Monday, 28 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Four

21/01/2013 - 27/01/2013

Celia [Ann Turner, 1989]:  With the significance of its white rabbit, precocious child protagonist and world of imagined fantasy as possible evidence of potential mental illness, the film is suggestive of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  Not so much in its storytelling approach - which is much more simple and yet somehow more complex than Carroll (as the "wonderland" of Turner's film is based very much in the actual reality of the period, making the character's movement between worlds purely psychological) - but in the tone of the film; that spirit of childhood adventure as metaphor for discovery, full of horror and imagination.  It reminded me very much of a film like The Curse of the Cat People (1944), where an evocation of a seemingly idyllic childhood is off-set by the loneliness and alienation of its central character, and where the subtle references to the horror genre are used to disguise what is effectively a sad and depressing story of a child's inability to connect with the world.  The punctuation of loss and the often disquieting tone, especially in the film's second half, are not necessarily intended to scare or disturb the audience (as in a conventional horror movie), but illustrate the impact that the world (with its prejudice and hostility) can have on a character with an over-active imagination, already left somewhat disconnected (or disenchanted) by the death of her grandmother in the very first scene.  In some respects, it's impossible not to be reminded of one of my favourite films, Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy (1997), with both of these stories sharing a similar emphasis on childhood alienation, the turbulence of the late 1950s (or early '60s for Jordan) and the intrusion of disturbing fantasy sequences that illustrate the tenuous grip on reality held by these young protagonists as their lives are slowly beset by heartache and despair.  While Jordan's film is unequivocally one of the great Irish films, Turner's captivating and emotionally complex debut must surely rank as one of the great Australian films, finding a perfect balance between sensitive character study, childhood adventure story, horror movie and social parable, where the history of the country, in particular the anti-communist sentiment of the time and the outbreak of Myxomatosis - which leads to one of the film's most heartbreaking sub-plots - both prove to be disastrous to the emotional development of this loveless little girl. 

Cars [John Lasseter & Joe Ranft, 2006]:  I suspect one of the main reasons why this film was treated with some suspicion on its initial release is not because it takes place in a world entirely populated by cars with human characteristics, but because it exposes many of the more glaring imperfections that exist at the core of even Pixar's most celebrated works.  The almost oppressive yearning for the innocence of yesteryear seems especially hollow when we take into consideration the company's continued use of new technologies.  After all, it was the peerless computer generated animation of Pixar's first success, the still hugely popular Toy Story (1995), that arguably killed off any interest contemporary audiences might have had in traditional, hand-drawn animation.  In Lasseter's world (or his ideal of it), the technology used to create these films would be seen as a distraction from the simple pleasures that make life, to him, worth living.  In Cars, the message - to slow-down and appreciate what we have while we have it; to reclaim that innocence of a bygone age when people lived for the joy of living and took pleasure, not from machines or materialistic pursuits, but from social interaction - is nullified by the existence of the film, which is itself a kind of distraction (unless we assume Lasseter is trying to have his cake and eat it too?)  Other problems, like the film's cheap stereotypes and the all-to-neat 'building block' approach to storytelling are self-evident, while the endless self-references and the cutesy in-jokes to previous Pixar projects only gives the film a feeling of over-familiarity.  Still, Cars is entertaining, for what it is, but a lot of the film feels self-consciously manufactured, almost as if the entire thing has been created to fit into a particular idea of what a Pixar movie should be.

Cars 2 [John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011]:  Call me absurd, but not only do I consider Cars 2 superior to its less maligned (but still somewhat maligned) predecessor, I also think it's a far more imaginative and ultimately more satisfying film than Pixar's previous hit, the almost universally acclaimed Toy Story 3 (2010).  Personally, I liked the idea of framing the return of these characters as a throwback to old spy movies, with the race used simply to provide a context for its espionage-themed plot.  The filmmakers have  dropped the preachy message of the first film and embraced a full-on action/adventure story that reminded me of the best aspects of Pixar's earlier hit, The Incredibles (2004).  Like that particular film, Cars 2 is enlivened by its allusions to other movies of the same genre and a lot of the fun comes from spotting the occasional references to things like James Bond, Harry Palmer, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible.  There are still several flaws consistent with the first film, with the appalling use of "ethnic" stereotypes unsurprisingly exacerbated by the globetrotting nature of the plot, which also isn't helped by the film's continual emphasis on the character of 'Mater' the tow-truck, probably the most grating caricature from the original film.  In the first Cars (2006), 'Mater' was presented as the worst kind of stereotypical "bumpkin" and his flaws and failings were used to derive easy laughs from an audience almost encouraged to see his simple-minded homespun "philosophising"  as typical of the innocence of people who live in smaller, isolated communities, that move too slowly for the modern world.  There's a lot of this same patronising attitude presented here, but interestingly the filmmakers also turn the joke against the characters (and in turn against the audience) by having 'Mater' eventually become conscious of these particular criticisms of his character and express an obvious sadness and disappointment at having been reduced to the butt of the joke.  This kind of complexity isn't rare for Pixar, but it is an idea that works against the breathless action and adventure of the main plot, turning the film into something more than just an entertaining spy-movie pastiche, but something almost self-aware. 
By Bogdanovich [Adam Hulin, 2011]:  As a career retrospective, Adam Hulin's By Bogdanovich is almost as essential as its subject's own 1971 study of the work of John Ford.  Bogdanovich, as interviewee, is simply a great raconteur, full of stories and insights into Hollywood and the business of making films.  As a subject, he's candid, reflective, not afraid to namedrop and just about loquacious enough to hold the interest of the viewer for the entirety of this feature-length work.  He is also refreshingly self-deprecating, acknowledging his failings on a personal as well as professional level, and generally shedding some light onto his process as a filmmaker, his influences and the often tragic circumstances that have defined the course of his career.  For someone of my age, born in the 1980s, it's perhaps difficult to remember a time when Bogdanovich was one of the leaders of a generation of filmmakers that came to prominence during the 1970s.  While the names of his contemporaries, such as Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas and Scorsese have endured, Bogdanovich seems to have been forgotten by the culture that once accepted him as a legitimate talent, despite the remarkable back-to-back successes of films like The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).  I suppose, to put it into a modern-day perspective, we might think of someone like M. Night Shyamalan (though both filmmakers would reject the comparison); a director initially celebrated for a particular kind of film, only to be denigrated for the same kind of film only a few years later.  Watching this two-hour-plus interview conducted by Hulin, I found myself growing ever more sympathetic towards Bogdanovich, who seems to have been a victim of his early success and the subsequent weight of critical expectation.  The reflections here have definitely led me to re-evaluate the classics, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, while also inspiring me to track down some of Bogdanovich's other, less popular films, such as Daisy Miller (1974), Nickelodeon (1976), Saint Jack (1979) and They All Laughed (1981).

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Three

14/01/2013 - 20/01/2013

Phenomena [Dario Argento, 1985]:  The opening sequence is still one of the strongest and most unnerving moments from any of Argento's films.  The sense of terror and isolation, as this young girl finds herself stranded in the heart of the Swiss countryside, is heightened by the ominous tone of the music, the constant winds that throughout the film suggest the air of hysteria (or emotional unbalance) that propels these characters towards madness (or worse), and the natural contrast between the setting, this stunning and serene backdrop of verdant hills and silhouetted peaks, and the anticipation of the violence still to come.  The presentation of the scene is like something out of a fairy tale, where the emphasis on these young characters - trapped in a state of trance between childhood and adolescence - find themselves lost within a world that at first seems strange and beautiful, but through the actual process of its character's investigation, soon reveals a darker, more dangerous edge.  The otherworldly feel continues throughout the film, becoming increasingly more abstract, as the plot - which owes as much to Sleeping Beauty (1959) as it does to Suspiria (1977) - warps and mutates to the point of straining credibility, as the young protagonist Jennifer Corvino uses her ability to commune with insects in an attempt to find the vicious killer terrorising her school.  Many will no doubt find this aspect of Argento's film ridiculous, but for me I've always seen it as something very haunting and evocative.  A pure exercise in atmosphere and mood, where the author, rejecting logic and convention, creates something that is more like an extended nightmare or a never-ending dream. 

The Early Bird [Robert Asher, 1965]:  I'm not an expert here (obviously!), but The Early Bird seems to have had a much larger budget than any of the other Norman Wisdom films I've seen, with a lot of optical effects, miniatures, matte-paintings and elaborate sets used to give the illusion of a fully functioning world.  Unfortunately, the emphasis on grand spectacle comes at the expense of the characters and their story, with this charming and still very relevant tale of two rival dairies (one, a large conglomerate, the other a family run business) being pushed to the background while we're instead treated to endless scenes of the bumbling Norman demolishing an entire manor house with a runaway lawnmower, wrecking a golf match while masquerading as an elderly vicar, and eventually flooding a poor woman's sitting-room with a gallon of spilled milk (before having to watch as his runaway cart is crushed under the weight of a speeding train).  The quality of these set-pieces is actually rather good considering the age of the film, but there is no heart to this story, which for me, lacks both the quiet whimsy and the subtle sadness of something like Trouble in Store (1953) or the brilliant One Good Turn (1954), or even the madcap satire of the slyly subversive The Square Peg (1958).  It's certainly not a terrible film since many of the jokes are actually quite funny, but compared to these other, earlier Wisdom classics, The Early Bird just never achieves its full potential.

Revolver [Guy Ritchie, 2005]:  I would find it virtually impossible to say with any great conviction what this film is "about."  I've seen it twice now and I have my theories, but the film is beyond interpretation, playing a kind of arcane game of deception with its audience that mirrors the relationship between the characters on-screen.  Just when we think we've figured out a possible explanation as to what is taking place, or why these particular characters are being played-off against one another - like living chess pieces - a character will suddenly appear to acknowledge and dismiss this interpretation, leading to more questions without answers and a feeling of external manipulation, as if all these events and characters are somehow guided by an invincible, omnipotent force.  From this, we could maybe see the film as a sort of meta-commentary, in which the author explores the war between the 'id', the 'ego' and the 'super-ego' by way of a generic crime story that eventually distorts into a complicated psychological study about failure and insecurity.  In this sense, the plot could be an acknowledgement of the director's painful disappointment following the failure of his previous film, Swept Away (2002), or maybe even a gesture to his own fear of being typecast as a director only suited to gangster movies of the Lock, Stock... (1998) and Snatch (2000) variety.  Personally, I find the film quite fascinating, as much for its creative visual approach as for the labyrinthine plot.  The dazzling grab-bag of slow-motion sequences, fluorescent light, saturated colour, jump cuts, subtitles, animation and over-lapping voiceover might be perceived by many as post-Tarantino affectations (or just flashy showboating), but to me this approach feels intensely cinematic.  At a time when I'm bombarded with the promos for dreary Oscar-bait movies, à la Affleck, Hooper, Bigelow, etc, it's encouraging to see a director using the 'form' to create content, as opposed to just serving it. 

Batman & Robin [Joel Schumacher, 1997]:  Don't get me wrong, I didn't necessarily like it, but I do think a lot of the negativity surrounding this film is a kneejerk reaction to the context of the thing.  For one, Batman & Robin is not an adaptation of the Batman character, his mythos or his ideology - in the sense of being truthful (if not "reverent") to the source - but more a pastiche of it.  To borrow a British phrase, you could almost call it a "piss-take"; a film that underlines the inherent absurdity of the Batman character and exaggerates it to a near-outlandish degree.  While the recent Batman films have attempted to approach the concept from a more realistic or at least semi-plausible perspective, they still can't change the fact that it's a franchise built around the idea of a billionaire playboy fighting crime in a rubber costume.  Schumacher's film not only understands that Batman, as an idea, is total nonsense, it celebrates the theatricality of it; turning the adventure into farce and the action into camp.  Many have taken this aspect of the film's approach to be an example of the director's blatant homosexuality getting in the way of the Batman character, but I'm not so sure.  Yes, there are nipples on the costumes and occasional close-ups of his hero's rubber-clad crotch, but even with screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's often quite smutty double entendres and the kaleidoscope of vivid, flowery colours, the tone of the film is more or less in keeping with the harmless kitsch of the 1960s T.V. show.  Like Mario Bava's delirious spy parody, Danger: Diabolik (1968), this seems to be the spirit the filmmakers were going for; creating something that could be, to Batman, what Austin Powers was to James Bond.  Yes, it's incredibly stupid, but I suspect that's kind of the point...

Nomads [John McTiernan, 1986]:  On paper, the film sounds exceedingly silly.  Something about the displaced spirits of an Inuit tribe that congregate on the sites of past tragedies.  Into this we have a story about the transferral of memories, from one character to the next.  Nothing is very clear and I could imagine a lot of potential viewers, when faced with the sheer insanity of the thing, either laughing at it, or rolling their eyes in disbelief at the inevitable direction McTiernan takes.  With its reckless ambition, "rock video" aesthetics and eclectic cast (a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan as a heavily-accented French anthropologist), the film almost invites ridicule.  That said, there's a germ of a great movie here, and McTiernan - debuting as both writer and director - instils it with such a complete and utter seriousness that the audience has no other option but to go along with it; embracing its bizarre twists and turns and effectively 'buying into' the delusions of its central protagonist (much like the supporting characters on screen).  Although the film is far from perfect, I still found it interesting, for its ideas.  A film about madness, or more specifically, the idea of madness as a kind of contagion.  The madness of the modern world, suggested by the almost documentary-like presentation of 1980s Los Angeles - with of its exiled subcultures, late night loneliness, darkened alleyways and neon-lit streets - which provides a stark and alarming contrast to the more bizarre excursions into genuine horror.  Here, McTiernan creates a style that falls somewhere between the gritty L.A. noir of James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) and the otherworldly suburban-surrealism of Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); an approach that finds its most startling expression in the scene in which Brosnan, having been pursued by these 'nomads' through the actuality of downtown L.A., takes shelter in an abandoned mission station, where his personal nightmare of death and transfiguration is fully exposed.

Predator [John McTiernan, 1987]:  Now that its blockbuster credentials have dated slightly, I suppose one could argue that the film has become the '80s equivalent of a great '50s B-movie; not quite Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) perhaps, but maybe The Thing from Another World (1951).  The comparison would be apt given the occasional references to director John McTiernan's approach as being somewhat 'Hawksian' in nature.  True enough, there's a great economy to the director's use of space that recalls a film like Red River (1948) or Rio Bravo (1959), with the same use of the frame to suggest the various on-going power struggles within the group.  However, what's more interesting (to me) is the way the filmmakers exploit the over-the-top machismo so prevalent in American action cinema of the 1980s by making it a film primarily about the physicality of its characters.  A film where these two-dimensional musclemen are pitted against the ultimate adversary - a creature, able to use their own surroundings against them - which forces them to throw away their weapons and artillery and revert to more old-fashioned methods of survival and self-preservation.  This is something of a running theme for McTiernan, beginning with his debut film - the aforementioned Nomads (1986) - and continuing through to the hugely successful Die Hard (1988) and the flawed but fascinating The 13th Warrior (1999).  In these films, the "modern man" (or "modern" to the world of the film) has to regress to a more primal or primitive state when faced with a particular threat.  For me, Predator - still one of the director's most popular and enduring films - might be the most clear and concise distillation of this theme, for obvious reasons.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week Two

07/01/2013 - 13/01/2013
Catch Us If You Can [John Boorman, 1965]:  Dismissed by most who've seen it as an imitator of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964), John Boorman's melancholic 'romp' with The Dave Clark Five is, for me, not just one of the director's finest films, but one of the most fascinating British films of the 1960s.  Although sold as a pop musical, Catch Us If You Can has no real musical numbers and nothing approaching an actual 'performance.'  In fact The DC5 aren't even portrayed as musicians at all, instead playing a fictional stunt team, employed by a shadowy (read: 'Orwellian') advertising conglomerate to appear in a large budget television commercial for meat.  During a break between set-ups, the eponymous Clark and his "It-girl" co-star Dinah decide to steal away in the production's E-Type Jag; heading down to Dorset in a vain attempt to escape the crushing realities of professional responsibility.  What follows could be described as a 'road movie', but a road movie punctuated by Boorman's typically surreal lyricism and the not always subtle satire of the script.  While Lester's film showcased the personality of his subject (The Beatles), Boorman's film makes no such concessions.  Instead, he spins a formless narrative full of car chases and fancy dress sequences, but underscored by an aching loneliness and an atmosphere of cold, wintery despair.  Throughout the film there's a feeling of intense sadness, where the spirit of youthful rebellion is already being sold as a pop commodity, and where the characters try to escape into a mythical landscape of rural, post-industrial decay.  The film, in its bold pop-art satire and its atmosphere of 'end of the world'-style devastation, ultimately owes more to the uncompromising cinema of Lindsay Anderson and Jerzy Skolimowski than it does to the more fashionable mod-styling of Lester and The Beatles. 

Man With a Movie Camera [Dziga Vertov, 1929]:  I finally got around to seeing the version with the Michael Nyman soundtrack.  A real joy, since I love Nyman's work, perhaps more so than any other contemporary composer (film or otherwise).  I suppose one could argue that his recognisable sound is too closely associated with the work of Greenaway to do justice to Vertov's kaleidoscopic montage, and I admit, some of the selections here are positively 'jaunty' in contrast to the black and white images of 1920s Odessa and the blur of urban life.  That said, there is something more or less delightfully mechanical about Nyman's rhythms (in a good way), which complement the natural rhythms of Vertov's film.  The nature of the cutting is, to me, inherently mechanized, almost industrial-like; where the images evoke the rattle and clatter of the busy streets, the percussion of trains on tracks, or the whir of engines or other film-related apparatus.  The movement of the images (or the subject matter depicted) suggest the sound of Nyman's music - those honking horns, chaotic strings and frantic piano chords - just as the music itself - slowing for contemplation or played at a faster pace to match the quickening speed of the film - invokes the chaos and congestion of the world as depicted by the cinematograph.  Seeing the film with Nyman's music was a great pleasure, but I've always enjoyed Vertov's work, regardless of its particular soundtrack.  It's attempt to redefine the language of cinema (the "kinography" as Vertov called it) without the influence of theatre and literature (which still dominates the medium) is endlessly fascinating, not just as an essential work of film theory, but as an actual historical document.  A window into this world - this point and place, now lost, forever in time - and into the process of a filmmaker looking to progress the art of cinema beyond the simple creation of an illustrated text.

In Dreams [Neil Jordan, 1999]:  One of these days, I'll write a serious defence of this film, which for me walks a fine line between genius and insanity, and only really "falls off" during its last-minute coda, which seems like a concession to the studio to make sense of the whole thing.  The ending of the film - or its added addendum - is to my mind a woeful miscalculation; a cheap twist that turns what was, for the most part, a thought-provoking psychological drama into a senseless supernatural one.  The change in tone ruins the effectiveness of Jordan's fairytale iconography, his references to Snow White, the mystery of the sunken village and the clever blurring of gender roles, as the line between protagonist Claire and antagonist Vivian becomes indistinguishable within this  suffocating netherworld of past and present, reality and dream.  Even with its flaws, In Dreams is a film that I still return to again and again; intoxicating, as much for what it could have been as for what it actually became.  I stare at it, like an autostereogram, trying to see the skeletal genius beneath the more overwrought moments of pure melodrama, because to me the film is as fascinating, in fragments, as it is haunting in its approach.  I don't want to say anything else about the film for now, but I do like it a lot, even with its various problems.  Jordan is one of the cinema's unsung image makers, and here, working in collaboration with cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Nigel Phelps, he turns in one of his most beautiful and maddening films. 

30 Days of Night [David Slade, 2007]:  The plot is fantastic.  A horde of murderous vampires descend on a small Alaskan town where the sun sets annually for thirty days, leaving the populace in total darkness.  There's a nice atmosphere to the earlier scenes as the sky begins to dim and the bulk of the townsfolk prepare to depart, leaving only our plucky protagonists to stay behind to weather the season.  The slow build-up is effective, calling to mind the low-key ambience of the best of John Carpenter - think Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) or The Fog (1980), though the snowy vistas are far more redolent of his masterpiece The Thing (1982) - but unfortunately the storytelling becomes progressively more haphazard as it lumbers towards its inevitable, explosion-filled finale.  Here, there was a real opportunity to create a serious, contemplative vampire movie that focused on the nightmare of a never-ending threat and the cabin-fever-like paranoia brought on by the solitude and go-nowhere seclusion of the wintery setting.  Even taken on its own terms, as a gory vampire-themed action movie, 30 Days of Night lacks the comic-book style charm of Blade (1998) and Blade II (2002), or the revisionist genre play of classics like Near Dark (1987) or Interview With the Vampire (1994).  This is largely because of the inconsistency of tone (the first half suggesting so much in terms of slow-burning terror, before its third act descent into action and pyrotechnics), but also because the characters are so underdeveloped that it becomes impossible to care anything about their survival.  I don't really want to be too negative here, because, the way I see it, every film is loved by someone (and loved for reasons that are right for them) and it would be disrespectful of me to denigrate the film simply because it didn't conform to my expectations.  So let's just be courteous about it and say this: 30 Days of Night was not the film for me.

Last Man Standing [Walter Hill, 1996]:  At the time of its initial release, Last Man Standing seems to have been attacked by the critics, not for what it is, but for what it isn't.  Roger Ebert's one-star review of the film seems especially outrageous and is possibly even the most ridiculous thing the critic has ever written.  Ebert literally tears the film to pieces for not being "fun" or "entertaining" (no one said it was supposed to be) and for having a dark and ominous atmosphere, bordering on the unpleasant.  I'm unsure of what reviewers like Ebert were looking for exactly, but the grim tone of the film seems entirely deliberate and is one of the aspects of Hill's work that really stands out (especially when viewed within the context of that ironic, self-referential approach, so popular in American genre cinema circa 1996).  There's an almost exaggerated unreality to the film, suggested by the sepia-tinted imagery, comic book style violence and the sombre mood, which I found, personally, very appealing.  To me, Hill's film should be looked at, not as a gangster film or even as a western pastiche, but as a horror movie, with the Bruce Willis character becoming a kind of supernatural avenger.  A force of nature, corrupting the corruptors.  The visual style of the film seems to reinforce this reading, with its obscured images of figures either disappearing into the dusty smog or framed through bevelled glass; suggesting this prevailing notion of characters barely existing in a world cut loose from society.  A kind of lawless, purgatory-like existence, or perhaps even an outward, 'microcosmic' expression, of the character's tormented state of mind. 

The Changeling [Peter Medak, 1980] :  A superlative supernatural mystery with a political subtext that suggests a still relevant commentary on the greed and duplicity of established government officials and the potential lies and misdeeds that our oldest and most valued institutions are built upon.  Like Pupi Avati's earlier masterwork The House With Laughing Windows (1976) or Antonio Bido's less successful Argento rip-off Watch Me When I Kill (1977), the real horror of The Changeling comes from the implied corruption that exists beneath the surface of a seemingly opulent or affluent veneer.  The disturbing supposition (or realisation) that the terrible sins committed for the sake of power and prestige were protected by the machinations of a crooked establishment that saw the opportunity to profit from tragedy and cold-blooded murder.  It is this subtext of The Changeling that gives the film it's emotional weight.  The manifestation of the ghost is terrifying, but it is the ultimate comprehension of this betrayal (or deceit) that is truly horrendous.  Here, the central character, haunted by ghosts of his own, sees through the eyes of the apparition the sad demise of an innocent, killed for monetary gain.  In its straightforward plotting and its lingering emphasis on slow-burning ambience and suspense, we can see the influence of the film on everything from Hideo Nakata's landmark horror masterpiece Ring (1998) to the haunted house mysteries of The Others (2001), The Orphanage (2007) and The Woman in Black (2012).  Like those particular films, the horror of The Changeling creeps up on its audience, suggested, not so much by an accumulation of jump scares or scenes of endless gore, but by the use of sound and shadow, or by a slow, suggestive movement of the camera, as it prowls through the corridors of the house.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Viewing Log / 2013 / Week One

31/12/2012 - 06/01/2013

Recollections of the Yellow House [João César Monteiro, 1989]:  The first appearance of Monteiro's provocative alter-ego, 'João de Deus', a sarcastic and highly acerbic middle-aged intellectual (slash "deviant"), who stalks the winding streets of Lisbon like Nosferatu in Murnau's famous film.  If 'Recollections...' feels like the least of Monteiro's three narratives on the life of this 'John of God', it's only because the follow-up films, God's Comedy (1995) and The Spousals of God (1999), are amongst the finest works of cinema ever produced.  Looked at as a work in its own right, 'Recollections...' is still a film that crackles and pulsates with an intelligence and imagination that few other films can equate.  A deceptive, highly amusing and sometimes shocking character study - presenting the minutiae of the character's daily rituals and existence as a succession of effortless, observational vignettes - 'Recollections...' is eventually transformed through tragedy and misadventure into something more abstract or metaphysical.  An expression, as if the film itself has become a mirror to the psychological deterioration of its central character - this madman or misfit - as he is forced to become the monster that he's perceived to be as a reaction against the profane corruption of the modern world.  Like most of Monteiro's greatest films, 'Recollections...'  is an accumulation of moments of pure cinematic invention; the most memorable of which is found towards the end of the film, where Monteiro, through sheer act of will, turns the circular walls of an insane asylum into a living nickelodeon.  Life as cinema, cinema as life, forever as one. 

Level Five [Chris Marker, 1997]:  The perfect note to end the year on.  Level Five, a film as enigmatic and inscrutable as its title, is effectively about 'the end' of things.  The end of life as a catalyst for the end of a relationship, leading a character, bereft by this end, to question the nature of memory in the age of the internet; the end of language and the end of communication.  Though as ever, this "end" is simply the start of something different.  A new beginning?  Through a consideration of the cinematic qualities of video games and the internet, Marker's narrative becomes an interrogation of the image; of the power of images, not simply to capture a moment in time, presenting a subjective truth - a truth defined by the viewer - but to mislead, betray, provoke and confound.  It seems to me to be one of the very first films to really acknowledge the role of memory in the mass media age, where the miscellany of our existence can live forever in the memory of these machines.  When I first saw the film back in September 2012, I wrote the following: "[the film is] an extended essay on the power of recorded memory, which is given a greater emotional weight by the heartbreaking performance of Catherine Belkhodja as this woman attempting to come to terms with the loss of her husband, and in doing so, finding the remnants of his being in the codes and script of a video game that he was developing shortly before his death.  This, as an event - as a memory - is enough to lead Marker back to Japan, to Okinawa, to contemplate the notions of atrocity and recollection."  My opinion of the film is even greater now than it was then.

The Adventures of Tintin [Steven Spielberg, 2011]:  In truth, I should really hate this adaptation for the liberties the screenwriters take with Hergé's most famous work; picking out the greatness of the book(s) and replacing the witty satire and the foregrounding of actual historical context with a never ending flow of enormous spectacle; reducing the wry humour to a series of pratfalls and slapstick; pillaging several individual storylines to create one single, condensed, heavily bowdlerised narrative arc.  But this is Spielberg doing what Spielberg does best, and his action has never been more immersive (or more fun).  His vision of 'Tintin' is part Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), part Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), as the young reporter finds himself embroiled in a great mystery, full of adventure and suspense.  The plotting is so-so, but it's the direction of the film that really stands out.  The extended chase through the streets of Bagghar in particular is superior filmmaking, in no way lessened or diminished by the dependence on the mo-cap technology.  Free of the shackles of conventional moviemaking apparatus, Spielberg's camera is free to roam; capturing sequences in single, fluid movements; blocking and revealing action in a way that is exhilarating, precisely because it brings the audience into the film, transporting us, not just through the sights, sounds, colours and textures of this digitally rendered world, but through the clever manipulation of the filmmaking form.  Like the similarly flawed War of the Worlds (2005), the film is not perfect, but there are several astonishing sequences positioned between the nonsense and the exposition that rival anything from the greatest of Spielberg's masterpieces, be it Jaws (1975), Empire of the Sun (1987) or A.I. (2001).

Vanishing Point [Richard C. Sarafian, 1971]:  I first saw the film back in 2008, initially influenced by the endless references to it in Tarantino's still largely enjoyable 'Grindhouse' effort, Death Proof (2007).  At the time, the experience left me cold.  The action seemed more like a precursor to the highway hi-jinks of Smokey and the Bandit (1977) than a counter-culture counterpart to Easy Rider (1969), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) or The Sugarland Express (1974).  Maybe I've matured with age or perhaps I've just grown more disillusioned with the way of the world, but this second viewing was far more successful, if not genuinely revelatory!  In fact, I wouldn't hesitate to call Vanishing Point a minor masterpiece; a great character study, carried along by a sense of disenchantment (or by the sadness of a country left wounded by the failure of war, protest and political betrayal) and by the haunted central performance of Barry Newman as the enigmatic protagonist Kowalski.  Astride his white Charger, Kowalski becomes an almost mythical figure.  A Don Quixote driven (literally) mad by the unreachable ideals that his country was supposed to represent; a living embodiment of the new revolutionary spirit, ready smash into (and through) the barriers of the old and the staid.  As he carves his own path across the harsh landscapes that recall the desperation and despair of the America of Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), he transcends the need for 'society' or 'place', becoming more like an embodiment of the spirit of freedom, unshackled and unbound.