Saturday, 23 March 2013

The Short Films of Nicolas Provost (made between 2002-2011)

The Short Films of Nicolas ProvostMoving Stories, Stardust, Gravity, Bataille, Long live the New Flesh, Plot Point, Storyteller, I Hate this Town -  These films were showing as part of a season at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle. It is a volunteer run cinema that attracts an encouragingly eclectic crowd. The cinema itself is furnished with a couple of rescued sofas that, sheltering in the flicker of their new home, I like to imagine were once marooned in the rusting jaws of a skip…or perhaps cowering in the cavernous neglect of a wealthy eccentric’s manor…dozing beneath an amnesia of dust and debris. Either that or they were bought cheaply from a second-hand dealer. Either way, it’s safe to say, the cinema has no shortage of character – although is occasionally afflicted with a shortage of heating, or a shortage of heating control…so depending on the night it could be an arctic bunker or a sweltering oven – not much in the way of a middle ground. There is then, after somebody introduces the film (via a nervously enthusiastic pre-amble) usually an endearingly inevitable pre-screening hiccup or two. It was here I saw Tarkovsky’s Stalker amidst ardent fans and a host of snores and groans of those who had, on a misguided whim, just dropped in. So, in addition to the film/films, Star and Shadow always offers its own array of memorable, welcoming and D.I.Y. quirks of hospitality. To the films:

All of Provost’s short films seem to revolve around relatively primitive visual conceits and editing, through which the viewer’s relationship to cinema (it’s history and our changing expectations and levels of involvement) is inventively interrogated, contorted and teased.

The first film, Plot Point, uses innocuous New York crowd footage that becomes heavily supplemented by a rumbling ambient soundtrack and snatches of overhead conversation – all conspiring to conjure a retroactive narrative in editing. While it is an interesting and innovative notion - to use unsimulated crowd footage that with editing chance, angle and sound, engineers a sense of narrative – it becomes a tad protracted, possibly exhausting its own ingenuity and becoming closer to a smug and repetitive exercise. I was also, fatally, reminded of an episode of Peep Show (back before that too outstayed its welcome!) in which ‘Superhands’ is writing the music for an advert: he holds his finger down on one of the synth’s keys – producing a low brooding note – and solemnly announces: ‘the longer the note…the more dread’. As a result I couldn’t help smirking at the accumulating ambience of menace…rather than genuinely being  immersed or engaged, I was instead thinking of the editing process through which this mood was constructed. However, as with much of the films, it is evident that Provost does have a reflexive interest in the tools of mood and revealing them in grating transparency could be intentional. For me, this was interesting, but not a convincing success. This hidden camera technique – whereby a narrative or mood is insinuated through editing - was repeated in another of his films, complete with footage of known actors.

The second film,Moving Stories, used stunning footage of a plane, serenely gliding above the clouds. The shots of the plane were genuinely moving, both peaceful and meditative, over this clips of romantic film dialogue were then sampled. Not only did this bring in a tension between beauty and cloying sentimentalism, but it also brought up an interesting interaction between the natural and untouched emptiness of contemplative sky, and the artificial construct of this recorded fiction – and perhaps the intrusion of plane, in the virginal blue. It also once again highlights Provost’s interest in the ability to imply a narrative or emotion, through the collage and accident of independently existing materials. It could be suggested that the film seems too saturated in its own sunset of sentimentalism, but I would argue it instead balances a persuasive audience immersion with an intelligent awareness of how such immersion is achieved.

Two films incorporate the simplistic mirrored split, familiar to anyone who has played around on iphone/generic photobooth tool: the invisible divide that renders whatever the camera points at in amusing Siamese warp. You know, where you pull faces and end up looking like an alien Rorschach test. The first film to use it, Storyteller, does so in a horizontal split and depicts the lurid, rainbow cityscape of Las Vegas. The film is silent as the camera floats in steady, aerial observation of flashing buildings. The effect of the split ends up varying in correspondence with the rhythm of attention, by which I mean: as a result of its abstract architecture and the silence of the film, the focus of viewing meanders in and out of the kaleidoscopic spectacle. This invites moments of joyously warped clarity, where images that you know to be hotels and casinos are transformed into jewelled temples, a roving vista of microchips, decadent palaces, and hallucinatory puzzles…all through the deceptively simple technique of the mirrored plane. 

The second film to use this was Bataille. This uses a scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, depicting a fight between two samurai. In this instance Provost places the mirrored divide vertically, causing the wrestling samurai to morph and disappear into each other. Again, like an optical illusion, it installs in the viewer the realisation that, in relaxing the eyes and similarly relaxing the rationalised awareness of its simple trick, we are treated to a magical and unsettling display. Flesh fuses and forms collide, the fighters become conundrums of twisting torsos and flashing fists. Both beautiful and engrossingly unnerving, the fight scene becomes a patterned eruption of metamorphosis – becoming redolent of Hans Bellmer’s contorted dolls (hence perhaps the Bataille reference, a link to the darker and transformative physicality of surrealism…a strange orgy of transgressive shapes…one moment the fighter is in combat with the other…the next engulfed by him). It is a visually mesmeric and disturbing achievement.

The contemplative and silent vistas of  Storyteller were, by witty courtesy of playing order, followed by the hilarious and repulsive I Hate This Town. The film begins with the frail voiceover of an old woman, what she was saying a cant quite remember…something about Mexico being a bad place to live and not liking her town…something like that. Anyway, the vagueness of that memory can probably be excused by the fact that what followed was a pounding pantomime nightmare of softcore 70's porn. Yup. It was an unexpected departure from the split screen abstraction of cityscapes…laughter surged through the cinema, startled by this unprecedented switch. The editing technique at play here was the juddering use of repetition; scenes of penetrative enthusiasm were cut into short loops of pneumatic thrusting. All of which was distressingly paired with an abrasively upbeat disco soundscape. What began as an unexpected hilarity quickly turns into a punishing strobe. Never have mullets been so threatening. The pornographic scenes are transported from their intended filmic context, isolated in fractions of looping delirium. All of which re-configures incidental moments into tormented and violent dramas, repeated and repeated and repeated…as laughter turns to unease and dread the flashing sequences become akin to compulsive traumas – severed from their original place in the film, these moments become grotesque and mechanical. 70's pornstars with sweating expressions and flapping hairstyles reimagined as vigorously rutting automatons, like a warren of Duracell bunnies from hell. At only a few minutes long, the film has a potency that far outlasts its running time. The short length perhaps even heightens its power, as it reinforces the sense of a rupture – an unexpected convulsion of visual Tourette’s.

The film which initially made me want to attend this screening was Long Live the New Flesh. Having seen Videodrome (from which Provost’s title is taken from) and on seeing the title of this film with an accompanying image of pixelated horror, I naturally thought – yeh, this seems like a good way to spend a Wednesday evening. Long Live the New Flesh  is a dazzling montage of sequences from well known horror films (The Shining, The Texas Chainsa Massacre, The Fly, Videodrome, The Thing etc). The clips are then subjected to a pixelated rash; images decompose, conceal and contort into new, digitally distressed sequences. Well-known iconic moments, such as Jack Nicholson grinning ‘Heeere’s Jonnny’, become defamiliarised and glitch laden. The sequences twitch and splutter, as if presenting the illegitimate spawn of film piracy. Each scene squirms and fragments the trace of its parental source, and, like the baby in Eraserhead, for each monstrous distortion the phrase ‘Oh, you are ill’ would not be misplaced.

The ‘new flesh’ here, is analogue devoured by digital, stuttering the regurgitated horror of films past into a torturous cycle of deconstruction. The gory reel of horror’s prized shocks becomes the diseased dissecting table, Provost wielding his editorial scalpel to deliver a stillborn scare. The sequences are animated with a new horror, that of seeing ourselves see. In the degradation of film, no longer nostalgic fading prints or the organic decay of film stock, we witness a new chilling decomposition – one divorced from flesh, or discernable decay. 

This is the digital corruption of material, the invasion of immaterial and an entrance of ‘newness’ divorced from flesh, and yet, as the title suggests, coming to substitute and encroach upon the body. So what do we see? The more control and precision film gains with digital dissection, the further it moves from any corporeal root. We may be able to conjure effects, to warp, repeat and confuse – but the digital ‘new flesh’ is perhaps erosion, are we watching the body disappear? Is the new flesh an ironic, fleshless eclipse of all that was once tangible? Provost does not seem to be in any way invoking a nostalgia for celluloid, or fetishizing the past – instead his films come to feel like symptoms of a medium that is only just coming to realise its own past. 

David Cronenberg, Videodrome (1983)

Film is revisited in repetition, in looping fragmentation and through morphing memories, in foregrounding such obvious techniques Provost signals an almost psychoanalytical dimension to their use. Tools of editing become cathartic cures or nervous repressions, his digital ‘new flesh’ becomes a film that is neurotically consumed by its own awareness of what has come before, what has changed and what cannot change. Perhaps it is no longer simply ‘seeing’, as we are destined (in an age where film, and most other mediums and archives are readily available) to only ever see film, through other film (seeing through the seen). It is in this context that Provost’s maniacal digital disruption makes sense, like exhuming filmic bodies with a click of the mouse and then questioning precisely how that relationship works – and what it creates.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Some Films Seen in Jan/Feb

After Life – Hirokazu Koreeda – To pass on through to eternity (whatever it may entail) the dead are gathered to remember a defining memory. All else will be forgotten, this one moment becoming the only possession with which to travel into eternity with. After a series of formal interviews and much deliberating (should it be the over-popular memory of Disneyland…or the more personal scent of a mother’s lap; a cool summer breeze, felt through an open bus window; turrets of passing cumulous, seen from the cockpit of a plane; a reunion with a lover; dancing in a red dress; something physical, a memory of sex, thrusting away with joyous abandon…or the maybe more nuanced, more vulnerable recollection of saying farewell to a daughter at her wedding) the person in question has to then re-enact their memory, to be filmed and then later – in a cinema screening – to watch the film, and in a sense ‘re-live’ the chosen memory.

            The central premise of the film is at once beautifully simple and endlessly thoughtful, at times very literary in its gentle exploration of life, death and memory (hardly a modest side salad of ideas). Rather than visualizing a bombastic, CGI laden terrain of the metaphysical, Koreeda instead offers a run-down building with long empty corridors and peeling wall-paint. The banality of everyday is continued, with poignancy and humour in equal measures. Much of the first half of the film is taken up by static, face-on, framing of various accounts of memories. Through the straight-faced documentary nature of its editing, it becomes very easy to imagine these reflections not as scripted lines, but as genuine moments elaborated by real and believable people. This, like the prevailing banality of the setting, is occasionally hilarious and often very moving. In addition to approaching its central realisation of ‘after life’ with a charming sensitivity, the film also develops a surprisingly innovative plot (considering the already satisfying bumbling bureaucracy of the dead – a substantial film notion in itself) involving an old man who cant chose his memory – and is faced by his life reduced to a pile of videotapes…to be watched in the hope of conjuring a precious or important memory. While summoning various questions relating to what we remember, why we remember and how we remember, the film also brilliantly communicates the significance of film - as a medium to communicate, preserve and confuse our flickering past.

The idea of ‘re-enactment’ of memory, as a cinematic tool, is particularly potent in its suggestion of how easily we are appeased and enchanted by filmic recreation, regardless of its genuine fidelity. [Michele Pierson has explored ‘re-enactment’ in a dynamite essay, regarding more avant-garde cinema, ranging from Bill Morrison’s haunting Decasia to Guy Maddin’s feverish The Heart of the World.] These films become us, whether as memories or parallel realities. Or perhaps we are so seduced by the glamour of the image that such re-enactment is a more inviting alternative to the real. A tempting world with which to substitute our own, to vicariously inhabit, or perhaps it is that film does present reality. But, as surrealists were quick to recognize, it was a reality of dreams; the internal world animated in a dark auditorium. Memories, like dreams, become subject to drifting, playful and often unknowable currents…all bubbling oddities in the realm of the unconscious. Which is perhaps why it is so important that in After Life the external world…even though it is the external world of an imagined after-life, is so seemingly mundane – as it only in the cinema and through film, that each purgatorial adolescent or amnesiac octogenarian are released, leaving their seat empty when the lights come up. 8/10

Blond Venus – Josef Von Sternberg – A sublimely ridiculous narrative, in which radiation poisoning and a fugitive showgirl catapult the film through a spiralling tale of infidelity, family and questionable gorilla suits. Marlene Dietrich plays Helen (the eponymous ‘Blond Venus’) an entertainer who begins work at a nightclub to fund treatment for her husband. The absurdly blatant visual indications of the husband’s vocation, as a chemist, arrive in the form of lingering shots of him hunched over an expansive array of cartoon laboratory equipment, cue: husband hunched over pad, scrawling away furiously, while canonical vessels, tubes and beakers clutter the desk with proud ‘look, he is a scientist’ authenticity. Brilliant. Either way, something has gone disturbingly wrong and Mr ‘Ned’ Faraday (played by Herbert Marshall) manages to get Radium poisoning – about which he seems bizarrely rational – explaining confidently to the doctor that, due to his scientific credentials, he knew the symptoms. So…here doth lay the inauguration of Blond Venus…times be tough, so Helen gets her self down to the nearest cabaret-esque bar and becomes an immediate hit. As soon as she dons a blond-afro wig (with nestled arrows/thunderbolts of silver, evoking a foxy cupid or a strutting, ovary sequinned inversion of Zeus) and loses the mundane ‘Helen’ …a reckless star is born.

The first song we see her perform is the lurid jungle swagger: ‘Hot Voodoo’. Out of the synthetic tropical display come cavorting tribal shields and feathered legs, jostling spears and more Afros, all bouncing to the sleazy trumpet and drums. The dancers circle, all of them connected by a held rope, simultaneously evoking a slave chain gang and ritualised hunt. It is not exactly a nuanced portrayal of race. Flapping white hands and knowing eyes, beaming from under manicured brows (all in black tie) applaud the lurid performance, happily drinking in the comically horrific, or horrifically comic, spectacle of sexualised jungle primitives. Oh, and they are also dragging a large, lolloping gorilla.

Now, before we get to the gorilla, it is pertinent to note that, interspersing this imperialist racist showcase, we are shown a black bartender in stuttering conversation with a ‘dame’ at the bar. Plentiful analysis could be carried out here: the stuttering compounding racial humiliation, or, through stuttering, enacting the strangled voice of black Americans in early cinema? Anywho, with more time and analytical sophistication, the scene could clearly yield a lot of interesting discussion. So…to return to the gorilla, pulled along like some monstrous carnival attraction, it drags its monkey knuckles around the crowded bar to finally climb the stage. After much gorilla gurning, it removes both hairy gloves – to reveal feminine hands, and of course, after removing the head: out pops a smiling Dietrich. She places her fuzzy fro- crown upon her head and smiles with effortless glamour. Nick (Carry Grant), her soon to be lover, looks on approvingly.

‘Hot Voodoo, dance of sin
Hot Voodoo, worse than gin
I’d follow a caveman right into his cave’

Having joined the nightclub to originally help her husband, it is there she falls in love with the inevitably dashing Carry Grant. Poor ‘Ned’ didn’t have a chance. It is also suggested that rather than an actual swooning of love, this is in fact a virtuous prostitution to drain Nick of his money (as he is a millionaire). While this may be the plot’s suggestion, or in fact conversely opposite to the plot’s suggestion, or both, becomes an enticing encapsulation of Helen’s crazy spiralling agency. This is an erratic, unpredictable and delirious character – is she joyously free in her promiscuous independence, or maddeningly trapped between various men and male structures?

            Before long Ned has found out and Blond Venus is on the run! One of the endearing features of this film is its bounding leaps in narrative, furthering a feverish momentum that dispenses with subtle character development or interaction – one minute Helen is a drunken wreck in poverty, the next a starlit success in Paris…but with Dietrich smiling her beguiling, fated glamour, smile, I became fairly content to join the dizzying dots together.

Perhaps one of the most moving scenes is when, on realising the fugitive life just aint right for Johnny (classic ye olde American movie boy, brandishing ‘gee whizz’ and ‘that’d be swell’ with cheesy abandon) Ned successfully intervenes and Johnny is forced to say goodbye. They leave Helen sitting on a lonely bench at the railway station. After the train leaves she wanders on to the tracks, lonely, lost and unravelling. Amidst the robustly silly and gloriously ridiculous, Dietrich’s face, on knowing her family are leaving her, manages to convey a startling depth of feeling. A silent communication of emotion that is neither readily discernible nor easily forgotten – somewhere between stoic acceptance and complete inner collapse.

The ending to the film, at least superficially, undoes the tragedy of this moment. In a moment of compassion, the persistently handsome Nick takes Helen to visit Johnny. On finally being reunited with her child she recognizes the family should be together and ends up telling the bedtime story that begins the film, thus bringing her and Ned back together again (the bedtime story narrates the first meeting of Helen and Ned). The boy falls asleep, Ned and Helen are back together, the rampaging showgirl is tamed and family is restored. And yet, the last lingering shot of the boy’s fingers -lazily playing with a toy carousel, seems to tip this saccharine perfection into something more cryptic, almost ominous. Perhaps it is as resolved as the viewer wants it to be, one could take the cloying ending in literal terms, or maybe there is something more, something as strange and chaotic as Helen’s transformation – the boy’s fingers in close up, grazing the little toy…drifting into a comforting dream. 7.5/10

Cloud Atlas – Tom Tykwer, Andy and Linda Wachowski – I saw this film without having read David Mitchell’s novel – and so was looking forward to being cheerfully bamboozled by an expansive plot, one that promised to be ambitious in its scope and narrative structure. Firstly to be able to film what is, by all accounts, a dazzlingly dexterous narrative maze- deserves credit in itself. Mitchell’s source material ranges from a diary on-board an abolition era ship, a nuclear conspiracy, a dystopian hyper consumer society, an old man incarcerated in a retirement home, a Cambridge intellectual and an eccentric composer, a string of doomed love letters and a hybrid of sci-fi, tight, white costumes and Apocalypto style tribesman…so it is a gregarious conglomerate of genre, content and tone. It was ridiculous, at times unexpectedly funny, at times inadvertently funny, but – for the most part – entertaining.

I found the greatest resistance to my enjoyment of the film lay in some of the casting decisions. Having Tom hanks and Halle Berry unrelentingly reincarnated in various roles often distracted from dramatic tension – leading instead to stifled giggles at their various odd avatars. Watching Tom Hanks play a Irish/cockney thug, who is also a provocative writer and, for some undisclosed reason, sports Craig David’s questionable facial hair…is a show stopping oddity. The problem in casting big names in these roles (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving) means that rather than  staying immersed within the, already challenging kaleidoscope of narrative, it becomes far more enticing to simply ‘spot’ the actor…and then gawp at the bizzare prosthetics/make up. Hugh Grant receives a particularly inspired mask of pensioner wrinkles and nasal exaggeration, in one of many narrative strands.

The other problem in having, at its centre, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks is that Halle Berry and Tom Hanks seem to struggle with being anything other than…Halle Berry and Tom Hanks. Regardless of hours of make up, CGI, prosthetics or numerous laughable hair decisions…both remain, pretty obstinately, themselves. That is, for Tom Hanks I find it hard to see past a fairly well meaning, ‘average joe’, everyman (although his role on-board the ship, complete with abject ginger whiskers comes closest to destabilising this), where as Halle Berry is eternally re-inventing her offensively white smile and, hollowed of all palpable character, brings a disarmingly dull neutrality to what ever character she portrays. Therefore, at the heart of the film (for me) there was a lack of character interest – Tom Hanks and Halle Berry became more and more transparently pawn-like figures, at the mercy of multiple wardrobe changes, multiple cosmic shifts and challenging narrative acrobatics. However, maybe that works? Maybe, being kind, their uninteresting persistence in being only themselves (however much make up is involved) echoes the story’s unravelling expanse of parallel lives: it has all happened before and will happen again…it is all connected…yatter yatter…). On general terms though (kindness abandoned) it seems a failing of the film to cast these two Hollywood billboards at the centre of such a complex and arching vision.

'The Hitcher' from Mighty Boosh has a cameo as Tom Hank's alter ego.

To briefly return to Halle Berry’s inhumanly alabaster dentures, the film does have a worrying tendency to presume a change in false teeth constitutes a dramatic change in character. It does not. It is just Tom Hanks – with false teeth. Still, Im being overly harsh – some of the make up/prosthetics…whatever the hell was used…is pretty impressive in its morphing capabilities. It just seems a weakness in the film when you begin fixating on artifice as opposed to emotion – at least in a story so grandly in pursuit of the conceptual and not simply the aesthetic. The clash between potentially vacuous visuals and straining philosophy really comes to light in a teeth grittingly ridiculous sequence: in a sensuous montage we move between some velvety lit, ambient sex-scene - that could be lifted from a particularly elaborate rendering of the Kama Sutra (slow motion to make tricky positions more ‘accessible’ and decadent interior décor – to assure the viewer: this no cheap pornography!), between this tasteful erotica and two grinning Cambridge intellects throwing plates and breaking china…in a china shop. All of this is then lent commentary through some vague coffee-table philosophy murmured in accompanying voice-over. At least I think it was…and if it wasn’t…well, the tone suggested something as worryingly indulgent. Some of the ideas in the film, which are genuinely interesting (as a result of a clearly bold and daring piece of literature) are hammered home a tad too much. The filmmakers achieved the really daunting Everest of balancing all of the various time periods/genres/characters with impressive competence – after which there needed to be a bit more confidence in the audience to ponder for themselves. Instead there is a lot of repetition and some needlessly clumsy excavation of themes.

The strengths of the film seemed to be primarily in the areas that echoed the Wachowski’s previous territory: dystopian enslavement and revolution. Possibly the most riveting plotline in the film revolves around a future, hyper-consumer city, in which Korean women are imprisoned in service of the insatiable consumer systems… effectively becoming identical, sexualised, automaton waitresses. Xun Zhuo plays the woman who becomes singled out as the face to lead a revolution. As it turns out (SPOILER) the legion of regimented servants are methodically slaughtered, to provide ‘protein’ for the very work force they came from. An idea not dissimilar from the liquefied human slaves in The Matrix, used as battery juice for future generations; plug-in embryos squirming in the fluids of their forefathers. And other such charmingly well thought out details of the apocalypse. Xun Zhuo, despite playing the porcelain-faced doll, seems by far the most charismatic performance (followed closely by the brooding magnetism of Ben Whishaw and the farcical eccentricities of Jim Broadbent). It is in this morbid imagining of a conveyer belt of butchery, commerce and fetishized mannequin appearances, that the film becomes most successful.

This is, without a doubt, a soaring, stumbling, ravishing and ridiculous film. Well worth seeing at the cinema. It has definitely awoken the urge to seek out the David Mitchell novel. So much is contemplated and suggested…although often (sadly) the evident wealth of material insists upon its own ambition, lending it moments of painful flatulence and patronising dialogue. There is also a problematic interpretation of an invented dialect, from the novel. What I imagine was originally an inventive crafting of language is regurgitated into a Southern slur, shared at fireside by two actors (ol Hanks n berry) who seem just as unconvinced as I did at their handling of the language. Falling somewhere between Mark Twain’s voice of Jim, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the stammer of Forest Gump and a dictionary of New Age spirituality…it makes for an unwelcome, and further, intrusion on the film’s giddy world. There is certainly no shortage of spectacle and story, and for that it advertises the book dam well. But as far as standing as a cohesive and effective film on its own terms, it’s an odd one. Just as I was beginning to forgive its various shortcomings and think…this is one exciting slab of adventure and chin stroking…the ending slaps a load of superfluous cheese on the proceedings, smothering previous success with ol grampy Hanks, looking wise and sitting by the fire – regaling an enraptured audience of bright eyed and bushy tailed great,great,great, grandchildren of whatever generational splutter is now observed…it was a fairly hideous framing device that the film would have fared better without. So, a mixed and mighty large bag: bold, beguiling and blunderingly enjoyable. 7/10

Suspiria- Dario Argento – I don’t know if I was in the wrong mood…not sure what the certifiably ‘right’ mood for Italian psychedelic Giallo is, but still…I felt disappointed. An alleged cult classic, I was hoping for moments of disturbing horror, undercurrents of surrealism and an unashamedly good time. Alas, twas not to be. I understand that half of its appeal is probably in its technical incompetence and general lo-fi aesthetics, but sometimes those oh so cool traits become a yawning list of hipster synonyms…usually amounting to one translation: predominantly shit. That was a sweeping and unfair statement, as I am a fan of dodgy, home crafted and Lo-Fi music, film…and various other mediums that can be lovingly rendered with slap-dash enthusiasm. However, when acting is terrible and the plot becomes arbitrary, which is then added to a dispiriting dearth of any  horror (be it slapstick, endearing, disturbing, gory or otherwise) then what…what am I watching for!

The soundtrack is fun, all jazz Krautrock noodlings and theatrical black metal whispering – supplemented with a dam good eerie theme – however in its mixing with the film it becomes intrusive and clumsy. What many have dubbed as revelatory lighting (bringing about a supposedly unhinged projection of the inner torment etc) seems instead a Saturday Night Fever palette of primary colours, used with awkward and brash abandon. The ‘dance academy’ setting of the film becomes an almost irrelevant or incidental detail, leading one to think: why didn’t the director commit to laziness and just have it in the haunted house and be done with it! I know this is most probably an uncompromisingly opinionated view, as so many declare Argento to be an inspiring/interesting figure – maybe I should revisit it. For all its baroque sets and lavish design, I found little of real satisfaction in this film. Disco lights, wide eyes and a crushing inability to maintain tension or handle a camera... not dynamite attributes. But then, maybe I’m missing the point of this trashy gem? Which, I concede, I found devoid of ‘gem’. 3/10

Once Upon A Time in Anatolia – Nuri Ceylan – A long and draining film that moves between a sense of biblical allegory, male weaknesses and spiritual transcendence. A group of men, including a doctor, policeman and two men who have confessed to a killing, go in search of the victim of said killing. The film feels, at times, oppressively heavy with its meditation upon life and mortality – never in an explicit or clumsy manner, instead as a nascent atmosphere of sadness that seems to weigh down on the landscape…and increasingly, upon the men who journey into the night. In the character of the doctor, the search for the body begins to take on a metaphysical/existential dimension, conjuring a rite of passage. Moving from a youthful energy to a stoic acceptance. Meanwhile women remain points of mystery, purity or beauty in the film. Unlike these dam burdened males, with their wandering, wrongs and woes. In one scene, on encountering the mayor of a town on his remote and rural property, the group are invited for dinner at lamplight. The male conversation and prevailing shadows are momentarily disrupted – the mayor’s daughter walks in, serving drinks. Her presence seems to cast an ineffable serenity upon the scene, bordering on angelic. One man is reduced to tears, and it is a testament to the film’s power that this does not seem strange. It is a mesmeric and tiring, but also deeply moving, film. Not one to settle down to on a whim.  7.5/10

Brave -  Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapmen and Steve Purcell (co-director) – How this won the best animation Oscar provides a clear encapsulation of just how redundant artistic merit is for such awards. This is an uninspired, vapid and badly judged addition to the Disney/Pixar world. Hiring Billy Connolly to be as resolutely Scottish as possible does not breath any ounce of authenticity into this pixelated package tour of celtic clichés. Everyone is fiercely ginger, cloaked in tartan or with face paint redolent of Braveheart, just one haggis slap away from an unforgivably unwitting parody. It is also strongly committed to being unfunny, uninteresting, unoriginal and many other fantastic qualities with the prefix of ‘un’. 4/10

Observe the celtic mist and mane of ginger- pretty sure we must be in Scotland, not sure? Could be made more obvious....

Helpful: he has a beard and tartan. Definitely Scotland. Could almost make Braveheart look subtle...good god, Mel Gibson's mullet was glorious...and those panpipes...FREEEEEEDOM! 

Kill List – Ben Wheatley – Two ex military (contemporary war in Iraq context) and now part-time hitmen are hired on a job that begins to ensnare them, leading to a spiralling and unhinged exploration of violence and character.  A chapter heading prefigures each killing and gradually an emergent political commentary/allegory suggests itself. A dark and intelligently disturbing satire on the state of Britain is twinned with a playful relation to cinema genres.  The crime/thriller genre is exposed and contorted to reveal its intimacy with horror, employing oppressive atmosphere and uncomfortably mounting dread. The impressively tangible dread begins in domestic tension, is encouraged by a brooding and menacing soundtrack and willed on by a convincingly psychotic performance by Neil Maskell as ‘Jay’. All of this escalates, with increasing and unflinching moments of violence (a certain scene, involving liberal use of a hammer, is a very tough watch), until we reach a nightmarish climax that recalls The Wicker Man (or something similarly pagan and sinister). The film’s very last sequence is devastating, further warping the potential for what the film is, and how it should be interpreted. I was left with a queasy and churning adrenaline, by the end of the film its atmosphere has become a physiological experience: oppressive and shocking. An admirably powerful film which artfully combines terrific performances, inventive socio-political commentary and intensity, with an agile interrogation of cinematic genre. 9/10

Sightseers – Ben Wheatley – I haven’t smiled, nay beamed, so uncontrollably in the cinema for a long time! The rare example of a film that, after looking forward to, delivered everything I had hoped it would, without the slightest shade of disappointment. Which is probably an unnerving reflection of my decidedly warped sense of humour. This is a black comedy of menacing and hilarious energy; at once disturbed, daft and deliriously brutal. It incorporates moments of great slapstick visual humour (after visiting a pencil museum…an attraction that most obscure British hotels seem to advertise in the, ever present, wondrous rack of pamphlets. Somewhere between Monkey-World, Caving and a local Owl sanctuary, behold: the inevitable pencil museum) Tina is shown writing a poignant letter home…with a novelty huge pencil. 

Before I gregariously warble on with plaudits aplenty, to retrace: Sightseers is the story of an endearingly dysfunctional, outsider couple (‘Tina’ and ‘Chris’) that go on a caravan holiday, which leads them both into a plummeting relationship of casual homicide. Drizzly weather, anoraks, national trust walks – and a trail of bodies. While comparisons have been made to Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May, I was more struck with the narrative affinity with the extended episode of British comedy, Green Wing. In an extended episode (I think it was the extended one) two of the more eccentric characters (the genius, stuttering maniac that is Dr. Statham…and his harrowingly compatible partner Joanna Claw – a terrific role that explodes the bitter comedy of ageing) are on the run from the law…in a caravan…and end up killing (accidently) lots of unsuspecting civilians, before (like Sightseers) eventually burning the caravan. Whether a conscious influence or not, I love both unreservedly.

 In gleeful harmony with Wheatley’s romantic oddball tale of serial killers, is the soundtrack: with witty use of the classic ‘Tainted Love’ and a collection of genuinely interesting, more obscure pieces, the soundtrack is a accomplished beast in and of itself. The script is inventive, bizarre and consistently very funny – drawing on both Alice Lowe and Steve Oram’s evident natural chemistry. One moment early on in the film,Chris reflects with sensitive vulnerability: ‘I was invisible at school’, to which Tina replies: ‘but your ginger’. Another brilliant moment arrives after we witness the caravan vigorously shaking with seismic force, squeaking back and forth on the quiet roadside - during a session of urgent sexual grunting and pornographic pounding. Soon after, Tina relates to her mother with cooing nostalgia that Chris is ‘a sensitive lover’.

Building on the visceral violence and intensity of Kill List, the film does not hold back in its moments of darkness. At one point Chris bludgeons the skull of an innocent man, who simply had a problem with canine defecation, into an unrecognisable pulp. All of which occurs with a voiceover reading Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, as if battering British heritage into a mock-heroic wreckage of caravan sex, dull tourist attractions, bad weather and impulsive murder. From its comical prologue to the fittingly extreme conclusion, this is a stunning and thoroughly twisted triumph of comedy! 9/10

Warm Bodies -  Jonathan Levine – Nicholas hault plays a zombie (named ‘R’…as he distantly recalls his human name beginning with an ‘R’), a shuffling member of the mumbling undead…but, as voiceover reveals, his human consciousness is intact. Trapped in the shuffling gait of his cadaverous body there remains frustration, a human sense of compassion and the vague and murky memory of his life before. In a post zombie apocalypse the remaining humans are penned in, quarantined from the infected hordes that wander the rest of the city. The man in charge of this last island of untainted humanity is John Malkovich (obviously…), in a an uncomplicated role of alpha and paternal, military leadership. He has a daughter, ‘Julie’, played by Teresa Palmer - who looks uncannily reminiscent of Kristen Stewart if she was blond. Julie and a group of others are innvolved in some sort kind of vague mission. They are ambushed by zombies, one of whom is ‘R’, and most of them are killed – including her at the time boyfriend. So…after the feeding frenzy ‘R’ shows his unorthadox zombie charity by saving her. It is, thankfully, a comedy. 

As a simple, at times genuinely funny, piece of cinema entertainment it does just swell! It’s enjoyable tone and simple central conceit carries the film, helped mainly by a strong and charismatic performance by Nicholas Hault. Essentially a indie romcom transposed onto apocalyptic zombie territory: it dabbles with kooky soundtrack choices; references to the joy of vinyl; awkward relationship firsts - compounded by the all too relatable moment when one realises, that yes, your partner did in fact eat the brains of your ex; the overbearing and disaproving father figure etc. There is even a brilliant Reservoir Dogs sequence where a group of Zombies stiffly lurch in slow motion, like the less cool, more dead version of Tarantino’s black suit, tie and sunglasses strut. In terms of going for allegorical/political zombie satire – this is not really going to be adressing the same vein of commentary as a Romero film – but it is self aware, fun and satisfying enough to merit a casual cinema trip. Perhaps the most obvious light-hearted metaphor, is that of the stumbling hormonal clumsiness of adolescent love. Teenage passion imagined as the paralysed fear and awkward gestures of that beloved horror icon: the zombie…makes sense really. This is about as forgivable and cute as necrophilia gets…which was perhaps an early discarded tagline? 7/10

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary – Guy Maddin – A retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula using the unexpected partnership of early cinema aesthetics and the medium of ballet. Although I thought such a project would be tricky to pitch, according to many interviews – due to the hybrid genre certainty of this film (Dracula : a ballet), apparently it was one of the easier and more succesful of Maddin’s films in terms of marketing. Making generous use of filters/or post- production editing (don’t know the specific ins and outs), the film uses a lot of colour changes – punctuating the predominant black and white with oneiric blues, sensual reds and burnt out sepias. Recalling the shifts in hue in Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (and, I imagine lots of other films that I am yet to see!). Perhaps the most suprising thing is – how dam suited Dracula is to ballet. There is something in the simmering violence and desire in the classic gothic tale, that once choreographed becomes immediately and powerfully communicated. The dancers convey all the necessary melodrama, eroticism and physicality that Dracula invites.

 Similar to many of Maddin’s films it also has the feeling of being viewed through a keyhole, or spied through some sort of time hurdling portal – as gestured towards in the first scene, in which we see a hand rubbing a circle of transparency on a dusty window pane. Both Luck and Mina are perfect, wide-eyed glamorous heroines – evocative of early cinema, so adept at the enthralled, and enthralling, consecration of female portraits. There is a scene that also playfully brings to mind L’Age d’Or, in the libidinous pursuit of fellatio…and in a convent…for shame! Such cock hungering extravagance, animated with absurdly elegant dance, works brilliantly as a set piece – achieving an ecclectic feast of tone: from erotic, fevered and fumbling in a pantomime of transgression, to delicate, humourous and frustrated in a display of frought emotion. The sets all work perfectly, reflecting not only the theatrical origins of this piece, but also evoking an appropriate decedance/detail in set design.

Dracula himself is fantastic, in also being the only asian actor the casting choice tips its hat to the imperialist fear in Bram Stoker’s original text – aligning the vampire not only with the danger and unknown of female sexuality, but also, with the ‘otherness’ of the exotic…a spectre threatening the British, flag bearing, identity built on empire. Again, it becomes obvious how suited ballet is to this over explored villian – articulating the poise and seduction of Dracula’s dangerous character with controlled leaps and twirls and, importantly, bringing something new to an overcrowded and potentially tired representation. It is not even, perhaps, that something new is presented, rather that – in its presentation, the partnership of Maddin’s decaying silent film visuals and the physical agility of ballet, an eccentric form emerges as startlingly well adapted to perform Stoker’s original vision. 8.5/10