Monday 25 June 2012

Conspirators Of Pleasure (Jan Švankmajer, 1996) DVD Review

Freud meets Food (1992) in this bizarre, erogenous-zoned drama from Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer, one of his boldest and weirdest works. My review can be found at Cine Outsider.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Confidence (Bizalom) (István Svabó, 1979) DVD Review

Péter Andorai and Ildikó Bánsági in Confidence (Bizalom)...

István Svabó's wartime dramas (Apa, 1966; Mephisto, 1981; Hanussen, 1988, among others) have always shared the common theme of identity, and in Confidence (Bizalom), now receiving its first-ever home cinema release, the Hungarian auteur explores in intricate and deeply felt detail the effects of a relationship born between two people, János (Péter Andorai) and Kata (Ildikó Bánsági), under the most oppressive and unusual of circumstances; the rounding up of Jews in Budapest during the dwindling days of WWII. The couple are unknown to one another at the film's start, but are forced by war to nest away into the boarding room of an old married couple, adopting the spectre of a child named Judit as they pose as husband and wife. The anti-Nazi resistance was thriving in Hungary during this time, and as John Cunningham notes in his book Hungarian Cinema: From Coffee House To Multiplex (Wallflower Press, 2004), the characters in Confidence are "swept along by the streams of history", forever destined to be parted during the liberation of Budapest, which saw fugitive freedom fighters (of which János, and Kata's husband Tamás, are two) reunite with their families. Naturally, confined to claustrophobic and uncertain quarters, János and Kata fall in love, and in many ways Svabó's film can be viewed as the tragic tale of a countdown to farewell - certainly it's among the director's most linear and socially grounded films, employing a two-tone colour palette and low-level natural light to muster an air of death and melancholy around its characters.

DP Lajos Koltai captures an indescribable beauty amid the melancholic, quasi-expressionist landscape of Confidence, which is largely realised in dual tones of grey and blue, lending the entire film a stark and somber air; it helps that most of its roads are empty, most houses bombed out or decrepit, and the crowds of faces that Svabó does focus on culminate into one black, mournful mass. Mostly, the film is locked into the interiors - one bedroom, adjoining bathroom, and kitchen-come-dining room - of the old couple's house, where János and Kata are forced to hide away with no news of their actual spouses. Here Koltai employs natural light, usually from a chandelier or - in one particularly striking scene - the flush of a naked bulb, hanging low enough from the dank ceiling to illuminate the faces of our protagonists. For much of the film's duration they are cloaked in darkness, the curtains remaining closed and the bedroom's peeling walls - as pale as János' increasingly worn face - seemingly growing drabber by the day. What this creates, along with the sparse and echoey sound design, is an atmosphere of complete isolation and abandonment; as if these characters are lost to the world, and in order to survive they must remain lost, hermetically enclosed in an environment which is both their prison and haven. This duality becomes more present in the film as the relationship between the couple begins to relax and take on different dimensions - when they give in to temptation (or perhaps just the impulse that requires them to feel something; anything) and make love, the frame is suddenly bathed in a warm orange glow, and the film becomes sensual and dangerous.

Svabó's screenplay, adapted from a story by him and Erika Szántó, is layered and authentic, centered around the affair between János and Kata, but still mindful of the broader social and political conditions which feed into and dictate its course. Their relationship can be neatly summed up in one exchange of dialogue, from Kata to János; "Could anybody still betray you? Do you trust anyone to that extent?" More than anything, perhaps, Confidence is a study of the perimeters of trust between two complete strangers, and whether or not their love could ever exist in the outside world. Is anonymity the sole thread on which their relationship hangs? Does Kata fall in love with János because she needs to be loved, or because he genuinely possesses qualities worth loving? Is he just a surrogate for Tamás? And does János love Kata, or simply imagine her as the ghost of somebody to whom he never planned to return? Their past lives are left at the door, and Svabó smartly allows the audience to fill in the narrative gaps and decide who these people were before war tore them from one reality and thrust them together into another. The performances go a long way toward hooking these ideas into a believable and compelling world, as both Andorai and Bánsági have such wrought and glasslike faces; they reflect the trauma of so many lives during this period, and Andorai especially looks hung and gaunt, as if the war is actually a disease writhing inside of him. Bánsági lends the film empathy through her subtle, haunted features, but in her moments of rage the actress centers the entire frame; it's impossible to remove your eyes from hers.

Much of Svabó's work has still to be released in the UK, and until everything has been contextualized and reevaluated, it would be unfair to call one film his best (honestly, he seems incapable of telling stories which are anything less than captivating), but from what we have now, Confidence can easily rank as his masterpiece. The acting is impeccable, the writing incisive and finely measured, and its mood impossible to shake. Trust me, that final, devastating frame will be lingering in your mind for days...

The Disc/Extras
Unsurprisingly, this newly restored transfer from Second Run, approved by Svabó himself, has been pored over and realised with the utmost care and precision. There's a lot of grain detectable in the image, but Koltai and Svabó's visual design was intentionally crafted to echo the sorrow of life in wartime, with the bleached palette and speck-flecked frame, gently infused with tones of grey and blue, heightening the drama and drawing us closer into the character's lives. The image has been notably enhanced, and especially in close-ups its clarity is striking, but what's really remarkable is how Second Run have stayed true to the director's ultimate aesthetic vision. The sound mix is also crisp and clear, with an effective balance between dialogue, diegetic sound and score throughout.

The 16-page booklet, penned by academic and author Catherine Portuges, offers an intriguing and beautifully written analysis of the film, which is considered within the wider sociopolitical landscape of its time, and Svabó's entire body of work. Naturally, though, the package's highlight is an interview with the man himself, located on the disc's extra features. Werner Herzog aside, Svabó has the most captivating vocal cadence and accent of any director around. His voice is dry yet animated, enunciating every syllable with such a precision as if his life depended on it. Honestly, Confidence is worth owning for his pronunciation of "French New Wave" alone. He's such a compelling speaker, and hearing him discussing his influences - especially Ingmar Bergman, whom he describes as being like "a glass of water" - is utterly fascinating. If anything, the interview - taken from a TCM programme, dated July 2008 - is too short at 20-minutes, and although Svabó covers much of his own career and the picture of Hungarian cinema in the 60s and 70s - plus, wonderful ruminations on working with Glenn Close on Meeting Venus (1991) - I could listen to him telling anecdotes for hours.

Confidence (Bizalom) is available from Second Run now...

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Rock Of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012) Review

Tom Cruise plays the satanic rock slave Stacee Jaxx in Rock Of Ages

Depending on whether you're a Glee-obsessed 14-year-old girl or a 50-year-old accountant desperately trying to relieve his youth through Rock Band, cock opera Rock Of Ages will represent two types of dream come true with two potentially insufferable hitches. Can the former bear to sit through two hours of spit-and-polished hair metal just to see hot young things Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough prance around in tanktops and denim cut-offs? And will the latter withstand the barrage of squeaky clean Bon Jovi / Journey / Poison (etc.) covers just to recapture the wreckless romance of their youth, portrayed so well here by director Adam Shankman and an incredible, all-guns-blazing Tom Cruise? You can bet that neither will get quite what they came looking for, but they'd need to try real hard not to have had nothin' but a good time... yeah, I'll cut that out right now.

Let's disregard the plot (because hey, the film does!) and get right around to Cruise, whose delusional, tattooed rocker Stacee Jaxx is a barnstorming creation, brought magnificently to life by an actor who really doesn't get enough credit for his comic chops or self-awareness (which had been effectively explored well before Tropic Thunder's Les Grossman). If he weren't glugging whiskey in every frame, one might get the impression that a crimson vial of cocktail'd blood and cum, splashed with vodka, would be Jaxx's drink of choice, but Cruise doesn't just play the aging metal icon for obvious ego and eyeshadow laughs. Introduced as the cushion for a half-dozen nubile groupies, Jaxx gets the screenplay's most unusual treatment, and provides the film's comic and dramatic centerfold. It's a stroke of genius from Shankman to get the man who once played leechy sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey to channel Jaxx's satanic rock spirit, and Cruise's casting has another obvious benefit - if the film is determined to explore Jaxx's psychology, albeit skin-deeply, then having the world's biggest movie star acting as surrogate adds an interesting, perhaps unintentional deconstructive streak, perfect for the star whose very public meltdown on Oprah's couch remains the definition of "career suicide." Jaxx is portrayed here as a brand; an idea and object of sex for the writers and readers of Rolling Stone magazine. He's a touring freakshow. I know many people who would (cruelly) say the same things about Cruise, who bleeds cold, sexual charisma here; especially during a rousing rendition of Wanted Dead Or Alive.

In fact, only when he leaves the film does it becomes painfully obvious how vapid and unengaging our leads are. Hough tries her hardest, bless her, and Boneta almost leaves an impression, but they're both so wet and attractive that they completely fail to register as believable characters, and we never really learn anything about them, other than they're in love and that's cool. The screenplay works hard to force a wedge between them, but it really should be focusing on the cast of cartoonish side characters, who are all an absolute hoot! Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the bible-thumping Mayor's wife Patricia; Paul Giamatti (sporting 70s pornstar hair and 'tache) is Jaxx's greedy manager Paul; and the unlikely duo of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, co-owners of the Bourbon Room, are hilarious throughout, boasting an enviable chemistry well explored in their big musical number. It's only when they're separated that the leads become semi-interesting, as Boneta's starry-eyed Drew is forced to ditch his rock dreams and become part of a vomitous hip-hop/pop hybrid, mocking of all those New Kids On The Block type groups who popped up and ruined radio in the early 90s. As a gag it's pretty solid, but as a character beat it's woefully misjudged - we know he'll don the guitar once more and get back together with Sherrie, but Jaxx's skimpy leather chaps remain the film's most riveting enigma.

And what of the songs? Many have been bemoaning the very idea of a jukebox musical fusing all of those annoying rock favourites from the 80s, but then, if you didn't like those songs in their time, why would you even consider watching them Gleeified thirty years later? It's pretty much the same rule as with standard musicals: if you don't like showtunes, stay away from showtunes. If you don't like Bon Jovi, you should probably file Rock Of Ages in your Avoid Like... book right under bubonic plague. Personally, I'm not huge on the music, but for various personal reasons it holds a nostalgic place in my heart, and therefore I can't help but get a little misty-eyed when Every Rose Has Its Thorn is used for a pivotal romantic interlude. Most of the songs are mixed and performed well by a game cast, and as you'd expect, the production values are slick and sleek as Van Halen's pants. The mix of We Built This City and We're Not Gonna Take It is especially effective for the finale, and kicking my ankles was actually all I could do to stop from getting up and dancing.

It's airbrushed and auto-tuned out of all logical proportion, but for the sheer cock-piece-powered excess on display, Rock Of Ages rises above (or perhaps falls way short of) expectations and manages to bring the house down. Whether they'll be laughing, crying or singing along, I just don't know.

Rock Of Ages is in cinemas now...

Monday 11 June 2012

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Jim Mallon, 1996) Blu-Ray Review

Talking heads... Mike Nelson endures another MST3K with the gang...

In the age of Youtube, The Nostalgia Critic and, heck, even Twitter, it can be hard to look at Mystery Science Theater 3000 and still appreciate it as the innovative meta skit show that it once (sporadically) was. For the unacquainted, MST3K (as it was abbreviated by fans) was a popular American TV show which ran from 1988 - 1999, and each week picked up with Mike Nelson (himself) and his two robot pals, Tom (Kevin Murphy) and Crow (Trace Beaulieu), as the nefarious Dr. Clayton (Beaulieu, again) subjected them to endless reels of bad movies. Like all barmy science types Clayton was out for world domination, and apparently screening crummy B-movies to a hapless blue-collar chap and his tin-can pals would have aided him in this quest (who knows how, for nobody involved in the plot sees it necessary to explain). Oh, and all of this takes place on a giant bone shaped-spacecraft, a nice nod to the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfortunately, it's one of the only decent laughs that MST3K: The Movie has to offer...

Firstly, that opening paragraph deserves some explanation, and my own opinion of MST3K should be stated. The series, created and co-written by Joel Hodgson, was probably quite original in its time, but nowadays its schtick can be pulled off by anyone with access to a webcam and a funny bone, as the Nostalgia Critic (who's more consistently funny than Hodgson or Nelson have ever been) and his legions of imitators have proven over the past decade. Recently tweet-a-thon's have been held for films such as Drive and Snowtown, where fans and commentators can make and share their own jokes through the 140-character forum, and there was even a fad in the early 2000s, memorably on the Spider-Man and Curse Of The Black Pearl discs, for viewers to record their own commentaries by popping their special edition DVD's into a PC. Now, all of this tomfoolery was likely inspired by MST3K, but frankly much of it is funnier and better executed, and the original series (which was always patchy) is starting to look a little stale. I've only seen a handful of episodes, but they never bowled me over, and certainly I've never seen the need for a big-screen treatment of the series. Turns out, it's in even less need of a Blu-Ray...

Clayton's chosen "stinkburger" for this cinematic voyage is This Island Earth (M. Newman, 1955), one of the most clumsy and ludicrous sci-fi films of the 1950s, even by that decade's standards. Some still hold it up as a genre classic, but I've never really been able to get onboard with that idea, and the screenplay, by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan, writes many of its own jokes ("In this place, I wouldn't trust my grandmother!"). An immediately noticeable problem with this Blu-Ray is that This Island Earth hasn't been upgraded any. Only scenes of Mike and the gang pottering about on the ship, which amount to around fifteen minutes of screentime, have been polished up, and the remaining hour just sees them sat before the screen in black silhouette. Has there ever been a more pointless restoration? Until Derek Jarman's Blue comes along, I fear the answer is yes. I understand the need for This Island Earth to remain authentically grainy, as it adds to MST3K's aesthetic effect, but it renders the whole idea of Blu-Ray quite pointless, and means there's very little need to shell out the extra cash for HD (truth be told, the series still works best on VHS)...

Not that there's much worth shelling out for anyway. When they're not aiming for the cheap seats with fart and poo gags, the writers (of which there are an unfathomable seven) rarely raise more than a chuckle, and only five or six jokes really hit the mark. Many of them have dated badly (there's an abysmal reference to My Own Private Idaho, which feels like it only exists to break the silence), but mostly I was just left wondering... what makes this any different from the TV show? Apart from some slicker effects, the answer is resolutely simple: nothing. MST3K: The Movie feels like exactly the cash-grabbing opportunity it is, and the obvious laziness of the zinger-free screenplay makes me wonder why so many fans still hold it in such high regard. I'd be cautious in suggesting that so many people are just suffering from nostalgia, but when the movie adaptation of a popular TV show is twenty minutes shorter than even the average episode, and can't muster up an equal number of gags, what real defence is there to mount?

The Disc/Extras
As stated in the review, there's no obvious reason for MST3K: The Movie to have received the Blu-Ray treatment, and while the upgrade is perfectly competent and noticeably sharp in the ship-set scenes (which do make great use of primary colour), they alone can't justify the inflated price tag. The sound mix is pretty crisp and clear also, but the film doesn't make particularly good use of sound outside of some cartoonish wind and explosion effects.

Extras are expectedly slim for a fifteen-year-old adaptation of an outdated TV show, but fans really deserved more than this. Alongside the flimsy five-minute 'Making Of' pulled from the archive, which throws away two of the film's decent gags, you can expect the usual suspects: the original theatrical trailer, which throws away another good gag, and a stills gallery. This package is almost as lazy as the screenplay. Almost.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie was released on DVD/Blu-Ray on June 11th...