Inland Empire

I was going to get around to reviewing Inland Empire on Blu-ray at some point but have been inspired to do so with a little more urgency by some surprisingly disparaging comments about it at, of all places, the Twin Peaks Gazette an online community dedicated to the seminal TV show and David Lynch’s oeuvre moreover.  The general opinion is that this is a dog’s dinner of a film and that it has single-handedly killed his cinematic career.

I couldn’t disagree with these sentiments more vehemently, in my opinion it could very well be the crowning glory to a body work of great distinction.  I admit it was never going to be to everybody’s taste, even those who have championed his more commercial efforts might well struggle with its epic running time and the fact it isn’t shot on celluloid but retrograde digital video cameras, operated entirely by Lynch himself.  The film is both a showcase for the acting talents of long-standing muse Laura Dern and her intense, multifaceted performance eats up the screen, as well as a serious attempt to push the envelope of the cinematic medium as art

The film’s detractors argue that it has no coherent plot and that the characters aren’t defined well enough to want to spend so much time with them.  However, Dern’s stand out performance as Nikki Grace, a Hollywood starlet about to take on the female lead in drama steeped in adultery and murder only to find that it isn’t an original script, as she first thought, but a remake of an abandoned Polish movie that was believed to be ‘cursed’ according to the new film’s director, played with twinkling comic subtlety by Jeremy Irons.  The former movie’s romantic leads died in mysterious circumstances and it would appear that the folk tale on which the plot is derived also has a horrifying history; benefitting from a masterfully dark central performance from the marvelous Peter J. Lucas.

The director urges Nikki and her leading man, Devon (a welcome return of Mulholland Drive’s Justin Theroux) not to panic as they will be perfectly safe; but as they rehearse the scenes the lines between the film’s story, the folk lore and the fate of the original couple transgress their own reality.  Whilst this is familiar Lynch terrain it is in no way predictable, quite the opposite.  The menacing mood and exceedingly surreal imagery, most notably a corny sitcom starring actors with rabbit heads complete with canned laughter, is intercut adding to the mounting disquiet and tension as Nikki is drawn deeper into the mystery.

I agree that there are elements of commonality between Inland Empire and Lynch’s previous film Mulholland Drive but no more than there were with its own predecessor Lost Highway, which was equally criticised when it first came out for being too dark and confusing, yet is now widely acclaimed as a Lynch classic.  This is where the ‘art’ world vastly differs to the world of cinema where audiences expect a director’s new movie to be entirely different from their last.  However, with both painting and music it is quite common for an artist or composer to do ‘variations on a theme’ throughout their careers.

Whilst I recognise that Inland Empire is the least accessible film David Lynch has made to date I think it is all the better for that and emerges as a true ‘work of art’.  This is the type of expression we should expect from an artist who has been freed from the confines of budget, time and the interference of studio executives by embracing the digital medium.  To try and compare Inland Empire even to Mulholland Drive, the first two thirds of which initially formed the pilot for TV series and therefore comes from a commercially aware sensibility, is like comparing apples and oranges.  The only other film that comes close to it in Lynch’s canon would be Eraserhead and I’ve come to understand that when he said he was “done with film” he wasn’t simply meaning the medium in preference to digital; he was also referring to the limitations that commercial film distribution imposes on a creative artist and it’s a testament to the French, who have a true respect for ‘auteur’ cinema, that Canal+ continue to release David Lynch’s work. 

It is probably wrong to even attempt to review Inland Empire, it is a film that should just be experienced with as little preconception as possible, perhaps it needs to be approached as one would a visit to an art gallery, wandering through it at a leisurely pace not quite expecting what will be around the corner or what surprise might be in the next room.

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The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Luc Besson came to prominence as the writer/director responsible for some of the most iconic French films of the Cinéma Du Look period including Subway, The Big Blue, Nikita and Léon.  His career faltered with the release of The Fifth Element, the overblown and unhinged Sci-Fi saga starring Bruce Willis.  Since then his output has been largely hit and miss, concentrating his efforts more as a writer/producer for the action oriented Taxi and Transporter franchises.

Besson recently returned to direct the heartfelt live-action/animated “Minimoys” trilogy based on a series of fantasy novels he wrote for children featuring Freddie Highmore as the hero Arthur battling his arch-nemesis Maltazard on each occasion voiced by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed respectively along with a host of Hollywood elite lending their vocal talents to supporting roles.  The films all proved to be massive hits with my 5 year old son, who happily returns to each of them on a regular basis.

When I first heard that Besson’s next movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec was based on the 1970s comic book series by Jacques Tardi about the adventures of an “Indiana Jones” style heroine, I had assumed that it was also primarily aimed at children and would get an English language release.  However, I would suggest that subtitles aside the themes and leisurely pace of the film would probably fail to engage a pre-teen audience even if it were dubbed.

Besson has adapted the script from Tardi’s most popular comics Adèle and the Beast and Mummies on Parade set in turn of the century Paris focusing on the exploits of an intrepid, independent young journalist and adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin), who uses her acerbic wit and exceptional resourcefulness to run rings around her opposition, the Professor Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric).  Tardi conceived his female protagonist in contrast to the overtly sexualised Barberella, whose titillating escapades in outer space dominated Franco-Belgian comic culture at the time, setting the stories in the early 1900s further emphasised Adèle’s emancipation.

By employing the mystical powers of the strange and reclusive Professor Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), Adèle hopes to revive the mummified remains of Ramesses II’s doctor in the belief that he will be able to cure her sister whose current condition remains a mystery for the greater part of the film.  Whilst Adèle is away in Egypt excavating the Pharaoh’s tomb Espérandieu practices his resuscitation technique on a 135 million year old Pterodactyl egg which hatches and goes about terrorising the city and suburbs of Paris.  The beast is eventually tracked down by the bumbling and insatiable, Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche) and the Professor is arrested awaiting execution.

The film cleverly employs the episodic quality of the serialised adventure films of the 1930s but amidst the many action set pieces, amusing subplots and colourful supporting characters you never lose the key narrative thread of Adèle’s quest to revive her sister who has been in a catatonic state since a bizarre tennis accident involving a hat pin for which she feels responsible; her guilty suffering and dogged determination provide the movie with an emotional core and Louise Bourgoin’s layered performance prevents it ultimately from being forgettable fluff.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is Luc Besson’s finest movie in a long time and the intriguing end scene of Adèle embarking the Titanic for a well-deserved vacation suggests to me that there may be more instalments to come for which I would be exceedingly grateful.  There will be clamours for an English language version but there is no doubt that this is an extremely watchable subtitled movie and I’m of the belief that the distinctive French flavour enhances the overall enjoyment of the piece.

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Taxi Driver: 35th Anniversary Edition

There are very few films that have had such an impact on me as Taxi Driver, I was in my first year at college doing A-Levels and had a lucky couple of gaps in my timetable that gave me periods off in the afternoon.  I was studying Drama and English Literature and had got into the habit of buying videos blind to take home and watch on my own whilst my parents were at work and my sister was in school, one such movie was Taxi Driver which I selected solely on the strength of its star Robert De Niro, unaware at that point who the director was.

I remember it was a bright summer’s day and I closed the curtains to darken the room, submerging myself into the mire of 1970s New York street life for the best part of two hours, completely unprepared for the terrifying but cathartic bloodbath that punctuates the film’s climax.  I had seen on-screen violence in gangster films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather or Brian De Palma’s Scarface but they were very removed from my reality and depicted in an operatic or comic book fashion.  Here Martin Scorsese’s carnage is all the more shocking because it’s so matter-of-fact, almost mundane and yet somewhat arbitrary that you can’t help but imagine this just might happen in real life.

Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, the ultimate pathological loner, a Vietnam veteran who is so dislocated from society and unable to sleep at night that he takes to working long shifts as a cab driver, a job that leads him to witness the excessive, heinous, underbelly of urban life, two decades before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Zero Tolerance” policy cracked down on crime and cleaned up inner-city New York making it a much safer place for both commerce and tourism.

Whilst off-duty Travis fantasises about Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a young woman who works at the presidential campaign offices of Senator Charles Palantine, he pictures her as a vision in pure white in stark contrast to the many prostitutes he sees working the streets at night, and yet when he finally gets the opportunity to take her out they go to see a Swedish sex education film showing in a porno theatre; illustrating how socially inept and insular he has become, as if his intractable solitude is dictating behaviour hell-bent on ensuring his isolation.

Bickle refers to himself in his journal, which serves as a narrated voice-over, as “God’s Lonely Man”, quoting from the essay by Thomas Wolfe, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Screenwriter Paul Schrader said that he set out to write about the experience of circumstantial loneliness, after he left his wife for another woman who in turn quickly left him, but instead discovered that seclusion was a disease for which we must actively seek a cure.

Betsy rejects Travis and he loses the one image of chastity which he held above the filth and depravity that’s rife on the streets.  Before, when Senator Palantine took a ride in his taxi, he had suggested that somebody should clean up the crime and pollution but now he decides that he must take direct action; reverting to his Marine-trained mentally, he arms himself and targets the presidential candidate, primarily because of his association to Betsy.  However, Travis fails to assassinate Palantine and turns his attentions instead to Iris (Jody Foster) a child prostitute who jumped into the back of his cab one night, he makes it his mission to liberate her from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) an incredibly violent act of vigilantism which is ironically misconstrued by the press as heroic.

Taxi Driver is one of those rare ‘Gestalt-like’ moments in cinema history where a writer, a director and an actor come together and the resulting synergy unexpectedly explodes onto the screen; add to that Michael Chapman’s resourceful cinematography, given the movie’s low budget and short schedule on real locations, and the last score of legendary Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann and you have the perfect motion picture hard to conceive how it could be improved in any way.

Not surprisingly Sony Pictures have gone to town with the 35th anniversary Blu-ray edition, presenting Taxi Driver in a full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that restores vibrant colour to the neon lit night scenes contrasted, with exceptional clarity, to the inky-black, smoke-filled streets of New York.  On its original cinematic release Scorsese was asked to desaturate the blood to avoid an X-certificate, here the shades of red are gloriously restored.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is also a marked improvement, showcasing Bernard Herrmann’s rich jazz score with its unsettling use of harps but maintaining dialogue quality which was always somewhat muffled on previous DVD versions.

All the extras that were available on prior releases are presented here but upscaled to HD, along with some brand new material including a feature length commentary from writer Paul Schrader, a recent interview with director Martin Scorsese, a suite of short featurettes focusing on different aspects of the production, the best of which is Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute presented by Oliver Stone who was a student of Scorsese’s at NYU.  There is also an interactive script-to-screen option which allows you to follow the original screenplay in detail as the film plays.

Taxi Driver is a visceral and enduring film which was the “coming of age” for three of the most distinctive voices of the 1970s boom-time in American independent cinema, they were to reach their peak and close the decade with another remarkable movie Raging Bull but that, as they say, is another story.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 35th Anniversary Edition

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been something of a guilty pleasure dating back to my days as a teenager appearing in am-dram musical revues inspired by it because the performing rights were always strictly reserved for professional productions until March 2000. 

The original stage show opened in London in the summer of 1973 at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs which ironically only seated 63 people as the subsequent 1975 film adaption has the record of the longest-running theatrical release in cinema history and now must have been seen by audiences of countless millions worldwide ensuring its on-going cult following.

Having watched the film religiously as a kid on worn out video tape and owning at least 3 versions of the soundtrack on vinyl by the time it came out on DVD marking its 25th Anniversary in 2001 I had turned 30 myself and now held it somewhat in contempt, a dirty little secret from my past that I was ashamed to have invested so much time in; Simon Pegg articulated my feelings exactly in the second episode of Spaced – “It’s boil-in-the-bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and first-year drama students” and for the best part of a decade I have put it out of my mind.

However, my wife is an occasional Glee watcher and by chance I saw the recent Rocky Horror Show themed episode marking its 35th Anniversary and release on Blu-ray and I found my interest curiously reawakened enough to want see whether a hidef revamp would radically improve the notoriously low-budget, almost home movie quality of the film.  I also wished to revisit it to gauge whether it really was morally unfit for the saccharine sweet and virginal members of Glee Club as the series producers would have you believe or whether this was merely an affectation in an attempt to preserve its ‘kinky kudos’ for future generations of camp devotees.

I am happy to report that the 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode is remarkable, bearing in mind the last time I saw Rocky Horror was on video; the thing that always strikes me most is the impact of the reds and Patricia Quinn’s now trademark lips in the opening credits have never looked so succulent.  The DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack doesn’t fare quite so well, whilst it marvellously showcases the songs the dialogue in comparison seems thin and tinny but luckily there is also a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track which I found to be preferable.

It’s worth noting the wealth of extras here, a fine commentary from writer/star Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff) and all of the featurettes from the 25th Anniversary DVD are included, but the stand out hidef exclusive is the Picture-in-Picture ‘shadowcast’ who re-enact the entire show shot in glorious 1080p/24 HDCAM with the option to toggle the inset to fill the screen; this is what the Glee episode should have been like instead of an insipid homage that seemed to miss the entire point of the original by replacing the more risqué lines from the songs with banal alternatives.

I hope the Glee version inspires new audiences to discover what it was about The Rocky Horror Picture Show that appealed to me as a teenager, it encapsulates both a sexual awakening and a loss of innocence and if nothing more encourages young, inquiring minds to think outside the box and embrace diversity, in short to live by the pithy end refrain “Don’t dream, Be it”. 

It also captures Tim Curry’s outstanding charismatic star turn as the gender bending alien Dr. Frank-N-Furter and benefits from the inclusion of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as the naïve All-American couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss.  I suspect it’s yet another symptom of hitting 40 but having spurned it for so long I did feel a genuine warm glow of nostalgia whilst watching but not enough to make me want to get up and do the ‘Time Warp’ again.

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Rango

With Rango, his first completely animated feature film, co-writer/director Gore Verbinski returns to the anarchic spirit of his movie debut Mousehunt as he follows the existential quest of hapless hero Lars, a chameleon voiced by the ever quixotic Johnny Depp.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the suitably of the film for younger children, it has been rated PG and I think that speaks for itself.  If it had wished to be marketed specifically for family audiences it would have strived for a U certificate like the Pixar and Dreamworks movies it’s being unduly compared to.

Rango actually marks the foray of the George Lucas foundered special effects company Industrial Light & Magic into feature length animation; working under the guidance of the Coen Brothers regular cinematographer Roger Deakins they have crafted quite simply one of the most detailed, breathtaking and genuinely beautiful CGI pictures seen to date.

When we meet Lars he is stuck in a hermetically sealed world of his own imagining; an aspiring actor with an identity crisis, confined to a tiny terrarium he improvises scenes of would-be heroics, bouncing lofty dialogue off his inanimate inmates, a clockwork toy fish, a dead insect and a headless Barbie doll.

As Lars has the sudden realisation that the reason his life lacks definition is due to the absence of any real conflict his world is launched into space as the camera pulls back to reveal it’s being carried by a car hurtling at high speed along the freeway which has been sent into a tailspin after hitting an armadillo attempting to cross to the other side.

Despite having a deep tyre tread across his thorax the armadillo (Alfred Molina) doesn’t seem at all fazed by the accident as if it’s a regular occurrence; his metaphysical musings set Lars on a journey far off the beaten path, across the wasteland to the desolate town of Dirt where he shall glean self-knowledge and meet the ‘Spirit of the West’.

Before setting off on his epic quest the film doesn’t miss an opportunity to have Lars nearly run off the road by Johnny Depp’s character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the delusional paranoiac, Raoul Duke the first in a litany of iconic cinematic references that raise the movie above and beyond the expectations of mainstream entertainment.

On the outskirts of Dirt, Lars meets the outlandishly named Beans (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a recently deceased prospector, who suspects foul play is the cause of the town’s diminishing water rations.  Much is made of the fact that Lars struggles with the physiognomic changes you’d typically expect from a chameleon, this serves as a metaphor for his personality disorder which manifests itself in his efforts to constantly re-invent himself as a heroic figure.

During an extended improvisation the lizard takes on the persona of a fearless gunslinger in order to impress a local bar room crowd, he brags about killing the notorious Jenkins Brothers – all seven of them – with one bullet!  Taking the name of ‘Rango’ from a bottle labelled ‘Made in Durango’ his exalted reputation is confirmed accidently when he takes out a menacing hawk by chance; the townsfolk of Dirt are so in need of something to believe in that they appoint him as the new Sheriff.

Rango is a post-modernist comedy co-written by John Logan (Sweeney Todd) which manages to pay homage to every great Western from the Gary Cooper classic High Noon to the ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone; not content with celebrating cinematic cowboys it also borrows the Valkyrie sequence from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and a mysterious watery plot direct from Polanski’s Chinatown with the malfeasant Mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty) being a dead ringer for John Huston.

It’s worth mentioning the quartet of Mariachi owls who also act as a chorus in the classical Greek sense whilst serenading the audience with amusing little ditties proclaiming the hero’s imminent death.  Rango sticks to its six shooters and brings the whole metafictional tale full circle with Lars finally arriving on the other side of the freeway to find the ‘Spirit of the West’ embodied by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Timothy Olyphant) from whom he learns that attaining self-knowledge is the ultimate heroic act and that we are all the stars of our own stories.

Despite being every bit as odd as it sounds the film is consistently entertaining and easily held my son’s attention without him needing to be au fait with the many in-jokes or countless movie references.  Rango was obviously conceived as a star vehicle for Depp’s quirkier sensibilities by Pirates of the Caribbean director Verbinski and the pair are clearly relishing the refreshingly surreal sabbatical and have crafted a landmark work of startling originality in the process.

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David Lynch

I discovered the art of David Lynch entirely by accident, although I had shown a keen interest in films from a relatively young age, I usually arrived at them by way of the star appearing in them.  As a budding actor I wanted to study the best and through watching the likes of James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers and Robert DeNiro, I became aware of the writers and directors behind the camera.  Stewart led me to Alfred HitchcockLemmon to Billy Wilder, Sellers to Stanley Kubrick, DeNiro to Martin Scorsese and so on; all great artists but, by and large, part of the acceptable face of “Off Hollywood”.

I was extremely lucky to be a teenager during the 1980s boom of home video and within a 10 minute walk of my parents’ house was a small independent video rental store with a fairly eclectic collection which, in one school summer holiday, I started to work my way through.  The store owner was quite lax about the age certification and, at 16, I was able to rent 18 certificate movies without too much difficulty.  He also must have had more than a cursory knowledge of the titles because on one shelf he had stacked in order Young Frankenstein, The Elephant Man, EraserheadRiver’s EdgeBlue Velvet and Dune, I believe, I watched them in that order.  

In 1990, whist I was studying A-Level English & Drama, I went to see Wild At Heart at the cinema 3 times during the first week of its release and later that year Twin Peaks was on television and I knew that this was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the mainstream before.  As Lynch went on to make Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and my knowledge of cinematic history deepened I could trace influences of Hitchcock and Kubrick in Lynch’s work and recognise that Twin Peaks owed something to Patrick McGoohan’s seminal, cult TV series, The Prisoner.

After training as a painter at the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Art and experimenting with short stop motion films like The Grandmother, Lynch relocated to Los Angeles and was awarded a grant by the American Film Institute to make his first feature length film, Eraserhead.  The movie was to take the best part of 7 years to complete and contains visual images that were to reoccur regularly in Lynch’s subsequent works; most notably stark electric lighting, industrial ambient sound, and a startling appearance of Jack Nance, as Henry, the father of the mutant baby which preoccupies the film.

Lynch, who famously avoids giving specific interpretations of his work, acknowledges that Eraserhead was a visual poem inspired by his life as a student in Philadelphia and unexpectedly becoming a father at the age of 22.  The film was a favourite of Stanley Kubrick who used to screen it privately to guests, and on the basis of viewing it, producer Mel Brooks was to offer David his next directorial project, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt in the title role, Anthony Hopkins and Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft.  The film revealed Lynch’s ability to engage an audience on an emotional level and not just be a conjurer of surrealist imagery.

The critical success of The Elephant Man saw Lynch almost directing the 2nd (or 5th if you were born in 1990s!) film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga but instead he was assigned to the Dino De Laurentis epic Dune, a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling Sci-Fi chronicles.  The film was not a financial success and personally for Lynch it was a traumatic experience because he didn’t have final cut, but from the ashes of Dune was born what many feel to be Lynch’s masterpiece, Blue Velvet, again produced by the De Laurentis company.

In Blue Velvet Lynch further explores one of his key themes, life in “Small Town, USA” and the dark underbelly of the American Dream.  Lumberton is a far cry from the surreal, industrial waste land of Eraserhead; this is a dreamlike re-imagining of the Midwestern towns Lynch grew up in and a forerunner to Twin Peaks.  Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a stand in for Lynch, the young Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, he is also the namesake of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, only this Jeff doesn’t spy from the safe distance of his bachelor apartment but from within the proximity of a bedroom closet.  I can’t do justice to these films in this introductory post but I shall return to review each of them thoroughly.

Wild At Heart takes the first book in Barry Gifford’s series of tales about Sailor And Lula as its starting point and then blends it with The Wizard Of Oz filtered through Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.  It’s an out and out American Fairytale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and it contains dynamic, raw performances from Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula, and an exceedingly creepy Willem Dafoe, last seen playing Jesus in Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ, as the lawless Angel of Death, Bobby Peru.

When I heard that David Lynch intended to work on a TV serial with Hill Street Blues creator, Mark Frost, I was sceptical to say the least.  What transpired though was Twin Peaks and it captivated audiences with its surreal blend of daytime Soap Opera and esoteric Police Procedural.  For a time it seemed that everybody on the planet wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, unfortunately once that questioned was finally answered the mystery at the heart of the story vanished along with large amount of the show’s viewers, leading to its eventual cancellation after 29 episodes.  The series was followed by the feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, which successfully manages to lie to rest Laura’s spirit and provide the show’s remaining, loyal fans with some sort of closure.

Lynch collaborated on the script for Lost Highway with Wild At Heart author Barry Gifford, producing a very dark story about a jazz saxophonist, Bill Pullman, who finds himself in the electric chair for murdering his wife and then metamorphoses into younger Balthazar Getty to avoid the death penalty.  This film marked the turning point in Lynch’s work where it became clear that the apparent literal meaning of the narrative was only window dressing for the subtext at its heart and Lynch exploited this style further in Mulholland Drive, again I shall save my detailed analysis, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for a later post.

David Lynch’s most recent film Inland Empire was shot entirely using digital video cameras and with it he has gone on the record stating that “For me, film is dead”.  Whilst many cinematic purists view this as heresy, I have to say that I found the end results very liberating and if working digitally ensures an ongoing output from Lynch then more power to his elbow.  However, despite his claims that working on DV is much faster and cheaper than celluloid, it’s been 4 years since the release of Inland Empire and some of us are beginning to wonder if the amount of time he’s recently devoted to proselytising Transcendental Meditation could be much better spent.

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Sucker Punch

It infuriates me that Sucker Punch has been universally demonised in the mainstream press for being the one thing that it clearly isn’t and anyone with a modicum of intelligence will appreciate that this is not a movie that sets out to further objectify or exploit women. Unfortunately such vehement negative press will undoubtedly put a lot of people off seeing it and drawing their own conclusions and this worrying trend in film criticism is tantamount to censorship in my opinion.

So why was Sucker Punch so reviled?  I think the main reason is that people expect a Zack Snyder film to be a throw-away experience, they’re not looking for anything other than escapist action and they certainly aren’t expecting a frank and disturbing allegory on gender politics.  Whilst there are plenty of fantasy battle sequences that can be watched purely as disposable fun there is an overarching subtext that deals with the rape, prostitution and psychological abuse of women that would be more at home in a David Lynch movie.

Despite its popcorn-friendly packaging Sucker Punch is full of unflinching feminist themes depicting the gamut of women’s experience throughout the course of the 20th century that the average viewer didn’t sign up for and were unprepared to take on-board in this context so they rail against the movie accusing its writer/director of the exploitation they’re witnessing, rather than recognise they are part of the society ultimately responsible; Zack Snyder is merely holding a mirror up to it.

The film opens with a montage backed by a new recording of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) to set up the back story of Babydoll (Emily Browning) the film’s protagonist.  When her mother dies Babydoll and her younger sister become wards of their stepfather whose physical and sexual abuse escalates to the point where she tries to shoot him but misses accidentally killing her sister for which she is committed to an insane asylum.  Sucker Punch takes place in a stylised version of the 1960s, a period where many women were institutionalised usually as the result of an unquestioned accusation of insanity from a significant male relation and, like Babydoll, were threatened with irreversible lobotomy as the final solution to their supposed mental illness.

The resident psychiatrist at Lennox House for the Mentally Insane is Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) who practices the methods of Freud and Jung, encouraging her female patients to re-enact the circumstances of their abuse in order to confront their shadow selves.  This focus on the subconscious allows the film’s layered fantasy structure to emerge, Babydoll retreats into a dreamlike state where the austere asylum is replaced by the image of a louche bordello in which she and her inmates are transformed into dancers in the employ of the club’s owner/pimp, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) who in reality is the head orderly who accepted a large bribe from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski signature to authorise her lobotomy.

In the brothel fantasy Vera Gorski is transformed into a choreographer-cum-madam figure that encourages the virginal, porcelain like Babydoll to muster up the courage to express herself through a highly personal erotic dance, this triggers the second layer of fantasy sequences in which she becomes a Warrior Princess who, under the guidance of the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), accepts a quest to retrieve 4 talismans that will lead her to understand the identity of the mysterious 5th object that will secure her freedom.

This mystical scavenger hunt enables Zack Snyder to film 4 equally incredible stylised battle scenes against many disparate foes such as giant Samurai, steam-powered Nazi zombies, a baby dragon and its protective mother, and a horde of killer glass robots.  The individual sequences are stunningly rendered and impeccably executed with the precision of a frenetic modern ballet and with each battle the camaraderie between Babydoll and her cohorts, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) grows and you get the impression of a genuine bond between the friends as they fight for their lives.

The central conceit of the film is that these women are forced to use their sexuality as the only weapon available to them in order to manipulate the men who control their miserable existences and that this “empowers” them, yet they spend the entire film scantily clad which gives rise to the charges of objectification.  The theatrical cut of the film was given a 12 certificate but many critics claimed it ought to have been rated 18, why?  There is no nudity, no sex scenes, little bad language, stylised violence and no bloodletting; what seems to upset the largely conservative critics is the implied rape and pervasive subtext which depicts the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world.

The appalling thing about this attempt to censor Sucker Punch is the outright hypocrisy of it all, as if this film is the only current example of female exploitation and objectification, as if it isn’t apparent in every music video shown throughout the day on MTV, as if it’s not omnipresent in every reality TV show, not to mention that only recently we’ve seen the return of Burlesque as an acceptable form of mainstream entertainment.  It would appear that the film’s critics are saying we’re absolutely fine with scantily clad, gun toting girls and we’ll even buy into this myth of “empowerment” but don’t then ruin it all by making us conscious of the fact that ultimately these women are the victims of deplorable acts of sexual violence.

As the west continues to fight a war against Islamic fundamentalism often in the name of freeing repressed women from the burqa or the yashmak, it seems ironic that the supposed free women of the western world are equally imprisoned behind their fetishized painted faces, parading in hot pants or micro skirts.  This irony is not lost on Zack Snyder or the cast of Sucker Punch, the film doesn’t degrade women or explicitly claim to be “empowering” them but, along with a recent spate of movies that acknowledge feminism’s third wave (Black Swan, the remake of True Grit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), it shines a light on a dark aspect of the human condition and is clearly one of the most original and challenging movies in recent memory; Babydoll will, in no doubt, eventually emerge as a cult figure in cinema history.

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Svengali Cinema Release

It has been a long time coming but the moment has finally arrived – you can see Svengali in the cinema from today!

svengali-cinema

Don’t worry if it’s not showing at a cinema near you because it can be downloaded from iTunes right now!

You can also pre-order the DVD or Blu-ray and buy the incredible Soundtrack album from Amazon.

 

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Tamara Drewe

It seems that 2010 will be remembered as a boon year for movies derived from comic strips what with Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the various Marvel and DC Comic franchise exploits there was also Tamara Drewe based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds which in turn was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and set in the fictional, sleepy Dorset village of Ewedown.

The story centres on a country retreat for writers run by Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a smug, successful, adulterous crime novelist and his loyal, doting wife Beth (Tasmin Grieg) their largely eccentric guests include Glen McCreavy an American academic who’s struggling to finish his latest book which, to echo the source material, is on the works of Hardy.  When Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) inherits her mother’s house she returns to the village where she grew up and was known as a troubled ugly duckling, now working as a journalist with a popular column she’s had a nose job and the remarkable change in her appearance stirs interest in the village’s male population.

 

Tamara enlists the help of Andy (Luke Evans) the odd job man to renovate the house for sale, ironically Andy’s family once owned the property but they fell on hard times, a further twist is that she lost her virginity to him back in the day and he clearly still has feelings for her.  Tamara on the other hand doesn’t know what she wants and embarks on a wild fling with Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) drummer and teenage heartthrob who she meets while reporting on the local rock festival and within days he proposes marriage.

Nicholas Hardiment is a serial philanderer and his long suffering wife has taken him back on numerous occasions.  Things take an unexpected turn when Jody and Casey two teenaged girls with massive crushes on Ben Sergeant conspire to bring him back to the village when his relationship with Tamara turns sour whilst they’re staying in London for Christmas.  Jody’s cockamamie plan involves sneaking into Tamara’s house whilst Andy, incidentally Casey’s Uncle, is decorating and secretly sending an email from Tamara’s computer to Ben asking him to come back for the “biggest shagging of his life”.  Casey being the more sensitive of the two girls warns Jody not to send it, but Jody is undeterred and for some perverse reason adds Nicholas and Andy as recipients.

Chaos ensues; Ben is furious and breaks off his engagement to Tamara, Andy is disappointed that Tamara’s taste in men extends to the rapacious Hardiment but doesn’t realise that as a girl who hardly knew her own father she had harboured a secret crush on ‘Nicholarse’ whose fame as a writer she aspired to and somewhat inevitably the two of them now end up in bed together.  The American Professor has found new inspiration for his book whilst falling for Beth Hardiment and when she discovers her husband’s fling too far with Tamara he is there to support her pursuit for a divorce.

As you can tell the plot is a suitably convoluted homage to Hardy’s late 19th century romantic potboilers, fuelled by unrequited love and repressed sexual passion and handled with great skill by director Stephen Frears who manages to keep it light and frothy but tackle some tough themes head on, such as spouse choice, infidelity and the lonely pursuit of an artful life; I won’t spoil the surprise ending but it’s fair to say all’s well that ends well.

Tamara Drewe is a refreshing British romantic comedy that’s both smart and funny, the hidef release has a sharp and vibrant 1080p transfer that lends itself to comic strip imagery, the rich greens of the countryside are balanced by the earthy browns and inky blacks evidently on show here, skin tones are also superb; Sony Pictures never miss an opportunity to show off the capabilities of Blu-ray and the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is equally impressive.  If for nothing more it will be remembered as Gemma Arterton’s best acting role since her breakout performance as Bond girl Strawberry Fields in the ghastly Quantum of Solace.

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Cléo from 5 to 7

From the opening credits of Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, you know this is going to be a stylish and important film of the French New Wave, a period of Cinema history dominated by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

In the colour credit sequence Cléo (Corine Marchand), a young and beautiful Parisian, is having her future told and the Tarot cards confirm her worst fears as she awaits the results of a medical to detect whether she is suffering from an incurable disease.

The photography switches to the crisp monochrome, hand-held style that is typical of French films of the period.  Varda creates an almost documentary feel as we spend the next 90 minutes following Cléo, a famous pop singer, around the chic streets of  ’60s Paris in real time.

Cléo is very superstitious and sees omens of death everywhere, her maid encourages this, advising her not to wear the new hat she bought because it’s a Tuesday, not to drink coffee and to avoid cats!  That’s not all; the film is split into 13 chapters so it really looks as though her fate is doomed!  Still, she tries to look on the bright side musing, “Ugliness is a kind of death.  As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”  How very French.

We soon discover that Cléo’s songs are going out of fashion, and despite efforts of Michel “Windmills of Your Mind” Legrand (who makes a cameo as her songwriter) to provide a new hit, she is sick of success and her empty existence.  Her current lover briefly visits her but their busy lives don’t allow them enough time to even kiss!

 

Corine Marchand is excellent as the spoilt but tragic rich girl and gives a poignant performance bringing great depth to lines like, “Everyone spoils me – no one loves me!”  Throughout, her tragedy is put into context by the conflict in Algeria; she is not the only person facing imminent death.

Don’t be put off by the gloomy subject matter; Cléo from 5 to 7 is an exuberant and very stylish film that benefits from many lighter moments.  Not least a fantastic Silent Comedy parody, where a man wearing dark sunglasses thinks he’s seen his lover knocked down by a car, only to find that due to his obscured vision he’s looking at the wrong girl, “Damn dark sunglasses, make everything look so black!”  Indeed.

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