A Flickering Truth (2015)

flick12016.95: A Flickering Truth (Amazon VOD)

Made by New Zealand director New Zealand director Pietra Brettkelly,  A Flickering Truth is a documentary primarily concerned with efforts to save and restore the contents of the Afghan film archive in Kabul, all but destroyed by the Taliban.

Early scenes are almost heartbreaking for any film lover- a filthy warehouse, walls and ceiling pockmarked by bullet-holes, contents choking under inches of dirt and dust, rusty film cans, loose spools of film scattered and twisted and torn and bleached by the sun. Fragile strips of film cast aside to ruin, a landscape for webs and spiders and cockroaches and ants. Nearby, a patch of ground where the Taliban forced workers to throw reels into a bonfire. Its hard to believe anything could yet survive.

This remarkable documentary film is an oddly disturbing reminder of the power of film imagery to conquer time and document historic events and culture. In truth, it is as much about the history of Afghanistan documented on those worn, scratched and faded reels of film as it is about the archive itself. Ghostly images from barely-surviving film  flicker like dreamscapes onscreen; lost times, dead people, vanished worlds. A history of Afghanistan that I had been utterly ignorant of unfolds before me in a sad, emotive series of images from news footage and dramas that reveals a sense of place and history previously unknown to me. There is an Afghanistan that is surprisingly bright and optimistic and Western, one that was lost in revolution and war and religious fervour that plunged the country into chaos.

Efforts to document and clean up surviving reels bear fruit, and the archive begins to take shape. The intention is to take some of the archive out to the provinces (if only those that are yet safe from the Taliban) and project it to the populace, to both educate and entertain, and reveal to the people a lost Afghanistan that they too may be as ignorant of as I. But of course, Afghanistan is still a politically turbulent and dangerous country, always on the edge of chaos and civil war.

flick2During the film we get to meet and get a sense of some of the people behind the archive- Afghan film-maker  Ibrahim Arify returns from his new life and family in Germany to oversee the project, exasperated and angry at what has become of the country he knew in the 1960s and 1970s. Caretaker Isaaq Yousif, who has been there for 31 years, somehow surviving the wars and the Taliban, and gardener Mahmoud Ghafouri, who helped save much of the archive from the Taliban. They are engaging characters who will be hard to forget- indeed its evident that Yousif could have been subject for a documentary all by himself, as he reminisces about old times and his youth when he acted like an American cowboy. He’s some kind of character from some other world but nonetheless quite charming.

There’s a human story at the heart of this documentary and a strong reminder of the power of film imagery. Its well worth seeking out- free on Amazon Prime but I’m sure widely available on rental. Lovers of film in particular will be entranced by much of the imagery. Its strange how you can just stumble onto little gems like this purely by chance. There’s something to be said for just idly browsing all those titles on Amazon once in awhile.

Silent Running OST by Peter Schickele

 

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December 1978, and BBC2 is showing a season of science fiction films over the Christmas holidays, a reflection of the cultural impact of Star Wars, a phenomenon in America hitting UK cinemas that Christmas. For a geeky science-fiction-crazy kid like me, it was something like heaven, all those late-night science fiction films every night; 1950s classics that I knew and loved and others quite new to me. One film new to me made a particular impact on me- Douglas Trumbull’s remarkable 1972 eco-drama, Silent Running. It made an emotional connection with me, in no small part due to the evocative music of Peter Schicklele and the songs featuring Joan Baez. Hey, I was twelve.

On a subsequent airing on another BBC2 science-fiction movie season (how I miss those movie seasons) I recorded the entire Silent Running film onto my mono cassette deck. We film geeks kind of did that kind of nonsense back in the days when videotape seemed, well, the stuff of Star Trek; we’d re-live the film experience by listening to it and running the film back in our minds-eye. I kept that cheap old C90 cassette safe for years, listening to the score mostly.

One time, I was in Birmingham and the HMV there was selling the Silent Running soundtrack album (the Varese green vinyl release). I nearly bought it, but money was tight (I was still in High School back then, back in the days of 50p pocket money) and I was caught in the heady thrill of buying Robert E Howard import paperbacks from the city’s sci-fi bookshop, so the REH books won and the album was left behind. How many times I regretted that decision (almost as much as failing to buy the Blade Runner issue of Cinefex, although the eventual book reprint halted that particular recurring nightmare). How was I to know those REH paperbacks would be around for a few years, later reprinted several times in later editions, but that album would disappear forever, quickly going out of print?

The CD format arrived, and over the years so many soundtracks got transferred to that format leaving the pop and click of vinyl behind. Surely Silent Running would get released on CD someday. Years, decades passed, inexplicably it never turned up, just like a CD release of the Tron soundtrack.  Eventually even the Tron soundtrack saw a release on CD (hurrah!), but Silent Running? I’d frequent Film Music forums raising its non-release as some kind of tragedy or crime, bumping old threads over the years. No-one seemed able to explain its absence. As the CD format itself neared the end of its days in favour of digital downloads and streaming its become increasingly unlikely that it would ever get a release. And then-

December 2016, and Intrada have released the Peter Schickele soundtrack of Silent Running on CD for the first time. Last month when Intrada  announced its release, rather out of the blue, of course exchange-rates and the dangers of customs be damned, I had to order a copy.  It arrived in the post today. Its probably one of the most expensive single CD’s I ever bought (although I got away without a customs sting, thank goodness). But of course its worth it. Its an incredible thing, hearing it at long last, crystal-clear on CD, holding the case in my hand. Seeing the artwork, reading the title Silent Running… Maybe there is a Santa.

From 1978 to 2016 its been 38 years. Holding this CD means a lot. Forgive an old fool the nostalgic passions dating back to his twelve-year old self. But anybody who fell in love with this movie over the years will understand the emotional connection with that music.

As it turned out, all the masters for the score and album were long-lost, which explained why a CD version was never released until now- this release entailed a transfer from an original mint vinyl copy of the original Decca album of 1972. Its amazing what those engineering wizards can do, because this sounds fantastic.

Well, I guess the only thing left is a complete Blade Runner release by Vangelis. Who knows? After Silent Running has finally seen the light of day on this amazing CD, anything, surely, is possible. 38 years. Crikey.

The Nice Guys (2016)

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2016.94: The Nice Guys (Amazon VOD)

While I really quite enjoyed this film, its clearly not as smart as it thinks it is, and its very evident that its trying awfully hard- maybe too hard. The loveliest thing in the world is a film that just ‘clicks’ with effortless ease- the perfect cast, the perfect director, the perfect script, when everything just fits its wonderful, but of course that’s also the trickiest thing to pull off, otherwise every film would be a Great Escape or Jaws. In The Nice Guys case, the shadow of Shane Black’s earlier Kiss Kiss Bang Bang looms large. Its clearly what this film aspires to be but it falls short- instead the film seems to be trying just too hard, leaving it rather unnatural and forced.

What perhaps doesn’t help is that there’s also just a wee sniff of over-familiarity with some of this film. Writer/director Shane Blacks penchant for throwing together mismatched  heroes for dramatic and comedy effect dates back to the Lethal Weapon films, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and others, and what was once novel and interesting smells a little formulaic now. There’s also something a little ‘off’ about the characters here, particularly Ryan Gosling’s Holland March, a private detective whose investigative instincts are rather blurred by alcohol which also muddies his parental judgement. He’s a hard man to sympathise with when he seems to shirk his responsibilities whenever there’s a bottle at hand. Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy fairs much better, a middle-aged amateur sleuth/enforcer who is going to seed with an ever-widening waistline. At least his heart (and sense of responsibility) is in the right place.His character is the center of the film, leaving Gosling to just flirt around him like an irritating jerk, with Goslings 13-year-old daughter clearly smarter than both Gosling and Crowe. Yeah, like that’s original, the kid outwitting the adults. Maybe that’s the point, I don’t know.

Set in 1977, the films production design is a real bonus, and some of the understated effects work -street scenes with billboards for Jaws 2 amongst others- is both really impressive and almost throwaway eye-candy (I guess most younger viewers are never even aware of much of the trickery at hand).There’s a great funky disco soundtrack that helps reinforce the sense of time and place, even though it feels very Boogie Nights at times (and that’s another film that seemed to effortlessly come together and do it so much better).

The plot… well, its pretty hard to fathom at the start and it doesn’t really reward the effort of deciphering it. I confess that while I was enjoying the 1970s vibe and the jokes, somehow I was a little bewildered at what was actually going on, and when everything is revealed and a few inevitable twists unfold, it ultimately doesn’t convince, so many coincidences just seem too daft for words. In the end, the  central mystery that forms the case that the Nice Guys are investigating doesn’t really hold true or drive the plot forward, leaving its episodic progression feeling uneven. Again, maybe that’s the point- maybe the case isn’t whats important.

The Nice Guys isn’t a bad film, its quite fun and will maybe get some kind of cult status someday due its leading actors, but in the end, it just doesn’t really work, it doesn’t click in quite the way that its forebears did. Maybe a Nice Guys 2 will finally crack it. Set it in the 1980s with a Miami Vice vibe maybe.

High Rise (2015)

high1.jpg2016.93: High Rise (Amazon VOD)

About the only thing this film seems to get ‘right’, that at least makes it interesting enough to stomach all the way through its interminable two hours, is its cool-1970s aesthetic; the sets, the costumes, the hair styles, its all like some kind of strange alternate-1970’s universe, as if its all set a few years after A Clockwork Orange. Its a beautiful, funky horror. Which rather makes it a curio when you’re watching it. The problem is, most of the time you’re watching it wondering just what the hell is going on. Narrative is not Ben Wheatley’s strength, clearly, as evidenced on his earlier film A Field in England, another film I loathed. Like that film, this film seems to have its fans, but this s just not for me- I thought it was horrible.

Basically, its a hipster-arthouse film that is all style over substance, and fails to have any genuine coherence or narrative, simply glorifying in a great (wasted) cast and that 1970s aesthetic. I don’t mind ambiguity or ‘working’ at enjoying a film,  but I shouldn’t be watching a film wondering just what the hell is going on, or why nobody just simply leaves the bloody tower block when the shit hits the fan. Internal logic is not this films strength.

I ‘get’ that its all a social commentary, based on a book from 1975 , with the tower-block acting as a microcosm of society as author J G Ballard saw it at the time, but as the chaos ensues and the ‘society’ breaks down due to tower-block power-cuts and social conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the film is so intent on being clever and faithful (I presume) to the book that it fails to function as a proper film. Why are everybody such raving sociopaths? The rich and the poor alike just seem to degenerate into morally-bereft thugs, rapists and robbers.

Just why does nobody leave the building when everything falls apart (the outside world ticking by nicely)? Nominal ‘lead’ Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has an affair with one woman, then another, and doesn’t seem at all perturbed when his first lover is beaten and raped or his second enlisted as a slave to the ‘masters’ in the penthouse suites. No matter what bloody chaos ensues, the police never turn up. A guy throws himself off the building, women are brutalised and raped. Its like there is no law. Its all so very inconsistent and illogical.  Typical Ben Wheatley.

Frankly, Snowpiercer, a film that told pretty much the same story but replaced the tower block with a train, did it all so much better, and managed to tell a coherent and interesting story too. High Rise looks beautiful and has an at times arresting soundtrack (Abba’s SOS will never seem the same again) but its a horrible mess of a film.