Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu, Czechoslovakia, 1970)

The perils and pleasures of growing up

The perils and pleasures of growing up

Another dose of bonkers Czech cinema is good for anyone with a jaded palette; it’s good for anyone anytime.  The marvellously titled Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is based on a 1930s surrealist novel by Vítězslav Nezval, which was why the post-’68 censors allowed it, Nezval having been a ‘good communist’. As a good surrealist, he poked fun at bourgeois values but, as noted in the last post, bourgeoise sensibility wasn’t limited to the west of the ‘iron curtain’ so the Czech establishment got more than they bargained for in this exploration of a 13-year old’s ‘coming of age’.

Much of the imagery is startlingly beautiful, with wonderful stylised compositions; in one scene Valerie runs through a misty field – the film is worth seeing for that alone. The plot draws on numerous influences, Alice in Wonderland and the vampire genre are two obvious touchstones. Like Daisies, if is female-centred, the men are predatory with the possible exception of ‘Eagle’ who may, or may not, be Valerie’s brother. He does rush to her rescue a lot. Whether Valerie always needs rescuing is open to doubt as the film dramatises the excitement at, and fear of, sexual awaking. Valerie’s body, obviously, is important and the degree of nudity is surprising given that Jaroslava Schallerová was actually 13 when the film was made. The film, however, is far from prurient and Schallerová’s performance is magical.

 

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Only Lovers Left Alive (UK-Germany-France-Cyprus-USA, 2013)

Staying alive

Staying alive

This film has that rare beast: a good trailer. I’m not a Jim Jarmusch fan, though I admire anyone with an independent sensibility, so I may not have gone if they trailer hadn’t looked as good. And it was the look that mattered, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston give off a wonderful other-worldly ambience which, as vampires, they should. Although it is a vampire movie, it only draws on the basic tropes of the genre and Jarmusch meditates upon modernity.

Although ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ is the motto of a fogey, at a time when politicians squabble over taking credit for an energy company’s freezing of prices, it might be the only one that makes sense. In the UK, PM Cameron, and his opposite number Miliband, seemed not to notice that the energy company was not sacrificing profits in the freeze, but jobs and wind farms. Hiddleston’s Adam moans about zombies (humans) and he’s right to do so. There is an ‘end game’ to life at the beginning of the 21st century as climate change-induced calamities start to pile up with no sign that there’s a will, in politicians or the public, to seriously address the issue. There’s a fin de siecle feel to the film’s narrative too: even blood isn’t what it used to be.

Adam, a drone musician, with a dash of Krautrock, is holed up in decaying Detroit; a post-industrial landscape that epitomises decay and decadence. There can be fewer real surreal sights as the Michigan theatre that’s now a car park. His lover, Swinton’s Eve, lives in the far more vibrant Tangiers, getting her hits from supplier Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). And this is the weakest aspect of the film; the canard that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays is repeated as fact and this, along with the name dropping of characters from history (Byron, Mary Wolstencroft et al), alters the tone of the film, suggesting that we aren’t meant to be taking it seriously. Except, it’s clear we are.

Mia Wasikowska does a terrific turn as the errant sister, suggesting that her talent will take her far. But the star of the film is production designer Marco Bittner Rosser, Bina Daigeler’s costumes and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography.

Stake Land (US, 2010)

Not just what it says in the title

Not just what it says in the title

Imdb reports that this film cost $650k to make, if that’s the case then it is an incredible achievement because it looks as good as any post-Apocalyptic movie road movie I’ve seen. Co-written by director Jim Mickle and star Nick Damici, the emphasis is less on the genre elements of a world threatened by vampires, who act like zombies, than the melancholy associated with post-civilisation life. There are plenty of genre elements and I’m guessing they couldn’t get a good distributor as the box office was dreadful. The film offers more than enough of gore and grue to appeal to its core audience.

Damici plays Mister, the paternal vampire killer who shepherds Martin, and various others who join them, north to the (maybe) mythical New Eden. Amongst the others is Kelly McGillis’ Sister (she is a nun), who retains her star charisma of her eighties heyday. It was startling to see a (albeit former) Hollywood female star with grey hair! She looked great.

Mister might have been simply an over-bearing ‘silent, macho’ type but this is leavened by a beautiful moment when, after they join a community trying to hold ‘things together’, he picks up a toddler to dance with. In a post-Apocalyptic world, you want men of violence on your side! The film is also Martin’s ‘coming of age’ story, which is also handled with tenderness and care.

True to genre tradition, there is no explanation regarding the plague that’s brought about the apocalypse but it is striking the truly terrifying villains of the film are Christians. Or more specifically, those nut jobs who welcome the Apocalypse as evidence of God’s dissatisfaction with the world. These neo-Nazi racists drop vampires from helicopters to infect ‘non believer’ communities. It’s comforting to think that such looney types exist only in America but that’s not true. In the UK, this weekend, a UKIP (a nationalist party) councillor said that the floods in southern England were caused by the legalisation of gay marriage…

Only once in the film, the climactic battle against the chief bad guy, did I think the genre elements got the better of the realist portrayal of how things might be. That’s quite an achievement and I’d rank this film above The Road as one of the best post-Apocalyptic films around.