Grey Gardens and a film school education at the Lexi Cinema

The Smoke Screen is often out and about soaking up film knowledge through Q&As and pre-film lectures, so the Lexi's Cinema's 'Film School' series of screenings preceded by prominent film speakers is right up the proverbial alley. Last week The Lexi's LSF screening was a milestone in the documentary genre: Grey Gardens. Directed by the quartet of Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and the Maysles brothers (AKA Albert and David), the 1975 doc explores the unbelievable but true story of Mrs. Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and what years of retreating into a life of secluded eccentricity behind the walls of their decaying 28-room east Hampton's mansion has done to them.  Mother and daughter live in a world of their own behind towering privets that have basically isolated "Grey Garden," from the world; a place so far gone that the local authorities once threatened to evict them for violating building and sanitation codes. 

The incident made national headlines given Beales were from the American upper crust. Mrs. Beale, a.k.a. "Big Edie," was a born aristocrat, sister of "Black Jack" Bouvier, Jackie O's father. "Little Edie" was an aspiring actress who put her New York life on hold to care for her mother - and seems to have never left her side again.  The filmmakers took their camera into the Grey Gardens mansion, and as unobtrusively as possible, sat and watched this strange, co-dependent relationship veer all over the place, from little Edie dropping bags of bread into the attic to feed the masses of racoons that had settled in, the Big Edie and Little Edie having endlessly shrill and circular rows about who ruined who's life. The film has gone on to be a touchstone for discussing what documentary is, the ethics of filmmaking, and the extent to which the director, editor, and even the subjects are the "filmmakers".

Those were just some of the issues speaker Sophie Brown (critic and programmer and producer of DocTooth) was interested in raising before the screening. #LexiFilmSchool takes place on Monday evenings.  Tickets are £8 (£6 to Lexi members), with a reduced price of £20 when all 4 titles are booked at the same time. It is worth pointing out that, in addition to the speaker and the film, ticket buyers get additional information emailed to them before the evening: short film notes, links to further reading, and a few suggested 'if you like this, then...' titles. 

See the Lexi Website for more information. It really will be worth your time. Sophie Brown tweets as @SBrown400.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Season Review: Catch a slice of meta-horror comedy as THE FINAL GIRLS plays at Film4 Somerset House season

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

15 | 1h 28min | Comedy, Horror | 9 October 2015 (USA)

Playing Film4 Somerset House open air cinema season

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Scream meets The Last Action Hero in Director Todd Strauss-Schulson’s bloody, sweetly charming, and uber self-aware horror pic THE FINAL GIRLS, which plays at this year’s annual Film4 Somerset House open air cinema season (the film itself screens on 13 August). Though it played at the 2015 Toronto, SXSW and Sitges Film Festivals, audiences in the UK haven’t really had the chance to see The Final Girls here on the big screen, it having only played once before in cinemas at the Glasgow Youth Film Festival. But one of the Somerset House season programmers is a big horror buff, and felt that it was a really unjustly overlooked gem that should have got more love and attention. 

Seen projected on a big screen, late at night with a beer in hand, is probably the best way to enjoy the film, as despite the movie being a dissection of some of the most notable - and notorious - aspects of the horror genre, it is really more interested in having fun and pleasing a crowd. You don’t have to be a horror aficionado to get what the film is digging at either, most people who have some familiarity with the genre, especially its slasher offspring, know at least some of the key elements. Or as the kids in Wes Craven’s hugely influential Scream movies like the call them: “the rules”. And one of the key slasher rules, certainly the one that The Final Girls is most interested in exploring (and which has provoked a mountain of debate in fan and academic circles), is the truism that only the virgin can survive. 

The "final girl" here is Max Cartwright (Taissa Farmiga), the teenaged daughter of deceased actress Amanda (Malin Akerman (Watchmen) who for all her career - much to her frustration - remained best known for her role as the noble serial killer victim Nancy in a Friday the 13th-style slasher favourite called Camp Bloodbath. Under pressure from her somewhat intense horror junkie friend Duncan, Max reluctantly agrees to attend a nostalgic fan screening of the film with friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat), her teen crush and school hunk Chris (Alexander Ludwig) and the bitchy prom queen-esque Vicki (Nina Dobrev). Of course, this mismatched high school-aged quartet perfectly fits the bill of the exact kind of target that a gruesome serial killer would be just happy to stalk and hack to bits. And that is exactly what happens when, at the screening, a fire causes Max and her cohort to instinctively try to cut their way out of the panicked crowd through the cinema screen where the Camp Bloodbath film is being projected…only to find themselves literally falling into the world of the movie itself. They emerge into a cheery summer camp complete with totem poles, cabins and a group of camp guides who all fit the specific stereotypes of clueless, oversexed slasher victims. And lurking around the corner is a masked killer with the mandatory giant rusty machete. 

Cue lots of attempts by these two gangs of “types” to negotiate the ins and outs of the classic “summer camp slasher” - which is the kind of trash movie Camp Bloodbath is - as they desperately try to stop the various scantily-clad and intellectually-challenged female camp guides from having spontaneous sex with the resident testosterone-filled jock, whilst also trying to figure out how to turn the tables on the killer. There’s lots of gurning, pratfalls and various gags made at the expense of the hyper-stereotyped characters whilst the overall vibe remains total 80s, with the film shot and dressed in colours that pop: think lots of cheerleader-gear yellows and reds. Still, the screenplay doesn’t quite pack in as many funny/smart beats as you might hope for, and its hard not to feel the whole affair would’ve felt more fresh and sharp if Craven’s postmodern meta-murder franchise hadn't got there first. The film is more affectionate than funny, and it certainly isn't remotely scary or even that bloody.

What the script (written by Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortune) does manage more effectively is working in a few neat visual riffs on the nature of existence inside a strip of celluloid, such as the gang realising they can trigger “horror flashbacks” by reciting the tale of the birth of the serial killer, which causes their surroundings to melt into a black and white warp (because, of course, horror origin tales take place in black and white), and also there is a surprisingly poignant relationship built up between Max and scream queen victim Nancy. Nancy of course is the exact spitting image of Max's long-dead mother, giving the younger daughter a chance at saying a final goodbye, though this is a second chance overshadowed by the grim realisation that Max might have watch her “Mother” die again in front of her. Max’s attempt to reconnect with her mom co-exists with her self-aware acceptance of her own role as the final girl of this piece (though the film doesnt seem to entirely know where to finally park this lighthearted critique of that tendency), with all the ass-kickery that entails. So you get a bit of empowerment along with all the meta musings.

The Final Girls plays at Film4 Summer Screen as part of a double-bill with Galaxy Quest on Saturday 13th August. Guest tickets for the double-bill are available upon request.

FILM4 SUMMER SCREEN AT SOMERSET HOUSE runs from August 4th-17th. This year’s season includes three UK premieres – Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things To Come starring Isabelle Huppert screens as opening night; Pedro Almodóvar makes his third appearance at Summer Screen to introduce his new film Julieta on August 10th; and closing night will be Cannes award-winner Captain Fantastic starring Viggo Mortensen. The season also includes classic and contemporary films including Sunset Boulevard, Funny Face, Walkabout, Girlhood and a classic film from Stanley Kubrick (to be determined by a Best of Ten audience vote). Full details here.

Read more  of what Todd Strauss-Schulson had to say about THE FINAL GIRLS at this special blog he wrote for Film4.com - http://blog.film4.com/todd-strauss-schulson-on-the-final-girls/.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Celebrating the The London Film-Makers’ Co-operative at BFI and Tate this season

The London Film-Makers’ Co-operative holds a very unique place in London film history, one which will be celebrated this year by the Tate Britain through a selection of documents, ephemera and films from the period.

For the uninitiated: The LFMC was founded in October 1966 as a non-commercial distributor of avant-garde cinema. In contrast to similar groups that emerged around the world, it grew to incorporate a distribution service, cinema space and film lab. Filmmakers were able to control every aspect of the creative process, allowing them to explore the material aspects of celluloid and experiment with multiple projection and performance-based ‘expanded cinema’ outside of the mainstream market.  

The original group of film enthusiasts would meet in the basement of the Better Books shop on Charing Cross Road. Its founding members, including Bob Cobbing, Ray Durgnat, Simon Hartog, John Latham and Stephen Dwoskin, were inspired by filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and the New American Cinema Group in New York, who had established their own non-profit distribution cooperative in 1962. The closure of the bookshop the following year led to LFMC screenings relocating to the Drury Lane Arts Lab, until it found a more permanent base at the New Arts Lab on Drummond Street, near Euston Station.

Starting with working in avant-garde cinema, the LFMC also moved into published its own journal, Cinim. More filmmakers joined, including Malcolm Le Grice, Fred Drummond and David Curtis, and the LFMC eventually built its own film laboratory, a workshop for printing and processing 16mm film. This allowed experimental film to be experienced and experimented with first-hand, keeping the LFMC at the heart of independent film culture in London (including screenings and rentals) and the world for decades- though relying on run-down buildings provided by Camden Council in Kentish Town and Primrose Hill. The LFMC eventually folded in 2002, but it lives on in a new organisation: LUX, which continues to be the UK’s leading agency for the support and promotion of artists’ moving image.

The BFI have also been running a series of film programmes programmed by the actual filmmakers who were part of the organisation: LFMC50, a monthly programme, in partnership with BFI Southbank, curated by the original Co-op cinema programmers (David Curtis, Peter Gidal, Annabel Nicolson, Lis Rhodes, Deke Dusinberre (the next one is LFMC 50: Taking the Time on 24 May, from guest curator Deke Dusinberre). May 2016 also sees the BFI launch Crossing the Threshold: Experimental films and live performances from Malcolm Le Grice, one of the the filmmakers in the LFC who began in the underground scene of London and is well known for reconfiguring images through 16mm printing treatments, looping and other manipulations.

You can search the BFI Shop’s LFMC books and DVDs here.

The Tate exhibition is at Archive Gallery, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
25 April – 17 July 2016.

 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Kinoteka - Polish Film Festival London review: A Woman Alone

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Poland 1981| 91 min| Digital | With English subtitles

Playing Kinoteka: Polish Film Festival in London 2016

RATING: ★★★★☆

Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s 1981 film A Woman Alone is back in cinemas this month, playing as part of the annual Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in London. The film has been digitally restored by Di Factory with the support of the Polish Film Institute. This restoration has added approximately five minutes of material which had previously been removed by censorship. This was possible thanks to Polish Television and the Polish National Digital Archives where the original pieces of film were stored in a very good conditions. Di Factory was able to scan these pieces of negative in 4K and then restore them. London’s BFI screening in April was the first time that the restored version was publicly screened.

As for the film itself, Holland’s movie remains a powerful piece of work, even more so when considered in the context of its creation. Banned in cinemas when martial law was proclaimed in Poland, this film gathered its reputation through clandestine screenings. The plot centres on a middle-aged working class woman, Irena, living alone on the outskirts of Wroclaw with her 8-year old son. Irena’s arc in this grim film is largely one of misfortune, misery and desperation, all laid out for us in unsparing detail, with Holland’s camera capturing the minutiae of life in the lower income bracket in a state crumbling under inept Communist rule. Irena lives in a drab apartment by a clatteringly noisy rail line, seemingly at the mercy of a thuggish landlord next door who wants her gone and rips her flat’s fuses out when he feels like it. She and her son wash in a tin tub. Their food looks dismal: hunks of bread and butter and study jam. They have to share a bed, with rooms separated by dank curtains.

Outside this tiny apartment, Irena gets no respite either. She is a mail carrier reliant on keeping her good route to stay afloat, a route coveted by other staff at her postal office. In between shifts she has to care for a sick relative who has seemingly been left at home to die of some unspecified illness: presumably cancer (leading to one disturbing monologue where the woman rants to Irene at how meaningless her life was, a moment of utter hopelessness). Irena starts a desperate love affair with a younger disabled man, Jacek, who earns his keep by using his disability card to queue jump for impatient and needy citizens who offer him a cut of the cost. But Jacek is needy and a heavy drinker, soon dishing out the same kind of abuse to her as her previous husband did, who himself wanders occasionsaly in and out of her life.

Though unrelentingly grim to an almost absurd degree, Holland’s film captures the stark reality of being a woman at risk of sexism and violence in everyday existence (a sadly universal story), a situation made worse by the conservative nature of Polish society around her and the crumbling nature of the state. In fact Holland’s film - and this is maybe where it got into hot water - seems to suggest a link between the failing and corrupt imposed Communist regime and Irena’s specific misery. As she trudges downcast around the city, we see queues outside cake stores and pharmacies: here things citizens of the free west would take for granted as mere minor items on a shopping list require hours of waiting. Conversations between family members and friends reveal the hypocrisy of an ‘equal’ system where people expect the ruling party to do favours for its members and allow queue jumping in social provision. Even chocolate is rationed. Jacek rages about a lack of hope and aspiration in this country, and despicable though he is, you can understand what he is talking about. Even the film’s cinematography seems to agree with him: everything seems overcast and grey, lifeless. In a country without hope is it any wonder people turn violent and petty?

Maria Chwalibóg gives a tour de force performance as the postwoman whose deeply frustrating life means we totally understand the moments where she just screams or runs, or both, though Holland never makes her entirely a Mother Theresa figure. Her role in making this film a powerful condemnation of a society without hope of help is key.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

New to the films of Preston Sturges? Try The Lady Eve...

Director: Preston Sturges

USA 1941, 93 min, Digital U

The Lady Eve Plays at BFI Southbank until 17 February. Also available on player.bfi.org.uk

RATING: ★★★★☆


The Coen Brothers' latest manic comedy caper, Hail, Caesar!, is about to hit UK cinemas, and with it will inevitably come the comparisons between the work of the brothers and that of their acknowledged idol from decades' past: director Preston Sturges. With many of his films sitting permanently in several 'greatest of all time' categories (four of his seven 1940s hits – The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek – made the Writers’ Guild of America’s 101 Funniest Screenplays poll last year) Sturges’ is considered one of the masters of the screwball comedy genre, easily juggling witty repartee, laugh-out-loud slapstick, and a good bit of poleaxing of social mores. Conveniently coinciding with the release of the latest Coen film is the BFI's month-long tribute to Sturges this February, and viewers not sure where to start with the director are heartily advised to check out the much-admired The Lady Eve.

If you are only used to seeing Henry Fonda in his traditional film roles as a modest, apple pie hero, his turn as the lead in The Lady Eve might surprise you. Here he is literally a doofus: one Charles ‘Hopsie’ Pike, a bumbling biologist and snake expert who also happens to be heir to an ale fortune built up by his even more eccentric (and gastronomically-enthused) father. When he is not hunting down snakes, one of whom we see he has decided to keep as a pet called Emma (complete with its own cushioned travel box) after picking her up on a previous expedition, he is typically falling over his own feet, or avoiding the legions of hungry female gold-diggers desperate to get at his trust fund. 

Fonda is a lot of fun as the hapless-but-minted rube, and gets to have a good go at a lot of physical comedy: about half his screen time is spent pratfalling and getting covered in spilled condiments. But the film is really stolen by a firecracker of a turn from Barbara Stanwyck as the sultry, wisecracking con artist Jean. Jean sets her sights on conning Charles out of his fortune by getting him to fall for her and wed her, so she can ruthlessly poison the marriage until the expensive divorce. It is all part of a long-in-the-making plan she and her co-conspirator father Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) have thought up: their career path being that of the itinerant crook, albeit ones who aim for marks who can get them access to the finer things in life.

Jean's ruse comes undone just a tad when she genuinely falls for the guileless Charles after catching his eye during a boat cruise, and he also falls for her because she seems to be literally the only woman there who seems disinterested in his fortune: a result of the cunning Jean knowing exactly how to play him. But when Charles finds out about her past, he rebuffs her, leading a hurt Jean to plan another brazen caper to get revenge on him, with even more crazy results. Jean and Charles's madcap relationship arc zips along at breakneck pace, and is peppered with cracking dialogue, stylish settings (much of the action takes place on both a luxury cruise ship and a sleeper train), and some side-splitting set pieces (witness the over-eager horse keen to butt in on Charles's parade during his already-awkward wooing speech, a superbly staged sequence). Sturges even gets to fool around with the traditional romantic Hollywood ending.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016: Miss Hokusai

Taking its title from Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1952 film Ikiru (“To Live”), the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2016 - “IKIRU: The Highs and Lows of Life in Japanese Cinema” - explores the way in which Japanese filmmakers have been observing and capturing people’s lives, and how people across the ages persevere, negotiate and reconcile with the environment and situation they live in. This year’s programme features a mixture of classics, animation and contemporary films and Smoke Screen has been taking a look at some of them, and reviewing some of the highlights. Opening the season is the animated film Miss Hokusai from Production I.G- the company behind the animated series Ghost in the Shell.

The season will open at the ICA, London on Friday, 5 February 2016 before touring.

Film Review: Miss Hokusai

Miss Hokusai, dir. Keiichi Hara, Japan 2015, 90 mins, Japanese with English subtitles

RATING: ★★★☆☆

This intriguing animated film from Production I.G and director Keiichi Hara takes a surprisingly offbeat approach to depicting the life and times of the famous artist and “ukiyo-e” (“pictures of the floating world” - a genre of art that flourished in Japan from the 17th through 19th centuries) master, Katsushika Hokusai. The focus of the story, based on the original manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, is actually on Hokusai’s daughter O-Ei, who bounces between her father’s house and studio and that of her father’s estranged wife and blind younger daughter. Holusai’s’ studio is in Edo in the early 1800s, where O-Ei spends her days alternately working and bickering with her laconic father: they are both as stubborn as the other. The film follows the pair during a few weeks of a particularly strange summer: the story is really about their relationship rather than Hokusai’s famous works, even though some of his artwork is seen being worked on, and his aesthetic occasionally is blended into film’s landscapes. 

The Edo period is recreated quite well through hand-drawn 2D art with 3D techniques, though the animation doesn’t hit quite the levels of peak Studio Ghibli lushness. Ghosts and demons seem to be commonplace in Edo during this time, which is odd, and the narrative doesn’t really offer much explanation for this, though it is implied that Hokusai’s art is a reflection of their existence, and in some cases might be creating them: in one scene he has to correct one O-Ei’s commissions to prevent the ‘wrong’ kind of spirit being freed and menacing their patron. 

The film’s real draw is the engaging dynamics between the misanthropic characters: O-Ei and Hokusai have a strained relationship due to his lack of attention for his disabled younger daughter, but O-Ei correctly senses that it is baed on guilt and fear rather than disgust. Father and daughter are clearly two peas in a pod though. Comic relief is provided by the two resident pupils in Hokusai’s studio including the drunk, woman-chasing Zenjro, who gets rarely anything more than a weary shrug and an insult from his elder. O-Ei is mocked as stiff and gruff by the two younger, horny male artists, but out of their sight she is compassionate with her blind sister, spending afternoons describing the world around her in a way that betrays her artistic eye for details. The film pleasingly does not try to shove the independent-minded O-Ei into a conventional marriage/domesticity path to resolve her issues, in fact, according to the film, she remained Hokusai's overlooked collaborator and defiantly itinerant to the end.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Sir Ian McKellan spearheads the newly-launched BFI Shakespeare on Film project

Who better to launch the BFI's nationwide celebration of the Bard - The BFI Presents Shakespeare on Film -  than the actor who has played, on stage and screen, some of his most memorable characters, including Richard III and Macbeth? Today, Ian McKellen was at BFI Southbank, in his role as the chief spokesperson for the project, to discuss both the upcoming events that will pay homage to Shakespeare's works, and his own experience making Richard III (1995) and how cinema has transformed and re-imagined Shakespeare's work before and since. McKellen himself will be far more deeply involved in the project than simply making introductions, with plans for him to appear live on stage to present a re-mastered Richard III for UK wide simulcast, as well as hosting London bus tours of Richard III’s iconic locations and opening the Shanghai Film Festival with Shakespeare on Film.

BFI Head Curator Robin Baker was also on hand to introduce this exploration of Shakespeare on film, billed as the biggest ever and which will range from the silent era to present day, marking 400 years since he died. Despite a huge number of events being planned for the UK, the entire programme has an international focus with many films going on tour around the world.

Ian McKellen said “400 years on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to dominate stages worldwide, mostly of course in translation, challenging actors, directors, designers and audiences. 

The BFI’s “Shakespeare on Film” is more than just timely, it is a glimpse of the matchless collection of brilliant endeavour from world-beating Shakespeare experts like Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook and Kenneth Branagh whose films have popularised Shakespeare over the years. Their theatre-roots are evident. They have respect for the text and cut lines with regret.

Other directors have successfully translated the stage plays for the screen, aiming, perhaps to make great cinema than great Shakespeare. Here, I relish Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet; Julie Taymor’s Titus Andronicus; Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Ran. And there are more.   

I will not be the only one to be grateful to the BFI for their initiative in this anniversary year.”

 Richard III

Richard III

Some of the highlights of the upcoming programme include:

  • Venues and outlets include BFI Southbank (April-May) and UK-wide, newly digitised content on BFI Player, new DVD/Blu-ray releases and film education activity.
  • Ian McKellen will present a re-mastered Richard III for UK wide simulcast, as well as hosting London bus tours of Richard III’s iconic shooting locations. The film will be simulcast, in partnership with Park Circus, across UK cinemas on 28 April with a special post-film on-stage discussion between Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine live from BFI Southbank. It will also be screened extensively at the BFI, and re-released in a special edition DD/Bluray with new material.
  • There will be new 4K restorations of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
  • Screenings of the 'landmark films',  including those by Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Kenneth Branagh.
  • Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Cinema - compilation of silent era filmed performances- premieres at BFI Southbank with new live score by the Musicians of Shakespeare’s Globe.
  • Screenings of film's influenced by Shakespeare or which allow routes into his work, including Disney's The Lion King and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.
  • From 1 April until 12 June an exhibition in the Mezzanine Gallery at BFI Southbank will showcase items from multi-award-winning Hamlet (1948) directed by and starring Laurence Olivier. 

Read more here on the BFI website.

 Ran

Ran



Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Season Review: Rock in Reykjavik and the Barbican's Never Mind the Baubles anti-Christmas Punk film season

If you don't much like idea of sitting through endless marathons of Christmas heart-warmers like It’s a Wonderful Life and Scrooged (and if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?) the Barbican Cinema have just the counter-seasonal programming medicine this December. Their Never Mind the Baubles season celebrates the glory of punk on film, from GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, to Bruce LaBruce’s No Skin Off My Ass and Rock ‘n’ Rock High School featuring The Ramones. The season plays Tue 1 - Thu 17 Dec in Cinema 3.

This writer was able to drop by the catch the Icelandic documentary Rock in Reykjavik from director Friðrik Thór Friðriksson, which turned out to be a hugely entertaining exploration of how punk crossed over national boundaries, and was interpreted and reinterpreted by other nations that had very different cultures to the US and UK. Shot during the winter of 1981-1982, Rock in Reykjavik dives into the bustling alternative music scene that was emerging from Iceland at the early part of the decade, capturing various live performances and interviews from key bands from the era including Egó, Vonbrigdi and Purrkur Pillnikk. There’s plenty of political cynicism, a lot of cigarettes, even more leather, and even a bit of classic guitar smashing from one punk band that all look like they have an average age of about twelve. 

At one point a teenage Björk even turns up, singing as part of Tappi Tíkarrass, her striking voice already in evidence. Some of the bands actually seem to veer more towards New Wave, adding to the feel of diversity. This doc would make an interesting companion piece to another Nordic punk film: Lukas Moodysson's We are the Best!

Rock in Reykjavík (15*) (Iceland 1982 Dir Friðrik Thór Friðriksson 83 min)

The full season includes:

Never Mind the Baubles Tue 1 - Thu 17 Dec, Cinema 3

No Skin Off My Ass (18*) (Canada 1991 Dir Bruce LaBruce 82 min)

Wed 2 Dec 8.45pm, Cinema 3

Canadian filmmaker and artist Bruce LaBruce directs and stars in this cult classic as a punk hairdresser who becomes obsessed with a young skinhead. After spotting the skinhead in the park near his home, the hairdresser invites him to his apartment, gives him a bath and takes him captive. Shot in black and white with a range of jarring camera angles this is a stylised and incredibly graphic look at two punks in love. 

GG Allin and the Murder Junkies (18*) (US 1993 Dir Todd Phillips 55 min)

Wed 16 Dec 8.45pm, Cinema 3

A wild, polarising soul, there’s never been a punk quite like GG Allin. Onstage exposure, violence and coprophagia were hallmarks of his incendiary live performances. Detested by critics but beloved by a core, cult audience, this controversial documentary mixes concert footage and interviews with Allin and his wider circle, placing him in the 1980s. Allin is a fascinating figure: genuinely christened ‘Jesus Christ’ by his parents, he suffered an abusive upbringing and a chaotic adolescence, finally finding expression in the hard core punk scene. This film is a record of his energy and utter disregard for authority; absolutely fearless and completely unique. 

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (15*)

Thu 17 Dec 8.45pm, Cinema 3

After driving their last principle to a nervous breakdown due to their love of rock ‘n’ roll music, the students of Vince Lombardi high school face a shock when stern new principle Miss Evelyn Togar arrives on the scene. Attempting to put a stop to the students’ unsavoury antics, she burns their records and confiscates Riff Randall’s (P.J. Soles) ticket to see her favourite band, The Ramones. In classic teen film style, the students take over the school after enlisting the help of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy and which leads to a truly explosive climax. With a perfect blitzkrieg soundtrack featuring Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry and Fleetwood Mac, this hilarious film is still as fresh today as it was 35 years ago. 

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

1000 Londoners: Mapping Londoner's stories one film at a time

Documentary specialists 1000 Londoners (with Chocolate Films) are currently hard at work on a highly ambitious and unique ethnographic filmmaking project- producing a series of 1000 short films charting lives of all kinds across contemporary London.

1000 Londoners is a digital portrait of the city aiming to offer an insight into the lives of 1000 people who consider themselves to be Londoners, taking in all ages, religions, race, income, interests and opinions. Each week, a 3 minute profile of a Londoner is posted on the 1000 Londoners home page, and at the start of a new week at midnight GMT, the home page changes to show the profile of a brand new Londoner. All the profiles are archived into a searchable online gallery of Londoners.

The plan is not just to leave these stories sitting on the website however, and over the last few weeks sets of these short films have aired across London venues, each week devoted to a different theme and group of people. 

The first theme, starting from 2 November, was Night Crawlers and featured Londoners who do their living in the nocturnal hours and includes escorts, cabaret artists and clubbers, as well as Trevor who puts up Christmas lights and Save Soho's Tim Arnold. Easy Riders looked at those who traverse the city (and their own) limitations using two wheels, be it wheelchairs, pedal power or those, like Vicious C*** Cycle rider Gemma, who prefer Harley Davidson horsepower. Fight Club looks at the tougher side of life, taking hits and giving them be it in boxing or wrestling.

This writer popped down the the Hotel Elephant to catch the Easy Riders film collection on a chilly Friday on November 20, and was duly impressed by the diversity of subjects the filmmakers had captured and the intriguing niches of London life they had burrowed their way into, from Critical Mass riders to the capital's idiosyncratic rickshaw riders. There is no discernible agenda or slant to things, no on-screen text or other voiceover other than the chatter of the subjects, and no two are alike. 

The filmmakers are also on hand at each event for Q&A's, with the Easy Rider post-screening talk becoming quite lively as it ranged over the backstories of the interviewees, how well they were practicing cycle safety, and exactly how safe it is to be on two wheels in London today. As to how long it will take 1000 Londoners to finish this project at the rate they are going, that was a question for another day.

There is still one last chance to catch the last program- Fight Club- tomorrow at Hotel Elephant. Details of the entire program is below.

The screenings are part of the BFI’s Britain on Film season and are supported by Film Hub London with Londonist as media partner. 

The entire programme runs as:

Night Crawlers

Night Crawlers shines a light on the stories of Londoners who come out at night, from club kids to security guards.

Hackney Picturehouse | Monday 2 November 7pm

The Exhibit, Balham | Tuesday 3 November 7pm

Deptford Cinema | Wednesday 4 November 7pm

Stow Film Lounge | Thursday 5 November 7pm

Hotel Elephant | Friday 6 November 7pm

 

Easy Riders

Easy Riders follows the tracks of London’s bikers. If it has two wheels, they are on it.

Hackney Picturehouse | Monday 16 November 7pm

The Exhibit, Balham | Tuesday, 17 November 7pm

Deptford Cinema | Wednesday 18 November 7pm

Stow Film Lounge | Thursday 19 November 7pm

Hotel Elephant | Friday 20 November 7pm

 

Fight Club

Fight Club smashes through into the world of boxing and wrestling. Grapple with the Londoners who fight for fun.

Hackney Picturehouse | Monday, 23 November 7pm

The Exhibit, Balham | Tuesday 24 November 7pm

Deptford Cinema | Wednesday, 25 November 7pm

Stow Film Lounge | Thursday, 26 November 7pm

Hotel Elephant | Friday, 27 November 7pm

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

The BFI's Martin Scorsese presents The Masterpieces of Polish Cinema Season: A Short Film about Killing


Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski: 

18  |  84 min  |  Crime, Drama  |  26 October 1988 (France)

Playing as part of: Martin Scorsese presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema

RATING: ★★★★☆


Curated by none other than Martin Scorsese himself, the BFI’s Polish cinema season showcases a diverse range of films that emerged after that country’s painful period of reconstruction post-WWII and the abolition of the policy of Socialist Realism which limited the creativity its directors could showcase. In response, the pent up energy was released from the late 50s onwards, in a  flurry of films exploring military history, the communist system, and crime and punishment. Every film in this two-part season has been upgraded to a pristine digital restorations, and each is regarded as a classic in their home country.

Playing as part of the two-part season, A Short Film About Killing (Krótki film o zabijaniu) directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski and released in 1981, is a visually striking and quietly harrowing study of illegal and legal killing that contributed to a national debate that ultimately ended capital punishment in Poland, thus making it somewhat similar to other low-key but polemical ‘social issue’ films like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. Over its short 80 minute run time, the film charts in unfussy but determined fashion, how three different sets of people interconnect during the seemingly senseless, casual murder of a Warsaw cab driver one afternoon in the city. 

It is the itinerant, misanthropic loner Jacek who throttles a cab driver to death, a crime that is only offered context later when liberal-minded barrister Piotr hears his tale of a miserable, broken family background. Along with these two figures, we spend a lot of screen time watching the cab driver going about his daily routine before his fateful encounter, the prison executioner who is seen fussing over his death room curtains, and with a pretty local market stall girl who Jacek is revealed to be infatuated with. Death and violence exists alongside the mundanity of the daily grind here, a fact emphasised by cinematographer Sławomir Idziak’s use of bilious coloured filters which makes 1980s Warsaw looks like someone threw a bucket of urine over the lens. A Short Film About Killing is not an easy watch, but it serves as great introduction to Polish modern cinema.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

The Shadowmaster: classic noir Cry of the City leads the BFI’s Robert Siodmak celebration


"Robert Siodmak: Prince of Shadows" runs throughout April and May at BFI Southbank, see here for details.

FILM RATING: ★★★★☆


Robert Siodmak (1900-73), who is being given the retrospective treatment this month by the BFI, was one of the many European filmmakers who eventually found themselves in Hollywood, a part of the great migration of artistic talent that took place around the time of the Second World War. Siodmak was  a native of Germany, born in Dresden in 1900. He made his film debut with People on Sunday, a landmark in cinematic realism. Fleeing from the Nazis, he worked in France, then ended up in Hollywood; where he eventually made a name for himself as a major exponent of film noir, alongside that other great German ex-pat filmmaker, Fritz Lang.

Siodmak became celebrated for his use of expressionistic ,“noirish” techniques such as strong lighting to reflect the danger and distress of his characters. But Siodmak’s films also betray a droll, resigned tone as they trace the largely tragic street-level struggles of cops and criminals in a morally murky and dangerous America. The Killers and Criss Cross are great examples of this, but it is another of Siodmak’s great noirs, his 1948 thriller Cry of the City, that forms the centrepiece of the BFI’s celebration.

Though it may not have some of the more exaggerated visual stylings of other noir films, or a plot as famously twisted as The Big Sleep, Siodmak’s crime thriller is built on the tried-and-trusted plot conceit that the cop and criminal at the centre of the plot know each other from back in the day. It also grounds its urban cat-and-mouse game against an evocative backdrop of a tough, working class immigrant-populated neighbourhood in 1940s New York City.

It is in this patch of New York’s Little Italy that slick hoodlum Martin Rome (Richard Conte) and veteran cop Lieutenant Candella (Victor Mature) knew one another as kids, both being watched over by the fussy matriarch Mama Roma in one of New York’s many grimy, crowded tenement blocks. It is the relationship between Rome and Candella that gives Siodmak’s thriller much of its power and complexity. The film opens with Rome seriously wounded in hospital and being overseen by a priest (one of the many religious motifs in the film), with Candela waiting in the wings to grill him. This has been a long-running chase.

Candela projects a world-weary, quiet authority, whereas Rome is all rough-diamond charm under the pressure of interrogation. But actors Mature and Conte, working to an adapted script from Richard Murphy and Ben Hecht (adapting the novel A Chair for Martin Rome), add shades of grey to what should be a relationship clearly divided by the law. There is a palpable sense that Candella pursues his old childhood friend more out of sorrow than a burning desire for justice, even if the film goes on to clearly position him on the side of the angels as he seeks to lure Martin’s impressionable younger brother Tony away from the streets. Rome on the other hand, always quick with a quip, acts like they are still playing wild like the street kids they once were.

Inevitably, Rome escapes the hospital and sets out to reclaim both his girl Teena, and a stash of escape money in the form of a jewel heist he has got wind of. Siodmak populates the well-realised New York streets around the fleeing hoodlum with a deliciously entertaining rogues gallery of shady types. Lawyer Niles is Rome’s first target, as the slimy underworld legal eagle has already tried to blackmail Rome into taking the fall for the jewel robbery by threatening to frame Teena for the raid. His grisly fate at the end of Rome’s switchblade serves as a sharp reminder that the veteran felon, already wanted for the earlier shooting of a cop, can be as a ruthless as he is alluring when his back is against the wall. He almost meets his match though in the form of the memorably sadistic masseuse Rose Givens, who could give Kathy Bates’s character from Misery a run for her money. 

Alongside from the snappy chemistry between the noble Mature and street-smart Conte, which foreshadows other great cop/criminal dynamics like that of DeNiro and Pacino in Heat, a mix of on-location footage and in camera effects give the gritty and low-key proceedings a pleasingly steely realism, especially during the night sequences. A great jumping on point for those still unfamiliar with the work of Siodmak; the “Prince of Shadows”.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Katharine Hepburn and The Philadelphia Story


Conveniently re-released at the BFI in time for this year’s Valentine’s day weekend, George Cukor’s 1940 romcom The Philadelphia Story (playing as part of the BFI’s Katharine Hepburn retrospective) is an undeniably sophisticated affair. This is a film that squeezes in not just the legendary Katharine Hepburn, but two other Hollywood icons in the shape of Cary Grant and James Stewart, all in a comedy that mixes class conflict, champagne and competing suitors in the palatial surroundings of a Philadelphia family estate. In the Oxford Dictionary next to the definition of “‘classy” there is probably a screenshot of this film. And if not, there should be.

The plot is a classic “one woman, many suitors” setup, the action taking place on one of those opulent studio sets that just screams “Golden Era”. Adapted from Philip Barry’s play by Donald Ogden Stewart, the hilarity and hijinks center around a society wedding in an upper crust Philadelphia manor that ends up being threatened by scandal.  Years after she divorced her charming-but-unreliable millionaire husband Dexter (Grant), the smart but sharp-tongued heiress Tracy Lord (Hepburn) is all set to wed the dull but politically-assured George. Tracy just wants to have a quiet ceremony and get on with things, but Dexter invites himself to the wedding and brings journalists Macauley and Liz (Stewart and Ruth Hussey) along, their manipulative editor having blackmailed them into snooping for a scoop. Pratfalls, midnight canoodling, and deft wordplay ensue, as Mac finds himself drawn to Tracy despite his “working joe” principles, and Dexter and Tracy verbally fence to deny their obviously repressed attraction.

George Cukor was on familiar turf with this film in a way, having already directed the oGrant/Hepburn duo in other comedies: Holiday in 1938 and Sylvia Scarlett in 1935. With nary a pause in the fast-paced action, the various flawed characters stumble about getting the wrong end of the stick, getting sozzled, or just getting riled up and having at each other in fast-paced verbal catfights. Director and stars make it all look effortless: It is the easiest thing to just sit back and enjoy the film for the comedy and glamour (barring the odd few gags that have now become politically incorrect), perhaps all the more so given that much of the onscreen goings-on involve a lot of good-looking people sitting around and knocking back cocktails. 

Grant and Hepburn are particularly great when it comes to the to and fro, as their character’s sharp-tongued tussles are tinged with still-burning desire and regret, which makes Dexter’s claims that he’s just there to say goodbye ring hollow despite all the swagger. Beyond the heat between Grant and Hepburn, the film shares out the one-liners and key character revelations pretty equally between the leads, and they all stand out as distinctively complex, imperfect humans. None seem quite the same after we’ve seen them on screen for two hours: Tracy comes off as imperious at first but after a few she’s a far more risqué figure, Mac finds his cynicism about the rich melting in the face of Tracy’s wit and energy, and Dexter’s caddish reputation and behavior just mask the fact that he is still in love with Tracy. Even George isn’t portrayed as a simple villain, even if he does kind of exist in the film to look like a clown next to the way-cooler Stewart and Grant.

Valentine’s Day treat aside, this film can be also be seen as part of star Katherine Hepburn’s long journey to break out of the boundaries placed on female actors at the time. Both in front of and behind the camera, Hepburn remained something of a female trailblazer, as film writer Hannah McGill (she wrote the BFI’s catalog notes for the film) puts it: “Without Katharine Hepburn it’s likely classical Hollywood would have seen far fewer autonomous, intelligent, self-determining female characters.”

Hepburn was determined to avoid shrinking violet roles when it came to films and she was an ambitious and outspoken figure; but these choices resulted in periods of unpopularity for her to the point where The Philadelphia Story was actually something of a career-saver after years of being marginalized as box office poison. Across films such as Bringing up Baby (where she was teamed again with Grant in a zany role), A Woman Rebels  (where she plays a Suffragette) and Quality Street (where Hepburn satirizes the girly image Hollywood wanted of her), Hepburn can be seen showing great range and exercising a degree of control over her career so that any success would be on her terms, playing women who were far more assured and complex than might be expected for the times.  

The Philadelphia Story runs at the BFI Southbank from 13-26 February 2015.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

On the ultimate trip with Kubrick; the cast of 2001: A Space Odyssey speak

 Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea in  2001: A Space Odyssey.

Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

You can't get away from Stanley Kubricks grandiose, mysterious and undeniably trippy 1968 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like the imposing, sleek monoliths from the film, 2001 looms over all cinema genres, not just science fictionEven director Christopher Nolans new sci-fi film Interstellar, released in the same month that the BFI and Warner Bros studio have released a new digital transfer of Kubricks movie, openly pays homage to its predecessor.

Eventually becoming a huge box office and critical hit following its release  2001 is now a permanent fixture in all the major “best of charts. It remains still in the top ten of the Sight and Sound Magazine Greatest Films poll, and was recently voted No. 1 in a Time Out London poll for the best 100 Sci-Fi films. It is fair to say that 2001, with its largely dialogue-free narrative, avante- garde music and benchmark-setting special effects, has gone beyond being just a film that is widely regarded as a masterpiece; it is spoken of and written about as if it is a piece of art.

Though the most famous character in 2001 is undoubtedly supercomputer HAL 9000, the human presence in the film's second half is made up of astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole, two men on what must be the loneliest mission in history aboard the spaceship Discovery. The pair are bound for Jupiter, following the path of a mysterious alien transmission from the alien monolith found on the moon. Actors Keir Dullea (Bowman) and Gary Lockwood (Poole) were reunited this month in London to celebrate the 2K digital reissue of 2001 playing as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season, and kindly shared their memories with me of going on “The Ultimate Trip” (as studio MGM sneakily billed the film when they realised how certain 60s youthful audiences were enjoying the film).

The two are an interesting double act; Dullea’s precise, carefully-considered answers contrast with the curmudgeonly Lockwood’s more roundabout ways of telling stories. Both are sharp as a knife when it comes to recalling various behind-the-scenes memories, thought that did not prevent the pair putting our interview on hold on occasion to get stuck into a friendly row or two as to the order of certain scenes in the film. Both remain fierce in their praise of the director who gave them the job.

You can read fuller version of my interview over at Grolsch FIlm Works who originally commissioned the piece, but here are some highlights below:

 Lockwood and Dullea then and now

Lockwood and Dullea then and now

On getting hired by Stanley Kubrick for 2001:

Both Dullea and Lockwood were already Kubrick fans when they got the call to join 2001, so for both it was no brainer to sign up for the space mission. Keir Dullea was actually in England at the time, shooting an Otto Premigner film. Wandering in to a Battersea Park funfair one day, he encountered a palm reader who warned him: ‘I see a rocket ship in your future.’ ” A week after that, Kubrick called. 

Lockwood already had secured a place in sci-fi history, having starred in the pilot of a little show called Star Trek (where he plays Gary Mitchell, ultimately the villain of the story, in a one-off role).  He'd already worked with Kubrick on Spartacus.  At the time he remembers he was: “getting a lot of jobs, doing rather well, enjoying it, chasing beautiful girls and driving Porsches: the routine.” Then his agent called with Kubrick’s offer. Lockwood jumped at the chance: “I was a giant fan of Kubrick, even though I was a cowboy. I knew his stuff. I thought he was a genius.” 

On working with the legendary director.

Neither Dullea or Lockwood will have any truck with the myths that Kubrick was a strange, obsessive loner who enjoyed pushing his actors. Instead they found him professional, courteous, and amazingly curious, seemingly about everything. Says Dullea: "I’d just finished working with Preminger, so let me tell you, it was like going from hell to heaven! [Kubrick] was so easygoing with us, he never raised his voice, ever. He put us at ease quickly and was never demanding in the way you might imagine he would be. He was so prepared, the most prepared director I had ever worked with, so I guess he could relax about everything else.

Lockwood liked Kubricks directing style, the way he let professional actors get on with the job on set and when the cameras rolled: I asked him once why I got the part, and he told me that he thought I could do a lot without doing anything. Stanley never said anything, thats what I liked about him."

For Lockwood: There is only one Stanley Kubrick. People who are really good at something have to have an IQ! They have to be intelligent! I meet students out of film school and they say things like: I wanna make films like Stanley Kubrick. You cant tell after just five minutes with them; theres just not the grey matter there! Kubrick was curious, and so very, very intelligent.

Dullea remembers Kubrick as: “the most curious man I ever met. I remember the Pentax camera had just come out that year: he stopped shooting and took hours to find out all about it!

On their characters:

There is little dialogue in 2001, even when the film moves out of the prehistoric era. Dullea noticed that Kubrick cut more and more dialogue away the more takes they did. To help the cast, Kubrick prepped them via fictional biographies: “Our characters had double doctorates in sciences; the concept was that by year 2001 NASA wouldn't be taking astronauts from the military necessarily: they'd be looking early on at young men from high school and college, narrowing it down in terms of choosing based on their psychological profile.  

Both actors have little stories about they shaped the direction of 2001 with their own input. Lockwood laughs as he recalls how Stanley Kubrick challenged him to come up with a better idea of how the astronauts would confront HAL once he started malfunctioning. After a trip to a deli on Golders Green courtesy of Kubrick's driver, Lockwood scribbled out a scenario where the astronauts would plot in the pod, where they felt HAL couldnt hear them. Only a few hours previously, Lockwood had feared Kubrick was going to fire him for complaining about how he felt the narrative had been constructed. For his part, Dullea suggested to Kubrick that he break a wine glass during the sequence where Bowman ages in huge jumps in the strange artificial hotel room, after his voyage through the star portal. 

 On finally seeing 2001 in the cinema in 1968:

Both were blown away by seeing the film on the big screen, Lockwood in particular as he was extremely stoned at the time. Corralled by a film journalist for an interview after the screening, Lockwood remembers the man commenting: “ Well Mr Lockwood, you still look like you’re out there in space!” Dullea was struck by the Dawn of Man sequence (with its famous jump cut from the bone in mid air to a satellite orbiting Earth); as it was a section of the film that neither of the actors had worked on and thus were seeing it for the first time. 

On talking to younger audiences about 2001:

Though Lockwood deplores modern audiences “with their lack of attention thanks to MTV-style fast cutting”, Dullea is upbeat about 2001 finding new audiences now. He recalls that on the autograph circuit he started noticing that: “more than 50% of fans now were not born when 2001 came out. That speaks to the trans-generational aspect of this film. The genius of this film, of Kubrick, has appealed to generations up to this moment.”

2001: A Space Odyssey will be back on cinema screens in a new 2K digital edition across the UK from 28 November and will play an extended run as part of the BFI "Sci-Fi : Days of Fear and Wonder" season.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Maker of Mischief: Pete Walker at the Barbican's "House of Walker" Season


This November the Barbican Centre has been paying homage to one of the very few independent UK exploitation directors. With an active career spanning almost 10 years, director Pete Walker churned out 16 low-budget, provocative and explicit films in the 1970s-80s, releasing them into a political climate far different from today’s anything-goes new millennium era. As programmed by Josh Saco AKA Cigarette Burns, the House of Walker season at the Barbican has showcased some of his most “fondly” remembered films including Frightmare, Cool it Carol! and House of Mortal Sin.

On the Cigarette Burns blog, you can read this excellent study of Walker’s life and career as written by Dr Steven Gerrard, Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture. He situates Walker’s rise to the position of  mischief-maker-in-chief against the backdrop of a Britain where the free-love of 1960s had been replaced by daily IRA bombings and strikes. It was a hard time for the British film industry with American money fleeing, and British horror itself at a crossroads with Hammer struggling to find new hits after the heydays of Dracula and Frankenstein, and Amicus was faring no better. But there was a space opening up here for directors who could work fast and cheap. Exploitation horror, with all its transgressions, was set to become a breeding ground for new, talented directors who benefited from a slightly more relaxed British Board of Film Censor. As Gerrard writes: “this is where exploitation filmmakers like Pete Walker, the best exploitation film director Britain ever produced, came into their own to produce challenging, exciting, raw, graphic horror films that critiqued Britain’s eroding social system like never before.”

Walker who was born in 1939 and had spent time in American and Britain acting and helping out on films in various minor capacities before setting up a small photography studio at 71 Beak Street, made his first film, I Like Birds, in 1967. It was aimed at the ‘dirty mac’ brigade and featured plenty of busty beauties. The film was released as the lower half of a double bill with the Hayley Mills vehicle, Pretty Polly and made a lot of money. His next film, Strip Poker (1968) also showcased gangsters, flesh and violence. With his production company Heritage Films, Walker went on alternating between these kinds of sex and gangster films, eventually making a fortune with the seedy Soho-set Cool it, Carol! in 1971, But it was with his 1972 film, The Flesh and Blood Show, that he began to build a reputation as a craftsman of provocative “terror” films, many of which were created in partnership with writer David McGillivray.

House of Whipcord from 1974 fits into this “terror’ period of the Walker filmography, films designed to rub the establishment (and many more) up the wrong way. Before the Barbican screening of the film, Pete Walker himself was joined by actor and film historian Jonathan Rigby to discuss his films and career on stage.

As for House of Whipcord, Saco is quite right to call it “one of Walker's finest moments, the film that really secured his place in cinematic history”. This was Walker's first team up with writer David McGillivray and his second foray into terror territory: though not terror of a supernatural nature. House of Whipcord is not a ghost story or a slasher pic, it is instead a two-fisted, disturbing, yet also blackly funny assault on the justice system and the climate of cultural policing as practiced by self-appointed moral guardians such as the late Mary Whitehouse.  It was made on a low budget of just £60,00, which it quickly made back after it opened to near-universal condemnation from the mainstream media.

The story sees young, naive French model Anne Marie (Penny Irving), having recently wrapped a nude shoot with the London media set, coaxed to an ominous country house by the mysterious Mark De Sade (sadly she doesn’t spot the foreshadowing in the name). Anne Marie thinks the country house is where Mark’s family resides, but it is actually a former prison (a strikingly creepy, real-life high-walled jail in the Forest of Dean) which has been converted into a makeshift off-the-books penitentiary run by the puritanical tyrant Mrs Margaret Lakehurst (Barbara Markham, in a full-bore performance that comes off like a terrifying fusion between Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher). Technically Wakehurst, a former prison warden in the official state system, is running this secret prison in concert with her husband Justice Bailey (Patrick Barr), a former judge, but he is shown to be blind and mentally feeble, easily manipulated by the fanatical Wakehurst. The whole point of the prison, as Anne-Marie discovers to her horror, is to deliver kangaroo court justice to females judged to be corrupting society through their loose morals. In short order, Anne-Marie is sentenced to fire-and-brimstone punishments: reduced to a diet of bread and water, stripped, flogged, and forced to read and memorise the bible. Chief architect of these torments is the severe, platinum blond female guard Walker (an eerie turn from Sheila Keith). 

Over time it becomes clear that this prison “system” is shot through with rank hypocrisy, not least in the sexual desires that are obviously bubbling under the surface. Guard Walker’s reactions towards Anne-Marie, who is frequently in a state of undress before her, betray a mix of lesbian lust and related self-disgust that it is easy to imagine feed into the violent, sado-masochistic chastisements. At one point, in one of the film’s most intriguing and disturbing scenes, Walker caresses Anne-Marie’s bloody back as she lays weakened on her cell bunk, following a flogging which she herself inflicted on the girl. As for Mrs Wakehurst, she is revealed to be driven just as much by resentment of her ostracisation from the British prison system, following the death of an inmate in her care, as by any sense of a higher purpose to cleanse society. Her ineffectual husband is clearly just providing a fig leaf of judicial probity for her to justify her actions, he can’t even read the death warrants she shoves in front of him and thinks they are release orders. She almost murders him at one point. Though there is a sleazy vibe to the film, with plenty of bare female flesh on display, this is also a surprisingly complex allegorical demolition of Britain’s conservative cultural pillars.

Pete Walker on his life and career:

On looking back at his filmography.

I suppose at the time I was the ‘king of exploitation’, but everyone is making those kind of films now. Look at Martin Scorsese, he is making those kinds of films: look at The Wolf of Wall Street. I saw it, loved it, but I came out of the screening feeling so envious. In my day you were constantly looking over your shoulder at the censor, and the Unions as well; the Unions controlled the country when I was making films prolifically. But it was the censor that you looked over your shoulder at all the time really.

On being called a mischief maker.

Certainly the movies I did with McGillivray, we that is how we started. We would start with a blank sheet and ask “how can we rub them up the wrong way?”  before we even knew what the film was about. 

On bringing social issues into his films.

Well, you needed that. But what is strange is how for certain periods my films have been considered really left wing, and then later really right wing! Its true! This film you are about to see - there were accusations that it had a “nasty right wing bias”. Well, judge for yourself.

On his theatrical background (his father was a famous music hall comedian, his mother a vaudeville gaiety girl).

From a very early age I thought it was my birthright to be in showbusiness. So that is what I did; I came to London at age 15, two pairs of dirty socks, a comic and 30 shillings in my pocket, and started as a standup comic. It was the last days of variety theatres, they were closing down fast as commercial TV was starting to come in.  Instead ofter normal variety shows they would run American Burlesque shows, girls standing at the back of the stage, starkers. So these were kinds of shows I was in, and I guess that influenced my career.

On 1972 and his move into “terror films” with The Flesh and Blood Show.

Well, it was boredom really. There was a limit to what you could do with sexploitaiton films really. For one thing you were limited with censorship as I brought up before. But, honestly, it is very boring! Sex to watch is boring! Its wonderful to participate in, but not to watch; its awful. There was no job satisfaction honestly in making these movies. I suppose it was fine if you were making comedies, but even then we had the censor, John Treveylan (head of the BBFC), who didn't want humour and nudity together. So it was very difficult to construct anything, and so you ended up with films like School for Sex, where you tried to get as much nudity in as you could, but weren't able to given the censors who would cut all out. So I moved.

House of Walker at the Barbican

1st Nov – The Comeback

8th Nov – House of Mortal Sin with David McGillivray & Kim Newman

15th Nov – Cool It Carol with Matthew Sweet.

22nd Nov – House of Whipcord with Pete Walker & Jonathan Rigby

29th Nov – Frightmare with Jonathan Rigby


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Down by Jarmusch: thoughts on Down by Law and the films of Jim Jarmusch as the BFI celebrates his career

 A stranger in paradise: Jim Jarmusch has been making films his way for thirty years

A stranger in paradise: Jim Jarmusch has been making films his way for thirty years


Down by Law and other Jim Jarmusch films play this September at BFI Southbank as part of "Jim Jarmusch and his Friends" Season.

Down by Law

USA 1986

107 min, Digital, 12A 

RATING: ★★★★☆


This September, the BFI gives over one of its season slots to a director who seems as ready-made for a Saturday Night Live parody sketch as that other contemporary American "indie" director with an immediately recognisable style: Wes Anderson. With his origins in the New York punk and independent low/no budget filmmaking and art scene in New York in the 80s, and with a fashion sense that veers towards black on black plus aviator shades, Jim Jarmusch is a figure often mocked as pretentious. His aesthetic and entire career is often reduced to two adjectives: “hipster and “cool”. Yet Senior BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, who opened the BFI's Jarmusch season with a lecture on the director this week, puts forward a compelling case why doubters should look again at the king of cool. 

The BFI season showcases all of Jarmusch’s feature film works, from his micro-budget early effort Permanent Vacation, his breakout hit Stranger than Paradise, to his more recent play with the vampire genre Only Lovers Left Alive. The centrepiece of the season, however, is a re-release of his 1986 comedy/drama  (Jarmusch called it a “neo-Beat noir comedy”)Down by Law, which gets an extended run. What Andrew is keen to get across is his sense of the underlying thematic and formal characteristics in this filmography and the interesting ways that Jarmusch puts his ideas across on screen.

Actor Roberto Benigni in Down by Law plays a character who utters the catchphrase “It is a sad and beautiful world” throughout the film, and this Andrew sees as betraying one of the central threads running through the mercurial director’s thirty-years of work. For a director who might be seen initially by newcomers as a standoffish, cool aesthete, Andrew sees Jarmusch as actually a director who portrays and views his characters with warmth and affection, and a sense of sly fun, which makes them all very human and relatable even if many are eking out a hardscrabble existence on screen. Some of the characters at the centre of his films might indeed be "hipsterish" and interested in obscure and leftfield art forms, like vampire couple Adam and Eve in Only Lovers, whilst others are pursuing lines of work that class them as hucksters like the shady protagonists in Stranger than Paradise and the low-level hoods in Down by Law. But Jarmusch's characters often end up pushing themselves beyond their narrow world view to reach out to someone or something in an altruistic and affectionate way by the end of his films. Often they can be quite drolly funny too as they struggle with whatever dilemma - existential or more mundane - they are dealing with during the film’s run time.

Andrew argues that Jarmusch’s film’s foreground the importance of friendship, love, respect and understanding to these characters (and presumably to us wider audience); whether it is John Lurie’s character growing closer to his cousin in Stranger than Paradise, Bill Murray’s silent graveyard lament for a lost love in Broken Flowers, or the endless and unfathomably deep love of the two vampire leads in Only Lovers. Jarmusch is also willing to puncture any character’s pomposity or grandstanding, almost as if he wants to take hipsters down a notch or two; note how Eva in Only Lovers is exhausted by her lover Adam's near-absurd levels of romantic lamenting for what he sees as a more creatively rich past, and how surly, cool-cat inmates Zack and Jack in Down by Law are ultimately disarmed and rejuvenated by the almost childlike enthusiasm of cellmate Bob.

Andrew also reminds us that watching a Jarmusch film means watching the work of a true cinephile. Jarmusch has built his approach up from a broad range of materials and influences including classic arthouse cinema from the US and beyond (including Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson), stylised genre fare (Melville, Suzuki, horror and thrillers), the underground and avant garde, and of course his interests branch out into music, literature and poetry. Take for example the highly stylised sequences in Le Samouraï from Melville, echoes of which Andrew sees in Jarmusch’s ‘hitman’ films Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control, with their otherworldly, super-composed hit men main characters operating on some other level to the rest of us. They move to a different and specific rhythm in the same way that Jarmusch's films march to their own beat.

Neither Ghost Dog or The Limits of Control, or any of Jarmusch’s films really, could ever be accused of being that plot-heavy. Plot isn't really a big deal in a Jarmusch film, and “dramatic” is not something he is ever going to be accused of. His characters are often laconic and not much given to explaining what they are going to do or what they have done. Jarmusch is more interested in ideas and rhythm than exposition. Extra material is often scattered about his film that has no real easily understandable bearing on the plot, but offers viewers the chance to read something into the film in a metaphysical or thematic sense. Ghost Dog, for example, mixes narrated readings from the Bushido code from the Samurai era of Japan into the soundtrack from the get-go, and then throws in some other harder-to-explain elements too. For example, why does Forest Whitaker’s lone, Samurai-code-quoting and death-obsessed hit man Ghost Dog blow a kiss to the cemetery he walks past in that film’s opening sequence? Is he acknowledging a dead relative or just betraying a superstition? And why do none of the characters he walks past seem to notice him? Is he in fact, dead?

 Forest Whitaker is the mysterious, Bushido quoting hitman in  Ghost Dog

Forest Whitaker is the mysterious, Bushido quoting hitman in Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog, with it’s nods towards martial arts and hitman films, its RZA-produced hip-hop soundtrack, and its obvious debt to Melville and other stylised capers, is a great example also of what Andrew calls Jarmusch’s appealingly “cavalier” approach to genre and the way he likes to mix things up. Dead Man is another: shot in black and white like many other Jarmusch films and using some striking western-looking locations, the film seems to on the surface conform to the rules of the Western genre, but throws most of that out throughout the film’s running time. The main character of William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, is ineffectual as a gunfighter and is repeatedly mistaken by his Indian travelling partner, Nobody, for the actual poet. Characters who seem central to the plot die off suddenly and collapse in ludicrously theatrical ways, Iggy Pop shows up, one character is called “Lee” and another “Marvin”. Darker elements mix with absurdist comedy, yet there is also respect given to the Indian perspective on matters physical and spiritual. Seen from the injured William Blake's perspective, events in Dead Man eventually take on an unreal, hallucinatory feel. In fact, most of Jarmusch’s films seem to be operating on another plane of existence even if the setting is "the real world".

Formally, Jarmusch’s approach can seem minimalist, spare and controlled and he has admitted his love of filmmakers who followed such an aesthetic. Many of his films are shot in black and white, and both earlier and later films tend towards precise framing, long takes, and unfussy, unhurried camera movements. The acting tends towards the low key. But that doesn’t mean the eye is starved of material to take in as characters amble about on screen. Andrew sees Jarmusch as having a great sense of the potential of place, of architecture and the evocative nature of cities and the people in them. Only Lovers, for example, made impressive use of the faded, crumbling architecture of the now-bankrupt city of Detroit, which illuminated the vampire pair’s concern’s that they were coming to the low point in the arc of humanity’s history after a lifetime of observation. Like Ozu, a director he admires, Jarmusch balances out all the precise compositions and understated approaches with playfulness, and the concern for the humans at the heart of the stories never goes away.

 Zack, Jack and Bob are down and out in  Down by Law

Zack, Jack and Bob are down and out in Down by Law

This is just as true of Down by Law as his other films. In Jarmusch’s 1986 film, his follow up to Stranger than Paradise, poetry and melancholy coexist with warmth and humour and a few genres get thrown into the blender. On the surface it can be enjoyed as a hipster prison escape comedy with a mismatched character team, as three prisoners - Zack, Jack, and the bizarre, hyperactive Italian expat Bob - escape from a New Orleans prison and go on the run. But as with Robert Bresson’s prison drama Pickpocket - there is a metaphysical, poetic fable slant to things too should viewers wish to explore it. These oddballs aren't just breaking out of prison, they are breaking out of themselves. In the presence of the lighthearted, and possibly magical Bob (despite being only semi-fluent in English and seemingly a country bumpkin, he never puts a foot wrong and never fails to get whatever the trio need) Zack and Jack learn to put aside their arrogance and selfishness and bond.

Given how weird things get, especially when the trio end up in the spooky swamplands outside the prison after their unexplained breakout (Jarmusch slyly never shows the escape that Bob claims he dreamt up), it is entirely possible that this whole affair is some spiritual journey occurring in the heads of Zack and Jack. That would not make this film at all out of place with Jarmusch’s earlier work.  With some striking black and white cinematography from Robby Müller, sharp dialogue, and great chemistry between the three leads (Tom Waits stars alongside John Lurie and Benigni), viewers should enjoy this film even if they don’t want to dive as deep as Andrew suggests you can.



Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Scalarama 2014: Cigarette Burns and Psychotronic Cinema bring Wes Craven's Last House on the Left back to UK screens


1972, US, 84 minutes.

Playing as part of Scalarama 2014.

See here for screening details nation-wide.

RATING ★★★★★


Originally banned in the UK and seeing only a limited home video release and the odd public showing in the mid 00s, director Wes Craven’s 1972 debut The Last House on the Left (produced by Sean S. Cunningham) finally returns this month to UK screens in 35mm as part of Scalarama Festival, for what will actually be its longest theatrical run ever in the country.

The recently acquired 35mm print of the film, which played at the Prince Charles Cinema before going on it’s Scalarama tour this month, was procured by Cigarette Burn’s Josh Saco with aid from Scalarama, and the BFI. Saco, who will be presenting the film nationwide in alliance with Psychotronic Cinema, had quite a task on his hands finding a print of the film that was as close as possible to Craven’s original cut, given how often prints had been censoriously altered.

Why does such an aura of controversy surround this film, who’s director would go on to win mainstream fame as the creative mind behind the Elm Street and Scream franchises? The narrative is straightforward enough in that it contains many of what savvy audiences today would now recognise as very familiar horror genre beats: a wrong side of tracks decision by two characters leads them into a torture scenario, which then twists into a reversal-revenge finale. In fact the plot is often compared to Ingmar Bergman's stark medieval rape drama The Virgin Spring (1960), although it predates another dark horror ‘nasty’ - Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre -  by several years. But the path Craven’s film sets its lead characters on is certainly an unrelentingly grim one even if the shock nature of the content has been dulled by the passing of time, and the execution of the film technically is rough. 

Craven’s film sees a pair of teenage middle class girls - Marie and Phyllis - headed to a rock concert for a birthday, fleeing from their washboard-stiff WASP parents. But temptation gets the better of them and they ignore their parents warning to stay out of the ‘bad neighbourhoods’ of New York on their trip to the concert. While trying to score marijuana, the girls are kidnapped by a gang of psychotic convicts who, we learn from earlier radio transmissions that the girls fatefully ignore, are on the run. The convicts are a depraved lot, with ringleader Krug having got his own brother hooked on heroin in order to manipulate him. The girls are raped and tortured - and forced in some cases to torture each other - before the gang kill them and wander over to Marie’s parents house to presumably mete out the same treatment. The tables are turned however, as Marie’s parent’s drop their bourgeoise veneer and slaughter the gang with chainsaws and other improvised traps.

Craven’s film was successful in the US beyond the grindhouse circuit, and well-marketed by Hallmark Releasing Corporation (the tag line was: “keep repeating, it’s only a movie”). Even a few critics like Roger Ebert broke ranks to praise it. But prints of the film were often cut here and there given the extreme content and conservative knee-jerk reactions, resulting decades later in Saco’s troubles in finding a print he felt he could show. The film had a rough landing in the UK in the 1980s when the home video market was causing concern in conservative circles, and by 1983 Last House was on the Department of Public Prosecution list of films to be seized from retailers. This was the ‘video nasties’ era, topped off by the Video Recordings Act of 1984 which saw the film, and others, banned outright.

Watching the film now, it is tempting to think that it wasn’t just the unrelenting brutality that shocked and confused audiences and tastemakers, but the fact that tone of the piece veers from horrific to darkly funny and bizarre often in the same section of film. For example, Craven intercuts the scenes where the girls are suffering their miserable fate with comedic sequences highlighting the ineptitude of local law enforcement, such as when the bumbling, overweight local sheriff and his tactless deputy attempt to haggle with a local chicken farmer to hitch a ride on the roof of her chicken truck to search the woods, as their car broke down miles back. 

For Saco, Craven’s film was: “This response to the horrors of the imagery coming out of Vietnam, effectively bringing them home and into the home. It said: ‘We all have this in us, what brings it out might be different, but it is there.’ ”

“It was the end of the 60s, the start of the 70s, the good times in America were coming to an end. I suppose it's the New Hollywood of the horror genre. There were indeed earlier films - Lady in a Cage springs to mind - that were dealing with realistic brutalities, but that was a studio film. Here is an indie that ended up being a breakaway hit. It predates Texas Chainsaw Massacre by two years, so it is a forerunner of the more modern stuff. Effectively it was the Serbian Film of its time; a time that was still naive, and rooted in the safer pre war days of the 50s and 60s. The comparison is in the extremeness of the films and the response of the public to something they had not seen before.”

Viewers seeing this film are well-advised to pick up the Scalarama newsletter, which contains an excellent piece by Nia Edwards-Behi that not only details the history of Craven’s debut, but also addresses the debate that has never stopped swirling around the film of the extent to which it is misogynistic and exploitative.  Edwards-Behi notes that the film’s portrayal of misogynistic acts led audiences and critics to judge the entire film as being misogynistic itself, and miss the fact that the women in the film were the most interesting characters of all. She also notes the film’s raw power; this is a depiction of violence without reprieve, and without thrill, and without any hope for the flower power generation.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: The BFI Presents Flash Gordon at the British Museum, launching the Sci-Fi Days of Fear and Wonder Season.

 Gordon's Alive! Sam Jones as Flash Gordon  takes on the merciless Ming in the 1980 film  Flash Gordon

Gordon's Alive! Sam Jones as Flash Gordon  takes on the merciless Ming in the 1980 film Flash Gordon


Projected onto a giant screen at the British Museum, and introduced by no less than director Mike Hodges and the roisterous star Brian Blessed, the BFI presented Hodges' 1980 film Flash Gordon as the last of three sci-fi classic screenings during the final August weekend that launched the huge Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder Season, which begins proper in October. The venue was a fitting one: the backdrop to the screening area was the forecourt columns of the British Museum, all illuminated an eerie green from lights mounted below, and the BFI had provided a huge screen married to an punchy and clear audio system.

But no venue could really outshine Hodges' film, which is today widely regarded as a cult, campy, vividly realised sci-fi classic of the pre-CGI era with an overblown Queen soundtrack merely the icing on the cake. The film’s influence and appeal continues to this day. Director Seth Macfarlane devoted roughly one-third of his recent comedy Ted to honouring star Sam Jones and Flash Gordon, with Jones even given a cameo that sent up his already sent-up role.

 The British Museum forecourt transformed into a screening area for the BFI Sci-Fi Season

The British Museum forecourt transformed into a screening area for the BFI Sci-Fi Season

The film adapts Alex Raymond’s popular comic strip and pays homage to the earlier adapted serials. Flash (played here with admirable woodenness by Sam Jones) is a hulking New York Jets quarterback from the USA who, along with roving reporter Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and the unhinged Doctor Zarkov (Topol), has to heroically save the Earth from Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow, hamming it up with gusto), who is the ruthless ruler of the planet Mongo. Ming has his eye on destroying the Earth by collapsing the moon into it (there is no strategic value to Earth, vaporising it simply gives him pleasure ) and then taking Dale as his bride. Needless to say, Flash soon goes about disabusing Ming of both these ideas, allied with the roaring Prince Vultan (a rip-roaring performance from a winged Brian Blessed) and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton).

Aside from the performances, which range from the unhinged to the tone deaf, the film’s appeal lies in the banquet of visual treats it offers up. To call this film’s production design and cinematography ‘ravishing’ is the understatement of the century. Fellini’s frequent collaborator Danilo Donati and production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti provided costume and set designs that seem to suck in influences ranging from the source comics, Nazi Germany, old TV serials, art deco, baroque, sci-fi films of yesteryear, with a touch of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and any number of Universal horror monster movies thrown in too. On screen, this medley of colourful outfits mounted on the massed ranks of the characters, set against equally vivid backdrops that mix actual sets with pre-digital rear projection techniques and matte paintings, appears as both chaotic and yet also strangely well-planned at the same time. The overall effect made me think of the Andreas Gursky photographs of the American 99 cent stores, with their rows upon rows of confectionary aligned so as to be in uniform colour. 

The film also laces in, through monumentally unsubtle props and dialogue, a substantial amount of knowing humour and sexual innuendo into the proceedings: witness Ming ‘scan’ Dale Arden with his ring upon having her brought before him for the first time, sending her into what can only be called a ‘pleasant’ trance. It should come as no surprise that screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. was also a central figure in the production of the knowingly campy '60s Batman television series. Interestingly, Nicholas Roeg was originally set to direct. 

The BFI has made Flash Gordon and other classics from the season available on BFIplayer.

 Concept design for Flash Gordon (unrealised, 1978) by David Bergen from the unmade Roeg project

Concept design for Flash Gordon (unrealised, 1978) by David Bergen from the unmade Roeg project


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Event Review: Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2014 screening. E-Team (Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman, USA, 2014)


UK Release : 25 March 2014 (Human Rights Watch Film Festival, London)

88mins.



This year, Human Rights Watch puts itself under the microscope, with this documentary looking at the work in the field, and the personal lives, of the investigation E (‘Emergency Teams’) teams who dutifully head out into zones of conflict to gather evidence of war crimes and suffering. Filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny recently embedded themselves and their handheld cameras with four members of these E-teams, as they journeyed to the front lines in Syria and Libya to gather mounting evidence of atrocities by government and opposing forces in those recent (and sadly still ongoing) conflicts.  


The documentary shows how gathering evidence, through lengthy and emotionally raw interviews with victims and witnesses, and investigation of crime spots, weapon depots and wrecked homes, is only the start of the battle. Once this evidence is gathered, the same E-Team members are often personally involved  back home in trying to get their documented evidence into the hands of media outlets, policy makers, and international tribunals to try to trigger some kind of response.


One of the most intriguing things about the E-Team members who we are embedded with - Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter - is how oddly laid back and normal they seem given they spend a large percentage of working lives in war zones. It is also interesting to see how each approaches their work and home life differently. Anna and Ole actually are married to each other, seemingly able balance a home life in Paris with a son alongside regular excursions to life threatening situations. When we first meet them they are packing for a trip to Syria in their flat, with little noticeable extra tension than one would expect from a holiday. Soon though, in one of the films tenser moments, we are watching them get smuggled over the border between Turkey and Syria courtesy of a trusted contact there. Hunkering down in cars, stumbling over barbed wire fences, hiding under burka’s, this is the average working day for Anna and Ole.


Anna herself is a fiery Russian expat with a sly sense of humour, making for a fitting contrast to the more calmer Ole. Following their Syria investigations, we see Anna working the phones, setting up press conference and TV interviews back at home and in her native Russia (Russia being an Assad ally). Comfortable and strident in front of the camera and in the field, Anna seems to be a natural and tireless campaigner. More circumspect and haunted is the older investigator Fred: one of his baptisms of fire, as he recounts to the camera, was as an investigator of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and he sat opposite Slobodan Milosevic in his war crimes trial at the Hague.


The flitting of the camera team between Geneva to Berlin, Syria to Paris, reminds us that working for Human Rights Watch is a global task with what must be an exhausting travel requirement. And that is not counting the physically and emotionally draining work in the field in between. The investigations the camera team show us are often highly disturbing, and because HRW working practices demand multiple corroborations, the investigations in the field cannot simply dip in and out, they need to interview multiple victims and corroborating witnesses, as well as comb the terrain often while actual fighting is going on around them. In one section of the film  the camera team follows Anna and Ole as they come across an entire block in a Syrian suburb, utterly demolished by air strikes. As we see the sea of bricks and rubble in front of the E-Team, it is hard to know imagine where they should begin.


If the film does have flaws, it is partly in this switching of focus to show the home and work lives of the E-Teams. Time spent outside of the war zones means less time showing us the hard graft of how E-Teams work, which feels more like the real ‘meat’ of the matter here given the subject matter. It would've been fascinating to learn more of the ins and outs of how E-teams are inserted and extracted, and the working practices. It also only briefly touches on the issue of what HRW's position should be if Western governments take its evidence as justification for military interventions, and what the E-Team members feel about what governments do with their evidence.

E-Team is too short to really engage on a deep level with the work and history of HRW, but it is well-shot and contains some moments of raw emotional power, particularly those involving the victims of atrocities face to face with the camera.  It is hard not to come away with respect for the unassuming investigators, who spend their days gathering the kinds of devastating  evidence that we only read about in the papers.

RATING: 3/5

LINKS:

Official Human Rights Film Festival Site.

Official Film Site.


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Review: Birds Eye View Film Festival Launch Film: Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, USA, 2014)

USA 2012
Directed by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan.
With Lynda Carter, Jane Espenson, Kathleen Hanna.
Running time 79 min

Reviewed by Owen Van Spall


 From BFI.

From BFI.

Kicking off this year's Birds Eye View Film Festival (which will run 8-13 April across various London venues) Wonder Women is a short but  thought-provoking look at representations of women in comics and wider popular culture today and throughout the last century. Given the dominance of the comic book movie genre today (in ironic contrast to the still-ghettoised comic books themselves) it is certainly timely. The documentary pivots on the history of the DC Comics character Wonder Woman, created in 1941 and still today one of the most easily recognisable female superheroes, though as the documentary makes clear, that is partly due to the competition for that title still being so thin on the ground.

The birth, evolution and legacy of the Wonder Woman comics (and later television) figure is certainly very interesting and well illustrated with comics panels, clips and talking heads from the industry. The character was actually the creation of a man- American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston - who also was significant in the development of the lie detector (mirrored somewhat in Wonder Woman's weapon of choice, the 'lasso of truth'). The doc spends a lot of time with fans of the character, but the filmmakers deserve praise for also exploring how problematic the character of Wonder Woman actually is as a feminist icon. Throughout the character's history she swung constantly from sex object to independent amazon, from popular top selling icon to marginalised minor character, and was usually written and drawn by men. Did she also promote the creation of a cohort of female superheroes, in comics and beyond, to help balance out the male dominated genre? The jury still seems to be out on that one, sadly, judging from what we are shown of female figures in comics and beyond today. For in many ways, Wonder Woman and other representations of powerful women in pop culture too often reflected society's anxieties about women and women's liberation rather than simply breaking down barriers.

The filmmakers have secured a fine roster of talking heads, including original Wonder Woman TV actress Lynda Carter, Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, a bevy of comic writers and artists, and even Gloria Steinem. It is too short to dig too deep, so don't expect an academic analysis, but it is a useful corrective shot to the arm nonetheless and would be a great film to show in schools. Oddly the documentary doesn't mention the casting of Gal Gadot as the big-budget (and undoubtedly long overdue) movie Wonder Woman, who will appear in 2016's Man of Steel 2.

Rating: 3/5


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.