Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

This is one of three very different Russian Revolution films I'd like to cover during this 100-films experiment - and the only one in Russian.  The trio are 'Nicholas and Alexandra' (1971) which I like very much indeed, 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965) which I don't like at all, though I concede that it has great artistic merit; and this, 'Броненосец «Потёмкин»'which I admire as a piece of work, but can't claim to have a great preference on either way.  We don't watch propaganda films because they make us happy, but because they're well-wrought, interesting and historically significant.  One doesn't watch 'Triumph of the Will' (1934) through a joy at seeing Hitler's little face.  By no means!  It's a major piece of history in itself, and has brass bands and rich oratory (however objectionable) to keep the attention.

So it is with 'Battleship Potemkin'.  The propaganda films that last long enough to be counted as classics tend to be worth watching for their artistry and innovative techniques.  Most striking here are the montages, the tensest moments juxtaposing images - the mutinous sailors quailing beneath a tarpaulin, a firing squad of their fellows tensing to fire, the fire-and-brimstone priest thumping his hand with a golden cross, all cut together to produce the most emotive reaction in the spectator.  To make us angry at the unfairness, to see the suffering of fellow workers and the cruelty of oppressive officers.

It makes a compelling case.  I admire these sailors and pity the people of Odessa, gunned down by the Tsarist troopers for supporting the mutinous cause.  It's a revolution easy to support, but history has left it seeming bitter.  I don't know much about Soviet Russia, but I know I wouldn't want to live there.  The revolution, as in the microcosm of the Battleship, got rid of the most visible villains, but in the long-term life got no better.  If I didn't know this, such a film might have incited me to action.

It's constructed with an amazing clarity of vision based on political conviction.  Such fervour in the hands of an artist can produce incredible works, and the whole thing is about as striking and sure of itself as one could hope for in a ninety-year-old movie.

One of the delights of silent films is the choice of musical scores that tend to accrue.  I've watched several recently which gave me a selection of different musical styles to choose from, and director Sergei Eisenstein was well aware that this was how the future would be.  He said that 'Battleship Potemkin' would always be relevant so long as a new soundtrack was created for it every 20 years.  On this occasion, I watched it with the 2004 score by the Pet Shop Boys - a combination currently available only on Youtube, though film and music are both purchasable separately.  The new(ish) soundtrack is something one could dance to, or at least gyrate rhythmically to, and certainly gives the film a boost and an immediacy, but has the effect of making the flickering pictures seem ancient, as well as timeless.  Perhaps Youtube's diabolical picture quality played a part here - I know twenties films are capable of scrubbing up rather better than this, and I'm sure the film is available in a more beautiful state on shiny disc.  So yes, as I like the Pet Shop Boys' style, so I shall watch out for any future release marrying this soundtrack to a cleaned up print on blu-ray.  It's got to happen eventually.

Why not watch a far better quality copy than I did? Or listen to the music - it's quite something.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Up (2009)

It came out, last weekend, that I'd never seen 'Up' (or, as I've been calling it, 'Up!' with an exclamation mark as if it was 'Shaft's Big Score!' or 'Oliver!').  I may well be the last person left to have missed it - not that the whole population has now tackled this lively adventure, but that everybody not set against the idea of seeing it has surely already taken the opportunity to do so.  It was, after all, on the BBC a fortnight ago, so everyone's had their chance.

Anyway, I was furnished with a viewing copy, and I promised to give it my full attention.  Perhaps because I've avoided their less obviously thrilling films, I've never been less than delighted by a Pixar movie.  'Wall-E' (2008) I similarly missed in theatres and had to be drawn to, and as with 'Up' it delighted and surprised.  Surprised because I entered both knowing the concept, as far as it was presented on the (striking, calculated, elegantly simple) poster, but nothing more - so any surprise development - heck, any developments at all, expand the story beyond the one I'd constructed in my imagination.

Carl and Russell pull the house

I'm probably about to spoil for you various twists and occurrences - nothing huge, but if your knowledge of 'Up' is so virginal as mine was you may prefer to watch before you read.  Now, I knew this was about a house propelled upwards by balloons and sideways by the wind (though for some reason I'd assumed the balloon thing was somehow accidental, which makes no kind of sense), and my assumption was that the first half would see our heroes fly somewhere in the house, and the second half involve a return home, or a pursuit of the house itself, possibly on a giant bird.  Yes, Pixar's version is better than this.  As it is, the house gets where it's going in about 25 minutes (which felt like no time at all, but it's a pretty short film by modern standards), and the rest is largely about dragging it round to its landing site before the last of the helium goes - an excellently bizarre concept for a film, and one I try to imagine being pitched in the Pixar board-room - and various more dramatic occurrences and complications that happen during the journey.

So we follow the elderly geezer and the breathlessly youthful scout (though the film is careful never to use that word) through their meetings with a giant bird of excellent character and plumage, a wealth of talking dogs, nice and nasty, and a childhood hero who (and I really should have seen this coming) turns out to be a pretty unpleasant villain.  That's your lot, and they're all of them male - even the sum of the dogs - the only exceptions being a nice lady who's dead before we reach the opening credits (alas!) and the giant bird, whose quacks and hisses are nonetheless voiced by a man (alack!).  I don't know that this gender imbalance is inherently noteworthy, but it's true of so many of the films I've been watching in this project - and the problem seems to be even worse in films post-2000 as it was in the silent films I've been watching from before 1930.  Is it just my choice of films?

In films I've watched lately, moustaches denote evil.  Such stigma!

The picture, lighting and story are all very attractive, and the dialogue is as witty, well-phrased and well-timed as I've come come to expect from Pixar, whose standards always seem very high.  As reviews informed me at the time of release, the first ten minutes are almost a separate film - emotional, upsetting, magnificently short of dialogue (this last point is generally a good sign in cinema).  The ending is inevitable, even predictable, but fitting and almost wholly satisfying (I say 'almost' because I'm left scratching my head as to the whereabouts of Russell's family, but their apparent disappearance is only a small concern).  The voices are highly pleasing, and it turns out I'm just as glad to hear Christopher Plummer perform a role as I am to watch him - I spent the film enjoying his performance as Charles Muntz but unable to place the actor, but it seemed quite inevitable when the credits arrived.  And given the talking dogs' insistence on describing scout-analogue Russell as a 'small mailman', I was glad to note art's greatest mailman Clifford Claven lent his voice to a minor character at the film's front end.

As I said at the start, it's pretty likely you've already seen this film, or else resolved in your heart that you will never do so, so it would seem futile on my part to attempt to persuade you one way or the other.  Know only that it was as enjoyable as I expected, which is considerably.

P.S. If you missed last week's set of achievements and ways to join in my Penciltonian endeavour, check it out now, if you please.

P.S. Next update: 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), and the next film I'm due to watch isn't really a film at all - but you'll hear about that in due course.

This is the part of the blog where I let commerce and capitalism take over.  Be on your guard!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Join in at home: ways to play along

Now, I don't expect y'all to watch a hundred films ancient and modern, but I can't help feeling this blog should be a slightly more interactive affair - that there should be ways for you to join in at home, do some film-watching-shaped activities and claim some victories.

The best games have multiple victory conditions, and I believe there are ways to prosper in this film-watching project other than consuming as many films as I'm currently attempting (1,100,100 films, if you count in binary).  Therefore, I've prepared the following *achievements*.  See how many you can unlock (by which I mean achieve).  If you get them all, you can perm some skills, whatever that means.  Oh, give it a go, senors and senoritas.


1. Watch ten films from different decades.
This one is actually way easy, and anyone can do it if they have access to a library or BBC iPlayer.  One film per decade from the 1920s to the 2010s.  'The Wizard of Oz' was out in 1939, so if you're averse to monochrome you only have the 20s to worry about on that count - and if you despise silent films, you could avoid them entirely by keeping to the back end of that fine decade.

2. Watch a film beginning with each letter of the alphabet
I suspect I'll end up achieving this one myself without meaning to.  There are only a small number of tricky letters, and I'll see if I can make them less daunting.  Z, as in 'A Zed and Two Noughts' (1985), 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1992) or 'Zoolander' (2001).  X, as in 'Xanadu' (1980 - but it's on Wikipedia's list of 'films considered the worst ever), 'X2' (2003), or more tenuously any film starting with 'cross' or 'trans'.  Y, as in 'You Only Live Twice' (1967), 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) or 'The Young Victoria' (2009).  I'll also venture 'K', as it's my least favourite letter in the Western alphabet - but any film starting with 'King' or 'Kangaroo' will suit you here.

3. Watch ten per cent of the films I watch for this blog
Currently that only requires you to watch two films, and it isn't a number that will suddenly escalate.  Bonus points if you watch ones you hadn't heard of prior to 2003.  And make that twenty per cent, not ten per cent, if you work part-time or not at all.


4. Watch ten foreign-language films from different decades.
The whole Penciltonian thing, watching a hundred films from a hundred years, etcetera is, as well as an excuse to watch more films, a chance to look at a hundred years of human culture.  Foreign-language films are very important to this.  I used to find them daunting, but I was shown 'Amélie' (2001), and discovered they were very easy to watch - the same as English-language films, but fascinatingly different.

5. Watch a film from each continent
And that includes Antarctica.  And the Indian subcontinent.  And if you can see your way to include The Moon, so much the better.  And it doesn't count if it's just about English folks going out and being merry in such-and-such a country - these should be films conceived and made within the continent concerned.

6. Pick a genre, watch eight films from it, from different decades
This one's pretty easy, and potentially interesting.  See how the musical, or the Western, or the swashbuckle, or the horror developed.  I'm inclined to disallow sci-fi here as it's so excessively broad and ubiquitous.  I've limited this to eight films, as you might otherwise find yourself forced to watch a terrible film because it's a decade's sole example of whatever genre you've happened to pick.  It's a vague one, so feel free to write in with a better idea for achievement six.


7. Watch 10 different films in the same language, other than your own.
I suspect I'll find little difficulty fitting ten German films into my hundred-or-so.  If I can get one per decade, so much the better.

8. Watch 'Die Zweite Heimat' (1992)
This is the film I love the best, but it's also the length of any 13 other films, so it's an investment of time.  Very well worth it.  I like to think its duration isn't the sole reason I rate it so highly, but you won't be sure until you've seen some or all of it.  Truly, I think this is one of the best bits of art to come from the 20th Century.

9. Make your own film
Any quality or duration, collating and synthesising some of the things you've learnt from film-watching.  I intend to do this, and I fully expect it to be embarrassingly identical to films I made before this whole hundred-film adventure, proving I haven't really learnt anything.

Bonus easy and difficult achievement to unlock:

10a. Make and eat some pancakes.
My pancake recipe will appear on this blog shortly before Pancake Day.  This may not seem relevant to films, but pancakes are, in fact, very important, and they're in season.

10b. Eat a live porcupine.
Because it's good to have something to strive for, and nobody should be able to unlock every achievement or achieve every lock.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

This entry may sum up with the greatest purity one aspect of this project: I've watched this film so you don't have to.  I've dreaded 'The Birth of a Nation' fro some while, having tried it in 2004 and given up bored after half an hour.  Here's a film that's way racist, way long at 190 minutes, and not especially engaging or rewarding to a modern eye.  I considered other options for this year, 'Der Golem', for instance, but 1915 simply is 'The Birth of a Nation' and to skip it out would be simply absurd.

The first half of this sentimental and differently-exciting melodrama shows two American families, one Northern, one Southern, divided by the Civil War.  We see the war, in all its glory and tragedy (the South were the heroes, by the way), and the ensuing reconstruction under the Neanderthal-faced Abe Lincoln, whose assassination is lavishly reconstructed at the film's mid-point.

John Wilkes Booth, after assassinating the president

The more notorious second half tells the tale of the liberated 'negroes' (as the film insists on calling them) and ruthless carpetbaggers (who are a cross between carpet slippers and teabaggers) oppressing the 'helpless White minority'.  The Ku Klux Klan is formed, apparently to seek something like good and equality through 'fair trials' and diabolical fancy-dress, and to quash these (obviously blacked-up) rascals who are, we are told, degrading America.

'The organization that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule'.  It's a very ugly piece of propaganda, but it seems to have worked.  The release and popularity of this film was almost wholly responsible for the re-emergence of the KKK in 20th Century America, a vigilante mob still exercising its brute force well into the 1950s.  The heroic young colonel of the film's first half is the instigator of this gang of terrorists, and the film would very much like us to admire him for it.  At the end, the spectral form of Jesus Christ puts in a cameo to lend it a little credibility.

The household servants are presented as benign (in short, they're submissive),
presumably as the one example with which to say 'this film can't be racist'.

All this is set to a rich orchestral score, which may be a more modern addition.  It's rather odd to see such American scenes of alarm overplayed with Grieg's characteristically Norwegian Peer Gynt music, or 'O Christmas Tree' (though it may have been the equally irrelevant 'The Red Flag').  Colonel Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant was apparently made to the strains of the British national anthem, a tune which may have a different meaning in the U.S., but I felt compelled to stand up in salute to her majesty in any case.

One of the most striking discoveries in the 100 films experiment is how competent, stylish, ambitious and advanced films were a century ago, a time we think of as their infancy - and how the advances from then until now have been slow, gradual and constant.  The adventure from 1913 cinema until 2013 isn't marked by milestones and watersheds (except perhaps the arrival of talkies, which so far seem to have emerged over-night fully formed), but by seemingly seamless development.  The more films I view, the more I can see how cinema got from the 1910s to the 1920s, from there to the 1930s, and so on.  Technically there's little between this and 'Die Nibelungen' (1924) bar a honing of special effects.  Decades famed for their distinct flavours - the 60s and 70s, for instance, flow smoothly from one to the other.

The North marvel at the South's bravery in war

To bring this back to 'The Birth of a Nation', here are superimposed images placing models ablaze in the same short as fleeing crowds; a camera clearly fixed to a moving vehicle to keep pace with actors on horseback; shots are juxtaposed with the understanding that viewers will know how to read the links between images; intertitles introduce scenes (as they did a decade earlier) but also provide excerpts of dialogue or context within the scenes.  In 1915, the movie and the movie audience are both highly advanced.  This is a flm wholly confident of its ability to use all cinema's techniques to tell any scale or complexity of story.  Of course, it looks crude and ancient now, but who was to know back then how far cinema might develop.  If director D.W. Griffith didn't anticipate the coming of sound and colour, then the epic scale of this achievement, with its cast of hundreds, its historical re-enactments and battlefields filled with smoke, horses and explosions, must have looked like the greatest film it was possible for humanity to produce, the eventual pinacle of the medium.  I wonder what film holds that title now.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

M (1931)

This is Fritz Lang's other film.  Other, of course, to 'Metropolis' (1927), a film almost everybody, hearing about this blog, has recommended I watch.  'Metropolis' (like his lesser-remembered 'Die Nibelungen' - 1925) was fantastical, vast, full of crowds, epic vistas and expressionist images.  'M', by contrast, is smaller, grounded in the real world of downtown Berlin.  Streets, apartments, offices, warehouses.  Perhaps this was a practical move to offset the cost of audio for these newfangled talkies - or perhaps silent films, like mime or ballet - can afford to be more flamboyant without seeming silly.  Nonetheless, despite this move towards something like the real world, this film is not without flair or dynamism.

I watched this the same week I revisited 'Shaft' (1971), and despite the four decades between them they have a similar flavour.  Crime, the streets, men looking cool in their long leather coats, a gradient of morality between the police and the criminals.  The authorities here are embodied by Inspector Lohmann - a brilliant performance by Otto Wernicke for whom I've much praise.  The antagonist, despised, feared and sought by the whole city, is the Kindermörder, the child-murderer, a no-less-striking Peter Lorre.  Between them is Berlin - its crowd has a better claim to being the main character than either of this pair.

If this was made today, I suspect the implication of paedophilia would be found somewhere in accusations against the murderer.  A man abducting children merely to murder them seems almost naive by today's standards, though I understand it has been done, notably to Fanny Adams.  Anyway, nothing is known about the child murderer, and the whole city gets itself into a frighteningly familiar lather of paranoia and groundless accusation.  Any grown man so much as saying hello to a child is a candidate for condemnation by the lynch mob.  The police are working overtime, and raiding the usual haunts of criminals with such frequency that the whole criminal underworld band together to track down the child-murderer, just to get themselves some peace and quiet.  It's a brilliant concept.  Soon the cops and criminals race to catch the unknown killer.

Die Kindermörder!

When we finally meet the child-murderer, he's presented quite alarmingly sympathetically.  This is not a man filled with malice and evil - just an ordinary person.  He's pathetic, pudding-faced, wide-eyed as a bush-baby.  When he's finally challenged over his crimes he grows distressed: it's a compulsion, an addiction.  He's driven to it, this obsession.  There's no apparent motivation, and we're left with the frightening suggestion that such a person could appear at any time, in any society, with a feeble inability to quash their urges to befriend and dismember infants.

Peter Lorre is better-known in the West for his appearances in American film noir, but this was his first big role - an astounding, upsetting performance.  He makes this compulsive murderer's impotent fear real, and manages to seem inexplicably amiable even as he pursues his quarry.  Otto Wernicke's Inspector Lohmann is no less engaging, and it's little wonder Lang brought him back to play the same role in 'Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse' (1933).  He manages to bring some excellent moments of comedic business to what could be a doomy film: at one point being so shocked by a revelation that he drops his cigar from his mouth, and lets his hands spend some time looking for it before his mind can catch up.

Kriminalkommissar Lohmann in shock

There's a lot of fun to be found here.  My favourite moment likewise features Lohmann, who devastates a petty criminal with the false news that the man he'd punched unconscious has died of the injury - before the director allows us a fade to the 'victim' in question, alive and enjoying a slap-up meal of sausages and beer.  Though Fritz Lang undoubtedly has a dark and upsetting message to convey about humanity's propensity for evil, he's made a lively film, full of wit and invention.  It was this movie, along with 'Das Boot' (1981) and 'Heimat' (1984) that convinced me German films were very good films indeed, and caused me to seek them out hungrily.  And if you follow this blog for long enough, I suspect you'll be reading about a good many more of them.

P.S. Some time next week I'll find time to comment on this this film's semi-sequel 'The Testament of Dr Mabuse' (1933), but for variety's sake the next two updates will be 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Up' (2009).

This is certainly a film worth watching, and German cinema is always worth a look in.  Why not get yourself a copy, or just borrow mine, or we could all watch it together and have pancakes if y'all would pop over.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

Who determined that men must wear their hair short?  Someone, somewhen must have decreed it, and done so with great power.

These are the films that made me grow my hair long.  Everybody here (and in 90 per cent of this adventure, 'everybody' is synonymous with 'all the male characters') - the wizards, the men and the dwarves, have long, magnificent, flowing hair.  The hobbits have rather less, but still a good deal more, I'd say, than the male average when the thing saw release.  How I admired the hair (and the general style and bearing, but the hair seemed both achievable and symptomatic) of Aragorn, of Elrond, of Gandalf the Grey, the most magnificent.

It's been long and short ever since.  It takes time to make it long but I ill care for it, or the pressures of 21st century Britain demand its loss.  I think I'd still be glad to grow up to be Bilbo or Radagast (but now, you see, I'm talking in the wrong film), but am wary of letting my pate come to resemble that of Grima Wormtongue or Jimmy Saville.  Ah, you cry, this is not a hairdressing blog.  Indeed not!  Shall we return to the matter at hand?

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Sean Bean is Boromir.  Doomed, of course.

Well, you've all seen these films, perhaps several times at ever-increasing lengths, so there's little I can tell you about the content.  The big surprise, rewatching this first part, is how real some of the locations look.  I've always accepted the grand locations augmented by CGI and cunningly composited model-shots in the later films, without consciously registering that this is how they were put together, but the places roamed through in 'The Fellowship of the Ring' feel like real places you could visit - as if anybody with a camera and a few Orcs could go and gather the same footage, without having to find a portal to a real fantasy kingdom to get the scenery they're after.  Only a handful of slightly dodgy slo-mo footage seems to date the film, the remainder seeming magnificently timeless.

The fellowship is peopled by excellent characters, well-cast.  Four hobbits, two men (one dark and handsome; the other Yorkshire and treacherous), a wizard (Gandalf, of course), an elf (Legolas manages to be stylish, effete and dully humourless all at once) and a dwarf (Gimli is somehow very Scottish and very Welsh at the same time - an excellent combination).  For some reason, this is the only one of the films where we see dwarves other than Gimli.  Presumably they're occupied somewhere else during the ensuing world-war, but they could have made a few of the battles much less precarious if they'd done as the Elves do and sent a couple of battalions to Helm's Deep or Pelennor Fields.

A friend of mine, who presents the Minute Doctor Who Podcast, suggested that Elijah Wood was poor casting for Frodo, and that this was the films' greatest hindrance.  It seemed a curious suggestion to me - perhaps because I watched the films long before reading the books, so to me he is Frodo and Frodo is him.  The vibrant relationship between him and Sean Astin's Samwise Gamgee is the heart of the films, and everything else is window-dressing - even the battles, even Gandalf, even the pretty lights and colours of the Balrog and the fireworks and the eye of Sauron.

The Two Towers (2002)

Frodo, perhaps about to kill slimy old Gollum.

So the Fellowship fell to pieces.  I expected this film to show them taking separate routes only to be reunited and carry on as before, but by the time this sequel starts, they're irreparably divided, like Earth in the time of Peleg, and we're following several stories at once.

I'll take this chance to say something about sequels, as it seems to bear some relevance to this blog and experiment.  I'm meant to be looking at a hundred films from a hundred years, but it doesn't seem quite right to take up three per cent, and three consecutive years, on The Lord of the Rings - a fine series, but one with a very consistent style.  It's better, perhaps, to count it as one big film, and tie it to just one of those years, allowing me to re-use 2001 for 'Moulin Rouge' and 2003 for 'Good Bye Lenin' (for instance).  I'll apply the same thinking to my 1971-3 trio of Shaft movies.  If I didn't go with this sort of thinking, I'd be able to have a long weekend binge of the canonical Bond movies and wipe out almost a quarter of my 100 films at the expense of variety.

Back to 'The Two Towers', then.  A sequel without new characters would be a pointless thing (please let me know if you can think of any good examples), and two fine adventurers enter here.  Firstly, the cadaverous form of Theoden, from whom Gandalf (if I may spoiler a spoiler) exorcises Saruman, and who subsequently gets his groove back, once he realises that his obviously evil servant Grima Wormtongue is evil, obviously.

I can't easily screen-cap blu-ray, so I photographed my TV.  Does it show?

Secondly, Gollum: seen in the distance in 'The Fellowship of the Rings', but a hero and a villain from here on.  Just as we've gotten used to Frodo and Sam adventuring alone, the relationship is shaken up by this CGI monstrosity.  Sam, who's been nothing but hearty good-humour and encouragement, suddenly reveals a nasty streak, despising this slimy churl, a creature who alternates saving the day and threatening murder.  It's an arresting, horrible yet sympathetic performance which owes at least a little to Peter Lorre in 'M' (1931), and it's not without reason Gollum is still so celebrated and impersonated.

There's a great deal of fighting, here as in the threequel.  I still can't tell where the real soldiers and sets end and the models and CGI begin, so I'm content to say the sequences work as impressively as intended.  Everything's beautifully designed and strikingly attractive.

Starting in this film, Aragorn has a choice of two wives - a storyline plumped up considerably to make the lack of women in these films less embarrassing.  Of course, since Aragorn is royal, and this is the real Olden Days, he could probably fix the problem with bigamy - or since he and Arwen are both very long-lived, he could marry Eowyn first, wait for her to grow old and die, and then marry Arwen.  Perhaps I'm being unduly unromantic making such practical suggestions, but I thought it worth suggesting.  As it is, Aragorn gives his full attention to his sword and his battles, perhaps waiting to see who survives before ironing out the destiny of his loins.

The Return of the King (2003)

Andy Serkis is a real person, not just the puppeteer of Gollum

'Return of the King' holds my two favourite scenes of the trilogy. First, before the film's title dares appear, we're treated to Gollum's back-story, as Smeagol and Deagol fight over the newly-found precious.  It was an unexpected delight, watching this for the first time in the cinema, to see Andy Serkis in the flesh.  An appropriate reward, I think, for his years being motion captured - his voice and movements were celebrated, but only here is his face seen.

My other favourite scene is the one with the beacons - a moment the book covers with half a sentence, but which in the film is a beautiful triumph.  Here, grizzled old Denethor is most reluctant to call for aid, but young Pippin scrambles up to light the city's waiting bonfire beacon, and once its flames have grown, we see another light spring up on the far horizon in answer.  The camera flies over distant and inhospitable mountains as beacon answers beacon, the signal going out for aid, calling stations presumably maintained for this purpose for many generations.  It's an awesome, surprisingly emotional sight.  Like the defiant singing of La Marseillaise in 'Casablanca' (1942), it gives me a thrill of hope in the midst of desperation.  For me, this is the best part of the eleven-hour adventure.

Frodo just gets dirtier and dirtier in these films, and not in a saucy way.

Watching the films in their extended form (as seems appropriate), it's easy to grow a touch fatigued during this final instalment.  The first two went up from three hours to three-and-a-half apiece.  'The Return of the King' was already three-and-a-half hours long in the cinemas, which felt about as extended as was required, and so ends up almost four-and-a-half hours in duration.  The ending sequence, which was derided (unfairly, to my mind) is under twenty minutes in length from the destruction of the ring to the start of the credits - not inappropriate when compared either to the extent of the adventure that precedes it, or to the equivalent portion of the book (more than forty-thousand words, not counting the appendices).  Twenty minutes seems about as long as one can acceptably make an audience cry with a mix of sadness, merriment and relief.  Each strand is tied up, everyone goes home, and Frodo, Gandalf, and Bilbo in his dotage resolve that they must leave Middle Earth forever.  For a happy ending, it is very sad.

Nine years later, enough time has past since this massive epic that I very warmly welcome 'The Hobbit', by way of a prequel.  But that, as they say, is another story.

You would think that the extra capacity available in a lavish blu-ray box-set would allow the inclusion of both the extended and the sensible editions of these films, wouldn't you?  Nope.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

There was a film about Bob Dylan a few years ago (I'm Not There, 2007) in which a cast of fairly notable actors played different aspects of the real man in different settings and eras.  Cate Blanchett seemed to me the most obviously excellent, though since the Bob Dylans also included Heath Ledger, Ben Whishaw and Christian Bale it seems wrong to single only one out for praise.  It seemed a very good format for a biopic about anybody complicated, or who gathered many stories.

I thought afterwards that you could use a similar set-up for a film about Jesus - except, I thought, dividing him up (as he were Earth in the time of Peleg) and relocating his portions throughout time and space would necessarily mean telling the stories of various Christ-like people (which is already done in the movies, lots), as to do it properly you'd end up showing your audience several only-son-of-Gods in places less appropriate than 1st Century Jewry, and it would just look odd (or, you know, really Mormon).

'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc' (to give its French title, though it seems to be claimed equally by the French and Danish, with the actors silently voicing one language while the intertitles use the other) would fit well into such a biopic of myriad Jesuses.  As a glimpse at the title and screen-caps will tell you, this is a story with an extraordinary similarity to Jesus' last hours before his crucifixion.

With its script drawn from contemporaneous reports of the trial, this is the story of Joan of Arc's condemnation and execution by the fifteenth century version of the Sanhedrin.  She's questioned, mocked and condemned, and she holds to the truth, or to silence, refusing to speak the answers that would easily save her life - holding tight to a hope of the resurrection.  It's a harrowing film of extreme close-ups, as we watch horror, fear and alarm creep across Joan's gaunt face.  There's really no hope that the trial will end anywhere but death.

When I was watching German talkies of the 1930s, I wondered at the static shots, and speculated that moving cameras may not have caught on so early as that.  It was a surprise, seeing this film from half a decade earlier, to find the camera moving ceaselessly, tracking over the long bench of the prosecutors, pursuing faces, swinging up and down to follow maces thrown down from a window in the violent finale.  It's a visually interesting film, with the trial conducted and guarded by scowling lawyers and characterful grotesques, set against the plain, androgynous face of the suffering Joan.  Though the locations and characters are few, the camera never shows us anything that isn't worth seeing and examining.  An extraordinary performance, and a horrible occurrence.

P.S. I worry sometimes that my posts are growing unreadably lengthy - and since this is one of the first I watched and wrote about (though held off in a backlog) it's mercifully shorter than some, though it occurs to me I've only dedicated two paragraphs to the film itself.  Whoops!

P.P.S. The next film I'll post about here will be 'The Lord of the Rings' (2001-2003), and the next film I watch?  Gosh, I've no idea.  I'm spoilt for choice.  'King Ralph' (1991), perhaps?  Yes, I like that idea.

It's a fascinating film, and in pretty good nick.  If you fancy trying a silent film I'd recommend this as a fine start.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Shaft (1971)

Q. "Who is the man / Who would risk his neck for his brother man?"

Film has given us any number of possibles here, so perhaps we should try a different question.  Points off for rhyming 'man' with 'man', by the way.

Q. "Who's the cat who won't cop out / When there's danger all about?"

Macavity?  Thomas O'Malley, perhaps?  We need something more specific.

Q. "Who's the black private dick / Who's such a sex machine with all the chicks?"

Ah.  I have only one answer here, and it's the one the song brands 'damn right'.  Shaft!

"You ain't so black"

"And you ain't so white, baby"

I had the soundtrack on LP long before I saw the film, and you too likely know the song better than the movie.  The passage of time has rendered Isaac Hayes' Academy-Award-winning theme tune a little camp, and when I finally saw 'Shaft' I was slightly disappointed how little the film seemed to match it.  I think I'd expected blaxploitation to be somehow more fun, more self-parodic.  As with 'Yellow Submarine' (1968) I'd seen this sort of thing pastiched and referenced so much I expected the original to be aware of its own legendary status.  I suspect the 'Shaft' remake of from the year 2000 will be somewhat closer to the knowingly iconic piece I was expecting.

It's a crime film, as you may either know or guess.  Shaft is a detective, and he doesn't like to be messed around.  Being black in downtown New York and being a one-man detective agency (because he doesn't like to work for the man), people try to mess him around quite a lot.  From his opening 'up yours!' to an impatient taxi-driver, and his hurling an aggressive client out of the office window, John Shaft strives constantly, defending his right to get on with his job unhassled.

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother...

In British fiction, I think it's relatively unusual for characters' ethnicities or colour to be important to their stories.  UK-style multiculturalism prefers colour-blind scripts where characters' names rather than actions or allegiances tell us their ethnic origin.  (The one exception that comes to mind is another crime thriller, 'Gangsters', from 1976-78, a willfully absurd TV series about Indian, Pakistani and Chinese gangs in 70s Birmingham).  In America, however, in film and TV across the decades, skin-colour seems to have far more bearing on characters and their predicaments.  Shaft is reluctant to work too closely with Lt Anderozzi of the NYPD, especially if working against the black Bumpy Jonas.  In the sequel 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972) he condemns a black cop for being a 'honky'.  It's almost convenient that in this film and its two sequels the major villains turn out to be white.

It was this racial subtext (and, indeed, text) that I wholly missed the last time I watched this film.  Had I watched it in the 1970s it would have been far more obvious to me, but viewing this in the noughties I took it simply as a slightly ordinary crime drama about characters versus characters, rather than John Shaft as a black detective in a town where that means anonymity, lack of credibility, and a need to fight hard.

Is it a good film?  Well, it's moderately interesting and exciting.  It doesn't aspire to be as cinematic as its sequels (both were made in wider widescreen, and with far more spectacle, exploding helicopters and such - though I think this is the more engagingly directed), but Shaft himself is a very strong and enjoyable hero.  He's quick to anger, yes, but knows how to keep his cool when it's to his advantage.  He has an enjoyably immature sense of humour and always looks great - watching the Shaft films followed by a pair of films set in the Berlin underworld of the 1930s, I suffered a great deal of coat-envy.  In short, the film itself is a fair thriller but a touch drab, and it's Richard Roundtree's performance as John Shaft that really seized my attention, coaxing me me to return to the film and to seek out the sequels.

Compelled to watch it for yourself?  Oh, I see, you just wanted the theme tune? Well, suit yourself

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Laurel and Hardy Way Out West (1937)

Whatever comedy I saw first after 'Daisies' (1966) was inevitably going to seem a bit ordinary.  I have nothing intelligent or faux-intelligent to say about 'Laurel and Hardy Way Out West', so will provide you with some pictures and captions to give you a sense of it all.

A man with a big beard!

They shoot the hat off of his head!

When they bow to pick up a lily, their heads
bump with a loud wooden 'KNOCK'

Some cowboys sing harmonies, so the duo have an impromptu dance sequence.
This is the best sequence not to feature Stan Laurel eating a hat.

But for the many guns on display, this film is virtually indistinguishable
from 'Chucklevision'.  Perhaps the comedy was more innovative back then,
though I'm inclined to assume otherwise.


Trying to remove a locket.  With hilarious consequences!

Early in the film, Stan Laurel says 'if this doesn't work, I'll eat your hat'.
He weeps his way through this particular meal.
Laurel is the funny one.

A comedy chase sequence!
For ages!

They hide in the piano,
with hilarious consequences!

The true heir to the gold mine is modest and dull and lowly
and inefficacious, and gullible with no capacity or wit or agency
and is the only character not to get any comedy moments
and I wish the villains won instead.

That is all.

Normally there would be an advert for the DVD down here because I'm trying (unsuccessfully) to exploit you all, but I don't think I'd recommend watching this film unless it came on the BBC, and even then you might want the radio on too. Of course it was fun, and likely wholly typical of Laurel and Hardy, but I refuse to believe it was their *best* film, so I'm more inclined to steer you away from it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Finding Neverland (2004)

My friend Charlotte recommended me this movie, and I was especially glad as it meant my 2004 viewing wouldn't have to be 'Downfall', and so I've been looking for the time to watch it for a fortnight now, but things have kept looming up to put it off.  Anyway, I found myself agitated for no interesting reason on Saturday, and needed some cheering up, and reasoned that any film that has a credit for Toby Jones as Mr Smee (an actor and role, however small, that always bring me joy) couldn't help but gladden me.  As it was, 'Finding Neverland' made me happy, but then made me sad again, and though I anticipated it bringing me back up to happy at the end, it confounded my expectations, leaving me both.

This is the story of how J. M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan, a writer, play and character who've had my attention of late.  I recently read a lengthy piece on why Peter Pan is a played by a woman - a chapter which I must say came to some extraordinary conclusions - so this recommendation was fortuitously timed.  J.M. Barrie was a fascinating fellow, and I like to think I share his capacity for turning up in a hat.

J.M. Barrie dressing up, and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies
(sadly not so)

This film manages to be three things: first, a story about the children who inspired Peter Pan and his fellows, secondly, it's a story about writing and staging a play - always exciting and terrifying to watch if you've written plays or acted on stage, and finally (unless I've missed one) it's a romance, though a slightly unusual one, between J.M. Barrie and the Davies family.

The heart of the story is a touch comparable to 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947).  A single mother (Kate Winslet on this occasion) is struggling (as single mothers do in the movies) to raise a child who doesn't know how to use their imagination - at which point a charismatic champion of the imagination arrives, tries to teach the child how to enjoy their childhood, and in general aims to make all well, with mixed results.  The child at the centre is Peter, who shows great potential but needs to be encouraged greatly to delight in his imagination.  There is also his brother Michael, who grows up; for J.M., this was always something of a tragedy.  History records more Davies children than just these two, but if they were in the film they made themselves anonymous.

The romance between J.M. (is this really how people addressed him) and Sylvia, which more accurately is a great love of the whole family, is an intriguing thing.  It's denied with some frequency, and for a while it seems he's just a family friend very generous with his time.  In an effort to make J.M.'s actions a little less adulterous, the film goes out of its way to make his wife Mary as loveless, unimaginative and mercenary as possible, so we're obviously meant to boo her and cheer on J.M.'s move into the Davies family.  It turns out quite well for everyone, and Mary has an affair of her own, which pretty much legitimises J.M.'s antics, though too late, as Sylvia has a cough, which in cinema as in life means she will surely die.

Magnificently stylised special effects live in the imagination of us all

I finally got myself a kilt this week, after some years of yearning.  Having listened twice to 'Donald Where's Your Troosers' to get myself in kilt-wearing mood, I thought it a pity that none of the films put to me seemed in any way Scottish - and I particularly didn't want to watch 'Brigadoon' (1954) - so I was pleasantly surprised to discover, when watching 'Finding Neverland', that J.M. Barrie was very much Scottish (though, despite a certain flair, he never affects Highland dress).  It may have been the fact that he is played here by the American and generally magnificent Johnny Depp that made this seem unlikely, but the man has a way with voices as he has with faces.  Even more than Michael Sheen, he manages to remain obviously the same person on the inside while exuding full other characters out through his face and mouth.  Perhaps I just mean that he's a good actor, but I think he's probably something else as well.  Like Peter Pan or Michael Jackson, he seems to exist between, or without, age, race or gender.

I feel I'm trailing off rather here - there's nothing very exciting to note about the other performances, which were fine and dandy.  Freddie Highmore, playing Peter, went on to be Charlie Bucket in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' (2005), a film that only I enjoyed; Toby Jones (Smee turned out to be a very small role here, but all enjoyable) has continued to pop up in many things I'm glad to watch; Kate Winslet I haven't seen in anything more recent - I'm not a great fan of her stylings (she was terrible in 'Dark Season' (1990), but it was her first TV so it's to be expected), but she's very likeable here, her exit proving suitably beautiful and upsetting.  Director Marc Forster went on to make differently-popular Bond-film 'Quantum of Solace' (2008), and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's wholly agreeable score to this film won an Oscar, so there's a happy ending on that front.  For the story and the main character, the unusual effects for Neverland, and the elation of imagination, I commend the film.

P.S. The next blog will regard 'Laurel and Hardy Way Out West' (1937), and the next film I watch might be 'Na Srebrnym Globie' (1987) but I'd sooner it was 'How Stella Got Her Groove Back' (1998)

It's a pleasing and interesting film, and I may revisit it soon to grasp it better.  Oh, but perhaps you haven't seen it?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Daisies (1966)

I came to 'Sedmikrásky' with no clues at all to its style or content, as it was passed to me without cover or introduction by my friend Opai, who DJs a radio show of excellent or terrible music (the like of which one could never hear in any other circumstances), and who, I reasoned, could recommend me films nobody else would know existed or dare to advocate.

The opening credits - the wheels of a persistent machine, intercut with grainy footage of bombs and exploding planes - suggested that this film might regard some desperate post-apocalyptic struggle for survival.  I was wholly unprepared for what ensued: an unreasonably bizarre and psychadelic Czech comedy, the sort of thing you might see spoofed but would never believe actually existed.

'This film is dedicated to those whose sole
source of indignation is a messed up trifle'

Perhaps it might be clearest if I described the first scene, tinted a grey blue.  Two young women in bikinis.  When they move, they creak INCREDIBLY LOUDLY as if crudely hinged.  One, named Maria, begins to pick her nose.  The other, also named Maria, plays the trumpet.  Since the world is so bad, they resolve to become equally bad.  Maria slaps Maria into colour, and into the world.  Are they angels?  Robots?  Women?

They dance in a full-colour apple grove before falling into an apartment, and taking a man out for lunch.  They eat at him, and this tinted in every colour you might know.  The man is in no way extraordinary, and they make sure he catches his train.  The train is made of colour.  If it wasn't played out under such whimsical music, it might have taken me longer to realise this was a comedy.  That's not to say it's bad or not funny, just that this is unlike anything I've ever seen, as if writer/director Věra Chytilová has heard the concept of 'comedy' described to her but never seen any before making the film.

Maria and Maria take a man out for lunch

The sound, the music and foley are no more predictable than the pictures.  Footsteps are loud and almost wholly un-footstep-like.  Just as limbs may creak like barn doors, so motions may make the sounds of ukulele and harpsichord.  At one point the apartment seems to be host to an off-screen typist, as a loud typewriter permeates the scene as if it were a newspaper office.  Eventually this transpires to be music, rather than sound effect, typed percussion.  At one point the telephone rings so long, unnoticed, that I thought it too may be incidental music.  Eventually Maria picks it up, only to exclaim into the receiver 'Rehabilitation centre!  Die, die, die!  He he he he he he he!'  She hangs up, the picture fills with a dozen sudden close-ups of red roses, and we again hear 'die, die die'.  This is after she had tried to recreationally gas herself, but accidentally left the window open.

Maria has cut her head off with scissors

The men in the film are tedious, anonymous, appearing at dates to be charmed then outraged, then hurry to catch their trains; or else not seen at all - heard knocking at the door and asking to be let in, or only heard over the telephone.  The Marias take a phone-call from such an un-named admirer, all the while using scissors to snip the ends off sausages, cucumbers and bananas.  It's an uncomfortable sequence, but they seem to be having great fun; I found myself feeling like a woman watching a film made for men.

I shall say now, I have remarkably little idea what is going on in this film.  I've never seen anything even slightly like this, and I'm still trying to make sense of even a minute of it.  For the first hour I simply boggled at it, worked out it was a comedy and wondered whether at any point it would burst into a particularly avant-garde episode of 'The Goodies'.  It would be easy to look at this in the standard way of investigating any startling and apparently insane sixties artworks, and assume that everybody was on every drug at all times, but the end left me wondering whether these unpredictable antics were meant to be taken more politically - but I'm glad I couldn't work out any clear meaning behind it.  To analyse this fun would be to kill it, and I look forward greatly to seeing this again and finding it no less surprising.

'How do you know you exist?'

I can't help feeling that, just trying to describe the film's contents, I've made it sound much more orderly and deliberate than it feels.  Skipping once more through the scenes, I find I've been inventing sense for it and making links that aren't there at all.  It flits like a dream: there are dozens of dead butterflies, suddenly they're being made coffee in the public toilet, they steal from a handbag, they hop upstairs, they set their apartment on fire, delighted, to strains of choral music.  If you have the chance, you should probably watch this.

P.S. The film was banned in its native Czechoslovakia, so it sounds like somebody got it, or didn't.

P.P.S. The next film I'll watch will be the oft-recommended 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari' (1920), and the next blog post will regard 'Finding Neverland' (2004).  Merry Epiphany

I don't believe a film has ever left me quite so confused or amazed while being so enjoyable as this.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

La Vie et la Passion de Jesus Christ (1903)

I first saw this film a couple of Easters ago, and recalled it last week thinking it might have belonged to the hard-to-populate 1910s.  As it is, it hails from 1903, and is thus a full decade outside the terms of this blog's purpose.  The film is so extraordinary, though, that I don't feel I can neglect it.

For one thing, despite being a hundred and ten years old, it's in colour; hand-coloured at the time, I hasten to add, rather than being daubed more recently - and in highly exciting and thus pleasingly stylised tones.  The boy Jesus in radiant yellow, maturing to an earthy salmon (if there can be such a thing as an earthy salmon), and the angels standing out in monochrome.  It's easy to forget that colours existed at all in the early 1900s, but the hills here are such a vivid green, the characters each carrying their allotted tint.  It's a very different experience both to watching a film in monochrome and to watching a film shot in colour.

The only Jesus biopic I've seen to feature the Transfiguration

I first became interested in Biblical films in 2004 after watching Ben-Hur (1959), and realising how much pictures and performances could do to bring 1st Century Judea to life, and, crucially, to help me get my mind around the order of events of a several-thousand-year-long story.  Six or seven biopics of Jesus, films about Moses, Solomon, Brian, Noah and the rest.  If you want to locate the time and place within the world you know, it's cheaper than visiting Jerusalem.

Despite its short duration (either 44 or 52 minutes, depending on the speed it's screened - but then any film could run for either of those if you screened it fast or slow enough), this one manages to cover a lot of material longer films neglect -  it spends most of its first half on Jesus' nativity and childhood, before giving us a number of single scene tellings of Jesus raising Lazarus, the Last Supper, and Jesus talking the Samaritan woman at the well, for instance, and more special effects-heavy pieces as Jesus walking on water, the transfiguration (an event I've never seen depicted in any other film), and Jesus' baptism (brilliantly described in the Dutch-language intertitles as 'DOOB VAN JEZUS'), with a gleaming pigeon superimposed as the Holy Spirit.

Amazing special effects from 1903

The scope and ingenuity of the thing is amazing for its era.  A complex film replete with effects shots - lots of superimposition and roll-back-and-mix to let characters appear from thin air, lighting effects and cunning use of scenery and cranes.  When cinema came into existence, the theatre was already so advanced that even with crude cameras, the directors and technicians had the experience to make such improbably ambitious works as this.

Despite this film's up to-the-minute techniques and  bold use of the medium, the close-up had only been invented a few years previously, and had yet to catch on.  The vast majority of this film lets the scenes play out in a single shot (the intertitles principally being used to introduce the scenes rather than report dialogue), with the actors all visible in full-frame, head to foot, and with ample empty space above their heads for us to admire the sets, stars, angels and the occasional Sphinx.  Only twice are we blessed with a medium close-up, and I reproduce both here: Christ regarded by Pontius Pilate, and (since this is a French film) St. Veronica and her famous tea-towel.  Women have been rather neglected in my screen-captures so far - though I'm content to blame the films for this more than my own bias in selection - but I'm glad that a hundred and ten years ago a film with only two such shots got something of a gender balance in there.

Behold the man

The patron saint of laundry-workers and photography, apparently.

Though it's a French film, the copy I found on Youtube (and you can watch it here) has the intertitles in Dutch, so it helped that I had more than a little familiarity with the events shown - though I'm sure you could enjoy either guessing or making up your own interpretations, peace be upon them.  Confusingly these intertitles called the film 'Van de Kribbe tot het Kruis' (a translation, not of this film's title, but that of a different and slightly less exciting film on the subject from 1912), while the Youtube page called it 'La vie et passion de notre seigneur Jesus Christ', which isn't quite right either.  Some research to make sure I wasn't confusing two or more films assured me that this is indeed 1903's 'La Vie et la Passion de Jesus Christ'.

So, despite its strangely watchable quality, its innovations of colour and effects, it is truly ancient - made only two years after the Victorian era came to a close, and in the cinemas just before Peter Pan reached the stage, before Dr Seuss, Greta Garbo or Albert Speer were born or the Panama Canal was begun, and during the life-time of Dvořák, Chekov, Jules Verne and Calamity Jane.  Almost everybody alive on Earth when this was in the cinemas is now dead.  So, isn't that exciting.

P.S. 'Doob van Jezus' sounds like it needs to be a band name, or at least a pseudonym.  'Jezus', perhaps because of its novelty, is immediately a more exciting spelling.

P.P.S. In past I've given early films far too little credit.  I'm sure when I reach the 1910s I'll end up using the innovation and quality of this movie as a stick with which to beat backwards and technically wretched pieces which ought to be as good, if not a full decade more advanced.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Belly of an Architect (1987)

I first discovered the films of Peter Greenaway when I was at university, and quickly embraced and devoured 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover', 'The Draughtsman's Contract' and 'A Zed and Two Noughts' (1989, 2 and 5 respectively).  They were strange films, full of astonishing images, rather extraordinary scripts, Michael Nyman's pulsing, repetitive, slightly baroque music and all-round slightly too much sex and nudity (generally functional rather than salacious or enjoyable for its participants) for my prudish tastes.

It's been increasingly rare since then, to get my hands on a Greenaway film I haven't seen.  When I found no delight in 'The Pillow Book' (1996) or '8 1/2 Women' (1999) I worried all the good ones were gone.  'The Belly of an Architect', though, hails from the 1980s, the seat of Greenaway's greatest glories.

Peter Greenaway trained as a painter, and tends to fill the frame
with symmetries, geometric patterns, well-chosen colour.

'The Belly of an Architect' is the story of Stourley Kracklite, a minor architect neglecting his own work and reputation to stage an exhibition in Rome celebrating Étienne-Louis Boullée, a similarly obscure architect whose best works were never even built, and (since this is a Peter Greenaway film) Kracklite runs into a web of conspiracy, adultery and death, all framed and shot with a striking deliberateness.

(I suspect Boullée's memory and legacy were as much buoyed by this film as painter James Ensor's were by They Might Be Giants' song 'Meet James Ensor'.  In both cases an artist on the edge of obscurity was hailed and given a fresh audience by a modern artist with a cult following.)

The average human intestine is 27 feet long

As his wife's belly swells with pregnancy, so Stourley Kracklite's swells with some nameless curse.  He's right to grow paranoid, as his colleagues and his own self-neglect threaten to wrest his legacy from him, ultimately leaving him more obscure than the centuries-dead Boullée.  He turns to investigation, roams the city, sees terrible things, looks through keyholes, and discovers he is both replaced and doomed.

It's a pretty unpleasant set of characters, but Brian Dennehy's performance as Kracklite looms over them all, leaving him at the centre of the film, likewise dominating the centre of the frame.  Just as 'A Fistful of Dollars' (1964) can be seen as a film with one character and a load of Mexicans (if I may oversimplify somewhat), so this is a film full of Stourley Kracklite.  Not that the other characters aren't interesting or well played - they are merely satellites orbiting the story of his swollen gut, and when his belly's story ends, everyone else becomes irrelevant.

Kracklite, Stourley Kracklite.

I can't imagine I'll revisit this film with the same regularity as 'The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' or 'The Falls' (1980), but I'll happily put it with 'Drowning By Numbers' (1988) and 'Tulse Luper Suitcases' (2003) as an interesting film to watch occasionally.  The fact that it has such a strong central character (as opposed to the mere agents of wit and story who feature in earlier pieces) makes it rather easier to consume.  I've some wariness of recommending any Peter Greenaway films, as I can see he really won't be to everybody's tastes, but if you like stomachs and architecture (an art-form generally neglected by cinema, when compared to the number of films about painters or musicians, say), you might find this film tickles your fancy.

Available from the BFI in a set containing both Blu-ray and DVD.  Handy if you want to see it in high quality, but also take screen-captures for some kind of film-review blog.  The set also includes a 15-minute Peter Greenaway documentary about what a good businessman Terrance Conran is.  And why not?