Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Black Square

About halfway though The Exorcist, Detective Kinderman visits Chris MacNeil to ask if her friend Burke Dennings (recently found dead at the foot of the stone steps outside her house) may have visited Regan's room the night of his death. They sit at McNeil's dining table and drink coffee. In the room, behind and between them, there's an open doorway, a black rectangle. A void. As they talk, MacNeil realises with dawning horror that her daughter may have thrown Dennings from the window and murdered him—but she conceals this from Kinderman and offers him more coffee. Upstairs, separated from their polite conversation by only beams and plaster, is the girl, the demon, the creature, the murderer.

I've never heard anyone make this observation before—and it's possible my reading is completely wrong—but whenever I watch this scene I think: the black rectangle is Pazuzu. Or at least, it represents MacNeil's forcible severance from the world of normal life and normal people. I certainly don't think the composition's an accident. I wonder if anyone else has thought the same? There's no mention of it in Mark Kermode's book on the film, which surprised me.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Worst of all time? Not nearly.

Rotten Tomatoes has put out a list of the worst hundred films of the last ten years. Such lists are usually generated as linkbait, to provoke disgruntled nerds and cinephiles to post rebuttals and whinge about the ranking. I'm not about to buck the trend, though I must say I was surprised to find I'd seen only three on their list, as I've seen a lot of terrible movies (dear god, so much bad horror).

Basic Instinct 2
Not a good film, certainly, but no worse than a hundred other straight-to-DVD sweatshop-produced erotic thrillers. I saw this film because a genial but peculiar man used to stalk me on my morning bus route; when I googled his business card, he turned out to be an actor with an imdb page listing this film. But I couldn't see him in it anywhere.

Yes, this was a tremendously disappointing film. But it's not the 57th worst film of the last ten years.

Alone in the Dark (2005)
Listed at number fifteen, and though I admittedly haven't seen the other fourteen—apparently worse!—films, I do consider this a contender for Worst Film Of All Time.

I make this claim with some confidence because Alone in the Dark is so bad it's almost not even a film at all. "Director" Uwe Boll purchases props, hires actors and technicians, and pays someone to "write" something in the general format of a screenplay. Having done so, he shouts "Action!", and seems to think this assembly is all that's required to make cinema. I call it "cargo cult cinema," as Boll has tried to "imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance". It's really, really amazing(ly terrible). I've never seen a film like it, and if it weren't so soul-crushingly boring, I'd suggest you see it just as an object of curiosity.

But it isn't, and I don't, and you shouldn't. You definitely shouldn't.

Thursday, 7 May 2009


So. Thus far I do not seem to be achieving my aim to review every film I see this year. And considering I watch between two and five films a week, my backlog is, er, substantial.

Part of the problem is that I watch a lot of unarguably terrible films (which is just an inevitable consequence of being a horror film fanatic). Another part is that I am JUST SO VERY BUSY building my giant model of the solar system for the science fair. Which is to say: Sometimes I prefer eating biscuits.

It's clear that I have to either clear the backlog somehow - one line reviews appeal, since there are over forty films to catch up on - or change the rules (and consequently, the masthead). I'll let you know on the weekend.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Video Love

Here's The Making of The Shining, shot by Kubrick's daughter Vivian.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Aeroplane panacea.

Watching films on a tiny screen during a hellish twenty-three hour long haul flight is probably the best way to end up hating them. So consider this an experiment: here are the films I watched on the flight from London to Cape Town last weekend. For the most part the theory held true.

Will Smith is an alcoholic, self-loathing superhero who can fly faster than a speeding bullet, but can't outrun his own loneliness. Aw.
This had promise: I enjoyed it for the first two acts, with the expectation of a satisfying payoff, but then the whole thing just fell apart. The story felt rushed (Oh, so all of a sudden you're telling me there's backstory stretching over millenia, but we don't get to see any of it?)*. That's problem one. Problem two? Nameless enemies have been trying to kill our heroes for countless centuries. Yet they're mentioned for the first time at the end of the film, and we never see them. Or do we? I still have no idea. Problem three: the ending is incoherent melodrama which effectively cancels out the moderately edgy Arrested Development-style intertextuality. There was a great idea here. Shame it's been wasted.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ron Perleman bashes his lobster claw through a series of clearly lesser opponents until the allotted time runs out.
A disappointing follow-up to a pretty enjoyable popcorn movie, though possibly I'd have liked this better on a larger screen, as the joys of this film are to be found largely with director Guillermo del Toro's fantastical creatures. The plot itself is a disappointingly bare-bones fairytale. Aside from obviously high production values, this feels more like an episode of a TV show - in which little character development is required because we are assumed to be already familiar with the characters - than a proper feature. This seems to often be the case, I've noticed, with graphic novel adaptations (perhaps because it's presumed that the back-story's known by some of the audience, though a more likely explanation is simple laziness).

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
English media hooligan
Sidney Young lands a job at NYC's glamourous Vanity Fair Sharps Magazine and fails miserably at everything until, of course, he inexplicably succeeds.
I was surprised by how much fun this was, considering the formulaic structure and by-the-numbers romance. The credit for my enjoyment lies entirely with lead actor Simon Pegg, who is such an irresistably likeable fellow he manages to transform one the most repellent people on the planet (Toby Young**, who penned the autobiographical source material) into a lovable loser. Quite an accomplishment.

The Oxford Murders
Precocious maths whiz Elijah Wood goes to Oxford to learn from his favourite professor, but instead gets mixed up with murders, femme fatales, and nonsensical plotlines.
Dear god, this is awful. Just terrible! Midsummer Murders with some preposterous maths voodoo thrown in. How do scripts like this even get picked up? Why, if the characters are world-class maths geniuses, do their professional debates sound like the ramblings of a drunk Davinci Code fan? Avoid at all costs. Also: dumbest ending since Wild Things. Except I love Wild Things.***
___ ____ ____

* I totally wanted a flashback to ancient Persia.
Is that too much to ask?

** I'd read that Toby Young bragged of his "negative charisma", but thought it hyperbole until I saw him interview Charlie Kaufman at the BFI at last year's London Film Festival. It's all true.

*** I know I shouldn't, but there you have it.

Alive in Joberg by Neill Blomkamp

Alive in Joberg is a short film by Neill Blomkamp, in which masses of destitute aliens seek refuge Johannesberg in South Africa in kilometre-long, dilapidated spaceships, and then struggle to be treated equitably by the local human inhabitants. It's being expanded to a feature length version called District 9 (a reference to District Six in Cape Town, an inner city suburb from which thousands of non-whites were forcibly removed from their homes in the 70s in accordance with the apartheid regime), slated for release later this year.  I have high hopes.

The art of the tease.

There's an informative (if slightly depressing) article in the New Yorker about Hollywood movie marketing. As you might imagine, it's a business focussed more on getting bums on seats than making great cinema. This bit confirmed my suspicions about one particular film trailer:
The marketing advantage that studios have over other industries is that they can give out free samples of a movie as advertising—promotional material that feels like content. But filmmakers object when a trailer reveals too much of the story, or their best fireball, or their funniest joke. Tony Sella, the Fox marketer, wanted to end his trailer for “The Simpsons Movie” with Homer walking his pet Spider-Pig upside down across the ceiling and singing his Spider-Pig song. “The writers told me, ‘Absolutely not, you can’t use it,’ ” Sella recalls. “I said, ‘O.K., we can not use Spider-Pig, and the theatres will be three-quarters full, and the audience will be tremendously amused when they see it. Or you can have lines around the block, and half the people will be saying, ‘Wait till you see Spider-Pig!’ to the other half.” Spider-Pig stayed in.
I swear I could hear that conversation in my head when I saw the trailer for the Simpsons Movie. Figures.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

I Can Read Movies

The I Can Read Movies series is a set of fake film novelisations - or rather, their worn, paperback covers. (This one for Close Encounters is especially good.) They're in a similar vein to Ollie Moss's Videogame Classics, a bunch of pretend video game novelisations with covers in the style of Penguin Classics.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Werner Herzog at the BFI

It was not a significant bullet.

The Werner Herzog Q&A at the British Film Institute last  Monday was both exhilarating and revelatory. Herzog first introduced a preview screening of his new documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World, and was later interviewed onstage by Mark Kermode.

The interview was one of the best I've seen at the BFI. Herzog is a skilled raconteur whose stoicism and grim realism ("I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder," as he growled famously in Grizzly Man) is tempered by generosity and mischievous humour.  Kermode—the UK's favourite bequiffed, skiffle-playing, horror aficionado—is an experienced interviewer with deep film knowledge and approachable humanity. There was evident warmth between them (Herzog was shot during an interview with Kermode a couple of years ago, so they're practically war buddies) that was enjoyable to witness.

I tried to memorise my favourite of Herzog's comments, but thankfully The Guardian has now published a transcript of the evening. Here are a couple of my favourite moments, beginning with Kermode's question about the acrimonious relationship between Herzog and his muse Klaus Kinski, and their mutual death threats during the filming of his masterwork Fitzcarraldo:

MK: What did you actually say?
WH: Very quietly, as he was packing his things, I said that he would have eight bullets through his head before he reached the next bend of the river. Which was probably an exaggeration. I would have missed at least three or four.
Later, Herzog explained that he rarely has a chance to watch films as he's so busy making them:

WH: Two years ago, I think I saw a grand total of two films, both of them very bad, but very healthy because only from bad films I could learn.
MK: What were they?
WH: One I've forgotten and ...
MK: You only saw two films and you forgot one of them?

WH: Yes, one was a big Hollywood production, but I don't remember which one it was. The other one was a small Hollywood film, I think it was called The Real Cancun, about young people on spring break. There were eight young hunks and eight young girls, and the only point of the film was who got laid first. It was kind of delightful but it wasn't such a good film either.
Och, I laughed so hard I hurt myself.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Dante 01

Film: Dante 01, 2008
Director: Marc Caro
In a nutshell: A strange new prisoner arrives at a remote space station populated by the criminally insane.

Some films are less than the sum of their parts. Here are the parts of Marc Caro's mystical sci-fi turkey Danto 01:

For hubristic scientists and space madness, see Soderbergh's Solaris remake and Danny Boyle's Sunshine. For amnesiac messiah and heavy handed religious iconography, see the unwatchable French sci-fi turd Eden Log. For claustrophobia and interminably slow pacing see, well, all of the above. For bald murderers incarcerated in a space penitentiary, see Alien III. For Christ-like prisoner who can heal the dying by magically eating their disease, see The Green Mile. For awful greenish colour filter that looks like the camera lens has been fished out of a stagnant pond, see every shitty torture porn film from Hostel onwards. These are not exactly high quality components (actually, The Green Mile ain't so bad) and you can't build a Porche from a bucket of rusty spoons.

Ugh, I lack the energy to attempt a synopsis.

Dante 01's half-baked script and simplistic production design reek of "low-budget debut feature", yet this is hardly Marc Caro's first venture - he made the wonderful Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children in the 90s with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. How, then, has he managed to make a film as terrible as Dante 01? It is a mystery as incomprehensible as the plot of this film, and as uninteresting to solve.

A shining screen.

I love this:
Since the 1970s, Sugimoto has worked on his photo-series entitled Theaters, in which he photographs auditoriums of American movie theaters, and drive-in movies, during showings. The exposure time used for the photograph corresponds with the projection time of the film. This allows him to save the duration of the entire film in a single shot. What remains visible of the film’s time-compressed, individual images is the bright screen of the movie theater, which illuminates the architecture of the space. That its content retreats into the background makes the actual film a piece of information, manifesting itself in the (movie theater) space. As a result, instead of as a content-related event, film presents itself here as the relationship between time and spatial perception.

"One night I had an idea while I was at the movies: to photograph the film itself. I tried to imagine photographing an entire feature film with my camera. I could already picture the projection screen making itself visible as a white rectangle. In my imagination, this would appear as a glowing, white rectangle; it would come forward from the projection surface and illuminate the entire theater. This idea struck me as being very interesting, mysterious, and even religious." Hiroshi Sugimoto.
According to Sugimoto,"Different movies give different brightnesses. If it's an optimistic story, I usually end up with a bright screen; if it's a sad story, it's a dark screen. Occult movie? Very dark."

Monday, 5 January 2009

Day of the Dead

Film: Day of the Dead, 1985
Director: George Romero
In a nutshell: Romero's third Living Dead movie, set a few years after the zombie apocalypse.

Man alive, this is one terrific zombie film. There's great stuff here, and although the plot itself is quite straightforward, the social problems that evolve are satisfyingly complex. As is often the case in Romero's stories, the characters are undone as much by their inability to communicate and work together as by the actual gut-gobbling living dead. The film also possesses a dignity that belies its genre: for example, the script's respectful treatment of the film's only woman, Sarah Bowman (the no-nonsense scientist), is a blessed antidote to the usual bouncy, ankle-twisting, pneumatic victims-in-waiting. And Bub - the ex-military zombie who's as much a fan of classical music as giblets - remains the only really likable zombie, well, ever. (In fact Bub elicits more sympathy from the viewer than most of the film's living characters.)

Like I said: great stuff. Personally, I have a special fondness for zombie films set some time after the apocalypse, as they explore the prospect of a survivalist utopia (even if the utopias inevitably crumble by the end of the second act). In Day of the Dead, the survivors - a volatile combo of scientists and soldiers - are holed up in an almost perfectly secure underground compound, with plentiful food, guns, and even a freaking helicopter. What more could you want? Well, as it turns out: how about a little social cohesion?

But by far the film's most remarkable moment is the revelation is that, after the apocalypse, the zombies will have alligators as pets! Like so:

Dude. This shot appears for no more than a second in the beginning of the film (the zombie and his alligator friend are lurching/slithering out of a bank in response to a loud noise), and the whole alligator-zombie-partnership is left tantalisingly unexplored for the rest of the film. But someone really ought to pick up this idea and make it the premise of a movie. Gold.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

My Winnipeg

: My Winnipeg, 2007
Director: Guy Madden
In a nutshell: Madden's surrealist B&W "docu-fantasia" pays tribute to his home town.

There are some terrific ideas in My Winnipeg, Madden's dreamlike exploration of memory and the notions of home. Here are some: in an attempt to unpack his confusing upbringing, he hires actors to play his siblings, and has them re-enact scenes of childhood trauma with his real mother. He also introduces us to Ledge Man, the long-running TV show in which Madden's mother persuades a suicidal man to climb safely back inside (this happens in every episode, and Ledge Man has been running for fifty years). He explains that Winnipeg has ten times more sleepwalkers than any other city - somnambulism is so prevalent that a bylaw allows its citizens to carry keys to their childhood homes, where the current owners are obliged to take them in during nocturnal visits. And he chronicles key events in Winnipeg's history, such as the winter the cold snap came so quickly a team of frightened horses was frozen in a lake and their dead headsemerging from the ice in a rictus of terrorbecame an attraction for local skaters.

When the film is occupied with tales like these, it is a Borgesian delight. When, however, it strays into the realm of art student pastiche, it almost undermines its own inventiveness. For example, when he intercuts dramatic text (the word "betrayal", for example, set in white against a black background like the intertitles of a silent film) with static images, this is supposed to create layers of meaning.  Instead, it feels laboured and artificial. In one especially dull sequence, the word "lap" is repeated, along with images of a woman's naked lap, a map of forked rivers, and animal fur, creating a litany: "the fork, the lap, the fur". The lap is his mother's. The fur coat is hers also. The rivers trap the city of Winnipeg and prevent escape. You can see what Madden is aiming for: totems of the comforts and perils of home. The poetry of apron strings. But it doesn't resonate. It's a tin note. Oh, and boring.

Can techniques like flashing arthouse text and heavy-handed Freudian self-analysis still be considered "experimental" once they've been aped by a hundred second-year film students? Admittedly I've seen only one other film by Madden - his collaboration with Isabella Rossellini, My Dad Is 100 Years Old - but it too is full of contrived psychosexual imagery (Rossellini spends a good chunk of that film wriggling about on a giant pillow meant as a stand in for her late father Roberto's imposing naked belly). It's clearly a favoured theme. My Winnipeg garnered rave reviews, so there are those who enjoy this sort of thingbut at times I felt the film verged on self-parody.

My Winnipeg is the dream of a man on a train, trying desperately to leave the town of his birth, or at least work out why he can't. "Maybe I can film my way out," he says. Ultimately, he doesn't. But he gets close.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The Host

Film: The Host, 2006
Bong Joon-ho
In a nutshell: Much hyped South Korean monster movie in which an eccentric family try to locate their child, who has been either munched or kidnapped by a mini-Godzilla.

Reviews of The Host invariably note that it flouts monster movie conventions. To begin with, the monster itself - a sort of multi-legged salamander, mutated by the hundred litres of formaldehyde poured down a laboratory drain and so into the Hann river - appears very early on in the film, in broad daylight. This of course contravenes the mandate that monsters ought to appear only in glimpses and shadows for at least the first act (if not until the final showdown). The monster is also modestly sized - comparable with a mini-van, rather than a competitor for Kaiji of the Year. But the real way in which The Host breaks with convention is in the care and delicacy with which it treats its central characters, the eccentric Park family who pit themselves against the monster.

There is a wonderfully supernatural scene in this film, and it has nothing at all to do with mutant amphibian monsters. Sharing a meal in their snack hut by the evacuated Han river, the exhausted Park family are joined by Hyun-seo, the lost child for whom they have all been searching. When last they saw her, she was in the jaws of a monster, but here she is, appearing all of a sudden as though having just crawled from beneath the table. Rather than shout in surprise, each family member – wordlessly, unquestioningly – feeds her a mouthful of food from their own bowl.

This is done in such a quiet and naturalistic fashion that for a moment we really believe that she is there. And we feel a tremendous sense of relief. But she is not there: they are feeding rice to an apparition. Not a ghost, exactly, but a phantom conjured by the power of their collective longing. In fact Hyun-seo is alone, trapped in a sewer beneath Wonhyo Bridge, surrounded by wet corpses – in a sort of monster lunchbox, where she has been stored for later consumption. We knew this, we did, but for a blissful moment we allowed ourselves to be fooled. In remembering the truth – that she is not yet saved - we taste the family’s grief. It is cleverly done.

At the end of the film, there is a reprise of this scene, when Park Gang-du feeds the street urchin he has now adopted; this wonderfully real and low-key finale reinforces the feeling that despite having created a bona fide Monster Movie, the film maker's attentions seem curiously directed elsewhere.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Nucular Christmas.

Yesterday - twenty-four years too late - I finally got around to watching Threads, the harrowing UK docudrama about the aftermath of nuclear war. Man alive; that was one harrowing televisual experience and no mistake. It put me in a deep funk that could not be assuaged even with chocolate biscuits. There are only so many charred accountants and melted housewives you can stand on a Sunday afternoon.

Luckily for me, three hours later I had an appointment to see Wayne Coyne introduce his film Christmas on Mars at the Barbican. I was hoping for an antidote of sorts, but in fact it was suprisingly boring (imagine a student film aiming for “Plan 9 meets Dead Man meets Eraserhead” but ending up instead as a tedious semiotic montage of Nude Baby meets Giant Vagina meets Santa Claus).

Still: great nap. Best cinema nap ever! (Well, second best, after the one I had in 1997 during the re-released Return of the Jedi. That high quality hour of REM sleep - accompanied as it was by the roaring surround sound of speeder bikes zooming through the forests of Endor - remains one of my life’s high points.)

It must be said, however, that Christmas on Mars’s dullness was tempered by Coyne introducing it in person. He’s such a jaunty, life-affirming presence I’ll forgive him almost any transgression.

So at least I wasn’t thinking about nuclear winter when I left.

Which was nice.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Village idiot

I rather enjoyed these final two paragraphs of Ebert's review of The Village:

Eventually the secret of [The Village] is revealed. To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not only to climaxes but to prefixes. It's a crummy secret, about one step up the ladder of narrative originality from It Was All a Dream. It's so witless, in fact, that when we do discover the secret, we want to rewind the film so we don't know the secret anymore.

And then keep on rewinding, and rewinding, until we're back at the beginning, and can get up from our seats and walk backward out of the theater and go down the up escalator and watch the money spring from the cash register into our pockets.