Witchfinder General (UK, 1968)

Taciturn evil

Entitled Conqueror Worm, apparently, in USA; Witchfinder General is better. Director Michael Reeves, who died aged 25 after this, his fourth, feature was obviously talented and a sad loss to British cinema (if it had been able to retain and sustain him). There a few films – if any – of the era that manage to convey the terror of the times (English Civil War) of the arbitrariness of witch hunting. I watched the restored version and this certainly shows the film to be a precursor of ’70s gore movies but without the gore though showing the cruelty. However, here the violence is not gratuitous though the ‘breast’ count probably is so I guess it’s half an exploitation movie.

Vincent Price’s performance might be an example of an actor sleepwalking a role or simply brilliant. His taciturnity is perfect but – obviously – leaves little room for expression. I wouldn’t say Reeves’ direction is particularly striking, however he does ring the cruelty of the time true.

 

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The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden-Denmark-Ger, 2009)

Woman power

There’s too much plot in Steig Larsson’s novel to make this a satisfactory film. Even with the judicious filleting of Erika Berger leaving Millennium, there’s still too many threads flying around. This is not to say the film isn’t a pretty satisfying thriller, just that the narrative works far better as a novel; the same was true of the second in the series.

The critique of Swedish society is lost somewhat (partly with the loss of the sex trafficking subplot) as the reasons behind Zalachenko’s status are not explicated. There’s too many agencies involved in the investigation (the Section; police; Blomquist; secret service) for the clear narrative drive that suspense thrives on in film.

Read the books.

 

A Day in the Life – Four Documentaries by John Krish (UK 1953 and 1961-3)

A fantastic day in the life of

I’d never heard of John Krish when Roy Stafford suggested a Friday night at the pictures to see documentaries made 50 years ago. Low expectations often lead to an over generous appraisal,  however these four films are undoubtedly the work of a great documentarian.

Take They Took Us to the Sea (1961) (above) which follows an NSPCC trip to Weston-Super-Mare from the slums of Birmingham. The subject matter is sufficient to engage most, however aesthetically this is an incredible film. Krish primarily works in observational cinema, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953) about the last tram in London being an exception in the four films, where the camera has to appear to offer a ‘window on the world’. This requires participants not to look at the camera, otherwise the fourth wall is broken. HOW THE HELL DID HE GET THIS BUNCH OF OVER-EXCITED KIDS NOT TO LOOK AT THE FOUR CAMERAS USED TO MAKE THIS FILM?! Presumably they were told they’d chucked off the train or dumped into the sea… you get my drift. I found the film an utterly astonishing portrayal of the day. There are numerous close ups of the children and never once do they glance at the camera (a copper helping them cross the road does). The effect of this is to offer an incredibly intimate representation of the day on the beach for these under-privileged children: a masterpiece.

Krish doesn’t use the long takes characteristic of observational cinema, and he sparingly uses voice overs, but there’s no doubting the veracity of what we see. The NUT sponsored Our School (1962) is a fascinating glimpse into a secondary modern school, again beautifully shot. The emphasis in what we see is ‘modern’ and not ‘bog standard’; even in schools which were designated for the non academic. Clearly the film has a propagandistic function, though – as I said above – it was entirely convincing.

The final film,  I Think They Call Him John (1964), is possibly the best portrayal of loneliness I have ever seen. Again Krish shows his ability to allow his subject to act ‘natural’. Even when John is shaving with the camera as his mirror, I wasn’t really aware of the constructedness of the image. It’s a film that verges on the heartbreaking through under-statement (though it was surreal hearing Bruce Forsyth on John’s telly).

Catch these brilliant films and I look forward to seeing more by Krish.

 

The Chaser (Chugyeogja, South Korea, 2008)

Saw (South) Korean style?

The Saw franchise meets the (bonkers) South Korean sensibility of Memories of Murder (2003)? I wouldn’t want to deal with the police in South Korea (actually, I wouldn’t want to deal with the police in this country given the violence they are meting out, and inspiring, at demos) if these films are any indication of their corruptness and ineptitude. Memories, based on a real case, is, at least, set in the sticks, and there’s the town v. country copper trope at work. So it made sense that they didn’t know what they were doing (in terms of representation not reality). However, this serial killer movie is set in Seoul and follows a flawed ex-cop who’s trying to find out why his prostitutes are disappearing.

There’s a wonderful surreality that seems to run through South Korean cinema, though I have no idea if this is simply the films I’ve seen or an expression of Korean culture. When this is combined with Saw-like environs and cruelty, there’s bound to be a discomforting mix on the screen. Absolutely gripping too, even though this debut feature of Hong-jin Na is too long. A Hollywood remake is in the offing though there’s absolutely no way that the ending won’t be changed!

Let Me In (UK-US, 2010)

We are in a horror movie

Another pointless remake as it has – to date – only taken $12m at the North American box office. Remakes are meant to make money! Of course there never was a point in remaking the Swedish original because it was so good; this version didn’t fail at the box office because everyone had seen the first film.

It’s difficult to judge close remakes as the first film tends to mold expectations however it can be interesting to consider differences. If the film’s financially successful, then the adaptation has managed to tap into a zeitgeist. As Let Me In has failed in doing the business there’s little we can say about this film.

Though it is co-produced by the latest incarnation of Britain’s most famous house of horror (Hammer), it is typically American and has been scripted and directed by Matt Reeves. Typical because it makes the piece more generic: the music keeps telling us the character is sinister; in Sweden the characters were normal (so the film was more unsettling). Ellie/Abby – the vampire – becomes more of a monster, and so less of a lost little girl. And so on…

Reeves must have been tempted to put his stamp on the film but all he does is mangle superb set pieces: particularly the climax. Reeves fails to hold his nerve to ‘show’ it all in one shot. Similarly, the subplots of the locals are more or less dispensed with and the victim who bursts into flame in the hospital loses all pathos and looks ridiculous.

Enough.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o kakeru shôjo, Japan, 2006)

Holding on to the past

This marvelous anime reverses the idea that youngsters want to grow up quickly with the protagonist attempting to reverse events that lead to change. Although not a Studio Ghibli production, Girl has a hero who could happily reside in movies made by Miyazaki (and others). Her wonderful tumbles, necessitated by having to leap through time, give the character a wonderful dynamism.

The animation lurches between the beautiful (those clouds) and Hanna Barbera horrible. However, the absence of schmaltz in the narrative, built around the truism that ‘time waits for no one’, make this a film definitely to see.

The Insider (US, 1999)

Telling it as it is

Ten years after its release, this film stands up very well. Russell Crowe’s best performance and the brilliant Al Pacino, allied to Michael Mann’s excellent direction, make this a very satisfying thriller. In addition its subject matter, corporate lies and cover up, are exceptionally topical given wiki-leaks’ revelations.

Rarely can a widescreen film used close ups so much simultaneously offering a claustrophobic mise en scene – we often see scenes partly through the spectacles of Pacino’s Lowell Bergman – and wide spaces where the world continues oblivious to the events portrayed in the film. Corporate resistance to press investigation – see FIFA’s World Cup decision – is brilliantly dramatised; it is possible that without Wigand’s, and Bergman’s, bravery the Big Tobacco would still be peddling the lie that smoking doesn’t cause cancer.

This is certainly Michael Mann’s best film and I look forward to him dramatising Julian Assange’s heroics.