Sunday, 30 December 2012

Life of Pi (2012)

I've already told you about one 2012 film, so under the terms of my experiment I've really no business saying anything here about 'Life of Pi', but it's in the cinemas now and I think you should probably see it (whoever you are), so I'll make this exception.

The novel won the Booker Prize in 2002, which means it ought at least to be a story worth telling, and which can be told well.  I've enjoyed very much the only Booker-Prize-winning book I've read (and have appeared on-stage in a blues-musical about a Booker Prize loser, and once lived for a troubled year with the grandchild of the 1974 Booker winner), but haven't read 'Life of Pi', and was assured by a friend that it was a book that must never, ever be made into a movie.

Despite this, it made an enthralling and stunningly attractive film, one of the most visually delicious I've encountered, with a wealth of colour and animals and truly special effects.  Despite this, it's thoughtful, though not unexciting; ambiguous but never vague; it's stylised, but you can believe in it.  I only hesitate to describe it as 'intelligent' because I suspect I'd be taken aside and assured that the whole thing is a nonsense when compared to the book.  Well, so be it.

A real live tiger, probably.

The majority of the film follows a boy, Pi, trying to live simultaneously as a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim while adrift on the ocean in a small lifeboat, which he shares with a ferocious tiger.

I like animals - not in person, but in theory - and this is an animal film, with entrancing zebras and flying fishes, Richard Parker the tiger, orangutans, boars and flamingos.  My favourite was a hyena, whose fluffiness, aggression and voracious appetite reminded me of an owl puppet of my acquaintance.  To look at this as a story of nice and horrible and enjoyable animals isn't at all to miss the film's point, or to ignore the questions at its heart.  If you would like to be charmed and alarmed by animals, and yet be left pondering some long while after the film has ended, I don't think you would regret watching 'Life of Pi'.

This is what night looks like on the pacific, from above.

I might well look out the book during 2013, and am left keen to see some more films from or about India (where, I have wholly failed to so far mention, the eponymous Pi Patel starts his journey).  On that front, a film of Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children' (another Booker Prize winner) has also come out this week, and I've been looking forward to it for some while - and my parents have lent me 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel', but that seems to be entirely about retired white people with India merely a vacation, so may be the opposite of what I'm after.  Both of these are 2012 releases, so you probably won't hear about them here again, at least for a while.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Jurassic Park (1993)

I had planned to avoid watching any movies this week as I've worked up a backlog of eleven watched-but-not-written-about films, and had meant to write, if not necessarily post, blogs about a few of them before consuming any more material.  On St. Christmas's Day, however, I was at my friend Blodeuwedd's house for Christmas pancakes, and made the mistake of examining the Radio Times legendary double-issue.  A quick glimpse provided a pleasant surprise: Jurassic Park is on after Doctor Who.  And since Blodeuwedd is a great ambassador for dragons*, and since my erstwhile housemate Philip J. Cook had recommended this film to me as the best possible slice of 1993, we could hardly resist.

I've meant to revisit this film for some while.  If I'd been patient and waited for its 2013 rerelease, of course, I could have seen it on the big screen in 3D - but I was not patient.  Nobody is patient when it's Christmas.  The reason I'd been so keen to give this another viewing?  In my memory, the dinosaurs on display are Real Live Dinosaurs, photo-realistic, actually present, no fakery about them.  Perhaps, I thought, nineties technology and low-grade VHS had fooled my infant eyes.  I was a little fearful of dinosaur-disappointment.  '93 is practically the eighties, after all, and most of a decade passed between this and the CGI-fests of of the Star Wars prequels, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings (listed here in ascending order of beauty and believability).  Would the majestic creatures now look as if they had sauntered out of a computer game?

If you haven't seen the film, this must look a dull screen-cap.

Well, first of all, this Steven Spielberg is an excellent director.  I had completely forgotten this, or never noticed it when I was younger, but he made this film excellent.  Perhaps I've heard his more recent films maligned so often that I've forgotten why he's famous - but this is amazingly tense, brilliantly exciting, perfectly constructed.  It looks handsome and it sound terrifying.  Hitchcock couldn't have made pursuit by velociraptors more tense, and Kubrick could not have made a more attractive or intriguing film about a Tyrannosaurus.

But what about those CGI dinosaurs?  How have they fared?  To my surprise, relief and delight, they are real live, actual dinosaurs.  How, nineteen years ago, it was possible to computer-generate creatures so convincingly present in the same place and lighting conditions as the actors, I cannot say.  Looking at a chronology of CGI, this was the age of 'Reboot' and 'Veggie Tales'.  Much of the praise must go to the compositing, but the basic ingredients are so good that, if you were to tell me this film made use of some actual living dinosaurs, I might just believe you.

There are only fifteen minutes of dinosaur footage, this economical use presumably allowing far more time, money and attention to go into those beautiful minutes.  Of this, about half is computer-generated dinosauriness, the other half animatronics - basically any shot where you only see a head and neck, or just a claw, is animatronic.  I really couldn't tell which was which - and that, to my mind, is the mark of photo-realism.  Like Fritz Lang's frightning dragon* in Die Nibelungen (1924), there was, apparently, a full-size real live physical T-rex built for this film.  A scary prospect.

A real live dinosaur!

There are some characters and in this film too, and they're all just fine, but I'm sorry to say we don't really watch Jurassic Park for anything but the dinosaurs.  I'll give them a moment, though - because as exciting as the dinosaurs are, they aren't just here to add spice to something dry.  On the contrary, this is a highly quotable script, full of witty characters, divided into the likeable and the hope-they-die-soon-oh-good-they-just-did-horribly.  I found, some decade-and-a-bit since I last saw this, I still know a few exchanges line for line and shot for shot.

I feel I've written an overwhelmingly positive review for you here, which may seem either naive or insincere.  Perhaps it's just nostalgia, and the fact I watched it most merrily on Christmas Day, but I really did find re-visiting 'Jurassic Park' an enjoyable experience.  It's a fair bit more accessible than some of the films I've been watching lately, and I'm interested to hear what young viewers, seeing it for the first time, may think.  I understand it's returning to the cinemas in April 2013, so we may find out whether the world shares my delectation.  As much as I tend to shun 3D, I may make an exception on this occasion.
When you gotta go, you gotta go.

Something else to check out: a video trailer for a low-budget live production of 'Jurassic Park' from a little earlier this year.  It's everything you might hope, so be sure to at least take a glimpse.

Can't wait til April?  Need to see a Dinosaur?  Why not resort to materialism?

* P.S. Dinosaurs are basically dragons, aren't they?

Monday, 24 December 2012

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I'm not sure whether I ever believed in Father Christmas, whether I simply played along, taking the whole thing to be a game of pretending.  It was a long time ago, and my memory doesn't stretch to my early childhood, but I don't recall ever believing in my heart that this mysterious figure really climbed down my chimney (but through the help of such chimney-cleaning films as 'Mary Poppins' (1946) and 'The Water Babies' (1978) I must have believed chimneys to be climbable, at least for infants - so maybe I thought it feasible).

In 'Miracle on 34th Street' - that Christmas classic - Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) doesn't believe in Father Christmas, and has raised her daughter Susan to likewise doubt the existence of the jolly fellow, never telling her any fairy-tales, discouraging her imagination.  I suspect the audience are meant to dislike Ms Walker for this sentiment - and, this being the 1940s, for being a divorcee and strong independent woman.  The 21st Century liberal in me is wary of seeing her lifestyle condemned, while the 16th Century Puritan in me (I am both these things in equal measure) commends her decision not to lie to her daughter.  How we might expect children to believe anything about Christmas if we spend their formative years insisting on Santa, I've no idea.  'I think we should be realistic and completely truthful with our children,' she says, which is reasonable enough, but Susan's life lacks fun, and even I with my puritanical streak hoped mother and daughter might soften, if not be wholly cured of their realism.  This is a magical Christmas family film, after all.

'I am not in the habit of substituting for spurious Santa Clauses'

Enter Kris Kringle (Best Supporting Actor, Edmund Gwenn), who inadvertently finds himself hired as a mall Santa for a large department store.  But as well as working as Father Christmas, he is Father Christmas.  I don't just mean to tell you the character's identity - Edmund Gwenn is Santa, if anybody has ever been so.  The performance is perfect, the sparkling wit of his dialogue, his openness to new experiences, his ready delight and his overwhelming honesty even at his own expense.  Kringle champions peace and imagination, and shows himself willing to put up a fight when justice and decency are under threat.  It seems inconceivable that a character so very good can avoid being twee or bland, but I could watch a great deal more of this St Nick, and could happily (and, I suspect, easily) befriend him.  If the legend of Father Christmas lasts another thousand years, some actor may equal Edmund Gwenn's performance as the great man, but none shall ever better it.

Hired to sit in a store's grotto and push overstocked toys on unsuspecting children, Kris Kringle openly opposes this charmless commercialism, preferring to serve the children's needs and direct overstressed parents to other stores for their needs when appropriate.  This is a Santa I can get behind.

'Maybe he's only a little crazy, like painters or composers,
or some of those men in Washington'.

Films of this era take a great glee in exhibiting over-zealous Freudian psychiatrists inhibited by great neuroses of their own, and there's a particularly churlish example here in the person of Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall).  Kris Kringle is keen to point out his respect for legitimate psychiatry, but Sawyer is a horrible and sweaty creep, too keen to diagnose and invent complexes in his patients.  Very soon, Father Christmas is on trial to prove his identity and his sanity.

I've seen a few trial movies lately (with 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' and 'M' awaiting review shortly) and it's a relief and a delight to find a court-room so full of wit and charm.  Where the film could have become tense and climactic for the sake of a little drama, it leans to its lightness and humour, with the prosecutor unable to deny the existence of Father Christmas in front of his young children, and the supreme court judge coming up for re-election and daunted by offending the Christmas goodwill of the electorate.  Kris Kringle's case seems hopeless, but far more important to him is the hope that Doris and Susan come to believe in him.

Despite considerable competition, this is my favourite Christmas movie.  I understand it's been remade a number of times (most notably in 1994), but I find it almost impossible to believe it's ever been managed so agreeably, with such a perfect Father Christmas, with the originality and flair on display here.  I stumbled on this film quite by accident, on a VHS thrown out by a housemate (hence the curious quality of the screen-captures here) and entered it with low expectations.  It's been a pleasure to rewatch it this Advent, and I'll do so again gladly.

It's still Christmas for a few days yet, and it's always Christmas in your heart (except on Tisha B'Av, the Jewish Day of mourning), so why not seek out a copy of this festive delight?

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Sleeping Beauty (live belly-dance)

I've always thought of belly-dancing as a mildly saucy novelty - a sorbet between more substantial acts, or a bit of background colour in films.  When I was invited along to see the first ever belly-dance production of 'Sleeping Beauty', I was somewhat wary, but intrigued.  There was a thrill to sitting in the theatre, knowing I was wholly ignorant of what would ensue, of what manner of story-telling lay beyond the red-orange curtains.

I found myself at the theatre, having been invited by friends who were, unfortunately, encumbered by illness and unable to attend.  I wasn't alone, as three other friends had likewise had the idea suggested to them, but none of us knew quite what to expect.  Crucially, where this would fall on the line between ballet, kabuki theatre and pantomime?  Would this be two solid hours of dancing?  Would it be exciting?  Amusing?  Terrifying?

The programme (I was stingy here, so looked over my neighbour's shoulder to read his copy) filled in a few details.  Jenny Muhlwa had a dream, a compulsion to bring belly-dancing to the masses, to show it to be be a legitimate way to tell stories.  Belrobics had been formed, a circle of linked belly-dancing groups, of all ages, around Sheffield.  They came together to show their work, their moves, and their bellies.

The curtains opened and the bellies began.  The stage was dominated by a rather magnificent backdrop painting of the Taj Mahal.  Bar a couple of chairs and a crib-full-of-baby, this was the full extent of the set.  This production was all about the dancing.

Here ensued dance after dance, belly after belly, the jangle of coin-belts, a pageant of rich saturated colours, and the pallid Winter flesh of Britain.  This whole production, cast mainly with keen amateurs, seemed a commendably un-self-conscious show.  Now, I would be daunted to show my battenberg-filled belly in public, knowing myself not to be honed and toned to society's impossible standards, but the dancers here were bolder than I, and not bound by such miserable restrictions.

I feel ill-qualified to comment on either quality or style of dance, as I've pretty much ignored it as a medium, and my own engagement with it has hitherto been restricted to the odd ceilidh and a few seconds of alarming movement half-way through the music video to 'The Princess I Never Knew'.  What I can say is this, that the dancing was enthusiastic, energetic, joyful and hypnotic, with each of the groups coming forward with scenes and set-pieces.  I hadn't expected so much variety within belly-dancing - or rather, I hadn't realised it could hold my attention for two full acts without growing repetitive.

There were many memorable images within the extravaganza of undulation and shimmying.  The good fairies with their huge wings moved with a grace and fluidity, and impressed more than I might have expected from such elegantly simple props.  The dancers playing thorns deported themselves very well, and were the best costumed, by merit both of looking much like thorns, and looking not very much like belly-dancers; thorns aside, this did seem to take place in a kingdom made up entirely of belly-dancers (as opposed to, say, a kingdom made up of people who happen, in this telling, to be belly-dancing).  One particular highlight was a dance near the first act's end, in which the evil fairy works the eponymous Aurora like a puppet - showing off the dynamism of the two dancers' movements and the precision of their timing.  This was a too-rare moment of interaction between characters, not that the others didn't dance together - just that they didn't dance together.  Here was a piece of good drama within the dance.

Act two gave us a male character, and thus a male dancer in a cast of sixty or so females.  I was a little daunted by the prospect, through concern that finding a male willing to belly-dance might have resulted in resorting to somebody very terrible indeed.  But no, the man danced with all due passion, virility and grace - though I found his character, as in many tellings of this story, unpalatably arrogant, a man driven by his lusts rather than inherent heroism.  Thankfully, in what was either slight mistake on the part of the dancers or a brilliant faux-ad-lib, the prince and the awoken beauty bumped rather suddenly into one another, and shared a laugh more human and less calculated than much of the production.  Perhaps they were merely enjoying themselves.  I hope so.

So, do I foresee a time when going to the belly-dance will be a Christmas tradition for many?  I certainly like the idea, and there's a joy to any new tradition.  It's as good a way as any to tell a story, and for now the novelty of it makes it intriguing, so I'll be very glad to return to next year's productions.  There's a lot to be said for all forms of physical theatre, and I'm keen to see how this company will develop.  I particularly liked the mix of dancers at different levels of ability and complexity, the production bringing learners and professionals together under the same discipline and with the same gusto.  I've sometimes found dancers who dance so extraordinarily that I can hardly believe I belong to the same species, but watching 'Sleeping Beauty' I felt anybody open to the experience could learn to belly-dance.  Do excuse me if I don't, however.

P. S. You can see Belrobics in action on their Youtube channel 

P. P. S. I hope you'll excuse me sullying the purity of this blog's focus on film, but it is nearly Christmas.

Belrobics staged the first ever belly-dance production of 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Montgomery Theatre, Sheffield, 20th-22nd December 2012.  I've no doubt they will return in a matter of months.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Short films of Peter Greenaway (1974, 1976)

Windows (1974)

This was one of the first films I watched in my 'hundred films from hundred years' experiment, so it's one I've had a lot of cause to mention in lists.  I wish it had a longer or slightly more substantial title, as even I keep expecting an operating-system related adventure, rather than a catalogue of the fallen.

When I was writing up 'Lieutenant Kijé' it struck me that almost all of the films I'd been watching featured battles, murders or other forms of violent death.  'Ah,' I thought, 'but the Peter Greenaway shorts surely don't have any homicides in them, as they aren't character-based narratives'.  A moment's research revealed to me that, despite its three-and-a-half minute duration, 'Windows' has a higher body-count than 'Terminator 2' (1991) - albeit deaths described rather than shown.  As the opening sentence puts it, 'In 1973, in the parish of W, thirty-seven people were killed as a result of falling out of windows'.

The film goes on to enumerate and categorise the generalised circumstances, professions and ages of the nameless people.  During this collated data, set to persistent harpsichord music, we're treated to some 16mm footage of a house's windows, and the sights beyond.

'...the remaining adults were all under 71,
save for a man believed by some to be 103.'

I know how tempting it is, given a house, a camcorder and almost nothing else, to make zero-budget thrillers and intense five-minute dramas about two characters and a puppet - so it shows commendable restraint on Greenaway's part, or perhaps a sign that the stories he wants to tell are far more different, more like art - that he can take the time and the film and make something almost devoid of humans interacting with one another.  Aside from a few brief shots of his wife in the garden, this is a film without people in the pictures.  Window frames and ledges, vertical features, distant plants and trees.

I've long delighted in Peter Greenaways films and often wish I could tell stories the way he does in his later career - but our beginnings and our urges when given film-making tools seem here so radically different that the workings of his mind must be somehow artistically opposite to mine.  I watch these films and try to work him out.

H is for House (1976)

'H is hemiptera, homoptera and hymenoptera'

Peter Greenaway is a director unusually concerned with visuals.  Unusually because, having trained as a painter, and counting film as a visual medium first and foremost, he doesn't match pictures to a plot or dialogue, preferring to work the other way around.  The pictures, the light and shade, composition and colour come first.  Why make the film follow its characters' stories?  Why not arrange the film alphabetically (as he did in his 1980 directory epic 'The Falls').  'H is for House' also muses on the alphabet as a tool of categorisation.

Interspersed with lists of words beginning with H ('H is for Home-movie and Hollywood and R is for Russets') we hear dry but hugely improbable stories about unnamed characters, deliberately-dull fairy tales about town-planning and satirical opticians, boiled down to the most concise of tellings.

'H is for cigar.  Havana cigar'

Perhaps by merit of using the same house and camera, this feels like a sequel to 'Windows'.  It has the same aggressive music driving the film - but rather than harpsichord, this time it's a loud recording of The Four Seasons that keeps the viewer going.  Like 'Windows', this might be a comedy, if it's anything, and I'm glad to take it as one.  It has a curious wit, and what it could possibly mean, if it's not some kind of satire, I cannot say.

P. S. These films are so very short ('Windows' would fit eighty-two times into 'Die Nibelungen') that I'll very probably be watching some more sensibly-lengthed films for 1974 and 1976.  Any suggestions?

P. P. S. The next review will be the most Christmassy 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947), and the next film I'll watch will be 'Finding Neverland' (2004).

P. P. P. S. The 'P.S.' above stands for 'Pencilton Says'.  Pencilton is a small, fluffy owl puppet, and while owls are often wise, Pencilton is not.  He is, however, correct on this issue.  'P.P.S.' stands for 'Pencilton Probably Says', probably.  The extra 'P' in this entry stands for Peter Greenaway.

Oh, treat yourself with a copy of 'The Early Films of Peter Greenaway volume 1', why doncha?  These are merely the shortest two items, and you'd also be able to discover 'A Walk Through H' in all its cartographical beauty, and a couple of other snippets.

Lieutenant Kijé (1934)

This Russian comedy, 'Поручик Киже', has been largely forgotten (except, perhaps, in Russia, where I presently have no data-gatherers), and seems to be wholly unavailable on VHS or DVD.  I had thought it might have lapsed into the public domain and been exploited by some cheap DVD producer on the basis of its famous soundtrack - but since this has not happened I can only guess the Prokofiev estate is blocking it, since the music he wrote for it, while rightly famed (you almost certainly know the Troika) is crudely performed and recorded, and often accompanied here by bawdy lyrics.

The whole film can be found on Youtube, however, where I would suggest you might give it your attention.  'This is the story of a spelling mistake,' as we read at the film's beginning.  I'll give you a brief idea of the premise.  It's 1800, and the Tsar of Russia is asleep.  The palace guards, up until then marching with the help of early split-screen effects, stop where the are, mid-step, toes in the air.  Everybody stops because the Tsar is asleep.

Some guy, elsewhere in the palace - if the film names any of its characters, bar Kijé, I have remained oblivious - is being seduced by a woman pretending to be a cat.  She pinches his bottom, and he cries aloud, in surprise rather than pain.  According to the English subtitles, he shouts 'Ga-oo-ah-oo-ah-r-r-r-...!!', which is loud enough to wake the sleeping Tsar, and apparently sounds enough like the Russian word for 'guard' that the awoken tyrant demands to know who has called for a guard - and begins planning punishments for them.

This picture describes the film better than my words could.

The guards' daily orders are being transcribed onto fresh paper by a clerk who manages, though a no-doubt rib-tickling Russian pun, to make a duplication of syllables into the name 'Kijé'.  One of those things that doesn't quite work in English, but never mind.  Before the mistake can be corrected the nonexistent Kijé gets the blame for shouting, and is promptly banished to Siberia - with, as they say, hilarious consequences.  The rest of the film sees him recalled and married off to the jocular lady pictured above, who relishes the prospect of being married to (by that point) a general, even one who doesn't exist.

Perhaps appropriately, the film's comedy loses something in translation from screen to the page (though I know this blog is also on a screen), but the whole film is enjoyably silly, well put-together, and especially worth watching if you already have some familiarity with Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé suite.  It has a Christmassy flavour - perhaps down to the sleigh-bells, the Siberian snow, the booziness and the folk-tale quality.  There's something of pantomime to it, and it fills eighty minutes comfortably enough.  I can't offer the film high praise, but I've watched it twice and both times found it engaging and amusing - and both times forgotten almost every detail within a few days.

Yellow Submarine (1968)

When I first heard 'Eleanor Rigby' it was just a song in the background.  Perhaps it was in the foreground, but I hardly gave it my full concentration.  Later, when I first paid attention to its lyrics, it became suddenly far sadder.  A dismal, believable picture of the world I lived in.  Ms. Rigby's loneliness is something I've managed to avoid, but Father McKenzie's situation seemed more familiar.  It was a shock to find something so grim from a band I'd assumed, from their popularity and classic status, were habitually happy.  When I was young, I think I assumed happiness and popularity always coupled closely, so the gradual discovery that some Beatles works weren't just pop was confusing.

'Yellow Submarine' is a very odd film.  When first it was shown to me, in wretched-quality download at university, I walked out a quarter of the way through saying that if the Beatles weren't in it nobody would remember it - and that the Beatles weren't in it - the voices are just impersonators.

I was wrong to condemn it as forgettable.  Perhaps it was the difference in picture and sound quality, but this viewing showed it to be something far more precious.  Nothing made by human hands has ever much resembled 'Yellow Submarine' except when directly imitating it - and on this level I couldn't fail to be impressed.  It's a striking set of pictures, but I can't quite make up my mind whether it's beautiful.  Perhaps that means it isn't - but it's deliberate.

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name.
Nobody came.

The film brought to mind my young confusion about the Beatles.  This is, after all, a whimsical family film, a vehicle for antics, lively banter and puns, a meandering plot to support a string of otherwise unconnected songs and psychedelic experiences.  Isn't psychedelia meant to be fun, if not funny?  One of the songs, though, is 'Eleanor Rigby'.  Another is 'Only a Northern Song', one of many slightly bitter, uncomfortable Beatles works.  Despite my earlier protestations, The Beatles certainly are in this film, in the songs, set alongside or against the characters in the comedy - the real Beatles and the folk-memory of the Beatles.

The plot - Pepperland is encumbered by the Blue Meanies, so a submariner goes to get the Beatles, who make music and champion colour and joy, and so drive away the blues - is simple enough, but scene-by-scene the film is mind-bogglingly unpredictable.  The comedy is occasionally very funny, and had me laugh aloud at a couple of points - but the context is all so strange, both colourful and bleak, with the Beatles often set against empty white backgrounds and similar dearth of background sound, the fun misplaced in a void.  Perhaps this would all make more sense to me if I'd seen it as a child, and could look back on it with the warmth of nostalgia - or seen it in the sixties, when I like to imagine people lived in Nostalgia, or a cloud of Nostalgia-flavoured smoke, as it all happened to them.  As it is, the parts tinged with unhappiness - the emptiness, the tragedy of the songs, and the knowledge of the Beatles' conflicts and end only a couple of years later - make the whole thing seem unsettling rather than lively.

Why don't people a) dress and b) stand like this any more?

This sounds like I didn't, or couldn't, enjoy the film.  On the contrary, I came out of it enthused.  The whole thing was an experience, a dream of images and ideas, like 'Russian Ark' (2002) or the bizarre 1967 'Casino Royale'.  A simple call to peace, revolution and humanism.  It was an experiment, like the equally eccentric and uneven White Album, released the same year, part fun, part angry, part slightly rubbish.

Perhaps, in wanting something more cohesive and straightforwardly enjoyable I'm proving myself square, like the despicably mundane Mr Jones in 'Ballad of a Thin Man' by Bob Dylan, that corrupter or Beatles.  If this had been an easier film to enjoy, it probably would have been far less like the actual Beatles.  The use of cartoon Beatles in a comic fantasy and real Beatles in the songs is more appropriate, I think, than asking the real four to act like pictures of themselves and deliver somebody else's Beatle dialogue.  That way lies 'Help!' (1965), a terrible film when compared to this.  This, at least, looks like a work of art rather than a caper vehicle for four non-actors.

If I haven't put you off the whole fascinating film, why not get a copy - or to save yourself money and support council ventures, borrow it from your local library?

Monday, 17 December 2012

Sequels to 'Shaft' (1972, 1973)

Shaft's Big Score!

'Shaft's Big Score'.  The score is money, or revenge, or possibly some sex.

'Shaft's Big Score!' has two things the original 'Shaft' lacks.  Firstly, an exclamation mark in its title.  Secondly, 'Shaft's Big Score!' has a helicopter in it.  That's the sum of its improvements and expansions.

You can tell the helicopter is a big deal.  The DVD's front cover shows John Shaft, his face showing urgency but not alarm, and behind him a looming helicopter.  One can reasonably spend 80% of the of the film in anticipation of a helicopter, wondering how and when it will explode (because any film with a helicopter on its cover or poster will, at the end, have a helicopter explosion - it's practically what these things are built for.  It's a wonder people still use them).

The film is otherwise very much like 1971's 'Shaft', but without the Isaac Hayes soundtrack.  'Theme to Shaft's Big Score!' imitates the earlier 'Theme to Shaft' in its potted biography interspersed with breathy 'Shaft's and 'John Shaft's, but comes across as a rip-off, like when Tennyson's 'Charge of the Light Brigade' proved so popular that he rushed out the near identical 'Charge of the Heavy Brigade'.  This film isn't really weaker than the first, or inherently worse, but the original was original, and this can't make that claim.

Just as 'Shaft' was adapted from Ernest Tidyman's novel of the same name, so this film is adapted from its second sequel (sadly skipping 'Shaft Among the Jews', which I'm reading at present, having found its title and cover too fascinating).  Once again, Shaft is on the trail of a weedy Caucasian with too little style and too many guns.  The baddie plays a clarinet in this one, and is after a large amount of money that's been hidden in a coffin, and was meant to be used to build an orphanage or somesuch.  The rest of the plot, a week later, is a bit of a blur, since I watched the Shaft trio in the space of three days, and this was comfortably the least amazing.

The action finale is where it's at, and was the only place from which I could draw a screen-capture that couldn't have come from 'Shaft'.  A chase with running, shooting, cars, speed-boat and that helicopter.  I certainly hope Jon Pertwee took the time to watch 'Shaft's Big Score!', as this sort of thing was right up his street - and may well have been the inspiration for the action part two of 'Planet of the Spiders'.  And does the helicopter explode?  Well I wouldn't want to spoil the end for you.

Shaft in Africa

'Shaft in Africa', or in fact, on a boat to France.

Now this is more like it.  Shaft is dispatched to Africa - mainly Ethiopia, but 'Shaft in Addis Ababa' doesn't sell the concept quite so well - and goes undercover to expose a people-trafficking operation run by a villainous and borderline-impotent white man (played here by Frank Finlay).

This is Shaft stripped down - without New York, or his usual allies, or his cool leather coat (which I envy, and was sad not to see here) - without any of his usual security.  Without his gun.  Shaft gets a dog, but it dies, so he has an overwhelmingly exciting wooden-pole fight with the man who killed it.

Until I saw this, the sole (and therefore best) people-trafficking film I'd seen was the maybe-kinda-racist 'Freight' (2010) in which my friend Jennifer Jordan played the career-defining role of 'Moldovian Woman 1', despite 'Moldovian' not being a real word.  'Shaft in Africa' knocks 'Freight' into a cocked hat, whatever that means, and is a far more interesting, exciting and emotionally involving depiction of this ongoing modern slavery.  It's depressing to think the problem was described so clearly in 1973 and is still going strong four decades later.

I'm inclined to say this film is just as good, and as socially aware as the original 'Shaft', and is a story worth telling.  Its status as a threequel and its lack of Oscar-winning theme tune have left it largely forgotten, but if you enjoyed 'Shaft', or enjoy Frank Finlay and want to see him talk about erectile disfunction and plan to shoot people and blow them up, this is certainly a film to investigate.

Have I tempted you to engage with either of these exciting motion pictures? Here they are on DVD, should you get the urge

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit was read to me in my infancy, but I subsequently forgot any parts of it that weren't recapped by the films of Lord of the Rings.  I tried to read it around five years ago, but crashed out somewhere in chapter two, frustrated by the made-up sounding names of the dwarves, and all that singing.

I tried again this Autumn, accidentally starting on the 75th anniversary of the book's publication, and found a great deal to like.  It's a fun adventure, full of incident, set within a well thought-out world of great detail.  The problem is, the great detail doesn't turn up until very long sequel The Lord of the Rings.

I do like a splash of colour.  Far greener than its Sequel.

In the end I read The Hobbit in the knowledge that the film adaptation was to be greatly expanded, unfolding 300 pages into nearly nine hours.  Some have quavered, but I was glad of this fact.  I'm a great believer that you can't do much with a novel in two hours, and everything happens so suddenly in this book.  Gollum is in and out in a trice, given almost more backstory than story.    Characters like the Goblin King and the Master of Lake Town turn up without being granted either names or physical descriptions of any kind.  The thing was crying out for pictures and performances, for the care and attention of Peter Jackson, and an industrial tanker of helium with which to fill out the slightly insubstantial sketches that appear in some places in the book.

So, I went to see the movie in Oxford with a company of friends.  Critics had warned me to be wary, but I had resolved to enjoy the film to the full, and I was in the right context to do so.  As I hoped, this was a story told big, with, y'know, drama and emotions, as well as singing and falling over.  It was broader and deeper than the book, not that the depth wasn't there in the Tolkien, but some was hitherto hidden by being in the wrong book.  A fun adventure, but not just fun and adventurey.  From book to film, twelve rather anonymous dwarves, who had been too much alike, too irritating and altogether too many have become about six interesting and excellently enjoyable characters and about six who will presumably show their merits in the next two portions of Hobbit.  I'll get back to you about them in 2014.

I shan't say much more, as at this stage in 2012 you've probably seen more than enough review and comment on the subject, or have seen the film already and don't need to hear more.  I'll just say a word for Sylvester McCoy, an actor I've long enjoyed and championed.  It's a delight to see him on the big screen, especially when he gets to interact with, for instance, Ian McKellan, or a lovely hedgehog.  I think he may divide opinion here, as he does everywhere, but I won't object if he makes more substantial appearances in the next two films, and then his own psychedelic veterinary spin-off.

Television's Dr Who in a big beard

Final thoughts: the 48 frames per second looked great, and I welcome it for the future.  I'm glad I was wrong in my prediction that Sir Christopher Lee would die this year (and was likewise wrong about Sir Sean Connery and Sir Margaret Thatcher), and it's a fine thing to see him on display here being magnificently old.  The man loves his Tolkien, and I'm sure he'll enjoy the film.  And so will you, probably.

I've been a little excessive and updated thrice today.  Partly I'm getting through a backlog of watched-recently-but-not-blogged films (though I'll slow those down), but I thought it worth getting this one up while it was still a new film, and also making sure I'd spoken about three very different films.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)

I should say from the off that this is one of my favourite films, and by my favourite director, Peter Greenaway.  It's a beautiful thing with its excessively rich use of colour, its symmetry, its huge, perfectly framed sets, its poetic justice, its many depictions of grand cookery (which is like grand larceny, with cucumbers and swans) and its overwhelming Michael Nyman soundtrack.

I had forgotten - until I pondered lending it to a friend - quite how grotesque and horrible it is.  Not that its beauty hides or is undermined by its excessive violence, its obscene central character, its desperate, fraught and interrupted sex and its coupling of nudity with stinking, decaying and maggot-filled meat.  In a way it all works together to make a strange, horribly engrossing feast of sound, colour and performance.

Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) laughs at prairie-oysters

Michael Gambon's character is so watchably aggressive and churlish here that it's almost difficult to properly condemn his long campaign of his bullying, belching, eating, merry-making and stabbing, his fumbling attempts at pretentiousness, his place as the king of a court of English gangsters.  He's disgusting and despicable, yet despite all the hatred he exercises against his wife, his gang and his enemies, I feel sorrow for his character and at the same time want to see him die.  I can believe in someone so powerful and pathetic.  I condone nothing he does, save for the eating of food, but the performance and character are fantastically engaging.  How pleasingly different a role for the man now better known as Albus Dumbledore.

I must speak again about the visual feast.  In the restaurant, where most of the action plays out, everything is a regal red.  The walls, the curtains and the costumes.  Rich, sumptuous, bloody, and dominated by a painting in the same hues and character.  As soon as the action moves to the kitchen, however, the same characters' clothes become greenest green, matching the drapes, the lights and the vegetables.  Blue outside, where the dogs are continuously barking, and pure white in the women's toilets.  The first time I saw this I took it to be some trick of lighting - but no!  These places are different worlds, without compromise.

Like saying, ha ha, 'death, I'm eating you!'

In competition with the feverishly colourful visuals is Michael Nyman's finest work, his funeral march Memorial, which rightly has its own Wikipedia page (at once the cheapest and greatest accolade of any notable work).  Twelve driving minutes of minimalist Purcellian honking, bearing some of the most exciting and alarming soprano vocals I've ever been glad to hear.  It matches the film perfectly.

Incidentally, the film has the highest score of all the Greenaways in the 's/he's been in Doctor Who' game, with Michael Gambon, Roger Lloyd Pack and Alex Kingston, in that order of prominence.  Of actors unconnected to Doctor Who (is it concerning that my mind really works this way?) I must point out the rare acting performance from Ian 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' Dury, and apologise for so far failing to mention Helen Mirren and Richard Bohringer as the eponymous wife and cook, who make a long conversation towards the end, about voyeurism and how to decide what to charge for items on the menu, the highlight of the film, bar the finale.

If you've the stomach for it, I'd urge you towards The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.  Sumptuous, horrible, beautiful and alarming - a combination I find bizarrely appealing.

Cucumber-chopping cutaway in a scene with near-tasteful nudity

P.S. I'd meant my comments on this blog to be quite a bit shorter than this.  Do excuse me.

P.P.S. If you happen to be my mother, do not watch this film.  It just isn't your sort of thing.

Tempted to watch the film? You could buy it on DVD. Or, you know, you could borrow my copy, but not everybody lives very near my shelves.

Die Nibelungen (1924)

The terrifying dragon, Fafner

Sometimes I like to browse Amazon's recommendations page  - a curious set of things the site believes I ought to want, along the lines of "I see you've bought a bright green pancake pan from us, so you'll be wanting this Ken Dodd DVD" and other such eccentric and confusing links.  I'd almost lost faith in them when, once upon a time, the site happened to mention that ace German director Fritz Lang had made a five-hour silent film about the Nibelungs.  "Oh Amazon," I cried aloud, "you do know me!"

It's a movie in two films - which isn't to say it's an original and a sequel.  Rather, it was the fashion in the early twenties to make films with 22-hour intermissions, so go to the cinema, watch part one, go home, and come back the next day for part two.  The back of the box describes it as 'stately' and 'hypnotic', which in combination with the stated duration made it sound like it might be rather slow.  I was daunted, but cautiously optimistic.

If you're at all familiar with Wagner's four-opera 'Ring Cycle' (and I'll quite understand if you aren't - I only am because I like an epic, or feat of endurance, and perhaps because I like it be known that I like an epic), you might reasonably expect the plot of this double film to be familiar, for they both draw on the same source, concern Siegfried and Brunhild and the Nibelung gold.  But no!  Wotan and the rest of the Norse gods are out, Attila the Hun is in (with amazing makeup and performance that make him seem like some kind of space alien).  Brunhild is not a Valkyrie, just a brilliantly strong woman with a hat that looks like the offspring of a saucepan and a goose.

Brunhild's amazing hat

Fritz Lang certainly put in some effort to make the film he wanted to see.  Rather than going to a forest to shoot his forest scenes, he built the trees out of concrete.  If he wants to burn a building down and have it collapse he'll just burn it down, and if it falls on the actors it's all to the good so long as the cameras catch the moment.  Rather than waiting patiently for someone to invent CGI or stop-motion animation, he built a real live dragon and had it breathe real fire on his lead actor.  Indeed, this last thing is so extraordinary I feel I must compel you to see a clip of the terrifying dragon, inside which are many terrified technicians and puppeteers.

It's a big old story full of battle and flame grand vistas, but at its heart all about the knotty personal dramas of its key characters, with their extraordinary dancing movements, their strange silent faces acting out the intense drama of it all.  To my surprise and relief, the film sustained my attention and interest across its great duration.  I'd recommend it highly, if its combination of silence, length, ancientness and German-ness weren't sure to put y'all off.  Tell you what: watch Lang's Metropolis instead, and come to this as a long pudding, should you want more of the same.

Got a lot of time on your hands? Then why not buy the film on blu-ray or DVD and wonder at the crude beauties of 1920s film-making. Fear the dragon! Observe the magnificent hat! Feel the flames!

The Concept

So here's the idea, then.

I've resolved, mainly as an excuse to watch more films, that I should watch a movie from every year of the last hundred, from 1913 to 2013.  This, in a year or more or less.

I hadn't intended to review the films or anything like that, but decided I might as well put a few thoughts down on paper (since computers are made of paper) so that I have something to show for the whole thing.  Not reviews - or, at least that isn't the plan - but a few thoughts on why the film is interesting, or why you might like to see it, or why you might like to imagine it, but then not see it because what you imagined in enough.

Anyway, I like stories, I like the sort of obsessing that lets a person make a list of a hundred years and slowly attach a film or two to each of them, and find a delight in choosing appropriate screen-captures from each of the hundred or so films.  I don't have the century mapped out, so if you have a favourite film, or just a film you feel I ought to include in my adventures, by all means mention it in the comments and I might just give it a go.