Miss Bala

Miss Bala

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 October 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Gerardo Naranjo

Writers: Gerardo Naranjo, Mauricio Katz

Cast: Stephanie Sigman, Irene Azuela, Miguel Couturier

Mexico 2011

113 mins

The second feature from Gerardo Naranjo, Miss Bala is a searing, brutal film set in the midst of Mexico’s vicious drug war. Laura (played by the terrific Stephanie Sigman), her bedroom walls covered in images torn from the pages of fashion magazines, is a stunning but poor young woman who dreams of winning the Miss Baja California beauty contest. Unless that happens, she’s stuck in a mundane existence caring for her father and young brother. But the night before her audition, she witnesses an attack by members of a cartel on a club filled with cops, gangsters and their girlfriends. She manages to dodge the hail of bullets, escaping unharmed, but loses her friend Suzu in the chaos. After one terrible error on Laura’s part, she’s plunged into a morass of betrayal, corruption and violence.

Naranjo has made a very different film from his 2008 debut, Voy a explotar, a tragically romantic love story about two young runaways, filled with pop culture references. Miss Bala is darker, deeper and more haunting; for Laura, there is no escape. When she seeks help from a traffic cop in finding Suzu, she’s instead delivered into the hands of the criminals who shot up the club, and their very unglamorous leader, Lino (Noe Hernandez). Instead of killing her, he does something almost worse, forcing her to become a pawn and accomplice in his war with the government. In return, he will do what he can to help her win the beauty contest, except that too is little more than a set-up.

It’s a gripping story told in the style of a very un-Hollywood thriller, with the action and suspense stemming from a disturbingly realistic portrayal of violence. ‘I wanted to make a social film, but I wanted to put it in the frame of an action or suspense film, a thriller. I wanted it to have another layer of movie-making, so people weren’t put off by the idea of a “political” film,’ said Naranjo at an interview during the London Film Festival. ‘There was no practical reason for making this movie, but I had a social and moral obligation. It’s a very sad subject, it’s a dark thing, something we’re not proud of. There are some people who think that we shouldn’t make movies like this, that they’re promoting the problem. If we give the problem a face and identify what’s happening, there are other people who think it’s a very unpatriotic act. Obviously we don’t agree with that.’

In the film, the line between the police and the criminals is disturbingly blurred; corruption is ingrained, and the gangs act with shocking impunity. High-ranking officials are murdered, with one DEA agent’s body strung up from a bridge, dangling over passing traffic. Laura, out of fear for her own life and the safety of her family, has little choice but to do as Lino demands. ‘The criminals are the law,’ said Naranjo. ‘People in Mexico are living in fear. That was the origin of the film.’

Laura is very much at the centre of Miss Bala (which means ‘bullet’), the camera almost never leaving her. This was a very conscious decision by the filmmaker: ‘Other movies about crime in Mexico are all told from the criminal’s point of view, almost to justify their actions. I wanted to talk about the experience of the victim, someone who was alien to the criminal world. I saw the news about this beauty queen who was arrested with all these criminals, so we decided to explain how these two realities that are so distant can meet. I was also very upset about how the media portrayed the criminals, with the gold chains, the women, the orgies and the drugs, like it’s a constant party. When we researched we discovered it was nothing like that. The life of a criminal is much more pathetic, with a lot of fear and paranoia.’

Miss Bala is bleak but engrossing, mixing the political message with some excellent filmmaking and cinematography. In creating such a compelling picture, Naranjo and Stigman have drawn much needed attention to an ongoing tragedy - as the film reveals in its closing moments, more than 30,000 people have been killed in the drug war since 2006.

Sarah Cronin

Watch the trailer:

Things We’d Have Missed without Them

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 Prize

2011, Royal Observatory Greenwich/Lonelyleap

Damian, Nicole, Ole. Three amateur photographers who pointed their lenses to the sky and captured things we’d have missed without them. They’re recent prize-winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition 2011 – run by Royal Observatory Greenwich – and each has such a different view of space that it makes you think again about what you see in the night sky.

Nicole: the blue hour

‘I like to take pictures, and then go home and show everyone what they’re missing.’ – Nicole

A teenage girl, with the grammar and trainers to match, Nicole is openly in awe when she stares at the sky. On a path through long grasses and scrubland to the foot of rock formations that seem to be from Mars, not Earth, Nicole’s film feels like a sequence from a teenage adventure.

The middle section of her story is filled with snapshot of trinkets and messages from friends, the kind of things you have buried in a shoebox under your bed or that your parents ‘keep safe’. All of this warmth and energy seems to transfer to Nicole’s prize-winning photograph of a sky filled with stars in motion, surrounding a single point in the middle of the night.

Her delight is less tempered and more exuberant than Ole and Damian’s, but all share this faraway look. This look seems to place their eyes somewhere in the stratosphere, darting about the stars for the shot that will transmit just a fraction of its beauty.

Ole: the quest for aurorae

‘This is an effect of our sun getting angry.’ – Ole

While the single shots of each photographer are impressive, only Ole’s gets extended treatment. He’s produced time-lapse footage of the aurorae above Norway’s snowy mountains, a sight that dominates the first 15 seconds of his short film and overhangs the narrative that follows.

Ole’s sky is, simply, unearthly. The shimmering wisps of green that flick across it are the stuff of fiction, or dreams. They’re the bits our ancestors have looked at, mad with ignorance, running scared to form religions and small gods in tribute. The aurorae are unreal.

But he got it. He trapped it in a camera lens and brought it back for the rest of us. Nicole has collected her stars in motion and Damian’s got the eye of Jupiter’s storm and all three of them appear in film to make these weird sights very very human just by being willing witnesses, documentarians for the rest of us.

That it takes just five and a half minutes to feel that sensation across three super-short films is testament to the filmmakers and to the selection of these three stargazers.

Damian: far from everyday life

‘Between the front of my telescope - where the light is collected - and the surface of Jupiter, it’s around four hundred million miles.’ – Damian

It’s clear instantly that Damian’s role in the proceedings is more relaxed. He sits in a back garden – his perhaps – with a comparatively huge telescope at his command, in relative comfort compared to Nicole’s joyous yomp in the dark and Ole’s landscape-defying trek into the Arctic Circle.

The camera is in awe of the set-up, lingering on the scope and twin screens that his beasty bit of kit is hooked up to. The film even pauses for a moment to dwell on the piping hot cuppa he puts to his lips, completing the cosy view of space that Damian enjoys.

But this technical complexity is implied by shots of his darting eyes and nimble fingertips, poised to capture space. This is precision engineering. Damian is awaiting an alignment in the sky that happens only once, for three brief minutes, in the entire history of everything.

‘It’s an amazing place… to observe.’ – Damian

Damian and Ole both spend time by the water, that other vast and unexplored landscape. There’s a line in a Los Campesinos! track that extols the virtues of sitting by the sea, as it’s ‘a good place to think about the future’. Space too is inextricably linked to The Future.

Beside the sea the men look up, and in America’s heartland Nicole looks up too. But none of them are escaping from where they’re shooting. Nicole’s photo is warmer for its interplay with the terrain below, Ole’s more unnatural. Only Damian’s photograph seems divorced from the Earth below, but his short film roots him so firmly to pots of tea and garden sheds that you want to put him on a poster for the UK tourist board.

Where each of them looks up is linked to who they are and how they see the sky.

‘It’s telling you how small you are in this endless universe.’ – Ole

Close shots, static cameras, angles that force faces into unusual parts of the frame; there’s a shared aesthetic to these films that helps to unite the journey into space these three very different people are undertaking.

And there’s so much sky. Lonelyleap’s filmmakers have made films about wonderful, interesting humans while offering as much space to the air above as the frames permit. They do an incredible job of matching that backdrop to the face of the person looking up at it.

And they are all looking up. Three photographers, separated by oceans, security checkpoints and passport control. All three of them are looking into the night sky and seeing such different perspectives on everything out there that your view of terra firma seems to shift with them. Space is vast, but Earth is pretty big too.

Matthew Sheret

The Silence

The Silence

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 October 2011

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Baran bo Odar

Writers: Baran bo Odar, Alex Ross, Richard Shakocius

Based on the novel by: Jan Costin Wagner

Original title: Das letze Schweigen

Cast:Ulrich Thomsen, Wotan Wilke Möhring, Katrin Sa&#223, Burghart Klau&#223ner, Sebastian Blomberg

Germany 2010

118 mins

When a young girl is murdered in circumstances identical to a crime that took place two decades previously, the police rush to investigate. Gradually we see, through flashbacks, how a friendship between two men led to the first killing. This debut film from director Baran bo Odar expands the form of the police procedural, granting moments of pathos to all characters concerned, telling their stories, while never straying too far from the film’s roots in the thriller genre.

Rather than go for the easy Gothic feel of a wintry murder story set in Mitteleuropa (dark red stains tainting driven snow) the film is set during a heatwave. The simmering temperature is palpable, creating a clammy, fractious tension that befits the film’s subject matter. The Silence puts one in the uncomfortable position of almost rooting for Timo, the sweaty-palmed accomplice to the crime, yet this is not a provocation, but comes from the film’s insistence on the humanity of all the characters. A perverse sense of dramatic irony descends in the film’s second half, as Timo attempts to apologise covertly to the victim’s mother for his part in the crime. Another chilling moment shows two child murderers standing in an awkwardly held medium shot, as a young boy overhears them and innocently asks if he can join them in watching a film.

Actors’ past roles bring a ghostly presence to their current ones, and there is an awkward pathos in seeing the abuse victim from Festen (1998) turned abuser. In his current guise, Ulrich Thomsen resembles a kind of haggard, Nordic Colin Firth. He portrays the killer as an inadequate, rather than a cackling, serial killer, although we understand he is part of something even more disturbing than what we see on screen. The police characters are fully rounded too. The inclusion of a pregnant detective has been called a Fargo reference but, in fact, the actress signed up for the role before becoming aware of her condition. In a film about the impact of lives being snatched away, the inclusion of a life not yet lived adds a thematic counterweight. The film’s most intriguing performance, though, is Claudia Michelsen’s. Her presence is a distinct mixture of elegance and burned-out discomfort well-suited to her role as the wife of the weak-willed accomplice.

There are some signs that this is a debut feature. The score is too conventional for such an intense story, coming across as generic ‘murder mystery’ music at times. The scene in which several characters are cross-cut as they find out about the copycat murder would be more effective were it not marred by dissonant industrial noise swelling on the soundtrack. Shots of the murdered girl’s stuffed toys and paintings seem like too obvious a tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately though, this is a confidently paced film with a taut script that allows characterisation to develop with the performances rather than the dialogue. The Silence presents no convenient resolution and offers no easy answers.

John A. Riley



Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 September 2011

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Michael Mann

Writer: Michael Mann

Based on the novel by: Thomas Harris

Cast: William Petersen, Brian Cox, Dennis Farina, Tom Noonan

USA 1986

119 mins

The first time I saw Manhunter was as part of the old BBC2 Moviedrome season presented by Alex Cox. I remember how freaked out I was. There was something about the beginning. The film opens like a giallo, but stripped of camp: we see the killer’s point of view as he invades a family home at night, passes the children’s bedroom on his way to his real prize, the night-vision video showing a distorted view of the woman waking up in bed and peering into the dark, right at us, the killer, but not seeing us. The opening places us in the position of the killer and this is the job of its hero as well, Will Graham, played by a post-To Live and Die in LA but pre-CSI William Petersen. Graham is the eponymous Manhunter, called in by the gloriously lumpy Dennis Farina to help catch a serial killer who is massacring families every full moon. Graham’s method is to get inside the mind of the killer, tapping into an almost psychic state ladled with the similarly dubious ‘science’ of behavioural psychology and some advice from captured serial killer and psychologist Dr Hannibal Lecktor.

Moviedrome showed Manhunter in 1991, the year that saw the release of Jonathan Demme’s hugely successful and Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. That film was followed by a Ridley Scott sequel, Hannibal, which was also based on a Thomas Harris novel, but one that had obviously been written with the film in mind. There is a moment in the book when Agent Clarice Starling flashes her breasts for no other reason, I suspect, than the shameless desire on Mr Harris’s part to see Jodie Foster’s boobs. Scott’s film lacked the genuine Gothic creepiness of Demme’s masterful piece and gruesomeness was exchanged for an unlikely Grand Guignol schlock. Then came the Manhunter remake Red Dragon, starring Edward Norton and Ralph Fiennes. No fate can be so ignominious in filmmaking as to have your film remade by Brett Ratner of Rush Hour ‘fame’. As the dead horse-flogging machine was jammed in reverse, Hannibal Rising went back to the origins of Dr Lecter (spelt as in the novels).

Considering the awfulness of what was to happen, one could be forgiven for re-watching Manhunter and harking back to happier days when Dr Lecter/Lecktor was a bit part and not some sort of Dexter-like super-hero. Both Demme and Mann kept their culinary psychopath to a minimum and allowed his dissonance to resonate through the rest of their films. However, Mann’s film, it has to be said, is deeply flawed. Brian Cox’s Lecktor seems gripped more by ennui than psychosis and it doesn’t help that his most dangerous act in the film is making an illicit phone call. Petersen plays Graham as a troubled soul, but his muttering to himself -’you opened their eyes didn’t you, you son of a bitch!’ - and head-cocked reveries swiftly become wearisome (although better than Edward Norton’s phoned-in performance of the same role). Dennis Farina is always, always an enjoyable watch - Mann’s underrated TV series Crime Story should be seen by all - but here he is miscast as nothing more than a glorified administrator. Again, Demme’s film has it spot on with the cadaverous and Lecter-like Scott Glenn in the same role, whereas Farina should be punching people, not answering phones. On the plus side, Tom Noonan, as the softly spoken serial killer Francis Dollarhyde, is a terrifically odd physical presence, who can at turns be terrifying and sympathetic.

The film is genuinely good when teams of men have to do things: stake-outs, shoot-outs and what not. And the film has an oddly compelling sense of place. The art museum prison that houses Lecktor was unsurprisingly filmed in an art museum. There’s a conversation between Graham and his son, which is filmed in a supermarket that also could be an art museum, with an in-focus Campbell’s Soup tin on one of the shelves. This is a world where everything is art deco; nothing is messy or dirty, and night time doesn’t mean darkness, it means electric blue light, like the light that comes from a sun bed. Whereas Demme went into the dungeons and cellars of our minds, as well as the literal dungeons and cellars of our world, Mann has white labs, glass elevators, anonymous hotel rooms, and his killer’s lair isn’t so much creepy as it is tacky, with a huge picture of what looks like the surface of Mars furnishing one wall.

The music throughout the film is intrusive, with every character (especially the killer) sharing Mann’s taste in Adult Oriented Rock. If this was Drive, we would be saying how ironic, but it isn’t, and it isn’t. The killer’s playing of Iron Butterfly could be seen as an act of mercy, consoling his victims that at least they’ll soon be shot of a world that could produce such horrors.

On the evidence of the commentary track and the complete absence of humour, Michael Mann is deadly serious with this film and some moments warrant that, but, paradoxically, this po-faced insistence on the importance of his project (and this runs through much of his career) highlights the silliness of what he’s up to and makes it more, not less, difficult to take seriously.

John Bleasdale

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Format: Double play (Blu-ray + DVD)

Release date: 24 October 2011

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: John McNaughton

Writers: Richard Fire, John McNaughton

Cast: Michael Rooker, Tracy Arnold, Tom Towles

USA 1986

82 mins

John McNaughton characterised Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, his acclaimed, controversial 1986 thriller, as a horror film using the technique of realism to achieve its effect on the audience. This sounds maybe a little cold-blooded and opportunistic, and maybe it is: it seems to suggest that those who see the film as a deep insight into the mind of a murderer could be wasting their time, since all the filmmaker wants to do is scare you, and he realised that being as convincing and low-key as possible was a good way to do it. Never mind that Henry Lee Lucas, the allegedly wildly prolific real-life killer McNaughton took as inspiration, was in all probability a fantasist who confessed to dozens of unsolved killings because he liked visitors while he was in jail.

Still, the film has an undeniable power in its merciless bleakness. McNaughton had been commissioned to make nothing more than a cheapjack exploiter, and he chose something more ambitious, a character study and an evocation of the deadened, affectless world of the psychopath. His movie is commendably free of overt sensationalism and slasher cliché, which sets it apart from nearly everything made on the theme of serial homicide in the decades since it appeared. Many of the killings are presented as crime scenes (a little fetishised, it’s true) with only the sound of the murder itself echoing, disembodied, on the soundtrack. The performances are marvellously restrained and naturalistic. Michael Rooker naturally garlanded most of the attention for his still, quiet work as Henry, but Tracy Arnold as Becky is the most believable and normal character, which is a hard job to pull off, and Tom Towles, as her repulsive brother Otis, really pushes personal unpleasantness as far as it can go in a performance that’s not so much free of vanity as wallowing in obscenity. As the most ebullient character, he has to walk a fine line to evoke Otis’s offensive heartiness without violating the total conviction the movie needs to pull off its central trope.

Music is always an issue in realistic films: the trio of composers credited here manage a menacing ‘Henry theme’, which sometimes seems to risk glorifying its killer by empowering him, and elsewhere we get some revolting synth sax on a love scene and a bizarre accompaniment to Becky’s job search: some attempt to play ‘jaunty normality’ as a musical motif, I guess. Dreadful. So the movie works best without any dramatic mood elevation, with the impassive camera observing coldly; even better, the home invasion murders filmed by the killers themselves and seen only on playback on a boxy tube TV, the scene the British Board of Film Censors felt compelled to prune. In the new DVD it’s back, uncut. The dead eye of the camcorder imparts a horrible documentary snuff flavour that adds another layer of faux-reality.

The victims are mostly shown without sympathy, perhaps as Henry would see them. A dignified lady dog walker is spared, and we’re being teased with the possibility that Henry might have redeeming traits. He tells a sob story of childhood abuse, but when he describes killing his mother, the method keeps changing: like the visitors in Haneke’s Funny Games, he shuns simple explanation by offering a succession of fake stories. The reasoning here is perhaps simply that Henry will be more frightening if he remains free from reassuring Freudian interpretation. He can’t be tidied away.

So, taking McNaughton at his word, I see Henry as a Halloween tale for grown-ups: skilfully made, convincing while it lasts, packing a few nasty twists and some seriously disturbing images, but not ultimately rooted in any deep understanding of what makes a psychopath, and so not chilling in a way that outlasts the taut running time. Maybe I’m just desensitised?

David Cairns



Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 October 2011

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Director: Stephen Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Kate Winslet

USA/United Arab Emirates 2011

106 mins

‘Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met the wrong bat’. Stephen Soderbergh’s new thriller, Contagion charts the progression of a deadly mutating virus - part-pig, part-bat - as it spreads across the globe, indiscriminately killing human beings at an impossible speed. The film is full of lines as laughably silly as this one, all portentously intoned by Hollywood’s finest. On the possibility the disease is being spread by terrorism: ‘Somebody doesn’t need to weaponise the bird flu, the birds are already doing that’. On the outbreak of internet conspiracy theories: ‘Blogging is not writing - it’s graffiti with punctuation’. Such sentiments are uttered at a time when the human race is fighting for survival, yet they read like inane advertising copy. An hour and three quarters of this induces a malaise far more fatal than any mutating virus.

Contagion is a film that prides itself on its meticulous scientific research (as shown in the copious press notes) and its portrayal of a 21st-century world of technological advancement and globalisation. It attempts to chronicle a worldwide crisis by covering multiple narratives. The economical medium of film is well suited to the task and Contagion is at its most successful when it efficiently leaps between cities or provides punchy statistics. Where it fails is in its narrow definition of what ‘global’ means and its limited social scope, neither of which allow for any narrative progression. All we see is a world of expensively decorated homes, hotels and airport lounges, primarily populated by glamorous, affluent heroes. It’s an epidemic confined to the immaculately coiffed. America and Europe dominate. Does the disease reach Africa or the Middle East? Who knows - and judging by the negligence of Scott Z. Burns’s script - who cares!

Worse still is the film’s cartoonish presentation of China, confined to a similar role as the Soviet Union in Cold War Bond films. The outbreak starts in Hong Kong but it’s not an everyday urban centre that the viewer sees; it’s a morally dubious casino and unhygienic food market. The Chinese are presented as a nation intent on sabotaging the fight against the disease. A particularly ludicrous episode occurs when Dr Leonora Orantes (played by Marion Cotillard) is kidnapped and forced to stay in a rural village rather than return to Geneva with her vital scientific data. When a colleague comes to her rescue, armed with a batch of vaccines for the village inhabitants, Dr Orantes is horrified to learn that the syringes only contain a placebo. Could European and American powers be playing with people’s lives? But of course not! As her colleague explains, ‘the Chinese insisted on it’!

A voice of dissent does come in the form of a wonky-toothed Australian blogger, Alan Krumweide, a role obviously relished by Jude Law, who ably performs against type. A fan of conspiracy theories, Krumweide argues that the American government is in bed with drug companies and is withholding information about an effective homeopathic drug. This sub-plot creates an interesting parallel between the spread of internet-borne fear and contagious diseases but is neatly shut down when Krumweide is revealed to be an egotistical misanthrope, hell-bent on creating a name for himself amid the ensuing chaos. This narrative thread highlights the deeply conservative nature of the film. Western authority is not to be challenged. India may be experimenting with alternative medicine with some success but it is only the US and France who are close to discovering a vaccine (remember, despite its vast economy and scientific knowledge, China only wants to sabotage). When law and order break down, it is primarily stereotypical rioters - groups of young men - that we see raiding banks and gutting shops. Aside from a near-theft at the supermarket, we never see the everyday all-American hero, Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), breaking the law, although presumably he must do so to survive.

The unquestioning maintenance of pre-disease social structures makes for a disappointingly dull film. At core, Contagion is about what happens when normality is eradicated by a previously unknown, unpredictable force. It is an ideal opportunity for imaginative scriptwriting but, sadly, very little changes and very little is challenged in the course of this film. Occasional moments of moral conflict and social tension are not interrogated sufficiently. Characters are under-developed, delivering what would make great film taglines with little emotion. As they wisecrack their way through scenes, tension and emotional connection evaporate. Moments of sympathy do pop up now and again, mainly due to fine acting. Matt Damon’s grief is well executed, Jennifer Ehle creates a likeable character and Kate Winslet’s panic as she begins to show symptoms is physically palpable, but there’s something missing.

Since the screening, I’ve been wondering if I were foolish to expect anything more from a mainstream thriller. Then last night, on a whim, I decided to re-watch Casablanca (1942). It’s not an obvious comparison but it’s a surprisingly instructive one. Both films explore what happens when a menacing force interrupts lives and threatens human existence throughout the world. They are both Hollywood productions with pithy dialogue, catchily written one-liners and a cast of international characters. As the credits closed, I suddenly realised Michael Curtiz’s film -in a strange way - points out what is missing in Soderbergh’s. Casablanca takes the microcosm of Rick’s bar to reflect the global situation: the desperation and cynicism; the tussles and tensions; the human need to maintain and create alternative social structures in chaotic circumstances. Casablanca builds the personal and global, the emotional and political into a blended crescendo. There is no such focus in Contagion, none of the warmth between characters, none of the healthily irreverent attitude. Despite Casablanca‘s clear propagandistic purpose, there is a subversive - and inclusive - championing of the underdog. The underdog is nowhere to be seen in Contagion, aside from in the characters of rioters or passive receivers of paternalistic assistance from the powerful. There is only one voice in Contagion and it is a rather empty one.

Eleanor McKeown

Silent Running

Silent Running

Format: Cinema

Screening dates: 21-27 October 2011

Venue: ICA, London

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 14 November 2011

Distributor: Eureka

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Writers: Deric Washburn, Michael Cimino, Steven Bochco

Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts, Ron Rifkin

USA 1971

90 mins

The future. Earth is defoliated, the last remaining plant life confined to geodesic domes floating in deep space. When the order is given to destroy the gardens, the botanist rebels, murders his crewmates and sails one garden off through Saturn’s rings.

Silent Running is a film to see when you’re young, if you can arrange it that way. Revisiting it, decades after a BBC2 screening in the 70s, I was struck by how curiously illogical it all is, full of plot contrivances that don’t make any sense except as stepping stones to the next emotional moment. You can see it’s a director’s film, and the services of three writers, including Michael Cimino (Heaven’s Gate) and Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue), haven’t tamed the unruly vision into something narratively coherent.

The director in question is Douglas Trumbull, who supervised the special effects on 2001, and here used his expertise to create a visually impressive science fiction epic on a budget of a million dollars. The excellent extras on Masters of Cinema’s new Blu-ray fill in the details of how he managed this (with great ingenuity and skill, is the short answer).

One budgetary saving was made by having actor Bruce Dern alone on screen for much of the movie, a Robinson Crusoe figure slowly deteriorating mentally through guilt and loneliness, with only his robot servants for company. If you’re going to make a naí¯ve, didactic eco-fable, Dern’s casting is very smart: since the other astronauts are interchangeable louts and the scales are heavily weighted in favour of the eco-conscious space hippy, it helps that Dern makes him shrill, manic, passive-aggressive and obnoxious from time to time. Without altogether losing our sympathy, he gives the thing an edge. With his narrow, vaguely rodent-like face, blazing blue irises and tiny, pin-prick pupils, Dern stops Freeman Lowell becoming some sort of tree-hugging Jesus. The fact that the script makes him a murderer also helps, and the film pulls towards an exploration of guilt, an all-consuming torment that consumes the character even as he tries to create a new Eden.

Win a Silent Running Blu-ray by playing the Film Roulette!

The science is notably weak, to the point where the film seems to be more allegory than speculative fiction, and the strange and potent image of a child’s watering can in space suggests that Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince may have more to do with this movie than 2001. Indeed, even the ecological message may be a red herring. We’re told that everywhere on Earth is 75 degrees: an air-conditioned, sterile paradise has been created, rather than the uninhabitable, polluted wasteland of global warming prophecy. Lowell’s objection to that is more aesthetic or spiritual than pragmatic, ‘the simple beauty of a leaf’ being something a child should experience for the good of the soul. So while the Peter Schikele/Joan Baez songs insist on the vitality of nature, from a nostalgic point of view where all that is to perish, the film’s real interests may actually be more elusive.

John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon’s Dark Star, made at a far lower cost than Silent Running‘s tight one million, is likely to remain for most the space hippy movie of choice, but Trumbull has an ace up his tie-dyed sleeve. His last image, of a lonely robot drifting away from us in a floating garden, is the seed from which the whole of Wall-E grew, as well as providing Spielberg with his closing credits for Close Encounters. And while Carpenter’s country song accompaniment to space travel is irresistibly comic, and Spielberg’s use of ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ inescapably kitsch, I find the combination of deep space and folk music peculiarly moving here.

Silent Running screens at the ICA, London, from Oct 21 to 27.

David Cairns

The Yellow Sea

The Yellow Sea

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 October 2011

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Bounty Films

Director: Na Hong-jin

Writer: Na Hong-jin

Original title: Hwanghae

Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Kim Yun-seok, Cho Seong-Ha

South Korea 2010

140 mins

Gu-nam (Ha Jung-woo) is the loser’s loser, down on his luck at the mah-jong tables, leading a pitiful life as an ethnic Korean in Yanbian, China. His wife left for Korea in search of work months ago and he hasn’t heard from her since, he is unable to support his child, and the debts have long spiralled beyond his ability to pay. Then local gangster Myun-ga (Kim Yun-seok) offers him a chance to wipe the slate clean: all he has to do is cross the Yellow Sea to Seoul and kill a businessman. He is understandably reluctant, but this seems his only way out, and offers him a chance to track down his wife.

Everything, of course, goes horribly wrong.

Na Hong-jin’s exhilarating film is pretty much a game of two halves. For the first hour or so it’s a wholly credible portrait of a desperate life. Gu-nam lives in a crappy world, he is well aware of his status as a ‘josenjok’, unwanted and despised. Everything seems to be on its last legs, everyone is heartless and on the make. His days in the shabby milieu of Yanbian, the gruelling smuggling operation that gets him to Korea, his cold and hunger and increasing frustration and stress are graphically evoked in blues and greys, through clipped sparse dialogue and sharp editing, as he plans to kill a man he does not know.

From the clusterfuck assassination onwards, however, the film evolves into a high-octane gore-flecked black comic shocker as Gu-nam goes on the run from hordes of cops, the Korean gangster behind the hit, and Myun-ga, who re-enters the picture to cut a bloody swathe through the last hour with a butcher’s knife and hatchet. The carefully built sense of verisimilitude is first strained, then shattered, as our fugitive changes from a pitiful nobody into a resourceful killer with nine lives. This never stops the film from being entertaining, however. Na Hong-jin clearly knows what he’s doing with a camera and there are a series of pulse-pounding audacious action sequences. Moreover, his sense of telling detail and street-level scuzz never deserts him. I enjoyed the town mouse/country mouse disdain that the Seoul gangsters feel for the Yanbian mob, and Myun-ga’s appalling grasp of housekeeping. It’s just that the poignancy and sad irony that the film aims for at its resolution seem oddly misplaced after all that Fargo via Simpson/Bruckheimer bloody chaos.

This is a common feature in a lot of Eastern cinema (‘the Asian Gear-Change’?). Many kung fu dramas crunched from Laurel and Hardy slapstick to grim Deathwish revenge thriller after the third reel. Fans of this stuff aren’t going to bat an eyelid at the wildly different tones that The Yellow Sea goes through, but it just seems odd to me, like James Toback’s Fingers being spliced with The Last Boy Scout. Ah well. Kim Yun-seok and Ha Jung-woo hold the screen well, I was never bored, it’s fast and funny and edge-of-the-seat tense; it’s just that I’d still like to see the end of the film it started off being.

The Yellow Sea screens at the London Korean Film Festival on November 9. The LKFF runs from 3 to 17 November 2011. More details on the LKFF website.

Mark Stafford

Watch the trailer:

Phase IV

Phase IV

Format: Cinema

Screening dates: 22-27 October 2011

Venue: ICA, London

Format: Region 1 DVD

Release date: 23 September 2008

Distributor: Legend Films

Director: Saul Bass

Writers: Mayo Simon, John Barry

Based on the novel by: Barry N. Malzberg

Cast: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy, Lynne Frederick, thousands of ants

USA 1974

84 mins

Environmental fears have long presented a rich vein for fantastic fictions. Arthur Machen’s 1917 novella The Terror depicts a world in which normally docile animals begin to turn against humankind in a strange reflection of the horrors of the Great War. During the Cold War, the mushroom clouds of the 1950s spawned one mutated colossus after another, while the subtler, more insidious environmental fears of the 60s and 70s produced a swarm of ecological horror films, some of them very good.

Gonzo-entomology doc The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, despite being presented by an entirely fictitious, gleefully deranged mad scientist, Nils Hellstrom, who clearly can’t wait to welcome our new insect overlords. On the other side of the Pacific, Colin Eggleston’s haunting Long Weekend (1978) saw a self-absorbed suburban couple who behave inconsiderately on a beach holiday get their come-uppance from Mother Nature herself. Both of these are well worth seeing, but for sophistication, imagination and ambition, none can match Saul Bass’s Phase IV.

Famed as a graphic designer of posters and title sequences for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Stanley Kubrick (Spartacus) and Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas), Bass only got one shot at directing a feature, and by all accounts didn’t enjoy the process much, but the resulting film is a period masterpiece that is both a microcosm of contemporary progressive issues and a beautiful, intelligent science fiction film.

An unusual planetary alignment in our solar system exposes planet Earth to anomalous electromagnetic fields. Initially it seems that nothing has happened, but entomologists begin to observe odd behaviour on a very small scale: different species of ants, normally aggressive to one another, are joining forces to prey on larger animals, including humans.

The ants march across America, destroying whole towns, gnawing through wooden structures and destroying crops and livestock. In an attempt to find out what’s going on, and try to stop it, English entomologist Dr Ernest Hubbs (a frothingly good Nigel Davenport) and American mathematician James Lesko (Michael Murphy) set out to observe a colony of the super-intelligent ants from the apparent safety of a geodesic biosphere in the Arizona desert.

What follows is a long, tense stand-off between ants and humans, both enclosed within their architecturally expressive command posts: the ants build angular skyscrapers, the humans shelter in a hi-tech buckyball.

While the ants seem to have reached a mutual agreement - to destroy all other life on Earth rather than one another - the humans wage a battle of their own: Hubbs, cantankerous and autocratic, wants to destroy the ants, while the younger Lesko attempts to communicate with them by transmitting geometric forms at their structures. [As an aside, the film is curious for featuring the first ever crop circle, made by its ant stars, a couple of years before we humans developed our own in the Hampshire countryside.]

Although its interiors were shot at Pinewood, Phase IV‘s arid, ant-ravaged locations convey a convincing sense of a dying America and, as you’d expect from a first-class designer, the film looks exquisite. The two warring civilisations are presented through their contrasting environments; the human decorated with huge computers, tangles of magnetic tape and piles of computer printouts looks like a chaotic maelstrom compared to the gleaming, pristine myrmecological world shot by Ken Middleham, who also filmed the insect sequences for The Hellstrom Chronicle. A brooding score, featuring eerie synthesiser sounds from White Noise’s David Vorhaus, further accentuates the mood of alienation and impending ant-nihilation.

Read our Reel Sounds column on the soundtrack of Phase IV.

Enigmatic and intriguing, Phase IV remains ultimately ambiguous as to which future we should choose: the faceless bio-mechanical harmony of the ants, or the chaotic, destructive but emotionally rich world of the human?

Nobody can have expected this low-key, philosophical and ultimately rather downbeat film to be a commercial success, but Paramount still tried to exert control over the final cut, leading to a quarrel over its ending. Bass shot a final sequence showing the remains of the human world after the ants had won, but the studio re-edited it (perhaps finding its post-human vision too depressing) to create a more oblique solarised psychedelic montage, which still works, though I’d love to see what Bass originally intended.

An already remarkable film, Phase IV is made all the more so by being something of a one-off - Bass never made another feature, while writer Mayo Simon only wrote one more (Futureworld, a sequel to Westworld) and a pilot for the Man from Atlantis TV series, before starting an award-winning career as a playwright.

For a long time hard to see, Phase IV is now available on a no-frills DVD from Legend Films in the US, while an ant-sized, fan-led movement is petitioning to have the director’s cut made available.

Phase IV screens at the ICA, London, from Oct 22 to 27.

Mark Pilkington

Damnation Alley

Damnation Alley

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 September 2011

Distributor: Final Cut Entertainment

Director: Jack Smight

Writers: Alan Sharp, Lukas Heller

Based on the novel by: Roger Zelazny

Cast: Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Dominique Sanda

USA 1977

91 mins

The post-apocalyptic adventure Damnation Alley begins with nuclear conflict as represented by stock footage from Operation Crossbow (1965) and Earthquake (1974), before on-screen text appearing over a barren desert landscape informs the audience that ‘The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane’. Radiation has caused insect life-forms to mutate, with eight-foot-long scorpions making it dangerous to venture across the desert, while storms are as sudden as they are devastating. The military officers stationed at an air-force base in California have survived nuclear fall-out, but while Major Eugene Denton (George Peppard) and Lt Tom Perry (Kip Neven) still follow the chain of command, rebellious Lt Jake Tanner (Jan Michael Vincent) and laid-back guard Keegan (Paul Winfield) have decided to take it easy. When the base is destroyed due to a carelessly discarded cigarette, the four men board the Landmaster, a futuristic 12-wheel truck designed to tackle any terrain, and embark on the cross-country journey to Albany, New York. They are searching for the fellow survivors who have been sending out radio transmissions in the hope of rebuilding society and aim to reach their destination by taking a stretch of road that Denton has dubbed ‘Damnation Alley’ as it runs between intense radiation areas. As with most journeys, this one has its share of speed bumps, such as losing two members of the team, evading killer cockroaches and escaping from small-town psychos.

As the action takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is evoked through desert locations and superimposed radioactive skies, Damnation Alley could be generously described as a decent B-movie if it were the product of American International Pictures or New World. However, this was actually a 20th Century Fox production that carried the hefty price-tag of $17 million and was intended to be a summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, production delays caused by the inability of the special effects team to successfully realise mutated insect life resulted in the planned 1976 release being postponed to 1977. During this time, another Fox science-fiction project by the name of Star Wars (1977) opened to phenomenal business, making the desert-bound heroics of Damnation Alley immediately obsolete when compared to the saga of a galaxy far, far away.

Yet in other respects, Damnation Alley is actually ahead of its time: it fitted the definition of ‘straight-to-video’ before the rental market actually existed, predicting countless low-budget action films that passed off wide open space as post-nuclear wasteland. While the aforementioned stock footage is easy to spot, the special effects that show the effects of radiation on the Earth’s eco-system are simply embarrassing; the ‘giant’ scorpions appear with the assistance of blue screen and never pose a serious threat to the motorcycle-riding Tanner due to the lack of spatial continuity, although the armour-plated cockroaches briefly take Damnation Alley into the realms of eco-horror by eating the flesh of one team member and trapping Tanner in a department store.

As with most road movies, Damnation Alley is episodic in structure, meaning that the protagonists eventually run out of threats to deal with - a group of gun-wielding hillbillies get more screen time than the scorpions or the cockroaches because they are a more cost-effective menace - and a radioactive storm is used to wrap everything up. Some musings on post-nuclear existence are interspersed with the set-pieces; Tanner wonders if he has ‘finally gone over the edge’ when recounting his ride across the desert with a mannequin on the back of his bike, as if the dummy was his girlfriend; Keegan insists, ‘There would be a hell of a lot more people feeling and thinking, and playing baseball, and singing, and making love, and raising babies’ if militaristic routine was disregarded. The best scene is a stop-off at a sand-strewn Las Vegas casino that prompts shared nostalgias for the pre-nuclear world - the soundtrack is filled with long-gone chatter and table action - until the entrance of another survivor, European showgirl Janice (Dominique Sanda), abruptly ends the slot machine session. The team later pick up frightened teenager Billy (Jackie Earle Haley) and form a makeshift family unit, with the homely atmosphere of the Landmaster turning what should be an imposing vehicle into a glorified Winnebago. Damnation Alley is too average to deserve cult following, although any film with the line ‘This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: Killer cockroaches!’ at least warrants a footnote in the history of science-fiction cinema.

John Berra