Monday, 16 November 2015

Man Alone (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Time and Relative Digressions on Cheese (music, 2015)

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Großmutter Mathilde begat Johann Simon (or possible Margarethe?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Adventures of Food Boy (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 22 June 2015

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

I've enjoyed most of the Marvel films I've seen, but I don't embrace them all equally.  The Iron Man films were all excellent, and my opinion of 'Guardians of the Galaxy' (2014) is identical to everybody else's opinion of 'Guardians of the Galaxy'.  I found 'Captain America' and 'Thor' (both 2011) to be flashy but ordinary, and 'Age of Ultron' shares one of the main issues I had with 'Thor' - in both cases, the central conflict looks to be morally complex, but the villain, after a short period of seeming to have an interesting motivation, decides to be entirely, overtly, evil.  Both films promised to be dramas, and both gave way to something less challenging.

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is a film full of punching.  Iron Man is a very cool person, whom money and technology have blessed with super punching powers; he's better served by his own films, and the fact I'd seen the superlative 'Iron Man 3' (2013) so recently probably injured my opinion of this movie.  The Hulk is a very nice guy, with an interesting central conflict - the same as in the last Avengers film (2012), so it's hard to be quite so engaged by it this time around; technology has given him super punching powers too.  Captain America is an all-American hero, and a bit boring, and technology has given him super hitting-people-with-a-shield powers.  Thor is a Norse space-god, and space-magic indistinguishable from advanced technology has given him hitting-people-with-a-mallet powers.  Then there's Black Widow, who doesn't seem to have any technological advantage, and seems to kick people more than she punches, and Hawkeye, who's really good at shooting really good arrows.

They're all incredibly attractive, but in different ways.  They kick ass, and especially much they punch ass.  Most of them have had films of their own, showing that they're all individually capable of bringing down vast, blockbuster-sized enemies, so once they're all working together, the obvious problem is finding an enemy that takes them two hours to stop.  Thankfully the legion that confronts them this year is one that can be affected by punching, but one great enough in number that the punching can go on for at least twenty minutes unabated.

Ultron, whose age it is.
The side of evil is given a number of assets, making this Age of Ultron seem a relatively tricky case, but as more and more of the villain's forces defect to the side of good, a victory for the heroes looks ever more likely.  The film seems to keep promising that nobody is safe, that this fight will have a terrible cost - and so it should!  A villain as powerful as Ultron would seem more of a credible threat if his plot had a body count.  I was disappointed when 'The Return of the King' (2003) saw all its main heroes survive - I'd hoped for a bloody hobbit-massacre to show the extent of the threat Frodo faced, and when everybody lived it made the 9-hour struggle feel cheap and easy.  I didn't hold out any such hopes this time around - but I won't say any more, for fear of spoiling the film.

'Avengers: Age of Ultron' is pretty exciting to watch - explosions, set-pieces, familiar characters doing their thing, witty exchanges and reasonable angst - but as you may sense from the paragraphs above, I wasn't quite satisfied.  Part of the problem was that there were no ordinary people in the cast of characters.  All the major players are well-versed in superheroism and high-octane showdowns.  There's no young Steve Rogers, no Pepper Potts, no Foggy Nelson, and none of the heroes even need to pass for normal - these are heroes who have given up their secret double-lives.  I think I've really been spoiled by Marvel's other 2015 project, 'Daredevil', which has recently shown up on Netflix - a hugely satisfying masked vigilante story, with dozens of interesting, human characters to care about.  'Age of Ultron' tries to put Hawkeye at its emotional core, and shows him to be ordinary and American and handsome, but this doesn't make him especially interesting.  He's no Matt Murdock.

The only real people in this film, with lives as humdrum as our own, are the huge crowds of potential victims.  The Avengers work to save these hapless lemmings, and it makes ordinary humanity seem a real drag, a hindrance without merit.  I like that these superhero films spend time showing the heroes rescuing people - it worked well in the recent Batman movies, and it was a nice feature of 'The Avengers Assemble' (2012), but here I spent my time wishing the villain would do his thing, wipe out these troublesome extras, and move the narrative on a bit.

Check it out in cinemas now (or in cinemas next week, if you're American).  Despite my complaints, there's plenty to enjoy here.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Kids (1995)

Despite no particular plans in this direction, my film-watching project has encapsulated a lot of films set in New York - from 'Shaft' (1971) and 'Beneath the Planet of the Apes' (1971) to 'Taxi Driver' (1976) and 'Party Monster' (2003), and 'The BQE' (2007) and 'Mary & Max' (2009), and six others besides.  It's a very interesting set of movies, but taken together they present a vision of a formidably ghastly city, full of cars and violent woe, not somewhere you'd particularly want to live or visit.

'Kids' joins this tradition, but takes a new perspective, looking at the great teen nineties of baggy clothing and public urination.  It's a rampantly heterosexual movie, opening with an abrasively long and noisy teenage snog, and going on to follow the sex and lives of a pubescent gang.  Bored, horny children, raping and mumbling and laughing.

"I have no legs," sings the man.
I didn't know anything about the film when I bought it.  I picked it up from a charity-shop because I found its spine interesting - normally DVD-spines are printed so you can read them when you tilt your head to the right, but this one was like the DVDs of continental Europe, where you have to tilt your head the other way.  The design made it look like 'world cinema', a vague, arty term that I don't often hear applied to American movies, but this is a film seemed to fit both categories.

It's thrillingly disorientating, shot largely in very close-up close-ups and highly saturated colours.  A cast of untried actors overlap their dialogue, and compete with the sounds of traffic and loud music.  It has a documentary feel, a spontaneity.  It feels oddly like real life, rather than performed drama, and it makes other films feel staid and artificial.  I'd expected 'Kids' to be bleak and hard to watch - it's a film full of HIV, romanceless underage sex and other widely-protested content, but it proved to be full of energy and vitality - a much more visceral and important piece than, for example, 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' (1953), the last film I'd looked at.  It passed quickly, and it troubled me.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Herostratus (1967)

The main reason I came to watch 'Herostratus', other than liking the title and cover, is that it came out in the BFI Flipside series of DVD/Blu-ray dual format releases.  It's a run of obscure, interesting British films from the archives, forgotten marvels given a chance to shine again.  'The Bed-Sitting Room' (1969), which I very much enjoyed, was one such release, and on the basis of it and BFI's release of 'Winstanley' (1975), I find the line very encouraging.

Then, of course, there's the film's basic idea.  In short, a young man goes to an advertising agency to get maximum publicity for his act of suicide.  It's an unpleasantly interesting concept, grim, but ripe for satire and social commentary.  I'd say the film grapples with both of these, but fares less well as a drama or comedy.

So, we follow Max, the main character, as he approaches the advertising man Farson, a very sixties businessman who comes across like a Number 2 from the same year's psychedelic stand-out 'The Prisoner'.  Farson puts Max up in luxury and sets about publicising a sellably bland version of him to win public support.  The film then intercuts Max's reclusive days in a comfortable black void with archive footage of Ginsberg, Roosevelt, Churchill and Hitler, and juxtaposes sexy dancing with swirling offal, while making ironic comparisons between Max's herostratic desire for suicide and the conspicuous death of Jesus.

It feels like an investigation of ideas, rather than a narrative- or character-led piece.  A discussion, and quite a long one, at two-hours and forty minutes.  At times I wished the film would hurry itself along.  Perhaps I'm too impatient to really engage with this kind of art, or perhaps the film was making its point more slowly than necessary.  I'm inclined toward the latter, as the release also features director Don Levy's 'Time Is' (1964), which wants to wow its audience with the suggestion that time, as we understand it, is a human construct, a point that it makes quite effectively in the first five minutes, but persists with for another 25 - perhaps appropriate, given the content.

'Herostratus' has a chilling lack of glossiness, making it resemble Eastern and European films more than the American sort that I've come to think of as cinema's default.  The blood red and golden lighting, and the frequent cuts away to black, made me think of the then-recent Ukrainian movie 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors' (1964).  (I feel pretentious comparing this art-film you probably haven't heard of to another art-film you probably haven't heard of; I'm only aware of them because I'm doing this film-based blog, and have deliberately sought out some obscure items in the hope of finding treasure.  Somehow it feels like it would be more acceptable if I was doing this with novels, because everybody knows books have an inherent cultural value).

I didn't find a lot of pleasure in 'Herostratus'.  It interested me, but stretched that interest very thin, and I found myself wondering whether I have too much love for the easy comforts of commercial cinema to really get on with art films.  Or maybe I just didn't like this one.  Never mind.

P.S. Herostratus, if you're curious, was an ancient Ephesian who set fire to the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) purely because he wanted to be famous for something.  It worked, and his name lives in infamy, as 'herostratic fame' today means fame at any cost, even fame for atrocities.  Anything to make one's name linger in the public mind.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

Having watched ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959) on each of the last eleven Easter weekends, I’ve developed something of an intimate understanding of it; tiny details that I didn't notice at first now seem obvious and familiar - a few odd seconds where a line of dialogue has been partly redubbed, or small quirks to actors’ deliveries, like Jack Hawkins decision to stress the first syllable of ‘reward’ (a word he says twice).  I’ve no great desire to learn about the film’s production, and I’ve never listened to its commentaries - but repeated consumption to get at the story has made its ingredients, its composition, even the performance of its most minor roles, seem like bosom friends.

This year I thought I’d spend a little time looking up the CVs of the film’s cast.  As long-term readers may recall, I’m already well-versed in Charlton Heston’s filmography, but I thought I’d look up what Haya Harareet and Frank Thring did next.  I’ve seen Finlay Currie as Magwitch in ’Great Expectations’ (1946), and the aforementioned Jack Hawkins as the man in ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957) who wishes to explode said bridge (though I’ll need to re-watch that film to see if he gets to say the work ‘reward’ at any point) - and we’ve all seen John Le Mesurier, a grim surgeon in a scene after the famous chariot race, as Sgt Wilson in ‘Dad’s Army’ (1968-77).

Dan Taylor (Hugh Griffith) and Walter Valentine (Stanley Holloway) get drunk.
In my researches, I discovered a film which featured two of the cast of 'Ben-Hur’ together.   And the same day I learned about ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, it popped up on BBC4.  The movie stars George Relph, who had two scenes in ‘Ben-Hur’ as a rather avuncular Tiberius Caesar, a role in which he shows off his strikingly memorable teeth.  In ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’, he plays a country vicar who decides to buy up a railway station to stop it being closed down.  He also drives the trains, accompanied in the engine by a surly poacher, played by Hugh Griffith, who six years later won an oscar as Best Supporting Actor, for his unfortunately blacked-up but otherwise highly enjoyable performance as Sheikh Ilderim, a major player in Ben-Hur’s second half.

So, let’s turn our attention to ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’.  It is, in short, a nice film about a train.  Will the vicar and the poacher be able to run their train safely, and on time?  Will they be able to beat those villainous men from the bus company?  Probably!  It’s an Ealing Comedy, from the writer and director of ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ (1951), so has a charming humour and a particularly British gentleness.  (I’d say a particular English gentleness, except that Hugh Griffith is always so very Welsh).  It features some fine works of engineering, and some ingeniously concocted solutions to the problems that arise, and it has enough mild peril to keep the audience thoroughly engaged for its 80 minute duration.  It also features a physical fight between the vicar in his stream-train and Sid James on a steam-roller - surely a sight worth seeing for yourself.

...and then who should turn up but the Bishop! (Godfrey Tearle)

Do excuse me resurrecting the Penciltonian to tell you about this small, gentle adventure.  I've seen plenty of exciting films over the last year, and have often wished to crack open the blog to tell you about them - you very nearly heard about 'Wings' (1927), a very engaging silent film that you can find on Netflix, and 'Twelve Angry Men' (1957), which lived up to its reputation.  But it's 'The Titfield Thunderbolt' that's brought me back.  It's a pleasant feature, with a very sunny optimism that seems to suit the current season.  I occasionally mean to come back and comment on another film from each decade.  I wrote up a late-sixties film many months ago and never posted it, so that may happen.

And since I've covered each year from 1913-2014, I'll certainly be back with a 2015 film in a month or so.

P.S. Other films featuring two or more actors from Ben-Hur include ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957, as mentioned earlier) which features Sextus and Quintus Arrius, and ‘El Cid’ (1961), which features Judah Ben-Hur and Pontius Pilate.  If you can think of any others, I’d be glad to hear from you.

P.P.S. It seems I really enjoy tales of vicars having light-hearted adventures.  See also, Father Stanley Unwin in 'The Secret Service', Reverend Charles Bentley in 'The Mundane Egg', and the kindly bishops (of Digne and Tatchester) who get involved in 'Les Miserables' and 'The Box of Delights' (the latter of which also involves a number of unscrupulous curates who fight magic with guns and flying cars).