Friday, January 18, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

My Year In Film So Far - The First Seven

You know that thing when, if you’re looking directly at something, you just can’t see it? Well, my hindbrain is ticking away trying to put some bits and pieces together whilst I hurl fistfuls of Haribo into my mouth. To distract myself and stop me from paying too much attention to what’s going on back there, my forebrain thought I should do something completely different - which is why I'm chucking down some brief impressions of the films I’ve seen this year so far.

The Big Steal (1949, Don Siegel)

Don Siegel made a slew of my favourite movies of all time: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dirty Harry. Escape From Alcatraz. Charley Varrick. The Shootist. But this minor, early B-movie was made long before any of those, back in his journeyman director days, before the legend “A Siegel Film” really meant something.

The tagline pretty much says it all: “Mitchum is HOT! - location in the heart of Mexico...HOT...after a girl with a million-dollar figure! the nation's his newest picture!”

The selling point is Bob Mitchum tossing off one-liners on a location shoot in Mexico. The entire plot is a MacGuffin. Something about money and thieves and guns and chases. That’s all that really matters. Mitchum drawls and charms just the way we like it, William Bendix snarls and chews the scenery as the Heavy, and Ramon Novarro almosts steals the picture away from both of them as a pragmatic, self-serving Mexican police inspector. Fluffy, forgettable fun.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2001, Sean Durkin)

If you stripped away the non-linear storytelling and this played out chronologically, it would reveal that this isn’t quite as interesting as it thinks it is. And I’d guess that the most fascinating elements probably only pay-off if you have some rudimentary knowledge of the Manson Family and their modus operandi. That makes it sound like I didn’t like it. I did - there’s something quietly menacing that permeates the whole thing that I liked a lot. And, yes, John Hawkes is great. He is always great.

The Loved Ones (2009, Sean Byrne)

There were enough bizarre, unusual and grisly set-pieces in this Australian slasher to keep my interest, but I couldn’t help feeling that it didn’t add up to a great deal by the time the end credits rolled. It almost feels like they deliberately set out to make a particularly quirky, kitsch chapter in the Saw series.

Boarding Gate (2007, Olivier Assayas)

Asia Argento gives a fantastically committed and supremely watchable performance in a film that just doesn’t deserve it. Frustratingly enough, there is the kernel of something worthwhile here - how people, money and information are moved around the world, illicitly or otherwise, all wrapped up in the superficial trappings of a psychosexual thriller - but the execution destroys it. Michael Madsen sleepwalks through his scenes with a very odd, detached energy about his performance. Too many scenes are hobbled by weird, counterintuitive camera placement and staging, doused with sterile soap-opera lighting and choked by ponderous, ultimately fruitless conversations that don’t do the film any favours. (Having said all that, I heartily recommend Steven Shaviro’s robust defence of the film. He almost convinced me that I’d badly misjudged it. And, to be fair, Boarding Gate is better than Assayas’ next feature, the noodling middle-class navel-gazing of L'heure d'été.)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)

As much as I'd like to avoid using a hackneyed, overused and abused word like “masterpiece”, there’s really just no point. This is a masterpiece. My first big-screen outing of the year - a 35mm presentation at London’s Prince Charles Cinema, complete with Intermission. And it was phenomenal. It was the sound that really got me. I could feel it vibrating right through me towards the end. Co-writer Arthur C. Clarke once commented, "If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered." Don’t worry, Arthur, 2001 is still sufficiently opaque, and dazzling with it.

The Anderson Tapes (1971, Sidney Lumet)

Almost perfect. Lumet behind the camera. Sean Connery bold enough to dispense with a toupee for the first time on screen. A spiky, beautiful turn from Dyan Cannon. The score by Quincy Jones bounces between the dissonant bleeps of obsolete telecommunications kit and upbeat, funky jazz appropriate for a great heist movie. “And introducing Christopher Walken”.

I said “almost perfect”. Perfection would be a double-bill of The Anderson Tapes and The Hot Rock.

Halloween III Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)

It doesn’t bother me that this breaks with the format of the series and isn’t part of the continuing saga of Michael Myers. What bugs me is that this should be scary, or funny, or both. And it’s none of those things. At one point, it could have been blessed with the credits: Written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Joe Dante. That could have been something very special indeed. Instead, we have this stinker. And I still can’t get that excruciatingly irritating “Silver Shamrock” jingle out of my head. (I nearly posted a YouTube clip of it here, but that would just be cruel).

Thursday, January 10, 2013

It Came From The Archives! - Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death

When Walt Whitman wrote the words, “Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost”, he could’ve been talking about the internet. Nowadays, Nothing is ever really deleted. Which is how I’ve found the first published review I ever wrote, for a re-release of A Matter of Life and Death, that originally appeared all the way back in April 2000 on the long-defunct 6degrees and is now archived at The Powell & Pressburger Pages.

A Matter of Life and Death was already comfortably ensconced in my Top Ten Favourite Movies of All Time back then (it still is), and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see it on a freshly-struck 35mm print at the BFI’s building on Stephen Street. (I was even more fortunate to watch it on a big screen again in 2003 in the company of the late, great Jack Cardiff, but that’s a story for another time).

Looking back at this down down the barrel of thirteen years, the review fails at all the things that I believe good film criticism should do - it’s not particularly informative or insightful or entertaining. But, hell, at least I could string a sentence together and it was my first time out of the gate, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on my younger self. (That doesn't stop me from cringing at Every Single Sentence and trite observation below.) Anyway, for the sake of posterity and to serve as a reminder to myself of how far I’ve come, here’s that review:
The Ministry of Information must have been shocked when, having commissioned Powell and Pressburger to come up with a propaganda puff piece to aid Anglo-American relations, they got A Matter of Life and Death in return. This 1946 masterwork starts with a cracking opening sequence and just gets better from there. During World War II, Squadron Leader Peter Carter (an exceptionally suave David Niven, even by his standards) is hurtling towards terra firma in a shot-up plane, with a dead crew and a shredded parachute, sharing his last moments with American WAC June (Kim Hunter) before surrendering to his imminent and inevitable death.

But, due to that most traditional of English weather, fog, he doesn't die. And before Heaven's administrators realise a mistake has been made, Carter and June fall in love, much to the chagrin of the celestial emissary who comes to take him away. And the film is only just getting started...

Before the end titles roll, we are treated to a cosmic battle for life and love in both Heaven and Earth, as Carter's crippling headaches intensify and the pencil pushers of Heaven conspire to spirit him away, as the drama unfolds in the mind of the poet-cum-airman. 

A Matter of Life and Death works on so many levels that it demands repeated viewings, and gives all the more reason to welcome this new 35mm print. Warm, fuzzy romanticism and unsentimental cynicism rub shoulders comfortably throughout the film, resulting in an ultimately positive meditation on the power of love to conquer all. What could potentially be trite and banal actually works incredibly well.

The film explores the nature of national identity and post-war relations, the power of love and sacrifice and the effect of war on those who live through it, and yet not once does it lose sight of the intimate tale of two lovers fighting for one another.

The contrast between the lush dreamlike fantastical Earth and the harsh monochrome red-tape hell that is Heaven is perfectly rendered. "One is starved of Technicolor up there!" complains Conductor 71 on one of his forays to Earth to retrieve his errant charge.

The film is exquisitely shot by Jack Cardiff, utilising all the tricks and tools of cinema, and is full of memorable visual effects: the table tennis ball frozen in mid-air; Dr. Reeves' camera obscura; the panoramic view of the heavenly court room, quite literally packed to the rafters with spectators. But these all take second place to the seemingly endless staircase between our world and the next. (The film was unfortunately named Stairway to Heaven on its US release). 

A Matter of Life and Death is full of sparkling banter that bounces between the characters, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Roger Livesey plays Dr. Frank Reeves, Carter's defender in both worlds, with great authority and presence. Raymond Massey scowls throughout as Abraham Farlan, who will be damned if he will let a young Boston girl be lost to an Englishman. But it is Marius Göring as the foppish dandy Conductor 71, who steals the film from the rest of the cast with his infectious charm.

The film confirms Powell and Pressburger's reputation as great directors, and A Matter of Life and Death is the greatest of their films. However, you can't help being slightly saddened at the fact that, with its humour, ambition, scope, vitality and, above all, optimism, they really don't make 'em like this anymore.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Master Blaster

Meant to post this towards the end of last year, but I forgot...

The audio wizards at This Is My Jam gifted all of their users a little present before Christmas - a seamless mashup of a year's worth of their own personal audio selections - A Jam Odyssey, if you will. I've been endlessly delighted by mine, I'm still listening to it on repeat now, and I still cannot work out how the hell they did it. (I don't really want to know either - it would kind of spoil the magic).

I've become increasingly fond of This Is My Jam over the last few months, and it has slowly become my daily musical destination of choice when I'm parked in front of a screen for hours at a time. (The fact that I don't get frequently interrupted by commercials is a big selling point).

If you fancy giving my Jam Odyssey a spin, have a click and play spot the soundbite.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Days of Future Present

2013. The year in which Snake Plissken has to reluctantly fight his way across the island of Los Angeles, meting out nonchalant smackdowns to retrieve a MacGuffin. The few surviving graduates of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters will become the Anti-Sentinel Resistance in an attempt to avert a nuclear holocaust. And Kevin Costner will wander the desolate wastelands of Oregon, trying to scrape together food and water in return for performances of Shakespearean plays. Perhaps the most terrifying iteration of the next 365 days of them all. Welcome to the human race. Meanwhile, back in the real world...

I always try to start the year with some kind of statement of intent. In 2011, it was all about laying low. Keeping my head down, keeping a steady course. Feel free to pick your own lazy pre-cooked metaphor. Basically, I just needed to get through 2011 in one piece. And, with that humble non-ambition, I succeeded.

Last year was different. I started 2012 feeling stronger and hungry for more. It was time to start building things up again. So I did. Have I achieved as much as I’d hoped to by the end of 2012? No. But that’s OK. It’s that whole reach-grasp thing. No matter how much I do, I’ll never be satisfied that it’s enough. I got a helluva lot done, just not as much as I’d planned to. Still, on balance, I can treat this as a qualified success.

Which brings us all up to date. And...I can’t quite work out what the shape of 2013 is yet. I need to take a long, hard dispassionate look at the groundwork I laid last year and intensify my efforts there. I can smell change in the offing, but I can’t tell what or when or how. I just have a strong sense that I won’t be in the same place in my life this time next year. We shall see.

As usual, I’ve got a lot to do. But maybe, this time, it ain’t what I do, it’s the way that I do it. And I think this time, I’ll play it all with a little Bangkok Rules...