Tuesday 29 November 2011

Sanshiro Sugata (The Films of Akira Kurosawa #1)

Sugata De Blanc

Sanshiro Sugata
Japan 1943
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Eclipse Region 1

About a decade or more ago I went, with a friend, to a one day seminar on my favourite director Akira Kurosawa in London, followed by a special screening of his chanbara The Hidden Fortress. The day was held at the National Film Theatre and it was filled with presentations by various experts and fans of his work such as his main biographer and friend Donald Richie. Another director I admire somewhat, Mr. Alex Cox, showed us all a packet of postcards issued by the Japanese post office on the occasion of Kurosawa's death, each reprinting the original poster art for each of the 30 feature films that Kurosawa had directed (I would really love to get my hands on a set of these if anyone has any leads on where to get them).

Of these photographs, Mr. Cox invited the audience to discuss and vote whether each of the films could be considered a “masterpiece” and, after much lively discussion from the audience as to what the actual definition of the term masterpiece could usefully mean, the exercise began. It was Mr. Cox’ idea, I believe, to prove (and he really didn’t have to since we already knew the answer in regards to Kurosawa) that the measure of a film-maker’s success, influence and general richness as an artist could perhaps be measured, for fun, by the percentage of his work that could be considered to be masterpiece works. As the exercise continued using debate and shows of hands, the audience agreed that at least two thirds of Kurosawa’s output could be considered to be the great and influential works that prove him to be an artist of exceptional worth.

I relate this story by way of explaining to the reader a) what a daunting and challenging task it is to write my first review of a director's work when he's a director who I personally hold in such high regard and b) to say, having seen all but three of this director’s films to date (but don’t worry, they’re all in the pile to watch), that although the seminar day was fun, I’d have to disagree with the final verdict of Alex Cox’s presentation. For me, you see, Kurosawa is the perfect director and I believe his films are so riveting and full of absolute artistic genius (and integrity) that they are all masterpieces and couldn’t fail to be anything else. Each time one watches a Kurosawa film it’s like taking in a mini course on film making by osmosis... it’s that good.

So here, then, I present my review of Kurosawa’s first ever feature film as a credited director and, therefore, my review of the first of his many “masterpieces”...

Kurosawa worked his way through the Toho Film Studio’s apprentice system and after working on loads of movies as script editor, script writer, second unit director etc, he had become someone to be reckoned with and, for the first film he picked to actually direct himself, Kurosawa asked the studio to buy the rights to a novel he liked called Sanshiro Sugata, a period piece which tells the story of the competition and rivalry between the Martial Art of Jujitsu and the “new” form of self defence, Judo.

Sanshiro is a reckless youth played by Susumu Fujita, a regular Kurosawa actor who would later be supplanted by the “explosion of acting” that was Toshiro Mifune (a nice visual metaphor for “out with the old and in with the new” can be found in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo where Susuma Fujita plays the former bodyguard of one of the warring clans who does a runner and waves cheekily to Mifune as he makes his exit from the films of Kurosawa... at least as a major player). The character of Sanshiro is played pretty much as an “adult child” who wanders the slow path to enlightenment as he learns the spiritual and practical skills of Judo... although he’s still pretty much a wide eyed innocent at the end of the movie.

Loads of the classic Kurosawa signatures are already in place in this, his first feature. Those moving wipes that George Lucas favoured in his Star Wars films (which I suspect Kurosawa probably inherited from his love of US movies anyway... the Flash Gordon serials are full of those wipes) are already present, as is the really groundbreaking stuff like cutting a shot on motion... which was thought not to be the done thing and was, frankly, considered a mark of bad filmmaking for a long time in the western world... until film editor (and later director) Peter Hunt used the same techniques to add excitement and prove to Westerners that it is a valid technique all over again when he edited the first of his Bond films, Dr. No.

The film starts off brilliantly by leading, after a deliberate lull to show the inferiority of the jujitsu men that Sanshiro has initially come to study with, to a fight scene where the older sensei of the Judo school is harassed by the jujitsu guys and forced to despatch them all. Sanshiro joins up with him by replacing the man’s rickshaw driver, who has run off. He casts off his clogs to be able to run better and already, less than ten minutes into the film maybe, Kurosawa gives you a long visual metaphor of the casting off of his former life by fixating on one of these clogs as time marches on and you see it go, in a series of transition shots depicting the abandoned footwear while it passes from season to season, down a street in various states of distress until it is last seen floating away in the river in which the Judo master dispatched his opponents.

Fantastic stuff! And this is Kurosawa’s directorial debut? What style!

There are lots of visual and audio “surrogates” used in the film, such as Sanshiro throwing himself into a dangerously dirty sump for a number of hours/days after his chastisement (for his fondness of brawling) until he has an epiphany, of sorts, in the form of an appreciation of a flower (a thing of beauty surviving in the ugliness) growing at the side of the sump and sees himself, presumably, as this growing flower.

Another good tool Kurosawa uses is a children’s made up song about Sanshiro being a force to be reckoned with, which is chanted as they go about their play in a couple of scenes and is here used as short-hand by Kurosawa to get the message across to the audience that Sanshiro has moved on a little more over the course of the months/years.

There’s loads of dynamic moving camerawork... a lot more motion than you’d probably expect from someone who was labelled by his own people as being more of a Western director than an Eastern director, after his international success with Rashomon... although this was pretty much rivalry, jealousy and xenophobia on behalf of the Japanese for having to tolerate that Westerner’s could understand Kurosawa's films. And why is that? Because he’s using the international language of good cinema and strong semiotics which can be understood worldwide... that’s why. Even though, it has to be said, Kurosawa was an acknowledged admirer of the films of John Ford.

Also heavy in the mix on this debut movie is Kurosawa’s sheer genius of having establishing shots and, I guess you could call them “establishing moments” sneak up on you before you are aware of them on screen on a conscious level. Check out the young samurai’s introduction on Seven Samurai for an excellent introduction to this “technique by stealth” as the character is masked into shot with a load of other people before his appearance is slowly highlighted by the way in which the extras are aligned with the key players in those scenes. It’s almost like Kurosawa has found a direct line to the collective audience subconscious and uses it to throw elements of importance at you to begin their work before you’ve even consciously registered what they are... Steven Moffet uses the same approach with his “scary moments” in his writing for Doctor Who.

And this also, of course, is where Sergio Leone and the traditions of Italian spaghetti westerns truly begin... yes, I know Leone’s directorial debut was a remake of a Kurosawa film which didn’t originally get made until some 18 years after this one, but hold on a second and I’ll explain my theory...

This is where the Kurosawa action sequence starts and, hopefully most people will agree with me when I say that the majority of Kurosawa action pieces do not rely on great, strung together pieces of action. They may seem dynamic in speed and, in the case of epics like Kagemusha and Ran, scale... but they are actually more about pauses and machismo and the way in which the action is actually highlighted in intensity between the slow pacing and build up between each little segment of an action piece. And this is what Sergio Leone went on to do with his own action cinema when he started out with his Yojimbo remake A Fistful of Dollars. It’s all extreme close ups of the eyes and music and twitching facial muscles with Leone and, in the case of Kurosawa’s approach, though not overtly as stylised, it’s very much the exact same thing. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it unless proven otherwise. The final fight in a field of wheat in the extreme wind, for example, is all about the atmosphere created by the weather and that long, tall, rippling wheat in contrast to the martial arts skills being used. It is the atmosphere of action and the intensity of the feeling of action that Kurosawa seems more interested in... and not the actual details of the action itself, it seems to me. I believe without these early demonstrations of this kind of film-making, you would never have gotten to the Leone style which was taken up as a template for all Spaghetti Westerns after his first one... or at least, the Spaghetti Western would have evolved in another direction. So yes, I am saying that Kurosawa was accidentally responsible for creating a genre of Italian cinema which he had nothing to do with... just as he himself was influenced by the Westerns of such luminaries as John Ford and his ilk in his early career.

I first saw Sanshiro Sugata at the cinema in a retrospective of his work of which the aforementioned seminar was a part of and then, later on, went on to buy the awful Region 3 Poker industries release of this movie... which was muddy and had subtitles written by somebody who did not seem to be able to speak, or at least successfully write, the English language to such an extent that it was almost impossible to follow the story with the words which were being, almost randomly, thrown up on screen. This new Criterion edition is a definite improvement on all predecessors but I am annoyed that Criterion chose to release this movie as part of their “bare bones” Eclipse series as I would have loved to have seen the accompanying documentary episode of the TV show Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create which accompanies the regular Criterion editions of Kurosawa’s movies. Perhaps one day.

Still... no contest. The Criterion Eclipse boxed set of The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (which includes his first four movies) is definitely the best way of seeing this movie so far, next to seeing the thing projected properly at a cinema.

All of Kurosawa’s movies are a definite recommendation from me... this is the first one... it won’t be the last.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Blood Sabbath

The Blood, The Bad
and the Jiggly!

Blood Sabbath
US 1972
Directed by Brianne Murphy
Pegasus Region 0

SEXIST PIG WARNING! This is probably one of the most blatantly sexist reviews I’ve ever written. In my defence, however, I would like to point out that it’s the most appropriate response I could come up with to this movie.

Wow. I don’t often go for Twitter recommendations but when Hypnogoria brought this one to my attention with a bit of “live tweeting”... I knew I couldn’t resist. Actually... another important factor in my decision to purchase this film was the fact that Amazon were selling it for under £2... so the price was right too (although only a couple of months later, I see, they have put the price up to £9.99. What up with that?).

I have to say though... after having seen this movie, which is truly terrible but, you know, in that good way... I am somewhat at a loss to have much of anything to say about it, other than it’s a really bizarre little movie, so expect this one to be a really short review.

If I had to summarise what this movie is about I’d say it’s about an ex-vietnam soldier trekking through Mexico who is attacked by large chested hippy gals for no obvious reasons... who also like to be running about naked and jiggling their aforementioned large chests... also for no obvious reasons. The man is knocked unconscious and left for dead but is revived by some kind of river dwelling dead gorgeous (and also just “dead” as it happens) babe who also seems to favour attire that is either downright skimpy or non-existent.

Our hero, the heroically named David, wants to see more of her so he stays with a local who also happens to take a child to be sacrificed to witches every year so the local village can have good crops. The witches also, it would seem, have a penchant for dancing and running about in their birthday suits and have equally humongous bosoms as the hippy ladies at the start of the movie. They might even, for the most part, be those same ladies but, if they were (and I’m guessing yes) then I certainly didn’t remember any of their faces from the start of the movie... might have got distracted by something else I reckon. Anyway, the head witch is the arch enemy (well, maybe that’s a bit strong, just a rival shall we say) of the cute babe of the river... who Dave wants to settle down and have lots of sex with.

The rivalry progresses and lots of naked dancing, naked cavorting, naked running and generally naked ritualistic posturing is on hand to throw confusion over an already confusing lack of plot which can only, it seems, have a happy conclusion if the lead character dies. Think I’ve got that right... I think the ending of this one may be a little open to interpretation.

Anyway... this film has exactly two things going for it as far as I can see. Well, that’s apart from the two things that seem to be attached and bouncing around naked on practically every female character in this movie, that is.

Thing one is that the lead villain-witch is played by Dyanne Thorne. Yes, that Dyanne Thorne... she who is perhaps best known for notoriously playing Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and also for appearing in the classic Star Trek episode A Piece Of The Action. It’s long been my professional opinion that the buxom Ms. Thorne has easily “the best bosoms in the business” and my head starts spinning when I realise the name of the character she is playing is called “Alotta”. Well, all I can say to that is she sure has Alotta large assets on display in this movie (I’m so sorry, I couldn’t resist... but can you blame me?). I actually have a bit of a soft spot for Dyanne Thorne so I can’t complain about this in any way, shape or form.

The second thing this movie has going for it is a score by Bax... which is a pseudonym for Les Baxter (who provided scores for lots of movies like the majority of the Corman “Poe” films... to name but a few). The scoring seems mostly appropriate to the movie but, only in as much as it’s almost impossible not to be inappropriate with the scoring on a movie like this. In the words of Hypnogoria... bongos and bosoms!

There’s a cheesy opening credits song and a cheesy end credits song... I didn’t think much of the first but the second song kinda stuck in my head and I would love to get a hold of it if I could. Sadly, there’s been no score released for this movie and most likely won’t be... although it’s not impossible as their have been some totally unexpected limited edition soundtracks released in small runs over the last five years or so and Les Baxter does tend to sell out (except in the one single solitary case where I bought a second copy in an introductory attempt to play the speculation game on e-bay... oh yes... this would be the one Les Baxter album that didn’t sell out! Curse you Ray Milland!).

The only other thing the movie has going for it (What? A third thing? Nobody expects The Spanish Inquisition!), as I’ve already mentioned but will repeat at the risk of labouring the point, is a large collection of jiggling breasts which seem to get exposed constantly at the drop of a hat... and their must have been a lot of metaphorical hats dropped in this movie because, as I noted at the time, there are more breasts on display in this “horror” movie than I’ve seen in some porn movies (not that I’ve ever watched any of those, of course).

So, in summary...

Is this movie any good? No.

Would I watch it again and would I recommend it to anyone? Yes, of course I would. It’s a comically bad excuse for nakedness starring Dyanne Thorne and with a Les Baxter soundtrack. What’s not to like? Trash lovers will get a kick out of it I reckon. Be warned though, the special effects aren’t so special and even the script seems a bit low tech (if such a thing is possible).

Have fun!

Friday 25 November 2011



US 1980
Directed by William Sachs
BCI Eclipse Region 1

Before this movie had its premiere, Playboy Playmate of the Year 1980 Dorothy Stratten (who plays the title character) had her head blown off with a shotgun by her husband before he turned the gun on himself. She was twenty years old and has since been played on screen by both Jamie Lee Curtis in Death of a Centrefold: The Dorothy Stratten Story (1981) and Mariel Hemmingway in Star ‘80 (1983).

I didn’t know any of this back when I was a kid. All I knew was that, according to articles in Starburst and Starlog magazines, there was a cool new sci-fi film called Galaxina supposed to be coming out... and where was it already? Well I don’t know if it ever did get a cinema release here in the UK but I certainly saw no sign of it at my local cinema and it had always been one of those “films that got away”... until I recently discovered there was a 25th Anniversary edition of the movie that got a release on DVD in the US. So now I’ve finally gotten to see one of the movies I wanted to see as a kid... and it’s a curious little timepiece I must say.

While its not quite the Star Wars bandwagon rip off I was expecting from this movie... there are certainly all the obvious elements that would point to the green light for the budget being given the go ahead in the wake of the first installment of Lucas’ seminal space opera. However, it has to be said that Galaxina is a real pot pourri of styles and inspirations, many of which are far from subtle, given the fact that this is definitely a film which is both not to be taken seriously and... to my surprise... not trying to take itself seriously. It’s definitely a comedy and, while not really that big on laughs, you can see that it’s certainly been inspired by both Ridley Scott’s ALIEN and, more obviously, John Carpenter’s Dark Star... that is to say, the influence of Dan O’ Bannon is perpetually on screen in this movie with some elements, such as a “feeding the alien” sequence and a dinner table “alien parasite birth”, being quite blatant in their sense of “homage”. It very much carries the atmosphere of the original Heavy Metal cartoon within its frames too... perhaps it could be said that both movies were good at catching the spirit of their time.

The story tells of a police starship crew who are ordered to take on a mission which will necessitate spending 27 extra years in suspended animation. During the time the crew sleeps, the ship’s robot, Galaxina, reprogrammes herself so that she can have sex with a particular human on the ship she has fallen in love with, Sgt. Thor, without electrocuting him (a feature built in to stop humans and robots sexually fraternising) and also teaches herself how to speak. The crew go to retrieve a revered artifact but they are not the only ones who want to take possession of it... hilarious and also, it has to be said, not so hilarious hijinks ensue.

This is played for laughs for a lot of the time but, while I personally found that a lot of the jokes just weren’t working for me, this didn’t fail as spectacularly as one might think... indeed, even with some of the less than tasteful attempts at humour on display here, the film does have a certain charm laying within its celluloid coils and when the occasional joke or witticism does strike true... it really begins to work as a movie and while it is, in many ways, quite terrible... I have to say that I quite enjoyed it and will certainly be taking another look at this one in due course.

The aforementioned and tragic Miss Stratten is, obviously, not hard to look at and plays her role more than competently. She is, it seems to me, quite underused at times but when she is sent down to a planet to retrieve the artefact in question, "the blue star", she really comes into her own... even if she does have to be rescued from a dangerous cult of Harley Davidson worshipping bikers. The tragedy of her wasted life will probably start to hit home once you see how good she was in these sequences.

Also, although the comedy and wit is, as I said, a bit hit and miss... there’s enough of it coming at you on all sides that you sometimes fail to keep track of some of the good stuff. A “Human Restaurant” on the planet which turns out to be a restaurant serving bits of cooked humans has some great titles on the menu... fun stuff like "Knuckle Sandwich" for example.

There’s also some great little things for movie fans to watch and listen out for...

The alien planet is shown in posterised colours during the daytime, presumably to hide the lack of “alien atmosphere” when the cheap production could only afford to utilise a Western back lot set for the planet... but this doesn’t stop the director from pushing that point home when he includes a little homage to the Sergio Leone “stare” shots in a shoot out between Galaxina and her enemy.

The Batmobile from the Adam West Batman TV show is also prominently on display as a car from another planet and many of the sound effects heard in the show are cribbed straight from old episodes of Star Trek and what would have been a fairly new TV show at the time, Battlestar Galactica.

The biggest homage to movies, apart from the pre-credits title crawl lifted from Star Wars (although it was originally used in the old Universal Serial recaps of the late 30s and early 40s... and I suspect the director must have been conscious of this in light of what I’m about to write) is the use of music. These guys presumably had no budget for a soundtrack so they’ve gone with old classical music pieces, needle-dropped in for the bulk of the film. One cue in particular is Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes which is played quite prominently during key scenes of the movie and eagle-eared viewers may remember this as being the piece culled to score the opening titles and a lot of the interior music to the 1939 serial Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe. Although this is obviously the cheap option... the use of this just feels so right to invoke a science fiction movie where the emphasis is on fun as opposed to anything more cerebral... Galaxina is, it should be said, not a cerebral movie.

All the actors in this, including the aforementioned Playboy Playmate of the Year 1980, are more than competent in their performances and, if the script often creaks and jars credibility and taste, at least the performances of these lines are put across with a certain conviction and loyalty to the finished product. I’m not saying that makes the lines that much easier to take in some instances... but it does sweeten the pill just a little bit and, at the end of the day, what this movie lacks in decent scripting, it more than makes up for in the charm department.

If you like science fiction movies in a big way and want to see something which is vastly inferior to Dark Star while at the same time being a noble stab at something which is not a “complete” rip off of Star Wars... but made at a time when not being a complete rip off of Star Wars was considered a crime against the mighty spirit of the box office, then giving this film a spin certainly won’t do you any harm and you may find you start to enjoy it. Get some alcohol and a few friends in and give it a go, perhaps?

Monday 21 November 2011



Bipedality Ireland 2010
Directed by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Experimental Film Group

Bipedality is yet another of director Rouzbeh Rashidi’s “slow burn” movies. And by slow burn I mean it starts working on you right away but the power of it crawls slowly up your brainstem without you at first noticing it. Although, having said that... it has to be noted that the first couple of really strong shots in this film don’t so much crawl as, well... rather they sit you up and shake you and make you pay attention.

The film starts, you see, with two quite achingly beautiful tracking shots of an industrial landscape by a river and I just wish I’d at some point have gotten to see this on a bigger venue than just the screen of my Macbook Pro. Unfortunately, these kinds of films just don’t get cinema releases. The two shots pan up and down in their constant pursuit of travelling the length of the river and allowing viewers to take in certain details of the landscape... and these are accompanied by the sound of rain and thunder. These are pretty much the only moving camera shots in this whole piece.

In anybody else’s movie, this might be considered a typical opening play at an establishing shot... but this is Rashidi we’re talking about here. If you’ve seen any of his movies before (or even read my reviews) then you’ll know he’s just not going to be that interested in leaving it at that and, sure enough, he soon cuts to a shot of another landscape but the effect is jarring because it’s a) static and b) got a completely different soundtrack to the previous two shots... basically an audio representation of bird song and tranquility. Thus both the audio and the visual form, from moving to static, has a jarring effect on the viewer.

After a while we cut to the two main and, but for a few shots near the end, only characters in the movie. A man and a woman at, presumably, the start of a relationship (although they don’t know it yet) talking at length on a bench (and I suspect a lot of this was done without any script) about a five year old child who has gone missing since an incident involving a fire and their perceptions of a mother who has become desperate to find this child (naturally). This conversation, like all of the rest of the sequences in this film, is punctuated by intercut shots of different landscapes using different filters and treatments while the sound of the conversation continues on.

It seems to me that, from this first conversation onwards, the film then follows pretty much a pattern of a reflection of itself in terms of structure... the only thing really missing is two tracking shots to close out the picture. I’ll explain this a little more in a while but it’s interesting that the syntax I’ve used to describe the echoing scene structure is “reflection” because, it seems to me, Rouzbeh Rashidi’s film-making is all about inhabiting a “cinema of reflection”. I’ve noticed this before in his films but the words that are coming out of the characters mouths... even the way they interact with each other (with or without verbal stimuli), always confounds a conclusive comprehension of the scene because, like in real life perhaps, you are constantly aware that what is not being said by the characters is much more important than what’s actually coming out of their mouths.

Everyone always seems to be looking internally for some kind of universal truth which will help to get them through their day... or at least make them clearly understood. It’s like the characters are constantly exploring their inner dialogue trying to nail something which can’t quite be nailed. Now, you could say thay this is an expected outcome of the process of the acting if, as I believe, a lot of Rashidi’s films are improvised in terms of the craft. However, I personally believe the auteur is at work from the director in this matter because, this quality may well be exactly what Rashidi is looking for and why he so favours the form of improvisation over standard scripting techniques. I suspect he gives limitations and topics as opposed to handing out pages and pages of dialogue to his actors.

It always feels like his characters are looking for some sense of closure from the situation they’re in and Rashidi rarely shows these situations or catalysts in his work, just the “reflection” on these incidents. Frankly though, if these two particular characters are looking for some kind of relevance and closure from each other or by looking within themselves... well, they’re pretty much buggered if they’re in a Rashidi movie. Although, to be fair, in this movie there may well be a certain closure of a kind (if you don’t think about it too much)... but there’s not a whole lot of closure for the audience on this directors films, or at least that’s how it seems to me.

There’s a sense of trying out different visual techniques in this movie too. One brave shot has the two characters carrying out their conversation as a reflection of themselves in a moving body of water which is in front of them, even though there's been no visual indication in any of the previous shots that they are in front of said water.

After 25 minutes, the scene changes to an interior shot of a kitchen where the same guy and gal have obviously moved on in their relationship with each other. They are obviously living together but are having a bad time as their relationship has ground to a halt by the attitude of the woman to the object of her self reflection and inner life. It's uncomfortable to watch the couple bat around the death of their relationship, even as the discussion is both beautifully framed and again, like the earlier conversation, is punctuated by insert shots of beautiful scenery. And a lot of this scene is juxtaposed with the sounds of rain and thunder to enhance the tension beneath the words.

I wonder if Rashidi chooses the moments in a scene to cut away to an insert shot with a specific design or whether the positioning within the flow of the film is based on masking certain parts of the scenes “out” which Rashidi is less happy with. Again, there are some really great contrasts of texture and in one notable cut away, density is created with a shot of a forest which brings the simplicity of the textures and composition of the actual kitchen setting back into sharp relief on the return to the master shot.

After 15 minutes or so of this we cut to the guy having a shower... the woman watches him, although he is unaware of this. She seems underwhelmed. The two regroup on a sofa for another round of non-communication... this time, silent non-communication.

This goes into a minute or so of black before we cut back to the characters again as they have moved in a little more in time and are once again sitting on a bench and talking... athough it's not the same location as the earlier sequence. The woman seems less interested in being distant... but she's making no sense and a lot of this stuff reminds me of a past relationship I once had. Sometimes it's hard to unravel the truth of a matter if one of you is becoming slightly unhinged. It's actually a little frightening how the non-sequitur of the woman's dialogue, with her talk of knowing where the child mentioned in that first conversation disappeared to, can be used to indicate the fragility of us all... and reveal the truth that we are all, deep down, strangers to each other.

The missing child is, of course, a standard Rashidi set up to non-disclosure... although there is, surprisingly, a certain small sense of tension-release to this film at a non-verbal level... as the couple kiss passionately at the end. All this serves to increase awareness that the words of the characters are mostly irrelevant... as if Rashidi uses dialogue as mere window dressing to the more important aspects of dramatic tone and visual contrast in his work.

I said earlier that there was a certain reflecting quality to the scene structure and now I’ve got this far in the review I can reveal that it seems to go something like this...

TYPE A: Conversation in external location.

TYPE B: Conversation in internal location.

TYPE C: Shower scene (bodies of water and the sound of them seem to be a running theme for this movie).

TYPE B: Conversation in internal location.

TYPE A: Conversation in external location.

Now I don’t, for certain, know if the director planned this structure to push the “dual” element implied by a title like Bipedality (or just made this visually implicit by limiting the majority of the shots to a cast of two) but I’d like to think that there was a certain plan to structuring this movie like this. Perhaps to just pull the rug out and disorient the audience a little more by confounding the predictability of ending on a set of tracking shots (as I was expecting the film to end with while I was figuring out the scene sequence while watching).

But this is what Rashidi does. He doesn’t make films to pander to the narrative expectancy of an audience. He makes films which will challenge (to a certain degree) and certainly inspire an audience to look beyond their expected world view as it applies to watching movies. No answers are given and no answers are necessarily conceived... just a set of cinematic rocks to rub together to produce a certain friction of thought. The film Kill List, which had a mainstream cinema release earlier this year, does much the same thing but in a slightly more commercially acceptable manner.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that, as usual with a Rashidi movie, you get back what you put into it. Your place as a member of the audience is not to question why or fathom the problems and concerns of the character... it is to look at the characters and see them in both the simplicity and complexity of life and to draw your own sense of meaning (or lack thereof) from the visual and aural collisions on screen. And if you are willing to allow yourself to experience these kinds of films in these kinds of ways... then your rewards from viewing these kinds of movies will come to you and bring the kind of mental enrichment you require, without the necessity for clarification or meaning or, in this case, a sense of a mystery solved.

Lay down your tools and receive.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Anna, Quel Particolare Piacere

Feneching Touches

Anna, Quel Particolare Piacere
(aka Anna, The Pleasure, The Torment
aka Secrets Of A Call Girl)
Italy 1973
Directed by Giuliano Carnimeo
MYA Communications Region 0

Right then. I’m kinda glad I took the time to watch this movie but I found it quite a troublesome viewing. Also, expect this to be a very short review because it left me a little underwhelmed and I was a lot more dissapointed with this movie than I thought possible.

Now then... there are two very good reasons why I wanted to watch this film, even though Italian crime movies aren’t really my scene (having said that, of course, I watched a couple of really great ones earlier in the year so maybe I’ll explore this genre properly at a later date).

My first and main reason was because an Italian soundtrack expert I know, who sells me and also helps produce some of the Italian score CDs he sells, told me that this score, by Luciano Michelini (who also did the score for Island Of The Fish Men as well as the theme music for a TV show a friend watches called Curb Your Enthusiasm), was probably the best score he’d ever been involved in on CD. I bought that limited edition score from him on the strength of that recomendation and, while I wouldn’t agree that it was in any way an outstanding score when compared to a lot of the Italian movie scores I’ve listened to and cherished over the years, it’s certainly got some good stuff going for it and is in much the same vein as a typical Stelvio Cipriani score for this genre would be.... and so I did want to see the film at some point to better understand the music in the context of its placement with the original imagery.

Secondly, the movie stars Edwige Fenech as the titular(!) Anna and, frankly, she’s my favourite of the “giallo” girls I have loved seeing on screen. I even have a mug with her on it in scenes from The Case of The Bloody Iris (aka What Are Those Strange Drops Of Blood Doing On Jennifer’s Body?) which was also directed by the director of this film) to drink my tea out of. I’ll pretty much watch her in anything and so, there was no way I could really go that wrong when I finally got around to tracking down a copy of this movie and buying it.

However, it has to be said that the film does not have a lot going for it in my opinion. True, the acting is great in this story of a girl who falls for a “bad apple” who beats her up and pimps her out for his mafia connections... at least, that is to say, it’s good for the standards of this particular genre and Edwige is always a convincing actress who throws herself into her roles.

True, also, there’s some lovely shots and edits and fairly inventive camera work which is typical of the “Italian movie scene” of the time and which helps to elevate this movie visually with some expert moving camera work to draw you in and some great set design with vertical slashes of blue and red boldly placed in the centre of some of the frames which is quite astonishing and brave in some sequences.

However, the story and characters were so worrying to me that I wasn’t able to pull myself out of the picture significantly enough to concentrate on the mise-en-scene... even when Fenech was walking around nude, as she did a fair amount in her movies. The sexist and misogynistic attitude of her mafia boyfriend was such that I really had a hard time watching Fenech get shouted at, forced to do stuff against her will and constantly slapped around the face. While there are certainly interesting elements to the film, such as the way the time displaces itself between scenes by jumping six or so years at a time or the unbelievably Dr. Kildare-to-the-rescue-but-not-quite bleakness of the ending with her young child and John Richardson (from such movies as Black Sunday, She, One Million Years BC and The Vengeance Of She), the sheer brutality of the role is really not my cup of tea and, despite its noteworthy soundtrack, I don’t think I’d find myself watching it again to be honest.

So there you go. A film which was not to my taste and which I can’t in all conscience recommend to people, even though I know a fair few people have said some good things about it. Not my cup of tea I’m afraid... even when I’m drinking it from my Edwige Fenech mug!

Saturday 19 November 2011

Mission Statement/Coming Soon

Missionary Position

“Restate my assumptions”
Maximillian Cohen, Darren Aronofsky’s PI.

I think I need to make a slight adjustment to my own, and possibly other people’s, expectations about this blog review thing I’ve got going on here. But, just to make it a little more fun (hopefully), this’ll also take the form of a “coming soon” kinda thing for future entries on these pages... as much as it will an apology of sorts.

My faith in film blogging has been shaken a little recently. That is to say, my selection process as to whether I write about a movie has had to undergo a very minimal rethink... here’s what happened...

On Halloween weekend I, and a few friends, went to a special screening at my local “art complex” although, to be fair, complex is a bit overblown for the kind of building it is. Anyway, we were there for a double bill screening of Universal’s 1931 film Frankenstein and their 1935 sequel Bride Of Frankenstein. It was also meant to, not just celebrate the spirit of Halloween, but also to honour the memory of a famous local celebrity of days gone by who used to attend my school, namely... Boris Karloff.

All was well until the first film screened... they’d squashed (or stretched, depending on your point of view) the original 4:3 aspect ratio of the movies into a 1.85:1 aspect ratio to fit the size of their screen (this film was made before the traditional widescreen process as we know it today had been invented, don’t forget). This resulted in a load of fat, bloated actors looking like they were walking around the set of a crazy fun house... ushered in, not by the traditional Universal globe but by a Universal rugby ball... or so it seemed from its shape.

Now I went out to complain about the films being improperly framed but was fobbed off and told, in more or less these words, that they had decided to show them in an aspect ratio distorted to fill their screen... rather than actually show the film properly. Nothing was changed and people were forced to watch this painful mockery or leave.

Now I sent a lengthy letter of complaint to a couple of my local newspapers and was happy to see that they’d both published my angry and, it must be said, sizeable rant against the “cinema-nazis” and their “crimes against filmanity”. Hopefully the people responsible will take heed of some of the points I raised in my letter.

However, this left me with a dilemma because I wanted to review the two films for this blog... but hadn’t actually seen them (this time around) in their best light. Now I’ve seen both films a fair number of times (at least into double figures) and I could probably write a fairly accurate and honest appraisal of both these films in my sleep without even bothering to watch them again I suspect (and please, no comments about the blogs coming out more comprehensible if I stuck to writing them in my sleep :-7 ) but the point was... should I?

I thought about my original intentions with this blog and how I wanted to ensure that every film and TV show I watched would be reviewed here (along with the majority of the books I was reading and a smattering of music reviews when I felt brave enough) but I then thought, rather than write about these films right now... I would save these two for a future year (maybe next year, maybe the one after) and watch them again properly... but this time in context as an occasional running series on all the classic Universal Horror movies of the 30s, 40s and 50s in chronological order of their release... so readers new to the material could get a sense of the progression (or possibly digression and regression, depending on whether you love these movies as much as me or not) and context with the series of films. So that’s what I’m going to do...

So there you have it... my apologies for not reviewing two films I’ve seen recently... but they will go back on the list and be done properly, rather than write a review based on the hideous screening I saw at the end of last month.

Actually, series’ of reviews are something I want to get into more in the coming months/years so, here’s a little preview of some of the things I hope to achieve on the blog sooner or later...

For one thing I want to continue to watch and promote small independent films which have no or little mainstream commercial appeal... they’re definitely not in it for the money... they’re in it purely for the art (for once). So films by writer/directors like Rouzbeh Rashidi and actor/writer/directors like @eJamesDevereaux are something I’m going to continue to promote here on my blog... and hopefully Leilani Holmes will make some more of her excellent movies and I’ll be able to watch and review them here. In fact, I’m hoping to get an interview with Devereaux on my blog sometime in the very near future and also, if she’ll still consent, an interview with gothic horror photographer and jewellery designer Amanda Norman at some point either late this year or, more likely, sometime in the New Year.

I’d also, as I said, like to get into some reviews which review a large body of work over a period of time... so in addition to the aforementioned Universal Horror classics... I’d like to do something like a serialised review for the complete feature films of Akira Kurosawa, another series on Andrei Tarkovsky (including The Killers and The Steamroller & The Violin) and another on a man who I personally believe to be the greatest “living” writer/director, Mr. Hal Hartley .

And don’t worry... I’ve still got the cinematic trash and exploitation covered... gialli, b-movies, blaxploitation, westerns, sci-fi shockers... it’s all in a pile on the floor waiting to be watched. So don’t be surprised if you find... along with all the reviews of what I’m seeing currently at the cinema... and alongside of the Bergmans and the Kieslowski’s... stuff like Invasion Of The Crab Monsters, Galaxina, Blood Sabbath (on the recommendation of Hypnogoria... so blame him) and Four Flies On Grey Velvet (of which I seem to have now acquired four different prints of... not bad for a film which has only had a commercial DVD release in the last few years).

So there you have it... I’m going to keep on blogging with some interesting titles to review to suit, hopefully, lots of different tastes (I’m nothing if not eclectically post-modern)... so as long as you brilliant readers continue to pop by every now and again and check out the odd review or two (and some will no doubt be odder than others)... I’ll keep churning them out for your entertainment and, perhaps once in a while, enlightenment.

Thanks for reading... a new review coming soon!

Wednesday 16 November 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Man Who Never Was

Never Ending Story

The Sarah Jane Adventures
Season 5 Episodes 5 & 6:
The Man Who Never Was
Airdate: October 17th and 18th 2011.

Warning: There never wasn’t any spoilers here... in abundance.

Okay then. I suppose it’s time for me to write up the last ever story of The Sarah Jane Adventures... unless, of course, you’re reading this article from 40 years or so into the future, in which case it was the last ever story of The Sarah Jane Adventures to be broadcast starring the timeless Elisabeth Sladen in the title role, before Dakota Fanning took over only last year. :D

This is a fun packed little story. Predictable, yes.. but ever so fun and, to boot, it starts touching once more on raising awareness of social issues like the previous story... this time though it’s the exploration of slave labour which is lobbed at right thinking kiddie audiences like a hand grenade of questions targeted straight into the brain. But it’s also got other things going for it...

The Luke-like character of Sky was only introduced into the show as a new regular at the opening of this final half a series but already she’s integrated nicely into the chemical make-up of the show (I forgot to mention this in my previous Sarah Jane review but Sky was absolutely brilliant in The Curse Of Clyde Langer and in some ways saved the day... plotwise that is). There’s just one more form of acceptance they need to work into things and that is the question of how she’s going to get on with her virtual sibling Luke. Well Luke comes back from University to share in this adventure and is “teamed up” with Sky so the two can bond in quality pseudo-brother and sisterly ways so the audience will be happy that the two have accepted each other. Alas, Luke does not bring K9 with him and so, apart from a few old insert shots at the end of this story, this marks the first and last season of the show to not actually include K9. I’m sure they would have worked him back in for the “planned” final episode but... well, we all know what happened. It’s a sad ending to a great TV show and the great person that TV show revolved around.

The plot on this one is basically a comedy romp as the planet is hypnotised by a holographic projection into buying crappy new computers called SerfBoards and this holographic projection is controlled by a group of alien slaves pulling levers to get the man to talk, twitch, walk etc... if you remember that old strip in The Beezer comic called The Numbskulls, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

The man behind the whole thing is doing everything purely for money, has bought himself some alien slaves and has a push-button collar punisher system at work to keep the aliens in their place. Much is made of gaining possession of the controller for this so that the aliens can go free and while Sarah Jane and a cleaner from the studio from which transmissions of the hologram are being broadcast are locked out of the way... Luke and Sky investigate the aliens while Rani and Clyde come to the rescue. This basically is a great comedy romp which includes, towards the end, the scene you just know is going to happen of Luke and Sky having to control the hologram all by themselves and making a complete hash of it. This, of course, gives rise to much enthusiastically comic acting from the gentleman playing the hologram guy.

It was nice to see Peter Bowles still working in a supporting role too! He only as a couple of walk ons but still, nice to see the old geezah!

There’s also a nice comic moment when Sky has her mobile phone crushed under foot by the bad guy. When she starts to protest, Luke steps in to say something along the lines of “Welcome to the club! I’ve had seven phones in the last couple of years!” This kind of acknowledgement of the actual “real world” toll of cheap throwaway, formulaic scripting gimmicks such as this destruction of people’s communication devices to get rid of easy solutions out of a dramatic situation is a quite sophisticated element of self-awareness on the part of the writers and it’s just another point one can use to demonstrate how great this series had become, once it got itself going.

It’s a shame that it’s all got to end but... end it does and in the last five minutes, after the main resolution where Luke has “officially given approval” of Sky having his old room, we get a little sequence of clips from old episodes narrated by Sarah Jane (I think this voice over comes from a similarly styled sequence in a previous series) and which ends, more or less, with a shot of her hugging David Tennant’s incarnation of The Doctor from the Series Three episode The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith. This is followed by a zoom out of the planet earth and the words... “And The Story Goes On... Forever.” I warn any parents who are planning on watching this with their kids now... if any of your kids know why this is the final episode of the series, then this admittedly short sequence is gonna be a real tearjerker for them. I know it almost was for me... yeah, I know... whatever! I’ve been watching Liz Sladen play Sarah Jane on TV since the early seventies so I’m entitled to be missing her a little now she’s been taken by cancer. I’ll get over it... eventually.

So that’s it then. No more Sarah Jane but I do hope that some of the young actors who have played the leads in the show go on to do other things and don’t just disappear... they’re all quite talented and, at the very least it seems to me, good “work-a-day” performers. Hope this show opens some doors for them.

Monday 14 November 2011

The Awakening

Waking Dreams

The Awakening 2011 UK
Directed by Nick Murphy
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Silently stalking spoilers will rise up from
this article to haunt the doll’s house of your mind.

Okay, there are good and bad things sharing the load in equal number in The Awakening... not to be confused with the second of the three adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars, which shares the same title as this movie.

The real problems this film has, if you agree it has any problems at all, lie within the script but only, it seems to me, in terms of the story and not the dialogue. I got a real split reaction to this movie but, overall, I think the positives on this one far outweigh the, frankly inevitable, negative points about this piece.

So let me share with you first, by way of showing you why this movie is worth seeing, the main positive on offer here. The main, central character... and she really is the main character as she’s pretty much in almost every shot apart from a few establishing shots and a couple of minor sequences where the camera has to follow another character... is something of a great, literary pulp creation and it’ll be a shame if this movie is the only thing this character ever turns up in. The character’s name is Florence Cathcart and I don’t care if she turns up again in a film, a TV series, a series of novels or what... this character is great and I want more of her.

Florence Cathcart, who I might normally call the main protagonist but in this case I’ll make and exception and call her... our heroine, is a professional sceptic. Set in 1921, a few years after she loses her lover to World War I, Miss. Cathcart makes her living by publishing her books about her exploits as... well... as a professional sceptic I guess would be an apt term. That is to say, she goes around with various parapsychology detecting equipment and disproves the existence of the ghostly and, often, exposing fraudulent practitioners of spiritualist endeavours who are out to make a quick buck off of the less fortunate.

And this is, in fact, how our story starts... by setting up the character and showing her breaking up a spiritualist seance. In this opening sequence, we see we have a director who knows how to be efficient with his cinematic shorthand. We see the seance as it takes place, see Florence expose them and call in the police, see the culprits taken away and then, in a brilliant little moment, we see her slapped in the face in a really great little cinematic “jump” shot and this shows the way in which, even the people whom she has saved from throwing away good money after bad, resent her from taking away their illusions of an afterlife... and then this basic set up is used to depict the distressed/depressed darker part of Cathcart’s character... it’s all filmed in the most economical manner. Florence is played quite brilliantly by actress Rebecca Hall who delivers some quite intelligent and witty dialogue against some other quite splendid actors and actresses which, at the same time, also manages to add real depth to the character... a character who, we will later find out, we know nothing about really after all.

However, if the script is brilliant in terms of dialogue and the way it informs the characters, it lacks in other areas because, frankly, it’s very unlikely that anything much in this movie is going to take you by surprise and, although I am blaming the writing for this (obviously) I do feel, since I did have a good time with this movie, that it’s not entirely the fault of the people writing this film.

You see, the plot of this one involves our newly established and cynical heroine called in to help the teachers and boys in a boarding school rid themselves of the ghost who has been appearing in their school photos for years on end and who seems to have killed someone recently... and herein lies the problem with what ails the script. The trouble with these kinds of ghostly, haunted house horror films is that the audience, whether they are aware there’s going to be some kind of twist or not, are always on the lookout for any such twist to occur, often without even knowing about it... and more often than not (and such is the case on this one I’m afraid) the audience are going to guess the nature of the twist as soon as they see the first sign of a clue and these kinds of movies don’t really have a lot of options anyway when it comes to tricks up their sleeve. In this one, for example, I was already on my guard before Florence had even arrived at the school, taking part in that old horror film favourite of “trying to spot the character who isn’t actually alive”... and I have to say, it didn’t take me very long, on that characters first shot, in fact, before I’d spotted our undead friend and started trying to unravel the second big twist I knew would be coming after that.

I don’t want to spoil it too much for anyone who’s not seen it yet but I will say that the solution to the mystery at the heart of the movie is pretty obvious... but I also have to say that, even when you’ve put all the pieces together in your head, the sleight of hand in this one is such that you will probably forget about them or dismiss them as too obvious before they’re actually revealed... and that’s what horror films of this nature are all about really isn’t it? Sleight of hand?

Now there are some wonderful sequences in this film... including an absolutely brilliant set of rooms within a doll's house which mirror the haunting sequences which have just taken place... and it is such a brilliant and simple idea (however obvious). The heroine sees the scenes including the little recent episodes of “encounters” (even those from just 30 seconds before she starts looking in the doll's house)... only to eventually come to a room which has her looking in the doll's house... with a ghostly figure standing just behind her. Real nape of the neck stuff people. Very much from the Shirley Jackson/Steven Moffett school of... “never mind worrying about if it’s going to happen, it’s already happening, you just haven’t realised it yet” school of “fright delivering”. It has to be said though, The Awakening does tend to overplay its hand just a little too much as it gets closer to the actual reveal.

But the great thing about this movie is... it doesn’t matter! This film has great acting, great dialogue, sure and steady (nothing too flashy) but nicely composed camerawork and even a nice, haunting score going for it. And even though you know it’s going to be a bit obvious... the eerie atmosphere and occasional jump scares are so well done that you shouldn’t go away feeling too disappointed by the film. And did I mention it has a great character who, although she will go on a journey of self discovery as the film progresses (it’s in the title people!)... really should come back in something else please. Preferably as played by the delightful Rebecca Hall who really elevates this movie from being a competent time at the movies to a fun time at the cinema. Definitely one to watch out for if you are into your chilly, gothic hauntings. Give it a go.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Metropolis (1927 - 2010)

Helm’s Deep

Metropolis 1927 Germany
Directed by Fritz Lang
Eureka: The Masters Of Cinema Region 2

Yeah, they’re here...
if you’ve never actually seen this movie.

“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”
Maria, Metropolis

I don’t even know where to start! This is going to be a tough one to write methinks.

I mean, how daunting is it to force oneself to review a movie that is considered by many to be the pinnacle of artistic success in motion pictures for the 20th Century? Especially when it has such a convoluted path to it’s present incarnation... a version which I never thought would ever happen in my lifetime. One of the true holy grails of modern film miracles which gobsmacked the film going populous only last year when... but I’m getting ahead of myself already here.

Another reason why this film is such a problem for me is that... my personal response to Metropolis has not always been that good either, at various times throughout its ever changing incarnations. So I really need to also come to terms with my own feelings about the movie as I write this. If it’s anything like my normal process, I might discover new things about myself as I type and my brain starts sorting things out for me.

Okay.... so where does Metropolis come from, other than from the mind of Fritz Lang and his wife? It’s been nearly three decades since I read anything about the film or about German Expressionism but this is what I remember...

Like a lot of countries in the early days of cinema, Germany was suffering from having way too many American motion pictures monopolising the cinemas and holding films produced in other countries at bay in a weird, creative stranglehold... and to be brutally honest, nothing has changed to this day, all countries including my own still suffer from having 95% or so American movies playing on our cinema screens at the exclusion of almost any other country's works. Most countries couldn’t find anything they could do about it but Germany was smarter. They formed an artistic movement called German Expressionism and my understanding of it is that they did wilfully create it (a bit like The Monkees were a group formed for a show) as opposed to it springing up naturally. The cinematic arm of German Expressionism was a direct way of competing with the opposing American product by giving their films a completely distinct visual look from all other countries. This started around about 1913 and involved very stylistic sets and also, very stylistic acting which to modern audiences (and probably some audiences back then too) may look a little silly, wrought and overstated. In fact, what is often thought of as silly silent cinema acting today, by many people, is based on the Western perception of a handful of very famous German Expressionist films such as The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, The Golem, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (hmmm... where have I heard that name before) and the last big hurrah of German Expressionism, Metropolis in 1927... which pretty much finished the movement off is my understanding of it. Probably because it cost so much money to make, was a completely unwieldy size and flopped abysmally at the box office (both domestic and overseas).

I say it died in 1927 but it didn’t really... at least it’s my personal opinion that it didn’t. A lot of those directors and cinematographers fled the beginnings of Nazi Germany to go to Hollywoodland and it’s my belief that you’ll find a lot of German Expressionism in US movies of the 30s and 40s... it was a big influence. I can’t imagine how we’d have got the genre known as Film Noir without it’s heavy leanings towards the expressionistic lighting styles of those early silent German films and likewise with the classic horror movies too. Watch Son of Frankenstein (1939) for example... the set design is amazing. It could be perhaps more precisely titled Son of Caligari to give an appropriate feel for the movie.

But I digress... not that it’s unusual for me to do so.

Metropolis flopped for its studio UFA and after two US companies, Paramount and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, joined and merged with UFA to make a new company, the less than imaginatively titled Parufamet (Par-UFA-Met), they decided to cut the film pretty much in half... so they excised over an hour of footage to make their new cut and... yeah, that’s right, you know the story... they destroyed all the footage they had cut. Every last frame of it in that negative. Gone for good? Well.... as we now know, that’s only half the story. But the story and sense of Metropolis was completely gone and it was heavily simplified and jumped around somewhat... I reckon it’s always needed a little leap of faith to stay with what became of the narrative, based on my own experiences of it.

I first saw Metropolis as a kid. It was shown on TV in the UK in a print of some sorts, either a year or two before Star Wars came out or a year or two after. I knew nothing of its history so just assumed I was watching the film as it was made. So somewhere between 1975 and 1979 was my first viewing of it. And of course, I loved the famous and iconic robot in it... a robot which is in it for only a few minutes and moves around for... well... seconds. She was beautiful, that curvy girl of steel. I always wanted to see more of her. It could have been love at first sight. The rest of the film was okay... it was kind of intriguing. I loved the set design and the people at the clock faces in the factory... but ultimately it really didn’t do much for me and I wasn’t that bothered about seeing it again.

There seemed to be a long lean period for releases of silent films soon after that... apart from a ridiculous Giorgio Morodor version of Metropolis with some added footage... which was truncated down even more and had silly pop songs grafted on to it to impose yet another form of narrative contrast over it which, in all honesty, is the last thing it needed. But yeah, silent films were getting hard to see for a while... I remember pining away to see stuff like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in my student days and finally, an obscure UK VHS label from a private collector known as the Aikman Collection released a few of these titles... including Metropolis. So I snagged one as a Christmas present and was again intrigued by the movie but... again the film disappointed me as a single viewing experience. It just felt wrong and unsatisfying somehow. I saw it a few times but it never really grabbed me as much as it seemed to grab other people. I much preferred The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari as my all time German Expressionist film (and probably still do to this day as it happens).

But the historic landscape of Metropolis shifts periodically, as I said, and every now and then a bit more footage turns up from some unexpected source and we get a new version of it released... to much publicity.

However... my view of this movie changed radically when I saw the Eureka: The Masters of Cinema restoration from 2002 back in...um... would have been 2003, I think. This included more footage than I ever thought possible and the story was completely different to what I'd remembered. This print from 2002 was, for me, a revelation. This version made sense, had a much more pertinent storyline to match the visuals and was just a joy to watch. Metropolis and I were finally bestest buddies... and I knew I was seeing it finally in the best light I would ever see in my lifetime...

But, of course, the story doesn’t end their either. In 2008 a scratchy copy of the original length version (more or less) was found in a private collection in Argentina. It was badly deteriorated but, asides from a few minutes, it’s pretty much the whole thing... or is it? Well it took nearly two years to restore to something that is, in some ways, watchable and this is the version I saw last week now that Eureka: The Masters Of Cinema have re-released it again in this format. It’s a great film but something seemed different... although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Turns out that Fritz Lang had several cameras going on it all the time and printed many different takes. This version comes from at least three different sources (including the Argentinian one, obviously) and utilises some different takes and angles from the previous one in addition to the new sequences which, I have to say, look pretty scratchy. Not the most ideal but it has to be said the people doing the work are absolutely brilliant for doing as good a job as they have with it. What a find! A holy grail movie has now pretty much finished its long path from its initial release in 1927 to something not far from its original form in 2010. I am absolutely thrilled to have been able to see this one happening (now if somebody could only turn up a true print of London After Midnight I’d be pretty pleased).

And my favourite part about this magnificent story... well they found the original notes on the original score written for the performance of the film and this is what allowed them to piece all the footage back in together and get the correct running times for the takes etc. So you know the old director rushing in to the composer and asking him to “save my film” story that’s often told when the first print of a movie is seen and it sucks... well the new restoration of Metropolis is literally a case of the score coming to the rescue. This makes me smile big time!

So yeah, I watched the new version of Metropolis and was once again bowled over by the way it all works now as a whole. The acting is decidedly over-the-top expressionism from the leading man, in my humble opinion, but it was deliberate and therefore must be taken as an enhancement to the art form in the case of this kind of stylistically “rendered” movie (for a more naturalistic acting style as an introduction to the appreciation of silent film performance as an art, check out the dinosaur epic The Lost World from 1925).

I love the way this film uses shafts of light and smoke and other visual metaphors to create the illusion of sound (which in some cases, it has to be said, is rendered unnecessary when you see it against the original score, which does have a lot of Mickey Mousing going on in it) and those brilliant sets and street miniatures which have influenced loads of movies (including my favourite movie Blade Runner) are all still real eye openers. Doubly so when you realise that all those cars and planes whizzing and flying by were done as stop motion animation. Yeah, I’ll repeat that and let it sink in for a second. Stop motion animation! one of the crew commented that it took them over a week just to get ten seconds of film. I never even realised that it was stop motion until I was told. I mean... look at it! That’s amazing.

And I’ll tell you another thing that’s amazing... Brigitte Helm! What a beauty! And those scenes where she plays the evil robot incarnation of her character Maria... what a dish with all those sexy dances. She has two roles and one of them gives the movie heart while the other one sexes the movie up. She’s worth the price of admission alone.

Okay... as far as the DVD itself goes... well the restoration is excellent but obviously the state of the print is not something they could magically erase without spending millions on it (I guess). Also, the tin and the accompanying booklet (which I’ll confess I haven’t read yet but was slightly dismayed at the very thin paper stock they’ve used to print it on) are both pretty “right on” in terms of making you feel you’ve got a nice little movie package (something which will be completely lost when digital downloads come in big time and which will severely shrink the audience of such movies I suspect) but the accompanying documentary, which runs for nearly an hour, is a different matter. For, while it’s an interesting and fascinating education as to the different versions of the print used... it failed to deliver any oomph and I just wasn’t as excited or enthused by it as I’d hoped I would be. I mean, come on guys... film restoration is a fantastic subject... how do you make it all sound so boring? That minor grumble aside though, it’s still worth a watch to get some of the facts and figures of this movie delivered in a, slightly, quicker method than reading it in a book.

And as for the film itself... well if you call yourself a film lover and you’ve never seen Metropolis then you should hang your head in shame and acquire a copy. It may not be everybody’s cup of tea but you will marvel at the amazing craftsmanship involved with this film and it’s a good lesson on the visual power of film. Whether you like it or not... you need to see this movie!