Brief Musings on Movies (March 12th-March 19th)

Wild At Heart (1990)

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I am fundamentally undecided about David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. A part of me wants to endorse the picture solely for the fiery, passionate and erotically charged love story between Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula. (Laura Dern) However, the Wizard of Oz references, retrograde spirit and surrealism are elements that a second viewing might bring much more clarity.

Breathless (1960)

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Jean-Luc Godard’s debut picture Breathless (À bout de souffle) is less a cinematic experience than a dream of free-flowing, manic energy, which is both alive and vibrant in every frame. It is one of those rare films that transcends cultural context and contemporary cynicism. Instead, the film effortlessly makes one feel as though a veil as been lifted and an entire world has been opened up; fundamentally showing cinema in a sharp, subversive and sublime new light.

Snake Eyes (1998)

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One of those few films where one can wholly embrace the performances, camerawork and pure cinematic artistry even in the face of an increasingly preposterous narrative that becomes so absurd in the third act that one swears they are watching a surreal comedic sketch on a beginner’s guide atrocious storytelling.

The Black Dahila (2006)

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While the rich colour scheme comprised of ashy browns, striking uses of yellow and a lavish desaturated wash make The Black Dahlia a visual marvel; it is inherently a turgid and soulless experience with none of the portent, darkness or emotional resonance that the film ought to have. Not even Brain DePalma’s virtuoso camerawork can redeem this incoherent, overstuffed and ultimately floundering spectacle.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

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Hammer Horror’s The Curse of Frankenstein is a slasher film of manners. Instead of an iconic masked individual who has a weapon and methodology of killing, the picture’s central antagonist who is responsible for the piling bodies is Baron Victor von Frankenstein. (Peter Cushing) Less a wolf in sheep’s clothing than a wolf with the veneer of respectability and comfort; Cushing imbues the character with a cold and harsh resolve that result in occasional moments of subtle paternal outpouring and comic moments of wit such as when he cocks his left eyebrow after brazenly dispatching of a distinguished Professor. 

More interestingly is some of the cinematic choices and narrative decisions that enhance this vision. The end of one scene, when Frankenstein expresses a constant desire to acquire a brain of a genius is slyly cut with the next sequence, where he is laughing and expressing the admiration of his host’s intellect.

Quite crucially, the creature (Christopher Lee) Frankenstein creates is destroyed at the end. Consequently, in the film’s horrific final moments (Courtesy of a shot of a guillotine from a window sill vividly showing the Baron’s doomed fate.) Frankenstein is seen as the central monster of the picture; one who can be clearly seen and is not in the least part supernatural, in essence, a slasher movie villain with a human face.

Review: The Death of Superman Lives-What Happened? (2015)

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Some of the greatest stories are the ones lost to time. Consequently, the mind indulges in endless speculation into the reasoning for the failed endeavour and an acute sense of wistfulness at the absence of the narrative. One such tale in contemporary cinema is Superman Lives, a tragically forsaken effort from Tim Burton that is fascinating to consider in light of the current deluge of superhero films.

Jon Schnepp’s 2015 documentary, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is a wondrous tapestry of boundless enthusiasm and imagination for the auteurist studio picture. As interpreted by Burton, Superman is the ultimate outsider who grapples with feelings of isolation and self-loathing of his plight and alien heritage. As one commentator remarks, he is a man who deep down wanted to die.

The only sense of narrative that is revealed about the film is that it was going to be based on the comic book story- “The Death of Superman.” With this in mind, the rest of the film is an informative discussion of various concepts that were being bandied about in pre-production. These are punctuated with the stunningly detailed concept art and the other primary thread of the evolution of Superman’s costume throughout the film. (Primarily shown in the behind the scenes footage of the costume tests with Nicolas Cage and Tim Burton between 1996-1998)

An assortment of these ideas include the central villain Brainiac being conceptualised as a technologically advanced Grim Reaper, his ship having the visage of a giant skull and the HR Gigar inspired Krypton that synthesises metallic and organic life. However, the most striking piece of concept art is James Carson’s cyber infused black and silver reborn costume. Not only is it striking in of itself but it is also is an updating of Burton original sketch of Superman, thus illustrating the director’s artistic sensibility being filtered in a unique manner.

The real heart of the documentary is the producer Jon Peters who looms over the making of the film like a large shadow. On the one hand; he is a buffoonish wild man whose demands varied from a giant spider to Superman not flying (apparently) interspersed between many headlocks and full lipped kissing of the director. On the other hand, he was a tireless and passionate advocate of Burton’s vision for the picture and insightful in his recollection of the picture. A particularly candid moment is when he expresses his doubt over the box-office prospects of the film, however in the same breath expresses that the movie was worth rolling the dice over.

Peters may have finally had his dream of seeing a giant spider fully realised in the odious Wild Wild West. However, Burton’s vision of the Man of Steel is sorely missed in today’s studio driven rush of cinematic universes, and throughout its running time, The Death of Superman Live earnestly reminds the viewer why. 

Recollections of a Screening: Beginning of an Unknown Century (1967)

Introduction

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Beginning of an Unknown Century is the fourth film in Kino Klassika’s “A World To Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen.” Inspired by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engles’ famous declaration in The Communist Manifesto, the season aims to educate and inform the public on the wave of Soviet Film that had swept Russia for a hundred years. The season runs from 17th February to April 15th at the prestigious Regent Street Cinema.

Unknown Century was initially intended as a collection of four short films whose sole purpose was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Revolutions that toppled the Tsarist aristocracy and culminated in the ensuing Soviet Union regime governing Russia. However, the authorities during the Leonid Brezhnev era of the Soviet rule upon examining the first two parts decided to ban the film because of its bleakly provocative presentation of the revolutions.

It was not until 1987 when the film was shown for the first time in the country, a saddening fact that was made all the more tragic by the death of director Larisa Shepitko. (Shepitko directed the second part of the film) The film screened on International Women’s Day, resulting in a timely and sombre reflection on the young director. Francine Stock in her introduction of the film-maker stated that Shepitko’s other three films varied from a “Timeless and tender portrait of middle-aged women” (Wings) to The Ascent, which possesses an “immediacy [in its] modernity.”

The context of the film’s release history and its subsequent rediscovery feels like a small revolution in demonstrating the transcendent power of cinema and how it can overcome censorship and garner empathy from a contemporary audience.

Angel

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Adapted from Andrei Smirnov’s novella, Angel depicts a disparate group of people and their tension-filled train ride through post-revolution Russia. The film’s opening in which the audience is shown an assortment of claustrophobic close-ups of improvised people on the slow moving locomotive encapsulate the film’s humanism. This central virtue admirably balances the horror of the situation and the seemingly jubilant moments of relief.

One scene has a buffoonish man revelling in the taste of milk as a lingering shot shows the man pouring the liquid all over himself in a state of pure ecstasy. Moments such as this are punctuated with the picture’s black and white photography. In particular, the white permeates the visual tone and makes one think they are watching the film through a perfectly preserved snow globe, which lends the picture with an innocent dreamlike atmosphere.

At the same time, the horror of the Revolution looms over the film like a haunting spectre. One subtlety harrowing scene has a little girl walking innocently through the woods with tense musical stings and confined close-ups accompanying her innocent steps. The moment suggests the inescapable nature of the Revolution and how it’s irrevocably tied to the youngest members of society. This inevitable quality also has a significant relation to the title character who is the presumably fabled Angel of Mercy, appearing in all white and having perpetual scowl of judgement.

In the end, he captures the large group of characters and violently punishes one of them for their past crimes while serving in the army. The dramatic scene illustrates the film’s conception of the Revolution as a character; it will cause even the most unassuming participant to be caught up in patriotic sentiment and punish those who abandon its painstakingly subscribed ideals.

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Larisa Shepitko’s segment of Beginning of an Unknown Century is a haunting spiritual experience that combines the visual allure of a Western with the Theological import of an Ingmar Bergman film.

An especially striking sequence depicts a young man (The man in question is a technician who is tasked with providing electricity for a poor farming community) conversing with an ancient looking woman who expounds upon the nature of her faith. She expresses the futility of prayers in the face of her entire family passing away- concluding that it has become a meaningless habit. While the strikingly dramatic speech is being delivered, Shepitko’s employs a medium paced 360-degree panning shot of the environment.

The juxtaposition of nature and humanity is conveyed in a captivating manner as the old woman’s words feel like a flame in the wind, flickering into ceaseless obscurity much like her prayers to the Almighty. In cinematic terms, the Supreme Being seems like he has a substantial presence in the film.

One small moment in the tail end of the picture has a static wide-angle shot of many farmers working in the fields. The impressive shot is contrasted with many lingering moments of the sky. The small scene gives the audience a sense of God directly watching his creation in a manner akin to a human being gazing at an ant farm.

While the Revolution has cursory mentions in the dialogue, the film feels like it embodies the spirit of 1917. The picture presents a steadfast portrait of a community. In fact, the last moments of the film encapsulate this idea in a particularly poignant manner. In what seems like an act of divine intervention, rain pours over the villagers’ famine infested lands. They all stand in awestruck solidarity awaiting a promising future much like the people of Russia in the aftermath of the revolution.

Review: Blue Velvet (1986)

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Watching David Lynch’s much-venerated film, Blue Velvet is akin to a seeing an artist creating a solid outline for a painting and then proceeding to ruin it with sloppy brush strokes that are delivered in an infuriatingly lackadaisical manner. The narrative weaves the tale of a young college student called Jeffery Beaumont, (Kyle MacLachlan) who gets a glimpse of the seedy and macabre underworld that exists within the underbelly of a pristinely picturesque American suburban town.

The picture deftly illustrates the inherently voyeuristic nature of the cinema in a scene when Beaumont is watching singer Dorothy Vallens (played with sobering fragileness by Isabella Rossellini) undressing through the shutters of a closet in her apartment. A static wide angled shot depicts the apparent unravelling of the seductive singer as she takes off her wig and goes into the bathroom to have a long agonised look in the mirror. Lynch’s unflinching directorial choice makes the audience equally as complicit in the act of watching as Beaumont.

And the film’s central metaphor of darkness residing even within the most peaceful and seemingly innocuous small-town is wonderfully encapsulated in the opening sequence. Lynch’s lush imagery primarily encapsulated in the shot of blooming red flowers set against the backdrop of a white picket fence and clear blue sky is juxtaposed with interesting elements. These include a woman watching a black and white scene on television showing a shadowy figure sneaking around a house with a gun in his hand that pervades the frame.

Blue Velvet is at its most cinematic fulfilling in moments such as this. However, the film is woefully marred by a conceptual confusion and overt melodrama- resulting in awkward writing and Lynch’s least satisfying portrait of surrealism in his entire oeuvre.

If one is to take Lynch’s central metaphor at face value, then it can be inferred as wanting. Crucially, the underworld Beaumont discovers existing within his hometown feels about as threatening as a pack of hyenas snarling at a parade of elephants.

The problem is compounded by the picture’s villain, Frank Booth. (Dennis Hooper) Sure, his introductory scene is a disturbing portrayal of torture, made, even more, frightening by Rossini’s emotionally anguished performance and Angelo Badalamenti’s score that is the musical equivalent of a sting from a scorpion’s tail.

However, the scene introduces various elements that remarkably diminish his character. Most notably, the extended sequence reveals that Booth is impotent as he gains sexual satisfaction from non-penetrative straddling Dorothy in a low lit environment while repeatedly asking the singer not to look at him during the act. There is a sense with this last part in particular that if Frank cannot be seen, then he cannot be judged for his lack of sexual prowess.

With his previous actions in the sequence, particularly the small moment when he looks at a naked Valance while repeatedly uttering Mummy, one could read the situation as a possible recreation of a memory of childhood abuse at the hand of his maternal figure.

Elsewhere, Booth comes across as a pathetic man whose various attempts at being tough become laughable. His repeated uses of the expletive “Fuck!” , asking Beaumont to feel his muscles after beating him up and his general shouty manner all combine to create an oafish and outdated portrait of masculinity. The film is under the delusion that it is still the 1950s and greasers remain the toughest and scariest people on the block.

The choice feels whiplash-inducing particularly when our young characters start moralising about the nature of evil in the world. Booth is held up as a terrifying figure of malevolence and the so-called satanic figure of Lumberton, however, the conception of the character combined with Hooper’s performance feels like an incongruous misstep in Lynch’s vision for the picture.

On reflection, the flaw also chips away further at a much more problematic aspect of the film. In essence, Lynch has conceived of a black and white tale that has aspects of the grey at the edges of its foundations. While I applaud the renowned director for crafting a counter-intuitive picture that stands out from the rest of filmography, on closer examination, some of the thematic similarities have been expressed with far more wit, sophistication and cinematic potency in his other films.

Consider the sequence when Jeffrey Beaumont and Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) are sitting in a car reflecting on Frank Booth and the strangeness of the world. They park next to a Church where an organ serves as the primary source of music in the scene. In many ways, it is the centrepiece of the film as it expresses that love will always overcome the seemingly never-ending force of evil in the world. The theme is expressed in the form of a dream that Sandy has where thousands of Robins are unleashed upon a world of unending darkness.

The pervading humanity should make the scene engage the senses and mind. However, contrived dialogue, awkward line deliveries and the choice of the Church organ make the scene feel like an overwrought mess.

Compare the sequence with the multiple number of scenes in The Elephant Man when John Merrick (John Hurt) is expressing his gentle and joyous observation of humanity. Or even the awkward moments of humanity in Eraserhead, with particular reference to Henry Spencer having dinner with his girlfriend’s parents and the moments that involve Spencer and his mutant spawn. One can see from these examples that Lynch’s humanism is alive, authentic and wonderfully moving.

Finally, the film’s most surreal sequence that involves a lip-synch rendition of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams draws comparisons with the far superior scene involving Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying from Mulholland Drive. In Blue Velvet, the scene is a quirky flourish that attempts to make Booth’s world much more interesting. In Mulholland Drive, the scene is a cinematic manifesto where Lynch illustrates the illusory nature of film-making and how the audience can still be moved by the evidently presented facade.

In essence, Blue Velvet proves that Lynch’s surrealism falters when his portrait of reality is seemingly ordinary and mundane.