Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A Field in England (2013)

A namby-pamby scholar is tasked with finding and arresting a villainous alchemist
First off, I can't be sure whether this film is actually good.  It pleases me aesthetically, as I happen to like 17th century costume and philosophy, and actors Reece Sheersmith and Michael Smiley, and am entranced by the idea of monochrome psychedelia, and won over by any film that seeks to resemble 'Winstanley' (1975) - but since the film falls so neatly into the category of Films I Will Obviously Warm To, I can't tell whether my enjoyment of the film had any basis in its quality.

It's a particular problem, as so far as I can tell everyone who sees the film comes away saying it's either excellent or terrible.  Despite the fact I've taken it upon myself to tell you about dozens of movies I don't have a particularly good critical faculty or understanding of art, so can only really say that this is either a complex and intriguing piece, or something pretentious and wilfully impenetrable.  I'm always gladdened when films credit their audience with thinking minds - and I came away with a number of interpretations of what I saw, and have pondered them since - but I can't be sure how much these were intended, how much my response is down to a film crafted like a mystery, or whether it all means nothing, and is merely a set of exciting pictures flung together haphazardly.  I liked it, but you might hate it and be right to do so.

By force of personality the prisoner turns his captors to his will
They look for treasure!
P.S. See how much shorter the posts are when I cut straight to the conclusion!

P.P.S. Through no great planning, I've done two consecutive posts about films with the word 'field' in their titles, exactly 50 years apart.  Hooray!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Lilies of the Field (1963)

One of the regular listeners to my weekly radio show - though to my great discredit, I can't remember which listener - recommended this as a film I might enjoy watching.  I'd been talking about The Penciltonian, and this recommendation, while the synopsis sounded rather unappealing, filled a 1963-shaped gap in my plans.  It's a significant year, as it marks the midpoint between 1913, my earliest limit, and the present day.  Thinking about it, it may also be the last year when I'd expect films to be in monochrome.  Oh, there've been plenty in colour, including an unlikely outlier in 1903, and in earnest since about 1939, but colour has always seemed an exception to a rule, a mark of something expensive and glossy.  From 1964, though, everything will be in colour unless it has a good reason not to be.

So anyway, there's this guy called Homer.  He's driving through the wilderness of America when he's stopped by a gaggle of East German nuns, who tell him they've been praying for a man to come and work for them.  He just wants to continue on his way, but the nuns are very insistent.  And after the first day of roof-mending, they tell him they want him to build them a chapel.  He doesn't want to build it, of course.  He wants to drive on, get on with his life.  Every character he meets agrees with this, and tells him to move on, not to get involved with the sisters.  But every time they tell him he should leave, Homer finds himself more compelled to stay and do the work.  The complicating factor is that the nuns can't pay him, and the Mother Superior, an extremely stubborn woman with a tragic history, won't even thank him.  Homer just wants to do an honest day's work in exchange for a decent day's pay.  Or perhaps it's slightly more complex: he wants to do something worth doing, build something worth building, and have his work properly recognised.  He's a jobbing contractor, but not without artistry and pride.

There's something excitingly liberating about Homer Smith's predicament - the idea that you could stop in the middle of nowhere and work there as long as you want to, be employed and fed, and sleep on the ground each night, with nobody awaiting your arrival at the far end, no obligations to tie you down - with nothing to your name but a car, a set of tools and an eagerness to work.  Sidney Poitier plays the part scintillatingly, and won the year's Oscar for best actor, though he apparently believes he didn't deserve it.

Inevitably, Homer is persuaded to work on the chapel - that's never really in any doubt, or there would be no film.  The question is really how he and the nuns can come to some compromise.  He's a man of action, a Southern Baptist, an American, and he takes his Sunday as a day of rest, and a chance to have a damn fine breakfast (which he describes in exquisite detail), while the nuns are strict Roman Catholics, keeping their silences and singing in Latin.  He buys them lollipops, teaches them English and livelier worship songs in the Baptist style.  It's a very enjoyable relationship that grows up between them, and I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Homer and the Mother Superior leaf through a German and an English Bible, using scriptures to argue over whether or not he deserves to be paid for his labours

They need him a lot more than he needs them, and this leaves the film with something of the feel of a Western, with Homer as the stranger who rides into an isolated community and fixes the problems before disappearing off into America more-or-less unchanged.  It's a fine film, heartwarming and with some excellent dialogues and really nice scenes.  I can well see how a listener might think it would suit my tastes, as it's really very Christian, in that it's a conflict between two denominations who both celebrate God but express their faith through remarkably different lifestyles.  Homer is very casual but very passionate, his relationship with God personal and joyful, while the nuns are far more formal, but entrust their whole lives to the power of prayer.  It isn't an aggressive message, nor does it come across as twee, though either could have been possible in a less competently-made film.  As it is, I found it a pleasure to watch.  And it's not a minute too long, either, which is always to a film's credit.

The film on a disc.  Don't be put off by the charmless front cover.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Went the Day Well? (1942)

This time last year I watched 'Went the Day Well', a brilliant film about a village which slowly realises it's been the bridgehead for a Nazi invasion. When I started watching 100 years of films for The Penciltonian I thought it a pity I'd watched it so recently, as I truly can't imagine anything could better stand for 1942.

Well, here I am watching it again.  I'm up to the forties in my viewing of 'Heimat' (1984), and this weekend went to a 1940s fayre at Kelham Island Museum, so found myself with an ample appetite for such a tale of the Home Front.  It's charming, genuinely dramatic and utterly British, without being grotesquely so.

Some First Scene Guy points out a rarity: a memorial with German names on't.
The film opens with a man talking directly to camera, showing the audience around a churchyard.  The events of the film are history: it's peacetime, and the war is over after 'Hitler got what was coming to him'.  The man clues us in to what's coming - that this is the only piece of British soil the Nazis captured.  We spend the remainder of the film in a flash-back, that we might see how this invasion came to occur and be beaten.  What seems to modern eyes a historical 'what if' would have seemed alarmingly plausible at the time.  The film was made in 1943, when this sort of invasion was still very much on the cards, and victory in World War II was not inevitable.

The first scene assurance that we win, both the war and the battle of Bramley, gives the impression that everything will tend toward triumph, that we're in for an optimistic tale in which the Brits trounce the Jerries at every turn.  On the contrary, the charming village suffers moments of unspeakable violence, as the merry home guard are mown down by machine gunners, and in return, as good humoured people of the village take what crude arms they can against the foe, even when it will clearly cost them their own lives. Again and again, people we like, main characters who look set to make it to the end, just die - sometimes protecting others, sometimes futilely, failing to deliver the news to the outside world. There's a constant tension between the agreeable pluck, the Blitz spirit, and the brutally serious nature of the war. Watching this at the time would have been encouraging in part, but terrifying.

Mrs Fraser (Marie Lohr) is the admirablest character.
Her final scene drifts into my mind with some frequency

I'm surprised 'Went the Day Well' isn't more often spoken of, as I'm inclined to value it very highly.  I hadn't heard of it at all until my friend Rob (who also recommended as 'Taxi Driver' for 1976) told me it was something I would particularly enjoy.  Perhaps it's just a film that tends to my own specific tastes, but I doubt its appeal is really that limited.  So why not watch it, and spread the word?

It's an excellent film, and you should totally watch it.  See what Thora Hird looked like in her youth, why not?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Party Monster (2003)

James St James meets an impressionable Michael Alig
I'm coming around to the idea that interesting movies will generally be good movies, or at least worth the watching, so when my lodger Saskia described 'Party Monster' as interesting (indeed, as 'interesting') I knew it had to be Penciltonized.

The film is set in the club scene of '80s New York, but manages to look and feel, in some rather bizarre ways, timelessly modern rather than dated to that era.  It regards two extremely flamboyant and bitchy young socialites, Michael Alig (Macaulay Culkin, who surprised me by being excellent here) and James St James (Seth Green, an actor I always enjoy) - their club nights and their domestic life.  Michael and James live wilfully grotesque lives, never resting from their highly-strung, drug-frenzied Noel Cowerd schtick, all played out in drag and magnificent clubwear.  As the movie starts, the pair bicker self-consciously, quite aware that they're on camera, each vying to narrate their version of the tale.  Michael mentions, casually and without regret, that he's committed a murder, and as per 'Double Indemnity' (1944) the body of the film is in flashback, showing how the murder came to occur.  It's a true story, by the way.

Michael in characteristically alarming array.
The film was made on a tiny budget, its resources wisely spent on a strong and witty script, good actors who manage to make potentially shrill characters sympathetic, and a huge bevy of excellently alarming costumes.  Indeed, while I call it a film, it appears to have been shot on videotape rather than film, and with next to nothing in the lighting department, meaning that any keen amateur could have made their own version with a remarkably similar look.  It's rather disconcerting, as a maker of amaeur motion-pictures, to see a cinematic release so similar in picture quality and colour to my own crude works, and it lends the thing an air of a home-movie, as if Michael and James are not just narrating their own history, but have put together a video presentation about their adventures.

Michael and James are intriguing characters, and, presumably, people.  They're on all the time, always in costume and putting on characters, for themselves as much as for their peers, who they treat as an audience.  It's like 'Withnail and I' (1987), but with two Withnails and no I.  I felt for them in their superficiality; I wanted to see them relax, to be themselves rather than exhausting themselves with masks.  I didn't want to see them be normalised or become mundane, just to relax, to be honest with themselves.  It's the difference between being naturally eccentric (which is commendable) and being an eccentric.  Imagine being John Mccrirrick.  Now imagine being John Mccrirrick every day for the rest of your life.  It could be a wild novelty, but pursued as a lifestyle it would be exhausting, and would soon be no fun at all - a cry for help, and one that could lead to a tremendous breakdown.  Now, there's much to be said for dressing up, and far too few people dress interestingly; I'm a great advocate of all manner of fancy-dress antics, but there have to be some moments of some days where you dress for yourself, and as yourself, rather than merely to impress, alarm and intimidate your audience.  The only time Macaulay Culkin ever seems truly relaxed here, he isn't wearing anything at all.  For a brief scene towards the end of the movie, he takes a bath, and seems blissfully, innocently happy.  He loses nothing of his character, his mirth or habitual androgyny here, but seems to have a peace he's spent the rest of the film avoiding.

Angel, the dealer, starts as a leatherman but is encouraged to dress up to his name and station.
He was the victim of the aforementioned murder.
It is an interesting film, and I'm tempted to say it's also an excellent one.  It's aesthetically thrilling, has an fine soundtrack, and as I've noted, a script and cast worth hearing and watching.  It's also a world away from the other films I've written up to represent the early 2000s.  The Club Kids, those persistent and obsessive clubbers who formed Michael's entourage, come across like an anti-political Baader Meinhof gang, and their story is as fascinating as it is colourful, and this film's telling is simultaneously great fun and disconcertingly serious.

...and here it is on shiny disc, though I watched it on Netflix meself.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1998)

Since first hearing of this movie some decade ago, two questions have plagued me: how did Stella get her groove back, and what the heck happened to her groove in the first place?  I'd always imagined it something like the following year's 'The Spy Who Shagged Me', in which Austin Powers loses his mojo and has to retrieve it from a fat bastard - but even more groovy, should such a thing be possible.  My hope here was that 'a man' wouldn't be the answer to both questions.  The film, after all, has an overwhelmingly female cast (though not to the extent that most of the films I've watched have had overwhelmingly male casts), and stars Angela Bassett and Whoopi Goldberg, the latter of whom I've always found to be extremely watchable.

An aspiring suitor strips to his pants at a party,
prompting Stella to give her best Kenneth Williams look of horror.
Stella is a brilliant businesswoman, rich through hard work and discipline.  She seems content, she's confident and independent, and is a single mother to boot - but her sisters believe she ought to be dating, and her son doesn't think she takes the time to have fun.  So, Stella does something uncharacteristically crazy.  She goes on holiday to Jamaica (no, she went of her own accord) with her best friend Delilah, and accidentally falls in love with a handsome guy.  He's twenty, and is also twenty years her junior.

The guy has an excellent name, Winston Shakespeare, and is played by Taye Diggs.  He and Angela Bassett give performances which seem independently excellent, but I never quite got the chemistry between them.  This is meant to be a great and complicated romance, but they somehow never seemed truly in love.  This is a particularly ruinous to the movie, as the age-difference creates a gulf between the characters, and the film spends almost its whole duration on the question of whether they can overcome these differences or whether it's better for them both to go their separate ways.  I was rooting for the latter option, since it seemed to be a better way for Stella to keep her independence (which I'd assumed to play a role in her eponymous groove) and for Winston to get on with his own life - but I'm not sure mine was the intended response.  Had their relationship looked deeper, more than a fling of physical passion, I think the central conflict would have seemed far more credible.

Stella and Winston work through a few issues
Crucially, for a movie that wants to tell us that it's not OK to be happy being single, the film never makes romantic love look much fun.  Stella's doing fine at the start of the film, and only starts to doubt herself when her peers demand that she should conform to a traditional female role, and once she's found romance they start demanding that she acts her age, and she starts to insist that Winston acts like a man, all as per society's norms.  It seemed to me that Stella's groove was her independence, her ability to be herself and not have to act in the way our current society demands.  Once her friends and relatives made her doubt herself, and urged her towards their view of normality, I'm not sure she ever got her groove back.

Here it is on DVD, in case you're curious.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Peer Gynt (1941)

The Bøyg!
I claimed a while back that I'd never seen a film made in the forties that wasn't excellent. It seems I misspoke, as a half-decade ago I saw this low-budget silent film of Ibsen's once-famous play.  It isn't by any means wretched, indeed it's quite a work of art, but I wouldn't call it the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole world.

I was watching then for its star, the seventeen-year-old Charlton Heston. Watching it now, to stand for the year of 1941, it seems more interesting, and rather innocuous: a silent film in the forties! Made so late, it's able to stand on its own merits, not joining with the fevered rush for grander scale that we saw at the end of the twenties, nor hampered by the need to set up microphones.

Peer Gynt works rather well as a silent film. Notoriously, Edvard Grieg wrote incidental music for the original play which was too loud to include alongside dialogue, but too good to miss out. The solutions, I suppose, were to present the thing as a ballet - rather a pity when you could have Ibsen's dialogue - or, at last, as a silent film, with Grieg's music throughout, and a with well-judged amounts of intertitles.

There is, by the way, no chance that you don't know the music I'm talking about.

A child Peer begat in his imagination turns up in the real world
When I first saw this, I didn't know the story of Peer Gynt, and assumed, for the first half, that this was just a tale of a lusty jerk called Peer who goes around bothering people a bit.  I was surprised and excited, then, when Peer goes inside a mountain and discovers the Bøyg, a massive flying head.  Alarmingly, though the rest of this is a silent film, the Bøyg speaks its dialogue aloud.  Like 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors' (1964), a pastoral story of rural romance turned out way weirder than I'd given it credit for.

The first half is, I think, extremely good.  For the film's back-end, I had to turn to the Internet to find out the plot, a few key points of which seem to be absent.  Gone from the play is the suggestion that Peer has lived his life as a troll, and his climactic encounter with the devil and eventual death.  As it is, there's no reunion with Solveig, which strikes me as rather a pity, and the story pretty-much ends with Peer meeting a button-moulder, who critiques him as a person, and, it seems, as a fictional character.  It's an appropriately odd end, but no real way to resolve the story or the themes.  It all looks very nice though.

Featuring Lake Michigan as Morocco.  Here, 'Sir Peter Gynt' gives a picnic.
My favourite intertitle, since this is a silent film, reads as follows: 'Peer returns to a Norway of chaos and desolation'.  Before remembering that the film is indeed Norwegian in setting, the slide caused me to entertain the notion that 'a Norway' was the generic term for a chaotic and desolate locale.  Since then, I've been seeking opportunities to apply the phrase: 'since you got those kittens, the place has been a Norway of chaos and desolation', 'since the regular arson attacks began, the Sheffield ski-village has been a Norway of chaos and desolation', or 'they need to get someone in to sort out those public toilets: they're a bit of a Norway'.

On this DVD set, in a quality that is mediocre yet sufficient, one may find this 'Peer Gynt' and Bradley and Heston's other notable collaboration, a rather fine 'Julius Caesar' from 1950.  There are also a number of episodes of 'Studio One', a series which cut classic novels and plays down to 52 minutes and shot them as-live on video with a multi-camera set-up.  It's a bit strange, being so used to America's glossy TV output, to see some that wasn't shot on film with a single-camera, but there's plenty to enjoy in these very concise productions of 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Jane Eyre', and my favourite 'A Bolt of Lightning', in which he plays James Otis, who said "no taxation without representation," and threw the Boston Tea Party.  It's out of print at present, but if it comes back and you share my strange fascination with the acting style of Charlton Heston, you may like to give it a go.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Super 8 (2011)

The guys survey the wreckage of a CGI explosion
When somebody presses a DVD into your hands, it's probably a movie they really think you should watch, and really think you should watch.  Ian, a photographer of my acquaintance (whose name seems to appear alongside Pencilton's in the name of this blog) recommended 'Super 8' to me and passed me a copy.  He and I help to run a holiday camp each Summer, at which, among other things, the young people get to make their own motion-pictures.  I'm a great advocate of amateur movies, and tend to be heavily involved in the holiday's video activity, so I've naturally harboured a curiousity toward this recent blockbuster, which begins with five youngsters trying to make a short film.

They have a film-camera, (which, in our age of video, is a beautiful technological inconvenience I've never had the chance to use) a very short script (which is absolutely the best kind for an amateur work), and a visionary young director keen to get good production values without spending any money.  They're making a zombie crime film with models, prosthetics, make-up and a period setting, and extremely varied acting ability.  It's exactly what I wanted to be doing at that age (which seems to say, early teens), and exactly what I do too little these days - and the film has left me gagging to fire up my camcorder, round up a few friends and a dozen hats and cry 'action' and 'havoc'.

I can't help feeling that the film might have carried on just fine had the film-making plot not been derailed at the twenty minute mark by the sudden arrival of a CGI train full of mysterious and terrifying cargo.  Once this mystery becomes the main plot, and special effects the majority of the draw, the kids-make-movies story falls away, and I felt we'd lost sight of the film's most interesting facet.  Perhaps I wanted to be watching 'Son of Rambow' (2007) instead.

A still from 'The Case', the film the kids are making on Super 8.
Gabriel Basso as Martin as Detective Hathaway and Elle Fanning as Alice as his wife.
The gang of kids at the centre of the film are a fun and likeable bunch, and reminded my of 'The Goonies' (1985), except here we only get one girl in a gang of five, while the earlier film was marginally more balanced with two out of six.  It's disheartening to see that adventure-movie gender-balance hasn't improved at all over the twenty-eight years of my life, and has in fact got worse; adventure is still a club for boys, unless you're a feel-good love interest.

The film is amply exciting, and ends well enough.  It being Spielberg-produced, the story is well-told, though pondering it over the last day or so parts of it begin to make less sense, and the heroes seem to have had too many strokes of luck.  Either way, the CGI (well animated but, being animated, rather insubstantial and unreal) goes away and the film ends immediately.  I'd count this as a bit of a pity, as I wanted it to get back to the more important business of the eponymous Super 8, the film being shot by the kids.  As I hoped, their movie plays during the end credits.  I'faith, it's the best bit!

P.S. The antagonists are all male, and so are the major allies, and so are all the parents, except the dead ones.  The only girl among the heroes gets captured, is helpless and has to be rescued.  Will films still be like this when I'm old and dead, I wonder?

The film on disc, if you yearn for it.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mary & Max (2009)

My friends Cassandra and Fnord recommended me this film, and lent me a copy, urging me to watch it without my first finding out anything about it.  When I saw them next, they lent me another copy, and it became apparent that they thought I should see it, and would enjoy it.  Now, Cassandra and Fnord make very good recommendations, and know me as well as anybody can be said to, so I found some time and lent it my attention, and oughtn't to have been surprised when it turned out to be excellent.

It tells the story of Mary, a young girl in a sepia-toned Australia striking up an unlikely pen-friendship with Max, a middle-aged man in monochrome New York.  Mary is lonely but habitually optimistic while Max is weary, socially awkward and extremely solitary.  Despite the fact that
both live rather bleak lives filled with tragedy, the story of their friendship manages to be light, fun and charming, though always terribly sad.

Mary, with her rooster Ethel.  Her favourite colour is brown.
The film plays into a few of my interests quietly indulges my love of toilet humour and cheery grotesquery.  From the off we learn that Mary has a birth-mark 'the colour of poo', and that her father has retired to his shed to taxidermise alarmed-looking birds he's found.  It's never horrid or disgusting, but borders on the naughty.

The whole film is led by a narrator, the calm and reassuring Barry Humphries, with the vast majority of dialogue either given in his affable narration or in the letters written from Mary to Max or typed in return.  Were the images not so compelling - fascinating, blanched and misshapen claymation - one could almost enjoy the work entirely on audio.  The film doesn't hurry to make its points, but takes its time showing to show us beautiful things.

One of Max's lists.
The characters are few, meaning we grow to know Mary and Max extremely well as the former grows older and the latter broader.  We see calamities in their surroundings and their friendship that they can't see or understand, and I, at least, spent half the film hoping they could one day meet in person, and the latter half fearing that such a difficult meeting had grown inevitable.

I've already described it as beautiful, sad, fun and charming, and don't particularly like to repeat myself, nor want to inflict thesaurus-scrapings on you, but I don't think I can better describe the film than that.  There's plenty more to it that I'd love to enthuse about, but it's better that you see it for yourself.

Here it is on shiny disc, if you have the urge.  Some nice looking extras on there, too, but I really do commend the main feature to you.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town (1989)

Another horror, courtesy of Opai who screened this in a triple bill with 'America 3000' (1986) and a classic episode of 'Knightmare'.  Its big selling-point, according to the DVD box, is the presence of Billy Bob Thornton, who was so excellent as 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001) and so Republican in 'Love Actually' (2003), but who's in this so briefly (and at so comparatively young an age) that I didn't notice him at all.  Thankfully the film was mis-selling itself on this point, and had boons in other areas.

I mentioned the film to my friend Rob Reed, who lectures in film and delights in zombies - so, really, his opinions ought to be more valid than mine on this whole topic - and he condemned it as very terrible, to my mind unduly.  Now, admittedly I only saw it because Opai was screening some wilfully shonky B-movies, but I feel there are merits to this film that could be missed by anybody watching it with senor Reed's eye for the undead.  I'd venture that 'Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town' is not really a zombie movie, but a biker movie which happens to feature a zombie attack, and that only briefly.  This is a film about a gang of strong, independent women who have left their lives behind for whatever reasons and decided to tear across America rockin' and a-rollin', and what happens when they inadvertently drive into the old home-town of one of their members.

A midget undertaker manually updates the town's population.
Rural America is still a Western, y'see.
So, there's a gang of bikers, who call themselves the Cycle Sluts.  They reason that's what they'll be called anyway, so they pre-emptively reclaim the phrase.  Their travels may happen to include 'some reeaaal good coitus' (as it's here termed), but it's by no means their raison d'être, and this being a drama and a comedy, rather than a sexy film, it's implied rather than shown.  They roll into the town of Zariah where it so happens that a popular scientist at the centre of the community is arranging murders and reanimating the corpses in an abandoned mine.  I forget quite why he's doing this, but it all seemed relatively sensible and innocent.

The zombies, when they emerge, move authentically slowly, and take most of an hour to shamble the ten or so miles from the mine to the town, meaning the real story of the gang and the people of Zariah can play out with the corpses as a time-bomb, rather than an immediate threat.  And whenever we cut to the stumbling zombies, the incidental music strikes up a comedic accordion rendition of Danse Macabre, which I found to be as enjoyable as it was ridiculous.

I can't remember the character names, but she's the boss.
Wikipedia manages to give a lengthy plot summary with no names in it.
A complication arises when we discover that, half-way between the town and the mine, is a home for blind orphans, fer goodness' sake.  I suppose, in an in-bred town full of murder, such a thing isn't inconceivable.  Endogamous marriage is the primary cause of blindness in Egypt, or so I've heard, oh fact-seekers.  Anyway, the orphans deport themselves well, not being the weepy woobies one might fear in a film of this level of crudeness, but taking up firearms against the invisible menace.  Says one orphan, with an excellent dead-pan: 'Blind, no parents, and now this.'

It's a fun film, and not heartless.  I can see why an advocate of zombies may find that this fails as a zombie horror, and anybody believing the cover and watching for the sake of Billy Bob Thornton would likewise be thrown by the film they get.  The film's about the chopper chicks.  It seems relatively unusual to see a horror film based around female heroes without obviously being geared to a male audience.  It's still a genre I know little, though I seem to be catching up on it this last month or so.

P.S. This is the last Troma film to reach the cinemas.  They made low-budget trash movies before they were cool, and for that they deserve some kind of salute.

Here it is on DVD, if you fancy it.

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Dr Caligari!
This is one of the great classics of German expressionist cinema, a genre which, in my crude understanding, manifests itself in highly stylised sets of strange angles, with performances to match.  It's a technique used on a much larger scale and budget in 'Metropolis' (1927), but which here manages to be far more original, and so far less impressive.

There's an extent to which circumstances have contrived against 'Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari' winning more of my approval.  For one thing, I'd already seen several monochrome German horror and crime films more to my tastes: the aforementioned 'Metropolis', 'Faust' (1926), 'M' (1931) and 'Das Testament des Dr Mabuse' (1933), all of which were slicker, faster and more unsettling.  For another, I had a choice between watching it on second-hand VHS and watching it on Youtube, neither of which is great for an 83-year old film.  I plumped for the latter which may have been a mistake; it turned out this silent film was silent indeed, and I had to provide my own soundtrack, either through humming or (more practically) through playing what incidental music I had on my phone - the works of Michael Nyman, Roger Limb, and the Radiophonic Workshop.  Watching a slow film in silence is almost unbearable, and thankfully this music wasn't too jarring in tone.

The eponymous cabinet.  I expected something more substantial.
I ought to extend this film some due acknowledgement.  It was made in the 1910s, yet it actually has some facial close-ups, a novelty in those early times, and tells its story clearly enough to follow but only slightly too clearly.  It has cinema's first twist ending, which I initially failed to grasp, but which seems to throw a new light on the rest of the film, and it has a striking central idea, the somnambulist who sleeps in a coffin waking only to predict the future and commit crimes, somewhat in the vein of the Hashshashins of ancient Araby.

Alas, the wonky buildings and the idiosyncratically-painted backdrops work better in film when they're rendered more dynamically, and when the picture quality is better.  It's a style I like, but in recent years it's an aesthetic that's been co-opted by pantomimes, and the low-budget woodwork that makes up this film's tiny sets leaves them with the feeling of a provincial theatre production.  The film is so early that its great innovations have all been repeated and bettered through the decades, and especially so in the remainder of the twenties, making it hard to appreciate how striking the movie must have been when it was new.

In short, I'm pretty sure this is better than any of the films I've seen from earlier years, but it's very much eclipsed by everything that came after.  I feel rather rude dismissing this seminal piece of art as insufficient or comparatively disappointing, but there it is.  It's good, but I'd recommend any of the aforementioned films as better.

Well, here it is on DVD if you're curious.