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2011.49: The Great White Silence (1924) *** October 31, 2011

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Dir. Herbert Ponting, 108 mins, Blu-ray rental

I see dead people; it’s the infamous line from The Sixth Sense, and it hung around in my head all the time I sat watching this fascinating documentary. Incredibly, this was originally filmed over 100 years ago, and watching it we are seeing another world, and people all long gone. People who would risk their lives for King and Country exploring an unknown continent, walking where, literally,no-one had ever walked before.  It’s enough to leave one speechless- this was before the First World War, and all the rest of history that has raced by during the last century.

The Antarctic expedition of Captain Scott in 1912 will be familiar to many mostly from the excellent 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic. It’s a film that transfixed me during my childhood- the haunting score, the sense of gritty realism and the shocking (well, to me as a kid) ending. Perhaps its true that only the British can make failure such a success, find such nobility in death. Lessons in school were fascinating, and in Primary School I recall we staged a play.

Shot by Herbert Ponting (the expedition’s official photographer/cinematographer) during Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic between 1910-1913, the documentary is partly a haunting record of the ill-fated enterprise and partly a natural history piece. Footage of the sailors larking around on the Terra Nova is followed by travelogue-type footage of the ship traveling south and breaking through sea-ice, then we see footage of the scientists and explorers making camp near Mt Erebus, followed by footage of the wildlife (likely incredibly rare and unexpected to viewers of the film back then) such as Penguins and Sea Lions. It is incredibly poignant seeing the actual people that have been written about, dramatised in film and spoken of in schools for a hundred years.

I have no idea if schoolchildren today are as enthralled as I was back in my childhood- no idea if it’s even taught of in school for that matter, and if it is I doubt it has the sense of adventure about it that it did back then. The world has changed so much even in the time since my childhood- even space travel has become boring, and there seems too few boundaries left to be broken. The Great White Silence harks back to a distant time when the world had not been seen from the surface of the moon, nor satellites had made the world so small we think nothing of seeing live sports events from the other side of the world, or calling someone on another continent with a mobile phone in your pocket. The Great White Silence calls to us from a time when the world was vast and yet full of unknowns. Scenes pass by, images of people like ghosts before our very eyes, smiling at us, larking about, playing football in temperatures around -70 degrees. Or waving goodbye as they begin that fateful trek to the South Pole…

Fascinating stuff, maybe even a little distturbing if I’m honest. And impeccably restored on Blu-ray, by the way. 

2011.48: Starcrash (1978) * October 19, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 4 comments

Dir. Luigi Cozzi, 92 mins, DVD rental

Watching the terrifically bad Starcrash is a sobering reminder for those of us who spent much of our childhoods amid the post-Star Wars hysteria of bargain-basement space fantasies. We had Logans Run, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers on television, had numerous pretenders on the big screen (Black Hole, Star Trek: TMP, Flash Gordon, Battle Beyond The Stars to name a few). They’ve all got their fans and apologists, but the likely nadir of that pile of Star Wars-wannabees is without doubt Starcrash. This is a film in a league all its very own. Here is a film that was so cheap and amateur that even the BBC’s cheap-as-chips Blakes 7 and Dr Wholooked postively epic in comparison at the time, and with a script that makes Phantom Menace look like Citizen Kane.

I’ll confess right now that I never saw it before yesterday; only a few clips back in the day and a few minutes during its occasional tv transmissions. It’s an alarming insight regards the dangers of DVD rental lists that you can drop some of these turkeys onto them without really knowing what you are in for, but for some reason I thought I’d give it a go at long last. Maybe it had something to do with watching four of the six Star Warsfilms on Blu-ray recently…

Well, I can confidently say that the only thing Starcrash has going for it is Caroline Munro, and thats not a reference to her acting. She’s certainly easy on the eye, and what the hell, acting talent doesn’t yet seem to have cut short Megan Fox’s career, so why so few even minor roles in Munro’s career? I must say I’m surprised Munro wasn’t utilised more in British cinema back in the 70’s…. I guess it’s a telling indictment of the state of the British film industry back then that Starcrash isn’t even a British Star Warsknock-off, but of Italian origin instead. I remember an interview with her in an early issue of Starburst, thinking she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen and clearly destined for great things, to be mystified when she seemed to disappear off the entertainment industry roadmap completely. I guess starring in Starcrash didn’t do her any favours, and having been a Bond girl had something of a curse to it back then as I remember.

Besides Munro though, there is nothing even remotely decent about Starcrash. It really is utterly dire. The script is risible nonsense, the sets cheap, the effects cheaper, the costumes hilarious, the acting bizarre (Joe Spinell’s evil Count Zarn is perhaps the most shocking bad guy I have ever seen, as he enthusiastically chews up the cardboard scenery as the strangest Ming the Merciless wannabee ever). Some of the cast look like they are on drugs or something (there’s a weird gleam in the eyes of the hero Akton that is either something to do with him sitting next to the scantily clad Munro for much of the film or something in his coffee). Strangest sight of all (other than the Hoff himself in his pre-Knight Rider days of career desperation) is the sight of Christopher Plummer smirking like someone’s paid him millions (perhaps he didn’t read the decimal point right on his contract). Frankly, the sight of Plummer sitting on his Emperors Throne (that looks like some kind of 70’s torture/sex contraption) mumbling dialogue unworthy of even George Lucas’ skills is so strange I still can’t quite believe it. The question isn’t so much what is he doing in this film but rather what am I doing watching this film, and believe me, you’ll be asking it of yourself once Plummer turns up.

So if you’ve got several pints in the fridge and want a good laugh at a true celluloid turkey, Starcrash is certainly worth a rental if you can grin and bear it. The film’s title is oddly quite perfect. But that’s about it. I wonder how many people would actually own up to buying it on DVD or Blu-ray, or watching it more than once, other than to ogle Caroline Munro in her prime?

A few more thoughts regards Tree of Life October 17, 2011

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Talking about the film recently (having now seen the film again on the simply outstanding Blu-ray edition), I made a reference to Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life as being a religious movie, but thinking about it, it’s really more a spiritual film. There are references to religion, scenes with characters in church, but nothing more than that, other than dialogue during a funeral service offering a religious viewpoint on our mortality and place in the universe. Of course, much of the narration openly references God, but I don’t think that implicitly dictates a Christian or Catholic religious outlook. I think the film is much more open than that; maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Tree Of Life, despite it’s rather profound subject matter regards our place in the universe, and in space and time, doesn’t offer any particular religious viewpoint or conclusion. It’s one of those films where you get more out of it the more you put into it, and is also one of those films that demands discussion afterwards (a bloody rarity in this day and age of bubblegum blockbusters).

Anyway, spoiler alert- go watch the excellent blu-ray before reading on.

Still with me? 

So just what is going on at the end, with the characters meeting on the shore and the Earth reaching its fiery end, consumed by the dying sun? Some reviewers have considered it a collapse of space and time, that does not necessarily mean a post-death experience. For myself, I have found myself thinking back to a scene in Malick’s earlier The Thin Red Line, a scene rather poetic and haunting that has lingered with me for years. Witt reflects on the peaceful death of his grandmother, and we witness the scene itself that is not likely what anyone ’saw’ at her deathbed. We see the (dead?) grandmother reaching out towards a child at the foot of the bed, and they touch, and the camera turns upwards, but instead of the room’s ceiling we instead see the sky. I’ve always had the intuition, right or wrong, that the girl is infact the grandmother as a child. In that reading, it prefigures much of the conclusion of Tree Of Life, in which Sean Penn’s adult Jack sees and pursues the childhood Jack portrayed by Hunter McCracken, and later embraces his mother portrayed as she was during his childhood. We also see this adult mother alongside her own child self. It is as if spirit is independent of age, or is itself a multiplicity. Perhaps Malick is saying that as we ourselves change as we age, become different people from child to teenager to adult to elderly, perhaps we exist as separate entities within ourselves- of course, perhaps he’s saying nothing of the sort.  

Tree Of Life is just one of those movies that I could talk about and write about and bore people to tears over. But the film is so rich with questions. For instance, who is that woman in the tan dress we see just prior to Jack being born, who we see later embracing him as Sean Penn drops to his knees on the shore? Is she his guardian Angel or something, that has guided him from birth to Eternity? It’s certainly a high-concept movie, something that will surely be watched and debated for years. I feel completely drawn into it, find it completely engrossing and haunting. And yes, the blu-ray picture is everything everyone is saying it is, utterly breathtaking, and superior to the cinema presentation I saw in the summer. 

So film of the year? Surely, yes.  Finished writing about it? Likely not!

2011.47: The Rite (2011) ** October 16, 2011

Posted by ghostof82 in : Film General , 1 comment so far

Dir Mikael Håfström,  114 mins, Blu-ray rental

Like zombie films, I think exorcism movies deserve to be put to rest (pardon the unfortunate pun). Its really a pretty tired genre now and to be honest every such film since The Exorcist has been redundant- I mean, whats the point, what new can be said after that horror classic? The Rite starts nobly enough, and for the first half is pretty interesting, fairly grounded in reality (casting aside), but it soon descends into the usual Panto-hysterics with scenes that are supposed to be scary but come across almost comic. I don’t think Anthony Hopkins helps- like Jack Nicholson before him, his larger-than-life screen persona with all the past films in its wake can really damage any film he’s in now. I can understand why he was cast but I honestly think the film suffers. Maybe thats a personal thing, I don’t know, but there’s certainly much to be said to the casting of unknowns in some movies. A film that is supposed to be deadly serious and based on fact kind of comes off the rails when Hannibal Lecter turns up as a veteran priest/exorcist. Better to have cast Hopkins as the hero’s father and Rutger Hauer as the priest, I think.

But it would be unfair to cite Hopkins as the film’s chief problem- thats likely incidental to most and just a personal thing that bugs me. Really the film’s very subject matter and direction is the real problem, as the exorcisms follow a predictable path with much wailing and shouting and make-up effects. There is no real horror. No sense of palpable dread or terror. Perhaps familiarity breads contempt?

Moreover the film slips into the usual mainstream-movie pitfalls, with the nominal hero of the piece played by a hunky, young, confident-looking all-American type (Colin O’Donoghue) when he should really have been played by a more doubtful, insecure type. Also we get a nominal, utterly redundant love-interest with Alice Braga in a thankless, pointless role of an investigative journalist.

So pretty poor and uninspired. The final nail in the exorcism genre coffin? Of course not, unfortunately. But it certainly should give pause for thought to anybody making another, as far as bringing something new to the genre, because the old standard routine demonstrated here is very tired. It may have worked in 1973 but times have moved on.

2011.46: Black Heaven (2010) ** October 14, 2011

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Dir. Gilles Marchand, 100 mins, DVD rental

Strange one this. A French Blue Velvet by way of The Matrix. I gave it a rental as it starred Louise Bourgoin who recently impressed in the rather good The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. If not for that connection I doubt I’d have ever even heard of this movie.

Gaspard and Marion, a young couple, find a mobile phone and track down it’s owner who they find dead in a bizarre suicide pact with a beautiful blonde woman who they manage to rescue. Gaspard, a level-headed young man in love with Marion, is immediately attracted to this strange, sultry woman named Audrey. Intoxicated by her bold sexy demeanour compared to his quietly plain, sheltered girlfriend Marion, he is soon drawn both into Audrey’s strange, dangerous real-world life and the mysterious virtual world she lives in called ‘Black Hole’. The latter is where The Matrix influence is felt, depicted in a cgi mock-videogame social world of avatars. Otherwise its pretty much Blue Velvet all the way. The ‘twist’ is that the suicides aren’t really suicides at all, but rather sophisticated murders, as Audrey and her brother use the ‘Black Hole’ version of Audrey, named Sam, to encourage other avatars (or rather their disenfranchised real-world loners) to commit suicide in order for Audrey’s brother to get his kicks by filming them/watching the suicides afterwards. 

It holds your attention but falls apart when you think about it. The characters don’t really ‘click’ and the videogame world really needs to be a virtual space to convince- instead its all on a PC screen and anyone who has played videogames will know that the ‘Black Hole’ world is nowhere near encompassing enough to work to the degree it’s supposed to. Meanwhile, in the real-world the coincidences pile up so thick and fast it becomes incredibly far-fetched, and all the while the similarities to Blue Velvet are just a mounting distraction. So not a bad movie by any means but a hard one to recommend, and not one that would ever warrant a second viewing. But Bourgoin is certainly a genuine talent and one to watch, no doubt destined for great things- particularly, better films, hopefully.

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