strange_complex: (Vampira)
I'm off to the cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan tomorrow, so that's a good incentive to finish off this film review catch-up project first so that I have a clean slate for tomorrow's new entry. The first three of these should always have been reviewed together in the same post anyway, as they were part of a series of Universal Monster Movies which the National Media Museum mounted on Monday nights during October and November.

27. Dracula (1931), dir. Tod Browning
I've reviewed this in excessive detail before, while for us this particular screening came fairly hot on the heels of our own viewing of the parallel Spanish version. But this was my first experience of it on the big screen, and it certainly deserves the detail and grandeur which that ensures - especially for the scenes set in Transylvania, in the darkened garden of Seward's asylum where Dracula lurks, and in his lair in Carfax Abbey. Everything is just beautiful, from the Art Deco bat which supplies the background for the opening credits to the gentle toll of the church bells at the end as Mina and Jon(athan) walk up the curving staircase out of Dracula's crypt. I will never quite be able to come to terms with the opossums running around in Dracula's castle, the piece of paper stuck to Lucy's bedside lamp which was obviously meant to improve the lighting for shots from one angle but was left very obviously in place for shots from the other, or the utter cardboard-cutoutness of Jon(athan) Harker, though.

28. Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale
This was the next in Universal's series, and in the National Media Museum's screening schedule. I've seen it before, but a long time ago and never on the big screen. Two main things to say. One, Boris as the creature is amazing. There is a real sensitivity in his performance, successfully conveying a living being with an agency and agenda of its own. His make-up is incredible as well. Forget all the clunky rip-offs and parodies of it you've seen. The original is actually exceptionally detailed and carefully-designed, with the hands and arms to me looking especially convincing as those of a reanimated corpse. Two, the way the human characters treat the creature is downright distressing, and indeed I found the whole moral compass of the film shockingly off-kilter. The biggest problem for me was that the in-story explanation offered for why the creature turns bad is that when Fritz (Frankenstein's assistant) goes to steal a brain for it, he comes back with what is literally labelled on the jar an 'abnormal brain', and which we have heard a medical scientist explaining accounts for the 'brutal and criminal life' which its owner had lived. I know this sort of thinking was rife in the early 20th century, and used to justify a lot of shitty oppression too, but it makes me so angry that I would struggle to overlook it in any circumstances, while in this particular film it anyway utterly destroys the potential moral nuances of the story it is trying to tell. Labelling the creature as an irredeemable criminal before it has even been brought to life quashes all chance of exploring the impact of Frankenstein's thoughtless act on his own creation, and also pre-excuses the appalling behaviour of the humans towards it once it has come to life. In fact, it means there's no real point portraying that behaviour anyway, as the motif of the brain means the creature was always going to 'go bad', however it was treated. So there are half-hearted nods towards exploring the creature's perspective, identifiable in Boris Karloff's performance and the scenes in which the creature is ill-treated, but in the end they have no moral weight because of the pre-destination symbolised by the brain. Meanwhile, the much louder message is the depressingly-simplistic one - "Look, you shouldn't try to play God because your creations will inevitably just be bad and go bad!" At the end, the poor creature dies screaming in agony in a burning mill (again played very affectingly by Boris), and we then just switch straight to the human characters unproblematically celebrating it all with a wedding party. Horrifying, but not in the way intended.

29. The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund
The following week we had The Mummy, which I found much more satisfying. This time, its moral dimension is pretty sound, with some interesting commentary on the ethics of colonial archaeology in particular, and indeed a good understanding of how archaeology works in general (e.g. why simple bits of pottery are often much more important than golden treasures). Just one small complaint on the antiquities front - a priestess of Isis really cannot be described as a Vestal Virgin. 'Vestal' doesn't just mean generically sacred or holy - it means specifically consecrated to Vesta (the clue is in the name). This film boasts an unusually (for the time) autonomous female main character, Helen Grosvenor, who is the daughter of the governor of Sudan but has chosen to live quite independently from her parents in Cairo, expresses disdain for the various men who attempt to court or control her, and indeed ends up destroying the mummy at the end of the film in spite of the fact that she is his reincarnated lover. I've often complained about that particular trope (e.g. here re Blacula 1972), since it consistently strips women of their agency, but here far from it - instead, she actively decides that she doesn't want to be with Imhotep, and uses the resources which are her equivalent to his own magical powers (her connection to Isis, whose priestess she once was) to defeat him. All of this, of course, is pretty easily explained by the fact that story's original author was a woman. Visually, the film keeps up and indeed excels the standards of sets, make-up and costumes from the previous two films, including the wise / clever decision to show Boris in his full mummy make-up only on his first appearance, and after that have him looking more or less like a normal human being, but with a serious skin condition. He gets to speak properly in this film too, using the dialogue to infuse his character with a malevolent charm that I know well from Christopher Lee's roles. His performance is also ably supported by an adorable fluffy white cat - I wonder if he was the first film villain to have one? Finally, I was fascinated to note that in a flash-back sequence where Imhotep shows Helen scenes of their past together in a pool, the images are shot like a silent movie: less crisp than the surrounding footage, no use of close-ups, and the overlay of classic silent-movie style music (in contrast with almost no soundtrack music in main film). Like the white cat, I can't help but feel this must be a cinematic first, as the medium of film was still so new at this time that there can't have been many earlier opportunities to deliberately use the conventions of out-dated film technology to signify 'the past'. Very clever, and very creative.

30. Fear In The Night (1972), dir. Jimmy Sangster
Watched with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan round at her place. It's a Hammer production with Peter Cushing, Ralph Bates and Joan Collins in it, but not one of their horror films - rather, a thriller. That said, it does play heavily on the possibility that there might be something supernatural going on for a long time, which of course Hammer's reputation put them in an excellent position to do. The story is set in the time when it was made, which meant lots of very enjoyable Seventies clothes, cars and street scenes, and revolves around a young woman who is experiencing repeated and very unsettling nocturnal physical attacks. The male characters around her dismiss her experiences as symptomatic of an over-wrought imagination, and for quite a long time it looked like the grain of the story might be leaning in that direction too. I began to get fractious, and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had to convince me to stick it out. But then the real truth began to emerge, her experiences were entirely vindicated, and indeed the film proved to be very sympathetic towards those affected by mental health issues - not only the heroine but Peter Cushing's character as well. So a very satisfying watch after all, and I'll definitely want to see it again some time now that I know the 'twist'.

31. Night of the Demon (1957), dir. Jacques Tourneur
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey at the National Media Museum as part of a series of ghostly stories screened in the run-up to Christmas. I've seen it on the big screen before, and reviewed the experience. Indeed, I see that I spent a lot of that review discussing how it sits alongside Hammer's horror films, and I had similar responses this time. The importance of the deceased Professor Harrington's diary account in helping the characters figure out what Karswell is up to reminded me a great deal of how Jonathan Harker's diary functions in Hammer's Dracula (and in neither case comes from the source text), while the way Karswell turns on and mocks his own mother also reminded me of the relationship between the Baron Meinster and his mother in Brides of Dracula. Since both of those films were made after this (though only just in the case of Dracula), the direction of influence would go from here to Hammer, but that's entirely typical of how they worked - soaking up contemporary stories and conventions and building them into their own productions. Meanwhile, Andrew noted that by making John Holden a sceptical outsider literally flying into an island full of superstitious believers in the supernatural, the story also had quite a Wicker Mannish feel. It is, of course, all quite a long way from M.R. James' original, but I am reconciled to that, especially on a second viewing. In and of itself it is a great movie which deserves to be regularly rescreened.

32. Rogue One (2016), dir. Gareth Edwards
And my last film of 2016, which I saw with Mr. and Mrs. [twitter.com profile] ZeitgeistZero. It was in fact my first experience of seeing a film on an IMAX screen, as well as being a 3D screening, so it was all pretty impressive and mind-blowing both visually and aurally. The story was great, and I've enjoyed all the fantastically detailed articles about its world which have appeared since, like this one about data storage standards and this one about archaeology. Three cheers for stories which inspire that kind of fan-work! It's true that it could have had more women in it, and let's keep demanding the best on that front, but it was certainly epically better for women than any of episodes I-VI, as well as being impressive on ethnicity and disability, so let's also cheer the direction of travel. Much discussion has also been prompted by its use of CGI to recreate characters from the original trilogy, but I'm afraid I found this only technically impressive. Peter Cushing's recreated face was pretty good, but of course CGI cannot capture the unique humanness of a real person's performance - indeed, even a very convincing impression will only ever be a pastiche, missing the unpredictability of the original person. Most strikingly, the voice wasn't his at all, and since that was always such a central part of what Peter Cushing had to offer, its absence was bound to disappoint. Leia I found less problematic, partly because her face was only on-screen for a few seconds, and partly because they had been able to use an old clip of Carrie Fisher's voice from the time - but of course it was also rather heart-breaking to see her at all so soon after Carrie's sad death. Meanwhile, Darth Vader of course did not need CGI to return to our screens, and it was fabulous fun to see him in full-on evil action again. That said though, part of the power and fascination of Darth Vader in the original films is discovering slowly and with increasing horror just what he is willing and capable of doing. (Even if you have seen the films before, the reactions of the characters within the story lead you through the process of discovering this all over again.) Here, he pretty much launched straight into evil machinations and force-choking, leaving no room for the suspenseful frisson of gradual discovery from the earlier films. Still, I guess that reflects the reality of a modern audience's expectations - you simply can't keep redoing the suspense if they're just going to be sitting their with their pop-corn going "Yeah, we know he's evil - cut to the chase!" It's just a pity Darth's character-development won't ever really work now if the films are viewed in story order - but then I guess that was already ruined fifteen years ago by the whole prequel sequence giving away his relationship to Luke.

OK, I am up to date on my film reviews! Now just gotta do the same for books... and Doctor Who... :-(

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
As if a genuine Smell-O-Vision film and an unfilmed Hammer Dracula script hadn't been enough, last weekend's journey of cinematic wonders ended on the Sunday evening in Bradford with 2001: A Space Odyssey, seen as it was originally intended to be seen - that is, in the full glory of Cinerama. I watched, rapt, alongside [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and Andrew Hickey, as the wonders of space opened up before us, and pondered idly what it must have been like to live in those heady days of the late '60s White Hot Technological Revolution, when the world of normalised space travel which it depicted might really have seemed like a plausible likelihood for the far-distant future of 2001.

I have seen the film before, of course, but believe me when I say that seeing it in Cinerama is an entirely different experience. Kubrick designed it specifically to be seen on a curved screen, and once you see it that way it becomes so painfully, searingly obvious that he did that you realise you simply haven't experienced the film he thought he was making until that moment. This was perfectly clear to me already in the first half, when I realised exactly why the location chosen for the ape-creatures drinking from their water-hole was a rounded geographical bowl, and why so many scenes of the lunar landscape are designed the same way - because, of course, in Cinerama they would appear to be actually curving out towards the audience, as though we were sitting ourselves on the far side of that very bowl. In Cinerama, when the idea occurs to one of the ape-creatures for the very first time to pick up a large thigh-bone, and use it to smash up the smaller bones of the animal skeleton lying in front of him, the pieces which fly up into the air appear as though they are coming right out of the screen at you. And as for the space stations and planets which cartwheel by to the music of the Blue Danube - watching them is like looking out from the bridge of your own vessel, as vast bodies thousands of miles away float balletically across your field of vision.

Then in the intermission, Andrew too commented that he had never realised before just how much of a Cinerama film 2001 was. Fresh from having seen The Best of Cinerama that morning, he meant something more than my simple observation of curves, space and quasi-3D. Rather, as he pointed out, Cinerama travelogues of the type he had seen that morning regularly introduced their viewers to a rather surreal combination of the wonders of nature, followed by the wonders of technology - exactly like the early ape-creatures followed by the pirouetting space stations we had just seen. What's more, although 2001 was not shot using the three-strip camera technique which The Best of Cinerama used (and which I have experienced myself for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)), he had noticed that some of the shots were composed as though they were going to be - that is, with strong verticals positioned 1/3 and 2/3 of the way across the screen, exactly where the joins between the strips would have been visible. I settled down for the second half with his comment in mind, and he was absolutely right - for example, Kubrick had shot the room on the Discovery One containing the three EVA pods exactly and precisely with its two far corners at the 1/3 and 2/3 positions, just as I remember noticing for every scene which ever featured a room in it during The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I wasn't particularly surprised later on, when checking the Wikipedia page for the film, to learn that it was indeed originally planned to be shot in three-strip Cinerama, exactly in line with what Andrew had noticed.

Truly, truly spectacular, then. A film with an almost boundlessly-ambitious vision, making the fullest possible use of the technology available in its day, stretching it to create a cinematic experience which would actually do justice to the nature of the story. In fact, we were lucky enough to enjoy not only the film, but (part of) an after-show chat from Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects for the film, and who articulated exactly the vision Kubrick was trying to create. He explained that Kubrick wanted to create a film which was less concerned than usual with the characters on screen, or the experiences and dramas they are having. In fact, this was deliberately minimised by pointing the cameras relatively little at the actors, and having only fairly limited and largely banal dialogue. Rather, he wanted to put the audience and their experiences at the forefront. This is particularly clear at the climax of the film when the last surviving crewman of the Discovery One, David Bowman, comes face to face with the monolith in orbit around Jupiter, and falls into the strange and psychedelic star-gate which it opens up. During this whole sequence there is actually very little screen-time devoted to David's reactions, and as Trumbull put it, this was because Kubrick didn't want this sequence to be about David experiencing the star-gate - he wanted it to be about the audience, in the star-gate. And in Cinerama, boy, is it!

Even without the Cinerama, though, the care, detail and ambition put into the model-work and the special effects is so impressive that even now, almost 50 years after its release, the only thing which really gives the film away as not having been made this year are some of the fashions worn by the female members of the cast. I'd love to say the treatment of gender was a give-away too, given that women appeared almost (though not entirely) exclusively in subservient roles (daughter, mother, air-hostess, receptionist), and that by the time you get to the elite crew of the Discovery One, they have (of course!) vanished altogether. But the sad truth is that there are more films which still do exactly that today than don't. Only two years ago, Geena Davis (Thelma of Thelma and Louise fame) suggested that modern Hollywood films consistently depict women to men in supposedly mixed groups at a ratio of 1 to 5 or 17%, and that what's more men perceive this as a 50:50 balance, and anything more as female-dominated. Here, too, I noticed that in the board-room scene where Heywood Floyd explains to the Clavius base personnel why it is so important to maintain secrecy around the monolith found on the moon, there were two women and ten men: exactly the 1 to 5 or 17% (to be precise, 16.67%) ratio which Geena Davis pointed out. So, in other, words, the gender balance of 2001 may be heavily patriarchal, but it certainly isn't dated! We're still doing it, just the same. :-/

That is on us, though. While we're working on it, a late 1960s film which makes you feel as though you are actually floating in space remains very much worth watching, and I am once again awed by the power of Cinerama.

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strange_complex: (Sherlock Holmes trifles)
I'm spreading myself across the selected highlights of two different film festivals this weekend: the 2015 Widescreen Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and the Mayhem Horror Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. This was my first stop, seen in the company of the lovely miss_s_b in Bradford.

2015-10-16 17.04.00.jpg

There's some background information about it on the Widescreen Weekend website, and we got more too in a short introduction to the film by David Strohmaier, the director of the restored version we were seeing. Basically Scent of Mystery was originally intended as a curved-screen Cinerama spectacular with the added attraction of Smell-o-Vision - that is, appropriate scents released from little pipes under every seat in the auditorium at the right time to match up with the images being seen on the screen. But the Smell-o-Vision didn't quite work as intended at the initial screenings (stuff about that here), so it flopped, and was then edited down quite heavily and re-released without the smells as Holiday in Spain. Now, the original film has been restored as fully as possible (from a combination of a negative and a rather faded screen reel), and a new system devised for the smells - numbered vials and fans left on each seat in the auditorium, and illuminated numbered boards held up at the right time by attendants to tell people when to squirt their vial and fan it around to their neighbours.

2015-10-16 20.38.29.jpg

This was fun to do for the interactive aspect of it - I got very excited when my smell (grass) came up! And when it worked it certainly did enhance the film. I think the best smell of all for me was the incense released during a scene of people chasing each other around the columns of a Spanish cathedral, a) because that was a good strong scent which I picked up really easily, b) because that scene went on for quite a long time, so it was appropriate to have the smell of incense lingering in the air throughout it and c) because incense is so utterly characteristic of cathedral interiors that it really did help to deepen the sense of being there. Other good ones were the smell of oil-paints in an artist's studio, wine, coffee, mints and talc.

Quite a lot of thought had evidently gone into how to make the smells really work with the story when the film was originally produced, too, rather than just using them as extra decoration. Two plot points actually hung on them - cheap perfume gives away one imposter, since the person she is impersonating always wears genuine Scent of Mystery, while American pipe tobacco reveals the real identity of the man trying to kill her. However, neither of those worked for me until the characters on screen commented on them, because in practice the vials-and-fans system we were using wasn't perfect.

The biggest and easiest improvement would have been to hold up the numbers directing people to spray their vials about 30 seconds to one minute before the appropriate scene in the film, as it generally took people a good few seconds to fumble about checking what number they had, and then another 20 or 30 before it reached anyone else's noses. Smell is a much slower sense than sound or sight, and it takes time for aromas to spread and for people to breathe them in. Also, I suspect people sitting in the middle of the auditorium got a generally better experience than me, sitting to one side. Where I was, there simply wasn't always the critical mass of people near me with the right numbered vials for me to have access to the smell. (And I'm saying this as someone with a strong enough sense of smell to mean it's not unusual for me to smell things like lavender in people's gardens or particular fruits in the supermarket before I see them.)

Still, all of that pretty accurately replicates the original experience of the people who saw the film back in 1960, as it didn't work properly then either! And like I said, it was fun to be part of the experiment. Also, the film itself was well worth seeing anyway, with or without the smells. It was basically a typical 1960s tongue-in-cheek British adventure comedy, a bit like The Avengers or The Saint and with all the cut-glass accents and snappy dialogue that would imply - but also with a massively larger budget and the spectacular capacities of Cinerama.

Denholm Elliot was the main character - an English mystery novelist on holiday in Spain who becomes embroiled in a real-life adventure trying to prevent a mysterious woman from being murdered, which he narrates in a knowing voice-over as he goes along. He's so English that his hat stays on not only during a fight but also while upside-down in an open-topped aeroplane, and he doggedly carries an umbrella throughout the film (despite the glorious Spanish weather) which is also not just a decoration, but actually comes in extremely handy at the climax. Meanwhile, Peter Lorre is his side-kick - an ordinary taxi-driver with no particular appetite for adventure, but an indulgent streak which means he ends up driving Elliott around Spain in the hunt for the mystery lady. He does an excellent line in long-suffering resignation as he finds himself repeatedly in mortal danger, and makes the best of it all along the way - a pretty girl here, a pouch of tobacco there, and always the prospect of a big fat taxi fare at the end of the journey. There are some great cameos, too - especially from Diana Dors and another female screen icon whom I shan't name, as she genuinely took me by surprise at the end, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone else!

Meanwhile, we got the full Cinerama experience in fly-overs of the Spanish landscape, spectacular buildings like the Alhambra and the cathedral, and spectacular activities like fireworks, bull-running and ladies dancing in Flamenco dresses. It wasn't three-strip Cinerama, like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm which I saw three years ago, so didn't quite have the almost 3D effect which that can achieve, but it still had a wonderful sweeping, immersive feel to it. Plus a lot of effort had been put into small details of set-up and design. E.g. on the wall in the painter's studio (where we got treated to the scent of oil-paints) I noticed a fragmentary Classical-looking relief of a face, with just the eye and nose preserved - in a film all about smells, geddit??? ;-)

The funniest detail for me, though, was one which the original film-makers couldn't have anticipated. Early on in the story, the mysterious woman cashes a cheque at a local shop, which Denholm Elliott's character then visits later on in order to try to discover her identity. He bullies the proprietor into reading out the names of everyone who has cashed a cheque there in the last hour, one of whom just happens to be a certain George Osborne. Austerity as a cover-up so that he can drain the treasury by cashing himself big fat cheques in Spain? I wouldn't put it past the man...

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strange_complex: (Anas Penelope)
The title of this film is so long that it's brought me up against the 100-character limit for LJ entry titles - something which I can't remember ever happening before. So I'll have to note here that the full name of its director is Felix Herngren, and its original Swedish release title is Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann. I saw it earlier this week with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and we laughed like drains the whole way through, punctuated by the occasional wince. The version we saw was subtitled for the most part, but where the main character spoke off-screen in a narrative voiceover (which he did quite a lot), it was dubbed with by an English-speaking (though Swedish-accented) voice. There was also one character, a wide-boy Cockney gangster, who was English anyway and didn't speak any Swedish, so fair portions of the dialogue must be in English in the original version, and presumably sub-titled for Swedish audiences.

It's a black comedy which reminded me in equal measures of Ealing comedies about criminal gangs (e.g. The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers) and 'charmed life' movies such as Being There and Forrest Gump. As the title suggests, it follows the adventures of Allan Karlsson, a 100-year-old man who climbs out of the window of the retirement home where he has been placed, and by chance and coincidence finds himself on the run with a suitcase full of money and a neo-Nazi gang hot on his tail. But interspersed with it are a series of flash-backs covering his own life from birth to the present day, in which he stumbles largely accidentally from one to another pivotal moment in the history of the 20th century. Without guile or design, and with little more than an 'easy come, easy go' attitude and a fondness for blowing things up, Allan variously meets, helps or sometimes pisses off Franco, Oppenheimer, Truman, Stalin, Regan, Gorbachev and many others, never quite getting found out for the chancer he is, and always just managing to avoid the disastrous potential consequences of his actions.

It was the long sweep of the flash-back narrative which reminded me more of Being There and Forrest Gump, while the criminal gang narrative sits closer to the Ealing comedies. But of course the two genres are not that different really, since they both depend on coincidence, farce and the human willingness to project qualities onto other people which they don't really possess, which is why the two threads of the film worked so well together as different perspectives on the same central character.

It's got to be said that the humour is pretty black at times. The audience is invited to laugh at things like the sight of an essentially-innocent person's decapitated head bouncing off the bonnet of his car while his mistress sits screaming in the passenger seat, for example, and quite often Allan and his friends are the cause of these deaths - though their actions are always carefully coded as accidental, and the victims as (to a greater or lesser degree) criminal. Whether you find the film funny and enjoyable or not is going to depend on whether you are willing to suspend normal morality (in the same sense as suspending disbelief) in order to laugh at that. That said, I don't think that kind of humour is utterly bereft of a moral compass either. There can be quite some moral heft in a film which encourages you to laugh at someone's death, while at the same time squirming with the realisation of what you are doing - which is why our laughter was also punctuated by winces.

And meanwhile the film is packed full of utterly brilliant character observations - like the over-thinking perpetual student, the lady at the retirement home who is more worried about what she's going to do with an unwanted giant marzipan cake than the fact that one of her charges has gone missing, the police inspector who pursues both Allan and the criminal gang as half-arsedly as he possibly can without actually losing his job, or the rejected ex-boyfriend who wants to pull angrily away from his girlfriend's house with tyres screaming, but has got himself into a position where he has to shunt the car around about 5 times before he can leave, with everybody watching him and giving advice as he knocks things over at every turn. Also, how often do you get to see a bunch of people going on the run with an elephant?

In short, watch this film if you get the chance, but be prepared for a few winces along the way.

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strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
It's not every day you get to see a silent Japanese film from the 1920s, so when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan said that she and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy were going over to the Media Museum to see one, and asked if I'd like to come along, I said "yes, please."

Crossways (aka Crossroads; original title Jujiro) was presented as part of the Media Museum's Film Extra series, which includes a talk before the screening, so we were well set up to understand what we were about to see. The talk (given by Keith Withall) explained that Japanese films in the pre-sound era had often made use of benshi - live performers who provided a mix of voice-over, commentary and music to accompany the film - rather than intertitles and a live musical soundtrack. This particular film, though, did have intertitles from the start, and what's more the copy we were watching was one which had been created for the British Film Society in the 1920s, for which the Japanese intertitles had been replaced with English-language ones, so in that respect the experience did not feel all that different from watching a European or American silent film. In some ways, of course, the silent medium (once you are used to it) acts to minimise cultural distance, because you are less aware of language differences than when watching a film with a foreign-language soundtrack. Similarly, the live piano accompaniment probably had much the same effect, since although the pianist clearly made an effort to weave eastern-sounding intervals and harmonies into his performance, he was still inherently playing from the western tradition.

The plot of the film was, as Keith Withall put it, 'pure melodrama'. It concerned the relationship between a brother and sister, and basically boiled down to him behaving like a jerk and her suffering as a result. He was a hot-headed young trainee Samurai, utterly infatuated with a totally unsuitable Geisha girl, and his actions in the film basically consisted of a series of naïve efforts to win her over, fights with his rival suitors, massively over-dramatic responses when those fights didn't go very well for him, and total disregard for his sister and anything that was happening to her as a result. Meanwhile, she made dresses in an effort to support the pair of them, and spent most of the film trying to mop up the consequences of his idiotic and selfish actions while simultaneously fending off a metaphorically-rapacious procuress and a literally-rapacious man pretending to be a police constable. Or that's how it all looked to our modern, western eyes, anyway. Apparently, in traditional Japanese culture, sisters are expected to have a special bond of care for their brothers, and clearly this story was a tragic idealisation of that role. But we all sat there basically thinking that the sister would have been a great deal better off without the brother, scoffing when he claimed that he would 'follow her to the ends of the earth' towards the end of the film without having ever given the slightest sign of doing anything of the sort, and cheering when he finally died (in over-the-top melodramatic fashion) at the end.

In many ways the plot, costuming and exaggerated acting style reminded me of a Kabuki play which I saw during a family visit to Tokyo in 1997. It wasn't actually the same - the make-up and costuming for this film was realistic rather than fantastical, and the silent medium obviously meant that there couldn't be any dancing or singing (though I don't know what live music might originally have accompanied it). But I could see how it drew on the same dramatic tradition, especially in its emphasis on heightened emotions and long-drawn-out scenes of suffering, conflict or tragedy. Yet, as Keith Withall also explained in his introductory talk, director Teinosuke Kinugasa was also very definitely drawing on emerging European traditions of film-making, for example in his use of expressionistic and avant-garde techniques such as double-exposures, deliberately disorientating footage of spinning lanterns and laughing faces, montage sequences, surprising camera-angles, use of contrasting light and shadow, etc. Meanwhile, despite the ostensibly-historical setting of the story, the depictions of the poor, cramped, leaking urban apartment where the brother and sister lived, and of the swirling lights and raucous crowds of the red-light district, Yoshiwara, where the Geisha girl operated, struck me as likely to be reflecting life in contemporary 1920s Tokyo rather more than the 18th century.

All in all, very visually-striking, and a fascinating insight into the evolution of film as both a Japanese and a global art-form. Perhaps the acting is a little too melodramatic for modern tastes, and the familial / gender roles downright annoying, but then again the past would be pretty boring if everyone there had behaved like and wanted the same things as us. I'm certainly glad I saw it.

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strange_complex: (Twiggy)
Some time in my early teens (I think), I watched this film with my Dad, who is rather partial to Julie Christie, but my memory had obviously got very distorted in the intervening period, as I had somehow come to believe that it is set in London. In fact, it's set in a fictional Yorkshire city, constructed mainly out of Bradford, although it is true that London does get frequent mentions as a symbol of the better, more exciting and more fulfilling life which Billy would like to escape to. Billy Liar's tragedy, though, is that his imagination is rather too good. He may dream of a job as a script-writer for a famous comedian, a free-spirited girlfriend and a house containing a special room where the two of them can go and play Imaginary Countries, but the problem is that his dreams are basically satisfying enough on their own, so that he lacks the drive or the courage to make (the more realistic parts of) them a reality. Inevitably, the climactic scene in which he and the dream girlfriend meet at the station to get the overnight train to London to start their new life together ends with her face, wry but unsurprised, looking back at him through the glass as the train pulls out without him.

Anyway, the film was screened last night as part of the Leeds Back in the Day series at the Cottage Road Cinema, and I went along with the usual crowd ([livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy and [livejournal.com profile] big_daz) to rediscover it. It was a great evening, complete with the usual vintage ads and tasty ice-creams-from-a-tray during the intermission, and this time the organisers had even gone to the trouble of contacting some of the stars of the film in advance to let them know it was getting a big-screen showing Oop North. Messages from Tom Courtenay (Billy) and Julie Christie (Liz, the dream girlfriend) were read out before the screening, saying how pleased they were to hear about it, while Julie Christie said she felt this one had stood the test of time much better than many of the films she had made. I think she is right. I loved the way it balanced its comedy and its tragedy so adeptly, and the way it captured the fast-changing world of the early '60s - for example in its portrayal of the generation gap between its older and younger characters, or the way so much of the action took place with scenes of old buildings being demolished and new ones being constructed in the background.

As [livejournal.com profile] big_daz has been pointing out on Another Social Network, it is of course also ripe for those of us who live Oop North to indulge in a bit of location-spotting - for all that the very demolition and construction work documented in the film means that some of them have changed a great deal since it was made. I managed to recognise Leeds Town Hall, and the war memorial plus various of the general street scenes in Bradford, while there's a pretty good page here about the locations used, which allows you to compare stills from the film with more recent views. They do seem to have completely overlooked the scenes set in the wonderfully-gothic Undercliffe Cemetery, though, which [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan has been sending me lovely photos of today.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Billy Liar is the occasional evidence that he does actually have real talent, for all that he doesn't usually manage to apply it very effectively. About two thirds of the way through the film, Billy finds himself in a local night-club steering a precarious path between three different girlfriends, when the band on the stage suddenly starts playing a song he's written with his friend Arthur. This comes rather out of the blue, since we've only previously heard about him wanting to be a script-writer, and Billy himself doesn't even seem to know that the band were planning to play his number. In any other film (e.g. The Glenn Miller Story; Back to the Future) this would be the main focus of the story - the budding songwriter's struggle to win musical recognition. But here it seems like a casual thing which Billy has stumbled into (perhaps led mainly by Arthur?) while hardly even noticing that anything is happening. To my ear, though, the song captures the pop sound of the day absolutely perfectly, and could clearly be the basis of a glittering career if Billy felt so inclined. I've been humming it all day, and will close with the relevant Youtube clip so that you can enjoy it too:


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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
It seems an awfully long time ago now since the Hammer horror / M.R. James weekend which I began writing up in this post, but I do still want to record the rest of it, as it really was spectacularly awesome.

In my previous post, I wrote up individual reviews for the three Hammer films which we saw at the Media Museum, but I also wanted to note down a few thoughts on the experience of watching all three together over the course of a single weekend )

Anyway, the course did not end with the third film, but culminated instead with a trip down to the Media Museum's archives to see the most relevant items from their Hammer special effects make-up collection, acquired from the estate of Roy Ashton (but also including material used by his mentor and colleague, Phil Leakey). I saw some of this material in 2012 during a Fantastic Films Weekend, but on that occasion it was all on display in glass cases, and my mobile phone camera at the time was definitely not as good as the one I have now. So this time I was able to see the material at a much closer range, including getting to see inside the exciting tins with labels reading 'vampire bites', 'eye pouches' etc., rather than just seeing them from the outside, and I was also able to get rather better photos )

The importance of not touching any of the material was, of course, strongly impressed upon us, resulting in some of us having to carefully hold our hands behind our backs to stave off our all-too-natural urges - especially where Dracula's lovely shiny curving fangs were concerned. And then of course there was general banter around the fact that 56 years earlier those very fangs had been in Christopher Lee's mouth, and there was probably enough biological material left on them to clone him. And somehow on the bus back to Leeds and during our walk into deepest Holbeck in search of M.R. James stories, this turned into a film script entitled Touch the Teeth of Dracula, which would involve some poor innocent soul succumbing to the urge to reach out and touch the fangs, and pulling their finger away with a shock to find it bleeding profusely, and the Count himself taking over their body and being reincarnated in 21st-century Bradford.

miss_s_b and I would then start fighting over him, and somehow (presumably after a thrilling coach chase to the Carpathian mountains) it would all end up with a fight to the death on the battlements of his castle, by the end of which we would both be on fire, and one of us would do Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 1 (falling forward) while the other did Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 2 (falling backwards), so that we tumbled in opposite directions to our doom. It was one of those classically geeky conversations where everyone is madly chucking in ideas, and no-one is quite sure where any of it came from, and all of it is completely ridiculous but somehow the sum total of it adds up to a thing of genius. I love those conversations - and the people I have them with.

All the while, we were traversing a landscape of Victorian industrial chimneys rumoured to have inspired Tolkien's Two Towers, moving steadily further from the traffic and lights of Leeds city centre and penetrating deeper into a domain of crumbling warehouses, cobbled side-streets and eventually open urban scrub waste-land. Catching up with a huddle of people ahead of us wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, we confirmed that we were indeed on the right course for the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, which was frankly welcome news as we started to pass work-yards populated with barking dogs and burly-looking men stoking oil-drum braziers. But the journey was well worth it. Inside, we found cheerful people serving wine in chipped white mugs for £1 a pop, free hot water-bottles to make up for the lack of central heating, and a room furnished with tatty sofas, drapes and various antique nick-nacks to mill around in while we waited for the show.

Eventually, we were ushered into the main performance space to snuggle up together on creaking sofas veiled in fabric throws, and watch Robert Lloyd Parry bringing M.R. James to life )

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
The local cultural offerings of last weekend could not have been more perfect for me. Not only did the National Media Museum in Bradford put on a Hammer Horror themed film course, but Robert Lloyd Parry, who played M.R. James in Mark Gatiss' documentary about his life on Christmas Day, was to be found doing live readings of Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious in a derelict warehouse in Holbeck on the Sunday evening. Fitting it all in to a single weekend was a bit of a logistical challenge, but I am so glad that I did.

The film course was entitled Sex, Death & British Horror: Hammer in the 1950s, and involved screenings of the three iconic films which made Hammer's name as a horror studio in the late '50s - The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy - each preceded by about half an hour's worth of introductory talks. On the Sunday afternoon, we were also taken into the museum's archive to see some of the most relevant items from their Hammer collection, while each day ended with tutor-led discussions of the films in the Media Museum bar. Seeing the films and the archive was awesome, of course, but I have experienced those before, whereas the chance to sit around with equally-geeky people steeped in the same material and keen to discuss it in depth was in many ways the best part of the weekend for me. Really, that wasn't exactly unique for me either, since many of the most vocal people in both discussions also happened to be my friends already, so I can have that experience almost any time I like - as indeed we did as we walked out of each screening, or on the bus afterwards. But it's still nice to do it in a slightly larger group, and with some extra perspectives and opinions in the mix.

7. The Curse of Frankenstein, which turned out to be basically a doomed bromance )

8. The Mummy, which turned out to be a serious attempt at cinematic epic, and with strong contemporary political resonances to boot )

9. Dracula, which somehow even after all this time and all these viewings yielded up yet another discovery and a whole raft of backstory which can be built upon it )

I was going to write about the effects of viewing the three films so close together, of our visit to the Media Museum's Hammer make-up effects archive, and of the M.R. James readings in this post as well, but it's already got pretty long, and I won't have time to do any more until Monday evening, as I have to spend the weekend at my parents'. So this will do for now, and I'll pick up the rest next week.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
My research leave really has officially finished now, and I am back in the full throes of teaching and admin duties. The teaching I don't mind, but the admin - ugh! I haven't missed that. Death by Meetings, basically.

Still, I made sure my last weekend of freedom was a good one. I've been meaning for a long time to visit the Doctor Who and Me exhibition currently running at the National Media Museum in Bradford, which is all about the history of Doctor Who fandom since the programme began, and consists almost entirely of items lent to the museum by fans. So when the lovely [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours invited me to join a contingent of geeks from Manchester who were coming over to see it for a day-trip, I jumped at the chance - especially since said contingent turned out also to contain the equally-lovely [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and (non-Mancunian) magister.

We had an awesome time, discussing which exact episode a particular Cyberman outfit was modelled on, inventing Cyberman onesies, working out which of us would be safe from Daleks due to their inexplicable inability to perceive the colour red, and generally bouncing enthusiastically off each other's geekiness, which is a highly-recommended way to spend time. My personal favourite items from the exhibition itself were:

Fan quotation, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
One of many fan quotations printed on the walls, which I'm not entirely sure really makes sense or indeed describes Doctor Who terribly accurately, but sounds cool anyway.

Docteur Qui, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
Phono Paul's TARDIS, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
Easily the best piece of fan-art in the show. I've seen pictures of it online before, but it was great to see it in the flesh.
A full-sized TARDIS which belongs to a friend of several people I know, and which was liberated from his shed and erected for the exhibition by a crack team including [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and [livejournal.com profile] nigelmouse.

It's not a huge exhibition, so within about an hour we had had our fill, and went off in search of food instead - which we found in high-quality but very reasonably-priced form at a place called Glyde House just opposite the museum. Definitely better than the OK but rather over-priced cafe in the museum itself, and an excellent place to shelter from the apocalyptic weather raging outside.

Then we discussed what to do with the afternoon. Most of the Manchester geek contingent had already made plans to catch the 3:30 train back home, but [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and I wanted to hang around until more like 5ish, when the also-lovely1 miss_s_b and [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor would be joining us after the former had finished work. And I happened to have noticed that the Media Museum was screening the restored version of Hammer's Dracula that very afternoon at 3:10, which pretty much exactly filled that gap. So yeah, I went to see Dracula on the big screen AGAIN. It would've been rude not to, right?

4. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher )

Anyway, 1.5 hours spent watching Dracula are never wasted, and by the time they were finished, miss_s_b and [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor were waiting for us outside the cinema. So we all headed off for booze followed by curry, with a lot of laughing, more geekery and some bonus libdemmery along the way.

The following day, after sleeping off the excesses of the previous evening, I headed over to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy's house. After presenting [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan with two new additions to her collection of Frightful Fridge Magnets, bought on my recent trip to Rome, we looked through the pictures she had taken the previous weekend at Wendyhouse, which are jolly impressive, and will be appearing on a website near you before very long. Then we settled down for another dose of vintage filmy goodness.

5. The Invisible Man (1933), dir. James Whale )

Anyway, definitely worth seeing, and now that we have discovered the sequel stars none other than the marvellous Vincent Price, we might well be tracking that down very soon...


1. Basically, all of my friends are lovely, but I see no harm in saying this explicitly whenever I happen to mention them directly in a post, rather than leaving it unstated.

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strange_complex: (Adric Ugg boots)
Yay! For the first time this season I was able to watch Doctor Who live on broadcast, it was a good episode, and I have time to write up my thoughts this evening! Happy times.

I am so glad that the Jenny, Vastra and Strax Show is becoming a regular feature, and even more so that we haven't had a weak episode with them in it yet. I wouldn't call this episode mind-blowing, but it definitely qualified as a really good romp, and because it didn't try to position itself as anything more it left me well satisfied. The running jokes around Strax's battle plans and Mr. Thursday repeatedly fainting, the proper mad-scientist-style steaming coloured liquids in conical flasks, and the brilliantly groan-worthy satnav urchin all helped to seal the silliness deal. Meanwhile, Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling both entirely lived up to their promise, were done great justice by the script, and delivered the proper character-driven drama which I craved and missed in Cold War and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

We have seen the 'crazed villain tries to enslave humanity with the help of an alien parasite' plot a quazillion times before on Doctor Who of course, but by framing it as a Jenny, Vastra and Strax story, keeping the Doctor off-screen for the first ten minutes and even then revealing him as helpless and paralysed, it felt fresh enough to capture the attention. I loved the flashback scenes in which the Doctor explained how he and Clara had arrived in Yorkshire, too, with their fake 'old film' look - a classic device. That said, I wasn't too sold on the magical machine which could undo the effects of the red poison, which felt like a rather easy cop-out - although I suppose it could reasonably be explained as the end result of the experiments which Mrs. Gillyflower performed on Ada. I also wasn't sure what we were supposed to make of the Doctor kissing Jenny, followed by the rather teenage joke involving his sonic screwdriver when she stripped down to her leathers. Matt Smith's Doctor has reacted uncomfortably in the face of previous romantic advances from both Amy and governess!Clara, and has shown no interest (that I can remember) in Jenny before, so it seems oddly inconsistent to have him suddenly going all Benny Hill over her.

Still, it was great to have a story set in Yorkshire, and some fab northern jokes to go with it as well (Bradford - "All a-swarm with the wretched ruins of humanity"). 'Sweetville' wasn't just riffing off local industrial magnate Titus Salt's planned workers' village Saltaire. It used the design of the factory there directly, with even the concept drawing unveiled at the talk which Jenny attended clearly based on the real equivalent for Saltaire. Apparently the actual filming happened in Bute Town, though, which would explain why the stonework on close-up shots of the cottages looked wrong. People were very into regularly-laid square-cut stone in Victorian Yorkshire, but the cottages of Sweetville have irregular stone.

Finally, sure enough, as I predicted earlier in the week, we had a prominent reference to the Fifth Doctor era, in the form of the line about struggling to get a 'gobby Australian' (i.e. Tegan) back to Heathrow. But, as you'd expect with a series that has as much back-catalogue to draw on as Doctor Who, and a writer who knows that catalogue as well as Mark Gatiss, there were other nods and winks for the knowing as well. The gramophones playing fake factory noises in particular reminded me of the Meddling Monk's recordings of Gregorian chants in The Time Meddler, while the line about the red leech growing fat on the filth in the rivers recalled the eco-warrior stories of the Pertwee era - and especially The Green Death, which seems to have inspired the structure of the title as well.

I feel much better for that episode, and am actively looking forwards to next week's now. Having actual children in the TARDIS promises to be interesting, and certainly something which I don't believe has ever happened before outside of the two films made with Peter Cushing. I wonder if it is in part a reaction to the fact that The Sarah Jane Adventures sadly cannot continue any longer, with the format of the spin-off being folded back into the main show? Anyway, it is certainly something new for new Who, and I hope it makes for interesting new story-telling possibilities as a result.

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strange_complex: (Gatto di Roma)
For the first time in a good couple of months, this coming weekend is completely blank for me. Nothing booked up whatsoever. And while having fun things to do most weekends is great and I wouldn't want to change that, every now and again a weekend which I can just spend pottering at home is very welcome. Apart from anything else, it gives me a chance to get caught up on some unwritten LJ posts - and that still includes the final day of the Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend. Previous posts cover the Friday and Saturday, both of which were very enjoyable. But in fact the Sunday was the real highlight for me - mainly thanks to my first ever experience of proper full-blown Cinerama!

22. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), dir. Henry Levin and George Pal

See, every year at the Fantastic Films Weekend, there is one event which really stays with me. Last year, it was Jonathan Miller, the year before it was The Sorcerers, and this year it was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I can't be sure how much I'd have liked this film if it had been shot in traditional fashion. It certainly takes sugary and sentimental to their logical extreme, in a way that only American technicolor films of the early '60s really know how. But then again, it's a charming period piece with some great character actors, fundamentally concerned with the magic of story-telling and making good use of music, settings and special effects to achieve that. So, yeah, I guess I'd have kinda liked it even if it weren't for the Cinerama - but it was the experience of that obsolete technology which really made me fall in love with it.

The wonderful world of Cinerama )

Innovative-obsolete technology and the Brothers Grimm )

A fairytale biopic )

Genre bleeding )

23. The Shadow of the Cat (1961), dir. John Gilling

Finally, rounding off my weekend of not-actually-horror-films was The Shadow of the Cat. This is a Hammer film, although it doesn't feature the studio's name anywhere in the credits, and so tends to get overlooked as part of their output. Like Saturday afternoon's film, The Man in Black, it's another murder mystery, this time revolving around a family pet cat )

In the end, though, the best thing about this film was marvelling at how much time and effort must have gone into setting up all the necessary shots of the cat running up to certain characters for a stroke, jumping out at others, going up or down the stairs at the right moment, padding purposefully towards the place where the old lady's body had been buried etc. On a very small number of occasions a model cat with glowing eyes was used to peer sinisterly through people's bedroom windows, but for most of the film the cat was clearly played by a perfectly ordinary real animal. In a plot which revolved so much around the particular behaviour of the cat, I imagine there must have been a great deal of just sitting around filming it until it did the right thing, as well as large teams of people just out of shot tempting it in particular directions with tasty tit-bits. And to be fair the results were pretty impressive, creating a genuine impression of a cat which had a real agenda behind its actions. But I'm betting a lot of people finished this film with a firm resolution never, ever to work with animals ever again!

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I spent the weekend just gone having a brilliant time at the National Media Museum's annual Fantastic Films Weekend, along with chums [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, miss_s_b, Andrew Hickey and [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva. I played it relatively light this year, missing all of Friday daytime and the Sunday evening too, so that it seemed to be over almost as soon as it had begun. But as every year, I enjoyed the bits I went to immensely.

One of the main themes of the festival this year was Hammer horror, and as part of this they screened The Quatermass Xperiment on the first evening, preceded by a live interview with Renée Glynne, an 85-year-old script supervisor and continuity person who had worked on it )

17. The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), dir. Val Guest )

18. The Casebook of Eddie Brewer (2012), dir. Andrew Spencer )

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strange_complex: (Fred Astaire flying)
Seen with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the National Media Museum in Bradford, where they are having a bit of a Gene Kelly season at the moment (complete with an evening course!).

It's a feelgood movie with a witty script about three sailors on 24 hours shore-leave in New York, who inevitably find and hook up with three pretty girls, and sing and dance with them a great deal in glorious technicolor. The music isn't the kind I would normally seek out to listen to, but in the context of the film it worked pretty well, and some of the dance numbers were fantastic - as were the amazing dresses which the girls (and especially Ann Miller) wore to dance them. The big, swinging circle-skirts which most of us associate with the 1950s (and are now enjoying a renaissance on the rockabilly and burlesque scenes) were obviously just coming in, and get a full work-out here.

The gender dynamics of the film reflect the period when it was made, and the romantic comedy genre, in the ways that you would largely expect. But perhaps because the setting is New York, and it is obviously standing in the film as an icon of modernity and sophistication, there are also some quite progressive notes in the portrayal of its three female lead characters which I didn't really expect. Most striking was the female cab-driver, Hildy Esterhazy (played by Betty Garrett), who declares that she didn't see why she should give up a job she liked just because the war was over, and is also very clear about her own sexual desires without ever being condemned for this. Considerably more shaky is Claire Huddesen (played by Ann Miller), who is doing a degree in anthropology - but turns out to be doing it (on the orders of a man) as an intended cure for nymphomania, and quickly discovers that all she really wanted all along was a nice primitive man all of her own. Okay... Meanwhile, Ivy Smith (played by Vera-Ellen), who is leading man Gene Kelly's love interest, is the perfect all-American girl of the era - an accomplished dancer who aspires to a career in the Big Apple, but secretly just wants to hook up with a fine fellow and retreat to small-town domestic bliss. But hey - at least the film treats her career aspirations seriously, presents her as hard-working and dedicated to her goals, and actually leaves the question of whether she ever really will return to her home town and settle down with the sailor she has met open at the end.

Some other interesting features included the use of quite extensive montage sequences, for example to portray the sailors' first few hours of sight-seeing in the city, or Ivy Smith's life in New York. But then I already spotted Great Expectations doing that in 1946 a couple of months ago, so it's not as surprising as it might have been. Gene Kelly also slips into a reverie for a few minutes, prompted by a poster for a Broadway show, in which he imagines the story of the film as it has been shown so far in the form of a stylised and condensed ballet. Obviously, this is an explicit meta-reference to the film's origins as a Broadway musical, but as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out, it must be quite an unusual example of a meta-drama which actually tells the story of the very drama which it sits within, rather than a different story which feeds into it in some way. The only other example of that which I can think of is the show put on by the players in the middle of Wyrd Sisters, though even that doesn't tell the full story of the book - only the story of King Verence's murder. Do feel free to suggest others if you know of any!

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strange_complex: (Fred Astaire flying)
10. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists (2012), dir. Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt

I saw this in Bristol while visiting [livejournal.com profile] hollyione and her family - which seemed very appropriate, given that that is the home of Aardman Animations. Ever down with da kids, it was my first ever viewing of a (modern) 3D film - which was much as I expected it to be, really. Fun, novel and perfectly effective, but I wouldn't say it added enormous amounts to the experience of watching the film. I think seeing a live-action film in 3D for the first time will be quite a different experience from seeing an animated one - and in fact maybe it is something that's better-suited to animated films anyway. But I'm glad I've got some idea of what it's all about now, and I'm sure I will get round to a live-action equivalent sooner or later.

The film itself was good stuff, packed with silliness, steampunkery and deliberate anachronisms, and including a particularly enjoyable turn from a plotting, scheming, Samurai sword-wielding Queen Victoria, lots of great jokes in the background (e.g. a dentist's surgery owned by one D.K. Ying), and a super-intelligent chimpanzee owned by Charles Darwin who talks by using flash-cards. It's heavily reliant on tropes and clichés, only some of which it really challenges, but I guess that's about all I was expecting from a light-hearted child-oriented comedy. I assume that a sequel is planned, as there was a running joke throughout about none of the pirates realising that one of their number was very obviously a woman in a bad fake beard which was never resolved. I'll see it if I get the opportunity, but probably won't go out of my way to do so.


11. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves

I saw this two years ago at the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend, absolutely loved it, and bought it on DVD soon afterwards. So when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was round at mine recently and we wanted something to watch, it was readily available, and seemed the obvious suggestion, given our shared appreciation of both vintage British horror films and its star, the delectable Ian Ogilvy. I don't think I have too much more to say about it beyond what I wrote last time, but it remains a real classic, boasting a winning combination of charming period detail, a genuinely compelling story, strong character-driven dramatic tensions and a really first-rate cast. 'Twas a pleasure to watch it, too, with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, who appreciated its finer features just as much as I did, and also very impressively worked out exactly how the story would resolve from a few fairly minor clues, long in advance of the actual denouement. This is definitely one I will keep coming back to, I think.


12. Ziegfeld Follies (1946), multiple directors

Finally, I saw this on the May Day bank holiday Monday, again in company with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. It's kind of at once both the glorious apogee and the dying gasp of the musical variety theatre show genre of vintage films. Wikipedia relates how the original Ziegfeld Follies were a series of real-life Broadway stage shows, inspired of course by the Parisian Folies Bergères, which ran from 1907 to 1931. This film, made after Ziegfeld himself had died, brings that show to the big screen - and in full technicolor. But while there are many films from the 1920s and 1930s which essentially import the theatrical song-and-dance show format into the cinema, most of them make at least some effort to tie the big numbers together with some kind of rudimentary plot. This one? Didn't bother. There was an opening vignette of the great Ziegfeld up in heaven, imagining what it would be like to produce one last show, but after that it was just dance number after song after comedy sketch, without even returning to Ziegfeld saying how marvellous it had all been at the end. It was simply a big-screen presentation of the same sorts of acts which (presumably) featured in the original show.

But what a spectacle, though! The sweeping ball-gowns! The fairy-tale sets! The hair-pieces! The bubble-machines! The underwater synchronised swimming! The horses with their hooves covered in glitter! And an all-start line-up including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer. In fact, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire do a duet at one point, which includes the two of them waltzing together - surely a thing few other films can offer. On the whole, I could have done without the comedy sketches in between the songs and the dances - although one about what it'll be like when television takes off was certainly very interesting in terms of revealing cinema's anxieties about the competition. It was all based around a spoof of a show sponsored by 'Guzzler's Gin', whose host kept on slugging back the stuff to his obvious displeasure, while getting increasingly pickled and insisting that it is 'a good, smooth drink'. The songs and dances, though - they could not have been any more extravagant and spectacular if they had been staged on a set made of pure diamonds.

But that's what I mean about it being both apogee and dying gasp. This genre really belongs to the 1930s, when it offered a form of escapism from the depression, and it has very obviously been taken to its logical extreme in this film. There is just nowhere else left to go. Plus, it was 1946! There'd just been a war - cities had been ravaged and men were returning broken from the trenches. People in Europe had already started making sombre black-and-white films about their experiences, and a huge musical song-and-dance extravaganza looks embarrassingly out of place next to all that, even at a distance of nearly 70 years. It was definitely time to hang up those dancing shoes by the time this film was made - but nonetheless I'm glad that the final waltz was captured for posterity in all its colourful glory.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
This weekend saw horror film fans from across the country gathering in Bradford for the 10th annual Fantastic Films Weekend. I didn't see quite as many fantastic films, or indeed little-known TV gems or enthralling interviews, as I'd originally planned, because I've been trying to be a little more sensible about not over-doing things since making myself ill that way in late April / early May. I realised that the important thing was to enjoy myself and feel relaxed and happy, rather than to approach the weekend as though it were a competition to see how many films I could possibly fit into the time available. So I missed the Friday altogether in favour of getting really on top of my work, and then took the Saturday and Sunday nice and easy, enjoying a good lie-in each morning and then just trundling over to Bradford for the things I really felt I couldn't miss. The result was that I only saw two actual films stricto sensu over the course of the weekend - but also two excellent interviews (one live, one recorded), and two rather unforgettable TV dramatisations.

8. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), dir. John D. Hancock )

Sinister Image (1988): Vincent Price in conversation with David Del Valle )

An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1972), dir. Kenneth Johnson )

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
The programme for the 10th Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend is now out, and it's a real cracker! miss_s_b will be disappointed to see that we won't be getting the traditional annual screening of Horror Express this year, but I suspect she'll agree that it has nobly stepped aside in favour of some really excellent alternatives.

My own personal list of what I'd like to see currently stands as follows (complete with brief notes on what each film is / why I want to see it):

Friday 10th June 2011 )

Saturday 11th June 2011 )

Sunday 12th June 2011 )

I could, of course, end up not seeing any of that at all, as my sister's baby is due a few days before the festival takes place, so I may very well be down in the Midlands playing the role of the doting aunt - it all rather depends whether the baby appears on schedule or not! For that reason, I'm going to hold off on buying tickets in advance, and takes things more or less as they come on the weekend itself. But that's my plan, anyway. If it gets derailed, at least it will be for a very good reason. :-)

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Weekending

Sunday, 18 July 2010 22:03
strange_complex: (Cities Esteban butterfly)
I've had a very lovely weekend, centred around a visit from my old chum [livejournal.com profile] hollyione (aka Amy), her very-nearly-six-year-old daughter Holly and her partner Pete. It's always nice to have guests, as it provides a great excuse to go off and do fun local things which you don't normally bother with on your own, and it's especially nice when those guests are such congenial people to have around. Amy, Pete and I seemed to spend most of our time joking, laughing and sharing our enjoyment of the various things we went to see and do, while Holly was extremely well-behaved - and of course also full of laughter, high-spirits and funny observations in the way that six-year-old children usually are.

Our main excursion was to the National Media Museum in Bradford - the same place that I go to for the Fantastic Films Weekend, but this time in its everyday capacity as a museum. I've looked around the exhibits a bit while there previously for the festivals, but they're more extensive than I'd realised, and really well-designed for children. We played vintage video and arcade games, looked at televisions, video recorders and cameras from the earliest days of TV to the present day, played around in a mock-television studio, pretended to read the news, messed around with strange mirrors and lighting effects, and watched an episode of Mr. Benn together - a nostalgia trip for the three adults, but a new discovery for Holly. Amy was amazed that it was all available to visit for free, and she was right - we're very lucky to have it.

Being out with a child certainly makes you see things in a different way )

Afterwards we wandered through a surprisingly sunny Bradford, where the locals were out and about enjoying a street market and a vintage car rally, and where Amy bought Prosecco while Pete was given a free two-minute Indian head massage. Then we returned home for dinner and a local cinema trip to see Shrek Forever After, which I shall write up separately, and which Holly seemed to enjoy. And today we indulged ourselves in the charity shops of Headingley, had a nice lunch together and walked home past some Scottish country dancers strutting their stuff at a school fête, before my guests had to pile themselves in the car and hit the road for the journey back home to Bristol.

I should add that in the evenings while little Holly slumbered upstairs, we adults settled down with Prosecco and G&Ts to enjoy some more grown-up activities. Well... slightly more grown-up, anyway. We played a few rounds of Eat Poop You Cat, for which I owe a huge debt to [livejournal.com profile] whatifoundthere for alerting me to the game's existence. Unlike her, I can't scan our efforts, because my scanner is currently bust, but I can tell you that we collectively managed to transform the simple phrase "Highway to Hell" into the sentence, "You can listen to great music along the road to hell, but the reception on your car radio may be affected by lightning storms", and also "Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow" (Amy's contribution, not mine!) into "Dog punt atom mother".

We also watched a couple of episodes of Blake's 7 - though unfortunately not starting with the first one, which would have been the most logical for me, as it was missing from Amy's box-set. That meant that it took me a while to tune in to the characters, but by the end of the second episode I'd definitely warmed to Cally, Jenna, Avon and Vila (for rather different reasons in each case). I also appreciated the way that the stories didn't always end neatly or happily in the same way that they do on Doctor Who (not that I dislike that in Who - but it's nice to see a different approach). I've still got a lot of Doctor Who to watch (and write up for that matter), but I'm definitely up for some more Blake's 7 at some point.

So, yes - a great weekend. I'm a bit physically tired now, but mentally refreshed and ready to face the week. Wonder if that will last into tomorrow morning? ;-)

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Whew! It's taken me a couple of days to type this lot up, as I saw a lot of films on the final day of the festival, and I think we all know I am a bit prone to tl;dr reviews, even when I think the thing I'm writing about was rubbish. But I've managed it now! It's up to you to decide if you are brave enough to read it all. ;-)

15a-f. Short Films )

TV Heaven: Children of the Stones (HTV, 1976) )

16a. Intrusion (1961), dir. Michael Reeves )

16b. The Sorcerers (1967), dir. Michael Reeves )

17. Robocop (1987), dir. Paul Verhoeven )

18. The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), dir. Jorge Grau )

So that was a pretty intensive weekend of film viewing all told - in fact, coming out of the other end of it I find that I am now well ahead of 2009's total of 14 films seen over the entire year, even though it is still only June. I absolutely loved it, though, and have found myself haunting Amazon and eBay ever since it ended, swooping up copies of films I saw, or other works by the same actors and directors to add to my collection. Debate is currently raging on miss_s_b's journal about what form next year's festival should take. But whatever the final line-up, unless life conspires to stop me I'm pretty sure I'm going to be there.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
12. Horror Express (1973), dir. Eugenio Martin

I have to admit to not having seen this one before, despite having been a massive Lee and Cushing fan for over twenty years and knowing perfectly well that it was one of their great classics. And I've been really missing out, because it's completely brilliant )


13. 28 Days Later (2002), dir. Danny Boyle )

The screening of 28 Days Later was actually only one half of a double-bill along with 28 Weeks Later. I've seen that before too, and indeed enjoyed it very much, so was sorely tempted to stay and see it again, especially so that I could compare the two films back to back. But I opted for a new experience over a tried-and-tested one - and I've got to say that on this particular occasion it was a real mistake...


14. Mark of the Devil (1970), dir. Michael Armstrong

See, Mark of the Devil sounded great in advance )

In short, this is 90 minutes of solid torture all right. But for the audience, not for the characters. I spent the rest of the weekend having to carefully avoid the director's eye, in case I accidentally blurted out "Your film was embarrassingly dreadful! What were you thinking?" Some horror films are bad in ways which are unintentionally funny, and that is a major source of the pleasure in watching them. But this one was just a huge, steaming crock o' shite, and definitely the low point of the festival for me.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
So, as mentioned in my last post, I spent the earlier part of the evening at the opening instalment of the Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend. I bumped into matgb in the station, and then caught up with miss_s_b in the Media Museum bar, looking all Tank Girl-ish with a blond slanty fringe and bicycle-induced bruises, and accompanied by [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat! From the internet! Who scored exactly the same as me on today's Daily Mail poshness test, but nonetheless turned out to have a much posher accent than I have been reading her journal with for the past however-many-years-it-even-is now.

Anyway, we also saw a film! Which was excellent. It wasn't my first time for this one - not even on the big screen, actually, thanks to the Phoenix's late showings back when I used to live in Oxford. But it's probably something like eight to ten years since I saw it now, so it was lovely to have the chance to rediscover it.

The festival director introduced the screening, talking about what a horror classic this film is, and what a loss that Michael Reeves died the following year from a(n accidental?) drug overdose. And he was right - it was definitely a cut above what most horror directors were doing in the late '60s; especially the camera-work. This is obvious from the opening sequence, which appears to present a rural idyll, but gradually homes in on a regular banging sound which turns out to be the noise of someone putting the finishing touches to a hangman's gibbet - a disturbing contrast which really sets the mood for what follows. Throughout the film we get lots of interesting angles and imaginatively-composed shots, although it was a pity they'd felt the need to rely quite so heavily on day-for-night filming. When you've got a character delivering the line, "It must be important, for you to wait for him after dark", the effect is rather compromised if he's doing it in silhouette against a bright blue summer sky, dappled with altocumulus...

Some parts of the script are a bit clunky, especially when people are delivering historical exposition or characters are being established. But that's by no means out of the ordinary for horror scripts of this time. The brutality, though, definitely was out of the ordinary. It wasn't quite as unrelenting as I'd remembered, and was occasionally rather undermined by the use of bad fake waxy blood. But the bleakness of the ending in particular marks it out as quite different from what e.g. Hammer were doing in this period. On the face of it, the good guys have won. But rather than getting your standard-issue uplifting music and romantic embrace, we instead see both the hero and the heroine reduced to a state of near-insanity by the experiences they have been through, and the hero's friends looking on in horror and disgust. That must have been quite a shock to the original audience, and it certainly does suggest that Michael Reeves was gearing up to be a challenging director with some new ideas about how horror should be done.

Meanwhile, of course, we also get the WONDER that is Vincent Price. According to the pre-show talk, Michael Reeves actually wanted Donald Pleasence in the title role - and fair dos to him, because Pleasence would have been awesome too. Stuck with Vincent Price at the insistence of the studio, he basically made it perfectly clear to him that he wasn't the star he wanted, and insisted on Price toning down the greater excesses of his campness - despite the fact that Reeves was less than half Price's age, and this was only his fourth film. Price was so shocked at being spoken to like this that he actually did what Reeves said, and the result is that he oozes with menace and presence throughout, without ever turning into a cartoon villain. Wikipedia tells me that he later considered it one of the best performances of his career, and he may well be right.

PLUS we get Ian Ogilvy, dear to me in particular as Drusus in I Clavdivs, but also from many a happy Sunday morning watching Upstairs, Downstairs over my breakfast. And there are lots of thundering horses and frightened sheep and billowing cloaks and heaving bosoms and suggestively-placed pistols - not to mention the fascinatingly-precise and symmetrical curls of Matthew Hopkins' wig, which I can never quite tear my eyes away from. All in all, a damned fine start to the weekend.

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