Cinematically Kubular

Ramblings about cinema and whatever else I'm thinking at the time!

Tag: entertainment

An American Idea

“Don’t ask what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you!” The slogan is printed on a banner based on the stars and stripes of the US flag, hung behind the reception desk. Reception is dark, a few small lights hilight the wood and gold decor. The lady behind the desk was young once, but now any spark of youthful energy that may have shone in her eyes has been replaced with an unmistakable weariness. She hands you the key to your room.

You take the key and turn towards the hallway. Opposite the weary receptionist, the desk and the patriotic banner stands a vintage style Coca-Cola machine. It serves bottles! You dig around in your pocket for change. After all, it’s vintage. It doesn’t take contactless.

With a coke in one hand and your bag and key in another you walk toward your room. Beneath each light is a picture. The first your eyes are drawn to is a photograph of Trump’s inauguration. Trump stands on a stage in the distance, you can just about make him out. Beside the photo is a golden plaque, it draws your attention to the size of the crowd, possibly the largest since records began. You pass various other photos; Melania, Ivanka, Jared. They all beam out at you, as if to welcome you to share in their success.

Finally, you’re in your room. For the most part the room is unremarkable. It seems comfortable enough. You’re pleased. You test the shower, it works. You turn the temperature up to high and test it. You can’t complain, the water’s not cold but it’s not hot either. At least you won’t be scalded, you​ muse.

It’s been a long day traveling and nothing is more appealing than sliding into a comfortable bed. You walk toward it and place your phone on the bedside table beside a portrait photo of Donald himself. His grin beams out at you. You reach to turn the photo away from the bed but can’t. It’s attached to the table as if a family member you keep close.

You finally slide into bed, beneath the golden covers you lay your head on a golden pillow and switch off the light. You try to sleep but realise something’s stopping you. It’s not the itching, though that’s not ideal either, you put it down to the fresh cotton. Then you realise what’s stopping you. It’s too bright in here!

You open your eyes and see it. There, on the bedside table, Trump’s grinning portrait glows. He beams out at you. His pinpoint little eyes, his winning grin is lit by the frame you can’t move. He stares at you and you understand. You understand he wants you to understand that at the end of it all he’ll be depositing your hard earned insomniac dollars into his personal, no doubt offshore bank account.

You close your eyes and try to drift off but all you can think of is him.

Donald Trump.

Making hotels great again.

 

This post was inspired by the below linked article.

Boing Boing – American Idea

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Skyfall

Ian Fleming's image of James Bond; commissione...

Ian Fleming’s image of James Bond; commissioned to aid the Daily Express comic strip artists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just got back from watching Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/US, 2012) and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. I worked my way through the ‘official’ James Bond series a few months ago (or was it last year?) and was left wondering how the follow up to Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, UK/US, 2008) would actually take shape.

If you want to quickly read my response to the film, scroll down to the paragraph in bold and start from there. Otherwise, feel free to read on. But don’t complain if it’s too long. 😉

Since GoldenEye (Martin Campbell, UK/US. 1995) the franchise has been trying to ‘reboot’ or ‘reinvent’ itself. I believe Eon Productions (the production company behind the ‘official’ film franchise) have struggled to identify 007’s relevance in the modern world. They reacted by building ever more elaborate action sequences, filming beautiful women, sets and locales but forgetting the things that made James Bond such an appealing and successful character to begin with.

Ian Fleming‘s novels were published following the second world war and were influenced by the noir fiction output of America and Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes. They were about a fairly ‘modern’ gentleman, well to do, who was an assassin on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. James Bond’s job would take him around the world, to many exotic locations and to meet many exotic individuals. James Bond made no pretence of being morally perfect, I believe the statement ‘James Bond detested killing’ is quote from one of Flemings’ novels (I don’t feel like hunting around to find out which one, so apologies for any inaccuracy). To 007 murder was a waste of life, something that could be taken far too easily.

In the films James Bond has had a very successful love life. In (probably) every entry to the series 007 has had a tryst with someone or other. In the novels, 007’s love life is far more complex, in one (I won’t say which) he’s actually turned down by ‘the bond girl’. Fleming’s From Russia with Love actually with 007 down after being dumped for an American sailor (if I recall correctly) and he actually turns down Honeychile Rider‘s advances in Fleming’s Dr No. The films have treat 007 as something of a misogynist dinosaur.. something actually expressed verbally quite early in GoldenEye. A true modernisation of the character wouldn’t feel the need to take that direction, although there are certainly misogynist aspects to the character (and writing) of the novels, they belong to a time long gone, and are not especially central.

When reading the novels, it’s quite clear to sense that Fleming got bored of writing them early on, in fact he went so far as to plot 007’s death in From Russia with Love and ironically, is probably why the novel was such a success (requiring a sequel in the form of Dr No). Off the top of my head, Fleming attempted to end Bond’s career at least twice, the first with his assassination at the hands of SMERSH in the aforementioned From Russia with Love, and the second in the conclusion of You Only Live Twice.

The same kinds of tensions can be found in the Bond films since the 1990’s. Die Another Day (Lee Tamahori, UK/US, 2002) sees James Bond tortured and broken in the first section of the film, before  being taken on a self referential and dream-like journey for revenge against a character modelled on himself. A film that may have been intended to celebrate and challenge the franchise became a sickly mash up and deconstruction of previous successes already made (and handled better) by films such as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (Jay Roach, US/Germany, 1997).

The rather stale and desperate feel of Die Another Day left the franchise requiring a fresh start – a way to escape continuity conflicts with the previous entries to the series while also refreshing its tone and direction. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, UK, Czech Rep, US, Germany, Bahamas, 2006) saw one of Ian Fleming’s novels dramatised for the screen for the first time since (arguably) Live and Let Die (Guy Hamilton, UK, 1973). The second half of the film (the part actually based on the novel) follows the novel surprisingly closely, however, overall the tone, character and pace of the film is ruined by a string of unnecessary and over long chase sequences.  Although refreshing to see a James Bond film with some genuine tension and interesting characters it was a film that left much to be desired and that doesn’t stand up to repeat viewing particularly well.

Quantum of Solace continued the same gritty, noir take on 007 but lacked all the things that made Casino Royale interesting (and successful). All Quantum of Solace had going for it was some pretty photography, nice set design and a generally dark atmosphere. Having said all that, it also progresses James Bond, himself, through an interesting development arc. Where Casino Royale tells the story of 007’s first mission and provides background to his hatred of SMERSH – sorry, SPECTRE – sorry Elipses? (Do we even know what they’re called in the new series?) Quantum of Solace sees him honing his craft and ‘repairing’ his broken heart.

This brings us nicely back to Skyfall. Skyfall is almost exactly the film it needed to be. It follows James Bond, now a whole man; over the death and betrayal of Vespa and back on assignment, fighting a larger than life megalomaniac. Javier Bardem plays the psychotic Silva wonderfully and gives voice to the films real achievement. Skyfall returns beautifully to Fleming’s original success through wonderfully developed (and twisted) characters it draws strength from a dark and twisted psychology. The action is allowed to be driven by the story for once and the story is actually worth following. Skyfall shows a strong influence from The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, US/UK, 2008) but retains it’s identity as a Bond film.

Yes, Skyfall still includes some fantastic pyrotechnics and opens with a hugely dynamic chase scene, but with the exception of the pretitle sequence, none of these really slow it down. Skyfall allows its characters to set the pace and tension of the film and they’re wondefully developed enough to do so. What is perhaps most impressive about the film is that Skyfall never allows its violence to become too ‘rote’. Death and chaos maintain a sense of shock and brutality for the duration and that only adds to the overall tension.

However, Skyfall isn’t devoid of corny moments. At one point at the end I unconsciously face palmed myself pre emptively (by which I mean I didn’t even realise I’d done it until I heard the smack of my palm against my head). I won’t say what this moment is, but it’ll be clear enough to anyone who’s seen it, I expect. There are plenty of other things I’d love to say about this film, but I’d be giving too much away to anyone considering going to see it.

Skyfall is definitely worth a watch, I managed to sit through it and I haven’t sat through a full James Bond at the cinema since The World is Not Enough (Michael Apted, UK/US, 1999).

Last House on the Left of the Bay of Blood

Growing up I was never a great fan of Horror cinema. With the exception of Scream (Wes Craven, 1996, US) and Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987, US) the Horror films I’d seen had come across as cheap and childish – even those that weren’t really that cheap. Even then, Scream is not a film I’ve ever really felt comfortable with categorising in my idea of the Horror genre and Evil Dead II, while conforming to my preconceptions of Horror, is a comedy.

On attending University all of this changed – I discovered the early Hammer films and Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978, US). However, even with the beginnings of an interest in horror beginning to stir, I still wasn’t getting overly excited about the genre. I was much more interested in the melodramas of John Woo (to the extent I focused my dissertation upon them). If there is one thing I can thank Northumbria University for it was a course on the European Thriller during which Peter Hutchings screened Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975, Italy) and gave a seminar giving a brief introduction to Argento’s other films. Roll on a few years and the imagery and curiosity about those films had stuck with me.

2012 arrived and I found myself a fan of the ‘Italian Hitchock’ Dario Argento and delving deeper into the genre that I’d mostly ignored for the longest time. This lead me, naturally, to Bay of Blood (Mario Bava, 1971, Italy) which both shocked and bored me. It revived those early attitudes to Horror – it seemed to focus on the exploitation of violence and sex yet was nihilistic enough in it’s attitude (and particularly it’s conclusion) that I couldn’t bring myself to feel it had been a waste of time. There were aspects of Bay of Blood that clearly signalled a departure from the giallo films I’d fallen in love with but also a connection with the disappointing Halloween. Bay of Blood confused and excited me – confused because I wasn’t sure how to feel or what to think about it, excited me because I felt I’d found something new.

Today I reaffirmed that sensation and realised that there’s a whole side to Horror that I’m yet to explore and a psychology to it I may have to reassess. Today I watched The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972, US). For those readers that may not already know The Last House on the Left is about a teenager called Mari and her friend who are abducted and subsequently raped, leading to the murder of the rapists by Mari’s parents. The story outline, more or less, says it all; it is not only one of the grimmest and most troubling films I’ve seen but it’s also one of the most inspired.

The Last House on the Left and Bay of Blood share some common themes – there’s no clear sense of heroism or good and evil here. Only innocence and it’s corruption. It’s this corruption of innocence that sits at the heart of both films. In Bay of Blood it’s represented by a close-knit community which is threatened, along with nature, by a large commercial development. This commercial development sows the seed of corruption amongst the community and eventually leads to a series of gruesome murders. Innocence is then corrupted succinctly in its closing, and perhaps most disturbing, scene. The Last House on the Left corrupts the almost sickly innocence of Mari and the idyllic setting of Mari’s home through the acts of a group of criminals. Again, it’s the final scene of The Last House on the Left that questions the nature of these ‘idyllic’ characters. Here, the blood spattered parents of Mari are subjected to the shocked and accusatory gaze of the police.

Perhaps, the most troubling statement made by both films is that no one is perfect and even the most idyllic of paradises can be torn apart by the darker, more corrupt side of our own humanity.
There’s darkness in everyone.

A Cinema of Broken Dreams

Watched The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941, US). Was like looking through a window to a time when films were rendered in shades of silver, the stories had twists and America knew how to make them well. ‘Noir’ has always attracted me, it has a kind of bodily honesty to it. Love is mostly painful and very rarely works out, corruption is the norm (as opposed to a deviation) and our ‘heroes’ are always just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer deals with it, far as I can tell, by dealing bloody vengeance to those who murder his friends – of which he has many, and happens often. At the other end of the spectrum is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe who in the labyrinthine The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946, US) is more interested in solving a riddle – and, ultimately, getting paid. When I use the word labyrinthine I mean that I’ve watched the film innumerable times, read the novel and still couldn’t tell you what actually happens in it (except that a kid is murdered and left in a car, there’s a porn racket involved and one of the babes did it).

What’s mostly interesting about these films though, isn’t the plots (though they do hold plenty of attention). It’s the characters and the wonderful dramas that play out in their relationships. Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950, US) tells the story of a young writer, Joe, trying to make ends meet – who through luck or misfortune finds his way to wealth and attention of a famous actress. What’s fascinating about Sunset Boulevard however, isn’t really the plight of Joe but rather the obsessive dreams of the  indomitable Norma Desmond. It’s Norma Desmond’s fascination with the limelight, celebrity and the glamour of the silver screen that takes the focus of the tale, and the form in which her dream is eventually realised which is the film’s destination.

Historically, these stories were part of an economic recession in America. Which may partly explain why themes of love, fame and fortune are always coupled with pain, heartbreak and corruption. There are no clear heroes in this genre, hell, Mike Hammer borders on being a homicidal maniac and Spillane’s handling of morality is about as subtle as a sledgehammer through plate glass (and his prose carries about the same momentum too).

If you want a British example of the Noir anti hero you need look no further than Ian Fleming‘s James Bond. Written during the same era, the novels follow the same dark, earthy, violent sense of adventure; the only difference being the lush, opulent settings – though always hiding a dark and perverse heart. It’s that Noir heart of 007 that defines Daniel Craig’s incarnation of James Bond, it’s just a shame the writing and the characters fail to live up to the standard that defined the genre 70 years ago.

Anyway, I’m rambling! Plus, I need to save something for when I get round to seeing the new entry to the James Bond franchise.

PS

The intention of this post was to recommend The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Sunset Boulevard. If you enjoy reading and don’t mind a little violence here and there, I particularly recommend you read I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (available on Kindle or as part of the Mike Hammer Omnibus on Amazon).

 

Halloween meets Vertigo in The Stendhal Syndrome

So, The Stendhal Syndrome (Argento, 1996) is, more or less, a film about art an

d rape. More or less. It’s also awesome. It’s the kind of film Argento’s best at – a dark, tense thriller with somewhat intense moments of horror to break up the drama and help propel the narrative. Again, the dubbing can be flat – and there’s a wonderful character who looks like Alec Guinness after putting a bit weight on who’s voice is unfortunately completely mi

scast – ie, not at all like Alec Guinness. Asia Argento had me more or less completely convinced she can actually act too, which is quite impressive after Trauma (1993).

Unfortunately, the end is poor. I can kinda understand why it’s the way it is. But it’s a huge disappointment. The film could have ended about 2 minutes earlier (roughly) and would have been (pretty much) perfect. With some clever voice acting. Oh

, wait…

Anyway, it’s a film that discusses rape and what I want to call gender politics (but is probably more like the politics of sex – are they the same thing?) quite well. It’s genuinely an interesting watch and a really good, solid and involving thriller.

Stendhal Screencap

Halloween to Sleepless

Well, kinda realised the thing about blogs is you actually have to write something and then post it. So here it is, this week’s update!

Over the last week I’ve actually been watching quite a few interesting pictures (each of them interesting enough to write a post about) but none of them had me motivated enough either, though some of them had me very close.

Interestingly the film that had me most motivated was that famous American film Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978). Not because I thought it was good, rather the opposite. It’s one of the most boring horror films I’ve ever watched. Which (some might say) is ironic, because it’s the only one I actually own a copy of.

Halloween actually starts off quite strongly, it’s creepy and generates a genuine sense of suspense as it leads up to the film’s first murder. It’s the first scene that I find the most interesting, not only because it spells out the film’s themes rather succinctly but also because it feels like Carpenter is making a genuine statement. Halloween‘s opening scene actually feels like it contains some genuine emotion… which is something I can’t really say about the rest of the film.

I wonder if Carpenter is making an artistic (and if he’s capable of it) statement too. Admittedly, I’ve been watching an awful lot of Argento lately but Halloween’s intro definitely feels to me like it’s referencing Argento stylistically. The way the point of view is shot combined with the way information is presented to us… the kitchen knife… Michael watching through the windows… the only thing that’s missing is an extreme closeup of Michael’s eye as he watches through the crack between some curtains (or something). Perhaps the release date supports that idea. After all, Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) was released only a year earlier. So Halloween came just at the end of Argento’s Giallo run. It definitely reads to me as if Carpenter was trying to put the Italian Giallos to rest in the opening, and signal to the audience that Halloween was something different, something new.

You could argue that the main section of the film is purposefully dull. Perhaps it’s trying to bore the audience enough so that the ghost train style ending is more shocking and (potentially) disturbing once it arrives. Personally I think that Carpenter didn’t really know how to play on the audience’s fears or sense of suspense. The idea of a mysterious stranger hiding behind bushes and stalking students might have seemed like enough without requiring any special attention. Personally, I feel the film misses a few tricks, and doesn’t do enough to be visually involving. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway, since Halloween I’ve also watched Mask of Satan (Mario Bava, 1960), Trauma (Dario Argento, 1993) and Sleepless (Dario Argento, 2001). Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday) is a beautiful and fantastic film. For those readers that haven’t heard of it, it’s an Italian Vampire film that draws its inspiration from titles such as Hammer’s Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958) starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (another film I adore). Mask of Satan not only uses the same gothic and fantastical eastern European setting as Dracula but turns up the fear factor – and gore – to make a wonderfully suspenseful and tense experience. For those of you out there who also find the way Horror films interact with the viewer and comment on voyeurism, it’s certainly one for the watch (or research) list.

Trauma was probably on a par with Halloween when it comes to pace and excitement. It started off promisingly but quickly sank into a relatively dull (and somewhat unimaginative) narrative about a troubled and anorexic teenager and her relationship with an older artist (and surrogate father figure). The film does bear the distinction of being the only film I’ve seen about a killer armed with a handheld decapitation machine (an ingenious Garrot on a motor) and picks up a lot toward the end. The last act of the film is genuinely interesting and reminiscent of Argento’s earlier work. I don’t want to be overly harsh on the film, it’s probably more entertaining than Halloween, probably.

The blurb called Sleepless “a return to form” for Argento, which I felt promised a lot. Fortunately I wasn’t too disappointed. The film is far better than Trauma and probably would be even better if it wasn’t for some of the worst voice acting I’ve heard since watching VHS Manga releases in high school. The first major set piece in the film is almost ruined by the awful dubbing of the female lead (at this point) but is rescued by the awesome bass grooves looped throughout the film (which make a welcome change to the rather cheesy score in Trauma). Also, after the film gets going it drastically improves. Max von Sydow gives a wonderful performance as the ex Chief of Police Moretti, who suffers from amnesia in his old age. Sleepless is a wonderfully entertaining thriller which is genuinely tense but unfortunately doesn’t manage to recall the kind of skillful music video style set pieces of Argento’s early work. Having said that, if approached with lower expectations than might be held by those of us who are fans of Profondo Rosso (Dario Argento, 1975) and Suspiria I think it would hold its own. Especially if some characters could be redubbed.

Anyway, I’ll leave this, mostly, aimless waffle for now and go find something interesting to watch (or listen to). Please, feel free to comment.

Here’s the trailer to Profondo Rosso, one of my favourite films:

Peeping Tom – A Quick Peek

So, in the previous post I recommended Peeping Tom, a British film directed by Michael Powell and released in 1960. I’m conscious that I didn’t really go any deeper than link to a trailer I found on YouTube. If, after having watched the trailer you’re still unsure/not convinced I feel I should explain the reasons for my recommendation (my good taste obviously not being reason enough).

There are probably two reasons I recommended Peeping Tom. The first of those reasons is that it’s fantastic. The second is it’s historical importance to the development of ‘horror’ cinema. To be honest, I’m surprised it didn’t find it’s way onto BFI’s Greatest Films poll this year. Though it’s reassuring to see Michael Powell appear in the top 250 multiple times. Anyone who has seen Scream 4 (2011) will have heard it referenced along with Suspiria (1977), and Psycho (1960).

Peeping Tom shocked audiences and critics alike on release and received serious negative criticism – some sources claim enough to damage Powell’s British career. Even David Cronenberg’s Videdrome (1983) doesn’t attack/identify the audience in as direct a way as Peeping Tom. Through editing, symbolism and point of view the film not only identifies the audience with the role of the murderer but then proceeds to make the act of voyeurism equal to rape.

In today’s culture TV programs such as Big Brother are popular viewing and Paparazzi make a living by stalking celebrities to sate our constant desire for more knowledge/gossip of their daily lives. It’s my opinion that Peeping Tom is not only wonderfully entertaining, it’s also just as (if not more) relevant now as it was when it was released. And for those with an interest, Peeping Tom helped form the future of the slasher genre and laid the groundwork for films such as Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (1975) and OPERA (1987).

NB

Profondo Rosso and OPERA are usually released as Deep Red and Terror at the Opera in the UK, respectively.