Sunday, 24 January 2010

Scandal (1950)

Country: JAPAN


1950 saw the release of two films by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. The first Scandal has largely remained an obscurity in Kurosawa’s filmography, far overshadowed by the second film of the year Rashomon. The latter introduced western audiences to a new world of Japanese cinema when it scooped the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. Kurosawa was soon heralded as an artistic genius and feted by art cinema enthusiasts eager for something outside their experiential world. The historical films of Kurosawa often betray their indebtedness to Hollywood, Rashomon however is the most atypical of his historical adventures in its attitude to point of view and subjectivity, which perhaps accounts for its art circuit success. Personally I have always found Kurosawa’s contemporary set social dramas to be more interesting, and as a representation of the complexities, anxieties, and dilemma’s of a Japan occupied by a foreign force Scandal emerges as a more important film than Rashomon from a socio/historical point of view.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Country: USA

Much of the resonance and tension in director Jack Arnold’s film version of Richard Matheson’s disturbing novel The Shrinking Man comes due to its continual appropriation of Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny. Freud developed this psychoanalytical schematic by drawing on the German term unheimlich, which simply means that which is familiar becoming unfamiliar. By dramatising a human being’s nightmarish struggle with otherwise normal and ordinary things such as a pet cat and a spider, and the subversion of a cellar into a labyrinthine space of peril and death – Matheson and in turn Arnold tapped into a primal source of fear buried deep within us all. It is not so much the shrinkage that is the locus of the horror, but instead the threat from things that are normally safe and contained.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike

Writer: TOM MES
Publisher: FAB PRESS
Year: 2003

Since the advent of DVD the distribution of Japanese films in the UK market has improved markedly. Whilst distributors like the BFI, Tartan and Eureka continue to do good work in releasing major films by major directors, contemporary Japanese cinema (say from 1995 to the present) still remains an area of potential limbo. The films of Takashi Miike are representative of this. It doesn’t help that Miike is so prolific - regularly seeing four to six films released in a calendar year, and whilst UK audiences can enjoy his major works, a large swathe (most specifically his more recent work) remains unavailable here. It therefore becomes night on impossible to join the dots of meaning between his films and construct any sense of thematic continuity. Progressions of form and style and his attitude to genre are difficult to decipher when one only sees a handful of works, and despite academia’s best efforts, auteur constructions of filmmakers continue unabated.

Gran Torino (2008)

Country: USA

The Clint Eastwood angry old man persona is dusted down again for what seems to be Eastwood’s final curtain call in front of the camera. Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski a bigoted veteran of the Korean War who never really gets beyond the stage of caricature is emblematic of the conservative values of a generation of Americans who find themselves in the throes of displacement in the age of the multi-cultural melting pot. By the end of the film Kowalski has, somewhat unrealistically, undergone a surprising liberalisation and become an unlikely martyr for a small community of Cambodian immigrants. Kowalski is far more entertaining when he growls insults from atop his right wing throne of ignorance and dismisses the feckless church with the contempt it deserves. But Kowalski does as much sermonising as the wet behind-the-ears priest, and his character trajectory ultimately seems unfeasible and somewhat populist in the age of Obama. However Eastwood continues to explore, with some measure of emotional success, the process of getting old. A thematic current that flows through all of his films from Unforgiven (1992) onwards. Kowalski’s absorption into a liberal framework at the films conclusion is a final acknowledgement by Eastwood that his days as a subversive icon of machismo are well and truly over. There is simply nowhere for the Eastwood persona to go on screen anymore.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Conquest of the Useless

Publisher: ECCO PRESS
Year: 2009

Between 1979 and 1982 Werner Herzog embarked on an epic filmmaking odyssey in the inhospitable and will sapping confines of the Peruvian jungle. The outcome was the film Fitzcarraldo, most famous for an extended sequence in which the titular character played by Klaus Kinski takes advantage of tribal myths and persuades hundreds of Indians to help him drag a steamship over a mountain. Herzog insisted on performing this without the aid of special effects, fake boats or on a set - depending on your view the metaphorical significance of this act defined the visionary nature of the film or was just the folly of an unhinged megalomaniac. The difficulties the filmmakers faced is now the stuff of legend and were documented heavily in the press coverage of the time and in the documentary Burden of Dreams (1982) directed by Les Blank. But over a quarter of a century later Herzog himself has chosen to wade in with is own interpretation of the madness in the jungle, by publishing his diaries of the whole experience. Perhaps Herzog is aware that his stock has risen to its pinnacle in recent years thanks to Grizzly Man (2005) and Rescue Dawn (2006), and there does seem a bit of opportunism about publishing a book about events that are so well documented in other sources. However it soon becomes clear that Herzog’s eloquent turn of phrase and penchant for bizarre similes will afford the reader a unique experience.

In Bruges (2008)

Country: UK/USA

There has always been a vein of existential pondering in gangster films and violent thrillers, and generally it comes across as forced and self-conscious. As if one needs a discussion of metaphysics in order to offset the brutal violence. Few films give their characters satisfactory arcs of development because so much attention must be placed on action and spectacle. If there is one thing that writer/director Martin McDonagh achieves within the structure of In Bruges it is to bring an unusual amount of patience and deliberation to it. This is a very well thought out, literate and at times poetic film with some of the best dialogue exchanges you are ever likely to hear in cinema. In Bruges is all about character, almost entirely devoid of action (except for the final shoot out) the film is propelled along by its wit and an attention to detail and character motivation increasingly rare in commercial filmmaking. No doubt the film will be embraced by art cinema aficionados but the film retains enough generic signifiers to ensure lasting and popular appeal.

Knowing (2009)

Country: USA/UK

Knowing is an unusual big budget summer blockbuster. A disaster movie with a spiritual centre, well constructed plot, and a satisfying thematic cohesion. The success of the film at the box office is all the more surprising when one considers the talents in front of and behind the camera. After the surreal and gothic flair of the dystopian duo The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998) Egyptian direction Alex Proyas has largely been responsible for lukewarm and vapid entertainments such as I Robot (2004). Meanwhile the stock of Nicholas Cage continues to plummet with such recent forgettable dross as a remake of Bangkok Dangerous (2008) and the mindless action vehicle Next (2007). How he shapes up in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) remains one of the most intriguing propositions in recent cinema. Nevertheless despite such misfortunes Proyas and Cage somehow manage to pull off a thought provoking, literate and entertaining effects laden blockbuster that also holds one or two surprises.

Monday, 18 January 2010

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Country: UK

For whatever the reason (probably the critical and commercial failure of The Phantom of the Opera (1962)) director Terence Fisher found himself out of favour with the leadership at Hammer. Between The Gorgon (1964) and Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) he made just a single film - this ultra low budget black and white independent production for Lippert Films. The brilliantly titled The Earth Dies Screaming was never going to live up to its billing, and it is further hampered by an extremely thin (but still padded) screenplay by Harry Spalding (the scribe behind Witchcraft (1964) and The Curse of the Fly (1965)). Spalding’s slipshod approach is regularly in evidence as is Fishers somewhat stately and tedious preponderance for long static set ups. Fisher was perhaps the wrong choice for this film, his enthusiasm for science-fiction was virtually non-existent, and this can be further seen in his two other listless entries in the genre Island of Terror (1967) and Night of the Big Heat (1967). These films are interesting from an historical point of view, but only rarely do they achieve any kind of inspiration or vigour.

V for Vendetta (2005)


V for Vendetta is an efficient, exciting, and often spectacular slice of doom laden dystopia. It is only nominally science-fiction, offering as it does an alternative but instantly recognisable parallel society to our own. It works chiefly within the conventions and rules of the comic book/graphic novel form, which itself is now a sub-generic category of its own. The majority of these adaptations however rely primarily on the tropes of science-fiction. The chief trope in this example being its allegorical underpinnings. The graphic novel holds far greater potential for creativity than its comic book brethren. There is far greater scope for characterisation and the sort of attention to detail that is often skated over in the ongoing adventures of a comic book character. They do not rely on prior knowledge of plot and character, and are far more accessible to those beyond the fan community. The result is a form which has a greater opportunity to address cultural anxieties in a more thoughtful and intelligent manner.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Country: UK/USA

The very nature and fabric of science-fiction is visionary, and as such it is a genre with an inbuilt sense of spirituality. This vision refers not only to the awesome cinematic spectacle rendered by advances in special effects, but also highly symbolic and allegorical visions of future or alternative worlds. Worlds that more often that not dramatise the effects of our behaviour in contemporary society. Science-fiction films may feel far removed from our reality, but they are implicitly connected to the here and now. Whether it be utopian visions, or dystopian (my personal favourite) it becomes very important in cerebral science-fiction to marry the visual and stylistic spectacle to the allegorical underpinnings of the plot. The necessity is for a seamless connection. It’s essential to create a set of meanings and values that work within the spectacle to such an extent that the audience does not question the reality of the future vision.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Country: USA

Eccentric Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog continues to defy categorisation - which is some achievement after forty seven years of making films. His movies are never less than inscrutable, perplexing and enigmatic. Even when Herzog deals in more straightforward subject matter he brings to it an otherworldly sensibility. Encounters at the End of the World is a mystifying and unfathomable experience in large part due to an episodic structure that mirrors the itinerant souls that find themselves encamped at the end of the world. Herzog was inspired to shoot a documentary film in Antarctica by the unearthly underwater footage shot by diver and musician Henry Kaiser. A good deal of this found footage appears in Herzog’s bizarre science-fiction parable The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) doubling as a strange and ethereal alien world. Herzog’s Antarctic adventure was approved by the National Science Foundation, and he was determined not to treat the landscape in the romanticised sentimental fashion displayed in March of the Penguins (2005). Instead he sets about asking the peculiar questions of nature and life that we have come to expect of him, and treats the landscape with a reverence bordering on the spiritual. 

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