Archive | Film RSS feed for this section

Sex in the cinema: Viva (2007), directed by Anna Biller.

29 May


Viva deliberately and self-consciously evokes the era of late ‘60s and early ‘70s sexploitation films, even down to the production design and music. As far as style is concerned, Viva is a resounding success, with even the film stock looking just right. I may stand to be corrected, but like director Anna Biller’s subsequent film The Love Witch, Viva was shot on 35mm film, and printed from an original cut negative. This lends the film a faux authenticity that further blurs the line between originality and homage. If this was on a television and you were channel surfing, you may well think it was from circa 1969. As a fan of that era and being happily willing to have nostalgic memories of other films and television evoked, this is an aesthetic I am very much on board with.

While I can appreciate that Viva may have something to say beyond the purely visual engagement (and I confess I was already aware of Biller’s work, her feminist stance and exploration of the ‘female gaze’, before I watched it), Viva is a comedy that simply isn’t funny. Its pacing is a leaden as the performances, which are deliberately lousy and any laughter will prove as false as the equally and deliberately hollow peals of laughter from the characters, who seem to exist in gaudy tableaus of consumerism and permissiveness, which is part of the message but also probably more to fulfil an aesthetic ideal than drive a narrative. And there is a narrative, of course, but it is a secondary concern to the nostalgia, subversion and exaggeration of stereotypes. Biller, boldly taking centre stage in her own film, plays a bored housewife who eventually embraces the permissive lifestyle of the counterculture. But, like the film as a whole, Biller’s mannered performance eventually lost my interest and patience. I understood it was a conscious choice, but like the day-glo interiors and fashions which appear from another era, my appearance of sustained attention would have been just as false.

At the time of writing, Viva is available to view on BFI’s online subscription service.

Sex in the cinema: La Bête (1975), directed by Walerian Borowczyk.

29 May


A new series, exploring the erotic, sexually subversive, and controversial in cinema. 

If you took the sex out of revered Polish director Walerian Borowczyk’s 1975 film La Bête (The Beast), it would be a considerably duller film than it actually is. However, it would, no doubt, remain a presentation of pleasing composition. This is something Borowczyk is exceptionally good at. His earlier films, notably 1971’s Blanche, are testament to his attention to framing, with the aforementioned film presenting the characters as if in a medieval tableau.

There is nothing in La Bête that is quite as creatively remarkable as that, but it is at least an interesting film to view, in a purely aesthetic way. Where the film fails is in its attempt to be narratively engaging and it is here that it stumbles. The story concerns the death of a wealthy businessman, who leaves his estate to his daughter, Lucy, but only on the condition that she marries Mathurin, a Marquis’ son. A cast of potentially interesting characters occupy the house that Lucy visits, accompanied by her aunt, with a view to consolidating the union. A cardinal, the marquis Pierre, the brother of Pierre’s uncle (confined to a wheelchair) and Mathurin’s father, all vie for our attention. They are not, however, quite as engaging as the randy butler Ifany and his sexual partner, Pierre’s rebellious daughter Clarisse. Perhaps preparing us for the sexual audaciousness that is to follow, we are treated to semi-farcical scenes of coitus interruptus, hiding in cupboards and Ifany having to dress himself while answering his master’s call. Later, as Lucy attempts to sleep before her nuptials, the excuses to fully clothe the female on view are abandoned. She is as exposed in ‘real life’ as she is in her dreams, inspired by the 18th century legend of the family’s curse. Lucy ends up running around the house corridors with breasts and pubic hair in full view, with little direct comment from her aunt or the Marquis. It’s here that Lucy’s dreams and reality appear to overlap, although it’s debatable whether the reality is half as interesting as her imagined transgressions.

Somewhere, La Bête might be trying to make some statements about class and privilege and even clumsily touches on perceived white privilege and black equality, in an exchange between Ifany and Lucy’s chauffeur. It hints at the price of secrets and repression, encouraged by social conventions and desires. In the latter half of its run, it also transcends the comparative normality of its first half by becoming an erotic exercise in surrealism, and certainly proves itself a unique viewing experience. It treads a fine line between farce and erotica, and generally stays on the tight rope.

Despite its bold charms, La Bête was a step too far for many of Borowczyk’s earlier supporters, with the film’s audacious, (if vaguely ridiculous) sexual content proving too much for many. Lucy’s dreams of a sexually ravenous beast in the woods conclude with the randy monster ejaculating what looks like several years’ worth of semen in her direction. It’s this segment of the film that likely makes La Bête a far more notable film than would otherwise be the case. But, as this is a film that begins with graphic scenes of two copulating horses, I can’t complain that this was some kind of completely unexpected narrative direction. Yet, despite these elements, La Bête is never as crude as it is titillating and transcends its forays into the ridiculous and an uneven narrative, to be become an oddly erotic classic.


At the time of writing, La Bête is available to view as part of the BFI’s subscription service.


31 Dec


The first time I went to the cinema over Christmas I was thrilled, and no prizes for guessing which film that was. The second time, and I was stunned. Carol is an absolutely beautiful film, like an Edward Hopper painting come to life, with some astounding performances. I knew this had been brought to the screen by director Todd Hynes, and as I really enjoyed his fake ’70s glam rock biopic Velvet Goldmine, some years back now, I was keen to catch up with his work.

Carol exudes painstakingly recreated 1950s style and finesse, with the pent up emotions threatening to mess up the facade; the characters fighting against the neat established order with some restrained and touching performances from both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The time and place is so exquisitely designed and photographed, and perhaps that is the film’s one true weakness; it can often feel like an exhibit, where everything is almost too perfectly staged. Still, the narrative and performances work and have made me keen to seek out the source material (Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt).

By the time Blanchett utters the three most important words in the English language, I wasn’t sure if I was going to cry or cheer out loud (I came close to doing both). Yes, it’s just a film, but when a film can say so much about who we are and can be, it’s well worth watching. A film can also touch the viewer in more personal and uncomfortable ways, and I suppose it does that to, and what is art (and film in particular) unless it makes us feel?


Also, here’s a clip of the press conference, which is well worth watching:


Carol has been on general release in the UK from the 27th November 2015, and is still in cinemas at the time of writing.




A New Hope for an old saga: the return of Star Wars.

23 Dec

Christmas is now almost upon us (or has been, if you’re late reading this), and I’m determined to experience some cheer and thought for my fellow man and woman, despite some of the horrors occurring elsewhere in the world. Sometimes, part of that approach can involve a little bit of escapism as well. You know, a good book or a film, transporting you to a world so well realised and self contained, for two hours you can forget. That was essentially the idea director, producer and writer George Lucas had in the mid ‘70s and the end result, of course, was his third film, Star Wars. A more escapist fantasy you would have struggled to find in 1977, when science fiction and fantasy fiction were not fashionable cinema draws, which may explain its huge success. After all, science fiction and fantasy comic books and novels had been selling huge quantities for years, but no one had had the guts to give a comic-book style fantasy film the time and money to make those ideas work on the big screen. Odd exceptions had dented the usual industry reserve about the science fiction and fantasy genres (2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes both came out in 1968 and were both imaginative and cerebral. However, that year’s Barbarella, a comic-book style film done on the cheap, was perhaps more typical of what was expected and was often what we got, whatever its charms).

So, if the success of the new Star Wars film is partially due to nostalgia, and the love of a long standing fan base, it’s worth noting that Star Wars and its success was reliant on nostalgia from the beginning. 1977 audiences would have correctly recognised Star Wars as a deliberate reworking of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials of the ‘30s, but George Lucas made Star Wars more than just a vintage sci-fi pastiche. The original film practically remakes Korusawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress and owes much in its content and structure to Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces, evoking every adventure archetype we’ve seen since storytelling began. Add spaghetti westerns, World War II dogfights and Ken Adam’s designs for various Bond villain bases to the mix and Star Wars was a mongrel mix of nostalgic influence from the very beginning.


My main concern about the new film, The Force Awakens, isn’t obviously related to nostalgia, but may still be rooted in it. My childhood love of the series may be the source of my adult argument. The argument I have is that this story (in what is now episode 7 of the saga) didn’t really need telling, but I’m hoping to be proved wrong, or specifically be shown a new story that was worth telling. We’ve been here before, of course, with the much maligned prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace,  Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith). Lucas had included an intriguing and inventive back story to his saga, as far back as the 1976 publication of the original novelisation (ghost written by the prolific Alan Dean Foster). “The old Republic was the Republic of legend”, wrote Foster, “no need to note where it was or whence it came, only to know that…it was the Republic”. He then detailed the protection of the mystical Jedi knights, who served the senate, the betrayal of a senator called Palpatine, whose Machiavellian pursuit of power led to his eventual election as Emperor. It was a grand, epic history, to serve this new fictitious universe. Did we need three films about it? That’s debatable, and while I know the films charted the fall of Anakin Skywalker and rise of Darth Vader, we could argue that the prequels failed to give either story its best showing.

Perhaps one well written preface and various expository dialogue was all we needed in the end, as the original trilogy gives us the memorable characters, action and strong narratives that the prequels tend to lack. The reality of showing us (instead of allowing us to use our imaginations) was a big let down in the prequels; none of it was as marvellous, grand and epic as the stories promised. Bogged down with concerns over trade federations, charmless robot armies and stiff political exchanges, the prequels floundered in their own self importance. Flash Gordon this wasn’t; more like Question Time, which for a fantasy adventure saga, isn’t such a good thing. The Phantom Menace looked great, for sure, but was it as great as Foster’s preface promised, all those years ago? Additionally, Star Wars was starting to look tired and uninspired, like a cynical marketing exercise. When the glorious masterpieces that are The Lord of the Rings films were released, Star Wars looked inconsequential and shallow in comparison, not the immersive fantasy world experience the Peter Jackson directed Rings films were. Two different entities, of course, and Tolkien’s Rings trilogy had been another nostalgic influence on Star Wars in the first place. Star Wars needed to get back to being Star Wars; not necessarily with the depth and grandeur of Tolkien, but rather back to the swashbuckling panache of the originals. To reclaim its rightful place in the general public’s affections, alongside the likes of Rings and Harry Potter. As director J.J . Abrams had helmed the last two Star Trek films, and invigorated that franchise, his choice as the new Star Wars director seemed a good portent.


Am I glad to see Star Wars back on the big screen? Yes, I am. But I ceased being a fan a long time ago, in the way I was when I was a kid or a teenager. The prequels admittedly sullied my memory and enjoyment of those originals. Now, with reports that this is perhaps the best Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi, in 1983, the bar has been raised very high. The Force may be strong in this one, but can it defeat the memory of the inferior prequels? Disney didn’t pay $4bn for Lucasfilm so they can dwell on the past; of course they want new product. But as I’ve said, I hope these are strong new stories, worth telling. The film is currently delivering commercially, but I’ll tell you what I think of it later.
To paraphrase Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in the original film, “…they’re taking an awful risk here, this’d better work”.

I have a good feeling about this.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened at British cinemas on 18 December.

Under the Skin: a disturbing statement of what it means to be human.

6 Apr


If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth with David Bowie, or the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick, you might like the film I saw last night. It was a last minute decision, as a Saturday night plan had fallen through; I ran over to the cinema and got a ticket for Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson, and based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, published in 2000. It is a film from director Jonathan Glazer, whose only other two major cinema outings have been Sexy Beast and Birth. As Birth was released in 2003, you can see that Glazer spent a long time getting Under the Skin just right; apparently the final idea for the film came to him quite quickly and significantly late on, and is a much stripped back and intense vision than the one we may have got (which Brad Pitt was signed up for at one point, or so the story goes).


Under the Skin was the most intense cinema experience I’ve had in years. I’m still thinking about it. Some parts of the film are so genuinely uncanny, and really disturbing, that I did stop to wonder what I’d just spent my money on. Yet because of that, and not in spite of it, I was engaged throughout. Also, it looks marvellous; not pretty, but always coldly beautiful. The cinematography brings the bleak Scottish countryside into the film as almost a separate character, who dominates most scenes with her lonely presence. Every scene seemed to have something to say.

Johansson is presumably an extraterrestrial on some ambiguous mission to harvest humans (which she does in a siren-esque way, picking up blokes in her transit van). How they are transported to a surreal other world of blackness is never explained, sinking as they do into some form of preserving liquid, as Johansson’s succubus steps ever backwards, unaffected by the trap; leading the men trance like to their doom. Lust as a weapon. However, she appears to develop a conscience about half way through, and abandons her predatory assignment, disappearing into the Scottish countryside, with her ‘minder’ trying to find her, perhaps before she does anything stupid.


There is a lot I had to presume in Under the skin, as the film offers no certain answers.  It does clearly present a creature sent to take advantage of us, who then becomes first fascinated by us and then eager to experience what it might be like to be us. Her attempt to eat Black Forest gateau in a roadside restaurant is amusing and strange; she cannot physically swallow the food and coughs it up. Here, as in her many moments of dispassionate blankness, Johansson is a marvel. Whatever being she is meant to be, and wherever she is from, I never loathed the character. Rather, her alien qualities, as a fish out of water, and the very fact she looks like Scarlett Johansson, seemed to make her all the more alluring; but surely that was the point. Who expects to see Johansson in Glasgow?

Honestly, it was brilliant, but a real mind messer. I’m still thinking about it today. The part where Johansson’s ‘alien’ takes her ‘human skin suit’ off is genuinely jolting; it is that not often experienced place between the visually captivating, and the simultaneously strange, that is actually slightly terrifying; a true moment of the uncanny. Throughout, Mika Levi’s minimalist and experimental score lifts the strangeness further, and is the other notable star of the film.


Under the Skin is not for everyone; at least two people left the auditorium long before the first hour was through. Essentially static images of snowfall and trees may not engage a more restless action seeking audience, and surreal existential imagery blending sex and death aren’t for everyone on a Saturday night, that is for sure. But it is bleakly beautiful and unnervingly fascinating, and stops us to ponder what it means to be human. It made me think and feel, and that’s as good a reason to see any film.

The Dracula Movies #11: ‘Dracula’ (Bill Eagles, 2006)

27 Jul


The 2006 BBC production of Dracula is the latest version that’s loosely based on Stoker’s novel that I’ve seen, and brings our journey on this series to an end for now. The 2002 Italian mini-series and Canadian silent film homage (also 2002) I may return to at some point, but as a self contained adaptation of the novel, I’ve settled on the BBC presentation as my final stop on the Stoker film trail. There is a more recent 3D version of the story, but again, one I shall perhaps view and return to on here in the future.
I first saw the 2006 BBC version during the Christmas season it was first screened, and I wasn’t over thrilled to give it another viewing because although I’d originally found it reasonably entertaining, it had not made a huge impact on me at the time. But my interest in the whole Dracula/Vampire/Classic Horror genre has been building into something of a personal renaissance in recent years so I’ve been quite keen to give it a proper re-evaluation. So it still came as something as a surprise to me that I got a bit bored halfway through watching this version, and if anything it had even less impact on me than it did nearly seven years ago. Continue reading

Don’t ruin New York before I get there!

2 May

Two friends of mine have suggested a road trip across the United States. As I live hundreds of miles away in England, this isn’t the first suggestion I’d have for a cheap holiday (or one that requires just a week). Anyway, in the spirit that I’m provisionally up for this idea, and with the thinking that the more I want it to happen the more it shall (economics and work leave permitting), I got to thinking of some of the sights I’d like to experience on the potential first US stop of this would-be tour. We’ve talked about landing at JFK Airport, ‘doing’ New York, heading up into New York State and the Catskills to see some of my friend’s friends, before heading across to Chicago. Parts of the old Route 66 will hopefully feature, and if I don’t see Monument Valley before I drop off my perch, I’ll be all the slightly more disgruntled (presuming I get the opportunity for such quibbles when my physical battery leaks). LA is our last stop, if this dream scheme gets off the ground.

Anyway, this is all pie in the sky at present, but it got me looking at New York in more detail, and the possibility that the underbelly of NY (it’s more subversive and creative aspects if you will) might have changed beyond recognition in recent years. Although ostensibly a film by women for women, Desperately Seeking Susan first introduced me to this side of the city when I was a teenager. Of the locations seen in that film, the cool thrift shop Love Will Save the Day is now gone, along with the trendy Manhattan club Danceteria. But Battery Park City promenade is still there, and much of the city in a film of that vintage is going to resemble what’s there now, I would expect. But seeing the outside of what was iconic live den CBGBs, for example, isn’t going to be the same as seeing its interior, and the place actually being active. Just as Bernie Sumner, of Joy Division and New Order, once pondered that the Manchester of the late ‘70s was like living in some Eastern Bloc country, but still inspired such great music, so the NYC of the recent past was less than inviting to some but inspired (or allowed for) such wonderful creativity. The place that gave us Blondie and The Ramones was crime ridden and filthy, but the visual and aural evidence suggests a vibrancy and life that I really hope hasn’t been lost in the apparently successful attempts to clean up and modernise the city.


But I’ll see when I eventually get there won’t I! Another film that has had a lasting impact on me is Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffanys, based on the Truman Capote story. God, what am I saying…I’d like to think you knew that already. So yes, two of my favourite New York films are Desperately Seeking Susan and Breakfast At Tiffanys. Who knew! Forget Taxi Driver, these are my NYC classics, and I’m not even a girl! Or gay!

Also, one of my favourite albums is The Doors second, from 1967, which is Strange Days. I won’t go into the music here, but the cover, with photography by Joel Brodsky, is an emotive winner. Looking like it was shot in some Eastern European location, the atmospheric looking mews in the photo is actually Sniffen Court, off East 36th Street. Another location to visit in my personal NYC itinery.

Some great web links here, well worth checking out. The Sets of New York one is quite extensive. NYC really has been the living set of so many great films. I’m thinking it may be a case of blissfull sensory overload when I get there.  I may have some kind of fatal orgasm when I see the Empire State Building.

I shall keep you all posted!


Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985, and more recently:

Sniffen Court, and as it was in 1967 for Strange Days:

Why the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans became one of my favourite films.

11 Mar


We all have our favourite films, and some films that we’ve watched more times than we can remember. I’m almost surprised that Michael Mann’s 1992 film of The Last of the Mohicans is one of them. It’s not particularly influential or groundbreaking, and is essentially a re-make (albeit a good one), but that’s not the point. It does what it sets out to do with a remarkable beauty and grace. I watched the film again this weekend and what a wonderful film it still is. A rare and moving picture that one, not to mention a great adventure film with some outstanding cinematography.


Continue reading

The Dracula Movies #10: ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (Francis Ford Copolla, 1992)

10 Feb


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Copolla, 1992)

For those that don’t know, I’m currently nearing the end of my Masters in Film and Literature, and my final thesis is concerned with the sanitization (‘defanging’ if you will) of the vampire in modern media; how and why the vampire has become a romantic icon rather than a symbol of the uncanny; what Freud described as unhiemlich. One of my core ‘texts’ for the project is Francis Ford Copolla’s 1992 film version of Dracula, which I’m presenting here as the latest of the on-going Dracula film reviews. However, as I’m so immersed in critically embracing it, it’s actually quite difficult to offer as generalised a review as I might have done with the others. With that in mind, I’ll probably have even more to say about this film at some point in the near future. In the meantime, however, I’ve already decided that its one of my favourite versions.


Continue reading

The new old fashioned way.

12 Dec

Not my usual attire, I have to stress.

There’s nothing quite like a bunch of arrogant learners at an F.E. college, an unreliable public transport system and a pressing Masters degree deadline to throw the scent of Christmas spirit far from this Grinch. Incidentally, “Learners”, as I’ve come to… um, learn, is the new more acceptable way of refering to students in my place of work. Obviously there wasn’t one more perfectly servicable and suitable noun that didn’t need changing. But I digress!

As you may now be aware, the streets of your town or city are adorned with glistening electric lights (presuming you don’t live somewhere really remote). Santa Claus is coming to town and the little Baby Jesus is rocking crib scenes across the country. But aside from the usual Christmas fantasy celebrities, what of the real life living ones? What of the creative folk?

Christmas songs tend to be recycled these days; it’s very rare a new band will attempt something as potentially career destroying as a credibility free carol. Still, a tasteful rendition can be heard by way of the Michael Buble’s and their ilk. What I’d really like, however, is a return to the estatic Christmas Glam stomper (I’m thinking Slade and Wizzard, but not really wanting them, if that makes some sort of sense). Glam Rock was sort of Christmas fun all the year round wasn’t it, at least in a dressing up sense, but I can’t see our current crop of pop stars going for it, to be honest. Continue reading