Sunday, 31 July 2016


Todd Haynes, 2015, UK-USA

Right from the start, Todd Haynes taps into the set decoration all around us by revealing that the pattern on the opening credits is in fact a drainage grill. There is a mauve tinge to shadows and a velvety green that touches everything as if that is the colour of nostalgia. The look of the film is dipped in the colours of old fashion photos, sumptuously tinting everything. In this world that is nothing but a film set for our dramas, this story belongs to two women: it’s the 1950s and Therese (Roony Mara) is a shop girl not quite sure of who she is, and then there is Carol (Cate Blanchett) who is older and more certain but struggling to be so against a disapproving world. And they meet when Carol is buying Christmas gifts from the store Therese works in and a romance begins.

Todd Haynes goes one step further than the gorgeous affectations of the Douglas Sirk influenced ‘Far From Heaven’, extending a confident casualness with another period that characterised his exceptional TV adaption of ‘Mildred Pierce’ to achieve something far more naturalistic here. No need for the narrative layers and tricks that distinguished his ‘Velvet Goldmine’ or ‘I’m not Here’.  Edward Lachmann’s cinematography is vibrant, giving each colour a luminance of old photography stock, of a past derived from the era’s commercials. Or think of Edward hopper’s paintings. Adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel ‘The Price of Salt’, Phyllis Nagys’ script leaves much unsaid, because people know the inherent meaning behind words, and letting looks do just as much heavy lifting. But there are still memorable lines: “I love her.” “I can’t help you with that.” Or, with a first look at a lover’s body: “I never looked like that.” The cast excel. Through Rooney Mara, you can feel the trouble Therese is having finding and being herself, often hiding behind a misunderstood coyness. As Carol, Cate Blanchett’s performance is endlessly beguiling with her resolve, beauty, smarts and elegance. 

And amongst this, Carol, is negotiating the sexism and homophobia of the era whilst increasingly sure of her identity. The story detours into a road movie and pays a pitstop at film noir (there’s a gun) which all helps to broaden the genre and narrative before settling  again on what might be called a woman’s picture – but it does so with subversion. Rarely has the details in a film told so much story (the way Carol puts on her shoes when she’s caught with Therese, for example). This is surely the most mainstream film Haynes has made, being ostensibly a straightforward forbidden romance, but the fact that it can treat its gay theme with such casualness and be accepted on those terms is surely a sign that we and cinema have come far with the subject. This is seductive and jazzy where Abdellatif Kechiche’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ was confrontational and punky with similar themes.

The direction and script navigate all these elements so effortlessly that it shows that rarely does a film of this kind display such adultness, dignity and grace. It’s a film for people who have lived and matured and gone through troubled times. A film to lose yourself to. Enthralling.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Satan's Slave

Pengabdi setan
Sisworo Gautama Putra, 1982, Indonesia

Satan’s Slave” doesn’t waste any time getting into a very chilly scene of a ghost at the window, tapping for attention. But this ghost wants to draw its victim outside rather than ingratiating itself in. It’s the ghost of the mother of a girl and her younger brother Tommy, who takes the loss badly by turning to the black arts. Or at least he buys some horror magazines and acts alien and aggressively towards his sister. A fortune teller in trendy 60s glasses floats around them like an aged film star reading over-sized cards and making creepy phone calls just to keep on performing. Tommy also takes to riding a motorbike through cemeteries, just like Mike from “Phantasm”. It’s all the fault of the housekeeper brought in to do the late mother’s chores, but she has something more Satanic in mind: to punish those that don’t believe in Allah enough, it would seem.

Satan’s Slave” is an apparent Indonesian version of Don Coscarelli’s  “Phantasm” (1979), riffing on its dream-logic but hitting more closer to  Lucio Fulci’s randomness and precarious dramatics with a thick pretence to the Gothic. People take their time to answer doors which are being benged on by someone outside.. Blood drips on family portraits. Night-time shots outside the house are always accompanied by eerie howling (wolves? neighbourhood dogs?). People throw pillows at ghosts/zombies A manservant wheezes and worries. A blank-faced housemaid who is so obviously in on the malevolence that she comes with “Evil” music cues every time that she appears. It wins points on being bonkers, an electronic score (interrupted by a bout of disco) and remains notable for its version of Horror seen through a Muslim perspective. But any early promise dissolves and “Satan's Slave” just about scrapes through on its daftness.  

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

vs Ian Fleming's "Dr No"

"Dr. No" by Ian Fleming

Once you get past the misogyny and the racism - which you can’t because neither are particularly subtext - the problem with reading James Bond is that James Bond is a dick. His plans frequently require innocents getting killed; he generally blames the women; he is unable to treat women as adults; he antagonises and insults his captors instead of playing clever; he sulks when he doesn’t get his way. 

As presented by Ian Fleming, if this is an exemplary example of their agents it is a wonder the British Secret Service resolves anything. Head of the Secret Service, M, seems equally dickish, apparently only happy throwing his agents into serious danger without proper forethought. Assumedly, he is meant to be the stern paternal type, but he too seems like an idiot. For example, in “Dr No”, M16 agent John Strangways fails to send his daily message to headquarters: Fleming goes into great detail how Strangeways follows stringent routine every day, mentioning how even the keyboard he uses can pick-up his particular typing technique so recognise whether anyone unauthorised is making a report, etc, etc; and yet, when Strangways fails to report in one day, his superior M’s first reaction is to simply dismiss the matter on the assumption that Strangways has eloped with his female co-agent. It is only because Bond needs an easy assignment to help him recover from a previous mission that M thinks he might as well send someone to investigate, despite being certain that Strangways has simply done a runner for some sex. If I was a secret agent, I would surely hope for a little more concern and support. 

And when Bond arrives in Jamaica to pursue the disappearance, he arrives to find they have provided him with Strangways’ car… not so good at secrecy and subterfuge, this Secret Service. Well, let’s not forget that Bond uses his real name all the time upon arrival anyway. Most hilariously, when finally captured by Dr No – in a secret base that treats its prisoners like hotel guests – and his captors ask him for “next of kin”, he gives them M’s real name, we are told. And before that, he simply arrives in Jamaica and assumes Dr No’s guilt due to a mixture of xenophobia and local gossip; oh, there are certainly clues for concern about Dr Julius No, a Chinese-German, and his army of Chigroes (that people of mixed Chinese-Negro heritage, according to the book) but Bond jumps to the conclusion that the Doc is up to no good on his reclusive island almost from the off. He hires a local boatman, Quarrel, as his sidekick – not sure what training and qualifications Quarrel has for such covert operations, but…. - and Bond manages to survive a couple of assassination attempts, most memorably one involving a poisonous centipede crawling over his crotch and up his body. But what to do about being such a recognisable target in Strangways’ car? Well, Bond gets Quarrel to hire a couple of look-alikes to drive around in the car to see what happens: and the unfortunate impersonators are both promptly murdered. How about that? 

Anyway, Bond convinces Quarrel to take him over to Dr No’s island, despite the native’s fear of a dragon that is meant to prowl upon it. It is here, apropos of nothing but happenstance, that Bond meets his love interest Honeychile Rider. She is on the beach, collecting shells to sell. But this complicates things: what is what Bond to do with this luscious lovely? And more, how can he possibly ignore the deformity of her broken nose? Yes, the book stresses, this is such a “deformity” for a female; but luckily, like all other disabilities, after a while you hardly notice it! And this is exactly the kind of thing to distract Bond on his adventures. For her part, Honey has had a tough time of it, orphaned and raped (and that’s how the nose was broken) and now living off of her own wits. She has managed to avoid Dr No’s army and collect her shells for some time, and yet as soon as Bond turns up, she becomes a simpering female, clutching to him for protection. She is out of her teens and yet there is a passage where Bond takes time to wrestle with his conscience about whether to treat her as a “girl” or as a “woman”. Well, Fleming evidently makes the decision and for the rest of the book she is simply “the girl”. Doesn’t stop them from closing the book by having what she amusingly (and degradingly) calls “slave time”.

Fleming is quoted as saying, "I write for about three hours in the morning ... and I do another hour's work between six and seven in the evening. I never correct anything and I never go back to see what I have written ... By following my formula, you write 2,000 words a day."  And it shows: the plotting is purely whimsical, its consistency wavering, the plotting and ideas the kind to be expected from a hormonal teenager with all the cruelty, lack of discipline and unintentional humour that comes from that. We are a long, long way from John Le Carre’s George Smiley.

Dr No himself is a remarkable construction, the result of extensive plastic surgery and other physical modifications, let alone the fact that he is “one in a million” with his heart on the right side of his body (which saves his life). He is a heady mix of Chinese-German ancestry, Fu Manchu super-villainy in a Jamaican island hideaway. He also seems to think that Bond is the only one worthy of hearing his masterplan, which means he probably needs to get out more. Well, he thinks this one moment and then tells Bond he is not as clever as he thinks he is the next - which is both true and in keeping with the inconsistency of Fleming’s characterisations. For example, one minute Honey is a resourceful and admirable female presence and the next a weak sex interest in need of Bond’s protection; and the next she has the presence of mind and stamina to wait out an awful mass-crab attack. Bond is meant to be a super-agent, but that doesn’t mean he won’t sulk when imprisoned by a super-villain and when his plan to acquire a weapon falls flat (a plan, it might be mentioned, that features Honey getting a manicure). In one moment, Dr No’s soldiers are ruthless and efficient killers; the next they are intimidated and dissuaded from raping Honey by some vague and unfounded threats from Bond. It is all a little up and down and all over the place. It is as patch-work at Dr Julius No himself.

And it may well all be fun enough if its misogyny and xenophobia didn’t lead the book by the nose. These are not incidental traits as much as a watermargin through every viewpoint, and Fleming is simply not a good enough writer to circumnavigate these weaknesses. If you are not that way inclined, these might be insurmountable obstacles to enjoyment.

It is true that the film of “Dr No” manages to mitigate many failings of the book. M treats Strangway’s disappearance seriously from the start; there is much more detective work from Bond in the first half which is necessarily padded out more, particularly with assassination attempts. Bond is a jerk still, but he is also witty and far more enigmatic; more an anti-hero. The film is no less silly, but it delivers its nonsense with some flare. It is indeed remarkable to see how many of the defining traits of a Bond film are all present in his cinematic debut: the Bond-down-a-gun-barrel inset, the groovy opening titles, that theme tune, a sense of the  tongue-in-cheek rather than the campiness that would overrun the series later: all this dresses up Bond in a far more appealing aesthetic. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016


Radu Jude, 2015, Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France

Radu Jude’s film gives voice to a community that has been unrepresented in cinema in a similar way to Embrace of the Serpent; in this case, the Romani people bought and sold as slaves during the 1800s. It uses primary sources to elaborate on truth with fiction which to me, like ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ and ‘The Witch’, makes this more convincing than claims to “based on a true story”. ‘Aferim!’ ~ an Ottoman Turkish expression translatable more or less as  kind of “Bravo!”, but give it a sarcastic spin ~ is set in Wallachia 1835 where a policeman is sent to track down a runaway slave. This policeman, Costandin (Teodor Corba), sets off across Wallachia with his teenage son and it is obvious very soon that he is an abusive, bigoted braggart and that the boy Ionitā (Mihai Comānoiu) is haphazardly but blindly trying to follow his father’s example.

It is when they get a hold of the runaway slave, Carfin (Toma Curzin), who then starts to tell them stories that colour in his humanity that conscience is poked at. It would seem that, yes, the slave is guilty of having an affair with his master’s wife, but it was the wife that seduced him; and also his worldly experience goes far beyond that of his captors. So, perhaps, maybe, he doesn’t deserve death as punishment and they should let him go, Ionitā suggests? It’s not that Costandin disagrees but he’s too afraid of losing the position he has and wrongly assumes holds more influence than it has: he says, rather, that he can persuade the master to mitigate the punishment to a near-death beating. But by the end, the punishment having been horribly meted out, it is obvious that he is dimly aware that he has no power other than that associated with his feudal masters, to do their bidding and that all along he has wallowed in the licence to brutality that allows him without really questioning. If his son so blindly follows his father’s ways afterwards is not known, but it’s obvious that Constadin himself is unlikely to change. He is the middling authority that carries out the prejudices ordained by the rulers. This is brought to the fore when Constadin wonders if people will say a good word about them in a few hundred years: a moment that’s perhaps a little self-conscious but also evidence that maybe this character does have doubts. But he’s too busy enjoying the power of privilege and practicing a casual racism it allows and deluding himself he’s doing good.

Aferim!’ as much about human cruelty as an ingredient of history as ‘Hard to be a God’. Having taken incidents and speeches from primary sources only amplifies this argument, as if it was ever in question. Slavery and racism are the backbone of society here with little active kindness on display for mitigation. Indeed, the point is surely that bigotry has always propped up cultures. Few scenes are as despairing as the runaway boy Tintirc (Alberto Dinache) begging for his slavery. It is a beautiful film, defined by Marius Panduru’s black-and-white photography where there are few close-ups, the general view being of mid-shots and panoramas, which keeps the audience at an observer’s distance. ‘Aferim!’ is darkly funny and accessible as a typical Western narrative structure, but it has a documentary feel and neo-realism that is totally European. A demonstration of how discrimination is timeless and a deft character study set in a credibly cinematically recreated past

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Battlestar Galactica

Glen A. Larson, 1978, USA

An obvious 'Star Wars' rip-off that nevertheless owes much to others such as ‘Star Trek’, ‘Space 1999’, war films and even – with one shot of a planet’s underground caverns – ‘Forbidden Planet’. It certainly grabs from everything it can, being part of a whole post-‘Star Wars’ pulp sci-fi boom featuring the likes of ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’, ‘Flash Gordon’, etc. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ wins no awards for advancing the themes and cause of science-fiction. We are in the future where people have names like Starbuck, Boomer, Casseopia and Athena, where every little boy wants to be a starfighter and where good humans fight bad aliens. The politicians are self-indulgent buffoons, helping the enemy by making all the wrong moves. The family and the military are the only saving graces in this world. Unadventurous ethics, plot and characterisation aside, this is decent and campy if undemanding entertainment. No, it’s not good but it does have charm, although much of this now must be to do with its datedness. The Cylons are perhaps better conceived and certainly more unique than Stormtroopers, perhaps akin more to ‘Dr Who’s Cybermen in pace and attitude.
They certainly make immediate impression with their vocorder voice, aura of humming and their silver armour causing incessant lens flares. They don’t quite break out into the Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ but they’re definitely of their time. It’s open to debate which are the scariest (me, I was always disappointed to discover that Stormtroopers were just men-in-suits rather than androids/cyborgs/robots).

The spaceships look good – agreeably well-used look rather – and John Dyskra’s special effects are above average (vapour trails in space!), yet its origins in television dominates throughout the plotting, uninspired camerawork and especially the clunky dialogue. The streak of tele-sentimentalism simplifies its outlook on family, loss, children, and cute robot dogs. Structurally, having been cut up from episodes of the television series, it starts with a climax, slows down for subplots and build-up, than goes out with a big-ish showdown.There is some welcome mystery when the ‘Galactica’ stumbles upon a desolate planet and discovers a casino, and some ghoulishness is provided by the alien Ovians, but this is absolute pulp. There’s some pretence to a mythical quest, to Noah’s Ark, to the desperation of refugees, and luckily – if less profitably – lacks the born-again subtext of ‘Star Wars’ ‘the Force’. If anything, despite being inferior, ‘Battlestar Galactica’ shows-up ‘Star Wars’ pretensions, if that’s possible, but also its strengths. ‘Star Wars’ is, for all its flaws, the better film because it has a magic ingredient that makes it work. But having said, for all its cutesy trimmings ‘Battlestar Galactica’ is more mature, being a much darker and troubled tale of humans fleeing murderous robots that only want to wipe them out.  Desperation leads this story rather than an ol' fight between 'Good versus Evil'  and,  for all its cutesy trimmings, that makes this premise more interesting  and one that the updated ‘Battlestar Galactica’ series of the early 2000s could run with.