Sunday, 30 October 2011

watched - no 25 - Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov, 2010)

Before tackling 3D with his critically acclaimed documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and helming the forthcoming death row expose Into the Abyss, Werner Herzog executive produced and narrated Dimitry Vasyukov's Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, due to be released on DVD in the UK on the 28th of November. Vasyukov's simple yet hugely illuminating examination of a year in the life of a small Siberian village and its inhabitants, reachable only by helicopter, takes in the very Herzogian themes of man versus nature, isolation, the cycle of life and self-sufficient outsider communities. Focusing on the village's Sable trappers (a dwindling and increasingly economically fraught way of life), Herzog guides us through the seasons, beginning with Spring and ending in Winter, as the menfolk continue the centuries old tradition that takes them away from their friends and families for the duration of the hunting season.

The sheer physical vastness of the Taiga, stunningly captured in all of its seasonal glories, and the rustic lifestyle of the villagers dominates the film, slightly spoiled by the villagers voices being overlaid by irritating, drone-like American translators, to provide an insight into this largely unseen community. Living off the land and beholden to the seasonal changes, these hardy villagers survive with only the barest of modern accoutrements to assist them with their daily chores. Boats and traps are made by hand, the diet of the villagers largely consists of bread, potatoes and fish and, as is repeated by all of the hunters, a good hunting dog is essential to survival in such an inhospitable environment. Sharing similar thematic concerns as Herzog's own Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, Happy People is a fascinating glimpse into a world far removed from our own. It may not quite reach the operatic, abyss staring heights of many of Herzog's non-fiction films but nonetheless it leaves the viewer in awe of the landscape, its inhabitants and their deeply ingrained, symbiotic relationship.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Watched - no 24 - Shaolin (Benny Chan, 2011)

Prolific Hong Kong film-maker Benny Chan, the director of 22 movies since his d├ębut A Moment of Romance in 1990, delivers an updated take on Jet Li's first movie The Shaolin Temple (Chang Hsin-Yen, 1982) for his latest big screen venture. A two hour plus martial arts epic starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, Shaolin, released in September on DVD, topped the Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore box offices and broke the box office record in Malaysia on its release earlier in the year. This tale of feuding warlords and Shaolin monks in 1920s China is ravishing to behold, with extraordinarily impressive choreographed fight sequences, and is the equal of any Hollywood Blockbuster in terms of the scale of the project but it all feels too mainstream and perfunctory to really grab the viewer by the throat in the same fashion as Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins (2010)

Lau's General Hou Jie, ruthless and growing ever more powerful, is the central character who, after being usurped by his own second in command, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse), seeing his young daughter killed and his wife leave him, undergoes a Damascene conversion and turns to the Shaolin monks he had previously threatened with death for salvation. Jackie Chan's cook is charged with taking the once fearsome General, thought by Man to be dead, under his wing for training into the ways of the Shaolin and Zen Buddhism. Much soul searching and repentance is endured by Jie before Man's discovery that his one time leader is still alive ushers in a fresh wave of violent confrontation that threatens the very existence of the temple and its inhabitants.

Shaolin is entertaining enough but the narrative is a familiar one - good versus evil, a fallen man finds redemption, power corrupts - as are the character types, including Chan's partly comic, slightly dishevelled cook. The swelling orchestral score is too overbearing and at times sickly sentimental and the whole thing is constructed to appeal to a mass mainstream audience. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, it just doesn't hit the spot for me as it all feels too predictable however extravagant and well directed, shot and acted the film is.

Around the World in Eighty Movies - number 4

Country: South Africa / Botswana
Title: The Gods Must Be Crazy
Director: Jamie Uys
Cast: N!xau, Sandra Prinsloo, Marius Weyers, Louw Verwey
Year: 1980
Running time: 109 minutes
Genre: Comedy/Action
Notable for: Smashing box office records in South Africa

Never has the casual discarding of an empty Coca-Cola bottle caused as much strife as it does in Jamie Uys' The Gods Must Be Crazy. Thrown from a plane the Coke bottle lands in the Kalahari desert and is found by a tribe of Bushmen. At first they find many uses for the humble bottle before tribesman Xi, played by Namibian tribesman N!xau, after seeing the rise in jealousy, anger and violence the bottle's ownership brings forth, decides it's an evil item and sets off to return it to the Gods. Uys' comedic tale of noble savages, religious beliefs and contemporary, consumer driven Western culture was a huge hit throughout Africa and farther afield, with it eventually being distributed to over 45 countries through strong word of mouth.

Whilst some critical voices deemed its portrayal of the Bushmen to be culturally insensitive the majority of critics and audiences judged it to be a successful satire of modern Western civilisation as seen through the eyes of its hero Xi. As well as providing laughs The Gods Must Be Crazy also acts as an, admittedly shallow, historical document of Bush life before major social changes brought about forced relocations and the abandonment of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle for many of Southern Africa's indigenous peoples. Spawning three inferior sequels Uys' movie, a co-production between South Africa and Botswana, has a healthy cult following to this day and is a fine example of how to successfully tackle important cultural debates in a humorous, non-didactic fashion.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Watched - no 23 - Stake Land (Jim Mickle, 2010)

It won't have escaped the attention of even the most casual of cinema-goers, literature fans or TV audiences that Vampires and apocalyptic scenarios are both as popular now as they have ever been. With the likes of the Twilight series, True Blood, Let the Right One in, Melancholia, The Road, The Walking Dead and others sharing critical praise, box office success, high ratings and impressive sales figures audiences enamored of all things fang related or 'end of the world' have never had it so good. Whether the market is reaching saturation point or not new entries into these genres are released seemingly every other week and Jim Mickle's Stake Land, released this week on DVD, is the latest to see the light of day. Co-written by Mickle and Nick Damici, who also stars as the enigmatic vampire hunter Mister, Stake Land combines the genres mentioned within a road movie scenario to memorable effect in what could well be the horror movie of the year.

With society broken down due to a plague of vampirism and groups of survivors holed up in locked down, uninfected towns and outposts, Mister and his young protege Martin (Connor Paolo) roam the ravaged states of the US slaying the infected and accepting warmth and sustenance from the townsfolk they come across. Heading North to the fabled 'New Eden', an area rumoured to be heavily protected and free of vampires, Mister and Martin, in true road movie fashion, meet a variety of characters – from Kelly McGillis' Sister, a nun struggling to marry her religious beliefs with the chaos around her, Belle (Danielle Harris), a pregnant teenage drifter and Willie,a cynical ex-marine (Sean Nelson). Along with the nocturnal creatures, reminiscent of the Candarian Demons from Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series, danger comes in the form of a clan of right wing Christian fundamentalists, as happy to kill the uninfected as they are the infected as they spread their extremist ideology and brutal forms of territorial control.

Mickle and Damici's genre crossing movie is beautifully shot by DOP Ryan Samul in a variety of run down small towns, backwoods roads, abandoned and disused buildings and vast expanses of woodlands and wastelands. There's a real Tarkovskian feel to the devastated landscapes and architecture, all shot in suitably gloomy lighting, that raises Stake Land above the average genre movie and places it as being more akin to John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's aforementioned The Road. If you took the plot of Zombieland, crossed it with the milieu of True Blood, removed all the humour and added a bleak social realist metaphor on the state of recession hit America, both in the era of The Grapes of Wrath, the present day and an imagined future, then Stake Land is what you'd come up with. Where other lesser movies of this ilk would rely on ADHD afflicted editing and a ramped up soundtrack, Mickle, who also took on editing and visual FX duty, and Jeff Grace, with his affecting, melancholic piano led score, take Stake Land close to the realms of the arthouse movie whilst still providing enough thrills, moments of tension and serious bloodletting to keep even the most ardent genre fan happy.

Superbly directed, played straight as an arrow by its impressive cast, atmospheric, almost unrelentingly downbeat and providing a genuinely inventive take on three genres that are as well worn as many of the characters clothes Stake Land delivers from start to finish. Terrific stuff.

Friday, 14 October 2011

To Die For... The Insect Woman (Imamura Shohei)

My favourite film, The Insect Woman, by Imamura Shohei, isn't all that well known, but should be. It's about a lower class Japanese woman who struggles through life, has a child, and works as a maid for a posher woman. It's shocking - at one point the Japanese woman seems to suckle her dad. In another, we see a child scald herself with boiling soup. But there are two reasons why I love it. Firstly, its style. The Insect Woman is one of the most beautiful films ever made. It's shot very widescreen, and the compositions are breathtaking. The scalding scene is done in two amazing shots, one far away from the kid, one from above the stove, with the child out of focus below. The second reason I like it is because of what it says about people. The first shot is an insect scuttling across the land. Then we cut to the woman doing the same. For the rest of the film she scuttles, feral, determined not to give up. To use an insect as a metaphor for a woman is unflattering in a way, but Imamura loves her for her unstoppability, her survival instinct, her glorious forward propulsion. The film moves me to tears and thrills me with its pictorial beauty. - Mark Cousins
Mark Cousins is a director, presenter and film critic. His credits include the TV series Scene by Scene and Moviedrome. His latest venture, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15 part exploration of the history of film, is currently being shown on More4 on Saturday nights.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

To Die For... - monthly guest written feature

'To Die For...'

Each month I'll be asking a special guest one simple question - which film could you not live without? In a couple of hundred words they'll have the chance to give us an insight into just why their chosen film is so special to them. Will it be a film from their childhood? A modern classic? An arthouse oddity? A knockabout comedy? Whatever the choices may be they will all offer a glimpse into the relationship between film and viewer, personal tastes and cherished cinematic memories and act as a pure celebration of the wonderful, endlessly fascinating world of film.

The first guest writer will be Mark Cousins, the man responsible for the series that is currently the TV highlight of any film lover's week - The Story of Film. Look out for his upcoming piece on Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman. A real treat to get the feature up and running.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Around the World in Eighty Movies - number 3

Country: America
Title: Five
Director: Arch Oboler
Cast: William Phipps, Susan Douglas Rubes, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin, Earl Lee
Year: 1951
Running time: 93 minutes
Genre: Science Fiction
Notable for: Being the earliest example of post-apocalyptic cinema

As well as writing, directing and producing the first full colour 3D movie, Bwana Devil (1952), Arch Oboler, who worked on radio, stage, TV and the big screen, performed the same duties on the post-apocalyptic Five. Shot in Glendale, California and in and around Oboler's Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Malibu, California during the early days of the Cold War, Five is the bleak story of a handful of survivors left after worldwide atomic warfare. Whereas many of the 50s Science Fiction films that came out of the US were flag waving, barely concealed anti-Communist tracts masquerading as alien invasion adventures Five was a downbeat, philosophical and humanistic film more in keeping with the modern post-apocalyptic vision of John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2009).

Pre-figuring The Night of the Living Dead's random survivors holed up together scenario so memorably used by George A. Romero by 17 years, Oboler's screenplay covers racial and gender politics, communal living, the madness of mutually assured destruction and the existential angst of living in a 'dead' world. Even after the population of the planet is reduced to four men and one woman, violence, bigotry, sexual tension and political ideology still rule the roost in Oboler's stark portrayal of the remnants of society. Visions of the apocalypse and its aftermath are a staple of contemporary cinema, from the action oriented Mad Max (79,81,85) series via Steve De Jarnatt's under appreciated Miracle Mile (1988) to Roland Emmerich's Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and Lars Von Trier's recent Melancholia (2011), but Five, with its eschewing of effects laden action, oppressive atmosphere and savage critique of the folly of war and social attitudes is as potent as any of them. Hundreds of films and dozens of directors could, rightly, have represented America in this series but Oboler's low key vision of the end of the world, not as championed, critically fawned over or technically ground-breaking as the films of Griffith, Welles, Cassavetes or Scorsese deserves its spot on the list for tackling its subject matter in such an uncondescending, fearless fashion.

Five can be viewed for free in full here -

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Watched - no 22 - Panic Button (Chris Crow, 2011)

A cautionary tale of the dark side of social networking is explored in this timely independent British horror/thriller from director/co-writer Chris Chow and producer/co-writer John Shackleton. As the lines between the private and the public are increasingly eroded and more of us increasingly share information online that in the past would have been kept secret or known to only a handful of family and friends Panic Button takes elements from real world cases of online abuse, data theft and privacy issues and blends them into a violent, satirical revenge movie. Bringing to mind James Wan's Saw (2004), Marc Evans' My Little Eye (2002) and to a lesser degree Jonathan Liebesman's The Killing Room (2009) Crow's movie, made for the relatively small figure of £300,000, is an intriguing if flawed exercise in tension, humiliation and uncomfortable, socially reflective attitudes.

Four young Brits, including single mother Jo, played by erstwhile Eastenders star Scarlett Alice Johnson, are whisked away aboard a private jet by social networking site for a prize winning, all expenses paid weekend in New York. With their mobile phones relinquished, and the cockpit locked, the guests are introduced to the mysterious 'Alligator' via inbuilt PC screens, who promises them further prizes for playing the 'in flight entertainment'. As you would imagine the 'entertainment' isn't exactly what the prize winners are expecting as a series of increasingly personal questions and embarrassing revelations causes tensions to rise and the veracity of the trip, and those behind it, to be called into question. Events go from uncomfortable to sinister to outright perilous as the characters are faced with a situation where the potential consequences of failure affect not only themselves but their loved ones and online 'friends' as well.

There's a fine line between catching the zeitgeist and exploiting the times and Panic Button flits between the two, not always successfully, in an entertaining and in parts brutally sadistic fashion. The suspension of disbelief required in many genre movies is definitely needed as one particular plot device should be so blindingly obvious to even the most frazzled of characters that you can't help but question their intelligence. Crow and the cast and crew do a good job in ratcheting up the tension and the climax, though convoluted, is bleak in the extreme. Panic Button makes good use of a tight budget, pulls no punches in it's representation of graphic violence and, though it may be heavy handed, makes some interesting points about anonymity and responsibility.

The Big Picture - new article

My latest article for The Big Picture is an On Location feature focusing on Martin Scorsese's four hour documentary My Voyage to Italy. Recently released on DVD for the first time this fabulous journey through Scorsese's favourite Italian films is a must see for film lovers everywhere. Follow the link at the end of this piece, have a read and then order a copy of the DVD for your collection.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Watched - no 21 - Shiver (Isidro Ortiz, 2008)

Isidro Ortiz's Shiver (a translation of Eskalofrio), is the latest in a growing number of Spanish horror/fantasy films to have followed in the wake of Guillermo del Toro's 2006 masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth. With the releases of the del Toro produced El Orfanato/The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2007), Elio Quiroga's La Hora Fria/The Dark Hour (2006), Nacho Vigalondo's superb Los Cronocrimines/Timecrimes (2007) and the [Rec] series (which sees Paco Plaza's [Rec]3: Genesis released next year), an intriguing, if not always succesful, collection of movies is taking shape. Ortiz's film, made in 2008 and released on DVD on the 17th of October, which blends vampiric themes and rural horror with straight up thriller elements is a moderately successful entry into this group; competently directed and performed if not original or genuinely scary enough to make it a must see.

Shiver stars Junio Valverde, who had a small role in del Toro's El Espinazo del Diablo/The Devil's Backbone in 2001, as Santi, a troubled teenager suffering from photophobia - an abnormal reaction to light - labelled a freak and a vampire by his bullying peers, resigned to his outsiderdom and living in Barcelona with his caring but weary mother Julia (Mar Sodupe). On doctor's orders, mother and son relocate to a tiny sun deprived village in rural Spain to allow Santi to live a more 'normal' life. What follows is a deft but familar tale as a series of murders and animal killings make the relations between the wary villagers and new arrivals tense to the point of outright hatred as accusatory fingers are pointed in the direction of the 'vampire' Santi. Suffice to say that everything is far from what it first appears, as the surrounding woods begin to loom ever larger in matters and the house Santi and Julia move into begins to turn up unexpected secrets. There's a diverting but not fully rounded mix of themes and genre traits in Shiver, some nicely done - the struggles of existing outside of regular society, explored in a number of characters - and some little more than puffer sub-plots - Santi's tentative relationship with local girl Angela (Blanca Suarez) being the one that sticks in the mind. The fact that four screenwriters are credited points to why Shiver appears at times to be two or three different movies fighting for space.

Aesthetically Shiver has a fittingly bleached out, oppressive atmosphere (though if I never see another night-vision sequence it'll be too soon) and the score works well in ratcheting up the tension when required. Though the film follows a fairly predictable path it's an enjoyable enough experience getting to the endpoint even if the climax itself is a bit of a shoulder shrugging moment. Ortiz has the look and feel of genre movies down well and with stronger material could well go on to direct something that really catches the attention.