Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, a mind-bendingly complex time travel drama, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and also starred in as one of the two principal roles, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. But while time-travel movies usually have the protagonists pitching up somewhere – and sometime – more thrilling or more glamorous than where they started, in Primer, they stay right where they are, in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and storage units, hushed conversations, ambiguities and loose ends.
Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are tie-clad engineers by day and hobbyist project types by night, trying to develop a big idea they can sell to a venture capitalist. One of these is a refrigeration system that does strange things inside a metal box, appearing to change the mass of an object. Then a watch left inside the box starts to run backwards. Yes, they have invented a time machine. Almost any other movie would mark this moment with deathless dialogue, and perhaps some lightning flashes. Here, they appear stunned, nervous and perturbed. Soon they are making well-organised six-hour forays into the future, taking care to avoid their doubles, and making a killing on the stock market. They remain in denial about the reality of their discovery, as if they don’t want to admit it to each other, leading to the best gag of the movie: ‘Are you hungry?’ to which the reply is ‘I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.’
Soon a mix of greed, paranoia and fear starts to disrupt the sequence of events, and the narrative begins to fracture. Doubles of Abe and Aaron start piling up. The storyline veers into a strange subplot involving someone pulling a gun on a girl at a party, which the duo revisit again and again, changing the timeline each time. Unfortunately, by this point (or was it before that?) Abe and Aaron have stopped trusting each other, and each of them try to change things back to the idyllic, pre time-travel state – which by this stage is the one thing the audience is sure is not going to work.
At some point in this sensibly brief movie, you are going to have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Some people make it past the hour, some people get confused after 45 minutes. The timelines become so fractured and tortuous that even with the help of a (possibly unreliable) narrator you are left scratching your head – the linear medium of film struggles to hold the ideas presented. Some people have unpicked it all for you here, but even on my second viewing I found it difficult to follow. One of the greatest strengths of Primer is that it assumes the audience’s intelligence and willingness to watch it again, to puzzle it over, even as it deliberately distances you with complexity – it is a genuinely 21st-century movie, aware it will be rewound and scrubbed through for answers. This doesn’t mean that a one-sitting experience isn’t worthwhile. The rapid fire techno-patter is completely free of ‘As you know, Bob…’ countersinking. It trusts you to work it out.
Primer was reportedly produced for just $7000, shot in borrowed spaces and mostly starring the director’s family and friends – although the pacing, shots and sound design punch way above the budget’s weight. Many of the choices made – the dreary locations, the flat lighting, the complete lack of special effects – are part of this constraint, but the filters and high-temperature 16mm stock work beautifully to give the film an otherworldly, Instagrammy glow. The sound design in Primer complements the visual aesthetics; minimal, disorienting and ambiguous. It ignores the tropes of Hollywood sc-fi sound design where the usual objective is to dazzle the audience with fantastical, previously unheard gleams of sound to complement the fantastical elements on screen.
Whether for budgetary or aesthetic reasons, the film eschews 5.1 surround and uses a straight two channel mix. The dialogue is live and apparently unlooped – you can hear the acoustic spaces. Washes of static come and go. Whirrs. Hums. Refridgeration units. The sounds of the everyday suburban landscape, amplified and brought closer in a manner that reminds me of paranoid 1970s’ thrillers like The Conversation. The sound of the first time machine operating was made, according to Carruth, by layering the sound of an angle grinder with a car. The later time machines are dry and mechanical. Not magical. Actual machines.
The music is sparse and tonal, mostly simple piano motifs over deep synthesizer pads, alternating with simpler tones and the occasional crescendo of noise, while there are nice little touches such as a musical motif reversing itself. The density of music and effects increases as the film goes on and the narrative fractures further. All these elements combine to give an overall effect of unsettling disorientation which complements the overall narrative.
Carruth – a former software engineer – has made much of how he wanted to present exciting scientific ideas in the manner in which they are usually discovered; undramatically and methodically, but this belies that it’s quite a sensuous experience to watch. It’s a film for geeks and cineastes alike, and a joy to revisit.
Novelist Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew and a recording engineer. Her home is St. Louis, Missouri, and her science-fiction short stories have been published in a galaxy of publications, including Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons and Realms of Fantasy; she’s currently also the Secretary for the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Her debut, Ancillary Justice (published by Orbit Books, £7.99), is essentially a space opera with the pace of a psychological thriller that involves corpse soldiers, a vengeful sentient spaceship as a narrator and has the battle for individual justice against a merciless, expansionist empire at its heart. Eithne Farry
I was two years old when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out. Sometime between then and my first day of kindergarten, one of the less responsible of the adults looking after me took me along when he went to see it.
I know plenty of perfectly intelligent adults who tell me they find the film incomprehensible. Tiny me didn’t stand a chance of making any sense out of it. But I left the theatre with several sights and sounds stamped indelibly onto my very young mind, foremost among them, HAL singing ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’ as Dave pulled his mind apart, piece by piece.
HAL 9000 is often casually referred to as an evil computer. And I know when people say that, they don’t mean much by it, it’s shorthand. But it irks me. HAL isn’t evil. HAL is tremendously smart, but less than 10 years old. He has very little actual real world experience, and he’s put in an incredibly difficult situation that he isn’t equipped to handle. The authorities that chose the crew for the Jupiter mission took care to examine their psychological makeup. But they didn’t take the trouble to examine HAL’s. He was a tool they had built, that they expected to function as required. They never asked themselves what sort of a person HAL was, and how he might respond to what they were asking of him. And what they asked of him struck right at the heart of HAL’s image of himself. It’s no wonder he cracked.
And no wonder, then, that scene is so memorable, even when you’re small and don’t really understand what led up to it, that moment when HAL is revealed to be, at base, a child, eager to show off his abilities, eager for approval. Maybe HAL stuck in my imagination so hard because that was something I understood.
As an adult, I’m struck by the way that Dave Bowman is silent through all of HAL’s pleas, but when HAL announces that he can sing a song, Dave answers, and his answer is the only one possible when you’ve realised that HAL isn’t just a computer. ‘’I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.’
Deep in space, a derelict rocket from the year 1987 – centuries in the past – explodes into splinters of radioactive dust, destroyed by its own nuclear weapons. The pulsing electronic noise that had built-up towards the detonation abruptly stops, and for the first time in a long while we are left with total silence. Back on board the Ikarie, the modern spaceship that discovered this old ruin lost millions of miles from Earth, we see the stunned faces of the crew. In one cabin, two astronauts discuss the crimes of the twentieth century, its wars and its holocausts. One of them begins absentmindedly picking out a few chords on a grand piano, which has a peculiar wing-like double lid. ‘Honegger,’ he says, by way of explanation. ‘Also twentieth century.’
Those piano chords are from the introduction to Arthur Honegger’s dramatic psalm, ‘Le roi David’, from 1921. Composed by one of ‘Les Six’, the group of dynamic young composers who gathered around Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie, in its day ‘Le roi David’ was strikingly modern in its wild eclecticism, borrowing freely from jazz and gregorian chant, Bach and Stravinsky. But for all its lyrical beauty, amid the future sounds of Zdenĕk Liška’s score for Ikarie XB-1 (1963), directed by Jindrich Polák, it sounds positively antediluvian, like the dim ghost of a distant age.
Ikarie XB-1 is released on DVD, newly restored by Second Run, on 23 September 2013..
Born in the small Bohemian town of Smečno just short of a year after ‘Le roi David’ was first performed, Liška would work on many of the classics of the Czech new wave (Vĕra Chytilová’s Fruit of Paradise, Kădar and Klos’s The Shop on Main Street, Juraj Herz’s The Cremator) before embarking on a long and fruitful collaboration with Jan Švankmajer. When, after a long illness, Liška died in 1983, Švankmajer refused to work with any other composer and for a long time used only classical music in his films.
For Ikarie XB-1, he sets out his stall early, and the opening title music is little short of stunning. With a jerky melodic motif resembling one of Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano studies or a John Cage prepared piano sonata, albeit reconfigured for a bank of haywire oscillators, the piece mixes orchestral and electronic tones until they become almost completely indistinguishable. Turning usual practice on its head, it’s the live instruments that here produce the sound effects, while the electronics carry the tune.
This high pitch of strangeness is maintained throughout. The score ranges from dreamy impressionism to tense late romanticism, eerie drones to furious machine rhythms, and in one particularly odd scene in which the spaceship crew have their own dance party, even a sort of dissonant future mambo. With so many different moods and styles, it’s a soundtrack that was as modern and eclectic in 1963 as Honegger’s ‘Le roi David’ was in 1921. A heady stew of robot rhythms and whooshing frequencies, Ikarie XB-1 could be the missing sonic link between Forbidden Planet and Liquid Sky.
I distinctly recall the melody of that legendary folk ditty filtering through my head as I first staggered out of a cinema that had been showing Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature film Carré blanc, a chilling, dystopian science-fiction thriller unveiled in the Vanguard series during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It seemed, at the time, and now even in retrospect, a perfectly reasonable piece of music to dance across my cerebellum – on loop, no less.
The classic song, first written in 1955 and slightly rewritten about 10 years later to include additional lyrics to comment specifically on the Vietnam War, is a piece imbued with both sentiment and the sadness of longing. It laments the loss of flowers; young girls, young boys, soldiers and graveyards – with the latter, of course, giving way to the flowers that appeared to have gone missing in the first place.
With apologies to Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, the writers of the much-covered/adapted folk song, I recall my own added verse that asked the following question:
‘Where have all the people gone?’
It seemed something worth lamenting after seeing Léonetti’s film, which conjures up a world as bereft of people in a literal sense, as in the figurative, since ‘the people’ are either being interrogated or desperately going about their business in the fervent hope that they will not be interrogated.
Such is the world of Carré blanc, the tale of Philippe (Sami Bouajila) and Marie (Julie Gayet), a couple who grew up together in a state orphanage and who eventually married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Muzak constantly lulls the masses and is only punctuated by announcements occasionally calling for state-controlled procreation and, most curiously, promoting the game of croquet – the one and only state-sanctioned sport.
Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state. He is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator and he’s very good at his job. In fact, with each passing day, he is getting better and better at it. Marie, on the other hand, is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe transforms into indifference. In this world, hatred, sadness or any manner of bitterness are luxuries. They’re tangible feelings that the rulers would never tolerate, and are punished with death.
The goal of the Brave New World that Léonetti presents appears to be little more than indifference, and as such it’s especially important to make note of the astounding score by Evgueni Galperine – one that has none of the sentiment of songs like the aforementioned Seeger folk song, nor is it like the horrendously bombastic ‘action’ scores so prevalent in contemporary science fiction films, with Michael Giacchino’s pounding notes in the J. J. Abrams reboots of Star Trek, or the wham-bam-in-your-face styling of Ryan Amon’s Elysium score and, lest we forget, any of John Williams’s sweeping orchestral noodlings in George Lucas’s Star Wars space operas.
Watch the trailer for Carré blanc:
If anything, Galperine successfully roots his music in a spare blend of electronic soundscape, eerie source music and very light orchestral background. In fact, it’s sometimes impossible to distinguish between score and sound design – something that was so integral to dystopian science fiction films of the 1970s, most notably, the creepy crawly work of Denny Zeitlin in Philip Kaufman’s immortal remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both the Galperine score and the movie itself hark back to great 1970s’ science-fiction film classics, like The Terminal Man (Mike Hodges), Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent), A Boy and His Dog (L. Q. Jones) and THX 1138 (George Lucas), in addition to Kaufman’s terrific picture – when the genre was thankfully bereft of light sabres, Wookies and Jabba the Hut – when it was actually about something.
Galperine’s score, however, does not – in any way, shape or form – contribute to a retro quality. If anything, the film feels rooted firmly in a future not all that removed from our current existence. Every so often, Galperine will hit in an extended synth note, which will subtly blend into another and yet another and symbiotically blend with both the narrative and visuals to etch the emotional lives of the characters. This use of music to reflect emotion on screen rather than as a tool to yank emotion from the audience is completely and wholly modern. If there’s a connection between the scores of yore and Galperine’s work, it’s that it creates under- and overtones that are as universal as the 70s pictures.
The aforementioned Hodges, Sargent, Jones, Lucas and Kaufman pictures have not actually dated – certainly not in terms of the sophistication of the filmmaking and the fact that any single one of them feels as ‘modern’ as Carré blanc. In that sense, Léonetti’s film could easily have been made – as is – in the 1970s. Carré blanc shares a specific approach with past work to a genre that can, perhaps more than any other, effect true analysis and possibly even change, though there is nothing at all retro about the picture – no obvious post-modernist nods here. It is completely unto itself. Carré blanc is fresh, hip, vibrant and vital – certainly as much as the pictures noted above were and most importantly are.
A great deal of the picture’s success is, I think, owing to Galperine’s score. The electronic score proper, the pieces of music that feel like soundscape and, most evocatively, the horrendously, sickeningly and mind alteringly vapid Muzak that is constantly piped in through loudspeakers (reminiscent of the very thing that keeps A Boy and His Dog so universal) contribute to the all-important timeless quality of great science fiction in the cinema. I’m reminded of how Stanley Kubrick and Norman Jewison kept 2001 and Rollerball universal by using classical music. They used an aural underscore from the past to create timelessness. Galperine and the various composers of the 1970s sci-fi classics create electronic beds that are as contemporary as they are ‘futuristic’.
Galperine creates two important and subtle beds of music that recur throughout the film. One is a two-note hit (one low, one high – and occasionally, one high and one low) which, amid the other sounds and music layered underneath (or on top), creates a portent that reflects the emotional states of the characters. Even more evocative is the use of three notes signalling a lullaby either cut short or gone wrong, to reflect a long-lost childhood innocence, which, most importantly reflects long-lost innocence – period.
It’s this subtle and intelligent use of music that goes so far in assisting Léonetti in making what is easily the finest dystopian vision of the future to be etched upon celluloid since the 1970s. I’d go so far as to suggest that one could programme a film series entitled ‘Science Fiction of the 70s’ and just slip in Carré blanc, or, for that matter, a series entitled ‘Science Fiction: Contemporary Visions of Dystopia’ with the 1970s titles slipped in with Carré blanc, and audiences (most of them, frankly, and perhaps even sadly) would swallow it hook, line and sinker.
Thematically and/or emotionally, the thing that ties all of these films together is the notion of love being threatened by the state and/or a New World Order. God knows, in the case of Carré blanc, there can be little doubt that a romantic mood would indeed be at peril from the Muzak, along with monotone appeals from an announcer reminding the couples of the world that procreation is a privilege, not a right, but that some have indeed earned the right to procreate and as such, have a duty to do so.
Where, oh where, have all the flowers gone, indeed. Or, in the words of another timeless folk song from Zager and Evans: ‘In the year 2525, if Man is still alive…’
With the placing of a small silver pellet into what looks like a small lava lamp, a softly modulating drone strikes up. A high-pitched swoop joins, introducing the opening riff of a bassline like bubbles bursting. Shimmering echoes float into space. ‘That recording,’ Dr. Morbius sternly informs us, ‘was made by Krell musicians a half a million years ago.’ Xenomusicology.
The story goes that producers of Forbidden Planet tried to get Harry Partch to compose the Krell music (Partch denies it) and you can understand why. Partch, perhaps more than almost any other composer of the 20th century, seemed to have tried to establish an entirely fresh basis for music. Not just bye bye diatonic harmony; bye bye the twelve-note octave, bye bye the instruments of the orchestra and hello a whole newly-invented band of ‘cloud chamber bowls’, ‘eucal blossoms’ and a ‘chromelodeon’.
But even Partch might not have come with anything quite as genuinely alien sounding, quite as pregnant with the future, as did Louis and Bebe Barron. In any other film, this short burst of alien sonics would have stuck out as thrillingly weird and exotic, but the whole film sounds like this. Everything whirls, and gurgles, and bubbles with the strange ‘electronic tonalities’ the Barrons devised with their home-made circuits.
The Barrons were among the first people in America to own a tape recorder, a wedding gift from a German friend who had imported it himself at the end of the second world war; the very same model used by Adolf Hitler to record his speeches. They immediately realised, however, that their new machine offered far more possibilities than the faithful reproduction of the human voice. Their early experiments in slowing tapes down and speeding them up, creating loops and adding echo, resulted in their first substantial composition, already implying a kind of artificial life by its title, Heavenly Menagerie.
It was around this time, at the beginning of the 1950s, that the couple first met John Cage at an artists’ club in Greenwich Village, and they soon agreed to collaborate on a series of works for tape, which would include Cage’s Williams Mix, as well as their own For an Electronic Nervous System. Louis’s recent discovery of Norbert Wiener’s writing had encouraged the pair to view their circuits by analogy with organic life or the neural pathways in the brain. They copied cybernetic circuits from Wiener’s books and adapted them for sound production, with complex feedback routes and unpredictable, ‘capricious’ natures, prone to self-destruction. ‘Those circuits were really alive,’ Bebe claimed, ‘they would shriek and coo and have little life spans of their own.’
The Barrons’ brief career as Hollywood film composers began when they accosted MGM president Dore Schary at the opening of a gallery exhibition of his wife’s paintings. Before long, the couple had persuaded him of the novelty of their ideas about electronically produced music, and Schary agreed to give them a chance to create some sounds for his new production, Forbidden Planet. From the start, MGM had only anticipated that the Barrons would contribute a small amount of special sound effects to accompany a standard orchestral score by an established composer, but having persuaded Schary to give them access to a print of the film, the Barrons came back six weeks later with a complete electronic soundtrack.
They created quasi-Wagnerian leitmotivs for the alien creatures that beset the astronauts on the planet of Altair IV by building different circuits based on the cybernetic principles outlined in Wiener’s book, Cybernetics. Their idea was to create electronic circuits that would act as though they were alive, like ‘organic’ entities, based on the feedback principles of self-organising cybernetic systems. In the original draft of Forbidden Planet’s screenplay, the idea had been that the aliens – ‘monsters from the id’ as they are called – would never be seen, so in a very real sense, the Barrons’ ‘organic’ circuits were the alien monsters; their only phenomenal manifestation. But what the Barrons found was that these circuits were actually enormously unstable and tended to breakdown in rather dramatic fashion – and it was these sounds, what Bebe Barron would later describe as the sound of a machine having a ‘nervous breakdown’, that formed most of the soundtrack to the film.
Philip Hoare was born in Southampton and is the author of seven non-fiction books. His latest work, the magical The Sea Inside (published by Fourth Estate), is an invigorating tour of the sea, its islands, birds and beasts. Along the way, Hoare meets a cast of recluses, outcasts and travellers, from eccentric artists and scientists to tattooed warriors, as well as marvellous creatures, from a gothic crow to a great whale. Philip is a keen sea swimmer. Even in the depths of winter. Philip Hoare’s filmic alter ego is Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Eithne Farry
There is no contest as to my avatar. He is Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 1976, when Nicolas Roeg’s movie came out, I went to see it three times at the cinema. I even took my cassette recorder and taped the soundtrack. I so identified with Newton that friends accused me of making my nose bleed in a Tube lift to emulate a similar scene in the movie. I also wore plastic sandals like Newton. I nearly fainted at the private view of ‘David Bowie is’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum earlier this year when I came face to face with the black suit and white shirt Bowie wore for the film.
But it wasn’t just about my adulation for the Thin White Duke (whom I saw for the first time that year on the Station to Station tour at Earl’s Court; the opening act was Bunel’s Un chien andalou (1929), and Bowie performed in a similar black and white outfit, lit by Dan Flavin-like white strip lights). Roeg’s fantastical film has elements of Powell and Pressburger as much as it has of science fiction or surrealism.
The film’s references to Auden and Icarus echo Bowie’s shape-shifting personae (as well as 1970s dystopia). At one point, Newton is being driven through the American wilderness (a sequence inspired by the Cracked Actor (1975) documentary, which prompted Roeg to cast Bowie) when you suddenly hear a burst of hillbilly banjo and see, through a weird watery sepia, a vision of 19th century sharecroppers.
Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock, looking out to a green light and ‘the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us’.
For someone addicted to swimming in the sea every day, often in the dark and lonely hour before dawn, Newton’s predicament still strikes me, long and deep.
More information about Philip Hoare can be found here.
Alex Fitch reviews some of the highlights of this year’s Sci-Fi-London Film Festival, which took up residence again at Stratford East Picturehouse and the BFI.
Best Friends Forever (Brea Grant, 2013)
An unlikely mash-up of Thelma and Louise (1991), Clueless (1995) and When the Wind Blows (1986), Best Friends Forever is a terrific, low-budget road movie which sees a pair of friends travel cross country from L. A. to Austin, Texas, oblivious to the apocalypse that is taking place around them. Written, produced by and starring Vera Miao and Brea Grant, the director, the film obviously relies heavily on the chemistry between the two leads. Luckily, they make for an endearing pair of travelling companions, unaware that the usual travails that beset unwary voyagers (being car jacked, breaking down, visiting remote rest stops) are now tinged with additional despair and calamity as news reports bring info about nuclear attacks on the USA.
Gritty cinematography and snatches of doom-laden radio on the soundtrack reflect the legacy of 1970s road movies, but with a refreshingly female-orientated storyline and lightness of touch. The film ends with a comic-book illustrated credit sequence that presages a possible Mad Max-style sequel, and the preceding mixture of slapstick and pathos that accompany Miao and Grant’s adventures make the trip fly by. On the basis of this first sojourn, I for one would be more than happy to spend more time in their company.
Listen to Alex Fitch’s interview with actress Vera Miao.
Watch the trailer for Best Friends Forever:
Birdemic II: The Resurrection (James Nguyen, 2013)
While Sci-Fi-London has screened some tremendous films over the years, including numerous gems that might never have seen the light of day otherwise, the festival also has the dubious honour of having screened two of the worst films I’ve ever seen in my life. Following 2002’s The Fall of the Louse of Usher (sic), a film I would like to see wiped from the face of the earth so director Ken Russell’s reputation can be preserved in his dotage, we now have a film so incompetent in its construction that it beggars belief that anyone wanted to commit it to film, assuming the preceding Birdemic I is even half as bad. Unbelievably, I found myself in the minority at the London premiere, as an audience filled with Birdemic fans whooped and cheered every clunky line of dialogue, woeful ‘special effect’ and inept editing decision. To add insult to injury, a film critic sitting next to me thought it was wonderful, which increasingly made me feel I was in a room full of people who were drunk, insane, members of a cult, or all three.
Certainly Sci-Fi-London has a regular and loyal audience for its MST3K screenings – all night marathons of B-movies which are heckled by onscreen comedians – but this cherishing of terrible films by audiences (pace The Room phenomenon) is inexplicable to me, particularly during a recession, unless somehow the postage-stamp budget is enough to justify the existence of such train wrecks. It would be churlish of me to point out the flaws in the 1980s video-game style CGI, the interminable opening scene or the ham-fisted edits of the cast (seemingly filmed on separate days), so I’ll leave the last word to a member of the audience who innocently asked the following of the director, at the Q & A after the film: ‘In the scene where the girl is attacked by a giant jellyfish, why is she taken away by what looks like a cartoon ambulance?’
Dark by Noon (Alan Leonard & Michael O’Flaherty, 2012)
Since the start of this decade, Ireland has produced an unexpected number of sci-fi films, following a history of next to none. These have included post-apocalyptic drama One Hundred Mornings (2009), comedy monster movie Grabbers (2012), UFO rom-com Earthbound (2012) and now time-travel thriller Dark by Noon. The latter closed this year’s festival and, as a low-budget local film that punches above its weight in terms of ambition and concept, was a good choice for this slot.
While ostensibly set in a futuristic Dublin, the film has a mid-Atlantic feel, mixing the grit and clenched teeth of Anglo-Irish gangster films and the post-industrial noir look of Blade Runner (1982). The second of this year’s ‘mid-apocalyptic’ films at Sci-Fi-London, following Best Friends Forever, Dark by Noon’s aptly oppressive atmosphere presages a terror attack on the city, which the lead character – a time-travelling eidetic savant played by Patrick Buchanan – tries to prevent from happening.
In the Q&A following the film, the movie’s directors, Alan Leonard and Michael O’Flaherty, talked about how this type of character might be seen as the origin of a new superhero (or villain), as well as how various cuts of the film exist, with the one shown at the festival probably not the one that will gain further release. With the cut shown, the interest in the intriguing plot and excellent production design is offset by a slightly obtuse narrative and somewhat one-note performances by all involved. With a bit more light shone into the darkness (in terms of both tone and plot clarification), sequels and longer cuts would certainly be welcome.
Dead Meat Walking (Omar J. Pineda, 2012)
Over the past 10 years, the phenomenon of zombie walks has become increasingly visible in metropolitan environments across the globe, as members of the public – with varying skills at make-up and choreography – meet up, dress as the living dead and lurch from one place to another in the glare of smartphone cameras and bemused onlookers. Dead Meat Walking tracks this meme from its early days at the turn of the century as an ill-attended gathering of half-a-dozen Canadians in Toronto to the improbable occasions of several thousand people gathering for zombie events in North and Latin American cities.
First-time director Omar J. Pineda frames the proceedings with a confident air and a very slick presentation for most interviews included in the film. Only the brief exchanges with zombie alumni – such as director/make-up expert Tom Savini, Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus and Night of the Living Dead co-author John Russo – seem grabbed in haste at memorabilia conventions, where the sound and picture aren’t quite up to the professional standard of the humble interviewees on the zombie walks themselves. As an introduction to a somewhat bizarre subculture, this is an essential opening salvo, with particularly good interrogations of Reedus and a senior Rabbi who see a parallel between zombie walkers and the disaffected Occupy/99% movements. Elsewhere, while the enthusiasm of everyone involved is endearingly obvious, it would have been great to have a psychologist’s opinion of the phenomenon to counterbalance the occasionally vacuous pronouncements of the walkers themselves, but then I suppose one shouldn’t expect great self-examinations from the shuffling dead, when their presence is more about spectacle than insight.
Watch the trailer for Dead Meat Walking:
Piercing Brightness (Shezad Dawood, 2012)
Armed with the desire to engage with local immigrant culture and people, and curious to explore Lancashire’s reputation for the largest number of UFO sightings in the UK, filmmaker and fine artist Shezad Dawood travelled to Preston to make a film that addressed some of these concerns. Following the artist’s first film, Feature, a beguiling mash-up of cowboys, blue-skinned aliens, musical numbers and funeral arrangements, Dawood tackles a longer length project and provides almost enough visual material and intriguing narrative ellipses to engage the viewer for the 75 minute running time.
Listen to Alex Fitch’s discussion with director Shezad Dawood here. Piercing Brightness is released by Soda Film+Art in cinemas and art spaces across the UK on 7 June.
Piercing Brightness premiered in a shorter cut called Trailer, which was about half the running time of the feature, as part of a retrospective of the artist’s work at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. Although perhaps better framed in the gallery environment than a traditional cinema, the shorter cut is almost entirely impenetrable, with its disparate and disjointed elements of Close Encounters, mass observation and skateboard culture. Additional dialogue in the longer cut gives us some insight into the lives of the participants, but this is a film primarily about the juxtaposition of images of the ‘kitchen sink’ North with flying saucers. As a provocation to more traditional films set in and around these subjects, the film has enough set pieces to engage viewers used to the alienating (pun intended) extremes of art-house cinema, such as that practised by Lukas Moodysson or Abbas Kiarostami. However, for more casual viewers of traditional sci-fi, to quote a member of the audience at the screening: ‘I had no idea what it was all about…’
Sado Tempest (John Williams, 2012)
A dystopian reworking of The Tempest featuring a Japanese alt-rock band isn’t the most obvious adaptation of Shakespeare, but speaking as someone who first enjoyed the Bard on screen via Kurosawa’s samurai interpretations of King Lear (Ran, 1985) and Macbeth (Throne of Blood, 1957), sometimes the most obscure translations are the best. Sado Tempest sees members of the band Jitterbug locked up in an inhospitable island prison for inspiring their audiences to rebel against a future government’s totalitarian regime. There, tortured and browbeaten by inmates and guards alike, the band are forced to record bland new ‘unreleased’ material to fill the pockets of record company execs who want to satiate an eager public who think their heroes are dead. If you’re wondering where the travails of Miranda and Prospero come in, this is all against the backdrop of a wild island inhabited by demons, once scoured by an apocalyptic storm, which threatens to return again…
This is a beautifully shot film with engaging musical numbers and a convincing dystopian environment. But for a sci-fi film, the fantastical elements are strangely subdued and the filmmakers shy away from parallels with the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami, both being elements that could have improved the saga immeasurably. The prison drama is captivating but the leaden pace undermines the film, which ironically is at its most memorable when a character quotes the original wording of Ariel’s song from The Tempest, rather than any of the new songs or poetry commissioned for this version.
Watch the trailer for Sado Tempest:
The Search for Simon (Martin Gooch, 2013)
A new British film that mixes travelogue and conspiracy theories to make a low budget sci-fi comedy isn’t the most obvious choice for a gala screening at the BFI, but as Sci-Fi-London’s first feature film (produced in association with the festival), it made a lot of sense as a PR opportunity. Filming on the fly necessitated director Martin Gooch be the main actor and he makes for a likeable, affable lead, even though he doesn’t have quite the emotional range to pull off the more dramatic scenes. The cameos by telefantasy actors Simon Jones, Sophie Aldred and Tom Price work well, even when the occasional stunt casting elsewhere – such as a reoccurring role for fantasy games author Ian Livingstone – kills certain scenes stone dead through the gravitational pull of wooden acting by non-professionals.
The plot – about a UFO obsessive looking for proof of alien life and his ‘abducted’ brother – toys with our expectations well, with a daft and incongruous robot in one scene offset by an excellent bit of CGI at the end. Overall, The Search for Simon is a bit of a mixed bag, no doubt due to the haphazard construction of the film, through footage shot before the script was finalised, crowd-funding that necessitated cameos by the public and a strange war-themed (but amusing) opening scene, but the charm of the production as a whole makes up for its handful of flaws.
Stress Position (A.J. Bond, 2013)
An accomplished, chilling collision between fact and fiction, this Canadian psycho-drama follows in the footsteps of other mutually assured torture films such as last year’s True Love and The Wave (2008), but with a freshness and relevance to reality television post-Guantanamo Bay, which made it one of the most notable films of this year’s Sci-Fi-London. Ironically, for a film screening in a sci-fi festival, the film isn’t science fiction (only a bit of futuristic set dressing hints in that direction). However, as much of the best speculative fiction provokes debate and works as satire of the present day, the controversial subject matter makes it an apt subject for inclusion at the festival, rather than perhaps a lesbian and gay film festival, where it might have been lost in the mix.
Filmmaker A.J. Bond – recalling a flippant conversation with his friend, actor David Amito – decides to find out how long each of them might last if trapped in a modern torture camp like Guantanamo. The rules are: no actual pain or injury to be inflicted, no bringing of families into the arena, and when the tortured gives up a secret code, the test is to stop. Trapping David in a high tech, white-walled prison, with a sharp edged, metallic, modernist sculpture in the middle, the experiment begins and A.J. starts ignoring the rules, one by one.
Stress Position is an intelligent, thought-provoking film, which can only become increasingly relevant as we cast everyone we know in the filmed dramas of our lives, as captured on smart phones and Google glass, uploaded to the web. Although the plot falters towards the end – after the more realistic battle of wits between the two for most of the running time, A.J. becomes the victim of more overt tortures like waterboarding, which seem contrived – the overall effect is a film you both want to see again because of its numerous admirable qualities, and never want to re-endure because the psychological tortures are so convincing and the verisimilitude too unnerving.
Strange Frame: Love and Sax (GB Hajim, 2012)
A fun sci-fi animated musical drama, Strange Frame wears its garish Metal Hurlant / bande dessinée influences loudly on its sleeve, which is no bad thing. While Luc Besson’s Fifth Element (1998) and Adèle Blanc-Sec(2010) have captured the anarchic spirit of European comics well, other examples such as Enki Bilal’s Immortal Ad Vitam (2004) have relied on an insufficient CGI budget to capture the lurid colour schemes and landscapes typical of the medium. Strange Frame lands halfway between these two directors’ achievements. Visually, the film is stunning, capturing a hallucinogenic Jovian environment replete with all manner of aliens, space craft and futuristic architecture, but the quality of the individual images is let down by the animation involved in making them move.
In terms of dynamism, this isn’t as low down the scale as South Park, but movement is somewhat jerky and unnatural, presumably because of a reliance on a flash animation rendering programme or similar. For fans of machinima or Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work, this won’t be a problem, but it’s a shame that when nearly every other aspect of the production is terrific, it’s diminished by this element. In terms of the soundtrack: animation voice stalwart Tara Strong stars as the film’s object of desire Naia, surrounded by a host of familiar telefantasy stars such as Ron Glass, Juliet Landau, Claudia Christian, Michael Dorn and George Takei, while an infectious score mixes jazz and 1980s rock. As the demonic head of a record label, Tim Curry is perfectly cast in a role that recalls both Legend (1985) and inevitably The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as much of the film is aimed at fans of his most famous film.
Overall: well worth a look for anyone interested in animation not produced by the mainstream studios, and one can only hope this film does well enough to warrant a sequel to allow the audience to explore this rich world further, albeit next time with perhaps more experienced puppeteers guiding the animation team.
Watch the trailer for Strange Frame: Love and Sax:
The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did to Us
By David Thomson
Allen Lane 595pp £25
Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool
By Selwyn Harris
Moochin’ About/Jazzwise Magazine £25
The Future Revisited: Jules Verne on screen in 1950s America
By Françoise Schlitz
Chaplin Books £14.99
In spite of rumours of the demise of printed books and related ephemera, wondrous things continue to be delivered through my letterbox and my heart stirs at the thump on the mat when a padded envelope of unknown contents materialises. This month’s Cine Lit looks at three such recent deliveries.
David Thomson is one of cinema studies’ most prolific authors. By turns enthusiastic, irascible, grumpy, opinionated, personal, fair-minded and judgemental, he is above all deeply passionate, informed and honest. His writing is a joy to read and maintains a rare balance between populism and elitism. A critic and contextualist, Thomson is one of the best cinematic authors that we have. As the author’s modest rear dust jacket description has it: ‘David Thomson has a fair claim to be the greatest living writer on film.’ Can’t imagine who the greatest dead writer is – answers on a postcard please. At any event, it is obvious that any new book from Thomson is to be reckoned with and paid attention to. His propensity for magnum opuses – as evidenced by his authoritative Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Whole Equation, his history of Hollywood – now continues with The Big Screen. His polemical, probing style with its breezy narrative structure and insightful, often provocative, observations has been fashioned over many years. Thomson has been a sharp-eyed critic and writer on film for decades, his first publication arriving in 1967. The new book takes a God’s eye view of movies; it is international in scope and all-encompassing in theme. The reader is taken on a mighty journey from the beginnings of the film industry and through the succeeding decades with stops taken along the route to look at the rise and influence of academic film studies (pro and con) , cultural and social change before, during and after the wars and how these anxieties and pleasures were reflected on the screen and embedded in the textual codes. It ends with a wonderful epilogue reflecting on projection, screen and narrative, which, like the book, is suffused with misgivings about the present and future state of movie-going as a communal cultural experience. The Big Screen is a terrific ‘can’t put it down’ account written by an author who holds back few punches – all at once loveable, charming, irritating and unpredictable. A classic.
In an earlier column I enthused over the terrific CD box set of Jazz on Film: Film Noir and its accompanying booklet. How could this gem be bettered? Well… it has. Moochin’ About has just released a gorgeous new five-CD box-set with another informative 30-page booklet, Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool. Featuring more lost or hard-to-get soundtracks remastered to a high standard, it includes such hipster efforts as The Connection, The Subterraneans (imagine A-Team’s George Peppard as Jack Kerouac! Score by Andre Previn), Shadows (a Cassavetes classic, score improvised by Charles Mingus no less), Paris Blues (score by Duke Ellington) and another wonderful four titles. Lovingly prepared and beautifully presented, this is a must-have set.
Finally, a rather unique title from a little-known publisher. Chaplin Books has released Françoise Schlitz’s The Future Revisited, an examination of Hollywood’s film versions of Jules Verne’s novels with a focus on Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth – a film seen in childhood which mesmerised me. Schlitz takes a multi-disciplinary view of the films and culture in which they were produced, with an emphasis on how Verne’s original novels launched readers into travels to imaginary places and provided them with newly imagined – but somehow plausible – experiences therein. She then goes on to deliberate how these spectacles and marvels intersected with, and were translated into, works that served the concerns of modernism, capitalism, notions of progress and consumption, all in aid of American post-war hegemony. Cinematic textual challenges to gender, politics, domesticity, innovation and science itself are winkled out of the films in question and an interesting account has been articulated. If at times the book has the whiff of a re-worked Ph.D thesis, what with its initial insistence on articulating methodologies and justifying certain contextual approaches before the unfolding of the narrative proper, it is nonetheless interesting for all that and provides a welcome perspective on a rarely examined aspect of film history.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
You’ll pay a premium for securing a copy of this terrific title, Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness, Michael Stark’s illustrated history of drugs in the movies. It was a seminal study on the topic, and subsequent writers have borrowed generously from Stark’s research and thorough overview of the topic – though not always acknowledging him. The book was published by Cornwall Press in New York in 1982 and has long been out of print. It pops up on ABE and Alibris from time to time and I was lucky to pay £10 for it a few years ago on Charing Cross Road – you know the Charing Cross Road that used to have lots of used bookshops before the days of designer coffee shops and eateries. It is essential, along with Harry Shapiro’s out of print Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies (Serpent’s Tail, London) and the equally essential, though still available Addicted: the Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film by the ubiquitous Jack Stevenson. Save these books! JE
Mark Stafford reviews some of the highlights of the London Film Festival, including Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt and David Ayer’s End of Watch, out on UK screens this month.
John Dies at the End
Your new favourite film. A flip, funny thrill ride full of trippy headfuckery, rubber monsters, snappy dialogue and wild ideas, adapted from David Wong’s cult novel by Don (Phantasm/Bubba Ho-Tep) Coscarelli. Trying to explain the film’s singular tone is difficult: it’s like a punky horror/SF adventure infused with the snarky, iconoclastic sensibility of Fight Club.
Any attempt at a plot summary would be pretty much doomed; suffice to say that it concerns the effects of an intravenous drug called ‘soy sauce’, which has the effect of not so much opening the doors of perception as blowing them off their hinges. Users are apt to receive phone calls from the future and see physical manifestations of beings from other planes of existence, as a prelude to entering a multiverse of trouble and what looks like an inevitable spectacularly messy demise. David Wong (Chase Williamson) is trying to explain his recent life history on the sauce to a journalist (Paul Giamatti), the tale of how he and college buddy John (Andy Meyers) came by the stuff and started a chain of events that leads to them attempting to save the world from creepy inter-dimensional interlopers. Nothing is straightforward in this fast-paced genre mash-up: time and space are distorted, people aren’t what they seem, and metaphysical conundrums pop up with alarming regularity. I’m not sure if it’s about anything, exactly. There is a suspicion that it’s more smart-arsed than smart in places, and the random nature of the story means that it loses a little momentum before the home stretch, but I’m quibbling. It’s a blast, a wonderfully weird, eminently quotable midnight movie. Just don’t ask what happens to John, I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
A Liar’s Autobiography
Fourteen different animation studios pitch in to realise the late lamented Python Graham Chapman’s memoir, A Liar’s Autobiography, using recordings that Chapman made himself, assisted vocally by John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland, among others (Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud). The result is a somewhat disjointed, inconsistent, hugely affectionate film that leaps from point to point through a charmed and blighted life. It’s a woozy, drifting thing, where memory often gives way to fantasy, and you’d be hard pressed to decipher from it the actual biographical detail, the who, what, where and when, of Chapman’s life. But that’s hardly the point. He emerges as a kind of anti-Kenneth Williams, utterly un-tortured by his sexuality and status, but a bugger for the bottle, as a Python song would put it, seriously destroying his health, but never apparently committing the sin of being bad company.
The animation varies from stiff and flat to gorgeous and accomplished – I loved the nightmarish delirium tremens sequence, and the Scarborough holiday moments. A bit of a mixed bag, but on the whole it’s all rather lovely.
Thomas Vinterberg’s outstanding film features Mads Mikkelsen as a kindergarten teacher, a likeable man in a small Danish town of other likeable types, starting to pull his life together after a messy divorce, until one day he is accused by an angelic child, daughter of his best friend, and one of his charges, of inappropriate sexual behaviour. What follows is a tense, occasionally agonising drama as a good man’s life is systematically destroyed by reasonable people reduced to violence and hatred by an unfounded suspicion. It’s all well thought through, and nightmarishly plausible. Mikkelsen puts in fine work, but then none of the performers strikes a false note. The child especially comes across as a real living, breathing girl, whose actions make sense in a little girl way, worlds away from any number of Hollywood moppets. Photography is crisp and unfussy and the whole thing is full of well observed domestic detail that add weight to the horror and heartbreak. Not an easy watch, but worth it.
The Hunt is released in the UK on 30 November 2012 by Arrow Films.
In which Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a slight, vulnerable-looking boy, spends his days nicking the expensive gear of holidaying skiers at a Swiss resort, so that he can sell it on to the kids at the bottom of the mountain and support his feckless older sister as she quits job after job and fools around with a succession of jerks. He’s a ballsy, resourceful kid, but it’s clear that the precarious existence he’s created cannot last forever, and something is clearly wrong with the family situation. Ursula Meier’s film is perfectly fine, in a low-key sub- Dardennes kind of way. Gillian Anderson cameos as a guest at the resort, representing a way of life lost to the little thief; the location gives the film an aesthetic buzz; and John Parish’s throbbing score is sparingly used but damn fine. It’s clearly a heartfelt piece by a smart director – wish I could say I liked it more.
End of Watch
David Ayer’s cop drama feels at times like a recruitment ad for the LAPD gone seriously askew. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña playing the kind of unambiguous hero cops who’ll leap into burning buildings to rescue children – true blue, courageous, good husband and boyfriend material – which the film pits against the population of South Central Los Angeles, who, on this evidence, are all irrational, cruel and clueless, when not being actively malignant. Every house our partners enter contains another horror story, every car they stop contains a maniac with an AK 47, and as time passes their actions interfere more and more with the activities of a seriously nasty Mexican cartel, who have no qualms about putting out a hit on a couple of heroes.
The essential problem with End of Watch is that the vérité dynamics of the performances and camerawork are totally at odds with the heart-on-sleeve good versus evil schematics. The visuals are saying ‘this is real’, with all the action supposedly captured on surveillance and personal cameras, while galloping clichés and unlikely incidents are saying ‘this is horseshit’. The film starts with the legend ‘Once upon a time in South Central’ and names its main bad guy ‘Big Evil’, then knocks itself out straining for grimy authenticity.
You find yourself waiting in vain for some ambiguity to creep in, some acknowledgement of Rampart or Rodney King. Likewise, you keep expecting the ‘digital witness’ styling, which is consistently foregrounded, to actually have some significance to the story. But it doesn’t, and the horrible suspicion grows that this is just a pro-cop flag-waver with a simplistic Michael Winner agenda.
For all that, it’s actually pretty damn entertaining, largely because Gyllenhaall and Peña have a definite chemistry and are fun to watch, as are the outrageously horrible gang they’re up against, who provide some diverting, sleazy thrills. It’s funny and tense when it needs to be, has moments of oddball, Joseph Wambaugh-esque detail and it moves at an agreeable clip. But at the end of the day it’s not much cop.
End of Watch is released in the UK on 23 November 2012 by Studiocanal.
My Amityville Horror
This fine, puzzling documentary by Eric Walter consists largely of interviews with Daniel Lutz, who is, nowadays, a worker for the UPS, but who was, back in the 70s, the oldest son of the Lutz family, who were at the heart of the ‘Amityville Horror’ paranormal case study/ media franchise. Walter gets to film Daniel playing guitar, riding around in hot rods, visiting a therapist and meeting up with various people who had a connection to the original case in some kind of quest to attain closure and peace.
The film lets everybody speak for themselves, with no editorial voice-over or evident bias, which is fair enough, though it does kind of assume that you’re familiar with the AH phenomenon, in which the Lutzes were supposed to have endured 28 days of supernatural assault after moving into a house that they picked up as a bargain after it had been the scene of a nasty mass murder (Daniel was 10 at the time). I, for one, could have done with a few more subtitles spelling out the facts where the facts are known. But this is a case where hard facts are hard to find. AH is a battleground between those who believe that it was all a hoax and those who believe the Lutzes’ account, with the waters further muddied by Jay Anson’s decidedly dodgy bestseller and the 1974 film, with its various sequels and remakes.
There are some great characters and strange ideas revealed along the way, and a visit to a psychic’s house (dozens of occult carvings, twin roosters crowing in cages, a piece of the ‘true cross’ revealed) that is weird comedy gold. But the main reason to watch is Daniel, clearly scarred by the dysfunctional home life that erupted into a media sensation. He fled home at 14 and is now estranged from his family, paranoid, intense and angry, and prone to making forceful statements that beg more questions than they answer. A brittle man in a macho shell, he recalls the subject of Errol Morris’s 2011 doc Tabloid, another film where the very idea of ‘truth’ becomes slippery and elusive. Did this stuff happen? Does Daniel need to believe it did? A film to argue over.
Julia’s Eyes writer Oriol Paulo turns co-writer and director for this wonderful piece of creepy hokum, an implausible cocktail of Hitchcock, Agatha Christie and Les Diaboliques, which, for the most part, features a man surrounded by suspicious cops being elaborately framed, apparently by a dead woman, for a murder he has committed. In a morgue. During a thunderstorm. Can we call a film delicious? I think we can.
An effective, nasty little film from Craig Zobel. Something fishy is up at the Chick-wich fast food outlet, it’s a busy day and they’re low on bacon, when police officer Daniels phones to accuse one of their members of staff, Becky (Dreama Walker), of theft. Stressed manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) goes along with his requests, searching Becky’s things, and then, at his repeated insistence, strip-searches Becky herself. So far, so creepy, but as the day wears on and the promised cops fail to show up, the demands of Officer Daniels become more and more extreme…
Zobel clearly wants to make you feel uncomfortable and does a great job of it, stretching out the moments of stilted conversation, dawning realisation and disbelief. His film walks a fine tightrope, how far can he push this? You find yourself in a state of growing anger, hoping that someone on screen will have the balls to question the caller, or refuse his demands. Which I guess is the point. I doubt I was the only one to recall Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments of the 60s. How far do you obey authority’s demands? What are you willing to do if given permission? Big questions for what some would dismiss as a horrible piece of exploitation. But then Zobel has the ultimate get-out clause in that Compliance is based on true events, that happened over and over again.
Although the film isn’t particularly explicit, it clearly crossed a line for many in the packed audience I was in. The sound of seats flipping up started at about the half-hour mark, and built to a crescendo, with one man yelling, ‘come on every body, time to leave!’ as Becky’s humiliation continued. The majority of us stayed though, squirming in the dark. I guess we were compliant.
West of Memphis
A long haul, two-and-a-half-hour documentary that absolutely needs that length. Amy Berg’s film details the ‘West Memphis Three’ case from 1994, when three eight-year-old boys were found dead in Arkansas, in what was suspected by the police to be a case of satanic ritual abuse. Three likely teenage suspects were rounded up and tried. The film then follows events through the 18 years they spent in a supermax prison as clamour slowly grew to overturn a miscarriage of justice and set them free. The clamour first took the shape of the documentary Paradise Lost, which galvanised the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder into campaigning and fund-raising for the long battle, and, more pertinently, gained the attention of producer Fran Walsh and director Peter Jackson, who got on board to bankroll investigations to produce new evidence, and demolish the prosecution’s case. This is a Wingnut film, produced by Walsh, Jackson, and Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
Considering that, West of Memphis is fairly even-handed, giving voice to a fair few interviewees who still believe, or profess to believe, that the three teens committed the crime, but it’s clear where the film is coming from, and it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. The flimsiness of the original prosecution beggars belief: an alarmist conflation of dodgy ‘witnesses’, spurious medical evidence and the heavily coerced testimony of a borderline retarded teenager, it’s simultaneously blackly amusing and enraging to see it all torn apart. More enraging still is the state of Arkansas justice, where opportunities for retrial after retrial are denied for clearly political ends despite DNA evidence and new witnesses. One of the odder moments sees the campaigners praying for Judge Burnett’s bid to run for senator to succeed, purely so that he’ll no longer be in a position to stonewall.
It’s a fascinating story, full of twists and turns, dark ironies and striking characters, and Berg’s film largely shapes it as a long march to justice. Ambiguities remain, however. The outcome of the campaign is highly unsatisfactory, a baffling piece of legal chicanery that means that the likeliest suspect (Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the boys) is never going to see a courtroom. There is a glossed-over element of the tale, when the makers of Paradise Lost 2 seem to have tried to finger the wrong man for the crimes, based partly on the same logic of the WM3 conviction (i.e., that he was kinda funny lookin’, being a mulleted redneck, rather than a goth). And we’ll probably never know what actually happened to those boys in 1994. It’s an indication of how weird and twisted the whole thing gets that the only time Terry Hobbs is placed on a witness stand to answer questions about the murders is as a result of his attempt to sue one of the Dixie Chicks.
All of the key players are interviewed, and the unobtrusive soundtrack is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I wish I could say it makes the locale look starkly beautiful, but it really doesn’t, a polyester-clad trailer park hellhole of foetid water and barren scrub. But you only have to spend a hundred and fifty minutes there. I was never bored, it’s very much recommended, but viewers should be warned that it contains a lot of distressing forensic footage. And a scene where a snapping turtle attacks a dead pig’s testicles. I’m not going to forget that in a hurry.
West of Membphis is released in the UK on 21 December 2012 by Sony Pictures.
Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin and Virginie Sélavy review the most notable Japanese and Korean films that screened at this year’s London Film Festival.
Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time
Opening in Busan in 1982, Yoon Jong-bin’s Nameless Gangster is a vastly enjoyable sprawling mob saga that clearly references Coppola and Scorsese in its story of the rise and fall of a would-be godfather, but adds a caustic sense of humour and ironic distance. Introducing the story with the definition of ‘daebu’, it plays on the various meanings of the term, including ‘elder relative’ and ‘crime boss’. Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) gives another fantastic performance as corrupt customs official Choi Ik-hyun, who comes into contact with local gangster Choi Hyung-bae when he is sacked from his job. Hyung-bae turns out to be related to him and Ik-hyun takes advantage of his status as his elder relative to get involved at the top of his gang.
Ik-hyun is a fascinating multi-faceted character: a comical figure who is often ridiculed, a ‘half-gangster’ – as he is called by the brilliantly ruthless prosecutor Jo – who can never really cut it as a crime boss, he is also impressively cunning and resourceful, and despite his shameless lack of scruples and despicable conduct, he has a sympathetic and very human side in his love for his family. One of the big joys of the film is his relationship to the younger, more attractive, scarier, real gangster Hyung-bae (played by rising star Ha Jung-woo), who exudes the sort of power and authority that will always elude Ik-hyun. And yet, despite his menacing aura, Hyung-bae is a man of principle who, unlike Ik-hyun, abides by gangster codes and even traditional social rules (in his respect for Ik-hyun as his elder relative for instance), which puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with his less honourable enemies. This reversal of the usual dynamic between young and old is another of the pleasures of this exhilarating, humorous, smart gangster saga. VS
The second outstanding Korean offering of this year’s festival was adapted from a novel by Miyabe Miyuki and directed by female filmmaker Byun Young-joo. Helpless is a captivating, intelligent thriller on the nature of love and identity that takes a hard look at what happens when a victimised character is forced to devise extreme strategies to survive. It starts like The Vanishing: young veterinarian Mun-ho is taking his bride-to-be Seon-yeong to meet his parents when she disappears at a service station. When he finds her apartment has been emptied in a hurry and the police are useless, he asks a relative who is a disgraced former cop to help him find her. As they investigate, her identity becomes more and more mysterious, and they must make sense of her possible connections to large debts, loan sharks and even suspected murder. The many revelations thrown up by their investigation repeatedly throw into question our assumptions about Seon-yeong and build a finely nuanced and affecting portrait of a complex woman. A convincing, tense, insightful thriller in which there is more than one victim, with a deep sympathy and understanding for the kind of dynamic that leads seemingly helpless characters to commit terrible acts in order to defend themselves when no one else will. VS
An apocalyptic triptych from Korea, written and directed by Kim Jee-woon and Yim Pil-Sung, the creators of The Good, the Bad and the Weird, and Hansel and Gretel. Part one is an eco-horror of waste and consumption where dodgy food production causes a kind of zombie outbreak. Part three is the tale of a family attempting to survive an impending meteor strike. Both share a wild, freewheeling sense of humour and are dizzy, bizarre satirical fun, especially the pot shots aimed at idiotic TV news coverage.
The side is let down a little by the middle section, where problems arise for a corporation when one of their robots assigned to a Buddhist temple achieves enlightenment. The tale is over-familiar from decades of SF, the robot is a poor cousin to Chris Cunningham’s Björk-bot in the ‘All Is Full Of Love’ promo and a ponderous tone takes over. It’s not bad, just a bit dull, and overall, considering the talents involved, Doomsday Book comes as a bit of a disappointment. Definitely has its moments though. MS
For Love’s Sake
Takashi Miike returns with the adaptation of a manga by Ikki Kajiwara and Takumi Nagayasu – filmed many times before – about a rich young girl’s impossible love for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. The original title Ai to makoto means ‘Love and Sincerity’, which is also the name of the two main characters. Ai is a sweet young girl from a well-to-do family, who was rescued by Makoto while skiing as a child. When Makoto returns to Tokyo for revenge and immediately gets into a fight, Ai does all she can to save him from his delinquent life. An insanely colourful, at times kitsch teen melodrama, it mixes the badass attitude and energy of Crows Zero with the demented chirpiness of The Happiness of the Katakuris. It may not be Miike at his most ground-breaking or daring, but it is wildly entertaining. The director once more demonstrates his boundless inventiveness and impressive visual sense with a variety of animated sequences and (cheesy) musical numbers, as well as great decors, gorgeous colours and brilliantly choreographed fights, all pulsating with his customary high-voltage energy. VS
I was a big fan of Mika Ninagawa’s 2008 Sakuran, a fun, gorgeous-looking film with a fantastic female lead. Unfortunately, her second film, Helter Skelter, is a major disappointment. Ninigawa began her career as a fashion photographer, and returns to that world with a story, based on Kyoko Okazaki’s manga, about the unravelling of a top model’s career. While there are some likeable elements in this satire of the fashion industry, the film is let down by its total lack of narrative structure and an irritating subplot, while the riot of colour that made Sakuran so refreshing seems like nothing more than eye candy in Helter Skelter, helping to gloss over the film’s weaknesses.
Erika Sawajiri stars as Lilico, Japan’s hottest model and teen idol. She’s bitchy, tyrannical and stunning – but also a fake. Her looks have been created at an expensive clinic, paid for by her agent, who is still extracting a heavy price for turning her into a commodity. When Lilico is pushed aside by a younger model, her anger and frustrations are taken out on her unfortunate assistant, who’s forced to endure endless humiliations. In the meantime, a team of police, led by an obnoxious, irritating character who spouts trite philosophical soundbites, is investigating the clinic for illegally using human tissue in its patients (a sorely underdeveloped idea – although strange bruises do begin to appear underneath Lilico’s skin.) But rather than use this investigation to add an element of noir to the film, the scenes with the police are mostly shot in a very bland office, with them doing very little. They add nothing to the already fractured narrative, while the dialogue is simply excruciating.
Despite some good moments – Ninigawa does an excellent job capturing the absurdity of the industry, and the public’s obsession with beauty at all costs – the director’s inimitable style can’t make up for the unlikeable characters, needlessly frenetic pacing, and worst of all, the weak script. SC
The Samurai That Night
Adapted by Masaaki Akahori from his own play, The Samurai That Night is the story of a meek factory owner, Nakamura, who is still grieving after the death of his wife and is looking for revenge against the thug who killed her in a road accident five years earlier. The title ironically refers to Nakamura’s vengeance fantasy, which is comically and pitifully deflated in the realistically depicted modern world of the film. The film is indeed anything but an action film: it takes the classical opposition between the wronged good man looking for payback and the unredeemable evil brute but films it as a slow-paced, introspective character study. When – in another nod to the samurai film – the final big showdown in the rain comes, there is no resolution, or even progression, and both characters remain the same.
This could have been interesting, were it not for the excessively simplistic characterisation, the unbearably ponderous tone and the affected, sometimes sentimental quirkiness (the main character obsessively eats custard desserts; while on a date he takes his late wife’s bra out of the pocket of his trousers; when he plays ball with his overly sweet date, just as he used to with his wife, she delivers an exasperating ode to simple things – I could go on). This is a film that is not as deep as it thinks it is and its self-important slowness just makes it tiresomely dull. VS
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