Thursday, 19 December 2013

150W: Hannah and Her Sisters

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Hannah and Her Sisters (Dir. Woody Allen/1986)

Breaking the mirror into three pieces, Woody Allen uses himself, Michael Caine and Max Von Sydow to depict the regretful, lustful and intellectual sides to his personality respectively. The sisters that bind these men together are central to the story as we find how Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest). Elliot (Caine) is married to Hannah and falls for her sister Lee (Hershey); Lee is romantically involved with Frederick; Holly (Wiest) is the final sister who’s restless as her partner-to-be (and Hannah’s ex-husband), hypochondriac Mickey (Allen), is undergoing a crisis of faith. Such personal themes regarding faith and love are tackled sensitively and balanced well with measured comedy that shows maturity and intellect. Allen is confident in his direction, framing moments from obscure angles and capturing the drama within the context of three Thanksgivings. Well-written women and weighty ideas prove how impressive Allen truly is.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 15 December 2013

About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)

About Schmidt is About America. Jack Nicholson is front and centre in Alexander Payne’s 2002 dramatic comedy about a man coping with retirement and the loss of his wife. As Election became a bigger and bolder statement about democracy, About Schmidt is a reflection on much more than one man’s life. It manages to comment on the very definition of friendship and love. It tackles honesty and openness – attributes that surely define a successful marriage. Or can a 42-year marriage be based on a mutual understanding towards sensitivity and considered conversation? About Schmidt is told from the perspective of an American who has lived the dream and yet remains unsatisfied. Like the poster, a dark cloud hangs over this lone soul.

Warren Schmidt (Nicholson) retires from an executive position in a life insurance firm. His send-off includes a speech from a young “hot shot” that seems to be more interested in introducing himself rather than bidding farewell to a valuable member of “Woodmen” insurance. Leaving the party, Warren speaks to his daughter who was unable to attend. His wife, Helen (June Squibb), waits on him and keeps him “in check” before a sudden death in the home days later. But not before Warren has decided to send money, and a revealing letter, to Tanzania to support the life of 6-year Ndugu. These letters reveal Warrens true feelings; his frustration and anger towards what could be his son-in-law; how he has fallen out of love for his wife; how he fears death. After the death of his wife, he is on his own and has to figure out where he belongs in this crazy world.

The letters to Ndugu is the literary glue that holds the film together. Not only does it offer us an insight into Warren’s world but it reminds us of the gross disconnect and injustice between western affluence and third world poverty. The term “first world problems” is bandied around on the internet as a play on Westerners complete lack of appreciation for the privileged society we live within. Warren’s complete lack of awareness towards Ndugu’s age and understanding is a hint towards our own selfishness in a consumer society.
Warren Schmidt is in a unique, sobering moment in his life. Do we truly know Warren at all? Considering the specific set of circumstances between his retirement, his mourning and his detached relationship from his daughter, it is clear this is not Warren in his prime. Maybe the picture at the University of Kansas is his hey-day. By the same token, Helen is much more than a standard wife. She has clearly had her own frustrations and challenges within their marriage, but kept it hidden. Payne has managed to craft a film that hints at deeper stories and weighty themes a nothing is overt and bold. We relax in an ocean of thoughts and ideas that fester long after the film finishes. He pines after brutal honesty from his deceased wife – he wonders whether she was disappointed in him. On reflection, meeting the brash and bold - but brutally honest - Roberta Hertzel (Kathy Bates stealing every scene she is in), we realise that the considered demeanour of his wife suited Warren better than he realised. 

Framed amongst branded stores and restaurants in Nebraska and Colorado, About Schmidt reminds us of what America is – and what it may have lost in the process. Locations are separated by vast country that Warren road-trip’s through in his top-end camper-van. This beauty is ignored. Warren has enjoyed a successful life with a well-paid job, a loving spouse and an intelligent daughter. Yet he is ashamed of his mundane profession, despises his key-using wife and explicitly tells his daughter how he feels about her husband-to-be. The audience are left to consider who is truly at fault. Is it the old man and his selfish tendencies? Or is it the vast landscapes that separate families? And the tall buildings that look over cities to dominate the meaning of success? A child in Tanzania appreciates the $22 Schmidt sends, so we should appreciate the houses we’ve built for ourselves and the love we receive. The challenges in later life is captured effortlessly by Alexander Payne and About Schmidt becomes the polar opposite of the youthful, ambitious folks in Election, as Nicholson’s Schmidt is past his prime – and knows it. A stunning follow-up and a thought-provoking success, About Schmidt is about so much more.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)

Is it real or is it all in your mind? When Deborah Kerr’s Governess takes on the position in Bly Mansion, she slowly loses her mind as she becomes convinced the children are possessed. The brilliance in The Innocents is not just within the spooky story but within the sprawling grounds and the gothic architecture that surrounds the fractured family. Inspiring films as diverse as The Orphanage and The Woman in Black, Jack Clayton’s psychological horror rarely uses jump-scares to shock and instead transcends this through shrieking sounds that pierce the ear as moody lighting covers the shadows and ghosts that lurk in Bly Mansion.

A bachelor (Michael Redgrave) who cares not for his niece and nephew (and yet was orphaned with them) hires inexperienced Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) as Governess with the explicit intention not to contact him if problems arise. The young children are Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). Miss Giddens is taken with Flora but introduced to Miles when he is unexpectedly excluded from school. Bly Mansion’s housekeeper (Megs Jenkins) reveals that the previous Governess and Valet had an illicit love-affair that was flaunted amongst the staff and young children. Miss Giddens is convinced that, though both deceased, the ghost of Governess Miss Jessell (Clytie Jessop) and Valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) still haunt the house and control the thoughts and attitudes of the children.

For over fifty years, The Innocents has been widely considered one of the scariest movies of all-time, with Martin Scorsese placing the film 11th on his own list of horror films. It’s cult following could be attributed to the deeply sinister portrayal of Miles – a role that is unsettling in the hint of what this boy could achieve in the future with such affluence and freedom. Miss Giddens relationship with him is also fascinating as he seems to stir a demon deep within her. Quint’s reckless abandonment towards sex, she believes, is transferred onto Miles as Miss Giddens is drawn to the young boy. To balance such mature themes and play the role so strongly is a credit to his talent. Deborah Kerr equally stands out. Her desperate intentions fall on deaf ears and her own morals and ethics seem to overshadow her own sense of duty and care – and we struggle to know whether it is her madness or the crazed kids.

This is an unforgettable film. The hint at darker themes regarding isolation, class and social divide could surely be the topic of a different article, but there is clearly a wealth of subtext wrapped within the film. Based on the novel The Turning of the Screw by Henry James, with a script co-written by Truman Capote, The Innocents is a story that has emerged from a startling quality of literary sources and a wealth of undertone can be drawn from the source material alone.

Combining the story with the soundscape, we are left with Freddie Francis’ cinematography creating an atmosphere akin to a Caspar David Freidrich landscape, complete with misty moors and high arches. Certainly worth watching at the cinema, Miles and Flora won’t lose their appeal any time soon. If you are keen to see a film that carries such credibility and additionally still stands up to modern audiences, you cannot go wrong with The Innocents.

Originally written/published for Flickering Myth  on 13th December 2013

Thursday, 12 December 2013

150W: Deconstructing Harry

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Deconstructing Harry (Dir. Woody Allen/1997)

Rewind, edit and re-run. Remodel, reconstitute and reconfigure. Memory and films hold many parallels. In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen toys with memory and the inspiration one finds for their art. Opening credits is an edited sequence of a woman stepping out of a cab. It’s disorientating, as the film can be, as Deconstructing Harry flips between fictional stories written by Harry (Woody Allen) and Harry’s life itself. This current incarnation has a crisis of identity – he is older and single with one child he can barely visit. The different “stories” he has written, which we see, are “Woody Allen” scenarios. Robin Williams plays an actor who is literally out of focus in one story while Julia Louis Dreyfus and Richard Benjamin are the hyper-sexual lovers interrupted by a blind Grandmother mid-session. Assuming you have asked whether his films are autobiographical in any way, this would be Allen’s insightful, considered answer.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)

Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. So the age-old saying goes. Election, Alexander Payne’s second feature, hit cinema screens in 1999 and immediately found a fan-base by deconstructing this mantra and showing it in all its school-emblem colours. Kicking off Reese Witherspoon’s career and reviving Matthew Broderick’s (with a neat play on his Ferris Bueller role from the mid-eighties - rather than a student who bunks, he’s a teacher who adores education), Election is also a triumph in combining four-narrations that equally highlight our own different attitudes towards ambition and success while portraying how they are often incompatible.

We are first introduced to keen-o student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) and her teacher Mr McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Tracy is a hard-worker and ambitious student, focused on becoming school president. Mr McAllister – winner of teacher of the year three times (a school record) – on the other hand overlooks Tracy’s high-raised hand, and dislikes her approach to education. He also knows of a dark secret that Tracy is not keen to share. Mr “M” wants her crown of victory to fall and advises recently-injured sports-student Paul (Chris Klein) to run for president. Finally, we meet Paul's lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) who has revealed her love to best friend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia). Lisa rebuffs her and runs to Tammy’s brother, Paul. So Tammy runs for President too.

For the time period – and considering where Reese Witherspoon and Chris Klein ended up, this could become a teenage-comedy akin to American Pie or Cruel Intentions. It could be a film that simply capitalises on awkward sex and unnecessary nudity in the context of parties, school corridors and poster-clad bedrooms. Thankfully, this is not that film. The role of Mr McAllister ensures that, though three out of four narrations are the diverse teenage stereotypes, he is equally held as a figure of ridicule – someone who has his own flaws and desires as his teenage pupils. In some respects, we gain such a deep perspective of the three teenagers that it hints at the adults they will become. Tracy Flick will become successful and remain intelligent; Paul will remain likeable and positive about his achievements; rebellious Tammy will become a role model, yet remain refreshingly honest and comfortable about who she is. Mr McAllister is already an adult; we assume he has learnt most life lessons – but we are yet to see his true feelings bubble up to the surface.

Alexander Payne BFI Retrospective - ElectionThe innovative techniques to introduce character are playful and insightful. Introducing Tracy (from the perspective of Mr McAllister), it catches her in an embarrassing millisecond, hinting at a corrupted character underneath her “perfect” visage. Paul, on the other hand, is introduced when caught in his skiing accident – something foolish but brave, summarising his character entirely. All the characters are inspirational but deeply imperfect, as we all are. But Mr “M” is the man in a position of assumed responsibility; he should be the one role that lives up to his reputation. In fact, all the teachers seem to get a raw deal. Whether they are considered predatory men, old-dears or corrupted, insincere head teacher’s, none of them fit the bill. The perspective of a rebel teacher who does inspire, and lives up to the role of an educator (despite having their own cross to bear of course), could’ve made a fairer depiction of the profession. Then again, perhaps I have a bias on this one element of the story.

Fast-paced plot development means you are never bored and remain interested as to what will happen next. You never know who will win the election and a subtle insight into the votes cast by the candidates themselves hints at further thought provoking outcomes. In that manner, Election raises more questions than it answers. The questions could be as small as the influence of parents and teachers through to national Presidential elections and the purpose of democracy and politics itself. To encompass such profound points in a high-school voting-system is a testament to Payne’s deft use of camera and intelligent script-writing. Election, in 2013, stands up and holds its own next to 1999’s roll-call of outstanding films including Magnolia and American Beauty. But Election wears its heart on its sleeve and against the Academy Award candidates, it holds no sense of self-righteousness or pretention – and for a film about ethics and morals, this is a feat unto itself.
This post was originally written for Flickering Myth on December 9th 2013

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

150W: Bananas

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Bananas (Dir. Woody Allen/1971)

Woody Allen, in such a light, comedic tone, takes on politics. “It’s all over for El Presidente” as the beginning depicts an assassination on the news with sports-style commentary before introducing Fielding Mellish (Allen), an invention tester. Marvin Hamlisch’s Mexican music sets the scene as Mellish is caught up in a revolution when attempting to woo a lovely lady in Nancy (Louise Lasser). Amongst the highlights is an homage to Chaplin’s Modern Times, as Allen is caught up in an exercise-in-the-workplace invention while a trial reveals J. Edgar Hoover as large, black woman. Bananas, like Sleeper and Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex, is Allen having fun. Poking fun at fashionable revolutions and using one-liners to nab every opportunity for a gag, Woody knows how to toy with us but flounders when sewing the story together. Also includes a small role Stallone playing a thug tops off Bananas.

Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Remaking an established, classic, staple of German expressionist cinema in 1979 must’ve been a tough sell. Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, primarily a re-telling of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece, is also a deeply eerie, unsettling and haunting film in its own right. Herzog is not averse to remakes, as he has proven recently with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Unlike Bad Lieutenant, Herzog chose Nosferatu so he could play with Murnau’s story and expand upon minor-moments in his own unique manner. Combining elements from Browning’s Dracula and the original novel by Bram Stoker meant that Herzog could develop his work to potentially become the definitive story of the Count.

The standard story sets the film up. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is an estate agent, sent by his boss Renfield (Roland Topor), to visit Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) in Transylvania. Dracula is due to buy a house in Bremen and Harker needs to ensure he signs the deeds. Harker is hesitant at first as he does not want to leave his wife (intensely played by Isabelle Adjani) but decides to go anyway so that he can buy her a house. Arriving in Transylvania, he is warned of the demons that lurk in the castle but dismisses them as he doesn’t believe in such supernatural occurrences. Harker meets Dracula, a bald rat of a man with long white fangs for his front two teeth. In a moment of terror, Hawker cuts himself and Dracula, to help, sucks the blood. Harker’s locket falls free and Dracula is transfixed by the beauty of Harker’s wife, Lucy. The Count has claws and, as Harker sleeps, Dracula sucks his blood and soon after leaves Transylvania locking Harker in his castle so Dracula can have Lucy for himself.

As Dracula makes his way to Bremen, we begin to see the first of the white rats that will plague the city. Within simple, but sinister coffins full of soil of Transylvania, these rats will unleash a new misery on the town. On the ship itself, one-by-one, all human life ceases to exist and only Dracula arrives on the ship in Bremen. Harker does manage to break free from the castle and travels by horse through the vast landscapes. With decreasing energy and slowly moving closer to death, he returns to Bremen a gravely ill, shell of a man.

The lead performances by Ganz, Kinski and Adjani are complex. Rather than merely a heroic man, to save the day, Harker is conflicted and his decaying body brings with it darker demons that spoil his mind. Lucy, alternatively, will not give her love to Dracula – but she is willing to give her life. Dracula despises life and, though pained when faced with death, believes death is an escape from his morbid existence. Herzog holds steady a sinister pace with a deeply unsettling cold atmosphere. Shots linger for longer than they need to and the slow arm reaching across the room – a direct reference to Murnau’s masterpiece – continues for an awful amount of time. Will he reach out to get us in the audience? The expansion on the use of coffins and the plague is grotesque. In one sequence white rats infest the square and friends gather round a table celebrating their imminent death. One cut, and the family are gone as the rats eat the leftover food. There is no sharp, shock moment; there is no gore; there is just the knowledge of their dreadful deaths.
The vast landscapes, akin to Aguirre, Wrath of God, on widescreen is breath-taking. Horses chop across the muddy roads and a juxtaposition between the beauty in nature of Transylvania is against the horror that happens behind the closed doors of the castle. The story of infestation, blood-sucking and lust is timeless. Herzog’s interpretation is littered with meaning and subtext, purposefully challenging us as viewers to correlate the gothic themes to our own society. Though slow-paced and using a controlled, pastel-palette of colours, Herzog’s Nosferatu is surely the way adaptations should go. Respectfully self-aware and reverential to the original, Nosferatu is. But it also remains relevant and develops the story so that it holds its own, whether you have seen Murnau’s or not.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

You cannot watch Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Awkward releases on DVD that are difficult to get hold of either cost a princely sum or are cropped to a mere 115-mins. Napoléon, in its original form, was 9 hours and 22 minutes long. Shown at The Apollo Theatre in Paris in 1927, it was known as the “version definitive”. Abel Gance’s classic film, screened with the Philharmonic Orchestra at The Royal Festival hall last night was the product of fifty years’ worth of restoration by noted film historian Kevin Brownlow. This 5-hour 32-minute version, separated by 20-min intervals and a 100-min dinner-break, due to rights issues is difficult to track down. Kevin Brownlow himself autographed copies of his book and maintains that this current-version is the closest we will get to Gance’s “version definitive”.

But what a joy to behold!  This sprawling epic charts Napoleon Bonaparte’s (Albert Dieudonné) rise from youthful school days involving snowball fights through to his part in the French Revolution and his invasion of Italy. Broken into four acts, the first immediately showcases Gance’s technical skill and strong sense of creativity. Pillow-fighting splits the screen in four, and then nine, as feathers fly. In another sequences, the fast cutting and speed of snowballs elicits a sense of chaos that pre-figures the wars he will fight as an adult. His part in the French revolution begins in Paris as he witnesses the mob dominate the city, before he returns to his homeland of Corsica and is forced to defend the island from British rule: "Our fatherland is France” he tells us. After a chase across the blustery, rocky sea, (and a cameo from Horatio Nelson) Napoleon escapes, with his eagle returning by his side. The second act is considerably shorter as Napoleon is promoted and leads an attack on the port of Toulon, a French town that has been held by 20,000 English soldiers. The scenes are busy and wet, rain is endless and the ground is muddy. Though they succeed in taking back the port, their ships are burnt down by the English.

Part III, a longer-sequence, feels weaker as Napoleon is offered positions in the military and turns them down. Romance blossoms between upper-class victim of the French revolution, Josephine (Gina Manès), and Napoleon. We see Josephine briefly in Part I and flashbacks remind us of the moment they met. In a strange conclusion to their romance, Napoleon decides to invade Italy and rushes his wedding to ensure he can leave quickly. His wedding is an awkward affair as he demands the registrar to “skip” bits of the service so it is concluded faster. The final act is where Gance truly proves how important Napoléon is. Bonaparte meets the ghosts of the revolution, effortlessly portrayed through half-exposed shots, and he travels by carriage to battle. The screen then trebles in size and three projectors’ reveal a screen that has never been so wide. The slight gaps between each projector remind you of the time period and how innovative Gance must’ve been to set-up three cameras and shoot the moments simultaneously. Sometimes it is a wide-screen shot; sometimes a symmetrical triptych. Then it changes into a visual collage of past, present and future exploits of Napoleon – each screen is different and Gance cuts and layers images on top of one another exceptionally fast. This is until the three projectors become the French flag while waves appear on screen. The sheer scale is unbelievable and Gance knew how impressive this sequence would be in a cinema. It is a marvellous finale to a marathon of cinematic accomplishments.

Three decades before Cinerama, and Abel Gance was there first with his Poly-vision in that final act. So many techniques prove how Gance was reimagining the art form of cinema. Using a camera to swing from the chandeliers above and through a party; attaching the camera to the horse; somehow speeding alongside. How he managed to be so versatile with the camera is a book unto itself (See Kevin Brownlow’s Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film) – and indeed, Gance was proud of his silent-film roots and their dependence on innovative camera techniques to tell a story.

This is not The Royal Festival Hall, just an example of the scale
Watching Napoléon is an event unto itself, and Carl Davis’ magnificent music combines Holst, Haydn and Beethoven with Davis’ own proud, defiant themes that are as bold as John William’s thematic scores. The last time Napoléon was presented in the UK was 2004. In a time whereby everything is accessible on DVD, it is satisfying and greatly humbling to be a part of a cinematic event that has such deep roots in cinema history. Abel Gance broke the mould in 1927 and, though he failed to be fully acknowledged in his own time, now is the time for appreciation – as he was clearly one of the best.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

Gone with the Wind demands the cinema experience. Now, we argue about films like Gravity and Avatar. But the argument still stands for films including 2001: A Space Odyssey and - with a re-release at the BFI and nationwide - Gone with the Wind. The very definition of Hollywood Epic, Gone with the Wind is one of the most successful films of all-time. Partly due to its longevity, Gone with the Wind, when ticket prices are adjusted for inflation, remains the top of the box-office – followed by Star Wars, The Sound of Music and E.T. Modern viewers, when faced with a four-hour, sprawling civil-war romance, will cringe at the thought. But it must be seen to be believed - Gone with the Wind lives up to its reputation.

Set prior to the American Civil War, we are introduced to spoiled Southerner Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) as she ponders which of two twin brothers she will dance with. Her father’s plantation, Tara, is her home and she is besotted with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) from the ‘Twelve Oaks’ plantation close-by. Unfortunately for Scarlett, Ashley is due to wed his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Enter Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a cocky and confident sniper; a friend from Charleston to the Wilkes. His self-serving attitude seems to be the perfect match for Scarlett, but she is not impressed. She seeks Ashley, a man who wants a gentle lady – opposed to the brash, forward and demanding attitude Scarlett has. The civil war takes the men to war – a war Rhett believes is foolhardy for the Southerners – and Scarlett impulsively marries. He dies in the war and this becomes only the beginning of Scarlett’s constant struggle with love. Patiently, Rhett waits in the wings for her to become a woman with a heart – and we wonder whether a destroyed family home, the death of thousands following the war or Rhett’s immoveable presence will change her.

The time-period is fraught with tension as slaves are common-place, and in Gone with the Wind, they only seem awkwardly happy to help. While likeable characters use terms like “darkie” and “white-trash”, there is clearly a contextual issue we need to consider. Written in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s novel portrays the upper-class white lifestyle in the South, as seen by the upper-class in the South. Though strange to watch, the lack of an honest perspective from others may be the only true concern - I doubt the slaves were as content in their ‘ownership’ as depicted in the Tara homestead. By the same token, the aggressive and expected sexist attitudes need to be put in context. Rhett’s unforgettable expectations of Scarlett as he carries her into the shadows of sex are deeply unsettling: “This is one night you're not turning me out.” he demands. But again, his treatment of her paints darker tones to the story, creating a fascinating conflict between two lead characters that shows how self-serving they are.

Vivien Leigh is flawless in the role and this re-release kicks off a BFI season on Vivien Leigh. Considering the search for Scarlett O’Hara is infamous unto itself, the casting of Leigh and the character she creates could not be more perfect – watch her brief acceptance of her Academy Award to see how different she is in reality. Clark Gable, a fan’s favourite, seems to plays it smug and satisfied which works for the role while Olivia deHavilland holds such sincerity that she is a perfect counterpoint to Leigh’s dastardly ways. Leslie Howard feels underserved, but he truly creates a character besieged by his lust for Scarlett against his upper-class ideals of love with Mellie. Maybe Ashley and Mellie are “right” for each other but he never truly rejects Scarlett.

The first act is clearly the strongest and includes iconic moments including Scarlett walking through thousands of injured and dead soldiers as they are slowly revealed through a steady camera moving higher into the sky. These shots alongside the vivid, burning oranges and red that light up the sky as characters stand in silhouette are almost exclusively attributed to Gone with the Wind. This new 4k restoration of the original 70mm print that, though square, is larger than the cropped widescreen version is simply mesmerising. Combine the awesome scale of the shots and incredible detail with Max Steiner’s unforgettable score, therein are the two additional elements that ensure Gone with the Wind remains a classic.

This is the time to see Gone with the Wind. Spielberg’s Lincoln last year set within the same time-period, both noting the importance of Gettysberg and the outcome of the civil war, would make an epic double-bill. Though the length of time it would take would surely remain a challenge. Returning to cinemas, Gone with the Wind has pace and scale, and an ideal way into the Golden Age of Hollywood. It deserves its praise and accolade. Recently, critics and audiences aggressively argue to others how important it is to watch Gravity at the cinema; Gone with the Wind is equally important to view in the cinema – and this is the moment to watch it.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Again, I wrote a brief analysis on Gone with the Wind in 2010...

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Frozen (Chris Buck/Jennifer Lee, 2013)

It only seems apt that now Disney has made a considerable amount from their Princesses brand, the most recent animated “classic” Frozen depicts the story of not one, but two princesses. Loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen harks back to a story that sits neatly alongside Tangled and Brave, as it tries to warm-up the classic, cold fairy tale with intriguing, but not ground-breaking, results.

Anna (Kristin Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are sisters and the Princesses of Arendelle. Elsa is destined to become Queen one day, while Anna has had to live her life watching Elsa from afar. Anna has been protected from the dangers of Elsa’s ice and snow skills following a close-call with death when both girls were young. After a brief prologue, the coronation of the new Queen is soon upon us and Anna meets the man of her dreams. But dreams are shattered when Elsa’s ice-powers are unleashed and revealed to all, forcing her to run away to isolate herself from the world - leaving Arendelle as a glistening, frozen city. Anna decides to find Elsa, and bring her back to Arendelle. With the support of mountain man Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad, we set-off into the white plains and trudge through the snow to see if Anna can convince her sister to return…

Disney has had their eyes on this story for many years. Dating back to 1943, Walt Disney himself considered animating sequences from The Snow Queen to support a biography on Hans Christian Andersen. Passed from animators and producers since the 1990’s, it was only after the success of Tangled that Disney decided to dream up the idea in a different manner. This time, they focussed their attention on two sisters at the centre of the story – while the Snow Queen is not a villain but human and gentle, despite her dangerous powers.

These crucial changes to the story are what make Frozen innovative with a sibling story that will surely resonate with children. A context of snowscapes and detailed, twinkling snowflakes make the 3D animation worthwhile as snow falls in the cinema and sharp, ice shards jut out of the screen. The even film begins with a chanting chorus-number that harks back to The Lion King while the lead track, Let it Go, is catchy and likeable.

But inevitably, Disney has to include conventions that together become the “animation-formula”. Like the gargoyles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Mushu in Mulan, Olaf, the snowman, is brash and in-yer-face. His I’m-stupid-but-not-really humour becomes likable and his lack of knowledge of the sun is deeply tragic – though comedic. Alas, while one wacky character is effective, the snow-monster created to defend the Snow Queen is out of place (begging the question that, if the Snow Queen can create snow-monsters, she can surely create many more to stop the attack on her castle).

Though flawed, Frozen does seem to break the icy-mould with a finale that ignores convention (despite conventional male-female dynamics as Anna ultimately needs Kristoff - the big, brute of a man - to help her succeed). These final moments redeem any minor qualms and reveal that Disney is primarily interested in thoughtful storytelling. Disney are clearly adapting fairy tales with the intention of making something that lasts longer than the throwaway stories of Bolt and Brother Bear - and Frozen will have longevity. But, Frozen does slip and we are still a long way from the quality of Beauty and the Beast and the Princesses that defined the brand itself.

This was originally written for Flickering Myth

Thursday, 21 November 2013

150W: Sleeper

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Sleeper (Dir Woody Allen/1973)

The poster of Woody Allen’s Sleeper mocks James Bond. Rather than alluding to the suave-spy, it would’ve made more sense to note the influence of slapstick-star Charlie Chaplin. The playful, silent acting, set within a sci-fi context, serves to support a meeting of like-minded comedians as Woody Allen gets his closest to non-verbal, physical performance. Musician Miles (Allen) is frozen for 200 years, inevitably falling for Diane Keaton, as Luna Schlosser. Using actor Douglas Rain to provide a voice, as he did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is Allen leaning on sci-fi stimuli and using H.G. Wells and George Orwell as source material. The tone is what established Woody in his early years, and his disguise as a robot (a plug in his mouth creating a motionless face akin to Buster Keaton) is amongst the best sequences in his career. Sleeper is solid, straight-up comedy without the intellectual chitchat.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)

How can young teenagers be introduced to politics? Maybe through The Hunger Games. The sequel to last year’s nearly-$700m blockbuster success is upon us. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire again tackles political unrest in the districts as the 75th Anniversary of the games is due to begin. In the same manner as The Hunger Games, the opening moments of Catching Fire reveal our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) waiting for the mysterious Gale (Liam Hemsworth) - her real boyfriend. The end of The Hunger Games set up a false relationship between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) – a love that meant both teenagers won their Hunger Game – and so a love-triangle is forged. Gale loves Katniss; Peeta loves Katniss; we think Katniss loves Gale…

But this is not the heat of the story (though perhaps the core of the series), and the minor role of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in The Hunger Games is expanded upon. In Catching Fire, President Snow is acutely aware that Katniss is a threat to the dystopian world he controls. “You fought very hard in the arena, but they were games” he tells Katniss – which is strange because, the whole point of The Hunger Games was that though named as ‘games’ they actually were life or death. But we’ll ignore that because President Snow is an arch enemy. He is the Goliath to Katniss’s David. Stakes are higher and Peeta and Katniss are bound to each other as they travel the districts and witness the brutal state of the world. They see an old man raise his hand in support of rebellion before faceless militia murder him in front of the populace (though not in front of us). The tour comes to an abrupt end when President Snow announces the unique set-up of the 75th Quarter Quell … involving our favourite duo again. This time, rather than fighting random players from across the districts they are against the toughest and dangerous players of the previous games: the surviving winners.

Former friends of Katniss re-appear in Woody Harrelson’s ‘Haymitch’ and Lenny Kravitzs’ shamen-like fashion-designer Cinna, while Philip Seymour Hoffman’s game-maker has such a commanding presence, we pray he survives the film. Some moments almost give a sense of deja-vu as Katniss has a dress that bursts into flames while sat upon a Ben-Hur chariot and even the players are expected to be interviewed by Stanley Tucci’s eccentric game show host Caesar again (His pearly white teeth have never glistened so brightly). Indeed, recalling the first film, the vast majority of the film is spent prior to the games. By the time Katniss arises to stand amongst the players in the simulated environment, you only wish it could’ve balanced its time better. Learning from its predecessor, Catching Fire could’ve immediately started within the game (possibly flashing back to answer the ‘how’ question). Teenagers will surely watch the two films back-to-back and notice the similar structure.

Catching Fire will inevitably be appreciated almost-exclusively by the teenage target-market it intends to reach, but despite this, it tries to raise larger issues. In a world whereby an ex-presenter of reality TV-show Big Brother has touted an idea about rebellion while a Conservative Government runs the country, the relevance cannot be ignored. Fans of Katniss will hopefully connect the dots between the media, the government and rebellion – and its relevance to 21st Century politics. In that manner, Catching Fire, though openly playful about its connections to fantasy in man-eating baboons and skin-burning gas, it will start a dialogue and light a match in the minds of the young. Let’s hope Hollywood handle this carefully though, as Catching Fire only raises the questions – the further sequels will answer them.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013)

A character that is as well-realised as Dom Hemingway deserves a better send off. Richard Shepard writes and directs this Brit-Gangster film that lets loose a persona that demands your attention from the moment he appears. What a shame it doesn’t satisfy your appetite by the closing credits.

After keeping quiet for 12 years, Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is released from prison. With best friend Dickie (Richard E. Grant) he travels to France to receive his ‘present’ from big-boss Mr Fontaine (Demian Bechir channeling a Robert DeNiro style of class). After a riotous party, it ends in tears as Dom speeds off the road and Fontaine’s sultry wife Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) makes off with Hemingway’s bag of cash. Rather than a revenge-story, Hemingway is forced to figure out what to do next. What will he do about his daughter who doesn’t want to see him anymore? What will he do about his professional safe-cracking career now everything is digital? Everything is up in the air for Dom Hemingway.

At one point, Jude Law’s ‘Dom’ and faithful pal Dickie (Richard E. Grant) sit on the Eurostar. Hemingway is hung-over, moaning and groaning about his pain. Hemingway tells us a “dog shat on my soul”, as Richard E. Grant, uninterested and apathetic, is un-phased. He has seen it all before. In Withnail & I, Grant’s ‘Withnail’ verbalises the hangover-from-hell to Paul McGann as they speed to Monty’s: “I feel like a pig shat in my head!” he says.

Clearly, Richard Shepard has created a character that has the poetic anger of Withnail, the cockney-tone of Delboy and the facial hair of an X-Man in Dom Hemingway. Jude Law has never had so much fun, and Richard E. Grant exploits being the straight man to Hemingway’s drunken, forthright anti-hero. The “cock” monologue (hinting at an undercurrent of pseudo, masculine-pride) that opens the film seems to carry a confidence that starts the film off with a bang – but unfortunately it limps to deliver a final act.

Masculinity in the modern-age is a tricky affair too as the animalistic, aggressive man does not suit the accepting, culturally-aware father. Indeed, there’s a sense of old-traditions clashing with modern society as Dom is 12-years out-the-loop. Dickie seems to be stuck in the 1970’s as he wears vintage sunglasses and floral shirts. “I’m too fucking old and I didn’t bring the right shoes” is the response when things go ape in the forest and Dom Hemingway decides to strut across Fontaine’s property naked.

Unfortunately, despite a strong set-up as we are brought into the criminal world of Hemingway and Co, the heart of the story gets short shrift. Dom Hemingway’s attempt at building bridges with his daughter Evelyn (Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke) feels like a missed opportunity that could’ve been expanded upon. There is very little time for us to see these relationships develop and blossom and it is difficult to get a sense of history between all the characters. Instead, we are introduced to further London gangsters, complicating matters further. By the final moments, Dom Hemingway feels lost in the abyss – with no definitive sense of resolution. Jude Law will gain great respect for the role and the promising start gives the indication that Shepard surely should return to London for another Brit-based film. But it loses its way after Dom returns to London and rather than trying to amp up the action with a dramatic I’ll-cut-off-your-cock moment, the direction should’ve involved the family – or even the Mafia family from France that disappears after the car-crash. Dom Hemingway will charm you, but he won’t satisfy you.

This review was originally written for Flickering Myth

150W: Zelig

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Zelig (Dir. Woody Allen/1983)

Before Forrest Gump was Zelig. Feeding a fictional character into history is central to the story of Leonard Zelig. Prior to Christopher Guest and his popular use of mockumentary in This is Spinal Tap, Woody Allen was there in 1983 (Allen’s Take the Money and Run from 1969 is one of the earliest uses of mockumentary in cinema). This is the story of Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a fictional character in the 1920’s dubbed a chameleon due to his extraordinary skill in changing form when stood next to a different man. If stood next to Native-American’s – he turns into a Native American. Zelig is innovative, confident and intriguing but it lacks a sense of pace or urgency. Once you know the skill, the consequence is less fascinating. Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow and Adolf Hitler all appear but Zelig is uninspiring. Shouldn’t he be the most interesting? Turns out, he isn’t.

Rating: 4/10

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Interview: Richard Shepard (for DOM HEMINGWAY)

Richard Shepard is an actor’s director. He has worked with Richard Gere, Pierce Brosnan and, now, Jude Law. He directed the pilot episode of Ugly Betty, episodes of 30 Rock and multiple episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Dom Hemingway, is Shepard’s glorious, character-driven London gangster film featuring Jude Law as the Dom himself with Richard E. Grant playing his right-hand man.

When I sat with Shepard, considering how unique Jude Law’s character is, I asked him where the titular Dom Hemingway came from:

Richard Shepard: What part of my dark brain did he come from? I wanted to make a movie in London and I wanted to make a movie about someone getting out of jail. I had to find the character. Who is this person? I was struggling with it. I wrote the first scene of the movie where he is just talking about his cock. It really came out easily and I wanted to spend time with him. Organically it just came. Here is this character and let’s see what happens with him…

Flickering Myth: London sounds like a key part of your thought process. Did you desperately want to film in London?

RS: Actually, I hadn’t spent much time in London, but I wanted to make a movie here. I’m from New York and it’s got a similar vibe to the city. [London] is an older city obviously but there is a street energy and a visual look and … the way people walk. I immediately just felt comfortable in London because it feels like New York to me. I wanted to spend more time here.

FM: What films inspired you in the writing and production of Dom Hemingway?

RS: Sexy Beast, The Hit and The Limey are character driven, genre movies - though The Limey is set in LA, it has a British lead-character. I love a good genre movie, but sometimes it can just fall into a shoot ‘em up or a heist movie, becoming less about character. I didn’t want to do that. With Sexy Beast, the crime at the end is secondary to all the tension before it. Primarily, it is just characters in a house because they are so rich. It gives you a genre satisfaction without giving it in a way you expect. It is less a “Guy Ritchie film” and far more of something that could attract a really great actor; a seminal character. I really wanted to create an indelible character and Dom is larger than life. As I was writing, I found this could be something really interesting. It’s totally enjoyable but there is much more to it.

FM: What about Dom himself – any specific characters that influenced him?

RS: I don’t want to sound pretentious at all but I hoped Dom is Shakespearian. He is larger than life – Falstaff-ian even. He is something big and you can’t take your eyes off of him. I could use Sexy Beast or Withnail and I – and movies which are important to me as a film goer. But while this character is larger than life, he is also as small as we are. I didn’t give him a rhyming cockney tone – it would be too obvious and would reveal, as a writer, that I’m not from London. I created a specific way of speaking for Dom and Jude [Law] was able to add his own South London thing.

FM: It is great to hear you talk so much about character. Your documentary on John Cazale (I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale), a fascinating 1970’s actor, is fascinating – and Richard E. Grant in Dom Hemingway does look a little like John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon

RS: I love the 70’s era and John Cazale was my acting hero. His characters were much quieter than Dom would be – he would eat John Cazale up, but Cazale would hold his own. John could easily have played Richard E. Grants part – possibly even Dom’s part because he was such a versatile actor. With Richard E. Grant, I was a big fan of Withnail and I and I was missing him in movies, I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I watched Withnail and I four years ago again and it holds up and it is so fu**in’ funny – why isn’t he in more movies? When I was writing this movie and Dom needed a friend, I thought he doesn’t need a cockney buddy, a Ray Winstone friend – he needs something completely different. It’d be interesting if it was a Richard E Grant type-role so I wrote it with him in mind. When casting, they asked who I’d want for this part and they said they’d get it to Richard E. Grant - Richard appreciated this. Part of his look, like Dom, shows how they are trapped in their glory days. Richard E Grant is trapped 25 years in the past when he may have been at his best, while Dom is trapped a because he was in jail for 12 years – so they are both a little out of step. It gives them a cool look as it is retro but it makes sense for their characters.

FM: Starting a film with a brash, bold monologue about Dom Hemingway’s cock immediately focuses your attention on masculinity and what it is to be man in the modern world. Was this intentional?

RS: I’m very interested in male friendship and the walls we put up. Dom is definitely a person who shoots himself in the foot all the time, ruining his own life. The movie is about taking one small step towards grace – one small step to see what’s important. The masculinity “thing” is like a wall of defence. The posturing of violence – all of that stuff – is a way to not have to deal with real emotions. But [Dom Hemingway] does need to deal with real emotions. All that stuff is really interesting. It gives him another layer – indeed, Dom and Dickie (Rihcard E. Grant] have a way with each other. You don’t have to explain it. Dom is a guy who is angry at everyone – but crucially himself.

FM: How was it working with Jude Law and Richard E. Grant?

RS: I had an amazing time with them. Jude is at a point in his career where he was ready to be given a role like this. He saw this as an opportunity for him – but it was scary. This is a character unlike anything he has ever played. He bares himself emotionally and physically - so we had a trust between us. His commitment was extraordinary too. He likes to rehearse and we rehearsed a lot making it much easier to shoot. We shot in France and London and every single day was a joy. Jude is such a professional and Richard too. As a filmmaker, the actors are going in with something to prove – this wasn’t a pay-check movie or something they have done before. That energy is very creative. We didn’t have a ‘heist’ plot to fall back on – the tension and drama is on the characters only. We knew we had to get it right. When the lead actor is unbelievably, fully committed, all the other actors were like “Fu**! I’d better work here!”.

Lots of it was handheld so the shots weren’t specifically planned. There is a scene with monkey portraits in the background and the actors didn’t know if the camera was on them. The camera could suddenly whip to them – and that’s great because when actors know a camera isn’t on them they can be almost phoning it in.

John Cazale upped the game in the same way – Al Pacino interviewed for two hours about how John made him better. I found that really interesting with John - and Jude Law brought the same thing to the party.

Thanks to Richard for the interview! This was organised and originally published for Flickering Myth.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

150W: Gravity

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Gravity (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón/2013)

Gravity is a masterpiece. Even if the concise lost-in-space plot doesn’t resonate, in almost exclusively five continuous shots, it’s a technical masterpiece. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) fix satellites orbiting the earth when suddenly debris hits the group mid-mission, throwing Stone into space. Outstanding special effects mean you don’t even consider what is “real” and what is not. Intelligent use of 3D mean floating astronauts in the background and screws hovering in the foreground drag you into the abyss further, rather than detach your perspective. Director Alfonso Cuarón taps into known Sci-Fi properties as diverse as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, without losing a sense of ownership. Through a controlled, well-pitched score, Gravity is its own film using silence to terrify you. You are alone in space, in the middle of a crowded cinema. And the cinema is the only place to see Gravity.

Rating: 9/10

150W: Manhattan Murder Mystery

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Manhattan Murder Mystery (Dir. Woody Allen/1993)

Could you be living next door to a murderer? This is the question Linda (Keaton) poses to her husband Lenny (Allen). His response is how “Well, New York is a melting pot…”. Woody Allen is on top form in this comedic, sensitive portrayal of married life. Our couple, Linda and Lenny, suspect foul play when neighbour Mrs House unexpectedly dies - and Mr House seems a little too comfortable. Initially, it is merely conversations over dinner, and phone-calls at night, but the plot thickens as we realise that the death of Mrs House isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. Running parallel, Linda and Lenny have their own demons they need to face as Linda flirts with recently-single Ted (Alan Alda) and Lenny considers playing away himself. Considering this was born of the Annie Hall script, it is clear this is one of the insightful and intelligent comedies that got away!

Rating: 8/10
Again, I wrote a review of this in 2010 and - if interested in seeing some rambling thoughts, click here

Sunday, 3 November 2013

150W: Thor: The Dark World

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Thor: The Dark World (Dir. Alan Taylor/2013)

Straddling Lord of the Rings fantasy and superhero action in London, comes Thor: The Dark World. Chris Hemsworth returns as the Prince of Asgard, Thor. This time, new villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) destroys much of Asgard intent on controlling the “Ether” – an ancient power that has become entwined within Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Thor and his merry band of Asgardian friends – including Avengers Assemble’s Loki (Tom Hiddleston) – are forced to protect Jane while ensuring that Asgard (and Greenwich in London) itself remains unharmed. More complicated than its predecessor, this sequel clashes horned-helmets and mystical forces with gusto, balancing Shakespearian language with a comedic sense of self-awareness. What a relief to see such a stylised form of story-telling opposed to the well-worn hero-in-city style of Spider-Man and Iron-Man. Inevitably, the formulaic shine of Marvel means it lacks risks and plays it safe, but it’s nevertheless a strong entry into the series.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, 2 November 2013

150W: Celebrity

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Celebrity (Dir: Woody Allen/1998)

Celebrity is powerful. Leonardo DiCaprio, in 1998, was every teenage girl’s fantasy afterTitanic and appearing in a Woody Allen film titled Celebrity was an inspired choice. It wasn’t a huge success, earning $5m in the US alone, but Woody took a step back and placed Kenneth Branagh in the ‘Woody’ role instead. Branagh is Lee, a novel-writer and journalist, divorcing his wife, Robin (Judy Davies) of 16 years. Running parallel to Lee’s midlife crisis is Robin’s post-divorce romance with Tony (Joe Mantegna) as we see their relationship slowly blossom. Comic turns and celebrity-cameos a-plenty (including actors from The Sopranos, The West Wing, The Wire and The Simpsons) but something is unbalanced. Allen said, with Manhattan, he shot it in monotone to romanticise the city. The monotone choice, with great cinematography from Sven Nykvist, seems at odds with the unromantic celebrity world. An intriguing and engaging context but standard romance.

Rating: 5/10

This entry is part of Woody Allen Wednesdays on Flickering Myth

Nb-Interestingly, Celebrity was one of my earliest entries on my blog ... so if you wanted to take a step back in time and see some awful writing by my younger self, click here

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)

Contrast Dracula with The Mummy and the tone changes. Mark Cousins celebrates Dracula and Frankenstein as the two films that shaped Hollywood genre filmmaking – and The Mummy appears to primarily repeat the success of Frankenstein by casting Boris Karloff as the unnatural monster in the world. Karloff, iconic and unforgettable, continues to play a large, imposing, gaunt and deeply unsettling monster. Make-up (by Jack Pierce) is impressive as Karloff emerges as ‘The Mummy’ in the opening sequence and – in the final moments – breaks down into a bag of bones on the floor. The Mummy was hugely successful and is considered a “photographers film”, celebrating the director Karl Freund – a director who had working with Browning on Dracula and Fritz Lang on Metropolis.

The Mummy is the first version of the deceased Egyptian whereby he is brought back to life and, crucially, seeks to find his loved one in the modern world (A mummy had been brought back to life in a silent film in 1911). The film begins in 1921, whereby ‘The Mummy’ is raised. Ten years later under the name Ardath Bey, The Mummy advises the expedition to search in a specific location to find the remains of his lost love. In an attempt at raising her from the dead, he requires an Egyptian woman’s body. The Egyptologists and archaeologists (actors from Dracula include David Manners and Edward Van Sloan) realise that Ardath Bey is, in fact, Imhotep, but it is too late as Imhotep kills and controls mortal’s minds as he inches closer to reviving his princess.

Clear parallels can be created between the two films. They both arrive to an alien location (Modern day in The Mummy; London for Dracula) and kill others for the love of a woman they intend to make their own – mummifying and vampiricising (?) respectively. Considering this, it is strange to imagine how 1999’s The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, is a remake of this horror classic. While The Mummy was turned into a successful million-dollar, CGI-laden blockbuster, Dracula remains amongst the spooky horror sub-genre movies. Unlike The MummyDracula cannot be reinterpreted easily. Dracula has so many iconic, defined elements that cannot be adjusted or erased ensuring that the 1931 original holds its lofty place in the horror canon. The long, static moments as the camera waits silently, observing Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff is a testament to the skill and power of silence – a type of filmmaking that these filmmakers and actors were more than accustomed to. Modern horror is grim and gruesome; explicit and shocking. As Dracula leans into bite his victims, Browning cuts to the next scene. We could learn from these masters of horror. So, it is only apt that we watch these films again – in darkened rooms, with the lights down low, as the crazed laughs of madmen echo down the halls. The old footage, and marks on the film reel, only support the spookiness of these Classic Horror films.

This is Part II of a double-bill screening with Dracula. Click here to read Part I of this review. The full review can be read at Flickering Myth

Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931)

Define Gothic and Dracula immediately comes to mind. The high-arches and cobwebs, the creatures that scurry across the floor and the long drapes that falls from the ceilings – blood on the tips of fangs and white-skin like moonlight in the night. Kim Newman goes as far to state that 1931’s Dracula this “was the true beginning of the horror film as a distinct genre and the vampire movie as its most popular sub-genre”. Indeed, only in this month’s Empire magazine, they have noted how 31 actors have portrayed the fanged-villain – and Bela Lugosi’s unforgettable performance surely remains the most defining portrayal. The double bill of Dracula and The Mummy may initially appear to be connected by their supernatural content alone, but the Universal Horror films are joined by their mutual understanding of how to scare the audience, their measured style of writing and the use of recurring character actors.

F.W. Murnau’s silent Nosferatu is an unofficial version of Count Dracula and the stories remain the same. A man, Renford (Dwight Frye), travels to Transylvania to attend a meeting with the Count (Bela Lugosi), to the horror of the native Transylvanians. Renford’s purpose is to sign-off the deeds to Carfax Abbey in England to Dracula, as the night-dweller intends to move to London. Though unafraid by the superstitions, Renford becomes victim to Dracula and his ghostly women and becomes a crazed vampire himself. Now, with the assistance of (blood-sucker of small insects) Renford, Dracula travels to London by ship, killing off the sailors in their journey. Renford almost steals the show as his sinister laugh reveals a complete lack of sanity. Combined with his desperate hissing for appreciation from his “Ma-a-aster”, Renford is under Dracula’s spell. The major bonus in the final act is in Edward Van Sloan’s ‘Van Helsing’. A man of reason and intellect, he clarifies to the audience what needs to be done: Dracula needs to be impaled on a stake, a crucifix to be used as a weapon, note the missing reflection in the mirror. Van Helsing, we know, will take us into the light.

Every classic, gothic horror trait seems to map its way back to Tod Browning’s version of Dracula. The intonations and voice of Bela Lugosi is what many “know” Dracula sounds like – and considering ‘The Count’ from Sesame Street has been based on Lugosi’s portrayal, even children will recognise whose presence we are in. But influences are further afield too, as Van Helsing’s thick, circular glasses and hunched frame is echoed in Shutter Island in Max Von Sydow’s ‘Dr Naehring’. Special effects are a little out of date and, one would forgive you if you are forced to stifle a chuckle when the puppet bats and mechanical spiders move in jittery, unnatural ways – but the sets hold their own. Used in many more films, the scale of the first act is outstanding – the small size of Renford as he looks up the enormous staircase that Dracula sits atop; the tiny, dinky-car size of the horse and carriage as it rides towards the castle. These are effects that, even now, remain breath-taking.

This is Part I of a Double-Bill screening with The Mummy... click here to read Part II of this review. The full review of the films are on Flickering Myth.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

150W: Captain Phillips

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Tom Hanks defies expectations and proves he is amongst the greatest actors in the world in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips. Based on true events, Hanks leads the American cargo ships across the horn of African before it’s boarded by Somali pirates. Captain Phillips weaves tension and horror in this true-story – with an expert at the helm in Greengrass. Isolated on the vessel as authorities say “hold tight”, we are stranded with the crew. The vast open-ocean and cramp spaces of the engine room or lifeboat constantly play with our fears as guns jut into the screen uncomfortably. Losing a little pace halfway through, the high-calibre of acting remains impressive. Phillips thinks fast; his panic and fear palpable yet he never loses his head. There is no shine in this Tom Hanks film and by the final five minutes, when literally stripped down, he proves how powerful he can be.

Rating: 4/5

The Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise/Gunther V. Fristch, 1943)

As part of a double-bill, BFI Gothic additionally screened The Curse of the Cat People, Robert Wise’s strange sequel starring the same characters but with shoe-horned Gothic elements that fail to truly connect to each other. Strangely, The Curse of the Cat People does not feature any cats – except a feline that runs up a tree in the opening moments of the film.

Taking place roughly 9 years after the events of Cat People, Alice and Ollie are now married with a young daughter named Amy (Ann Carter). Amy is a day-dreamer, often becoming side-tracked by butterflies and old, scary houses. Akin to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, within the spooky house resides a reclusive old lady. Serving as a minor-narrative, Amy befriends this woman not knowing how fractured the old lady’s relationship with her own daughter is. Meanwhile, Amy has created an imaginary friend in her garden – and we realise it is Irena from Cat People. Understandably, Alice and Ollie are concerned and worried for their daughter – and perplexed by how she could imagine a woman whose death was prior to her birth.

Cat People toyed with the pseudo-psychological reality of the ‘Cat People’, while The Curse of the Cat People seems to only flirt with the idea that there is a wealth of psychological theory in a child’s behaviour. In one sequence a primary school teacher relays multiple justifications for the imaginary friend of Amy’s – quoting a poem and specifically highlighting a book named ‘The Inner Child’. Instead, The Curse of the Cat People uses gothic tropes to give the film a look that enhances the environment. Cat People has an almost film-noir tone in New York, while The Curse of the Cat People moves the story to a suburban estate with white-picket fences. A decrepit house, replete with cobwebs and old jewellery becomes the haunted house on the hill. Irena’s gown is white, flowing down her feminine figure so that standing in the garden, Irena is a mysterious ghost that offers advice and friendship to Amy.

A fascinating double-bill as Cat People inspires cinema and remains an established staple of tense, mysterious horror filmmaking, The Curse of the Cat People is a misjudged amalgamation of child psychology and haunted-house genre filmmaking. Director Robert Wise went on to direct The Sound of Music and West Side Story, so it is worth seeing a director in his early years flexing his artistic muscles, but it is Jacques Tournier’s suspicious characters and story that remains with you into the night.

This is Part II of a double-bill screening with Cat People. Part I of the review can be found here. The full review is on Flickering Myth.

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

The title Cat People could be misleading. Half-cat, half-human creatures roaming the streets (akin to An American Werewolf in London) is the first thought that comes to mind when the title – and its sequel The Curse of the Cat People – appeared in the BFI Gothic Season guide. Instead, this 1943 staple of the Universal horror film catalogue is a moody, sinister approach to psychiatry. Indeed, the question lingering in the fog, as to whether the woman is a cat at all is only answered in the third act of the film.

Set within the misty, fashionable streets of New York, Irena (Simone Simon) is a Serbian woman who is obsessed by the panthers and large cats in the New York Zoo. While drawing the majestic creatures (including a dagger, through the heart of the cat), she meets Ollie Reed (Kent Smith) – an architect. A brief flirtation and falling deeply in love, Irena and Ollie are married despite the paranoia that eats away at Irena each day. She recalls legends of the “Cat People” in her native country whereby women would turn into cats when filled with envy or greed – in fact, she believes that if she kisses a man, she will devour him shortly after. Suffice to say, the no-kissing and lack of intimacy within their marriages takes its toll. Ollie’s flirtations with his friend Alice (Jane Randolph) only makes matters worse and Irena’s paranoia may have more truth in it than people realise…

Highlighted in the BFI notes, producer Val Lewton “tossed away the horror formula right away from the beginning”, he adds “no grisly stuff for us”. Indeed, this is Cat People’s strength. We are forced to consider who Irena really is and stand-out scenes linger in your mind through Simone Simon’s edgy, convincing performance. In one scene she follows Alice home while director Jacques Tourneur cuts between the two sets of feet running down the street. Another sequence remains eerie as Alice leaps into a swimming pool as reflections flicker around the pool as we hear cat sounds. Val Lewton/RKO-produced horror films of the 1940’s were hugely influential, and Cat People has a charm that resonates. In 1942, it became RKO’s highest grosser for the year bringing in $4m. Because it was cheap and successful – like a contemporary Hollywood horror film such as Paranormal Activity - it was copied across Hollywood in the following years. But, the subtlety and growing intensity was harder to imitate. Getting under your skin, Cat People toys with a fear of loneliness and detachment, as if we are witnessing a husband who fails to understand his wife’s challenges – and pushes her away in the process.

This is Part I of a double-bill with The Curse of the Cat People, Part II of the review can be read here. The full review is on Flickering Myth.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Parkland (Peter Landesman, 2013)

John F. Kennedy’s assassination is a moment in history shrouded in conspiracy theories. Parkland aims to recreate the three days – beginning with the day the President was shot – through to the immediate aftermath and death of JFK shooter Lee Harvey Oswald. Well-documented and thoroughly researched, Parkland is the directorial-debut of Peter Landesman - a journalist himself seeking to ignore the myth and focus on the reality. ‘Parkland’ itself is the hospital Kennedy died within – and where, days later, Oswald was rushed to. Clearly capitalising on an intriguing and important story, Parkland fails to match the cinematic scale of the event. It is held back by the safety-net of ‘accuracy’, becoming a pedestrian and bland version of one of the most iconic time-periods in American history.

Told from multiple perspectives, Parkland shows us how this death immediately changed the lives of everyone who woke-up on 22nd November 1963, excited to see the motorcade in Dallas. Multiple doctors and nurses within Parkland hospital (Zac Efron, Marcia Gay Harden and Colin Hanks) who desperately tried to save his life; Mr Zapruder (Paul Giametti), capturing the infamous footage on the Dealey Plaza; Robert Oswald (James Badge Dale), the brother of the assassin; Jim Hosty (Ron Livingston), an FBI agent ‘tracking’ Lee Harvey Oswald and Secret Service agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), tasked with finding evidence on the murder itself.

Ensemble dramas lend themselves well to historical events (as Emilo Estevez’s Bobby did in 2006, covering the final hours of JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy). In a post-9/11 world, an influx of terrorist-attack film and television has shown ensemble-versions of fictional US-tragedy ranging from televised action-series 24 through to Hollywood-trite Vantage Point. The explosive scale of the latter suited the big-screen while Parklands reserved and thoughtful approach fails to require such scale. Actors from 24, Band of Brothers and The Pacific only reinforce the televisual style of story-telling delivered. Following the shooting, Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffans) is covered in blood from the shooting until she boards Air Force Once; guards have blood spattered all over their suits. It looks gruesome and horrific, but more akin to E.R. rather than World Trade Centre.

This begs the question whether Parklands should be a feature film at all. The tiny time-frame may have a limited scope but the broad range of characters and the potential for further characters (such as Oswald-killer Jack Ruby, a character Landesman considered in early drafts of the script) surely could have suited the much-heralded, longer-medium of the TV-series. The same stylistic 1960’s milieu as Mad Men would gain a large audience – especially with Tom Hanks as producer. The alternative is a documentary, as talking heads can reflect on the event and provide further insight into the accuracy of the reconstruction. Barry Ackroyd (of LFF Opening Gala film Captain Phillips) is cinematographer and his work shows-off a depth of colour that highlights the bloody work within an A&E department in the 1960’s.

Unfortunately, the efforts to capture accuracy restrain the director. Unlike Argo, whereby the closing credits alone show how accurate their depiction of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis was, Parklands weaves original footage throughout the film itself. Conspiracy theorists will conspire. Though Parklands actively chooses not to dwell on these ideas, a central character to sympathise or empathise with could pull you into the story rather than split our attention. Multiple characters falling to the floor, head in hands when the President dies (at least two) or wandering speechless, in shock to the situation (at least another two), is inevitable and expected – so what is Landesman adding to the story except recreating it? Those who have accepted the non-conspiracy version of events will gain little from seeing a recreation of a moment that has been documented so much. While Parklands may not require a ticket-stub, it could’ve been amongst the higher-quality television – and in fairness, that is no easy feat.

Written as coverage for The 57th London Film Festival for Flickering Myth.