Lost Boys’ Club

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2016 by dcairns

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Finally caught up with WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, which Fiona loved and I liked. The above arresting image — “He can never get the faces right” — was my favourite bit.

It’s a house-share comedy in which the main characters are all vampires. It’s also a mockumentary. Neither concept sounds that fresh or amazing, but what puts it over is the care lavished on world-building — drawings ideas from every major vampire film of the past few decades, especially the po-faced but silly ones like INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, the movie sets up the principles by which its Kiwi bloodsuckers operate, and manages to make them all pretty funny.

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I did feel that the mockumentary angle, though essential for the film’s storytelling (the various vamp’s interviews are all very amusing, and supply the backstory cheaply, while the handheld camera style allows for lively visuals at low cost), was underexplored. We never meet the documentarists, and we don’t fully understand why the vampires would cooperate in a venture which must eventually blow their serial murder lifestyle sky-high (though people do cooperate in docs when they really shouldn’t — but I think that’s a feature of modern society and our crazy urge for fame, which these characters, all survivors from previous centuries, shouldn’t be aware of let alone prone to). A title at the beginning tells us that the camera crew all wore crucifixes, but later on their lives are endangered… but we still don’t get to meet them. Also, they’re passively cooperating in a bunch of murders, and unlike in MAN BITES DOG the film doesn’t deal with their culpability (how can it? — they’re literally not in the frame).

But ignoring all that, as the film wants us to, it’s amusing and very nicely acted. The only other issue is what a boys’ club it is, with the only major female character being Jackie Van Beek as the Renfield type “servant” of one of the undead (co-director Taika Waititi). Only one female vampire plays a limited role, and the rest of the women are all victims. Given that there are recognized archetypes for female vampires, it seems a shame the filmmakers didn’t provide a role for one. Though there is a strong history of pathetic male characters stuck together in sitcom (and this is very much a sitcom, with just the minimal amount of forward momentum to contrive a movie plot), there seems to reason in this story world for women to be so absent.

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At Edinburgh this year I saw Waititi’s latest, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE, which artfully reconfigures the dynamic of BAD SANTA into a New Zealand wilderness bonding dramedy (new sub-sub genre) — it has excellent perfs, led by Sam Neill, and proves that Waititi is gifted with more visual style than WWDITS’ deliberately limited palette could display. But again, the women are a bit lacking — one very nice character has to exit early for plot reasons, while the chief villainess, a child welfare worker (and yes, I’m suspicious of movies which cast child welfare workers as villains, too) could really have done with a character arc.

But he’s someone to watch. But, on the other hand, he’s doing THOR, next. I hope he limits himself to one superhero movie.

Also watched: THE CONJURING II. James Wan is also a talent to watch. He’s doing AQUAMAN next. Sigh.

The Look # 1: Julie Flashes

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Julie Christie flashes the camera in BILLY LIAR.

I am reading and enjoying Geoff Dyer’s Zona — it really is as good as everyone says. The kind of book I’d like to write, if I could settle on a film and if anyone would agree with me on which film was worth settling on.

Dyer has plumped for Tarkovsky’s STALKER, and his discursive approach echoes the antics of a lively mind watching a slow film — sometimes totally concentrated on the sounds and images in front of him, sometimes darting off into memory or fantasy, inspired by the movie but running on a parallel track. Here’s Dyer on a moment when Tark’s characters seem to meet the camera’s gaze ~

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This is in direct contravention of Roland Barthe’s edict in his essay ‘Right in the Eyes’, that, while it is permissible for the subject to star into the lens–at the spectator–in a still photograph, ‘it is forbidden for an actor to look at the camera’ in a movie. So convinced was Barthes of his own rule that he as ‘not far from considering this ban as the cinema’s distinctive feature…. If a single gaze from the screen came to rest on me, the whole film would be lost.’

Either the quotation is doing Barthes no favours, or Barthes is a silly man who hasn’t seen enough movies. “Don’t look at the camera!” cries Francis Ford Coppola in APOCALYPSE NOW, playing a documentary director, ignoring the fact that in documentaries (which are, arguably, movies), characters looking at the camera actually ENHANCES the realism. It’s when they’re too good at pretending it isn’t there that the fly-on-the-wall approach starts to seem artificial, staged.

Nevertheless, in fiction films it’s true that there’s a convention — which only means that those, quite frequent moments when the rule is broken always seem mildly unconventional. In a mainstream film, the effect is noted, and the ticket-buyer says, “OK, this is a little unusual, but as long as the filmmaker doesn’t get too crazy, I’m going to allow it.”

My favourite video store story: two young men looking at prospective rentals. One picks up the Christian Slater vehicle KUFFS. The other says he’s seen it. “Any good.” “Aye, awright.” “Much action in it?” A micro-pause. “Ah… he talks to the camera.” Said as if this were, arguably, a form of action.

In BILLY LIAR, Julie’s lapse is momentary and obviously unintentional, but in good movies even flaws are good. This scene is already breaking from Billy’s POV, which makes it a violation of the movie’s own rules. If Julie is exceptional enough to merit a scene of her own, away from the prying eyes of the POV character, and devoid of any fundamental narrative purpose (well, it’s introducing Julie, swinging her handbag, and that’s ENOUGH), then surely she’s allowed to sneak a peek at camera operator Jack Atchelor. She’s Julie Christie, she has special privileges.

Inaugurating a little season considering some looks to camera, and what they might mean.

The Sunday Intertitle: The English Coast

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , on July 24, 2016 by dcairns

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The English coast? Well, that narrows it down a bit. (Since Britain is an island, saying someone is on the coast doesn’t really help locate them.) The film is SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916) and it’s an American film restored from a French print, titles translated, so maybe that explains the oddness. To the French, “the English coast” would mean the bit facing France.

Miraculously rediscovered, and restored with funding from the team behind the BBC’s Sherlock, this is initially stagey and stodgy, with a great deal of longshot lipflapping in drawing rooms, but it’s fascinating and fun nonetheless. William Gillette as adaptor and star does a good job as the world’s first consulting detective, looking a bit like Clive Brook or Jeremy Brett. As the story unfolds, the camera actually starts to move — rather than simply following people about, it will often set off on its own and let them join it at their own speed. This is quite enjoyable.

The intertitles do exhibit that regrettable trait of early silent films, spoiling the action by telling you what’s about to occur. I would have thought this approach, visible in the famous Edison FRANKENSTEIN, would have gone out of fashion pretty quickly, but here it is in full suspense-killing force.

But the acting is interestingly low-key, and since this is a fairly faithful reconstruction of a play, using the original cast, it probably gives us a clearer picture of early twentieth-century theatre acting than most movies of the time.

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Don’t smoke while doing chemistry, Sherlock!

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