The Burning (1980)

The Burning is a 1980 slasher movie, recently restored and released by Arrow Video.  To be honest, although I enjoy cult horror films the reviews for this one didn’t seem too promising. Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to win a bundle of Arrow stuff recently and this blu-ray was in the batch. It’s got some loyal fans, so I thought I’d give it a spin.

The Burninggroup of teenagers are spending a few days in summer camp in the woods, remote from civilisation or assistance.  One of the camp leaders, a young man in his twenties played by Brian Matthews, had attended the same camp when he himself was a teenager.  Then, he had been partly responsible for a joke that went tragically wrong, that resulted in a cruel, kid-hating caretaker nicknamed Cropsy being burned alive.

Life at the camp is its usual state of heightened hormones: teenage bullying and sex, so there’s plenty of nudity.  Actually, the melodramatics aren’t too bad, the frustrations and obsessions are fairly well depicted, not least the struggles for power and affection as these teens are becoming young adults.  It helps that the kids at the camp are of a wide age range, teens of different stages of maturity.  And the two leaders are themselves barely adults themselves.

A group paddle up-river for a few days and set up camp in the woods, and this is when things go badly wrong for them.  It turns out that Cropsy isn’t dead, and he’s back with a large sharp pair of gardening shears to exact his bloody revenge on these pesky kids.  After he hides their boats, Cropsy picks them off in ones and twos.  Although this dates from 1980, the special effects hold up reasonably well, with lots of blades puncturing teenage flesh, gallons of blood, slashed throats and severed fingers.

The film has a good build-up only to be spoiled by the ending, which is confused and a bit of an anti-climax. It’s as if they ran out of budget and hastily edited together what footage they had, bulked out with flashbacks. A pity.

It was the gore that got this film on the infamous ‘video nasties’ list in the UK from the early eighties.  Back then, films released on video didn’t need to be classified by the BBFC until a moral panic changed the system and so these films were banned.  The Burning was only passed uncut by the BBFC in 2002.

Some ‘video nasties’ have grown in stature and are genuine classics: Profundo Rosso, Possession, The Evil Dead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The Burning falls far short of these, but it’s an entertaining watch even if the tense bits are more funny than scary when viewed from today’s vantage point.

Fun fact: this was actress Holly Hunter’s debut film.

Five Came Back (2017)

I’ve just finished watching Netflix’s new three-part documentary. It’s a fascinating account of how five top Hollywood directors – John Huston, John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens and William Wyler – went with US troops to cover the second world war.

It tells the story chronologically, with amazing footage including Capra’s propaganda films about ‘why we fight’, aerial battles, Ford’s amazing footage of the corpse-strewn beaches of D-Day landings, Stevens’s harrowing depiction of what they found at Dachau concentration camp, and Huston’s compassionate documentary of the post-traumatic stress disorders that affected many of the soldiers on their return.

With commentary from Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan and Meryl Streep, this is a captivating film. It has its flaws: the music is excessive, some of the analysis of the war’s impact of these men’s subsequent careers a little too pat, but i was happy to forgive these small missteps. Their films on the whole don’t approach the chilling greatness of Leni Riefenstahl’s nazi propaganda, or the absolutely harrowing German Concentration Camps Factual Survey film that was finally completed and released in 2014, but they are still important and the story behind them fascinating.

This is a fresh take on both the story of WW2 and on an important chapter on these key Hollywood legends.

White Heat (1949)

My first Jimmy Cagney gangster flick (and on the big screen no less) and it’s a good one.

Made in 1949, White Heat is a surprisingly violent and cold blooded film, at times even shocking for its cruelty. It’s an exciting thriller about a smart and ruthless criminal pitted against the cops who want to nail him for murder and armed robbery, and rival gang members who seek to double cross him. No-one can be trusted, everybody is scheming and using their wits to stay in the game and stay alive. A psychopath who casually kills anyone who gets in the way, the only person Cagney trusts is his mother!

This is a thrilling ride that doesn’t let up til the very end.

Tower (2016)

Would you have the courage to risk your life to save someone else? In 1966 a man with a rifle started shooting at passers-by indiscriminately from the top of a tower in Austin, Texas. Bodies lay on the street. The shooting continued for ninety minutes before the gunman was stopped. This film recounts the stories of some of the people who were caught in the event.

What makes this film special is that it is an animation, using the same ‘rotoscoping’ technique that Richard Linklater employed in A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. It’s mixed with footage and photographs of the event and with present-day interviews with the survivors. The animation draws out individual incidents, with the background chaos greyed out in a way that filmed footage couldn’t achieve. A pregnant woman and her boyfriend were shot. As she lay bleeding on the baking-hot concrete, exposed and helpless, the animation distorts psychedelically to express how she drifted in and out of consciousness. As she thinks of how much she loves her boyfriend, we were shown stylised, colourful joyful flashbacks to express their happiness. She survived to recount her experience but sadly her boyfriend and her baby died.

But it’s not all sad or depressing. The film focuses on those who found the courage or impulse to act. A woman who risked being shot herself by staying with one of the injured, to talk to her, sustain her and stop her drifting into unconsciousness. Or the middle-aged man who put himself in tremendous danger to assist the few confused and frightened policemen who eventually halt the shootings. This film doesn’t try to explain the gunman; his biography is barely mentioned. Up to the end he is a hidden sniper, an abstract danger. This isn’t his story. This is the story of the survivors and of the brave people who acted, who cared and who proved their strength of character in a terrifying situation. This quietly emotional and powerful documentary left me impressed by their actions and wondering whether I could be so courageous in their place.

Tower webpage

Endless Poetry (aka Poesía sin Fin) (2016)

“You should not fear getting old, you become free from concerns about sex, money and passions. It is the time when you detach from yourself.”

Well into his 80s, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky is returning to his youth. Endless Poetry is his second in a trilogy of autobiographical films, following 2013’s Dance of Reality and it picks up from where the previous one ended. The film depicts young Alejandro from his early teens when he moves with his parents to the city, shows him growing into an adolescent rebelling and revelling, thwarting his father’s ambitions for him to become a doctor and pursuing his ambitions to be a poet. He finds and loses his muse, joins a ‘family’ of artists, and tries to figure out who he is and what he wants.

But coming from Jodorowsky this is no normal autobiography. Famed for his wild imagery and surreal symbolism, this is just as imaginative as his early midnight movies such as El Topo and The Holy Mountain. For example, right from the start his mother only sings, she never speaks, and that’s fine with the viewer – it expresses her character and the tender memory the boy has for his mother’s kind voice.  Everything is similarly exaggerated and stylised, to express the truthful essence and significance of each situation, more than just the facts of the event. Many reviewers reference Fellini.

The trick, that he pulls off magnificently here, is to make his magic-realist filmic world consistent within itself. You accept and welcome this colourful fantasy world, not just for its stunning imagination and visual flair but for its expressiveness.

Jodorowsky is the narrator and he occasionally steps into the frame to console or advise his celluloid younger self as he stumbles through youthful independence and artistic expression. This gives the narrative a subtle dual quality: we watch the story uninitiated and simultaneously we benefit from Jodorowsky’s hindsight which is conveyed by both his direct interventions and the stylised artistic rendering of events. This in turn gives the events and their outcome a sense of inevitability; the film has the flow of a waltz, there’s a musicality to it. It’s delightful and brimming with ideas.

This is a warm human film, loving and sentimental, but it isn’t sickly sweet. As is the norm with this director there are some frank and shocking moments that many viewers may find challenging and uncomfortable, but it never feels gratuitous. The self-detachment that the older Jodorowsky describes gives him a useful distance – he doesn’t flinch from depicting his youthful self as immature and embarrassing; he doesn’t regret his young drive to find his path, but acknowledges a complex debt to his parents that he rejected at the time and this gives film some pathos. Although this is the middle film of the trilogy – we come in part way into the story and leave before the end – I think it could be watched standalone.

For some reason, Jodorowsky’s films never get a wide release in the arts cinemas – my screening was one of a small number in London and it was entirely sold out – so it’s worth making the effort to enjoy this beautiful and unusual film on the big screen while you get the chance.

Little White Lies review of Endless Poetry

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

The Guardian review of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is spot on. It’s a bold film of two interlocking tales: one a character study of Amy Adams’s art dealer Susan and secondly a dramatisation of her ex-husband’s first novel that she’s reading. The novel dramatisation is a tense West-Texan revenge thriller and it’s genuinely exciting. It does feel like fiction, with its threatening country thugs and grizzled cop, but that’s the point and it still packs an emotional punch.

The LA narrative has a different tone, this is the ‘real’ world with all its disappointments and complexities. Susan has become acutely conscious of the art world’s pretensions and charades. There is a sadness to her, with her low self-worth and past regrets.

We share her intense emotional response as she reads the novel, it resonates with her life. There’s a reason why her ex-husband sent the manuscript to her: in many ways this is his revenge. Crucially, the novel is not a literal echo or parody of Susan’s past, the Texan plot isn’t a thinly disguised memoir; instead it’s the emotional impact that is true, is real. And that ultimately is the movie’s theme, artistic truth and integrity contrasted with the ‘real’ world with all its falsities. Weakness and strength.

The film is very well acted and shot, and the contrasting tones are spot on. If anything I’d like to see more of Amy Adams character; inevitably her scenes are subdued in contrast to the tension of the thriller, but her performance is very good.

Dog Eat Dog (2016)

“I’ve made a number of films in my career that are prestigious and important. This isn’t one of them”.

Dog Eat Dog, directed by Paul Schrader (screenplays include Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, director of Blue Collar and Mishima) is a lurid, violent crime thriller starring Willem Dafoe, Nicolas Cage and Christopher Matthew Cook. The actors and director clearly set out to have fun with this sometimes shocking tale.  Schrader regular Dafoe is particularly good as a paranoid, unstable and somehow pathetic killer. Nicolas Cage, last seen on screen with Dafoe in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, is restrained by comparison but focused, perhaps because he knew Dafoe’s intense and dangerously controlled performance could have easily stolen the show.161016 Dog Eat Dog

The three criminals, with a strong bond from shared jail time, are all deeply flawed men, all feel inadequate and desperate in their own ways. And this leads them to commit a kidnapping together against their better judgement that (of course) goes badly wrong. This film doesn’t follow many rules or formulae however, it’s sometimes funny and other times brutal.

Despite some occasional and problematic misogyny, this is fun trashy entertainment.

Phantasm (1979)

Phantasm was a low-budget independent horror film from 1979 that had a second life on VHS in the eighties.

161015 Phantasm

J J Abrams loved it as a teenager. Recently he got in touch with the director, Don Coscarelli (on the right of the photo), and arranged to get it restored. He did this by stealing the odd hour or two at a time in the lab when they should have been working on Star Wars! Tonight it was shown in its restored glory at the London Film Festival.

And what a strange and fun film it is! Dead relatives turned into growling zombie dwarfs. Swift floating silver spheres with protruding knives. A guitar playing ice-cream man saving the day. The director acknowledged influences from Invaders From Mars and Suspiria, (and I think Carnival of Souls played its part) it makes no logical sense.

It was great fun and the audience of adoring fans loved it.

Lo and Behold: Revieries of the Connected World (2016)

171013 Lo and BeholdIt’s not surprising that Werner Herzog doesn’t own a smartphone but he’s made a documentary contemplating the Internet age. Aptly, this UK premiere was followed by a q&a that was broadcast to other cinemas and homes across the country. ‘Lo and Behold’ starts with the birth of the Internet in 1969, and goes on to explore various facets of our connected world through his idiosyncratic lens.

We meet scientists who dream of a kind of hi-tech 171013 Lo and Behold2telepathy that transmits their real-time brain scans directly to other people’s heads. If technology makes us all into individual omniscient gods, we ponder the psychological effect on the next generation who grow up with that power. Imagine the inconvenience if our intelligent microwave falls in love with the fridge. Will the internet dream of itself? And we meet technological refugees, people who choose to live in a tech-free community to protect themselves from computer game addiction or radiation, the Amish of our time.

Composed mostly of talking heads and Herzog’s narration, this documentary explores the fear and wonder of our computer age. Lo and Behold!

Goldstone (2016)

Well I disagree with the Aussie critics on this one. Goldstone, which tonight had its European premiere at the LFF, isn’t the masterpiece that some critics proclaim but it does have its moments.

Maybe this is because director Ivan Sen is trying to do it all – cinematography (beautiful), editing (competent), music (hackneyed), script (slightly under-developed) – too much for one person? It could have used a bit of tightening-up, in particular the script, plotting and characters. But it’s watchable.

Its a tale of two cops investigating corruption in a mining town, where they discover the mine is trafficking prostitutes from China. It’s about how easy it is to turn a blind eye and about the exploitation of the aboriginal people, culture and environment. It’s clearly meant to be a Commentary on ‘Australia’.

The film is enjoyable though: the cinematography is stunningly beautiful, it luxuriates in the colour of the expansive outback landscape and the neon bars and dives. Unfortunately the plot is too predicable and Sen felt the need to underline each of the film’s messages with passages of laboured, unnatural reflective dialogue, often more than once just in case you’d missed the obvious themes. The supporting cast are almost all stereotypes. One notable but fleeting exception is a travelling prostitute doing the rounds of the outback settlements; her compassion, toughness and tragic backstory is hinted at just enough to give her real depth. And then she’s gone as if she’d just wandered in from a different, better movie.