Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Piercing Brightness (2012)

 


Director: Shezad Dawood

Screenplay: Kirk Lane

Cast: Houda Echouafni as Mask; Chen Ko as Jiang; Tracy Brabin(as Maggie; Samantha Elizabeth Edwards as Nikki; Paul Leonard as Warner; Jennifer Lim as Shin; Bhasker Patel as Naseer Khan; Derek Siow as Lee

An Abstract List Candidate/Re-Review

In the city of Preston, aliens have for decades lived hidden amongst humans disguised as the Earthling's own. Two of them, disguised as a young Chinese brother and sister (Ko and Lim) appear and meet a veteran who has been on Earth for a long time (Patel), disguised as an older Pakistani man who runs a corner store, who is both incredibly glad to see them and offers a pure white room in his home for them to stay. Thus begins Piercing Brightness, an obscure British production from Shezad Dawood, a multimedia artist who created this feature film science fiction tale set in modern day England, in which these siblings' appearance is timely as the aliens who live in the town are in debate in-between finally revealing themselves to mankind and trying to return back home.

Among those caught up within this are a single mother (Brabin), a UFO enthusiast, who realises that she may not be who she thinks she is, her adult daughter who meets a bald Chinese man around her age and strikes up a bond with, and an alien disguised as an older male counsellor who is the one instigating the idea of revealing their true forms to humanity. As sinister hoodies stalk the aliens, revealed to be their own who transformed their bodies too many times to pose as human beings, the film will culminate in transcendental revelations whilst scored to Acid Mother Temple acid rock. Piercing Brightness is working off a low budget, but to its advantage, science fiction allows one to explore the genre tropes in a variety of ways. The best aspect of this film is the premise, of the alien placed in the ordinary environment of an English city, which is innately different from the American cities and countryside of their sci-fi and adds a huge contrast as a result.

This is the world of corner shops and nightclubs, cups of tea and playing FIFA on a games console (as namedropped in a piece of dialogue), which drastically contrasts the iconography of sci-fi, especially of aliens and UFOs, many of us likely picture as a result of American pop culture. This was why Jonathan Glazer's Glazer's Under The Skin (2013), with Hollywood star Scarlet Johansson stepping out of her comfort zone and becoming an alien, was such an eerie and unique film among of its other aspects, set in Scotland. Piercing Brightness takes advantage of these cafes and nightclubs, soaking in the pleasant, sometimes frankly bland mood of such environments in bright and crisp cinematography, the kind of environments where it is the people within it that really give it some much needed colour, an advantage this has in its cast.

When the aliens are revealed to be of all shapes and sizes, the film is also clearly looking at this subject with an immigration metaphor or at least, from Dawood, taking this genre from the perspective of non-white male characters. One scene, in this idea of people having to adapt to the environment, can be read this way when the brother alien tries asking for cigarettes in a cafe once, alongside the fact that a large portion of this film is that the aliens, merely here on Earth for exploration for decades as part of the "100 Group", are debating whether just to show themselves to the Earthlings as who they really are, which metaphorically can be read into greatly. The cast in general helps with this, and there is one single individual, Bhasker Patel as the alien posing as a corner shop owner, who brings the quality of the film up a bar. Both in how he is both charismatic and in his character, the man more than happy to be amongst the humans, excited like a young man when new aliens like him appear, but melancholic in that he has still been stuck on our planet in many forms, and wishes to return to his home out of nostalgia. His world weariness as a character adds a lot to a film which is more mood driven then narratively in the end.  

The music as well helps greatly with the film, both from the original score by Alexander Tucker and the choice cuts picked from cult Japanese acid rock group Acid Mother's Temple. Known for being able to release up to four albums minimum a year since they started in 1995, side projects with other bands, and their clear love of psychedelic rock of the sixties from the title puns of their songs and albums, Acid Mother's Temple is the kind of band you could imagine aliens being scored to, archive footage of UFOs scored in montages to their druggy guitar riffs and making a perfect union together. Especially when the film starts to improve in structure by its middle half to the end, when the music is of greater importance than visual trickery, it helps reach a good build-up to the climax immensely. A lot of the film in general feels closer to visual montage experiments, with use of iconography of animals especially birds intercut between, from eagles to birds on mass in flight in the sky, and especially dead birds in decade or as skeletons, for me metaphors of these aliens trapped when, like birds, their real forms would be free from their confines.

Shezad Dawood decided to purposely make the film abstract in tone, intercutting shots of birds at unexpected moments between incidents in a single scene, using colour filters and distorted frames, noises mixing with the music. The result for many would require patience, falling into the stereotype of what an experimental movie is whilst still building on atmosphere. There is still a plot which eventually makes sense to contrast this aesthetic, even if this still has to work with limitations. Kudos has to be made for the car chase stunts, including someone being hit off a bicycle by a car during a chase, even if this is also a film where a faceless hoodie molests someone in the least threatening way possible, by merely tugging her top and then leaving her alone. The film drastically shifts when it gets to the middle of its running time, when the whole plot finishes within this timeframe of one night, the score taking over completely with some choice editing of snapshots in creating a tone.

Considering the director's art installation origins, the film based on a script from a cult novelist, this is an idiosyncratic melding of the duo between trippy sci-fi and installation art, which can juggle between two sibling aliens seeing a female alien with computer chip parts stuck to her face on the TV instructing them with esoteric words, contrasted by all the kaleidoscopic imagery, which does stand out with distinction as a combination in the end.

Abstract Spectrum: Avant-Garde/Expressionist

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low

Cougar Town Season 1 (2009-2010)

 


Created by Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence

Cast: Courteney Cox as Jules Cobb; Christa Miller as Ellie Torres; Busy Philipps as Laurie; Dan Byrd as Travis Cobb; Josh Hopkins as Grayson Ellis; Ian Gomez as Andy Torres; Brian Van Holt as Bobby Cobb

Ephemeral Waves

 

What led to me even watching this show? Pure chance, and since I had the first season at hand, I felt a curiosity to delve into this, the least expected review as this a very mainstream non-abstract production, a sitcom co-created by Bill Lawrence, the creator of Scrubs, starring Friends alumni Courteney Cox as a single mother in her forties struggling with single romantic life. This is, again, alien to what I usually watch even as someone who grew up with Bill Lawrence, but this is a fascinating thing to attempt to review, forcing me into different pastures in terms of entertainment. This show also has, in its main cast, alumni from John from Cincinnati(2007) and Clone High (2002), very unconventional one season shows which emphases how for many stars of strange and abstract work, they are merely part of their regular day jobs alongside shows like this. Think of this review as the mirror reflecting back at their regular day jobs.

Sold, for the British DVD, on the double meaning of "Cougar" - set in Florida, where cougars are found, and the euphemism for very sexually open older women who date younger men - that title did eventually become a joke, to the point it was considered to be changed1 and was even mocked. After the initial story of Jules, a recently divorced mother of one who decides to throw herself into the life of a bachelorette hard, including to date a man half her age, the show becomes more openly about a group of friends around her, setting up a template of normalcy being kept baring a season long set of character plots.  

Covering a show like this is perversely idiosyncratic for someone who covers unconventional cinema, especially as this is a modern sitcom, structurally where, rather than the live audience (or canned) laughter, this is a regular comedic show set in the fictional town of Gulfhaven, with a few sets focused on2. It is still felt to have some budget for more elaborate events, and at least one real alligator wrangled in one scene for a gag of one wandering into Jules' back garden by the pool, but is still restricted in a limited world baring that of the cast themselves. This cast is Jules and those in her orbit.

Her best friend and neighbour Ellie, played by , the wife of co-creator Bill Lawrence and the voice of Cleopatra in Clone High, playing a misanthropic stay-at-home mother who delights in gossip and teasing people, her husband Andy (Ian Gomez)  a lovable and doting figure is the complete opposite to her but means, whilst eccentric, their relationship is clearly with love. Laurie (Busy Philipps), Jules' assistant at her real estate business who is her other friend, a younger woman brazen in her habit of flirting with men, drinking and terrible choices in boyfriends. Jules' ex-husband Bobby, played by Brian Van Holt of John from Cincinnati, a lovable boob of a man who spends the series living in a boat in a parking lot, and their adult son Travis (Dan Byrd), always awkwardly stepping in when his mother or someone is having a frank sex conversation or if she says something weird. And Jules' neighbour Grayson (Josh Hopkins), seemingly the chad as he has women half his age always at his place at night just for sex, but with chemistry with Jules that becomes a huge plot point over the first season.

Taking Season One by itself, over twenty four episodes around twenty minutes each, you see a show (produced for ABC originally) trying to be naughtier knowing they cannot have any real nudity or even cursing as a broadcast show. It stumbles into a few jokes which has not aged well, actually tasteless nowadays, and sometimes you realise when this show was made as they make pop culture references like about the band Vampire Weekend. It does, in spite of its frankness about sex, reach a glass ceiling, and it is oddly naive and awkward when occasionally bringing up certain topics, such as anyone being gay, which is a shame considering this also has, in Andy and Bobby, a pure bromance despite them both being heterosexual, with celebration dances and butt slapping completely comfortable for both.

But for all those times which can be an issue, or how it became conventional or syrupy, as a show set in a well off middle class white community, it suddenly could make me laugh quite a few times per episode. It is not a show set in reality, a broad and exaggerated world when the behaviour is at times random and strange, succeeding and bolstered not because of its huge star Courteney Cox in truth but by the rest of the cast. Whilst she is central, as an executive producer and the star the main narratives hang around, Cox is merely the tent pole for her own show, and the only time it ever refers back to Friends is a one episode guest star in Lisa Kudrow, playing completely against her Friends character as a ball busting older dermatologist. In contrast, more is probably made of musician Sheryl Crow, in more than one episode, as a possible love interest for Grayson, adding another connection to my usual unconventional reviews as she had a very early role, before she was famous, in Cop Rock(1990).

The entirety of Cougar Town for me, in terms of entertainment, was whenever the scripts were openly silly and due to the rest of the main cast. This helps as some of the Jules main stories actually do paint the cast in a negative light. Jules being told to dump her significantly younger boyfriend in the first few episodes, just because, is actually unlikable, and everyone trying to get her back to drinking later on in the season is as bad when you take a step back from that episode too. Better instead is keeping her an absurd character, in the affluence middle class world that can afford a swimming pool in the back garden, which is still likable but also odd, in one episode loving her new bathroom, with a couch, so much she refuses to leave the room. Instead, it is that Ellie is such a misanthropic you strangely like, or Laurie is a bubbly and bright figure, which won me over, or that eventually the group of Andy, Bobby and Grayson become a fun trio of older men. The show to its credit is a case where the female cast are allowed to be diverse and interesting, but the men are also interesting; it is something far more positive, than crass machismo, about a bunch of middle age guys who do stupid things but also have a lot more responsibility on their shoulders, their type of bro behaviour more staying up all night in their boxers and cowboy hats, drinking or dancing to Enya, than anything remotely dubious. Particularly as well as, with that example leading them into Ellie's bedroom, when she is trying to sleep only for her to join in the drinking, no one in the stick in the mud or a butt of jokes, just willing to all hang out, abruptly appear in each others' home or drinking a lot of wine.

It produces a dichotomy, which is for the better in enjoying the show, that in the midst of many conventional stereotypes, there are thankfully many lovably eccentric characters that get to indulge in scenes silly for the sake of it. A man-on-man stare down where the loser, listening to a song meant to make men cry, weeps. A game of "penny can", a game invented by Bobby I am aware is going to be a running gag over seasons, which includes guessing trivia on him to lead the loser to telling him Jules is dating Grayson, including the fact he would flirt with an Ewok if one was put in a dress. A running gag over two episodes over a red balloon, not one from a French children's short film but from a car dealership promotion day which leads to prize money if caught, or the ultimate taboo being if you acquire your cooking meat from a petting zoo. The fact that everyone, even Ellie and Laurie, really like each other even if, in one case between Ellie and Grayson, you put up an entire set of Christmas decorations out of season just to torment the other.

Production wise, I have found television can significantly be restricted in pushing its visual and technical side, due to their schedules and their formats, here an example. This is bright and colourful, with many rooms looking like they are from the world of glamorous furniture catalogues, but the one real moment of artistry I can think of in the whole season, when Jules wishes to have a night out boozing, is when the episode stage all the events that transpire in photographs, which is beautifully executed and beautifully mirrored by the men's night out, done the same way, set to Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town. This production style, to be honest, is one I except even if I am the type of person who prefers more creative productions regardless of budget. The one exception, since I have brought up music, which I wish would removed in future seasons is the musical choices, as there are a lot of montages of characters pondering their regrets set to post-post-grunge rock I could have lived without.

There is after this the question of where Cougar Town will go. Season One is light-hearted and each episode breezes past quickly with only Jules and Grayson's relationship the main dynamic. One of the factors which has scared me off shows with many seasons is that it is a long commitment to make (Cougar Town having six) and that there is a danger, mid-way through, you could have both a gradual decline, or even a rot set it, when the premise is lost, or you find yourself not really interested in the series at all, where people would sensibly quit after that point. Many series, unless they are cancelled only after one, tend to change and find their personality more onwards, so I could see Cougar Town evolve over the next season. One additional factor, which is inexplicable, is that we never got the fifth and final seasons in the United Kingdom, which is a curious hurdle, but that is for another time. Whilst it may be weird to cover this show when I should be covering avant-garde and psychotronic productions, there is a perverse glee to see this through and at least see what would happen over said seasons.

 

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1) As mentioned in the article HERE

2) The pub Grayson owns and works at is perfect for pondering the reoccurring sets in sitcoms, watching the solitary female extra in their red and white bar staff uniforms walking behind the leads in the background in every scene. Contemplating the staging, even contemplating whether they could afford more elaborate background extras or whether, even with Friends a decade before this, they have to work under a budget.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Lair of the White Worm (1988)

 


Director: Ken Russell

Screenplay: Ken Russell

Cast: Hugh Grant as Lord James D'Ampton; Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh; Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent; Peter Capaldi as Angus Flint; Sammi Davis as Mary Trent; Stratford Johns as Peters; Paul Brooke as Ernie; Imogen Claire as Dorothy Trent

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #210/An Abstract Film Candidate

 

If we begin with the source of this film, The Lair of the White Worm was Irish author Bram Stoker's last novel. Whilst it has the original template of that novel, based off the legend of the Lambton Worm whose evil (and followers) terrorise the locals in this story, this adaptation alongside modernising it also greatly deviates greatly. Stoker' novel is weird, bearing in mind it was released in a truncated form as well, including significantly more dead mongoose than the sole one you get in the film, and a whole bizarre subplot where a character becomes obsessed with floating a kite outside his house, which is important to the novel's finale. It is also unfortunately racist, entirely because the character Arabella March, the antagonist, has an African manservant named Oolanga who, by characters and the author, is called racist terms for description and is a completely gross caricature of evil from a racial bias. Thankfully, in his modernisation, Russell scrapped that character and effectively made a Hammer horror film is he perverted one.

He is colouring carefully between the lines, under the watchful eye of Vestron Pictures (who would later fund his D.W. Lawrence adaptation The Rainbow (1989)), but he finds ways to get away with material within these confines, his adaptation repurposing the main concept of the Lambton worm. The "worm" (i.e. dragon) is real folklore, involving a worm-like dragon which was eventually slain by a figure named John Lambton, a folk song by C. M. Leumane re-told and played in character by a band in the beginning of the film to set up the context. Here, a young Peter Capaldi is Angus Flint, a budding archaeologist from Scotland who finds a strange skull in the land. A young Hugh Grant early in his career is Lord James D'Ampton, an ancestor of the figure who originally slain the worm.

Of note is that Russell, who felt the source material was a disappointment from Stoker1, really deviates from the source completely, including how it comes to the female villainess, here now interpreted into Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe). Marsh is the mysterious figure who, with intent on the sisters Eve Trent (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary Trent (Sammi Davis), who run a bed and breakfast, is very early on established as both the villainess and half-snake, an immortal figure who allows Donohoe to seductively and gleefully chew scenery between seducing boy scouts and spitting poison on crucifixes with hallucinogenic properties. The film is Donohoe's by a country mile, making the idea that they had originally considered a young Tilda Swinton for the role, who declined it, even more surreal in hindsight2.

An intrinsic sense of the absurd is found here, and the crude intermingles with it in a full embrace. For the most part, this is a straight forward horror film, one you could easily have had Hammer make in the sixties with Peter Cushing and not a lot of it would have to be changed, even that this revolves around a cult of snake people who can add more to their side through "snake vamperism" and their bites. Russell, the notorious scallywag of films as strange as Lisztomania (1975) when he had carte blanche, had always been absurd or with his serious work being transgressively exaggerated, even here with a wink and a nod with all the snake and phallic symbolism, from hosepipe to Donohoe playing snakes n ladders with a victim.

Even in this film as well, you witness some bizarre moments befitting the director. Wishing to evoke The Devils (1971) and having discovered green screen technology, you get video effect freak outs to tell the back-story of the LambtonWorm in hallucinations, including spiked fake phallus, and a scene of a giant white worm wrapping around Christ as Roman soldiers terrorise and rape nuns in front of video toaster imposed fire and Donohoe cavorting around nude or a snake woman. Or the dream on an airplane as Hugh Grant watches Donohoe and Catherine Oxenberg as stewardesses wrestling each other and a phallic use of a red marker pen.

This is not a film from the mad, ambitious seventies or early eighties of Russell, as in spite of all I have described this is still restrained compared to other work. Not long after this, excluding Whore (1991), he would move on to television but also a lot of ultra obscure projects, on Uri Geller film, an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother and films shot in his own garage. So, in his attempt at a mainstream horror film, you see as much one of his last hurrahs too, taking this template and giving it a nice shot in the arm with his eccentricities.

Abstract Spectrum: Exaggerated/Weird

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

 


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1) Bless the people making old copies of Fangoria available until collections are publically available.

2) Based on information from the Trailers from Hell commentary by Vestron executive Dan Ireland.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Nobody's Daughter Haewon (2013)

 


Director: Sang-soo Hong

Screenplay: Sang-soo Hong

Cast: Jung Eun-chae as Haewon; Lee Sun-kyun as Seongjun; Joon-Sang Yoo as Jungshik; Ji-won Ye as Yeonju; Ja-ok Kim as Jinju; Eui-sung Kim as Jungwon; Jane Birkin as Jane Birkin

Canon Fodder

 

Hong Sang-soo, for a long time, was an enigmatic figure in cinema, a cult in him for film critics. It did not help his filmography, prolific since 1996, was not available in the United Kingdom. He is still elusive but thankfully, there have been more chances to see his work: Film4, a British television channel devoted to films, screened a season of his work1. MUBI has helped as a streaming site, and Arrow Pictures released two of his films as a double bill. And the follow, Nobody's Daughter Haewon, was the first film of his in the DVD age to get a proper theatrical release followed by physical release.

This is an issue as, controversially, I feel the only way for Hong Sang-soo to fully work as a creator is to not view one film as its own separate entity, but that they all co-exist, from a South Korean director of minimalist dramas and comedies, as one single film. Never was there a director who had single-mindedness this extreme, following the auteur theory that a director is a creator like an author. Once he got to the point of making films continually on a yearly basing, from 2008 to the modern day, Sang-soo gestated various themes that repeated. Dramas with comedic touches and comedies of awkward errors which belong in neither genre; usually a character who is a film director or involved with films; book stores, as Sang-soo is obsessed with them; romances and adultery; soju, the Korean national alcoholic drink; drinking of said soju, usually at restaurants with the ability to cook your own food on the table, likely to lead to drunken confessions. When he got popular he also started had international stars, especially Isabelle Huppert, but here Jane Birkin takes the position for a cameo.

To talk of Nobody's Daughter..., both as a separate film and a piece of his whole filmography, it is best to explain it in context of Birkin's cameo, as that is the first significant scene of the film and contextualises the structure of the film. Meeting Jane Birkin, and bonding over her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, suddenly Birkin as herself becomes close to Haewon immediately, only for it to have been a daydream for her with her head laid across a table by books. Another fascinating aspect of Sang-soo, which repeats over his films, is that whilst he makes very minimalist and universal stories (of conflict, romance and restless adults), he plays with structure greatly even if he never drastically changes the film medium visually or in openly avant-garde ways. For Haewon's tale, there is a lot of this narrative made entirely subjective in what are her dreams and what is real, following a young film student whose mother has moved to Canada, whilst she is in the midst of an adulterous relationship with a married man who is her film teacher.

Beyond this, the tale of Haewon is deceptive. Sang-soo is a director who stresses the dialogue, static takes with the only pronounced visual aspect extensive use of zoon lens for emphasis. Sang-soo's characters are complicated, imperfect people who drift along between life and nights drinking at restaurants, not even the film director a figure separate from this world. High art contrasts the ordinary environments, and a large of Nobody's Daughter... takes place in the mountains where old fortifications, the ancient Namhan Fortress, are now where people visit centuries later, to have picnics and get into conflicts over their relationship when one's wife has kicked you out of the house. If this review is slight, it is only because Hong Sang-doo's films feel like they should bleed together, a director you build the picture up from with reviews of each film for contrast.

He repeats his motifs, and far from a creative problem, this creates pieces which together contrast and add a great deal, as character will repeat their mistakes over and over, yet also the little pleasures (drinking and art) will be ruminated on without pretentious monologues. Young women are common protagonists too, Haewon a figure adrift especially with her mother's absence, someone who we see she was very close too from a long scene together, jovial and close as they joke about Haewon being able to participate in the "Miss Korea" beauty pageant with fake catwalk strutting in the middle of a park. Haewon is a figure prone to a lot of moments of sleeping when studying, a motif repeating the shot of her asleep and causing one to wonder as a viewer what is real and what is very much her daydreaming more interesting dramas in her life, never shown what is fabricated. Even among her fellow students, she is an outsider, someone mentioning her being mixed race (which another objects to being brought up when that should not be an issue), and others bringing up her being more well off with a class divide, a snobbery that disconnects her to them. This conversation is when she just leaves their table in a restaurant briefly and talk behind her back drunkenly, a lonely soul wandering in her own world and (unless dreamt up) with merely a romance with a married man which is just awkwardly moving forth. She is not necessarily a good student in the film class, or behind in her assignments, so she is not in the best of places even there.

Sang-soo's work, the more times I am actually able to see it, grows as a result and aspects of this film even beyond those mentioned reverberate to others, even if (fittingly for his structural games) I may have accidentally misremembered or faked memories of the other films. For example, the scenes of Namhan Fortress here evoke scenes in countryside from Oki's Movie (2010), one of the first of his work I saw as part of the Film4 season. His work is also never grim, which is poignant, his characters flawed but compelling, even tragically humorous such as the teacher who is reduced to tears on a bench kicked out of two women's lives. His is a world of people who open up too easily after a lot of soju in vast qualities and it says a lot, that he is not a director interested in over the top drama or making anything in a genre, whilst is also why his films have probably been unfairly maligned for a long time in wide availability. He is very unlikely to stray into pulp genre films anytime soon, although it would be interesting to see what peculiar creation Hong Sang-soo would do. It says a bit that the only time he ever got indulgent, turning into one of his own characters when caught out in an adulterous affair with one of his actresses Kim Min-hee2, was trying to open up himself about that through her as a proxy in On the Beach at Night Alone (2017). In a film like Nobody's Daughter Haewon however, for contrast, it is a slow burn, compelling but difficult to say either drama or comedy, just a tale of human interaction which grips.

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1) As chronicled of HERE.

2) As documented of HERE.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Trial (1962)

 


Director: Orson Welles

Screenplay: Pierre Cholot and Orson Welles

Based on a novel by Franz Kafka

Cast: Anthony Perkins as Josef K.; Jeanne Moreau as Marika Burstner; Romy Schneider as Leni; Elsa Martinelli as Hilda; Suzanne Flon as Miss Pittl; Orson Welles as Albert Hastler; Akim Tamiroff as Bloch; Madeleine Robinson as Mrs. Grubach

An Abstract Film Candidate

 

Adapting Franz Kafka's tale, in which a man named Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is charged for a crime he had no prior knowledge of and is never told the charge at all, The Trial opens with a prologue based on a passage from the text. Of a man who waits outside "the Doors of the Law", aging and dying whilst both never being allowed in and the guard to inform him the doors were for him only. Dreamlike and of an unknown subtext, director Orson Welles himself narratives over the evocative hand drawn illustrations of this miniature narrative by Alexandre Alexeieff, a melancholic and strange one apt for a Kafka adaptation.

As a director who continually evolved, Orson Welles here was in total exile from Hollywood, immediately changing to a new world in terms of cinema. Whilst this is a French-Italian-German production, I ended up thinking of Mickey One (1965), as much because both used jazz in their scores but because, the later an Arthur Penn production in Hollywood influenced by European cinema, both exist in abstract worlds where the leads are in continuous paranoia of unknown forces. In Mickey One, it was a young Warren Betty as a stand-up comedian; here, it was Anthony Perkins, a clerk who suddenly wakes up in his introduction with a police officer in his bedroom.

There is a huge distinction in casting Perkins. Tragically his career was shadowed by Psycho (1960) and Norman Bates, which is worse because that was an incredible performance in itself, but here you can see his talent. He is perfect as a Kafka character, the nervous twitch of a man confused by a world which is based greatly on misperception. It is certainly, undoubtedly, an idiosyncratic film, for were it not for the fact he would move to even more experimental work like F For Fake (1973) in the seventies, this would be Welles' proudly entering into abstract cinema. An eerie one, where Perkins' Josef K. finds himself pin ponged between unknown forces, from large courts which amass a crowd, to Welles himself playing Albert Hastler, an advocate who could help Josef were it not for the fact that these cases are endless, Josef eventually meeting old people, half dressed with numbers hung round their necks in a hall, he is effectively among. That Bloch (Akim Tamiroff), one of Hastler's clients, has been in his shadow for years, effectively part of his furniture sleeping in a spare room, emphasises eventually the Advocate is just a figure who toys with his clients.

The film has an inherently surreal nature to itself, but interlaces it with an oppressive tone from the opening scene, not only with Josef being woken up in bed but with other policemen in his room, trying to steal shirts from him as impounded goods and even his co-workers in the lounge. The world, through a very distinct script, is full of traps, where authority can (in this scene) try dominate Josef by claiming a word does not exist is one, to describe an oval marking on his bedroom floor from where a dentist's chair used to be, only to question when he talks of this word as if he said it first. That those police, who tried to steal his clothes, when he makes a charge of misconduct, find themselves in the broom closest of his work place being punished by whipping shows how perverse and dog-eat-dog this existence is.

In a world where there is seemingly no tangible authority, not even a precise explanation to how it works let alone why Josef is even on trial, the film is also befittingly strange in appearance. Shot in Italy, France and even Croatia, the architecture looms over Josef as one man in the centre, and the locations created for the film contribute as much for this. His work place is a vast hall of desks, his superiority only shown in having a raised platform for his desk, not even having walls. Environments at one point do bleed into each other. Some are created locations of dreams and nightmares, from winding and endless corridors of files on shelves, to a room where the floor is entirely covered in manuscripts and documents. Even some of the aspects dated of the early sixties now have an appropriately weird aesthetic, like a giant wall expanding computer the male engineers have naturally christened female like a boat.

That is before you considering the characters and the cast, populated in legendary French stars even in minor roles, from Jeanne Moreau as Marika, as Josef's next door neighbour or a tiny cameo by Michael Lonsdale as a priest. Romy Schneider, making her role in That Most Important Thing: Love (1975) with Andrzej Żuławski merely an escalation, plays the maid and mistress to Hastler, who is attracted to guilty men and, for no reason, has webbed fingers on one hand which never becomes a plot point. Then there are specific characters, from Welles' corrupt figure of power, given his commanding voice and prescience, to a painter who specialises in commissions for the judges, already a figure with an eeriness to him as, predating Beatlemania, he is inexplicably hounded by young (teen) girls who would mob his home/work place, a merely cage of wooden pallets, if he had left the door open. There is a lot of explicit sexual and political layers, and flat out innuendo, including questions of Josef's behaviour such as the presumption, when his young female cousin visits as a sympathetic voice, that he is going to "corrupt" her. And Schneider, whose character of Leni is the other most prominent character, is at once fascinating if her own curious figure due to her fetish.

That is before the ending, rewritten by Welles as a co-writer, with unexpected death by dynamite. This is all in mind that, throughout, The Trial is still sombre, that its weirdness is contrasted by a sumptuous production with dread inducing atmosphere and exquisite dialogue, a melancholic conclusion as, by the time Welles himself in the end credits lists off the production crew in narration, he befittingly gave the author of The Metamorphosis both an alien yet profoundly atmospheric adaptation.

Abstract Spectrum: Atmospheric/Paranoid/Weird

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium

Monday, 11 January 2021

Color Me Blood Red (1965)

 


Director: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Screenplay: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Cast: Gordon Oas-Heim as Adam Sorg; Candi Conder as April Carter; Elyn Warner as Gigi; Pat Finn-Lee as Sydney (as Patricia Lee); Jerome Eden as Rolf; Scott H. Hall as Farnsworth; Jim Jaekel as Jack; Iris Marshall as Mrs. Carter; William Harris as Gregorovich; Cathy Collins as Mitzi

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #209

 

Pigments pal. Not haemoglobin!

When I first saw Color Me Blood Red a long time ago, I hated the film, not at a place to appreciate Herschell Gordon Lewis at all an era ago, getting into cult films in the late 2000s but a completely different person in my tastes. This was back when Tartan Films, with Something Weird Video, distributed Lewis' films on DVD in the United Kingdom under their Tartan Grindhouse sub label; that company no longer exists, which tells you how long ago that first viewing was. The different in time and where the final of his unofficial "Blood Trilogy" ends (with Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) is that he fully embraced his clear love for humour and winking to the audience. Whilst not a parody, which is for the better.

This is also not the first nor the last time a film has dealt with a mad artist who kills for their art - say hello A Bucket of Blood (1959) - but this particular one of Adam Sorg (Gordon Oas-Heim), a frustrated artist who finds his creative spark again in using human blood, still shows a huge jump into more deliberate comedy and whit among the luridness. There is even a joke about Adam hanging an abstract painting sideways in a gallery to see if any one notices, so that even if this does not feel like a film remotely interested in parodying the art world, they have the wherewithal to at least mock it time to time.

Before anyone asks, there have been artists who have used human blood in real life, one Vincent Castiglia eerily, to the point of clenching my arm in pain researching his work, turning this from a shock value concept to legitimate art with incredible preciseness, not merely drenching scenes from a surreal magazine or a cool horror novel cover as Adam does here in raspberry jam. Here, with Adam turning his pop art into blood baths, you see how arduous (and gruesome) it would be to try to use one's blood like a mad man, as he tries his own for a large canvas. Already on the edge, Gordon Oas-Heim the MVP with his unhinged manner, his relationship with his girlfriend turns sour, and his need to impress an art critic, one who criticised his work, pushes him over the edge.

Two Thousand Maniacs was good; it was a transition to more structured storytelling with a still-striking theme of the ghosts of the American South against the North. Here however is where my appreciation of Lewis will kick in onwards. His work is kitsch but the greater factor is his ability to wrung out entertainment to of a good sort, his eccentric filmography with films like this full of little touches of wryness and weirdness that improve vastly over Blood Feast. As much as I love that film's minimalist score, the jazz score here is exceptional, and whilst the delirium in his cinema would grow further from her, the humour thankfully makes itself welcome.

Such as with those water bikes that are abruptly in Adam's possession. Literally, bicycles custom made to float on the water and travel along when peddled. They were the only thing I remember from that first viewing, but it is apt as, whether something the production had access to or flung onto the creators, they are an example of the idiosyncrasies you find in Lewis' films which add life to them, which will grow in his productions from here on. They are even used for a murder scene, of someone on one against Adam in a speedboat, so Lewis thankfully took advantage of these ridiculous props, which is a good sign for the future. Then there are the heterosexual couple, friends of the female lead April (Candi Conder), who dress as each other, a lovably whimsical duo who are never traumatised (baring by accidentally finding a corpse in the beach sand) and are among the many strange figures that have appeared in Lewis' filmgraphy who stand out.

Color Me Blood Red does drag in the final half, mainly when it tries to be a conventional horror film, which clashes against Lewis' common trope of a very low budget and only a few locations to work with, emphasising dialogue scenes as a result which do not work when he is trying to be traditionally story driven. He is more interesting when, if there is a reliance on script, on skewered pulp tropes, zingers in the dialogue and eccentric characters, and thankfully, when this is in the right headspace Color Me Blood Red feels proudly camp, a kitsch production but with a sense of not being mockable, instead with its tongue firmly pressed in its cheek. And this is a time, soon after, when Herschell Gordon Lewis would become stranger. Making Jimmy, The Boy Wonder (1966), one of his two children's films, and Something Weird (1967), which lives up to that title tenfold. Lewis would return to gore films, and make them gorier, but naturally, they got stranger as he went along too. So, for me, Color Me Blood Red was a delight to return to, not bored as I was expecting a conventionally slick horror film as that first time, but a deliberately goofy film which improved tenfold. That, and with the added virtue that, as a stepping stone, this film's best virtues would appear magnified soon after as Something Weird was only two years after and so forth.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

X: The Unknown (1956)

 


Director: Leslie Norman (and Joseph Losey)

Screenplay: Jimmy Sangster

Cast: Dean Jagger as Dr. Adam Royston; Edward Chapman as John Elliott; Leo McKern as Insp. 'Mac' McGill; Anthony Newley as LCpl. 'Spider' Webb; Jameson Clark as Jack Harding; William Lucas as Peter Elliott; Peter Hammond as Lt. Bannerman

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #208

 

An early Hammer film, a tale of a strange radioactive entity that has spring up from a fissure in the Scottish countryside, the first thing that came to mind pronounced is how safety measures when handling radioactive material has become more severe over the decades after. Back here, almost an entirely different reality of Britain in appearance and atmosphere, it was perfectly fine to just have a lead box for radioactive metals and a see through pane to stand the other side of to experiment on it, not even full body suits.

In seriousness though, whilst that was a perturbing aspect of the film, it is significant that when the original Godzilla was made by Toho in Japan in 1954, and the Americanized version only was made in 1956, there was a film here which is blatant as a metaphor for the dangers of using radioactive energy and substances without realising their danger. Of note, adding to this, is knowing this was meant to be a sequel returning to writer Nigel Kneale's popular character  Professor Bernard Quatermass, following from The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), only for Kneale to prevent this1. In hindsight, you could have easily seen this film as a Quatermass production, but instead we have scientist Dr. Adam Royston (Dean Jagger), an expert in radioactive materials who finds himself drawn into this scenario when, during military training of locating radioactive materials with a detector, a group of army soldiers are caught off-guard by a fissure in the earth to appear.

The location, rural Scotland in the Lochmouth region, does add a lot of weight to this film even if it is a traditional b-movie that involves a monstrous form, [Spoiler Warning] a radioactive and living mass of mud-likegoo which absorbs radioactive energy [Spoiler Ends]. This is all in mind that you have a violent contrast to a wholesome idyllic place of the past against then-modern science. Here people still go to Church, as in one scene, and when they need to flee their homes, they hide in said Church with the vicar making sure everyone is safe. There are cars and electric lights, but this is still as much a place, even if shot in England, of the World War II and even pre-WWII era, contrasted by Royston's workplace of vast laboratories and computers, even if he himself prefers working in his little shed with his own experiments.

And, in spite of its monster, rendered with models being engulfed in its form, especially in the early stages X does have a darker side because of its tackling of radioactivity. Anyone who is in presence of this being, shown from its perspective for its victims, suffers radioactive burns which can more than likely kill them eventually, even just being near the entity. Even a child, a young boy dared by another to enter spooky woods, which is very adult to have done at the time and still is today. And, still by today's standards, there are a few gruesome moments, especially with someone when attacked in an x-ray room of the hospital being melted to death beyond the skeleton in its presence, which is still icky to see decades later. More so, it is a surprise to see in British horror film from the late fifties such scenes, a reminder than Hammer, whilst a cultural institution in the modern day, were pushing boundaries in terms of what they could get away with, the irony of them become antiquated in the mid-seventies ironic when even this, one of their obscurer films, has such scenes. It also presents one scene, as a result, which does become haunting in context of its themes and time of creation. That the father of the child injured, who has just died before in the scene, berates Royston for his involvement in working on radioactive materials, which he takes the blame for in a universal sense. This ultimately cheesy film still taps into a real fear post-atomic bomb which can be found and adds a greater weight to it.

Ultimately it leads to a monster film finale, which could be seen as a lacksidasical one in hindsight to all this, though let us not ignore this was a horror film first, and that it manages to still have a weight with the themes it decided to tackle. With the Quatermass connection, it would have actually improved the film if Nigel Kneale was willing to play ball. Not least, because The Quatermass Xperiment itself, the Hammer adaptation, ends with a cheesy looking monster, but managed to make its themes still stand out regardless. The themes in the version of the film we did get are still strong in this form, and Dean Jagger is actually an interesting lead who could have been a Quatermass-like figure himself in more productions.

The film as well looks gorgeous in context - mostly set in the countryside, the film in monochrome as well has an evocative edge which helps greatly with the production, even making the monster more alarming than goofy as it is a literal mass which cannot be halted. (Thankfully cinematographer Gerald Gibbs, a veteran who had worked on films like No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) beforehand, would be hired for Quatermass II (1957)). The other intriguing thing to consider is that, with some of his footage surviving in the final production, this was originally a film to be helmed by Joseph Losey, which adds an additional strange touch. Losey, who would eventually be the auteur behind many idiosyncratic dramatic films in the sixties to the eighties, would get a Hammer film entirely to himself, The Damned (1963), which was also about the perils of radioactivity, and thus adds a nice little bow to cinematic history when few directors get enough shot with the same studio on similar material.

 


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1) Referenced HERE.