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Posts from the ‘Review’ Category

Food & Feast: The Trip (2010)

Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010) showcases the flexibility of food as an organizational feature of movies. A requisite part of the film (and television show from which it is distilled) is the recognition by Rob Brydona comedian and television personality who plays a heightened version of himself, and who acts something like the Boswell or Sancho Panza to Steve Coogan’s heightened version of Steve Cooganthat Coogan has been entrusted the job of writing a series of restaurant reviews despite the fact that he isn’t much of a gourmand. During their first meal together, it becomes clear that Coogan was planning to rely on his foodie girlfriend (Margo Stilley’s Mischa, physically absent for the duration of the journey because she took a job in America, and is clearly on the outs with Coogan) for writing advice. With a limited food vocabulary in place, and no gustatory credentials save being rich, Coogan mostly limits his comments to “nice” and “quite good” throughout their travels. One wonders what his eventual write-ups will look like! So if the film really isn’t about food, then what does it offer? What happens when two of the screen’s most committed “frenemies” spend several days together? Read more

Book Review: Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares

Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares by John Wooley Wiley: Hoboken, NJ: 2011 Wes Craven has had a long and productive career, spanning over 40 years of near-constant film and television work, as well as forays into acting and prose writing. But as John Wooley’s readable biography of the man points out, he has consistently resisted his association with the horror film genre, the fan frenzied place that has proven flexible enough to accommodate the pop surrealism of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the zealotry of Deadly Blessing (1981) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the streamlined awareness of the Scream franchise. The narrative that Craven tells about his own work—collected by Wooley through the diligent sleuthing of interviews and press clippings—is of constant disappointment over the critical discourse around horror cinema, especially the mass media accusations around moral bankruptcy (The Last House on the Left, 1972) and his having to answer for copycat murders (Scream, 1996). Read more

Book Review: Becoming Ken Russell: The Authorised Biography of Ken Russell, Volume One

Becoming Ken Russell: The Authorised Biography of Ken Russell, Volume One
Paul Sutton
Bear Claw Books, Cambridge, UK
$20

My own interest in director Ken Russell was partially instigated by the spotty record of publications about him. Between 1984 and 2008, the only books written about Ken were written by the man himself. With Joseph Lanza’s career assessment Phallic Frenzy: Ken Russell and His Films and my own book Ken Russell: Re-Viewing England’s Last Mannerist (2009), the tables seemed to be turning. My book was an attempt at organizing more academic interest in Russell, while Lanza’s was a narrative of Russell’s life, as told by his films. Taken together, my book and Lanza’s book have some flaws. His treatment of Russell’s films is largely limited to speculation on secondary sources (though amusing, entertaining, and sometimes profoundly funny speculation it turns out to be), while my collection of essays has all the strengths and limitations that go along with the word “academic.” Depending on who utters it and how, “academic” can be a profoundly positive word, or, at the other end of the spectrum, a slyly pejorative insult. When people call my work academic, I hope they’re being nice to me. I think that the essays in the book remain insightful and useful!

The most recent book solely focused on Ken Russell is scholarly without being hermetically “academic,” and speculative while still staying grounded in (sometimes astonishing) evidence. Paul Sutton’s Becoming Ken Russell is accomplished because it has so many relevant things to say about a period in the filmmaker’s life that has heretofore been shrouded by an historical smog, part of it lost to memory (our previous accounts of this time come almost totally from Russell, who loved to play with his autobiographical self-image, and in later years might have lost a part of his past to the natural process of aging) and the other part undiscovered because scholars, myself included, didn’t necessarily learn the right lessons from the right people.

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Lost/Forgotten/Found #5: Maroc 7 (1967)

Maroc 7 (1967); Directed by Gerry O’Hara; Produced by Cyclone Films; Written by David Osborn; Distributed by J. Arthur Rank and Paramount Pictures

Released during the height of the Eurospy craze—that moment when the worldwide success of the James Bond films paved the way for espionage thrillers of every walk of life—Maroc 7 has subsequently gone dormant, cropping up only on occasional TV broadcasts and on expensive (and subpar) import DVD. However, thanks to a vast catalog of rare Paramount releases that have somehow made their way to Netflix, the movie returns to die another day. While slow by today’s spy film standards, Maroc 7 contains plenty of period-specific content that makes it worth a watch. Read more

Seen in Pittsburgh: ‘Elena’ (2011)

I think the largest question left looming for me after seeing Elena is something like, “Does the Philip Glass score make sense?” This question is probably inappropriate or indiscreet, since several big questions linger in the wake of the film’s abrupt, apocalyptic ending. And yet the question of the appropriateness of Glass’s score is central to my sorting through the film.

It is a Philip Glass score that sounds like Philip Glass. (In fact, his third symphony is cited in the end credits, so perhaps this “original score” isn’t quite original.) It blasts and heaves and sparkles when it appears, abruptly, usually in traveling scenes (Elena riding here, Vladimir driving there). The soundtrack for the rest of the film is a peppering of fabric moving, dishes clacking, infants spitting, black birds. So when the Glass shows up, it feels like an intrusion, alarm-triggering. “Wake up,” it yells. “Art!”

This is a cynical reading of Glass’s score. The interpretation bluntly intended for us, I think, based on a blurb I saw that describes the score as “Hitchcockian,” is that we read the score as “building tension.” A third reading jumps from here: the score misleads us into believing that the film is about the obvious tension (that which exists between Elena and Vladimir over his material wealth) in order for the ending to shock us more distinctly. The final twenty minutes throw us into confusion: the surveilled death of a white horse, darkness, violent children playing precious games.

Printmaking for Scholars of Film and New Media

I originally intended to view the Frick Art & Historical Center’s exhibition “Three Centuries of Printmaking” (featuring The Prints of Jacques Callot) for purely recreational reasons. I often find that prints are as detail-oriented and beautiful as oil paintings, but give greater flexibility because of their less extensive initial investment and potential for reproducibility and massive circulation. Prints are a great means of gaining familiarity with a wide variety of aesthetic experiences, as they give us a sense of an individual artist’s taste and experience of the world. They provide a means of experiencing the paintings, sculptures, geographical views, and historical fantasias that obsess that particular artist. Moreover, they tell us something about a society’s taste (they verify what genres a given society found valid at a given historical moment) and about the personal taste of patrons and collectors (seeing which royal or ecclesiastical figure originally commissioned a work, and which monied industrialist later collected it, tells us a bit about the transmission of class values throughout the centuries). Further, exhibitions of prints are a great way for smaller venues to display a wide-variety of images of art historical interest without going bankrupt. These exhibitions bring some of the images that are stranded in the art centers of the world to less trod regional centers.

The Frick exhibition is split into three main rooms. One contains Callot’s work, which is here thanks to a package put together by The Reading Public Museum (of Reading, PA). In fact, much of Callot’s work has been collected in Pennsylvania. The University of Pittsburgh has an extensive collection (thus making Pittsburgh this Summer’s mecca for his work). A second room contains a series of mezzotints from the Frick’s permanent collection. These 18th century prints are mainly of aristocratic subjects, and a few are directly after painted portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The third room contains a complete series of chromolithographs (one of the first color print processes) from Thomas Shotter Boys’ book Picturesque Architecture in Paris, Ghent, Antwerp, Rhouen, Etc. While the idea for this post mainly comes from my encounter with the Callot prints, I will reference the others as well.

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Lost/Forgotten/Found #4: The Island (1980)

The Island (1980); Directed by Michael Ritchie; Produced by Universal Pictures and Zanuck/Brown Productions; Distributed by Universal Pictures

The Island is based on a book by Peter Benchley, best known as the scribe behind the blockbuster novel-to-film Jaws (1975). With its mysterious-terror-out-at-sea theme and heavily maritime marketing, audiences might be tricked into thinking that The Island is a kindred spirit. If it has any similarity to Jaws–both in terms of emotional resonance and type of fear–it is in the wave of ridiculous oceanic horror movies to surface in Spielberg’s wake. In that sense, The Island was in debt to Jaws, but it is also a “better” film than Jaws, in the same sense that such pretenders to the throne as The Deep (1977: directed by Peter Yates, though based on writing by Benchley) and Orca: The Killer Whale (1977: directed by Michael Anderson) “improve” upon their source. I’ve used quotations so extensively to draw attention to the fact that Jaws is, and will remain, a great piece of popcorn fodder with wide appreciability, while the other films just listed with go down in history as waterlogged failures. But, with that comes a glimmer of hope: if Jaws is played for emotional depth, than The Deep, Orca, and The Island are exploitation films, and as such can be as crazily committed to their (flawed, or laughable) premises as they like. Indeed, The Island opens like an adrift slasher movie, but quickly moves on to something quite shocking. The first scene shows a yacht-ful of rich American tourists on a vacation. A boat drifts nearby, seemingly housing a dead body. Upon removing the cover obscuring the top of the boat, the glimpsed hand comes to life, cleaving the unlucky discoverers’ head in two. After cutting to contemporary New York to introduce investigative reporter Blair Maynard (Michael Caine, wearing his ubiquitous Harry Palmer glasses whose frames have now become de rigueur for hipsters), the scene again goes to a boat whose occupants are similarly massacred in horror movie fashion. Maynard pitches a story about disappearing vessels to his editor, noting the statistics (hundreds missing or lost in three years, all occupants presumed dead). The editor, though not thrilled, agrees, and Maynard, with son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) in tow, heads to Florida to begin his investigation. At this early point, the film is set-up such that Maynard is the kind of Dr. Loomis who will uncover the cause of this series of murders. But, also at this point, the film begins to make incredibly strange decisions, quickly morphing into something that is quite crazier than my summary so-far allows. Read more

Lost/Forgotten/Found #3: The Adventures of Gerard

The Adventures of Gerard (1970); Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski; Produced by Sir Nigel Films; Distributed by United Artists

This mock comedy epic–an early example of the transnational co-production that would later become the norm–combines several lost strands of late 1960s/early 1970s filmmaking. With a Polish director (Skolimowski, best known for British films like Deep End [1970] and Moonlighting [1982], with acting turns in such eye-opening fare as The Avengers [2012]), a Polish cinematographer (Witold Sobocinski, best known for his work with Roman Polanski in the 1980s), an Italian composer (Riz Ortolani), and British producers (Henry Lester specialized in Arthur Conan Doyle adaptations), the crew list reads like the set-up to a joke. Stars Peter McEnery (English), Claudia Cardinale (French-Tunisian), and Eli Wallach (American) complicate things, given that McEnery plays French Hussar Gerard, Cardinale plays the Spanish Teresa, and Wallach plays Napoleon himself. The film is based on a conflation of Conan Doyle stories featuring Gerard, a minorly comic French Brigadier of the early 19th century wars in Europe. The film attempts to combine several types of geopolitical intrigue–the siege of Morales, duels of honor between British and French forces, jumbled orders, espionage–with broad comic turns. The Adventures of Gerard is a shining example of a “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” mentality. Read more

Shown Just Outside of Pittsburgh: ‘Liquid Sky’ (1982)

Never in my life had I been to a drive-in movie theater until this past Tuesday, the fateful day upon which I saw Liquid Sky (1982, dir. Slava Tsukerman, screened at the Riverside Drive-In as part of the Russian Film Symposium 2012, Camp Cinema: Russian Style). Although you might point out that Liquid Sky—a relatively obscure science fiction acid trip in which aliens come to Manhattan to kill an arrangement of slightly deranged cocaine-snorting New Yorkers, mid-orgasm—is not exactly standard fare for contemporary drive-in theaters, the material suggests otherwise. After all, what does a secluded drive-in do better than set up a matrix of tangible contrasts between narrative space and viewing space? Between a postindustrial urban landscape and a postindustrial rural one? Between the convulsive movements of a 1980s dance floor and the slowly dying light of a sunstroke day? Between the heat of neon colors and the evening air as it cools, steadily? For my money, the experience of Liquid Sky was like an electrical, spasmodic scampering into some future past, with its bright infrared hues: a telescope that detects extraterrestrial life forms through a special red grid; sex/drugs/death behind every window, if you only look closely enough; glow-in-the-dark facepaint theater beckoning its patrons towards untimely death; traffic dashing through the humid streets to a symphony of pre-computer orchestration; the promise of a new Germany. It is impossible that this is my past alone, as I hear scattered laughter in the twilight.

Lost/Forgotten/Found #2: Queen of Blood

Queen of Blood (1966); Directed by Curtis Harrington; Produced by American International Pictures

With Queen of Blood, avant-garde-turned-exploitation director Curtis Harrington joins the exalted company of Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich. Each of these filmmakers worked for Roger Corman, and each were charged with “directing” a film around special effects footage originally shot for Soviet science-fiction productions. Coppola’s Battle Beyond the Sun (1962) thoroughly remixed the Soviet film Nebo Zoyot (1959, directed by Mikhail Karzukov and Aleksandr Kozyr), while Bogdanovich’s Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968) re-edited and partially re-shot Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965, which was “directed” our man Curtis Harrington), which itself was comprised of footage from Pavel Klushantsev’s Planeta Bur (1962). If this is all confusing, it was partially meant to be. Sensing a bargain, Corman charged these filmmakers with using the impressive setpieces from the Soviet films, while adding potentially seamless narrative and characterizations to the mix. That many of these films were shot on re-used sets, with ensembles of actors who had previously worked together on other projects, only adds to the commitment to recycling. In this way, Corman and his group of directors were the first truly Green filmmakers. Read more