Thursday, 22 August 2013

The Return (Vozvrashchenie) – Andrey Zvyagintsev – 2003

When reviewing examples of meditative cinema you often find yourself getting bound up in cliché. Not just in the terms you end up churning out (haunting/contemplative/ethereal et al) but in the reference points you turn to. Some people stand as such totemic examples of this brand of film in their national cinemas that you can’t help but consciously refer to them. Japan, you think Ozu. Sweden, you think Bergman. Iran, you think Kiarostami. Belgium, you think the Dardenne’s etc etc, and so it goes with Russian cinema, where the name Tarkovsky looms long over subsequent works.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut feature The Return was as subject to this as any recent Russian feature in the wake of its Golden Lion win at 2003's Venice Festival. Critics chose to make Stalker (1979) the main frame of reference, and you can see where they were coming from. Like that picture, The Return employs a muted colour palate, where most images are drained of vibrancy to the point where every colour seems to be a variant on blue or grey, the emptied provincial towns, looking shut down in a perpetual loop of dull bank holidays, decaying warehouses creating a dystopian atmosphere echoing Stalker’s ‘The Zone’ early in the film, and of course both films are framed within a foreboding journey and discovery template. Equally valid arguments though could be made for comparing the film with other art house road trips such as Theo Angelopoulos’ Landscapes in the Mist (1988) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s stunning mist-strewn evocation of the Italian Po Delta in Il Grido (1957).

Like most films of this ilk, the outward narrative of The Return is stripped to a bare bones approach and is all the better for it. The film concerns two brothers Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov) a mummy’s boy on the cusp of adolescence and Andrey (Vladimir Garin) a few years older and determined to impress his peers. One summer day they return home to be informed that their father (Konstantin Lavronenko) unseen since they were toddlers, has returned and is intending to take them on a fishing trip to make up for lost time.

Rather than a heartfelt family reunion though, the father is met with immediate suspicion, especially by Ivan, who attempts to test his father’s patience from the off and questions his motives for returning. Not that his suspicions are completely unfounded as the father acts cold and brusque, toying emotionally with the brothers and lambasting them for perceived weaknesses in their characters.

The first half of the film takes place largely in the confines of the fathers 1980s Gaz Volga (imagine a Volvo made with Iron Curtain spit and gristle cost cutting economy rather than Swedish proficiency), and concentrates on the less ecstatic aspects of family road trips, the boredom of confinement, the monotony of unvarying landscapes and the resulting shortened tempers of those caught up in this scenario.

As the film progresses, a sense of menace and dread begins to take hold as we are invited to share in the brothers’ suspicion of the increasingly authoritarian actions of their father. By the time the trio arrive at their fishing destination on a secluded mid-lake island, this ominous atmosphere builds towards an almost inevitably crushing conclusion.

The film invites itself up as a emblematical template for varied analytical approaches, be that theological (with the father’s introduction to the film purposely framed to echo Andrea Mategna’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ and the misty hooded crossing of a lake bringing to mind Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx), psychoanalytical (the whole parental relationship dichotomy being a field day for Freudian scholars) or allegorical (certainly native viewers may be drawn towards an analysis in which the old guard of the USSR has a traumatised relationship with contemporary Russia).

I found taking the film at face value perfectly rewarding though. The strained relationship creating a perfectly intriguing premise. I found it reminiscent of when you would visit friends whose father’s you found overly strict as a child, and you stand there witnessing these relationships wondering what their motive was, is their father a cruel man? Does he detest the responsibility of having children? Or is he simply trying to teach important lessons in a slightly misguided way? Making sure the child has the necessary attributes of a ‘man’ so that the world can’t take advantage? This is the kind of scenario played out here. The film provides a steady stream of intimations that the father has an ulterior motive for the trip (an eventual mcguffin), and gives very subtle hints as to the reasons for him being missing for 12 years, allowing the viewer to piece together their own backstory of sorts.

This was a stunningly rewarding film to view a second time. With hindsight, character motivations appear clearer and in the case of the father, more forgiving than our initial viewing of him as a stern beast of a man with the resulting actions having all the more devastating an impact as a consequence. A large part of this can be put down to Konstantin Lavronenko’s performance which is commendably nuanced behind a poker faced façade.

Unfortunately having knowledge of the film's production provides an extra sense of melancholy to its proceedings as Vladimar Garin suffered a bitterly ironic death in a drowning accident not long after completion of the film. The fact casting an inevitable weight and long shadow over the picture.

Predictably we return to Tarkovsky. His own debut Ivan’s Childhood (1962) ends up providing one of the most apt comparisons in the end. The innocence of youth cut short, the brutality of responsibility being forced onto unready young shoulders. If the responsibility of being a 21st century Tarkovsky is to be pushed upon Zvyagintsev’s own shoulders, then with this and his subsequent work so far, he’s doing a creditable job.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Hells Angels on Wheels - Richard Rush - 1967

Where do we start? Well The Wild One (1953) I guess is the obvious year zero choice. Brando and his boys roll into small town Americana, shake up the squares, “What are you rebelling against?” “Whad’ya got?” etc. All good, but not quite there, Lee Marvin is pretty brutal, but they’re all riding Triumphs! Forget it. The rest of the 1950’s is all generalised teenage delinquency and Hot Rodders on chicken runs.

Suddenly though, the 60’s brings the real biker gangs! Grease stained romanticism, men of the road, free from the constraints of society man! Fightin’ and fuckin’ and chain whippin’ themselves into straight society’s consciousness. Who are these devils? Dr Thompson is certainly intrigued, enough so to write them into urban legend with Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Motorcycle Outlaw Gangs (1966). Ok now our interest is piqued, and that goddamn’ Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964) sure ain’t doing no one no favours. It’s ok, it’s 1966, Roger Corman knows a scene ripe for exploitation when he sees one, The Wild Angels (1966) is released, records are broken, ladies and gentlemen we have a new movement to exploit, let’s get loaded and have a good time.

Over the next five or so years, a plethora of piteous ‘bikesploitation’ flicks were released, most of them it seems by sub z-grade schlock meister Al Adamson. The fact that Hells Angels on Wheels is one of the ‘gems’ of the genre says a lot.

The unique selling point of this picture at the time was its accreditation as the only biker picture ‘officially endorsed’ by the Hell’s Angels themselves. This approval is confirmed with a brief cameo from Sonny Barger, the leader of the Oakland chapter planting a smooch on an uncomfortable looking Adam Roarke during the opening credits. Its place in bikesploitation history now is maintained by the fact that the main star of the picture is a pre superstardom Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson played a bad boy biker in the same years risible The Rebel Rousers, a film so poor it didn’t actually get a release until three years later on the back of his fame in the most iconic bike pic of them all Easy Rider (1969). But here Uncle Jack plays ‘Poet’ a petrol station attendant drawn into the world of biker gangs after proving himself worthy in a ruck at a local bar. Unfortunately Poet takes an increasing liking to the leader Buddy’s (the aforementioned Roarke) gal, a few more rucks, rides, a wedding and a PG level orgy later, and everything comes to a tragic head.

Predictable enough stuff, and the usual problems that beset a lot of these biker movies remain evident here. There seemed to be much confusion between biker and hippy ethos for the makers of these flicks at the time, I can’t imagine that many of the Hell’s Angels spoke like beatniks and lived in bohemian enclaves with conceptual artists attending their socials. Our bikers are just a bit too clean cut, there is always one token beardy mentalist at the back of the pack, but in general the stars are just a bit too preppy, the chirpy jingle-jangle low rent psychedelia of the soundtrack hardly helps convey their menace either.

That said, as I implied, this is one of the better entries in the genre. Whilst Uncle Jack comes across too much like the existential everyman he would portray so well elsewhere, Adam Roarke manages a certain charm (that would carry him through several other biker pics, including The Losers (1970) with the magnificent high concept of a biker gang being sent to Vietnam to rescue a captured American agent) and brings a bit of excitement to the picture, the film also manages to move at a fair click, cramming in all the requisite signifiers of the genre, Richard Rush may be considered somewhat of a journeyman director but his pictures of the time (including Psych-Out (1968) a fantastic time capsule of a picture featuring several of this film’s cast and crew) always entertain.

The film’s strongest suite though is clearly the photography, and when you realise it was provided by a young Lazlo Kovacs (a personal hero who DP’d some of my favourite New Hollywood road movie pics such as Five Easy Pieces (1970), Slither (1973) and Paper Moon (1973)) it all makes sense. The camerawork is as frenetic and freewheeling at times as the shooting schedule would imply, whilst sun baked colour bursts from the screen time and time again, it may be cheap, but the film looks great.

The bikesploitation genre really isn’t worth the dedication idiots like me have put into watching them, see this and The Wild Angels, and you really don’t need to delve any further, as the budgets and the enjoyment factor quickly dropped through the floor for the shortly lived genre. Still, it’s better to burn out than fade away man...

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Black Moon Rising - Harley Cokeliss - 1986

As time goes by, I find myself succumbing to nostalgic pangs for increasingly stereotypical joys of 80s/90s technology, you know the usual “remember when we all had to make cassette mixtapes rather than iTunes playlists, it was so much more individual etc”. This redundant longing for a more ‘innocent’ time came to mind again recently when thinking about how I had first seen Harley Cokeliss’ Black Moon Rising.

I’d finally got a TV for my very own room when I was 12, and oh the joys I had watching late night film showings on the four glorious channels we had back then. The amount of ‘discoveries’ I made just through pure chancing on short TV guide synopsis, stay up late, headphones in, glued to that cathode ray tube. BBC 1 playing the garish splatter end of Hammer films on a Friday night (think Twins of Evil (1971), Scars of Dracula (1970)), the mighty cult cinema bin that was Moviedrome on BBC 2, and the various mid budget 80’s & 90’s action and horror films ITV would fill the post 11pm void with, of which, for a while, this picture was a mainstay.

Some years later that I found out the story is actually credited to my first true film love John Carpenter, though further investigation showed that although he had written the script, it was as a hungry young filmmaker fighting for scraps in the early seventies. His influence therefore isn’t particularly noticeable in the finished product, only Lalo Schifrin’s synth ‘n’ drum pad laden score bears anything resembling his work.

The film’s plot follows Quint a professional thief doing a line in government espionage. If you’re expecting an Ethan Hunt type though you’ll be let down, Tommy Lee Jones’ blue collar burglar is more a post Lee Marvin cynical street tough, who would rather spend his time sinking a few in dive bars and pool halls.

His latest assignment has gone awry, and he finds himself hunted by rival Marvin (fans of Early 80’s US Hardcore will be excited to find that he’s played by Fear’s chief antagonist Lee Ving!) and in trouble with his government masters (represented by the late Bubba Smith A.K.A. Hightower!). Quint crosses paths with a trio of aspiring car producers, whose latest supercar project is subsequently stolen by a group of car thieves led by Nina (Linda Hamilton in the between Terminator’s doldrums) who in turn is in the service of corporate overlord Ed Ryland (Robert Vaughn, who mined a fine line in this sort of yuppie kingpin role during the 80’s).

The hiring of Quint to retrieve this supercar becomes the central focus of the plot, and oh what a piece of work the car is, it’s introduced to us screaming across desert flats at 300 mph in a complete knock off of the opening credits to Knight Rider. Alas this supposedly ultra desirable supercar is somewhat of a joke to look at, I think the makers were thinking Bertone (y’know like the Stratos Zero featured in the King of Pop’s ego fest Moonwalker (1988)), but alas it looks more like something I would have drawn as “a car from the year 2010!” as a 10 year old child.

The film follows a predictable but nonetheless entertaining enough path, Quint and Nina join forces and get it on to some smooth jazzy vibes, Quint receives a retribution beating for his earlier indiscretions and the set piece finale sees Quint and the supercar crew taking on Ryland in a low budget skyscraper infiltration that brings to mind certain Nakatomi Plaza adventures that would follow a few years later.

My love of films being set in night time Los Angeles has been well documented previously i’m sure, and as usual this is the primary reason the film still holds fond reminiscence for me. All I need are some slick city street driving scenes and frequent cutaway shots to blue sheen skyscrapers and i’m drooling. This films provides such ‘Mannian’ (is that a term yet? If not, i’m coining it) neo-noir delights aplenty. It’s one of those films you can get on bottom rung DVD company labels in £1 shops, pick it up, it’s a more than competent, fun, throwaway actioner with a tasty mid 80’s vibe and a comedy hot wheels car, go on.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Buffalo '66 - Vincent Gallo - 1998

Warming to the work of Vincent Gallo was something I never expected to find myself succumbing to. My early knowledge of him had been shaped by his self cultivated ‘enfant terrible’ of indie film image, his various rants on the state of cinema, his cameo roles in music video’s such as Glassjaw’s “Cosmopolitan Bloodloss” and his prominent features, a Brando cool overwhelmed by loathing and cynical Lower East Side hipster rat snark.

I was surprised then when I first watched one of his self directed efforts The Brown Bunny (2003) to find a minimal, wistful, malaise led road movie, the only hints of the Gallo i’d been previously privy to, were in the notorious ending featuring his then girlfriend Chloë Sevigny, and so I was led to finally seeing his directorial debut Buffalo 66, and you know what, it’s a good film, in fact on a repeat viewing, it’s actually a pretty great film.

Gallo is Billy, released from prison after 5 years (covering for someone else’s crime because of a large gambling debt); he has somehow convinced his parents that he has been working away on a ‘top secret assignment’ for the last 5 years. Upon arrival in his home town he makes the seemingly extreme decision to kidnap a woman Layla (Christina Ricci) to pose as his wife ‘Wendy’ and complete the delusion of his parents.

The Gallo I saw here on first viewing was the detestable narcissist I had previously envisaged, it was only on a second viewing that this early part of the film began to fit within the scope of the rest of the picture for me. Gallo comes running out of the blocks full of impotent rage. The film after opening with his release from his stretch; spends the next 15 minutes upon his arrival in Buffalo, on a Kafka like futile search for an open toilet facility, an increasingly comical scenario that concludes with an odd homophobic attack/rant. This scene at first just makes us think “typical asshole Gallo” and has been much derided in reviews of the film, but on subsequent viewings I see it more as a release for all the pent up anger, fear and torment that an opening montage showed us that he suffered during his prison term.

Gallo’s hometown of Buffalo is presented as Nowhere U.S.A. A cold post-industrial dystopia, a land of permanent late winter, where the sun never shows from behind the gunmetal cloud cover and a perfectly suitable location for matching the palate of the early 70’s cinema that the fine cinematography recalls, there are echoes of the Boston of Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1974) and the eastern seaboard journey of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (1973). The city is painted as a landscape of broken dreams and beer stained dollar bills, where the local football team offer the only outlet of passion for the malcontent residents, and it’s this football team (specifically the 1966 Buffalo team of the title and a later incarnation discussed shortly) that prove pivotal in shaping Billy’s livid existence.

We finally meet Billy’s parents, perfectly embodied by Angelica Houston and Ben Gazarra (whose presence makes the viewer no doubt intentionally think of Cassavettes). Dad is a failed crooner, and a short tempered puppy killer, Mom couldn’t care less about Billy’s wellbeing, thinking only of her beloved Buffalo Bills. A well edited scene has Mom state how she wishes she’d never had Billy (due to missing a vital Super Bowl winning game) whilst the commentator of the game playing in the background states “he’ll have to live with that the rest of his life”. This 20 minute centre piece of the film helps us begin to understand Billy’s relentless rage, before meeting his parents, he hilariously makes Layla/Wendy observe his ridiculously specific demands for pleasing them, he clearly craves their approval, he craves for love, but during an increasingly ill tempered meal, the image of his ‘family’ life disintegrates.

We find that Billy’s other motivation for returning to Buffalo, has become a twisted revenge mission on a Scott Woods, the spot kicker who he blames for losing him the bet that left him in hock to the local dons, of course this bet was placed on the Buffalo Bills, the team casting a permanent shadow over his life.

Before he can get around to enacting this revenge though, he and Layla stumble through several downtrodden Buffalo locations together, the bowling alley (in which we receive a wonderful musical interlude courtesy of King Crimson, a shoestring Busby Berkeley number gone prog-rock that somehow fits with the films verisimilitude), a greasy spoon cafe, a 2 dollar photo booth, and finally a makeshift motel room, throughout these scenes Billy continues to rant, rave, demand, all whilst Wendy patiently expresses her love for him, we gradually strip away at the layers of his damage, we find out about his youthful crush on the real Wendy (embodied by Rosanna Arquette as a small town bloodsucker) and his longing to be wanted, finally he breaks, is he truly being offered the love he has never known, could he, Billy Brown actually be loved?

The finale takes us to a showdown with Scott Woods in a strip bar of the gold lamé and swinging tassels variety where Billy must decide between love or annihilation, the scene builds like a low budget Fellini bacchanal, a sweaty grand guignol of gross caricatures.  Billy draws his pistol, his decision is made...

The closing scene proves to be the one that truly won me over, Billy has made his choice and enters a doughnut shop, buzzing with the realisation he has discovered what love feels like, he has a newfound empathy, everyone is his friend, there is a powdered wide eyed rush to his speech, he is imbued with generosity, pure unfiltered happiness, the euphoric joy that comes with knowing you’ve found someone, not just someone, the one! You get me? Everyone deserves a shot at that feeling, even little asshole Billy, he’s in love and we are overwhelmed with happiness for him, what happened? End credits.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Drive - Nicolas Winding Refn - 2011

For Bob...
A 1973 Chevy Malibu. Not quite the quintessential example of the American ‘Muscle Car’, but certainly in keeping with the aesthetics of the needlessly large, gas guzzling, yet somehow intensely attractive beasts that once roamed the American Highways, cruises through the streets of a Los Angeles straight out of the Michael Mann textbook. Brightly lit corporate headquarters aim towards the sky, surrounded by a shimmering neo-noir freeway vista that stretches on forever, a mid 1980s vision of the perfect city, detachment as a dreamy aspiration. Inside the car though, a beautiful couple, the man, mesmerising, with the channelled stoic cool of Delon in Le Samourai (1967), McQueen in Bullitt (1968) and O’Neal in The Driver (1978), is tempered with a warmth, exchanging stolen glances with the Jean Seberg esq waif like beauty in the passenger seat. The Soundtrack, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s ambient Apollo soundscapes swells towards transcendence as their hands clasp over the gearstick, and my heat skips a beat with joy.

I’m concerned, has Nicolas Winding Refn somehow found a Being John Malkovich (1999) like portal into my mind? As with Drive, he somehow seems to have formed a chimerical combination of everything I look for in a movie. Whilst it carries all the signifiers of 80’s pulp genre cinema I love so much (Neon titles, pounding score, car chases, love story, mobster double crossings and a vengeance delivered with Tom Savini esq levels of grue), the delivery echoes the influences of my even more beloved 1970’s New Hollywood (characters defined by mood and actions rather than needless exposition, Robby Muller esq. Cinematography and a disturbing thesis on the violent capabilities of man). It’s not without a knowing wink does the gangster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) deliver the line "I used to produce movies. In the 80s. Kind of like action films. Sexy Stuff. One critic called them European. I thought they were shit".

The plot, as should be the case in mock genre exercises is simple enough, a lonely ‘best in his trade’ wheelman/mechanic/part-time stuntman finds himself falling in love with the young mother in the next apartment, unfortunately the young mother’s husband is being released from prison and owes money, which if not paid will see retribution served upon the wife and child. Upon agreeing to help for her sake, the driver finds himself involved in a botched heist, which leads to a price being put on his head by local Mafiosi.

Our unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling), as stated, carries himself like the anti-heroes of films past. He opens the film as the archetypical cinema wheelman, calm, collected; every word and move carefully planned (and like most male viewers, proves the subject of my biggest mancrush since John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)). Yet unlike his hollow eyed Melvillian predecessors, this detachment begins to crumble upon meeting Irene (Carey Mulligan), whom his desperation to protect as the film spirals out of control begins to reveal a hitherto unseen proclivity for violence buried within him, he can and indeed shockingly does lose control of his Eastwood toothpick chewing surface cool, though rather than feed us a backstory explaining away this side of his nature, this remains as an ambiguity. As this violence begins to take hold, Refn asks questions about the brutal capabilities of man when cornered, and also by making it all so visceral asks questions of the viewers enjoyment (parallels with Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) haven’t gone unnoticed).

It has been noted by many critics of the film that considering its title is Drive, there is a distinct lack of this titular aspect. I’d disagree with this, there are several showcase scenes showing our protagonist at work, and rather than the empty spectacle of quick cuts that usually make up the car chase, Refn again chooses to echo the subtler pleasures of a cinema thought lost. Like in the previously mentioned Bullitt or Two Lane Blacktop (1971), the sounds of a rev counter redlining, and a quick gear shift carry just as much excitement as a crossroads pileup.

On I could go, but I think my love for the film is suitably conveyed. This is very much fanboy worship thinly disguised as criticism, for this is one of my favourite films of recent times. I’m male, 18-30, and have pretentions towards enjoying a more cult and ‘cultured’ variant on genre cinema, it was pretty much destiny for me to fall in love with this picture, and so it goes...

A New Post!?!?!

Well it's been two years afterall...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Young and Innocent - Alfred Hitchcock - 1937

The British period of Hitch’s career often finds itself boiled down to a case of The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) (i.e. the two with Criterion Releases) considered as must sees, the rest, essentially throwaway. This of course is far from the case and solid arguments can be made for the greatness of The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929), Sabotage (1936) and the film that gave this blog its name, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Many feel that Young and Innocent too deserves a more respected place within the Hitchcock canon; alas I’m inclined to disagree to an extent.

The film, whose title when mentioned in casual conversation sounds considerably less wholesome until mention of its directors name, actually fits safely within the mode in which we find a good percentage of Hitch’s output, that of ‘the wrong man’ thriller. Following the murder of a renowned actress, a friend of hers Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) finds her body and is himself accused of the murder, with a flimsy case of motive placed upon him due to money being left to him in her will.

He manages to escape custody and proceed to go on the lam, coercing the local police chief’s daughter Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) into aiding him in escaping the manhunt, and to help in his quest to find a tramp who has in his possession (wait for it... *cough*), a raincoat of Tisdall’s which was stolen by the murderer, had its belt used in the murder and was then given to the tramp and which will thus prove Tisdall’s innocence and lead to the capture of the real murderer... right... Not that I have any problem with outlandish plots from Hitch, a man whose oeuvre often features credibility stretching macguffins in order to progress matters, but a used raincoat?

The film actually opens in a startling fashion; we immediately bear witness to a raging domestic argument while a thunder storm thrashes away in the background, in an unusual turn, our murderer is revealed right away in an oppressively atmospheric scene transported from the bleak noir this film never manages to become. The following ten minutes manage to retain some of this downbeat vibe, as Tisdall finds the victim’s body washed up on the shore, and soon finds himself accused and fingered for the blame by a seemingly corrupt police force wishing to close the case quickly despite a paucity of strong evidence.

Once Tisdall makes his rather farcical escape from custody though, the film becomes more a comedy road caper than intense thriller. Those hoping for a Bonnie & Clyde hit the Home Counties scenario will find themselves rather disappointed. A lot of the blame for this can be attributed to De Marney’s performance, his Tisdall comes across as so smug and self assured that his innocence will be proven that the audience is never really given to worrying for his fate. Pilbeam’s ‘Jolly what-ho’ attitude towards the situation is also rather more Enid Blyton than Hitchcock, further reducing the suspense.

Pilbeam’s Erica has the makings of an interesting character, she appears to have taken over the maternal role for her large family (the actual mother an unexplained absentee), and as the eldest child suddenly betraying her chief of police father to go on the run with Tisdall, this makes for an intriguing act of rebellion against her re-positioning within the family hierarchy that is never fleshed out.

Once we can gradually accept this as one of Hitch’s lighter pictures though, there are small rewards to be garnered. Edward Rigby’s turn as the sought after tramp ‘Old Will’, is a humorous one, and the closing set piece features one of those classic ‘Hitchcockian’ virtuoso camera moves that we see at least once a film. In this case an audacious pan and zoom across a ballroom as Hitch zooms right into an extreme close-up on the face of the murderer revealing his presence within the room (in a scene that also has an unpleasant reminder of a world before 'The Black and White Minstrels' were considered tasteless...).

Fluffy, throwaway, and with slight central performances, Young and Innocent may be second grade Hitchcock, but it still manages to entertain just enough in its brief 80 minutes to make it worthy of inclusion in any personal ‘British period’ Hitchcock retrospective you may be planning.

By the way if you embarrassed to ask for a copy of the picture at your local DVD retailer due to its misleading title, why don’t you try its alternative American title of The Girl Was Young? Hmmm actually.....

Monday, 30 November 2009

When too lazy to add a new review...

Just redesign the page a bit instead!

You may notice a new header at the top of the page, the theme is that it's meant to recall the opening credit fonts and colours of Late 60's/Early 70's Italian Giallo pics and other such exploito classics of the era.

The background pic you may recall from my old review of Chris Petit's Radio On (1979).

Hope y'all can dig it.

More review soon I swear to ya, I am determined to make the title of this blog less ironic.



Monday, 23 November 2009

Duel - Steven Spielberg - 1971

Ahh 1971, a landmark year for the ‘New Hollywood’ crowd by anyone’s estimation. Billy Friedkin released his first masterwork with The French Connection, Peter Bogdanovich released what is arguably his only masterwork with The Last Picture Show, a young beardy future mega-lo-maniac made THX 1138, not to mention Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller, Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, Alan Paluka’s Klute, Richard Sarafin’s Vanishing Point..... well you get the picture. In the midst of all this, a young California State dropout was stuck doing episodes of Night Gallery and low budget TV movies. Given a project to direct a quickie adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story out in the California desert, the youngster just happened to create a genre masterpiece, and the breakout that would soon make him the world’s most bankable director. This of course was Steven Spielberg, and the little TV Movie in question Duel.

This is hardly an early example of the Spielberg we know and erm... love? today though. Duel is instead a film with such a studied minimalist framework and structure that I feel you can comfortably place it alongside the more radical studio funded works of the period, such as the aforementioned Two Lane Blacktop.

The plot can be described within the briefest of synopses, a white collar salesman named David Mann (Dennis Weaver), is driving across southern-eastern California when he suddenly finds himself terrorised by the unseen driver of a large tanker truck. After initially toying with Mann, the truck driver begins to attempt to kill him, forcing Mann to have to eventually fight back.

This barebones approach to the plot is complemented by Spielberg’s minimal usage of dialogue, which finds itself trimmed down to exclamations of disbelief from Mann together with the occasional (and somewhat unnecessary) inner monologue. The soundtrack is equally minimalist, largely making use of the diegetic, such as the truck’s roaring diesel engine and the asinine radio talkshows that emit from Mann’s car stereo.

Whilst Spielberg himself refers to the film as a simple chase picture and nothing more, the framework allows us to place our own subtexts onto the film. Certainly European critics of the time (upon seeing the extended 90 minute theatrical European release) saw the film as variously an ‘indictment of machines’, or a film of ‘Father’s failing and women taking control’. Most famously some critics read the film as a battle of the ‘middle-class bourgeoisie vs. the working classes’. This is the thesis with which my own view of the film aligns most closely.

I personally read the film along the lines of the other road movies being made by youthful directors of the period, films which were consumed by a sense of displacement, disillusionment, and anger. I see Duel as channelling this countercultural anger into a pointed attack on the white collar Middle American bourgeois. Where most of the other road movies of this period, despite their generally downbeat tone, still managed to exude a certain romanticism towards the freedoms of the open road. Duel instead sees the road as a purely hostile and dangerous place.

The film’s protagonist ‘David Mann’ can be seen as a stereotypical symbol of mid-scale corporate America. An everyman salesperson under pressure to meet targets, white collar, conventional tie, driving one of the best selling 4 door family saloons of the period in the form of the staidly designed Plymouth Valiant, and with a malcontent wife and two children at home in a detached house on a quiet suburban street. Weaver brilliantly embodies Mann as stuffy, uptight, a heart-attack waiting to happen and nothing if not emblematic of the revised ‘American Dream’ that the good capitalist American of the 1960s should aspire to.

If we see our protagonist as a symbol of white collar America, our antagonist, the unseen driver of the grime ridden, seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that terrorises him, can be seen as a twisted descendent of the pioneer spirit. A primal road man whose unwillingness to conform to societal values, can be seen as the corrupted offspring of Tom Joad back for revenge on a system that denied his own American Dream.

If the counterculture had taken a certain satisfaction in ironically embracing symbols of the American pioneer spirit (for example, Billy & Wyatt in Easy Rider (1969)), as defenders of the right to a spiritual freedom oppressed by modern American attitudes. Then Spielberg appears to take pleasure in turning this in its head. The displaced wanderer of the American highways is now the aggressor and oppressor, with Mann now the victim in what has been quoted as “a Kafkaesque world in which seemingly random and inescapable acts of psychological torture flourish and thrive”.

Spielberg emphasises the towering presence of the truck roaring up to Mann’s rear bumper with intimidating close-ups. Something we notice at these times is that the trucker’s front bumper is covered in licence plates from other states across the country, displayed like proud trophies from his previous victories. This destroyer of conservative normalcy and decency is gradually swallowing up the nation, picking it off state by state.

So if we can see the truck as a symbol of bourgeois fear, we can take this further and consider Spielberg’s own suggestion that, rather than Mann being scared of the trucker attacking him, it is more a fear of loss of control. This proves for the most interesting reading of the film on a contextual level. This is a Middle America scared of losing control of the stability and prosperity it had enjoyed since the economic boom of the 1950s. American conservative values were being challenged by the counterculture, political dichotomies seemingly dividing the nation in two.

Spielberg refuses to provide any comfort for Middle America, and so the film concludes with Mann having to resort to his own sense of primal instinct, a complete ‘loss of control’ of his own restrained conservative demeanour, he can only attempt to guarantee his survival by ridding himself of his white collar symbol (his car) in order to defend against his aggressor. Spielberg suggests that Mann has had to resort to the mindset of his adversary in order to survive, resulting as Ryan Gibley has stated in the "crumpled defeat of the middle-American male".

Oh yeah, the film’s a bloody exciting thrill ride too...

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner - Werner Herzog - 1974

If we can procure one thread that manages to run throughout the twisted catalogue that forms the 40 plus year career of everyone’s favourite German madman Werner Herzog, then it surely that of the wilful outsider, people who transcend societies self imposed boundaries in some form of euphoric personal odyssey. People who stumble along the fine line of genius/fevered craziness, inebriated by their need to push the limits of personal endurance. People who we can’t help but see as varied series of reflections on Herr Herzog himself.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of this, from his infamous exploits with Kinski bringing to life egomaniacal adventurers bounding along the Amazon and through the jungle in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), to his documentaries charting the lives of people who choose to outcast themselves in some of the world’s most inhospitable places such as the Sahara in Fata Morgana (1971), Antarctica in Encounters at the End of the World (2007) and in Alaska with a shit load of hungry Bears in Grizzly Man (2005).

The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner proves to be one of the greatest examples of this auteurist trait. Following an astounding opening sequence in which we see a ski ‘flight’ played to us at 1/20th speed set to the mesmeric tones of regular Herzog collaborator Popol Vuh. We meet the titular Walter Steiner, a gangly and unassuming young Swiss man with a penchant for woodcraft and throwing himself 170 metres through the air off ramps with only a pair of sticks on his feet for protection.

Here we enter the mad world of Ski-flying, that’s right, not ski-jumping, but its altogether more extreme offshoot ski flying. Rather than attempt to contextualise the event for us, and attempt meaningful psychological examination of those who take part, Herzog explains it all with the previously mention super slow speed camera footage. This stunning imagery captures perfectly the sheer euphoria (or ecstasy) the competitors feel upon embracing the closest we can come to the grace of flight without evolving ourselves a pair of wings.

Unfortunately, the graceful flight is often not met with an equally decorative landing, and we also get to witness what happens when it all goes horrifically wrong upon returning to terra firma. Though rather than some garish ESPN style ‘When Ski-Flights go wrong!” exploitation, Herzog even lends these scenes an elegiac touch.

It is this conflict of the ecstasy versus the danger that we find Steiner caught it. Steiner was at the time the most amazing ski-flyer the world had ever seen, other top competitors it seemed even avoided events he was involved in, as whatever length the pack would set, Steiner would throw on another 30 metres. This leads to an event in Yugoslavia where Steiner crushes previous records to such an extent that he is left with little safety run off, culminating in him having a bad fall, leaving him bloodied and concussed.

It is here that the film becomes especially interesting, as Steiner wishes to leave the event, but the organisers begin to apply pressure, demanding he perform again for the paying audiences. Here the film begins to raise questions of an athlete’s responsibility to his fans, as Steiner becomes convinced that they only come to watch because of a car-crash mentality bloodlust, waiting for the moment when he pushes the limits just one step too far. We leave Steiner as a melancholy character unsure of his future within the sport.

In a back catalogue peppered liberally with must see pictures, I’d go as far to say that The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is right up there with the very best of Herzog’s oeuvre. He always seems to be at his best when he transcends the sometimes quotidian seeming nature of the subjects he chooses and wraps them in a dreamlike weave, blurring lines between documentation of an event and artful romanticism. Nowhere is that better found than here.