Columbia Noir: The Undercover Man (1949)

cnoir1undContinuing my posts regards Indicator’s wonderful noir collection Columbia Noir #1, we come to the second entry, Joseph H Lewis’ The Undercover Man, starring Glenn Ford as the titular hero… except, well, here’s where I return to that old chestnut of preconceptions, as my experience of this film was frustrated by expecting one thing, and getting quite another. In my defence, the title really is a glaring misnomer; it suggests an undercover cop or FBI agent infiltrating a criminal network and undoing it from within, and this film is nothing of the sort. In the end, this proved to be a very fine film regardless of the distractions from my misconceptions, but I’m certainly beginning to think that I’ll only get the very best from this set when I return for second viewings. 

Director Joseph Lewis would later go on to direct The Big Combo (1955), which is a beautifully-shot film full of noir visual tropes, so much so that its possibly a definitive noir and a perfect film for someone to watch in order to ‘get’ what a noir looks like. The Undercover Man has very few such visual flourishes, is definitely far less stylistic. I remember that The Big Combo teased that bad guys are better lovers and that perhaps strait-laced honest good guys were less interesting to women, and that the films homosexual hitmen suggested a twisted complexity hidden under the surface (much like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks many years later would explore the shadowy underbelly of suburban ‘decent’ American life). The Undercover Man lacks any such pretence or suggestion, and indeed as I have noted, actually refuses to live up to the promise of its own title.

Glenn Ford stars as treasury agent Frank Warren who is tasked to undo a powerful mob boss named ‘The Big Fellow’ who we never actually see other than in a fleeting reverse shot. Dramatically, this rather undermines the film somewhat, removing a lot of tension from the film and the friction of seeing Warren and his target even in the same room. This wasn’t entirely from choice, as the film was curtailed by the Production Code of the time which dictated that any film ‘dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent times’ could not use that criminals name for fear of glamorising or indirectly popularising that individual or his activities. The Undercover Man is actually about the treasury’s real-life pursuit and successful incarceration of Al Capone, but you wouldn’t really know it, as the film was even forbade from mentioning the city of Chicago, and its only really at the end that the penny drops regards what we’ve actually been watching. 

Ford is very good, as ever. When I was a kid he was one of my very first ‘favourite’ actors, as he seemed to appear in a lot of the films airing on television during my childhood (I recall my pleasure at seeing him appear in the ‘new’ film Superman: The Movie after so many instances of only being seen in old b&w movies). He appears in an earlier Indicator noir release, the brilliant The Big Heat (1953) which is another great Blu-ray disc well worth searching out. He’s the embodiment of the all-American, decent guy, quietly solid and dependable in the face of adversity: I get the feeling he could do this stuff in his sleep, but that’s possibly underappreciating the work he’s doing. Some of the greatest actors never look like they’re acting, managing to avoid drawing attention to themselves: the opposite of those perhaps more famous actors who just seem to be showing off all the time, with performances that actually often detract from the films they are in. Like Lewis’ later The Big Combo, this film seems (almost accidentally in this case) to suggest that good guys are pretty boring and its the bad guys that are more interesting- very noir. Nina Foch returns from the previous disc in this set, Escape in the Fog, but I have to confess I wouldn’t have recognised her (possibly because that film left such a little impression). Here she plays Frank Warren’s wife, Judith, and she leaves a much better account of herself here in a much better role even though she has less screen time. 

Once I realised this film really wasn’t going to be the film its title suggests, I really quite enjoyed it. The film suffers from that lack of tension from not actually putting ‘The Big Fellow’ onscreen (an off-screen bad guy always makes for an awkward foil): simply compare this to The Untouchables approach of actually showing Al Capone (and casting Robert De Niro, no less) and while The Undercover Man is likely more historically accurate, the latter film is a more satisfying, albeit traditional, film experience. Which is not to disparage The Undercover Man‘s own pleasures, its just a very different way of telling essentially the same story and an interesting comparison of different films and the different eras they were made in.

mother!

motherHmm. Let’s get the positive out of the way first- this was possibly the nearest I’ve yet seen to a dreamstate, that is, the sense of being inside a dream, that I have ever seen in a movie. The strange, disorientating, anxiety-ridden sequence of events closely mirrored the feeling I have had in dreams, of being inside/outside of events, the sense of bewilderment and things not really making any sense. If Darren Aronofsky’s aim was to achieve that sense of being in a dream in this film, indeed if that’s what this film really was, a repeating, never-ending dream loop, then I’d say he succeeded, triumphantly.

On the other hand, if he was making some commentary within a deliberately obtuse narrative, some kind of biblical morality tale or something that held within it some kind of meaning, then he failed utterly and the film is garbage.

I don’t refer to films as garbage very often. Flawed, usually. Directors, producer, actors etc don’t in my experience deliberately try to make a ‘bad’ picture- I certainly hope that every film project is made with at the very least, the best of expectations from the start. Outside forces, whether it be cost overruns, location issues, studio interference, there are all sorts of reasons why films can turn out lousy. But when a filmmaker is given pretty much complete creative control, and indeed Final Cut, then the buck stops with him/her. And I think that’s where mother! stands. Its a misguided, wholly self-indulgent piece that fails to connect.

You can be obtuse. I don’t mind David Lynch going all weird at times during his recent Twin Peaks television project. Its fun to try to make sense of things, and indeed, while we may grasp at some explanation and fail, there is always the sense that Lynch himself or his collaborator Mark Frost has a roadmap, that there is some narrative framework there that may elude us, but it’s there. I didn’t get that with mother! and neither did I care. I didn’t empathise with any of the characters, it was all happening at some distance and I didn’t care for it at all. What’s the point of a film if it doesn’t connect in some way and engage the viewer? Surely when you make a film, you enter into some kind of contract with the viewer of that film, even if it’s intended to confuse, to at least make some kind of sense or suggest there is some underlying meaning, even if the viewer cannot grasp it. Somebody can watch Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and be confused by it, but they can have some sense of a narrative arc to the film, the sense that there is some kind of ‘message’ or intention on the part of Kubrick to at least challenge the audience. If only a challenge to watch it again and try to piece together some interpretation.

Here’s a film, rare that it is, that I have no wish to ever see ever again.

Suspiria (2018)

I’d been looking forward to this since I first saw the trailer; I’ve not seen the 1977 original, and know very little of it, so it’s impossible for me to judge this film in comparison to the original but that first glimpse back in July last year really had me intrigued. Part Twin Peaks, part Kubrick’s The Shining, it looked strange and creepy and wonderful.

Well, it’s certainly strange. Finally turning up on Amazon Prime at last, I looked a little harder and found the 4K stream in particular (Amazon loves to hide the 4K stuff away). This new Suspiria is beautiful to look at; both the cinematography and the art direction (dim lighting, lots of browns and beiges with a muted palette all over really) evokes a real sense of 1970s Germany, of coldness and lack of warmth, the setting having a sense of a marked absence of Nature. Considering the presumed pagan origins of this hidden coven of witches, that void of greens and natural light and warmth is rather telling us something, I suspect. This is like a Wicker Man in concrete.

My main issue with this  Suspiria is that, well, it’s not really scary, which you’ll have to excuse me, but it’s how I judge horror films. Like a number of recent films (Velvet Buzzsaw one of them) it really seems to be an arthouse film posing as a horror film. Failing that, its a film by a director mindfully too sophisticated to resort to usual horror film tropes, resulting in it failing to succeed as one. Sure, there’s a few sequences with some gore etc that may be of distaste to some viewers but as a horror film, it’s really something of a failure. Sure its moody but it has no real scares, or, most damning of all, any tension really.

Its clearly more an intellectual exercise than an emotional or nervy one. I can imagine the film having a tagline ‘for discerning audiences only’. This notion is only reinforced by the peculiar casting of Tilda Swinton as two characters- one the lead tutor of the dance school and the other an old man haunted by the loss of his great love decades before during the war. The make-up for this latter character is either impressive or plain peculiar and other than a technical exercise adds nothing to the film itself- if anything it just proves distracting. I had the feeling that the director Luca Guadagnino is trying to prove something, but I don’t know what. I kept expecting some twist revealing the that the witch and the therapist were either the same person or related somehow like brother and sister thus excusing or explaining the physical similarity between the two, but I was barking up the wrong tree. To me, it added nothing to the film, just left me wondering why they bothered. Perhaps the arthouse crowd think its ingenious.

Likewise there are multiple sub-plots that seem fairly pointless.  There’s a prologue in which a dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has fled the school in fear for her life and soul and tensely warns her therapist (yep, Swinton in male guise), before running off into the night never to be seen again. It promised a threat of almost Lovecraftian hidden horrors but never delivered. There is a vague background noise of terrorist atrocities in the divided city that somehow Patricia is swept up by, but its all off-handed suggestion and not clear. We see a rural religious community in Ohio, America in which a woman (mother of our lead character Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson)) lies on her deathbed. Susie will be cast out or leave from her own choice (it’s not really clear, unless I missed something) and finds herself in Germany auditioning to join the dance school. I suspect she was banished based on revelations at the end of the film.

Suspiria is interesting. Again, its an arthouse movie posing as a horror film and a director perhaps positioning it as an intellectual exercise rather than a deeply involving, tense or scary one. Sure, it has some unnerving moments but it also has long sections that don’t really do or say much of anything. Indeed, for a film that is so intellectual, it seems to have very little to say, or else its message is lost or passed me by. So much of it -the casting of Swinton in two roles, the period setting, the coven politics- didn’t really seem to amount to much of anything other than the director making some obtuse point. Something of a dissapointment really. Or perhaps I need a repeat viewing sometime if the curiosity ever impels me.

 

The Lazarus Effect (2015)

laz1Oh dear. Flatliners meets Brainstorm and it ain’t gonna be pretty. Its funny really, watching this so soon after rewatching 1989’s Pet Sematary, another film in which fools embark gladly on playing Frankenstein and things go very badly. It’s as if movies are made in some alternate universe in which no scientist has ever read Mary Shelley or watched any horror film about bringing back the dead. I suppose it gets points for resurrecting a dog first instead of a cat, but still, when the inevitable accident happens and our heroes are ‘forced’ by cruel circumstance to use their new science breakthrough on a human subject, it’s clearly not going to end well. One of the scientists teases us with the old adage that humans only use 10% of their brains, but only people paying the film 10% of their attention could be surprised how things turn out, it’s so routine and poorly telegraphed throughout.

Which is something of a shame, because the cast is pretty good -Mark Duplass (so good the other night in Paddleton), Olivia Wilde, Donald Glover, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger, these are pretty impressive names, and the film even features Twin Peaks fave Ray Wise as a corporate bad guy to add some geek appeal, but its all for naught. They are stuck with a script that is Dead on Arrival, and no miraculous Lazarus Serum is going to resurrect this one.

It is so frustrating, because although the premise is inherently daft (scientists develop a serum that when injected into a corpses brain and activated by an electrical shock brings them back from the dead) it offers all sorts of possibilities but doesn’t even try other than suggesting that sometimes dead is better. No wait, wrong movie….

Lets try again- let’s say they do bring someone back, lets not saddle them with esp/telekinetic superpowers straight away, lets show her demonstrate her acting chops by dealing with being pulled back from Heaven (or Hell, it seems in this case) and returning to the living and all that psychological and religious baggage that entails. But no, I suppose that risks upsetting someone in the audience for ridiculing their belief system or actually making an empirical statement about Life, Death and the Beyond, so instead… lets make her eyes go spooky black and have her bump everyone off one by one. The irony is, even as a horror film this film fails, it simply cannot carry of any level of tension or scares.

Not so much a case of sometimes dead is better, then, but maybe that 1989s Pet Sematary (and Brainstorm and Flatliners before it) is better than previously thought. All things are relative, I suppose, and it does seem that you can count on new bad films showing old ‘bad’ films in a new, kinder light…

Lost in Space (2018)

lost1I’m mid-way through the latest Netflix show, Lost in Space. I’m rather enjoying it. Sure it’s a daft, leave-your-brain-in-neutral kind of show, but there’s no harm in that considering the greater demands of shows like Altered Carbon, Twin Peaks or Westworld.  Indeed, it’s a bit refreshing to watch a show that is light and fluffy compared to other shows more concerned with angst and violence. Different shows for different folks I guess, and this is clearly a family-oriented show aimed at different demographics.

Must confess, when I recently heard about Netflix doing a reboot of Lost in Space, I thought it a strange one. Although I have a soft spot for the often-maligned movie of 1998 (does anyone else remember that great R1 DVD? Those were the days) the original tv series was a camp monstrosity of the 1960s, that clearly wouldn’t work the same now. Thankfully while the central premise remains the same (Space Family Robinson lost on space) its been reworked and modernised with some thought to the background. Now we have flashbacks to a Earth blighted by environmental collapse forcing colonial expeditions to Alpha Centauri and a family slightly this side of dysfunctional, requiring mom in charge more than Dad.

While some things work better than others (the kids are rather annoying, frankly, but Parker Posey makes a great female twist on Dr Smith) one thing that cannot be denied is the amazing production credentials of the show. As is becoming typical of Netflix, no expense has been spared here, with a great cast, brilliant convincing sets and high-quality effects work giving the whole thing a big-budget look more akin to a Hollywood blockbuster movie. Its probably a bit of a shame the stories don’t really show the same level of high-concept thinking but hey, its a light family show that’s easy to watch and functions well for what it is. I don’t know where the remaining five episodes will go over this first season’s ten-episode run (I’m not expecting too many shocks or surprises, frankly) but on the evidence of what I’ve seen this is something of a surprising success.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Robot yet…

lost2

2017 Selection Pt.7

2017gWell, after a  year of some success regards curbing my disc-buying, everything went out the window towards the end of the year. I mean, just look at that haul above, which dates from around Sept onwards I think. This 2017 selection update is clearly way overdue, and with so many additions I almost gave up on it, but I suppose that would have defeated the point of all those preceding posts so here we are.

So a quick run-through seems in order. The sales caught up with me with The Walk and Nocturnal Animals. You can’t go wrong at about £4 each. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was my favourite cinema experience up until BR2049 swept me away- I may be in the minority, but I do think Galaxy 2 is superior to the original. Wonder Woman didn’t particularly fill me with wonder but it was still cheaper than a cinema visit and I’ll inevitably rewatch it sometime.

While I quite enjoyed Alien:Covenant at the cinema, it fared less well on disc, but I chiefly bought it for the Ridley Scott commentary, which unfortunately I haven’t heard yet (come on Ridley, explain it to me, what’s going on with the Alien franchise?).  The Vikings, meanwhile, is a great catalogue release- it’s a brilliant film brought to HD with a beautiful picture quality and worthwhile extras. Brilliant. Then of course we come to one of  the releases of the year- the simply gorgeous Arrow edition of The Thing, here in its LE variant- a lovely matt-finish hard box with the Amaray slipped inside with a book and artcards and poster. Regardless of the package, it’s the remaster of the film that is the big draw- it’s perfect. I almost dread the inevitable proper 4K release one day- I’ve really brought this film too many damn times already.

Then Indicator’s Hammer box (the first of four, I believe) heralded the Autumn of big releases coming up. I just cannot resist Hammer, and while the Sony Hammers that Indicator have access to are not exactly the Premier league of Hammer their treatment is exemplary and I really rather enjoyed them all. Some nice surprises in this set.

So here we come to the start of the spending madness.2017h

In My Mind was an impulse purchase, a great documentary about The Prisoner, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Season three of The Leftovers was another import due to there being no HD release here, which was followed by the exact opposite- a release that tempted me with one too many HD options. HBOs Westworld really impressed me when aired and was a disc release that I was looking forward to all year, and it turned out to be my first dual-HD format purchase, as I bought the tin with both 4K and blu-ray discs. Of course, I don’t have a 4K telly yet and have no idea when my current perfectly-fine Bravia will fail and cause any 4K replacement. Months? Years? It feels a bit silly but already future-proofing is on my mind. That slick packaging likely swung it.

La La Land was another sale purchase, and I really enjoyed it- I only hope I won’t regret not waiting for the 4K edition to come down in price. The Farthest is a simply brilliant doc about the Voyager space mission and Captain Scarlett in HD needs no explanation for anyone like me who grew up on a diet of Gerry Anderson magic.  Then of course two blockbusters I didn’t see at the cinema- Spiderman Homecoming and War For the Planet of the Apes, both great movies. They look great in HD but again, should I have stretched out to the 4K editions? I have a feeling that question will be a routine one going forward.

2017g (2)So then we come into Decembers offerings. Two more tv series boxsets follow- season 7 of GOT and the sublime wonder that is the Twin Peaks series three set. When in the world I will actually get to watch them I don’t know (the last three sets of GOT have sat on the shelf waiting for the past few years- I love the show and having only seen them on Sky Atlantic over the in-laws are surely ripe for proper viewing without breaks etc but somehow it never happens). A few more sale buys follow- 4K/Blu-ray of the notorious marmite flick Valerian that might prove to be a disastrous purchase (haven’t seen it yet) and two anime titles from a Christmas sale at All the Anime; the tv series Terror in Resonance (actually in a deluxe set in a huge box that’s hardly shelf material) and the twin set of Genius Party/Genius Party Beyond, two rather curio films that I have been interested in for years but never seen.

Finally, last weeks Arrow release of The Apartment, one of my top ten fave films in a lovely set with some new extras and a book, and the extended 4K/Blu-ray release of The Martian. The latter has been on my radar for ages but was in one of those flash-sales at Amazon last week (I bought it whilst surfing on a break at work, and the price had already gone up again by the time I got back home later in the day). Bit daft really, I wanted it mostly for the commentary and addl extras but figured if I was double-dipping I might as well go the 4K route whilst doing it.

Christmas presents/festive sales may yet add to the selection and require another post. But clearly I already have my work cut out for me regards the to-watch pile. Breaking the barrier into 4K purchases is a troubling event that may prove to be a trend next year (I already have the 4K BR2049 pre-ordered) which frankly feels a bit silly knowing a 4K telly and Ultra HD player may yet be over a year away. But double-dipping is so frustrating maybe it’s the only solution. Will 2018 be the year I buy discs I can’t even watch yet? Shudder.

 

 

 

 

Melancholy Apocalypse: The Leftovers

left2017.61 & 62: The Leftovers Seasons Two and Three

There’s all sorts of ways to interpret The Leftovers. It’s a strange/ambient series akin to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, with the peculiar weirdness of The Prisoner thrown in (particularly towards the end), so it is rather fitting that The Leftovers finished the same year that Twin Peaks returned and The Prisoner celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Fans of either of those shows will take me to task for this, but one thing that The Leftovers has over both of them is better acting and better, more rounded characters- or at least, more rounded battered psyches. Everyone is damaged goods in The Leftovers. The Leftovers is a study of loneliness, melancholy and grief, and how fragmented personalities/lives try to make sense of a senseless world after a massive, biblical event.

Biblical, yes- the chief supposition of The Leftovers, at least as how I personally see it, rather than how it might seem to others, is that God does exist, but it’s a God that we cannot really understand, and that the world is therefore stranger than we can possibly know. The Leftovers to me is an intensely religious series, its conceit being how would our modern pragmatic world respond to a Biblical event- the Sudden Departure, in which 2% of the planet’s population -millions of people- disappeared. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children… there is no connection, no reason, no scientific explanation. There were here, then suddenly in the blink of an eye, gone. Gone where? Or have they ceased to exist? Should they be mourned, or should they be searched for? Was it random, or were they chosen? Who were the blessed, those that departed or those that remained?

Of course, some might believe it’s a bunch of crazy scientists whose experiment went massively wrong (in the third season, some scientists claim to have a machine to send people to another universe), but I think it’s more likely God (in the third season, you see God get mauled to death by a lion).

Ah. Yes, you read that right. And I’ll write no more about it. At turns enthralling and frustrating, amazing and confusing, there are many mysteries in this series. Inevitably for a show with such twists and turns and layers upon layers as this one has, I’m hesitant at this point to discuss the series in any great detail. The beauty is in its ambiguity and discovering its secrets. Surely one of the appeals of this show is the fact it is just three seasons long – three precious miracle seasons- with episodes as intense as anything else on television.  So its not expecting you to sit around for several seasons and outstay its welcome.

Personally, I feel the shows producers nailed the ending (Damon Lindelof! Who’d have thought it! He nailed an ending!)  although I do know some fans felt shortchanged. Some people like to be shown, to see something, rather than have it suggested to them- me, I’m okay with letting my imagination work , extrapolate the suggested possibilities. There are depths to this show that I am sure will reward repeated viewings.

One of the best tv shows I have ever watched, basically. More pointedly, it is possibly the best tv show that no-one else seems to have watched.  I hope it will pick up an increasing audience with time. That’s the beauty of tv box-sets, whether via streaming or on disc (the latter being the rub- season one had a blu-ray release over here, but my second season is an Australian disc and the third season an American disc, and not many people are going to go to such lengths). Its beautifully acted, lovingly shot and directed and scripted. Like any object of art, I’m certain it will raise string responses and that some will hate it as easily as other fall in love with it, but nevertheless it’s worth searching out and discovering and experiencing.  Yes, The Leftovers is an experience and one that you will not forget.

 

 

What year is it?

tp12017.52: Twin Peaks – The Return

Well, what was all that about, then? Up to the penultimate episode I thought I had a fairly decent grip on things but then Lynch, that crafty old goat, comes along with a final curveball with a confounding episode 18 that pulls the rug from under viewers and leaves a cliffhanger that just hangs there for… well, forever?

Who knows? Maybe we’ll get another season in four or five years, or maybe it’ll never happen. Even if it did, I doubt that we’d get any closure or things would ever tie together. That’s not what Twin Peaks was ever about- every mystery solved just unwrapped another mystery. Back when we learned who killed Laura Palmer we didn’t really learn who killed her- or what killed her, the answer not really being an answer, just something else to analyse and decode. In some ways, Twin Peaks isn’t at all strange or odd- it just mirrors our own reality, our lives and world that makes little sense either. The fun is just being there, and enjoying the crazy madness of it all.

Which rather sums up my feelings about this Twin Peaks revival, an event as crazily impossible as a Blade Runner sequel-  2017 is some year for  ‘pinch me, this cannot be possibly happening’ moments.  The Return is a brilliant, bizarre show that faithfully  echoed the appeal of the original and just took it even further out there. Indeed, it occurs to me now that this is quite similar to how 2049 did just the same thing. Both projects took a cherished original and reworked and expanded upon it, where the creative forces had freedoms that outweighed any backroom pressures. Watching this new Twin Peaks you could tell Lynch was just doing his thing with this great toy set of cast and crew, in just the same way as watching 2049 I had the sense that it was Villeneuve’s film, that he had total freedom to make his movie his way.

There are so many incredible moments through the 18 episodes of The Return, clues/codes/red herrings, so many cameos and dead-ends. Was there ever any connection to that New York sequence early on, what was that scary creature that killed that naked couple (whoever they were), what was the significance of the Atom bomb test in episode 8? Indeed, was Episode 8 of some particular significance, as the talking boiler that represented FBI agent Phillip Jeffries (who Cooper tells us  “doesn’t even exist anymore, at least not in a normal sense”)  exudes a steam cloud that transforms into the number 8 and an infinity symbol when turned on its side.  Maybe it means something. Maybe it means nothing.

Quite astonishing really. In just the same way as 2049 has been rattling itself around in my head for the past few weeks over three viewings at the cinema, so Twin Peaks: The Return has been rattling around in my head these past few months. It’s been quite brilliant, confounding and exhilarating,  possibly the best show on tv all year. Its positively nuts, crazy, maddening, funny, bewildering, scary- only in 2017 could television get away with this. With this and 2049, it’s as if the stars are just aligned somehow. “What year is it?” Cooper asks, the series very last line. I feel like shouting back: ‘2017. You better believe it!’

Or on the other hand-

Maybe The Prisoner has something to do with it. That show is the spiritual father of Twin Peaks and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. How fitting that The Return premieres 50 years after Patrick McGoohan’s show first confounded unwitting audiences.  1967 = 2017. Maybe that means something.

Stoker (2013)

stoker1.jpg2016.41: Stoker (Film 4, HD)

Perhaps its a case of the wrong expectations. I was under the (misguided, as it turned out) impression that this was a horror film. Maybe it was the title and its associations with a certain author. Well, its not a horror film- but it is something of a horror.

Style over substance- its something we see so much of now. Maybe its used by film-makers eager to distinguish their films from everything else in the market. I don’t mind it when its used with some kind of restraint, but I do have an issue with it when it interferes with basic storytelling. Terrence Malicks films are ones which I generally enjoy, but he certainly does cross the line sometimes. Likewise David Lynch, although something as genuinely great as his Mulholland Drive certainly benefits from its stylistic extravagances, demonstrating a voice all its own- but then again, it clearly has the substance to back up any stylistic excess.

Stoker, I’m afraid, doesn’t. It’s running-time is interminable; by thirty minutes I was awfully close to giving up on it, which doesn’t happen to me very often. I can usually watch any film, no matter how bad, to the often bitter end. Stoker stretched my patience. There is a story here but it is buried under endless strange edits and scenes that go nowhere/do nothing, moments where the sound effects dominate for no particular reason.

Stoker is the story of a family secret that devours all, and a coming-of-age tale about a teenage girl whose strangeness is merely an indication of a psychological problem that manifests -eventually- in a murderous appetite fed by her charismatic long-lost uncle, who arrives at the outset of the film during the funeral of her father. Told like that, the film sounds interesting, and if the film had simply told that story, then yes, it might have been a success.

Alas, the central mysteries aren’t really even presented as mysteries, they are almost inconsequential to the film, lost in the murk of the stylistic choices that swamp everything. The film opens at the funeral of the girl’s father, and instead of elaborating on the man’s mysterious death, suggesting a darker mystery for the audience to engage with and unravel, its simply passed over. Only later as the family secret is finally revealed does the significance of the fathers death appear evident, by which time I was pretty much past caring.

The cast is fine but in an effort to make them all seem rather odd and David Lynchian the film loses any empathy from the audience. I really didn’t care what happened to India (Mia Wasikowska), the oddball teenager preoccupied with focussing on the films audio track, or her mother Eve (Nicole Kidman) who is self-centered and soulless. The only interesting character is India’s long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who is very much channeling Anthony Perkins from Psycho and clearly up to no good.

It actually reminded me a little of Twin Peaks. I don’t know if that was a conscious thing by the film-makers, but it did occur to me that all the oddness and obfuscation was very much in the vein of the first series of that tv show. Perhaps if I had been aware of this from the start I might have enjoyed the film more, but as I was expecting something of a gothic horror I was derailed somewhat. In anycase, I don’t think there is really any excuse for deliberately bad storytelling so this film was a pretty poor misfire to me.

The Frustrating Dune

dune1Late last night I found myself idly flicking through the channels before retiring to bed and came upon David Lynch’s Dune playing on the Horror channel (there’s a commentary in that scheduling just in itself). It was toward the end of the film, and I found myself sticking around until the bitter end (truth be told, those last twenty-thirty minutes are the worst the film has to offer, the film collapsing into an awful turgid mess as it falters towards its conclusion).

I hadn’t seen Dune in a good while, but it always suckers me in. I love the book you see. Its the Ben Hur of science fiction, and just begging to be given a three-hour epic treatment on the silver screen, its religious allegories as timely now as ever. Back in 1984 its excellent marketing/mysterious posters with the twin moons… well it looked to be something special. It wasn’t of course. It was a mess.

I’d love to be able to sit down with David Lynch, if only for a half-hour, to listen to him explain what happened with Dune. Now, Lynch doesn’t talk to anyone about the film, having utterly disowned it. Understable as that may be, I do think there is a fascinating discussion there. What was he trying to do with it? Where did it go wrong? When did he lose control? When did he know it was just hopeless and time to walk away?

Or did he think it was brilliant and became appalled at its reception? Who knows? Lynch of course went on to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks and so much more. Dune would be just a mainstream blip on his increasingly weird resumé. But it just sits there forever on tv re-runs, VHS, DVD and Blu-ray releases… a broken film that looks utterly captivating in places and full of odd casting, disjointed editing, a rock soundtrack, so many bizarre decisions that sometimes work and most times don’t. It looks like a film that could have been so great but turned out pretty poor, never becoming ‘cult’ as other commercial failures like The Thing and Blade Runner would do. You’ll never hear about Lynch’s Dune being a misunderstood classic movie to be rediscovered. I’d just love to have a chat with Lynch and hear his thoughts about it after so many years.