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The Visit (I) (2015)
Pitch black comedy with self-reflexive sub-text
30 September 2015
Ever since the mammoth success of The Sixth Sense (1999), there's been a push to promote every subsequent M. Night Shyamalan movie as a horror film. From Unbreakable (2000) to The Happening (2008) every new movie was sold as a dark and twisty shocker; whether it was in fact a poetic romance with pointed political commentary (The Village, 2004) or an eccentric bedtime story disguising a self- reflexive observation on the writing process (Lady in the Water, 2006) the marketing always made the film appear vaguely supernatural. Evidentally, these were films by the director of The Sixth Sense and were to be promoted accordingly. Now his most recent film, The Visit, is the latest in a long line of Shyamalan movies to suffer a similar fate.

The Visit - sold up front as "a new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan" - is nonetheless drawing heat from certain factions of the online community who just wanted another straight horror movie, dagnabbit! You'd think after two decades of subverting genre expectations, whether through presenting a superhero origin story as if a gritty 70s style procedural, or approaching an alien invasion movie as a claustrophobic Bergman-esque parable on faith, the audience would know the terrain, but again, all people really want from this guy is The Sixth Sense Pt. II or GTFO!

What The Visit could actually be described as is a comedy, albeit a comedy with elements of psychological thriller, survival drama and an extended metaphor for familial dysfunction. Imagine Todd Solondz, David Lynch and the Farrelly brothers getting together to collaborate on a film that plays with the tropes of the found- footage sub-genre, but in a way that is frequently transgressive, if not actually perverse. Throughout, Shyamalan uses his set-up to mine moments of genuine hilarity, from the broad strokes of character comedy (the young Tyler and his terrible rapping becomes the film's go-to comic relief), to the subtle self-aware digs at the genre itself (Becca's film-school pretensions lead her to deconstruct the film, almost as it's in motion), to even moments of grotesque absurdity (including scatological elements that are closer to the works of John Waters than the filmmaker once dubbed, erroneously, "the next Spielberg").

If The Visit is a horror movie, then it is to the found-footage sub- genre what Blazing Saddles (1974) was to the Hollywood western. It's not a spoof, but something else; a film that recognises the conventions and characteristics of the genre, teases them, has a laugh at their expense, but also uses them to tell a story that behind the laughter carries some serious emotions and ideas. Shyamalan's main theme of emotionally damaged characters having to overcome a particular situation to regain a sense of self is once again made the focal point of the film's third act dilemma, but there are more interesting ideas relating to the subject of filmmaking, in which the writer-director once again uses elements of meta-fiction to explore his own relationship to his art.

In the film itself, the two children are using the week with their grandparents to create a documentary that they hope will heal the wounds of a long-held disagreement between the mother and her parents. Here Shyamalan splits his own filmmaking identity between the perspectives of the two children. Beccas is the sensitive, romantic one, who just wants to make beautiful cinema, while Tyler is the annoying brat that just wants to goof around and get a response out of people. When it becomes clear that the film we're seeing on-screen is essentially the film Tyler and Becca are making, this introduces notions of identity, fabrication, the subjectivity of the image, reflection, the passivity of the viewer and the conception of character as "actors" playing a role. It's all very clever, but unfortunately, as with the meta-fiction elements of the earlier Lady in the Water, it becomes something that most audiences couldn't care less about unless they're actively watching an "art- movie" and not some Hollywood genre film.

Like several (but not all) Shyamalan films, The Visit features a twist, but rather than using it to pull the rug out from under the audience during the last few minutes of the film, the twist occurs 30 minutes before the end and is used to generate tension and suspense. In this instance, it could be described as an example of Hitchcock's "bomb under the table" theory, in which the audience is placed in a more privileged position than the characters, where our comprehension of events in relation to the ignorance of the protagonists fuels an edge of the seat confrontation.

The film has several successful jump scares, but these are essentially self-aware and again playing to the conventions of the genre, and more surprisingly several scenes of genuine emotion; however, for the most part, the film is just funny and often incredibly strange. Again, I go back to that idea of the film being pitched somewhere between Todd Solondz (shocking black humour, misfit characters, an air of detachment) and David Lynch (suburban surrealism, bizarre imagery that seems dreamlike but rooted in reality), but with the familiar Shyamalan ingredients. The film is incredibly well acted and directed, beautifully photographed by award winning documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti (who helps Shyamaln turn it what could be described as a found-footage fairy tale) and greatly entertaining.
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Borgesian psychodrama and masterpiece of cinematic form
1 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The Conformist is primarily a stylistic exercise, but one where the stylisation is a part of the character's psychology. As such, it's one of the great works of cinema that is actually "cinematic."

Since the entire film is a flashback within a flashback (the end of the film is in fact the beginning) it takes the form of an extended sequence of personal recollections in the life of a character haunted by terrible betrayals; unable (through arrogance or simple- mindedness) to understand how he could so egregiously sell-out his closest friends.

As such, the film is not a linear retelling of actual events, but an abstraction of these events. Colour, lighting, camera placement and transitions between scenes are each intended to remove the film from reality and evoke the character's state of mind; his fear, passion, duplicity and cowardice reflected in the filmmaking form.

The character here is intended to symbolise the progression of the country itself; here the question of complicity during WWII becomes far more relevant to the corruption of Italy's dark war-time past. As such, the film is as an accusation against this character and in turn an accusation against Italy during the pre and post-war years.

For all this talk of politics, the character is not political. He is - as the title suggests - a "conformist." He presents whatever personality or conviction he thinks people want him to possess. As such, the filmmakers create a character preoccupied only with the surface of things; he's essentially shallow; a dress-up Marxist turned dress-up Fascist with no genuine beliefs or ideologies of his own.

Again, this characterisation and the use of stylisation are a way to show the world as the character sees it (or more accurately how he wishes he could see himself); it is not the reality, but becomes more of an extended psychodrama of how the reality has been transformed by years of regret.

Further, this lack of actual "character" is presented in other aspects of the film. The protagonist is a heterosexual, who after being molested as a child convinces himself that he's a homosexual, and then as a reaction to this tries to pass himself off as a heterosexual (again) in order to conform. This is something only revealed to the character at the end of the film when he finally discovers that the molester he thought he had killed as a child is really alive; his guilt and shame were his own invention.

Finally the film is profoundly personal to Bertolucci. The relationship between the "conformist" and the professor is based on the relationship between the filmmaker and his great hero (and biggest cinematic influence) Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci, who desperately wanted to be Godard and couldn't, betrays his mentor and has him brutally murdered. This is further reflected in the style of the film, which builds on elements of Godard's own style (especially in the films Le Mepris and Pierrot le fou) with the influences of German expressionism, pre-war French cinema and the American film noir.

With The Conformist Bertolucci is drawing a line under his "Godardian" political films of the 1960s and embracing a more formalist cinema that deals with the psychology of characters and their own perception of the world as they create it.
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The Shining (1980)
Where a hedge maze becomes a hall of mirrors
1 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The music, the hedge maze, the empty ballroom, the elevator doors opening to a tidal wave of blood, Nicholson's celebrated hook; in terms of cinematic iconography, The Shining is unrivalled. However, to applaud the film simply because it has cultural appeal would be a great discredit to director Stanley Kubrick's subtle use of subtext and skillful creation of a sustained atmosphere that is tense and genuinely creepy. This is one of those supposedly scary films that does chill - even if it never quite makes you jump out of your seat in terror - with Kubrick blending elements of intense, psychological horror with an almost soap-opera-like melodrama to give us a film that really goes beyond the limitations of the horror genre to create something much more substantial.

From the outset, Kubrick makes no explicit allusions to this being a horror-film in the traditional sense, since there are no creatures in the shadows, or jolts and jumps; with the shocks coming from the juxtaposition between the film's created-reality and the more outlandish spiritual elements from Stephen King's original novel. Instead of generic scare tactics, the director creates disturbing images out of the most mundane of situations, with the most lingering images including skeletons dressed for a ball, children and their toys and wounded guests that refuse to leave the party. The images come from this idea of marital collapse and the guilt of the adult protagonists filtered through everything from 20th century war atrocities, 18th century literature, Scandinavian art-films, crime scene photography and the images of Diane Arbus.

For an excellent example of this idea in full effect take a look at the scene between Jack Torrance and the women in the bathroom; which not only seems surreal on a purely superficial level, but also taps into the guilt of infidelity, crushed masculinity, death, decay and old age. Later in the film, Wendy's fear of her own husband is interpreted via implied homo-eroticism, when she stumbles across a man receiving oral sex from a spectre in a dog-costume. However, the figure in the dog-costume could easily be a woman, so perhaps this is a signifier of Wendy's own infidelity to Jack. This scene - like the rest of the film - is open to interpretation.

The ending of the film hints at spiritual-transcendence, the playing off historical coincidences and internal-mirroring. Here, the ending offers us a number of plausible narrative explanations. The most common explanation being that Jack has been driven mad by isolation, and, having heard about the previous caretaker who went mad and butchered his family, has psychosomatically descended to that exact same mental state. This leaves the final image - and the enigmatic questions that are raised - completely unanswerable. A second interpretation would be that the 'story' we believe to be real - the one taking place in the late 1970's - is actually the story being written by Jack. That he never really suffers from writers block, but instead, rather like King in reality, uses the writers block, coupled with his isolation and the pain of his inner-demons, to write the story we see unfold (The Shining).

A final possible ending, and one that proves to be the most complex and complicated, deals with the mirroring of past and present, the re-occurrence of different characters within different time-lines, such as the two incarnations of Grady and the two incarnations of Jack; who, in the words of one character, has "always been here". This ending is the most unsatisfying in terms of overall denouement, but is the most fun when it comes to re-evaluating Kubrick's subtle use of imagery, dialogue and subtext. To me however, regardless of what interpretation you choose to apply to it, The Shining is simply a great film; one that rewards with an interesting, continually fascinating plot rife with possible interpretations and Kubrick's always interesting use of cinematic composition, editing, music and performance.
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A film about the power of stories to inspire hope in a time of great depression
26 June 2011
Beginning with an animated prologue that establishes the context of the story (as well as the more important theme of 'storytelling'; creating a link through the deliberately crude style of animation to the earliest cave paintings), Lady in the Water (2006) announces itself as something strange and unconventional.

Dismissed by many mainstream critics as a bloated vanity project, Lady in the Water is without question the most personal film (to date) from the American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan; a controversial figure in contemporary cinema, who came to public attention with his third feature, the global blockbuster The Sixth Sense (1999), before turning down the likes of Harry Potter and the Batman franchise to direct strange, beautifully crafted, often earnest (to the point of invoking jeers) genre movies that express his own individual feelings on human relationships, death, fear and community.

As with many of Shyamalan's previous films, Lady in the Water blends contrasting elements of comedy, drama, fantasy and the supernatural to tell the story of Cleveland Heap, a middle-aged maintenance man unable to connect with the world around him.

Like Signs (2002) and The Village (2004), it's essentially a film about a character scarred by tragedy, the severity of which has left him unable to communicate (both verbally and emotionally) and barely existing behind the concrete walls of a low-rent apartment complex where he now works as caretaker and general repair man. Like 'the village' in the film of the same name, the apartment complex (significantly named 'The Cove') becomes a microcosm for America in the wake of 9/11, populated by several different nationalities (Mexicans, Koreans, Indians, North Americans, even an Englishman) and numbed by a general sense of apathy, loneliness and paranoia.

Through the introduction of the 'lady' of the title, these characters find a reason to re-engage with the art of living; no longer wasting time in their apartments (like prison cells), watching the news coverage from Iraq and growing more and more distant from the outside world; they're re-energised, given a sense of purpose; a direction. The film is as much about the nature of communities (like in The Village) and the perseverance of the human spirit as it is about the characters on screen. It's also a film about the power of stories, explicit in the name of the title character; 'Story', who is created by these characters, to bring hope to their hopeless existence.

In discussing the film, Shyamalan likened it Spielberg's E.T. (1982) and Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987); the former having a similar feeling of childhood wonder in suburbia; the latter having the same emphasis on the way ideas are communicated through the art of storytelling.

Ultimately the movie is probably too strange or unconventional to appeal to fans of either film; the stylised dialogue (full of hushed whispers, blunt emotional statements and the deliberate omissions of contractions) probably has more in common with the writing styles of David Mamet or Hal Hartley, while film's experimental visual approach, full of bold autumnal colours, long takes from fixed camera perspectives and fragmented compositions (making the inability of characters to connect, emotionally as well as physically, all the more direct), owes a greater debt to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard, such as Détective (1985), or Hélas pour moi (1993), than the more contemporary approach of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or Paul Greengrass. For me, Lady in the Water is first and foremost a great piece of cinema.

Shyamalan may have gone on to direct a couple of weaker films since, most notably the B-movie pastiche The Happening (2008) and the big-budget fantasy adventure The Last Airbender (2010), but for this reviewer, Lady in the Water is one of his boldest, most sincere and most imaginative films; a grown-up fairy story full of wonder and emotion, comedy and tragedy, and every bit as essential as his earlier films, Unbreakable (2000) and The Sixth Sense.
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A charming and unconventional romantic comedy-drama in the Kaurismäki tradition
29 October 2010
There's an almost silent film like quality to much of Kaurismäki's work, with that notion of a cinema of images that works without the extraneous use of dialogue or the broader notions of exposition. What this results in is a style of film-making in which the most simple of images tells a story. Simplicity is essentially the key to this film; not simply within the set up, in which a bin man begins a furtive relationship with a supermarket checkout girl, but in the presentation of the film itself. Some critics have used worlds like minimalist or unassuming when discussing the films of Kaurismäki, and in particular, his early trilogy of films, of which Shadows in Paradise (1986) would be the first, but to me, it's more about simplification; stripping away all the usual narrative window-dressing and over complicated presentation of technique to get to the very centre of the story and the heart of these characters.

This was Kaurismäki's third film as a director, though at times you could argue that it feels more like his first. His actual debut came with Crime and Punishment (1983), a typically straight-faced adaptation of the classic Dostoevsky novel, with the more obvious Kaurismäki touches at this point still being in the somewhat embryonic stages. This was followed by the oddly surreal and coolly episodic Calamari Union (1985), a bizarre black and white comedy that drew on the influence of Bertrand Blier's Buffet Froid (1979) to tell the story of fifteen men - fourteen of them named Frank Merciless, and an idiot man-child named Pekka - who leave behind the hopeless working class district of Eira and quest to the near-mythical suburb of Kallio. These films are somewhat ambitious, both in terms of their narrative scope and the technical presentation, suggesting the work of a filmmaker already fairly confident about what cinema is and what his cinema should accomplish. In comparison, Shadows in Paradise seems content to tell an honest story about small, everyday characters in such a way as to not draw too much attention to itself.

There's nothing wrong with that. There is a pure art to the presentation of subtlety - something that Kaurismäki is well aware of - and although I tend to prefer his more inventive and idiosyncratic films, such as the aforementioned Calamari Union, as well as the far greater films like Hamlet Goes Business (1987), Ariel (1988) and The Man Without a Past (2003), there is something quite commendable about a film that attempts to work on such a honest and simple level. The relationship between the characters here is something most of us can identify with, as the odd relationship between Nikander and Ilona propels the story, which is further grounded by Nikander's friendships with his co-workers, Esko and Melartin. As even with Kaurismäki the film works as a result of the perfect casting, with Matti Pellonpää, Kati Outinen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Esko Nikkari, all regulars of the director's work, managing to give so much information about the lives of these characters with gestures so small and exchanges so subtle as to be completely lost on a less attentive audience.

For me, Shadows in Paradise isn't the greatest of Kaurismäki's films, or indeed, the best place to start. However, it does show hints of the style that would be further developed, not least in the two films that would continue and close this loose, thematic trilogy, Ariel and The Match Factory Girl (1990), but in far more ambitious and imaginative projects like Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Drifting Clouds (1994) and Lights in the Dusk (2006). That said, Shadows in Paradise does offer the usual high quality of performance and direction, with the typical Kaurismäki approach to low-key production design and warm cinematography. If you're already familiar with the director's later films then Shadows in Paradise is certainly worth seeking out, if only for the chance to see the formation of that unique style and the soon to be recognisable approach to character and narrative.
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Underrated and surprisingly understated biographical drama from the always iconoclastic Russell
29 October 2010
Art, expression, age, repression, sex, revolution and death... just some of the themes central to Ken Russell's typically exuberant biographical film, Savage Messiah (1972). At its most basic, the film looks at the troubled and often confusing relationship between French sculptor Henri Gaudier and struggling writer Sophie Brzeska. However, director Russell - ever the iconoclast - uses the film's internal subject matter as a platform to attack the idea of artistic criticism. With this in mind, the film goes beyond the more identifiable elements of biographical fiction to become something of a satire, as Russell eventually branches out and takes further swipes at film producers, financiers and the viewing public, who - in Russell's view - have destroyed the notion of 'art', both in its own right, and in the purely cinematic sense of personal expression.

As the film unfolds it becomes clear that Russell is using Gaudier as something of an alter-ego; a stroke of characterisation that I'm sure is pure egocentric fabrication, as we see Gaudier become a laughing, wailing, scamp; obsessed with phallic symbolism and the female form and completely opposed to authority (sound familiar?). In Brzeska, his desire to find someone like-minded is fulfilled, whilst his appetite for lust and high-society remains just out of reach. The film is clever enough to subvert the usual love affair clichés, by depicting the couple's relationship through various alternative incarnations; mother and son, sister and brother, friend and foe, etc. As the film moves closer and closer to its final act, Russell offers us a touching and subtle depiction of loss, loyalty and friendship that ties all of these previous themes together exceedingly well.

Here the usually bombastic director elicits a number of wonderful performances from his cast, allowing them to feel their way through the portrayal of these complex and not always likable characters, as opposed to simply acting it out. Amongst the stars, Scott Anthony impresses as the wildly enthusiastic genius Gaudier, whilst dance choreographer Lindsey Kemp plays the pitiful, snivelling promoter Angus Corky. However, it is Dorothy Tutin as the tortured Brzeska who really stands out; delivering a beautiful performance that registers long after the film has finished. Russell's creative restraint is also evident in the way the film is put together. Set design is again by Derek Jarman, who creative the city of Loudon in Russell's earlier masterpiece The Devils (1971). Whereas that film relied heavily on theatricality, pop art expressionism and stylisation, Savage Messiah instead creates a more low-key reality that is no less iconic or impressive.

The realisation of the film is in the cobbled streets, the dingy basements, the gutters overflowing with rancid, rotting fruit and vegetables, the constant pouring rain, the art and the artist, and the juxtaposition of the polite, stately bourgeoisie with the common artiste they so adore! Even the cinematography and lighting manages to forgo the usually vibrant, cartoon-like buffoonery of some of Russell's more outré endeavours, using natural light - including candles, bonfires and actual sunlight - and unobtrusive compositions reminding us of what a great talent Russell was before the likes of Tommy (1975) and Lisztomania (1975) took him beyond the boundaries of taste. The film has a number of amazing sequences, such as the first trip to the art gallery, Gaudier's all-night sculpting session, the trip to the rockery, the carnival-like nightclub and, of course, on a more superficial level, the young Helen Mirren posing nude.

Unfortunately, the current cinematic climate tells us that we should ignore the films of the past, and instead look forward to vapid remakes with that dry, MTV mentality. A sad fact, since despite a couple of minor flaws, Savage Messiah is a true original; one of Russell's many personal and groundbreaking explorations of artistic expression, and one of those films that demonstrates his true talent and stature of one of British cinema's true originals.
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An enjoyable work of collage-based animation; and an obvious influence on Terry Gilliam
29 October 2010
The Astronauts (1959) is a short, collaborative animation project between eccentric filmmakers Walerian Borowczyk and Chris Marker. Borowczyk would later move into live-action film-making, turning his attention to a cinema of perverse eroticism with projects like Goto, The Island of Love (1969), The Immoral Tales (1974), Beast (1975) and Emmanuelle 5 (1987). Likewise, Marker would produce the short masterpiece La Jetée (1962), the celebrated proto-documentary Sans Soleil (1983) and his critical study of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, A.K. (1985). The film, at twelve-minutes in length, is a testament to the creative energy and ideas of these two filmmakers, not only standing as an interesting short film in its own right, but as a window into the creative world of these two, highly skilled, highly original filmmakers. It remains an amazing piece of work for this very reason, more so perhaps than any other; even if it is admittedly impossible to distinguish between which filmmaker was responsible for each individual part of the creative process, leaving us to assume that it was a pure collaboration in every sense of the word.

In terms of actual style, The Astronauts can be seen as an obvious precursor to Terry Gilliam's work on the "Monty Python" (1969) television series, with surreal, copy and paste photographic images hand-printed and cropped to work in a bizarre, almost stop-motion approach, stressing the use of collage and caricature. Clearly, it is no surprise that Gilliam cited Borowczyk's film Les Jeux des Anges (1964) amongst his ten best animated films of all time (alongside work by Jan Švankmajer, the brothers Quay and the Pixar animation studio), with both the visual look, sense of wonder and sly satirical humour of this particular approach all showing an influence, not only on his work with the Monty Python team, but on classic films like Brazil (1985) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Like those particular projects, The Astronauts is certainly worth experiencing; if only for the window that it offers into a completely unique creative mindset, wherein Borowczyk and Marker succeed in putting together some astounding little sequences and ideas to create this warm and enjoyable sketch.

It seems odd that these wildly different filmmakers could get together and produce a work of utter, creative symbiosis, and yet here, with The Astronauts, they deliver a fantastic work of short-form animation filled with clever visual references, an expressive and experimental approach to the manipulation of sound, and an extraordinary amount of visual and thematic imagination conveyed by both the story and the actual presentation. Clearly, it is the kind of film that will be of more interest to fans of these particular filmmakers and of avant-garde animation in general, but I think it is definitely a film that is worth experiencing at least once; if not for the obvious thrill of the creative act itself (and in the ideas presented on screen), then for the delightful little story that is really quite witty and brilliantly delivered over the course of its comparatively short, twelve-minute duration.
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Another wildly imaginative and striking short-film from the endlessly inventive Guy Maddin
29 October 2010
A four-minute masterpiece of music and movement, montage and more; Sombra Dolorosa (2004) is typical of director Guy Maddin's work, filled with archaic film references and an appropriation of silent cinema conventions to tell a vague and enigmatic story that plays out in a dreamlike and metaphorical world rich in visual symbolism. Although Sombra Dolorosa isn't a silent film, as such - it does feature snippets of Spanish dialogue and a densely layered soundtrack of music and atmospherics - it still borrows heavily from the style and tone of silent cinema in a way that is reminiscent of The Heart of the World (2000) or elements of Brand upon the Brain! (2006). In this respect, we have the incredibly quick cutting style and bombardment of visual information that reduces narrative to mere montage; as well as the use of on-screen captions and inter-titles, which present to us the information that is spoken on the soundtrack in a manner that is deconstructive, but also slyly satirical.

Though the worry of being overwhelmed by the rapidity of the on screen information and the complete genius of the director's mise-en-scene is always apparent with Maddin's work, Sombra Dolorosa is never inaccessible. In fact, it is fairly easy to pick apart and interpret the vague semblance of narrative if we carefully follow the information as it appears on-screen; with the director gleefully taking influence from Latin American melodrama, with its roots in arts and magic-realist literature to chart a tale of lost love, life and death, and the extraordinary ability to overcome. It is, like the vast majority of Maddin's work, an absolute marvel of film-making energy and imagination, with the presentation of suicide attempts, death and regeneration, and that striking image of a wrestling match between a widow and the grim reaper all working alongside that continually striking use of colour, composition, music, design, performance and all to create a one-off visual experience that is sure to delight and overwhelm.
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Overrated? Perhaps.
1 October 2010
The word 'overrated' is thrown around a lot on IMDb - usually without justification - but it seems appropriate when discussing this supposedly "so bad it's good", "worst movie ever made" candidate, which for me doesn't live up to the hype.

Sadly this film wasn't as "side-splitting" as I'd been led to believe. In fact it wasn't very funny (or interesting) at all.

Maybe if you were with a large group of people and you were all drunk and/or stoned, then maybe you could derive some cheap laughs at the expense; but really that has nothing to do with the film and a lot to do with the individual experience. A large enough inebriated-audience would probably laugh and joke wildly through Schindler's List if the mood was right; but that doesn't change the objective quality of the film.

I just found this to be a rather dull, below average '50s B-movie. The worst thing about it is the editing; the discontinuity and the use of the same footage three or four times during different parts of the narrative (the shot of the police car driving by the cemetery is used four times; the shot of Lugosi flapping his cape is used twice, etc).

Other than that it was badly plotted and suffered from some rather flat, lacklustre performances from a mostly amateur cast. But at no point would I call it "so bad it's good"; more like "so mediocre it's boring". Or perhaps my generation has been spoiled by the truly awful and endlessly hilarious likes of Ben & Arthur and The Room.

Either way, calling this the "worst movie ever made" is giving it more credit than it deserves.
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Bad Education (2004)
Multi-layered narrative; part love story, part thriller, part ode to cinema itself
28 September 2008
A meta-fictional construction; with one character writing a script that serves as a key to the past, which is then subsequently adapted by another character, creating a film that holds the secrets to the present. It is all blended together with the director's usual interest in characters that exist on the fringes of society - with artists, crooks, adulterers, lesbians, homosexuals and transvestites all interacting with a narrative of reminiscence that deals with the director's usual interests in illicit and obsessive love affairs, hopes and desires, secrets and lies - and all further embellished with the filmmaker's continuing reliance on films about film-making and the allure of the cinema itself. It is also a thriller, and a film that deals with the controversial blending of childhood, religion and sexuality; though all handled with a confidence and a subtly by Almodóvar that many of his more scathing critics may not necessarily expect.

The drama focuses on the aftermath of such events, looking at how the ghosts of the past have shaped the course of these characters lives over the ensuing sixteen years, and more importantly, how the various unanswered questions that have plagued these protagonists will once again come under close scrutiny following a chance encounter that conspires to throw together elements of the past and the present, for what could be the very last time. Throughout the film, Almodóvar offers us many interesting twists and turns, while still managing to maintain our connection with the characters and the friendship that develops between the two protagonists to form the main bulk of the story. Once again, this relationship is a subtle one in comparison to many of Almodóvar's earlier films, such as Matador (1986) or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), but nonetheless, it is still indicative of the director's style and flair; with the ironic visual compositions, bold, summery colour schemes, leaps within the narrative, characters within characters and the always delightful subversion of camp, melodramatic kitsch, into something altogether more moving.

As ever with this particular combination of cold film-noir and feisty melodrama - used most notably in the director's earlier masterwork The Law of Desire (1987) - the background of the characters are used in a way that is entirely self-aware; fitting into the meta-textual tapestry that Almodóvar is able to weave so seamlessly, taking in elements of cinematic self-reference, memory and fiction, not to mention the contradicting elements of the real and the imagined. It works because the experiment is tied to a story that is interesting enough to support the bold leaps from comedy to drama, from warm nostalgia to cruel reality, and because the characters remain interesting and engaging throughout. Again, there is a certain self-aware quality to the portrayal of these main characters, as if they are somehow looking in on their own lives and documenting their fate as it appears (a familiar devise in all of Almodóvar's work), and yet, they remain sensitive, believable, intelligent and ultimately sympathetic.

It is perhaps worth noting also that Bad Education (2004) is Almodóvar's first explicitly "gay film" since the aforementioned Law of Desire nearly twenty years earlier (though there were certainly elements of a homo-erotic subtext to the highly successful Talk to Her, 2002); with the return to these themes offering a nice change of pace from the female centric dramas and tales of obsessive male/female partnerships that acted as the central focus of his work throughout the 1990's. It is also notable for being a return or recreation of sorts to the late 70's/early 80's world of the Madrid art-scene that had flourished, post-Franco, and was home to none other than Almodóvar and his collaborators before the success of their first film, Pepi, Luci and Bom (1980). Like Almodovar, one of the characters here is a filmmaker that has found success in the underground, and combined with the recreation of the early gay-scene, with its attitudes and trends, we can begin to see this as a much more personal and important work within the Almodóvar filmography than we might have previously suspected.
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The loss of a child, represented as the ultimate horror
28 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Once again, a film that has suffered as a result of the limitations of genre classification, with many viewers hearing of its subsequent reputation as a horror film of legendary, note only to then feel slighted by the distinct lack of gore, brutality or obvious dramatic tension. Nonetheless, this is a horror film in the best possible sense; or at least, as far as a more mature adult-orientated audience is concerned. Like many great horror films, it works because the thematic set-up has a certain sense of plausibility, establishing a theme of human fragility that reverberates from that opening sequence and eventually ends up colouring everything from the judgement of the central characters, the interference from external forces and the clear lack of any kind of outside influence, as the world of the film and the world of these characters becomes progressively more claustrophobic, or closed in. This notion is perfectly expressed by the continual atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that is suggested by the incredibly drab colour schemes, the dilapidated, almost decrepit locations, and the general overcast, foggy-wet misery of Venice out of season.

Nonetheless, we feel that sense of connection, just as we feel that the fragility of this relationship, and the scene of isolation, or perhaps even alienation - be it from grief, or simply the idea of foreigners in a strange and exotic land - is entirely real and true to these protagonists as actual human beings, even when clearly stylised for purposes of a greater dramatic connection. The use of Venice as the film's primary location works incredibly well, reminding us of the influence of Luchino Visconti's near-infamous Death in Venice (1971) - a similarly morose film about loss and self destruction - and director Aldo Lado's underrated Giallo thriller, Who Saw Her Die? (1972). By setting the film in Italy, director Nicholas Roeg is able to tap into the grand tradition of Italian horror cinema of the mid-to-late 1960's, from Mario Bava to Dario Argento, with the ultimate concern of the film - like Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) or Argento's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) - being about sight.

With this notion in mind, the film deliberately focuses on characters who, for one reason or another, are unable to see the situation for what it truly is - both in the pre-credit sequence and in the subsequent scenes leading up to that cryptic, heart stopping finale - until it is entirely too late. This is brilliantly contrasted by a secondary character who is unable to see in the literal sense, and yet, is able to perceive the world around her, not only experiencing things that have already happened, but those that are yet to come. The notion of second sight, which is almost the ultimate cliché of films that deal with subjects of a supernatural nature, is here fully explored by Roeg, not simply in the traditional, storytelling sense of character and script, but in his fantastic, elliptical approach to structure and editing, which again, carried over from his previous experiments with the late Donald Cammel on their groundbreaking debut film, Performance (1970).

As with that particular film, which was also centred on the notions of sight and perception, we have an emphasis on moments that at first seem fairly inconsequential, only to later take on a greater thematic importance once the pieces of the film, particularly in light of those final scenes, eventually fall into place. Roeg's film is often noted for three standout sequences: 1) the opening pre-credit tableau, in which a scene of drab domestic existence is literally cross-cut with the death of the couple's youngest child; 2) the sex scene, which is not only exhilarating in the sense of the two characters uniting through the burden of grief, but in the sense of showing a scene of genuine passion that seems tender and true; and finally 3) the shocking revelation of the penultimate scene and the various questions that it raises. As amazing and compelling as these sequences are - and as a testament to the greatness of Roeg's direction and the central performances of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie - there is much more to the film than these sequences alone.

The film works because the characters are believable; we recognise the situation and how the spectre of loss and grief hangs above these protagonists, creating tension, anxiety and often animosity. As the film progresses, the relationship between John and Laura becomes as central as the growing supernatural elements, illustrating once again that this is a very grown up (horror) film about grown up people. It is rare to see this level of emotional complexity and maturity in film, horror or otherwise, with these two very normal, very unassuming middle-aged characters coming together in one of cinema's most infamous and mostly celebrated expressions of tenderness and passion, as they explore one another's bodies and eventually learn how to continue on in life (as a couple). Again, these are themes that may be missed by a less mature audience (it has little to do with age and a lot to do with attitude) who will be unable or unwilling to engage with the film on this kind of highly personal, sometimes uncomfortable, but always fascinating level.
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An entertaining, self-reflexive Giallo thriller
25 September 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Another film that uses Venice as a kind of infernal labyrinth of desolation and grief, pre-dating Nicholas Roeg's celebrated supernatural thriller Don't Look Now (1973), while simultaneously capturing the melancholy spirit of Visconti's near-iconic adaptation of Tomas Mann's Death in Venice (1971). Although somewhat rough around the edges, Aldo Lado's Who Saw Her Die? (1972) is nonetheless one of the more credible Giallo films of the post-Argento landscape; capturing that similar air of pervasive mystery, intrigue and suspense, alongside an evocative depiction of a Venice out of season - here used to convey the lost, hopeless confusion of the central character, as he attempts to find his daughter's murderer in this never-ending maze of wandering streets and endless canals - all the while offering a myriad of dark corners and empty, dilapidated storefronts for the killer (or killers) to lurk.

With this in mind, the title becomes a self-reflexive comment on both the narrative and the voyeuristic nature of the thriller genre itself; as George Lazenby's character Franco poses the question, "who saw her die?", to which the answer is obviously us (the viewer). We may not have sees the killing itself, or indeed, the moment of death, however, as a collective audience, we are undoubtedly in a greater position of information than Franco, having literally witnessed the scene unfold through the eyes of the killer until the moment of capture, making us somewhat implicit within the eventual tragedy. "Who saw her die?" It is also important in stressing the significance of the investigation within the Giallo film genre, more so than the actual resolution. It has often be said about Argento's work, particularly a film like Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) or his masterpiece Deep Red (1975), that the process of elimination, both in the sense of eliminating the potential suspects, as well as the supporting cast, is more enjoyable than the actual pay off.

"Who saw her die?" Not a confession, not an admission of guilt, nor a plea for the killer to come forward, but an urging for witnesses; someone who knows something (anything). "Who saw her die?" The implication of the title is used by the filmmaker throughout to establish this world in which the various characters seem to know more than they initially let on; continuing that idea of claustrophobia, of the world closing in on these characters as the net of information grows ever tighter. Again, "who saw her die?" The opening scene offers some information, with a chilling sequence taking place at a mountain resort near the French Alps, where a young girl, breaking away from her beleaguered nanny, is beaten and subsequently buried beneath a drift of snow; the entire sequence shot from the perspective of the killer, whose black veil covers the camera, obscuring the image and again, hinting at that same titular question.

Once the story cuts ahead, picking up with Franco and his visiting daughter and the eventual reconciliation between separated husband and wife, reunited through tragedy, we get the formation of the typical Giallo set-up, wherein the amateur sleuth - who may or may not know more than they initially realise - begins a process of investigation. The resulting story offers a number of interesting twists and turns, including the spirit of corruption, blackmail, revenge and other unsavoury character traits, as that feeling of desolation and claustrophobia is expressed visually, with Lado using a series of eye-catching if unconventional locations, jarring camera angles and the fantastic score from Ennio Morricone to bolster the dramatic tension. The film is also notable for introducing a more human element to the story, implicating Franco's negligence as a father as a significant factor in his daughter's disappearance and eventual murder, as well as focusing on the emotional distance between the husband and wife/father and mother, who are brought together again through an act of cathartic lovemaking, in which - again, pre-dating the aforementioned Don't Look Now - with the reconciliation expressed physically, without words.

Obviously we have the usual exploitation film shortcomings in abundance - including the post-synchronised sound, the sometimes obvious prosthetic effects, the uncomfortable misogyny, etc - but all of these factors are nicely balanced by the mannered central performances from Lazenby and his leading lady Anita Strindberg, the deft storytelling and subtle thematic complexities of the script, and the skillful direction from Aldo Lado; a vast improvement over the only other film of his that I have so far seen, the sleazy, post-Last House on the Left (1972) exploitation piece, The Night Train Murders (1975). Who Saw Her Die? is a competent and often engaging thriller that makes great use of its Gothic, highly depressing locations, the obvious pulling factor of the central mystery and the always alluring sense of audience participation that the Giallo genre seems to inspire.
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Highly atmospheric, oddly alluring supernatural thriller; typical Mario Bava
25 September 2008
Atmosphere was always the key to Bava's work; from the darkly Gothic ambiance of a film like The Mask of Satan (1963), to the colourful kitsch of Danger: Diobolik! (1968), the tone and mood suggested by the combination of design, photography, music and performance was always enough to justify the experience, even more so than the obvious factors of character and plot. Although such concerns are certainly apparent in Kill, Baby... Kill (196?), Bava's slow-burning supernatural story of fear and superstition, it is once again that beguiling atmosphere and the director's always inventive, highly memorable stylistic flourishes that make the film resonate on an entirely visceral and immediate level. On the surface, the film is a supernatural story dealing with spirits and possession; but also using the well-worn convention of the cursed town, which here opens up the narrative to further dramatic tensions to help lend the film a greater sense of presence and credibility.

Although effectively a ghost story, the film can also be seen as a loose extension on the Giallo genre that Bava himself partly defined with the hugely influential The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Here, we have a series of vaguely recognisable Giallo-like notions of storytelling, with the central idea of the stranger arriving at an unfamiliar destination where murder and fear set the tone. As the story progresses, this central character must investigate these strange and often violent occurrences, sorting through the potential suspects and indeed, the potential victims, whilst also attempting to avoid the spectre of death. Obviously, the whole thing is turned on its head by the supernatural element, and further abstracted by Bava's continually surreal, nocturnal and progressively more abstract or even dreamlike approaches to music, design and cinematography. The period setting is well realised, with Bava making great use of location shooting combined with his fondness for studio recreations and formidable matte paintings to create a slightly surreal, off-kilter feeling that is further created by the director's fantastic, kaleidoscopic lighting and colour schemes.

There is also that continual suggestion that what we are seeing may in fact be some kind of vivid dream or perhaps even a hallucination; with the continual descent into more abstract realms and curious narrative devises making us unsure of who to trust or who to believe in. Again, it adds to the drama; as the tension created by Bava's always fascinating atmospherics become more and more intense as the film progresses; breaking away from the slow-burning, slow-building narrative tension and tone that we see in the film's lingering first half and giving way to bursts of fantasy and nightmarish abstraction. If it is flawed in any way, then it is in the final act, which wraps up the conflict far too quickly and conveniently, and just as Bava was hitting his stride with those dizzying shots of stairwells, corridors, nocturnal cemeteries and ghostly girls bouncing balls through empty hallways; itself, an obvious influence on director Stanley Kubrick's watershed work of terror and dread, The Shining (1980).

Though some viewers may feel the film is too slow or too restrained by contemporary horror standards, Bava's vision is nonetheless something to behold; from the bold, hallucinogenic colour schemes and creative lighting, to the attention grabbing opening sequence of a young woman impaling herself on a pike, and with all aspects of the film-making process of music, design, performance and production standing out as Bava at his brightest and his best. Kill, Baby... Kill is a great work, slow and atmospheric as much of the director's work is, with the combination of very deliberate storytelling, unique style and intelligent characterisations, as well as the continual reliance on quietly unsettling imagery and seemingly inexplicable phenomenon, which adds to the overall experience.
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Provocative power-play; Almodóvar's most unconventional romance to date
3 September 2008
A love story with strings attached; Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) is without question Almodóvar's most unconventional romance to date, expressing a number of themes that seem to continually contradict one another, while still managing to offer the usual ideas of meta-fiction and narrative self-reflexivity that Almodóvar's work is noted for. The film is also worth seeing for the subtle way in which the director develops and extends upon recognisable elements from his previous films, Matador (1987) and The Law of Desire (1987) - both of which focus on the ideas of obsession and domination within the context of an unconventional relationship - but extends upon these issues with a kind of manic, melodramatic kitsch that can be seen in the directly preceding Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and the subsequent Kika (1993). Like Kika, the film would become one of Almodóvar's most derisive and controversial projects - particularly in the US - and although the presentation is often tamer than one might expect, the film nonetheless attempts to provoke the audience through a continual contrast of violence and tender sensuality, and the various other issues that the characters convey.

When your story revolves around a recently released mental patient kidnapping a recovering junkie porn actress in an attempt to make her fall in love with him through a combination of physical force and psychological manipulation, we know that certain elements are going to push the audience further than we might normally expect. However, in light of this, it is surprising how natural Almodóvar manages to make this bizarre relationship, creating a tone, both visually and thematically, that works in establishing this skewed, off-kilter world and the multifaceted complexities of his characters. If you keep in mind that the film is intended as farce - with the bold stylisations, larger-than-life characters and Almodóvar's great sense of musicality when it comes to the pitch, tone and energy of his performances - then you should be able to appreciate the film for what it is and what it is trying to achieve. On the one hand it is an incredibly entertaining film, with the great sparring between the two central protagonists and a veritable ensemble of larger than life supporting characters, including the legendary Francisco Rabal as a lascivious, wheelchair-bound film director focusing his creative energies into a final masterpiece, a sleazy epic about dangerous desires, lust and obsession (sound familiar?), but it is also an extremely thought-provoking and compelling piece of work that is open to deeper interpretations.

The dynamics within the relationship are nicely structured, with the character of Ricky initially standing out as a two-dimensional crazy person who is compelled to form a relationship with Marina after the couple shared a passionate one night stand almost a year before. The fact that Marina is able to cope with the situation, eventually taking the position of power, ultimately says a great deal about both of these characters, their lives and their back stories, and how the ending of the film could hold some kind of dramatic weight, even in light of its central abstractions. It helps that the performances from Banderas and Abril are as spirited and committed as they are; with both characters capturing that sense of confidence and strength punctuated by loneliness and a subtle fragility. Seeing work like Women on the Verge..., Kika and the film in question, you wonder why Almodóvar never made a full blown musical (what with those great big, theatrical sets, overwhelming Technicolor and sweeping crane shots). You can see these influences in much of his work, but instead of allowing the elements to explode into a wild collage of opulent self-indulgence (like the first half of Kika), the director manages to instead anchor the film to the personalities of his characters, their dynamics and relationship, and the complex interplay that will eventually develop between them.

Long time viewers of Almodóvar's work will immediately recognise the self-referential nature of the story, with the "film-within-a-film" aspect apparent right from the very start, with that continual Almodóvar-like framing devise, wherein the story within the film becomes a comment on the story itself. Alongside this central design we also have the character as a performer, an actress in this case, and a secondary character who is both an artist and delusional. As a result, we never quite know who to trust as the film progresses from one wild extreme to the next; with Almodóvar's always interesting directorial quirks and eccentricities creating an odd tone that can be seen as part crime thriller, part kinky sex comedy. Again, this style is well suited to the director's work and can be seen in everything from Matador, The Law of Desire and the acclaimed Live Flesh (1997). Though it has clearly proved to be problematic for many viewers (judging from the plethora of negative reviews listed online), I'd have to argue in its defence. For me, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a great deal of fun; provocative certainly, with the continual contrast between violence and sensuality, humour and terror, but also filled with the usual wit, flair, depth and imagination that we've come to expect from the director and his work.
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See No Evil (1971)
Low-key suspense thriller with subtle touches of exploitation
31 August 2008
An interesting and entertaining film from director Richard Fleischer, though one that perhaps lacks the obvious bite of his more famous projects, The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). Regardless, the natural tension that is suggested by the clever premise - and some fine directorial touches - make this a particular standout from some of the other, more generic crime/thriller/horror films being produced during the same era; a time when the emphasis seemed to be placed on the juxtaposition between mainstream storytelling conventions and exploitation flair. Nonetheless, the film has obvious similarities to works like Wait Until Dark (1967) and The Cold Eyes of Fear (1971), as well as pointing towards later films like Manhunter (1986), Jennifer 8 (1992), Blink (1994) and The Eye (2000); all of which express that always compelling idea of using a character with a recognisable disability that is then exploited in order to create a heightened sense of tension that is further intensified by having the character literally unable to interact with the objects that surround her.

Again, this can be seen as a well-worn convention of the thriller genre itself, tapping into the very cinematic idea of sight and perception while still managing to create a natural understanding between the character and the audience. The film works exceedingly well because of this innate sense of empathy created by the central character of Sarah, a young woman left blind after a horse riding accident and now recuperating with family in their large country house. The fact that Sarah is oblivious to her surroundings - and the notion that even somewhere as familiar as her own home becomes a dangerous maze of potential death spots - helps to give the film a heightened tension, as we observe and react to these various problems and pitfalls that the character is completely unaware of. It also works as a result of the compelling central performance from the young Mia Farrow, here in her mid-twenties and managing to convey both the strength and naivety of this character as she not only tries to adjust to the loss of her sight, but to the escalating horror that envelopes her. Farrow is well supported by a variety of notable British character actors no doubt familiar from sitcoms and soap operas, including a young Norman Eshley, Paul Nicholas and Michael Elphick; however, it is Farrow's performance as Sarah that really dominates the film, more so than anything else.

Unlike many of the director's more notable films, including the two films aforementioned, Blind Terror, aka See No Evil (1971) forgoes the more recognisable aspects of Fleischer's preferred style for this kind of genre; dropping the more progressive "docudrama" type elements and producing a film that (again) seems pitched halfway between a big-budget mainstream thriller and a lurid piece of pure exploitation. Nonetheless, the style works incredibly well, with the sly, Saturday Night Fever (1977) foreshadowing title sequence and that great opening theme music introducing us to the killer in way that is bold, brash and yet completely enigmatic; as we watch a pair of brown leather cowboy boots adorned with white, western-style stars, strut down the nocturnal high-street amidst a series of ironic signifiers to the violence yet to come. The design of this opening sequence works well, introducing the restless energy and isolation of the (as yet unseen) murderer, as well as the film's particular style of big-budget trash. The sequence also works towards establishing the narrative momentum of the film, leading us to a literal crossroad within the drama where the lives of these two characters (heroine and antagonist) eventually meet.

The resulting film is also notable for its use of sound and pacing, with Fleischer allowing the film to play out slowly, letting the scenes drag on as the clues eventual pile up. This allows the audience to come to grips with the horror that is increasing, while the character remains oblivious; eventually leading to a anxious, pressure-cooker like atmosphere, as Sarah herself edges closer and closer to the grisly realisation that we, as an audience, are already fully aware of. Admittedly, there are a couple of minor plot holes and inconsistencies that perhaps flaw the proceedings on a trivial level, while many contemporary viewers may be put off by the continual reliance on pacing, atmosphere and character interaction (here replacing the more familiar crash-cuts and gore). Nonetheless, Blind Terror is really a fine little thriller that unfolds in the minor-key; managing to tell a compelling story from the perspective of a likable and interesting central character brilliantly performed by Farrow and incredibly directed by the always inventive (and somewhat undervalued) Fleischer.
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Man Bites Dog (1992)
Trying to make sense of a difficult and provocative film (skip on if you want a "proper" review)
30 August 2008
Essentially an attack on the individual viewer and our sensibilities in approaching film from an objective standpoint; with the ideas behind it focusing on everything from the nature of voyeurism, violence, social dissatisfaction, and the always contentious implication of the culpability of the media in how they choose to document brutality in an often wholly gratuitous way. With this in mind, the film can definitely be seen as a product of its time, with the subject matter tapping into the territory of similar cinematic think-tanks such as Kika (1993), Natural Born Killers (1995), The Doom Generation (1995) and Funny Games (1997); all of which use the platform of creative expression to the point the finger at our mainstream media (and the audiences that support it) for blurring the lines between fact and fiction, journalism and exploitation. Of course, such presentations leave the filmmakers themselves open to the accusations of hypocrisy, and indeed, exploitation; as the presentation of the film and the resulting controversy becomes an almost salient point in selling the film to overseas distributors.

With this in mind, the film becomes targeted to the very audience that it was originally attempting to critique; creating a sad irony that renders much of the film's satire completely flaccid and the presentation of the events manipulative in the extreme. This is always a difficult argument to reconcile when discussing cinema of this nature, as the intentions of the filmmakers are often shown up by their choice of presentation. Something like Funny Games for example - which attempts to criticise the overriding desire for violence and brutality as presented by contemporary cinema - strives to go against the whims of its audience by setting the scene for the eventual carnage, only to then pull away from it; denying the viewer the sweet relief of hard-core violence and leaving instead the suffering of its central characters and the hollow desperation of its eventual end. Man Bites Dog (1992) attempts to convey a similar idea, with the story of a group of documentary filmmakers following one of Belgium's most vicious and notorious serial killers as he goes about his everyday activities. However, whereas Haneke chose to go against his audience, taking away the thrill of the violence and inevitable retribution, the filmmakers here have gone all out with numerous instances of gore, brutality and genuine mean-spiritedness.

Technically, it's brilliantly done and is incredibly well acted; with the cinema verite-like quality of the images and the natural charisma of lead star Benoit Poelvoorde conveying both the thrill of his actions and the necessary horror. In choosing to realise the film in such a way, the directors make a self-conscious decision to place the audience in the midst of the action; putting us in the position of the filmmakers themselves and forcing us to go along on such a journey with this dangerously charismatic figure. However, once again we must ask ourselves what this presentation adds to the satire of the film, as the continual bombardment of sadistic violence and random acts of brutality perpetuated against innocent, everyday people, becomes completely numbing. So, by the end of the film - at which point we've been privy to strangulations, child-murder, rape and home invasion - we're no longer sure if we should be enjoying the film or turning it off in disgust. If the film is to be taken as a work of entertainment, then the satire that many argue is the most prescient point is completely lost; making the film a failure. If it is a satire, meant to push the audience into rejecting the presentation of violence in the media, then the majority of the film's "fans" have obviously missed the point.

As a result, it is impossible to review the film in a traditional sense, as I feel - ideologically speaking - that as a work of both satire and entertainment, the film is fatally flawed. Instead, I'll concentrate on the technical presentation, mentioning only the basics of the appearance and how it might be interpreted by a more appreciative audience. After all, just because I didn't value the film, doesn't mean that you won't. In fact, you might even love it. The way the filmmakers exploit the set up of the situation - with the film camera becoming our eye, showing us only what it reports and turning the audience into voyeurs (or accomplices?) - is self-reference at its very best; compelling the audience into the proceedings when we should be walking away, but also acting as a necessary barrier. It's the famous tagline of Last House on the Left (1971) suggesting that "to avoid fainting keep repeating, it's only a movie, it's only a movie..." perfectly subverted by the fact that the "movie" in question is purporting to show actual real-life events that mock the seemingly endless (and pointless) cycle of violence that the audience screams out for. The ending helps to put things into context, but even then, I'm still not sure whether it clarifies the satirical intentions of the filmmaker, or merely continues the idea of shallow, sensationalistic entertainment?

The film goes to some shocking extremes in an attempt to repel the audience; pushing us to a limit of discomfort that few films can equate. However, unlike similarly controversial films like A Clockwork Orange (1971), Straw Dogs (1971) and Irreversible (2002), the intention here is more towards comedy; creating a sense of definite entertainment value from the violence and degradation. However, in spite of these flaws, the argument remains an intelligent one; with the filmmakers (sort of) implying that those who subject themselves to prolonged and extreme depictions of violence will eventually become so desensitised that all violence will lose its ability to shock. Or are they? Either way, we're free to interpret the film as we see fit, taking it as a somewhat flawed critique, or simply as an outré black comedy. Regardless of my somewhat formless critical opinion, the actual classification is ultimately your own.
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Black Sabbath (1963)
An excellent, three-part anthology film from director Mario Bava
30 August 2008
The Three Faces of Fear - aka Black Sabbath (1963) - remains not only one of director Mario Bava's best and most iconic works, but one of the very best introductions to his rich and distinguished career. The film was his second in the horror genre following the celebrated Mask of Satan - aka Black Sunday (1960) - and a continuation of the distinctive style and visual aesthetic that he had been developing through subsequent films, such as the groundbreaking proto-Giallo, The Girl Who Knew too Much (1963), as well as a number of low-budget historical fantasy adventures, such as Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961) and Erik the Conqueror (1961). As a result, the film is notable for a number of reasons, not simply for its fantastic style and genuine technical innovation - which saw Bava develop even further as a filmmaker in his use of everything from editing and cinematography, to design and direction - but for its effortless ability to craft atmosphere and a pervasive sense of slow-burning dread, while simultaneously managing to wring tension and suspense from even the most hackneyed or generic of horror film conventions.

As a result, The Three Faces of Fear is like a Bava greatest hits package - introducing his typical approach to cinema and the various narrative concerns that would later reappear in many of his subsequent films - whilst also managing to show off his ability to move seamlessly from elements of slow-burning, giallo-like tension, full-blown Gothic melodrama, and something altogether more cerebral, or indeed, psychological. In keeping with this, the three stories (the faces of fear of the title) are each united by Bava's fantastic approach to film-making - with the bold and vivid colours, the use of light and shadow, the artificiality of the production design and the deft manipulation of time and space - and yet remain separate. The stories aren't linked in any thematic way, dealing instead with a combination of contemporary social fears, supernatural folklore and superstitious morality issues, as we focus on a different character tormented in a different time and place. However, even in spite of this, there are a number of subtle surface similarities that we can glean from the presentation, including Bava's great use of confinement (again, reminiscent of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, especially in the first and third stories, The Telephone and The Drop of Water), and the subtle way in which he manages to make his characters morally responsible for their own potential downfall.

Although the desire amongst fans of Bava's work to choose one story over another will always be there, it is impossible for me to pick a favourite; with the three stories essentially coming together to form a pure master class in horror cinema and a true testament to Bava's genius, not only as a one of the greatest genre filmmakers of the late twentieth century, but as one of the greatest Italian filmmakers of his generation. Throughout The Three Faces of Fear we see a continuing regard for storytelling, with Bava going beyond the jolts and jumps of supernatural cinema to give us intelligent and somewhat enigmatic characters that grab our attention and resonate with us on an entirely human level. He is also a filmmaker unafraid to let the drama and the tension drag out; creating a real slow-grind of lingering terror and escalating despair, which really makes the eventually pay off each story all the more affective. We also have the bold compositions, lurid colours, perfect editing and excellent score to add to the sinister atmosphere, as Bava again wrings his script for all the eerie, foreboding desperation that he possibly can.

Once again, it is a truly great place to start in terms of setting up the characteristic look and direction of many the Bava's subsequent films, in particular The Whip and the Body (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Kill, Baby... Kill (1966). However, even if we disregard the film as a landmark in Bava's career, it is still an absolute masterpiece of storytelling and creative vision; offering us a troika of short stories that develop various well-worn themes that are captured by Bava in his slow, colourful and occasionally subversive approach that is rife with a piercing wit and an incredibly bold iconography. The opening and closing scenes - with lead star of the second segment, Boris Karloff acting as the guide to the film - is again filled with a bold visual imagination and the director's typically tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, including the fairly radical final shot, in which Bava breaks the fourth wall and deconstructs the film in a way that is audacious, to say the least. Even so, The Three Faces of Fear remains one of Bava's finest films and an absolute masterpiece of pure, unadulterated horror cinema that is well worth re-discovering.
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Certainly deserves its reputation as both a groundbreaking and iconic piece of work
29 August 2008
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is one of those films that have become so celebrated and so completely iconic in terms of their appearance within popular culture that any attempt to structure a serious critique or commentary on the merits, themes and presentation simply ends up repeating the weight of critical opinion already expressed by fans and scholars over the course of the last forty-four years. Like Psycho (1960) or Citizen Kane (1941), it is one of those films that has passed into the public consciousness on almost every level; from the look and feel of the desolate Almería locations, with their white washed vistas and eerie sense of isolation, to the presentation of the central character, his actions and his attitudes, and of course, the fantastic direction of Sergio Leone. As a result, the film feels familiar, even to those experiencing it for the very first time; with the once-groundbreaking juxtapositions favoured by Leone having been copied, homage, parodied and lampooned by a number of films and TV serials, including an episode of cult-comedy series Red Dwarf (1988), Back to the Future Part III (1990) and the recent Takeshi Miike film, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).

There is also the fact that A Fistful of Dollars draws heavily on the tone and subject matter of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Yojimbo (1961), which in turn was based on Dashiell Hammett's iconic novel Red Harvest, so already we have a series of vast expectations that the film must live up beyond simple that of its celebrated reputation. Nonetheless, the film is an absolute triumph and definitely deserving of its reputation as a landmark work; not only of "Western" cinema, but of 60's cinema in general. The style, once radical, still works incredibly well, with Leone's fantastic use of the widescreen format to make epic what is essentially quite personal, while the combination of Eastwood's cold eyed, monosyllabic performance as Joe (or "the man with no name", as he would eventually become) and the continual underscoring of Ennio Morricone's fantastic, full-blooded score suggest a melodramatic, completely cinematic grandeur that creates poetry from the often uncompromising moments of violence and brutality. It also works as a fine piece of storytelling, dealing with the recognisable iconography of the American western and the identifiable conflict between the hero and villain, but with that sense of subversion in order to give us something fresh, exciting and completely diverse.

The following two films, For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), not to mention Leone's subsequent masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) would all extend on the format and ideas developed here; taking them further through the benefit of an increased budget and a self-assured confidence that would intensify as Leone's career developed. Some have chosen to see socio-political commentary on the violence and segregation of the era, recast within the western setting, or instead as a study in controlled masculinity, but these are secondary interpretations that don't necessarily require a great deal of thought when evaluated against the interesting narrative and the cool characterisation by Eastwood. Though some viewers have dismissed the film as a product of its time, there is no denying the radical potency of the images or the originality of Leone's vision in telling this simply morality tale, loading with conflict and retribution.
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Performance (1970)
A tremendous experience; a work of true power and originality
28 August 2008
As the title might suggest, Performance (1970) is a film to be experienced, as opposed to simply endured. At its most basic level, the film can be seen as an experiment into the nature of personality, role-playing, character and the lines between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy; all blurred together by a heady cocktail of sex, drugs and rock n' roll that is representative of the late 60's art-scene that writer and co-director Donald Cammell was very much a part of. For many it will have no doubt become something of a dated relic; a film from the days when East End gangsters were all sharp-suited mother's boys or closeted homosexuals with Jags' and boxing clubs or 60's radicals with beards in bed-sits dropped acid and strummed endless drones about the doors of perception on electric guitars. Others will see it for what it truly is; a disorientating hall of mirrors of psychology and satire - part Borges, part Carroll - as Mick Jagger's self-destructive rock star becomes a sort of white rabbit figure; leading exiled gangster James Fox into a wonderland of psychological manipulation, mind-games and more.

On a secondary level of content and presentation, Performance can also be seen as a playful subversion of the codes and conventions of early gangster cinema; extending on certain well-worn characteristics of 40's film-noir - with the idea of a disgraced hood forced to hide-out after a botched job gives way to the threat of mob retaliation - whilst creating a continually evocative underworld environment that is rife with a number of recognisable references to the iconic gangland milieu of London's East End. This particular period setting is later contrasted and eventually broken down by the second half of the film, in which a combination of bohemian squalor and 60's decadence erode the carefully created facade that these troubled and enigmatic characters - "performers" even - have exploited in order to progress within their disparate social environments. The lines are further blurred by the use of drugs, which again, parallel the emotional landscapes of Lewis Carroll, as well as the more potent ideas of sex and sexuality, which are here presented as being part of a greater performance in itself.

The film is littered with presentations of sex - both heterosexual and homosexual - and always loaded with the threat of both physical and psychological violence, power and manipulation. The sex is a continual distortion; neither erotic, nor titillating, and seemingly inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon or Domenico di Michelino. It works in the creation of a heightened atmosphere that becomes continually more oppressive and dangerously claustrophobic as the film develops; with the kaleidoscope of images, sounds and colours all blending and blurring between extended philosophical discussions, violence and transfiguration. From here the film shows the subtle symbiosis between the self-aware rock-star and the naive gangster, as sex and drugs are again combined to break down the boundaries of personality and the literal mirroring between life and death. There are all kinds of different ways that we, as an audience, can interpret these ideas and the relationship between the characters; as Cammell - here in close-collaboration with co-director and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg - creates a continually fascinating atmosphere that is punctuated by abstract thought and dark, surrealist imagery.

As a work of artistic expression and cinematic experimentation Performance is a film that needs to be experienced. It is not only notable as a deep, penetrating expose into the human psyche and the dangerous places that narcissism and self-delusion can carry us when the walls of reality have slowly broken down, but as a time capsule to the creative spirit of the 1960's and a brief bohemian subculture that I for one find incredibly interesting. The film also manages to capture the raw energy and quiet sexuality of Jagger before he became an insufferable cliché (all gyrating, geriatric hips swinging to a packed-out football stadium as he saunters through possibly the 100,000,000th performance of Gimme Shelter), with the seductive energy and shaman-like otherworldliness instead creating a character that is self-aware and clearly self-referential, and yet - so perfectly matched against the brooding uncertainty of Fox's wayward gangster. Likewise, the art-pop, drug culture and obvious psychedelic influences never overwhelm the story; instead feeling absolutely germane to the scene that Cammell and Roeg were attempting to explore and to the themes expressed within the subtle subtext of Cammell's strange and suggestive script.

In hindsight, Performance can be seen as the point in time at which the psychedelic experimentation, expression and drug-culture of the 1960's was allowed to envelope the cinematic medium; extending on the more exciting and progressive films that had been emerging from places like France, Japan or the Czech Republic throughout the years leading up to 1967, and finally creating a complete symbiosis between content, theme, character and presentation that was socially progressive and entirely relevant. If America had films like Easy Rider (1969), Medium Cool (1969) and Zabriskie Point (1970), then we had Performance and 'If...' (1968). And if the latter remains a truly defining masterpiece of British film-making and a testament to the unsung greatness of director Lindsay Anderson, then Performance is the essence of the scene preserved as a sort of cinematic reflection; where the underground met the mainstream and the experience was allowed to take control.
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Schizopolis (1996)
The end, or a new beginning; Soderbergh's forgotten think-piece
28 August 2008
An experiment; an attempt by Soderbergh to strip away the extraneous baggage of narrative cinema - and, in the process, the often debilitating obsessions with style and presentation - in order to get to the pure essence of film-making, as an outlet for spontaneous, creative expression. Soderbergh would subsequently refer to the finished product as a necessary purging; a way of going beyond the obsessive technical approach and over-reliance on the look and technique that had been so important to the atmosphere of his earliest work, so as to make possible the more liberated and immediate film-making approach of subsequent films such as Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999). As a result, Schizopolis (1996) can now be seen as both the end and the beginning of something really quite wonderful; offering, as it does, the full stop following perhaps the most interesting and successful stage of the director's career - in which he developed on the cool and seductive Sex Lies and Videotape (1988), the dark and expressionistic Kafka (1991) and the underrated American masterpiece King of the Hill (1993) - and the start of a whole new chapter - in which the director found his greatest success with the highly acclaimed Erin Brockovich (2000), the Oscar winning Traffic (2000) and the hugely successful remake of Ocean's Eleven (2001).

In keeping with this idea of purging, we can see with Schizopolis an attempt by Soderbergh to indulge all of his various creative quirks and eccentricities before simplifying his style and vision in a way that would be beneficial to a mainstream American audience. Although he would create similar indulgences since - including films like Full Frontal (2002), Bubble (2005) and The Good German (2006) - those particular films often feel like extra-curricular exercises that don't, in any real way, relate to his more successful endeavours, such as the Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Thirteen (2007) sequels and his adaptation of the Stanislaw Lem novel, Solaris (2002). Whereas those films hid their post-modern reinvention beneath knock-about farce or widescreen spectacle, Schizopolis is home-made, experimental cinema at its most explicit and unhinged. From the narrative set-up, to the casting, to the use of editing, music and mise-en-scene, the film is literally bursting with ideas and ingenious abstractions, with Soderbergh taking influence from a number of far greater filmmakers - such as his personal heroes, Terry Gilliam and Richard Lester, to legendary masters like Jacques Rivette and Jean Luc Godard - and yet, still manages to produce a piece of work that seems true to his own unique style and individual creative preoccupations.

Naturally, given the nature of the film and the outlandishness of its characters and approach, Schizopolis often seesaws wildly from the inventive, to the stupid, to the genuinely inspired. It was and still remains a bold and daring work for the director; disregarding the lush cinematography and evocative period detail of Kafka and King of the Hill and instead developing the rough and ready, hand-held, matter-of-fact approach that he would continue to use on subsequent films like Traffic and The Limey. However, the presentation works, and the style of the film does well to convey certain themes and ideas that are expressed through the tone and opinions of a central character that is perfectly performed by the director himself. It also creates that feeling of something anarchic and aesthetically quite progressive; disregarding any such notions of box-office potential, industry trailblazing or self-congratulatory deconstruction to simply make a film that presents the pure, unfettered spirit, energy and imagination that only the very best of cinema can convey. It obviously won't be to all tastes - which goes without saying - but even so, I feel that Schizopolis is a truly unsung work within the director's career; stressing personal expression, ironic self-deprecation and genuine cinematic invention.

As it stands over a decade on from its initial release, Schizopolis can now be seen as a relic to the days when Soderbergh could (for me at least) be cited as perhaps the greatest living filmmaker of his generation; with the film capturing the sense of diversity, energy and complete control over all aspects of the production that can be noted throughout his work released during the 1990's. His more recent films might be more financially successful (and certainly not without merit), but for me, they simply fail to offer that same sense of inimitable defiance, unpredictability and that eccentric disregard for convention that his work was once synonymous with. It may not be wholly triumphant overall - and is certainly not on a par with the likes of Kafka, King of the Hill and the greater than you might remember it Out of Sight - it is, nonetheless, a work of pure vision; both mesmerising and maddening in almost equal measure, and punctuated by Soderbergh's static, deadpan performance and the capricious idea that anything could happen at any given time.
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A worthy and occasionally very funny continuation of Andersson's typical cinematic approach
26 August 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Advancing on the characteristic approach and satirical thematic concerns of director Roy Andersson's previous film, the excellent Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, The Living (2007) presents to us yet another vaguely tortured, darkly-comic look into the failures of human existence; with an ironic juxtaposition between the presentation of both content and form that is disarming to say the least. Unlike his previous film, the themes of You, The Living are much less enigmatic and oblique. There is also a greater sense of structure here; and although the whole thing can be interpreted as a prolonged nightmare (or a dream of social dissatisfaction), the ultimate realisation of that final scene - which stresses subtly and a cruel sense of humour - makes the socio-political message of the film much clearer and more relevant than any of Andersson's work since the AIDs related short-feature, Something Has Happened (1987). Again, it can be seen as an extension of the director's background in commercial advertising, with any awareness of even a handful of his often fantastic TV commercials establishing his trademark use of deliberately static tableau, filled with an impeccably rich attention to mise-en-scene, and a genuinely impressive use of bold, comic-timing.

This, of course, shouldn't really come as a surprise; throughout his career - stretching as far back as even his second feature film, the critical and financial failure Giliap (1975) - Andersson has used elements of cruel, social-satire to draw on the notion of human fragility, and often in the attempt to mine an almost absurd comedy of errors motif that seemingly grows from routine, everyday-like misadventures, into full-blown comic-tragedies. At its most simplistic, his work could be interpreted as a series of sketches that attempt to parody the seeming futility of everyday existence in such a way as to find humour and hope in even the most despairing of situations. The aesthetic then is to document the harsh-realities of the world in the form of an ironic stylisation - once again capturing despair, loneliness and alienation with all of the designer gloss of an IKEA commercial - with the sly implication that modern consumer society wants us to aspire to the level of middle-aged suicide, alcoholism and tragic desperation being close to genius in its presentation. Nonetheless, there is much more to the film than such a glib description might suggest; with Andersson structuring these scenes in order to show the escalating sense of desperation, selfishness, worthlessness and self-pity of these bemused and befuddled characters, as their shallow hopes and dreams are exposed against a literal, last-minute offering of swift, apocalyptic despair.

As ever with Andersson, the design of the film is rich and exquisite from one scene to the next, with the director and his crew going to great lengths to create these locations (including all but one of the exterior shots) on the sound-stages of Andersson's Studio 24. Even though the world of the film is plausible to the point that we forgot the film was even shot in a studio, there still remains a continual off-kilter quality of wily exaggeration that becomes more and more notable as the film progresses. This sense of creative abstraction finally achieves its full potential during an apparent dream-sequence; in which a house moves through the countryside on a railroad track before finally pulling into a local train station to the cheers of the supporting cast. It perfectly captures the bleakly beautiful spirit of the film and the depth of Andersson's imagination as a filmmaker, here at the height of his creative abilities. Once again, we can argue the merits and the meaning of the film as we did with the more obviously downbeat Songs from the Second Floor, seeing it as either a stark, Godardian satire on the nature of consumerism and a comment on how the wheels of everyday existence conspire to grind us into place, or as a work of high-concept design intended to parody the slow grind of everyday existence - and the even greater weaknesses and despair - hidden beneath the already drab facade of day to day life.

Unfortunately, many will no doubt see the film as plot less or formless even, and, to an extent, it is. However, there is a real meaning here that is expressed through images that - even in spite of Andersson's ironic detachment and occasional mocking of his own characters and the directions they follow - offer us a number of moments that are emotionally affecting, and indeed, entirely memorable. Regardless of such interpretations - which are ultimately there for the individual to discover and interpret by themselves - the film works as a result of its keen sense of humour - which is continually dark and again reminiscent of the work of Aki Kaurismäki; in particular films like Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and The Man Without a Past (2002) - and of course, Andersson's uniquely defiant and immediately iconic style. As with "Songs" (and indeed, all of Andersson's work over the course of the last twenty-years) the episodic nature of the film can be a strain at first; however, it is worth sticking with, as the more obvious characters soon become apparent and their individual strands of the narrative become compelling in an oddly affecting way.
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A disturbing kaleidoscope of late 60's turmoil, psychedelia and creative expression
22 August 2008
Essentially a short, collage-based film that seems to be a kind of document of late 1960's Japanese youth culture, music and trends, using a wildly creative juxtaposition of various film stock that is presented in the form of a continual split-screen. The film is notable for using footage from director Toshio Matsumoto's subsequent work, the avant-garde masterpiece Funeral Parade of Roses (1969), while the implications of the title, "For the Damaged Right Eye", are closely related to a scene from that particular film. For the Damaged Right Eye - aka For My Crushed Right Eye (1968) - is easily one of Matsumoto's most experimental works of this era; using a combination of dramatisation, documentary footage, photographs, magazine cut-outs, advertisements, pornography and pop art to capture the essence of the movement and the atmosphere of Tokyo at this particular time, and all without the need for the more recognisable elements of character or narrative.

Again, the actual technique used is reminiscent of the work of filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard and Chris Marker, with the idea of images spliced together - seemingly at random, but actually with intention - that work towards telling a kind of story by way of the emotional (or intellectual) response that the images convey. The presentation suggests elements of stream-of-consciousness almost, with one image suggesting ideas that our mind can associate to scenarios from our own lives as the combination of the image, sound and text trigger an immediate response or reaction. Some of it seems vague at first, with footage of a motorcycle race, business commuters and the scene of an actual happening all combined in that continual split-screen presentation; over which Matsumoto inserts cross dissolves, on-screen text, graphics and some truly disarming examples of obvious 16mm print damage. In the end, the film feels like something that was made to be projected on the walls of some dingy Tokyo nightclub for bands like The Mops, Hadaka no Rallizes (aka Les Rallizes Dénudés) or the Flower Travellin' Band to make beautiful music to, but even then, the film is not without merit.

Shots of pornography - both in terms of art and photography - are contrasted against biology-class diagrams of the reproductive organs, while we watch juxtaposing images of kids dancing to rock music and transvestites getting ready for a night on the town. It doesn't make any kind of immediate sense, but it does goes towards the creation of an atmosphere and tone. Other images document the day to day activities of contemporary Japanese society, from the salary men riding the commuter train, to student protesters (most likely the "anpo hantai"), while Matsumoto occasionally disarms us with shots of childhood deformities, scarred faces and malformed foetus shapes. Whether or not these images are real or faked is unknown to me, although they do seem pretty authentic. Again, they create an atmosphere that works in relation to the use of music, the employment of on-screen inter-titles and Matsumoto's disorientating use of editing.

Although the film is continually enigmatic and formally experimental, For the Damaged Right Eye remains a fine curiosity piece and an interesting component in Matsumoto's rich and varied career. It doesn't particularly add anything to the themes of Funeral Parade of Roses as some might suggest - with that particular film standing as one of the finest and most rewarding films ever made - though it does capture a certain time and place in 20th century Japanese culture and history; attempting to express what that era must have been like to experience via an indulgent cocktail of sounds and images. Ultimately, it won't offer much in the way of entertainment value unless you're an avid viewer of short-form, experimental cinema or the work of avant-garde directors with a background in art. However, the experience of For the Damaged Right Eye is a good one, and demonstrates once again that you don't need character and narrative to produce a (short?) film that is memorable and compelling.
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Mothers (1967)
Travelogue of images; vague but no less fascinating
20 August 2008
Given the presentation of the images and the tone of the first few scenes, Mothers (1967) is perhaps a more complicated film than one might immediately suspect. As with the majority of director Toshio Matsumoto's early short work, the similarities to filmmakers like Jean Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Peter Greenaway are all notable right from the start; with the amalgamation of seemingly found, documentary-like images combined with beautifully composed shots of people and places suggesting a kind of mishmash of probing cinéma vérité, with something altogether more abstract. The film begins with a shot of a baby being baptised in a font. We hear children crying "mummy" on the soundtrack before music and narration introduce a series of shots showing children and parents going about their everyday activities. The film stresses a seemingly more working class environment and minorities over the more bourgeois or middle-class (though they do feature); with numerous shots of old buildings and tenements close to collapse, alongside more vague and enigmatic images, such as the woman dancing wildly to rock n' roll music while her children look on, bemused.

The image is a striking one, bringing to mind the subsequent work of directors like Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine; breaking down the boundaries between the real and the surreal in the same was as films like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) or Gummo (1997). As the film progresses the images become more distressing. The film begins using stock footage from Africa and South-East Asia to show children affected by war and atrocity. Napalm scars, severed limbs, crying mothers cradling dead children and ants crawling in an open wound are again juxtaposed against the actions of people and places. The narration continues. These shots are in direct contrast with the opening sequences, which, although bleak in their milieu, capture a comparatively affluent 60's New York setting of cars, clothes and television, as well as the middle-part of the film, wherein Matsumoto gives us a brief insight into the life of a working class French family, whose daily life in contrasted by a series of stock-shots of everyday Parisian activity.

It's a compelling and fascinating film that survives without the use of character or narrative; with the potency of Matsumoto's imagery - which moves from rough, hand-held, street-level investigation into more structured shots of children gazing into the lens - managing to tell a story that is both affective and persuasive. Tribal, prayer, sport, sacrifice... it's hard to know what Matsumoto is suggesting with the film, especially without the aid of subtitles. As a result, we end up with a vague travelogue of ideas; fascinating and confusing, yet filled with fantastically evocative images, both bleak and beautiful, which suggest so much about Matsumoto could be trying to capture or convey. Without the subtitles (my Japanese isn't very good) much of this review is more of a reflection than a critique. I can't begin to comprehend what role the narration plays here; whether Matsumoto is making light of these images in an ironic sense, or simply telling the story of these characters. The fact that the narrator is a woman suggests much in the way of the motherhood theme that features in both the title and the presentation of the images.

Hopefully I will get to see this film again someday, preferably with the subtitles, so that I can really appreciate what Matsumoto is trying to say. Obviously, the director is hoping that we make contrasts and comparisons between the three different worlds depicted in the film, with the structure of each segment repeating various themes and ideas through the use of imagery. As the film ends, Matsumoto has stripped away everything other than a single, iconic image of a mother on the beach with her two infant sons. Again, it is reminiscent of Herzog almost, in this case, the closing moments of Cobra Verde (1987), albeit, with an altogether more hopeful tone. As with the rest of the film, the single image tells a story and seemingly reinforces Matsumoto's entire message of the film. Like his previous short-form experiments, The Weavers of Nishijin (1961) and The Song of Stone (1963), I'd imagine that Mothers works on a number of sub-textual, possibly socio-political levels that work beneath the images. Without the use of subtitles these themes remain vague, and yet, regardless of this, the experience of the film and the quietly affecting quality of Matsumoto's direction is really second to none.
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The Song of Stone (1963 TV Short)
An abstract visual essay in keeping with the style of Jean Luc Godard or an early Peter Greenaway
19 August 2008
The Song of Stone (1963) is an abstract, experimental piece from director Toshio Matsumoto, a filmmaker still best known for the avant-garde masterpiece, Funeral Parade of Roses (1969). Later in his career, he dedicated more of his time to artwork; creating a host of esoteric installation projects that stressed the use of repetitive visual design concepts and digital photographic techniques over the more recognisable film-making approach of Funeral Parade of Roses, or indeed, subsequent films like Demons (1971) and The War of the 16 Year Olds (1973). However, even before that particular phase of his career, his approach to film was decidedly more abstract and didactic; with the idea of a story being told through images, devoid of the more recognisable use of character, narrative or conventions of genre. You can also see the influence of someone like Chris Marker - whose short film La Jetée (1962) remains the benchmark for this kind of film-making approach - with the use of found-footage and still photographic images combined with scenes that blur the line between documentary and recreation.

There is an element of this to the film in question; not to mention many of Matsumoto's other short films of this period, such as The Weavers of Nishijin (1961) - in which documentary-like footage is presented as a cryptic commentary on the nature of creativity and the cycle of life - to the more recognisable and vaguely cohesive For the Damaged Right Eye (1968); a film that introduces the more obviously filmed elements (as well as the pop-art influence) that would enthuse the spirit and presentation of Funeral Parade of Roses. Whereas that film is essential, these earlier short works are mostly for the curious, best appreciated by fans of Matsumoto's style or for viewers more willing to appreciate projects such as The Dziga Vertov Group's A Film Like Any Other (1969) or The Wind from the East (1970), or Peter Greenaway's similarly structured earlier works, such as Water Wrackets (1975), Dear Phone (1977) and A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist (1978).

So, we have images presented without context - there to be thought about and interpreted - with Matsumoto offering a sort of filmed essay charting a story entirely through images and told in a metaphorical style, wherein the ideas behind the film form a kind of meta-narrative. Again, as with The Weavers of Nishijin, you can't help but view the film as something a comment on the cycle of creativity, as Matsumoto shows us huge blocks of stone and then later contrasts the same images with more structured shots of houses, buildings, statues and quarries. It probably won't be of much interest to an average movie-going audience more accustomed to films that tell an obvious story connected to characters and emotions we can identify with. In fact, many viewers will probably see the film with a combination of quiet curiosity and outright contempt. However, those familiar with this kind of abstract, short-form cinema may appreciate the ideas that Matsumoto is attempting to explore, if not the more immediately commendable use of black and white cinematography, sound-design and editing.
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A fascinating and disturbing work of expressive, experimental cinema
15 August 2008
Setting something of a benchmark in eroticism, and, in particular, prison-based eroticism - something that would later carry through to everything from 70's exploitation cinema to the work of Todd Haynes - Un chant d'amour (1950) remains the sole cinematic work of poet and dramatist Jean Genet. As with his writing in works such as Our Lady of the Flowers and The Thief's Journal, Un chant d'amour basks in the romanticised fantasy of lurid, low-rent subject matter; taking themes and ideas that were (and probably still remain for some viewers) incredibly controversial and approaching them from an unexpected angle, to find poetry in even the most callous of violence, or beauty in the ugliness of human behaviour. As you would expect from Genet's writing, the film is essentially a poetic-abstraction, relinquishing ideas of narrative and character to create a tone that is stylised and somewhat subjective; with the use of close ups and slow motion in particular creating a world that is part evocative, homoerotic fantasia and part metaphor for human existence.

In the film, the hellish environment of the prison becomes a hotbed for repressed sexuality and complex emotions, as both inmates and guard submit to their feelings of lust (often attached to the ideas of power and domination) that finds an escape in a surreal, claustrophobic nightmare that is punctuated by a scene of pastoral reminisce. Beyond this bold, expressive presentation, the film is also notable for its striking black and white cinematography by artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau; so as well as being fairly daring in terms of content, it is also something of an influential work in a purely visual sense. For one, you can see the influence on a filmmaker like David Lynch, whose films Eraserhead (1976) and The Elephant Man (1980) in particular draw heavily on the influence of Cocteau's own short films, The Blood of the Poet (193?) and The Testament of Orpheus (1950), both of which share a similar look and feeling to Genet's film in question. You can also see certain thematic influences on the work of R. W. Fassbinder, whose dream project, an adaptation of Genet's Querelle de Brest (1982), would be the acclaimed German filmmaker's final film prior to his death at the age of 37.

Above all, the film should be seen as a metaphor for the nature of unrequited love in general, and not simply as a work of homoerotic fantasy. The themes of the film are universal, dealing with confinement, longing, despair, desperation and eventually escape. Genet would return to a number of these same themes with his later work, Prisoner of Love, but the visual expression of these ideas as presented in Un chant d'amour is really quite special. Yes, the film is still somewhat sexually explicit, even after fifty 50+ years on release, with the depiction of homosexual sex, abuse and expression really pushing the boundaries in terms of male, physical presentation. Regardless, it remains a truly fascinating work, both poetic and disturbing in equal measures and certainly worth experiencing for fans of both Cocteau and Genet.
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