The Devils (director’s cut) (1971) or livewithfilm feels historic amid the debauchery…

21 Nov

A suppressed masterpiece, Ken Russell’s own cut of his legendarily controversial film The Devils remains difficult to track down. So when livewithfilm saw that the BFI was screening it – potentially for the third time in the film’s history – this blogger jumped at the chance to revel in the madness.

With a plot oddly pertinent to the stringent cuts and bans the film endured, The Devils perfectly realises and confronts systems of repressive power, namely the state and religion. In an unparalleled performance of both force and subtly, Oliver Reed’s Grandier is the priest that garners the malice of scheming French royals. With the state keen to tear down the walls of his city, Grandier is accused of being in league with Satan – having supposedly possessed the local nunnery and its lusty superior Sister Jeanne.

Creating an awe inspiringly wide vision, the film at once recalls the scope of Cecil B. Demille and the hedonistic excesses that remained Russell’s own hallmark. The fate of Grandier positions religious orders as puppets of state control. Manipulated to rid the French king of this turbulent priest, the Christian order’s swift descent upon its wayward brethren only serves to prove its own hollowness.

Yet Russell intriguingly doesn’t position such claims as the simple answer. Grandier retains a form of faith, creating the implication that individual belief remains untainted in the face of an established religion at the beck and call of political figures.

Russell is in complete control of his grand vision, consistently managing to instil the feeling of complete disorder while retaining form and momentum. Matching exquisitely composed visuals with unsurpassable performances from both Reed and Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, The Devils is essential cinema.

The time has come Warner Brothers, release this unedited – and crucial – cut.

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Skyfall (2012) or livewithfilm takes notes from Bond’s talent for queue jumping…

13 Nov

After what seems like the whole of the UK caught Bond’s latest bust-up on its opening week, livewithfilm thought it should probably catch up and headed to the BFI IMAX. Such a trip dealt this blogger an odd hand as – with the favoured son of MI6 careering his way around London – Bond at one point decided to drive past the very cinema livewithfilm was sitting in. Perhaps his Aston Martin DB5 was an elaborate ruse to beat the nationwide rush for tickets…

With Judi Dench frostily glaring across the screen as MI6 chief M and muscular Daniel Craig set to save his country from the evil clutches of malevolent super-crim Javier Bardem, the stage seemed set for a by-the-numbers return for Bond. Yet Skyfall is not the spy as we know him. Steered into unknown territory by the acclaimed talents of director Sam Mendes and director of photography Roger Deakins, Skyfall sets a magnificent new dawn for Bond who remains at once nostalgic for his fifty preceding years and bold enough to hold his own for the next half century. After crashing out of a heart racing opening chase that rivals the Russian dam bust of Goldeneye (1995) and mirrors Brosnan’s final bungee dive, Bond is left to drink his sorrows away presumed dead. Yet as Bardem’s Silva wages a very personal war against a particularly matriarchal M, Bond is drawn back to protect his old boss.

Forcing Britain’s beloved spy to encounter a range of homoerotic and oedipal themes, Bardem subversively dominates Skyfall. A giggling hybrid of Andy Warhol and Hannibal Lector with an entrance to rival Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Silva is a furious reflection of Bond. In this landmark year for the secret agent, it is fitting that Bond – relentlessly criticised for his archaic and sexist spy lifestyle – is forced to confront himself in this manner. Deconstructing entrenched expectations in an approach akin to Nolan’s recent Batman reinventions, Skyfall takes Bond to new heights through a timely ‘self-aware’ reinvention. Craig once again deftly fills the tux alongside franchise stalwart Dench, new addition Ben Whishaw’s Q suitably matching up to the oft-credited pair. Most crucial of all though, Deakins and Mendes inject originality into Skyfall that almost erases all memory of Quantum of Solace (2008) to reinvigorate Bond for future duties.

Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) or livewithfilm goes back to what it knows best…

8 Nov

Yes livewithfilm has returned to its roots: an 80s horror sequel. Could the third coming of Freddy Krueger compare favourably to the recurring wonders of the It’s Alive series or the ever diminishing rubber-toothed returns of Jaws II or IV: The Revenge? Whatever happened, livewithfilm could be safe in the knowledge that Michael Caine thankfully wouldn’t turn up sporting a floppy afro.

Chuck Russell’s sub-par entry into the Elm Street franchise amps up the gore yet unwittingly sheds it horrific origins, resulting in an imaginative yet ridiculous film. Relying heavily on earlier instalments for narrative clarity, Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors wavers between clunky exposition and unexplained madness as a host of new teens come to a sticky end thanks to dream-bound Freddy Kreuger. No explanation is given as children in a psychiatric hospital begin to fall prey to the knife gloved maniac, Dream Warriors happily expecting audiences to be clued up to the Nightmare formula. That is until Heather Langenkamp arrives, reprising her role as the original Nightmare’sNancy and shoehorning explanation in at every opportunity. Now a dream specialist, Nancy works with the children to battle Kreuger and manipulate their dreams.

Following Wes Craven’s supreme original, the Nightmare series relies upon its lucid concept to churn out ingenious murder sequences. Thankfully omitting a return to the shower set death-by-towel-whipping witnessed in Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Dream Warriors pushes new boundaries to slaughter its young cast. Yet while relentlessly inventive and disgusting (death by puppet veins?!), the kills disappointingly provoke few scares. Nevertheless, Russell’s intriguing attempts to maintain Craven’s original theme of American youngsters paying for the crimes of their forebears suggests deeper thinking at play. Similar to the ramifications of Vietnam alluded to in the first Nightmare, Dream Warriors now blames the youngsters’ dreams on the drug taking decadence of their parents. At points entertaining, Dream Warriors struggles to maintain the original excitement of Nightmare. Memorable for brief glimpses of imagination, the film remains a scare-free and decidedly non-nightmarish return for Kreuger.

Outskirts (1933) or livewithfilm rises up for the Motherland!…

4 Nov

Boris Barnet’s 1933 film Outskirts remains revolutionary in both form and content, an intriguing artwork with a beating political heart. Constantly surprising as only the earliest exponents of sound films could be, Outskirts uses all its means to express the destructive absurdity of the twentieth century. Giving a moving portrayal of the impact of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution on everyday life, Barnet focuses on the inhabitants of a small village on the Russo-German border. The onset of war forces factory workers to ditch their rebellion and volunteer ‘for the Motherland’. Brothers Nikolai (Nikolai Bogolyubov) and Seneka Kadkin (Nikolai Kryuchkov) march to the trenches, leaving their father Pyotr (Aleksandr Chistyakov) to lament their departure. With aggressive nationalism being provoked across the town, a young girl (Yelena Kuzmina) riles the masses by falling in love with a German prisoner of war.

Barnet’s control of Outskirts is formidable with both sound and vision coming to signify greater social ills. In his most subversive association, Barnet uses the sounds of machine gun fire over the driving machinery of the shoe factory. An image regularly returned to throughout Outskirts, here the individual is positioned as the victim of the twentieth century’s driving political change. As patriotic Russians cheer departing soldiers, their cries become the train’s jets of steam driving the young men to their violent destination. Similarly mocking the grand associations of conflict, the falling bombs of the Russian Front as introduced through a comical swanee whistle’s swoop. Even a horse sighs at the laziness of his sleeping master, with a mournful ‘oh my god’. At times surreal, Barnet’s manipulation of medium forces the viewer to see familiar historic events in a new light and reassess the impact and legitimacy of such acts.

Allowing Barnet to damn the early twentieth century with greater vehemence, the film’s naturalistic performances remain relentlessly moving. Akin to the Italian neorealist films Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City that would tread similarly revolutionary ground a decade later, Outskirts frequently remains interested in portraying ordinary characters caught in everyday life. Kuzmina’s performance as lovelorn Marika creates an image of heartbreaking naivety amidst worldwide violence. Similarly, early cross-nation friendships between her father Alexander and their German lodger recall the humanistic vision of Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. This comparison is also particularly relevant once Outskirts begins to dwell on the horrors of trench warfare. Constantly emphasising that the conflicting armies are both equally disgusted with the conflict and share a common humanity, Barnet tends to hammer home a point that subsequently loses some of its power. While this remains an uplifting theme, Outskirts smashes its steam train straight into it with little nuance.

Nevertheless, Outskirts remains as politically relevant and innovative as it did on its release. That we still haven’t got Barnet’s forcefully put message about the lunacy of warfare perhaps validates Outskirts’fury.

Outskirts is released on DVD on 12 November

I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011) or livewithfilm broadens its horizons and suffers the consequences…

31 Oct

In the spirit of wider filmic know-how, livewithfilm decided to take the plunge. Don’t fret though, more horror fun will follow shortly!

Laughably labelling itself as a romantic comedy, Douglas McGrath’s I Don’t Know How She Does It remains an insufferable vision of entrenched sexism. Besides regarding itself in a falsely noble light, the film misses every opportunity for feminism or fun and merely affirms a phallocentric vision of working life. Sarah Jessica Parker once again struggles to find a role suited to her small screen strengths in busy mother Kate Reddy. Managing to juggle childcare with a high-flying financial role, Kate is applauded by all and sundry. Yet when business guru Pierce Brosnan threatens to whisk Kate away on global business trips, the heroine must choose between family and her job.

While bungling a hackneyed plot that adds little to a genre already saturated with sub par entries, McGrath instils a trying patronising streak tohis filmwhich marvels at the female capacity to work. Using its first act to shoehorn in its inquisitive title at every opportunity, the film positions Kate as an oestrogen fuelled totem for male compatriots to gawk at in wonder. Even though Pierce Brosnan’s jet-setting silver fox can happily undertake a full time job, Sarah Jessica Parker’s workload is constantly signposted as a cause for contention. Concluding that a woman must choose to either be suppressed housewife or power-suited breadwinner, I Don’t Know How She Does It reinforces tired gender roles unsuited to the Carrie Bradshaw era rom-com. Woefully out of touch with contemporary enlightened thought, even Mad Men’s exceptionally powerful Christina Hendricks is sidelined amongst an ensemble of underdeveloped female characters.

Having shown his capacity to support complex plots and career defining performances in overlooked Truman Capote pic Infamous, McGrath’s mishandling of narrative sense in I Don’t Know How She Does It seems all the more disheartening. Apropos to nothing, the film decides to indulge in vérité straight to camera interludes which only resurface during the final scrabble for a conclusion. While McGrath could be applauded for seeking to add something unexpected to his film, the director doesn’t have the conviction to use this tool for any real means. It is as if the self aware artistry of the Nouvelle Vague has been filtered down into an empty, time wasting gesture. Yes the fourth wall is shattered, but the film’s foundations are taken with it.

I Don’t Know How She Does It has nothing original to say, in fact only undermining a genre previously adept at envisioning powerful female leads. While causing a solitary laugh at the expense of its banking protagonists, the film is awe inspiringly unfunny. Jokes don’t simply fail they are nonexistent, sucked into a bland black-hole of thumb twiddling tedium. Adding to the woe, the real comic talents of Sarah Jessica Parker, Kelsey Grammer and Saturday Night Live regular Seth Meyers go entirely to seed. The real question to be answered remains: I don’t know why they made it.

Double bill: Manhunter (1986) & The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or livewithfilm enjoys its electro pop with a nice Chianti…

23 Oct

Potentially serving as the darkest double bill livewithfilm has yet to endure, the earliest incarnations of the Lecktor/Lecter tales remain surprisingly dissimilar and fuel fear in entirely different ways. While the violent aging of Michael Mann’s Manhunter has done it no favours (synth drum solos anyone?) it still can sit contentedly next to Jonathan Demme’s Academy busting Silence, perhaps even surpassing its younger sibling. Depending on how many sunsets and short-shorts one can stomach, Manhunter’s stylised yet realistic vision is truly skin-crawling and often surpasses the frequently bogeyman-esque horrors of Silence.

Alluding to previous battles with a one Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), Manhunter sees psychologically fragile cop Will Graham (William Petersen) called back into the force to hunt down serial killer ‘The Toothfairy’. Entering into the murderer’s mindset, Graham risks insanity as he hunts his latest prey. Silence sees Lecter (here, Anthony Hopkins) consulted once again as trainee FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) hunts down a killer who skins his victims. Entering into a pact with Lecter, Starling is forced to confide deep secrets to the cannibal.

Both Cox and Hopkins excel as Lecktor and Lecter respectively, demonstrating different interpretations of the same maniacal character; yet, somewhat controversially, Cox’s remains superior. Hinting at the brutal genius of Lecktor, Manhunter teases a more chilling glimpse of insanity out of the villain. While Hopkins tears around his Perspex cage, Silence nearly explains him away, revealing all that Manhunter so eerily suggests. Hopkins is enthrallingly unnerving but remains in a film that could do with implying as much as it reveals.

Manhunter’s ‘monster’ is similarly more effective. A terrifying presence, Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) is compellingly fleshed out, far more so than the at times Leatherface-styled Jame Gumb (Ted Lavine). When matching Gumb with Clarice however, Silence brings to the fore an intriguing gender-morphing dynamic implied throughout both films.

While it looks like livewithfilm has gone out to damn The Silence of the Lambs, this blogger agrees that the film is a classic piece of horror. Just don’t write off its earlier, and vastly underrated, predecessor.

With music like this over the closing sequence who could deny Manhunter’s classic status?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBWSocJMChA

On the Road (2012) or livewithfilm stops scatting to hitch a ride…

10 Oct

Ahead lies the road: hurtling down it steams this twitching, scintillating, rambunctious film, full of possibility and brimming with life. Spewed from Kerouac’s text yet in reality an independent piece in an entirely different medium, On the Road cannot be compared to its source. So indicative of a mood and bound within its form, the written journey remains unfilmable. Yet this is not to say Walter Salles’ film does not neatly harness that feeling and form a loving interpretation of it. While a little baggy (a near unforgivable misstep given the tightly wound quality of its source), On the Road burns with a flame even Dean Moriarty could appreciate.

 

Opening on the crowded art scene of New York circa 1947, On the Road plunges deep into the mangled worlds of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Cutting violently and switching from hapless poet to wayward love interest, Salles utterly evokes this existence in his form, reproducing at once the heady highs of hipster life and the crippling incongruity these characters feel amid the stayed establishment.

 

Igniting their lives, Dean drives Sal and Carlo to further psychological and sexual lengths. Captivating and dauntingly bold, Hedlund utterly convinces as the formidable Dean. Slowly becoming the driving force of On the Road, Hedlund sucks attention towards him, remaining at once a thrilling and wretched presence.

 

As Dean and Carlo make their way to Denver, Sal is left to make his own way out of his city. With Sal travelling through evocative mountains, cotton fields and blazing sun, the camera still manages to resist simple shots. Jittering away like Sal’s itching lust for the road, Salles’ frame finds an intriguing abnormality in every image.

 

Finding themselves together once again, Sal and the newly married Dean venture out on an adventure of their own. Neatly followed by a near omnipresent musical beat, the duo storm towns and cities, continuing their search for an identity that constantly eludes them.

 

The host of hangers-on come to define On the Road, discarded and picked up with a surprising brutality. While Viggo Mortensen cleaves an exceptionally dark streak through the film’s mid-section as heroin addict Old Bull Lee, Kristen Stewart pulls in a career defining performance as Dean’s on-off wife Marylou to retain a feminine defiance amongst the male bravura. Even as Kirsten Dunst seems a little out of place throughout, her ever-harassed Camille suits her aloof presence. Calling Sal to dance, a filtered camera evokes the heroines of classical Hollywood in Camille, while all those around her flee for the future.

 

On the Road remains at its strongest when twitching with youthful exuberance. When attempting to force a fixed narrative voice onto the plot through voiceover, Salles only serves to slow the pace and stifle the wildness. Yet at its height, On the Road remains a trip to remember.

Dredd 3D (2012) or livewithfilm meets the anti-Bane….

6 Oct

Months ago, comfortably nestled in its nearest world-of-cine, livewithfilm chuckled its way through the trailer to Dredd 3D like the worst kind of celluloid snob. Frankly, who could blame it? Boasting what seemed like unimaginative violence, a hackneyed plot and little between the ears, Pete Travis’ vision of Megacity One was done no favours by its advertisement campaign. Some film-watching-weeks later, Dredd 3D is being lauded by every critic going, championed and held aloft as an example for action flicks everywhere. Always keen to be proved wrong, livewithfilm was sentenced to a spell in its local multiplex.

In a future America, the vast Megacity One is policed by units of Judges that hunt down criminals and enact brutal sentences. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is tasked with evaluating psychic rookie Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and accompanies her to investigate a murder in high rise tower block Peach Trees. Unwittingly entering the central hub of the Ma-Ma gang and its drug production unit, the pair of judges find themselves hunted down by bloodthirsty criminals and must fight their way to the top to escape.

Hyper-violence remains a difficult thing to portray on screen. While films like Rambo (2008) wrongly opt to validate excessive slaughter through a supposedly heroic central figure, Travis’ Dredd 3D takes a different, but far more misanthropic, route. With the exception of Thirlby’s Anderson, everyone in Megacity One is morally corrupt and repulsive: solipsistic to a homicidal degree. So while blood pours from every inch of the screen, Dredd 3D manages to escape the bitter aftertaste provided by so many corpse heavy action flicks by constantly affirming that the world has gone to hell in a handcart. Travis certainly pulls no punches and the shocking brutality of the world of the Judge works heavily in Dredd 3D’s favour. The destructive metropolis has infected its entire populace, making for an unrelentingly shocking and thrilling vision of the future.

Fittingly despicable, Dredd remains an intriguing antihero. With the top half of his face constantly covered, the Judge becomes a neat reversal of the gas mask brandishing Bane from The Dark Knight Rises (2012). While Bane used violence to create a chaotic new order, Dredd uses similar brutality to restrain revolutionary forces. Emerging from a violent setting to perform further acts of hatred, both characters are representative of a contemporary uneasiness with faceless figures of power and the modern world. Dredd 3D sticks to its guns to remain a satisfyingly sleazy exploitation nightmare which takes a parting shot at the world that spawned it. Perhaps livewithfilm needs to lighten up a little…

The Mummy’s Shroud (1967) or livewithfilm revels in Hammer’s bandaged nightmare…

29 Sep

From the studio that dripped blood come the bandages to mop it up. Following the far more Hollywood inflected The Mummy (1959), Hammer’s second foray into Egyptian mythology remains a thrillingly gruesome and enjoyable slasher-romp. Never as diabolically dark as The Devil Rides Out (1968) and relatively restrained in comparison with the head-lopping frenzy of Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), John Gilling’s The Mummy’s Shroud finds its own niche to furrow. With an ensemble cast waiting in the wings for their inevitable bandage fuelled demise, ingenious deaths and splatters of gore remain the order of the day in 1920s Egypt.

Discovering the lost tomb of an Egyptian prince, an archaeological team led by the esteemed Sir Basil Walden (André Morell) return the cadaver to a museum in nearby city Mezzera. Reuniting the bandaged royal with his ever-loyal – yet long dead – servant Prem, the group unwittingly awaken a long forgotten curse. Roused by the calls of a soothsayer, Prem’s bandaged form enacts vengeance upon those who disturbed his master. With moneyed bore Stanley Preston (John Philips) fearing for his life, it falls to quick witted Paul Preston (David Buck) and psychic Claire de Sangre (Maggie Kimberly) to confront the walking fiend.

Transitioning from a relatively measured opening into a corpse-rich second act, The Mummy’s Shroud uses this dichotomy to shock and surprise. Perhaps as a result of its early twentieth century setting, the film’s preliminary archaeological scenes recall a prim and proper vision of adventure: more Five Go Wild in the Desert than the debauchery many have come to expect from Hammer. Yet once Prem the mummy begins to enact his bloody curse, the film kicks into an entirely different gear. Using the vital build up to establish characters and themes, The Mummy’s Shroud contrasts control with brutality, heightening the wanton violence of its second half. Deaths become increasingly creative and drive the film to a wild climax, with individuals being hurled from windows and melted beneath acid.

Slowly culled by this wild streak, the ensemble cast shine. While Philips’ villain remains so hammy that boos and hisses would not be amiss as he tears across the screen, Michael Ripper’s performance as long-suffering butler Longbarrow utterly steals the show. Simpering and withered, Ripper similarly juxtaposes against the film’s powerful feminine influences. With Catherine Lacy contributing her own drool to clairvoyant Haiti and heroine Claire de Sangre holding power over the film’s finale, women are given an unprecedented level of authority in this Hammer production. Truly unsettling and shocking, The Mummy’s Shroud builds on the mummy theme to the great glee of all concerned

Hell is a City (1960) or livewithfilm gets down and dirty in Manchester…

15 Sep

With factory chimneys emerging through an oppressive fog, Hell is a City creates an unashamedly grim vision of existence in the metropolis. Through a post-murder man hunt, Manchester, and by extension 1960s urban life as a whole, is shown to be a corrupting influence that brings misery into the home. With the angry young men of the British New Wave casting the camera onto the kitchen sink in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in the very same year, Val Guest’s film similarly seeks out the banal and ordinary. Yet combined with a dark streak of expressionist noir, Hell is a City remains an intriguing crime flick.

Expecting that recently escaped robber Don Starling (John Crawford) will return for the unclaimed treasure of a forgotten heist, weary police inspector Harry Matineau (Stanley Baker) dedicates his days to hunting him down in the Manchester streets. Once Starling and a gang of thieves steal money from bookmaker Gus Hawkins (Halloween’sDonald Pleasence, here hunting down cash rather than psychopaths) and kill his assistant, Matineau is hot on his heels.

While noir crime films could never be called glamorous, Hell is a City is a remarkably unsentimental vision of life. Surrounding an intriguing but rarely ground-breaking crime caper, the glimpses of life remain a powerful image of a population at odds with itself and, namely, the police establishment. Martineau’s embittered wife laments the lonely existence she faces while her obsessive husband hunts down murderers; depressed divorcees flirt longingly with married men; workers gaze despairingly into the bottom of their pint glasses; police are despised for their corruption and brutality; and criminals viciously assault the public and, in one moment, a disabled youngster. Even though this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, ultimately this context remains Hell is a City’s most compelling element and is neatly diluted with occasional, if clichéd, thrills from the criminal underworld.

Uniting the themes of the film, the final act is undoubtedly the most successful. Earlier sections at times sag under excessive plot exposition or a slightly bizarre, if necessary, moorland gambling set-piece. The closing sequence remains visually striking and fast paced, combining a rooftop gun battle with a soul searching lament. In a superb move that suits the banal beauty of the preceding 90 minutes, this is enacted as a marital argument in a living room and avoids all possible conceit. Hardly a celebration of the ordinary, the film wallows in this gritty normality. Following Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Hell is a City is the hardworking, fast talking Monday afternoon.