Miracle Cure

Cinema has an unhealthy slant towards obsession. Alone in dark rooms, it’s all too easy to start wondering what’s the point of more images and sounds? Especially in a time of such political hopelessness – shouldn’t I be doing something about that instead? Sometimes it feels like I’ve seen it all, and that like teenage infatuation, you can never recapture the thrill of discovery in quite the same way. Maybe it was never all that great in the first place, memory has a bad habit of creating impossible paragons of the past. And we can’t claim that cinema is innocent in all this, with it’s proclivity for myths and happy endings.

Then out of the blue came Miracle in Milan. It may have won the Palme d’Or in 1951 but like many Cannes winners its reputation hasn’t been treated well by intervening time. These days it’s an overshadowed work in the canon of a great director better remembered for making the archetypal ‘foreign classic’ Bicycle Thieves. So I knew little and expected less, with only a vague memory of the dirty realism and misery of De Sica’s more famous films to guide me, but this first viewing was one of the most intense film experiences I’ve had.

With a cherished film always comes the terror that the next time it won’t be as good. As long as I’ve only watched it once, it will remain untarnished. This left me with with a dilemma: I want to write about it, but that means I’m going to have to watch it again. I’m too aware of the subjectivity of experience, not only between different people but between different versions of myself, and to watch it again risks bringing the whole illusion tumbling down. For one thing, I wasn’t entirely sober the first time (a common trait of first-times) – what if my inebriated state opened me up to the film in non-reproducible ways? It’s difficult to dive straight in with something like this, so I decided to warm up first with Bicycle Thieves, well overdue a rewatch but without the same kind of emotional attachment. It also gives me time to have a few drinks.

Bruno and Antonio – Bicycle Thieves

Bicycle Thieves is a film obscured for me in the fog of youth, of stuffy classroom tedium, 16 years old having only recently decided to take cinema seriously and still getting the hang of it. I was grabbed more in those early days by the angst of the Taxi Drivers and Donnie Darkos and the sex and mystery of Noir. I still am of course, but appreciation of subtler styles took time to grow so there was much that passed me by in my first exposure to Vittorio De Sica, and more that has faded from memory. Surely this is the biggest frustration of the cinephile? I know that, psychologically, a mind that can let things go is probably a blessing, but when it comes to films I can’t help but envy those who seem to have stronger powers of retention. One advantage, I suppose, is being able to come to a film like this again ten years later as if it’s the first time.

The first thing that strikes me is how tonally different it is to how I remember, and to what we consider to be ‘realism’ today. For a start, it has a deeply romantic string score that’s an absurd contrast to the hardship faced by the characters. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a truly brilliant film that’s far more cinematic than it’s reputation suggests, it just happens to be about deeply un-Hollywood things like poverty and failure. Its ecstatic peak is when the father takes his son to a fancy restaurant, despite their hopeless financial situation, an attempt to atone for hitting him in a moment of anger and frustration. “We’ll eat and be happy, for now. There’s a cure for everything. Except death.” It’s a line that seems to sum up De Sica’s intoxicating blend of hope and hopelessness. He’s a realist, but then, it’s not over ’til it’s over. There’s always life, until there isn’t.

If I had a better memory, I wouldn’t have been so surprised by the absurd and stylistic touches in Miracle in Milan, with these elements already on display in Bicycle Thieves: the ridiculousness of the pawn-shop clerk climbing gigantic shelves of linen; infantile pushing and shoving in impossible queues for a bus; the church bribing the poor to attend (“I sat through the service, I’m entitled to the soup”). Even the adult seriousness of the Antonio’s son comes across as comically absurd, but after watching the somewhat more harrowing Shoeshine, perhaps that was simply a reality of the time. Perhaps childhood was a luxury that Italy’s poor could not afford.

Nevertheless, the stylistic and comedic touches enrich the reality rather than undermine it, playing a huge part in generating empathy towards the characters. It feels as though De Sica isolated these elements and made an entire film out of them with Miracle in Milan. Which most-of-a-bottle-of-wine later, I’m ready to face…

What strikes me immediately-all-over-again is the sheer inventiveness of it all. De Sica knocks out imaginative visual gags on par with Buster Keaton, one after another. This isn’t Neorealism as we know it. The imagery is bizarre, the plot fanciful. Neo-surrealism? It’s also extremely sweet, and the whole thing does at times risk collapsing under the sheer good-heartedness of protagonist Toto. It’s not a particularly sad film but several times I was close to tears. It’s just that it feels so heartbreakingly human.

Does it live up to my impossible memory of it? The first half is still as near perfect as I’ve ever seen, a series a brilliantly executed gags laced with poignancy and profundity. The second half may be more polarising in its outright rejection of reality, and I admit I was searching for the half-remembered intensity of the first time without ever quite reaching it, if it ever existed. The ludicrous denouement may rest upon some rather clunky visual effects, but in an age where virtually every cinema trip is a trudge into the uncanny valley I know I’d much prefer a completely hokey effect to an almost-convincing one. The double exposure techniques feel simple enough to be able to do yourself, injecting an element of the handmade, of imagination and play. That’s what I love most about the film: it’s playful. It doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s full of wonderful imagery that’s both humanist and darkly comic: Homeless people bobbing up and down together to warm up under the one ray of sunshine in a field; Gathering to watch the raffle winner eat his prize – a whole chicken; Stopping an old man from being whisked away with his helium balloons by putting things in his pockets and feeding him bread. It hardly sounds like I’m describing a work by the same filmmaker that led his child protagonists to a brutal fate in Shoeshine, but there is continuity. The common thread is empathy.

A ray of sunshine – Miracle in Milan

I’ve since been hunting down some of De Sica’s lesser known titles and in every case what marks it out as a De Sica film is that he has as much interest in the tertiary characters as the main, particularly – but not limited to – those who don’t have a strong voice in society. In Stazione Termini and its infamously butchered Selznick cut Indiscretion of an American Wife, we have the perfect case study of this – not only did Selznick destroy the pace and passion, he removed the empathy. He cut those lingering shots on passersby going through their own troubles long after the protagonists have left the frame. In contrast, De Sica’s original creates a film as much about other people as it’s own protagonists. It’s an unconventional approach even today – you can see why Selznick hated it – but it works so much better than his limited, selfish cut. De Sica’s Stazione Termini is both the glamorous Hollywood Romance and an astonishing arthouse film about minutely observed details of life. Even late in his career, unconvincing Loren/Mastroianni melodrama Sunflower displays this same trait, its most memorable image comes when a train arrives returning soldiers from the war. The camera lingers on the people crowding in, shuffling alongside the carriages holding up photographs of their loved ones in numb desperation. De Sica always seemed more interested in the crowds, but somehow treated each person in it as an individual.

Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift – Stazione Termini

Miracle in Milan is the ultimate expression of De Sica’s empathic worldview, with the central character of Toto acting merely as a conduit for us to see the people around him through his eyes, with compassion and patience and understanding. The act of representing characters in deep poverty is important in itself, especially to show them as people with hopes and dreams like everyone else, but De Sica is just as likely to show you their vices. There may be saccharine elements but he isn’t trying to convince you that poor people are saints and that the rich are evil. All the characters in his films are deeply flawed, even the saint-like Toto, who often just makes things worse despite his best intentions. In being temporarily able to magically grant the every desire of his friends and neighbours, vanity and greed quickly unravels the peace of the camp in an astonishing and heartbreaking scene of social satire. But you don’t feel that De Sica is judging, only that he is all too aware of the weakness and folly that comes with being human.

In the UK, De Sica feels all too relevant today. I am witness to a surge of homelessness in my sleepy city, driven by ideological politics disguised as necessary pragmatism. It is of course a privileged position to be anxious about how to react when begged for money in the street but it’s something that I still haven’t figured out and I’m uncomfortable with the person I become in those situations. Somehow I always come away feeling awful, that I have let personal discomfort or awkwardness prevent me from treating the most vulnerable people in society with the humanity they deserve. De Sica leads the way with empathy, but It’s not enough to feel empathy, I have to show it. It’s a skill that requires practice and I hope I’ll get the hang of it eventually. Movies can be a sort of practice. You run through situations in your head, how you would react, how you should react, but the reality can be trickier. Regardless, the ideas must come first, and this is what movies do best. Movies can deliver ideas covertly. There’s no point in being emphatic without the charm to sell it, without truthful observations and the technique to make the viewer feel them keenly without suspecting they’re being tricked. For myself, movies are what saved me from the small-minded culture of rural England. The ‘local shop for local people’ attitude from League of Gentlemen is unfortunately not so far off the mark, and now a single referendum has unmasked this ugly truth for the world to see.

There’s no doubt Miracle in Milan helped me as a jaded cinephile, but my hope is that it can also help me as a jaded human being. While ultimately I don’t think a single film can change much, I do think cinema can. En masse, films help shape the culture and the very minds and morals of individual viewers. Influence happens over time, the very place we don’t notice it. Today our culture is clearly experiencing an empathy deficit and we desperately need new filmmakers like De Sica, but mainly we need the audiences for them. Viewers need to cultivate their own diets of emphatic cinema. It’s a shame we forget the lessons of art so quickly and slip back into unenlightened ways but the sad truth is that we need constant reminders.

There’s something troubling about the lack of respect Miracle in Milan receives compared to the austerity of the rest of De Sica’s early work. Perhaps films just aren’t taken as seriously with a happy ending. Bicycle Thieves’ Antonio may be let off from his crime but his situation is no less hopeless when the film ends. In contrast, Toto provides escape for his fellow unfortunates, to literally fly off into the sunset towards a better life, as if it was designed to be the most ludicrous parody imaginable of a Hollywood Happy Ending. Of course, we know it’s not possible, but we go along with it. The fact that the film is deliberately split into two halves seems like a marker that De Sica uses to say ‘things get bad from here on in, let me show you something more hopeful instead’. It certainly softens the blow, but it also resonates deeper, and for longer. It’s a film that manages to be both social comment and escapism. Not only does it help its characters transcend their squalid and hopeless situations, for an hour and a half it helps the audience do so too. But not without giving them something to think about. I can’t in all honestly say that De Sica makes me feel like everything’s going to be okay, because in his films it rarely is. The exception is Miracle in Milan, where he has to resort to magic to make it so. But he does make me feel like it’s okay that things aren’t okay. There’s poetry in it either way.

A happy ending – Miracle in Milan

I’m Just Devoid of Ideas Currently 

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Devoid of Ideas: Part of Which Side of the Line? by Jenny Swindells

This is hanging on the wall beside my desk. A Christmas present from Jenny, part of her embroidery exhibition last year ‘Which Side of the Line?’

I’m glad she gave me this one – I did hint, and it clearly worked. Really though, I couldn’t pick a favourite. It was a strong exhibition of consistent quality. About half of them are my favourite. There are some that work well on their own, hanging in someone’s home, and some that are stronger as part of the series, which was one of the strengths of the exhibition for me, how well the images all worked together. The more pictorial images, predictably are the ones that sold, for this reason. Not necessarily because they were better than the others, but they were more conventional as pictures. Though happily nothing here was particularly conventional. Most are subtly funny too, and this one certainly has a streak of humour. The humour of the everyday, of an artist trying to maintain discipline whilst struggling to balance it with life. Which I’m sure most of us can relate to. “Bad Lobster” is another good example. In some the humour gets darker, and sometimes so dark that it almost disappears.

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Bad Lobster: Part of Which Side of the Line? by Jenny Swindells

I’m writing this not as a partner but as a fan of the work. It’s difficult to be an artist in our society today and I know far too many people who are talented but unknown, amidst a sea of successful mediocrity. It’s sad that it’s not the quality of the work that counts. It’s all about image, and who you know.

Devoid of Ideas has a great balance between the pictorial, the conceptual, the unconscious, the abstract and the diaristic, which I’m probably being quite bold in saying are the foundations of a lot of Jenny’s work – I’m sure she would disagree, I’m probably forgetting several more important things. It’s always difficult to second guess another artist’s intentions. People will always pick up on things in others’ work that were not necessarily intended, but were not necessarily unintended either. This one is a great example of the primal pictorial style that often permeates Jenny’s work reminding me of Japanese Calligraphy or Egyptian Hieroglyphics. This one feels more hieroglyphic, although the view from the back does looks distinctly Japanese somehow, which is why the glass frames are a nice touch. Ideally this would be hanging in a window, so someone would always be able to see each side.

Rear Window

The combination of words with images is another obsession for Jenny, and is still frankly an under-explored area. David Shrigley uses it a lot, as does David Lynch, in his physical work. Jenny uses it in very different ways, though the link is the dark humour that all three share. Something about the juxtaposition of words and images lends itself to one being used to intentionally undermine the other. The artist self-satirising.

There’s also a pleasing irony to hanging it above my desk. At a time where I’m finally finishing a long-gestating film with no more personal projects set to replace it, it can be nice to have a reminder that I’m not the only one currently devoid of ideas. And that sometimes the absence of ideas can lead to ideas.

I’m not even going to try to deconstruct the form, the abstract use of automatic drawing (i think) – it’s really beyond my area of expertise to say anything other than it works well. The composition is what draws me to it, something about the mix of shapes and lines that I can’t put my finger on, and am probably not supposed to be able to. What really makes the picture for me (the punctum?) are the three lines of red running through it. The perfect shade. Again, I don’t know why. It just works. I think the best art does this – it presents something simple to you. Nothing is hidden, everything is laid bare. There are no tricks. And yet it affects you in a way you can’t explain. Why is this series of lines coupled with these few words appealing to me? That’s the brilliance of it.

Jenny’s work does something very well that I’m deeply interested in – primalism. To work with the materials you’ve got without trying to hide the material. There’s a beauty in it, like cave paintings, that seems to me almost necessary in order to penetrate emotionally in any authentic way. That said, it’s also clear that the work is a translation. Beginning as sketches, a personal diary, a daily routine. Some are chosen to be immortalised in thread, like the Battle of Hastings. This act of translation has a multitude of meanings that enrich the work, such that I can only really scratch the surface. The feminist undertones are most apparent, subverting this supposedly ‘women’s’ medium in order to stand up proudly and display private thoughts, to overcome personal anxiety and historical oppression of thought and expression. To transform something meek into something powerful. But it does so within boundaries created by current social oppression and limitation of opportunity, not only of women but of artists, of the poor. Of knowledge and truth. Jenny stitches rather than paints because she can’t afford a studio, she can’t afford to make a mess. She makes the most of what she is given and carries the meaning of the methods into the work. And does so without unnecessary embellishment, without hiding the mistakes, without worrying about straight lines, and always keeping the materiality of the medium at the forefront.

It’s an inspiration for my own work, to try to keep too much artifice out of my films, to not worry about perfection – indeed to seek what’s interesting about keeping things imperfect. That doesn’t mean to be realistic, it simply means to not hide too much the fact that it’s not real. Jenny’s embroideries are distinctly embroideries. There is nothing conventional about them, but they are very much products of the materials and the methods they’re made with, and they’re very much products of Jenny. This is what I want to be able to achieve myself.

Jenny Swindells – Which Side of the Line?


She has a website here:

Some Kind of Vertigo

A Chris Marker double-bill – I have seen Marker’s famous photo-film La Jetée many times, but not for years. The first time I was 17, in college, recommended by my photography tutor. I’d never seen anything like it. A year or two later at I saw it at the cinema, part of the Aurora Festival, I was amazed again. It’s a few more years down the line and I’m concerned it might not be as great as I remember. That’s always the way with favourites – what if it doesn’t live up to my memories. Terrifyingly, to begin with it didn’t. I just wasn’t getting into it at first, a sinking feeling. But give it a chance and it delivers, reaching a high peak at it’s famous motion sequence that’s still powerful even when you know it’s coming. It’s not just the use of motion here but the sequence as a whole, how it slows everything down to focus on these subtle changing images of this girl in bed. From there on Chris Marker had me riveted. Even without the haunting sound design each composition is great in its own right. A film of gritty, high contrast stills – but it works. It’s dirty and ramshackle and wouldn’t work half as well if it wasn’t. Marker may use tell his story through stills but they’re not motionless – each one shudders and flows, we see the movement of film passing through the projector, we see the grain shimmer, injecting life. To put together stills digitally as we do now would feel sterile in comparison.LJ_6_large.jpg

Then on to Sans Soleil, that big gap in my film history. I had been waiting to get my hands on this double-bill Criterion Blu Ray, at an agreeable price. Ebay paid off eventually. It certainly shows off the wonderful imagery – it may be grainy, but on blu ray you can see each grain. Well almost. Another reason I had held out this long is because I wanted to see it with the original french voice-over instead of the English, but after comparing the French and English on La Jetée I realised that the English version is actually pretty good. For this type of essay film the superiority of subtitles over dubbing is not so clear cut, and they obviously put a lot of effort in to the english voiceovers here. I’m glad I did end up watching Sans Soleil with the English voice over, it’s done extremely well. A great voice. A great film. It’s not as iconic or memorable as La Jetée but in many ways it’s smarter and more affecting. It’s an odd film. There isn’t a clear theme, other than Marker’s own travels, subjects are discussed and changed seemingly at random. A train of thought. One of the stops explores Hitchcock’s Vertigo, his inspiration for La Jetée (“Here I was born and there I died. It was only a moment for you, you took no notice.”) He also has obsessions with cats, and owls. Marker’s diaristic writing is simply amazing, and the images no less so. The African woman’s 24th of a second glance to camera joins La Jetee’s feminine glance as one of the great moments in cinema. You can see the influence Marker has had on cine-essayists since; Mark Cousins clearly owes a debt. But one very smart move differentiates Sans Soleil from his imitators, in that he doesn’t voice it himself, rather the voiceover is given by a woman who supposedly quotes letters sent from his travels. Marker’s absence as such adds poignancy and mystery. It’s as if he cannot voice the film himself because he is still out there filming in some distant land.Event_2568.jpg

Something about Chris Marker’s globe-trotting and a time-spanning romance makes me think of Linklater’s Before Trilogy. I came to these fairly late, watching the first two a year or so ago and loving them despite – or maybe because of – some contrived dialogue. Maybe because it feels like the characters’ contrivances rather than the films’. Without much fanfare surrounding this release, I came into Before Midnight expecting this to be their Godfather: Part 3, but I was delighted to find that it’s just as good as ever. Like the other two it’s occasionally a little clunky and cliched, and like the other two it’s great anyway. The simplicity is impressive. To be absorbed in simple conversation – Linklater is surely the true inheritor of Eric Rohmer. The characters’ arguments may be nothing new but that’s always been Linklater’s strength – he doesn’t break new ground where subject matter is concerned, he just does it better than most other filmmakers, rendering the familiar truthful and heartbreaking. My life is nothing like Celine and Jesse’s but I still saw my life in every scene, and that’s Linklater’s genius. It’s a film of self reflection that left me blissfully melancholic, and above all, romantic. That’s pretty impressive considering that this part of the trilogy adopts a more resigned and realistic tone to reflect the characters’ middle age. The romance is gone, and yet it isn’t.giphy-2.gif

Something about Chris Marker’s cinephilia makes me think of Guy Maddin. Until recently I’d read a lot about Guy Maddin and seen a short or two, but not much else. I thought there was some pretty good stuff but couldn’t quite get past the pastiche, the thick layers of irony. The other day I watched an extra from the Journey To Italy disk, featuring Isabella Rossellini in a film about her dad called My Dad is 100 Years Old. It was surprisingly excellent. Surreal, touching and funny. One for cinephiles only perhaps, but still. It’s an oneiric film where Isabella bizarrely plays not only her father, but also his contemporaries – Fellini, Hitchcock, etc. The imagery is wonderful: her childhood memories of her father are visualised with her lying on a giant belly. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The end credits reveal that it was directed by Guy Maddin, so I thought it was probably time to watch a DVD a friend had lent to me a few months ago, The Saddest Music in the World a film by Guy Maddin starring Isabella Rossellini. MDI100YO was odd, but I was not prepared for this. It’s a difficult film to explain – stylistically it’s certainly a pastiche, repurposing techniques from other eras of cinema. And yet it’s a pastiche of what, exactly? Even in a single scene, there is no fidelity to one era or one genre or even one tone. It’s a mismatch hodgepodge of everything, from all of cinema. It’s got a classic film noir protagonist like Walter Neff (Mark McKinney, making an excellent heel), or is he more of a 30’s screwball Clark Gable? The plot is insane yet coherent – to give you a sample, it features beer magnate Isabella Rossellini with glorious glass beer-filled prosthetic legs after losing both, one totally needlessly when the doctor (who she was seeing, but cheating on with his son) drunkenly amputates the wrong leg – after an accident that he caused. An air of frantic invention recalls the best of the late silent heyday, not only mimicking these techniques but improving on them, inventing new ones. Maddin doesn’t steal so much as embody, and he embodies everything at once. Against all odds, it works! It’s brilliant, it’s joyful, it’s exhilarating. The self-conscious and ironic techniques, the bizarre plot and dialogue, somehow none of this interferes with the drama, creating a dizzying amalgamation of everything that is great about cinema.My-Dad-is-100-Years-Old-1.png


Micky Rourke playing famous author/poet/drunk Charles Bukowski is an immediately tantalising prospect, especially when joined by Faye Dunaway and a script by Bukowski himself. Yet Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 Barfly has remained under-seen and under-praised, particularly in the UK (it seems it was never given a disk release here, though there are imports available). I may not have heard of Barfly myself if it wasn’t for a college media teacher with particularly outré taste in films.

The characters that inhabit this world of seedy bars and ramshackle apartments feel distinctly Lynchian, so it makes perfect sense when Jack Nance pops up, a Lynch regular since Eraserhead. His appearance is morbidly appropriate for a film bookended with vicious bar fights, considering that Nance died 9 years later from injuries following a drunken brawl. Mickey Rourke is ideally suited to the subject matter himself (the boxing, the reputation) and despite his really quite mannered portrayal we feel we are seeing something genuine. It has the unmistakable stink of authenticity, the sense that the whole cast belongs in this world.

I was surprised to see this turn up on UK Netflix. For all my complaints about film selection, they do make up for it with rare gems like this, a film that’s imperfect but full of barmy energy. The cinematography is rough and ready, bold but beautiful, no surprise coming from Wim Wenders’ regular collaborator Robby Muller. Rourke tends to steal any show he’s in, but Dunaway equals his performance here. They create characters that are at once grotesque and sympathetic. Violent, pathetic and charming. In one extraordinary scene, Dunaway’s Wanda brings Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski back to her disgusting apartment. She breaks down in a drunken stupor after cooking unripe corncobs (stolen from a crop patch on their way home) when Henry points out that they are, obviously, inedible. They sit and talk. The atmosphere is electric. “Just one thing”, she warns. “I don’t ever want to fall in love. I don’t want to go through that again.” “Don’t worry, Rourke wearily reassures her. “Nobody’s ever loved me yet.”


Violently Cinematic

If you watch a lot of films (and I don’t watch as many as I’d like these days, what with having to be a ’grownup’. Well, sort of), it’s easy to become jaded with the whole medium. It’s easy to be struck by the melancholy that’s it’s just not the same as it was when I was a teenager discovering the delights of cinema. Then Film4 shows Shogun Assassin and I fall in love all over again. To many it’s a title that’ll be familiar only as B.B.’s bedtime movie in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, and the influence on Tarantino is immediately apparent. Much of his visual style and thematic fixations seem to be taken directly from Shogun Assassin, and to watch it more fully contextualised Tarantino for me. It’s also totally majestic. I was expecting fun trash, not great cinema. I found both. That it took me by surprise only enhanced things (sorry, now I’m sending you in with the expectations I didn’t have). For a start, it’s not even an original. This is an American dubbed re-edit of not one, but two Japanese films in the Lone Wolf and Cub Series. I very much want to see the originals, and excitingly Criterion are releasing their blu ray boxset of the whole lot – including Shogun Assassin – over here in the UK later in March. It’s hard to imagine the original films being better though. What could be improved? Well alright, the plot could certainly use some work, but then it’s not the kind of film that relies on perfect narrative cohesion. In most cases I’m opposed to english dubbing of foreign language films, subtitles are nearly always preferable. This is a special case though, a new creation rather than a straight translation, and a rare brilliant example of creative use of dubbing. The material itself is so odd that the dubbing enhances the seductive dreamlike (nightmare-like?) atmosphere. The violence is wonderfully disjointed and expressionistic, not uncommon in Asian films of this period, but this is perhaps the best I’ve ever seen it done. Chinese film Come Drink With Me does rival in it in terms of wonderfully bizarre and creative violence, but the narrative here is even worse, clumsy to the point of incomprehension. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t really care. Early on, the lead character (apparently) tries to rescue her brother by pretending to be a man but it took a while to figure out that this was what was supposed to be happening – she’s so obviously a woman that the whole concept feels ridiculous. I suppose it doesn’t help that traditional Chinese male dress looks more like female attire to westerners, things are getting lost in translation here. None of this ruins the film entirely, but I can’t help feeling that with a better plot it could have been a masterpiece. The pleasure of Come Drink With Me is the fighting. The beautiful, abstract fighting. It is far from realistic, but something much better: it is cinematic. It is poetic. The elliptical distortions of time and space, the subtly surreal atmosphere astonishes. But as a whole, Shogun Assassin is the better film by far, kept alive by its tender heart, the father/son relationship. The little boy is sublime and his voiceover is used brilliantly (he’s incredibly cute when counting the foes slain by his father). It’s also a handsome film and although it’s not as gorgeous as some of its Chinese peers with their wonderful colours, it does make great use of light and shadow, like the slitted hats the Masters of Death wear. My only criticism is the weak ending, which renders the plot somewhat confusing. Something was likely lost in reworking it, stitching two films into one. No matter. Shogun Assassin has bounties of tactile pleasures to indulge in. I can’t wait for Criterion’s Boxset to discover the whole series of originals.shoguns-blodige-svc3a6rd.jpg

I saw Come Drink With Me on Film4 as part of their Martial Arts Gold program. This also included Five Fingers of Death, AKA King Boxer. As with Shogun Assassin this is a favourite of Tarantino, and again, it’s obvious, but to Tarantino’s credit he steals from the best. From King Boxer he’s lifted several moments and techniques verbatim for Kill Bill, including the eye-plucking and a memorable sound cue. Whereas Shogun Assassin is luridly brilliant from the start, King Boxer takes a while to get going, but once it does it’s exhilarating. It starts out as your typical martial arts film, slightly bizarre, with some solid yet surreal violence and a much more coherent plot than most in Film4’s Martial Arts season. It’s a little tame, a little dull, but gradually builds up steam to culminate in an ecstatic, lurid and brilliant final act. Words can’t really explain why it’s brilliant. At least mine can’t. So you’ll just have to watch it.

Five Fingers of Death

A quick aside: another unexpected favourite of mine last year was Breathless – not Godard’s new wave classic but the trashy American remake with Richard Gere, AKA A bout de souffle Made in USA. I wish I had made notes about it at the time so that I had more to say, but I can say that I enjoyed it hugely and that it’s another big influence on Tarantino. The scenes between Butch and Fabienne in Pulp Fiction are almost ripped directly from this film, but more than that there’s a general pop-culture-infused tone of irreverence that has shaped Tarantino’s work more than anything else I’ve seen. It’s hugely underrated in my opinion, in fact, Tarantino is the only person I’ve ever heard recommending it. It’s currently on UK Netflix, so find out for yourself.

Back to the main subject. Those Asian films from the 60s and 70s may be gory, but by the late 80s films like Tetsuo: The Iron Man took things to new extremes. Tetsuo is completely mad but surprisingly engaging considering how disconnected its narrative is, that is if you could describe it as having one. I admit my interest began to wane towards the end but there’s so much stunning surreal imagery to be able to enthusiastically recommend it. It’s what you might get if you crossed Akira with Cronenberg’s body horror, Sam Raimi’s energetic technique and Jan Svankmajer’s surreal stop-motion creations, and it’s as good as that sounds. My main criticism is simply that the lack of coherence did begin to fatigue me. A longer film might not have worked as well, but at just over an hour long, director Shinya Tsukamoto could afford to be as madly experimental as this, with extraordinary results. With Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, the filmmakers are smart in making a more narrative film whilst keeping the surrealism front and centre. Where the first film is a black and white steampunk horror poem, the sequel takes the somewhat more traditional structure of the 80s action movie, but still appropriates much of the imagery, ideas and abstract techniques of the original. It makes for a vastly different film, but again, brutal and satisfying. They had gone as far as they could with the material in its original form, so this reimagining makes for a great sequel. Aside from the narrative, what’s most striking is the vibrant colour cinematography, opening up new directions visually – and these films are above all else visual experiences.

Body Hammer

Speaking of 80s action movies, I want to take a moment to talk about Commando. Silly American Arnie action movie Commando. I can’t believe I’d never seen Commando. Defying all my expectations of tone-deaf over-serious Hollywood dumbness, this is in fact a piece of brilliant camp action comedy from the start, beginning with a ridiculous montage of Arnie and his daughter living in perfect bliss (he playfully gets an ice cream in the face, obviously.) Of course, this bliss doesn’t last long and he finds himself in a race against time to save his daughter’s life. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to call this one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen, though it’s difficult to tell how much of this the filmmakers intended. Some, certainly. I posed this question to a friend. He said “They must know. They’re adults.” It’s a very fine line, but then it’s a very difficult thing to make a good-bad film on purpose – you cannot be seen to be trying too hard – so this confusion is probably key to its success. On occasion the knowingness is clearer, such as the running commentary of a ridiculous (but nonetheless punchy and effective) fight scene: “These guys eat too much red meat!” Whatever the intention, I enjoyed this film immensely. There are rarely great western equivalents to the transcendently bizarre martial arts films of the east, and this still lacks the grace and poetry in the violence for that, but it’s one of the closest I’ve seen. With added bad puns.

Positive Print

On to the new additions to my Favourites list over the course of last year:

I wrote about The Pawnbroker last January when I was keeping up with the blogging – this didn’t last long. It’s still on Netflix UK, so what are you waiting for? Other favourites that I covered are The Fireman’s Ball (one of the best and most memorable of the year, looking back), Keaton’s The Boat and One Week, Don Hertzfeldt’s latest animated short World of Tomorrow (brilliant as always), Bottle Rocket, and of course The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, which I went into in detail here. Later, my Halloween night Netflix pick The Skull surprised and delighted me enough to break a long blogging silence with a post all to itself.

Let’s start with some razzle-dazzle: All That Jazz had been a while coming. I love Fosse’s Cabaret (though it took a three viewings to sufficiently grow on me) so I was looking forward to this, although wondering how it could possibly live up to its predecessor. This is basically Bob Fosse’s 8 ½, his autobiographical musings on a life, and a death. As you’d imagine it all gets quite meta and Fosse structures the film brilliantly, cutting between reality, fantasy and somewhere in-between. It made me want to be less linear in my own work, but I can never quite figure out how, my brain doesn’t work that way. I shouldn’t force it, I should work with what comes naturally to me just as Fosse developed a distinctive, hunched dancing style to suit his own body. But at least for a couple of hours I felt inspired and/or jealous. I preferred the first half, the ‘life’, to the second half, the ‘death’, where it sometimes feels too derivative of 8 ½ and other autobiographical works to do with show business (Chaplin’s Limelight?). Before it gets to all that it has a lot more in common with Cabaret – the bad living, the sex, the adultery, the cynicism. It’s beautiful and horrible and terribly enjoyable. It’s got that debauched energy, the sexy/weird musical numbers. The editing is fantastic too, lots of exhilarating elliptical cuts between scenes, and if it wasn’t already meta enough, the character is editing a film as well as putting on a show. He thinks he’s doing a terrible job at both but we come to realise he’s actually a big name, critically acclaimed. Even success doesn’t bring satisfaction with the work. There’s something oddly comforting in that.

6776213224_6d36b899b2_b.jpgI’m usually pretty lazy in structuring these blogs, listing films in irrelevant chronology of watching. This time I wanted to do better, to segue between films in clever or, at least, coherent ways. Not having watched any Fellini lately, I seem to have painted myself into a corner with All That Jazz. How about going from a choreographer to a court jester? It’ll have to do. I hadn’t heard of The Court Jester before it popped up on Netflix. Apparently it’s considered something of a minor classic, although I must say that the oversaturated image of a grinning Danny Kaye in medieval jester garb didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. But I was impressed with Kaye in the original adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, so I thought I’d give it a go. A banal song by Kaye accompanying the opening credits did little to encourage my expectations. A toothless children’s film? Thankfully not. Things improve rapidly as we leap in to find not a damp family musical but a sharp Robin Hood parody. Essentially this is a vehicle for Danny Kaye’s comedic, musical and dramatic talents, but it’s one that he drives remarkably well. He’s a broad and traditional performer, but he’s quick, charismatic and very funny. The excellent supporting cast (including a game Angela Lansbury) mean it’s not a one-man-show, and remarkably for a half-forgotten musical comedy, the songs aren’t bad either. Even some of the most famous musicals of this period fill an inordinate amount of screen time with weak songs between the showstoppers. The Court Jester may not have any real showstoppers, but once we’re past the cringeworthy opening, the tunes are solid and entertaining. There’s also an alarming amount of sexual innuendo for a 50s family film. Towards the beginning, Kaye and his female captain Glynis Johns shelter from the rain in a leaky shed. Lying down to sleep in the straw together, the sexual tension is palpable. ’Wet’, he observes in the awkward silence.’ “Very”, comes her casual reply. The subtext is crystal clear, but it’s judged perfectly: something for the adults to enjoy that’ll go straight over kid’s heads. Even in its bawdiness, the humour is imbued with something familiar and warm, the sort of jokes that Shakespeare made. If I was feeling picky I’d complain about the low resolution of this presentation, but this isn’t Netflix’s fault – Paramount needs to make a shiny new remaster. Still, they’ve done a decent job considering, and the Technicolors pop. I may have been sceptical going in, but I found a real joyful film, in that rare way that the best of classical Hollywood cinema achieves. The Court Jester deserves to be better remembered.

Now I might as well stick to the comedy vibe. In my last post I mentioned Christopher Guest’s new film for Netflix, Mascots, and how it tries hard to recreate the success of Best in Show, without quite managing. That’s only because Best in Show is very good indeed, especially considering that it doesn’t have the same kind of reputation as This is Spinal Tap, but it would deserve itThere’s some extremely funny stuff here, especially the competition commentators, and Eugene Levy’s two left feet. And Christopher Guest attempting ventriloquism. If that wasn’t enough, the competition segments are genuinely suspenseful. I was actually emotionally involved in who was going to win, which is no mean feat for a very silly mocumentary. And he can name all the nuts.



Anomalisa is a somewhat different type of comedy. Because its short running time flies by, I wasn’t expecting it to end where it did, thinking something ‘more’ was going to happen. In retrospect it was a great place to end it, I just needed to recalibrate my expectations. This is not the kind of film where things happen; it’s about the details. For a stop-motion puppet film it’s ironic how realistic it is. That’s the point really. It’s odd to call it realistic, when there are so many surreal stylistic touches, like the brilliantly inventive/lazy voice-work than underpins the whole film. The stylistic flourishes are there to better reveal truthful things, the surreal touches to throw real life into sharp focus. It’s definitely a comedy, though some might call it a bleak one, but it’s as touching as it is funny, a combination that peaks in one brilliant hotel-bedroom scene. I won’t say too much, but if you’re struggling to imagine how a film can be surreal and realistic at the same time, you’ll understand what I’m on about after this scene. Anomalisa is esentially about the simultaneous anxiety and monotony of real life, something that underpins most of Kaufman’s films, including his debut as director of his own script Synecdoche, New York, which was sort of a horror film where the horror stems from daily life – illness, ageing, interacting with other people, creative dissatisfaction. Does Anomalisa feel kind of lightweight next to that sprawling magnum opus about a sprawling magnum opus? Maybe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, he probably felt a need to simplify after all that, and with puppet animation he has found his perfect medium. He and co-director Duke Johnson (he did the stop-motion episode of Community) understand how to make the medium work for the story. The cracks in the puppets’ faces are not hidden, becoming cracks in the characters. Sometimes like wrinkles or scars, sometimes more abstract and metaphorical. Most vitally, by using animation Kaufman can pursue his realism of details without it becoming boring. Real life in animation is a novelty, still. Too much, of course, and the charm would fade, so 90 minutes is about right, to prevent us from becoming as disillusioned as the character. Speaking of which, I watched this on Netflix but was pretty disappointed by the streaming quality, especially for a recent release. Its a subtle film of dimly lit rooms, and the image doesn’t really hold up to Netflix’s compression. If you’re the kind of person who is going to be bothered by image artefacts and general mush (you’re probably not, there don’t seem to be many of us left in the wild) then I’d recommend getting hold of the blu ray instead. Or sitting further away from your TV than I do.

Moving swiftly on to another brilliant stop-motion animation means I must be getting better at these segues. It probably doesn’t need saying, but Aardman’s original Creature Comforts is short but very sweet. I grew up with with rebooted series, but this original is sort of perfect. The real interviews are fantastic, the claymation is superb – put together some sort of magic happens.

See, I told you this would be a nice, happy, positive blog. The next one might be gorier.

The Negative

Before the year was out I intended to write up my favourites of the films I saw in 2016. It’s almost March. The moment has passed. So I’ll write a looser series of posts around those same films – no one cares when I watched them, the important thing is that they’re good.

Most people would list the best films released theatrically that year, and being in the middle of awards season makes that pretty relevant. I can’t do this myself, for one important reason: I only saw three new releases in 2016, and none of the current awards slate. So-called cinephile. It’s too expensive and I’m poor, but even if I wasn’t the screening conditions are not nearly good enough to justify the price. Digital projection is still lacking, though granted we are still in a transitional period and this will improve (the technology is all but there, just too expensive for anyone but the big hitters). Worse are marks on the screen, crooked or cropped projection and distractingly placed lights, which is even more of a problem if it flares in your 3D glasses, not that the 3D experience is usually up to scratch anyway. Granted there are personal aspects too – not having perfect hearing, I’d often rather watch at home with subtitles and not miss anything. Cinema visits are usually saved for social occasions and opportunities to see older films on the big screen – me and mine enjoyed Pepe Le Moko and Lift to the Scaffold last year. Even this is often marred by poor quality, as demonstrated by our first cinema visit of 2017, Jaques Demy’s Lola, a good film but clearly just played off a DVD. I could have done that at home. They really shouldn’t be allowed to do that without telling you. The big cine-event of 2016 was the re-release of Napoleon on the big screen but, for the price they were asking (£19!) they could have at least put it on their actual big screen, not one of the smaller ones, particularly given that the ultra-wide ‘triptych’ section is one of the big selling points. I gave it a miss and I suspect I’ll get a better experience from the blu ray disk. Size is overrated. At least the image will be framed correctly without cropping any of the picture out. I am still baffled that cinemas can’t seem to get this right, when the room is surely designed for it. This isn’t a dig at my local Picturehouse, but a lamentation about cinema projection in general. If they want people who care to keep going then they’ve got to improve things or make it much cheaper. Probably both. I suspect things are better in London, but I don’t live there.66a51c60ee22a4eeb93572da856f0954.jpg

Am I being harsh, picky? Certainly working with video myself has made me a lot more attentive to these issues, especially when I have to go through the ordeal of watching my own films projected. To be fair, the best screening I’ve had by far was at a Picturehouse cinema, but even then there were problems in representing colour and contrast. When it comes to sound Mark Cousins recently lamented that cinemas are too quiet, that they should be as loud as a rock concert where appropriate – I have to agree. The whole point of cinemas, surely, is to offer what you can’t get at home. Multiplexes do seem better in this respect, (and in many others – I suppose they can afford it) but there is still a sense that they’re holding back. I’m sometimes told that certain technical aspects ‘don’t matter’ in a dismissive attitude that people wouldn’t dream of applying to serious art. That’s the diminished standing of cinema as an art form. It’s fine not to have developed an eye or ear for such things (I certainly don’t have the ear) but can we not all agree that ideally, we’d want the best perceptual fidelity as possible? Especially if we’re paying so much for them. And if we can’t agree on that, why not? People wouldn’t take that attitude towards paintings. I’ve only ever seen digital reproductions of Girl With A Pearl Earring – I like it a lot and feel I can get a decent sense of it without seeing the original. It’s not exactly cheap or convenient to go to Holland whenever you wanted, after all. But if I was going to pay to go and see it, of course I would want to see the original. And if not, it would be better to see a more detailed representation of greater fidelity than a little discoloured postcard print, though this too may well do in a pinch. The more accurate representation is clearly better when it comes to paintings. To deny this of film is to deny its status as a visual art, instead just a conduit for narrative information. Cinema is lots of things, and they’re all important. Of course films don’t really have ‘originals’, especially in our digital age. Reproduction always was integral to cinema – that’s part of what makes it great, and what makes it the medium of the masses. It’s fidelity that’s important, to experience the thing as close to how its creators have intended as possible. This becomes very clear in screening my own work – I want people to see it the way I made it. Of course we all make necessary sacrifices in fidelity based on cost and accessibility. The vast majority of us can’t access film prints in our own private cinemas. We make trade-offs because we know that we’re not losing too much. But for me, cinemas are supposed to be the professionals. The film galleries, the protectors of fidelity in our convenience age. We need to know that when we go, we are seeing the film at its best. Failing that, they need to be cheap and accessible.

Girl With a Pearl Earring, low-res. Just to make a point.

I did see 3 new releases in the cinema last year:  Hail Casear, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. These were released towards the beginning of the year when all worthwhile films seem to be released (or maybe I’m still in celebratory mode – with Christmas and Birthday, I am freer with my money). But alas, no new Tarantino or Coen films this winter. That’s no visits to see new films at the cinema since March. That pattern has started repeating this year with a few cinema visits already, though again, these are mainly older or foreign films (including Toni Erdmann – one of the best films I’ve ever seen – though I’ll talk about that some other time). 2017 is shaping up to be an even worse year for the Hollywood mainstream than 2016 was, but perhaps that’s no great loss. The talent is pooling in other areas, definitions of film are blurring. It says something that one of the few 2016 releases I watched was Mascots, on Netflix. Which is very enjoyable but not up to the standards of Best in Show, which it is obviously trying to replicate (and the photography is ugly). I did catch up with several 2015 releases, without being very impressed – Mockingjay pt. 2 (the worst in a good series), Bridge of Spies (promisingly low-key, the ending ruins it), Steve Jobs (fine, but up itself), Macbeth (great when it’s simple but keeps complicating things), The Martian (good premise but ultimately not successful), The Good Dinosaur (dull and simplistic by Pixar’s standards), Ant-Man (Edgar Wright’s version could have been great, this isn’t.), Straight Outta Compton (disappointingly cliched), Spectre (some crunchy fights but lacks what made Skyfall great), Trainwreck (some great jokes and performances – Tilda! – but poor narrative), Jurassic World (why did I watch this?) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (A mess, the chaos doesn’t seem to have consequences, but Paul Bettany’s big perfect purple person is bizarrely great). To be fair, I didn’t expect much from many of these titles in the first place. Peer pressure more than anything. Remember kids: Just Say No. It’s proof at least that I’m willing to watch mediocre films in order to stay part of the cinema conversation. I’m just not often willing to pay cinema prices to do it.

That last paragraph sounds harsh and snobbish, reading it back. Well it is. I’m just sick of watching bland films when there is so much genuinely interesting stuff out there. We only have so much time.

Hail Caesar!

Fairing a bit better were Me, Earl and The Dying Girl, Inside Out, The Big Short, Shaun the Sheep and Hitchcock/Truffaut, but only 2 that I watched from 2015 made my favourites: Ex Machina and Wild Tales. I wrote briefly about Ex Machina at the beginning of the year, January being the only time I can muster the motivation to write these things (hello again – taken a bit longer this time), at New-Year’s insistence on me being a proper person who writes things. It’s a borderline favourite for me, I liked it a lot yet something didn’t quite sit right. I’ve forgotten much of it a year later. Oscar Issac dancing. Some impressive effects. The faint whiff of Black Mirror. Wild Tales was a real find though – brutal, unforgiving, the blackest of humour. It always keeps one foot in the land of movies – the surreal, the unreal, the constructed – so we don’t make the mistake of taking it too seriously, so we can enjoy it’s movieness without too much guilt. After all, what’s more cinematic than a revenge story? Six of them, apparently. Strong concepts are executed expertly, building vital empathy along with the suspense. I suppose this one feels a bit like Black Mirror too, in all the best ways. The pace starts to wane a little in the last two segments and almost drags the film down with it, but just as it was losing me it reels me back in again with a great reversal, that rarest of things, a perfectly judged ending.

Sorry for the largely negative post. I always want to retain the integrity to speak my mind, but in doing so I have almost certainly offended many people by dismissing films they like. Of course ‘many’ is not an accurate description of the number of people who will read this, so you’ll have to take that last sentence hypothetically. Anyway, I thought I’d get the whining out of the way. The next one will be more aligned with the spirit of that Wild Tales review at the end: full of pure love for brilliant films.

Wild Tales

I’m not a gamer, but…

I’m not much of a gamer at all these days, but I do get the occasional Steam game when there’s a good offer (the christmas sales), and play them when I take some time off my usual schedule. I’ve been a bit under the weather this past week, which I’ve used as a flimsy excuse to play a few games I got in the Humble Freedom Bundle. I say a few.
I mean 62 games.
For about £25.
Including some of the best indie games of recent years.
And %100 of the money goes to charities – ones that are proving vital in battling the rising fascism, inhumanity and stupidity that we are currently experiencing.
This is an important move from the gaming community, who hold much responsibility for the rise of the ‘alt-right’, which was foreshadowed by gamergate and perpetuated by many of the same losers. I mean people, sorry. Insults probably do more harm than good, but it’s hard to avoid the assessment that most of these people’s insane right-wing views are are fuelled by a bitterness that has twisted their perception of the world (coupled of course, with very poor sources of information). So to call them losers is probably to throw more fuel on the fire. But that’s not to say it’s not accurate. They won’t read this anyway… Nevertheless, it’s clear that in recent years they have done much to take the Gamers’ hard won acceptance into the mainstream and drag it back into the swamp. That’s one reason why this act of mass charity seems so important. This sense of collective responsibility from the best indie developers for the worst parts of their community is surely why this unprecedented deal exists. That so many of them are donating their games to help causes that specifically oppose the aims of the ‘alt-right’ sends a strong and necessary message. And they’ve raised over 6 million dollars already – clearly they are being heard. So if you use Steam at all it’s kind of a no-brainer (and if you don’t, I recommend it and this is a very affordable way to get started), but with less than 20 hours left to get this deal as I’m writing, you’d better hurry. My words here will be irrelevant very soon, but what else is new.
I’ve tried out around 20 of the games in the bundle, and that’s still less than ⅓ of them. But that still feels like more than enough to last me for several years. There is undoubtably some very good stuff here – so far I recommend these:
Super Hexagon – Brilliantly simple and addictive, played in very short bursts but you just have to restart as quickly as possible just to keep that music going. Seriously, that music. It’s leaking into my dreams.unnamed.jpg
The Stanley Parable – More of an experience than a game, but a great one. A meta-game. I won’t say too much, you have to find out for yourself.
Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball – Old-school style FPS reimagined as dodgeball. Roller disco dodgeball. With robots. Lots of fun with a controller.
Potatoman Seeks the Troof – Seemingly simplistic sidescroller that messes about with all the rules. Breathtakingly innovative at times, and funny too.troof-screenshot-forest-owl.png
Super Meat Boy – The only game in this massive package that I already owned, it’s good though. You play as a bit of meat.
World of Goo – Innocent and charming tower building with blobs of good. Not very far into it but promising so far.
Nuclear Throne – Only had a quick go but the gameplay is very satisfying.
The Swapper – Brilliantly atmospheric. You have to keep cloning yourself to progress, which is proving to be as great and as troubling as it sounds.3.jpg
Stardew Valley – This is one of those games where you wander around a village, talk to people, grow crops on your farm, etc. I’m not sure if I’m into that sort of thing. Seems a little long-winded – then again the original Pokemon games are not dissimilar and among my favourites so I’ll give this one a chance. It’s wittier than most and the sound design is amazing – the problem is I probably just don’t have the time to put into it.
Ninja Pizza Girl – Fun so far, free-running platformer. Though I’m not that good at it yet.
VVVVVV – Only played the first level, but this seems like another simple, brilliantly innovative game with great music. How is it that music is often the best thing in most games and the worst thing in most films? Maybe an exaggeration, maybe not. Retro games and electronic music are a sort of perfect combination. There’s too much sway towards the orchestral in film, music that is already beautiful and complete, and so clashes with the images, emotional overload. I think films need to use ‘uglier’ music more. I’ve gotten a bit off track here. It’s something I think about a lot and no one agrees with me. vvvvvv_screenshot_9.jpg
Invisible Inc. – Very well reviewed, this seems promising from the first go. Turn-based play gives it the tactical appeal of a board game. I think the cutscenes are a bit naff but that’s probably because this is one of the more mainstream games in this package and cutscenes in mainstream games are invariably atrocious. They should just stop doing them. They’re trying to be films and doing them badly. Stop it. Be games instead.
That’s just a handful of them, not even mentioning The Witness, the most hyped and expensive of the lot – full price it would cost £30, more than this whole bundle. I’m very eager to play this. It’s from the makers of Braid, which is one of the most fiendishly brilliant games I’ve played. The small problem for me is that, along with a few other titles in this bundle, it’s only currently available for Windows, and I don’t have a computer running Windows at the moment. Which is a shame, But it’s likely just because it’s still quite a recently released and hasn’t been ported to Mac yet. Apparently it’s coming soon, and now that I own it on Steam I’ll be able to access it then. There is plenty to keep me occupied til then, especially seeing as I’m not a gamer at all really. Really, I’m not. I shouldn’t even be writing this, I’m not qualified. I suppose I could just play it on somebody else’s PC if I run out of patience…
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Frighteningly Fun

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and a Skull. The appropriately named The Skull might be a little baggy at each end but there’s a stretch in the middle where it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen. Apparently the delirious atmosphere is partly accidental – the script was only 40 pages and required heavy visual padding. This explains the poor pacing at times, but it’s ultimately what makes the film great. Long, wordless passages and diversions into dream logic makes it genuinely unsettling, but also gleefully camp.

To begin with it’s British horror as usual, aristocrats and books, the pleasant but foreboding atmosphere of M.R. James. In this case, the object that the characters all want to simultaneously get hold of and get rid of is the possessed Skull of the Marquis De Sade. Yes, that’s actually the plot. The Skull exerts a great power, leaving a shell-shocked Christopher Lee shouting unheeded warnings at the all too curious Cushing over billiards. A sharp change in tone turns the film into a breathtaking Kafkaesque nightmare – a term that’s frequently misused but trust me, there really is no better word for what we see. Director Freddie Francis surely took heavy influence from Welles’ The Trial just a few years earlier, and added colour.

It’s not just a theatrical use of colour (and everything else) that foreshadows the Italian Giallo genre. The Skull is full of Dario Argento’s fetishises in particular. There’s a fall from the top floor of an apartment building into a geographically confusing stained-glass ceiling that couldn’t be more Argento if it tried, a full decade before he was making films.

The artificiality, the wild tonal shifts, the awkward repetition to fill time, all just add to the nightmarish tone. That’s not to say it’s a particularly scary film. The horror aspects are quite ridiculous, relying mainly on drawn out shots of a skull sitting on a table or floating through the air. But that’s what makes it so much fun. For me, it perfectly captures the spirit of Halloween: Having fun with things that otherwise frighten us. 8b81e8e56e0934b02068fc6833807b54.jpg

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