triangle (Eric Weston, 1989)
J'embrasse Pas (André Téchiné, 1991)
Killzone (David A. Prior, 1985)
Knight Moves (Carl Schenkel, 1992)
The Lair Of The White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988)
The Last Electric Knight (James Fargo, 1986) / 2½ Dads (Tony Bill, 1986)
The Legacy (Richard Marguand, 1978)
The Little Dragons (Curtis Hanson, 1979)
Love, Cheat & Steal (William Curran, 1993)
Magic Cop (Qu mo jing cha) (Tung Wei, 1990)
Necropolis (Bruce Hickey, 1987)
Nine Deaths Of The Ninja (Emmett Alston, 1985)
Orgy Of The Dead (Stephen C. Apostolof, 1965)
Power 98 (Jaime Hellman, 1996)
The Principal (Christopher Cain, 1987)
Prison On Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)
Rage And Honor (Terence H. Winkless, 1992)
Resort To Kill (aka Immortal Combat) (Dan Neira, 1994)
Return Of The Living Dead 3 (Brian Yuzna, 1993)
The Revenge Of Al Capone (Michael Pressman, 1989)
Ring Of The Musketeers (John Paragon, 1992)
Roadhouse 66 (John Mark Robinson, 1985)
Rooftops (Robert Wise, 1989)
Salome's Last Dance (Ken Russell, 1988)
Sandinista (aka One Man Out) (Michael Kennedy, 1989)
Sewage Baby (Francis Teri, 1990)
Split Second (Tony Maylam, 1992)
Spyder (Joe Mari Avellana, 1988)
The Stand-In (Tay Garnett, 1937)
The Stone Killer (Michael Winner, 1973)
Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978)
Sword Of The Bushido (Adrian Carr, 1990)
Technosapiens (aka Shadow Warriors) (Lamar Card, 1995)
Thursday's Game (Robert Moore, 1974)
Truckers (Jackie Cockle, Chris Taylor, Francis Vose, 1992)
Twice Under (Dean Crow, 1990)
The Uninvited (Greydon Clark, 1988)
Venom (Piers Haggard, 1981)
Warrior Queen (Chuck Vincent, 1987)
Waxwork II: Lost In Time (Anthony Hickox, 1992)
Wedlock (Lewis Teague, 1991)
Whore (Ken Russell, 1991)
Wild Search (Ringo Lam, 1989)
Zachariah (George Englund, 1971)

Thursday 27 January 2011

Presenting: Cinema Strange

Starting on February 1st the E-Film Blog will be taking a departure into unfamiliar territory with the start of Cinema Strange, a new feature that will be delving into the worlds of surrealist, experimental, avant-garde, arthouse, horror and exploitation cinema - this may seem like a wide spectrum, and it is, but the purpose of the feature is to highlight and explore works of world cinema that take risks, present unusual scenarios and use mise-en-scène to show us things that we've never seen before - things that are obscure, challenging, frustrating, offensive, enlightening. The feature will last between 2 - 3 months and will also run alongside my Kenji Mizoguchi review and the completion of my Powell & Pressburger and Long Goodbye seasons (both delayed due to internet problems). More will be revealed in the coming days but for now I provide a list of the films and filmmakers that I will be profiling on this journey. Keep coming back... there will be updates (in alphabetical order)...

A Trip To The Moon / Le voyage dans la lune (Georges Méliès, 1902)
Andy Warhol's Bad (Jed Johnson, 1977)
The Beast / La bête (Walerian Borowczyk, 1975)
Black Cat / Gatto nero (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
Black Sun (Gary Tarn, 2005)
Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
The Bronx Warriors / 1990: I guerrieri del Bronx (Enzo G. Castellari, 1982)
Cat Soup / Nekojiru-so (Tatsuo Sato, 2001)
Central Bazaar (Stephen Dwoskin, 1976)
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989)
Daisies / Sedmikrásky (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
Dougal And The Blue Cat / Pollux et le chat bleu (Serge Danot, 1970)
Dreams That Money Can Buy (Hans Richter, 1947)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1971)
Escape From The Bronx / Fuga dal Bronx (Enzo G. Castellari, 1983)
Eyes Without A Face / Les yeux sans visage (Georges Franju, 1960)
The Face Of Another / Tanin no kao (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)
The Fall (Tarsem Singh, 2006)
Fantastic Planet / La planète sauvage (René Laloux, 1973)
Female Perversions (Susan Streitfeld, 1996)
The Fiend (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1972)
The Five Obstructions / De fem benspænd (Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier, 2003)
Forbidden Zone (Richard Elfman, 1982)
Funeral Parade Of Roses / Bara no sôretsu (Toshio Matsumoto)
Gaea Girls (Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams, 2000)
Herostratus (Don Levy, 1967)
The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)
The Hour-Glass Sanatorium / Sanatorium pod klepsydra (Wojciech Has, 1973)
Hour Of The Wolf / Vargtimmen (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
House (Hausu) (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977)
Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004)
In The Realm Of The Senses / Ai no korîda (Nagisa Ôshima, 1976)
Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978)
The King Is Alive (Kristian Levring, 2000)
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Kwaidan / Kaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)
The Last Of England (Derek Jarman, 1988)
Meshes Of The Afternoon (Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid, 1943)
Morgiana (Juraj Herz, 1972)
The New Barbarians / I nuovi barbari (Enzo G. Castellari, 1983)
The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1980)
The Phantom Of Liberty / Le fantôme de la liberté (Luis Buñuel, 1974)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Possible Worlds (Robert Lepage, 2000)
Powaqqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1988)
Profound Desires Of The Gods / Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (Shôhei Imamura, 1968)
Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
Ratman / Quella villa in fondo al parco (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1988)
The Saddest Music In The World (Guy Maddin, 2003)
Salò, or the 120 Days Of Sodom / Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)
The Saragossa Manuscript / Rekopis znaleziony w Sargossie (Wojciech Has, 1965)
Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh, 1996)
Separation (Jack Bond, 1968)
Shinjuku Boys (Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams, 1995)
Taxidermia (György Pálfi, 2006)
Tropical Malady / Sud pralad (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
Un chien andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / Loong boonmee raleuk chat (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Week End (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (Béla Tarr, 2000)
Woman Of The Dunes / Suna no onna (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

David Cronenberg
Terry Gilliam
Werner Herzog
David Lynch
Nicolas Roeg
Jeff Keen
Kenneth Anger: Part 1
Brothers Quay

Wednesday 26 January 2011

The Shortlist: Supporting Actors/Actresses

Full article at MultiMediaMouth:

BFI Screen: Breakfast At Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961)

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961)

Although not as racy as Truman Capote's 1956 novella of the same name, Breakfast At Tiffany's is still a romantic treat in its own right. Screenwriter George Axelrod has gone some way to taking the edges off of Capote's 'it girl', catering for the casting of the ever-lovable Audrey Hepburn by making her a frothier, perkier presence, as opposed to the shrill and complex society gal of the source material (only 94 pages itself). Stunningly shot by DoP Franz Planer, Breakfast At Tiffany's the movie is an exercise in technicolour richness; a film that refuses to make any sort of social commentary when it could just as easily be shopping for jewelry or drinking bourbon. This in itself isn't a problem, however, as the film has no pretense of substance. Indeed, the films biggest flaw is the woeful casting of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, who turns in one of the most cringe-inducing stereotypes the cinema has ever seen, and remains an offensive embarrassment that sticks out like a sore thumb in a film of subtlety and class; most characters speak softly and assuredly, where he makes indistinguishable screams down a staircase, hopping around like he's on hot coals. It would be outdated even for a parody, which this isn't.

Of course, to compare Edwards' Tiffany's to Capote's is perhaps unfair. As an adaptation it's awful, completely disregarding the bite of the source material, dramatically shifting focus into safer, formulaic romantic territory. It indulges in whimsical pitter-patter where the book makes great use of narration and non-linear narrative, as well as page-long monologues, to wallow in the life of Miss Golightly, who is much harder to warm to without a face as pretty and recognizable as Hepburn's. The basic plot is all the same, but the events and character arcs are sufficiently different to see this as more of a reinterpretation of the characters most basic wants and needs; her attitude and style. It's initially easy to separate yourself from the original material too, because this is such an absorbing fantasy; visually beautiful and with a lulling, dreamy score by Henry Mancini. The fantasy, though, is an insufficient one, lacking the intelligence, class awareness and social insight that would have been so welcome.

The opening sequence says perhaps all that need be said. Holly Golightly pulls up in an ordinary yellow cab to the window of Tiffany's, the poshest jewelry store in New York. She's dressed head-to-toe in black; a gorgeous dress, pearl necklace, hair up and sunglasses hiding any insecurity that may be revealed by her eyes. She's every bit the bourgeoise dream, but she stays outside, peering in. A low angle shot takes in the entire building when Holly first steps out of the cab, perhaps implying that she is still beneath this world, despite how much of her own bullshit she chooses to believe ("she's a real phony"). She eats her breakfast and drinks her coffee as the score swells over her contended face - this is a place of meditation for Holly, a place of peace and fulfillment. Retail therapy, without any buying.

The centerpiece of the film is the emerging romance between Holly and new neighbour Paul 'Fred' Varjack (George Peppard), a near-failing writer with one success that can be found at the public library, where Holly has never been before. Although this isn't a bad focus, it is a protracted one - extended to 112 minutes where the 94-page novella barely gives it breathing room. It would have been nice to further explore Holly's party-going lifestyle, her relationships, inhibitions, self-obsession, short temper and lies; her humanity, if you will. It would have been nice to learn more of her history, her relationship with her brother and husband. It would have been nice to visit Joe's Bar, or even have a mention of the place. But the romance plays first fiddle, and while it's perfectly fine (funny, fizzy and finally uplifting) it's an empty entertainment. The only shot that really holds resonance is the heartbreaking fade-out, feathers floating around Holly sobbing on her bed, as she learns of the death of her brother Fred, who was in the Army. The ending is both the films most rewarding moment and its most significant betrayal. Holly runs from her cab through the rain and takes a stray cat back into her care, falling into the arms of Paul and ending on a kiss. It warms the heart, and is undeniably lovely. But it's not as satisfying as the mystery of Holly Golightly as written by Truman Capote. I know I started this review trying to separate book and film, stating that a lack of substance was fine given the quality of the style, but comparisons are inevitable between two such rightful classics. I loved this film, it made me laugh and leave the cinema with a smile. But it also left me with a tinge of disappointment - perhaps because of its conformity, its neatness and effervescence. But more because Breakfast At Tiffany's the film is a glass of champagne, where the book is a shot of bourbon straight from the heart and, unavoidably, all the better for it.

Thursday 20 January 2011

I Was Born, But... (Otona no miru ehon - Umarete wa mita keredo) (Yasujirô Ozu, 1932) DVD Review

Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara in I Was Born, But... (1932)

Although best known for latter-day domestic dramas like Tokyo Story (1953), Japanese auteur Yasujirô Ozu made his name with a series of silent comedies, exploring the themes of family, honour and generational passage which would later become touchstones of his work. It may come as a surprise for fans of Ozu's final pictures, who would be used to his static floor-level long-takes, to discover that I Was Born, But... is a slapstick schoolyard tale, notably influenced by the work of US comics Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. The film makes great use of a moving camera, preferring panning and tracking shots over stationary observation, and while that Keaton comparison appears broad the film's first half makes use of classic silent setups - the small-fry encountering the leader of a bad gang, sibling mimicry and a car trapped, frantically revving, in thick, stodgy mud. Unlike American comedy of the 1920s, however, Ozu does not acknowledge the act of performance or the audience watching, but instead infuses social commentary into the sight gags. These childish games are funny - perfectly choreographed and timed - but an audience raised on The General (Bruckman, Keaton, 1926) might not click with them immediately.

I Was Born, But... tells the story of Keiji (Tomio Aoki) and Ryoichi (Hideo Sugawara), new kids on the block at a cramped Tokyo suburb (they have moved so that their father may be closer to his boss, Iwasaki, played by Takeshi Sakamoto). The boys are led to believe that their father is a great and important man, yet hold little faith in themselves. While the patriarch insists that they can be great too, the kids suffer several run-ins with school bullies, who seem intent on making their lives miserable. Soon Kozou (Shoichi Kofujita), a local delivery boy, helps them out by beating up the leader of the gang - the power struggle is over, and the boys gain respect, but their faith is soon tested by an evening of home-movies at Iwasaki's house...

Here the boys see their father as an obsequious employee; a lowly desk clerk who prostitutes his clownish charm to get on his boss's good side. The brothers question him, asking why he must kowtow to gain respect, confused as to why he can't be manager. The revelation is particularly affecting for in their father's corporate bondage the boys see their own lives reflected, now realizing the unchangeable social strata and understanding that one's aspirations are futile unless you have/are born into money. The perfect metaphor comes in a juxtaposition of two shots. The first sees a lineup of kids marching side-by-side to school, and the second is a panning shot of an office with all the employees yawning in unison at their drab, identical desks. This is the life we're all marching toward, Ozu declares, as the social pecking order still favours the wealthy and makes fun of the working-class. The children decide to make a sacrifice when the father says he must work to put food on the table - they have a hunger strike. Of course, they soon give in, recognizing that there is honour in providing for your family. The father sits by them on a sunny day (there are very few interior shots) and asks a simple question; "what do you want to be when you grow up?" It matters little what the answer is. The point is that, in a quietly affecting moment, he simply asked.

The Disc/Extras
Beautifully photographed by DP Hideo Mohara, the film looks stunning in this new BFI transfer. Grain and scratching are still noticeable in some scenes, especially in the latter half of the film, but the picture quality overall is crisp. The new score by Ed Hughes may not complement all of the action, but it gives energy and soul to a film about innocence lost and maturity gained. A funny and heartbreaking picture, the ending may wrap events up a little too neatly, but it's still a shining example of a storyteller at the top of his game. You might say he was born to do it...

Friday 14 January 2011

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (Daniel Farrands, Andrew Kasch, 2010) R1 DVD Review

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger.

In the early 1980s New Line Cinema was a struggling distribution company desperately searching for a hit. They'd been good at picking up cult movies such as Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972) and The Street Fighter (Shigehero Ozawa, 1974), but these movies wouldn't find a real audience for years to come. They were struggling and needed to bounce back from two flops, Polyester (John Waters, 1981) and Alone In The Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982). Producer Bob Shaye knew he had to take a risk on something special, and that something was Wes Craven's screenplay for A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), which had been turned down by almost every other studio. At the time Craven was best known for the controversial rape/revenge thriller Last House On The Left (1972), and was not the most bankable of filmmakers. Shaye and Craven both knew that this film would make or break them, and it became the first film to be both produced and distributed by New Line Cinema, who until now had only handled the selling of movies. Creative disputes, money troubles and on-set accidents all went into the creation of one of the best and most iconic horror movies of all time, which spawned an unforgettable legacy and one of the longest movie franchises. Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is the story of how it all came together...

An in-depth four-hour documentary of insights and anecdotes, there's not much more to say than if you're a Nightmare On Elm Street fan this will be one of the most exciting and entertaining film experiences of the year. Behind-the-scenes footage, unedited and honest opinions of the films and a detailed history of New Line Cinema, creative disputes and how Box Office affected the trajectory of the franchise are all on offer. Simply put, it's heaven for the horror fan. Around 30 minutes is dedicated to each film, including the disappointing Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003), which actually comes out quite clean, with Englund endorsing it as a Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (Roy William Neill, 1943) throwback affair. With that taken into account, along with its long and troubled pre-production history, Freddy vs. Jason might be due something of a re-evaluation as a schlocky showdown piece, rather than something with ingenuity and wit, which is what the franchise was built upon. A lot of executives seem unhappy with the final edit of the film and some deleted footage (which found opposition with the MPAA) looks much more exciting and bloodthirsty. That said, Englund and director Yu still seem enthused about the final result, which is more than can be said for some of the films.

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (Rachel Talalay, 1991) doesn't quite get the bashing it deserves, but on-set accounts and discussions of the ideas behind it make it sound like a much more noble failure than watching the film suggests. The sequence where Breckin Meyer enters a videogame world with Freddy has been the scene of fan outrage and cringe-inducing anger for years, and it's acknowledged as a misstep, but series producer Talalay was seriously trying to expand the mythology and try something new. And that's what this documentary really reconfirms - no matter how many awful moments there are in the Nightmare On Elm Street legacy, no matter how many stinkers find their way into the crowd, each one was something new and brought creative spirit to the table. Four films down the line most franchises start to get a little stale but Renny Harlin's effort (The Dream Master, 1988) is still a stunningly imaginative and underrated gem, with a visionary ending sequence. Harlin reveals here that he wanted to shoot the film with the pace of a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie, and there are stylistic flourishes in the final frames that suggest he succeeded. The killing of Freddy, which sees a disorienting camera propel us through his body with screaming souls bursting out of the walls, eventually ending with them tearing through his chest and ripping him apart, is one of the most inventive and gruesome moments in the legacy, with thrilling use of practical effects. It's almost like watching Cronenberg go to hell.

It's also great to see The Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987) get the recognition it deserves as not only a fan favorite, but a genuine horror classic. It's a furiously paced, intelligent and terrifying movie - but it's sad to learn that it could have been more so. The opening sequence sees Patricia Arquette running down dark, echoing hallways, and coming across a child. The special effects and makeup team put together a disturbing model of a skeletal child, which almost looked like it had been abused and starved, eventually ending up at the wrath of Freddy. Russell and Shay decided that it was too scary and weeks of work were just thrown away. I wish they hadn't, as it would have made the film even better. The special effects are the most celebrated element of the documentary, and it's frankly about time, because the franchise does display innovative use of in-camera and practical effects, which will always look better than CGI. Even when they had no money, no support, and impending deadlines, the effects and makeup teams always managed to make something spectacular. Thank god they're finally getting the attention they deserve, as practical effects engineers and makeup artists are often tragically ignored.

Most entertaining is watching the cast and crew of Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985) discuss the vast homosexual subtext of the film. Screenwriter David Chaskin expresses disappointment at nearly every junction, director Sholder talks of almost casting Brad Pitt (who would later appear in the TV series) or Christian Slater, and the producers laugh over their naivety in not seeing the gay subtext - especially the shower whipping scene and that awful bedroom dancing sequence. The highlight of the whole documentary comes here too; a fantastically deadpan Clu Gulager's expression when talking of the killer bird, which almost blinded him. Priceless.

Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Sergei Eisenstein's Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

The 1920s were an innovative time for cinema. While the German Expressionists were experimenting with cinematography, Soviet pioneers such as Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein were experimenting with editing - specifically the use of montage. Expressionists such as Robert Wiene and F.W. Murnau sought to tell a story through images - the use of darkness and shadows. In the wake of WWI these films also had sociopolitical context, but within the grand scheme of what film author J.P. Telotte calls "the power of spectacle" - perhaps also in reference to the grand architectural design of the Weimar films, best exemplified in Fritz Lang's Art Deco masterpiece Metropolis (1927). The Russian Film School, as they were known, sought to tell stories through the editing of the image, while also focusing on great sociopolitical issues. Eisenstein has written of the technique in various articles and books, but never better than in Film Form, a collection of twelve essays on film theory written between 1928 and 1945 - demonstrating key points from his own oeuvre. Eisenstein's understanding of film language and technique is explored well in the book, perhaps best summed up by this statement:

"For example, in painting the form arises from abstract elements
of line and colour, while in cinema the material concreteness of
the image within the frame presents - as an element - the greatest
difficulty in manipulation."

What Eisenstein wanted to do then, was manipulate through the collage of images, informing emotion and message through the juxtaposition of two shots. This way he could also employ metaphor without explicitly creating meaning within the frame of a shot. A prime example would be in the superior Stachka (1925) where the sight of striking workers being attacked by a police force is juxtaposed with a shot of a bull being slaughtered, demonstrating the idea that the workers are being treated like cattle; their will and freedoms are not considered. Here, death is a mechanical process. Eisenstein developed what he called "methods of montage" and they were...
  1. Metric (follows a specific number of frames)
  2. Rhythmic (cutting based on time)
  3. Tonal (exploits the literal emotional meaning of the shots)
  4. Overtonal (a combination of three previous methods)
  5. Intellectual (the juxtaposition of shots for metaphorical or intellectual means)
... most of which appear in Bronenosets Potyomkin. Although I believe Stachka (released eight months earlier) to be both a superior and more important film, this is by far his most famous, with a thrilling centerpiece later recreated in Brian De Palma's gangster classic The Untouchables (1987). The story is split into five chapters; Men And Maggots; Drama At The Harbour; A Dead Man Calls For Justice; The Odessa Staircase and The Rendez-Vous With A Squadron. The film opens in 1905 with the battleship Potemkin nearing Odessa on the Black Sea, after a defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. The crew of the ship are given rotten meat and a mutiny uprising faces opposition from a firing squad. The shooters hesitate and an innocent solider named Vakulinchuk (Aleksandr Antonov) intervenes and is killed. The men take his body to the shore with a sign that reads 'KILLED FOR A BOWL OF SOUP'. Eventually a crowd appear to mourn the death of the young solider, and a proletarian uprising begins to take shape against the Tsar. The citizens take formation at the Odessa Steps where the Tsar military oppose them - they begin marching down the steps opening unprovoked fire against men, women and children. The peasants of Odessa are slaughtered including a mother who knocks her infants carriage down the steps, in a frighteningly tense sequence. Obviously Eisenstein intended the film to be as much a propaganda piece as anything, to criticize the Tsar and glorify Communist revolution. The characters are definitively one-dimensional, split into 'groups', and speak not so much a natural dialogue as theoretical stance, or sociopolitical argument. This way Eisenstein needn't waste time with exposition or characterization; an audience will recognize the side they take through the bullet-point title cards, and elements of mise-en-scène such as costume, performance and lighting (the side of good is more illuminated than the shadowed forces of the Tsar). In this sense, combined with the revolutionary editing techniques, Bronenosets Potyomkin is a masterclass in storytelling. It is however, by todays standards, a little primitive.

This is the reason why I regard Stachka the stronger film. Not only is it full of strikingly beautiful imagery and more imaginative edits, it has a finer balance between character and politics. Bronenosets Potyomkin may make a stronger argument for its cause (that is fit for debate) but the art of cinema has come a long way since the days of Eisenstein. Now it's character and story that really invites the viewer into a film and watching this mini-epic can often be a detached, cold experience. It's a technical masterpiece, and a work to be constantly admired, but outside of the shocking Odessa Steps sequence the film offers very little to engage with. Audiences at the time would have felt differently, of course, as they could identify with the 'sides'. But today Stachka is the more involving film - it's not exactly a character piece, and it doesn't exactly soft-peddle its political ideals, but it does portray the workingman as a real person, and not a message. There is a stronger sense of community to the film, and respect. When watching that film I get a feel for the life of the factories and families, which makes the final raid all the more chilling, and devastating. Still, the chance to see Bronenosets Potyomkin on the big screen once more is not one to be missed - there's nothing quite like it today...

The newly restored version of Battleship Potemkin is re-released in select US theaters today.

The Shortlist: The 8 Worst Superhero Movies

To celebrate the release of Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet, I present my '8 Worst Superhero Movies', over at MultiMediaMouth...

Sunday 9 January 2011

Powell & Pressburger #5. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller in 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

One of Powell & Pressburger's lesser-known efforts, 'I Know Where I'm Going!' was filmed inbetween the duo's first critical and commercial flop, the brilliant A Canterbury Tale (1944), and their celebrated celestial romance A Matter Of Life And Death (1946), and has since been disregarded by fans and critics alike. Telling the story of an ambitious young woman, Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), who finds love on the remote Scottish island of Mull, the film finds its directors on more intimate form than usual, scaling down for a simple tale of boy meets girl, which they penned in less than a week. It's a significantly less interesting feature than its aforementioned bookends, and being wedged between the two has done it no favours, but this is actually a charming and beautifully shot little film, lensed by A Canterbury Tale DP Erwin Hillier...

A descendant of the German Expressionists, Hillier cut his teeth working for Weimar master Fritz Lang (M, 1931), before moving to Britain and collaborating with Hitchcock on Waltzes From Vienna (1934), an uncharacteristic musical from the master of suspense. Through working at Gaumont's Shepherd's Bush studio Hillier was introduced to Michael Powell, who recruited him for The Archers in '44. The DP's experience with darkness and shadows proved oddly perfect for 'I Know Where I'm Going!', which was closer to his experience with Lang than might have initially been expected. Due to a stage commitment on the West End, Roger Livesey wasn't able to travel to Scotland, and all of his scenes were shot at a studio in Denham, Buckinghamshire. What's really remarkable about Hillier's photography, considering that he never used a light meter, is that the transition between location and studio is seamless, and he manages to create an entirely consistent atmosphere. A key scene in the film finds Joan, Torquil (Livesey) and Kenny (Murdo Morrison) attempting to cross from the Isle Of Mull to Kiloran, where our protagonist is to be married. A foreboding black mist forms and swirls over the water, and the sequence - cloaked in darkness - is nail-biting, eventually building to a whirlpool disaster. We're pitted right into the middle of the danger, feeling ever bitter torrent of wind and rogue wave as the blackness draws ever nearer. No easy feat considering that it was shot on a sound stage. Other sequences impress - notably an early dream where Joan imagines herself marrying a giant corporation, and the overlapping cycle of images (machinery pumping away; a train passing under a mountain) recalls both Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Eisenstein's Stachka (1925).

Outside of Hillier's dazzling technical achievements, the performances are all terrific. Hiller excels as Webster in one of her earliest performances, and despite the difficulties of the character - her stubbornness and self-importance - the actress imbues her with warmth, ensuring that she's easy to root for. The original casting for Torquil was James Mason, but after he refused to "live rough" on the island, Livesey was cast, and all for the better. The actor lost 20lbs for the role, giving himself a younger, fresher look - ironic for the fact that he was never required to set foot on the island. Despite fantastic turns from the leads, the relationship is not quite developed enough to land the cosy ending, but Powell & Pressburger's natural dialogue flows beautifully, and the actors hit on unwritten subtleties that add depth to individual moments. The film isn't perfect, but it's certainly more than the stopgap between two masterworks, and for that fact it deserves wider recognition. It's strikingly photographed - almost like a hymn to the landscape - and I'd highly recommend giving it a chance. A romantic trip to the Highlands doesn't sound that bad now, does it?

Friday 7 January 2011

BFI Screen: Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963) Review

Audrey Hepburn stars in the sly spy rom-com Charade (1963)

Regina Lampert: Can't you be serious?
Peter Joshua: Oh, you just said a horrible word.
Regina Lampert: What did I say?
Peter Joshua: Serious. When a man gets to my age that's the last word he
ever wants to hear. I don't want to be serious. And I especially don't want
you to be.

And therein lies everything that's wrong with Charade. Leave it to Stanley Donen to make a Hitchcock thriller so giddy on its own fanciful charms, so in love with it's location and stars that all sense of wit, tension and character is lost for the sake of pretty people talking pitter-patter. Critics argue that today's blockbusters are vacuous but Charade, for all of its old-fashioned classiness, is an utterly featherbrained confection.

The feeling of watching Charade is akin to that of embarking upon a sightseeing tour of Paris and, along the way, stopping off for a murder mystery. You know the sort; those harmless party pastimes where you invite friends round for dinner, dress up and play out a character until the little card reveals that the chef killed Mrs. Walton with a steak knife. Laid-back luxury is the name of the game, and the director of Singing In The Rain (1952) is about the only filmmaker who could have done it with this much moonstruck flamboyance.

The age gap between stars Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn (25 years) is creepy, but worst of all is their complete typecasting. Grant is just playing himself; what should be a portrayal of a grieving brother intent on seeking revenge turns into a wannabe James Bond - a charismatic super sleuth with a knack for charming young widows. He plays the role as if he were a movie star - sharply suited and with a witticism for every situation, there isn't an ounce of a recognizable human being in his portrayal. Audrey Hepburn is utterly lovely, but Donen has her on such familiar form as a Holly Golightly type, breezing through the city of love . It just so happens that her husband has been murdered and three strongmen are after the quarter-of-a-million dollars they believe to be in her possession. Her conversations with CIA administrator Hamilton Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) have the same tone as the romantic comedies where she made her name.

See, the brilliant thing about Hitchcock was that he could balance romance, comedy and espionage like a master - employing dazzling camera technique, saturated cinematography and subtleties of character that reward repeat viewings. He was famous for treating actors like cattle, but he also knew how to channel the duel reality complex of their profession into stories of desperation, anger and lust, often warping their star image in the process. He understood every aspect of the movie industry, and could manipulate it to his will. Donen is not Hitchcock, and while Charade is obviously designed as a parody it also asks you to buy into the mystery - gasp at the plot twists and bite your nails at the set-pieces. But Donen's caper is so self-aware and silly that it's impossible to take any of it seriously. Even the title, which the writers probably think is clever, serves as a perfect review of the film. It's a mockery, and quite a camp, outdated one.

But it's not unwatchable. Grant and Hepburn may be wasting their considerable talents on autopilot, and they don't make a believable couple, but their comic sparks strike gold every so often, and both stars ooze charisma. DP Charles Lang is an underrated talent, and his work here is striking - especially when swooning over the Parisian sidewalks, which he lenses like something from a dream. The score by Henry Mancini is also good, but the story is crying out for Bernard Herrmann, who lent mystery and romance such swelling emotional tones in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). What Charade really needs, in fact, is a confident hand to decide if it's straight-up parody or a genuine mystery thriller. What Donen delivers is the musical version - fast, furious, and living in the clouds, coasting through the motions with ultimate joie de vivre. It's entertaining, but also shallow, and anyone expecting more than His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) style putdowns wrapped up in an espionage plot should probably be looking elsewhere...

Powell & Pressburger #4. A Canterbury Tale (1944)

Shelia Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale (1944)

There's something odd about the town of Chillingbourne. The film beings with a narrator reciting the prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which details the outset of pilgrimage to Canterbury. Brief footage reveals the start of their travels and one of the pilgrims releases a bird into the air. We match cut to England in 1943 - the middle of WWII. "But though so little has changed since Chaucer's day, Another kind of pilgrim walks the way" the narrator reads, as a tank bursts into the frame, flattening the tall grass and hedgerows. The pilgrims now are 'Land Girl' Alison Smith (Shelia Sim), American Sergeant Bob Johnson (John Sweet) and British Sergeant Peter Gibbs (Dennis Price). They all depart the train to Canterbury at Chillingbourne in the dead of night. The odd thing about town is a mysterious glue-man, an unknown criminal who attacks girls by putting glue in their hair. Alison is the twelfth victim, and along with Bob and Peter she tracks her assailant to the town hall, where she meets suspicious magistrate Mr Colpeper (Eric Portman)...

Although it's rightfully recognised as a classic, A Canterbury Tale is perhaps the least celebrated of Powell & Pressburger's wartime period films. It's often remembered for what it was (a critical and commercial failure) than what it actually is. The film didn't see a US release until 1949, but even then it wasn't the proper version - Powell was ordered to re-edit the film, cutting 20 minutes of footage, and adding narration and a girlfriend for the Johnson character, played by Kim Hunter. Thankfully the BFI restored the film during the 1970s and it's now available, complete and restored, here and in the US (Criterion). So now we can see the film for what it is - which is a smart mystery, and a neo-romantic tale of British heritage, and cultural difference. This is perhaps Powell & Pressburger's most observational film; epic in allegory and subtle in emotion, it takes leave from from the notion of German Expressionism by using mise-en-scène to inform mood and feeling. It's not so strict to Weimar values in its execution, but the first glue-man attack and our introduction to Colpeper definitely use concepts of light and shadow to inform atmosphere and character, in much the same way as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) does. The camera is much more static, the narrative intentionally baggy - rather than speeding us through a story Powell & Pressburger take some time to allow their audience to soak up Chillingbourne and its people, and pass judgment on their character. One of the most enjoyable things about the film is the way in which the central trio compose themselves in the town, and adjust to the lifestyle. This is especially true of Bob, who struggles with, but eventually warms to, the British countryside. One scene sees him recruiting a ragtag group of young boys, playing war-games which perhaps subtly implies just how close to home the war really was. He tells the boys that he will give them a football if he helps with their investigation, by stealing the logbook from the Grocer (which he calls the "drugstore"). There are other misunderstandings too, both good and bad - such as the threatening of his Sergeant status for having his stripes upside down, and the respect earned by Mr Horton for his knowledge of woodworking. Watching Bob discover British tradition and values is the most enjoyable part of the film, and Powell & Pressburger do a fine job of expressing how a divide between cultures can soon become a union through something as simple as friendship.

The success of that notion also relies on the performances of the cast, however - and Sim, Sweet and Price are all excellent in their roles. Sweet, a real-life Sergeant, is especially good - charming with a boyish wonder. The photography is by Erwin Hillier, who began his career with the German Expressionists - first Murnau, whom he was forced to stop working with by his father, a homophobic. Murnau introduced Hillier to Fritz Lang, who employed him as assistant cameraman on M (1931). A lot of Hillier's photography has stylistic roots in his Weimar beginnings, but he always employs light and dark more specifically in tune with the material he's working on - A Canterbury Tale, shot in beautiful black and white, has sublime tonal shifting between shadowy mystery and the optimism of summer (the film takes place in August). A beautiful scene sees Alison and Mr Colpeper bumping into each other on a hilly trek (pictured above). At first the camera is in a wide shot, taking in not just the rolling hills and cloudy skies, but also Canterbury in the distance. Then when the two begin talking the camera becomes more intimate and in an almost low-angle shot observes the grass swaying in the breeze. The conversation that takes place here - uncovering the glue-man - is integral to the plot, but you could just as easily not care. The scenery is so beautiful, the photography and camerawork so masterful. In terms of consistency of tone and atmosphere, this is perhaps the best Powell & Pressburger feature I've seen yet.

If you choose to read all the metaphors and allegory of A Canterbury Tale then there is something else of importance in this scene - the moment where Alison hears the ghostly sounds of pilgrims traveling by horse to Canterbury. It occurs upon our first sight of the Cathedral, over the Chillingbourne hills. It's the allegory that put audiences off though, back in 1944/49, and watching the film as a comedic mystery, charting the discovery of British countryside by a foreigner, and the friendship that emerges there, is probably the more satisfying prospect. Whichever way you look at it, the film has a romantic optimism that's hard to beat - especially in the scene of Peter playing the Cathedral organ - and it's another masterpiece from two of the best filmmakers of all time.

LFF #9: The King's Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010)

LFF #8: 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

The Shortlist: Top 10 Remakes

Part of a new feature entitled 'The Shortlist', for MultiMediaMouth, this week I kick things off with a countdown of my Top 10 Remakes, in celebration of the release of Paul Haggis' The Next Three Days...

Thursday 6 January 2011

Powell & Pressburger #3. The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943)

Roger Livesey in The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943).

Powell & Pressburger were brave, boundary-pushing filmmakers. A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) is a bold, ambitious vision of heaven, a heaven of faith equality, and contains a central debate on prejudice. Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) caused uproar upon release for putting audiences into the shoes of a perverted serial killer; an exploration of the dangers of voyeurism that is as powerful now as it was 50 years ago. But perhaps The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp was their bravest film - after all, it was shot and released slap-bang in the middle of WWII, in Britain's darkest hours, and not only contains criticism of the military, but also has a deeply sympathetic German character, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), who befriends the central character, Brit Clive Candy (Roger Livesey). The film is full of audacious, enterprising ideas and characterization, and that's what makes it such a masterpiece...

Winston Churchill was famously opposed to the screenplay and even denied Laurence Olivier leave from Navy duty to play Clive Candy. Instead Powell & Pressburger turned to the sublime Roger Livesey, and paired him with Austrian actor Anton Walbrook, and the young up-and-comer Deborah Kerr, who turns in three astonishing performances. Churchill wanted the film banned, as he felt it was overly critical of the classical solider; the patriot. This is the type of character Clive Candy is when we first meet him, bathing in the steam room of a London house. "WAR STARTS AT MIDNIGHT!", we are told, but a young lieutenant named Spud (James McKechnie) has jumped the gun. The enemy doesn't play fair, is his thinking, but this outrages the bloated, mustached Candy. The scene has a heightened realism, and is very funny - playing up to the comic strip origins of the Candy character. He's presented as the buffoon and, at first, we laugh. A solider stuck in his ways, he fights the young lieutenant and they fall into the swimming pool. The camera glides across the pool and we are transported to 1902, and Candy's life as a young, eager man - a man much like Spud.

What follows is storytelling of the most epic and finely crafted order. Along with Lawrence Of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is often referred to as the best British film of all time, and it's a title richly deserved. The film begins with the smart, cocky Candy traveling to Berlin against orders, to investigate the anti-British propaganda supposedly being spread by the Germans. "Leave politics to the politicians" he is told, but pays no attention. While in Berlin he accidentally offends the German army, and is challenged to a duel, which he accepts. His opponent is a man he has never met before, a man named Schuldorff. The camera observes the start of their fight but then zooms out of the location, leaving the fate of the duel unknown. Clive and Schuldorff find themselves recovering in the same nursing home and they bond over evenings of card games. Schuldorff's English is poor ("very much") but they develop a mutual respect. Schuldorff falls in love with Candy's British contact, Edith (Kerr's first role). On Candy's last day in the home Schuldorff announces his engagement to Edith, and the three of them celebrate. It is only after the train journey home that Candy realizes he loved the woman too, but must wait another 15 years to find her lookalike...

Powell & Pressburger find ingenious ways to show the passage of time, the first of which is via a series of animal heads. Candy is also a hunter, and he places he heads of his victories on his wall - under each is a plaque with the date of shooting. Quick-edits flash-forward through the years as Candy collects all sorts of prizes - including an elephant. We pass sixteen years to 1918, and Candy is in Flanders. It's here that he meets his future wife, Barbara (Kerr's second role), a dead-ringer for Edith - literally, in fact, as she's 20 years his junior. WWI comes to a close, and Candy has Schuldorff over for an evening gathering, assuring him that there will be a life for him back in Germany (he has been a prisoner of war). Time once again propels forward to 1939... Candy's wife passes away and he is retired. The next 30 minutes are some of the most unbearably sad in all of cinema history...

What's truly remarkable about The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp is that, despite some questionable makeup (bad hairlines and no wrinkles) there's a genuine sense of aging, and world-weariness. It doesn't even feel like watching two actors, such is the dedication and honesty of Livesey and Walbrook's performances. It's just like watching two men grow old together, and respect each other all the more. The final chapter of the film opens with Schuldorff sat in an immigration office in England, at the start of WWII - noticeably greyer and paler, he now walks with a stick and speaks more slowly. He unfurls a heartbreaking story to the official questioning him of how his wife had passed away and his estranged children, two boys, had become Nazi's. With nothing left, he has returned to the place he now feels is home. Walbrook's delivery here is astonishing - spoken like a broken man, he attempts to put pride over sadness, but his tone is one of regret. Of course, Candy welcomes Schuldorff with open arms... and a confession of love for Edith, which he never got over. These are now men of honour and experience, and the conversation is handled with a masterful maturity and a nice little gag... Deborah Kerr's third appearance as Candy's driver Johnny, whom he picked from 700 women. After a BBC speech is denied, Candy is retired again, and feels deflated. Schuldorff and Johnny soon have him back on his feet with the Home Guard - shortly before Candy's house is bombed. The film eventually comes full circle as Spud is revealed to be Johnny's boyfriend.

What else can be said for the film? The script is among the best ever written, the performances are Oscar worthy, the direction sublime and the music and photography unequaled. It's to the credit of Powell & Pressburger, those masters, that they end the film on an impossibly beautiful note, bettering even the excellence that has come before it. The bomb site that was once Candy's house has been turned into a water cistern. He remembers a promise he made to Barbara upon their engagement, that he would "never change" until the house is flooded and "this is a lake." He looks down at a leaf floating on the water and turns back to Schuldorff and Johnny. "Here is the lake" he says, "and I still haven't changed." Perfect.