Thursday, December 5, 2013

In The Fog (2012)

Saw this in the Cinemobile earlier this week as part of the Subtitle Film Festival. Grimly impressive Second World War parable set in German-occupied Belarus and adapted from a short story by that country's greatest writer Vasil’ Bykaw. A film about how unstable our identity is, how it can change, especially in times of war, and also how the perception of others can rob us of who we think we are. It's 1942 and two Partisans, Burov and Voitik, arrive at the house of Sushenya to kill him for being a traitor. They believe he sold out three of his fellow workers to the Nazis in exchange for his freedom. They take him out into the woods to execute him but the group are ambushed by a German patrol and one of the partisans is wounded. Sushenya carries him on his back through the woods as they try to reach safety. With the use of flashbacks we learn how these three men have ended up here. We learn that Sushenya is innocent, that offered the chance to be an informer he refused. The German commander's response is to let him go. It's a brilliant piece of cruel thinking. He knows Sushenya would prefer a martyr's death to the shame of betrayal, so he turns this honourable man's refusal against him. With his companions hanged, Sushenya's release can only mean one thing. Even his wife doubts him. This is the crux of the story. When you take away someone's reputation, their good name, what do you leave them with? How much of who we think we are is bound up in how we're thought of by family and neighbours? Innocence isn't enough. It's meaningless if no-one believes you. We're in a moral fog here. A man feels he must atone for something he didn't do. Guilt envelops him. For the two Partisans, their stories are clouded in dumb defiance and self-preservation. History would see them as heroes for fighting the invaders, but their actions get innocent people killed. The tone is fatalistic, the acting powerful, the direction strong. There's nothing flashy here, just a steady clarity, a Christ story where an innocent man must die for the sins of others. But there's no salvation. Just fog.

Kontroll (2003)

I love films set in subways and Nimrod Antal's Budapest-set Kontroll is a mostly cracking example of this sub(way)-genre. Gritty, funny, anarchic with a pulsing soundtrack it really should be a cult classic but an attempt to make the underground setting symbolic of the wider world (the way an increasingly polarised and violent culture can infect everyone with that violence) begins to dilute the film's visceral qualities towards the end. But those qualities are considerable. Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi) is a ticket inspector who never leaves the Metro, spending his nights sleeping on the platforms. He's part of a crew of oddballs that include veteran Professzor (Zoltan Mucsi), machete-weilding nutter Lecso (Sandor Badar), narcoleptic Muki (Csaba Pindroch) and new arrival Tibi (Zsolt Nagy). Their days are spent being disrespected, assaulted and evaded by gangs, pimps, tourists, junkies and countless others who don't have tickets. While all this is mostly played for thrills and laughs, at the same time, people are committing suicide at an unusual rate. Soon we discover there's a serial killer on the loose pushing passengers to the deaths. And this hooded, nightmare figure looks uncomfortably like Bulcsu. Could the relentless air of conflict have sent him over the edge? Along the way he meets the beautiful Szofi (Eszter Balla), wearing a beguiling bear suit and minis a ticket. Bewitched, he lets her go. Soon a bond develops between them. Can she be his salvation, the one to help him back into the light? For most of the time Kontroll is equally bewitching, atmospheric and entertaining. But once it tries to answer these questions it drifts towards too-obvious symbolism. The real pleasure of the film, however, lies in its physical evocation of the underground, Budapest's famous old metro system (the second oldest in the world), with its vertiginous escalators, empty platforms, glowing air vents, the sound of trains rushing through tunnels, eerie banks of fluorescent lights flickering on and off, belligerent passengers, a near-lawless atmosphere where the vividly cartoonish inspectors are nearly as dangerously deranged as the people they deal with. For all this Kontroll is a journey well worth taking. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2011)

Personal style. Why does it annoy people so much? Walt Stillman's Damsels in Distress really got up people's noses if the reviews are anything to go by. The one on the IMdb gives it a single star out of ten. To put that into context, Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, often cited as the worst film ever made, gets two. At the London Film Festival there were mass walk-outs when it was shown. The reaction was even more extreme than what we usually see towards Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. (Allen is so toxic they edit out any mention of him in the advertising for his own films. Or in the case of Paris/Manhattan, a film about a woman's love for Woody Allen, the trailer has no place for a single mention of him). Why is this? Well, firstly, I think audiences have become so schooled in what to expect from a film they get impatient/outraged when it fails to adhere to these conventions, openly flaunts them, or, worst of all, seems blissfully unaware of them. Damsels in Distress seems guilty of all of these crimes. Stillman has no idea/or interest in how to pace a film, that's clear, the actresses struggle at times with the archly witty dialogue, the university setting has little connection to any reality, the narrative arc has no (artificial) drive. What's worse, the audience can see most of this is deliberate. Stillman doesn't care. He sets up a typical dynamic. Girl declares handsome men insufferable. Cue handsome editor of campus newspaper. They get into a public disagreement. It would be reasonable for the audience to expect this relationship to develop along a Hepburn/Tracy they-hate-each-other-but-really-love-each-other formulaic way. But having set up this plot avenue, he just drops it. The film isn't about that. It's counter-intuitive. It's in love with simple pleasures (dancing) and honest responses (the almost child-like frat boys). This knowing contrariness is the second reason certain people respond badly to the film. They instinctively resent films that display a bookish sensibility that is a subtle put-down to those not in the know. Stillman has read books and isn't ashamed to show it. He doesn't modulate his references because most people won't know them. He expects you to know/find out/not care. So the film doesn't hide its literary, oddball heart, its sophisticated, flippant disregard for seriousness. And then there's Greta Gerwig. Her Violet is like a space alien's idea of a Jane Austen character. Her desire to help those less fortunate than herself, the suicidal especially, is epically condescending, but her gawky/beautiful earnestness is mesmerising. Her heart is good and behind it all she's not what she seems. (Several of the characters are hiding behind made-up personas, re-inventing themselves, casually refuting notions of authenticity). When her doofus boyfriend Frank (a hilariously dim-witted Ryan Metcalf) cheats on her Violet becomes depressed, but soon discovers the restorative powers of nice-smelling soap and sets about inventing a new dance craze. The film hangs on Gerwig's ability to be both arrogant/sincere, knowing/naive, delusional/practical, to deadpan the humour with deliciously slow responses. So yes, it's whimsical, sweet-hearted, cleverer than it looks and ends with a show-stopping dance number to Things Are Looking Up (originally sung by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film Damsels in Distress). In short, all the things that annoyed people are the things I liked.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Death's Marathon

By 1913 D.W. Griffith was in the zone. In four years he'd gone from the static tableau of The Sealed Room (1909) to the fluid cross-cutting and economical story-telling of Death's Marathon. Apparently he had to fight his distributors who thought this rapid jumping between scenes would confuse audiences. It's hard to imagine now, of course, when our brains are so used to synaptic image-flow we're more likely to be confused (or bored) by long takes. Back then people had yet to learn the visual grammer of film. Griffith, like all true artists, brought his audience with him. Death's Marathon begins with two business partners pursuing the same woman (Blanche Sweet). She marries one (Henry B. Walthall) and they have a child. But things turn sour, married life doesn't suit him and he's soon out all night drinking and gambling, their relationship increasingly estranged. Finally he steals money from his own company and loses it playing cards. 'Determined upon suicide', he telephones his wife from the office to say goodbye, holding a revolver to his head. She tries to keep him talking while his business partner (Walter Miller)  races to save him. All this, remember, in under fifteen minutes. That's economy of storytelling for you. Griffith cuts adroitly between characters moving back and forth in space and time, between the worried wife, the suicidal husband and Miller's desperate race to save him. While everyone suffers from over-emphatic hand gestures, the acting is by-and-large subtle and affecting. Sweet gives the wife a care-worn, exhausted feel and her reaction to her husband's phone call is tensely emotional but never overwrought. (Amazingly she was only sixteen when this was filmed). Miller is solid in a pantomime ham way as the boring good guy while Walthall infuses his unreliable character, the wagging finger target of this morality piece, with genuine complexity. There's something almost demonic about his expression as he contemplates the gun, the manic happiness of someone who's made the decision already and all cares have disappeared. He's dead already. Around this tightly constructed tale Griffith still has time for little cameos of character detail and composition. Take the brief appearance of a messenger boy in the office. This is Robert Harron, a star of Griffith films throughout the 1910s until his untimely death in 1920 aged just twenty-seven (that most dangerous of ages for stars). He's on screen for ten seconds but he gives us the street swagger and gangly gait of a teenager in a uniform too small for him, putting his cigarette down on a table in the outer office as he enters and picking it up again on his way out, holding it behind his back as he exits. None of this is required, but Griffith films his entrance and exit anyway. Then there's the painterly composition at 7.57 with Sweet front right of the screen, the nanny behind her and the maid front left, in profile. In his documentary A Personal Journey Through American Cinema, Martin Scorsese says of Griffith that he understood 'the psychic strength of the lens'. It's a striking phrase. What exactly does he mean by it? Well, for one thing, it could read thoughts. Watch as Griffith keeps us on the faces of the actors during the final scenes, especially Walthall's. (Compare this to The Sealed Room which has no close-ups and is little more than a filmed play. You'd be hard pushed to realise the musician in that film is also Walthall). There's a lovely moment too in the first minute where the two men seem to think of their beloved simultaneously. The film cuts to a shot of her reading in her garden, a dream image, breathlessly still, (like a painting by Mary Cassatt), an elegantly spraying fountain in the background. It's a Victorian ideal of femininity both men share. Nothing tells us this is a fantasy but Griffith trusts that the images (men stop, woman in garden, men move again) will convey the idea. It's montage but also the lens capturing the meaning of thought, like a detective, a mind x-ray.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a magazine intern who accompanies a reporter to a small town to investigate an apparent nut-job called Kenneth (Mark Duplass). Kenneth has placed a classified ad in the papers looking for a companion to travel back in time with him. Darius poses as a potential candidate to get the scoop for the magazine but soon finds herself falling for Kenneth, a man who believes he's built a time machine and that government forces are out to stop him. She gets sucked into his world. He seems more alive than most other people around her. Her deadened, bored attitude is the mask of a dreamer cruelly disappointed in life. In a cynical world of shallow entertainment and snarky superiority, she craves sincerity and something to believe in. And that's the power of the film, that she wants to believe him against her better judgement. It should be a matter of faith. But the film undermines this idea with an ending that's too cute by far. Which is disappointing, but doesn't take away too much from what makes the film work, the chemistry between Plaza and Duplass. He's a smart, dog-eared presence, hovering in that zone between charming and odd, somehow knowing how to calibrate enough of each to keep us intrigued and onside. If he was a centimetre more handsome he'd be unbearable. But what, ultimately, gives the film weight, is Plaza's presence. Her ability to go from sulky indifference to dawning reverence on the head of a pin is something else. There's a gravity about her, a sense of real consequence in her emotional response. The fact that it's so reigned in only makes it all the better. She's an actress looking (in vain no doubt) for someone like Godard to build films around her, to glory in, investigate, tease and (maybe break) that presence. So yeah, the film is fine, I liked it, but it's symptomatic of a wider tendency in American indie films to settle for modest likeability, to champion the slightly odd, everything imbued in a mild melancholy. Safety is guaranteed. That's the problem. What this film would've been like with a director interested in ideas (of time travel), in the visual as a moral tool, in giving us a properly odd oddball rather than someone who could be the unconventional lead singer of an indie band. In the end, for all the charm and presence of the leads, it's lightweight, a modestly offbeat rom-com frustratingly close to being a lot more.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

135 Shots

135 Shots That Will Restore Your Faith in Cinema
Don't know about restoring faith in cinema. Some of us hadn't lost faith in it. But this montage of images set to Clint Mansell's Welcome to Lunar Industries from the soundtrack to Moon will certainly recharge your desire to see films you haven't seen and re-see others.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Sound of Silence

'If we had any sense in our heads,' composer John Cage asks in Dick Fontaine's 1967 documentary, 'wouldn't we know the truth, instead of going around looking for it?' The truth, according to this great little film, which pitches Rahsaan Roland Kirk's experimental jazz up against Cage's philosophical questioning to explore the nature of sound, is that we don't need to go looking for it at all. It's all around us. Music is just a part of a greater entity called sound. Or all sound is music if we listen right. You might not agree with everything Cage says but it can only be good to have someone questioning received wisdom so vigourously. It begins with Kirk coming over the horizon, people looking over their shoulders at this blind jazz man with his shades and sax walking through a London park in the mid-60s. We see Cage loitering in a children's playground, asking questions: 'Is it a sound? If so, is it music?Is music music?Is sound enough? What more do I need?' Kirk tells us 'sound is something like eyesight to me' before playing not one, not two, but three saxes at once, switching between them, harmonising with himself, then playing flute while images of London traffic flash by. 'Is the truck passing music?' Cage asks. 'Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen?'' We see Kirk using tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds. It was Pierre Schaeffer who developed musique concrète in the early 1940s, emphasising the use of sound and the importance of play in creating music. Kirk throws whistles to his audience for 'a blues in the key of doubleya.' The resulting song is charmingly wonky, an infectious groove carrying the pleasingly ramshackle sound of whistling. He gives out more whistles to children in the park and they follow him like he's the pied piper. Then it's back to Cage on a slide, a rocking horse. 'Could we ever get to when we thought the ugly sounds were beautiful?' Kirk improvising with zoo animals, the wild yell of a wolf, using his flute to provoke a duet. Cage preparing a work for musical bicycle at the Saville Theatre. 'What is the purpose of this experimental music? No purposes. Sound!' Finally Cage listens to Kirk's music in an echo chamber, a cacophonous crescendo. It ends with this final credo: 'There is no such thing as silence' just 'thy nervous system in operation, thy blood in circulation.'

Monday, August 26, 2013

An Unseen Enemy (1912)

The Gish sisters first film is a key moment in the development of cinema. It was childhood friend Mary Pickford who brought them to D.W. Griffith's office one day in 1912, Lillian nineteen (though claiming to be sixteen) and Dorothy just fourteen. An Unseen Enemy is a key moment not because it employed Griffith's ground-breaking use of storytelling techniques (although it does) but because in it his camera discovered Lillian Gish. And cinema was never the same again. It was the beginning of arguably the first director/muse relationship, that symbiotic double-act that inspires the best work of both. Film history is littered with examples; Browning/Chaney, von Sternberg/Dietrich, Godard/Karina, Scorsese//de Niro. Four years earlier Griffith had worked with cinema's first real star Florence Lawrence, although she remained uncredited at the time, known simply as The Biograph Girl. Since then she'd left Biograph to become famous under her own name for the publicity-savvy Carl Laemmle. With Pickford establishing herself at this time too, the powerful connection between faces on screen and the audience watching in the dark was beginning to dawn on filmmakers. That Lawrence and Pickford could project winning personalities that audiences wanted more of, identified with even, was one thing though. What Gish brought was something else. Just imagine Griffith looking through his camera and seeing her through it for the first time; natural, unhurried, with graceful hands and pre-Raphaelite hair. Pretty yes, a Renaissance princess, but with something else, something chaste, a hint of Puritan heritage. She seemed an ideal, instinctively unworried about the camera's gaze. No mugging, no desperation to please. There were secrets behind that reserve. The camera wanted to know her. It was clear, or implied, already, that her presence demanded more than potboiler quickies, more than pantomime gestures. So everything changed, even if no-one was fully aware of it. At the time, though, this was just another Griffith film, one of dozens he made that year. A doctor's death orphans his two young daughters. (Interestingly, it was only months since the Gish's real father had died). Their older brother (Elmer Booth) converts some of the estate into cash and stores the money in the household safe. But the 'slattern' housekeeper sees an opportunity. She phones a criminal friend to come help her rob the safe. They lock the girls in a room and threaten them with a gun through a hole in the wall. One of the girls manages to telephone their brother who rushes to the rescue. It's all absurdly watchable, even now (especially with the right music. I recommend Deep Waters by The Dirty Three). Griffith's direction is full of vitality and suspense. And it's fair to say Dorothy's good too. Griffith didn't rate her, more or less ignored her around the studio. But that prudish eye-roll at the end suggests the comic potential she had. There are many lovely moments in its short running time; the natural light through the sisters' hair, the gun pointing at the camera, at us, the anticipation on Dorothy's face as she closes in on the gun, her fabulous faint, the man in a straw hat dancing at the lobby desk (amazingly this is Erich von Stroheim), and while Booth's performance is fussy and over the top at times, right at the end, there's that little bit of comic business, the fingers to the lips, the tap on the belly. Lovely detail.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My drafts section is clogged up with half-written pieces and reviews. So in an attempt to de-clutter I'm throwing out some quick reviews.

Drive (2011)

The city at night, the car as a means of escape, Taxi Driver (Albert Brooks), History of Violence, that jacket, Carey Mulligan's perfect face. The loneliness of the existential hero. A fairy-tale, found innocence and the violence required to protect it. He's doomed, like Mitchum in Out of the Past, he even works in a garage. His past is violence, he can't escape it, can't drive fast enough, can't resist the urge to risk, to be a driver of crimes. Gosling's monotone, reigned in, from a distance cool, up close wary, in control of situations, in control of himself even more. Then a woman comes into his life and he starts to make wrong decisions. It's noir, a sleek rethread of old themes, moody and gorgeous with LA light.

Date Night (2010)

Middle-aged married couple in a rut, the Fosters, decide to treat themselves to a night in the big city. Unable to get a table at a swanky restaurant they pretend to be another couple and take their table. Big mistake. The other couple are wanted by gun-wielding thugs and soon the Fosters are on the run. It has the feel of a reheated 1980s plot (the idea of New York at night as a dangerous place). Steve Carell and Tina Fey make it work even as the plot is insultingly unconvincing (the cops and baddies don't exist in any reality), the great Ray Liotta is wasted and the ending is lame. On the other hand it captures mundane married life well, there are several funny scenes and good support from a shirtless Mark Wahlberg and especially James Franco and Mila Kunis as a bickering criminal couple who nearly steal the film in one scene. You come away thinking that, given better material, Carell and Fey could be a great screwball couple. Fey in particular has a Diane Keaton meets Irene Dunne thing going on that could be, should be, great.

Bride Wars (2009)

I don't know why I watch these things. Sometimes the brain just wants to wallow in the shallows for awhile. And so, this. Predictable, tiresomely glossy and aspirational, full of product-placement and godawful music. It's barely film-making in any real sense. The only use it serves is to confirm what a brittlely sour actress Anne Hathaway is. The trick to making your character a selfish bitch in a rom-com is to cast an actress who can make us forget all the bad stuff by the end because underneath they're really nice. Hathaway displays no such ability here.

Knight and Day (2010)
Low expectations can be a film's best friend. This was a case in point. I'd heard nothing but bad things of this film or, to be more precise, I'd sensed an overwhelming wave of meh emanating from its general direction. It came out at a particularly low point in Cruise's public reputation and the lack of hype or interest seemed to portent the end of his career as a top action movie draw. Plus it was called Knight and Day. This didn't help. So imagine my surprise to discover that it was (at least for the first half hour) a fast-paced hoot, as June Havens (Diaz) gets caught up with spy Roy Miller (Cruise), an apparently unhinged, homicidal lunatic she does her best to escape from. This is the best part of the film because they don't have to explain the plot, just rush headlong into action, spouting funny lines. Unfortunately they have to bring the plot in, although, a say plot, I mean whatever nonsense someone wrote on the back of a cigarette packet and got paid an obscene amount of money for. It doesn't warrant any attention, the plot, just an excuse for bringing June and Roy together in various exotic locations. Cruise and Diaz have real chemistry together and James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line) directs it with easy charm but too much dodgy CGI, especially towards the end. It isn't anything special, but it's way better than its reputation. Likeable, throwaway nonsense.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Dynamic Erection

In the twenty-four-seven matrix of our media world it's hard to imagine films languishing forgotten, cast out into obscurity, left behind by the forward-moving juggernaut of time. Now everything exists at once. History is a time-line we can traverse at will. Everything of value (and much that isn't) is being championed somewhere, everywhere, as we speak, as the never-ending desire for new stimuli goes on, for new old things even, rediscovered gems, lost classics. How is it possible for a film (or anything else) to remain hidden, gathering dust, a rumour, a secret, a film maudit, the preserve only of dedicated enthusiasts and lovers of the willfully obscure? Even cave paintings locked away for thousands of years are exposed to our prying cameras these days, find themselves on t-shirts, mugs and computer screens. What could possibly escape the voracious, interactive maw of 21st century multi-mediated culture?

Well, nothing probably, to be honest. But things can certainly still fly under the radar, existing on sporadic blog entries, occasional screenings at festivals or a brief appearance on the Guardian's Clip Joint. It was during a recent Clip Joint on The Beatles that I encountered Little Malcolm and his Struggle Against The Eunuchs, the first film produced by George Harrison. The clip shown, this corduroy exchange, stopped me in my tracks. How could something so good have never crossed my path? Surely I'd have heard of it before at least, a film with a Beatles connection starring two stalwarts of British cinema like John Hurt and David Warner? But no. It was a complete mystery to me. I had to investigate more.

What I discovered was a darkly comic political allegory based on David Halliwell's acclaimed 1965 play which marries kitchen sink Northern locations (we're in Oldham) to word-driven scenes of heightened theatricality. Which is to say it doesn't try to normalise the play, but like Glengarry Glen Ross, uses the camera to intensify scenes, to revel in the language and the glorious opportunities for actors to take off into spellbinding monologues. While many films would end up falling between two stools, Little Malcolm manages to achieve a convincing symbiosis between play and film, a third way. Somehow the locations, superbly captured by cinematographer John Alcott (A Clockwork Orange), with their wintry drabness, isolated plots of land, dour high-ceilinged bedsits, industrial red-brick grime, all-pervading misty dampness, anchor the characters, allowing them to breathe and exist as both real people and political allegory. They're the kind of misfits places like this breed, men driven crazy by the never-starting futility of their existences, dreamers and idealists, fantasists, but also blowhards and inadequates, comical in their self-deluded bragging and schemes, their determination to force themselves into the flow of history.

We first see Malcolm Scrawdyke in his cold, run-down flat trying to make himself get out of bed, to trick his mind into moving, to act before thinking. (It's like everything that follows is the result of this desire to act, to avoid the sheer boredom and inertia of his life). We soon learn he's been expelled from Art College for being a disruptive influence. He takes two of his loyal followers, Wick (John McEnery) and Erwin (Raymond Platt) to the pub where they plot their revenge not just on the art college tutor they despise but on the whole country. Malcolm considers himself a leader, a militant revolutionary, and now he sees his expulsion as an opportunity to put into action what they've often spoken about, to start their own political movement, magnificently called - Dynamic Erection.

They bring in Dennis Charles Nipple (David Warner), a duffle-coat-wearing would-be writer, a rival to Malcolm in his ability to use language, his half-hearted participation and argumentativeness. They proceed to rehearse kidnapping their nemesis, stealing a painting, practicing speeches and how to deal with assassination attempts, all the while seeming like overgrown children at play. This is a point it's making of course. So much revolutionary talk and posturing is just that, fantasy and play, childish in essence, and just as threatening or likely to succeed. Malcolm is like a militant Billy Liar, Lancashire rooftops echoing to the cheers of imaginary crowds as he prepares his rousing speech. He's the leader because he's the most eloquent, knows the tricks of oratory, the emphatic hand gestures. But behind all the talk of action, the railing against the eunuchs, he's just as impotent and 'little' as the rest of them.

And yet, despite all this, we kind of like these deluded malcontents. They're in a fine line of British losers railing impotently against their lot from Hancock to Steptoe and Son. In fact only three years after Little Malcolm, the sit-com Citizen Smith would mine a similar seam, making comic hay from the gap between leftist revolutionary ideals and the mundane reality of British life. But beneath the comedy, the sympathy, runs a warning about taking these things for granted. The parallel is with Hitler (an art-school reject himself) and the National Socialists. A laughing stock in 20s Germany basically, little men acting big, until, that is, the political geography altered and they found themselves in power. Then it wasn't funny anymore. And so it is here. As Little Malcolm gets darker, we see how censorship and bullying evolve from the words, from the refusal to see any other reality but their own. They're dreamers but cowards, socially and sexually inadequate, fantasists unable to access or deal with reality.

It's like a cross between Dennis Potter and Harold Pinter. Director Stuart Cooper understands that the words are king, they lead to the performances and the whole thing works from there. The camera is another layer, another visual language, and the play needs to be translated into it, but not transformed into something else altogether. Why shouldn't cinema have the same freedoms of expression as theatre, the right to be an imaginative space not held down by the actual? We seem to have no problem with cinema making the visual more heightened or amazing but if people speak in oddly eloquent ways we seem to find this objectionable.

Despite winning the Silver Bear at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival Little Malcolm quickly disappeared from view, only to be resurrected by the BFI in 2011. Yet echoes of it can be found in other films like sarky misanthropic Johnny in Mike Leigh's Naked (Leigh directed the first stage production of Little Malcolm)Withnail and I for the comic verve of the dialogue and even Chris Morris's inept terrorists in Four Lions. Yes it's a filmed play but when the dialogue is this good it doesn't matter and the acting is sensational. You have no idea how great an actor John Hurt is until you see it, or David Warner. When Malcolm gives his would-be speech to the massed ranks of snowy Oldham rooftops Hurt launches into an oratorical tour-de-force while at the same time hand gestures and passionate emphasis of words are pitched just too much to make them ridiculous. It's brilliant. The way he bellows 'seeeeeeize the init-i-a-tive' is both thrilling and hilarious. In its own uncompromising, unique way, it's a classic.

Watch Me Move - Little Nemo (1911)

There had been earlier forays into animation, James Stuart Blackton's chalk-drawn Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or Emile Cohl's Fantasmagorie (1908) before Winsor McCay got in on the act. By 1911 McCay was the most famous cartoonist in America, creator of two hugely popular comic strips, Dream of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland when, apparently inspired by his son's flip books, he decided movement was the logical next step. He hooked up with Blackton at Vitagraph Studios and they set about constructing a film around this process. Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and his Moving Comics, as it was called (usually referred to now as Little Nemo) begins with live-action sequences in some kind of club where McCay showcases his quick drawing skills (he was famous from a young age for this) to his artist buddies. He makes a wager that, in just one month, he can create the four thousand drawings required to make these comic characters move. They laugh good-naturedly at this madness. (Note that Cohl used 700 drawings over a four to five month period to make Fantasmagorie). Next we see him hard at work surrounded by cartoon-like props, comically large containers for paper and ink. Finally he's finished. A projector is set up in the club and we see the three famous characters from the strip - Little Nemo, Flip and The Imp - come to life, forming magically out of thin air. What follows is a moment of freedom, liberation. They contort, fight, expand like fair ground mirrors, draw other characters (that's McCay animating a character speed drawing another character) until finally Nemo rides off in the jaws of a dragon with a princess. These are not just chalk drawings but finely-rendered characters, in colour, moving through space with anarchic glee. It's the true birth of animation. Although McCay would go on to more ambitious projects like Gertie the Dinosaur, these two minutes of plotless transformation retain the magic of first moments, the breakthrough wonder of discovery.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Films Watched 2013: #6

The Prestige (2006)

'Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course it probably isn't. The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But...making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.'

Christopher Nolan's period drama about rival magicians may have it's implausible moments but only professional nitpickers could argue with the overall film, an engrossing, complex fable, a mysterious magic trick itself, playing with identity and obsession in artfully pleasurable ways. The core of the film is the three-part nature of a magic trick. The pledge. The turn. The prestige. Something ordinary does something extraordinary - it disappears - then reappears again. Except it never really went anywhere. That's the trick, and we know it. But we want it to be real. We want to be fooled. The trick, as it were, is to maintain the mystery, the magic, the giddy sense of innocent possibility. In Victorian London Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are apprentice magicians when a tragic accident kills Aungier's wife. He blames Borden and they become enemies, obsessively following each other's careers, sabotaging each other. When Alfred performs a successful trick, The Transported Man, Robert becomes obsessed with finding the secret, ultimately pushing both men towards self-destruction and tragedy. The narrative complexity of plot within plot (within plot) takes some attention at first not to lose where you are, when you are, but your mind soon acclimatises to the pleasure of watching a film that expects you to keep up, that respects your intelligence. Bale is grimly mesmerising as Borden and Jackman has never been better. There's fine support to from Michael Caine as John Cutter, the stage engineer and David Bowie as electricity guru Nikola Tesla. The mystery of Christopher Nolan isn't how he manages to make intelligent blockbusters, but why he's almost the only one.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Deckchair Cinema

Last Thursday we did something we've been talking about for years. An outdoor cinema night, or deckchair cinema as we called it, inspired by Darwin's Deckchair Cinema in Australia. For the first time in living memory we had the summer weather, with zero chance of rain, an excellent location, the smoky drift of barbecue food and our long-forsaken inflatable screen which we just managed to fit into the space at the end of the garden thanks to some last minute pruning.

The film we choose to show was Alexander Mackendrick's evergreen Ealing classic The Ladykillers. Having set up the screen we just had to wait for it to get dark enough to see what we were projecting. For awhile, in the evening sunshine it was hard to believe any image was coming out of the projector but eventually as the first hints of dusk entered the sky we could see it in the palms of our hands. 

A half hour later and we were ready to go, people arrived with their deckchairs, candles lit up the garden path and hung in the hedges, insects skittered around us in the dark and the film began. Soon everyone was engrossed in the story. Five criminals, led by smooth-talking but sinister Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) rent a room in the subsiding cul-de-sac home of dotty old widow Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), posing as a string quintet while in reality planning a bank heist in which she is to play a central if unwitting part. 

Watching it for the first time in the communal dark rather than on television what struck home most strongly apart from the faultless performances, set-design and locations, was the cinematography of Otto Heller, an inky-noir colour that adds Gothic menace to proceedings, and the supreme performance of Katie Johnson as Mrs Wilberforce, the blissfully zen centre of the action. Screenwriter Charlie Rose gives her little moments of poignant reminiscence, surrounds her with a cadre of even-dottier old dears, meandering, bird-like ninnies who, by comparison, show her to be a sweetly resourceful and oddly admirable lady living in a twilight state of widowed forgetfulness with her dead husband's parrots. It's a little miracle of a performance and the talk was of little else afterwards.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Films Watched 2013: #5

The Happening (2008)
People start killing themselves in large numbers in New York and Boston. With fears that it's spreading to other cities mild-mannered scientist Marl Wahlberg, his girlfriend Zooey Deschanal, and fellow scientist John Leguismo evacuate Philadelphia for the safety of smaller towns. But the contagion, whatever it is, follows them, mass suicides confronting them at every turn. Can they escape it? An intriguing, Twilight Zone idea, with an arresting first twenty minutes or so soon comes off the rails in spectacular fashion. Truly as bad as its reputation suggested. There's real competition here is who gives the worst performance. To say Wahlberg is out of his comfort zone is an understatement, arguably the dumbest scientist in cinema history (and that, let us not forget, includes Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough), Deschanel appears labotomised for most of it, like a startled faun, Leguismo oddly intense, distracted, and as for the old lady in the isolated farm house, well she's just hilarious. By the end the urge to giggle uncontrollably was almost overwhelming. The shame is this could have been a great low-budget sci-fi b-movie but Shamalyan can't decide whether he wants us to take this seriously or tongue-in-cheek. He throws in a semi-humorous interlude in a fake atom-bomb-site house, that might have worked in another film (it's the one moment Wahlberg seems at ease) but in the context of this film it just adds to the general air of giddy uncertainty. The director doesn't seem to know what tone he wants to set, doesn't seem capable of giving the actors direction. So many problems. They realise the trees are out to get them, so they head across fields full of them. And it ends with a whimper where for once some kind of bravura, dumb-ass twist might have saved it.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Classic Scene #37

'I have my dreams while I'm awake...' Jim Jarmusch's first film was shot on 16mm straight after dropping out of film school. (I like to think he only went to film school so he could drop out). I first saw Permanent Vacation many years ago as part of a Jarmusch quadruple bill alongside Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law and Mystery Train (imagine that). Here we have the film's wandering protagonist (Chris Parker) exchanging words with Leila (Leila Gastil). The soundtrack is an atonal no-wave drone (by Jarmusch and John Lurie), the talk stilted, the silence in the sparse room punctuated by the sound of sirens outside. Then he places the needle on the portable record player and on comes Earl Bostic's Up There in Orbit. Suddenly everything stilted gives way to this hep cat eloquence. He's dreaming while awake. He's lost in the ecstatic music, falls to the ground, takes off his shoes. Afterwards he tells the mirror. 'Sometimes I think I should live fast and die young. Go out in a three-piece white suit, like Charlie Parker.' It's adolescent narcissism, of course, but it's more than that. In the mirror he's the dream of himself, just as cinema is the dream of ourselves. This is how the poor and artistic survived on New York's Lower East Side in 1980, that wasteland of cheap rent and cheap drugs. They searched out meaning in what they loved, what they discovered for themselves, in dance moves and coded gestures. You know he places the cigarette in his mouth the wrong way round so she can put it right, right? That's part of the cool. It's what she's there for.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Ten Minute Childhood

Looking forward to seeing Mark Cousins's 'film-essay' A Story of Children and Film. One of its inspirations is Ten Minutes Older, Herz Frank's short film from 1978, a single-take look at Latvian childrens' faces as they watch a puppet show. While the camera pans across a number of children it lingers mostly on one in particular, his face an unselfconscious display of emotions; alarm, fascination, fear, attentiveness. It's about as low-tech and simple a concept as you could get and yet the purity of the child's responses speaks to a desire in all of us to return to that unmediated immersion in things. 'He that increases knowledge', as the man says, 'increases sorrow.'

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Films Watched 2013: #4

Down in the Valley (2005)

Summer in the San Fernando Valley and seventeen-year-old Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) is heading to the beach with her girlfriends when she meets thirty-something cowboy Harlan (Ed Norton) at the gas station. Instinctively she asks him to join them and he does, quitting his job on the spot. An idyllic day leads to sex and soon Harlan is being introduced to Tobe's father Wade (David Morse) and younger brother Lonnie (Rory Culkin). The romance is immediate and intense, Tobe fascinated by the novelty of Harlan, his country charm and simple philosophy. He's like something from a movie. Harlan, for his part, can't believe his luck, that this pretty girl has latched onto him. She's like a fate foretold, the key to another life. But Wade, a law enforcement officer, is suspicious of Harlan straight away. He tries to control his daughter but she rebels. Soon though, Harlan's inability to tell reality from fantasy becomes clearer and things escalate dangerously. For much of the way Down in the Valley is a peach of a film, romantic, complex, with a 70s feel for ordinary lives, long summer days and the twilight glow of taillights as evening traffic floods the valley. The direction is confident, the acting uniformly fine, especially Norton, who gives one of his best performances here, part Travis Bickle, part Joe Buck (Midnight Cowboy). Unfortunately the film becomes less convincing in the last third, straining too hard for symbolism, spelling out the cowboy/modern world, fantasy/reality clashes too literally. It isn't a disaster but the realism and emotional truth built up are sacrificed for the sake of plot. While Harlan thought he was in a western it was okay, but when the film thinks it is too that's when it loses its way. Still an underrated film, I think, certainly one that deserves better reviews than it got at the time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My Man Godfrey (1936)

We're showing this great screwball comedy tonight at the film club. Can't wait. Here's my review from last year. 

'Life is but an empty bubble,' sighs Carole Lombard's spoilt socialite in Gregory La Cava's My Man Godfrey, casually summing up the philosophy at the heart of the screwball comedies of the '30s. In fact, this is probably the prototype '30s film, a Depression-fuelled screwball romance with all the blithe wit of a Broadway play leavened with scabrous contempt for the rich and blessed with that mysterious light touch that the best directors of the era seemed to have in abundance. It's a classic. William Powell plays homeless bum Godfrey Smith living at the city dump and minding his own business when snobby rich girl Cornelia Bullock turns up and offers him five dollars to be her 'forgotten man' for a scavenger hunt. He refuses and she storms off. But her younger sister Irene (Lombard) stays behind, intrigued by this strange man. Touched by something sweet-natured in her (and by a curiosity to see such an event at first hand) Godfrey offers to help her beat Cornelia. In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Ritz Hotel we're treated to a scene of undignified chaos as hundreds of socialites push and shove and argue over who gets to register their scavenger hunt items first. Irene's father Alexander (Eugene Pallette) observes, 'all you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people'. And that's the film right there, the rich are crazy (with greed and boredom), American capitalism is teetering on the brink of savagery, but the poor, the forgotten men, have had all the crazy knocked out of them. It's touch and go as to who should be pitied more. Only Irene is absolved, she's a kind of holy innocent who offers Godfrey a job as their butler so she can have a protege like her empty-headed mother (Alice Brady), who has free-loading poet Carlo (Mischa Auer). As the new butler in the Bullock madhouse Godfrey is the most refined character in sight. No one had the elegant poise and knowing intelligence of William Powell. He moves through the film with the careful reserve of an adult trapped at a children's party. And Lombard is sensational, a ditzy dope with a big heart, a loveable child prone to funny moods and irrational fits of mania. There are twists and turns that ultimately let the rich off the hook somewhat, lessons learned, the social satire softened, but somehow it doesn't matter as faultless direction pulls us through to the perfectly delivered last-line closer most films would kill for.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Films Watched 2013: #3

Silent Hill (2006)

To be honest my wife started watching this and I kind of drifted into it too. A not very scary horror based on the video game of the same name about a mother who takes her adopted daughter to the mysterious town of Silent Hill to solve her sleepwalking problems. What follows does have some undeniably arresting visuals but is hamstrung by inane dialogue, incoherent, game level plotting and Sean Bean's rubbish American accent. It doesn't make a jot of sense and soon it's hard to care as characters stumble around in the dark mouthing portentous inanities. Even the great Alice Krige can't save it from being anything more than a mildly diverting exercise in style over substance, a surreal-lite car-crash. Although having said that, director Christophe Gans' all-out disregard for plot or sense in favour of having troupes of zombie nurses doing interpretive dance routines could see it become a bit of a cult classic in time.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Films Watched 2013: #2

Vincere (2009)

We began our new film club season with Marco Bellochio's extravagantly melodramatic Vincere, the story of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's secret lover, Ida Dalser, who bankrolled his rise to power and conceived a son for him only to be denied once he'd achieved that power. A heady mix of sexual desire and political unrest at first, recreating the rise of fascism with newsreel footage and on-screen Futurist slogans, the film gradually resolves into a compelling study of one woman's bloody-minded refusal to let go of what she believes is her right and her son's. It's hard to know, though, whether to admire her or despair at her near-suicidal delusion. Giovanna Mezzogiorno can't quite generate the sympathy required to make us really care what happens to Ida. She seems spurned by power as much as love, robbed of her chance to lord it over the nation, to see her son heir to a new imperial dynasty. Which isn't to take away from Mezzogiorno's powerful performance or Filippo Timi's marvellous bug-eyed intensity as Mussolini. But for all the near-operatic passion of the story, its heightened emotions, what really stands out is Bellochio's bravura direction, mixing painterly composition with experimental daring to great effect.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Films Watched 2013: #1

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Animal Kingdom is a tautly impressive crime drama, directed with unshowy power by David Michod and very well acted. Seventeen year-old J. (James Frecheville) has nowhere to go after the death of his mother but the home of his grandmother, Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver), the matriarch of one of Melbourne's top crime families. The Codys are at war with the Armed Robbery Squad who've taken to offing gang members vigilante-style. The man they really want, though, is Janine's eldest son Andrew 'Pope' Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), who responds to one of these killings by murdering two patrolmen in revenge. J. is implicated in this and is soon the target of the police, specifically Sgt Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). What follows is an engrossing study of loyalty and ruthlessness, portraying the criminal world as a Darwinian eco-system of the strong and weak. Brought in for questioning J. is soon in a position where he can't trust the cops to protect him or his family not to kill him. Frecheville is impressive as the still centre of the film, Weaver icily chilling as Janine with Pearce quietly impressive as always. But it's Mendelsohn who steals the film, his Pope an unsettling presence not just for his unpredictable violence but also his predatory, passive-aggressive caring, belittling one minute, entrapping with fake intimacy the next, always probing for emotional weakness. It makes him one of recent cinemas more memorable and acutely-observed monsters.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Thinking Machine

Agnes Moorehead, The Magnificent Ambersons, 1941

What the camera does, and does uniquely, is to photograph thought. That’s my profoundest conviction in this business of moviemaking: the camera is not so much a lie-detector as a Geiger counter of mental energy. It registers something only vaguely detectable to the naked eye, registers it clear and strong. Every time an actor thinks, it goes right on the film.’
- Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich from This Is Orson Welles