Saturday, 1 June 2019

Three British Biopics of Musicians (2019, 1975)

Some fisherfolk, cavorting
Fisherman’s Friends (2019)

‘Fisherman’s Friends’ is a lively but very by-the-book story of an unlikely rise to fame. It’s the true story of a band of Cornish fishermen who sing folk music, are discovered, and then sell a lot of records. The music is good and the group’s performances have plenty of sparkle, but the script gave me no joy. It seemed such a film-shaped film, with its plot’s rises and falls following the pattern of the genre too lifelessly.

The A&R agent who discovers the band gets into some contrived conflict which blossoms into a romance. Not because that’s what really happened, but because there’s always a romance in a film like this, playing out the same way. (There’s nothing wrong with changing the truth to make a better film - as the others on this list will show, but here it had no magic and no surprise, just formula).

The romance is between Daniel Mays and Tuppence Middleton, good actors who do what they can with the material. Without Tuppence, ‘Fishermen’s Friends’ would be quite the sausage-fest. I bracket it together with ‘Dawn of the Battle of the Apes’ (2014) in that it’s obviously set after a female extinction event that left them at a 1:20 ratio with men, but nobody mentions it.

I saw it with my parents and none of us had cause to regret it, but I doubt we’ll ever seek it out again. It’s a passable film - passable in that it fulfilled my baseline criterion for an okay movie (that being, did two hours pass without me thinking of Donald Trump?).

My love for this shoe cannot be adequately stated
Rocketman (2019)

This is a far more interesting sort of biopic! The tagline, ‘based on a true fantasy’ sums it up perfectly. The film-making matches the real Elton John’s flamboyance, and his sincerity. I’ve heard ‘camp’ defined as being a jaunty exterior which masks the more complex, vulnerable humanity inside, and this dramatises the idea wonderfully.

It’s sort-of a musical, told within flashback. Young Elton, and others in his life, put their situations into the familiarest of his songs. I reckon this aspect is likely to divide audiences - if you’re expecting Elton John to sing The Bitch is Back, it’s disconcerting to pass from modern Elton to child Elton, to a full chorus of 1950s neighbours singing - it was certainly more Disney than I was expecting (and the second song of the piece ‘I Want Love’ was so straight and sober that I worried the movie was haemorrhaging all its glee - I was proved very wrong on this). The songs in this style work because this is a story of Elton’s imagination, his fantasies, and how he moves from imagining the absurd to really living it.

I don’t normally like flashback settings, but it really worked in this case. Adult Elton John’s storytelling wasn’t just narration to move things on - the act of telling the story challenges and changes him. The segue between different ages (and thus, different actors) of Elton John in Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting manages to satisfy, rather than annoy. I already liked Taron Egerton in ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ (2014) - he has a cocky, likeable quality that makes him satisfying to watch, and in that film he manages to anchor absurd situations. Elton John is inherently absurd, and so he was a great choice. As full-blooded as the real thing, without becoming comical. He did all his own singing in the role (including a duet with real-life Elton John for the closing credits) and it has the energy, and style style you'd hope for, but manages to preserve its own freshness. This is not just imitation.

The film takes its liberties with chronology, cause and effect to give neater resolutions, but it’s a no hagiography! At one point I wondered if the real Elton John would ever see the movie, or whether its portrayal of him and his upbringing would seem too raw, too ugly - but when the end credits came round I discovered he and his husband David Furnish were producers, and had worked closely to bring this true fantasy to the screen.

I liked this movie a lot, and it makes me want to make movies.

I would be misrepresenting 'Lisztomania' if I didn't show you this big willy
Lisztomania (1975)

Back in the 19th Century, Europe went wild for Franz Liszt. Screaming crowds, a cult of personality, the whole Beatles Schtick. This is an immensely energetic and peculiar film about the man and the myth. Roger Daltrey is Franz Liszt, galavanting around with (at one point) a ten-foot long penis which is sent to the guillotine. Rick Wakeman is Thor, and his songs make this a musical. Ringo Starr is the Pope, for some reason.

I tremendously enjoyed this film. It joins ‘Casino Royalo’ (1967) in being so unpredictable that I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t dreaming it. I’m glad I watched it alone, though. So many scenes of bare-breasted women, their bosoms very much for the viewers’ pleasure! Astonishing titillation. It’s a full-on sex-comedy - very dated, very of its time - but in other ways audacious, finding a uniquely absurd take on the life of Liszt. To give you a sense of it, the movie culminates in Liszt dying, going to Heaven, but returning in a space rocket to kill Richard Wagner, who in this movie is both a literal vampire and a kind of a Hitler Frankenstein, blasting people with his murder guitar.

I like to find films like this.

Those were some films

Yes, those were some films, and together they’ve given me a desire to make a music biopic of my own (perhaps in the vein of ’Some Deaths of Vincent van Gogh’ which I made in 2018, and which you might, for eight minutes, enjoy). It’s good when books make you want to write, when clothes make you want to sew, and when movies make you want to move … pictures! I hope I’ll actually do this at some point, once I find a good candidate, a good story and a visual angle that can be made loudly and colourfully in a bedroom. We shall see!

I didn’t have an appetite to see ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (2018), but I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about it already. I hope the trend of music biopics continues in cinemas - I hope to see some which aren’t so male. Alas, the only biographical film of a female composer's life that leaps to mind is ‘Hildegard of Bingen’ (1994), a one-off BBC drama starring the wonderful Patricia Routledge. I enjoyed it a whole lot, but it ticks my boxes more than it may yours.

Apologies for the larger-than-usual gap between Penciltonian posts. If you missed me, you can find most of the art I'm up to over at

Friday, 1 June 2018

A list of all the films to date

1900: The Enchanted Drawing
1901: Stop Thief!
1902: La Voyage dans la Lune
1903: La Vie et La Passion de Jesus Christ, The Great Train Robbery
1904: Welding the Big Ring
1905: Rescued by Rover 
1906: Humorous Phases of Funny Faces
1907: Ben Hur
1908: Japanese Butterflies

The Nineteen-Tens!
1913: Dr. Nicholson and the Blue Diamond
1914: Cabiria
1915: Birth of a Nation
1916: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1917: Seven Keys to Baldpate
1918: Tarzan of the Apes
1919: Broken Blossoms

The Nineteen-Twenties!
1920: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
1921: The Kid
1922: Häxan, Nosferatu, Dr Mabuse, der Spieler
1923: Cœur Fidèle
1924: Die Nibelungen
1925: Battleship Potemkin
1926: Faust
1927: Metropolis
1928: The Passion of Joan of Arc
1929: Man With a Movie Camera

The Nineteen-Thirties!
1930: All Quiet on the Western Front
1931: M
1932: The Island of Lost Souls
1933: Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse
1934: Lieutenant Kizhe
1935: Lives of a Bengal Lancer
1936: My Man Godfrey
1937: Laurel and Hardy Way Out West
1938: Alexander Nevsky
1939: Gone With the Wind

The Nineteen-Forties!
1940: Das Herz der Königin
1941: Peer Gynt
1942: Went the Day Well?
1943: Münchausen
1944: Double Indemnity
1945: Les Enfants du Paradis
1946: Great Expectations
1947: Miracle on 34th Street
1948: Rope
1949: The Third Man

The Nineteen-Fifties!
1950: Julius Caesar, Orphée
1951: The African Queen
1952: High Noon
1953: The Robe, The Titfield Thunderbolt
1954: Rear Window
1955: The Quatermass Xperiment
1956: High Society
1957: Bridge on the River Kwai
1958: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad
1959: Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ, Bucket of Blood

The Nineteen-Sixties!
1960: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
1961: Breakfast at Tiffany's
1962: The Longest Day
1963: Lilies of the Field
1964: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
1965: Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen, Doctor Zhivago
1966: Daisies
1967: Casino Royale, Herostratus
1968: Yellow Submarine
1969: The Bed Sitting Room, The Valley of Gwangi

The Nineteen-Seventies!
1970: Beneath the Planet of the Apes
1971: Shaft, Nicholas and Alexandra
1972: Shaft's Big Score!, The Godfather
1973: Shaft in Africa
1974: H is for House, Madhouse
1975: Winstanley, Lisztomania
1976: Taxi Driver
1977: Na Srebrnym Globie
1978: A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist
1979: Stalker

The Nineteen-Eighties!
1980: Miś, Xanadu
1981: Das Boot
1982: Blade Runner
1983: 2019, After the Fall of New York
1984: Heimat
1985: Ninja Terminator, A Zed and Two Noughts
1986: America 3000
1987: The Belly of an Architect, Dragnet
1988: The Last Temptation of Christ, Akira, A Short Film About Killing, Drowning by Numbers
1989: The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town

The Nineteen-Nineties!
1990: GoodFellas
1991: King Ralph
1992: Glengarry Glen Ross, The Lawnmower Man
1993: Jurassic Park, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
1994: The Crow
1995: Empire Records, Kids
1996: Scream
1997: Starship Troopers
1998: Train to Hell, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Run Lola Run
1999: Dogma, But I'm a Cheerleader, Office SpaceGlanni Glæpur í Latabæ

The Twenty Hundreds!
2000: Battlefield Earth
2001: Fellowship of the Ring
2002: The Two Towers
2003: Return of the King, Goodbye Lenin, Party Monster
2004: Finding Neverland
2005: BrickMan Alone
2006: Das Security Bathroom, Southland Tales
2007: Persepolis, The BQE
2008: The Baader-Meinhof Complex, Slumdog Millionaire
2009: Up, Mary & Max

The Twenty Tens!
2010: Shutter Island
2011: Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!, Hobo With a Shotgun, Cabin in the Woods, Super 8
2012: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Life of Pi
2013: A Field in England, Die Andere Heimat, One Direction: This is Us
2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel
2015: Avengers: Age of Ultron
2016: Wizardhood
2019: Rocketman, Fisherman's Friends

...and a page of films that didn't get their own posts - because sometimes I watched films for myself, rather than for The Penciltonian.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Wizardhood (2016)

In 2016, Tim Stiefler edited all eight Harry Potter films into one single 78-minute movie. It’s a great work of editing, telling one lean story instead of seven busy ones. This is the tale of Harry versus Voldemort. That’s not to say it’s all Voldemort-centric scenes - by no means! But that’s the core, and that’s the story ’Wizardhood’ serves.

It’s edited together with incredible economy, cutting out anything that doesn’t sell the overall narrative of the series. The entire second half of 'Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone' (2001) is cut. The film sets up Harry at Hogwarts, Harry vs Snape and Harry vs Malfoy - but the whole climax, the confrontation with Quirrel and Voldemort is deemed unnecessary. I was surprised, but it works. That’s part of the joy of watching ‘Wizardhood’ - finding out how little you can get away with. ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ (2002) and ’The Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004) are over almost as soon as they begin. We don’t need all the details. We just need the core.

I'm glad to say Minerva McGonnagal still gets plenty of good bits
It sounds like it ought to be an awful rush, but it’s anything but. This isn’t hectic or bitty, nor composed of short, perfunctory scenes.  Sure, you could do it that way - a supercut including far more subplots and moments - but it would be unwatchably fast and untidy, an overwhelming experience like ‘2Everything 2Terrible 2: Tokyo Drift’ (2010). The choices here make it a far better film than it could be in less-artful hands. Each moment is given adequate time and atmosphere. This is a film to watch and enjoy. Astonishingly, it feels well-paced.

I’d recommend this to anyone interested in making films, and learning how shots and cuts tell stories. It’s a chance to see how much can be removed from familiar scenes, and how this lets them serve a different purpose and mood. Harry’s first experience with brooms is included, with a large portion of the action cut from the middle. There’s room in the movie for action, but not here. It still serves its purpose - though the students’ cheer at the end feels a little unearnt. However, cut forward 30 minutes and 6 movies, and the same students cheer for Harry in the room of requirement, in a way which seems far better merited. I’m glad the earlier celebration stayed, so the latter moment could echo it.

Just as gradual and intense a build-up. This is the midpoint of the film
Other parts keep their meaning and their mood - Dumbledore’s final moments feel just as careful and gradual and cold as they always did. There must be a lot removed from that scene, but it feels like it was always this way. It retains its power. Heck, ‘The Deathly Hallows (part 1)’ (2010) is a movie largely about drear waiting and despair, with Ron running away before eventually returning - and over the course of fifteen minutes that whole story is told here, retaining its full power. To be honest, this cutdown is my favourite telling of it.

Huge swathes are cut away. Lupin and Sirius and Rita Skeeter are gone. The Dursleys are never seen. But they’re no more ‘missing’ than Ludo Bagman. This is Harry Potter without any Deathly Hallows. They’re important to the books, but they’re details ‘Wizardhood’ can do without.

Harry grows old before your eyes. It's like watching the beards grow in 'Das Boot' (1981)
I love these books, and I delight in all that the movies added to them. Of course, they were always imperfect renderings, because it’s nigh-impossible to make a full length novel into a movie without sacrificing either the plot or the characters. It’s why I prefer ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (2016) over the full gamut of Harry Potters - it’s trying to be a movie, not a book adaptation. Since I can accept the abbreviations in the movies, it's easy to warm to this great abridgement. It takes what was good about the films - the strong central performances, the design and imagination and direction, and distils them into something strong and satisfying.

Wizardhood can currently be seen here, and I hope it remains there to be seen for a long time. A few days later it's been taken down, for copyright reasons. Understandable, but it's a good work on its own merits, so I hope you find a way to view it, within reason.

Tune in next time for a review that isn't by me that isn't of a film!

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Glanni Glæpur í Latabæ (aka 'Robbie Rotten in LazyTown') (1999)

Glanni is rather more frightening than Robbie
Today’s film is actually a filmed-for-DVD play, ‘Glanni Glæpur í Latabæ’ (also known as ‘Robbie Rotten in LazyTown’, although ‘Shiny Crimey in LazyTown’ would be a more literal translation). It’s an Icelandic stage-musical which served as a pilot to the hit TV show ‘LazyTown’ (2004-2008).  LazyTown, if you don’t know, is the most expensive children’s TV show in history.

The play is recognisably the same characters in the same world. Local superhero Íþróttaálfurinn (Sportacus, but his Icelandic name literally means ‘sports wizard’) teaches everyone what to eat and how to exercise, and in times of crisis he runs in to save the day. He’s handsome and athletic and he can do the splits in mid-air, which from any other hero would feel like a mating display. His costume in this play owes more to Icelandic elves and folk-heroes than modern athletics, but the basic elements are the same. Here, he lives in a hot air-balloon, not an airship - and he uses it to travel to different towns (we also hear about MayhemTown and BullyTown). He speaks very LOUD in this production, and he wears a magic hat which tells him when people are in trouble.

The Policeman, the Mayor, Glanni and Miss Busybody
All the familiar characters are present - and they’re all played by humans. On TV, most of the cast are human-sized puppets, but now the children are obviously actors in their late twenties. The main impact of this is that Stephanie (the viewpoint character on TV) is just a member of the larger crowd. There are also a few characters who didn’t make the cut: gullible policeman Officer Obtuse (who doesn’t contribute much that the Mayor couldn’t), Jives (a child who raps about how vegetables cancel out pain) and a bird puppet, who doesn’t really do anything.

The character who’s most different from their TV portrayal is Glanni Glæpur. Now, Robbie Rotten is one of my favourite fictional characters, and one I identify with strongly: lazy, self-defeating, and over-keen on dressing up. Glanni Glæpur shares these attributes (and is similarly played, with excellent flair, by Stefán Karl Stefánsson), but whereas Robbie wanted peace and quiet, and so sought to expel Sportacus from town (while usurping his position), Glanni Glæpur wants cash. Robbie carries out his plans on his own, but Glanni hires a gang (of ‘ugly, boring, smelly, thievish’ folk from MayhemTown) to steal all the vegetables so he can sell can sell canned fruit (which is, of course, a great evil). When Sportacus helps the town plant new fruits and vegetables, Glanni resorts to poison. Robbie harboured a secret desire to make friends with the townfolk. Glanni Glæpur is just an evil capitalist, and it’s far less interesting.

Glanni lacks Robbie's fascinating prosthetic chin and eyebrows
Glanni impresses Stingy with his wealth, and he kisses Miss Busybody, and he impresses everybody else with a story about how he once gave the president a foot-massage. He has a seductive philosophy: ‘Never think about the future or the past. Do you know how to add and subtract? There’s nothing else you need to learn, because you know enough to count your money.’ Of course he leads everybody astray and becomes the mayor and so on.

Then there are the songs. Normally a 20-minute episode has one song, but the far greater duration of the play (which is in some ways a hinderance) allows for a lot more singing and dancing. The best of the songs were resurrected for TV. Indeed, certain songs are note-for-note the same as they appear in the series.  Glanni Glæpur’s introductory song goes to precisely the same backing as Robbie Rotten’s ‘Master of Disguise’, and ‘Bing Bang Dingalingaling’ is obviously the same song and instrumentation as ‘Bing Bang Diggiriggidong’. Others are still works in progress. An early version of ‘Gizmo Guy’ pops up, but it lacks finesse.

Stephanie and Trixie sing of their enduring friendship after escaping jail
It’s an enjoyable enough 95 minutes, but it doesn’t hold a candle to such LazyTown classics as ‘Rottenbeard’ or ‘The Greatest Gift’. It’s easy to love Sportacus and Robbie on TV, but at this early point (and with too much stage time) they’re too authoritarian and too criminal respectively. The fact that it’s obviously a filmed stage-play, but without a live audience, leaves it feeling like there ought to be a laugh track. The TV series ups the stylisation, and shoots single-camera, but the compromise in ‘Glanni Glæpur í Latabæ’ leaves you feeling that something is missing.

You can see the musical on Youtube, and you can donate to Stefán Karl (Glanni/Robbie) here - he’s currently undergoing therapy for pancreatic cancer and there’s a movement afoot to raise money to support him and his family through the process. You can see some of his finest work in meme form here and here and here and here because this is 2016.

P.S. I almost forgot the most important thing, which is that Icelandic sounds great. It's a very similar sound to the German accents that I find so satisfying. Good work Iceland!

Monday, 18 January 2016

One Direction: This Is Us (2013)

One of my lodgers is a big fan of One Direction.  At first, she got into them ironically - this is the age of memes, so this is one of the most comfortable ways to enjoy low-brow art - but when her aunt got her concert tickets, and she went to see them perform, she was won over entirely.  You see, there’s something magical about Harry Styles.

Tea, in our house, is drunk from One Directon mugs.  I had to learn the basics of One Direction so the three of us could play ‘One Direction: The Board Game’, some of which requires rudimentary trivia knowledge.  Thus, I know the boys’ names and former careers, and can name the band’s first perfume.  My lodger's fiancée, who happens to be my other lodger, made her another One Direction game - a 1D version of Munchkin, that modern classic.  With almost 180 hand-designed cards, playing ingeniously on the band's lyrics and antics, it's an astonishing creation, a labour of love.

This Christmas my lodgers gave me the unauthorised biography of Zayn Malik, the handsome bad-boy of the group, the traitor.  This is not a book I ever desired, but I’ve been reading it, picking up the story of their X-Factor journey.  It’s a pretty poor biography, but not the worst I’ve read* - evidently it was written as a catch-all One Direction book, with a few tweaks to increase the mentions of Zayn, released to tie in with his surprise resignation.  An awful lot of it is statistics and speculation on what band-members were surely or probably thinking or feeling at any given moment.  I suspect that Zayn was the most talented of the five band-members, and I’ll be interested to read a more human biography of him in a decade or two, when we’re allowed to know the truth.

Harry Styles and Niall Horan
I’ve become rather intrigued with One Direction.  I’ve ended up knowing about as much as one could about a band without listening to any of their records.  I’m especially interested to see the results of their hiatus (announced in August 2015, and in force since October).  The five boys all entered ‘The X-Factor’ aiming for solo careers, so we’ll find out what happens when they get what they wanted.

 Harry has the style and charisma to prosper, regardless of his next move - and Zayn, who quit first, matches him for handsomeness and prospects.  Niall is beloved by his native Ireland, but I worry for the fate of Louis and Liam.  They can’t all become superstars in their own right.  This might yet prove to be a band with four Ringos.  I expect some of them to follow the band’s aesthetic of confident, glossy pop-rock with hint of autotune - a popular sound which has served them well.

But will any of them do something interesting?  One Direction, though sold as a wonderful party, has always been a very heavily managed band.  Will Zayn give us something more personal and human?  Will we get past the plastic packaging, to a raw wound?

For comparison: The Beach Boys are the other band that I really care about (out of proportion with my love of their music, which is sometimes great but mainly not).  Brian Wilson escaped their dominating management, and recorded some of his most honest (and alarmingly melancholy) works as a soloist, but then fell under the sway of an even more oppressive producer (and for the rest of that story, I’d recommend watching 2014’s ‘Love and Mercy’).  His brother Dennis Wilson produced his own solo album, ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ in 1977 and it was far better than anything the Beach Boys would have dared release at the time.  Carl Wilson had a good voice, but nothing to say, and Mike Love never got around to releasing his ‘Mike Love Not War’.  It wouldn't have lived up to the promise of its title.

So perhaps my real question is: will we finally find out which of the One Direction boys are sad, and in trouble?  It feels a vulgar, voyeuristic sort of question, but sometimes I want some truth in my music.  I would like to feel something.  Sometimes I feel very sad, and if these world-famous recording artists could give me something to hold onto, something to feel with, and about, perhaps that would be good for me, and good for them too.  They have so much talent, and this is their chance to say something real.

One Direction's dad.
So, ‘One Direction: This is Us’ is the band’s 2013 film.  It’s directed by Morgan Spurlock, best known for ‘Super Size Me’ (2004) which I haven’t seen, and ‘The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' (2011), which I really enjoyed.  On the basis of that, I had high hopes for ‘This is Us’.  It’s certainly engaging, a well-told story, and it keeps the attention (even in the extended fan cut).

It’s fun, it’s clean, it contains no surprises and no great drama.  The two most dramatic events in One Direction’s history - Zayn Malik’s surprise resignation, and their decision to go on semi-permanent ‘hiatus’, happened after this film had been made.  This is a movie about some nice boys for whom things get better and better.  It's boringly pleasant.  There’s a great story to be told about One Direction, but it won’t be told for another decade or two.  When the contracts are ended, and everyone can look back and be honest, then their happiness will seem more sincere.  They'll be allowed to be themselves.  I'm sure that's what they were doing here - but only within permissible confines, and edited in accordance with their management's wishes.  This is their image.

It’s a film with two ambitions, and I think it fulfils them both.  First, it’s intended to make money (which is also the primary purpose of One Direction).  Secondly, and more generously, I think this was an attempt to give something, some kind words, back to the fans.  There are numerous stories from the band about how the fans love them, how the fans care, and write to them, and about them, and how they wish they could talk to every fan individually to return that warmth and affection.  I think the film is an attempt to do just that.  It’s not the most personal medium, but on this occasion it succeeds to the extent that it can.  So, that’s nice.

P.S. If you're following the asterisk to find out the actual worst biography I've read, that's probably 'Michael Faraday: Spiritual Dynamo', a charming and terrible work.  It tried to relate all of Faraday's discoveries to his Christian faith, but it didn't have any quotes from him to back this up, so it spent a lot of time saying certain things were probably or surely or maybe inspired by it - I suspect the author chose their title before they did any research, and then realised they were working on a bit of a false premise.  It also tried to attribute a lot of other people's inventions to him, on the basis that he was in the same city at the right time, and must have been involved.  It also tried to disguise lists of facts as crowd-scene conversations.  I don't have the book now, but it had an awful lot of 'I say, said a man outside Michael Faraday's House, I've heard Michael Faraday is inventing such and such a machine.  Gosh, said a woman, I additionally heard that these are some specifications of it.  If that's so, evinced a young paper-boy, then I'm sure it will have sold between four and five thousand examples within an eighteen month period'-style dialogue, which was at once risible and delightful.  'Zayn: A New Direction' was not a million miles from this style.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Man Alone (2005)

Today I’d like to comment on an obscure student-film by someone who became famous for something else - ‘Man Alone’ is an ambitious piece of juvenilia directed by Jonathan Higgs, lead singer of British art-pop/electronic-rock band Everything Everything.  If you’re not familiar with the band, I can only recommend them: I harbour a burgeoning enthusiasm for their three albums, and I was fortunate to get along to one of the concerts of their current tour this weekend.  It’s prompted me to revisit this film, which my aunt passed to me about six years ago.  In those days the band had only put out their debut album, the similarly-titled ‘Man Alive’ (2007).

The director co-wrote this with Tom Astley, who I’ve found to be mysteriously ungooglable.  It shares quite a bit with senor Higgs’s musical career: for one thing, it regards humanity’s violence, self-destruction and numbing materialism - familiar topics from 2009 single ‘My Kz Ur Bf’, (which juxtaposed the America of war with the America of soap-operas), and large tracts of their 2015 album ‘Get to Heaven’; for another thing, the film contains a number of songs, some of them featuring fellow band-member Jeremy Pritchard, (presumably on keyboards, bass and backing vocals).  These songs are sadly few and far between, but they show off the singer’s ingenuity and falsetto, albeit in fairly crude forms.

Some Scottish monks rebuke God's second son.
The story opens with a song - one of five, which acts as its main info-dump: after world war 4, culture has become homogenised, and history has been banned.  The story begins after about 40 minutes, when God turns up, with an appearance which I will not attempt to describe for you.  He arrives in an extended flashback to a Scottish monastery in Roman times.  God speaks like a vocoder - sometimes beautifully, sometimes like an 80s Cyberman.  He occasionally uses ‘thou’ to mean ‘thee’, and declares that Jesus has failed, and that His second son, Timorous, must be raised in utter silence.  But as narration tells us, ’Timorous had a dark secret, the discovery of which changed the future for all mankind'. After a few minutes of monastic backstory, the story returns to the future, and switches to a hunt for a lost holy tune (like the lost chord, but hidden in a Roman latrine under a Horse of Truth), and God’s second son is ignored entirely - not so much as a mention - for the next hour.

Once the lost tune is found, it isn't really clear what we should hope for or expect from the remaining half-hour.  The main character goes on a bloody rampage for reasons that I didn't quite grasp.  Like a lot of the film, it reminded me of  ‘Na Srebrnym Globie’ (1977), a bleak, violent Polish sci-fi - in both cases I didn’t really understand what was happening, but knew that was probably my own fault for not paying close enough attention, but that was the film’s fault for being very long and difficult.

“Holy Hell!  The goddamn mainframe laid out before me like a kids’ playpen area on the back of some Kellogg Seafood Matey Cakes circa 1978.  Hell, a long time ago - but jeez!  No time for reminiscing!” - the director, as Jean Baptiste de Golde
The movie is two-and-a-quarter hours long, which is astonishing for a very-low-budget amateur work.  Back in the early 2000s, I knew a lot of people (some of whom were me) who talked big about shooting and editing a feature-length movie, so senor Higgs and his production team deserve credit for sheer persistence.  There are, of course, problems with very-long films by the bold and ambitious.

The film does astonishing things, but rarely in a way that any audience would ask for.  It achieves this on some fairly basic equipment - the sort of sound and picture quality you might expect from the end of the last century, compounded by some audacious colour-grading in post-production.  However, in contrast to most student films, it’s all splendidly focussed.  Individual shots show great promise and style.

An immortal monk (Tom Astley) reveals the truth.
There are genuinely interesting ideas behind the story, and a good ending.  I get the impression the thing was made in a very different order to the way that they're presented, and that the writers and cast had a change of heart about the kind of film they were making part-way through - at times, the script and performances believe themselves to be in a very broad comedy; at others this is a dour monastic horror to be taken as seriously as possible. Scenes of the delicious and delightful are interspersed with full hours of exposition, wondering and impotent crossness.  I wish the tone could have been more consistent in one way or another.  When it was all working, it reminded me slightly of 'Southland Tales' (2006), with its bizarrely satisfying mix of styles to present an action-packed near-future satire.

I do think there's a fantastic shorter film to be had here feature to be had here.  Jonathan Higgs went on to direct his own music videos, so we can be sure he has the necessary talent and vision, when he doesn't have to fill this kind of duration.  If it had been made a bit later, further into the Youtube age, this could have been broken into episodes; it's a fairly episodic storyline, and would be easier to palate in smaller chunks, and it could have made a merit of its developing tone.  Then again, perhaps I'm missing the point, and wanting an avant-garde film to be more accessible.  At this level, it's hard to know what parts of the production are deliberate art, and which are just convenience.

Mason Coop (Mike Carswell) plays out humanity.  A little googling tells me Carswell
put acting behind him and started making rustic furniture and besom brooms.
I'll reiterate the good points - the songs are excellent, and their proto-Everything-Everything sound is the film's great merit.  There's some good comedy, and some memorably bizarre scenes, as when the hero is beaten-up by a giant egg.  The film's very existence is impressive, and the film contains some good ideas and reveals.  The end - in which the hero suffers agonies for the chance to redeem humankind, but chooses not to - is a strong, well-presented concept, and I can see why so much of the rest of the film was produced to give it context.

P.S. To the best of my knowledge, this film is available to watch nowhere.  I've written about it here largely because it's a curio, and I think some people might like to know that it exists, or existed, even if they can't see it.  There's little or no information online about this film - perhaps it's been deliberately blotted out.  According to the closing credits, the soundtrack used to be available on CD.

P.P.S. I'm still unsure whether the film is 'Man Alone' because a man is alone, or because man, alone, is responsible for such depravity, or because the casting is overwhelmingly male.  'Man Alive' is much easier to grapple with, and much more rewarding.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Today's film is a dinosaur Western which really frightened me as a child.   The setting, according to a slide at the start, is 'Somewhere South of the Rio Grande.......... Around the turn of the century'.  I'm not entirely sure where or what the Rio Grande is* - I've always assumed it to be pretty-much the same thing as the Alamo or the Grand Canyon, and this movie does nothing so salve my ignorance.  Anyway, it's cowboy time in cowboy land.  There's a cowgirl (Gila Golan) who does horse-related stunts for the circus, and she really talks a good sass: 'Trouble!' she says, 'They say it comes in threes.  I wonder what the next two will be.'

The recipient of this brazen greeting is  James Franciscus.  Oh, you know - he's the man in 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1970) who isn't Charlton Heston, because Charlton Heston didn't want to do a sequel.  Well, he's just as Heston-y here to an extent that verges on impersonation.  It's something about the way he shows his teeth when he's listening.  The real star, though, is Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion creatures.  His are the dinosaurs, but before we get to them...

A little horse.
'El Diablo' is a very nice tiny horse, the size of a household cat, with a waggly mouse-tail.  No screen-capture can adequately express his sweet and tender motions.  This slightly capybara-esque animal is an 'eohippus', an ancestor of the modern horse.  It's a charmingly sleek creature, and for quite a while it seems that the film will be all about El Diablo's antics.  The best thing about the film's first half is the solemnity with which the cast keep saying the words 'little horse'.    A blind Latina woman gives terrible warnings about it: "I tell you, unless the little horse is returned we shall all suffer the curse of hell!"  She believes the film's dinosaurs are not just giant and hazardous but actively evil.  The little horse is merely their harbinger.  "Superstitious claptrap!" says the British professor, "There's nothing hocus-pocus about that little horse!"

And so we get into the adventure.  A valley of LIVING DINOSAURS is uncovered, and a child is carried off by a sparkly magenta pterodactyl, but a rodeo cowboy manages to wrestle it to death.  All the dinosaurs in this movie are purple - except in scenes with more than one at a time.  There's a fantastic dinosaur-on-dinosaur fight between Gwangi, the purple Allosaur who is also a T-rex, and an unnamed purple-sometimes-but-green-in-the-fight Styracosaurus.  It's probably the best dino-on-dino fight I've ever seen - no quick cuts or urgent editing, just fighting and biting and blurts of blood.

...and so will you be doomed - all of you -
unless the evil one is set free!
Finally, the scene came that haunted me in my youth.  I remembered it very vividly: the dinosaur has been put in a cage, covered by a tent, ready for its reveal to the world.  A young child sneaks into the tent and is torn apart by the dinosaur, and the tent is opened at the crucial moment, allowing the crowds to see the horrendous death.  As a six-year old this really shook me up.  Children aren't normally killed in films - not with this sort of brutality.  Watching again, I realise it's not a child, but a dwarf - a Latino dwarf who we've already seen acting violently towards the heroes, so it's kiiind-of okay to see him meet this grizzly end.  Nonetheless, when I saw this back in 1990ish, it was the scariest thing I'd seen in my life.  Of the horrors I've seen since then, I wonder which I found the most frightening.  What has toppled Gwangi's wrath from its position at the top of my nightmares?  9/11, perhaps?  The rise of xenophobia and the fall of compassion in 21st Century Britain, or perhaps the bit with the raptors in the kitchen from 'Jurassic Park' (1993)?  Who can say.

The climax of the film likewise lodged in my child memory: the townsfolk flee into a cathedral, and the giant dinosaur chases them, biting people in half.  The crowds find no sanctuary, but the dinosaur ends up trapped inside the cathedral, where a fire breaks out, and it burns to death, screaming in agony.  The crowds watch with a tense, silent sort-of sadness, as the building burns to the ground.  And then the film is over.

Like the last time I tried to face a childhood terror - returning to the York Dungeon after twenty years - I expected to find the situation pretty mild and amusing, and the old fear risible.  In both cases I actually found the revisitation weirdly upsetting, at times verging on distressing.  Consequently, I had a much stronger reaction to the end of this film than I feel it merits.

I'm really not sure whether this film is good.  It's certified 'U', so you should probably show it to your infants and see what they make of it.

P.S. This really couldn't be much more different from the other 1969 film I watched, 'The Bed-Sitting Room'.  I think they would make an astonishing double-bill.

P.P.S. *Let's pick up that dangling asterisk!  I don't like to languish in ignorance, so I've looked up the Rio Grande.  It's a big old river, running from the Southern States into Mexico, and coming out at around-about the spot where the asteroid/space-freighter hit the earth, thus destroying the dinosaurs.  Where, then, is this movie set?  'South of the Rio Grande' is all we're told.  South of which part?  If it's South of the Northernmost source of the river, the film could feasibly be set in Omaha, Ibiza or Kurdistan.  If it means South of the entire river, that opens up anywhere from Monterey and Mecca down to the South Pole.  Decide for yourself!

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Time and Relative Digressions on Cheese (music, 2015)

Have I the right to touch these cows together?
This is really a bit of self-promotion, dear readers.  I've stepped away from films for a moment to tell you about an album by The Potential Bees, a small, surprising band of which I am a member.

'Time and Relative Digressions on Cheese' is a double-concept concept-album.  That is, a concept-album which has two concepts, each of which is worked into every track.  In this, it might be unique (though I wouldn't be terribly surprised if someone has done a double-concept concept-album in which one of the two topics is Christmas).  Anyway, every track on this new work is simultaneously about Doctor Who and cheese.  Fourteen Doctors, fourteen attitudes to cheese.  This may sound like a terrible idea, but actually I think it allowed us to come up with tracks which would never have occurred under other circumstances.

The whole album can be had (for free, if you wish) on Bandcamp, and the opening track has a music video, visible below:

It's a fairly diverse album, roaming across a number of genres and sounds to suit the different eras and temperaments of the Doctor/cheese pairings, so I hope you'll find some parts of it to enjoy.  If you like Doctor Who, or if you like cheese, or if you have an antipathy towards both of these topics, but remain willing to hear lively new songs, why not check it out?  One of my favourite concept albums - heck, one of my favourite albums, is on a topic that doesn't interest me - The Duckworth Lewis Method's self-titled album (2009), and its follow-up 'Sticky Wickets' (2013), are great cricket concept-albums, and despite cricket's dreariness, the songs delight me.  The other concept album that's long inspired me is Steven Ramsey's 'Genius of the Restoration' (2008), an amazing amateur concept-record regarding Indiana Jones.  Sadly, Ramsey seems to have disappeared from the Internet and taken much of his music with him, but some of the tracks can still be found on Youtube.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

'Die Andere Heimat', or 'Home from Home' (2013)

Before I get to ‘Die Andere Heimat’, let me tell you a little about the Heimat trilogy.  ‘Heimat’ (1984), is either a film, or a series of films, or a TV series shown in cinemas.  It was followed by ‘Die Zweite Heimat’ (1993), and the more-boringly-named ‘Heimat 3’ (2004).  Between them, they make up an epic of Biblical proportions - and I’m not just flinging that around as a cliché: one of my favourite things about the Heimat series, and about the Old Testament (in particular the Pentateuch and the books of Samuel and Kings) is the way they take their time to tell a very long story, spanning generations; by necessity full of gaps, but peppered with great details, character sketches, and sudden moments of focus on things that are either significant or charmingly domestic.  In each case, it suggests that the whole of history is one long story, and helps us see how intimately the present day is linked to the beginning of humanity.  I really like stories, and I especially like these great hunks of story, into which all others fit.

‘Heimat’ tells the story of the small German village of Schabbach, out in a neglected corner of Germany where the people talk like farmers, from 1919 to 1982 - in particular, we focus on the family of Paul and Maria Simon.  Paul Simon (pronounced ‘Powell Semen’) walks out of the village, and out of the movie, at the end of the first couple-of-hour instalment, leaving Maria to take the focus and raise the next generation.  As per the Books of Kings, time passes, the new generation gradually take the focus, and by the end of 15 hours real-time and 60 years of story, everyone we were watching at the start is dead.

‘Die Zweite Heimat’ (sort-of meaning ‘the second home’, or ‘the second homeland’) focuses on my favourite character from the series, or from anything, Hermann Simon, a sexually precocious child who leaves to study music composition in Munich - and Clarissa Lichtblau, a cellist whose celling goes awry.  The 26 hours of this second Heimat take us from 1960 to 1970 - a fascinating decade in Germany, and everywhere.  Watching it was the only time I’d ever really believed that the sixties were a real era from the world I live in, rather than being a weird fantasy genre like Sci-Fi or Western.  ‘Heimat 3’ is a more concise, at eleven hours, and tells the story of Hermann and Clarissa’s return to Schabbach, and fills in the gap from the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, up to the year 2000.  It brings in a lot of characters who were present in the first first but absent from the second, and most of them die, so much time having passed.

Brazil: a popular part of the Americas, if you're a 19th Century Prussian
For a long time, that seemed to be it.  A strong trilogy, spanning 81 years in what felt like real-time, but actually only lasting as long as the James Bond canon (including the first CR and NSNA).  In 2011, writer-director Edgar Reitz made a surprising announcement - there was going to be one more instalment, ‘Die Andere Heimat’, or ‘The Other Heimat/Home’ (though it was actually released over here as ‘Home from Home’, a reasonable title, but one that annoyingly breaks the pattern of the series).  This new film is a prequel, regarding ancestors of the Simon family in 1840s Schabbach, and deciding whether or not to leave frosty Prussia for the verdant warmth of South America.

How does it differ from the earlier films?  What makes this a film for the 2010s?  Well, we're in very wide widescreen, at last - I realise that's a 1953 innovation, but it's clear that this is a wholly-cinematic piece, not a TV-cinema hybrid like those earlier works.  Its much shorter duration (225 minutes) might represent modern tastes and attention-spans, or might just tell us that the director is near retirement, and the funding for sober dramas is hard to come by.  There's a rather more active camera, at one point following a full-pelt run through the village, and showing off the full run of 19th century building facades.

There's also a rather different use of colour to the earlier films.  The original 'Heimat' was made in black and white and colour (and on a variety of film-stocks, but this fact is slightly less obvious on the small-screen).  It starts off almost entirely monochrome, with colour shots used very rarely to highlight emotions, ideas or temperatures.  As the years go on, there's more and more colour (with the big switch to almost-all-in-colour coming at the the switch-on of West German colour TV in 1967), and this carries on until the end of 'Heimat 3', which is almost entirely colour.  'Die Zweite Heimat', coming in-between, uses it differently, giving us Munich's daytime in monochrome, and night-life in colour, to show the difference between the two worlds.  'Die Andere Heimat', set in history, is overwhelmingly monochrome, but very occasionally introduces a colour element into an otherwise black-and-white scene - a searing-hot horse-shoe, a green skirt during a discussion of colour language, or the great comet of 1844, for example.  It's something that was tried very briefly in the earlier films -a shot of colour sausages in a monochrome window in 1963, for example.  It fits in nicely, and makes good use of modern technology, but to anyone unschooled in Heimat it must seem an odd novelty.

Johann Simon (Rüdiger Kriese) and a splash of colour.
After all my feverish anticipation I’m afraid I’m a little disappointed with 'Die Andere Heimat'.  It’s good, but ‘Heimat’ was great.  If you've heard any publicity for it, you'll know it's about Jakob Simon deciding whether he wants to emigrate - but he seems to spend ages on the decision, getting into various scrapes along the way, and in the end we haven't learned a lot that couldn't be picked up from the trailer.  I wanted more.  I wanted bigger.  There’s a lot to recommend it - it’s engrossing, it's attractive to look at, it's educational, giving a convincing picture of a place, an era, and the people who lived there; the funeral for babies is as memorable as the original Heimat's funeral for Maria in the storm, so there are still some striking images.  It all just feels so short.  I realise three-and-three-quarter hours doesn't sound short, but compared to the earlier Heimats, this feels like a flash in the pan, like a first episode of something longer.  

Since starting this blog, I've watched a whole lot of films to represent the past hundred years of cinema, and while there's been a lot to delight in, it's made me weary of movie-shaped movies, films with the clear, familiar structure.  You can do a lot in 90 or 120 minutes - just look at 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1929) or 'Thirty Two Short Films about Glen Gould' (1993), for instance, but most films feel like pretty short, pretty limited stories, and I've probably found the most pleasure in the films that have done something outside the usual pattern of the movie-shaped movie, or entertained and engaged me so intensely that I forgot to watch analytically.  Now, 'Heimat' has always been a triumph of long-form story-telling, but 'Die Andere Heimat' feels more like a movie movie, a normal movie, than a Heimat movie.  At the end, it all felt a little insubstantial.  What happens next week?  Heck, what happened in Schabbach between 1844 and 1919?  It's a big old gap, and (alas) I'm not sure Heimat fan-fiction exists - at least, not in English.

(Perhaps I'm being a little harsh on films in the above paragraph, but compared to the great long-form storytelling of the modern TV serial - 'Orange is the New Black', 'The Killing' or 'Daredevil', for instance, which do so much with their characters and scenarios, movies seem very light sketches of their subjects.  A season of OitNB isn't a bad comparison to 1993's 'Die Zweite Heimat', as both are divided into 13 'episodes', each of which gives a good chunk of time to the main character - Piper and Hermann, respectively - while explicitly giving focus to a character-of-the-week, really mining into their character, situation and story.  They're both pretty intense in the drama stakes, though OitNB is more inclined to resolve to happy endings, while Heimat is bleaker, or more like real life, or more German, depending on your perspective.  They both suit binge-watching).

Margarethe (Marita Breuer) and Jakob (Jan Dieter Schneider)
Despite my complaints, I'm delighted by the existence of this new slice of time.  The whole of Heimat-dom is bigger and better for it, and when I'd finished it I really wanted to move on to the first episode of 'Heimat' proper (but I held back, as I know that's a slippery slope requiring a lot of hours and tears).  Marita Breuer, one of Germany's best method-actors, is the real star of both films - Maria in the 1984 original, and Margarethe here.  She's a great performer, and it's a real pity she's not known in the UK, and I'd happily go out of my way to watch her in anything you care to recommend.  The village, the family, and even the technology at the forge (which I thought of as crude in 1919, but can now see as rather ingenious) are all enriched by the extra context.  Go back another hundred years, and you'll notice all the things that aren't there, and that you took for granted.  It's this richness and detail and depth -- Heimat isn't like movies, it's like life.

P.S. If the 'Heimat' formula of something that's kind-of a movie and kind-of in episodes sounds odd, compare it to 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), a 5-hour movie designed to be watched in two parts on consecutive days, or 'Les Enfants du Paradis' (1945), a movie and its sequel, designed to be shown as a double-bill because it was briefly illegal to make films longer than 90 minutes, and this was the only way to tell the whole story.  Or 'Das Boot' (1981), which was made for German TV as a six-parter, and simultaneously prepared for abridged international cinema release, and is now mainly thought of as a movie.  Did I watch those films just so I could compare them to 'Heimat'?  Maybe, but they were astonishing in all the good ways.

P.P.S. I’ve been waiting very excitedly for this film to be released, and then be released with English subtitles, for as long as this blog has existed (which is to say, since the end of 2012).  This was always meant to be the 2013 movie, but it’s taken until now for it to come out on DVD and blu-ray.  Finally, the Penciltonian’s original intentions have been met.  It’s been a lively ride.  Good work, readers!

DVDs of Heimat, Die Zweite Heimat (and soundtrack),
Heimat 3, Heimat: Die Fragmente, Home from Home.

A few fannish, spoilery thoughts, of interest to Heimat devotees:

I think the Simon family tree now goes something like this (with a lot of guesswork on dates, and things I'll need to check on rewatch):

Großmutter Mathilde begat Johann Simon (or possible Margarethe?)

Johann and Margarethe Simon (born 1785-1790ish) begat three children who didn't live to adulthood, plus Gustav (in 1824) and Jakob (in 1826)

Gustav Simon married Henriette (whose name I may have noted down incorrectly, as I can't find her in the cast-list) and they begat Mathilde (in 1843) and Jacobine (1844), the latter of whom may be the ancestor of the South American Simons who come to celebrate Paul's big birthday in part ten or eleven of the original 'Heimat'.

Jakob married Florinchen Niem, and must have begotten some children, probably starting around 1845-1850.  Original film grand-patriarch Matthias Simon was born in 1872, so the dates work out well for him to be their grandson.  It's hard to imagine a time when he wasn't ancient.  I've always rather ignored him as a character, assuming the laters Simons inherited their merits from Maria and Katharina, admirable women both - but knowing he's a descendant of wide-eyed Jakob makes me want to reconsider him.  It's a pity we never get to see him in his prime.

In short, the male line runs Johann, Jakob, mystery person, Matthias, Paul, and the trio of Anton/Ernst/Hermann (kind-of).  Looking at those who became Simons by marriage, and so took charge of the Simon house, it runs Mathilde, Margarethe, Florinchen Niem, ???, Katharina Schirmer, Maria Weigand, and then it was boarded up, and for the life of me, I can't think what becomes of the house after Paul puts his commemorative plaque on it at the start of the 1980s.

I will need to re-watch the film to be clear about a few characters.  There's one who might be Jakob's sister, though I was a bit confused on that point.  I assume (based on casting) that she or Jakob begat a daughter who married a son of the Pastor we see in this film, Dorfpfarrer Wiegand, as he is presumably the grandfather of Maria's dad Alois Weigand (1870-1965).

Anyway, I'd be very glad of any advice or corrections on sorting all this out.

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Adventures of Food Boy (2008)

Yesterday, my bandmate Pez urged me to look out ‘The Adventures of Food Boy’ on Netflix.  I can’t remember quite why the recommendation was made, but the concept entranced me: a boy suddenly learns that his family has the magical power to produce food from their hands.  What sold me on the film was a description of a scene when, attempting to run for ‘class president’ (which is a thing, in America), young Ezra Chase (for that is his name) accidentally shoots hams out of his hands.  Hams which strike his hated rival in the face.  Hams.

I spent a few hours mulling over this concept.  The idea was intriguing: food from nothing, hams from hands.  Spontaneous food-production is a fantastic notion.  You’d never go hungry again.  Heck, you’d never need to go food-shopping again.  Assuming a £20 weekly food shop, you’d be running on a saving of a thousand pounds a year, and you’d be a position to hand similar savings to everybody around you.  Engaged by a homeless person?  Ham ‘em!  Cold, cold Winter?  There must be some flammable foods you could produce and burn.  Oatmeal, perhaps, or bread?

The prospect was incredible.  You could wring a great drama out of it.  Or would this be another ‘Bernard’s Watch’ (CITV, 1997-2005), something far more satisfying in the imagination than on the screen?  Inevitably, the reality was disappointing.  Or, it was as expected; I knew from the off, this would not be beautiful art.  A star-and-a-half rating on Netflix, and the recommendation I received yesterday was more along the lines of a damning indictment.  The luscious hams I’d imagined were not great hunks of meat, they were wafer-thin processed stuff.  Hanky-meats.

Food Boy cowers in bread.
Ezra seems to find very little joy in his magical powers.  Unpredictable mustard ejection isn’t really his bag.  He has a dream, a slightly boring dream, of getting into an Ivy League university.  Do teens really get excited about that sort of thing?  Specifically, cool movie protagonists, and the sort of kid who would choose to watch a film called ‘The Adventures of Food Boy’.  Also: there are no adventures in this film.  He goes to school; he wants a career; he plays a little golf and wants to work on Wall Street.  There’s a jape, a scrape, even an antic, but no adventures.  This is no Buckaroo Banzai, no Priscilla, neither Rocky nor Bullwinkle.

How is it as a film?  Well, it’s clearly working to a tight budget.  They’ve hired a school and got a good number of extras, but there’s precious little left for the special effects.  The conjuring catering, which ought to be a visual feast, is weakly.  You can make a lot of magic with a little imagination and a good grasp of editing, as we saw in 'Orphée' (1950), but almost every apparition in this film is done the same way, with drainpipes in the sleeves.  It’s easy to guess, and it wouldn’t wow a toddler.

The movie as it appears on Netflix is in tall-screen, and seems to have been framed with this in mind - a strange rarity in the late noughties, when even made-for-TV and straight-to-video had gone widescreen.  (I have since found a widescreen version on Youtube while gathering screen-caps, but a lot of the shots seem to have been planned for 4:3).  The film is occasionally loud (with a musical score that belongs in a cooler film) and colourful - Ezra’s friends by-and-large fail to distinguish themselves, but they each have their own colour, and dress in a range of outfits around that simple theme.

Sandwich cutaway!
The other place that colour comes to the fore is in the movie’s real highlight - the highly stylised, very low budget flashbacks to famous food-wizards like the Earl of Sandwich.  These are played out on a very small stage, perfectly fitted to the film’s aspect ratio, and with all the set details painted on flat wood or cardboard.  It’s something you rarely see outside of 20s German expressionism or The Tent Stop of ‘Playdays’ (CBBC, 1988-1995).  These strangely-acted interludes really made the film, for me.

It’s not a wonderful movie, but after the dreary opening 22 minutes (which contain no food magic, and no hints that food magic will appear) it was sufficiently engaging to keep me going for the full 90.  Despite the food theme, don’t be tempted to watch it while dining, as there are a few instances of vomiting, pseudo-vomiting, and other culinary vulgarity.

P.S. The film has a strong moral which we hear articulated several times.  I like films with morals because their existence means the world will get better and we'll all be okay.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Cissie Colpitts 2, Cissie Colpitts 1 and Cissie Colpitts 3
Peter Greenaway films always make me want to make movies.  I’ve watched a few of his films for The Penciltonian - ‘The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ (1989), and ‘The Baby of Macon’ (1993, but I didn’t write it up because it was too horrible), and they always fascinate me.  He was trained as a painter, and came to cinema as a visual medium (which is what it is); he’s dismayed (or so he tells us in every interview) that most films are illustrated versions of novels, presenting pre-existing prose stories, rather than making more original use of cinema’s potential.

‘Drowning by Numbers’ is a film about drowning and counting.  It regards three women, all named Cissie Colpitts, who realise they can drown their husbands and get away with it by asking the local coroner nicely.  He’s a friend of the family, and he’s in love with them all.  These are not the only Cissie Colpittses in the Greenaway canon - there are three more in ‘The Falls’ (1980), and one in the three volumes of ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ (2003-2004).  No relation.  Anyway, as it transpires, it’s quite easy to drown people if you don’t have a particularly good motivation to do so, as the victim doesn’t see it coming.

Cissie Colpitts (Joely Richardson), and Bellamy (David Morrisey)
The film opens with an unnamed child, a real Bonnie Langford type, wearing a flouncy dress, and skipping with a rope; with each skip, she gives a number, and names one of the stars in the sky.  We see and hear her render one hundred of them.  It's quite a long, methodical way to start a film.  The numbers appear again throughout the film, starting with a ’1’ in the next scene, right up to a ‘100’ in the final shot, often written on walls or signs or bees.  It’s a pattern to follow, a game in a film about games.  'Drowning by Numbers’ is an art film.

It’s a film you’d watch for the ideas, not for the emotion.  The actors are excellent (and rightly famous), the characters are engaging, and the dialogue is interesting and amusing, but the film is so deliberately odd, so overtly theme-led as to throw up a verfremdungseffekt, deliberately alienating the viewers.  The piece, the staging, the lighting and the plot are beautiful, but obviously artificial.  Characters’ particular obsessions pepper their dialogue very heavily, and everything comes back to water, and to counting.

Bees 45 and 46
I’ve heard it said that Peter Greenaway only has one film, which he keeps making again and again.  I’m not sure if I quite agree, but it has the ring of truth.  Since 1981, their plots have generally been very close - an artist, a cook, an architect, or on this occasion a coroner, sets himself a task, probably something which will set up a lasting legacy, which may involve sex as a perk, or payment.  There’s a big bed that serves as a stage, there’s a big meal, there’s a big conspiracy with all the subtlety of Hamlet’s players; and then there’s more sex, which is generally sad or awkward, never sexy.  And in the end our hero dies, and/or has their eyes put out.  But his films aren’t really about plot, they’re about lighting, colour, themes, patterns and decay.

If the films are all similar, then what makes this one stand out?  That’s a tricky question.  It might have the best roles for women.  As above, there’s normally a male protagonist at the core of the film.  There is here, too, but his story is very much secondary to that of the three Colpittses - Joan Plowright, Juliet Stevenson and Joely Richardson are each excellent as Cissie, and it’s those characters who make the decisions that drive the story (though it seems certain choices run in the family).  They're almost the only characters to have forenames.  What else is different about this film?  I’d suggest the thing with the numbers, except that ‘Tulse Luper Suitcases’ does something a little similar; or the great quantity of dead animals on screen, except that ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ (1985) trumps all over that record.  The South Coast scenery, perhaps, and the particularly misty feel of the air.  I think ‘Drowning by Numbers’ is more overt about its artificiality than any of Greenaway’s classic works, though it has some stiff competition.

Cissie Colpitts (Joan Plowright) and Madgett (Bernard Hill)
It’s not my favourite of his films.  That honour goes either to ‘The Falls’ or ‘The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’, but I’ve probably over-watched those two.  I’ve been really looking forward to seeing this one again.  Like ‘A Zed and Two Noughts’, it’s really enhanced by its new blu-ray release.  Normally I don’t care about the novelty of high-definition, but Michael Nyman’s music - always a star in its own right - sounds much richer when it’s less compressed, and the DVD release of this film was a particularly awful transfer.  The film is much clearer, now.  When someone puts this much attention into framing, lighting and cinematography, it’s good to be able to watch it as they intended.

P.S. 1988 was an exciting year for films.  This is the year that gave us The Last Temptation of Christ, A Short Film About Killing, Akira, Die Hard, Drowning by Numbers and My Neighbour Totoro.  Since it was also the year of 'First We take Manhattan', 'The Satanic Verses' and 'Remembrance of the Daleks', I'd be happy to see another 1988, at least in the arts.