Monday, 31 December 2012

2012: My Year in Film (Part 2)

Welcome back for the second part of my own little piece of self-reflection here. This is my list of the top 25 films I saw for the first time in 2012:

25. Les Diaboliques - (1955, Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot)
A fantastic deconstruction of thriller conventions, before a lot of them even came to exist. It is not the emergence of a body that sets the wheels in motion, but the disappearance of one. The determined and intelligent detective is an uncomfortable figure of pressure. Then of course, there is the climax, an ultimate image of pure horror. Les Diaboliques is sheer brilliance.   

24. The Incredible Shrinking Man - (1957, Dir. Jack Arnold) 
It isn't until the final moments of Arnold's low-key Science Fiction film based on the novel by I am Legend author Richard Matheson that it emerges as a distinct genre classic. After being hit by a toxic gas (back in the time when it was something as simple as 'Science!') Scott Carey finds himself shrinking until he is only a few inches high. Queue the iconic and exhilarating fight with a house hold spider with genuinely good effects! But it is the surprisingly metaphysical ending, where a now microscopic Carey imagines himself as part of an infinite number of universal loops that will leave you questioning the fragility of our placement here on earth.

23. Naked - (1993, Dir. Mike Leigh) 
David Thewlis gives an amazingly fierce performance as intelligent misanthropic drifter Jonny, in Mike Leigh's nihilistic odyssey. A dark look at the human race through the eyes of someone so brilliantly beyond help from anyone who tries to reach out to him. Leigh's script is full of black comedy and social satire, including the famous doomsday rant that might just be my favourite speech of the year, you can watch it here.

22. The Man With a Movie Camera - (1929, Dir. Dziga Vertov)
Off the back of this years Sight and Sound poll I looked up Vertov's experimental montage piece. A truly landmark testament to civilization. An explosion of images and editing, it becomes a symphony of light, sound and texture. Our camera man is separated from this existence, he cannot experience it's joys but it is his duty to capture the wonders of it. What keeps this film from being a mere museum piece, such as The Battleship Potemkin, is the cheeky tone and incredible, frequently dangerous stunts. 

21.Anatomy of a Murder - (1959, Dir. Otto Preminger)
Such a fascinating depiction of a murder trial. This isn't merely a case of getting the good guy off, in fact we are never quite sure of Manion's true composure at the time of the shooting. It isn't the point, this is a study of murder as a legal matter. Jimmy Stewart's small town retired attorney facing off against state lawyers is projected by a sizzling script with an abrupt frankness and sharp humor that remains completely riveting for it's entire 160 minute running time.   

20.  The Sacrifice - (1986, Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) 
Tarkovsky's final film is a plea to mankind. For humanity to survive one must be prepared to sacrifice. At the outbreak of World War Three Alexander promises to God that he will give everything; his family, his house and even his sanity in order for the world to be spared. Shot on Faro Island, the film is an homage to Bergman, Tarkovsky even used Nykvist, Bergman's cinematographer, to shoot the film full of natural light and medium tones. The film is wrought with direct urgency that comes come Tarkovsky being just months from death. The climax is the most tragically beautiful image of a powerless man in the face of a great unquestionable force. 

19. High and Low - (1963, Dir. Akira Kurosawa) 
My favourite from the famed Japanese director. The 'high' and 'low' has a number of connotations here; the social unrest between the rich and the poor, the spatial distance between kidnapper and Mifone's astonishing Kingo Gondo, it is even a crude reference to the drug idled underbelly to which the film moves towards in the final act. What starts as a terrifically tense Hitchcockian domestic thriller about a kidnapping gives way to a thorough and extended police procedural drama with reactionary commentary towards the emerging social commentary, few films make tire pattern analysis this entertaining.

18. There Was A Father - (1942, Dir. Yasijuro Ozu) 
A delicate film about a father's sacrifice to ensure the future of his son is one of Ozu's quietest, and best dramas. Regular  Chishu Ryu is wonderful as the tender and caring father, that distances himself from his boy after a tragic accident at the school he works. This film is simple, honest and elegant perhaps more so than most of Ozu's work. It is because of its release date, that There Was a Father becomes distinctly political, I doubt it was much to Ozu's intent but it looks to place the film in history. 

17. In The Mood for Love - (2000, Dir. Wong Kar-Wai) 
Few other directors carve such intense sensuality from the human form as Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai and In The Mood for Love is a film made of candle lit delicacy. Love unsoiled by love. The two neighbours, who bond over their partners infidelity gradually develop a captured passion for each other. Every shot, movement and hair is composed to such a measured perfection. It toys with us, excites us and eventually burns through us. When it's over, we have to turn to any hole we can find, whisper our emotions and then cover it up.  

16. Shame - (1968, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
If Bergman had anything that resembled an action film, this would be it, even including a tense getaway as the  couple (Sydow and Ullman) drive through an ongoing invisible battle. It isn't a look at what war turns us into that makes Shame one of the Swedish master's greatest films, it is the effect it has on a couple's relationship. Both actors give some of their finest work, but it is Ullman who delivers one of the most devastating lines in cinema history and the final, apocalyptic image shakes you down to your very core. 

15. The Apartment - (1960, Dir. Billy Wilder) 
Along with Psycho, Billy Wilder's morally grey comedy about a man who lends his apartment out to his bosses so they can conduct their numerous affairs represents the breakdown of the Hayes code. Jack Lemon's C.C. Baxter represents the increasing deterioration of American ideals. An every man, having to exploit the decrepit nature of those above in order to succeed. The beautiful, desirable Miss Kubelik played by Shirley MacLaine is another victim of such nature, one who has been beaten one too many times and attempts a harrowing suicide. Wilder see's too it he gets the laughs, the chemistry between Lemon and MacLaine is terrific, and his script is, as usual directly acute. But rarely does mainstream American entertainment come with such a grey scale moral compass. 

14. Through a Glass Darkly - (1961, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
The first in Bergman's faith trilogy is one of his most harrowing films, he looks at the strain of mental illness on a family. Bergman fractures himself and his relationships between the four characters. The Spider-God's presence looms over the family, driving them to destruction. It is one of the most tangible and devastating images in Bergman's complete cannon. Yet there is a singular bead of hope in the film's final line 'Father spoke to me.'   

13. Barry Lyndon - (1975, Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
Kubrick's detached coolness that dominated (most) of his films in full force here, literally to the point where the narrator tells us the events before they happen. Ebert raises an interesting point; this can work as a companion piece to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a piece about survival and evolution. One on a mass scale, one a selfish and essentially minor one. Although here I don't find any ethereal alien gods guiding Barry. Instead there is a sense that he makes his own fate, even if he is unaware of it. Kubrick utilizes pretty much every tool at his disposal to tell his story of insignificance. Deep and shallow focus, trade mark tracking shots, candle light, wide angle landscapes, zoom outs and ins, close ups, repeated classical music motifs and of course, the detached narrator. It's a picturesque feast. 

12. Pierrot le Fou - (1965, Dir. Jean-Luc Goddard)
Goddard's explosion of pop art and colour has been my favourite journey into the French New Wave and one of the most gloriously entertaining films I've had this year. A married man runs off with his babysitter in a (often violently) clashing satire on society. It's the cinematic equivalent of throwing everything the wall and seeing what sticks. The result is, well, most of it.

11. Two-Lane Blacktop - (1971, Dir. Monte Hellman) 

This was probably the purest, most profoundly cinematic road movie of them all. Not only is one of the most interesting preservation of 70s, it's the definitive counter culture piece. The sparse use of dialogue is made all the more effective by how fantastic the subtle interactions are between the cast. At once a love letter to the connection between man and car, a dissection of isolation and an examination of the pro-masculine, American obsession of drag racing.

10. Pale Flower - (1964, Dir.  Masahiro Shinoda)

A more mature entry in the Yakuza genre in response to Suzuki's surreal madness. A sultry look at the life and path of a Yakuza from a man on the cusp of middle aged. Pale Flower is a darker jewel of Japanese New Wave, gorgeously shot and featuring a dryly sensual score by Toru Takemitsu. Ryô Ikebe's performance is one of weight and experience, but it is in the darkly beautiful face of  youth belonging Mariko Kaga that his disillusionment is transfixed leading him back into the labyrinth that is the criminal underworld. 

9. Kiss Me Deadly - (1955, Dir. Robert Aldrich)

The final noir, Aldrich pushes every element of the genre towards destruction. Our hero is a primal brute of pure chauvinism, our femme fetale is broken and spread across five women, who's combined efforts amount to nothing. Then of course it is a case of the secret at the bottom of the box, the great whatzit. It is of course, nothing, nothing but destruction. A blinding burning hiss of white light that burns through the frame, consuming all in the cinematic space itself. Kiss Me Deadly drives the short lived genre, in its purest form, into the nuclear pit where it collides with other forms and cultures emerging a self-aware hybrid, led by that unearthly scorching hiss.   

8. The Passion of Joan of Arc - (1928, Dir. Carl Dreyer)

A film of pure visual emotion. Falconetti's performance is truly one of the greatest in the whole medium. Every element is driven by expression, by unsuppressed emotion. The sparse sets reduce everything to its most human and wholesome. The jurors loom over Joan, physically dwarfing her. Just looking at Falconetti's face is a draining and devastating experience, her eyes become a window, unflinchingly looking deep into the human soul. You literally see a woman bare her all in the face of a manipulative and cruel system. The  newly released Masters of Cinema Blu Ray, a contender for best Blu Ray of the year, offers it as it should be seen, in complete silence. 

7. La Jetee - (1962, Dir. Chris Marker)

Poet, philosopher and artist Chris Marker ponders the relationship between images, memory and time, in this radical science fiction film. It follows a survivor of a devastating world being thrust back and forth through time in order to ensure the survival of the human race. Through his journey he finds immortality, it is located within a museum filled with stuffed animals, a stripped of their essence. Composed almost entirely of still photographs, it punctuated by a single awakening moment of film. That is the moment of pure, unmatched clarity, the returned gaze of the person you love.  

6. The Leopard - (1963, Dir. Luchino Visconti)

The ballroom dance that the film's final act is structured on is not only a triumph of art direction, set design and cinematography, it is the swan song of two era. Burt Lancaster's (who gives one of the finest performances ever) Prince Salina is part of a class long gone, a leopard replaced by a hyena, but the film is also part of a bygone era. Sculpted so extravagantly and paced with complete grace, it represents a by gone era of film makers and making. Seldom does film making reach such a grandiose scale. 

5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, Dir. F W Murnau)

If L'Atalante was a haunting look at loves spontaneity, Murnau's Sunrise is a fever dream. A virtually uncompromising explosion of love, coming from the darkest place. Our young couple impassioned with each other, blaze through a city just as impassioned with their love. For just a few hours, we give our complete selves to these nameless lovers and every problem in the world melts away with them. 85 years old, it is graciously immortalized by it's complete earnestness.

4. Sansho The Bailiff (1954, Dir. Keji Mizoguchi)

The delicacy of human life is tested to the extreme in Mizoguchi's masterpiece. Although firmly Eastern in its setting and style, it's story is in line with Greek tragedy. The story of a family torn apart by evil is one of the most human and eye opening films apart. Some truly devastating moments, when the family is separated it is marked by unsympathetic music, highlighting the hopelessness. Even still Anju's sacrifice might just be the most perfectly composed moment in this list. The final empathetic image has a degree of hope, the human spirit remains tested but in tact in Mizoguchi's brutal world. 

3. Bigger than Life - (1956, Dir. Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray's operatic masterpiece breaks down and reverses many of the nuclear family ideals, James Mason plays Ed Avery, a middle class school teacher who is given cortisone to suppress his the development of a fatal illness. Treatment becomes dependency, and it is not long before dependency becomes addiction, turning Avery into an egotistical maniac and something much more disturbing. Brilliantly shot on CinemaScope, Ray's impassioned domestic monster movie is perhaps the best film in the directors vibrant, passionate canon. 

2. Harakiri - (1962, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi)

Just as Kiss Me Deadly is brought a nuclear destruction to the noir genre, Harakiri is the anti-samurai film tinged with apocalyptic hatred. Kobayashi see's no glory or honor, only death here. A man with nothing left to lose tries desperately to expose a corrupt and evil system. Long corridors represent a Kafka-labyrinth of bureaucracy. The bold chiaroscuro cinematography crash through each frame with devastating clarity, the film opens with a shot of empty armor, a monument to the facade of this empty system. As his last action, Hanshiro Tsugumo tears it down. Yet as, Harakiri ends with the armor rebuilt, the disruption off record and system intact. But its effect lingers long after. Brutally fierce, cruel and emotionally draining. It is a masterpiece of blood, sword and snow.

1. The Decalogue - (1988-89, Dir. Krzysztof  Kieslowski

Kiewslowski's monumental cinematic movement made up of ten short films based on the Catholic interpretations of the ten commandments is, quite possibly the art form's greatest achievement. While some entries are flawed in their own right, as whole the series transcends cinema, even art. Although religious in subject, it is not in nature. Kieslowski searches for the spiritual and finds only suggestions. Each entry is shot by a different cinematographer, each character is therefore allowed their own visual perspective of the world,  one such example would be the intense grime in entry V (which would become A Short Film About Killing.) Yet they are linked through music and visual motifs such as milk or the ever present 'watcher.' Kieslowski creates a micro-universe and fills it with everything that we, as a race have. Thus, The Decalogue becomes a work of profound humanism, intimately capturing every moment in the fabric of our existence. From prodigious actions of some to the minute connections between strangers, through the apartment block the series is set we experience immense pain and disgust to unwavering love and miraculous joy. It ends with the single most human image ever committed to film, the image of laughter.

It was, undoubtedly, the best film(s) I had the pleasure of viewing this year and I'll be damned if it is topped for some time. 

[Honorable Mentions: Youth of the Beast, Tokyo Drifter, The Naked Kiss, Stalker, Belle et le Bete, Repulsion, Wings of Desire, Robinson Cruesoe on Mars, No End, Camera Buff, Cries and Whispers, Sans Soliel, If.., Lost Weekend, Walkabout, The Ballad of Narayama, Modern Times, The Royal Tenenbaums, Close-Up, Amarcord, Red Dessert, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie]  

So that does it, 2012 has been one continuous eye opening cinematic journey for me, one that I cannot wait to continue in the year to come. Happy New Year everyone! 

Sunday, 30 December 2012

2012: My Year in Film (Part 1)

So the year draws to a close, and in a few days I will be posting up my list of 2012's best films (once I've caught a few late entrants.)  In the mean time, here is a list of the 50 best films that I've watched this year

Through the likes of Twitter, Mubi, this years Sight and Sound poll and of course the work of those at Criterion and The Masters of Cinema this year has served as an introduction to a lot of cinema for me. Through the (roughly) 300 films I've watched my taste has broadened and developed, proving a bit of a strain to those around me, a lot on this list I have enjoyed alone. 

[I have tried to make this list as varied as possible, to easily could it have been filled with the likes of Bergman or Kieslowski who I watched around 20 films of each. As a result, there are a few well deserving titles that have been left off, but I shall do an honorable mentions list at the end.]  

50. Crumb - (1994, Dir. Terry Zwigoff)  
An interesting look at an Artists reflection and the nature of the 70s underground movement. As well as a disturbing look at a twisted product of the Nuclear era. Zwigoff's tight framing and unflinching eye creates an uncomfortable intimate portrayal of an America family. 

49.  Kuroneko - (1968, Dir. Kaneto Shindo)
A darkly poetic little horror fable from Japan about a man who returns from war a hero only to be tasked with ridding the woods of two demons who pray on Samurai. The etherally spooky first half gives away to a sombre Shakespearean drama about the nature of love and revenge. Beautifully shot and wonderfully staged. 

48. Vampyr - (1931, Dir. Carl Dreyer)
I managed to see the wonderful restored release played with a live soundtrack which enhances Dreyer's hazy visuals and cinematic tricks. A unique and eerie dip into obsession and the occult. 

47. Branded to Kill - (1967, Dir. Seijun Suzuki)
My first trip into Japanese New Wave has remained one my favourite. Suzuki has flare and coolness in abundance as we follow Goro Hanada, the hamster-cheeked rice fetishistic hit-man as he climbs the ranks of hired contract killers. Be prepared for theatrical insanity and lots and lots of butterflies.  

46. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? - (1957, Dir. Frank Tashlin) 
Wonderfully playful study of public image and media obsessions. Tony Randall, channeling Jack Lemon, simply steals the show as the titular Rock, an every-man working at an advertising agency after a simple life that becomes entangled with the Monroe-esque Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) when he pursues to market a product. Colourful and light-hearted, but direct in its honesty.  

45. House - (1977, Dir.  Nobuhiko Obayashi)
If film is the real reality, then I still have no clue as to what Obayashi's masterpiece is. Part surrealist horror film, part pop music video. A film so deliriously insane it boarders on tiresome, but perhaps no other film on this list can wear the slogan of 'it must be seen to be believed' so proudly.  

44. Lorna's Silence - (2008, Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
A deconstruction of marriage built without love and study on 'the guilt of women.' Dardenne's characters are plagued by pain, mental and physical. But it is a real pain, not of the cinematic standard. 

43. Lola Montes - (1955, Dir. Max Ophüls)
An explicit and elegant look at celebrity and our desire, or even societal need for it. We watch a young women relive her various scandals and experiences throughout Europe as part of a circus attraction. Shot on beautiful CinemaScope it is enamored with vibrant Technicolour, Ophüls treats his characters with one thing that alludes most directors these days; respect. 

42. Shotgun Stories - (2008, Dir. Jeff Nichols)
Take Shelter was my favourite film from last year, and Shotgun Stories works notably sewed the seeds for Nichols' masterpiece. A blue-collar drama imposed onto a classic Southern feud between two families. There is a biblical quality to Nichol's narrative as sins and burdens are passed through the generations with tragic consequences. Shannon is remarkable as ever, as is his supporting cast. But the true star is the industrially earthy Arkansas in which the film is based.

41.  Laura - (1944, Dir. Otto Preminger)
When a young woman is murdered, a police detective is called in to interview the people closest to her in order to piece together the events that led to her murder and help capture the killer. Gradually he finds himself becoming obsessed with the dead girl himself. The noir genre is built upon chauvinism and Laura is centered upon the destruction of the intellectual in favor of the primal. Through clever dialogue and remarkable acting, it balances the B-movie nature of it's screenplay with first class style.  

40. The Red Shoes - (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) 
The life of the artist is one of dedication and sacrifice in the strive for perfection. And Moira Shearer's rising ballerina is a victim of choice, the love of her composer or her legacy as an artist? Jack Cardiff is justly renowned as the 'King of Technicolour' and the central dance sequence is his opus. Frantic, hallucinatory and utterly transfixing.  

39. Fiend Without a Face - (1958, Arthur Crabtree)
Much has been done in the name of knowledge throughout cinematic history. In Crabtree's Sci-fi/horror hybrid it is the knowledge itself that becomes the monster. Feeding on our memories and intellect, it becomes a murderous warning. Terrific sound design, creepy stop motion and a brilliant climax make this a classic genre piece. 

38. Late Spring - (1949, Yasujiro Ozu)
Throughout his career Ozu returned time and time again to one single theme; a fathers concern for his daughter to marry. The first in his 'Noriko trilogy' centered around the character played by Setsuko Hara, it  is a elegant and moving drama of love, sacrifice and duty in the confused world of Post-War Japan. It's final image is a moment of pure beauty and an encapsulated view of Ozu's career.  

37. Shock Corridor - (1963, Sam Fuller) 
Crass, exploitative and silly are three words one could level at Shock Corridor and they'd be absolutely correct. But it is also a daring, hot-blooded satire on the political and cultural America of the 1960s. Harsh black and white photography by Stanley Cortez and terrificly unsettled performances by Peter Breck and his concerned stripper girlfriend, Constance Towers ensures Fuller's thriller is at once hard to watch, and even harder to look from.    

36. The Driver - (1978, Dir. Walter Hill) 
Lovers of Refn are sure to enjoy Walter Hill's icily cool original. An intense game of cat and mouse between Bruce Dern's Detective and Ryan O'Neal's Driver as study of professionalism in the extreme, these two figures exist for each other alone. Hill's homage to Melville's Le Samurai features some of cinemas best car chases and style in excess. 

35. The Island of Lost Souls - (1932, Dir. Erle C. Kenton) 
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells, this is the original and best version of the twisted Moreau and his beast men. Surprisingly ahead of it's time in regards to its lighting and set design, the real star is Laughton's giddy and flamboyant Moreau that straddles the line between camp and creep.

34. Double Indemnity - (1944, Dir. Billy Wilder)
Billy Wilder's canonical film noir perfectly presents the decaying social atmosphere of Los Angeles. Fred MacMurry is completely believable as the insurance salesman roped into murder with Barbara Stanwyck playing one of the best femme fatales. 

33. A Night to Remember - (1958, Dir. Roy Ward Baker)
Presenting the sinking of the Titanic almost in complete real time, A Night to Remember is laced with an upper-lip-Britishness that presents itself as level headed bravery. Kenneth Moore's earnest Second officer Herbert Lightoller becomes a template for British attitude in the post-war nature. However it is through the film's aversion to melodrama, in favor of detail and subtle motifs that heighten the emotional impact.

32.  L'Atalante - (1934, Dir. Jean Vigo)
A film of poetic earthiness. Following two newly weds on their life aboard barge L'Atalante. Jean Vigo was only 29 when he died, but this film assured his legacy. The lovers fall apart, as we have seen time and time again, but their longing for each other is illustrated through Vigo's haunting visual spontanuity, and the film remains one of the purest love stories.  

31. Tyrannosaur - (2011, Dir. Paddy Constantine) 
A ferocious film about damaged people coping through the relationship they form with one another. Not the nihilistic kitchen-sink drama I expected, this is film blankets the darker elements of the middle class too. Peter Mullan is terrific, but it is the broken Olivia Colman who will remain in your head for days after.

30. 3 Women - (1977, Dir. Robert Altman) 
A sensual cinematic dream of identity and women. Led by the three astonishing performances, the lanky Shelly Duvall, the lizard-like Sissy Spacek and the beautiful Janice Rule. They are a disjointed family brought together by loneliness. The deeply symbolic visuals and ethereal music embody a dream of American idiosyncrasy that will stay with you for some time.

29. The Docks of New York - (1927, Dir. Josef von Sternberg) 
I wrote a piece on the character of New York in this, one of the last silent giants which you can read here. Although to reduce Docks to a single element would be to do it a disservice. A pragmatic romance, Sternberg doesn't judge but he knows. In many regards this is a blue collar Gatsby, a story of mistakes and blind, foolish faith in the city that never sleeps and stops for no-one.

28. Videodrome - (1983, Dir. David Cronenberg) 
Cronenberg has recently returned to his fascination of the interplays between our psyche, the technological and the sexual with the wonderful Cosmopolis. In some ways Videodrome is his most prophetic and visceral movie as James Woods becomes psychologically then physically warped by his obsession with the Videodrome tapes. Long live the new flesh!

27. Hour of the Wolf - (1968, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)
Bergman gives himself to his own anxieties as an artist and as a lover in his Gothic horror film. The overt nature of the increasingly disturbingly surreal visuals and oppressive atmosphere make this feel like something of an homage to the Swedish master. Max von Sydow delivers one of his most tortured performances as a man hunted by his own self esteem and Liv Ullman his dedicated wife.

26. Solaris - (1972, Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tarkovsky considered this a response to the Kubrick's titanic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he considered to be a cold exploration of existence. This is undoubtedly the more human of the two, although in essence a science fiction story, it is also a Greek tragedy, as a man fails to protect the women he loves, he is punished time and time again. Few artists can create such an atmosphere as Tarkovsky. The strange sound effects and unnatural performances create a truly uncomfortable and unrelatable setting, yet one that delves deep into the very fiber of our being, moving through our own comprehension. An unforgettable masterpiece of philosophy and genre.

This concludes the first part of my year in cinema review. Tomorrow I will have a run down of the next 25 films on my list from this year. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

The Festive Take: Alternative Christmas Movies

With the Christmas season comes the Christmas movies, and if you're anything like me you've seen Elf more times than you care to imagine. So if you've had enough of the Muppets, Jimmy Stewart and well... Arnie, here is my list of some alternative Christmas films to fill you with the festive spirit.

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Family, the adverts would have you believe, is one of the joys of the season. So what better way to engage with all those dear to you by settling silently in front of the TV to watch other people do Christmas? In that sense, Ingmar Bergman's nostalgia based study of childhood is the ultimate family film. It is not long before death, ghosts and tyrannical step fathers bring the mood down (this is Bergman after all) but the opening Christmas feast is a pure delight, exploding with a smorgasbord of food, colour and activity that will make you long for the days before Facebook stole Christmas. Above all else, Fanny and Alexander will remind you what the meaning of family really is.

2. Brazil (1985) 
Twisted satire from one of the Pythons now. The intro is pure madness. 'But Father Christmas can't come if we don't have a chimney,' inquires a young girl, only for paramilitary police to crash through the ceiling and abduct her father, in a sack no less, to be taken in for questioning. This is our welcome to Terry Gilliam's bureaucratically based dystopia. With dark comedy and H.G. Welles inspired dreamscape imagery, this is a unique Sci-fi with a festive twist, as Gilliam turns his keen surrealist eye at the ever-increasing commercial focus of Christmas. 

3.  The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Charles Laughton's masterpiece is a modern fairy-tale of good versus evil. Set in the Great Depression it follows two orphaned children, John and Pearl as they are pursued across Southern America by the terrifying and murderous 'Reverend' Harry Powell (played by the brilliant Robert Mitchum as one of the all time great villains.) Christmas is no where to found until guardian angel Lillian Gish steps in to defend them.  'It's a hard world for little things,' she states at the films end, and with it, we are reminded of who the magic of Christmas belongs to most of all, the children. 

4.  The Proposition (2005)

Christmas will have never seemed so far away in John Hillcoat's Australia-based Western. Still if you're fed up with the dreary British weather (A white Christmas looks far off at this point,) you can imagine yourself in the blistering heat of the Australian outback alongside Ray Winston's Captain Stanley as he attempts to bring stone cold civility to a morally decrepit land. The shocking violence on display means that this is one you may want to leave till after the kids go to sleep. Don't worry there is a short break from all the chaos so they can get the tree up and nibble on a bit of turkey.

5. La Belle et le Bete (1946)

Okay, so it might not be directly Christmas related, but Jean Cocteau's adaption of the classic fairy-tale is a film of pure magic. It may take a while to adjust, especially those familiar with Disney's animated favourite. But Jean Marais' spellbound Prince is a tragic, tortured monster of his own creation. Greedy step sisters, enchanted sets and a plethora of cinematic tricks ensure that Cocteau's film is a classic of haunted elegance.  

6. Rare Eports: A Christmas Tale (2010) 

Some gruesomely dark fun from our Scandinavian friends Rare Exports follows a group of hunters digging deep into the mountains to catch the original Santa Clause from his icy slumber. Suddenly the town's children begin mysteriously disappearing and its down to young Pietari and his Reindeer hunter father to stop this demonic vision of a not-so-jolly old Saint Nick. 

So there you have it, once you've had your fill of turkey, BBC specials and family members you can embrace the Christmas season through some beautiful and bizarre cinematic gems.

Happy holidays folks! 

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Semester Assignment: The Life and Death of a Projectionist

During the semester, a module of our degree was focused on developing our skill in cinematography. We were eventually tasked to make a short three minute film utilizing the techniques and approaches we had developed of the course of the semester:
A Fiction or Documentary Film Project. This small group project focuses on lighting and camera will involve the effective planning and acquisition of film. Students will be required to demonstrate an understanding of technical and aesthetic considerations in image acquisition and visual story telling appropriate to level.
We wanted to showcase a number of cinematic styles, including the visual contrast between formats, connected by an overarching theme. Our film is based upon the changing landscape of cinema; the movement, the mechanics and even the interests of the audience, all as they are perceived through the view point of a projectionist. Take a look: 

[Here is a YouTube Link as the embedding image quality is less than desirable.] 

Just some points of information:
  • The bulk of the footage was shot on a Sony Z5. For the second 'internal feature' we used a Braun Nizo S80 Super 8 Camera. 
  • Our primary locations were Belfast City Centre, The Queen's Film Theatre and Malham Cove. 
  • It was edited on Avid Media Composer 6.0 with the Magic Bullet editing suite. 
  • Our male actor is reading his own poem, you can find a link to his stuff here. 
  • We made substantial changes from our initial draft which was centred around a different theme and included other internal features (including a Twitter based horror titled 'Trender') the change was mainly due to time restrictions. 
  • Our key influences when writing, directing and editing Goddard, Malick and Fellini. 
Hope you enjoy, as always feedback is welcomed. 

[Review] The Shining and Room 237 - The Kubrick Conundrum

The Shining (1980)

Director - Stanley Kubrick
Country - USA, UK 
Starring - Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall
Running Time - 144 minutes

A family heads to an isolated hotel for the winter where an evil and spiritual presence influences the father into violence, while his psychic son sees horrific forebodings from the past and of the future.

Room 237 (2012)

Director - Rodney Ascher
Country - USA
Starring - Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner and Buffy Visick
Running Time - 102 minutes

A subjective documentary that explores the numerous theories about the hidden meanings within Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. 

Back in cinemas, Kubrick's hotel based horror is often considered the scariest film ever made. It's story of an omnipotent hotel and it's insane caretaker are stuff of pop culture legend, racking up a number of memorable scenes that are a sure bet to appear in the local pub quiz's 'film round.' Over thirty years have gone by since the original release, yet there is still nothing quite like The Shining. Kubrick's isometric composition confines us within the endless corridors and hallways. His ingenious use of (at the time, new) steady cam create a trans-dimensional presence of evil that is in constant pursuit of the family and sound design that creates a truly oppressive and inescapable sense of dread. The Shining is perhaps the first modernist horror film.

King's 'bad place' novel is as much a story of the supernatural as it is a study of fatherhood and alcoholism, an element downplayed here. This film is very much a product of Kubrick, leaving it intentionally vague by cutting much of the books exposition - yet he added as much, including some of the film’s most famous sequences. The focus here is the presence of an unsettled and discontented past, whether or not that is a result of the Native American genocide we will come to later, but as an intense wailing dominates the soundtrack in the opening, there is a sense of historical patterns being reiterated on a personal scale. 

It is through his cinematic techniques that the film becomes a fascinating study of atmosphere and multi-layered film making. The interior of Kubrick's Overlook Hotel is filled with a number of impossibilities, even the moment we see it. Corridors lead to nowhere, doors exist where no room possibly could and the ominous maze changes its layout as the film progresses. Kubrick refuses to let us settle, even on a subconscious level, creating a tiered, spatial labyrinth inhabited by and indeed reflected in his unbroken tracking shots with incredibly deep depth of field. Much like the hotel, the film is constantly shifting form, initially it links scene after scene together through long fades, only to crash cut through the film with title cards announcing the days. The result is uncomfortable disorientation; we can make no associations between areas despite being based in only a handful of rooms, nor what time has passed. We become lost in both space and time on an unconscious and conscious level.

So intense is the film’s opening act that Nicholson's performance offers up a dark relief as Jack's sanity slips away and he is a reduced to a manic scene chewer. By contrast Duvall, whom Kubrick was displeased with, looks exhausted from the beginning, which diminishes the effect later on. Young Daniel Lloyd however is astonishing; the real horror lies in the inevitability of his eyes as he stares blankly at the television screen. There is very little let up in The Shining, ghosts do not disappear in the day time (on the contrary, it is when they are most restless) and all members of the outside world are nothing but voices over the radio.

One must note that it is the American release that is touring the country; the film is a further twenty minutes long, rather unjustifiably. Presented in 1:1.78 compared to the 1:1.85, it loses a level of self-encompassing grandeur. Other changes include; conversations being extended, atmosphere-breaking shots of Halloran travelling to the hotel have been added and in the film's climatic descent into chaos a rather 'Scooby Doo style' shot of cobwebbed skeletons serve to (perhaps intentionally) undermine the relentless horror. I can assuredly add that these additions add nothing of substantial value to the movie, and that the shorter European release should be the desired version. 

The Shining is a near-masterpiece; it transcends its individual flaws to become a purely cinematic experience. It ends on one of the most enigmatic images in horror cinema, refusing catharsis for the viewer. It becomes an extension of its setting, nestling deep within our memory, living through the past. We find ourselves trapped there, slipping through time until we are just another face captured on the night of July 4th, 1921.  

But what does it all mean? 

Well Rodney Ascher's documentary Room 237 has assembled five of the most esteemed Shining-obsessives to decode and evaluate every scene in an attempt to find the key to unlocking Kubrick's horror-opus. 

The speculation surrounding Kubrick’s intent with The Shining has always proved more interesting than the nature of the film itself. For years there have been rumours and theories have flown around as to what it is really about. The genocide of the American Indians? The Holocaust? The Moon landing!? Ascher's documentary gathers and presents these theories in a delightfully stylish fashion. Gathering archive and historical footage as well as clips from Kubrick's complete canon, he is entirely self-aware of how preposterously fascinating some of the ideas are.

To detail much of the theories in this review would be to spoil a rather eye-opening experience, whether you buy the ideas or not, you are at least guaranteed some decent bar-talk should the topic arise. However Ascher's film transcends a mere introduction to film criticism, becoming a study on the nature of that criticism itself. We are to take from how Ascher presents each analysis, that one’s own interpretation of a film is merely a reflection of our own experiences and ideas imposed onto the films textual coding.

When we do finally reach the infamous Moon landing conspiracy, I was almost on the verge of calling quits, the evidence offered little support to an already Ludacris proposition and I felt they had pushed it too far. Yet right at that moment, in a shot of pure cinematic bliss that is equal parts hilarious and chilling, little Danny Torrance stands up in direct view of the camera wearing an Apollo 11 jumper. Suddenly everything fell back into place. I may not believe it, but damn if it didn't make me giddy. Though my favourite of the analytical techniques came from an art exhibit, exploring the mirrored theme running through The Shining by playing it forwards whilst super imposing the film running backwards on top. It doesn't have the key to any conspiracy but it has some fantastically eerie compositions. 

At the end of all this, there is almost too much to say. What is The Shining really about? For me, it is not the stuff of conspiracies and genocide, but rather a reclusive Kubrick's attempt to interact with his audience. After the commercial failure of the perfect-but-distilled Barry Lyndon, he saw an opportunity, through Kings' novel, to play with and even manipulate his viewers. Playing it intentionally vague, inviting us to pour over every frame inch by inch in search for meaning. I see The Shining less as an exercise in subliminal symbolism, (though there is enough evidence to interpret it that way should you so choose,) and more a canvas of multi-layered disorientation and cinematic playfulness, not to undersell Kubrick's genius. Ascher's documentary is at once a testament to the director's flawed masterpiece but also a fantastic examination of individual perception.

The Shining remains a canonical horror film, its genius lies not within its convoluted story or even its multi-layered symbolism but its film making. A uniquely cinematic terror. There may be no key, there may not even be anything to unlock, but it wants you to try. The Overlook Hotel is a special place alright; its omnipotent presence hangs over all who chose to enter into its labyrinth of corridors and hall ways. No-one will see the same thing; its form, it's meaning are a product of the viewer. One thing we can be sure of, there is a Room 237 for all of us.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Absolute Cinema - Bigger than Life

Absolute Cinema is a continuing series of moments that I illustrate a moment of cinematic transcendence. These can be a single element or a variety of cinematic techniques that come together in such a way that elevates cinema. It might be an entire sequence or just a particular shot, edit, score it doesn't even have to be on purpose. It is a moment exclusive to cinema as an art form.

[Entry 5] Absolute Cinema: Bigger Than Life

In The Name of the Father

In his operatic melodrama Bigger than Life, director Nicholas Ray breaks down and reverses many of the nuclear family ideals, James Mason plays Ed Avery, a middle class school teacher who is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease and given the new miracle drug cortisone as a means of suppressing its progression. Treatment becomes dependency, and it is not long before dependency becomes addiction, turning Avery into an egotistical maniac and something much more disturbing.

Ray's paternal issues spilled into his film making. His films are themselves 'bigger than life,' visuals of pure personal emotion. His decision to shoot a domestic drama on CinemaScope is inspired genius giving Avery warped sense of grandeur, contained within a tightly structured setting. The real victim here, as with much of Ray's work is son Richie who finds himself at the brunt of his father’s increasing instability. Avery becomes a twisted representation of traditional American values - religion, education and family. Psychologically bullying his son before Ray delivers a moment of fierce, twisted intensity.

At a time when boys looked to their fathers for reassurance and safety from the monsters on their TV, from the escalating Red-scare. Ray is formidable as he casts his image, deeply coded in Expressionism. For Richie, there was no comfort to be found with his father. As Avery looms over his son, his shadow contorts into a warped figure of Elvis and then into a beast, arched on all fours. He becomes the monster from the TV. It is the most direct image from Ray's canon, and one of the most daring shots of 50s American cinema.

[Review] The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Long in the foot

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Director - Peter Jackson
Country - USA, New Zealand
Starring - Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage
Running Time - 169 minutes

A curious Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, journeys to the Lonely Mountain with a vigorous group of Dwarves to reclaim a treasure stolen from them by the dragon Smaug. 

As the world rapidly uploads itself to the digital space, there is a sense that the cinema has come full circle. A machine art form for the machine age, when it began in the late 19th century people immediately recognized its potential to take us to the world unseen. We could travel to every part of the globe through a make-shift theatre set up in the back of a gymnasium. Now it is the computer screen that draws the minds of millions every day. With it, the cinema has moved towards the digital. By that I do not mean the rise of digital cameras and projectors, but the landscape itself. For the first time, and with a sizeable enough budget, film makers can capture the magic not just of our own world, but of any one imagined complete with lens flare and digital gloss through a recliner chair in an office building.

Perhaps there is no finer moment to illustrate this evolution than when Ian McKellen's Gandalf looks down at a young Bilbo Baggins and states with a distinct lack of irony; 'The real world is not in your books, it's out there.' 

The reason that Jackson's Ring trilogy was such a defining moment in cinema was because of how tangible it was. He drew on the beauty of New Zealand's landscape and a balance between practical and computer effects to create a world that was both believable and fantastical. With the advancements of CGI even since the end of The Return of the King, Jackson is able to create a much more expressive Middle-Earth for prequel The Hobbit. The landscape is more vibrant, the miniature ('bigatures') sets are replaced with digital ones and every mildly recognizable British TV actor gets a fake nose. Unfortunately with this reliance on computer effects, the authenticity has gone. You no longer feel Middle Earth as a real world, but a product of digital conception, expertly crafted but a product none the less. One could argue that this is a younger, more innocent Middle Earth that has not been tainted with the destructive allegorical evil of the Ring trilogy yet and therefore the more colourful look is suited, indeed Tolkien's book is a more child-aimed affair. However Jackson draws attention to its connection with Rings, coupled with some of the darker side elements and the result is that The Hobbit has a rather uneven tone and visual disconnection.

This is very much a prequel to the trilogy and an older Bilbo, initially played by Ian Holm, pops up to tie the two together. Make no mistake, although Frodo appears, this is Bilbo's story. There's a terrific shot early on that cements this as Frodo steps out of Bag End, a wide shot shows a hobbit in the distance striding through the landscape, walking stick in hand. Before panning out to reveal Frodo enthusiastically check the mail box for invitation responses, with it, the baton has been handed back so speak. There is a freedom to this journey due to the lack of 'the one ring' (at least in a significant sense) and Martin Freeman isn't quite the wet blanket that Elijah Wood was. Watching him gradually slide, or more appropriately, trip into the role of unlikely hero is very natural. His courageous, yet rash actions and errors in judgement give away his inexperience, and Freeman shrinks into the role, frequently letting the others take over the action, but his moment will come in due time.

The band of Dwarves that make up the group offer up plenty of entertaining interactions and riffs, even though you'll really only remember the names of about five. There is an uneasy feeling that hangs over this film that their quest just isn't that interesting. This feeling is shared most of all by Jackson who includes a variety of subplots, including an intriguing incident involving the rumoured emergence of a necromancer, which I imagine will be handled in the sequel to come. It is as if the movie is unsure of itself and looking to over compensate, it leaves itself rather bloated.

At nearly three hours long, it has to be said that it is just too long. The opening half hour amounts to nothing more than descriptions of cutlery and sing-alongs. The pace gradually increases as the film progresses, but it is constantly being interrupted by establishing shots, flashbacks and, of course, the arbitrary trip to Rivendell for which critic Bob Chipman rightly describes as 'The High Council of Exposition.' Make no mistake, once we leave the Shire this isn't a slow film, it's very busy and littered with action, even to a fault. Some have been written in, some are smaller scale skirmishes that have been expanded to full scale battles; they tick the boxes for sensational excitement, but end up feeling quite repetitive and contrived. The worst of which involves the mountain our heroes are traversing becoming a giant stone monster itself, which might be the most overt artificial lengthening sequence I've ever seen. The real highlight is undeniably Bilbo and Gollum's game of riddles, which despite being intense and darkly funny, only enhances the feeling that this is a step down from that series. 

Much has been made of the 48 frames per second format; I for one cannot comment on how it looks yet, defiantly I went with the 24-2D version. I am planning on seeing it for comparison, but impressions I've heard have ranged from apathetic to bad. Really I don't see this being the next step for cinema as Jackson intended and I wonder how much more complicated things will get for the average movie goer.

There is some excellent film making here, flashes of the brilliance that made Jackson's Lord of the Rings a classic of epic storytelling, but The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is too bloated, too indulgent and simply just not as interesting. It has neither the impact, nor organic design of its predecessors, and one cannot help but make the comparison. At least now that the characters and set up has been properly established, the next instalments will be a complete return to form. As it is however, you cannot help but wonder how co-writer Del Toro's would compare. A shadow has been cast over Middle Earth, but it is one made up of code and pixels, it looms towards us, a warning of this new cinema at a speed of 48 (or 24) frames per second.


Monday, 10 December 2012

[Review] Sightseers - The Caravan Condition

Sightseers (2012)

Director - Ben Wheatley
Country - United Kingdom
Starring - Alice Lowe, Steve Oram
Running time - 88 minutes

Synopsis - Chris wants to show girlfriend Tina his world, but events soon conspire against the couple and their dream caravan holiday takes a very wrong turn.

Britain as a society is one built upon its traditions, and perhaps none is more ludicrous (or cherished) than that of the sacred caravan tour from campsite to campsite, complete with an abundance of vexatious locals and washed out skies. Led, marketed and even defended by a safe middle class sense of freedom that allows one to enjoy the hospitality of the great outdoors filtered through rusty showers, pull-out beds and deck chairs. Not to mention the immense strain on our mental well-being that comes with being confined to sailor-esque quarters with our nearest and dearest. For Ben Wheatley the caravan tradition masks something much more disturbing lurking beneath the surface of our mud-stained paradise. 

There is a direct primal quality to Wheatley's films, one scarcely engaged or even referenced in Britain or indeed British cinema since the 1970s. However he engages with it head on, tapping into our most visceral urges through aggressive slow-motion close-ups dominated by his male leads. More sinister however are the various cults and rituals that take place up and down the country, in last years Kill List it was the ultimate expression of middle class denial, here it infests our characters psyches and brings them into a hypnotic, violent trance. Murder is perhaps the most natural and basest means of expression.

Drawing on a legacy of lovers-on-the-run films, Sightseers' takes notes from Natural Born Killers, Mike Leigh's Nuts in May and one very obvious visual nod to Terrence Malick's debut Badlands. The message here may not be remotely original, but through the jet black realism humor, audaciously straight soundtrack and increasing absurdity of Chris and Tina's blood-stained 'erotic odyssey' the film amounts to more than the sum of it's influences. 
Too easily could this descend into a crass exploitation of our customary ideals at the expense of some cherished British quirks. However, neither writers Lowe or Oram, nor Wheatley are looking to mock. Instead, they find a great deal of admiration and beauty within their locales as Chris and Tina stare slack-jawed at the world’s largest pencil in the Keswick Pencil Museum or dance in the reflected light of the Blue John Caverns in Derbyshire. However there is an intense haze that blankets the landscape, inhabiting the Lake District in an alien yellow or unsettling mist, it spills into the attractions. The retired trains of Crich Tramway Museum become industrial skeletons, slapped with the label of 'heritage' as if to install a sense of entitlement and responsibility into those who come to stare. Something which Chris adopts instantaneously, or so it appears in his satisfied smile as he backs over an indignant litter bug with his caravan. This is when things change.

It is not Chris' vigilant desire to protect British tourist attractions that drives him to, as Tina puts it 'murder innocent people,' but a deeply seated social resentment. After all when he is confronted by an angry member of the National Trust after dog Poppy fouls an ancient site of interest, Chris brutally murders him, justifying it with 'He's not a person, he's a Daily Mail reader.' As the body count racks up, Tina slowly emerges as the more dominate of the two, much to Chris' discontent. Murder may be the most natural means of expression, but it is his means, and having his girlfriend take matters into her own hands usurps his control. The aforementioned jet black humor has taken the stage here, but it comes with an unnerving sense of guilt and discomfort that comes from each gloriously gooey murder. Unfortunately this wears the film down, and it runs out steam shortly before redeeming itself with an astonishing finale.        

Perhaps it isn't the fault of Chris and Tina for the disastrous outcome of their holiday, but a result social and economic climate of which they are a product, an unsettled, tainted generation who find themselves constrained by an obligation to fix the world. Led by Wheatley’s assured direction and two career-making performances, their tragedy becomes giddy pop-enjoyment, twisted thrills and a surprisingly sombre romantic charm. Eventually, as with most Holidays, Sightseers’ overcomes its issues through the tinted eyes of post-viewing reflection. You might not be after an 'erotic odyssey' of your own anytime soon, but the British countryside has never housed a more mysterious and lurid beauty.