strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
This film was the annual festive Cottage Classic - which I was rather glad about, as I feel I have seen their alternative offering, It's a Wonderful Life, enough times for a lifetime over the previous two years. I went along with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and a packed house-full of other cinemagoers on Wednesday evening, to enjoy it along with mulled wine, mince pies and the usual opening reel of vintage adverts and shorts. To suit the time of year, several of these were festive, including one of a mad old couple cooking with Paxo and another made up of nostalgic shots of churches, snow and a room full of diners with streamers and balloons, designed to wish cinemagoers a happy 1947. We were not wished a Gay 1964 in the medium of tinsel this time, but we were informed of the availability of Wall's Gaytime ice-creams in the foyer. Sadly, however, the kiosk seemed to have run out of them - some time in the late '60s, I suspect.

The film itself tells the time-honoured story of a bunch of people putting on a big show, complete with all the song and dance opportunities which that normally affords. The two main characters are army buddies, whom we meet for the first time putting on a show for their division. Ten years later, they are a hit Broadway double-act, and the main thread of the story sees them hooking up with a pair of duetting sisters and following them to a small ski-town in Vermont. There, they find their former army General running a ski-lodge which is in financial trouble due to a lack of snow, and resolve to bring their whole Broadway show up into the mountains, put on the biggest extravaganza the town has ever seen, and do their General proud. Along the way, of course, there are comic scrapes and tragic misunderstandings; romances and reconciliations. And I probably won't be giving too much away if I say it snows at the end.

The song, 'White Christmas', was treated in the film as an established hit. Bing is singing it right in the first scene for his army buddies, which you don't really do with a headline number that you have written specially for a new film. Rather, the film is capitalising on the established success of the song. According to Wikipedia, it was first recorded in 1941, and [ profile] myfirstkitchen was right to say in a comment on one of my earlier 25 Days of Christmas posts that it was originally written for Holiday Inn. I can't say I think it is that great, to be honest - like most of the music in the film it is just straight-up schmaltzy sentiment without any real sense of fun or irony, and that doesn't really do much for me. Properly sad songs full of aching loneliness, yes. Outright happy songs revelling in the joys of life, yes. But I can only buy sentiment if it is packaged up with a really good tune - and it almost invariably isn't.

That said, some of the performances which accompanied the music were fantastic. Top of the list was Bing Crosby and and Danny Kaye doing a sort of sub-drag act, in which they mimed to a recording of the duetting sisters, wearing make-up and carrying large feathered fans, but without going the whole hog and wearing wigs and dresses as well. Danny Kaye in particular clearly really enjoyed that, camping it up to the nines, and I can well see why rumours that he was gay or bisexual persisted throughout his life. Vera-Allen, one half of the sister-act, also showed off some pretty amazing dance moves - especially in an early duet with Kaye which saw them twirling around poles on a fake studio jetty, but also later in some of the big set-piece numbers from the show they put on in Vermont.

But my favourite acting in the film came from Mary Wickes, whose name I didn't know before this Wednesday, but is that woman who plays a stringent, non-nonsense housewife in everything. Trust me, you have seen her in something. She's playing very much to type here, but damn she does it well, and stands out a mile as one of the least-sentimentalised characters in the film.

White Christmas isn't trying to tell such a complex story or to build such three-dimensional characters as It's a Wonderful Life. It stays at the level of simple romances and good deeds, whereas It's a Wonderful Life is a close study of a single character (George Bailey), exploring his flaws, self-doubts and sense of identity in a much richer detail. So it isn't fair to compare them, really. White Christmas is perfectly inoffensive, but only because it doesn't take any risks or attempt any real depth. All in all, then, although I find a lot to annoy me in It's a Wonderful Life, I'd probably still rather watch that next Christmas than see White Christmas again, as at least It's a Wonderful Life gives me something to engage with. That said, here's hoping that the Cottage Road management will hit on something other than either of them instead for this time next year.

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
Almost a month ago now I went along to the Cottage Road cinema with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy for an evening of silent comedies with live piano accompaniment. I wrote up the first three short films in the week that followed, but then died under a huge pile of essays and left the post unfinished. Now, though, I feel sufficiently resurrected to finish the job.

29a. The Champion (1915), dir. Charlie Chaplin )

29b. The Paleface (1923), dir. Buster Keaton )

29c. Habeas Corpus (1928), dir. Leo McCarey and James Parrott )

30. Safety Last! (1923), dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor )

I would definitely watch this film again, and I'll also keep an eye out for some of Buster Keaton's other work. But, much as I enjoyed the whole special-occasion experience and the fun of having a live pianist playing for us in the cinema, I don't think I'm ever going to be won over to the work of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy.

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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: (Donald Sutherland Body Snatchers)
The plots of two of the films which I saw on the second day of the Fantastic Films Weekend depended heavily on motifs of disguise, with key characters turning out to be someone other than they had appeared to be. So there are significant spoilers under the cuts for Captain Clegg and The Man in Black.

19. Captain Clegg (1962), dir. Peter Graham Scott

This is a tale of piracy and smuggling )

TV pilot: Tales of Frankenstein: The Face In The Tombstone Mirror (1958), dir. Curt Siodmak

This is exactly the sort of little-known gem I go to the Fantastic Films Weekend to see )

20. The Man in Black (1949), dir. Francis Searle

This was the second part of the double bill opened by Tales of Frankenstein, and is another little-known Hammer gem. It pre-dates their specialisation in the horror genre, and is in fact a murder mystery )

After seeing this double-bill, I could have gone and watched Barbarella, or this year's collection of short films, which multiple people assured me were excellent. But I've learnt in previous years that doing nothing but back-to-back films can be pretty exhausting - and besides I didn't want to miss the chance to view the museum's Hammer horror make-up collection, compiled from archival material left to them by make-up artists Phil Leakey and Roy Ashton. The stuff actually on view wasn't that extensive, although apparently they have a lot more sketches and photographs which you can book an appointment to view in detail at any time. But I did get to see some interesting design sketches, concept models and photographs, as well as some actual latex attachments used to achieve the distinctive looks of the Mummy and Frankenstein's creature. Best of all were Dracula's actual fangs from the original 1958 film, complete with a chamber which allowed blood to drip down them through little wires, and sat in a glass case next to tins with hand-written labels saying things like 'Vampire bites' and 'Nostril enlagers':

Dracula's actual fangs from 1958!

(Sorry about the shadow - I couldn't use a flash as it reflected on the glass, so this was the best I could do). I then wandered round the museum's new exhibition on the history of the internet, which explained the development of ideas like distributed networks very clearly, and included interesting collections of early technology with what now seems like unbelievably limited capacity. But I did find the cabinet which was clearly designed to help children understand what on earth life without the internet might have been like rather disconcerting, what with its record-player to demonstrate life without iTunes, Monopoly board for life without online gaming, letters to represent life without email and so on. It's rather scary at the age of 35 to discover that museums are devoting exhibition space to the strange, alien world of your own teens!

21. I Drink Your Blood (1970), dir. David E. Durston

My final Saturday film was grindhouse classic I Drink Your Blood - a tale of satanist hippies driven (even) mad(der than they already were) by rabies-infected meat pies )

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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 [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy, miss_s_b, Andrew Hickey and [ 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: (Ulysses 31)
15. Iron Sky (2012), dir. Timo Vuorensola

Seen on May 23rd at the Hyde Park Picture House with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy, [ profile] bigdaz, [ profile] maviscruet and most of the rest of the Leeds goth community.

As I'm sure most people reading this know, Iron Sky is a kind of collaborative, crowd-sourced international production, which was initially slated to be shown in UK cinemas on one single day only, before being released on DVD. Whether this was down to a genuine reticence on the part of the distributors, or just a publicity stunt, I don't know, but it did help to generate quite a viral 'buzz' about the film beforehand, and I can't honestly be sure whether I would have gone to see it if it had just had an ordinary release period. Anyway, it certainly added a lot to the fun to be there in a completely sold-out cinema, enjoying what we knew (or thought) would be a one-off event, and to come out afterwards to find myself part of a crowd of over a hundred people standing around on the pavement outside discussing the film.

The story itself is just outright silly, but in a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek way )

If you didn't see this in the cinema, I'm afraid you missed a treat which you'll never quite get the chance to re-capture. But it's still worth seeing on DVD.

16. Prometheus (2012), dir. Ridley Scott

See on Friday night with two Lib Dem chums who aren't on LJ.

This was my second ever experience of a (modern-style) 3D film, and since the previous one was an animation (The Pirates), it was obviously a little different. I really liked it, though, and felt that there were quite a few scenes which would have been quite a lot poorer without it )

Oh, and obviously the title of the film is a Classical reference, but it isn't enormously profound in itself so far as I can see - just one of a number of references to creators and their creations which all help to support the main themes of the film. If you'd like fuller commentary on the Classical and archaeological aspects of the film, I recommend Juliette Harrison on the subject.

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strange_complex: (Fred Astaire flying)
Seen with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ 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 [ 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: (Vampira)
Seen on Tuesday with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and their chums Phil and Tony at the Cottage Road cinema.

I've wanted to see the American TV series this is based on ever since my mid-teenage years spent poring over a book named Horrorshows - my personal filmic and televisual Horror bible. Sadly, I've still yet to have the pleasure, but my appetite has definitely been piqued all the further by the film. Who knows - if others feel the same in its wake, maybe soon the original TV series too will find its way to British screens at last?

The film itself (like the TV series) is the story of an Addams or Munsterish family, living in a big Gothic mansion on a hill above a fishing port which they founded two centuries earlier. It's typically Tim Burtonish, in the sense of starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, involving almost cartoonish make-up and costumes, and mingling Gothic horror with kitsch comedy. Dear old Tim does keep on and on making the same film, but then again, it's not a bad film, and I certainly liked this iteration better than the last one of his I saw - the musically and comedically dismal Sweeney Todd. This one is vastly better musically, thanks to being set in 1972 (which for me = love), and having a period-appropriate sound-track replete with the likes of T-Rex, The Carpenters etc. It's also hugely funnier, provoking many a guffaw along our row of the cinema.

The main cast )

The cameos )

The gender politics )

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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 [ 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 [ 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 [ 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 [ 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)
Seen with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy at the Cottage Road Cinema last Wednesday.

I read the stage play version of this story (itself based on an earlier novel) about ten years ago, so had a broad sense of the plot before I went in, although I'd forgotten the details. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference - it is very much a standard Victorian gothic ghost story, and although the stage play version includes a meta-referential twist at the end, the film doesn't do anything much that a regular horror film-goer won't be able to predict.

That isn't to say it won't make you jump from time to time. Its horror relies quite heavily on 'stings' - i.e. sudden noises, movements or appearances designed to give the audience a shock of adrenaline. In fact, sometimes, this felt overdone. It was OK in cases where the 'sting' event would genuinely make a sudden noise - as for example when an old rusty water-pipe suddenly burst into noisy action. But in other places it seemed too contrived - as when our young hero (Kipps) is taken by surprise by the sudden appearance of the local cart-driver Keckwick on the causeway to the haunted house, accompanied by a loud *BOOM* on the soundtrack. Caused by what? People don't usually make a boom when they just turn around - at least in my experience.

Still, though, there was plenty of good creepy atmosphere in between the stings too, and indeed an impressive tick-list of all the elements you would expect from the most successful outing so far from the newly-revived Hammer Film Productions. A couple of years ago [ profile] ms_siobhan and I came up with a list of Hammer film clichés after watching a couple of their 1960s oeuvres back-to-back, so just for a giggle I have nipped back to that to see which of them crop up in this latest offering. I made it seven out of a list of 23, as follows:

  • Fainting lady
  • Proper set-piece scream
  • Inn scene complete with check or gingham table-cloths1
  • Any peasants
  • Speeding carriage sequence
  • Close-up of the villain's eyes
  • Actor who has appeared in any other British film or TV that you can name

That doesn't seem like very many, but another eight items on our original list were to do with bad fake effects, and it would be a surprise to see seriously bad effects in any film made now, given general changes in movie culture since the 1960s. A further four were also based on Hammer's propensity to recycle props, scenery, music and actors during their heyday - and indeed to be fair they could well be doing the same thing here without me knowing, since I haven't seen any of their other revival films. So in fact that's seven out of a remaining eleven that it is really fair to apply to a film made in 2012. And meanwhile, there was plenty besides which essentially comprised what we had paid our money on the door to see - to whit:

  • Suspicious villagers
  • Scenes set on period transport (steam-trains, a vintage car and bonus horse-and-trap)
  • Spooky and decrepit haunted house
  • Ghostly children
  • Creepy mechanical toys
  • Characters foolishly chasing after ghostly apparitions, despite having been explicitly told not to

No complaints on the classic horror tropes front, then. But of course, for the same reason, it could never really have hoped to be a truly great horror film, because the basic story doesn't attempt to advance or subvert the genre - it just follows the genre very well. And I must confess to having become rather bored about half-way through with the character going into one room in the big, haunted house and being scared by something, and then going into another room and being scared by something else, and so on and so on, while he was actually supposed to be going through some family documents. After I while I wanted to say, "Oh, just quit procrastinating and get on with your work!" Which probably wasn't the intended reaction.

Also, [ profile] lizw is entirely right in her excellent review of this film to point out that its female characters are all either demonised or idealised and exist entirely in relation to men, with the entirely unsurprising result that the film doesn't come anywhere near passing the Bechdel test. Again, this fits in with the story's faithful approach to classic horror, but I feel that given the original novel was written in 1983 (rather than 1883), we are entitled to ask better of it.

Overall, then, definitely a Hammer film - but I think that now they have caught the public's attention with this one, they need to do something a little less predictable next time.

1. I'm not completely sure about the patterning on the tablecloths.

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strange_complex: (Willow pump)
I popped this on my Lovefilm list just over a year ago, after Mark Gatiss in his A History of Horror documentary likened it to two of my favourite horror films of all time: Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). He dubbed them ‘folk horror’, on the grounds that all three portray worlds of rural magic and superstition, drawing freely on the hippy aesthetic of the late ’60s. I get what he meant and I do see the links between the three films. Blood borrows Witchfinder’s broadly 17th-18th century (it’s a bit hazy) period setting, and its basic focus on a government official (in this case the local Judge) rooting out witchcraft. It also anticipates Wicker in its portrayal of Bacchanalian rituals, including buxom young ladies taking their clothes off and offering themselves to upright religious men. But there are also an awfully large number of ways in which Blood is a very poor relation to the other two.

Why Blood just isn't as good as Witchfinder or Wicker )

In other words, if you watch this film hoping for another Witchfinder General or The Wicker Man, you're likely to come away pretty disappointed. And I wish Mark Gatiss hadn't set me up for that, because Blood isn't actually a dreadful film, and I'd probably have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn't had my hopes raised so much.

Blood on Satan's Claw in its own right )

In short, then, it's a decent workaday horror film which certainly helps me to understand the wider context of Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man rather better than I did before. But it just isn't really in the same league as either of those films in its own right.

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strange_complex: (Chrestomanci slacking in style)
This was the latest of the wonderful Cottage Classics film nights, which I attended along with the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and [ profile] big_daz. As usual, the evening opened with a selection of vintage adverts, including some fab numbers from the '80s. I particularly enjoyed witnessing the 're-launch' of the Ford Escort, hearing about the amazing capabilities of my childhood computer, the fabulous Acorn Electron, and being apprised of the delicious sophistication of Babycham. All of that, though, faded into insignificance next to this public information broadcast featuring the New Seekers lending their vocal talents to the Keep Britain Tidy campaign:

I'm not sure I have ever seen the essence of 1970s culture so successfully captured in a single three-minute film. And all that was before the main feature even started!

The film itself is justly famous, and seems to be spoken of most frequently for featuring Jean Simmons as the young Estella. She is certainly fantastic in the role, but then again the whole cast was a delight to watch. Dickens might as well have written all of his novels with the great tradition of British character acting directly in mind, and the people playing Jaggers the lawyer, his assistant Wemmick, Miss Havisham, Magwitch the convict, the scrawny young Herbert Pocket and the Aged P. in this film really did his comi-tragic characters proud. It was especially fun, though, to see a young Alec Guinness playing the older version of Pip's dandyish room-mate Herbert Pocket.

I read the novel in my late teens, and distinctly remember failing to give a terribly good answer to the question "Why could Pip never marry Estella?" in my interview at Bristol.1 The film slims down the plot a little, for example omitting a quite distressing sub-plot in which Pip's sister is attacked in the forge, and ends up bedridden and unable to speak, and also changes the ending so that the question asked of me in the interview is entirely begged. But on the whole the outline is fairly faithful to the novel, with I think a fair amount of Dickens' dialogue preserved.

That's not to say it is a ploddingly conventional film, though - far from it. It had quite a few features which I think must have been rather innovative for the time. For example, early on when Pip sneaks off across the marshes to take a stolen pie and file to Magwitch, he hears the voices of critical adults all around him as a projection of his guilt, including emanating from a group of cows who give him withering stares as he passes. It also features a training montage, as Pip learns to waltz and fence in his early days in London - a device which became famous with Rocky in the late '70s, but obviously goes back rather earlier if you know where to look. As [ profile] ms_siobhan rightly says, it's also very rich in the fabulous use of light, contrast and composition that all the best films of this era do so well.

I saw parts of the new BBC adaptation over Christmas, and that had a lot to offer too. But this version will always remain a Classic, and I'm very glad I saw it.

1. I interviewed for a place to study English, and got it, but then switched to Ancient History in my first week. It remains one of the most obviously life-changing decisions I've ever taken.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I saw this last Sunday evening with [ profile] ms_siobhan and a bonus unexpected [ profile] maviscruet. It was put on in a venue I haven't been to before - the Left Bank on Cardigan Road, Leeds, which is a formerly-disused church, now taken over as a community arts venue and in the process of being restored. So far, the roof has been repaired and the place cleaned up, but the budget hasn't yet stretched as far as installing any heating. So the place was completely freezing!

But that was OK. We'd been warned as much on the tickets, so turned up bundled in nice thick coats and hats, purchased hot steaming cups of coffee from the bar in one corner, and sat huddled over our drinks and watching our breath turn to mist. Somehow, given the type of film we were watching, it was all part of the experience and part of the fun. Meanwhile, the seating had been arranged at round cabaret-style tables with tea-lights in stained-glass holders flickering on each one, and once the lights were turned down we were surrounded by ghostly Gothic arches stretching out emptily around us - and somehow the slight desire to shiver, combined with all of that, really added to the atmosphere.

The film itself was played in a silent format, although actually Wikipedia tells me that it originally also had some spoken dialogue, almost bridging the gulf between silent films and talkies. That would explain something which we found confusing on the night, which was why in some places there were modern on-screen English subtitles, but no sign of any intertitles or other means to help the original audience understand what was being said. It wasn't that intertitles had been removed (the best explanation we could come up with at the time), but that there had actually been audible dialogue there in the original film - which makes sense, really, given the release date.

In place of the original soundtrack, though, we were instead treated to a performance of an original live musical soundtrack composed for the film especially by Steven Severin, the original bassist from Siouxsie and the Banshees. His soundtrack was performed via an electronic toolkit - laptop, mixer, etc. - but included things like strings, bells and banjoes as well as synthesised sounds, as and when appropriate to the events unfolding on screen. Obviously, as a soundtrack its function was to support and enhance the film, rather than distract attention away from it, but I thought it did that very well, adding yet more appropriately-atmospheric spookiness on top of the experience of watching a vampire film in a dark, cavernous, wintry-cold church.

As for the film itself, I had seen about the first ten minutes of it once before, but not the whole thing - a shameful oversight, given how much I love and actively seek out vampire films wherever possible. So it was great to just have the chance to remedy that at long last. I could see lots of small, iconic touches in it which crop up in many a later vampire film, too - like the young man arriving at the door of the inn, finding it locked, and being greeted instead by a woman peering out of an upstairs dormer window (e.g. Scars of Dracula (1970)), or the older, wiser man dying, and passing on the task of protecting his young female charge from vampires to an inexperienced paramour (e.g. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)). It's nice to have a better sense now of where some of those first originated.

The story itself is surreal, including things like an extended dream-sequence, and indeed many other events which are generally dream-like in quality. In fact, it seems to bridge different worlds in a number of ways - the worlds of waking and dreaming, of silent and talking pictures (as I've said above), of the modern, urbane world represented by its dapper young hero and the simple rural village where he finds himself, and of the German-speaking and French-speaking communities who apparently inhabit the village where it is set side by side, so that written signs appear in both languages, and the characters have names from both cultures. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and indeed comes across more as a series of vignettes than a coherent story as such. But that, I would say, is its charm.

Talking of charm, [ profile] ms_siobhan and I couldn't help but emerge afterwards swooning and sighing over the film's tall, dark, handsome and extremely smartly be-suited male star, Nicolas de Gunzburg (credited as Julian West). Sadly, this was the only film he ever made, so we are denied the chance of further dreamy gazing at his three-piece suit and slicked-back hair, but he certainly provides value for money in his sole cinematic outing. The young lady whom he (somewhat haphazardly) saves was amazingly balletic too, both in her costume and in her movements - a quality which I also remember noticing in near-contemporary silent film Metropolis. Again according to Wikipedia, the cast mainly consisted of non-professional actors (apparently including Einstein and the First Doctor!), but given that the atmosphere of the film called for quite mannered performances anyway, this wasn't something which particularly stood out to me while watching it.

All in all, a beautifully atmospheric film, seen in circumstances which really set it off to its best effect. Very glad to be able to tick off yet another entry in the 'Vampires' chapter of my favourite horror film encyclopedia. :-)

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I saw this with [ profile] ms_siobhan at the Cottage Road cinema on a brilliantly sunny Sunday afternoon (see picture), and it was fab. Obviously I normally like to review the films I've seen in exhaustive detail, but that would rather spoil this one I think. It was just ace fun - really owning the naff songs and the campy nostalgia and rolling with it, and absolutely packed with self-referential humour and word-play. A lot of the celebrity cameos were lost on me, but I appreciated the ones I did recognise - especially Emily Blunt and Sarah Silverman. And as far as I could tell the children in the cinema enjoyed it as much as me and [ profile] ms_siobhan, although we were definitely laughing at quite different bits. Highly recommended - but I'm sure you know that already.

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strange_complex: (Corset self lacing '50s)
A friend lent me this, and it lay around unwatched in my lounge for about a fortnight because it looked kind of dire from the box. What I was getting from the packaging was 'rom-com with a mild male-fantasy-style kink twist'. But now that I've actually sat down and watched it, I think it's only fair to say that it was quite a lot more character-driven and intelligent than that would suggest.

The blurb on the back of the box reads as follows:
"When Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets a job as a secretary in a small firm she does her best to please. But her new boss (James Spader) finds fault with her typing and administers a rather unconventional kind of punishment. Soon Lee realises that she is not only becoming the perfect secretary, but also the woman she always wanted to be."
But what that doesn't really convey is that the film isn't just 'secretary and her boss start an S&M relationship' (which would be quite dull and almost certainly misogynistic and shot through with clichés and moral hypocrisy), but that it is also a story of genuine character growth )

Around that strong central plot, there is a lot of intelligent detail and design )

But there were some things about the film I wasn't so keen on, and that includes the happily-ever-after ending )

On the whole, though, not bad at all. It's just a pity that it is packaged and marketed as a less interesting film than it actually is.

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strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
Seen this afternoon at the Hyde Park Picture House with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy. I'll keep my notes on it short, as I've got a looming deadline, so can't spare much time or brain-juice for non-work writing at the moment. But I enjoyed it hugely and can highly recommend it.

Obviously we all know the crack for this film - that it's a careful pastiche of a 1920s silent movie. And so it is, and it does that beautifully, capturing all the motifs and devices of the era, all the while tipping the audience a knowing wink about what it is doing. We see a great deal of the business of film-viewing and film-making, both literally through the developments of the plot, but also more allusively through the use of paintings, photographs, screens, mirrors, windows etc. Similarly, the mannered use of the silent movie genre very obviously renders every reference to sound and / or silence heavily significant, and an enormous amount is done with this throughout the film - though I won't spoil it by saying exactly what

I wasn't 100% sure about the gender politics of the main romance plot. The older male character starts out as a hero of silent films, but then wrecks his own career by refusing to make the move into talkies, enters a downward spiral of debt and booze, and ends up in half-dead in hospital - and yet the young bright rising female star is still supposed to think he is worth rescuing from his own idiocy. Then again, though, she does get to build up a dazzlingly successful career entirely in her own right, be independently-motivated and self-assured throughout the movie and - yeah - rescue the poor little gentleman in distress at the end. So maybe it's not so bad.

I'm not surprised everyone has been raving about the little dog, but actually I liked everyone in this movie, including John Goodman, whom I normally avoid like the plague. As for the dresses, sets, finger-waves, cinema palaces etc - oh yeah, baby! Everything I was hoping for. :-)

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strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
I meant to see this when it came out, fairly obviously given the buttons of mine which it pushes. But I was busy, and it wasn't on release for very long, so I missed the chance. I popped it on my Lovefilm list instead, and its arrival has now coincided usefully with a time when I'm busy thinking about biopics in the context of my research.

As a female biopic, it follows a quite different template from the more conventional one exemplified by the Marilyn Monroe film I saw last week, in that for most of the film there is no conflict between Hypatia's public life and intellectual achievements and her personal life. She finds complete fulfilment in her work on astronomy, her harmonious relationship with her students and father, and her role as semi-official advisor to the prefect Orestes, while the men around her grumble about this occasionally, but in general are happy to leave her to it.

Given how little we really know about Hypatia's life, this is a narrative which is by no means imposed by the sources, and a more conventionally-approached biopic could very well have focused throughout on conflicts between Hypatia and a series of men who want to force her into a more traditional feminine role. I'm very glad that this one didn't - instead, if anything it probably rather over-emphasised the freedom from criticism which even a woman like Hypatia could realistically have enjoyed in the ancient world, and the extent of her scientific achievements. The victimhood which Bingham identifies as characteristic of female biopic stories obviously does intrude, shockingly and suddenly, at the end - as it has to, given that this (sadly) is the main 'hook' that has made Hypatia's story of enough interest to be transmitted to us in the first place. But even then, Amenábar does what he can to spare her suffering, by introducing the (unattested) scene in which Davus suffocates Hypatia in order to save her the pain of being stoned to death.

The film actually reweaves the historical record quite significantly, with the details of how it does so neatly summarised on Wikipedia for anyone who's interested. Most of that I'm perfectly happy about, as Hypatia's own life is not very well-documented, and the shifts of time or geography that are made generally help to build a more compelling story - e.g. linking the library and its destruction with the destruction of the Serapeum. But where I felt it fell down rather for me was in conveying a clear sense of what it was that motivated any of the violent mobs - whether Christian, pagan or Jewish - to behave as they did.

We see Davus, for example, not only converting from paganism to Christianity, but then also joining in with mob violence and eventually becoming an ascetic monk who spends his days brutally rooting out immorality across the city. But I saw too little on the screen to help me understand why he might do this - neither the unrequited nature of his love for Hypatia, nor the characteristics of the Christian religion seemed to be presented as sufficiently traumatic or attractive forces to have this effect. Nor, on the other side, did I feel I'd gathered any real sense of what motivated the pagans to go out and attack the Christians who were insulting their statues. A few words were spoken about not being able to let the insult go unavenged, but to me they felt empty when I hadn't seen any real evidence of their emotional engagement with their religion any more than I had for the Christians. Possibly the point was meant to be that it was empty and futile on both sides - but I couldn't escape the feeling that the conflicts were happening because the historical context demanded it, rather than because the characters were really driven to engage in them.

Never mind. Meanwhile, the sets, the costumes, the make-up, the props and the CGI views of the city were superb. And I loved the way that the shots of Alexandria from far up in the atmosphere, or even of the Earth from out in space, a) fitted the astronomical theme of the film, b) evoked the smallness of human lives and endeavours and c) created a sense of distance from the narrative, gently reminding us that it was taking place in a world far-removed from our own. Joanna Paul, in a paper which she presented at the Cinema and Antiquity conference last June, spoke brilliantly about the scenes showing the destruction of the library, and how they dramatise the random process of textual loss and survival, and literally show the whole world being turned upside-down - and she is absolutely right about how powerful and clever those scenes are. And more generally, how can I fail to like a film which celebrates the achievements of classical antiquity, mourns their loss to ignorance and brutality, reminds us how delicate the balance between the two always is, and revolves around a powerfully self-assured and self-directed intellectual woman? *crushes madly on Hypatia*

It's all the more of a pity in that case that some aspects of the film don't entirely make emotional sense. Some deleted scenes on the DVD help to flesh things out a little - in particular giving us some extra scenes of life amongst the elders of the Serapeum, and amongst the ascetic monks, which allow slightly more insight into their mind-sets. But even they don't quite seem to go far enough, and ultimately perhaps the story the film is trying to tell is too rich and complex to do justice to in only two hours.

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strange_complex: (Sophia Loren lipstick)
I saw this, my first film of 2012, today with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy at the Hyde Park Picture House, and we all really enjoyed it.

I'm by no means an expert on Marilyn Monroe, so can't judge how accurate this portrayal of either the week in question or her character more generally was, but I am particularly interested in biopics at the moment because of an article which I am writing about screen portrayals of the emperor Augustus, so I watched it partly from that angle. I've been reading a rather good book by Dennis Bingham on the biopic as a genre, which emphasises how very much the biopic intersects and overlaps with other genres, and also argues that the lives of men and women are treated so differently in biopics that they virtually need to be understood as different genres themselves. Bingham suggests that biopics of women frequently view their lives in terms of suffering or victimhood, and particularly portray them as struggling (usually unsuccessfully) to negotiate an irresolvable tension between their public role and their personal life. All of this is easily identifiable in My Week with Marilyn - hardly surprisingly since it is central to her life-story anyway, at least in the mythologised version which most of us know.

The decision to focus on a short snapshot of her life was more interesting and innovative. Obviously, from the point of view of Colin Clark this was determined by the circumstances of his encounter with her, but the success of his memoirs and the decision to make it into a film say a lot about how effective this format can be for a biopic. It dispenses with the expectation of a comprehensive coverage, allowing the story to allude to earlier events and point the way to future ones as much or as little as suits it, while concentrating instead on drawing a rich and vivid character. I felt this worked very well here, especially combined with the use of Colin Clark as a point-of-view character who begins with a highly idealised view of Marilyn, and gradually moves to a much more real and intimate knowledge of her.

The cast was a veritable feast of British character-actors, many familiar from the small screen (My Family, Downton Abbey, Poirot), and they all deliver - but perhaps especially Kenneth Branagh as a wonderfully irritable Laurence Olivier. The script is sharp, and does a good job of exploring relevant issues such as the objectificaton of women, the effects of ageing, and the tension between the British theatrical acting tradition and the Hollywood screen equivalent. Colin Clark is very obviously a privileged posh-boy who gets where he does thanks to family money and connections, despite his protestations to the contrary, but that's not glossed over, and nor does he get away entirely without being criticised for it.

If you like biopics, Marilyn Monroe, portraits of the film production business, pretty scenery or British character actors, this one's for you.

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strange_complex: (Default)

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