Monday, 23 February 2015

M (1931)

With a title such as M, one might expect this to be a James Bond spin-off prequel featuring a young Judi Dench, or exploring Mallory's rise to power. Well, that's not this film.

Fritz Lang is one of the great names of cinema. He's one of my inspirations, too. When I watched a screening of Metropolis at 14, it was something magical. Generally, we look back at early cinema not in terms of art but in how backwards it is, and how much cheese there is. Yet Metropolis was able to convey a futuristic landscape better in some ways than what you would see in the Tomorrowland trailer. Of course, it's been nearly four years since I saw that. But I've always wanted to delve into Lang's other works, and M is his other most talked about films - amongst a vast canon of both German and Hollywood films. If you're interested in his work, I definitely recommend the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin. Last December on the Berlin trip my History teacher gave me and a friend permission to divert off from the rest of the school party and see a few other things - including the Kinemathek and the Soviet War Memorial. The Kinemathek is a beauty to behold, from a wall of cinema screen mirrors, archive recreations, set recreations (including on of M, if I recall correctly), and even a half scale Maria from Metropolis!

For weeks, my mum thought M was obviously a sequel to Metropolis. As if sequels with obscure names were a thing during the 1930s.

When you compare the two, M is a far different beast. No longer a future fused with Biblical themes, it's contemporary Germany. Mass hysteria abounds about child abduction. The conflict between the concept of 'evil' and mental health issues. Sound familiar? The opening images of the solemn working mass of Metropolis seemed a comment on mid-20s Germany, but M is a more obvious one. Much has been said about how it reflects a Germany on the verge of Nazism, anticipating the rise of the party. However, these readings are ones I wish to avoid. There is brutality, notably with a ruthless police searching a bar for papers from every last man. These could easily be traded for the Sturm-Abteilung or the Gestapo. However, whilst the Nazis seemed want to eradicate the Weimar era from existence, we should not forget this film was produced during the Weimar era. There can be shades of sides of the political spectrum, but the Sonderweg thesis should not be freely applied to every piece of art from the 1920s and 30s. A better perspective to approach this film is in terms of morality and also its images.

The early sound era was an interesting period, both in terms of experimentation and adaptation. Today, 5.1 surround sound is a normality. And even when apart from a cinema or home cinema setting, stereo is the standard. Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) blended the traditional silent movie with sound sequences, creating both contrast but also creating the effect where sound really does feel like an alien thing. Even Lang's silent Metropolis suggests a sound world of pure machinery, something that has been explored in edited versions of the film. But for much of M, the sound is dulled. There is no musical soundtrack, which only helps to ground it in contemporary Germany more. Because sound is a powerful device, and you don't need music over every frame to reinforce that. The power is in the image. The soundtrack is the screams of a mother ("Elsie!"); the trademark whistling of a killer; the mass populous demanding justice.

It's pure noir, before Hitchcock popularised it. The film is perfectly suited to monochrome, framing people in silhouette within a grey, dull world. Most notable amongst Lang's experimentation is the employment of a kinetic camera. It's used sparingly, and most of the shots remain perfectly fine completely still. The most jaw dropping moment is at 43 minutes in, where we see the camera moves from various tables of patrons through to a man tendering leberwurst, follows him adjusting prices on the whiteboard, and then moves upwards and through a window (it's easy to notice the pane being removed to allow the camera through, but anyway), past a police desk and into the crowds. It hints at a one shot narrative, something rarely attempted but can be perfect. It's tedious, and takes about a minute for the camera to complete its journey. It's wobbly, and almost certainly was only filmed once. Done today, and it would be a perfectly smooth motion, completed in 20 seconds at most. But perhaps that says something about the mediocrity of life? It is slow moving and it is boring. It's just a series of small boring instances, like waiting at the counter, growing slowly more bored as every second passes.

Whilst watching this film, I ended up questioning why golden age films are so interesting. They're far from perfect. The standout moments are few and far between, and halfway through I was shocked to find myself disinterested. Today, it wouldn't be a 2 hour film, it would be a 1 hour police procedural. The heist sequence is so slow moving, it could be a 5 minute sequence of intercut shots with some jazzy music over it. But this isn't Ocean's Eleven. It's slow, and to expect a 360 degree film - by which I mean a film where the world is built through the use of multiple angles - isn't what you're going to get. Part of what makes the films interesting is that it is prototypical. It may not be the most brilliant application of these ideas, but it is the genesis. What was to come was born out of this.

Lang even raises the unresolvable cliffhanger, before EastEnders and a flurry of sequels made that impossible. We see a real life courtroom, but no elaboration is needed.

If you want to watch the full film, it's available on YouTube (I believe in the public domain), but if you want the full experience, I recommend buying the Blu-Ray - Criterion Collection in the US and Masters of Cinema in the UK.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

O Lucky Man! (1971)

(This review was written in August 2014.)

I saw it back around February, but as Picturehouse were doing a screening of it, I thought I'd go along and rewatch O Lucky Man! (which my mum joined me for, either for a) she was interested or b) NO YOU'RE NOT GOING TO BE OUT ALONE IN THE CENTRE OF TOWN AT 11PM I'LL GIVE YOU A LIFT BACK)

As much as I thought I knew this film, I didn't. It's surprising how much of what seemed like such a vivid experience at the time goes away in the space of just a few months, if not weeks. I'm usually against rewatching, but actually with a second viewing (after so little time) made this film a lot more cohesive.

And it's not a cohesive film, really. It's a ridiculous film. The very conceit of a young man, played by Malcolm McDowell, kicked out of high school and ending up in a job in an incredibly 70s coffee bean factory, is then taken up to the highest level purely because this woman giving a talk finds him cute as fuck and is able to give a smile, and then goes around the north of England selling coffee beans to potential buyers to very little success is frankly ridiculous. The misadventures of a coffee bean seller is certainly not an idea to carry a 3 hour film.

And yet, it does so. I can't say it's better than If; certainly it's more surreal than If.

Interspersed with studio footage (the studio being a worn down room) of a down on their luck band (who become characters later on in the film, travelling across the country in a van with Helen Mirren), singing the central, titular lyric of If you learn the reason to live and not to die then you are a lucky man, the film covers everything from government distrust and mistrust, God and religion, existential crises, finding a job and place in this world, poverty and deprecation, the modern world of fame and fortune, being a good person, etc.

It's a snapshot of Britain in an age which simply doesn't exist anymore, the world where poverty represents people no-one gives a shit for (the woman caring for people living on the street immediately drops them once Mick volunteers to help out, only to find them literally staking him) and still dress as cawing mothers from the 50s. In one particularly harrowing scene we see a house of poverty with at least 10 or 15 mothers all around, Mick trying to ascend the staircase - and the side of the building - to talk it over with a woman, Mrs. Richards, about to kill herself, with her son and daughter in the room with her, quite compliant to help out not understanding the full extent of what is about to happen. She remains calm and maintains an intelligent dialogue with Mick, Mick taking the words of philosophers and saying to her "life is a gift"; yet she understands the reality that she cannot support her family on merely loaves of bread. This is a dank and depressing world of thievery where mothers take their own lives merely because of family, and Helen Mirren's character finds herself so easily thrown out on the street by her insanely rich Lord of a father.

What we see is Mick going through an accelerated version of the workforce, one which leaves numerous plotholes no-one really cares about in the way the film is told. No sooner does Mick get a job than he gets the highest position in this (shoddy) job, only to then find himself with bitches (a scene I really wished I hadn't seen in my mum's company; scenes of naked breasts, sex shows with Santa Claus and the incredibly racist 'chocolate sandwich', which I won't explain to you now; I'm more of a granary person myself), and then after a fair bit of getting lost towards Scotland and government interrogation and God (in a pastoral, anachronistic harvest community) and volunteering for £140 to become a human lab rat in order to find a way to extend human life (as we are told, "humanity will destroy itself by the year 2010"), (don't ask), he becomes a roadie with the band (immediately getting intimate with Helen Mirren). The morning right after they meet, they're already kissing as if longtime lovers, and he's already leaving. Within 45 minutes, he's speaking to her father, concerned about her. Within hours of that, he's now her father's personal assistant, attending conferences with presidents from across the world (including an African president played, hilariously, by Arthur Lowe in blackface), before being marked as a treasoner, laid the blame for the rich's crime because the government is willing to ignore the rich, and the rich are just as happy to drop him, despite his inherited fashionable suits, cigarettes and whiskey. Five years later, he's released from prison - along with the band (don't ask) - and he's at the bottom. By the end of the film he's reached the city of lights, London, and he finds fame - in a film titled O Lucky Man!

The other question is raises his how one presents the self - why must one smile when "there's nothing to smile about"? Yet the film ends with the faintest hint of Mick's smile - and then a big musical number with the entire cast of the film. The real reason for sitting around for three hours is because at the opening he puts on a smile - and as the film progresses he begins to question that smile. And I can totally relate to the falseness of being nice and being happy, and the falseness of being polite to people just with a smile. Because a smile says so much; happy, content, appreciate, friends, yes.

What we find is a passé attitude towards death. When two men die in a car crash, the police immediately appear and then leave everything as it is. When a man commits suicide, taking a guard with him, the businessman in the room calls everyone in for a 15 second elegy, arranges the funeral immediately, and then speaks as if nothing has happened. No one gives a shit; it's stated as a fact and there's no fluff placed around it. It's critical of the idea of Christianity; in one scene Mick gives a massive donation to The Salvation Army, straight out of prison. Initially they praise his good deed; then when he reveals the words of (atheistic) philosophers to them, they gather to pray for his soul and get him back on the right track; the good deed of charity becomes irrelevant; ironic, because charity is one of the main aims of Christianity.

In its style, Anderson is incredibly experimental, and I'd say more so than the b&w/colour world (which was purely a budgetary thing, anyway) of If. The soundtrack is either the band, radio broadcasts on war, depression, etc., or entirely absent. I'd love to make a film in the same way, where the soundtrack is the real world. Because the real world has no soundtrack, except on the radio or an iPod; it has nothing to indicate adrenalin except for sensations in the body and everyday sounds of everyday objects. Of course to make such a thing engaging depends heavily on the strength of the actors.

His transitions, as I mentioned, is band footage, but he also uses cuts (not even fades) to black, jump cuts, etc. It's such an immediate and stark change that it makes for an interesting - kind of unnerving - experience.

Oh, and nobody forgot about A Clockwork Orange either. Someone on Tumblr joked this is A Clockwork Orange 2, which I guess is kind of true. Although a nicer character than Alex, Mick does become promiscuous, and through luck itself becomes a criminal always at odds with the law, although for more ridiculous reasons (in an early scene, he witnesses a car crash and the police tell him not to give a statement, otherwise it might incriminate him. Soon after, he's arrested for trespassing as a Russian spy and is given a ridiculous level or torture just for parking his car outside a military base.) Then during the experiments, his eyes are stretched exactly as happens to Alex, and Helen Mirren's father is, would you believe, a Mr. Burgess (maybe not Tony, but yeah.)

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Hold Out - A BFI Short Film

Okay, so a personal post for once.

Over the half term, I was pretty busy participating in the BFI Film Academy held at Culture Works East. The BFI Film Academy is run across the country, and not only does it involve production but also a series of workshops with such wonderful people as local scriptwriter Belona Greenwood, director Guy Myhill and a production assistant to Joe Wright. You know, the director of Anna Karenina. And helping us with the piece we had Jamie Quantrill, who you might know from the 2012 Domino's ad campaign. This was quite a stressful and overwhelming week, but the finished film out of it seems to have been worth it.

We were tasked with creating a documentary film, and eventually we created this:

Hold Out, a short film about disease and the possibility of a apocalyptic outbreak. And yes, it's a documentary. Edited on Premiere and made in only five days.

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300 (2007)

(This review was originally written in July 2014.)

This film It just goes to show you shouldn't just view a movie based on the mass thinking it's awesome and the hype it had surrounding its release 7 years ago.

I'm trying to think of a way to describe it. The historical Grecian version of Transformers, maybe? Masculine action with little substance.

It has an interesting aesthetic. Each shot is highly saturated, played against CGI backdrops. The point of this film is not a realistic depiction of the story of the 300, but a hyperbolic CGI blood-bath which lasts for two hours, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel which, as a conceit of the medium, is itself stylised. Kieron Gillen did a counter book to this called Three, which strives for a macrocosmic view of the 3, rather than the 300, and depicting things (such as the 'boy lovers') in a more realistic and scholarly fashion.

[November 2014 comment: I have a copy of 300 on reservation from the library. Let's see how that turns out.

It was decent but nor brilliant. The art's cool but I'm sure readers more involved in classics will have greater interest in mindless action, which the comic still is but at least it's not two hours long.]

[November 2014 comment: Watching films on a sick day isn't great.]

I personally like the idea of blending the animated computer world with live action to create a new one. A Russian film from last year, 
Stalingrad, did the same thing with the 'war movie' concept by creating this computer-lit pseudo-digital world. It isn't going for realism but going for something really cool in-between. Certainly, it's a big step up from this 2004 sci-fi travesty, its character models making the pseudo-digital world look just a couple of degrees ahead of Lara Croft on the PS1.

Historical fiction (or, I guess, fictional reality) is something that can be done well; I mean Amadeus won all kinds of awards, and that is by no means a true depiction of Mozart's life (not a film I've seen, but I've read up on it and seen the trailers.) I prefer the fictional side to endless biopics about "hey, care for this person who did an important thing in the war!) It doesn't sit with me because the focus is disjointed and just seems a bit too wanky to me.

But honestly, this film bored me. I'd like to see a non-Americanised version, where even if we don't suspend our disbelief with the fact they're all speaking English, they at least have a Greek accent and complexion rather than an American one. I can't say I'm much of a fan of Zack Snyder. Dawn of the Dead is OK; Legend of the Guardians is a bunch of anthropomorphic well-animated crap; Sucker Punch looks like two hours of schoolgirls in tight clothes, and as for Man of Steel, I liked it when I first saw it. Now, the more I think about it, it's not as great as it seemed first time.

It's miles ahead of Brett Ratner's Hercules, though. That film just looks like an excuse to inexplicably add John Hurt to the cast and show lots of naked women.

There's an interquel titled Rise of an Empire. I've not seen it, but I'd hope it's a better film than this.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

(This review was originally written in July 2014. It's no longer the summer.)

We're onto the eighth Planet of the Apes film. By this point, one might expect something along the lines of Jason Takes Manhattan, or The Muppets Wizard of Oz. Well, hopefully it's not making too much of a leap to say high-numbered sequels are becoming a lot better than they used to be (although I'm sure stuff like Fast and Furious and a prospective 6th and 7th Die Hard films shall trample on my argument.) But this and X-Men: Days of Future Past prove there can be originality, great acting and CGI, and interesting themes to consider and frankly pure entertainment, even as the 7th/8th instalment in each franchise.

There's lots of ideas squashed together here. You have the utopian ape society of trees, in San Francisco of all places, where apes are beginning to learn human concepts, evoking Battle; the beginnings of fire and revolution, with apes as cavalry on horseback, evoking Conquest. There's a little bit of everything here, but I think overall it makes for a more complex version of the 'prequel/sequels' of the 1970s (which rely on the conceit of a future which arises through time travel.) The soundtrack places us right in the mindset of 1968's Planet, with the familiar beat reused here to show the decrepit state of modern human civilisation.

What's great about this film is that there are shades to both ape and man, that there is no uniformity in revolution and ideas; man and ape are not as apart as we think they are. To put it another way, this is an A-Level version of History compared to a GCSE version of History. Caesar favours cohabitance, with a 'line in the sand' between the trees and SF, so as to not incite war and death; other apes would rather prove supremacy by claiming the human areas. We see man as militaristic, but we also see through our protagonists (who unwittingly spark further revolution) that humanity is also caring and wants to provide help; all they are asking for is power so they can live in peace. The revolution which erupts comes from misunderstanding and conflicting needs, and the manipulation of a pro-war, rather than pacifistic, ape.

I definitely get the sense of the idea that war is eternal and inevitable; quite a Marxist idea, sure. Humanity is built on conflict and, by extension, the apes are inherently built on humanity. They begin to resemble early humanity, building tribal communities who communicate not by word (only leaders do so) but by sign language. I was impressed with X-Men: First Class that we were given 7 minutes of subtitled German, and Fox's Dawn impresses me with subtitled ape. It's that step towards realism which I love. It's preposterous for a species to learn the OED in a decade, but non-verbal communication makes perfect sense. In a heartwarming scene the teenage son, Alex, reads the graphic novel Black Hole to an ape, showing the importance of semiotics to learning culture; in another scene they flick through his misplaced sketch book. Heck, their community is even built around a hydroelectric dam, one of the plot points of the film. They confiscate guns from humanity but end up falling to warfare themselves; the fights between ape and ape are because of human intervention. Basically, kids, don't use guns, because you'll be fucked if you do. In the end, the hinted intervention of human military wins over and the death of humanity is assured. 

Rise set a good precedent with James Franco (seen here on a video camera, still with minimal battery power in 2021), and this continues that. Honestly though, I wouldn't want to see a sequel. Well, maybe one more. This film adds greater complexity to both the last film and the rest of the franchise, but where would one go from here? I'm sure a sequel is on the cards already, but we know that Planet is the next step. Maybe a film with no human cast at all? A film of war entirely, compared to this film being the inciting event? I'm happy with these two films as my prequels, though. It's great to see the franchise still going strong though, 46 years later.

The friend I saw it with said he'd have preferred to see Transformers: Age of Extinction. I wanted to smack him in the face. Seriously, this is the sequel to see this summer.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Boyhood (2014)

(This review was originally written in July 2014)

I've probably been interested in this film longer than most people have known about it. I remember crawling through Wikipedia's upcoming film section 4 or so years ago, and finding some intriguing film with no poster, no release date, no synopsis and very few details about it titled Boyhood, promising to explore twelve years through one boy's (Mason) adolescence; but, rather than casting actors for different stages in his life, we actually progress over 12 years of shooting with the same actors. The Independent's review likened it to 7 Up, and in a sense it's kind of true; we step off at different, important intervals (e.g. birthdays, first loves) in a child's life; the difference being that the intervals are annual, or at least months, and we never see Mason reach the drinking age.

Richard Linklater is a name you guys might recognise: he's the guy who directed The School of Rock, which just so happens to be the first Jack Black film I saw, way back in '03; and some of you older folk might know him from stuff like Dazed and Confused.

Boyhood sets a different tone, though. It's not a comedy and it certainly doesn't have family audiences in mind, although some scenes are comedic in tone (imagine telling your 13 year old biological kid about sex in the middle of a fast food place.) But it does make a break from 'dark' films, because overall it's quite uplifting. The audience was mainly grandparents, which is understandable; see what happened to our kids again. See our grandkids. But it's relatable to me, too. The boy who we see the film's eyes through is basically my peer, give a year. We start with him as a kid in 2002, and we end with him starting college in Autumn last year. (The film's promotional materials show him as a 6 year old, but by the time he turns 14, he starts to become really attractive. Just a heads up.) I can relate to his love of photography, his awkwardness with relationships and deep thought, and the fact his period of maturation was the noughties. He likes Spider-Man, and boy did I love Spider-Man then too.

The film's designated year might be (2014 film), but it really isn't. It's (2002-13 film), through and through. Because it always remains contemporary. Just as the boy grows older, so does the fandoms and technology, the political scene, and the style of filmmaking and quality of camera. It doesn't just look like the 2000s, it is the 2000s, and that's what sets this apart from other films with a similar theme. We start with film grain and we end with macro close-ups and slick panoramas. It's a real nostalgia trip to go from Spider-Man and Chamber of Secrets, Britney Spears and Gameboy Colors in 2002, to The Half-Blood Prince in 2006, to The Dark Knight and Tropic Thunder in 2008, and into my present of iPhones and Facebook and everything. It isn't 2002 looking ahead to 2013, because the script changes to suit the time, and neither does it retrospect and try and build a picture of years earlier. Like, their politically charged biological father is anti-Bush and ends up, 4 years later, pro-Obama. The existence of Facebook becomes a narrative point a year ago. But despite this, it's still quite a timeless narrative. There's no captions at all; no flashback framing device or narration. With each passing year, we have to work out when it is for ourselves as viewers, rather than have the screen anchor it for us. It's an experience rather than a movie, really. We don't have exposition, and it flashes between conflict and resolution and normality before finishing in an optimistic denouement. We see actual characters develop because they actually age; there is no suspension of disbelief in forcing a 30-something year old to also exist as a 50 year old. It's an entirely believable experience. I'm a proponent of making films as realistic as possible, by limiting CGI, doing your own stunts and just overall not faking stuff. This does that.

It's a really really great movie. 

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

(This review was originally written in June 2014)

With the 50th anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray rerelease (released by Criterion in the United States and Second Sight in the UK), it seems fitting that in tandem we get screenings across the country. I've seen screenings before for George Harrison: Living in the Material World and Magical Mystery Tour, so seeing this at Picturehouse only made sense.

It definitely needed the restoration. Inspired by the (perfect) credits sequence, I posted some photosets on 
Tumblr, using the old Lionsgate DVD from a few years ago, and the grain is really noticeable.

And I have to say, the screening was my best experience with the film yet. It was my third or fourth viewing of it, but it was very much worth it. Things seemed a lot more cohesive than ever, because that's what the cinema setting demands: absolute concentration. A lot of sequences are simply proto-music video, and the storyline is basic, but the tangents and comedy and the awesomeness of the Beatles on the screen makes it so much more than that. In essence the plot of the film is "the Beatles prepare for a concert, a concert which we see performed in the conclusion." But that's only the essence.

The comedy is clever. There's bits I didn't understand at 14 which are just awesome now. The camp director
with a knitted jumper; Wilfrid Brambell is more than just a "clean old man" (a joke which appears in basically
every scene he's in, a la Steptoe and Son), but a patriot of the Irish Republic; the "m/ocker", rather than "mods and rockers" Beatles; the satire on the clothing industry, trying to push shoddy clothes through the image of the Beatles. Watching it this time, I can see certain themes which are perhaps mirrored in their later films: The Beatles on a private field (Help), The Beatles crossing through a tent which defies the laws of physics (Magical Mystery Tour), the simple animation of the closing credits (Yellow Submarine)

It's so self-aware, and that put's what puts it above anything of a similar ilk. The Beatles evading hordes of screaming fangirls (firstly in the opening sequence) is such a strong image, and has become only more relevant today. But unlike One Direction's latest concert film, it's fiction with a script. It's not a moving journey of achieving success, but a funny one; the latter is a lot less cliché tone to use. The Beatles are presented as down-to-earth human beings, who aren't paraded against security (except in the taxi scene), but sit with another passenger on the train, and spend most of the time acting as schoolboys, speaking without barriers to authority, being silly constantly and admiring 'birds.' A member leaving the band may become a trope, but Ringo's brief departure even sees him (briefly) hanging out with an 11 year old boy who he can relate to. It's
not just commercialisation in order to sell more albums, but a piece of art in its own right. 

Everyone speaks about the film's music sequences being the proto-music video, but I think Richard Lester (of Superman fame)'s direction of the non-music sequences are forgotten. They're still quite advanced, cutting back and forth to the same scene, using extreme close-ups, and overall come together to make quite kinetic scenes (especially considering the 90 minute runtime.) Some scenes are quite Three Stooges (see the bit where the Beatles are chased by police), but not everything's the 1930s. It's incredibly 1960s in its setting and in its radicalism with comedy/musical film. It's one of the few occasions where I get to go out with my mum, and she really revelled in nostalgia for her own childhood. It's very much of its time but that's part of what makes it great.