Sunday, 17 May 2015

My Hawkmen salute you...

…and I am done. This Island Rod yields the lightsaber to Wonders in the Dark for the last day of the blogathon. Anyone still hoping to participate should direct their posts over there, and the indefatigable Sam Juliano will induct you into his sleepless host of dread minions.

Once again, my heartiest thanks and congratulations to all contributors and donors. Excellent work, one and all. Be sure to check back here on Monday for news on donation totals and also raffle prizes.

-- Rod

PS: We also have some late entries for the blogathon still coming through here -- there's usually one or two -- from Shwyny at 365 Days 365 Classics, and it's a highly pertinent and worthwhile post too, an interview with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, director of the Film Heritage Foundation, India...

...and a final (?!) post, tardy but not expelled, from the US Intellectual History site, with Andrew Hartman considering the time capsule of political and social perspectives depicted in the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who (I dig, sir, I dig)...

Let’s end this with a bang!

Day Four of the blogathon is here: the last day for This Island Rod’s host duties, before handing over to Wonders in the Dark where the blogathon will conclude on Sunday. So send me your links and we’ll make it an escape by the skin of our teeth to remember. And, PLEASE DONATE – we want your moolah! Or else Cupid in Quarantine will stay quarantined, and everyone will do this to all you cheapos in the street:

Oh, and please remember folks: I live in Australia, which means my hours are somewhat askew from those of many of you -- yes, even my Nosferatu-esque hours -- so please try and get your links in reasonably early (by which I mean 12-1pm CDT) or be prepared to wait until quite late (c. 8pm CDT) until they're posted.

Blogathon Participants Roll

Saturday May 16:

David Cairns strikes again at Shadowplay with a wry perusal of Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus

… my own second entry for the blogathon, and the first piece I’ve ever offered under the banner of This Island Rod itself, is in praise of Ishiro Honda’s epic Atragon

...meanwhile at 21 Essays, Lee Price's series celebrating Ray Harryhausen and First Men on the Moon now expands to appreciate the regular composers on Harryhausen's films, including the great Bernard Herrmann and under-appreciated First Men on the Moon scorer Laurie Johnson...

...unbeknownst to all, the ingenious Ivan G. Shreve of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear has been going to town on Edward L. Cahn's Creature with an Atom Brain, a film torn from the pages of the lurid pulp scifi mag of your dreams...

...fantabulous funabulist Betty Jo Tucker contributes by way of a review, of Nicholas Eliopoulis' class documentary on Mary Pickford and her vital place in the early history of movies, over at Memosaic. We also owe acclaim to Betty Jo for her breathlessly delivered donation of a copy of her book Confessions of a Move Addict. Way to go, Betty Jo...

...and that sinister scrivener Robert Hornak keeps his Watchlist ticking with a look at North Korea's most famous giant malevolent lizard not currently employed as a Minister of State, Pulgasari...

...whilst Krell Laboratory technician Christianne careens into the third part of her evaluation of Robert Heinlein's work as transposed into cinema, centring on this year's Predestination...

...and joltin' Jandy Hardesty jumps in at The Frame with a heady exploration of the mystique of the lost film and the Romanticism of cinephilia in all its multifarious glory.

Atragon (Kaitei Gunkan, 1963)

The sea boils as figures swathed in futuristic swimwear lurch out of the black water. Masked men with scorching-hot skin kidnap hapless citizens in the middle of the Tokyo noir-ised so well by Sam Fuller. Bewigged Empresses of lost civilisations lord over spear-wielding submariners. Colossal war machines rise from the ocean and scourge the sky. Swarms of flying saucers rocket out of volcanoes to lay waste to cities. Pagoda dragon kajius menace the shadowy depths. Atragon is a veritable visual and thematic encyclopaedia of Japanese pop science fiction, marshalled by Ishiro Honda. Akira Kurosawa’s former assistant director had suddenly and irrevocably defined his national cinema’s sci-fi generics for the next sixty years with the monochrome iconography of Godzilla (1954), and followed it up with The Mysterians (1957). Those two films provided much of the bedrock for both the kaiju and mecha strains of Japanese sci-fi, the nightmare spectre of the A-bomb in the former begetting the rise of a new super-scientific age and its ingenious wares rising to defend against such existential terrors. Atragon follows on from The Mysterians in contemplating humanity warring with an invasive force in a clash where only know-how can counter aggression. This time the evil power is the sunken continent of Mu, buried beneath the ocean waves for millennia, and now resurging to bully the rest of the world into submission with their power over earthquakes and tides. The source material, a novel by Shunrō Oshikawa, mediated via an illustrated version by Honda’s regular design collaborator Shigeru Komatsuzaki, doesn’t make for a movie as authentically bonkers as Honda’s later Matango (1966), which would conflate nuclear paranoia with drug use and a proto-Cronenbergian sense of body distortion. But Atragon is one of the best-made and most sheerly entertaining works of ‘60s sci-fi cinema.

“This isn’t a thriller!” barks a photographer at his hapless model as she tries to model a leopard skin bikini with Kobe’s grungy docklands standing in for tropical paradise, only for her to ruin the desired effect pulchritude by pointing at the mysterious steaming being rising from the waves. A car carrying a kidnapped industrialist tears by them and crashes into the harbour, and the next day the car is hauled out without any bodies inside. In spite of the photographer's words, these early scenes strongly resemble the spy and urban thriller genres just taking off at the time, with a cold-open pre-credit sequence the same year as the James Bond team thought of the same thing, and more than a hint of burlesque aimed at the popular brand of superhero movies serials mushrooming on Japanese movie and TV screens at the time, the likes of Moonlight Mask and Prince of Space, with the same dashing blend of streetwise venturing and futuristic mystery, as well as Honda’s own more down-to-earth recent sci-fi thrillers The H-Man (1958) and The Human Vapour (1960). Something of the same spirit, too, of Feulliadian surrealism only slightly askance from Georges Franju’s Judex the same year. The photographers in the opening scene, Susumu (Takashima) and Yoshito (Yu Fujiki), are moonlighting reporters on the make, trying to please editors by providing sex appeal and pop thrills as Yoshito dresses up as a one-eyed gunman: is Honda’s tongue wiggling in his cheek in noting his own sturdy attempts to take his fantastic material seriously and mock producers interested in violence and sexploitation for a quick buck, whilst also managing to work both in? 

The journalists gawk in daylight as the crashed car is hauled from the waters, but Yoshito is quickly distracted by a pretty girl, Makoto (Yōko Fujiyama), and leap to snare as a model. Makoto proves a player in the proliferating enigmas herself. Raised by shipping magnate and retired naval commander Kusumi (Ken Uehara, a stalwart actor and also father of Red Beard star Yûzô Kayama), Makoto is actually the daughter of his former subordinate, Captain Hachiro Jinguji (Kurosawa regular Jun Tazaki), who vanished along with an experimental Imperial submarine on the eve of surrender at the end of World War 2. Makoto proves popular with mysterious lurkers. A man calling himself “Agent 23” (Akihiko Hirata) tries to snatch Makoto and deliver her into the hands of more steaming frogmen. Another pursuer, Amano (Yoshifumi Tajima), is netted by the police and proves to be one of her father’s crewmen, sent to keep an eye on her. The kidnappings and incursions prove to have been early moves on behalf of the Mu people to clear away the one obstacle to their intended re-emergence and world conquest. Jinguji and his crew have been hiding out on a remote tropical island, building a new, ingenious and incredibly powerful war machine, the Gotengo (Atragon in the anglicised retitling), a submarine that can also fly, equipped with a drill nose that can cut through solid rock, and a freezing gun. Mu rocks the world with earthquakes and sends out its own submarines to attack shipping, whilst sending messages to the authorities demanding that the Atragon be destroyed. At the behest of the UN, Kusumi, with Makoto, Susumiu, Yoshito, and another journalist, Umino (Kenji Sahara) in tow, instead has Amano take him to Jinguji’s island: he intends to ask his old comrade to use the Atragon against Mu. Umino is another Mu agent lurks hiding behind a paste-on Beatnik beard and long junkie overcoat – like the other Mu-ites, he stores energy in his body that can be directed out and also makes him feel cold in normal conditions – and he attempts to sabotage the Atragon by blowing up its harbour. But the biggest impediment to sending Atragon into battle against Mu proves to be Jinguji himself: the Captain protests to Kusumi that he’s spent the last decade or so building the warship specifically to be used to fight a new war of Imperial conquest for Japan.

Taking on this fascinating, and perhaps then-touchy, theme marks Atragon as Honda’s most direct and forceful follow-up to Godzilla as a contemplation of the war’s impact on Japanese life and world-view. Honda references real-life cases of former Imperial soldiers refusing to surrender and contemplates the nation’s new, officially pacifistic stance. The age of “patriotism” as Kusumi and Jinguji understand it has given way to a conveniently internationalist struggle, whilst the young generation, embodied by Makoto and Susumu, is appalled by Jinguji’s chauvinism and the thought of meaningless further conflict. Makoto, initially injured by Jinguji’s refusal to acknowledge her when the party of strangers enters his jungle realm, storms out in tears as she realises how wedded her father is to his dream of restored militarist glory. Susumu berates the Captain for his rigidity, but the Captain reveals his human anguish suppressed under his hardened soldier’s exterior, having held on to his one keepsake of Makoto since the war and sent Amano to keep an eye on her. His dedication to duty is ultimately celebrated whilst he is stirred to think of the world in different terms. If Godzilla articulated the dread and victimisation felt by many ordinary citizens after the war via monstrous metaphor, Atragon is surprisingly overt in confronting related issues, even resembling a new manifesto for a nation moving out of an era of shame and tragedy. The Atragon itself encapsulates all of the technical virtuosity that would soon make Japan a superpower of technology, whilst the plot carefully reanimates a sense of proud invention and active gutsiness that can only be wielded after divesting the past and its illusions, whilst also repurposing some of the old militarist iconography for a new age (as would Space Battleship Yamato, almost certainly influenced by Atragon).

Equally easy to read Mu as a fantastically veiled but critical depiction of historical Japan, an autocracy with a nominally powerful monarch, the Empress (Tetsuko Kobayashi), but actually controlled by a Shogun-like High Priest (Hideyo Amamoto), emerging from isolation to make war with a mismatched blend of antiquated culture and super-technology, and then meeting its comeuppance in terrible annihilation. Of course, such readings, whilst all but unavoidable, do make for lopsided appreciation. Atragon is chiefly a straightforward, cheery adventure yarn, but with a scale, speed, and ambition to its storytelling that anticipates the modern SFX blockbuster school far more than any other movie of its time. There’s a swathe of influences in its genetic make-up, mixing Verne’s Nemo and Robur with dashes of She (1935) and any number of space operas, except resituated in inner space. Honda’s pictures, captured in the elegant expanse of Tohoscope, have just the right mixture of conceptual immediacy and fervent, comic book-like strangeness – the Mu aquanauts rising from the sea that steams around their heated bodies, the colourful rituals in the Mu city with its soaring Cyclopean vaults and idols, the death rays fixed on the bows of their submarine shaped like coiling serpents, or the blazing, fulsome hues of the wigs worn by the Mu Empress and her consorts,a  touch that makes me wonder of Jacques Rivette saw this before making Duelle (Une Quarantaine) (1974). To sell the film to fans of the already well-defined Toho formula, the producers had Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa add a monster to the original storyline, and in doing so created one of the genre’s stalwarts, Manda: worshipped as a guardian god by Mu’s citizens, Manda, snake-like and spiny, resembles an intriguingly classical Asian idea of a dragon, and represents perhaps a deliberate attempt on the filmmakers’ parts to consciously meld more localised fantastic folklore with the storyline’s recycled tropes of Victorian scientifiction. Manda is glimpsed memorably first as a mass of giant scales through the window of a Mu cell, but the beast is dispatched of a tad easily, as indeed are the Mu-ites in general. Manda however would come back in later Toho extravaganzas as a member of the Godzilla troupe, whilst the idea of sending a super-weapon up against a kaiju was also about to become a genre staple, echoing through King Kong Escapes (1967), Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1974), and on to Pacific Rim (2013). 

Akira Ifukube’s score is also perhaps his finest moment, whilst, of course, a very big part of the film’s form and charm was provided the special effects, staged by Toho’s maestro Tsuburaya. The effects occasionally graze hokey, as with Manda’s assault on the Atragon where he’s rather too obviously a puppet, and some effects shots are recycled from other Toho films like Mothra (1962). But there’s still some impressive spectacle in the climactic scenes as the Atragon drills through into the heart of Mu’s power supply, drawn from geothermic energy, to sabotage colossal generators – sequences that must have been grand on a massive scope movie screen. The film’s second half sees Susumu and Makoto captured by Mu, but breaking out with the Empress as hostage, thanks to some conveniently mislaid explosives, whilst the Atragon buries Manda under ice. The apocalyptic final images turn unexpectedly poignant and bear out again the curiously insistent weight of Honda’s parable, as Mu disappears in an explosion that rises from the sea and swamps its ships like one of the Bikini tests, and the Empress, stricken by the sight of her homeland’s destruction, leaps from the Atragon’s deck and swims into the smoking maelstrom to die with her people, leaving off with the tragic final vision of the Empress’s red hair fading to a tiny dot as she heads into oblivion. It’s a vision that gives deeper meaning to usual “there but for the grace of God” note of many such final vistas of calamity that regularly came at the end of lost civilisation dramas, because it’s clear Honda has envisioned the awful alternative if the nuttier extremists in the Imperial cabinet had gained their way, and boiled his concept down to one powerful image, looking forward twenty-seven years to Honda’s return to collaborating with Kurosawa, for Dreams (1990), and its hauntingly similar refrains and invocations of guilt and extinction. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

This is your space captain speaking…

Welcome. You have come in search of the unknown, the unexplained, the answers to the teeming mysteries of the universe. This Island Rod will now be steering the Film Preservation Blogathon through the furthest reaches of internet space in an attempt to find these answers, to forge new paths in the darkest parts of the creative and analytical mind, and protect the vulnerable and decaying history of your species. Enter the stasis tube, connect your life support apparatus, and place yourself in the hands of our experienced astro-navigators.

Please join me a gracious thank-you for Marilyn Ferdinand for handling blogathon duties for the first two days at Ferdy on Films, and to all of those who have participated so far.

All links for blogathon posts over the next two days must be directed here: place them in a comment at the bottom of this post or send it to me in an email: wahe[at]dodo[dot]com[dot]au

Make sure you have your working donation button and/or direct link to the donation portal.

So, send me your links people. I crave your links like the Metalunan mutant craves sweet human girl flesh. Please….WRITE! WRITE WRITE! DONATE! DONATE! DONATE!

Blogathon Participants Roll

Friday 15th of May:

The canny David Cairns of Shadowplay leaps back into the fray with a double bill study of thrifty sci-fi, Curt Siodmak's The Magnetic Monster and Montgomery Tully's Battle Beneath the Earth, the latter of which I will admit to loving for most of the reasons David castigates it for...

...whilst Lee Price leaps back into the fray over at the redoubtable 21 Essays with the third in a series looking at Juran and Harryhausen's First Men in the Moon, with an interesting reflection on its influence on James Cameron and its engagement with troubling themes...

...Hannah Givens of Things Matter gives us a commentary on one of my favourite late-night chill-out horror flicks, Terence Fisher's Island of Terror...

...and J.D. Lafrance saves the universe by talking about Flash Gordon over at Radiator Heaven...

...from over at co-host blog Wonders in the Dark, a vintage post by the sufficiently efficient Allan Fish, looking at that ever-imposing Kanchenjunga of silent sci-fi, Fritz Lang's Metropolis...

...whilst John Hitchcock hitches up for his second post of the blogathon over at Hitchcock's World, this one an intriguing contemplation of the personal and political quandaries depicted in The Thing From Another World...

...a roar out from Aurora over at Once Upon a Screen, delving into another classic of silent scifi, Harry O. Hoyt's The Lost World, with some terrific photos of Willis O'Brien at work interpolated in the prose...

...that cartographer of creativity over at Krell Laboraties, Christianne, files the second part of her study of Robert A. Heinlein's work as adapted by Hollywood, looking at the well-known Starship Troopers and the not-so-well known The Puppet Masters...

...the dazzling delver of Dubai Hind Mezaina returns to the blogathon with a look at a fascinating subject -- classic Arab science fiction films, over at The Culturist...

...and the good folk at the US Intellectual History Blog continue their bravura contributions to the blogathon, with the habitual Ray Haberski turning an eye on movies that deal with dabblers in time, particularly A Sound of Thunder and The Butterfly Effect...

...whilst his fellow crewman Ben Alpers contributes an exploration of movie sci-fi in its political and historical dimensions, with some time out for contemplating those seemingly disparate and yet conceptually connected works, Zardoz and Star Wars...

...and the ballistic bounder Brooksie of Brooksie's Silent Film Collection looks into how early sci-fi filmmaking dealt with that most strange and alarming of new frontiers...the human mind!

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Attention People of's the Film Preservation Blogathon 2015!

The new age starts today -- the Film Preservation Blogathon 2015 kicks off this morning. Our great project to raise money for the National Film Preservation/EYE Museum project to restore Cupid in Quarantine -- or is it our mad dream? Well, remember, they called Galileo and Einstein mad too!

The host site for the first two days is Ferdy on Films. If you are planning to post a piece on your blog and submit it for the blogathon today or tomorrow, then proceed to Ferdy on Films, and post a link and heads-up message there.

This blog will take over as host at midnight on Friday 15 (US CDT) and end at midnight on Saturday 16. On those two days, either post your link and comment here, or send it to me in email: wahe[at]dodo[dot]com[dot]au

Wonders in the Dark will take over  Sunday 17th, the last day of the blogathon.

Each day's raffle winners will be announced on the host blog for that day.

Remember, if you want to be included in the blogathon roll you MUST include the donation button in every post you submit for the blogathon, and make sure it links to this address:

All blogathon entries will be accepted until midnight on the 17th. If you post a link and comment on one of the host sites during their non-hosting days, your link will be forwarded to the proper host, so make sure to look out for them there.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Wake Up, Time To Blog

Heads up, folks; the For The Love Of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon starts in one week's time, and I hope you're all readier for it than I am. The still above comes from the movie that is the object of our efforts this year, Cupid in Quarantine, a one-reel comedy about a young couple so determined to stay together they fake a smallpox outbreak. Moving Picture Review said: “It is a good story, handled well by Miss Elinor Field… [whose] vivaciousness permeates the entire picture, filling it with life and action and a humor that is contagious.” Yes, folks, remember when comedies were actually funny and charming?

I've already told you about Blogathon, our format and our essential aims, but for those who missed it or just need a reminder:

The theme for this year is Science Fiction. You can also post on silent film, film preservation, and film history. Perhaps even, if you're some kind of super-genius, you can combine all of these.

Hosting duties this year will be divided between three websites, as usual. Once you're written and posted your piece/s, you must send links to the host blog for the day on which you post. You can do this either by making a comment on the host blog, or sending an email; my email address is wahe[at]dodo[dot]com[dot]au.

Ferdy on Films will host on Wednesday, May 13 to Thursday, May 14.
This Island Rod will host Friday, May 15 to Saturday, May 16.
Wonders in the Dark will host on Sunday, May 17.

The host blog will create a post that will serve as a rolling index of blog posts (I will create a post for each day I host the Blogathon). If you want your post to appear high on the index, be sure to post and send us your link early.

You MUST include in your post a link for donations. This is the donation link:

And this is the official donation button. When this button is clicked it must direct to the donation site:

Getting the word out and around is one of the biggest challenges and a big part of the fun. You should select one or more of the ads you can find on our blog specifically devoted to Blogathon promos:

For the Love of Film

Put one of these ads on your blog's sidebar or any place it'll fit. Feel free to shamelessly shill for the Blogathon any place and in any manner you see fit, from linking on social media to BASE jumping from the Empire State Building with an NFPF banner trailing behind you in the free air. Just remember I will disavow all knowledge of the affair to the police.

This year, as always, we have a slew of great raffle prizes for donors, so if you want to win one, just give money (yes, fellow tightwads, there's a catch to every great thing, isn't there?)

This year we have...

...Mike Smith and Adam Selzer’s book Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry:

A set of 3-D rarities from Flicker Alley:

A deluxe two-disc set of In the Land of the Head Hunters from Milestone Films:

Farran Smith Nehme’s screwball novel Missing Reels:

The script of Jerry Lewis’ infamous unseen film The Day the Clown Cried:

...and Three copies of the NFPF’s Treasures of the New Zealand Archive DVD set:

The raffle will be drawn on each day of the blogathon from the pool of donors, and the winner's name posted on the host blog of the day.

So donate! 

Let's see...links...donation...raffle prizes...have I forgotten anything?


Right -- let's get funky now!

Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

Peter Strickland’s first two films, Katalin Varga (2009) and Berberian Sound Studio (2013), were arresting works from a distinctive and enormously gifted talent. The first film, produced on a tiny budget in rural Transylvania, was a largely straight-forward revenge drama that built to a cruelly ironic climax and provided, on the way, an enriching portrait of its heroine’s propensity for role-playing, a method of acting in life in order to correct the damage done to her and essentially revise her own narrative. The follow-up charted the mental collapse of a movie sound technician where that collapse was presented via the texture of cinema itself. The Duke of Burgundy to a certain extent melds these two disparate predecessors as it readily references the peculiar charms of ‘70s European trash cinema again whilst delving into David Lynchian headspace mystification, whilst returning to his first film’s fascination for woman with protean surfaces and powerful internal motives. Strickland’s calling card aesthetic apes the tone of a bygone genre of filmmaking whilst unmooring it from traditional generic storytelling’s demands for clear, essential cause-and-effect. The subject has an aspect of self-satire: the two women at the heart of The Duke of Burgundy, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), are, like Strickland, fetishists enthralled and inspired by a certain variety of backdated fantasia. Strickland introduces their world to initially bemuse the audience as to what they’re watching, as Evelyn, dressed as a maid, rides across the countryside to a large mansion, where Cynthia, the haughty lady of the house, sets her to exacting and humiliating labours. The old porn cliché of the wicked aristocrat subjecting her hapless underling to a strict regimen is enacted. When the fatal moment comes when Evelyn fails to wash one of Cynthia’s smalls, she’s dragged into the bathroom for her punishment. Except that, as it soon emerges, Cynthia and Evelyn are a couple, and what we’ve seen is the elaborate, oft-repeated routine of S&M-accented role-playing that defines and fires their relationship.

Strickland’s grasp on the specifics of this relationship, an odd, equally beguiling and perturbing blend of sheltered cherishing and transgressive impulses that subtly test the limits of that bond, confirms his talents for creating characters with unusual traits and instincts, who can be empathised with but who are not cheaply “relatable,” and scenes in the film’s first half are as good as anything Strickland has done to date. His pitch-black sense of humour emerges throughout, particularly in a droll sequence when the couple speak to a “Carpenter” (Fatma Mohamed) who specialises in building bondage equipment: disappointed that the elaborate bed/cage the Carpenter is most famed for making can’t be built and delivered in time for Evelyn’s birthday, Evelyn pricks her ears up hopefully when the Carpenter suggests a human toilet rig instead. Later, when Cynthia confronts Evelyn after she’s caught polishing the boots of a neighbour, the tone is at once deeply farcical and uncomfortably grave, as the roles of the characters the two are playing – reprehending mistress and doe-eyed, pitiable slave – blend with their actual characters – offended lover and her wayward partner – to a degree that’s impossible to extricate. Rather than be merely drawn to the potentially comic inferences of the game the ladies sustain, Strickland comprehends that such games can be defined by a smothering self-seriousness. Evelyn’s single-minded need to get her rocks off via specific acts tramples other considerations, and her swooningly grateful protestations to Cynthia – “This is all I ever dreamed of!” – are also overweening demands that suggest both an overgrown child’s neediness and a junkie’s pleading rapacity. 

The title refers to a species of butterfly as well as suggesting old-world associations of cultured power. The couple’s safe-word, “pinastri” (it's a type of moth- yes, there's a theme developing here) has an odd and foreign ring that makes it sound like an invocation, particularly when its emerges from the coffin-like cabinet Evelyn insists on being locked in – only to start begging for release in the dead of night. Cynthia, the older of the two, is tiring of being forced to meet Evelyn’s overpowering needs and mediating their life together through the prisms of enacted surfaces. Cynthia injures her back whilst hauling a crate for Evelyn to be locked up in into the bedroom. Evelyn deals awkwardly, even ignorantly with such realities, being far too obsessed with getting her rocks off in her own peculiar way. In one scene, at once beguilingly intimate and excruciatingly awkward, Strickland depicts the couple in bed after a night of connubial bliss. Awake in the morning, Cynthia wants to lounge in tactile communion, but Evelyn instead encourages her to spit threats whilst she diddles herself. Knudsen’s register of emotions, veering from warmth to offence and irritation to resigned facility, is particularly noteworthy here. The tensions between age and youth, the demands of eros versus the yearnings of domestic coupling, are expertly charted. Strickland’s revisionism here is deeper than it first appears as he takes on an old and gaudy brand of pornographic provocation defined by a fascination with lesbianism at once awed and detached from its reality: he sarcastically has his real couple attempting to fit themselves into false moulds because, well, yes, fantasies have power, and yet uses the artifice to expose the somewhat hapless humanity of Cynthia and Evelyn.

The hermetic nature of both the existence of these characters and the overall aesthetic of Strickland’s film is insistently underlined: static, mathematical designs in wallpaper contrast more oblique and organic patterns, the pinned inmates of butterfly collections where forms repeat with small variations in size and array. Such patterns inform Strickland’s visual scheme, built around recurring shots, so of which quickly become so familiar that he can use one specifically, like a glimpse of Evelyn’s coiffed and cooing appearance against the blue-tiled walls of the mansion’s toilet, as an orientating point to tell us at any given time what point the latest edition of the fantasy is up to. The film might, or might not, actually be set in period sometime in the 1960s or ‘70s, as the ladies parade in retro fashions of haute-couture spectacle and bang away on typewriters. Evelyn’s need to play the game through over and over, perhaps hoping for some ultimate perfection that will annihilate the gap between performers and performance, sees instead inevitable breakdowns in the patterning, stray and random elements disturbing the texture, frustrating her desire but also delivering from suffocation. The only neighbour seen is Lorna (Monica Swinn), a grey hausfrau constantly beating her carpets, whilst Cynthia and Evelyn occasionally go to the local institution to attend lectures in their common passion, which is, the study of moths and butterflies—a touch that echoes a wealth of erotic and surrealist art, from Luis Bunuel to A.S. Byatt to Walerian Borowczyk and Dario Argento. The lectures are also entirely delivered and listened to by groups of perfectly coiffed women, evoking Clare Booth’s The Women, or perhaps the conventions of yuri anime, which depicts worlds without males where lesbianism between slender young ladies is a casual convention.

In spite of Strickland’s nominal subject of unusual sexuality, he dances about the subject in a manner that might seem admirably un-exploitative to some or prissy to others. Very little sexual activity is actually seen: the repeated climax of Cynthia and Evelyn’s play-act always takes place behind a close door, although it’s made clear by audio that it involves water sports. The one overt glimpse of something that might be construed as mildly pornographic, of Evelyn eating out Cynthia ensconced in an armchair, is refracted via a mirror in a shot that recalls the piss-elegant carnality of Radley Metzger’s Therese and Isabelle (1967). Metzger is probable influence here alongside Jesus Franco, the epicurean sides of Lucio Fulci and Argento, as well as higher-class perviness like Something for Everyone (1970) and Mulholland Drive (2001). The essence of the structuring however points in a different direction, to the algorithmic behavioural studies of Hong Sang-soo (e.g. The Day He Arrives, 2012), visions of humankind’s half-cognisant fondness for and resentment of the patterns that enclose us. In the film’s second half the same slow dissolution of perceived reality that Strickland offered in Berberian Sound Studio begins to take grip, complete with languorously mesmeric zoom shots and droning, atonal scoring that suggest the constant presence of something dark and irrational clawing at the psyches of our heroines or haunting them in the dark corridors of their decaying home. Strickland zooms in on Knudsen’s black panty-clad crotch as he journeys deeper into a Jungian zone of proto-sexual flux, and Cynthia has visions of herself and Evelyn sinking into oblivion together in the midst of dark forests, like some lost snippet from Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1961) or perhaps even echoing back to Coleridge’s ‘Cristabel’ in contemplating the deep roots of metaphor behind the Gothic figurations of forbidden sexuality. 

The trouble here is that where Strickland tethered his cinematic games to the disintegration and reintegration of his antihero’s psyche in Berberian Sound Studio, this time the same stunts feel somewhat aimless, an affectation that spares Strickland from having to develop his story. There is no reason Strickland’s fascination for the oneiric, and his undoubted ability to transmute it into cinematic texture, should be beholden to any expectation of sense beyond sensory appeal: lord knows I was certainly happy to defend this from the people who regarded Berberian Sound Studio as some kind of cheat for not eventually delivering genre thrills. Strickland’s work here can be defended as he studies a situation that is definably kinky but still essentially commonplace as opposed to more genuinely transgressive asocial behaviour: certainly the ironic gap between life’s mundanity and the yearning for the transformative power of grand fantasy is part of his theme as well as an ingrained aspect of his creative disposition. And yet his method accidentally retards his hopes for such irony to gain power, because he’s exiled everyday life from the picture. His moves beyond the confines of the Cynthia-Evelyn tryst are instead stylised to seem like only another aspect of it, making his joke arch rather than sly. Strickland isn’t yet as good at capturing the radical, ephemeral fluctuations of the dreamtime veldt as Lynch, or as bold as the horror filmmakers he references in creating dreamlike textures out of concrete stories: the journey here doesn’t seem to have much to say about the mindscapes of his heroines, and the imagery lacks value beyond superficial prettiness. 

Strickland lets his film dissolve into visual white noise at one point, as Cynthia envisions Evelyn smothered in a swarm of moths. This moment has a similar quality to that wonderful adjunct in Berberian Sound Studio where the on-screen movie suddenly fractured and gave way to the protagonist’s rural documentary – but it’s not as clever or jarring a swerve. There’s something oddly fussy about Strickland’s filmmaking this time around as well as repetitious, an over-determined quality to his digressive phantasmagoria that means that it never quite catches afire and burns with pure inner life. Strickland has wound himself into his characters: they cannot operate without a myth, a way and mode of seeing and feeling to filter their desires and react against, and at this point in his creative evolution Strickland can’t either. Having watched Franco’s Eugenia (1974) not long before this, the contrast was striking, as Franco’s cruder yet equally hypnotic film took a similar folie-a-deux to far more interesting and visceral places. Strickland, by comparison, comes across as a prim bourgeois hiding behind a façade of art. I doubt he really is that, and yet the type of misbehaving anti-art Strickland clearly adores had courage on levels he’s not yet ready or willing to seize. I hope for his next film Strickland ventures back out into the forest and the primal facts as he did with Katalin Varga. The Duke of Burgundy is a fascinating piece of moviemaking, but also a quiet misfire from a potentially major filmmaker.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Focus (2015)

Glen Ficcara and John Requa penned Bad Santa (2003) before debuting as directors with their energetic queer-romance-cum-criminal farce I Love You, Philip Morris (2009), and scored a hit with Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011). Focus, their latest, aims to be an elegantly tricky star vehicle for weathered pro Will Smith and up-and-comer Margot Robbie, annexing a style of movie that’s often proved perfect for showcasing headliner charm, the con artist caper flick, ever since The Sting (1973). Focus also echoes back to criminal-lover comedy-thrillers of days past from Trouble in Paradise (1933) to To Catch a Thief (1955) to How to Steal a Million (1966) and on. Ficcara and Requa start well, unfolding a leisurely sequence of flirtation in an upmarket hotel, the sort of place where Nicky (Smith) permanently resides: bounteous blonde Jess (Robbie) suddenly lands at his table, seeking respite from her drunk boyfriend. Thing is, Nicky recognises this old play from the extortionist playbook, because he’s a grifter of fearsome talent and reputation, and he playfully lets the incompetent duo act out their scene before rumbling their amateur-hour theatrics. Jess approaches Nicky later and appeals to him to help her step up to the flimflammer big leagues, and, once she trails him to New Orleans where he runs a massive operation of pickpockets and con artists working the Mardi Gras crowds, he takes her under his wing. Jess rapidly evolves under his tutelage whilst romance sparks, but Nicky’s wilfully solitary existence leads him to break off with her just after a triumphal score, skipping out of a taxi as she rolls on to the rest of her life as a teary mess. Three years later fate sees them cross paths again however, and a new game entwines them as Nicky is hired by racing team boss Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro) to con a rival Australian racer, McEwen (Robert Taylor), in competing for ownership of a new design: Jess appears, now a fully formed glamour queen, amidst the plush excitement of race season parties. Except that, yes, not all is as it seems.

Ficcara and Requa certainly glaze this fantasia in the loveliest of wrappings, via Xavier Grobet’s cinematography, providing images of crystalline sharpness infused with chic allure. Early sequences evoke Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) as it delights in depicting sexual gamesmanship spiced with transgressive allure (and indeed, with all the pseudo-jazzy music and retro charm in celebrating cute criminals, the film owes a lot to Soderbergh’s Oceans films as well), and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), as it nails down the the simultaneously romantic and alienating feeling of a rootless life spent in classy hotels, like a glossy magazine ad sifted through shots that recall Edward Hopper’s Automat and Chop Suey joint, before a shift to the European scene proves a ripe environment to shoot the actors in places of romantic bustle that call to mind ‘50s jet-set dramas. Robbie’s vivid, old-fashioned movie star looks seem utterly at home behind sunglasses with kerchief over her hair a la Grace Kelly in some never-made Billy Wilder Euro-swank flick, or stalking poolside in bikini and stilettos, an acetylene torch of VIP sexuality. Smith has often mistaken assuming a glum attitude, compared to his ebulliently confident early persona, for maturation, and there's some of that here. But Focus thankfully lets his recent ill-advised attempts to make himself paterfamilias of the showbiz family Robinson fall by the wayside and play a rakishly professional criminal armed with a glib tongue and a surplus of cool, albeit with some angst lurking deep beneath his surface composure. 

Nicky’s mentorship of Jess takes her through the looking glass into a world of cheats and thieves that seems nonetheless cosy, and gives her – and the audience – the vicarious thrill of looking down the nose at the suckers of the world, couched mostly in sexual terms: Nicky explicitly defines the cultural anxiety people of their breed prey on, of guys with infidelity on their minds and money to spend. But of course, Nicky’s boding facet proves to be his moral side fighting its way out, and the film inevitably puts him and Jess through the wringer for their lifestyle, it never exactly forces them repudiate it either. The film’s central set-piece sees Nicky take Jess to a football game in the Superdome, ensconced in a private box with the superrich, and getting into a game of one-upmanship making pointless bets over the game's progressive turns with tycoon Liyuan (B.D. Wong), a famously enthusiastic gambler. Hints have been dropped that Nicky has a history of problem gambling, Jess is increasingly anxious, and the scene builds as a mesh of images and audio cues whilst keeping the exact nature of what we’re watching – is it another inspired sting or a harsh revelation of Nicky’s self-destructive side? – hidden until the end. Wong’s performance adds to the fun. Sadly, however, Focus starts to go off the rails after this sequence, as the interesting depiction of Nicky as a man willing to lay waste to his personal relationships for the sake of maintain his shark-like existence must give way to yearning and a weakly developed metaphor for the problems of relationship trust. 

It also seems compulsory today that all film depicting con artists be structured like a con game, where the audience will eventually be blindsided by the ingenious method of the unfolding story. Here, the key moment of big revelation, in which Nicky explains his ingenious method proves, in a waggish touch from a couple of very knowing director-screenwriters, to be a total crock. But the film doesn't provide anything of real urgency or effective pizazz to make up for it, and Focus like a lot of modern films mistakes plot for story, too obsessed with its own sleight of hand when it should have settled for charting the blend of love and distrust that defines Nicky and Jess’s relationship. The attentiveness to building a mood at once romantic and sly that defines the film’s early scenes, worked with a slightly oblique sense of humour, falls victim to clichéd expectations and a narrative that pushes well past believability, whilst Ficcara and Requa fill in quite a bit of running time with musical montages. That plot is a big problem too, neither basic enough to create clear ground for Smith and Robbie to spar and dally, nor actually complicated and devious enough to enjoy as a display of genre mechanics. The finale is oddly static and the resolution proper, although Ficcara and Requa lay groundwork for it all through the movie, is still clumsy and anti-climactic. Focus is a missed opportunity to make a modern classic of breezy, happily unethical star-gazing: it’s like a cocktail with all the right ingredients but the bartender forgot to shake to achieve the proper taste and texture. Adrian Martinez offers naughty flippancy as Nicky’s occasional partner-in-crime and official comic relief chunky guy; Gerald McRaney evokes his Major Dad days as Garriga’s hard-ass majordomo with a secret.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Furious 7 (2015)

aka Fast and Furious 7

The most pleasantly absurd of contemporary film franchises should have swung seamlessly into this seventh instalment, after a coda to 2013’s episode six that whet the appetite of every fan. But the death of star Paul Walker during production proved a tragic counterpoint to the swashbuckling forays of the often fast and sometimes furious “family”. Walker’s participation in the series saw him evolve from a likeable but frankly bland ingénue to an intelligently laidback performer whose blue eyes seemed to gain a little more intensity, a little more depth, with each instalment. His character, Brian O’Conner, similarly developed from conflicted hipster cop to settled husband and father still itching for a taste of action, becoming in many ways the emotional axis of the films and balancing all the bigger, blustery machismo about him. After a lengthy delay to finish the film, a process that demanded careful use of digital magic and the participation of Walker’s brothers, Furious 7 finally saw the light and has landed a colossal hit with moviegoers. The series spun off from Rob Cohen’s cheerful action-crime thriller The Fast and the Furious (2001), a film that broadly mashed together the argot of contemporary street culture with classic Western tropes, has grown in scale to the point where the last few entries have been as ambitiously scaled and goofily over-the-top as Roger Moore-era James Bond. But they’ve remained tethered to the vital sense of its heroes, no matter which side of the law they’re currently on, as a gang of pals who rely on each-other implicitly. The resolutely working-class, colour-blind, fiercely clannish sensibility upheld by Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) connected beautifully with a vast audience otherwise poorly serviced by Hollywood’s thrill fests: every singlet-clad mechanic in the sticks, every wannabe playa and playboy, every pouty tomboy, found an avatar in Dom’s increasingly large crew. The fetishism of colourful cars, pert bikini bottoms, and muscled torsos was purveyed with equanimity, whilst the series embraced a cheery, unselfconscious brand of high camp that both highlighted and mocked the sweat-gilded swagger. The series has often felt like a giant bird-flip aimed at the precincts of bourgeois protocol, but never felt strained or obnoxious: its inclusivity has, rather, seduced just about everybody. 

It could have proved sublimely depressing watching an action film where one of the stars died in circumstances perversely close to the business on screen, but Furious 7 instead sustains the gallant streak of the series, so that it remains hot-blooded paean to defiance of death, perhaps all the more so. How the film honours Walker’s place at the heart of the series, giving him a far more agreeable onscreen exit than life gave him, offers a salutary grace, and the last image of the film, depicting him branching off from one of his drag races with Dom and driving off into pristine climes, is pretty darn perfect. But Furious 7 otherwise is all business – perhaps a bit too much so. The series retains its essential assumption that just about any problem can be circumvented by cars going fast, but has progressed far beyond its original, linear roadhog sensibility, with its heroes now working as muscle-for-hire for spy agencies and doing battle with international kingpins and radicals in three-dimensional battles of muscle versus tech. Fast and Furious (2009), my pick for the weakest entry in the series that nonetheless saved it by reassembling essential elements, kicked off an odd experiment in franchise construction, which finally reaches full circle here, as the narrative coincides momentarily with Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), seeing that film’s hero Sean Boswell (Lucas Black – where’s he been lately?) briefly return. Furious 7 is so crammed with action that its traditional basis in the byplay of the crew – “I don’t have friends, I have family,” as Dom codifies it neatly here – is negated more than a little. There’s still time for Roman (Tyrese Gibson) to make an entertaining fool of himself with his motor-mouthed assertiveness, and to ogle a lovely form in a swimsuit, but the emotional integrity of the storyline is thin. It’s clear that the relationship of Brian and Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) had just become a drag. The process of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) trying to get back her memory and reawaken her love for Dom is corny and throwaway, and without Han (Sun Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) the team feels a little denuded of its diversity. Brewster, so likably hard-edged in The Faculty (1998), was never particularly well-served by her series role, and here she’s reduced to occasional phone calls to Brian. Similarly, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is written out of much of the film when he’s left badly injured, and although his return to the fray towards the end is one of the film’s coups of campy delight, the film misses him.

New blood eventually enters the film in the form of Natalie Emmanuel as hacker queen Ramsey, whose genius has produced a device, the “God’s Eye”, which can track anyone via the thousands of electronic eyes now populating any urban street: terrorist overlord Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) has taken her prisoner, and a CIA honcho who calls himself “Mr Nobody” (Kurt Russell) hires the crew to go rescue her. Their reward will be the chance to use the God’s Eye to track down Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the brother of Furious 6’s villain Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), who’s hunting them down one-by-one in a vendetta that’s cost the life of Han and put Hobbs in the hospital. Deckard is a former covert op heavy gone rogue, and he joins forces with Jakande as their interests collide. Emmanuel catches the eye – she’s high on the crowded list of beauties currently employed on TV’s Game of Thrones – and her role as an urbane tech wiz with a dollybird accent, product of a different but no less potent cultural melting pot, is potentially fruitful. But the film can’t really make any room for her, nor for one of the series’ essential traits, the openness to different cultures communing on the level of their most basic enthusiasms. Director James Wan, taking over from Justin Lin, comes to the series from horror films, having overseen the Saw (2003) series for which I’ve never had any time: Lin’s visual style grew steadily more intelligent and fluent and less reliant on afunctional editing, and has helped return an ethic of action spectacle to Hollywood filmmaking that calls back to the glory days of the ‘80s without seeming retro. This gives way to Wan’s considerably less sleek approach: he edits like crazy and has much less feel for the force and poise of moving vehicles. 

The film’s first two action set-pieces are grand stuff nonetheless. The rescue of Ramsey from Jakande’s clutches demands a suitably ridiculous plan to parachute the team in their cars from a cargo plane onto a remote and narrow mountain road, and concluding with a terrifically staged tribute-cum-reclamation of The Italian Job’s (1969) bus cliffhanger joke. The retrieval of the God’s Eye device, which, for some illogical reason, has accidentally been sold to a sheikh’s son to be used as a guidance system in his supercar, demands the team infiltrate a party in the penthouse of an Abu Dhabi skyscraper. Each time Deckard crashes in on their follies and renders already fraught enterprises into chaotic melees, and each time Dom saves the day with his willingness to do the most insanely inspired thing he can with a car. These sequences are so high-powered and deliriously silly that the actual finale, in which the crew lead Jakande and Deckard on a merry dance through the streets of LA, lengthy and noisy as it is, proves lumpen and conceptually limited by comparison. The more this series annexes the territory of another brand of action film, the more trouble it has distinguishing itself, and the care Lin took to make sure every hero had a climactic act of derring-do to define their role in the drama, eludes Wan. The fact Wan and screenwriter Chris Morgan couldn’t think of a decent plot to spin off from Deckard’s vengeance means they lose sight of it, trucking in lots of other stuff to fill the gap. Statham, usually such a galvanising presence on screen, is almost as marginalised as Emmanuel. And Hounsou ought to be damned well fed up with roles like this. 

Furious 7 insists on moving so quickly that the actual storyline and the motivations behind it become more than a little incoherent, and interestingly, what was once this series’ distinctive, spiky distrust of authority has been neutered: it feels rather odd that Ramsey, who seems to have gone to great effort to make sure the God’s Eye doesn’t end up in the hands of anyone who might exploit it, proves readily acquiescent to the idea of it finishing up in the hands of the US intelligence community, which doesn’t sound like the sort of thing Dom would’ve been too happy with once either. Russell’s presence cast my mind back to the finale of Escape From LA (1997), where Snake Plissken remained utterly honourable to his creed when faced with a similar new frontier of intimidation: so when exactly did Dom become bitch to The Man? Still, one is so used to the big government spook who hires the hero proving corrupt and double-crossing that it is actually surprising that Mr Nobody proves to be a stand-up guy, and Russell gets a chance to remind us just what a charisma machine he is. Moreover, the film always seems to have some fillip of beggaring oddness up its sleeve, from Ronda Rousey turning up as the leader of a band of Amazon female security guards employed by the sheikh, to the spectacle of Diesel and Statham fencing with huge spanners, and Johnson stalking into battle cradling a Gatling gun like handbag. Furious 7, for all the emotion it inevitably stirs in reaching the end of one road, does represent a decline in the series from recent highpoints. But it’s still a sweet ride. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Journey to an Old New World: The Film Preservation Blogathon 2015

Yes guys, it’s back. The Film Preservation Blogathon will return this May, from Wednesday the 13th to Sunday the 17th. It’s been three long years since the last blogathon was held on the behalf of the National Film Preservation Foundation, a tremendous event that saw 112 bloggers participating that netted over $6000 towards the restoration of The White Shadow. This year’s restoration project is the 1918 romantic comedy Cupid in Quarantine, starring Elinor Field and Cullen Landis, one of a haul of riches returning to the US through cooperation between the NFPF and the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. Several long-lost American films have been salvaged in EYE's archives and must now be restored, including retranslating the intertitles, currently in Dutch, back into English. To help accomplish this, and to commission a new score for the film, this time around we have made $10,000 the target for the blogathon. As occurred so triumphantly with The White Shadow, once the restoration of Cupid in Quarantine is completed, this film will be hosted on the NFPF site for all to see free of charge. EYE and the American archives participating in the project—the Academy Film Archive, Library of Congress, National Museum of American History, and Oregon Historical Society—will host digital scans, 35mm masters, prints, and access copies. 

Revisiting any film is in effect an act of time travel, and the older a film is the greater that feeling becomes, until we’re conscious of watching life in a time when our own day is but a remote dream for the people on screen, whilst cinema both records and recreates for us the tumult of the Twentieth century and all its protean wonder – always we’re journeying back to an old version of a new world. That idea inspired this year’s general theme for the blogathon: Science Fiction cinema. So if you’re nuts for sci-fi, hot for a bit of space opera, crazy for cyberpunk, or just content to watch The Empire Strikes Back anytime it rolls around on TV, the time has come to put fingers to the keyboard and start composing. And if you don’t know your Gort from your Godzilla, feel free to contribute with anything to do with silent film, film restoration, film history, anything related to the stars or makers of Cupid in Quarantine, or anything related to the overarching project of the blogathon.

This year, as in the past, hosting and presentation duties for the blogathon will be shared by three blogs. Previous co-hosts Farran Smith Nehme of Self-Styled Siren and Greg Ferrara of Cinema Styles have moved on, so this year Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod will be joined in the blogathon by Wonders in the Dark, the estimable film and cultural commentary site overseen by Sam Juliano with one of the most formidable rosters of regular contributors you’ll find on the internet. Ferdy on Films will be the initial host on the 13th and 14th. Then, this site will take over for the 15th and 16th, and Wonders of the Dark will host for the final day. So remember, on those days, you’ll need to forward any links you wish included in the blogathon to the respective blogs.

Included here in this post are just some of the ads prepared for the blogathon; the complete selection of ads is available on the special Film Preservation Blogathon site. Also available is the official donation button for the blogathon, so anyone can remember that all you need to do donate is just click on Gort’s face. Remember, every blog post must include the donate button and/or a link to the donation site, or it will not be included on the host pages.

This is the link address for donating for this year's blogathon:

As well as remaining a welcome contributor to the blogathon, Farran Smith Nehme is also donating a copy of her well-received debut novel Missing Reels as a prize for one lucky premium donor. Michael G. Smith of the great White City Cinema site is doing the same with his book on the roots of the American film industry in Chicago, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. Lots more prizes and swag are in the pipeline; stay tuned for further details.

Please feel free to like our Facebook page, and please do all you can to spread the word.

May the force be with you, fellow film freaks. 

PS: if you haven't ever seen how our Film Preservation Blogathons work before, here at the key posts from my two days hosting the 2012 blogathon:

For the Love of Film…start your engines!

This is your captain speaking…

Hold on for a thrilling finale...

Coda: For The Love of Film