February’s Failures

Once upon a time, I never thought I’d be mentioning a Jackass film on this blog, but the release of revival movie Jackass Forever caused me to seek out the first two in the series, and I do intend to watch the rest eventually. Not going to the cinema for it, though. Or, indeed, anything else this month. Fare like Moonfall and Uncharted is very much in the “wait for streaming” camp for me — I’ll surely watch them both eventually, and it may even turn out I enjoy them, but they’ll wait. I did enjoy Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, so I was tempted by Death on the Nile, but, honestly, I’m still not sold on the whole “living with Covid” thing, so it’s going to take more than that to persuade me out to the cinema. Other things — like animations Belle and Flee — had more limited releases and I don’t even know if they came near me.

The return of the big screen doesn’t mean the streamers have let up on originals, although their quality continues to be variable. I’ve heard good things about Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Kimi, which went straight to Sky Cinema here in the UK, emulating it’s “direct to HBO Max” release Stateside. But their other originals — school shooting thriller The Desperate Hours and language-barrier romcom Book of Love — have received lesser notices. Netflix, on the other hand, could boast Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s first film in almost a decade, Bigbug, and yet I’ve seen precisely one tweet mentioning it. Their latest reincarnation of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, on the other hand, did seem to generate chatter, but little of it positive. And the less said about Madea and Mrs Brown teaming up for A Madea Homecoming, the better.

In that middle ground of “cinema releases coming quickly to streaming”, MUBI continue to rule with the likes of Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman and Icelandic folk horror Lamb, although Disney+ come close with Kingsman prequel The King’s Man and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. On a slightly slower track, Sky Cinema also had a pretty strong showing of stuff this month, mainly in the horror realm. We’re talking Freaky, The Forever Purge (I’ve got a couple of others left before I get to that, personally), Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth, and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (I quite enjoyed the first, so I’ll give it a chance). Also, not a horror but it looks horrific: Space Jam: A New Legacy. And quirky British true story comedy Dream Horse, which looks worth it just for the international cast’s attempts at the Welsh accent.

As usual, Amazon Prime, BBC iPlayer, and All 4 produced plenty of stuff from deeper in the archive that I’m happy to fill out my watchlist with while clearly being in no rush to get round to. Normally I’d include Netflix in that list, but I’ve not jotted down much on my shortlist this month; though MUBI had an uncommonly good showing, the standout being Jiro Dreams of Sushi right at the end of the month. Others of particular interest included The Passion of the Christ (I feel I really should’ve seen that by now), the 1950s version of Around the World in 80 Days, Ripley adaptation The American Friend, and Memento, which I haven’t revisited in many a year. I own it on DVD, but, naturally, it’s in HD on iPlayer.

Finally, the inexorable growth of my Blu-ray collection continued unabated, with a mix of new releases and sale pickups. Although I watched Ghostbusters: Afterlife in February, I picked it up in the series’ Ultimate Collection box set, meaning I now have 4K copies of Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II on my watchlist. And that’s not all from the rewatch back catalogue, because HMV’s rolling offer of half-price UHD discs also allowed me to nab La La Land, Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, the original Scream, and The Shawshank Redemption — a rare film that I love (or like a lot, at least) but never upgraded to Blu-ray, so jumping from DVD straight to 4K feels like some kind of victory.

There were new releases in 4K too, of course, most prominently Dune: Part One (how I wish it said that on the spine — it inevitably won’t match the sequel), which I imported from France so I also have it in 3D, and The King’s Man. Could’ve just watched that on Disney+, or at least given it a go there first, but as I own the first two it was inevitable I’d buy it, so I just got on with it. And, as we all know, discs are better than streaming anyway. I also took a punt on adult fantasy animation The Spine of Night in 4K, imported from the US alongside a new edition of Candyman III: Day of the Dead — it’s meant to be a rubbish film, but it completes my Candyman collection. Unfortunately, it’s also a somewhat rubbish disc, with noticeably weaker picture quality compared to a German release from a while back. Still, lots of special features. If I actually like it when I watch it, maybe I’ll treat myself to the German disc too. Based on everyone else’s opinion, that seems unlikely.

UK labels continue to rollout martial arts classics — I feel like something must have changed in the licensing of these, because we got hardly any a few years ago, while now there’s at least a couple every month from 8 Films or Eureka, and now Arrow getting in on the game too. Anyway, this month’s releases included The Flag of Iron and Legendary Weapons of China from 88 Films, and Skinny Tiger and Fatty Dragon from Eureka, who also released silent epic The Indian Tomb on their Masters of Cinema line. They’d previously released Fritz Lang’s 1950s remake on DVD, which went OOP just before their release of the silent one came out. I presume that’s just a funny coincidence. And last but very much not least on the new release pile, Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: A New Generation. Long-time readers will surely remember how much I loved his series The Story of Film: An Odyssey, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting this sequel. Now I’ve just got to make room for its near-three-hour running time.

I’ve ummed and ahhed for years about upgrading my Charlie Chaplin box set to the Blu-ray version, especially as there have been a couple now, and the extra features vary, and the picture quality isn’t always the best. But Amazon cut it to such a low price this month, I decided just to give in — so that’s 11 features, a mix of ones I’ve seen and ones I haven’t. They may not be the very best available, but they’re a lot better than my DVD copies (which I can hang onto for the missing extras, because I’ll never make much reselling them anyway), and a lot cheaper than buying the films individually — which I can always do if I particularly love any of them. Criterion have put most of them out in the US, and are about to start bringing them to the UK, so we’ll see as they go along. Talking of box sets I’d overlooked but was tempted into by sales (it might not sound like a common problem, but it is for me), Indicator tempted me to grab their four-film John Ford at Columbia set this month; and because that wasn’t expensive enough to qualify for free postage, I also delved into their 5-for-whatever offer, picking up Eyes of Laura Mars, Modern Romance, Night Tide, See No Evil, and Time Without Pity. Their releases are so well-done, and their picks often so obscure but intriguing, that it’s easy to just keep buying them. Now, I just need to make the effort to actually watch more of them, too.

Looking at that (not-so-)little lot, it’s easy to see why my bank account felt severely depleted by the end of the month. Maybe in March I’ll finally resist the lure of sales… but there’s always all those exciting new releases… Oh, I’m damned.

The Fear of God: 25 Years of “The Exorcist” (1998)

2019 #134
Nick Freand Jones | 81 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15

The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist

There have been some great made-for-TV documentaries down the years, but that status as “TV programmes” means it’s kind potluck if they’re still readily available to us years later. Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey? So acclaimed it got a DVD release and, recently, a Blu-ray upgrade. Mark Gatiss’s horror series? Too full of clips to be licensable. The Complete Citizen Kane? I don’t think this was available anywhere besides bootlegs, but will soon be included on Criterion’s 4K release of the film.

I could go on, but let’s stick to the one at hand. This feature-length Mark Kermode-fronted doc was screened at festivals in 1998 before being shown on the BBC in an edited form. Down the years it’s been available on some of the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases, but only in that shortened version. Finally, 20 years after its first release, the unedited original cut popped onto the BBC iPlayer for Halloween 2019, and tonight it will be broadcast for the first time ever, on BBC Four at 11:55pm.

For those unfamiliar with him, Kermode is sort of the UK’s answer to Roger Ebert: a long-standing, widely-respected film critic across print, TV, and radio. The Exorcist is his favourite film, and (as he explains in a recently-shot introduction to this documentary) he’d written a book on it that its makers had liked, which led to him making The Fear of God.

Mark Kermode and The Exorcist

As with almost any documentary about a specific film, your interest in it is likely to depend on your interest in the original film. So, assuming you care to know the behind-the-scenes story of The Exorcist, this is definitely a good film. I get the impression it’s the original source for a lot of interviews and stories that have been repeated around the place; ones that I’ve personally picked up through osmosis down the years. Despite that, I still learnt new stuff, and there are some nice moments to witness, like when novelist and screenwriter William Peter Blatty suddenly realises, on camera, how he should’ve written a scene all along.

If you’ve seen The Fear of God before (say, on one of The Exorcist’s physical media releases), how much this so-called “festival cut” is worth your time is a matter for your personal level of interest. Some DVD releases cut as much as 25 minutes out of the documentary, so if you’ve only seen that version then obviously there’s a lot of new material here. If you’re watching this version, you can be assured you’re seeing everything Kermode wanted to include as well as everything producer Nick Freand Jones wanted in. For example, there’s an interview with the woman who voiced the demon, who insisted her contribution was only in the BBC broadcast. Well, I guess this still conforms to that wish.

4 out of 5

The Fear of God: 25 Years of “The Exorcist” is on BBC Four tonight at 11:55pm, or on iPlayer now.

Black Narcissus (1947)

2018 #49
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | U

Black Narcissus

It’s over a year since I watched Black Narcissus, but this review is only materialising now for two reasons: first, my overall tardiness at posting reviews nowadays (my backlog currently numbers north of 140); and second, but actually more relevant, I’ve struggled to make sense of what I thought of it.

On the surface a story about some nuns opening a convent in the Himalayas, there’s so much more going on beneath the film’s surface than just conflicts with locals and amongst the small group of nuns — that much is clear. But what else is going on? Critics often talk about the film’s eroticism, but (even allowing for the fact it was made in 1947 and so could hardly be overt about such things) I rarely felt that. In his video introduction on the Criterion Blu-ray, Bertrand Tavernier says it’s all about desire, specifically female desire, and the prohibition of said desire. Hm. I mean, I don’t disagree that’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it’s “all about”. Writing in Criterion’s booklet (reproduced online here, critic Kent Jones says that “the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es — expressionist, exotic […] and erotic — has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities.” So, I’m not alone in thinking there’s other stuff going on here… though I’d wager Mr Jones has a better handle on what that is exactly than I do.

I confess, I find this a bit frustrating — not the film itself, but my inability to ‘get’ it. I was never bored, so something kept me engaged, there’s something to it, but I can’t get at what this is. I felt a bit like there’s a germ of a good thing, but it’s not brought out. Like, the characters all being gradually driven mad or hysterical by the place — it’s an effect that’s almost there, but not quite; and it only affects, like, two-and-a-half of them anyway. But maybe I’m expecting the film to be too overt; maybe it was just too subtle for me. Whatever it is, it clearly disturbed the Christians: when the film was released in the US, Catholic weekly The Tidings reportedly asserted that “it is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities.” Reason enough to like the film, there.

Nuns gone wild

Oh, but my overall confusion aside, there are many specifics that deserve concrete praise. The last 10 or 20 minutes, when it almost turns into a kind of horror movie, are fantastic. (Even the original trailer is largely composed of footage from the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s definitely the best bit.) It all looks ravishing, magnificently shot and designed. There’s the always-stunning work of DP Jack Cardiff (apparently a Technicolor executive claimed the film was the best example of the process), plus the work of production designer Alfred Junge and costumer Hein Heckroth. The luscious backdrops were blown-up black-and-white photos that the art department coloured with pastel chalks, which partly explains the film’s otherworldly beauty. Indeed, considering it was all shot in the UK, the location is very well evoked. That’s not least thanks to the constantly blowing wind, which ruffles clothing and hangings even during interior scenes — a detail that could’ve been easily overlooked during production, but whose presence certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to sum up and rate my reaction to Black Narcissus, because I feel like I missed something — not literally (I followed the plot ‘n’ that), but like I didn’t understand something about it. And yet I was engaged throughout, it’s gorgeous to look at, and the final 20 minutes are stunning on every level. One to revisit, for sure.

4 out of 5

Black Narcissus was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Coincidentally, it’s currently available on iPlayer, but only until tomorrow afternoon.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

2018 #234
Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

They Shall Not Grow Old

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

Before and after

Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. It’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

Faces

Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

Western Front

While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

5 out of 5

They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

The Silent Child (2017)

2018 #57a
Chris Overton | 20 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & British Sign Language

The Silent Child

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Live Action Short Film.


It’s not often you see short films screened in prime time slots on the nation’s biggest TV network — and by “not often” I mean “never” — but then it’s not often two former soap stars make a timely and affecting drama that wins an Oscar, either.

Such is the case with The Silent Child, which stars former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton (who also wrote the screenplay) as social worker Joanne, who’s called in to help young deaf girl Libby (Maisie Sly) prepare to start school. Libby’s upper-middle-class parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) have clearly done nothing to help the child, too concerned with making her ‘normal’, and that’s left her obviously miserable. As Joanne begins to teach Libby sign language, she comes out of her skin and brightens up. But her mother remains unconvinced this is the right direction for her child, beginning to see Joanne as more of a threat than a help.

There’s a clear social-conscience motivation behind the creation of this film, highlighted by a downbeat ending that’s well calibrated to anger you into wanting change. It’s depressing that this isn’t set 50 years ago, but is the situation today. It seems hard to believe any parents would be so horrid and low-key abusive as Libby’s, but then I bet they voted Tory, so, y’know. Even then, the cold hard stats presented at the end are sobering. The cumulative effect is powerful and worthwhile.

Libby and Joanne

As a film, it’s well made. Director Chris Overton (Shenton’s partner, who also once appeared in Hollyoaks) and his DP Ali Farahani clearly have a good eye: despite the low budget, it’s often attractively shot, with a misty, cold beauty to its countryside locations. Overton has also managed to coax a charming, subtle, and surprisingly nuanced performance from young Maisie Sly. Shenton is also likeable as her well-meaning but hand-tied friend. Some of the supporting performances are a little ropier, but hey, when you’re making a short film for just £10,000, you get what you can. I’ve seen worse.

There are lots of little touches that suggest Shenton and Overton probably want to develop this into a feature film — hints at subplots, that kind of thing — and there’s definitely room for it to grow, too: while it does work as a piece in its own right, this doesn’t feel like the whole story. I’d be surprised if, after the Oscar success and chatter that’s followed (the film was among the top trends on Twitter for the entire night after its BBC One airing), that doesn’t happen. Certainly, it’d be nice to see things turn out a little more hopefully for little Libby.

4 out of 5

The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th April 2018.