Shackled (Belenggu)

Shackled
Shackled

Format: DVD

Release date: 25 November 2013

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Upi Avianto

Writer: Upi Avianto

Cast: Abimana Aryasatya, Avrilla, Laudya Cynthia Bella, Jajang C. Noer

Original title: Belenggu

Indonesia 2012

100 mins

Indonesian writer/director Upi’s first foray into psychological horror sticks to a well-trodden path, but Shackled has enough twists and turns in the second half to keep viewers interested. And while budget restrictions and lack of finesse prevent it from being especially gripping or frightening, Upi’s grubby visuals and claustrophobic camerawork lift what could have been a very mediocre story.

The influences are obvious from the first scene: a woozy, Lynchian dream sequence where a bedraggled man, Elang (Aryasatya), is picked up from the roadside by someone in a bunny costume with a car-load of bloodied corpses. It’s one of many gory delusions suffered by Elang, a twitchy outsider who everyone thinks might be the town’s infamous serial killer. The riff on Donnie Darko is clear, except this rabbit looks like it’s come from a cheap kid’s party where only the very young would be remotely afraid.

Elang soon falls in with an abused prostitute, Jingga (Therinne), who tries to convince the unstable loner to kill the men who raped her. Halfway through, the film shifts from Elang’s unreliable perspective to that of the policemen trying to piece together exactly what the hell is going on. While the explanation is intriguing, it’s laid on a bit thick. Anyone who’s been to Shutter Island will probably have a good idea where things are headed, but even going through the motions, Upi is able to create some bold visuals, steeped in tension and baroque religious iconography.

The horror itself is quite tame, almost comical. Elang’s frequent visions feature a mother and daughter who live next door being slaughtered by the rabbit, but the violent acts themselves are over the top. The arcs of thick blood and squelchy noises, with little shock factor, seem strange given the rest of the film’s controlled approach. They are fantasy sequences, but everything is done too seriously, and these missteps might be more to do with Upi’s inexperience with the genre.

Performances are similarly restrained, except for Aryasatya in the lead role. His bug-eyed gurning gets a bit tiresome, but unfortunately he’s given very little to do except to sweat and panic. It’s something of a relief when the plot shifts to being about him rather than trying to tell the story through his eyes.

With its rabbit hole of a narrative, Shackled is engaging when it doesn’t try to overthink things. There are some clichés, but it’s refreshing to see Indonesian cinema succeeding in going for a genre story that competes with its bigger, and much better funded, neighbours.

Richard Badley

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The Innocents

The Innocents
The Innocents

Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 December 2013

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jack Clayton

Writers: Truman Capote, William Archibald, John Mortimer

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens, Megs Jenkins, Peter Wyngarde, Clytie Jessop

UK, USA 1961

100 mins

Adapted in 1961 from Henry James’s masterpiece of ambiguity The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is one of the finest ghost stories in British cinema. With an intelligent screenplay by Truman Capote, William Archibald and John Mortimer; radiant cinematography by Freddie Francis (who went on to direct films for Hammer and Amicus, as well as the brilliant 70s oddity Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly); an eerie score by Georges Auric; and an extraordinary performance by Deborah Kerr, the film is a superbly crafted, subtle gem that remains deeply disturbing.

Read Robert Barry’s feature on the score and Daphne Oram’s electronic sound effects for the film here.

Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a repressed minister’s daughter, who has left the shelter of her father’s parish to seek employment as a governess. She is hired by a wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) to look after his orphaned niece and nephew on his country estate. On arrival at Bly House, she is charmed by the delightful Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), but a number of strange occurrences lead her to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and former disreputable servant Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who died violent, mysterious deaths after a scandalous love affair.

Whether Miss Giddens is right, or whether the ghosts are simply a manifestation of her growing derangement, is left carefully undecided in the perfectly poised original story. Clayton’s film, and Kerr’s performance, seem to lean more towards the thesis of the governess’s insanity, although both beautifully maintain enough layers of ambiguity. Flora and Miles’s angelic features and apparent sweet natures are marred by unexplained behaviour, suggestive silences and intimations of cruelty, which could corroborate Miss Giddens’s fears. As for Kerr, she is both heartbreaking and frightening in the intensity of her need for love and human attachment, and her passionate desire to ‘save’ the children may well cause their destruction instead.

At the heart of the film (and of the short story) lies a deep, dark, tortured anxiety about the innocence of children and the corruption of sex. Flora and Miles may know more than they should, and it is this terrible suspicion that so troubles the inexperienced, straight-laced Miss Giddens. Nature is the symbol of that corrupting force, of the carnal urges and predatory instincts that intrude upon the civilised, polite world of tea, corsets and lace at Bly House. The idyllic garden that surrounds the house is spoiled by defilement and savagery: a cockroach comes out of the mouth of a cherubic statue, a spider eats a butterfly on the terrace and the singing of birds sometimes sounds deafeningly menacing. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are feral presences that lurk outside the domesticated house, waiting to ‘contaminate’ the children. When Miss Giddens demands that the kindly housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), reveal what she knows, the latter wonderfully obliquely explains that Quint and Jessel used the rooms on the upper floor of the house ‘as if they were woods’, confirming that the lovers belong to the world of the wild, of filthy, depraved sexuality – to Miss Giddens’s horror.

So much is suggested, and so little shown. An atmospheric tour de force, with a tremendous sense of restraint that gives the film its evocative power, The Innocents is all about hints of shameful secrets and intimations of improper desires, set among arches and vaults, dark wooden panels and spectral candle glow, with Deborah Kerr’s anguished, moving face so often the only spot of light in the darkness. And how haunting that face and its unresolved torments are.

Virginie Sélavy

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Heaven’s Gate

Heavens Gate
Heaven's Gate

Format: Blu-ray + DVD

Release date: 25 November 2013

Distributor: Second Sight

Director: Michael Cimino

Writer: Michael Cimino

Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt

USA 1980

216 mins

‘Exhilarating and Moral’ are the words written at the entrance of the new skating rink that dominates the centre of a small town in Wyoming, and these same words can equally be understood as an ironic comment on the film itself. The exhilaration in Heaven’s Gate comes with director Michael Cimino’s obvious love of scale and movement. There is a spendthrift giddiness to the proceedings, an excess which chimes perfectly with the legends associated with the film’s production.

The opening scene is as high-spirited as the Harvard students who are shown celebrating their graduation. Cimino’s camera whirls around the lawns, first waltzing with the gals and then fighting with a rival fraternity. It is this dizzying movement, more than character or plot, that dominates the film. The exhilarating dancing will be continued, 20 years later when the action moves to Heaven’s Gate, in the roller-skating rink as a violinist plays a reel, and the townsfolk join the dance. But this commotion will give over to a dance of death, as the headlong rush becomes the confused, tragic and circular charge of violence and blood in the final showdown. Cimino creates a portrait of a marginalised community caught in the onrush of history. Individuals will battle to understand and react to changes that are too brutal and uncompromising. Many will be crushed (and several characters are literally crushed) in the headlong calamity of life.

So for the story: a wealthy ex-Harvard man, Marshal Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) returns to Johnson County on learning that new immigrants are being targeted by the cattle barons’ association, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterson). The association has drawn up a ‘death list’ of more than a hundred names. Averill doesn’t fully belong to either camp: he has been blackballed from the club where the association holds its meetings, and his university chum Billy (John Hurt) is now a gin-sodden baron, who acquiesces in murder even as he fails manically to maintain a cultured pose of insouciance. But Jim’s affections lie with Ella (Isabelle Hupert), a young prostitute who takes stolen cattle and cash from customers, and thus finds herself included on the list. One of Jim’s friends is Nick Champion (Christopher Walken), a murderer for the association, who himself nevertheless comes from the same immigrant stock as his victims.

This is where the ‘moral’ part comes in. The cynicism and anger are heartfelt – but the speed of events and switching loyalties overtake the film and its protagonists. The town meetings held in the skating rink are drowned out in lamentations and shouting, and finally gunfire; no one is clear what they want to do – including Jim – and when a decision is finally made to fight back against the association’s hired killers, many rush off in the wrong direction or are killed in the initial enthusiasm, before the association forces fire a shot.

Michael Cimino’s grand folly has accrued legends about massive waste, with entire towns built and then torn down and built again; the ruination of a major studio; and the definitive death – after a moment of brief supremacy – of the auteur in Hollywood. But now that we have the re-mastered director’s cut, we can judge for ourselves the worth of this bizarre end to the American Western. It certainly has its flaws (principally the wooden post that is Kris Kristofferson, sitting like a lump in the middle of the film) but this cut finally allows us to see the beauty – especially in the glory of the landscape, captured by Vilmos Zsigmond – and the terror of the brutal labor pains that were played out in this birth of a nation.

John Bleasdale

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This Ain’t California

This Aint California
This Ain't California

Format: Cinema, VOD

Release date: 6 December 2013

Distributor: Luxin

Director: Marten Persiel

Writers: Marten Persiel, Ira Wedel

Cast: David Nathan, Kai Hillebrand, Anneke Schwabe

Germany 2013

90 mins

As one of the protagonists in Marten Persiel’s This Ain’t California points out at the beginning, the story of Denis ‘Panik’ Paraceck starts with a legend concerning a talented yet troubled red-haired boy who then happened to become a rebellious skateboard hero in East Germany. Truth is, Denis didn’t actually exist but revealing the simple fact is giving nothing away as, strictly speaking, This Ain’t California tells about a much greater legend: the myth of a vibrant skateboarding subculture that flourished in the East during the late 1980s, created and celebrated by the ‘cool kids from Alexanderplatz’, a group of skate enthusiasts for whom riding ‘wheel-boards’ was more than just having fun. For them, it became a liberation, the ideal means of shaking off the overbearing pressure to perform, and to escape the daily grind of life under the Communist regime.

Controversially presented as a ‘hybrid documentary’, the film follows Denis from his childhood in Olvenstedt, a dismal pre-fab housing settlement near Magdeburg, in the late 1970s until the fall of the Wall in 1989. We are told that after his athletic potential was noticed at the age of six, Denis went through an intensive swimming training programme coached by his authoritarian, hard-ass father, who had himself been part of the Olympic squad. He was destined to join a specialist youth sports academy, but when his best friend Nico moved to Berlin in the mid-80s, Denis jumped at the chance and followed him. This is when things really kicked off for the two hobby skaters, who had built their first ‘board with wheels on it’ out of a pair of roller skates and the curved backrest of an old school chair made of laminated wood.

This Ain’t California is released in the UK on DVD on 10 February 2014.

Cheekily charming, fast paced and well edited with a catchy retro soundtrack, Persiel’s film takes an invigorating look behind the ‘scene’ on the eastern side of the bricks and barbed wire to make his point: in contrast to the propaganda of East Germany’s rigorous education, sports and work ethic, skateboarding was not about being bigger, better and faster than everyone else in the world, but about people’s freedom to do as they liked and dreamed – at least as long as they felt the board accelerating rapidly beneath their feet on the cracked cement.

The film’s structure is based on conversations with Denis’s closest friends, who get together for his funeral in 2011 and exchange memories with the help of private (or at least seemingly private) home videos and family photographs, black and white animation and extensive TV archive footage. The mix of touching personal story, history and nostalgia works remarkably well throughout; if anything it makes you wonder at times how much material there was to draw from given that film stock was ‘rare as gold dust’ in the East. That said, while the protagonists deal fairly openly with any speculations (‘My dad supposedly got it free from “business trips”. Who knows?’), it would have been nice if Persiel had been equally transparent about his method of mixing fact and fiction. In particular, it is essential to know (and it becomes quite obvious during the film) that some of the archive footage had to be recreated, with the director casting German model and professional skater Kai Hillebrand to portray Denis, and that his life story, as recalled in the film, is a construct of three (or more) different people. At least, Persiel now admits that everything that is in the film has happened to somebody, in some way – just not to Denis.

Yet, whether faux found footage or not, This Ain’t California is a joy ride, and not only for skateboarders or anyone else who experienced life on either side of the Berlin Wall. And perhaps it is wrong to approach the film by questioning its authenticity rather than accepting the fact that memory is always blurred, flawed and rarely complete. In the end, Persiel has crafted a film that is riveting and moving and proves remarkably ‘genuine’ in the way it evokes a time and a certain attitude towards life. That the rest is more or less a myth only makes it all the more fascinating.

Pamela Jahn

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Supernatural

Supernatural
Supernatural

Format: DVD

Release date: 18 November 2013

Distributor: BFI

Directors: Simon Langton, Alan Cooke, Peter Sasdy, Claude Whatham

Writers: Robert Muller (7 of 8 screenplays), Sue Lake (Viktoria)

Cast: Billie Whitelaw, Ian Hendry, Robert Hardy, Jeremy Brett, Gordon Jackson, Denholm Elliott, Sinéad Cusack

UK 1977

400 mins

Fevered, fervid and not a little bit fruity, Robert Muller’s anthology TV series Supernatural was broadcast by the BBC in the summer of 1977 with little fanfare, to a largely indifferent reaction, and then sat on the shelves, unrepeated, ever since. If Dead of Night, the other spooky 1970s anthology offering recently released by the BFI, was an attempt to drag the ghost story into the modern world and drop all the traditional trappings, Supernatural represents a wholesale volte-face, an enthusiastic swan dive into all things Gothic, Stygian and stylised, from the opening blast of doomy organ and shots of gargoyles onwards. It’s all set in the 19th century, with a delicious framing device wherein the Club of the Damned is gathered to hear the true-life tale of terror of a would-be member. If their story chills the club’s blood sufficiently, they will be allowed to join; if not, death awaits. We don’t see much of the club’s activities beyond the slurping of claret, so we have to assume the rigour of the entrance exam is worth the candle.

The meat of the show then consists of the likes of Robert Hardy, Jeremy Brett and Gordon Jackson relating their terrible tales, seven in all, over eight episodes, which run the gothic gamut, featuring ghosts, werewolves, doppelgangers, vampires and the reanimated dead. A common theme is of the unspeakable desires bubbling under the surface of an excessively polite and straitened society, so in Viktoria, the tale of murder, remarriage and revenge from beyond the grave, is complicated by the wicked stepfather’s barely repressed homosexual longings. In Night of the Marionettes, Jackson’s scholar has a troubling, passionate relationship with his own daughter (Pauline Moran). And in Mr Nightingale the timid titular character (Brett) brings chaos and ruin to a Hamburg family household when his libido is unleashed, via his doppelganger, shagging one daughter (Susan Mawdsley) and inducing pyromaniac ecstasy in another (Lesley-Anne Down). Perhaps it was all those stultifying conversations about fish…

If the above suggests a barrage of blatant filth and depravity, then relax, gentle reader, for Supernatural is one of the least explicit, and most literary forays into freakery that TV has created. It’s mainly about performance and dialogue; eloquent, precise and polysyllabic in the style of the works it references, Muller’s scripts (only one, Sue Lake’s Viktoria, was not his work) are as rich as Christmas cake, and clearly relished as such by a cracking cast of British thespians. The two parter Countess Ilona/The Werewolf Reunion, for instance, manages to have a theme of sexual exploitation and venereal disease, a self-confessed ‘erotomane’ as one of its characters, and features four apparently grisly deaths via lycanthrope, without showing so much as a bare buttock or a hairy hand. Its delights rest in Ian Hendry, John Fraser, Charles Kay and Edward Hardwicke having a whale of a time as the utterly despicable representatives of the male sex whom Ilona (Billie Whitelaw) has assembled for a ‘surprise’ party. Lady Sybil manages to assemble the great Denholm Elliott and former angry young man John Osborne as the loosely hinged sons of grand dame Catherine Nesbitt, for a tale of phantom visitations and wayward mesmerism. The first tale, The Ghost of Venice has Sinéad Cusack, and Robert Hardy as an aging actor, getting lost in obsession and self-deception, and the last, Dorabella, is a twisty number about vampiric infatuation. In all, there is no place for naked fumbling or method mumbling – this is all about sweaty brows and crisp pronunciation, with performances aimed at the back row, Loachian realism be damned. Near everybody here seems prone to fits of delirium and the derangement of the senses. It’s drenched in Mary Shelley, Stoker and Stevenson, and all things dark and romantic. Marionettes actually turns on the Byron/Shelley/Polidori meeting on Lake Geneva that spawned Frankenstein. And it’s telling that what seems to be a gratuitous close up of a see-through blouse in one episode turns, via a dissolve, into a literary reference.

This is not to suggest that Supernatural’s charms are purely verbal. Shot on the customary, for the time, mix of 8 mm film and standard videotape, the series has a distinctive look, revelling in Dutch angles, chiaroscuro lighting and deliberate compositions. Some effects are clearly borne of budget, like the close-ups of woodcut drawings shot in ‘wibble vision’, which replace expensive exterior shots of period Venice and Hamburg, or the use of negative to create Mr Nightingale’s visions of ‘black seagulls’; other techniques show a creative mastery of the technology available. Overlays and dissolves are used extensively, but most of the show’s mood is conjured by stagecraft, sleight of hand and elaborate set design. One gets the feeling that every ornate candlestick holder or piece of carved wood from the BBC backlot was used thrice over to fill out the Olde European Castles, Mansions and dodgy roadside Inns required.

Supernatural, in all its florid excesses, is an honest attempt to revel in the possibilities of the gothic genre, and while at times it skirts close to camp, there is no winking at the audience here, no arch references to modern mores. It may be played to the hilt, but it’s played straight nonetheless. The stories all have something to say about sexual politics, repression and desire, and are packed with sly and unexpected moments and strange details. How much you enjoy it rests upon your tolerance for its wordy, slow-burning storytelling, its emphasis on atmosphere over sensation, and its utter lack of interest in humdrum reality. Personally I found it irresistible. Some episodes work better than others: Ghost is too stagey, and ultimately too silly, and Dorabella doesn’t ring enough changes with its vampire schtick to pay off, but all have their moments. Mr Nightingale is gleefully subversive and cruel, Lady Sybil is The Old Dark House with weird psychology, and The Night of the Marionettes is an extraordinary thing, with its German expressionistic stage sets and freaky living puppets. All in all, it’s smart, engaging stuff, and well worth a wallow.

Mark Stafford

Drug War

Drug War
Drug War

Format: DVD

Release date: 28 October 2013

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Johnnie To

Writers: Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, Xi Yu

Cast: Honglei Sun, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Wallace Chung

Original title: Du zhan

China, Hong Kong 2012

107 mins

Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To has attacked the crime genre from all sorts of angles. In Election the focus was Triad leaders vying for power in a Shakespearean saga, and in Sparrow it was the incidental, often comedic lives of small-time pickpockets. He’s explored good guys, of course, if you can count the barmy, supernatural methods displayed by Mad Detective’s Inspector Bun as being on the right side of the law. By comparison, Drug War will no doubt be regarded as To’s most straightforward, ‘normal’ crime thriller to date, but it is still a pretty intense affair.

Fans of the director might be saddened to learn that this isn’t as overtly experimental as his previous works, but at its core it remains a gamble. Drug War is a big-budget co-production between Hong Kong and mainland China, and making an action-packed crime movie to get past the notorious Chinese censors was never going to be easy. Already out of the frame are classic To themes like honour among thieves or any glamorisation of drugs or guns, but To’s personality still shines through in the carefully composed camerawork and the vicious shoot-outs that ramp up in the final third.

The plot is standard super-cop versus super-criminal stuff. A relentless policeman, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun), has mid-level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) land right in his lap. The penalty in China for cooking meth is death – so, with little coercion, Choi is ready to bargain for his life. Soon the pair are brokering deals to tease out the real king pins behind a gargantuan drug smuggling operation.

For the most part, Zhang is stony-faced; the only glimpse of personality comes out when he has to impersonate a chuckling drug runner named HaHa and mainline cocaine to prove his worth to someone higher up the food chain. Like the rest of the cops, Zhang is dogged and incorruptible, focused on the job at hand, only allowing himself a few hours of sleep a day. A line at the beginning is telling: after arresting someone he befriended while undercover, who then accuses him of betrayal, Zhang simply responds, ‘No, I’m a cop, I busted you.’ This is someone who does not ‘go native’ while on the job.

Choi is equally driven, but only to serve, or rather preserve, his own existence. At first he seems compliant, but as the drug network gets more and more shaky, he becomes increasingly slippery, guarding vital secrets in case he needs a bargaining chip later on. Choi’s mounting desperation is constantly prodded by Zhang’s blind ambition to snare the bigger fish, inevitably leading to a bloody, drawn-out showdown that allows To to break free of the hard-nosed realism of a police procedural, with all guns blazing.

It’s obvious that in a Chinese-produced cop film justice will prevail, but in To’s world it comes at a huge cost. This is a war of attrition on both sides. Imagine Heat but with none of the family soap operas, friendship, back-stabbing or macho posturing. It might sound boring, but Drug War’s intention is to portray stark reality over theatrics. Taking on the drug trade is a war fought through hard work and sheer luck, with no one turning the tide through a rousing speech or superior firepower. To has crafted something bleak yet compelling, and proves he can do mainstream crime tales just as well as edgier ones.

Richard Badley

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Blue Is the Warmest Colour

Loosely based on the French graphic novel Le bleu est une couleur chaude by Julie Maroh, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is an oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, featuring the coming-of-age of middle-class high school girl Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc), who instantly and desperately falls for foxy art student Emma (Léa Seydoux), from the moment she spots her on the street in Lille until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. Below, Sally-Anne Hickman takes an illustrated look at the film, released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 22 November 2013, and on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/B) on 17 March 2014.

Blue is the Warmest Colour_1 Blue is the Warmest Colour_2
Blue is the Warmest Colour_3
Comic Strip Review by Sally-Anne Hickman
More information on Sally-Anne Hickman can be found here.

Schalcken the Painter

Schalcken
Schalcken the Painter

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 18 November 2013

Distributor: BFI

Director: Leslie Mehagey

Writer: Leslie Mehagey

Based on: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter’

Cast: Jeremy Clyde, Maurice Denham, Cheryl Kennedy, John Justin, Charles Gray

UK, 1979

70 mins

First aired on the BBC on 23rd December 1979, Leslie Mehagey’s Schalcken the Painter is lush, weird, postmodern and creepy. Based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ghost story, both works craft an unsettling fiction around real 17th-century Dutch painters, Godfried Schalcken and his tutor, Gerrit Dou. Pitching his script as an arts lecture that morphs into a horror story, Megahey plays with Le Fanu’s use of historical figures by presenting the film as a documentary, a trick aided by its screening as part of the arts series Omnibus. The film meticulously recreates the interiors made famous by the Dutch masters, lifting them from the gallery wall, and having our protagonists inhabit them.

The film’s opening is slow and elegant, establishing Dou (Maurice Denham) and Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde) as deeply unsympathetic characters. Despite the film’s aesthetic beauty, the events it depicts are ugly, as Dou willingly sells his young niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), into a grotesque but lucrative marriage. Despite his sincere affections for Rose, Schalcken is so paralysed by his own aspiration to succeed as an artist under Dou that he does nothing to help the woman he claims to love.

The film works on two levels: firstly, as a slow-burning morality tale in which we wait with unpleasant anticipation for Schalcken’s punishment; and secondly, as a critique on the relationship between art and commerce, sex and money. Thus we return to the ghost story as arts lecture, with the film commenting on the commodification of 17th-century Dutch painting, where private patronage led artists away from spiritual or lyrical subjects towards depicting the plush interiors of the people controlling the purse-strings.

As for the film’s Schalcken, after he trades passion for ambition, we spy on him visiting a parade of prostitutes and employing peasants as models, who we watch undress and pose. A product of its time, Schalcken the Painter is part feminist attack on the brutality of marriage contracts, part exploitation movie as we’re treated to plenty of female flesh. However, the film’s climactic scene undercuts any earlier titillation with an image that is horrific, as opposed to erotic.

The film’s Gothic flashes, matched with the deadpan conceit that what we are watching is a documentary, intensify the contrast between the veracity of the film’s period details and its supernatural elements. In particular, the real Schalcken’s celebrated representation of candlelight is exquisitely mimicked, and yet it is this feature of his painting that is dramatised to suggest the corruption of the character’s soul.

It’s difficult to imagine this as festive viewing. But like Jonathan Miller’s stunning adaptation of M. R. James’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You, also produced by Omnibus for the BBC’s BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series, this is no cosy Dickensian tale. Yet where Miller’s work is visceral, Schalcken the Painter is typified by a cold restraint, like the paintings it honours. However, beneath its cool intellectualism there lurks a pessimism about the human condition that chills to the bone.

A cult classic, not to be missed.

Stephanie King

Computer Chess

Computer Chess
Computer Chess

Format: Cinema

Release date: 22 November 2013

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Andrew Bujalski

Writer: Andrew Bujalski

Cast: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins

USA 2013

89 mins

Those of us who remember the early days of computers and an era before technology became the everyday fabric of our social and working existence can’t but have a soft spot for Computer Chess. The fourth feature from Andrew Bujalski, a US filmmaker whose films, including Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, ignited the relatively short-lived ‘mumblecore’ trend of low-budget American independent filmmaking, it is described by its producers as an ‘artificially intelligent’ comedy. Though a little too reductive and pleading for attention, the tag is not a million miles wide of the mark. The winner of the prestigious Arthur P. Sloan Award, an achievement recognising a film based around the theme of science and/or technology, Computer Chess is by some considerable margin the director’s most accomplished, accessible and prescient work.

Computer Chess is set in and around an isolated roadside motel over the course of a 1980s weekend conference, where a group of obsessive software programmers have convened to pit their latest refinements in machine chess and the still-developing field of artificial intelligence against a somewhat circumspect chess master. One of the junior programmers attending the conference, a singularly unappetising banquet of cheap plaid suits, bad coffee and bland interiors, begins to suspect that the computer for which he is responsible has developed the ability to detect the difference between a human and an artificial opponent. The computer begins to display elements of self-consciousness, rather like a benign HAL from Kubrick’s 2001. Meanwhile, the junior programmer’s own attempts to engage with the sole female attendee at the conference, about whom a great deal of fuss is made, is punctured by social awkwardness and a preference for interaction with keyboards and motherboards over humans.

Computer Chess is released in the UK in a Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray) edition on 20 January 2014.

Gesturing towards the semi-virtual, hyper-social and dehumanised landscape that is now our everyday reality, Computer Chess effectively anticipates how insecurity and a lack of self-confidence would come to be rendered of little consequence in a brave new digital era, an environment dominated by the iPad, the iPhone and the age of the app. Perfectly capturing a period in which technology seemed within easy reach – although it still had to be accessed by middle-aged men with terrible haircuts, synthetic suits and spectacles the size of sofas – the film’s most genuinely astonishing aspect is its beautifully articulated visual aesthetic. Like Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s recent No, which was filmed on Umatic VHS cameras to capture the visual tone of 1980s Chile, Computer Chess uses period equipment to incredible effect.

Sourcing archival, analogue vacuum tube-based video cameras, Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky deliver a work that really looks and sounds as if it belongs to another time. There is an innocence to the look of the film that we know now to be utterly at odds with the seismic social and technological changes that it anticipates. That innocence is accentuated by the film’s aesthetic and it is interesting to imagine how younger viewers will react to the film’s abstract wonder for clunky screens and dot-matrix monitors that would soon completely reconfigure and change our lives. As filmmaking becomes more and more reliant on effects and artificially generated images, it is encouraging to see directors like Bujalski reflecting on shifts in film and technology in general. That he does so in a film as witty and engaging as Computer Chess is all the more invigorating.

Jason Wood

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