Monday, 31 January 2011

AFED #31: The Girl Can't Help It (US, 1956); Dir. Frank Tashlin

This is probably going to be brief because I'm exhausted and in danger of building up a backlog of unwritten reviews...

So you're a middle-aged producer at a major Hollywood studio and you've noticed that all across America the kids are digging this new 'rock 'n' roll' craze. Sure, it's just a fad and won't last, but why not use it as the basis for a musical comedy? You could have all the big acts playing those rocking beats the kids love, then work the story around it.

How about using it to launch that Mansfield broad? You know, the one who looks like a parody of Monroe? The fellas will go crazy for her! Yeah, she could be an aspiring singer. Only let's make it so all she really wants is to stay at home and be a housewife and mother, conforming to a nice safe, chauvinist stereotype. But we'll give her a mobster boyfriend who wants to make her a star. He can be a real putz!

Okay, what about the leading man? He needs to be an older guy, someone the dads can relate to, a real average Joe. I got it! He's a washed up press agent, used to be a big deal - maybe he discovered Julie London - but now he's a lush. What if he and Mansfield fall for each other, only she's scared to be with him because of the mobster?

I think we could be on to a winner!

I'm being derisive but the formula really was a winner, although this could have had more to do with the novelty of seeing acts like Little Richard, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino on the big screen. It's difficult to appreciate how exciting and influential this must have been in an era before music videos and MTV. By all accounts it left quite an impression on the young John Lennon, who was still learning the ropes with his first band, The Quarrymen.

Taken as whole it's so breezy and  largely self-mocking you can't really dislike it. Jayne Mansfield is a ridiculously proportioned caricature of the fifties bombshell, prompting gawping double takes and minor accidents by simply walking down the street, absurdly ingenuous to the chaos she leaves in her trail. She's certainly a presence but doesn't quite have Marilyn's comic timing. To be honest, conscious of the downward spiral her career took, I find her a little sad.

But beneath the surface The Girl Can't Help It is rather reactionary; epitomised by Jerri's (Mansfield) yearning for domesticity. Writer/director/producer Frank Tashlin obviously believed that rock 'n' roll was a flash in the pan; sending it up in a twist (no pun intended) when mobster Fats Murdock (Edmond O'Brien) becomes a star himself. As if to prove his point when Jerri launches into a traditional ballad neae the end - despite having given every previous indication of being tone deaf - the teenage audience are beguiled.

The cynical product of a more innocent time. If that makes sense.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

AFED #30: The Terence Davies Trilogy [Children (UK, 1976), Madonna and Child (1980), Death and Transfiguration (1983); Dir. Terence Davies

By his own admission Terence Davies is a director whose films polarise opinion. For some they are unremittingly bleak, making "Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis", to quote the director himself.

But for others - and I'd include myself amongst them - through their exploration of pain and grief, memory and loss, they achieve a deep and powerful catharsis. There can be few film-makers with such single-minded conviction that through the healing power of art we can find atonement.

Davies began his directorial career with the Trilogy, three monochrome autobiographical shorts shot over a seven year period. Depicting the life of the director's alter-ego, Robert Tucker, at various junctures, they also chart Davies' evolution as a film-maker towards the distinctive style of later work such as Distant Voices, Still Lives.

The first, Children, tackles Tucker's difficult school days, the death of his thuggish father from cancer and nascent awareness of his homosexuality. In the second, Madonna and Child, the mature Tucker is ravaged with guilt over the dichotomy of reconciling these feelings with his deep Catholicism. Finally, in Death and Transfiguration, an elderly and dying Tucker is compelled to confront his own mortality.

The axis of the Trilogy is Tucker's relationship with his mother, which Davies describes as "the great love affair" of his life.

Throughout all three films the narrative jumps backwards and forwards, so that it's never clear whether the protagonist is recalling earlier events or projecting his thoughts to what may happen in the future, or even if certain scenes are pure fantasy. This plasticity of Tucker's reality is further enhanced by having all events take place in the present; no attempt is made to historicise the setting according to when in Tucker's life it's taking place.

Many of the hallmarks of Davies' later work are present from the beginning, albeit sometimes more affected. In Childhood long panning shots and stilted, almost Pinteresque, dialogue show a rawness of technique.

Yet there's also something highly personal in a way that recalls the Free Cinema film-makers of twenty years earlier. At one point the camera holds the view from a bus window for nearly two minutes as it travels through the streets of Liverpool. Indulgent yes, but not detrimentally so. Like all his films Davies' city of birth is as vital a character as any human one.

Even though there's a certain hesitancy the director's debut shows a strong awareness of mise-en-scene. Wherever possible Davies utilises ambient lighting, particularly from windows, in a manner heavily inspired by the painter Vermeer. With Madonna and Child this develops into a pronouncedly gothic approach with echoes Tucker's torments, exquisitely capturing actor Paul O'Sullivan's angst-ridden face. His life is one of duality; the placid surface of domesticity and a banal office job contrasted with furtive gay encounters which may be purely of his imagining.

Death and Transfiguration is, understandably, the most assured of the three films. Davies' budget could even stretch to buy the rights to use Doris Day's 'It All Depends On You' for the opening scene of Tucker's mother's cremation. Throughout the power of music to express, expunge and transmute raw emotion is a vital component - from children singing Christmas carols, to classical composers like Bruckner and Shostakovitch, to sentimental popular ballads - it fulfills a choric role in the classic, Greek tragedy, sense of the term.

The crisis of faith that began in the second film has led to an abandonment of God; a painful, acrimonious split. An aged Tucker (played by Wilfred Bramble, in his last role) lies in a hospital waiting for the inevitable; his mind thrown back to his childhood, his mother's last days and the still implacable anguish of his homosexuality. It's an agonising portrait of the fate that awaits us all.

Trilogy has been interpreted as an study of clinical depression and it's certainly a classic account of an outsider. Because of its sobriety and the sparse, elliptical style the themes probably need to resonate to fully appreciate it, but if you understand where Davies is coming from then Trilogy is hauntingly poetic.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

AFED #29: Linda Lovelace for President (US, 1975); Dir. Claudio Guzman

However you may feel about it Linda Lovelace and the film that catapulted her to stardom, Deep Throat, were a huge phenomena. When it opened in 1972 thousands flocked to see the film in Times Square and for a brief time it looked like hardcore porn was about to go mainstream.

After the film was distributed across America the ticket receipts were estimated at up to $600 million, which would have made it one of the highest grossing films of all time. This for a film that was shot for just $25,000.

So much has been written and said about Lovelace and Deep Throat that there's really no point in repeating it. Her own later accounts of the violence and humiliation she was subjected to transformed her into a feminist icon, although the veracity of some of those claims is disputed. At the very least it's reasonable to say she was an impressionable woman who was drawn into the company of some very unsavory people.

Before that, in the years immediately after Deep Throat's release, Lovelace (and her management) sought to capitalise on her newfound infamy. Of course, the trouble with announcing yourself on the public stage so egregiously is doesn't leave you with anywhere to go. She appeared in the softcore Deep Throat 2 and published two autobiographical books which sought to make her an icon of a new libertarianism.

Described as an 'erotic comedy', the self-explanatory premise of Linda Lovelace for President isn't actually a bad one, if anybody with an iota of talent had been brought in to produce it. The idea of using sex to satirise American values wasn't anything new; Russ Meyer had been doing it for much of the previous decade and would surely have been the ideal director for such a vehicle, particularly in the post-Watergate climate of cynicism.

Instead we have a film of such singular incompetence I'm not even sure I can be bothered to describe it. Oh, alright then. Basically a coalition of political cranks; misfits and extremists decide to name Linda Lovelace as their candidate for the White House, since apparently she's the only person they can agree on.

After she gets the approval of her Uncle Sam, we follow Miss Lovelace and her campaign bus - driven by ex-Monkee Mickey Dolenz - as it travels across America having a series of side-splitting misadventures. At the end she gets elected ("The first President to go down in history" - lol), ushering in a new era of peace, love and presumably a lot of sex.

That's more or less it. Naturally the star takes her clothes off with some regularity, but notwithstanding that proves a likable screen presence and not nearly so terrible an actress as you might expect. The trouble is the humour, where it exists, is a tired blend of burlesque and slapstick that possesses all the satirical incision of a sledgehammer.

It's a puerile, pointless load of crap, produced by idiots for idiots. I can't think of anything else worth saying.

Friday, 28 January 2011

AFED #28: Whale Rider (New Zealand, 2002); Dir. Niki Caro

When we watch a film we enter into an unwritten contract that we're willing to be manipulated.

Be it sympathy, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, lust or any combination of these; if the film-maker is skillful they'll succeed in delivering at least some of us to that emotional state. We accept that their intentions are more or less benign and go along for the ride.

That manipulation doesn't always sit quite so comfortably afterwards, when reason resumes control. Traditionally the works which are singled out for criticism or censorship are those more extreme films which, according to our moral guardians, have the tendency to 'deprave and corrupt'.

But there's another kind of film that can be equally ruthless; those which seek to speak to our inner child and the unresolved issues we never quite put aside.

Where is this coming from? Well, because at the end of Niki Caro's Whale Rider I cried, which - being a jaded cynic - isn't a common occurrence.

Whale Rider is essentially a modern day parable or folktale, one might even say magic realist. It's the story of Pai, a young girl growing up in a small Maori village. When Pai's twin brother dies at birth it creates a dilemma as Pai's grandfather, Koro, requires a male heir to succeed him as the tribe's chief.

Despite Pai's obvious resourcefulness, intelligence and adoration Koro is unable to accept her and ascribes many of the tribe's current misfortunes to her birth. When Koro begins tutoring the boys of the tribe in the old ways in his search for a leader, the demonstrably more able Pai is excluded and even forced to leave the family home.

Events reach a head when a school of whales - an animal with whom the tribe has a close affinity - are discovered to have beached themselves, prompting a crisis that forces Koro to question his values.

You would have to be an idiot not to expect a happy ending of course, but that doesn't prevent some heartbreaking moments. When Pai invites Koro as guest of honour to the school's concert but he fails to appear, there's a gut-wrenching scene when she delivers a speech eulogising him.

What makes Whale Rider so powerful is it taps into the fundamental human desire for parental approval and acceptance, something most of us never fully achieve. Although the story is mainly told from a Pai's perspective one suspects its catharsis will resonate even more powerfully with adults.

Niki Caro is a skillful director and just about succeeds in telling a highly sentimental tale without becoming excessively twee. The performances she extracts from her cast, particularly the 12 year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, are excellent. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of contemporary Maori life I'm a little more dubious, but suffice to say the New Zealand Tourist Board must have been very satisfied with the job Caro did in capturing the beauty of the coastal location.

It's an extremely manipulative film, make no bones about it; but that isn't always a bad thing.

AFED #27: Le Dernier Métro [The Last Metro] (France, 1980), Dir. François Truffaut

No country holds the cinema in higher regard as an art form than the French. During a trip to Paris when I was fourteen I recall flicking through the tv channels one morning and stumbling upon a studio-based discussion programme in which intellectuals were vigorously arguing about the films of James Dean.

I've no idea whether this was a regular occurrence but needless to say I can't imagine Alan Titchmarsh or Paul o'Grady (c-list daytime celebrities, for the benefit of non-British readers) ever chairing a debate about the work of Montgomery Clift. In fact finding any kind of serious discussion of the arts is a rarity on British television, which is decidedly not the case across the Channel.

There's a drawback to such earnestness though; sometimes you can't see the wood for the trees. The French have produced some great films, but there are plenty of others that are stultifyingly dull. A particular object of my enmity are their historical dramas and biopics. These are typically well received by foreign critics and there's a strong sense such productions are consciously designed to export a glossy idea of Frenchness to an international audience.

Still, they leave me cold. One example I watched just a couple of days before commencing this blog was the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose. With no disrespect to Marion Cotillard's fine performance in the lead role, it was an unimaginative plod through another tragic life story that had me checking my watch at regular intervals. I might as well have checked out Piaf's Wikipedia entry and spared myself two and a half hours. Let's face it, most of us only really want to hear 'Non, je ne regrette rien' anyway, we can do without the life story.

Of course the same criticisms could be made of British cinema and something like The King's Speech, but for all its virtues British Cinema has rarely blazed a trail or sought to remake the cinematic world quite so radically as the French New Wave. Its leading light François Truffaut perhaps had that inherent conservatism in mind when he said there was an incompatibility between the words "British" and "cinema".

Yet Truffaut himself wasn't immune from making such films, although I'm sure he'd rebuke my ignorance for describing The Last Metro as such.

Charting the rehearsal and production of a play at a theatre in Nazi-occupied Paris,
it was the second part of Truffaut's planned trilogy about the performing arts that began with 1973's La nuit américaine [Day for Night. Catherine Deneuve stars as Marion Steiner, the theatre's manager, principal star and wife of director Lucas Steiner, a German Jew who has apparently fled the country.

Only he hasn't; unbeknownst to everyone save Marion, Lucas (Heinz Bennent) has been hiding in the theatre's basement. With attempts to facilitate his escape proving unsuccessful, Lucas is effectively a prisoner as work commences on the the theatre's new production, for which actor Bernard Granger (a young Gérard Depardieu) is recruited to co-star with Marion.

As the film progresses a love triangle develops between the three principals which is never fully resolved. The production is also endangered by a villainous theatre critic, Daxiat, who is responsible for issuing visas on behalf of the Nazis which allow the theatres to stay open in occupation.

The theatres had assumed an important role for the oppressed Parisians as a place of vitality and escape, and it was this which drew Truffaut to the subject. A key stylistic device which he employed was to have almost all scenes as either interiors or taking place at night. It was intended to reflect the fact their 'real' lives were conducted almost entirely outside the glare of the Nazis.

But for me it actually weakens the film, creating the impression of a tv drama where scale is necessarily reduced by budgetary constraints. The effect isn't helped when Truffaut tacks on some of the old New Wave tricks; a piece of commentary coming from a radio describes a live explosion then clumsily contrives to explain how the bomb appears to have been concealed in a record player (Bernard, who works with the Resistance, has been tampering with an old player shortly before). Such alienation effects serve no practical purpose here.

Equally it was difficult to feel much sympathy for the characters. Deneuve is such a distant actress she can be difficult to warm to; the idea here is that the duplicity of Marion's life makes her the way she is. Bennent and Depardieu are likewise perfectly fine but lack much one can relate to.

Which leaves the whole as another rather boring French wartime film. It would have been nice to arouse a little more interest in what was going on, but even after a second viewing my attitude towards it didn't really improve. Oh well.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

AFED #26: A Little of What You Fancy (UK, 1968); Dir. Robert D. Webb

Early one crisp Saturday morning last spring I found myself standing in front of a supermarket in Candem, the former site of the once-renowned Bedford Music Hall. I was spending the day revisiting locations featured in The London Nobody Knows, an obscure 1968 documentary in which James Mason travelled around pointing out obscure Victorian landmarks in the capital.

Sadly, while Candem has held on to some of its old charm better than many parts of London, there was nothing to see. The Bedford, by then semi-derelict, was torn down a couple of years after it was filmed. Its fate was typical of many of the old music halls and the working class variety shows which had all but completed their slow and lingering death by the onset of the sixties.

The London Nobody Knows wasn't the only film to sentimentalise this vanishing culture. In the same year came A Little of What You Fancy, a kind of potted history of the music hall complete with re-enactments and renditions of many of the popular songs.

It opens with an unnamed host (in fact actor Mark Eden) wandering silently around the vacated Wilton's Music Hall to a soundtrack of the old songs. After an interlude for a rendition of old standard 'The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery' by sixties pop starlet Helen Shapiro, we begin in earnest as a clip-toned narrator gives a condensed account of the tradition.

Although most of the original music halls had gone the spirit of their Victorian pomp had been revived for the long-running revue at the Players Theatre. The film includes both a segment from a live show - compered by a young Barry Cryer - but also specially shot recreations. A medley by the Players performers which goes from rousing to cringeworthy and back again comprises the last fifteen minutes.

Of the thousands of act who trod the boards of the theatres even those who were once household names mean almost nothing to us now. A handful, such as Marie Lloyd and George Leybourne (aka 'Champagne Charlie') still linger in the collective memory, but the appeal of some acts seems obscure and unfathomable based on the archive footage that's used.

The whimsical nostalgia for a lost world is perfectly in tune with the sentiments of the music and it's milked for ever drop. Still, being also a product of Swinging London the makers couldn't resist a trip down Carnaby Street, as Mark Eden struts along evoking the spirit of the swells and mashers (the old term for male drag artists) to a soundtrack of 'Percy From Pimlico'.

Amongst experts there's a view that A Little of What You Fancy is a somewhat rose-tinted take on what was quite a bawdy, raucous form of entertainment. I can quite believe it, but there's such obvious affection for the subject matter it's difficult not to enjoy the film if you have an interest in cultural history, both the time it's evoking and that when it was made.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

AFED #25: The Freshman (US, 1925); Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!
Harold Lloyd!
Black or white, he's that guy,
A pair of glasses and a smile

It's impossible for me to think of Harold Lloyd without recalling the theme tune to Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy, a tv series of excerpts from his films that seemed to be a fixture of school holidays and early evening slots during the eighties.

Even now I can't help but raise a smile when I hear it; like the character Lloyd played in his best known work it was simple, unaffected and infectiously likeable. Ironically that series, produced by Time-Life Films, is much derided by purists as a clumsy cut-and-paste job that played the clips at the wrong speed. Yet it was probably my introduction to silent comedy; consequently I think I knew of Lloyd before Charlie Chaplin and certainly before Buster Keaton.

Critically speaking Lloyd is probably destined to remain in the shadows of Chaplin and Keaton, although in the 1920's he was actually a higher earner than either. His clean-cut, happy go lucky persona was already in place at the start of the decade, refined over the course of the dozens of shorts he'd produced with Hal Roach. The iconic glasses were actually a prop added to lend the character vulnerability; they didn't even have lenses since these would have glared in the studio lights.

Of all Lloyd's work The Freshman is perhaps his most popular, only seriously rivalled by Safety Last! In it he plays Harold 'Speedy' Lamb, a naive young man who, after years of saving, fulfills his dream of going to college.

Far from being driven by a desire to learn, Speedy's principal motivation is to become popular. In fact not only is it never explained what Speedy is studying, this rather significant facet of campus life is entirely ignored! Rather the film taps into the mystique of college, which for most average Americans was something completely unobtainable and the province of the elite classes.

Hence it's the more hedonistic aspects which provide the film's backdrop as Speedy tries to ingratiate himself with his fellow students. He does so, but only as an unwitting figure of ridicule. After making an idiot of himself in an initiation event, Speedy tries out for the football team with predictably disastrous consequences.

It takes another calamity when Speedy hosts a dance before Peggy, his love interest and fellow student, finally makes our hero aware how little the others think of him. Fortunately redemption comes when he's given the opportunity to come on as a replacement in the big football game and scores the winning touchdown. Popularity finally arrives, but for Speedy the real prize is winning Peggy's heart. **Sigh**

In reality, as was the norm for comedies of this period, the plot is really just a framing device for a series of set pieces. These are carefully set up so that the viewer (or audience) has a fair idea of what's coming some time before it happens. When, for example, Speedy heads to the dance in a tuxedo the tailor has only had time to loosely stitch, we fully anticipate it's going to fall apart. Physical comedy is largely based on fulfilling such expectations and surprise gags are used only sparingly.

Like his comedy peers, Lloyd was the dominant creative force behind his work regardless of whose name appeared on the director's credit. Devising slapstick was a serious business and his production company employed a team of writers to come up with visual gags in the same way that tv series do today.

Basic pratfalls are the film's meat and drink and at times it's quite remarkable the lengths Lloyd, who performed all his own stunts, is prepared to go to. When the football team's practice dummy falls apart, Speedy gladly steps in and the team line up to flatten him with repeated tackles. Given some of these were actual college football players at the University of Southern California (where parts of the film were shot) you can see he was prepared to suffer for his art.

And yet what really makes the film charming is Speedy's enduring optimism and affability. Even when subjected to humiliation he never fails to greet people without a little dance of his feet, so that by the end even the hardened cynic of a football coach is emulating him.

In the real world we'd think he was mentally deficient, but Lloyd's screen persona is an idealisation of what's best in human nature. His isn't the maudlin sentimentality of Chaplin, nor Keaton's proto-existentialism of a sane man in a mad world. It's the belief that whatever life throws at you, you brush yourself off and keep on going.

Hooray for Harold Lloyd!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

AFED #24: Witchhammer [Kladivo na čarodějnice] (Czechoslovakia, 1969); Dir. Otakar Vávra

At the time of writing, director Otakar Vávra is a month short of celebrating his 100th birthday. Yet even in 1969, when he shot this adaptation of Václav Kaplický's novel of the same name about the Northern Moravia witch trials, he was considered one of Czech cinema's old guard.

Witchhammer (or Witches' Hammer, as it's sometimes known) doesn't fit entirely comfortably in the Czech New Wave canon, although Vavra himself was instrumental in the movement. As a lecturer at the state film school FAMU (Film Faculty of the Academy of Dramatic Arts) his open-minded philosophy encouraged the likes of Vera Chytilova (Daisies)and Jaromil Jireš (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders) to innovate and push the boundaries.

His own films, taking this as indication, tend towards a more grounded approach, although by no means as reserved as some of his contemporaries. Starkly shot in black and white, Witchhammer tells the story of Boblig von Edelstadt, a ruthless inquisitor summoned to root out witchcraft after a desperate old woman confesses to stealing communion bread to feed a cow not bearing milk.

Before long Boblig has the local community, including the aristocracy, under his thumb as he begins conducting trials and burning those who are tortured into confessing acts they did not commit. His strongest opponent is Lautner, a deacon whose eventual torture and martyrdom is clearly meant as an analogy of that of Christ.

The film doesn't shy away from the brutal methods used to extract confessions but also skillfully explores some of the mores of its period. This was a time of piety in which sex was perceived as immoral, yet young daughters were readily married off to rich older noblemen. In a provocative opening scene we watch a number of the girls frolicking as they bathe in a way which almost taunts us in our complicity. If desire is wrong then where does that evil originate? In their beauty or our own lustful thoughts?

Although coincidentally Michael Reeves's renowned horror Witchfinder General had been released the previous year it doesn't appear to have served as a direct inspiration. The approaches of the two films are also markedly different: Reeves's is a kind of English western that takes deviates wildly from the facts in its portrayal of the the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins By contrast Vávra sought assistance from historians to ensure accuracy; drawing from actual court transcripts and first-hand accounts.

Yet, as he later commented, Vávra was also conscious of the parallels with the sham trials that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1950's, when the Communist Party purged itself of those elements not considered sufficiently Stalinist. Given the film was being made against a backdrop of renewed Soviet involvement in Czechoslovak affairs following the '68 invasion, this wasn't without an element of risk.

While an austere production, Vavra's film is a far more haunting and cerebral exploration of the theme than others from this period, be it the aforementioned Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil or Ken Russell's The Devils. If you accept it won't be a bundle of laughs it's well worth tracking down.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

AFED #23: Black Swan (US, 2010); Dir. Darren Aronofsky

The closest I usually get to the ballet is passing a statue of Margot Fonteyn in Reigate on my way to work every morning, so my understanding of it derives almost exclusively from the cinema. Generally the ballet world is depicted as a hotbed of seething emotions and bitter rivalries where egomaniacal artistic directors place their charges under nigh-unbearable pressure to perform. Strangely enough it seems to be a lot like the movie business.

Darren Aronofsky's latest film doesn't have any interest in altering that perception; in fact it milks the cliche to glorious effect. As with Powell and Pressberger's 1948 film The Red Shoes the offstage drama becomes an extended metaphor for the ballet's story, in this case Swan Lake. Like its predecessor Black Swan is an overblown melodrama that blurs fantasy and reality, but its portrait of madness is altogether more immersive.

Natalie Portman is an actress I've never been enamoured with. It's partially due to having watched her grow up on screen; I can never shake off my memories of the orphaned little girl in Leon and consequently there's an awkwardness to watching her in adult roles. Yet her screen presence is also somewhat insipid; she has all the beauty of Audrey Hepburn without the warmth or charisma.

Perhaps Aronofsky was at least conscious of that perception when he cast her as Nina, the timid young ballerina who's bestowed lead role as the White Swan in a ballet company's revival of Swan Lake. Although a technically proficient dancer Nina's greatest challenge, according to ruthless director Tony Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is to cut loose from her inhibitions and embody the persona of the character's evil twin, the Black Swan. It's the classic Jungian dichotomy.

In discovering her darker, more sensual side Nina is beset by demons both inside and out, and as the story develops their provenance becomes increasingly uncertain. At home she suffers the asphyxiating attentions of an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey), whilst at the company the ghost of her washed-up predecessor Beth (Winona Ryder) looms large.

But it's the arrival of newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) which really begins to loosen Nina's grip on reality. Like a wilder, freer version of Nina she seems to grasp intuitively the role of the Black Swan and becomes a rival for Tony's attention. But is she actually a figment of Nina's imagination; her own evil doppelganger?

Up to a point Black Swan can be seen as a companion piece to Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler. Both share a morbid fascination with the injuries and physical toll inflicted by the respective professions. In the earlier film the brutality literally breaks Mickey Rourke's heart, in Black Swan it becomes a catalyst for Nina's horrific descent into psychosis.

Ballet and madness have long had a peculiar synergy; after all Nijinsky's diaries remain one of the definitive first-hand accounts of schizophrenia. The duality of physical discipline with inner turmoil is a potent brew and you wonder whether the theme precipitated the subject matter. Either way the grandiose absurdity of the final act, as Mina plunges into a breakdown on the opening night, is one of the most remarkable sequences attempted by a Hollywood film in recent years.

For some it will be a leap too far, but if Scorsese can get away with an affectionate nod to old school psychodrama in Shutter Island I see no reason why Aronofsky's film should be treated any differently. If nothing else he must be praised for an inspired selection of actresses. Portman delivers her best performance to date in a tailor-made part, but Kunis and Hershey are equally impressive and credit to Winona Ryder for embracing the cruel irony of her role.

If there's a major failing it's that the trickery and blurring of perception disengages us from much feeling of sympathy for the heroine, leaving the ending bereft of true pathos. Not quite a classic but there's still plenty to admire.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

AFED #22: Age of Consent (Australia, 1969); Dir. Michael Powell

In director Lindsay Anderson's final film, the quasi-documentary Is That All There Is? he's asked by the critic Tom Sutcliffe whether it's true Peeping Tom ended director Michael Powell's career. "Complete rubbish" retorts Anderson, adding that Powell "didn't have a marketable talent".

It tells us more about Anderson's penchant for pithy aphorisms, but there's probably some truth that had Powell been commercially savvier he might have found it easier to reclaim some standing in the British film industry. The glory years of his collaborations with Emeric Pressberger had long passed by the time of Peeping Tom's release in 1960 and a host of younger directors, including Anderson himself, were about to set forth with a fresher outlook.

As it was Powell would have to travel overseas to seek out directing jobs. After filming an adaptation of the opera Bluebeard's Castle in Germany he headed down under for two films shot in Australia. The second of these, the penultimate of Powell's directorial career, was Age of Consent.

On the face of it the premise of the film sounds a promising one. James Mason stars as a disillusioned artist who travels to remote spot off the Great Barrier Reef to try and rediscover his muse. He finds it in the curvaceous form of a naive young local girl Helen Mirren, but when it becomes knowledge Mason is painting her in the nude the community is scandalised by their relationship.

My first doubts surfaced with the opening title: Norman Lindsay's Age of Consent. Apparently Lindsay was an Australian artist and writer of some repute although I must confess to having never heard of him. Moreover it suggested, albeit subtly, that creative control of the project lay somewhere other than Powell himself.

The problem's confirmed not long after when we hear Mason's character speak; he's supposed to be Australian but presumably via Yorkshire since it's one of the least convincing accents you'll hear anywhere. During a telephone conversation later in the film it even veers into a South African twang. Surely it would have been better to find some explanation for it but one can only assume nobody had the courage to tell the venerable Mr Mason how ridiculous he sounded.

Although a distraction it might be forgiveable if the rest of the film achieved some of the poetry and sensuality of its conceit. There are some tender moments between the two leads, but for the main part it aims for a broad comedic tone and fails miserably. One of the principal sources of this 'humour' comes in the form of Jack McGowran, who plays a parasitic friend of Mason's who decides to join him at his retreat. His introduction does nothing but disrupt the developing frisson between the two main characters.

In what was her first major role Helen Mirren is fine as Cora, the local girl who agrees to pose in exchange for money she hopes will help her get away from her alcoholic grandmather. Not for the last time male viewers are likely to find themselves focusing upon Mirren's comely figure, but her depiction of a young woman's growing awareness of her sexuality offers some glimpses of an emerging talent.

But when the best performer is Mason's dog, Godfrey, it gives a good indication that Age of Consent really doesn't add up to much. As a promotion for the Great Barrier Reef as a holiday location it did at least manage to capture some of the beauty of the scenery, but I prefer films to be more than a moving postcard.

AFED #21: Dead Men are Dangerous (UK, 1938); Dir. Harold French. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Italy/Frace, 1956); Dir. Jean Delannoy

Now in its 45th season, the Gothique Film Society is a peculiar but quaint anachronism. The Society meets on Friday nights roughly monthly over the winter to screen obscure old horror, crime and suspense films. Many of these films, most regulars would admit, are not very good.

I've been attending the Gothique, on and off, for over five years now but am still one of the youngest there. A large number of the membership are pensioners and a few could be politely described as 'eccentric'. Like the dodgy projector (liable to break down at the most inopportune moments) and uncomfortable seats it's all part of the 'Gofeek' experience.

As usual tonight's event was a double bill. First up came Dead Men are Dangerous, an above average 'b' movie starring Robert Newton as a struggling and debt-ridden writer who fakes his death by switching his identity with that of a suicide victim.

After the police investigation reveals the man's suicide was actually killed Newton's character finds himself on the run for his own murder. To borrow one regular's adroit description it's like Reggie Perrin meets The Fugitive. Before long the true killers are also in pursuit, believing Newton may be in possession of the dead man's (presumably incriminating) diary.

Although the ending is ridiculously abrupt it's a fairly tight little suspense with a decent central performance. There are some notable set pieces, including a nighttime police manhunt through Hyde Park and it gives a sense of the kind of fervour and speculation a real-life murder mystery aroused in the thirties public. Newton's character can't turn his head without seeing headline or billboard about the crime, or passers-by idly speculating about the 'Templemere Murderer'. Whilst a dramatic device it also puts one in mind of George Orwell's nostalgia for pre-war tabloid journalism in his essay Decline of the English Murder.

The second and main feature was a 1956 adaptation of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I can only assume there are virtues to Victor Hugo's original novel that have yet to make a successful transposition to celluloid as I've never understood its appeal to filmmakers.

Anthony Quinn stars as Quasimodo; less horrific than some versions of the character and sounding like a punch drunk Brooklyn boxer. As the object of his adoration Gina Lollobrigida's Esmeralda pouts, sways her hips and does her best to distract from her acting.

It's a turgid film, which probably explains why this version has lived in the shadow of the Chaney and Laughton adaptations. Too much time is spent on scenes which contribute little to the dramatic thrust and dwell on characters of no significance to the unrequited but doomed romance at the heart of the story. There are some interesting parallels to Esmeralda's trial as a witch and those being conducted under the auspices of Senator McCarthy but whether this was an intentional metaphor is difficult to judge.

Still, that's the Gothique in a nutshell. By definition of their obscurity these films are seldom classics but you're glad to have experienced them.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

AFED #20: La Mujer Sin Cabeza [The Headless Woman] (Argentina, 2008); Lucrecia Martel

Latin American cinema is almost a complete mystery to me. To the best of my knowledge the sum total of my viewing consists of Amores Perros, City of God and Santo vs. The She-Wolves.

I was hoping I could also include El Perro, a rather odd seventies picture in which The Exorcist's Jason Miller plays a fugitive chased across Venezuela by a relentless dog; but it turns out to have been a Spanish production.  Either way, you can see it's not exactly an impressive return.

Yet the consensus amongst film critics and scholars is that the region has made huge strides in the past decade, even if the general English-speaking public aren't paying much attention. That Mexico, Brazil and Argentina now have prospering national cinemas is perhaps not so surprising, but Chile and Uruguay are also getting in on the act. Of course it's all relative and Hollywood still dominates at the box office.

It would be remiss if at least a handful of the intended (but don't count on it) 365 entries on this blog weren't from Latin America. However, in the case of Argentine film The Headless Woman I'll confess it had more to do with my curiosity about the title and that it had a highly regarded woman director, Lucrecia Martel.

This, her third feature film is the story of Verónica, a middle-aged woman who's driving in the country when she's distracted by her mobile phone and hits something. Quite what she struck is uncertain, either to Verónica or the viewer; although when she looks back there's a dead dog lying by the side of the road she thinks she may have collided with something, or someone, else. The experience leaves her shocked and confused and the film follows her over the next few days as she struggles to reassemble her mind and get to grips with what may, or may not, have happened.

But a synopsis can't really do justice to the effect Martel achieves; the true craft lies in the detail. Not only are the facts of the accident unclear but we're told so little about Verónica, her life and background, that in the first half of the film we share her dazed confusion about precisely what's going on and who people are. Elliptical scenes and obtuse shot selection draw us into her chaos.

Gradually some of the pieces start to coalesce, only to grow more ambiguous. When Verónica confesses to her husband and brother about what happened they set about erasing any record of the accident or her subsequent trip to the hospital. Yet we also discover a local Indian boy has disappeared and police are dragging a stretch of the canal our protagonist had been driving beside when she struck something. Every time Verónica begins to distance herself she's drawn back to her anxiety.

Martel's use of the classic theme of return of the repressed serves as a metaphor of sorts for the guilt of the white Argentine bourgeoisie, albeit without becoming overtly political. There are also overtones of Antonioni's Blowup and the mutability of reality. A clever example is the child's handprints that can be seen on the window of Verónica's car after the collision, but might just as easily have been there already. As viewers we're being challenged as to how much significance or meaning we wish to read into these details.

An intelligent and provocative piece of work that's likely to reward multiple viewings

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

AFED #19: Britannia Hospital (UK, 1982); Dir. Lindsay Anderson

Were I asked to name one figure above all others who has shaped my love of cinema then it would be Lindsay Anderson. Watching a rented video tape of his 1968 film if.... in the autumn of 1993 changed my perception of the medium forever. The surrealistic tale of a revolution at a public school, it was so jaw-droppingly audacious, so different to anything I'd experienced before, that no sooner had I watched it than I rewound the cassette and did so all over again.

 if.... was the first of three collaborations with the writer David Sherwin and actor Malcolm McDowell;  a loose trilogy of films that featuring McDowell's alter-ego Mick Travis. The three are vastly different in style and in truth Travis is the same character in name only. For the second, O Lucky Man! (1973) Mick was transformed into a modern-day equivalent of Voltaire's Candide in a picaresque journey through seventies Britain. It was Anderson's most ambitious film and almost matches if.... for quality.

Yet during the course of the seventies Anderson's reputation diminished. Although the British film industry entered a severe decline he turned down offers to go to Hollywood and largely focused on his work as a theatre director. A television play he directed from an Alan Bennett script in 1979, The Old Crowd, drew fierce criticism for its unconventional quasi-Brechtian technique. Yet the worst was yet to come.

Britannia Hospital, the final part of the trilogy, was never conceived as such. Only after McDowell, by then a rising Hollywood star, agreed to take a role was the name of his character changed to Mick Travis. It was a clumsy contrivance and - by leading to comparisons with the earlier films - probably detracted from its merits. Although inferior in quality Britannia Hospital expresses the profound dismay Anderson felt at the direction Britain was heading and is possibly his most savage and satirical indictment.

To be completed...

AFED #18: Quai des Orfèvres [Quay of the Goldsmiths] (France, 1947); Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot

I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to my film viewing habits I'm a bit of a snob. In the early years I was inclined to seek out the critically acclaimed rather than populist cinema, and although my tastes expanded to include more idiosyncratic material as a rule it's tended to be haute cuisine over meat and potatoes.

The drawback of this philosophy is one grows so accustomed to the good stuff it's not always possible to appreciate the value of what you're watching relative to the bigger picture. I suspect this may be why the work of French writer/director Henri-Georges Clouzot has failed to capture me.

Clouzot is best remembered for the high-tension truck adventure Wages of Fear and seminal psychological thriller Les Diaboliques; neither of which which lived up to their reputation. Strangely enough I prefer some of the Hammer studio's shameless rip-offs of Les Diaboliques, such as Scream of Fear, to the original. Seen retrospectively Clouzot's films are perfectly adequate but whatever stood them apart has been appropriated and assimilated into film grammar. In my opinion there aren't the technical flourishes and manipulation of the medium's language that make even an average Hitchcock film eminently watchable.

Perhaps this is why the Cahiers du Cinema critics (I promise I'm not going to prattle about them every week) were anti-Clouzot, or simply that he represented the mainstream establishment of French cinema they were bent on overturning.

After serving a two-year ban for the contentious charge of collaborating with the Nazis during their occupation, Clouzot to the cinema in 1947 with the detective story Quai des Orfèvres. It's a fairly routine example of the genre; impecunious composer/pianist Maurice and his chanteuse wife Jenny are implicated in the murder of a sleazy businessman who's been attempting to seduce the Jenny with promises of a career break. The investigating detective, Inspector Antoine, slowly unpicks their respective alibis and uncovers what really happened.

What distinguishes the film from its contemporaries is a more considered, thoughful approach to the story. Time is spent developing the characters of Maurice and Jenny and the ups and downs of their melodramatic relationship before the murder takes place. In fact to the point that both become rather irritating. Unusually the identity of the murderer is indicated early on, even if crucially it's not depicted on screen, allowing for an emphasis on the investigative procedure rather than the mystery of who did it. Inspector Antoine, a jaded but phlegmatic ex Foreign Legionnaire, is a little like a proto-Columbo and superbly played by Louis Jouvet.

There is also a sense of authenticity to the depiction of the police; the ambivalent attitude in which they're held by the general public and the symbiotic camaraderie they share with the criminal fraternity, as too with the press. They're not averse to using unorthodox means to extract the truth and outwit their quarry.

The artistic design and cinematography are as well realised as you'll find anywhere during this period and Clouzot's sharp and witty dialogue has aged well; characterisation is one area in which he excels. But again, my main criticism is there's nothing I haven't seen or grown accustomed to elsewhere. It lacks that little bit extra to elevate it above the merely very good.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

AFED #17: The King's Speech (UK/Australia, 2010); Dir. Tom Hooper

Everything I despise about the modern cinemagoing experience is embodied within the walls of the Epsom Odeon. It's a cinema for people who have no affection for the art; a soulless monolith to banality where undiscerning patrons indifferently consume the latest overhyped effluence. A workforce of acne-ridden part-timers serve you through forced smiles with nonchalant disaffection...

"Where would you like to sit?"
"Maybe one of those dozen empty rows clearly displayed on your monitor?"
"I know, I'll sit you right next to the only other people in the auditorium."

Popcorn's available with a complimentary dressing of puss but I don't usually partake.

The philosophy of the Epsom Odeon is that films with subtitles, or for that matter anything not produced or distributed by a major studio, are for lefty freaks and weirdos. Homogeny rules and middle England doesn't care to rub shoulders with beatnik metrosexuals whilst escorting their kids to the latest Pixar or Harry Potter.

"There simply isn't the demand for that kind of film," I imagine to be the manager's apology. Of course not when you don't give your clientele the opportunity to experience it in the first place.

It's cinema reduced to an ersatz, flavourless product. One night I might even graffiti it on the entrance:


Yet it's that time of year - awards season - when even the Epsom Odeon is obliged to show a few films of a little more substance, if only for the want of blockbusters. So it was that I made my first cinematic expedition of the year to catch Colin Firth's Golden Globe winning turn in The King's Speech.

It's the quintessential modestly budgeted British period drama of the sort that have been successfully exported ever since its subject, King George VI, first took to the throne. Charting the late king's relationship with Lionel Logue, the Australian speech therapist who helped him with the terrible stammer that afflicted him throughout his life, it takes us through the tumultuous period of Edward VIII's abdication and the onset of the World War II.

From a frosty beginning the two form an unlikely friendship as Bertie, as his friends and family knew him, lets Logue into his confidence. As such we're given insight into Bertie's profound feelings of frustration and inadequacy when he finds himself foisted into a position he was never expected to assume.

Of course it's impossible to overlook the fundamental conceit behind all this: for all the research undertaken by writer David Seidler we can never really know what passed between the two men. There's a prevailing air of contrivance to their most intimate exchanges that nearly, but not quite, threatens to topple the drama.

The two leads though give fine performances. In the showier role Colin Firth eloquently conveys the nuances of George VI, tormented by his stammer and prone to fits of rage yet also at times regally supercilious and austere. One would assume that Geoffrey Rush had a freer rein in interpreting the character of Logue, who disarms the king with his familiar manner, but for the main he's content to play the foil or straight man.

It's largely a two-man show; something which betrays the script's origins as a stage play. A montage marking the progress of their therapy sessions felt so engineered it reminded me of the parody of such sequences in Team America: World Police.

That said the rest of the cast acquit themselves ably; Helena Bonham-Carter is in her posh totty mode as Queen Elizabeth while Timothy Spall enjoys hamming it up as Churchill. Guy Pearce seemed an incongruous choice to play Edward (although the film's actually an Australian co-production), particularly given he's several years younger than Firth, but performs decently enough.

There's actually very little to find fault with if you can accept the basic premise. Yes, it's all terribly, terribly British but successfully captures a turbulent time in the constitutional history. The most stirring moment comes at the climax as the king broadcasts to the nation after the commencement of war; his struggle through the speech, first faltering but gradually gaining confidence, becoming analogous with the greater one to come.

Listening to it you begin to understand why the British people took him to their hearts... a sentiment that will never apply to the Epsom Odeon.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

AFED #16: Comic Book Confidential (US, 1988); Dir. Ron Mann

The difficulty of writing about a subject close to your heart is how to adequately express the wealth of memories and emotions it invokes without parylysing the critical faculty.

It's one reason that I'll probably avoid re-viewing any of my favourite films for this blog. For the main part they're bound to a particular place and time, a point in my life; indirectly they become a means of revisiting that period even though the film itself might have been made many years earlier.

And for me much the same applies to comics, although it's a nebulous subject. The affair started when I was five or six years old when my mum picked up a copy of the Incredible Hulk Pocket Book - a black and white British reprint of the character's origin - at a school jumble sale. It probably wasn't the first comic I'd seen but certainly the first to grab my attention; the bold Jack Kirby visuals conjuring up a dark, strange world inhabited by a sinister brute more fearsome than heroic.

I must have enthused about it because more Marvel comics followed; first Spider-Man and then the Fantastic Four, who've remained my favourite characters ever since. In those early days they were still the British reprints but a few years later I moved up to the original American product; it was like mainlining the experience and I was irrevocably hooked. Halfway through my teenage years I would briefly kick the habit but, like they say, once an addict always an addict.

Yet one of the things that frustrated me was the esoteric nature of the comic-book culture; the lack of information about the people and history behind these publications. I remember being thrilled when, in the school library, I found entries for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in Isaac Asimov's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, but in an age before the internet facts were hard to come by.

So you can imagine my excitement when around 1989 or '90 Channel 4 screened Ron Mann's documentary Comic Book Confidential, a whistle stop tour through the history of American comics. Featuring interviews with numerous infuential writers and artists it paints a picture of the scene up to that point; from superheroes to horror comics, the underground movement of the sixties and seventies to the blossoming independent scene of the present.

The first time around the thrill had been in seeing the likes of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Gaines and Will Eisner speaking, after a fashion, in the flesh. Any one of these figures could have been a subject of a film in their own right and the brevity of the excerpts was irritating. There are stories beyond the stories, tales of lengthy litigation and disputes over ownership, that aren't even touched upon here.

Twenty years on and that impression still holds; Mann has pretty much dispensed with a vast chunk of the history within the first thirty minutes, giving as much if not more attention to the underground movement in interviews with Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and the late, great Harvey Pekar. Whether this was dictated by the availability of subjects or that Mann felt these to be more artistically worthy is difficult to ascertain. Not that these aren't important figures, even if I wasn't so appreciative the first time arouund.

Certainly at the time the film was made there was a feeling the medium was evolving beyond its spandex origins although the progress since has perhaps not been as rapid as expected. Conversely Batman revisionist Frank Miller's declaration that the superhero genre is dying failed to anticipate how comic characters would find a new medium to populate.

But nonetheless Comic Book Confidential's a quirky, affectionate little film and enlightening to novice and comics reader alike. A flawed work, yet nice to catch up with again.

AFED #15: Fight For Your Life (US, 1977); Dir. Robert A. Endelson

In 1983, at the height of the video nasties panic in the UK, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) published a list of 72 films that were deemed liable to deprave and corrupt and banned under the Obscene Publications Act. In many cases the charge was laughable and they were acquitted within a couple of years, while the vast majority are now readily available, albeit occasionally (e.g. Cannibal Holocaust) with cuts.

One of the handful that remains banned is Robert Endelson's 1977 home invasion thriller Fight For Your Life. Although unquestionably a violent film it's perhaps unique amongst the blacklisted titles as having been of more concern for the prolific use of inflammatory language, namely racial slurs. The BBFC rejected it outright when it was submitted in 1981 and nobody's tried since.

When I became aware of the film recently it immediately intrigued me. I've been on the receiving end of racist pejoratives myself over the years, but could the language really be so extreme as to justify its banning? Isn't it as much a matter of what context the language is being used? There was only one way to satiate my curiousity and fortunately Fight For Your Life was released on dvd in the US a few years back on the Blue Underground label.

The story begins in New York when three convicts escape their armed guard following a vehicle collision. After stealing a car the trio head north, leaving a trail of bodies and mayhem behind them, before invading the country home of middle-class black minister Ted Turner (Robert Judd) and his family. It soon becomes obvious that the nominal leader of the trio, Kane (William Sanderson), is a racist and he begins subjecting the hostages to a tirade of taunts and insults. While the police are tracking down the felons events head towards a predictably bloody climax when the family finally turn on their captors.

To understand Fight For Your Life you should be aware it was made under the guidance of William Mishkin, a producer who had built his career on grindhouse cinema and skin flicks. It's therefore quite manifestly an exploitation film which uses a provocative scenario to arouse the passions of its audience and ultimately satisfy them through an empowerment fantasy.

Our sympathies are meant to lie squarely with the Turner family but the effect is achieved so clumsily it becomes laughable. From the onset it's apparent Turner is something of an 'Uncle Tom'; he rebukes his son for enjoying boxing and preaches the virtues of pacifism. The walls are adorned with portraits of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys just so we're in no doubt about their political persuasion. Later Kane's verbal jabs are followed up by slapping Turner across the face repeatedly with his own Bible, making explicit that turning the other cheek is a sign of impotence. Only when he finally picks up a gun can Turner reclaim his manhood; a rather depressing message.

As far as the language is concerned its shock value suffers the law of diminishing returns as we become inured to it. That's not really a flaw of the script so much as a fact of life. More shocking is the fate of some of the peripheral characters, a couple of whom are dispatched with surprising and violent expediency when they threaten to expose the siege. Unfortunately it does little to avail the turgidity of the whole.

Sanderson's performance as the detestable Kane is perhaps the saving grace of a weak film; admittedly he's a pantomime villain but doesn't flinch from the vulgarity of his character's words and actions, holding the attention in every scene. The rest of the cast are mainly competent, although the Mexican and Asian actors playing Kane's fellow convicts are stereotypes of the crudest variety; something which betrays the absence of any earnest intentions beneath the hyperbole.

Aside from the self-evident truth that racism is bad Fight For Your Life has nothing intelligent to say. Quite simply it's not very good and you end up feeling slightly embarrassed for those involved. I'm not going to waste any more time with it.

Friday, 14 January 2011

AFED #14: Pistol Opera (Japan, 2001); Dir. Seijun Suzuki

During a short interview that's included as an extra on the dvd of Pistol Opera, director Seijun Suzuki is asked what the film means to him as a director. "Such a stupid question," he retorts. "What does making this interview mean to you?"

It was the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema that first popularised the notion a film's director should be credited as its primary creative influence in the mid fifties. Although applicable to all cinema, some of the most enthusiastic writing on the auteur theory concerned directors who had worked within an integrated studio system, in particular that of classical Hollywood.

While Francois Truffaut and his Cahiers cohorts were extolling the virtues of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, at the Nikkatsu Company in Japan a young director was just beginning his career. Within a decade Seijun Suzuki had taken the helm of more than thirty B-movies for the studio, demonstrating a particular aptitude for gangster yarns. Critics and cinephiles had started to note his visually bold, visceral style and with his two best known films, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, he had taken it to its most fantastic and abstracted. He too, they decided, was an auteur.

Suzuki's bosses at the studio were less impressed and promptly sacked him, pointing to the increasingly absurd and incoherent nature of his films. The director argued he was making the best work possible under tight deadlines and limited budgets, eventually being awarded compensation following a legal battle, but it curtailed his career. It would be a decade before Suzuki's directing job and not until 2001 that he finally returned to the genre with which he made his name...

Pistol Opera is a sequel of sorts to Branded to Kill, although if you haven't seen the original you're not at any disadvantage. Makiko Esumi plays Miyuki Minazuki, a.k.a. Stray Cat, a kimono-attired assassin who's ranked No.3 in the Assassin's Guild. When she's offered a contract to take out the No.1 ranked killer, the mysterious Hundred Eyes, it sets off a vicious competition with other assassins for the coveted top spot.

It's a flimsy, elliptical plot interrupted by various absurd encounters and dream sequences. Along the way to her final confrontation with No.1, Stray Cat tussles with a wheelchair-bound assassin, is lumbered with a ten-year-old girl who wishes to be her protege and encounters Goro Hanada, the 'Champ' hit man from Branded to Kill who's now regarded as something of a joke by his fellow assassins. Throughout her progress she's regularly briefed by Sayoko Uekyo, an enigmatic intermediary with whom she shares some homoerotic frisson.

For Suzuki's admirers the real appeal of his work lies as much in his audacious technique and visual sensibility. Art director and longtime Suzuki collaborator Takeo Kimura does an exemplary job with the set design, which invokes and perhaps improves upon the poppy audacity of Tokyo Drifter. It's a kaleidoscopic feast that holds the attention even when you can't fathom what's supposed to be happening in the story.

Taken on this level - allowing the sumptuous imagery to wash over you with seeking any deeper meaning - Pistol Opera successfully recaptures the flavour of his best sixties work. But one suspects that Suzuki is rather bemused by the acclaim foisted upon those films and his auteur status. He was simply trying to produce some diverting ephemera with a little flair and originality, anything more is purely in the eye of the beholder.

AFED #13: Fish Tank (UK, 2009); Dir. Andrea Arnold

Those of you who are British and of a certain vintage may recall a Saturday morning kids tv show that ran in the eighties called No.73. It was a rather odd affair; a magazine programme with guests and features that took place in a house (really a studio set ) and was fronted by presenters who played its residents.

I could never quite fathom what the domestic arrangement was supposed to be in the house. Comedienne Sandi Toksvig (in those days still in proud possession of a neck)  played Ethel, the homeowner and apparent matriarch, but were the other presenters supposed to be family members? It seemed a rather bohemian household and to my young mind there was something slightly unhealthy about it all.

Anyway, along with Toksvig another stalwart of the show was Andrea Arnold, who played a perpetually roller-skating redhead named Dawn. After No.73 ended she turned up as a presenter on one or two other things and then dropped out of sight. In the intervening years I may have wondered what happened to her but can't say it gave me any sleepless nights.

Then a few years ago she re-emerged as a highly regarded film-maker, directing the Oscar-winning short Wasp in 2005 and her debut feature Red Road shortly after. Then a couple of years ago came the slice-of-life tale Fish Tank.

It's the story of 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), a girl you could describe as having issues. A social misfit more inclined to headbutt other girls than befriend them, she lives with her mother and younger sister in a run-down Essex council flat. Mia's one source of relief is her dream of becoming a hip-hop dancer. That's until her mother brings home a handsome boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) and sends Mia's life spiralling towards a crisis.

Fish Tank is classic British social realism; of the sort pioneered at the Royal Court and the inspiration for the kitchen sink cycle of films. In many respects Mia's character can be seen as an updating of Rita Tishingham's heroine from A Taste of Honey; the same lippy manner and fractious relationship with her single mother. Brutalist tower blocks and handheld cameras may have replaced factories and wet cobblestones, but human melodramas remain the same.

Which is not to say that Fish Tank isn't a very good example of its type. Writer/director Arnold keeps her tone naturalistic and doesn't play to the galleries, even choosing to end what might be a very dour story on an upbeat note. As a former dancer herself one suspects there was at least some autobiographical input.

Arnold is abetted by a superb performance by Katie Jarvis, who was plucked from obscurity for the part. One would suppose Jarvis is effectively playing herself, and it will be interesting to see if she can capitalise on the success it's brought her in further roles, though that shouldn't detract from how totally she embodies it. Her counterpart Fassbender is of course an experienced thesp and again demonstrates just how versatile he is.

Like all films in this genre its appeal is to those who seek more than just escapism and there's an irony that those girls out there like Mia are precisely the sort you'd probably have to drag into the cinema to watch it. There's no easy solution to this but better that the choice exists than not at all.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

AFED #12: Arsenic and Old Lace (US, 1944); Dir. Frank Capra

So Day 12 and probably not for the last time I'm struggling to know exactly what to say about a film. Are these the first signs of ennui? Is my resolve beginning to crack after less than a fortnight? Stay tuned to find out.

After all today's choice Arsenic and Old Lace is an an undisputed classic, isn't it? Many years ago I picked up a book by Christopher Tookey called The Critics Guide to Film. I must have spent hours perusing it, but perhaps the most notable feature a chart of the 200 highest rated movies according to film writers. The top honours in fact went to another Cary Grant vehicle, His Girl Friday, but this one was well placed.

Like His Girl Friday, Arsenic and Old Lace is sometimes labelled as a screwball comedy, but although it shares the high tempo pacing, the romance element is far less significant. Grant plays a newlywed who visits the family home with his bride only to discover his elderly aunts have developed a penchant for murdering old men as an act of "charity".

Whilst Grant's hatching a plan to have both them and his brother Ted (who's convinced he's Theodore Roosevelt) taken into care, another brother with homicidal tendencies of his own (Raymond Massey) turns up with the intention of disposing of another dead body. And so events unfold with... ahem... hilarious consequences.

Now there's nothing wrong with the cast. Cary Grant is sometimes too smooth for my tastes but he's firmly in self parody mode here. Whilst the story isn't the usual one would associate with Capra his direction makes the most of the script, which is closely adapted from the successful stage play.

Why then did it leave me so indifferent? Arsenic and Old Lace is basically a domestic farce, albeit one with the comparative novelty (for the early 1940's) of also being a black comedy. Although a variation of this style has been assimilated in the form of sitcoms the more exaggerated and affected farce we see here is largely extinct. What once seemed clever (for example the switch of the dead bodies in the window seat) is now just contrived.

Comedy more than any other genre is dependent upon context. A joke which might seem hilarious within one cultural paradigm can be unfunny if not meaningless in another. Different countries, languages and time periods have their own idioms and I don't subscribe to the notion that anything but the broadest and most basic comedy is universal.

Would Chaplin or Keaton be such huge stars today? I'm not convinced; which is not to say contemporary humour is superior - in many respects it's good deal more crude and cynical - but it resonates more readily with the time in which we're living.

By extension it also depends on how you're watching it. As an adaptation of a stage play, then as a film for theatrical performance, it was intended to be enjoyed as a communal experience. We can be confident the makers never anticipated it being watched on a laptop by a guy by himself, simultaneously keeping an eye on his washing machine to make sure it didn't vibrate too much and upset the people downstairs.

So maybe I've only myself to blame. Or maybe it's really not all that.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

AFED #11: F (UK, 2010); Dir. Johannes Roberts

A few days back in reviewing Seven Green Bottles you may recall I mentioned that the school I attended in Epsom some twenty-odd years ago was mainly populated with straight, middle-class kids largely incapable of any malice or criminality.

That was the way it seemed; yet watching today's film I recalled an incident that made the national headlines years after I'd left. One of my old P.E. teachers found himself on the receiving end of a series of abusive telephone calls, including death threats, from two of the boys at the school.

The teacher was forced into early retirement from the stress whilst, bizarrely, the boys were for a time allowed to return. It took the intervention of the Education Secretary before their parents agreed to move them to different schools.

Such stories aren't unusual these days of course and there have been far more extreme cases. A schoolteacher's life can be a grim and unrewarding one, faced with pupils who can scarcely conceal their contempt and in some cases are quite capable of resorting to violence.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before somebody took those anxieties and used them as the basis for a horror film, although not all efforts are likely to have been as accomplished as F.

Veteran actor David Schofield stars as Robert Anderson, an English teacher whose life has fallen apart after an incident in which he was assaulted by one of his pupils. Now an alcoholic and estranged from his wife, Anderson's deteriorating relationship with his daughter Kate (Eliza Bennett), who's conveniently also one of his pupils, reaches breaking point when he holds her back for late detention. But that very evening the school finds itself under attack from a gang of faceless hoodie-clad youths, who move with the stealth of ninjas and dispatch their victims as macabrely as possible.

F initially drew some comparisons with the 2008 Brit thriller Eden Lake, but aside from the 'evil kids' premise there's almost no resemblance. Director Johannes Roberts took his inspiration from John Carpenter's siege movie Assault on Precinct 13, which is in itself an updated remodelled western in the tradition of the Alamo. Yet there's also a quasi supernatural aspect to the silent killers, whose motives and provenance are left entirely unexplained.

Johannes is actually an old university friend of mine, we studied film together in Southampton, and I've seen all his previous work. He'd be the first to admit that those earlier horrors are fairly atrocious and what's striking is what a huge leap forward his work has taken with F.

Throughout Roberts' understanding of film grammar is assured; the handheld camerawork creates a tight, claustrophobic effect. It's true that occasionally he becomes a little too reliant on suspense cliches, but wisely avoids the excesses of torture porn while still managing some very grizzly pay-offs.

Credit is also due to the cast, in particular Schofield's impressive turn as Anderson. For an actor better known for support roles he makes a compelling leading man; his creviced, careworn face is endlessly fascinating. One can read the film as the journey of a man through purgatory, only to have his opportunity for atonement cruelly snatched in a sadistic ending. There's a cute reference early on to King Lear - a figure whose daughter troubles echo Anderson's - and one imagines Schofield would excel in that part.

If I have one major criticism of the film it's too economical. With a running time of just 76 minutes there's very little preamble besides setting up Schofield's character and his troubled personal life. The inexplicable nature of the attack isn't a problem; after all it's a parody of sorts on middle England's paranoia. However more context and foreshadowing, maybe some teasing of what will ensue, might have enhanced the overall effect.

Still, that's the reality of low-budget film making; productions have to be kept as lean as possible. Given it would have been quite feasible to take the idea to the States for a bigger return, one has to credit Roberts and company for sticking to their guns and making one of the most refreshing British horrors for a while.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

AFED #10: Adéla ještě nevečeřela [Dinner for Adele] (Czechoslovakia, 1977); Dir. Oldřich Lipský

The 1970's was a strange period for Czechoslovak cinema, the one-time darling of critics and festival goers. Although the Soviet invasion of Prague in August 1968 marked the beginning of the end for the cycle of films known as the Czech New Wave, the wealth of talent creative talent nurtured during this period didn't simply disappear into the ether now that the authorities started keeping a closer eye on their activities.

A few, most famously Milos Forman, defected to the West but for most it was a case of adapting to the new status quo. Perhaps unsurprisingly comedy and fantasy, always a vibrant component of the Czechoslovak film scene, assumed renewed significance as a creative outlet.

Works such as bizarre time travel comedy Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajemor ('Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea') or Juraj Herz's Beauty and the Beast adaptation Panna a netvor may not have had the same subversive intent of their predecessors but still show a national cinema that could punch above its weight in terms of quality and creativity.

Another example is Oldřich Lipský's comic fantasy Dinner for Adele, a homage of sorts to the pulp melodramas of a old, cross-fertilised with a surrealist sensibility.

It's the turn of the century and Nick Carter, "America's most famous detective" (a pulp character who's actually been doing the rounds almost as long as Sherlock Holmes) travels to Prague on his latest case. A dog has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and suspicions turns to a large and curious looking plant with carnivorous tendencies. When the plant, the eponymous Adele, is stolen back Carter finds himself drawn into a battle of wits with The Gardener, an old nemesis he'd presumed dead, and faces a race against time to uncover the villain's dastardly intentions.

Suffice to say that the tone is decidedly tongue in cheek in a style vaguely reminiscent of the 1975 Doc Savage and clearly owing a debt to The Little Shop of Horrors. Carter is a parody of the superhero detective, as evidenced in the opening scene in which he effortlessly thwarts three different attempts to kill him without leaving his office chair.

There's nothing sophisticated about the humour on show, it's broad slapstick which often harkens back to the silent movie era. Director Lipský was a tried and tested comedy veteran who'd tasted success with earlier work such as the western The Lemonade Kid and avoided controversy during the New Wave years.

The most creative elements of the Dinner for Adele come courtesy of legendary Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, who applied his skills to animating the plant scenes and devising the array of tricks and gadgets Carter and his rival deploy. It's a long way from the uncompromising work for which Švankmajer is best known but complements the the distinctive visual look of the film.

Overall there's a lot to like about it; style and flavour, tongue-in-cheek performances and obvious affection for the material that inspired it all. Yet somehow there wasn't quite enough to get excited about; I hoped for something a little weirder than was ultimately delivered.

Monday, 10 January 2011

AFED #9: The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (UK, 1939); Dir. Thorold Dickinson

Okay, today's turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Originally I'd intended review the 1973 horror Ganga and Hess but after watching it this afternoon didn't feel able to reach any firm conclusions about it. It might be a masterpiece, alternatively it might be obtuse, meandering and (in some quarters) rather overrated. I need to see it again, hopefully within the next couple of weeks.

So, in what's probably not going to be the last time, and because there have been calls in some quarters to do something football related, here's an undemanding little thirties murder mystery I watched by way of making amends. Or at least try.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery has acquired something of a cult reputation as one of the first football themed films and for the novelty of featuring the hugely successful 1930's Arsenal team. I must admit to having low expectations of this one; after all it's principally based around a gimmick. It's by no means a bad film, just not especially remarkable.

The plot revolves around the visit to Arsenal of a top amateur team, the Trojans, for a friendly match. After the Arsenal team have made their obligatory cameos at the start it's clear from their RADA accents that it's the Trojans the story is really about. We gather from the pre-match build-up there's some festering ill feeling amongst the team towards philandering star player John Doyce and it doesn't take a genius to see where things are heading.

During the second half, with the game thrillingly poised at 1-1 before a packed Highbury crowd, Doyce suddenly collapses and is later pronounced dead, forcing the match's abandonment. When the cause is revealed to be poison it becomes a case for Scotland Yard's finest, Inspector Slade (Leslie Banks), who gets to work unpicking the mystery whilst sporting a *hilarious* array of hats.

After an investigation in which it becomes clear there are several candidates for Doyce's murder, Slade is on the brink of identifying the killer at the match's replay and then... the dvd cut out.

It was a recording made a few years back from tv and evidently I'd never checked it was actually complete. So in my experience at least it proved to be a wholly unsatisfactory denouement. It could be the finest ending in all of cinema, but I sincerely doubt it.

Normal service resumed tomorrow, hopefully.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

AFED #8: Pokolenie [A Generation] (Poland, 1955), Kanal (1956), Popiół i diament [Ashes and Diamonds] (1958); Dir. Andrzej Wajda

A few years back Matthew Sweet wrote an excellent article about the decline in general awareness of great world cinema in our multi-channel age. It inspired as-yet-unfulfilled fantasy to have a conversation in a chip shop with a girl I'd never met before (or had I?) about Last Year At Marienbad. Were such an encounter to take place I suspect I might fall in love there and then.

The movement amorphously defined as European 'art cinema' - particularly its golden era from the mid-fifties to the early seventies - is unquestionably my favourite, so I'll make no apologies for the fact it's going to crop up frequently in this blog. Taken as a whole it's a nexus of ideas and philosophies, yet with a shared conviction that film can, maybe should, be more than vicarious escapism.

These are films that challenge your preconceptions; an incitement to thought. Sure, there's plenty of pretension along the way, but pro rata it probably comes out less than the dross Hollywood has churned out.

What's more it's so dispersed and diverse that, unless you're a professional critic, there's always likely to be areas you've never had the opportunity to explore. Such a case is the work of Polish director Andrej Wajda and the loose trilogy of war films with which he launched his career.

Although the stories are ostensibly unrelated their shared references to events during the German occupation and subsequent rise of communism create a thematic unity. The first, A Generation, is the tale of wayward young man Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki)in the Warsaw of 1942 who becomes politicised after becoming an apprentice at a workshop. When he encounters beautiful communist agitator Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska) he signs up for the communist resistance.

Łomnicki convincingly portrays the Stach's transition from roguish chancer to committed freedom fighter, galvanised by Dorota's fate at the climax. Along the way he recruits his own resistance cell which includes a youthful Roman Polanski and reluctant hero Tadeusz Janczar, who provides the film with its visceral highlight; a thrilling pursuit and gunfight with the Nazis through the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto.

It's a bleak tale punctuated with stirring moments. As the great Lindsay Anderson (who Wajda credits with first promoting awareness of his work in the west) pointed out it manages to combine wartime adventure with the "revolutionary biography" of a young man becoming aware and wishing to change his world. In that respect it's perhaps the blueprint for many films that have followed since.

The second film Kanal (which literally translates as 'sewer') moves events on by a couple of years to the close of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, when the Polish resistance group known as the Home Army attempted to liberate the city from the Nazis. For the benefit of those not up to speed with Polish political history (and I was amongst you) this was a right-wing nationalist group who were largely separate to the communist resistance and controversially the Russians did nothing to assist the uprising but forced the Home Army to be disbanded when they did finally intervene.

Kanal is the blackest and to my mind weakest film in the trilogy. It revolves around a small and diminishing platoon of resistance fighters besieged by the Nazis in the ruins of Warsaw's Mocotow province. After suffering further losses after another Nazi attack they resolve to escape, as others had before them, into the city's sewer network which they hope will lead to safe passage and fresh supplies.

Beneath the city, in the labyrinthine and pestilential darkness of the sewers the group becomes lost and broken up. By the time one of the group mentions Dante we've already realised it's intended to be analogous with hell. It's an atmospheric film and one has to admire the technical skill with which the sewer scenes are executed, but not exactly life affirming.

Watching Ashes and Diamonds one can see that it's the culmination of the experience gained from those first two films. The story takes place in an unamed town on May 8th 1945, the date of the formal German surrender.

Poland is now firmly under the thumb of the Soviets and a communist government has been installed. Maciek and Andrzej, two soldiers with the outlawed Home Army that has now embarked on a campaign of relatiation against the communists, have been ordered to a kill Commissar Szczuka, a communist district leader who has just returned from exile in Russia.

After the pair discover an initial attempt has been unsuccessful, they plan for a second attempt on Szczuka's life in the hotel where he's attending a banquet being organised by the town's mayor. Whilst waiting Maciek begins romancing Krystyna, a barmaid in the hotel and reappraising his life.

Zbigniew Cybulski
, who plays Maciek, has acquired the title of the 'Polish James Dean', helped in part by his premature death. He's a magnetic lead and as we discover more about Maciek and the path his life has taken he grows increasingly sympathetic. His constant wearing of sunglasses seems incongruous for the period until we discover that he also spent time in the Warsaw sewers evading the Nazis.

The rootlessness of his existence and emphasis on nothing than killing for an increasingly obsolete cause has left him spiritually destitute. As the romance with Krystyna evolves we discover that she too has been left scarred by the transience of life during wartime.

Maciek's ultimate fate is that of the flawed tragic hero and it's a barometer of how much more tolerant the Polish authorities had grown in the four years since A Generation, as such a sympathetic portrayal of the right would have been unthinkable before the country adopted a more benign form of communism.

Wajda still avoids overt criticism of the ruling ideology but highlights that good, valiant men became outcasts in the wake of the war, whilst others far less worthy found themselves in positions of power. Throughout the latter stages Maciek's long night of the soul is juxtaposed with the drunken frivolity of the banquet and we're left to draw our own conclusions.

It actually took two viewings before I could really begin to appreciate the quality of this one. While A Generation is at times propagandistic and Kanal unremittingly bleak, in the third film there are shades of light and dark, comedy and pathos. The sumptuous deep focus cinematography of Jerzy Wójcik provides further enrichment and allows for some imaginative mise-en-scene.

Ashes and Diamonds is a film which rewards your attention and compels you to think. If you believe these are worthy virtues for cinema then I highly recommend it.