Sunday, February 28, 2010

Do not f**k with Werner Herzog

From an interview between Jonathan Demme and Werner Herzog at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, in 2008, available as one of the special features on the 2-disc edition of ‘Encounters at the End of the World’:

Herzog: … I was somehow disconnected from music because a music teacher when I was thirteen forced me to sing in front of the whole class, just wanting to break my back, and I disconnected myself from music … and then when school was over five years later, when I was eighteen, there was this enormous void and hunger for music and that’s how … without any teaching I immersed myself in music with a more ferocious intensity than anyone I knew among my peers.

Demme: How did you deal with that moment when you were being forced to sing?

Herzog: Well, everyone sang a song. At that time there was this stupid idea floating around that everyone had some talent for music or talent for painting, which was kind of ridiculous. And when it came to me I stood up and said “I’m not going to sing”, and then I became obstinate and I said to the teacher “You may do the somersault forwards and backwards, but I am not going to sing.” So they called in the headmaster and they took the class hostage, these bastards took the class hostage, and I could strangle them today if I met them. And from that moment on I seriously planned to burn the school building to the ground at night, which unfortunately I never did … And I said to myself never in my life is anyone going to break my back, it is not going to happen again, that is unique, rather dead than having your back broken again.

February report card

February edges to a close and the second month's voting on the next director retrospective puts Jean-Pierre Jeunet in pole position with 14 votes, and Tim Burton and Chanwook Park in joint second place with 11 votes apiece, with Neil Jordan unmoving since January with 6 votes, and likewise for Alex de la Iglesia and F. Gary Gray who still have but 2 votes apiece.
Mira Nair remains heinously unvoted-for.

The gizmo that computes the percentages tells me that the votes work out thusly:

Jeunet: 30%
Burton: 23%
Jordan: 13%
de la Iglesia: 4%
Park: 23%
Gray: 4%
Nair: 0%

... which adds up to 97%. Next frickin’ poll, I’m doing the maths myself.

February’s entries paid lip service to the Hellraisers and Work Sucks series (one review each), as well as clocking up a handful of posts under the Personal Faves banner. Operation 101010 has fared better: I’m now 14 movies into the 100, covering eight categories. It breaks down like this:

Clint Eastwood movies
None yet. All ten titles will appear during May, when The Agitation of the Mind marks Eastwood’s 80th birthday with a month-long celebration of his achievements as actor, director and icon.

Werner Herzog movies
1. Little Dieter Needs to Fly
2. Wings of Hope

1. My Neighbour Totoro
2. Sky Blue

1. All the Colours of the Dark
2. Blood Stained Shadow

1. The Aristocrats
2. An Inconvenient Truth

1. Amarcord
2. Winter Light

1. Intolerable Cruelty
2. Kissing Jessica Stein

1. Sylvia

Impulse buys

1. Rise: Blood Hunter

Films with numbers in the title
None yet.

To Steve, who suggested ‘Seven Samurai’ for this last category, apologies that the review hasn’t appeared yet. Keep watching this space.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Is this the most honest advertising campaign ever?

Behold the poster for the derivatively titled and critically drubbed Euro-thriller 'From Paris With Love':

Check out the tagline in the almost sheepishly small font at the bottom. "Two agents, one city, no merci."

Surely even the least linguistically inclined moviegoer knows that merci means "thank you" in French.

Which leaves us with the tagline "two agents, one city, no thanks".

'Nuff said.

Friday, February 26, 2010

WORK SUCKS: Fight Club

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, men: no purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.”

Thus spake Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Tyler Durden is the –

No, wait, back up. Bob. Bob had bitch tits –

No, wait, back up a bit further. There’s this guy, Cornelius (Edward Norton), assumed name, but what the hell, he’s the guy telling the story so let’s just call him The Narrator. Corporate guy, suit, briefcase, flight coupons, condo full of designer furniture, by his own admission “a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct”. He works for a car manufacturer, our boy, and his job involves travelling the length and breadth of the States examining car wrecks to determine if the number of similar models in the field times the possibility of the fault recurring times the average out-of-court settlement is less than the cost of a recall; if so, no recall.

The Narrator, uh, narrates this job spec to a fellow passenger during a domestic flight. She looks alarmed. Our boy, in the meantime, banks on the plane banking as a prelude to a mid-air collision. And why not? “Life insurance pays out triple if you die on a business trip.” Fortunately (or otherwise) our boy doesn’t cark it during a routine flight. Instead, he meets pragmatist, soap manufacturer and wannabe pugilist Tyler Durden.

After a conflagrant misadventure afflicts his Ikea-lined condo, our boy moves in with Durden. Chez Durden is a des res for people who deem “shithole” more important in estate agent (ie. realtor) terms than “no upward chain”. This is immaterial. The terms and conditions of relocation to said locale is that our boy hit Tyler as hard as he can. Our boy’s hesitant. Tyler’s insistent. The rationale? What do you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight.

They trade blows in a pub car park. This leads to mass brawling in said pub car park. The whole scene goes underground (literally) in the basement of said pub. The landlord, Lou, objects … briefly. Next thing you know, everyone who’s working a shit job and getting no satisfaction out of life is turning up, losing the tie, adhering to the no shirts/no shoes rule, and finding more than a soupçon of validation in beating the ever-loving shit out of each other.

“No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide.”

Next thing you know, there’s homework assignments and priests are being provoked into exchanging blows, corporate art is desecrated, computer shops blown up, tower blocks with smiley faces daubed on their glass-fronted façade belch flames, hoardings are appropriated for public (mis)information sloganeering, and roof-top pigeons are overfed so that the BMW dealership below is beset with guano all over its top of the range models.

‘Fight Club’ is a hyper-stylized, brilliantly constructed, funny as fuck howl against the general piss-awfulness of modern life. It is agit-prop and protest art. It is the big fungoo administered to the false gods of contemporary culture, a corrective to the slavering press panting over celebrity scandal and the profusion of reality TV non-entities. Put the latest ‘X Factor’ media whores up against Norton and Pitt and I guarantee a no-contest smackdown.

“You’re not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank, you’re not the car you drive, not the contents of your wallet, you’re not your fucking cactus. You are the all-dancing, all-singing crap of the world.”

For me, the film turns (in the sense of switching from I-hate-my-job wish-fulfilment to something more meaningful; the switch from audience perception to late-in-the-day revelation comes significantly later) when Durden bursts into a convenience store and bustles the clerk out back at gunpoint. He demands the poor unfortunate’s name and wallet. Both are given over post haste. Durden queries the clerk over an out-of-date student card; turns out the lad wanted to be a vet but dropped out because the course required too much studying. “I’m gonna check in on you,” Durden informs him; “if you’re not on your way to being a vet in six weeks, you’re dead.” It’s a pivotal scene both in terms of how the narrative develops (it gets progressively darker) and in gauging audience complicity. Your appreciation of ‘Fight Club’ depends on your response to this scene: do you wince at the Tyler Durden’s treatment of the poor, gibbering unfortunate? Or do you applaud that Tyler Durden has rescued him from a life of subservient drudgery; has in fact liberated him

I fall into the latter category. This may have something to do with having watched the film last night, a good few drinks under my belt, after a shit day at work that included a royal shafting courtesy of the management. Hence the wish-fulfilment aspect of ‘Fight Club’. The scene where The Narrator beats himself up during a one-to-one with his prissy company-man boss is at once the greatest scene of physical comedy this side of a Charlie Chaplin movie and perversely inspiring. Indeed, the whole of ‘Fight Club’ is perversely inspiring. Even when some of The Narrator’s sloganeering is quite obviously that – sloganeering (and whiny with it) – it touches enough of a nerve that you can understand exactly where Pitt and Norton and David Fincher and Chuck Palahniuk (whose debut novel it is based on) are coming from.

I have read reviews by intelligent commentators on film, many of whose opinions I wholeheartedly agree with, who find ‘Fight Club’ juvenile, facile, puerile and emotionally and intellectually hollow. I’m guessing they’ve never wanted to take a swing at their boss, trash their office and shrug off the responsibilities that keep the majority of us tied to our desks and our cubicles and our contracts of employment. I have – on more than one occasion. But because of those aforementioned responsibilities, I’ve kept myself in check.

Thoreau once said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. ‘Fight Club’ is the movie that recognises every one of Thoreau’s faceless, nameless, disaffected masses. ‘Fight Club’ speaks out for them, flips off authority on their behalf, and offers catharsis without the detrimental side effects of getting sacked or spending a night in the cells.

(Having said that, I reserve the right to turn up to a Senior Management Team meeting one of these days in a state of bruised dishevelment and bare bloodied teeth in a horrible gargling hiss at some cornflower-blue-tie wearing dweeb of a boss.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Wolfman

In a guest article written last Halloween, my friend Paul Rowe compared the golden age of the Universal horror movies with the current trend for remakes and wondered:

“Why, at a time when even the most low-budget shoot has production values that the movie-brats of the seventies could have only dreamed of, does every director shoot horror movies as fucking action comedies!?!?”

He continued:

“I had my hopes briefly raised when I learned that the upcoming remake of ‘The Wolf Man’ was to be set in Victorian England (predating the contemporary set 1941 version) and would remain faithful to much of George Waggner’s original. Benicio Del Toro as Larry Talbot? I licked my lips. I’ve since learned the director is Joe Johnston. Joe-‘Jurassic Park 3’-‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’-Johnston. ‘The Wolf Man’ as family-friendly actioner anyone? Er … no; no thanks. Even with Andrew Kevin Walker, who came over all gothic for ‘Se7en’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’, having contributed the screenplay, things don’t bode well.”

Which pretty much summed up my thoughts on the prospect. ‘The Wolfman’ had been announced in 2006 with Benicio del Toro executive producing and starring as Larry (now Lawrence) Talbot. As Paul noted, the script was by Andrew Kevin Walker and promised to augment the original with new characters and different character dynamics. Mark Romanek, who had earned good notices with his second feature film ‘One Hour Photo’ (and drawn an unforgettably sinister performance out of Robin Williams) was confirmed as director in February 2007. Less than a year later, it was announced he had left the project, with the old chestnut of “creative differences” cited.

The future of ‘The Wolfman’ remained indeterminate. Brett Ratner was considered as a replacement. Brett Ratner, a bargain basement Michael Bay who doesn’t even have the common courtesy to be Michael Bay. I am still offering prayers of gratitude to a God I don’t believe in that this excremental turn of events never came to pass. Other possible included Frank Darabont, James Mangold and Martin Campbell. As it turned out, Joe Johnston got the job.

This more than anything counts for my trepidation over ‘The Wolfman’, and explains the brickbats it has received critically. The thought of a re-imagining of George Waggner’s atmospheric and quietly subversive classic with the director of ‘The Mist’ at the helm – or, to an only slightly lesser degree, the director of ‘Walk the Line’ or the director of ‘Casino Royale’ – presented a “what if?” so potent that surely un film de Joe Johnston could never live up to it.

Then I read Francisco’s review on The Film Connoisseur (which I am still convinced was the first review of the film to surface on the blogosphere): it was unreservedly enthusiastically. Francisco even divined the rationale over the choice of Johnston as director:

“To me Johnston is the go to guy for making a Hollywood film that plays by the rules, plays it safe. No artsy fartsy risky business here. He is the kind of director who will direct a film, tell the story, and follow the rules set by the studio. He is not what I would call a trouble maker of a director. This guy plays ball with the studio execs and makes the movie they want to see. And for ‘The Wolfman’, which is a film Universal Studios obviously cares much about, Joe Johnston was a good choice.”

So me and Paul went along, with low expectations but a piqued curiosity. When I say low expectations, I mean that Paul had no expectations and all I was taking to the table was the prospect of Emily Blunt looking quite fetching in period garb.

When it was over and we emerged blinking into the light of Showcase Cinema’s car park (then spent an embarrassed quarter of an hour walking up and down after we realized we’d lost the car), there was nothing for it to vocalize a vaguely admission: we’d enjoyed it. We’d enjoyed it a hell of a lot.

In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that ‘The Wolfman’ is possibly the best Universal horror movie remake since Coppola’s garish and overblown but still hugely entertaining take on Dracula (and come, when you’ve got a young Monica Belucci as one of the brides of Dracula giving off a vibe that there might be more than just a blood sucking on the cards, what’s not to like?).

Okay, I’m in damning-with-faint-praise territory here, since the rest of the Universal remakes – Branagh’s bloodless, ball-less and boltless take ‘Frankenstein’ and the tripartite of cinematic evil done by Stephen Sommers in the form of the ‘Mummy’ movies and the stultifyingly bad ‘Van Helsing’ – represent a low tide mark in quality control that will forever remain unchallenged so long as Tommy Wiseau never decides remake ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ in a kid’s paddling pool with the leftover special effects from ‘Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid’.

‘The Wolfman’ rises above the other Universal remakes because, unlike Branagh’s ‘Frankenstein’, it offers a fun, rip-roaring, entertaining hour and three quarters at the flicks; but at the same time (unlike Sommers’ crimes against celluloid) it never tips over into histrionic stupidity freighted with increasingly desperate spasms of CGI.

What ‘The Wolfman’ does have to offer is a script that cleaves closely enough to the original to preserve good memories, yet opens out to embrace enough of its own little quirks (the inclusion of Inspector Abberline – here played by Hugo Weaving – of Jack the Ripper fame is an offbeat yet strangely intriguing conceit) to prevent it from being just a slavish copy but with more souped up effects.

The casting is a tad hit and miss. Del Toro turns in a peculiarly muted performance. Anthony Hopkins chews the scenery like a good ’un, evidently having more fun on a movie set here than he has in a good few years. Anthony Sher doesn’t just chew the scenery in his small but zealously attacked role as a physician – he swallows it down and then has the horizon for dessert! Art Malik brings a touch of gravitas to a nothing role. Weaving plays Abberline like some antecedent of Inspector Regan in ‘The Sweeney’; you wonder why he never managed to get the Ripper down the cells and beat a confession out of him. Emily Blunt is underused as Gwen Conliffe (here the fiancé of Lawrence’s murdered sibling, not just a flibbertigibbet Talbot picks up at the local antiques shop) during the first two thirds of the film. She provides its emotional charge in the final frames, though.

Johnston conjures up some atmospheric visuals, giving fans of the original (or of the classic Universal monster movies in general) everything they could want in turns of swirling ground-mists, dark tranches of woodland, gypsy camps and fearful villagers, but with the eviscerations ramped up to satisfy the requirements of the modern gorehound. He also throws in an unequivocally not-in-the-original asylum sequence that explodes into a fragmented, hallucinatory sequence of images that suggest the ghost of Donald Cammell had been summoned in an after-hours editing room séance. It’s a scene that’s grand guignol, Gothic and grotesque purely for the sake of it – and it’s the best scene in the movie!

The real star of the show, however, is Rick Baker’s visual effects, and ‘The Wolfman’ homages his work on ‘An American Werewolf in London’ with the casting of one of the darts players from that film as well as taking Talbot (in his lycanthropic incarnation) on a little detour rampage through London, vaulting rooftops, crashing through chimneys and thudding into omnibuses. It’s not subtle, it lacks the dark melancholy subtext of the original, and it probably won’t be half as much fun to watch second time around – I think that much of my enthusiasm comes from expecting ‘The Wolfman’ to be freakin’ awful and deriving a genuine delight in being proved wrong – but damned if it wasn’t the best fun I’d had in the cinema in six months (and yes, that includes ‘Avatar’) … or at least until I saw ‘Ponyo’ a couple of days later. But that’s another review.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Emily Blunt

Elegant, alluring and one hell of a talented actress to boot, Emily Blunt is 27 today.

The first film I saw her in was 'My Summer of Love' in 2004, an experience comparable to watching Kate Winslet in 'Heavenly Creatures' a decade earlier, the Major New Talent Alarm blaring out in my head like in klaxon: WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! STAR IN THE MAKING!

In both cases, it's been nice to be proved right. (If you're in any doubts about how iconic Emily Blunt is, by the way, I have a challenge for you: try finding a poster for 'The Wolfman' with Benicio del Toro on it.)

A glass is being raised to Ms Blunt at chez Agitation this evening, and a review of 'The Wolfman' is on the cards for tomorrow.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Not a Malpaso production

The Empire Jameson Awards ‘Done in 60 Seconds’ shortlist is now up on Empire magazine’s website and open to public voting. The remit for the competition was to remake a famous movie in a minute.

This is where I’d normally give a shout to all no-budget independent filmmakers everywhere and big up the imagination, wit and entertainment value demonstrated by the 20 films on the shortlist.

However, the one that I starred in wasn’t shortlisted. Whether that has anything to do with my thespian skills (or lack of) is something I’ll leave to the public to decide. Because, ladies and gentleman, you can view it here: ‘Unforgiven – The Remake’.

I should mention that, not having made the Empire shortlist (sour grapes aside, the shortlisted films are bloody awesome and we’ll have to pull off something very special to be in with a chance next year!), we decided to take our 60 second opus, throw all the deleted scenes back in and give the world the full six-minute Director’s Cut.

‘Unforgiven – The Remake’ was written by yours truly, co-directed by me and Tony Passarelli and stars Adam Poole as William Munny, Tony as the Schofield Kid, me as Little Bill and Lee van Hallam as English Bob. (Look out for a fragmented and borderline surreal “nobody killed Ned” scene which accounts for the fact that we shot this masterwork at the eleventh hour and couldn’t find anybody to play the Ned Logan role.) It was shot on location in Nottingham (ie. my house, Tony’s house, Wollaton Park, Aidy’s The Barber’s at Ruddington, and a field in Calverton. We just about froze our extremities off in that field).

Enjoy it, then head over to the Empire website, check out the entrants who did make the shortlist and vote for your favourite.

UPDATE: For some reason, the video only posts to Blogger in a panned-and-scanned style format, cutting off about a quarter of the picture to the right. Go here to see it, in glorious widescreen, on YouTube.

UPDATE II: here’s the 60 second version (or go here for YouTube if your browser truncates the video like what mine does). Which one do you think works best?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sky Blue

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 14 of 100

Seven years in the making, the first feature-length multi-layered HD animation, Moon Sang Kim’s ‘Sky Blue’, broke new ground in its combination of old-school cell animation, matte and state-of-the-art CGI rendering. It screened at the Venice, London, Tokyo, San Sebastian and Sundance Film Festivals to critical acclaim. Empire magazine declared it “an ‘Akira’ for the 21st century”.

Ordinarily, I’d have approached this with great anticipation. However …

‘Sky Blue’ was released to its domestic Korean market as ‘Wonderful Days’ – a title which captures the small degree of hope suggested by the transcendental final scenes of a hitherto very grim movie – and I have heard that the differences between the Korean original (properly subtitled) and the dubbed version prepared by director Sunmin Park for the English language market are so pronounced that they almost seem like different movies.

Certainly, the dubbed English version (released by Tartan Video and erroneously billed on the DVD cover as Japanese language with English subtitles) is stricken with emotionless vocal delivery, a sound mix that often swamps the dialogue under an intrusive score and heavily amplified sound effects, and translations that are wholesale cliché (“This time we’ll be ready for them”; “And so it begins”).

Moreover – and I don’t know if this is a failing of the original screenplay no matter how dubious the translation, or if the English language version is truncated (it clocks in at a brief 82 minutes) – entire scenes play out as if written longer but only parts of them were shot. Whether there’s a name for this technique, I’m not sure, but I’ve occasionally seen it used to great effect: the director plunges the audience into the middle of a scene that seems to have been underway for some while already – indeed that seems to be coming to a head – and lets the immediacy and intensity of this sudden immersion into unfolding events provide the internal dynamic, but at the cost of exposition, dramatic build-up/tension and establishment of characters and interrelationships. It’s the kind of thing that can be done effectively just a couple of times in a movie and only once character, location and narrative have been delineated. In ‘Sky Blue’, every freakin’ scene for the first 40 minutes plays out this way.

Typing the above paragraph, I’m already wondering if I’m just nit-picking. Surely the look of the film is the raison d’etre of anime. Surely anime without movement, without an imaginative visual scope, is redundant. Right?

Hmmm, I’m not sure. Miyazaki, as riotous and unfettered as his imagination is, often achieves the truest and most heartfelt cinematic poetry from the tiniest details, the quietest moments. As ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ or Yoshifumi Kondo’s ‘Whisper of the Heart’ prove, you can make a slow-moving, character-based anime and have it succeed beautifully.

But of course, those films tell different stories. ‘Sky Blue’ is more in the vein of ‘Akira’ or Shinji Aramaki’s ‘Appleseed’: a dystopian vision of the future married to an action-thriller narrative punctuated with the kind of pyrotechnics that would push the cost so high if done as live action that it would make your average James Cameron budget look like chump change. And thus the aesthetic: it’s about the bike chases, it’s about the hardware, it’s about the shoot-outs, it’s about the explosions, it's about the effects.

So: on those terms, ‘Sky Blue’ delivers, but no more or less than any other steampunk, cyberpunk, shit-out-of-luck-punk action-fest. And again this is due to deficiencies of exposition and characterization. The basic plot is fairly simple (which is just as well since narrative coherence is paid something that comes a couple of notches under lip-service and only just scrapes in above short shrift): following an ecological disaster, an elite citizenry guarded by a trigger-happy private army hole up in an enclosed city called Ecoban and happily exploit an underclass called the Diggers who mine the wasteland outside the city to fuel its energy supply. The Diggers get pissed off at the conditions they’re forced to endure, particularly when the sadistic Commander Cade lets a bunch of them die in an industrial accident rather than risk his men making a rescue attempt, and decide to rebel. However, with characters sketchily established at best and no weight given to what’s at stake to either side, drama and tension dissipate. A divided loyalties conflict is shoehorned in towards the end, but again with only the shallowest development.

Fortunately, the balls-to-the-wall action finale is realised excitingly enough to succeed on its own terms (although a three-way stand-off at the crucial moment is milked so thoroughly you’d think Max Clifford was doing the publicity), and there is a surprising poignance to the very last scenes that lingers in the mind even as the preceding 80 minutes are swiftly forgotten.

Friday, February 19, 2010

HELLRAISERS: Look Back in Anger

You can pretty much date the “angry young man” movement in British literature as having its beginnings with John Osborne’s play ‘Look Back in Anger’ in 1956. In fact it was a press officer at the Royal Court Theatre who came up with the phrase as part of the play’s publicity.

The “angry young man” movement in British cinema was coterminous with the kitchen sink drama. These grimly realistic films, often tackling controversial social issues (infidelity, abortion, domestic violence, alcoholism), reached their fullest expression in the 1960s with the likes of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘The L-Shaped Room’, ‘This Sporting Life’, ‘The Family Way’ and ‘Poor Cow’. Two striking examples, however, were made in the late ’50s: Jack Clayton’s ‘Room at the Top’, from the novel by John Braine, and Tony Richardson’s adaptation (having directed the original theatrical production) of ‘Look Back in Anger’.

The clue’s in the title. And for anyone who missed it, it’s made explicitly clear in the towering fury of Richard Burton’s performance as Jimmy Porter, the mid-twenties university graduate who has turned his back on everything that university and education stand for and ekes out a basic living behind a market stall. At night, he plays trumpet and drinks at jazz clubs.
He lives in a dingy flat with put-upon wife Alison (Mary Ure) and lodger and co-worker at the stall Cliff (Gary Raymond). The flat, with its proximity to a church whose bells toll the faithful to and from worship with metronomic regularity, is a prison. Alison has become the personification of all the upper-middle-class superficiality he has so robustly eschewed. There is no love left in their marriage. Jimmy’s vehemence towards her leaves her fearful. She can’t bring herself to tell him she’s pregnant.

Cliff does his best to keep the peace between Jimmy and Alison, but his affectionate (though entirely platonic) relationship with Alison adds tension. Jimmy is as derogatory in his treatment of Cliff as he is towards Alison; and there’s no doubt that Cliff is second fiddle at the stall, Jimmy leaving him to tend to customers without a break while he hares off to the pub with “Ma” Tanner (Edith Evans). “Ma” Tanner is Jimmy’s erstwhile landlady and, as the maternal appellation suggests, something of a mother figure to him. A decent side to Jimmy emerges while he’s in her company; he accompanies her to a forlorn cemetery, goods trains clanking past in the distance, where she tends to her husband’s grave.

There’s a grimness to every frame of ‘Look Back in Anger’. From the dismal cemetery to the pubs wreathed in cigarette smoke; from the cramped rows of terraced houses to Jimmy and Alison’s equally cramped flat; from the grubby station platform where leave-takings and returnings are played out to the litter-strewn market place where stall inspector Hurst (Donald Pleasance) sneeringly and punctiliously makes his rounds and a coterie of stall holders close ranks against Indian tradesman Kapoor (S.P. Kapoor). Jimmy is a witness to the racially motivated accusations against Kapoor which see Hurst revoke his licence, and urges him to stand up to his accusers. Kapoor replies sadly and pragmatically that there are other towns and prepares to make his departure. “What made you come to this bloody country?” Jimmy asks him. “In India, I was an outcast,” Kapoor replies.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

‘Look Back in Anger’ kicks Englishness in the teeth. It’s easy to see why the clanging churchbells drive Jimmy mad: he has rejected the doctrines they vouchsafe; he knows full well that the racket they make never quite disguises the provincialism, the xenophobia or the smug hypocrisies of which the likes of Alison’s parents are emblematic; never quite drowns out the bleating of mealy-mouthed jobsworths like Hurst. ‘Look Back in Anger’ kicks against church, state, education and ambition (asked what he really wants, Jimmy answers “Everything. Nothing”). It even cocks a snook at the theatrical tradition (notwithstanding the origins of its source material) by having Jimmy and Cliff boisterously interrupt the rehearsals of a parlour room play Alison’s friend Helena (Claire Bloom) is appearing in.

Jimmy’s an unlikeable character for much of the 100-minute running time (he’s probably even more insufferable for the two hours plus of the play), and my sympathies while watching the film are generally more with Alison despite the fact that she does herself no favours by being such a doormat, but I can understand where the anger comes from and what it’s directed towards. Anyone who can’t is either from the upper-middle-classes Jimmy’s so contemptuous of, or they’ve never lived in England.

As a feel-bad film, ‘Look Back in Anger’ is up there with anything Ken Loach has ever put his name to. As a document of working class Britain, it’s a lot more convincing than anything Mike Leigh has ever put his name to. As a showcase for a searing, raging, no-holds-barred, tear-the-screen-up performance, it’s arguably Richard Burton’s finest hour.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Blood Stained Shadow

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: gialli / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 13 of 100

‘Blood Stained Shadow’ was the second of two gialli directed by Antonio Bido, following ‘The Cat’s Victims’ (a.k.a. ‘Watch Me When I Kill’) and represents a quantum leap from its predecessor’s staid pacing and uninvolving mystery. Set – like Aldo Lado’s ‘Who Saw Her Die?’ – in an almost permanently fog-enshrouded Venice, ‘Blood Stained Shadow’ exploits its setting to good effect and values atmosphere and tension above gore and grand guignol set pieces.

Academic Stephano d’Archangelo (Lino Capolicchio) returns to his native Venice for some R&R – and, having struck up a rapport on the train with attractive fellow passenger Sandra Sellani (Stefania Casini), maybe something more – but his arrival home is met with truculence from the locals, suspicious looks, and a reunion with his brother that is overshadowed by strange events which soon lead to murder.

Stephano’s brother, Don Paolo (Craig Hill), is a priest whose actions on behalf of his parishioners have brought him into conflict with Count Pedrazzi (Massimo Serrato), a suspected paedophile. Pedrazzi attends séances conducted by a medium (Alina de Simone) who is using information gleaned at these events for personal gain.

Don Paolo witnesses the medium’s murder one stormy night, but by the time he raises the alarm the killer has fled. In trying to raise the alarm, Don Paolo finds himself alone in the house, both his brother and the sacristan Gasparre (Attilio Duse) having inexplicably chosen this most inclement of evenings to take themselves out on errands. The following morning, Don Paolo receives an anonymous note warning him to keep quiet. Other notes follow, their contents increasingly threatening.

‘Blood Stained Shadow’ is a veritable blood stained fishpond, a shoal of red herrings darting across the screen at any given moment. Is it coincidence that Don Paolo’s misfortunes begin the moment Stephano arrives back on the scene? What’s the story behind Stephano’s never-fully-explained medical condition? Why are his “attacks” accompanied by flashbacks, and what are these flashbacks to? What’s the secret that connects the local doctor and a midwife who behaves suspiciously? Why is someone willing to kill for a painting by Sandra’s bed-ridden mother-in-law and what does the canvas symbolize?

Bido plays with genre tropes and expectations just as deftly as he plants/obfuscates the clues. There are roving POV shots, not always from the killer’s perspective. There’s a pounding Goblin-like score clearly inspired by ‘Deep Red’ (‘Blood Stained Shadow’ was made a year after Argento’s masterpiece) that doesn’t always mean a fatality when it kicks in. Stephano’s love of art recalls Capolicchio’s character in Pupi Avati’s ‘The House with the Laughing Windows’, while the importance of a painting is a giallo standard perhaps most famously exemplified by Argento’s ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’.

There are a couple of week spots: Capolicchio’s performance is as plank-like an unemotive as it was in ‘The House with the Laughing Windows’, while Casini – an intriguing actress who’s worked with Argento, Marco Ferreri, Bernardo Bertolucci and Peter Greenaway – is wasted in a nothing role. On the plus side, Craig Hill is excellent, investing Don Paolo with gravitas.

The murder scenes, while secondary to Bido’s penchant for suspense and misdirection, are (pardon the pun) well executed, particularly an extended set piece featuring two boats and a hapless individual who finds himself plunged into the dank waters of a canal.

For a city that subsists almost entirely on tourism, a city so frequently cited as a romantic destination, cinema has done Venice few favours: it’s a place of decaying grandeur against which von Aschenbach dies in ‘Death in Venice’, an appropriately sorrowful backdrop to a psycho-sexual study of loss and impending violence in ‘Don’t Look Now’, a place in which one becomes both physically and emotionally lost in ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, and the stalking ground of black gloved killers in at least two gialli. See Venice and die.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Winter Light

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Sweden) / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 12 of 100

‘Winter Light’ is the second title in Ingmar Bergman’s loosely connected “trilogy on faith”. Free from the psycho-drama of the first film, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’, the nihilistic despair of the concluding episode ‘The Silence’ and the incestuous subtext of both of them, ‘Winter Light’ is nonetheless a shattering, profound and deeply personal work; arguably the essential work in the trilogy not only in that it connects the films that bookend it but because it is the only film in a trilogy exploring faith which has a man of the cloth as its main character.

The disturbed heroine of ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ makes reference to a “spider god” during her mental turmoil. The phrase recurs in ‘Winter Light’ in a more contemplative context as Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) addresses his crisis of faith. Unable to provide spiritual comfort or assuage the doubts of his flock, Tomas goes through the motions as he presides over Sunday morning service and evensong. In his occasional candid moments, he names the thing that constitutes his greatest agony: God’s silence.

Thus the title of the concluding film. ‘The Silence’ is a feature-length metaphor for this dispiriting concept. ‘The Silence’ is one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen. It makes your average Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr opus look like an Ealing comedy.

‘Winter Light’ isn’t much happier. It takes place during a single day, a Sunday. The opening sequence has Tomas conducts the morning service. The church is half empty. Frederik Blom (Olof Thunberg), the organist, checks his watch and almost misses his cue when Tomas concludes his sermon; Algot Frovik (Allan Edwall), the sexton, suffers through the service, crippled, hunched and in pain; the elderly Magdalena (Elsa Ebbesen) mumbles the responses to the prayers and warbles her way off-key through the hymns; heavily pregnant Karin Persson (Gunnel Lindblom) accompanies her depressed and uncommunicative husband Jonas (Max von Sydow) and encourages him to “talk it out” with Tomas after the service; Knut Aronsson (Kolbjorn Knudsen) splutters his way through the hymns as if the words – pious and by rote – have become stuck in his throat; and schoolteacher Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin) carries a torch for Tomas and suppresses a lack of belief in God as long as she can be close to him.

During the course of this single day, Tomas will reject Marta’s love, be faced with one of his flock questioning of Christ’s suffering, and deal with the aftermath of another’s suicide. He will also be confronted with the accusation that his erstwhile passion in his vocation owed more to his late wife’s love than God’s.

‘Winter Light’ opens with Sunday morning service, at which attendance barely scrapes double figures. It concludes with evensong, at which only Frederik, Algot and Marta are present. Frederik and Algot because they are required to be, Marta despite Tomas’s rejection of her. In spiritual terms, his church is empty. Tomas begins the service nonetheless.

It is to his eternal credit that Bergman the director shoots every scene with complete detachment, just as Bergman the writer employs an observation approach. In both incarnations, Bergman acts not as a commentator or a moralist, but as a witness. He simply observes and records. Reports back. He imbues the accoutrements of communion with as much gravitas as the empty pews and cold architecture of the church. With the exception of a scene in which a character reads a letter and Bergman cuts to a non-naturalistic close-up of the sender reciting the contents of said letter, ‘Winter Light’ is possessed of enough austere observationalism to almost pass as a documentary.

And this is the key to Bergman’s approach to the material. The meaning is in the silences, in the ellipses, in what is unspoken. Is ‘Winter Light’ about God’s silence, or do the silences present spaces in which the doubter can find faith, the questioner receive answers and the helpless benefit from guidance? Is an empty church a symbol of the failure of religion, or less cluttered so that the one person whose belief is in the reckoning can engage with their deepest and darkest conflicts? When Tomas, being driven back to the church for evensong, uses the delay in the barrier at a railway crossing blocking the road to admit that he entered the seminary because of his parents’ wishes, is it symbolic of the path he took being adumbrated, or is the eventual lifting of the barrier and his continued journey the more appropriate metaphor?

As an atheist, I find concatenation in much of ‘Winter Light’ to a rejection of religion. But in Bergman’s refusal to call it either way – and in the rigidly ambiguous final scene in which Tomas, preaching to an all but empty church, faces the camera in tight close-up and speaks words in praise of God – Tomas’s internal struggle for belief finds an onscreen corollary in which the last few seconds before the screen fades to black could equally denote despair or redemption.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 11 of 100

Heard the one about the nice Jewish girl, good job at a Manhattan newspaper, dabbles in painting – oy vey, if only she was only more serious about, could have her own show! – but no luck with the men, nice boy she used to go out with, editor at the newspaper, not good enough for her though, same story with every man she meets, so choosey; heard the one about how she impulsively replies to an ad in the personal columns from a bi-curious gallery owner?

Anyone who thinks I was being stereotypical with that first paragraph should watch the first ten minutes of ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’. The Jewish humour is laid on so heavily you’d think Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman and Rabbi Lionel Blue had spent a few hours after synagogue smoking pot and trying out routines on each other. Although I can’t imagine Woody Allen or Rabbi Blue coming up with a routine in which an ostensibly straight woman and a bi-curious woman pour over some pamphlets on sex aids and marvel, “Wow, lesbians can accessorize!” (I can, however, imagine this in a Sarah Silverman routine.)

Fortunately, the avalanche of Jewish humour (and, by extension, Jewish stereotypes; Jessica’s overbearing mother, always sounding off about the important jobs her children have, is a case in point) quickly abates and Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s quirky rom-com settles into a comedy-of-embarrassments groove, generating some fairly consistent wry humour and a couple of belly laughs as well as fielding a few unexpected narrative developments en route to a low-key and not-quite-as-expected ending that is nonetheless honest in not taking the necessarily crowd-pleasing route. (A lesbian friend of mine hates this movie purely for its last five minutes.)

I’m chary of classifying ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ as a lesbian film (and male aficionados of lipstick lesbianism erotica will be sorely disappointed) – I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same grouping as ‘Desert Hearts’, ‘Better than Chocolate’ or ‘When Night is Falling’, even though two of those deal with the sexual and emotional awakening of a hitherto straight protagonist. I’m a tad more comfortable with hanging the “romantic comedy” tag on it, even though it SPOILER ALERT breaks the cardinal rule of rom-com by not having the couple you want to end up together actually end up together SPOILERS END and adopts a more sardonic tone in its use of humour than, say, the more ribald ‘When Harry Met Sally’ or the playing-to-the-gallery of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. Having said that, it’s a hell of a lot more amusing and entertaining than the tedious ‘Notting Hill’ or the by-the-numbers ‘Wimbledon’.

The slender plot has the eponymous Jessica Stein (Jennifer Westfeldt) – a buttoned-down perfectionist – pushed by her mother, her grandmother and her well-meaning friends into a series of disastrously awful dates (an excruciatingly funny montage has her reeling from the attentions of a punctilious bow-tie-wearing accountant, an over-eager nerd who won’t stop talking, and a silk-shirt wearing gigolo type. Ploughing through screeds of new ads in the personal columns, an over-abundance of WLTM-style acronyms rendering the whole thing increasingly impersonal, she comes across an ad which quotes Rilke: “It is not inertia alone that is responsible for human relationships repeating themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new, unforeseeable experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope. But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most enigmatical will live the relation to another as something alive.” Initially disappointed that the ad has appeared in the “women seeking women” section, a dispiriting conversation with former boyfriend (and current boss) Josh (Scott Cohen) compels her to answer it. The ad has been placed by free-spirited gallery owner Helen (Heather Juergensen), a striking and confident woman who is not wanting for male consorts but who is looking for something more.

Little more needs to be offered by way of synopsis: ‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ unfolds more as a series of archly observed vignettes than anything as structured as a story, and the pleasure is in the sparky chemistry between the leads – Westfeldt and Juergensen co-wrote the screenplay, developing it from a series of comedy sketches they performed together – and the wryly observed characterizations encouraged by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s unobtrusive directorial style. Josh, in particular, is granted a character arc that takes him from self-righteous uppity twat to something more sympathetic. His thwarted-writer-turned-editor subplot plays out in subtle counterpoint to Jessica and Helen’s developing relationship.

‘Kissing Jessica Stein’ is an affable little movie that, for the most part, treats its audience intelligently. It’s not perfect: the more heavy-handed examples of Jewish humour fall flat, Herman-Wurmfeld could have done with reining in Westfeldt’s hyper-ventilated performance a bit, and the ending feels rushed and under-developed. Still, it’s a pleasant alternative to the usual identikit rom-coms the studios pump out, and a decent Valentine’s Day recommendation for movie lovers who prefer their romantic fare not smothered in syrup.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Oliver Reed

Oliver Reed would have been 73 today.

Had it not, you know, been for a life of booze, birds and brawling, and all of it done to the extreme.

Here at chez Agitation, where teetotalism is a dirty word and it is unequivocally accepted that brilliance and self-destruction go hand in hand, a celebratory and non-judgemental glass of the old vino is being raised to the memory of one of Britain’s premiere hellraisers.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wolfie vs. Wolfie

Over the last couple of decades, the great Universal monster-protagonists have been subjected to big-budget, high-profile and generally disappointing remakes: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992) was entertaining but overblown, Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (1994) was anaemic – and doesn’t the pompous shoehorning of the author’s name into the title tell you something? – and Stephen Sommers’ ‘The Mummy’ (1999) and ‘The Mummy Returns’ (2001) were just plain execrable.

Sommers then went on to make ‘Van Helsing’ (2004). It is better that we do not speak of ‘Van Helsing’.

Now ‘The Wolf Man’ gets the treatment, with Joe Johnston calling the shots, Andrew Kevin Walker co-scripting and a quality cast headed up by Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt.

I had my doubts, but an enthusiastic review by Francisco at The Film Connoisseur has heightened my anticipation and I’m looking forward to taking in a screening of the film next week.

In the meantime, my guest review of George Waggner’s 1941 original is online at The Death Rattle.

And while I’m on the subject, has anyone noticed the similarity between the soon-to-be-iconic image of Emily Blunt on the remake’s poster art and Kelly Reilly in ‘Eden Lake’?

Could it be that werewolves are the new chavs?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: An Inconvenient Truth

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: documentaries / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 10 of 100

FULL DISCLOSURE: before I saw ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ at the cinema in September 2006, I was a sceptic. I gave little thought to environmental concerns and was of the opinion that global warming was just another media scare story. Davis Guggenheim’s documentary swung a wrecking ball against my apathy and non-understanding and my attitude to the media now is that they don’t talk about environmentalism enough.

Full disclosure, too, on the provenance of this post. The eight paragraphs that follow are simply a copy and paste of the review I wrote for my erstwhile blog MovieBuff three and a half years ago. When I selected ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for the Personal Faves project – and when I hit upon documentaries as one of the Operation 101010 genres – it was my intention to reappraise the film and write an entirely new piece. Looking back at that original write-up, though, I realised that what I wouldn’t be able to capture in a new article was that sense of the scales falling from my eyes; of how much of a wake-up call the film was to me on personal level. So please excuse the slightly breathless prose style, the contextual references to the Bush administration (the Demon Dubya was still in power at the time), and the stupidly obvious mistake in the first paragraph (it’s a Keynote presentation, not PowerPoint – d’uh!); what follows is how I felt in September 2006, just a couple of hours after seeing the film:

On paper, it doesn’t sound like much of an evening at the flicks: 97 minutes of a US politician giving a PowerPoint presentation about global warming, with a few bits of newsreel footage spliced in. But don’t be put off.

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is a gripping and thought-provoking documentary about Al Gore’s campaign – although a better word would be crusade; the man is passionate and dedicated – to promote understanding of the global climate crisis. Tirelessly travelling from city to city, state to state, his goal is to raise public awareness, eradicate the myths surrounding global warming that have been propagated in the popular press, and – crucially – to encourage his audience that the solution can be social, not political.

Gore’s lack of faith in the Bush administration isn’t just sour grapes at his defeat in Florida, but based on hard-won personal experience of the political process. America has still not ratified the Kyoto Treaty – the only major country (apart from Australia) not to do so. Oil and big business hold sway over policy-making. Gore relates the story of Phillip Cooney, a lobbyist for American Petroleum who was appointed as Bush’s environmental advisor … a conflict of interests by any standards! Cooney’s White House career came to an end after a whistleblower leaked documents that proved he had censored reports warning of the growing climate crisis. The day after Cooney resigned, he went to work for Exxon Mobil.

But of course, the basic facts of global warming are the very things big business doesn’t want to face up to (the ‘inconvenient truth’ of the title): energy consumption and fossil fuels contribute to the huge quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere. Gore charts a direct correlation between CO2 levels and temperature increase. Melting icecaps and glaciers are only part of the problem; extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes and typhoons have also increased dramatically in the last decade, culminating in last year’s Hurricane Katrina.

The evidence is incontrovertible: a simple graph shows how drastically levels have risen since the 1970s. A projection, based on current increase, demonstrates that within 45 years, the effect on Earth’s atmosphere will be one of irreversible ecological damage. Gore’s message is clear: we have a decade in which we can do something; counter the problem; pulls ourselves back from the brink. It sounds bleak, but Gore remains confident that changes can be made.

This is what it will take: as many people as possible taking personal responsibility in a matter of global morality. Will it happen? I can only offer my response to the film:

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ has changed the way I think about certain issues. It has corrected my misunderstanding, based on erroneous and scaremongering reports in the media, of the causes and results of global warming. It has shown me that, on a personal basis, I can make a change.

We all can. Go and see the film, buy the book that accompanies it – and you’ll already have made a start.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Steve McQueen blog-a-thon at The Cooler next month

Jason Bellamy at The Cooler is hosting a Steve McQueen blog-a-thon between 24-27 March.

McQueen is one of the genuine icons of American cinema, his minimalist acting style comparable to Clint Eastwood’s. McQueen’s characters probably emerge with a little more careworn humanity than Eastwood’s, though.

I’ve not decided which of McQueen’s films I’ll be looking at yet (I’ve already explored his two-film relationship with Sam Peckinpah in last year’s Peckinpah tribute), but there’s enough stone-cold classics on his CV to go at.

Head over to Jason’s blog if you want to sign up for the blog-a-thon; you’ll be in good company.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Pickup on South Street

Marred only by its McCarthyist Commie-bashing overtones, Sam Fuller’s ‘Pickup on South Street’ is dark, cynical, no-punches-pulled film noir the way it should be, inhabiting a milieu of lowlife crooks, hard-bitten cops, sultry dames and vicious killers, a world where everything is for sale or – if the price is too high – killed for.

Pickpocket and three-time jailbird Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), just out of the joint after his most recent spell, lifts good time girl Candy (Jean Peters)’s purse on the subway. Bad move. It contains a bit more than the expected make-up case and pocketbook.

Candy’s en route to a drop-off at the behest of her sometime boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), a man mixed up in a Communist spy ring who’s so scared of having his cover blown that he barely leaves his apartment and thinks nothing of sending Candy to do his dirty work. Candy has no idea that Joey’s a pinko, nor that the merchandise she’s dropping off (several frames of microfilm) poses a potential threat to state security.

She doesn’t know she’s being followed either. Police Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye) and FBI Agent Zara (Willis Bouchey) have got her under surveillance, ready to pounce when she makes the drop. They’re ready to nail the Mr Big in the spy ring. Skip’s light-fingering fandango throws a spanner in the works. Then he, ahems, skips off the train before Candy’s tails can intercede.

Tiger (appropriately named: the dude’s tenacious) calls in Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter), a stool pigeon who’s address book reads like a DeBrett’s of the underworld and gets her to ID Skip based not on the physical description his men provide but on his technique in making the snatch. Moe’s a woman who knows something about everyone and will sell to cop or crim for the right price.

Skip’s also attuned to what he can get for what he’s got, whether it’s Candy’s voluptuous charms or a wad of cold hard cash. When Tiger and Zara come calling it’s not with the latter and they ain’t feminine enough to make it with the former. They appeal, instead, to his sense of patriotism. The rhetoric cuts no ice with Skip; a “three-time loser”, his next conviction means life, and Tiger has a personal grievance against him and a jones to see him go down.

Skip: You boys are talking to the wrong corner. I'm just a guy keeping my hands in my own pockets.
Agent Zara: If you refuse to cooperate you'll be as guilty as the traitors who gave Stalin the A-bomb.
Skip: Are you waving the flag at me?

Fuller’s screenplay (from a story by Dwight Taylor) is a model of economy, setting up half a dozen characters and a handful of locations – Skip’s harbour-front shack, Joey’s apartment, Moe’s place, Captain Tiger’s office, the subway – before negotiating an increasingly labyrinthine series of permutations like a piano virtuoso executing a faultless set of variations on a theme.

Skip’s distrust of Tiger necessitates a stonewalling of the cops. Candy’s attraction to Skip (coinciding with her discovery of Joey’s political affiliations) leaves her in a no-man’s-land between cops, crims and Commies. Joey’s desperation that he won’t be able to deliver the microfilm motivates him to betrayal and violence. Moe’s reputation for selling information leads some unsavoury characters to her door.

‘Pickup on South Street’ clocks in a stripped-down 80 minutes. Every frame, every tersely quotable line of dialogue is spare and purposeful. From its claustrophic opening sequence to its noir to the nines pursuit and fistfight in the dark tunnels of the subway, ‘Pickup on South Street’ is fast-paced and purposeful. The dialogue hums. The cinematography is striking and moody. Widmark has seldom been better, while the stunning Jean Peters finds a nice balance between the feisty, smart-talking front that Candy puts on and the out-of-her-depth human being she’s finally revealed to be.

The jingoist hoo-hah that permeates the narrative is something of a sop to the prevailing political climate (‘Pickup on South Street’ was made in 1953, the year the Rosenbergs were executed) and the freighted references to the Red Menace seem a little OTT half a century down the line. Indeed, with the microfilm McGuffin figuring so prominently, you’d be forgiven in places for thinking you were watching a Hitchcock. But it ain’t Hitch at the helm, it’s Sam Fuller, and it’s not long before a brutal piece of sneering cynicism sears the screen and you’re left in no doubt about the film’s noir credentials.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

My Neighbour Totoro

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 9 of 100

If I’d seen ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ two years ago when I drew up the Personal Faves list (with its caveat of two films per director maximum) I would have included it in a heartbeat. As it is, I selected ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ to represent Miyazaki’s oeuvre.

The more I’ve explored the Studio Ghibli output (mainly at my wife’s urging: ’twas she who introduced me to anime), the more I’ve come to regret including ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ on the PF list. Sure, it’s a great film – and one of the few Ghiblis to benefit from its dubbed English language soundtrack, mainly thanks to Billy Crystal’s best work in ages as the voice of the fire demon Calcifer – but I’ve come to realise that I much prefer ‘Porco Rosso’ and ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ to ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’. And based on just one viewing, I have no hesitation in ranking ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ as one of the jewels in Studio Ghibli’s crown.

My only reservation over Miyazaki’s work has been a tendency, in just a very few films, to over-earnestness that threatens to render tone and pace sluggish even as the visuals soar. A very minor quibble, though, particularly when those visuals are just so damn gorgeous.

‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is Miyazaki’s gentlest, simplest, most lyrical film. The plot hardly matters (but just for the record: pre-teen Satsuki and her four-year-old sister Mei move to the country with their father while their mother recuperates in hospital; Mei meets the spirits of the forest; said spirits come to the rescue when Mei gets lost after an argument with Satsuki; the end) – what is important is the detail, the evocation of childhood and the countryside, and the life-affirming reconciliatory final sequence.

Mei’s first encounter with the otherworldly comes in the form of the soot gremlins (these li’l fellas …

… whom you may recognize from ‘Spirited Away’) who occupy the nooks and crannies and rafters of the family’s bath-house. They flee whenever Mei comes near them. Determined to sneak up on them, she inadvertently discovers the existence of other creatures. These guys, to be exact:

Like the soot gremlins, they beat a hasty retreat. Mei laughingly pursues them through the forest. The forest deepens; trees seem closer together; branches interlace. But none of this scares Mei or detracts from her innocent delight in discovering the creatures and chasing playfully after them. Emerging into a clearing, she encounters Totoro.

One of the most lovable aspects of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ is how completely it celebrates childhood. Satsuki and Mei’s father is good-natured and attentive; he loves his children but isn’t over-protective. When Mei talks about Totoro, he doesn’t dismiss her claims as the product of her imagination but tells her she was lucky to have met one of the spirits of the forest. He also instills in his daughters an appreciation (and respect) for the natural world. Environmentalism is a key theme in Miyazaki’s work, but whereas films like ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ are intense and challenging in the way they make their point, ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ incorporates the theme in a very genial and lyrical manner.

Mei’s innocence, exuberance and delight in the smallest of things is mirrored by Totoro himself. A lovely scene has Satsuki and Mei waiting for their father at a bus stop. Mei, tired from a long day, has had a piggy-back ride from Satsuki and is falling asleep even as she clings to her sister. Despite a heavy rain, Satsuki uncomplainingly waits at the stop. From beneath her umbrella, held low so that it covers both herself and Mei, she sees someone take up position next to them. Someone large, furry and with claws. As Mei did before her, Satsuki makes the acquaintance of Totoro. The creature (I was about to type “monster”, but a less monstrous ten-foot clawed being I can’t imagine; even Sully from ‘Monsters Inc’ is edgier than this guy) has a leaf on his head, from which the pooling raindrops plop onto his nose. This would probably annoy most of us. Totoro seems to like it. Satsuki passes Totoro a spare umbrella and mimes to him how to use it. Totoro gets the picture and hoists it above his head. The leaf/raindrops/nose scenario is consequently curtailed, much to Totoro’s puzzlement. The rain patters on the umbrella. The noise perks his senses. Then a much larger, denser drop of water detaches itself from an overhanging tree branch and impacts on Totoro’s umbrella with a thud. He’s delighted. It happens again. Totoro emits a joyous roar, throws out an arm and leaps into the air. He comes back down heavily and a cascade of pooled rainwater showers down from the leaves. The commotion wakes Mei, who grins in delight that Totoro has joined them.

It’s a simple – almost wistful – scene, devoid of narrative purpose but rich in detail (Miyazaki lingers on the single light that sheds a dim yellow light into the rainswept night; on the pools of rainwater; on a frog that wryly observes Totoro from the other side of the road) and eloquently nuanced with only barest of dialogue. It concludes in abrupt burst of energy as Totoro’s bus arrives. The bus is a cat. Yes, you read that right. No, I didn’t make it up. I have the screengrab to prove it.

Totoro and the cat-bus rally around Satsuki when an unparalleled argument between the sisters, exacerbated by concerns that their mother has suffered a potentially life-threatening relapse, sees Mei disappear into the countryside, trying to walk to the hospital. While this sequence might seem like the only real dramatic incident in the film, it’s actually the culmination of several downplayed but poignantly observed moments that demonstrate how Satsuki is on the cusp of adolescence, particularly in her slowly developing friendship with a boy from a neighbouring household, while Mei remains a wide-eyed and effusive child, fascinated by the world around her and all the magic and mystery it holds.

It is Miyazaki’s refusal to overstate this aspect (much as he refuses to over-sentimentalize the almost obligatory happy ending) that makes ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ the purest, warmest and most immediately likeable of his films.