Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Hervé - "Bang the Drum"

My friend Lewis Rose is the director of this video for Hervé's "Bang the Drum". Moody, sleazy, funny.


Various links:

The art of Fortunio Liceti:

Serious chat about trivial things: Graphic Policy Radio talk "Captain America: Civil War"

Interview with "Embrace of the Serpent" director Ciro Guerra.

A brief history of horror...

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Straight on till Morning

Peter Collinson, 1972, UK

Peter Collinson’s* ‘Straight on till Morning’ is a totally different creature to ‘Fear in the Night, the film it was doubled up with under the “Women in Peril” strapline. It’s like Hammer as filtered through Nicolas Roeg and Harold Pinter and owes far more to ‘Peeping Tom’ than Hitchcock or Robert Bloch. This is no bad thing. It is a flawed but fascinating chamber piece whose cross-cutting to other tangential and related scenes broadens this serial killer story into a story of how girls get lost in post-Sixties London culture. 1970’s ‘Permissive’ provides another example of this Little Girl Lost scenario.

Public humiliation and the retreat into fantasy underlies the odyssey of ugly duckling Rite Tushingham as she tries her luck in the big bad world to look for someone to make her a mother. This leads her to pretty boy Peter’s neverland, at the end of a road straight out of ‘Coronation Street’ and British neo-realism. In Peter’s world, beauty is rewarded with murder. Shane Briant plays Peter with a mixture of aloofness, poses, articulate gentleness and eloquent bullying. It’s best when Briant reveals through expression how immature, confused and bewildered Peter is. We don’t know why he does what he does, and it is obvious that neither does he.

The undeniably bleak, cruel and nihilistic qualities of the film have brought it some vitriol and dismissal, which reminds me of reaction to Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Bad Timing’, and both are open to accusations of misogyny and outright cruelty. Even if the Peter Pan allusions don’t quite take flight, ‘Straight on till Morning’ has much say on the random mercilessness of the world and the hopes and dreams of normalcy that take people there. It is genuinely disturbing and troubling long after it has finished, and there really aren’t Hammer films one can say that about.

*        Probably best known as the director of ‘The Italian Job’.

Fear in the Night

Jimmy Sangster, 1972, UK

Fear in the Night’ is a pretty rudimentary thriller with a “twist”, conceived to go along with a Hammer Studio's “Women in Peril” double-bill with ‘Straight on till Morning’. A woman recovering from a breakdown is going to live with her husband in a boy’s school far out in the country, but just before she leaves she is attacked by someone with an artificial arm. What the film does offer is some excellent direction by Jimmy Sangster and solid acting. Sangster delivers a gripping opening sequence, a school setting which is both eerie and slightly surreal,  some framing that rivals Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’, some excellent segues, and a taut attack-chase sequence that verges on the dream-like. Ellipses manage to muddy the otherwise obvious ‘Diabolique’ plot and characterisation with some fine performances from Peter Cushing, Judy Gleeson, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins that gives the procedure weight. Hammer was frequently about plot standards invigorated with excellent details. ‘Fear in the Night’ also gives a great iconic image of the wonderful Cushing wearing a pair of shattered glasses, and it is his back-story alone that provides the genuine chills right up to the end and after.

Hard to be a God

Trudno byt bogom
Aleksei German, 2013, Russia

Hard to be a God’ falls somewhere between Tarkovsky and ‘Zardoz’. By which I mean it contains leanings towards brilliance, campness, pretentiousness, indulgence, uniqueness, something genuinely bonkers. The comparison with Tarkovesky isn’t a stretch at all since since ‘Stalker’ was based on the book ‘Roadside Picnic’ by the same authors, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: ‘Hard to be a God’ is based upon their 1964 novel. And ‘Stalker’ provides a good example of the science fiction of  ‘Hard to be a God’ which is free of any visual clues that might obvious symbolise an otherworldly setting. There are no futuristic vistas, for example, no alien designs; just people saying and acting bizarre things(although you may note that the costume Don Rumata wears looks like the remains of a spacesuit). It was directed by Alexei German and completed by his son Alexei German Jnr upon his father’s death in 2013.

It’s a medieval science-fiction scenario, which you can’t say about too many films, in which a group of astronauts have landed on a planet that seems trapped in its Dark Ages, bent on killing anyone they deem intellectual. This is why people act like “The Fool” from a play, with added killing. These astronauts aren’t meant to interfere with the development of this society but, of course, they do and have. One, calling himself Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), is already bearing a “Godlike” status simply because he is more focused and alert in a land of violent idiots. This therefore makes him more successful in his violent outbursts even as he loses himself to the cacophony of squalor and craziness all around him as he tries to blend in. The fact that he has apparently gone so successfully native is another reason it may be hard to distinguish the sci-fi basis as he behaves much like those around him.

Disgust is one of its main attributes: every scene wallows in mud and liquids, people smearing themselves with gunk; a face can’t get a close-up without someone else touching it, or someone else picking its nose; it’s a wonder any skin appears clean in some way at all. And this is before the gore kicks in. Long takes nod towards not only to Tarkovsky but also Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokoruv, but there is none of the stillness of Tsai Ming Liang. Each scene is bursting with people, filth and the surreal, through which the camera glides following a plot that almost comes to the surface. There is a war nbetween The Blacks and The Greys and Don Ramata is looking for someone…  Much dialogue bears non sequiturs and it quite likely that even as you are being dazzled by the madness onscreen you will moments where you will be thinking “What?”, “Why?”, “Who?”, “Really?” and “W.T.F.?”. It makes little concession to easy plotting, even if the story is simple when spelt out. But dazzling it is. The cast propel themselves into the muck with vigour in the manner of over-eager amateurs who think such wallowing is vibrant acting (and similarly, you can also say this of Di Caprio in ‘The Revenant’): but I don’t want to claim the acting is amateurish because that isn’t so. Merely that the gusto creates some of the aforementioned campness and indulgence, but it knows what it’s doing. Think then of the dense production design and affectations of Peter Greenaway mixed with the black-and-white austerity of Embrace of the Serpent’.

But that is the meat of this, for the story takes secondary importance to the catalogue of grime and cruelty. It is a treatise on man’s penchant for stupidity and barbarism, even as it indulges in a feudal social structure. IMDB quotes a synopsis by Svetlana Karmalita for the Rome Film Festival that says,

This is not a film about cruelty, but about love. A love that was there, tangible, alive, and that resisted through the hardest of conditions.

But it is  about cruelty, surely, as to deny this is to ignore a central ingredient; and it is not so much about ‘love conquering in the worst of times’ as showing a context where affection doesn’t stand a chance. It is about bringing to life a crazed crowded scenario that you might find in classic, renowned paintings. It is about failure; it is about how religion and blind faith can facilitate malice and obstruct progress. It is about the failure of colonisation and where the native culture is too overbearing to be changed by one man, no matter a self-proclaimed God.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Embrace of the Serpent

El abrazo de la serpiente

Ciro Guerra, 2015, Columbia-Venezela-Argentina

Ciro Guella’s film is a mesmerising journey into a long dead world of an Amazon in the midst of colonialism, based upon diaries by scientists Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evan Schultes. Naturally ‘Heart of Darkness’ and the films of Werner Herzog will come to mind , but there is a formal elegance,  uncanniness and style here that has little to do with Herzog’s more neo-realist aesthetic. Gorgeous and haunting vistas of black and white cinematography by David Gallego segue into one another, occasionally crossing timeframes to tell the tale. 

An ailing explorer (Jan Bijvoet) goes into the Amazon jungle and enlists the help of a native, Karamakate (Nilbio Torres and Antonio Boliar) to find a legendary flower, supposedly capable of curing disease. Years later, another explorer with the same objective also enlists the older Karamakate’s assistance, sparking memories even though Karamakate has forgotten some of the rituals he used to know. 

It’s a stark but soulful excursion into a world where white men bring madness and death with little to counter that this is what they symbolise. The second visit to the Spanish Mission where a mad self-appointed messiah has taken over is the material of a horror film, for example, but ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is only interested in this as part of the texture. In this world, the native fables where celestial animal spirits come to Earth (and where the title comes from) are a poetic tonic to the unforgiving nature of the white man’s religion. Karamakate is aware he is of a dying consciousness, one of the last of his kind and in the end it is all he can do to accept this with a few acts of defiance that will deprive the colonists of the jewels of his people.

Karamakate proves a fascinating character that easily quashes apparent “noble savage” archetypes, a character resistant to typical Western interpretations, always critical of other Amazonians that have befriended the white man. The importance of this film giving a rare voice to the Amazonian tribes-people has been officially recognised as it 

bears tragic witness to colonial atrocities that have ravaged natural resources, devastated indigenous populations, and broken a link between ancient wisdom and Western man's exploitive madness. Accordingly, the Governor of the Guainía Department, one of the locations used for the film, decorated Ciro Guerra with the Order of the Inrida Flower for “exalting the respect and value of the indigenous populations, likewise giving the Department recognition for tourism and culture.”

A haunting and haunted world is evoked and alienation is a near tangible thing, not only in Karamakate’s isolation from the world as the last survivor of his tribe, but also in the Spanish mission’s decent into madness. Karamakate does not appear to have let loneliness and isolation bring on such madness: he is clear of thinking and opinion and radiates a natural pride. He goes on the white men’s excursions for his own reasons and makes little concession to them. 

Time is fluid as the narrative slides from past to present, via as much by the river as by memory. By putting the past foremost the film puts it on an equal level with its present rather than relegating it to “flashback”. Although the editing does not fracture time and find associations and symbolisms by juxtapositions in the style of Nicolas Roeg – ‘Walkabout’, say – Guerra exhibits a similar awareness of the bond between editing and time. By the time it seems to go a little ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (it’s only colour sequence), it has long been evident that ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is also about film as a transcendent, hallucinogenic experience. It’s a film that evokes memories, dreams, the fluidity of time and a lost culture and refreshingly seems scornful of traditional white narrative norms. 

Beautiful, strange, tapping into the potential for film to give voice to everyone, even those long gone. An exceptional achievement.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The War

Jon Avnet, 1994, US

Elijah Wood gets top billing, even over Kevin Costner, as a boy who builds a tree-house. The tree-house and his long-running feud with the kids of another family are a metaphor for war, and Vietnam in particular. ‘The War’ starts promisingly, although loaded with rites-of-passage clichés, such as The Summer That Changed Everything... The all-wise nostalgic voice-over... children dancing to songs a’la 'Stand By Me'... It also bears the flashbacks, dead friends and guilt of Vietnam movies. Costner is the Vietnam veteran, back from hospital and a breakdown, full of war stories that have driven him into pacifist principles. Costner ends up too earnest; ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ still offers the best “good dad of (Southern) peace” archetype, but unlike Atticus, this dad can still be relied upon to use violence when his son is threatened. And so many conservative mythologies are tediously re-enforced, such as the dead that become guardian angels and wishes that come true, etc.

Mostly, despite some appealing moments, the film suffers from a lack of subtlety. A racist teacher is a caricature out of a Joe Dante satire and is treated to a long, unbelievably uninterrupted rebuke from the sassy black girl she picks upon. In fact, the underused black characters have the best personalities, where the adults are a bit too earnest and the kids don’t get to breath from under the contrived scenerios. The building of and the fight for the tree-house also promises more than is delivered, accompanied by an appealing seventies soundtrack left over from an ‘80s ‘Nam film. Slowly the film descends into predictability and, for the last half an hour, is almost unforgivably patronising and obvious: for example, there is no need for the sound of helicopters over the battle for the tree-house to make the point.

Although there is nothing truly disagreeable with Avnet’s film, its earnestness and self-importance work finally to undermine its strengths and to waste Costner at his most appealing and a cast of highly talented child actors (the wonderful Lucas Black – Caleb Temple from the TV series ‘American Gothic’ – has an all too brief showstopper when he beats up the bigger Wood with a devil’s shit-eating grin). almost unforgivably pat, and conservative in its resolution, the War unfortunately shoots itself in the foot, ending up neither a knowing children’s film with adult themes or an adult film with something new to say about childhood. 

Friday, 3 June 2016

Warcraft: the beginning

 Duncan Jones, 2016, USA-China

Of course, there was a lot of goodwill towards Duncan Jones after ‘Moon’ and ‘Source Code’, but I don’t think goodwill has a chance of elevating ‘Warcraft’ into some fantasy classic. There is a sense that supporters are desperately trying to make excuses.  My first doubts came instantaneously with the first shot of the orcs. You know how games have become almost like films? Here’s a film that looks like a game. There is something about the orcs, their design and execution, that means they generally remain unconvincing throughout. If this had been wholly animated, that would not have been a problem, would have been as aesthetic, but being placed in real locations against real actors does not enhance their credibility. But then again, the human actors fair no better and being placed aside orcs shows up how miscast and weak they are. Dominic Cooper as King Llane seems particularly unconvincing. It’s like the joint fantasy of a group of kids playing dress-up who just happen to look like competent actors in their imaginations. Yes, just like role-playing.

Much dialogue rumbles so fierce on the bass frequencies it’s like the orcs each come with their own Dolby speech broadcasters. Bad dialogue with motifs that are so old stock you are constantly thinking of other fantasy trailblazers that managed to inject these clichés with life (‘Lord of the Rings’, of course, ‘Game of Thrones’, I’m thinking ‘Dragonslayer’… even ‘The Hobbit’ films possessed more flair). Of course, this is all based on a game that trades in those story benchmarks – a threatened king; ‘good’ magic and ‘bad’ magic (helpfully colour-coded) and a wizard-figure that succumbs to the nefarious – and all this must be fun if you are directly interacting and navigating these narrative tropes yourself, but a film needs its own way of bringing these to life as an entity in itself. And this script isn’t it. Oh, it tries the usual tricks – humour supposedly elicited by a young wizard clearly out of his depth; the father/son theme – but nothing really comes to life. You may be thinking By the way, what is happening here? But it’s all standard stuff despite all the names and references trying to enliven it and which will fly over the heads of non-fans (I, for example, have never played ‘Warcraft’).

Where it wins is in a sturdy vision of its female characters – they may be fewer but they are every bit as useful and formidable as the males – and, even better, in giving the orcs characters nuance instead of just letting them be faceless villainous hoards. It starts with an orc couple worrying about their offspring after all, which is surely refreshing. This is why they are more interesting than the wet side dishes of human characters. It goes some way to humanising the inhuman “other”. Even so, the orcs come dangerously close to turning into ‘Shrek’. And there isn’t much to the special effects when they all appear to be CGI without much ingenuity in individual moments. It’s all *smash & angst* without really being engaging.

The vibe from the packed audience I saw it with was one of mild amusement and scoffing in equal measure. They openly laughed when the baby snarls at the end… and I wasn’t sure if we were meant to.