Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Films of 2009

There was lots of Hammer, as I continued to plow my way through the 40 film box set, with additions outside. Three Frankensteins, from the sublime …Created Woman, through the indifferent Evil of…to the horrible Horror of…. Dracula made it into the seventies with the really not as bad as you thought they might be Dracula AD 72 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula. More vampires in Kiss of the Vampire, a rather wooden affair. Oliver Reed was surprisingly poignant as the titular beast in Curse of the Werewolf, Peter Cushing was terribly dashing as the vicar/smuggler in Night Creatures (aka Captain Clegg over here) and put on a convincing Edwardian limp (if only it weren’t for this dashed leg) in The Mummy, one of my favourite of the early Hammers (Christopher Lee’s stiff-limbed walk and sorrowful eyes are a great exercise in making the monstrous both frightening and empathetic). The back to back Cornish sea/moors double Plague of Zombies and The Reptile were fine examples of what Hammer could do on a constricted budget, and Jacqueline Pearce was as wonderful as always, dahling. Finally, The Devil Rides Out proved that you don’t need stunning effects (or indeed a decent source novel) to create genuine tension and chills (‘the goat of Mendes!’ indeed).

Other horror highlights included The Innocents at the Little Theatre cinema in Bath, preceded by Stephanie Cole’s reading of MR James’ Lost Hearts, which really brought it to life, and Sir Christopher ‘Fraylers’ Frayling’s comprehensive and entertaining introduction. Edgar Allan Poe was covered in period sixties style in the rather ropey Spirits of the Dead, with its sixties triptych of Fonda(s), Delon and Stamp; in Roger Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia, whose shooting location at Castle Acre Priory in Norfolk I managed to visit; and notionally in the notably unhinged The Black Cat, the first of two Edgar Ulmer films which take their chosen genres and drive them towards expressionist breakdown and narrative delirium. This was shown in a double bill with Val Lewton’s Cat People, and I watched all of his horror films again this year, with the exception of Bedlam (coming soon, folks), as I continued my mildly obsessive chronicling of his oeuvre. At the cinema, Let the Right One In and Drag Me to Hell represented the stylistic poles of the quietly chilling, and the hyperactive comic-strip, both effective in their own way. Stephen Volk’s 1992 tv film (and early reality tv spoof) Ghostwatch was absolutely terrifying, as you’d expect something featuring Sarah Greene and Michael Parkinson NOT to be (poor old Parky appears to have been possessed at the end).

I fulfilled my Bergman habit with a return to the faith trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, and also saw Wild Strawberries once more. More classic European film came in the shape of late films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; his hallucinatory dream-film Querrelle (loved the music) and an epic trawl through the claustrophobic city spaces of Berlin Alexanderplatz. I also finally got round to seeing Antonioni’s L’Avventura (why has this always been so hard to get hold of?) which was marvellous. A couple of early Polanski films, too (and some of the pre-feature length shorts); Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac, which has become something of a favourite. There were very different French responses to the American musical in Jacques Demy’s Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and Jean Luc-Godard’s Une Femme est Une Femme. Further Godard came in the shape of Pierrot Le Fou, once more with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina (the main reason I watch Godard, really) and Sympathy for the Devil (oh dear!). Paris Nous Appartient, Jacques Rivette’s first film, was a great evocation of the city at the time (the early 60s) and teetered just on the right side of unintentionally comical pretentiousness. There were some great discoveries amongst new bfi releases. Bill Douglas’ Comrades, which I’d been waiting for ages to see, was superb, with wonderful evocations of the British countryside, and a moving portrayal of efforts to establish individual human worth through collective action (with religious inspiration at its heart). Robin Soans as George Loveless was particularly outstanding. There was also the rediscovery of the films of Jane Arden, of which I saw Separation (Bergman in Belgravia) and the mesmerising but uneasily voyeuristic The Other Side of the Underneath.

Veronica Lake

Barbara Stanwyck
There were a number of Robert Altman’s 70s ‘chamber’ films; the Cassavetes jive of California Split (with a superb Elliott Gould, unable to stop speaking for one second); the psychodrama of Images, which ends up in clumsy Tales of the Unexpected territory; and the end of the world anomie of Quintet, which I find myself liking in spite of myself. The opening shot is a stunner. Marlene and Joseph von Sternberg in variously exoticised world settings, from the nightclubs of Paris and USA in Blonde Venus, through the China of Shanghai Express to the Russia of The Scarlett Empress, with its sculpture strewn palace resembling the corridors of Gormenghast (and the mad prince and pitiless queen its inhabitants). I began making my way through the Preston Sturges box set with The Great McGinty (Brian Donlevy, before he butchered Quatermass in the Hammer films), Christmas in July (with Dick Powell, halfway between Busby Berkeley crooner and hardboiled Chandler), Sullivan’s Travels (Veronica Lake, sexy and cool), and The Lady Eve (Barbara Stanwyck, ditto). More classic US cinema came in the form of the gorgeous Technicolor palette of All That Heaven Allows, a melodrama which really does hit out at the heart of American conservative conformity and class division (it’s not just academic fancy on this occasion).

London locations - Kempton Park steam engines
Elsewhere there was the second Edgar Ulmer film, Detour, the inexorable working out of fate through film noir. Terence Stamp went back to the east end in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, and thereby provided flashback footage for The Limey. More London scenes in The London Nobody Knows, urbanely narrated by James Mason (and featuring the Roundhouse, which I went to later in the year); Les Bicyclettes de Belsize, a whimsical 60s musical short set around familiar streets of Hampstead and its surroundings, the sort of thing I’m a sucker for, frankly. The same could be said for Wonderwall, which I decided I liked after all, and which had some scenes set amongst the Edwardian splendour of the Kempton Park steam engines. I mourned the destruction of the Victorian terraced flats in Battlebridge Road behind Kings Cross with Michael Palin’s The Missionary, in which they feature (as they also do in Mike Leigh’s High Hopes and the video for the Saint Etienne song Hobart Paving). The Small Back Room was a neglected Powell and Pressburger gem, moving out from blackout London to Wales, Stonehenge and, most memorably, the shifting shingle of Chesil Beach. The English landscape was beautifully portrayed, littered with the debris of war. Kathleen Byron was also stunning. More shingle beaches in Derek Jarman’s The Garden, with the shore at Dungeness staging a modern passion play.

London locations - Battlebridge Road flats, all gone
Away from England, there were explorations of Russian fairy and folk tale and the collective soul in Alecksandr Rou’s Jack Frost, Viy, with the wonderful effects of Alecksandr Ptushko, and Tarkovsky’s meditation on the ghosts of family and history, Mirror. Medium Cool was a brilliant and intelligent snapshot of sixties upheaval, with incredible on the spot footage from the 68 Chicago convention. I saw Juno and fell on the positive side of the love it/hate it divide, and also fell for Judex, in which Edith Scob got to show her face in Georges Franju’s serial adventure made with a surrealist’s eye. More surrealism in an Argentinian fantasy, La Antena, a modern day take on the silent film in which the lack of speech is incorporated into the fabric of the fable. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg continued his fascination with the texture of silent movies, and was very entertaining in its conjuring of the marvellous out of the mundane.

Trips to the cinema included Moon, a welcome return to small scale SF (although the science of the energy solution was a touch unbelievable); Away We Go, an old-fashioned road movie; Cheri, which I enjoyed more than a cool critical reception would allow – Michelle Pfeiffer was great; Broken Embraces, which married Almodovar’s male and female modes of storytelling; and The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, which had flashes of inspiration arising from a rather messy script with enough frequency to make it work. And to round the year off, the sparkling new print of The Red Shoes, having seen one of the pairs which Moira Shearer used in the exhibition at the bfi Southbank.

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