Thursday, 21 April 2011

AFED #111: Shào Lín sān shí liù fáng [The 36th Chamber of Shaolin] (Hong Kong, 1978); Dir. Liu Ch-Liang; Tian xia di yi quan [aka King Boxer, aka Five Fingers of Death] (Hong Kong, 1972); Dir. Cheng Chang Ho

Martial arts film are, it must be confessed, something of a blank area for me. Many years ago I recall being challenged by a friend when I suggested that Enter the Dragon was the best of this genre ever made. "You've never seen any others though," he pointed out. It's true, and until now I haven't made any attempt to redress this.

So let's start with a double bill produced by Hong Kong's most famous studio, the redoubtable Shaw Brothers. The name is synonymous with Kung Fu and martial arts cinema, almost representing a genre within the genre, cranking out dozens of films a year during their heyday in the seventies.

Modelled on the old Hollywood studio system, right down to the company logo (imitating that of Warners'), the company kept a stable of stars and directors under exclusive contract. It worked highly effectively although as the decade progressed Shaw would be eclipsed by a rough-and-ready rival, Golden Harvest, who launched the careers of many of the most famous martial arts stars (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li) and was ironically formed by two former Shaw executives.

King Boxer and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (I'll use the titles of the dvd releases) are considered amongst the best Shaw films, boasting an enthusiastic fan following. Tarantino lists the former amongst his all-time favourites, while my interest in 36th Chamber was piqued by its influence on rappers the Wu Tang Clan (RZA even contributes to the dvd commentary).

Both films star young heroes who must undergo physical and spiritual rites of passage in order to vanquish their oppressors. In King Boxer Chi-Hao (Lo Lieh) enters the tutelage of a new master, Shen Chin-Pei, in readiness for a forthcoming tournament in which he must defeat the local tyrant's son.

Learning quickly, Chi-Hao initiated into the secret of Shen Chin-Pei's mysterious 'iron fist' technique (presumably inspiring the Marvel hero of the same name) and earns the enmity of the master's previous favourite who sets him up for a clash with the villains, who in turn crush his hands. Chi-Hao must call upon all his reserves of determination in order to recover in time and win the tournament.

It's simplistic, comic-book stuff; garish visuals, variable acting, simplistic dialogue and regular displays of unfeasible acrobatics and superhuman fighting skills. Yet it's assembled professionally; although the sets betray it's mainly studio-based filming it's crisp cinematography is comfortably on a par with an American production.

Chi-Hao's training, the patience and resolve required to master skills, forms an important component of Kick Boxer, but for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin it's pretty much the raison d'être. The film is a fictionalised account of the legend of San Te, a disciple of martial arts at the revered Shaolin monastery during the eighteenth century.

In this version of the story San Te (Gordon Liu) is one of a group of a group of students who join their teacher into opposing the Manchu government (i.e. the ruling Qing dynasty). When his friends and family are killed San Te flees to the Shaolin temple, hoping they will teach him the techniques of kung fu.

During the long middle act he gradually moves through the different 'chambers', or colleges of learning, that are required to become a kung fu master. These range in complexity from learning to negotiate a water jump by stepping on a floating barrel to advanced fighting techniques. After several years of committed study and application he finally attains the top ranking, but rather than remain in the temple he requests to be allowed to form a new 36th chamber, dedicated to teaching kung fu to common folk.

Although less action orientated 36th Chamber does a good job of conveying the kung fu philosophy. San Te may be the most gifted student at the temple but the attainment of his goal is still only attained through great tribulation and endless repetition of the same exercises. Given the villains are effectively out of the picture for much of the film it could be painfully dull but we're drawn in to the hero's personal journey. Humour - in particular San Te's many pratfalls as he attempts to master the skills - plays an important part and Gordon Liu gives a charismatic performance in the lead.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

AFED #109: Sanshō Dayũ [Sansho the Bailiff] (Japan, 1954); Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

Few national cinemas can boast the wealth of directing talent that Japan possessed between the forties and sixties. Yasujirō Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Masaki Kobayashi were all active during this golden age, producing some of the classics of world cinema.

Mizoguchi, director of Sanshō Dayũ, is still something of a grey area for me as I've thus far only watched this and (his own favourite work) The Life of Oharu (1952). It shares with the theme of all fall from status, yet while Oharu's is partly of her own doing for the hapless characters of Sanshō Dayũ their fortunes are constantly governed by the fickle hand of fate.

Taking place - like so many Japanese films of this vintage - during the feudal era, the story begins with the exiling of a virtuous governor to a far-off province. When his wife and children attempt to make the long journey to visit him they are tricked and find themselves sold into prostitution and slavery. The children, Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) and Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) fall into the ownership of the eponymous Sansho, a vindictive landowner, and treated with appalling hardship and brutality.

Years pass and Zushio becomes hardened by the experience while his sister Anju still recalls their father's teachings. When opportunity deals them the opportunity to escape Sansho's compound Anju convinces Zushio to make the journey in search of their mother and come back to rescue her. Thereafter the story focuses on Zushio as remarkable series of events that allow him to turn the tables on Sansho and liberate his slaves. It comes too late to save Zushio's father and sister but in an overwrought finale he is reunited with his mother, now blind and frail.

Strangely enough there are parallels with Ben Hur, which I've watched recently (this entry being written several days after the event, I'm afraid). Both revolve around a son seeking to correct wrongs committed against his family and trying to reconcile the desire for revenge with the more tolerant teachings of his 'father'. Yet while in the Hollywood film success is achieved through superhuman resolve, in Mizoguchi's world struggle is not always rewarded with the desired results and luck, good and bad, always has a part to play.

Confucian philosophy lies at the heart of this talr, in particular the theme of honouring one's parents. Ultimately Zushio achieves a victory of sorts by rediscovering and applying those principles, albeit agonisingly too late. Some of the film's power may have been lost by time; occasionally scenes that might have seemed naturalistic in the fifties now come across as stiled. Yet Sanshō Dayũ still packs a punch.

AFED #108: Haute Tension [High Tension, aka Switchblade Romance] (France, 2003); Dir. Alexandre Aja

There's a gimmick that's gained prominence in cinema over the past decade that I find increasingly irksome. It cropped up in La casa muda just last week and here it is again, albeit Haute Tension preempted the Uruguayan film by several years.

Let's call that gimmick EYTYKIW: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong. Now EYTYKIW is a somewhat different creature to the twist ending, which has been with us ever since cavemen began sitting around the fire telling stories. Twist endings are the final snap in a story, a little surprise to muse over afterwards. By contrast EYTYKIW typically comes at some point during the third act and gleefully exposes the artifice of narrative; those logical assumptions we've made while reading or watching a story.

The interesting thing about EYTYKIW is it can be effective without necessarily being that much of a surprise. Anybody with a passing knowledge of old school psycho-thrillers won't have been taken aback by Scorsese's Shutter Island but that doesn't prevent it from being a damn entertaining film.

But the problem arises when filmmakers, in their desperation to be clever or original, play the EYTYKIW card with scant regard to what's gone before. If it undermines the logical consistency of the earlier part of the story without adequate foreshadowing then it's simply cheating and the viewer has every justification in feeling conned.

Haute Tension is for the main part an affectionate (if that's appropriate) homage to seventies American home invasion horrors; grizzly grindhouse classics such as Wes Craven's Last House On the Left. Marie (Cécile de France) and Alex (Maïwenn Le Besco) are two college friends who travel to the country home of Alex's parents to spend the weekend studying. It's apparent from the onset that Marie - with close-cropped hair that makes her resemble a butch Jean Seberg - has a crush on Alex, although her friend seems blithely unaware.

That night a van-driving, switchblade-wielding brute breaks into the house, gruesomely slaughters Alex's family, ties her up and kidnaps her. Marie, who managed to hide from the invader, sneaks into the back of the van with her and resolves to somehow get them out of this mess.

This and the majority of what ensues would actually have made for a highly effective thriller. Writer/director Alexandre Aja gleefully milks all the conventions of suspense and although there's a superfluity of gore it's executed with plenty of élan. What's more the idea of a lesbian heroine who must demonstrate masculine resourcefulness to save the day is a provocative one.

Unfortunately it doesn't appear to have been enough for Aja and he resorts to the aforesaid EYTYKIW. Logic flies out the window and he deploys some rather lame and not inoffensive stereotyping in the process. Perhaps the catch came first and he wrote the story around it, but that doesn't make it any more satisfying.

And so that postmodern conceit, the cannibalisation of narrative convention, wins out over old-fashioned storytelling. I'm not averse, I'll gleefully embrace innovative cinema, but this was trite and silly.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

AFED #106: Obaltan [The Aimless Bullet] (South Korea, 1960); Dir. Yu Hyun-mok

Although regarded by some as South Korea's finest ever film, Obaltan is very much a product of the changes cinema underwent across the world in the post-war years. Fittingly therefore it's a film about readjusting to civilian life after wartime, although here the war in question is the military conflict that shook Korea between 1950 and 1953.

Falling somewhere between The Best Years of Our Lives and the plaintive bleakness of Italian neorealism, it relates the story of two brothers who live in poverty in the ravaged slums of Seoul. The elder, Yeong-ho (Kim Jin-kyu), works for a pittance as an accountant to support his wife and young children whilst tormented by chronic toothache. His younger sibling Cheol-ho (Choi Mu-ryong) is a former war hero who spends his time hanging out his fellow veterans and promising, but always failing, to find a job.

As events progress things go from bad to worse for the brothers. Cheol-ho is reunited with a nurse who treated him in hospital and romance briefly flickers only for tragedy to strike. His resulting desperation leads to a surprising change of pace during the film's final third as he makes a misguided attempt to redress his circumstances. Meanwhile Yeong-ho's life takes an even more callous twist that plunges him into the depths of misery. In case you were in any doubt before the message is clear: life is shit.

Not entirely surprising then that the South Korean government (in the wake of a coup d'etat) sought to suppress the film. Yet it drew acclaim at the 1963 San Francisco International Film Festival and prompted reappraisal. Like so much realist cinema although bitterly uncompromising in its portrayal of the world it does so with harrowing sensitivity.

Director Yoo Hyun-Mok, who would become the country's premier auteur, struggled with the production for more than a year, working with meagre resources. At times the financial and technical limitations are plainly apparent; at one point a chase sequence inexplicably switches to a night-time shot and the effect is less expressive than disruptive. But there are also some beautifully realised moments such as Cheol-ho's discovery of the nurse's demise and the closing scenes as Yeong-ho's world unravels.

It would nice to see the film again in a fully restored print as the version I watched was very much the worse for wear. But for those wishing to learn about the roots of modern South Korean cinema it's well worth the effort.

AFED #105: Pulgasari (North Korea, 1985); Dir. Shin Sang-ok & Chong Gon Jo

So you're the deputy leader of an ostracised communist state who also happens to be something of a cinephile. It would be wonderful if your country could actually produce some quality films of its own but sadly there's a dearth of talent. What do you do? Kidnap some talent of course!

That's what Kim Jong-il did when he wanted to give North Korean cinema a boost. The lucky abductee was Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean director and producer who was forced to work on the other side of the 38th parallel between 1978 and his eventual escape in 1986. One of the last films he made during this period was Pulgasari, a monster movie in the Godzilla tradition.

Very few North Korean films enter circulation outside of their homeland and the general consensus seems to be they're not all that good. Unsurprisingly there's a strong propagandistic flavour although - as I commented with regard to The Fall of Berlin recently - that doesn't mean they're not of value as cultural artefacts.

The same is true here although Pulgasari is actually a good deal more watchable than one might expect. Eschewing the radioactive origins of its Japanese progenitor, the titular monster begins life as a tiny doll moulded from rice by an elderly blacksmith imprisoned by a villainous governor in feudal Korea. The governor has taken away the cooking pots and other metal utensils of villages in his province so the iron can be melted down and cast into weapons; an edict which has understandably left the peasants feeling somewhat aggrieved.

When the blacksmith dies the doll falls into the hands of his daughter and when her blood is accidentally spillt on it the icon is magically transformed into life. Courtesy of a man in a monster suit, that is. The creature has a ravenous appetite for metal which causes it to grow at a prodigious rate, yet the blacksmith's daughter has a hold over it and soon the monster is directing his energies against the villagers' oppressors as they rebel.

After a protracted struggle and various attempts by the governor to halt Pulgasari's progress the villagers finally emerge victorious. But there's a problem: the monster, who has now reached exponential dimensions, still has a huge appetite for metal and the villagers are unable to satiate its needs. Finally the blacksmith's daughter resolves to make the ultimate sacrifice so that their fearsome ally doesn't become an impossible burden.

It's with this later development that the film gains an added dimension and the general opinion seems to be that Pulgasari symbolises the threat of unfettered capitalism; first liberating the people but ultimately threatening to leave them enslaved by poverty. Assuredly it's only through communism that the people can be guaranteed freedom, although quite whether North Koreans truly feel the same way is open to speculation.

The special effects and battle scenes might not be of the standards one could expect in the west but they're competently orchestrated and don't let the story down. As a depiction of a civil uprising this may not be Eisentein (although the mind boggles what the Soviet director might have done with the Godzilla concept!) but there's enough drama not to feel let down. I've endured far worse.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

AFED #104: Pasqualino Settebellezze [Seven Beauties] (Italy, 1975); Dir. Lina Wertmüller

Seven Beauties is a film I feel I ought to have liked, or at least appreciated, more than I did. It's an epic, picaresque satire that touches upon subject matter that was still sensitive at the time, but there's an ugliness to it which I found difficult to reconcile.

After an introduction that soliloquises ironically about the rise and fall of Mussolini and the indignities of the Second World War over old wartime footage, the story begins in somewhere in Germany shortly after the collapse of Italian fascism. Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini) and Francesco are two Italian soldiers fleeing the Nazis.

During conversation Pasqualino reveals that he killed a man before the war and the narrative shifts into flashback of his earlier life as a hustler and dandy in Naples, where his life revolved around protecting the honour of his seven sisters. After killing a man who attempted to pimp one of these 'beauties' (they're anything but beautiful) he evades execution by feigning insanity and being sent to an asylum. The arrival of war offers him a way out and he signs up.

Meanwhile in the present the two soldiers are captured and sent to a concentration camp. Desperate to save his own skin Pasqualino seeks to engratiate himself with the fat, domineering female warden through performing sexual favours. However, the plan backfires when he's ordered to select six of his fellow prisoners for execution.

The film adopts a blackly comic, ironic tone throughout, with lashings of coarse and scatological humour. Pasqualino's willingness to debase himself in the name of self-preservation makes him a far from sympathetic character, although of course the essential irony is that it's this that allows him to stay alive while those more virtuous perish. Giannini - best known today for his role as the agent Mathis in the last two Bond films - gives a committed performance in the central role.

It was directed by Lina Wertmüller, who became the first woman to be Oscar nominated in that role, one of several nods the picture received from the Academy. A protegee of Fellini (she served as assistant director on ), the Maestro's influence is quite apparent, particular in the Naples scenes and depictions of burlesque entertainment, although with nothing like the same flair he might have bestowed.

The point one supposes is that survival is a vulgar business and perhaps this is something not entirely appreciated given the romantic and sentimental depictions of war we're used to. This may be true but the story drags at certain points and in the absence of many demonstrations of humanity it's very difficult to care, at least until the latter stages. Seven Beauties is not without admirers but by the end I was glad to be done with it.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

AFED #103: Limonádový Joe aneb Koňská opera [Lemonade Joe] (Czechoslovakia, 1964); Dir. Oldřich Lipský

I was commenting just a couple of weeks ago (with regard to Sexmission) how eastern European comedy comes across as very broad and affected to western sensibilities, at least during the Cold war era.

Probably the closest we've seen to an English language film done in the same style would, for obvious reasons, be Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, which for all its visual flair and Komeda's wonderful score falls rather flat with the slapstick pratfalls.

As I mentioned last time the prominence of this kind of humour probably owed a lot to the censorious climate, where more subversive wit was usually frowned upon. A good example of this is Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball, which although not especially radical by our standards was criticised in Czechoslovakia for its veiled attack on the petty bureaucracy of communism.

No such ire was directed towards Lemonade Joe, which was released a few years earlier; perhaps because it does precisely the opposite and takes a sideswipe at American values. It's a slick parody of the silent westerns, mixing slapstick with musical numbers, with an endearingly irreverent sense of fun.

Set in the evocatively named Stetson City, an archetypal frontier town, the titular Joe (Karel Fiala) is a clean-living young gunfighter who takes on a town of whiskey-sodden cowboys. His exploits go down well with the local evangelist and his pretty blonde daughter (Olga Schoberová), who have been trying to impress upon the residents the virtues of temperance.

When Joe attributes his sharp-shooting to drinking (*ahem*)'Kolaloka' lemonade the evangelist sets up an establishment to rival the local saloon and a trade war ensues with its villainous proprietors. Yet it transpires Joe's motives aren't completely honourable; he's also the regional salesman for Kolaloka!

It does an excellent job of capturing the style and flavour of the old, melodramatic westerns that the deftness and moral ambiguity of its satire might well be lost on many modern viewers. We're so accustomed to the ubiquity of capitalist values that it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking Joe is the good guy rather than a flipside of the same coin.

The film is beautifully shot in tinted monochrome and with obvious affection for the genre. Throughout the narrative is regularly interrupted by musical numbers and there's also some very surreal humour, as when one of the villains adopts a blackface disguise for no apparent reason (think of the League of Gentlemen's Papa Lazarou).

Given the subject matter Lemonade Joe would make a fabulous double bill with Billy Wilder's scattergun satire One, Two, Three, in which James Cagney played a Coca Cola executive trying to sell his product in East Germany. Are you listening, BFI?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

AFED #102: Source Code (US, 2011); Dir. Duncan Jones

The opening to Duncan Jones' second feature film is classic Hitchcock, and not just because Chris Bacon's rousing score evokes Bernard Herrmann in his pomp. Helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on a passenger train sitting opposite a woman (Michelle Monaghan) who seems to believe he's somebody else.

More worryingly still when he checks a mirror the face that looks back is not his own. Yet before he's had a chance to try and understand what's happening a bomb on the train explodes, killing everyone.

Since Gyllenhaal is the star and this is a science fiction movie you know it's only the beginning. He reawakens to find himself strapped into a sealed, cockpit-like cabin where - via a monitor - an air force officer (Vera Farmiga) explains to him he's part of an experimental programme that allows subjects to travel back in time to enter and control the thoughts of the last eight minutes of a dead person's life. Capt Stevens' mission is to find who planted the bomb and prevent them from detonating a much larger device later that day. Again and again he keeps reliving those eight minutes as the bigger picture slowly becomes evident.

The result is a scenario that's part Groundhog Day and part Quantum Leap; which one imagines is exactly how it was pitched. Even by sci-fi standards it's an outlandish and totally illogical concept, although the denouement at least offers a pat explanation to what really actually happened. Kind of.

Yet once you've suspended disbelief it's a tight and very enjoyable action thriller with a few points to make about the brevity of life and ceasing the day. Like Groundhog Day there's something very compelling about history repeating like this; perhaps it's a fundamental human yearning to recapture the past.

This is a bigger, dumber, altogether glossier film than Jones' debut Moon, but what its loses in sentience it surprisingly gains in emotional warmth. Gyllenhaal - who announced his arrival a decade ago with another time travel film of sorts, Donnie Darko - makes for a robust and dynamic action hero, ably complemented by the attractive Monaghan and Farmiga.

All in all it looks like the director has now very much arrived on the Hollywood map and it's intriguing to see where his career goes from here, whether Jones prefers the mainstream or the greater creative freedom of the independent scene. One is reminded of how George Lucas began his career with an arty science fiction film (THX-1138) only to change into something quite different. Still, given he's David Bowie's son perhaps a penchant for change runs in the family.

AFED #101: La casa muda [The Silent House] (Uruguay, 2010); Dir. Gustavo Hernández

Gustavo Hernández's supernatural horror attracted some attention on the festival circuit by virtue of its principal gimmick: it was filmed in a single unbroken handheld shot and takes place in real time.

There's nothing new about this; Hitchcock ostensibly did the same thing with Rope (albeit cheating due to the technical limitations of the time) and more recently Alexander Sokurov deployed it with his Russian Ark. It's probably more useful to consider The Silent House in the context of horror's ongoing flirtation with vérité techniques in the pursuit of more authentic and visceral frights; a tradition that stretches from Night of the Living Dead to The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity.

Yet despite that the plot harkens back the golden era of Victorian supernatural fiction, with a certain Henry James novella being a particular influence, I suspect. Loosely inspired by real-life events, it tells the story of Laura (Florencia Colucci ), a young woman who travels with her father Winston (Gustavo Alonso) to rennovate a dark, decaying country house for its owner Nestor (Abel Tripaldi) prior to its sale.

Arriving at dusk so they can stay the night and begin work early the next evening. No sooner have they settled down for some rest than Laura begins to hear strange noises emanating from upstairs, where Nestor has warned them not to venture. Like all good horror stories his admonition is willfully ignored and sinister developments ensue.

Given that by its very nature the camerawork would seem to be drawing attention to itself it's notable how unaffected and natural it seems. Although ostensibly subjective, portraying events from Laura's perspective, it assumes a variety of oblique angles that combine with frenzied movement to extract the maximum possible tension. The darkness of the house (there's no electricity) enhances the frights, of course, but also means we only gradually build up a disoriented picture of the place as Laura explores it. Layers of the mystery are slowly unpeeled and belatedly it becomes apparent we, the audience, have been duped by misdirection.

Which isn't to say The Silent House is all that original; the influence of other films of the past decade or so is quite apparent and some of the scares, although well executed, can be anticipated from a mile off. There are also some logical inconsistencies which don't sit comfortably whatever way you chose to interpret the story and a protracted ending that only dilutes the preceding 75 minutes.

Probably the best compliment one can pay is to say that the film rises to the challenges of its self-inflicted restrictions and seeks out creative solutions. This is a taught, intense and largely effective horror that's a good indicator of the state of the genre at the moment.

Monday, 11 April 2011

AFED #100: Padeniye Berlina [The Fall of Berlin] (USSR, 1950); Dir. Mikheil Chiaureli

Day 100, and what better way to celebrate my centenary than with some more Soviet cinema? Well, there are numerous better ways but just recently it's been a real strain to keep this thing going at all, so this will just have to do.

I actually learnt of The Fall of Berlin courtesy of the use of brief extracts in another film I've viewed this year, Diary for My Children (AFED #83) and it's precisely the kind of full-blown propaganda cinema I've been keen to track down for a while. By their very nature these films tend to be forgotten when the winds of change sweep in and are sometimes lost forever, but as historical documents they're invaluable.

The Fall of Berlin is an epic account of the Soviet Union's war against the Nazis; detailing in particular their invasion of the German capital at the climax of WWII. It's notorious for the romanticised depiction of Stalin (as portrayal by Mikheil Gelovani), whose wise and benevolent rule as shown here was somewhat different from the reality.

After Stalin's death the film was re-cut so that some of the scenes glorifying him were removed and I suspect that may be the version I've just seen, as his involvement is mainly restricted to a handful of key scenes. The notional protagonist in this dramatisation is Aliosha (Boris Andreyev), an industrious steel worker who falls in love with Natasha, a schoolteacher, only for the pair to be torn apart when the Nazis invade.

Natasha is taken way by the Germans for internment at a prison camp in Germany, while Aliosha joins the army as the Soviets set about repelling their assailants. The film then begins to take a broader view of events, depicting key moments as the Nazis are gradually forced into retreat by the Russian winter and the tide begins to turn.

Not unlike Tolstoy's War and Peace it mixes fictitious characters embroiled in events with actual figures. There's a lengthy scene depicting the Yalta Conference, where the virtuous Stalin thrashes a plan of action with Roosevelt and a pugnacious Churchill.

But the real star of the second half of the film is Hitler (Vladimir Sevaliev), with much time given over to his frustrations, oscillating between panic, madness and despair as the Soviets close in on Berlin. It culminates with the infamous flooding of the Berlin metro juxtaposed with the Führer's marriage to Eva Braun in one of the most striking sequences. I've still yet to see Downfall, but the contrasting depictions of those final days would make for an interesting comparison.

Shot in garish full colour, this was clearly a costly production that made full use of the state's resources with some very grandiose depictions of the battle scenes and of war-ravaged Berlin. It doesn't perhaps have the slickness of a Hollywood production, and none of the innovation found in Eisenstein, but the scope is very impressive, it's just tempered by a blinkered ideology that subordinates verisimilitude to the glorification of Soviet values.

Ultimately of course the Russians are victorious and Aliosha and Natasha are tearfully reunited - the young lady is even granted permission to kiss Stalin at the end! By the accepted standards of western cinema this couldn't be considered a classic, yet as an insight into the Soviet perspective it's fascinating.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

AFED #99: Una gota de sangre para morir amando [aka Murder in a Blue World, aka A Clockwork Terror] (Spain/France, 1973); Dir. Eloy de la Iglesia

Billed as "the Spanish Clockwork Orange", Eloy de la Iglesia's film makes no attempt to disguise the influence of its more illustrious predecessor. Not only does the story feature a subplot of behaviour modification experiments and similar kitschy production design, the earlier movie is even playing on the television when a gang of ersatz 'droogs' mount an identical home invasion (although, being Spanish, these guys favour black leather and bullwhips).

The Kubrick connection is further enhanced by the casting of his Lolita, Sue Lyon, in the lead role. For those in the audience too dense to make the connection - and in truth she was much changed in the years since her breakthrough role - there's a scene in which Lyon is even depicted reading the Nabokov text. It's fair to say that subtlety is not one of the films strong points.

And yet Murder in a Blue World actually aspires to be something more than a shameless ripoff, treating A Clockwork Orange more as a starting point for its story. Set sometime in the near future Lyon portrays Ana Vernia, a highly regarded if enigmatic nurse at a large city hospital who becomes a self-styled sister of mercy, administering relief in a manner the recipients don't entirely appreciate.

It's difficult to say too much more about the plot without revealing its major twist, which actually caught me completely off guard; suffice to say its not dissimilar to the kind of thing you'd find in a giallo of similar vintage. As events unfold she comes into contact with one of the young thugs (played by Christopher Mitchum), who's fallen foul of the rest of the gang and begins blackmailing her. Meanwhile at the hospital Ana's would-be boyfriend Victor (Jean Sorel) is involved in research designed to alter criminal behaviour which has very little to do with the rest of the story.

There's more style than substance here; whatever intellectual pretensions Iglesia may have envisaged fall rather flat and the performances are nothing to get excited about. Yet despite that and the heavily derivative elements it's enjoyably bonkers and delivered with real style. For one thing I can't think of another film where the lead character attends an auction for pieces of Alex Raymond's original Flash Gordon artwork!

Probably not everybody's cup of tea but if you like offbeat then it's well worth a look.

Friday, 8 April 2011

AFED #98: Blue Sunshine (US, 1978); Dir. Jeff Lieberman

Every now and again I'll hear of a hitherto unknown film that sounds so fascinating that I feel compelled to see it as soon as possible. Although Blue Sunshine only received a cursory reference in a passage about drug-related exploitation movies in Jonathan Ross's The Incredibly Strange Film Book I wasted no time in ordering a copy.

And it's a great idea: years after they've graduated a number of college kids begin experiencing some unusual side effects from a type of LSD called Blue Sunshine. It opens with a series of cryptic vignettes of various characters who have been either behaving strangely or experiencing hair loss. The story then begins in earnest with a party in which one of the guest's, apparently perfectly normal, suddenly loses all his hair (it pulls away like a wig) and runs off into the night like a maniac. A short while later he returns on a mindless rampage, killing anybody who crosses his path.

In classic thriller style one of the other guests, the twitchy Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), is suspected of the crimes and finds himself on the run. When Jerry learns of another very similar incident in which a cop has killed his family, he embarks on a search for answers. His investigation leads him in the direction of rising politician Edward Flemming (Mark Goddard), who as a Stamford undergraduate a decade earlier had been dealing the aforesaid Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine is very much a product of that particular epoch; it explores the phenomena of sixties kids getting older, putting aside youthful indiscretions, settling into professional lives and confronting the anxieties we all have about aging. But it also resonates strongly with the general tone of paranoia that featured so prominently in seventies cinema. No explanation is attempted as to why Blue Sunshine causes such dramatic acid flashbacks, but I was half expecting for it to be revealed as a clandestine government experiment or the like.

Zalman King gives an unusual but very effective performance in the lead role; oddly distracted and nervous. Although never indicated as such, his peculiar manner almost appears to suggest he may have partaken of Blue Sunshine himself, giving the story an almost D.O.A.-style urgency. Indeed, one of the clever aspects of the story is how, like Romero's The Crazies, we're never quite sure whether the behaviour of certain characters is normal or a consequence of encroaching psychosis.

For all that I was a little disappointed with the film. Writer/director Jeff Lieberman only sporadically achieves the necessary degree of tension and certain key scenes, including the conclusion, fall a little flat. Perhaps my expectations were too high, as others have expressed their liking for it, but it felt like a missed opportunity. It's surprising this one hasn't been picked up for a remake yet.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

AFED #96: The Hitch-Hiker (US, 1953); Dir. Ida Lupino

I wish I knew more about Ida Lupino, or at least had the time to research her career more thoroughly. I wasn't even aware until a few minutes ago that she was British by birth, and even trained as an actress  at RADA before heading to the States in the thirties. After working her way diligently through the ranks she progressed to more significant roles by the end of the decade, whereupon she began referring to herself with self-deprecation as "the poor man's Bette Davis".

Perhaps her greatest legacy though was as a pioneering woman director whose modest output blazed a trail for future generations. After a handful of earlier issue-based pictures The Hitch-Hiker represented her first directorial foray into film noir, a genre she'd already graced in a number of films as an actress.

It's a taut little thriller that utilises that mainstay of genre and exploitation cinema: the perils of travelling by car. I've touched upon this before, in relation to Hush (AFED #52), so it seems a little pointless to go over the same ground again. Suffice to say that as the title makes fairly obvious, this is a film about a hitch-hiker; one who's not the nicest character you're ever likely to run into.

Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Frank (Gilbert Bowen) are two old friends who head to Mexico on a fishing trip. Their good time comes to rather an abrupt end when they offer a lift to a stranger (William Talman) who's in fact Emmett Myers, an escaped convict who's already taken several lives while evading the authorities. With the sadistic and calculating Myers holding them at gunpoint the trio travel along the arid, desolate Mexican highways, listening to radio news reports about the ongoing search for them.

The plot is surprisingly minimal and much time is spent waiting for any kind of significant further development. Given that the evil hitch-hiker theme had already been deployed in The Devil Thumbs a Ride a few years earlier it seemed natural there would be some kind of twist and the result is somewhat anticlimactic. Yet the focus of the story appears to be on the relationship between the two friends; a pair of average Joes, both former wartime servicemen, who find themselves caught up in a terrifying ordeal. Their friendship is at times tested but ultimately it's their loyalty to one another that sees them through.

O'Brien and Bowen both give solid performances although predictably it's Talman's sneering performance as the killer Myers that dominates. Like Rutger Hauer's character in The Hitcher one gets the impression he's prolonging their agony out of pure, sadistic pleasure. At one point he forces Roy to demonstrate how good an aim he is by shooting a beer can out of Frank's hand, while later in the story he even appears to let the duo briefly escape just so he can run them down again.

But Lupino clearly felt that a sense of place and atmosphere were more important than narrative devices.  Besides the landscape another notable facet is that when the story cuts away to check on the progress of the police search, several scenes of dialogue take place in Spanish, rather than some contrived cod English. It's refreshing to encounter a film that doesn't treat its audience like idiots and allows them to work out what's being imparted for themselves.

All in all The Hitch-Hiker may not be the most imaginative or labyrinthine noir but at least it has heart, and that counts for a lot.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

AFED #95: Greenberg (US, 2010); Dir. Noah Baumbach

I like Ben Stiller. He may not possess the virtuoso comic talents of some of his SNL alumni but manages to both funny and amiable, at least in those films I've seen. Sometimes, as with Meet the Parents and its sequels it allows him to serve as a foil to other performers, while the excesses of There's Something About Mary would have been dark and vulgar but for his sympathetic turn in the lead role.

Greenberg represents the almost obligatory foray for any middle-aged Hollywood star into quasi independent or less mainstream territory. Over the years this has yielded some fascinating results, from Burt Lancaster's dip into art cinema with The Swimmer to Bruce Willis's career-reviving role in Pulp Fiction. The great thing about such projects is there's nothing to lose; if the star's performance is lauded then it enhances their reputation, if not it's soon forgotten.

Fittingly then it's the story of a fortysomething man who's arrived at a crossroads, or if you prefer mid-life crisis. Roger Greenberg, a carpenter by trade who once had a shot at pop stardom, has recently been released from a New York mental hospital following a breakdown. When his brother's family head off for a six week vacation in Vietnam, Roger returns to L.A. to house and dog-sit. Before long he's catching up with his best friend and former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans) and becoming acquainted with his brother's mildly kooky personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig).

Unsurprisingly Greenberg is a far from straightforward guy; while his old friends and acquaintances have moved on and settled down his life has drifted along with little consequence and much prevarication. An intense, self-absorbed character; Greenberg's the sort who's highly sensitive while at the same time incapable of recognising the effects of his own behaviour on others. Florence in particular suffers as Greenberg struggles to reconcile himself with the idea of a relationship with her.

Indeed it's the curious non chemistry between Greenberg and Florence, highlighted by some very awkward love scenes, that's perhaps the most distinctive facet of the story. Kindred spirits they may be but you struggle to believe there's an attraction; it's as though the conceit of romantic coupling is being exposed or ridiculed. It's the first time I can recall encountering Greta Gerwig and she's a perfectly fine actress but while pretty not the most alluring.

Ultimately, following some riotous drug-taking and exchanging of views with the younger generation at party, Greenberg appears to reach some kind of decision about his life although it's hard to believe it will be a definitive one. Given how slight the plot it's hard not to feel cheated yet perhaps appropriate to whatever truth the film is trying to convey.

The film's depiction of Los Angeles - a sprawling, featureless and strangely agoraphobic city where it's difficult to get anywhere without a car - is reminiscent of Wenders' Paris, Texas and given that also dealt with a man coming to terms with life after a breakdown, uncertain quite what he wants, perhaps it's no coincidence. However, the tone here is far more whimsical, abetted by James (LCD Soundsystem) Murphy's stylish yet bittersweet musical accompaniment.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

AFED #94: Juste avant la nuit [Just Before Nightfall] (France, 1971); Dir. Claude Chabrol

I'll be honest with you, I'm struggling badly with my motivation for this blog at the moment. Compared with similar efforts it seems hopelessly lightweight and superficial, lacking in both style and substance. The only way to resolve this is an altogether more delligent and clinical approach but my confidence is shot to pieces.

My conviction's gone. I've nothing to say.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

AFED #92: Black Sheep (New Zealand, 2006); Dir. Jonathan King

Just a short review here...

I guess if any country was going to produce a horror comedy about genetically engineered vampire sheep then it was going to be New Zealand. What's more surprising is that it's actually not at all bad.

Henry Oldfield (Nathan Meister) returns to his family's farm fifteen years after the tragedy that left his father and Henry with a pathological fear of sheep. In the intervening period his ruthless older brother Angus (Peter Feeney) has expanded the estate and, with the assistance of some scientists in his employ, has been conducting some dodgy experiments with his livestock. Henry is all set to sell his share of the farm to Angus and return to his comfortable city life, but when animal rights activists release a mutant vampire lamb they set in motion a train of events that will make Henry's darkest nightmares terrifyingly real.

The results are some predictably gory, gruesome and anarchic fun. Given the budget presumably didn't exceed a few million the special effects are surprisingly good, with a fabulous were-sheep transformation sequence that consciously evokes Rick Baker's groundbreaking prosthetics for American Werewolf in London.

If anything the humour was a little too broad for my tastes. The anarchic tone sets the bar quite low, there are some lame one-liners and not quite the same genre-savvy wit of something like Shaun of the Dead. But while it won't linger long in the memory it delivers exactly what you'd expect. Nice scenery too.

Friday, 1 April 2011

AFED #91: Shampoo (US, 1975); Dir. Hal Ashby

Is Shampoo a paean to Warren Beatty's naricissism or a parody? Most likely it's both but the star was assuredly in on the joke.

The inspiration for his character, dim-witted bed-hopping hairdresser George Roundy, has been attributed to a number of real life personalities on the sixties L.A. scene; most notably Jay Sebring, who was murdered along with Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family. According to writer Robert Towne George was based on another Berverly Hills hairdresser, Gene Shacove, but anyone with a passing knowledge of Beatty's antics during his prime can draw the obvious conclusions.

Despite the involvement of Towne and maverick director Hal Ashby it's incontestably Beatty who was its guiding creative force. Beatty's relatively slim output over the years makes it difficult to appreciate just how big a player he was during the late sixties and seventies. Bonnie and Clyde proclaimed the arrival of the new Hollywood and perhaps best encapsulates the dichotomy of his Beatty's work; it's hard to determine whether style or substance is held in greater esteem.

This problem undermines the political subtext found in a number of Beatty's films that reflects his own liberal sensibilities. The year before this he'd starred and co-produced in assassination conspiracy thriller The Parallax View; a picture that while skillfully executed fails to offer anything constructive in its cynicism.

Likewise Shampoo is intended as a satire about the sexual excesses of the sixties but seems to spend more time ogling the star as he motorcycles around from one romantic liaison to another. Set on the eve of Nixon's election to the White House in 1968 the irony at the time of its release, shortly after Watergate, is that far from representing a return to wholesome values the new President would be ultimately exposed as the biggest crook of all.

But while George gets to rub shoulders with some Republican brass one never gets the sense that's the point. Rather it's the story of a 'himbo' who can't keep his trousers on for longer than five minutes. For the women in his life, particularly Jill (Goldie Hawn) and Jackie (Julie Christie) he's an endless cause of hurt and frustration. Ultimately he ends up alone and miserable. Are we supposed to care? I didn't.

AFED #90: Seksmisja [Sexmission] (Poland, 1984); Dir. Juliusz Machulski

I mentioned Sexmission in passing a few weeks back as an example of how films can be massively popular in their country of original yet comparatively unknown elsewhere. A few years back it was adjudged to be the best film of the last thirty years by Polish filmgoers, much to the bemusement of more highbrow critics.

Sexmission is a sci-fi comedy; a sub-genre that proved surprisingly successful in eastern bloc during the communist era, as evidenced by such works as the cult Czech film Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea. Yet far from being an anomaly it makes perfect sense; science fiction - particularly that of the more dystopian variety - is often a means of commenting allegorically on the current milieu and dressing it in humour is a means of deflecting criticisms of being overtly political.

Which is precisely how Sexmission operates; serving up a lampoon on the absurdities of totalitarianism which would have resonated strongly at the time and the skewed nostalgia for which may account for its enduring popularity.

The story is a simple one, used many times over the years but with obvious similarities to Woody Allen's Sleeper. Max (Jerzy Stuhr) and Albert (Olgierd Łukaszewicz) are two thirtysomething men who volunteer to take part in a pioneering experiment in suspended animation. The idea is that they'll be revived three years later, but naturally things don't go according to plan and instead they awaken more than fifty years later into a post-apocalyptic subterranean society in which the male of the species has been completely eradicated.

A chilling scenario it may be but also of course every heterosexual man's secret fantasy; a world bereft of all competition and where the women disrobe with nonchalant regularity. Unfortunately for Max and Albert men aren't particularly popular in this brave new totalitarian world and moves are made to 'naturalise' them through gender reassignment. Inevitably they make a run for it, a la Logan's Run.

There are plenty of broad laughs along the way, from synthetic food (eggs that have to be unscrewed rather than cracked open) to copious nudity. In the west, where we're a little more accustomed to irony and satire, the comedy can see a little self-conscious and obvious but one should remember that more insidious humour was frowned upon behind the iron curtain and consequently slapstick became the prevalent form.

However, the film is very clearly parodying the political climate of that period and in a way that suggests that, in the mid-eighties, the tide of liberalism was gathering momentum. Yes, it can be viewed as a critique of the prudish excesses of feminism, but the knockabout chauvinism more than neuters this. The principal target is the totalitarian state and the way it blithely rewrites and streamlines history to suit its purposes. Hence the women of the future are under the misapprehension that Pandora's Box is 'Pandor's Box' and that Einstein was female.

The most interesting scenes come in the last quarter as our heroes discover that all is not quite as it seems; pulling back the curtain to reveal the Wizard (writer/director Machulski's debt to Oz is obvious) and facade of ideological propaganda. Like much of what's preceded it's by no means the most innovative but delivered with more than enough fun and enthusiasm to compensate.