Monday, 19 April 2010

For Your Consideration...No.5

Ghost World

Rebecca: "Oh, face it, you just hate every single guy on the face of the Earth."
Enid: "That's not true. I just hate these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers."

Based on the comic strip by Daniel Clowes (featured in his comic series Eightball from 1993-1997) and directed by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, 1994, Art School Confidential, 2006), this is THE film for the counter-culture crowd, if ever there was one.

Of course, the term counter-culture is hotly debated in the context of today's society. Some would place the films protagonists Enid (Thora Birch, never better) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) as part of the 'subculture' or simply label them 'hipsters'. However you want to define them (and all the definitions hold weight, but for the sake of this article I will apply counterculture) Ghost World is undeniably a unique, opinionated, darkly sarcastic piece of work, both deep and subtle as well as bitingly satirical of modern culture. It's a film specifically in tune with a crowd more in need of a voice than ever, no matter how harsh that voice may be. In the nine years since it was released it has been forgotten. But it shouldn't be. Because it's a teen art masterpiece.

Enid and Rebecca are both outsiders in a town full of morons (according to them anyway). They are best friends held together by their cynicism, sarcasm and contempt for their peers. They seek out the weirdos and loners of the world and spend their days wandering the streets of an unnamed town (the ghost world of the title) until they play a cruel prank on Seymour (Steve Buscemi). Eventually Enid, the stronger-opinionated of the friends, is drawn to Seymour and learns that they have more in common than she expected. As they bond she grows further away from Rebecca...


Even the title of this teen art dramedy holds more than meets the eye. In the comic book the words 'ghost town' were graffitied on various walls by an unknown character, and served as the title for each new strip. In the film Zwigoff's own visual style allows us to enter the ghost world and he presents as many complexities as Clowes' cult comic: are Enid and Rebecca the only ones living in a land of the dead, a metaphor for their superiority amongst the minions of losers, wasters, morons and "extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemians" that inhabit their world? Are they trapped by their cynicism and unwillingness to conform? An elitist fantasy and a jab at the counterculture all at once? Or is the film just highlighting the truth that we really have become that dumb, all like sheep following the latest trend? Interestingly it's the collectors, cinephiles, geeks and hipsters that will grasp the film and be behind the emotions and feelings that would alienate said sheep, but the sheep make for the most interesting audience. A modern audience looking for comedy along the lines of American Pie (Paul Weitz, Chris Weitz 1999) will be met by a direct slap to the face, a sharply drawn and dry criticism of the very culture they belong to. Whether they realise this or not will only add to the films own self-amusement. The people who are irritated by the film, the ones who find it obnoxious or elitist are the very ones the point they're missing is about. But they are also the perfect audience and to think they'd for once be sharing the cinema with its true crowd is a delight. It's rare that a film will have the audacity to invite audiences in and then insult them to their face. It's a work of genuis.

But as briefly mentioned earlier, the film also presents a cynical counterbalance for its characters way of life. Enid is so disaffected, so lonely and angry at the world that she ultimately becomes the films biggest loser. Rebecca has a firmer grasp of life and and knows the importance of getting a job and renting an apartment. In a key scene the friends go shopping together - Rebecca is thrilled by blue plastic cups whereas Enid can't even attempt to contain her impassivity. They may both be members of the 'lost youth' but there is a distinct difference between them, and depending on whether you're a hipster or a sheep, you'll cheer one or the other. As a study of friendship its perfect - another key scene sees them at their graduation party when 'it girl' Melora (Debra Azar) assaults them with the threat of meeting up over summer. Enid dryly retorts "yeah, that'll definitely happen." Melora spots more friends in the background and before she leaves, gestures excitedly with her hands in the most whimsically girly way possible. Enid and Rebecca turn to each other and in perfect sync mimic said gesture. They're wholly in tune with each other and the scenes at the party perfectly encapsulate their perfect bond. Even if you fail to be charmed by them their antics are unique in modern cinema - they're not interested in sports, drinking beer and going to parties - they find solace in the weirdos of newspaper ads, 50s diners and sex shops. They're the saviors of their own world, where life's little surprises aren't enough - and the awfulness of modern culture is the axis on which they turn.

Of course Ghost World has a larger ambition and despite its cynicism and criticism it has a strong heart. As a biting dissection of consumer culture, art, interpretation and society it's totally cutthroat - after visiting Seymour for the first time (at a garage sale where Enid buys a blues record) they comment on how sad he looked. Rebecca matter-of-factly declares "yeah, he should totally just kill himself." To these girls words are a weapon and Enid has a particularly bright vocabulary. She's like D-Fens (Michael Douglas' crusading businessman in Falling Down, Joel Schumacher, 1993) for the counterculture crowd. She's the arthouse avenger of societies ills and instead of grabbing a gun she wields her tongue. But despite this, the beating heart is what leaves a lasting impression. The hipster angle entertains and the friendship keeps you hooked but the subtle love story that begins in the middle third of the film will be what keeps you coming back for more.

Enid and Seymour begin a completely fractured relationship - she can't stand a world where this guy, an avid collector and music fanatic, can't get a date and he begins to hang on her companionship. She sees his world as her world and together they bond over blues music and their hopelessness in society. Seymour also seems to have a resentment for that society, angrily shouting at a woman and her kids crossing a road too slowly and correcting a potential interest on her definition of 'blues'. Eventually Enid's prank comes round to backfire and Seymour enters a relationship with Dana (Stacey Travis), much to her disappointment. Deep down Seymour knows that relationship can't work and one night Enid visits him in tears and they sleep together. It's the moment you've been waiting for but like the rest of the film it's dealt with realistically without any Hollywood sentimentality. Enid knows it was a mistake but Seymour starts to obsess over her moving in with him. He ends his relationship with Dana as Enid further struggles with her identity. Her application to an art school is rejected after a racial controversy and she decides that she has to sort herself out. One night she sees an old bus coming for Norman (Charles C. Stevenson Jr.), the old man "she can always rely on." The next night, in the final scene, she packs her bags and rides the bus out of town. The final shot sadly lingers on the bus riding away. The future is uncertain for Enid but some fans read a suicide metaphor into the way this climax is presented - it's certainly not hard to imagine and the comic book, which ends on a similar note, gives even more subtle nods to the idea. We can only imagine Seymour's sadness if this is the case, but we hope the lonely soul can find happiness again. Either way, when Seymour calls her tomorrow she won't be there. And in this world, each other might be all they have. It's an ending totally open to interpretation, but it always sinks the heart. A beautiful forgotten masterpiece...seek it out, or be a sheep.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Sex In Hollywood

The age-old 'Battle Of The Sexes' has always been present in Hollywood. Of course it's been the source of many romantic-comedies, including His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940) and The Battle Of The Sexes (Charles Crichton, 1959), but it's just as real behind the scenes. There has always been a slightly unfair male dominance in Hollywood, some would say a sexism, but over recent years a lot has been done to rectify things. You'll still hear the same old thing at the OSCARS, when one of the five women nominated will declare "I'm so lucky to have this opportunity. There just aren't enough good roles for women." It almost seems to have become a cliche. Now granted, they have a bit of a point. This year sees a male-lead summer season with Clash Of The Titans (Louis Leterrier), Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau), Prince Of Persia (Mike Newell) and The A-Team (Joe Carnahan) all being guaranteed hits. Sure we have Salt (Phillip Noyce) starring Angelina Jolie, but even that was re-written for her when Tom Cruise backed away from the originally male role. And this isn't even mentioning the holy union of action stars Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Bruce Willis in The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone). But of course, summer fun is exactly what these films are and if we look to the acting stakes 2009 was a pretty solid year for women in Hollywood. Even outside of the OSCAR nominations there were several great female performances in solid female roles - Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger in Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino), Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist (Lars von Trier), Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb), Alison Lohman in Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi) and Abbie Cornish in Bright Star (Jane Campion). These were all critically acclaimed, brilliantly written roles, performed note-perfect. The reason they weren't bigger hits or didn't gain nominations? Because most of these women aren't billboard names and the Academy doesn't favor horror or rom-coms. They like films that are 'important' (probably the reason why men like Sam Rockwell, Jackie Earle Haley, Sharlto Copley and Zachary Quinto lost out at this years OSCARS). They like films about hope, courage and the will to persevere. Films that pander to an audiences tear gland and deliver a message. Films like The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock).
So it came as a surprise when I heard a remark by Sigourney Weaver last weekend. While in Brazil promoting Avatar, one of the leading ladies of the screen, and an established action star, declared that James Cameron didn't win Best Director because he "didn't have breasts." Now of course Weaver would defend Avatar - she was out there promoting it after all. And James Cameron is an old friend who directed her to an OSCAR nom for Aliens in 1987. Weaver is also an environmentalist and Avatar has a very strong 'save-the-planet' message at its core. But for a leading lady so iconic to put that kind of a slant on the glory of The Hurt Locker and Kathryn Bigelow? I could hardly believe what I was reading. Have the politics of the Academy become so important that they overshadow the artistic merit of the films themselves? Indeed last year most people thought that Mickey Rourke had the Best Actor OSCAR in the bag, but Sean Penn was awarded for his role as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official. Since then pessimists have said that the Academy awarded Penn as a reaction to Proposition 8, an amendment passed in November 2008 which stated that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California". Although unlikely, it's not impossible to imagine that the Academy would award Penn to show their support of homosexuality and its rightful place in America. And now that Kathryn Bigelow has become the first woman to win Best Director, for a film about the Iraq conflict, it seems that Academy politics could be in question again. This must be Weaver's point after all - it seems strange that she would want to attack Bigelow personally.
It's very rare though, that the shoe should fall on this foot and Hollywood come under fire for sexism against men. Could it really be the case? Did Bigelow win just to make the Academy look good? The answer, in my eyes, is no. The Academy can be accused of leaning one way or another due to political motivations, but there is still no real weight to this argument. Sean Penn is one of the greatest actors of his generation and he was superb as Harvey Milk. And we can't exactly attack Hollywood for standing up for gay rights, if political motivation was the case. Hollywood is still a business after all.
It was also, of course, about time the achievements of female directors were recognised, and there are few better than Bigelow in contemporary American cinema. Gender equality still has some way to go - the cinema industry is still seemingly male-lead in terms of actors and audiences. Superheroes are predominantly male, as are most cowboys, gangsters and cops. There are women who have made a mark with these kinds of characters but, sadly, there will also always be the 'glamour girl', designed to fit into the scenery rather than act. So, did Bigelow win because she has breasts? No. Only the greatest of pessimists could invent an argument to defend such an idea. She won because The Hurt Locker is a superbly crafted, taut, exciting war drama which places as much emphasis on exploring the realities of war and its soldiers as it does on thrills. It's powerful, political and almost unbearably tense. Avatar? Just wasn't that good really, was it?

Saturday, 10 April 2010

For Your Consideration...No.4


Kaij├╗ s├┤shingeki (Destroy All Monsters)

News Reader: "The major cities in the world are being destroyed, one-by-one by the monsters: Moscow by Rodan, Peking by Mothra, London by Manda, Paris by Baragon. And, here's a special news bulletin. Godzilla is now in New York. The city is being invaded by Godzilla."

The 1950s saw an influx of monster movies (or 'creature features') from various studios - The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (Eugene Lourie, 1953), Gojira (Godzilla, Ishiro Honda, 1954), Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954), It Came From Beneath The Sea (Robert Gordon, 1955), Tarantula (Jack Arnold, 1955), The Black Scorpion (Edward Ludwig, 1957) were all released during the time that America was fascinated with things from another world. Of course the 50s also saw a mass increase in sci-fi movies, notably The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951), The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953) and Teenagers From Outer Space (Tom Graeff, 1959). All of these movies stemmed from the public fascination with Roswell and the supposed discovery of spaceship debris and alien corpses in 1947. The studios latched onto this fascination and aliens and monsters ruled the decade (and were later homaged together in Dreamwork's Monsters vs Aliens, Rob Letterman, Conrad Vernon, 2009). Most of these movies had a political/social message at the core - a commentary on science, war or greed among other things. They provided entertainment and also interesting parallels with the state of the world.

Destroy All Monsters provides no such parallels. Directed by Ishiro Honda in 1968, it's the ultimate monster mash-up (as the title would suggest). It's unashamedly pure nonsense, and terrible nonsense at that. So why write an article about it? Because it's a massively entertaining, once-in-a-lifetime forgotten gem of awfulness and in an age where Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) is in the cinemas, this needs to be on DVD. To be honest, if you weren't excited when you saw the poster above, it probably isn't for you. But if you were, get onto Amazon right now and order your Region 1 DVD of this laughably bad marvel. When the DVD arrives you'll be greeted by some rubbish animated artwork (which makes it look like a bad Saturday morning cartoon) but turn over to the back to be greeted by the statement 'The Greatest All Star Monster Battle Ever Filmed!' and a list of the monsters featured. Pop it into the player and we can get onto the 'plot'...


Of course, there isn't much of one. Mankind has collected all of the monsters and placed them under surveillance in Monster Land. Soon something goes wrong and the monsters start wreaking havoc all around the Earth (exactly how they get to these locations, and so quickly, is never established) and scientists on Earth and the Moon start searching for an answer. They soon discover an Alien race of women are controlling the monsters (and also own a series of UFO's, which are really neon-lit toys). A mission begins to resolve the crisis (i'm still not sure exactly how this happens) and soon the monsters are assembled against the Alien Monster King Ghidorah (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/1d/King_Ghidorah_91.jpg). And a truly glorious battle begins.

But lets start at the beginning. The movie was shot in Japanese and this DVD features the most awful English dub I have ever heard. There has obviously been no effort made by the actors in the recording booths as the performances are so wooden and staggered. Everyone sounds so bored. This isn't to say that the Japanese actors are any better though - the physicality of the performances are terrible, the facial expressions worse. Upon being shot one scientist actually looks halfway between constipation and dismay. But not even De Niro could make this script shine. Every character states what is going on, gives an order and then the men receiving orders declare "right!" That's the structure. What's really woefully hilarious is how seriously the whole thing is taken and how it's just second nature for the monsters to be there. A news reporter calmly reports "Rodan is here" in the same voice he would use to order lunch or address someone. Everyone is so laughably matter-of-fact about a monster showdown - and then you actually get to see the monsters!

The friendliest Godzilla to ever grace the screen is the first monster we see. It's actually actor Haruo Nakajima in a rubber suit who interprets the role as being like a stroppy child or a reptilian Mr Blobby. The eyes are what's really bad - in a constantly fixed state, they could have just been drawn on. They make Godzilla seem somehow mentally challenged, taking away any fear we could have had. The best monster is actually Kumonga, a genuinely well made giant spider, who is given precious little to do. The first monster to arrive at the showdown is Minilla, the son of Godzilla, who actually looks more like a mole rat (http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_VOXrc4aRIM8/SET0tOpKpVI/AAAAAAAAANs/2Bymk5a2ZLg/s400/minilla1.JPG). It flaps around the battlefield like a cheerleader as the monsters bite, scratch and smash the hell out of King Ghidorah. It's by far the best part of a totally bonkers film, and really deserves to be seen.

It doesn't matter that every single city is so clearly a model construction. It doesn't matter that the rocket ships move in the most totally unconvincing way, or that the laser animation is terrible. It doesn't even matter that you could watch the whole film on mute and not miss a thing. Because it's just such a good idea and the finale is so well executed. In fact, the whole film is so amazingly poor, there's very little left for me to say. If you enjoy bad movies, or monster movies, or movies that simply defy explanation, there'll be a lot to love here. So track it down, but before you do so, watch the brilliantly awful trailer. God bless Japan...

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Art Of The Critic

So, an old argument has come back into play during the last week, in the wake of Kevin Smith's Twitter reaction to a comment by one of his fans. Smith (who became famous for Clerks (1994) and then went on to make a series of similar and divisive 'comedies') basically presented the opinion that critics are pointless and the idea of allowing them to see, for free, an advance screening of a filmmakers latest is a bad idea. To allow these snooty, grudge-holding pessimists to hold such power over a movie is ridiculous, and it would be a better idea for him to pick 500 random people from his Twitter feed and allow them to review the film. He states, and this is a quote, that "film fandom's become a nasty bloodsport where cartoonishly rooting for failure gets the hit count up on the ol' brand-new blog", which is rich coming from a filmmaker who has not only openly criticized other movies, but also developed a massive fan-base and following from his own blog, Smodcast (pictured above). All these points will be dealt with soon, but for now, another quote: (in reference to Cop Out) "watching them beat the shit out of it was sad. Like, it's called Cop Out; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna shit in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called "Schindler's Cop Out?" Writing a nasty review for Cop Out is akin to bullying a retarded kid." It goes on for a few more paragraphs, but we now have to reassess the facts. Kevin Smith, a hypocrite, has proclaimed that his movie has no substance (comparing it to "a retarded kid"), he's bashed the critics who didn't give it a good review, and now expects us to be on his side? Well, we're not, and in my opinion, in such a vast cinematic world we need critics now more than ever.
Firstly, lets get Smith out of the way. In 2006 he guest-appeared on famous American review show 'At The Movies', reviewing Woody Allen's Scoop. This point has been covered by Alison Willmore and Matt Singer of IFC.com, but I feel I have to relay Smith's review. He says that "there's not a single laugh in the movie", a criticism that has now been thrown at Cop Out. I mean, what gave Smith the right in 2006? What sort of right does he have over the professional critics he is now bashing? Smith stated on Twitter that if you paid to see Cop Out, you have a right to bash it. This seems to be one of his big issues with critics, but i'd be interested to know if he paid for his ticket to Scoop and also where he stands on his criticisms now. Smith also put reviews to Half Nelson, World Trade Center and Step Up, giving a 'Thumbs Up' to all three, stating that Half Nelson is one of the ten best films he's seen all decade. I think he'd have had the same opinions whether he paid or not, and it's the same for the critics who see his work.
UK critic Mark Kermode posted a blog about Smith's comments (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/markkermode/2010/03/who_needs_critics_anyway.html#comments) and stated a great reason for why we need critics, which is: critics point you in the direction of smaller, more artistic, challenging or underseen films, that you might not have found on your own. In 2006 Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck) was one of those films, an independent drama about a school teacher with a crack habit. Smith helped promote that film in a positive way, as a critic, much like critics back in 1994 helped his debut with positive reviews. But now that a negative review has landed on his doorstep, critics are the antichrist, who have their guns out for him. A little two-sided, eh Kevin?
This is best summed up by a story on the A.V. club, once again brought to my attention by Alison Willmore and Matt Singer of IFC.com. The title of the piece was 'That Kevin Smith Thing' and it told a story about critic Keith Phipps (http://www.avclub.com/articles/that-kevin-smith-thing,39529/). Phipps was meant to conduct a one-on-one interview with Smith about Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) but the interview was soon changed to a Roundtable event, something which does not fit with the style of the A.V. club. So Phipps declined the event and at a later date a different critic gave a negative review to the film. Smith then felt the need to explain this review, commenting on his site that the critic was simply annoyed about not getting his interview. Obviously, given that they are two different people, it shows how sensitive and over-protective of his work Smith is, and also reveals that he simply can't take criticism.
I should also say that Kevin Smith probably thinks his movies are better than Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999), the film I believe to be the greatest ever made (http://filer.case.edu/~bcl3/). And that's just crazy, considering he knows and admits that he's making pap. He's unfortunately established himself as nothing more than an accomplished hack, who also happens to be a hypocrite, and a boring one at that (take a look for yourself : http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/reader/184856497X/ref=sib_dp_pt#reader-page ), so i'm pretty much done with his movies, until the critics give me reason to believe he's doing anything new or interesting again. If you still want to know more, you can read his entire rant here: http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/dailyloaf/2010/04/01/kevin-smith-goes-after-critics-on-twitter-after-cop-out-gets-savaged/. But it's now time to ask the question: why do we need critics?
Well, as Mark Kermode said, we need them to point out the smaller movies, the independent ones that maybe contain something more challenging or artistic. In a blog a few weeks ago Mr Kermode pointed me towards Andrzej Zulawski's Possession (a.k.a The Night The Screaming Stops, 1981). And it's brilliant. A truly terrifying, insane piece of work that's challenging and entertaining, and deserves to be remembered. Without the knowledge of a critic like Mark Kermode, or indeed Roger Ebert (who used to present 'At The Movies' with Gene Siskel) I may not have found this movie, or several others like it. And of course, they do have knowledge. These are people who know the history and the theory of film, watching blockbusters and independents in equal measure, from every decade and country. They have an informed understanding, that can help us form our opinions. They are vital to the film community as they provide us not just with information, but with films themselves, that may have passed under our radar. It's something I hope I am doing myself, on this blog. Sure, i'm no professional, I don't know as much as Kermode, Ebert or perhaps even Smith. But I know critics are vital, I respect what they do and if nothing else, I know that through my 'For Your Consideration' articles, my knowledge, as it stands, might have provided enjoyment for somebody. And they may have learnt something. So i'll keep writing, informing and entertaining, just like those other great critics and the next time you, Kevin Smith, make a grand piece of independent art, or indeed, something funny, you may not be so resentful to my hopeful profession. In fact, you might just eat your words, and start loving us again, like you no doubt did when Clerks made 100 times its original budget back in 1994.

Monday, 5 April 2010

For Your Consideration... Freaks

All the world's a stage... the cast of Tod Browning's infamous Freaks (1932)...

Freaks: "We accept you, one of us. Gooble, Gobble."

In 1931 Tod Browning birthed one of cinema's ultimate monsters in Universal's Dracula, kick-starting a production line of horror at the famous studio, which also gave us Frankenstein (Whale, 1931) and The Mummy (Freund, 1932). Pictures of deformity and terror were shipped out on a conveyer belt which eventually ceased to be - there was a dip in production between 1936 - 39 due to financial difficulties - and in the 1940's creativity was at an all-time low. Vs pictures such as Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (Neill, 1943) were the death knell, and during the depression of WWII audiences needed their escapism to be more romantic, resulting in pictures like The Wizard Of Oz (Fleming, 1939).

Before meeting D.W. Griffith, Browning had worked as a circus contortionist, reportedly performing in an act called The Living Corpse. After meeting one of cinema's earliest pioneers he decided to enter the moving picture industry, endeavoring to deliver true horror to the broadening audience. He succeeded, with an early patron proclaiming "to put such creatures in a picture and before the public is unthinkable." The consensus would have agreed. The film - produced by MGM - was intended to capitalize on Universal's then-thriving production line, and the project was brought to Browning by a midget actor named Harry Earles, who'd worked with the director on a 1925 picture called The Unholy Three (also starring Lon Chaney). The film is based on 'Spurs', a short story by Tod Robbins (who also authored The Unholy Three), which was first envisioned as a star vehicle for Chaney. Unfortunately the actor died of pneumonia before production could begin, and by this time Browning had sought work elsewhere and completed Dracula for Universal.

After his successes at that studio MGM wanted to offer him a big picture where he could have full creative control. The project he was offered was Arsene Lupin, a detective story based on the novels by French writer Maurice Leblanc. Browning was still passionate about Freaks, however, and returned to the horror project immediately. Casting calls went out, hundreds of 'freaks' auditioned, and eventually the bigger roles were cast with Olga Baclanova, Leila Hyams, Wallace Ford, Henry Victor and Roscoe Ates.

San Diego, 1932. The film premiers to public fury. Most reports from the time are so outrageous that they're more likely to be rumor, including one which finds The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald witnessing a scene with the Siamese twins and running to the bathroom to vomit. Everything from people running screaming from the theatre to a woman having a miscarriage have become part of the Freaks legend, but it was negative reviews and poor box office which really damned the picture, as in the 1930's films were turned around at such a furious rate that if they didn't make money the director would struggle to find work again. This was the case with Browning who, as well as struggling with the transition into talkies, failed to bring himself back up from the failure. He directed a few more features until 1939, eventually retiring in 1942 to a reclusive life, and dying of throat cancer on October 6th, 1962.

Back to 1932 and Freaks has been withdrawn from cinemas, in some countries being outlawed altogether. The UK banned the film for 30 years, only revived in the 1960's to a more liberated counterculture crowd. Its ride there was more than a little rough, however, stopping off at grindhouses where it was advertised as a sleazy horror under the title Nature's Mistakes. The film, described by midget actor Mark Povinelli as "a soap opera set in a sideshow", was sold as an exploitation piece, the exact opposite of what it really is. Rediscovered in the 60's, it steadily grew in popularity, screening at midnight movie theaters in the US and having its UK ban lifted. Over time it has become something of a cult classic and one can easily imagine the film fitting in with the flux of experimental 60's and 70's films including Herostratus (Levy, 1967), El Topo (Jodorowsky, 1970), Performance (Cammell, Roeg, 1970) and The Devils (Russell, 1971). In 1994 the film was selected to enter the 'United States National Film Treasury', which preserves films that are deemed culturally or historically important.

The real beauty of the film is in the way it humanizes its stranger, physically deformed characters, and creates a real and believable sense of community. Everyone is looking out for each other - the 'freaks' are all friendly and treat each other as equals. Real-life siblings Harry and Daisy Earles portray Hans and Frieda, the main characters of the piece, engaged to be married. Hans falls for the 'normal' Cleopatra (Baclanova), who learns of his fortune and agrees to marry... with a plan to bump him off and inherit the money. The other freaks discover her plot and in the final scene sabotage her transport. The 'freaks' band together in order to save one of their own, while the 'normal' people are presented as narcissistic, greedy and selfish. To sum it up perfectly, a sample of dialogue cut from the opening scene: "their bodies may be twisted and deformed, but not their souls."


The most famous scene of the film (above) finds the freaks gathered around the wedding reception of Hans and Cleopatra. It's a joyous time for everyone except the bride, who is clearly unnerved and disgusted by her guests. This is where the community of the freaks is represented best, and also where Cleopatra's utter contempt for them is revealed. It's a shocking scene, perhaps all the more so now when we consider that audiences in the 1930's might have shared her attitudes and been on her side. But now we feel for the so-called freaks and are satisfied when they get their revenge. Ultimately it's a film of morals and Browning, in his acceptance of the freaks, was ahead of his time. So if there's one horror film you see from the 1930's, look beyond the Universal stable and savor this masterpiece. Gooble Gobble.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Levels Of Nicolas Cage


It's fair to say that Nicolas Cage has lost his way. World Trade Center, The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, Next, National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, G-Force...it doesn't read like the resume of an OSCAR winning actor, does it? Of course, most OSCAR winners make a blockbuster or high concept movie after their glory (Jamie Foxx - Stealth, Philip Seymour Hoffman - Mission Impossible 3, Forest Whittaker - Vantage Point, as three recent examples) but for Cage, he's been there, saved himself, and come back around. Younger audiences will be totally unaware of his talent, something the actor has in abundance. And now that he's on the verge of a revival, i've developed a theory for his talent. I call it 'The Levels Of Nicolas Cage'. There are three levels, and it goes something like this:
1.) Twitchy - This is where Cage acts with a sort of paranoia, constantly looking over his shoulder, with occasional ticks and involuntary movements. He'll fling his hands around, jerk his neck and slur his speech. This level itself has a few sub-levels, it can be played straight, or for comic effect.
2.) Dark - This is where Cage forces his twitchy elements inwards - he explores the soul of a character. He'll spend half of the movie looking down at the ground sternly, with a manic look in his eyes, slinking around with the posture of a hunchback, moaning and groaning, occasionally leaning on inanimate objects.
3.) Deranged - This is where Cage combines the first two elements to absurd effect. He'll shout, scream, leap around, fall over, fling his arms, experiment with accents - basically becoming a force of nature. This is the key Nicolas Cage performance.
His two revival films are Kick Ass, released in the UK this week, and Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (pictured above), released in the UK this May. The former film seems to be of the twitchy variety, while the latter finds him back on deranged form.
So as a celebration, I bring you a retrospective article highlighting six films from his back-catalogue that back up the theory. Of course, there will be spoilers. We'll start with 'Twitchy'.

Twitchy
1.) Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)

Adaptation tells the story of Charlie and Donald Kaufman, twin screenwriters (well, Donald becomes one during the film). Charlie has just come off the set of Being John Malkovich (yes, it's very complicated) and he's a mess - balding, puffy, socially inept - he sweats and twitches his way through a meeting that will determine his future and a narration from Cage reveals the levels on which he is over-analyzing the event. He's neurosis on legs - totally unaware of everything around him, stressed and suffering from massive anxiety. It seems that he's so focused on his own downfall, he'll no doubt bring it on himself. Donald is the other half of the performance, an upbeat, enjoyably twitchy over-achiever (who seems to do nothing), which reveals the comic side of this level. He annoys his brother by asking questions about everything and seems to exist in a simplistic world of his own where everything just...happens. It's some of Cage's best work, and the best of his twitchy performances. It helps that the film has an incredibly smart and witty screenplay from the real Charlie Kaufman (a true genuis of our time) and assured direction from Jonze. It's an essential film in the Cage canon, and an interesting companion piece (performance wise) to the second film on this level.
Charlie: "Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. Maybe if I were happier, my hair wouldn't be falling out. Life is short. I need to make the most of it. Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I'm a walking cliche. I really need to get to the doctor and have my leg checked..."

2.) Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott, 2003)

Matchstick Men sees Cage playing professional con-man Roy Waller, who learns that he has a daughter. Roy is one of the most phobic characters in cinema history - he obsessively cleans his house from top to bottom - carpets, glass doors, counters - every day he's not on a con, he pops pills on his sofa, surveying any possible problem from a distance. Even when he's out he suffers from every tick under the sun - he's a hypochondriac, agoraphobic and OCD, jerking himself from road to pavement. It's a miserable, hollow existence, and Cage plays it with relish. But Roy is also a smart, determined man who knows the ins and outs of his job.
Roy: "Look, Doc, I spent last Tuesday watching fibers on my carpet. And the whole time I was watching my carpet, I was worrying that I, I might vomit. And the whole time, I was thinking, "I'm a grown man. I should know what goes on in my head." And the more I thought about it...the more I realized I should just blow my brains out and end it all. But then I thought, well, if I thought more about blowing my brains out...I start worrying about what that was going to do to my goddamn carpet."

Dark
3.) Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995)

Cage won the 1996 Best Actor OSCAR for his portrayal of Ben, an alcoholic who travels to Vegas to end his life. There he meets hooker Sera (Elisabeth Shue, never better) and they begin on a destructive love affair. Ben is easily the most tragic character Cage has ever played, a desperate, alcohol soaked loser, facing the end of the world. He's self destructive in a way that makes him hard to watch, but also deeply sympathetic. It's hard to like Ben, but it's even harder to feel nothing and not want to know why he is where he is. Cage does have some external ticks in this performance but it's mostly very internal, a soul baring display of humanity that ultimately ends the very way we fear it will. The one condition of his relationship with Sera is that she has to accept him the way he is - stumbling through busy streets, picking fights and falling through glass tables. But after she asks him to get help, he falls deeper into the pit of despair, and his fate is decided one night, in a dingy hotel room. Cage humanizes Ben in a way that only he could, and is worth every bit of that OSCAR.
Ben: "I'll tell you, right now...I'm in love with you. But, be that as it may, I am not here to force my twisted soul into your life."

4.) Bringing Out The Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)

This underrated Scorsese film sees Cage playing a paramedic named Frank Pierce, called out every night to save a life, when he can't even save his own. He and his partners drive the streets of the aptly named Hell's Kitchen and come across the drug dealers, pimps and dark souls of the night. Exploring the underbelly and outsiders once again, Scorsese channels a deeply internal struggle in Cage as Frank is haunted by the ghosts of people he failed to save. The supernatural presence is always with him - it's in the way he lumbers around, the way he talks to his coworkers. Frank is disconnect from the world and the people around him, so deep into the hole of human existence, that sometimes it's possible to think we're really in Hell. He connects with a woman named Mary (Patricia Arquette) who offers him the chance of a new beginning (and ties into Scorsese's themes of religion), but Frank is an indecisive soul. Ultimately, he needs redemption, but he's an insomniac, a burnt out creature of the night and on the graveyard shift he's the only one who really suffers. In a key scene, Frank tries to save a drug dealer impaled on a spike. It's an excruciating scene - graphically bloody, vertigo inducing and bleak. But the hardest thing to watch is Frank, staring down with bloodshot eyes, desperately trying to reassure the dealer that he's going to live - when Frank himself might not even make it through the night.
Frank: "I'm sick, Tom. I need a cure. Vitamin B cocktail, followed by an amp of glucose and a drop of adrenaline. Not as good as beer, but it's all I got."

Deranged
5.) Wild At Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

David Lynch's hyper-violent, psycho-sexual fairytale - a whirlwind mix of The Wizard Of Oz and The Twilight Zone, sees Cage as Elvis lookalike Sailor Ripley, deeply in love with Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). Being a Lynch film, explaining the plot seems rather redundant, but over the course of the movie things go from bad to worse for the couple, and Cage amps up the madness. As seen in the scene above, Sailor has a temper and will do anything to keep the love of his life safe. In a key scene Sailor and Lula are dancing in a heavy metal club, when a guy starts rubbing himself against Lula. Sailor stops the band and asks the guy, politely, to apologise. When he won't, Sailor beats the hell out of him. He's crazy, that's for sure, but he's also a romantic, tender soul. In order to help support Lula after she discovers she's pregnant, Sailor agrees to rob a bank with Bobby Peru (a disgustingly slimy Willem Dafoe). It all goes wrong and he does time, but 10 years later the eccentric Sailor rushes through a traffic jam to be reunited with his lover. It may be one of Cage's most out-there performances, relying on thick accents (or rather, impressions), head twitches, high kicks and sparkly suits - all the while orchestrated by heavy metal - but it's also one of his most real. Head-bangin' good.
Sailor: "This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality, and my belief...in personal freedom."

6.) Vampire's Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1988)

So, we've saved the best until last. Sadly underseen and massively underrated, Vampire's Kiss features the essential off the rails, lost-his-mind, batshit crazy Nicolas Cage performance. He plays Peter Loew, a publishing executive, who, after being bitten by a vampire, becomes crazier and more erratic to the people around him. Of course, this being a horror movie(ish) it's also a sharp satire on the cut-throat world of business, and several readings into the film have Loew as a schizophrenic or a rabies victim . Cage's performance displays wonderful use of accents - his work here falls halfway between Ted Logan and Truman Capote - his hairstyle, when fully unleashed, is like Bob Mortimer's 'Croc Botherer'. He angrily recites the alphabet, devours a pigeon, flounders around corridors and nightclubs wide eyed and with false teeth, and in a final moment of phallic imagery holds a stake up to his crotch and demands "leave me the fuck alone!" to thin air. It's a pitch black comedy about a man so alone and on the edge - when you're not laughing at Cage's hysterical overacting, you're feeling for him. Full of ticks, extravagant neck jerks and hand movements, Loew is a desperate soul who, rather than really becoming a vampire, lets his loneliness and emptiness manifest into a monster. It's a truly essential watch, and one you'll likely never forget.
Peter Loew: "Am I getting through to you, Alva?"

But of course, this list is forgetting the action-based madness of Face/Off (John Woo, 1997) or his brilliant turn in the Coen's Raising Arizona (1987). It's also totally ignoring his lesser 90s work including Guarding Tess (Hugh Wilson, 1994), City Of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998) or The Rock (Michael Bay, 1996) - although that final entry does have him playing a character named Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, surely a plus to any movie. But all these movies, and his early 00s work like Gone In Sixty Seconds (Dominic Sena, 2000) and The Family Man (Brett Ratner, 2000) apply to the level theory. The work that really confirms the rule? His career in Japanese adverts. Didn't know he had one? Take a look below and then jump onto YouTube. Nicolas Cage Sankyo...it's all you need...