Monday, 18 October 2010

Weekly Viewings From The To-Watch Pile #8 – The Huge Catch-up

I want to catch up with the films I have not talked about on here, so I am merely going to include quick reviews for them. I also rewatched David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), but I have plans to do a long form review of it. Like Trash Humpers (2009), I’ve not made the task easy for me, as it is another film where conventional film criticism probably goes out the window in trying to explain why I hold it as a good film, but I am going to try.
Aside from that, there is not that much to say. When this is up, I will still be disappointed that the Australian killer pig movie, Razorback (1984), did not live up to expectations. Expect a short review of that along with quite a few others at some point.

Anger Me (Elio Gelmini, 2006)
‘Biography of the late author/actor/filmmaker Kenneth Anger, covering his early life as a child actor up through his career as an author ("Hollywood Babylon") and avant-garde filmmaker ( Scorpio Rising, Invocation of My Demon Brother). Included are interviews with friends and colleagues and archival footage of Anger, as well as clips from some of his films.’ – From IMDB

If you are not interested in Kenneth Anger, you may not find anything of worth from this extended interview with him. If you are interested, its recommended. It can be found on the UK DVD Kenneth Anger: Magick Lantern Cycle.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
‘An extraterrestrial race forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent who is exposed to their biotechnology.’ – From IMDB
It is such a disappointment that a low budget sci-fi film with a great starting premise about aliens living on Earth registers no emotion, good or bad, from me at the end credits. The premise is great, allowing one to explore what-ifs on alien-human contact, how we would communicate, the potential discrimination, and even the slightest details like there being a group of humans – Nigerians – living amongst the aliens in the district and even betting on fights between alien bugs over money. The problem is every choice Blomkamp chooses – to make it an shoot-em-up action film, to make the Nigerians one-dimension flesh eaters, to give the main alien character a child alien despite the fact that he could have made them completely ‘alien’ in their behaviour over offspring to humans etc. – fails to completely work for me. Even the CGI, especially a joke involving a pig near the end, falters at places. In the end, this film is a complete ‘meh’ film for me if there was to be one.

The Fourth Kind (Olatunde Osunsanmi, 2009)
‘In 1972, a scale of measurement was established for alien encounters. When a UFO is sighted, it is called an encounter of the first kind. When evidence is collected, it is known as an encounter of the second kind. When contact is made with extraterrestrials, it is the third kind. The next level, abduction, is the fourth kind. Modern-day, Alaska, where-mysteriously since the 1960s-a disproportionate number of the population has been reported missing every year. Despite multiple FBI investigations of the region, the truth has never been discovered. Here in this remote region, psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler began videotaping sessions with traumatized patients and unwittingly discovered some of the most disturbing evidence of alien abduction ever documented. The Fourth Kind exposes the terrified revelations of multiple witnesses. Their accounts of being visited by alien figures all share disturbingly identical details, the validity of which is investigated throughout the film.’ – From IMDB
This is going to be one of my more controversial claims on even if you reading this a year from now, but I immensely enjoyed this film, although to explain why I do have to spoil its background so be warned. After I watched it at first, knowing the legitimacy of the true story could be up for question, I thought it was a bad and exploitative film which was still far more fascinating than a lot of films because its blurring of documentary and fiction was so upfront and raised questions for me about the process in the film and in any other ‘document’. [SPOILER]  Than I discovered that the real life story was made up for the film, and it became an even more exploitative and trite film, but also gleefully subversive for a mainstream film. It may still be a bad film, but I can’t help but applaud the director-writer for his hoax, especially when it does, even by accident, raise questions about the legitimacy of biopics and documentaries. For example, the fact that the casting of both versions of Dr. Abbey Tyler and her patients is vastly different, from ordinary ‘real’ people to actors like Milla Jovovich who are clearly more glamorous looking and handsome, is almost a swipe at this habit done in a lot of biographic works. For me, it’s not only a film the late William Castle, who played tricks on his audiences, would be proud of but it’s an (accidental/purposeful) subversion of docu-fiction. [SPOILER ENDS]

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci, 1968)
‘A mute gunslinger faces off against a gang of bounty hunters in the great blizzard of 1899, and a grim, tense struggle unfolds.’ – From IMDB
Deserving of its praise. With its expressionist acting (even if you were to watch it in the Italian dub), snow bound landscapes and a beautiful Ennio Morricone score, this bleak Spaghetti western is a gem of any type of western worth viewing.

Kenneth Anger: Magick Lantern Cycle (2009)
Not a film as per say, but a collection of almost all of the experimental films by Kenneth Anger by the British Film Institution. An obvious influence on David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, Anger combined quick editing, the use of pop songs like Blue Velvet, and dreamlike imagery into many visual rich short films, though his subjects varied, from homoerotic desire in Fireworks (1947), a film he directed and starred in when he was only 17, to motorbike gangs in Scorpio Rising (1964). I wasn’t a fan of all of his work, as I feel he has a bad habit of making films too long, but for the most part his work is very striking and inspired even now. It does depend on your tastes if you will find merit to them, but it is recommend to explore his work. As I’ve mentioned earlier on in this post, the BFI release also includes a documentary/interview Anger Me.

Little Odessa (James Gray, 1994)
‘This film tells a bitter tale of a dysfunctional family. Joshua, a cold-blooded professional killer, returns to his Brighton Beach boyhood home for a "job." He knows it will be difficult to return to the Russian-immigrant community of his youth--in his eyes, we see anticipation of the inevitable emotional pain and psychic turmoil that seeing his forsaken family and estranged companions will bring him. To do his job, and try to maintain some semblence of sanity, he has had to wall off his humanity from even himself. Seeing his kid brother, who adores him, talking with his dying mother, who still loves him, and yes, arguing with his abusive father, begins to wreak havoc with his personal defenses. As his steely demeanor begins to dissolve, we are shown the soul of a hit-man crumbling away, piece by piece. Finally, all that he now allows himself to admit that he loves is agonizingly torn away from him and he is left with the ultimate punishment for his transgressions.’ – From IMDB
I am just as big a fan of James Gray as the French are, feeling that his films like Two Lovers (2007) and We Own The Night (2007) do stand above most others of the same genres not only in having great performances and depth to them, but in Gray’s skill as a director especially in the use of light. For his first film, this skill in directing was still developing but there was still quality to the film, a small, melancholic work which mixes a crime story with drama. Excluding the weird accent Tim Roth has in the main role, the acting is up to scratch for what the film needs, and Gray himself is still able to create striking images and flourishes to scenes that showed he was talented even back then. Now having seen all of his feature films, I hope for the next one.

The Niklashausen Journey (Rainer Werner Fassbinder & Michael Fengler, 1970)
‘Can a small group of people start a proletarian revolution, asks the "Black Monk" in a leather jacket. The medieval shepherd, Hans Boehm, claims to have been called by the Virgin Mary to create a revolt against the church and the landowners. The "Black Monk" suggests that he would have more success if he dressed up Johanna and had her appear as the Virgin Mary.’ – From IMDB
For this year I have been slowly going through as much of the late German director’s work as I can, starting from the beginning and progressing through everything in a roundabout sort of way at some point. It hasn’t been easy for me sadly, as I am still waiting for the moment he left his first period, where he tried to be a German Jean-Luc Godard, and would eventually become the man who would make the fascinating TV adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). The following film feels very much like a Godardian work, placing an historical individual into the then-present but ending up like a dated and dull political film where scenes usually end with actors talking about politics in un-engaging way.

Storm (Hans-Christian Schmid, 2009)
‘Hannah Maynard, a prosecutor of Hague's Tribunal for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, charges a Serbian commander for killing Bosniaks. However, her main witness might be lying, so the court sends a team to Bosnia to investigate.’ – From IMDB
A big disappointment for me. Ever since I saw the director’s previous film Requiem (2006) on British television unexpectedly and was surprised by it, I had been waiting for his next with anticipation. The problem with this is that unlike that previous film, where it took a real life incident in Germany of an epileptic girl, involving a mental breakdown and the involvement of exorcism, and places the viewer in her perspective, Storm distances the viewer from its serious subject of war crime that it becomes something that happens outside of ordinary life. Worst is that, for its moments of moral ambiguity, it comes down to a flawed but good lawyer (Kerry Fox) versus an evil war criminal in a plot that could easily be rewritten to be a pulpy Hollywood thriller.

Vengeance (Johnnie To, 2009)
‘A French chef swears revenge after a violent attack on his daughter's family in Hong Kong, during which her husband and her two children are murdered. To help him find the killers, he hires three local hit-men working for the mafia.’ – From IMDB
While it doesn’t completely gel together structurally, I cannot deny that Johnnie To is a gifted filmmaker. His greatest skill behind that of being a veteran of filmmaking for many years is that he has a sense of imagination which, working with his scriptwriter, his production crew and actors, allows improvisation and different ideas to be taken onboard that allows scenes, especially gun battles, to be original and different from each other and make sense within the context of the film. It also helps that the acting is of a higher quality and that the cinematography is sumptuous at times, putting this above many crime thrillers from any country.

Also available on Blu-Ray
Note - I realise there is a huge price difference where the Blu-Ray is actually cheaper. As someone uninterested in Blu-Ray, except when its the only way to see a film, this was very annoying. You can search other websites for cheaper prices. As for importing it to another country, I have no knowledge to help, although the United States has normal DVD versions of Anger's films available.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Random Scribbling Upon The Blog Page #1


Scream IV (2011)
It appears that a fourth Scream film, directed by Wes Craven, is going to happen. Frankly I can’t help but roll my eyes.
Link to the IMDB page

Giallo (2009)
Part of my daily routine includes looking at certain websites when I’m online, and one of them is the site for the British Board of Film Classification. The BBFC, where films and other material have to be sent to get a certificate rating before it can get a release in Britain, have a useful website which regularly updates its classifications. The advantage to this is that you can look at what is going to get a cinema or DVD release, which in this case meant that I discovered that the latest film by the Italian horror director Dario Argento Giallo, a murder mystery starring Adrian Brody, is finally getting a DVD release in the UK. Already infamous from its various screenings at festivals, I do realise that if this lives up to the terrible reviews I hope it will turn out to be a film so bad its good instead of painful, although if I actually like it as a good film that would be fantastic. Being released during a period, from this year to the next, where Argento’s back catalogue is being re-released in brand spanking new editions (Suspiria (1977), Deep Red (1975), and for next year Tenebre (1982) are just a few examples), it is either a fitting coincidence or on purpose. It will certainly raise even more interest in Dario Argento from all of these releases along with the huge amount that already exists.
Link to BBFC page

Uncle Boomie Comes To the UK
Continuing in some part with searching, I did also notice that the winner of the main prize at this year’s Cannes Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) has finally been submitted for a UK cinema release and will be coming here soon. Admittedly, my ability to watch non-mainstream films at the cinema has been almost non-existent, but that I will be able to watch it in some form this year or so is a relief. What interests me further is that the company who are releasing it is New Wave Films, an interesting group that suddenly appeared around 2008/2009 and have been picking up choice art house films for release. I am always glad for more distribution companies, especially if they have different tastes from the others in what films they will release, although I must confess I have had issues with the subtitles on the few discs of theirs I watched. The subtitles themselves are completely alright, but the problem is that the subtitles had to be turned on, leading to me having to check whether they’re on or not before starting the film. On one film, Three Monkeys from Turkey and the first of their foreign language releases I watched, I had to stop-start the film a couple of times as a result of sorting out the subtitles, which was immensely annoying. If this is the case with all the foreign language releases of theirs, it is a tiny annoyance I wish was altered.
There may be one film however where this won’t  a problem, as they have scheduled on  their website a release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010) for Spring 2011. As a film that not only has its own provided subtitles but has subtitles that don’t actually translate the dialogue into English completely, but continues Godard’s obsessions with phrases and words, from what the reviews have said, I will hopefully not have to turn them on as they’re already there.
Link to New Wave Film’s Film Socialisme page

Friday, 8 October 2010

Weekly Viewings From The To-Watch Pile #7 – Being Created While I Listen To Music

I am currently planning my next long form review with the hope of writing them with more frequency; I haven’t chosen a film yet, but there are plenty of potential choices.
Aside from that, I have been doing well for the last week or so except from frequent tiredness (I’ve suspected my closeted night owl personality for years now from my habit of staying awake long after midnight). My film viewing has lessened after the first six months of the year, probably a result of starting university again and my concerns of wanting to view individual films, regardless of their qualities, with more thought than just giving them a mark out of 5 or 10.
Currently there isn’t that much at the multiplex that I would like to watch, although that is probably my lessened interest in it that I’ve discussed in the Trash Humpers (2009) review. If David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) gets great reviews from the sources I trust, I ‘could’ – emphasising the quotation marks – go see it when it gets a UK release, although I am one of the few individuals who wasn’t a fan of Zodiac (2007) and have been baffled by the fact no matter how many times I rewatch it. My local art centre has been growing strong in showing films thought after the fear in January that the whole building would be shut down. It could be argued that its selection is more middlebrow or more designed to interest older patrons, but when its past showings, from the ones I’ve seen or sadly missed, have varied from a Frederick Wiseman documentary to Polish films for the large polish population in the community, it cannot be criticised for picking dull and insipid choices. For winter, they have plans to show Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2009) and a Christmas screening of It’s A Wonderful Life (1949), just two of the films have booked for one night screenings that I really want to see. If they have only booked Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void (2009) and I would have done handstands.  For good or worse, and a fantasy scenario where I would be the only person left in the cinema at the end, it would cause great conversation. If I had more money, and the balls, I could book a single screening there for next year and wallow in Noe’s head while everyone else walks out halfway through.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

‘Abel Ferrara's cult crime drama Bad Lieutenant is given a sister film with this Werner Herzog-helmed production that takes its inspiration from the original, but focuses on new characters and plotlines. Nicolas Cage steps into Harvey Keitel's mold of a corrupt and drug-addled police officer, with the scummy setting moving from New York City to New Orleans. Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, and Xzibit co-star in the Nu Image/Millennium Films picture.’ – All Movies Guide

When plans were first made to remake the Abel Ferrara film with Werner Herzog directing it and Nicolas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role, I was at first blank with disbelief as everyone else may have done...and yet later a part of me felt an entirely different thought. Would Herzog, the man who made Fitzcarraldo (1982) by literally having a full size river boat dragged over a mountain in the Amazon, really sell out? I felt that the only reason Herzog would have done such a project is if he had a take on the material that would be far from what may have been intended.
For the first fifteen minutes or so, the film feels like a straight-to-DVD cop thriller right down to the type of lettering used for the opening credits but as things go along, it is clear and apparent this is a Herzog film through and through. Beyond the iguanas, the film has a dense and erratic sense of mood which few crime procedurals would have, where the film can be both extremely funny and yet have dark moments such as one involving the Eva Mendes character.  It is not Herzog’s best film, but it is still far superior to many of its type because, not only does it have a sense of humour and oddness that gives it uniqueness, but also it has a surprising depth to it. Instead of the Catholic guilt of the original, this version continues that themes of absurdity and randomness in the world I have seen in Herzog’s other films, especially Stroszek (1977) (which is directly referenced in the one of the most memorable moments), stuck within the confines of a conventional genre film. The film’s moral ambiguity is also a factor which makes it superior, where even in the end, it is enforced that morally, and what is right and wrong, is completely redundant for some to survive.  That there are numerous scenes of fish and reptiles – considering Herzog’s beliefs in the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man that nature is chaos and violence – makes sense to reinforce the themes of the work as well as cause one to either laugh in stitches or view a scene in a peculiar light. The acting is spot on from everyone in their roles, although in honesty it is very much Nicolas Cage’s film from the beginning. It cannot be ignored that, with a few exceptions, Cage’s acting style is to be odd and weird regardless of the scene’s content, which means his best performances even in weaker films are with directors who recognise this factor (Herzog, David Lynch) and not directors who try to make him completely serious regardless if its ‘high art’ or ‘schlock’ (Neil LeBute’s 2006 remake of the Wicker Man is becoming a cult classic just for Cage’s bizarre non-sequitur and the amount of times he knocks out members of the huge female cast within the film’s length). Hopefully Cage will take advantage of this film to explore less conventional works as well as appear in multiplex films to pay the overdue taxes, as this does reinforce why people like me are fans of his in the first place.

Female Prisoner No. 701 Scorpion: Beast Stable (Shunya Ito, 1973)

‘Following her successful prison break, Scorpion begins this third episode in the series hiding out in a brothel. Her prostitute friend tries to keep her identity secret, but the brothel's madam discovers that Scorpion is the ex-girlfriend of the vice officer who killed her lover.’ – Amazon USA

First of all as a technical note, there have been a couple of series of films or documentaries that I had not finished yet by the time I started this blog, which is the reason why I am reviewing the third film in this series by its own (apparently there is a fourth film, Female Convict Scorpion: Grudge Song (1973), not directed by Shunya Ito which makes this a quadrilogy instead of a trilogy and may be difficult to find). That said, it is worth mentioning my opinions on the first two prequels for context. Personally, having seen it twice now, I find that the original Female Convict 701: Scorpion (1972), which is the more acclaimed in the series, to be a bit of a disappointment, a pinku violence film which has plenty of inspired moments, and female nudity for anyone into that, but did not interest me. I enjoy my exploitation films greatly, but I have a very picky taste in them, finding more enjoyment in the ones which play to the so-bad-its-good category or push forward ideas and/or striking use of visuals and sound. This first film does experiment with the visuals, but it still felt uncompelling and tended to drag for me greatly even if Meiko Kaji is a great, near-silent presence. The second film Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) changed this for the better, with the director moving past the sexploitation side of the original and experimenting more in its female convicts on the run from the law plotline, resulting in a very surreal film which wasn’t perfect but still rewarding.
The third film, Beast Stable, pushes further into experimentation of visuals and sound, discarding most of the sex from the original bar a few transgressive sequences, making it into the best of the trilogy for me. The result is a great, dark and at times nasty genre film which is light on plot, but makes up for it in its very unconventional moments, from the continuous black humoured joke involving a served arm, to mesmerising moments in a sewer involving fire and lit matches. Speaking even less than in the first two films, Kaji still able to project charisma despite only having a couple of spoken words in the script let alone dialogue. Whether it works on its own without the other two films is unknown to me, but I do advise people see it as it is a good Japanese film by itself if you are prepared for its nastier aspects.

Witchfinder General aka. The Conqueror Worm (Michael Reeves, 1968)
‘England is torn in civil strife as the Royalists battle the Parliamentary Party for control. This conflict distracts people from rational thought and allows unscrupulous men to gain local power by exploiting village superstitions. One of these men is Matthew Hopkins, who tours the land offering his services as a persecutor of witches. Aided by his sadistic accomplice John Stearne, he travels from city to city and wrenches confessions from "witches" in order to line his pockets and gain sexual favors. When Hopkins persecutes a priest, he incurs the wrath of Richard Marshall, who is engaged to the priest's niece. Risking treason by leaving his military duties, Marshall relentlessly pursues the evil Hopkins and his minion Stearne.’ – From IMDB
This is not amongst the best of British horror and genre films, but it does live up to its reputation. Solidly made, everything in it from direction to acting is good enough to compel you. What really adds to its qualities is the surprising amount of brutality and nihilism on display for a film of its period; here, the villain played by Vincent Prince is an employee of magistrates and the temporary government, who is give cart-blanch to torture and execute any innocent person he wants, taking advantage to sleep with any pretty young woman as blackmail in the process, while the neighbours of those who are guilty of witchcraft are just as corrupt, probably driven by jealously, murderous spite or superstitious paranoia that leads to numerous deaths. The violence is not gruesome by today’s standards, but it’s still unsettling within the context of the film; sadly for the version I saw, the scenes of violence which were once censored, and added back in for the uncut release, looked horrifically degraded, which may mean a fully restored uncut version is impossible now, a shame for such an interesting horror film. It is also a shame that its director Michael Reeves died just after making this film at a young age, as from seeing this I could see him eventually making a great film genre or otherwise.

Godfathers and Sons (Marc Levin, 2003)
‘Part of The Blues documentary film series on PBS, Godfathers and Sons is directed by Marc Levin. This installment explores the Chicago blues, the influence of Chess Records, and the connection between blues and hip-hop. Revolutionary rap group Public Enemy notes the 1968 Muddy Waters album Electric Mud as a major influence on the development of their sound. Working closely with Chess Records heir Marshall Chess, along with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Levin travels to Chicago to make a record with contemporary hip-hop artists and veteran blues musicians. Modern electric blues rockers Sam Lay, Magic Slim, and Koko Taylor provide performances and interviews. Includes archival footage of Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band...’ – From MUBI
The last of the documentaries in The Blues series for me, which suffers from not feeling as detailed as the previous parts, probably not helped by the fact that some of the aspects or at least the blue musicians themselves were tangentially mentioned in the other feature length episodes. It also has pointless use of black-and-white footage in especially in scenes of people being interviewed in front of the camera which comes off trying too hard to be artistic when it is merely irritating. Nonetheless, the music chosen and talked about is still strong – personally I really want to get hold of the Electric Mud album, a critically panned combination of Muddy Waters and psychedelic rock, after hearing pieces in this – and you cannot have as charming and likeable individuals in front of the camera as as Marshall Chess and Chuck D from Public Enemy, who clearly did not know each other for a long time  before the documentary but immediately bonded from just talking about one experimental blues album.
The Blues series itself is not the best of its type, somewhat tied down by the lack of experimentation in the presentation of the material and a reliance on the traditional documentary style – talking heads, very little camera movement in shots etc. – that shows off its television roots too much. Nonetheless, it is still a good introduction to blues music only marred by the painfully dull entry by Clint Eastwood called Piano Blues, where its slowness and leisured pace matched by Eastwood’s interviews with the likes of Ray Charles was suffocating. Beyond that episode, the others, for all their flaws, succeed in showing how good blues music can be, while the examples by Charles Burnett and Wim Wenders should be watched as good music documentaries by themselves as they not only experiment but clearly love this genre of music through how they present it.
Sirius Remembered (Stan Brakhage, 1959)

[WARNING – Do not watch this short video if the sight of a dead animal upsets you]

‘A film that was shot on early handheld 16mm technology, Sirius Remembered is a tribute to a man's pet dog. The film is a blurry and disorientating collaboration that was shot over a period of about six months. Once the dog died, the man put the carcass into the woods and came back periodically with his camera and filmed it in various stages of decomposition.’ – From IMDB User Comments

Recording the decay of the corpse of your family dog is not an objectionable act depending on what its purpose is as a film. The sight of a dead animal, even one that is usually kept as a pet, is a natural part of life; living near the countryside since I was born I have seen many dead animals in various states of decay around the area, a result of which means I do not find such sights shocking, excepting it as it is excluding the slight sadness at the sight. Brakhage (or anyone else) has the right to film said material, even more so if people object to it as distasteful (read the first review here for example), as it means it would show an ordinary aspect of life that is ignored and hidden from sight, just like other topics such as birth and autopsies which Brakhage himself has filmed. Of course there are ethical issues with this, such as filming the body of what would have been a close member of his family, but it should not be forgotten that regardless of the beliefs of the viewer, especially those who find any pain or injury to an animal upsetting, death cannot be avoided and one cannot try to hide from it even in video form. The problem with this short in particular however, and why it completely fails, is that this message or any purpose, even to shock, seems to be missing, which can be squarely blamed on the poor shooting of the footage and editing. While I have barely seen much of Brakhage’s work, what little I have has showed a considerable thought in pace and rhythm, whether it is the considered and slow depiction of his wife giving birth, blood and placenta et all, in Window Water Baby Moving (1962), or the abstract colours and shapes of the Dante Quartet (1987). With Sirius Remembered however this is not the case, shot with a jittery camcorder – like a student film as it has been criticised for – and is edited in, and I apologise for this description of this acclaimed director’s work but it is the fitting term, a cackhanded way that doesn’t allow one to take in what you have seen. If it was done with as much consideration almost the rest of his work I’ve seen, it could have been a good work, and even a fitting tribute to Sirius of the title. As it stands, it’s worth viewing for those interested in Stan Brakhage but not engaging and comfortable viewing. 

Monday, 4 October 2010

Weekly Viewings From The To-Watch Pile #6

Also known as the controversial post that dismisses two highly regarded classics of French cinema. In the end it does depend on individual tastes; some people with agree with me on some of these reviews, some will not. That’s what makes film criticism interesting in the first place.
For anyone curious, one of the reasons this thread is frequent, especially now in October, is my attempt to catch up with writing about all the films I’ve seen in the last week or so. Also worth noting, since I have mentioned the month, is that I do want to start watching a few more films fitting for Halloween. At the moment it is a bit difficult to do so since there is a lot, not just in films, to clear through but hopefully I’ll be able to engorge myself in horror and genre films as much as other bloggers have.

Heima (Dean DeBlois, 2006)
‘In the summer of 2006, Sigur Rós returned home to play a series of free, unannounced concerts for the people of Iceland. This film documents their already legendary tour with intimate reflections from the band and a handful of new acoustic performances.’ – From IMDB

With music as beautiful as that of Sigur Rós, it needs to be filmed in a way that allows its mystical qualities to shine; this also needs to be considered when one is showing an environment like the Icelandic countryside and the expansiveness of it. While Dean DeBlois does a serviceable job, he ends up relying on a traditional documentary format, instead of experimenting with the material, which restricts the music and environment from showing their full awe. Only one of the final performances depicted shows what could have been, but a lot of what makes that good is the band themselves and the people they work with their stage performances not the director.

Double Take (Johan Grimonprez, 2009)

‘Director Johan Grimonprez casts Alfred Hitchcock as a paranoid history professor, unwittingly caught up in a double take on the cold war period. Subverting a meticulous array of TV footage and using 'The Birds' as an essential metaphor, DOUBLE TAKE traces catastrophe culture's relentless assault on the home, from moving images' inception to the present day.’ – From IMDB

Starting with an event in 1962, when Alfred Hitchcock met his doppelganger on the set of The Birds (1963), as a springboard into the climate and mood of the time surrounding the Cold War, this is an intriguing docu-fantasy. Some of the connections between them don’t completely make sense on the first viewing but it is an inventive and fresh perspective on its topics.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel, 1972)

‘A surreal, virtually plotless series of dreams centered around six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.’ – From IMDB

Sadly I have to dismiss this film. I felt it had no real significance behind it (it’s not really a good satire of bourgeoisie for me) and not politically interesting. The dream sequences and how they were portrayed were exceptionally annoying and added to said disappointment.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (Jan Kounen, 2009)
‘Paris 1913. Coco Chanel is infatuated with the rich and handsome Boy Capel, but she is also compelled by her work. Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is about to be performed. The revolutionary dissonances of Igor's work parallel Coco's radical ideas. She wants to democratize women's fashion; he wants to redefine musical taste. Coco attends the scandalous first performance of The Rite in a chic white dress. The music and ballet are criticized as too modern, too foreign. Coco is moved but Igor is inconsolable. Paris 1920, Coco is newly wealthy and successful but grief-stricken after Boy's death in a car crash. Igor, following the Russian Revolution is now a penniless refugee living in exile in Paris. Coco is introduced to Igor by Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. The attraction between them is instant and electric. Coco invites Igor along with his wife - now sick with consumption - together with his four children and a menagerie of birds to stay at her new villa...’ – From IMDB

Were it not for a surprise 10/10 review from someone I know online, I would have ignored what turned out to be a near-perfect gem and miss it at the cinema. Taking a tired and generic storyline of adultery – based on reality or not – as its central plot, this depicts it in a refreshingly subtle and thoughtful way backed up by excellent performances by the likes of Mads Mikkelsen (a candidate for the person of the year in film with only the awful Clash of the Titans (2010) remake affecting his chances), Anna Mouglalis and Yelena Morozova. It is a film where everyone involved including the person who designed the wallpaper on the sets deserves praise for their outstanding work, with lavish and detailed production values to match the excellent drama within. This may turn out to be an underrated and ignored film for 2010, which is an absolute shame.

Partie De Campagne (Jean Renoir, 1936)

‘The family of a Parisian shop-owner spends a day in the country. The daughter falls in love to a man at the inn, where they spend the day.’ – From IMDB

An incomplete film left as a short work, this does present a lot to like specially in Renoir’s use of the natural environment the story is set in for mood and contemplation. The film does feel too barebones however, working well as a short story in presentation but, sadly out of the director’s hands, missing potential depth to it. It also suffers from slightly annoying and exaggerated acting from at least one of the actors.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Weekly Viewings From The To-Watch Pile #6

Aka. The Harmony Korine Special
I did rewatch Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) as well, but as the film has its own extended review I do not need to talk about it again unless new and changing thoughts develop from future viewings. I am going to include the two short films that come with the British DVD release here – Blood of Havana and Mac and Plac – however; I am unsure if these are available on the US version of the DVD, so I cannot say if they are easily accessible.

Roger & Me (Michael Moore, 1989)
‘A documentary about the closure of General Motors' plant at Flint, Michigan, which resulted in the loss of 30,000 jobs. Details the attempts of filmmaker Michael Moore to get an interview with GM CEO Roger Smith.’ – From IMDB

Going into this, I was hesitant ever since I starting doubting about Moore being a credible documentary director. Here he is the earnest, good willed person he would still be years later, making a very personal work. As a documentarian his use of secondary footage makes me wished he made subjected video essays that projected his opinions rather than documentaries that tried to combine this and factual information. The problem is with Moore is how he edits footage; when you start to notice, it makes it much more difficult for him to make credible statements when he may have compromised the information, even if you agree with him. Most documentaries are biased for one opinion or another, and those that try to be balanced are still effected by the editing, but with Moore it feels that he is trying to force a political message of his, continually trying to ring emotional sympathy more than facts, without a strong enough base to support it.

Blood of Havana (Harmony Korine)
A short using characters from Trash Humpers involving a political monologue against glossy recorded images. It doesn’t feel like the sort of work Korine is best at.

Act Da Fool (Harmony Korine, 2010)

‘A series of hazy 8mm vignettes, accompanied by a soft, lilting voice over, in which girls skulk around schoolyards, spray graffiti, drink, smoke, pose and embrace, evoking the loneliness, confusion and overwhelming wonder of growing up.’ – From MUBI

Despite being an advert for clothes, Korine manages to make a charming and thoughtful character piece beyond its original intentions. Interestingly, from comments I’ve read from the film’s YouTube page, objections have been raised that this is a racist depiction of these girls, but the thought not only never came to mind, but seems illogical to me. While I cannot make any grand claims about this, I do wonder, especially since one of the defenders of the short stated that they were black themselves and saw this as merely part of Korine’s fascination with outsiders, whether any of the posters who objected to the work were black men or women or were all white. If, to hypothesise, the later is the case it does raise some interesting questions of the depictions of race and ethnicity that a scholar of the subject could have a field day with if they were shown the comments. It also proves if by accident or not, like I describe in the Trash Humpers review, that Harmony Korine has the gift of creating engaging debates over his filmography.

Mac and Plac (Harmony Korine)
A twenty plus minute extended scene from Trash Humpers involving two minor characters in the centre of attention. It is worth viewing if you thought the original film was of merit.

Warming By The Devil’s Fire (Charles Burnett, 2003)
Part of The Blues documentary film series on PBS, Warming by the Devil’s Fire is written and directed by Charles Burnett and narrated by Carl Lumbly. This installment explores the tension between the gospel and the blues through the semi-autobiographic tale of a young boy (played by Nathaniel Lee Jr.) who is kidnapped by his blues-loving Uncle Buddy (Tommy Hicks) right before he’s about to be saved. Burnett investigates some of the blues women who defied the church by singing racy songs, like Lucille Bogan, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. Includes archival performances by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Reverend Gary Davis, blues performers who managed to work within the church’s jurisdiction. Burnett also discusses his fascination with W.C. Handy and Blind Lemon Jefferson.’ – From MUBI
A delightful surprise in The Blues series. Using a story from the perspective of a boy in the 1950s, the director weaves the history of the blues in a way that feels extremely personal to himself, and the screenwriter, and avoids being restricted by its structure by having an almost fluid, stream-of-consciousness presentation to scenes. That the music and archive footage, shown to the viewer one-after-another in rapid succession, speaks for itself except some narration gives the film a far better quality than most of the other films in the series and a lot of documentaries.

The Skeleton Key (Iain Softley, 2005)
‘A hospice nurse working at a spooky New Orleans plantation home finds herself entangled in a mystery involving the house's dark past.’ – From IMDB
With its Southern vibe, there was a hope that this horror film would improve on a second viewing. What happened instead was that, despite the charismatic lead Kate Hudson (and John Hurt, who is on the list of actors whose presence makes a film immediately better), it got worse. All it is a standard package of conventional modern horror tropes – jump scares, ominous music to make said scenes ‘scarier’ etc. – to try to frighten the viewer without a lot of thought and skill. Worse is the fact that, for all its moments discussing the practice of Hoodoo magic, it merely depicts it as another alien and ‘evil’ entity, one-dimensional and designed only to harm.

A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)
‘It's November 30, 1962. Native Brit George Falconer, an English professor at a Los Angeles area college, is finding it difficult to cope with life. Jim, his personal partner of sixteen years, died in a car accident eight months earlier when he was visiting with family. Jim's family were not going to tell George of the death or accident let alone allow him to attend the funeral. This day, George has decided to get his affairs in order before he will commit suicide that evening. As he routinely and fastidiously prepares for the suicide and post suicide, George reminisces about his life with Jim. But George spends this day with various people, who see a man sadder than usual and who affect his own thoughts about what he is going to do...’ – From IMDB
A magnificent film. Controversy has surrounded the director Tom Ford, who he is and how he got the film made, but when he decided to make his debut he clearly had a personal reason to do so, and his desire to do this adaptation of a novel close to him shows just how much thought and a real emotional bond to it he had. With a long history of experience in the fashion industry, the film does look ‘glamorous’, but it is used in a way that is both beautiful and adds to the power of the film and its centre concept, of a man who decides one morning that it will be his last day alive, and how his view of the world alters, how everything is dull and lifeless until a moment of awe and happiness suddenly makes the world colourful, and how the littlest details suddenly have as much importance as large events (or of more importance, as the main character dismisses the Cold War and possible nuclear death as inevitable in one scene). Driving the film as well, with a strong supporting cast, is Colin Firth whose performance has made me view him in an entirely different light now, adding to the resonance and the moments of joy and deep sadness of the film’s core. A Single Man is an incredible gem. [As of October  2nd 2010, it is the candidate for the best film of 2010 for me]

Friday, 1 October 2010

Trash Humpers (2009)


Dir. Harmony Korine
United Kingdom-USA
I am able to count the years that I have been a cineaste on only one hand, yet I have already felt concerns about my engagement with cinema. This is not a suggestion I may grow tired of this hobby, a silly notion for me not only because it is too ingrained into me to watch films, but there are still many films I haven’t seen yet that may surprise and awe me, from the past to the future ones yet made.  What concerns me is the change in my thoughts, fed by slowly reading more film magazines, articles and books about the questions facing cinema in the 21st century and alternative viewpoints on film. I have realised my own personal taste in film has started to change, and that I need to push it further instead of having the vague beliefs I have now. I have become less interested in mainstream cinema to the point that even highly praised films, that I do want to watch, may not have enough pull for me to see them in the cinema still (it usually is a random whim now, not an urge to, whether to go to the multiplex or not; the only real exception this year was probably Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009)). Also add to this that I have missed the bandwagon for many popular fan bases; born in 1989, things like the original Star Wars Trilogy and its cult following passed over my head, while I accidently missed fan bases that developed while I grew up either not knowing about them or ignoring them for something that interested me more. That is not to say I will still ignore mainstream films, I may even fall in love with a few as much as their fans do, but I feel my interests feel far more left of field if I were to prod and stimulate my thoughts more. I have started this review with this statement because I feel Trash Humpers, an incredibly divisive film, exemplifies this changing state of mine I am having, still interested in traditional types of film and media, but drifting with deepening interest with experimentation and bending of traditional structures. Despite having not seen many highly regarded classics of cinema, I am usually drawn more towards everything else than them.
The premise of Trash Humpers, as the director has described, is what would happen if a beaten-up VHS tape was found, turning out to be a home video by ‘trash humpers’, a group of elderly misfits who spend their days humping random public property, destroying various objects, and committing even extremer acts without any moral and conscience that society says people should have. The concept of a videotape, good or bad, that showed you a part of society you would probably never see is an interesting idea, one that has some legitimacy for me as it happened to someone I know. For privacy sake, and because I have only heard it as an old story from them, I will only say they found a VHS in a countryside ditch that turned out to be possible S&M pornography. From pornography of any kind – hetreo, gay, fetish, take your pick with varying production values – a personal home video, even a videotape which has recorded so many programs and films off television that their recorded ghosts blur into each other like a freakish version of Jean-Luc Godard’s Historie(s) du Cinema (1988-1998), there is an allure for me about discovering an unknown VHS, or any format of video, and what one may see if it was played. Trash Humpers can also qualify as part of the found footage sub-genre with Cloverfield (2008) and Diary of the Dead (2007), but instead of being bogged down with trying to weave a narrative plot through the concept like those particular two films do, this was designed to be a random collection of images recorded by miscreants.
This is the first film by Korine’s I’ve seen. As what it is supposed to be, according to its premise, it is a failure. As a ‘found’ film it eventually becomes far too weird and wacky to pass off as realistic the moment two men called Mac and Plac, connect by the heads by what appears to be a giant woman’s stocking and only wearing hospital garb, appear. It is also in danger of only being viewed as a Jackass-like series of skits by most of its potential viewing audience, not looking beyond its surface and considering if anything can be taken from it (even Jackass deserves some thought about it as well, as does any film, as well as be entertainment). In the end, maybe all Korine wanted to do, also playing one of the humpers along with his wife, was to muck about like a complete tit. However for a failure it has managed the rarest of feats of leaving one, or maybe just I and a couple of film critics, with many thoughts and ideas to think about after seeing it. This feat, from a man who, to exaggerate a bit for comedic effect, had the magician David Blaine film him picking fights from people and getting his head kicked in when he was younger, is one of those moments where farmyard swine have grown wings and metaphorically starting flying up in the clouds. If Harmony Korine did want to make the viewer think about what he has made, he has exceeded completely for this viewer.
Trash Humpers, while descending into weirdness for the sake of weirdness, is still able to pull you into a new perspective of the world through this motley group of individuals on the extreme fringe of America. His attitude to these characters is balanced, not demonising them but leaving in moments with a vibe of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre film. At one hand, it is a celebration of chaos where one cannot help but have sympathy for the humpers in their ability to do whatever they desire, personified in the poem of a man (who happens to be in a dress) suggesting that not only are they the result of society,, but are a superior successor to people who are stuck in modern society and its pointless materialism and rules. At the end, you actually feel sadness and sympathy for one of them. However as I have said, they are violent in a psychopathic way, depending on what they feel like doing at any moment. They do acts just for the sake of it, ones that one may find funny and wish they had the courage to do in reality, and some that are repulsive. The vibe of the video footage also shifts between moods. One scene, of something laid in a heap in the long grass while the person recording it is singing a ‘bastardized’, repetitious folk song to himself is possibly one of the most unnerving scenes I’ve seen in a while.
With scenes taking place on the back passages behind buildings, under a bridge and in deserted homes, this manages to be one of only a few films that depict part of America in an honest and realistic light, even more so than more ‘credible’ A-list dramas. This also applies to the materials inside these places, from the lamp posts and hydrants on street corners, to the cheap, manufactured plastic consumer goods such as lawn furniture and toy dolls. Whether depicting the working or affluent middle class (usually the latter) a lot of films I have seen from North America seem to ignore the smaller details and even the look of an area in their gloss and dramatic stories. Here, with no real narrative, it is the small details, part of the environment Korine filmed in and what was brought with him and his cast that are the central interest.
The VHS itself adds to this detail. While I glad for the improvements DVD gave to home viewing of films, it is amazing to me how quickly, and ungracefully, VHS tape was dropped and disposed of in its last years from public. Now the only places I see them in are discount and second-hand charity stores, almost swept under the carpet despite the great influence it had. Having now seen the format used as it has been in this film, a part of me hopes someone else, a well regarded director taking a huge risk or a person off the street inspired by this film, has the idea to make another film using videotape and release it to public in some form. Korine uses the format to his advantage; the film is not beautiful by current standards, which celebrates high definition and CGI, but this has a far more interesting visual look in its dated and worn portrait of images. With its blurry, ghost-like effect, it adds an enticing, mysterious effect which makes it almost dreamlike, and more unsettling, as well as furthering the realism of shooting in real life streets that the central individuals don’t. There are moments, when the camera is directed at a bright artificial light, that suddenly become beautiful and artistically striking, exceptionally muddy images that yet give the film a texture visually that supports the potentially juvenile subject. Any format used to make films is able to make striking image if the director considers how to use it properly, something which Korine takes to the extreme and succeeds to the point this viewer has reconsidered his view on VHS.
In the end, the reasons for me praising the film as highly as I have are for its details and what they make me think about. As a film that will divide people, I would not be surprised if this ends up on a lot of worst of 2010 lists and I completely understand anyone who does include it. What makes it more than pointless trash to me and one of the best films to be released in the United Kingdom this year is that it takes a unique and risky idea and, despite failing up to the premise, succeeds instead in creating a reaction which starts from unease, and bafflement, to considering what Korine’s intentions were and how it alters from traditional filmmaking, from its transgressive nature to subverting what a film should be. This film allowed me to bring ideas to it, beyond random acts of tap-dancing and the fellating of tree branches and twigs, that have made it stimulate me far more than most films could. It is a good thing it exists, a shot in the arm to a medium which has a tendency to get complacent and generic. The best way to end this personal review is to add that I saw this film at the cinema with my older brother, who usually watches films at the multiplex. As we walked back to his apartment, staying over for a night and day, we ended up in a debate over how it portrayed child abuse, from a young boy bashing in the head of a doll repeatedly with a hammer to events later on it the film, which he objected to greatly. This debate about what should be portrayed in film and how eventually became a debate on whether the film was the reason for this discussion being brought up, when it hadn’t before at any other time, and whether that made the film far better than most others. Of course, what could lead to this sort of debate depends on many factors, where and when you see a film like this, who you see it with, and whether you see it with someone or on your own, but the fact that this discussion happened with this film has made me view the film deeper than I might of. I have almost forgotten a lot of serious dramas with serious messages, but the memory of this, added to by multiple viewings that will take place, has buried it into my thoughts. That night with my brother, I joked that somewhere, in the English city of Sheffield and its vast sprawling urbanscape, someone was humping garbage. That I suddenly thought afterwards that wasn’t as ridiculous a notion as it should have been, and for me could have been true as the result of the film’s effect on me, gives it great significance for me. This review may be completely disagreed with by others, and maybe by you the reader, but this had an effect on me that few films have ever had and for that I applaud Harmony Korine for making a one-off this fascinating.