Archive for the FILM Category

Steel and Glass

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 30, 2014 by dcairns

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I have written a little essay for Criterion’s magisterial Complete Jacques Tati box set, recommended as the ideal Christmas present for a discerning cinephile, if you have the means. But I have also made a video piece for Criterion’s website, along with editor Timo Langer and online editor Stephen Horne, to whom thanks are due.

You can view the thing free, gratis and for nothing, here. I’m quietly chuffed with it.

Also, look around at all the other nice goodies on offer. The magnificent box set can be grabbed at the link below.

The Complete Jacques Tati [Blu-ray]

The Dada Book

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 29, 2014 by dcairns

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Jennifer Kent’s THE BABADOOK is getting lots of favorable attention, and the low-budget Australian horror deserves it, though we weren’t wholly captivated. But the minus side — too much generic running around, recycling of tropes from Mario Bava’s SHOCK and THE SHINING*, neglecting the unique possibilities of its original ideas, like the scary pop-up book — is pretty well balanced by some strong pluses.

I’m going to play the game of not spoiling the storyline, but you might pick up hints from the following, and if you want to see the film with a virginal mind, see it first before reading the rest.

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The title is really delightful — Fiona was convinced she’d heard this word before, which is testament to the word-sound’s grip on the collective unconscious. It’s like onomatopoeia for something that doesn’t exist.

The performances, particularly the two leads, are just extraordinary. Little Daniel Henshall Noah Wiseman has one of those wildly expressive, photogenic faces, eyes like fishbowls, porcelain skin, and disconcerting FANGS (like he hasn’t quite grown into his teeth, or like they just grew into him) — he transfixes the camera. Essie Davis as his mum is just perfect too, maintaining sympathy as long as possible as things start to get really, really bad.

The movie is playing an elaborate game with the genres of psychological and supernatural horror, so expect some slide between believing the Babadook is a real monster and thinking it’s all in the mind. Some of this journey is rocky, with promising avenues closed off too soon, and the part of the film where it comes down strongly on one side gets kind of dull and uninvolving — we feel we’ve lost sympathy, and for all the running around, this can only end really badly, which is depressing. But then the movie pulls off an eleventh-hour recovery and goes somewhere quite unexpected and possibly unique in the genre.

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Fiona: “Magicians are scary. Child magicians are very scary.”

Basically, the Babadook — a crow-like caped man with dagger-like fangs, somewhat Tim Burton-like — also a mysterious hand-crafted children’s book with some highly inappropriate content — comes to have a very clear metaphorical significance. He’s the embodiment of a repressed emotion, and ultimately the way of dealing with him seems quite apt and may even have helpful real-world applications for the viewer. Grief isn’t dealt with by violence, and it can’t be effectually shut away and forgotten, and it is a dark, all-consuming monster… I can say no more.

The movie has a jittery, juddery, propulsive editing style which keeps you nervous most of the time. Mom walks towards the front door — the sound of the door opening breaks in before she gets there — we cut to her midway through opening the door, now shot from outside — which smooths over the jumps just enough to feel like smooth continuity, but has an undercurrent of nervous anticipation. This is kept up, which means the film doesn’t get to creep us out much with slow, building suspense, but it’s also a world away from the traditional, conventional 1-2-3-BOO! approach of teen horror. It has its limitations but it’s at least a fresh approach.

*Anyone who has seen LET US PREY, co-written by Fiona & I, will be able to point triumphantly to a lot of SHINING-influenced business in that one, but we already have our answer worked out, which is to deny all responsibility for anything you don’t like, okay? As long as we can take credit for anything you DO like. The ultimate powerlessness of the screenwriter has to confer SOME advantages…

Five Little Dancing Fingers

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Getting in the mood for Halloween. It had been years since I saw THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS — I remembered it being slightly disappointing, and Fiona didn’t remember it at all. The heart sinks slightly at Curt Siodmak’s script credit, yet his scenario isn’t in any way laughable. It does have dull stretches, though. Director Robert Florey seems to come awake in fits, thrusting wildly canted angles or serried rows of faces at us, then falling back into soporific busywork. But from the time of the first death, the good scenes start to slowly outnumber the dull ones, and there’s always Peter Lorre…

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It’s surprisingly brutal for its time, with the severed hand scuttling about like it owns the place, flashing its stump brazenly. There’s a wet, meaty back view complete with wrist bones, apparently painted trompe-l’oeil fashion on the hand actor’s wrist, while the rest of his arm is blacked out. Apart from the various stranglings, it’s the hand who suffers most of the violence, crucified and burned by the neurasthenic Lorre (playing a character called Hillary, a mild-mannered name that doesn’t seem to quite suit him).

The source novel surely owes a debt to Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Hand, which likewise plays with the idea of a disembodied hand strangling victims from beyond the grave, only to offer a not-quite-reassuring rational explanation. But we can go further back and credit the inspiration to Algernon Swinburne — when Maupassant saved the poet from drowning, he rewarded his rescuer with an ashtray made from a human hand. As you do. I have to presume that the young writer, sat at his desk, Gauloise in hand, casting around for inspiration, seized upon the first interesting thing to catch his eye. A good thing for French literature he didn’t alight upon his waste-paper basket made from a human arse, or his paperweight made from a fossilised spleen. In fact, Maupassant’s study was decorated with the disassembled parts of an entire human being, gifted to him by Swinburne. Possibly they were the parts of Swinburne himself. But astute readers will have realized I stopped telling the truth here some time ago, though they may be surprised to learn how late in the paragraph the fantasy takes over.

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A very good bit — Lorre hears scuttling, and the previous astrology books on his shelves start to nudge outwards in a creeping series — the hand is crawling behind them! Swiping the volumes to the floor, Lorre searches out the stray extremity, and Florey tracks along INSIDE the bookshelf, behind the books, until the wriggling thing is discovered, cornered, and Lorre smiles with genuine pleasure at catching it. He then hammers a nail through it, seals it in the safe, and reports to Robert Alda, “I locked it up.” But Fiona misheard this, owing to Lorre’s thick accent, as “I looked it up,” and imagined that he had somehow tracked it down on the bookshelf under H for Hand, or possibly B for Beast. It’s a nice idea — why has there not been a remake to exploit this possibility? One thinks, of course, of the very good “A Farewell to Arms” gag in EVIL DEAD II…

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