Features

A BIGGER SPLASH / CURZON

Curzon Magazine feature on A Bigger Splash directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts.


BLACK MASS / CURZON

It seems that each generation of Hollywood leading men is a response to the one that came before. Between the conflicted everyman anti-heroes of the 1970s and the six-pack touting Adonises of the superheroic present came a wave of actors ill at ease with their preternatural good looks, determined to appear slipshod at every available opportunity. Out of this crop, the quintessential masquerading movie star is surely Johnny Depp, who has been hiding himself beneath costumes, outlandish props and layers of makeup since his brooding breakthrough performance as the eponymous topiarist in Edward Scissorhands (1990).

Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton in Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper / Curzon Magazine

 

This predilection for production design grew in concert with his box-office success: in the years following his Oscar-nominated role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the sight of Depp unembellished all but disappeared from screens. Inevitably, this has produced diminishing returns: as daring independent features were replaced by distended-but-lucrative blockbusters, he has increasingly given the impression of someone playing dress-up rather than actually acting, each new role bringing another implausible accent and elaborate costume festooned with knick-knacks and gewgaws. (His Tonto in The Lone Ranger [2013] was just the latest in a long line of OTT get-ups.)

At first glance, Scott Cooper’s true crime drama Black Mass, based on a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, suggests more of the same. As the infamous mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Depp is once again recognisably unrecognisable: chill blue eyes and damaged teeth sit beneath a balding pate on a wan horror show of a face. Starting in the mid-70s and continuing over two decades, the film follows Bulger – ruthless head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang – as he attempts to become the city’s leading crime boss. In an incredible real-life twist, he was substantially aided in this ambition by his relationship with two men: his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), president of the Massachusetts Senate, and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who persuaded the bureau to recruit Bulger as a major informant. Bulger, unsurprisingly, exploited this position to brutally eliminate his rivals as law enforcement officials consciously looked the other way. With his fingers clasped around Boston’s throat, it’s notable that Bulger himself doesn’t change a significant amount in the film, but instead causes a deep spiritual rot to take hold in those close to him.

Although he has always been drawn to outsiders, narcissists and grotesques, before Black Mass Depp has never played anyone quite so visually repellent. Where his recent screen visages have felt like affectations, here his appearance is in service of the character. Bulger’s ghoulish presence causes tangible discomfort in the people he meets, which the character employs to excruciating effect as a way to assert control through intimation. In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, he has a conversation with Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) that manages to be both calculatedly innocuous and completely threatening at the same time: despite his amorality and utter lack of empathy, Depp’s Bulger understands human behaviour all too well, aware that touching someone’s face can be as distressing as a brutal act of violence.

Any sprawling American film about organised crime produced today, even a richly satisfying one, finds itself at the disadvantage of standing within a long cinematic shadow. Escape comes only with some distinguishing element; in this case it is Depp’s complicated, vampiric performance – one of his strongest in years. In recent interviews, the actor has downplayed the idea that he’s doing anything different in Black Mass, but that’s not quite true: he’s palpably trying. It’s certainly a better look for him than face paint and a dead crow strapped to his head.

 

Published in Curzon Issue 53.


THE GREAT POSTER RIDDLE / THE GUARDIAN

You might notice something familiar about the poster for Stephen Frears’s upcoming Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. To the left of Ben Foster’s face are the words “CHAMPION HERO LEGEND CHEAT,” and while this effectively articulates what makes the disgraced cyclist such a compelling figure, the inspiration for the tag line is instantly recognisable. Like so many other efforts from recent years, The Program arguably owes a debt to the most surprisingly influential movie poster of the past decade: Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was likewise represented on the poster for 2010’s The Social Network as “PUNK PROPHET GENIUS BILLIONAIRE TRAITOR.”

The Social Network poster was the work of Neil Kellerhouse, the go-to graphic designer for Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher, noted for his minimalist technique and unconventional use of type. Although The Social Network didn’t invent the GOOD THING GOOD THING BAD THING tag line format – examples can be seen in the promotional materials for Abel Ferrera’s original Bad Lieutenant (“GAMBLER THIEF JUNKIE KILLER COP”) or 24 Hour Party People (“GENIUS POET TWAT”) – Kellerhouse’s striking design rippled throughout the increasingly homogeneous world of movie posters. It is a world, incidentally, where the disembodied heads of movie stars float menacingly over landscapes for no particular reason.

Expanding on the work he did for Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here, Kellerhouse placed type directly on top of Jesse Eisenberg’s face in two main designs, including the terrific YOU DON’T GET TO 500 MILLION FRIENDS WITHOUT MAKING A FEW ENEMIES. This bold but austere approach was a great match for Fincher’s film and also complemented the trailer, which was similarly innovative and much imitated. Following the promotional campaign’s visibility and popularity, the lots-of-words-over-the-protagonist’s-face design became commonplace: within a year, the concept popped up everywhere: The King’s Speech, Thor, Salt, Morning Glory, The Adjustment Bureau, The Imitation Game. Even Kellerhouse himself went back to the same well with the Criterion Collection reissue of The Man Who Fell to Earth.

As a consequence of its success, The Social Network’s once-impressive poster design is now as much of a cliche as blue and orange colour schemes or romantic leads standing back-to-back. It wearily joins other posters of dubious influence, from The Truman Show (photo mosaics) to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(missing eyes) to For Your Eyes Only (splayed legs framing the protagonist, sexism).

This journey from marvel to bore in less than half a decade demonstrates that movie posters are ultimately little different from the features they’re trying so very hard to promote: someone comes up with an original, well-executed idea, others attempt to replicate the formula with diminishing returns, someone else decides to reject the idea in favour of trying something new, and we start all over again. As depressing patterns of behaviour go, it’s strangely encouraging.

 


THE ROVER / CURZON

Curzon Magazine feature on The Rover (2014), starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, directed by David Michôd.

Curzon Magazine feature on The Rover (2014), starring Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, directed by David Michôd.

 


INTRIGUING FILM CREDITS THAT YOU PROBABLY MISSED / DAZED

Fascinating for being both a contractual battlefield and an underutilised tool for conveying meaning, credits have evolved over cinema’s history as much as any other element. You can roughly date most films by how they depict their production credits: when the title appears on screen, whether the bulk of the credits appear before or after the feature, the language used, the level of crew members credited, or even how many times the actors are listed. As the credits of this week’s new release The Duke of Burgundy are as meticulous as the rest of the sublime erotic drama, we’ve taken a look at some of film’s most intriguing individual credits.

 

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2015)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2015)

Perfume by Je Suis Gizella

You know you’re in for something special when a film takes the time to credit a perfume. Among the usual bits of business, The Duke of Burgundy‘s opening credits list “Dress and lingerie by Andrea Flesch” and “Perfume by Je Suis Gizella”. Writer-director Peter Strickland explained his reasoning in a recent interview: “Credits are not just functional, informational space – you can play with them to create mood, and perfume makes you think this is a heady, sensual, decadent world”. An avowed cinematic magpie, for The Duke of Burgundy Strickland was influenced by European sexploitation films, but drew inspiration for the perfume idea from an unlikely source: the Audrey Hepburn-starring Paris When It Sizzles, which credits “Miss Hepburn’s Wardrobe and Perfume – Hubert de Givenchy”. “Nobody’s seen that film so I thought I could get away with it,” he admitted.

 

RAISING ARIZONA (1987)

 

RAISING ARIZONA (1987)

Filmed on location in Valley of the Sun, Arizona, a great place to raise your kids

Given the plot of Raising Arizona, a more accurate location credit might say that the Valley of the Sun is “a great place to raise someone else’s kid, whom you’ve abducted in cahoots with a rarely-better Nicolas Cage.” Even so, the cheery note at the end of the Coens brothers’ classic stands in stark contrast to the ornery alternatives: the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three irritably mentions that the film was “Made without any help whatsoever from the New York Transit Authority”, while Scream grumbles “No thanks whatsoever to the Santa Rosa City School District Governing Board”, a credit included when the board reneged on an agreement for Wes Craven to shoot the film at Santa Rosa High School just days before filming.

 

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959)

 

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959)

Orgy Sequence Advisor: Mr Granville Heathway

With only a single film credit to his name, Granville Heathway has quietly slipped into legend. Allegedly recruited to help provide historical accuracy for the pagan orgy scene in King Vidor’s biblical epicSolomon and Sheba, it’s difficult to ascertain whether he really existed at all. The infamous credit “Orgy Sequence Advisor” doesn’t appear on screen at any point, although this practice was then common for smaller crew roles. Reportage of the era abounds with excitable references to Heathway, but it’s entirely possible that some bored press agent at United Artists made up the most British name they could think of and slipped it into the production notes (incidentally, this is how “Benedict Cumberbatch” was created.) Beyond the limited job opportunities out there for an Orgy Sequence Advisor, perhaps the main reason that he never did the role again is simply that he wasn’t very good at it, unless we’re mistaken and orgies actually consist of one woman shimmying in a bikini in the middle of a bizarre choreographed dance routine. We don’t really go to a lot of orgies to be honest.

 

FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)

 

FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)

Screenplay by James Dearden from his earlier original screenplay

James Dearden’s screenwriting credit on Fatal Attraction appears confusing at first glance, but the explanation is fairly simple: the film was adapted from his short film Diversion, hence the reference to his earlier screenplay. While the abiding legacy of Fatal Attraction is gifting the phrase “bunny boiler” to frothing tabloid editors everywhere, it’s disappointing that the film didn’t spark an escalating, beautifully deranged trend where every previous writing effort is listed within a credit, encompassing earlier drafts, unrelated screenplays, assorted terrible ideas jotted down by the screenwriter when drunk, an email about hiring a carpet steamer, recipes copied out of cookbooks and punctuated with floury thumbprints, a tweet that no-one favourited, erotic Twilight fanfiction that somehow became a bestselling novel and blockbuster movie, failed attempts at creating a new signature, an insincere goodbye message for a co-worker whose name was unknown until someone passed the greeting card, incorrect pub quiz answers and miniature golf scoring pads.

 

THE NAKED GUN (1988)

 

THE NAKED GUN (1988)

Mr Weiss’ Divorce Attorney: Marsha Durko

There’s a rich tradition of joke end credits in cinema, from the Beatles’ underrated Help! being dedicated to the inventor of the sewing machine to Troma Entertainment hiring out space for personal ads. The pinnacle of fake credits is surely the work of filmmaking trio Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, whose throw-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what’s-funny spoofs were designed for scattershot whimsy: Airplane! credits Charles Dickens for writing A Tale of Two Cities, Hot Shots! offers a recipe for nobby buns, Hot Shots! Part Deux spoils the end of The Crying Game, The Naked Gun offers advice on surviving a tornado (“southwest corner of basement”) and lists the divorce attorney of producer Robert Weiss, and The Naked Gun 2 ½ finally explains what a grip does.

 

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1990)

 

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1990)

Moth Wrangler and Stylist: Raymond A. Mendez

It’s the oldest cliché in the movie business. Every year thousands of tender footed young men and women get off buses in Hollywood, with stars in their eyes and dreams of making it big in animal husbandry. Traditionally wranglers take care of animals on movie sets, but there are numerous wranglers with odder jobs than making sure the horses are facing the right way. Wim Van Thillo is credited as a “bathtub wrangler” on Ghostbusters II, while the makers of Look Who’s Talking Too hired effects artist Blair Clark as “sperm wrangler”. Perhaps the most notable niche wrangler of all is Raymond A. Mendez, whose career has included turns as “roach wrangler” on Creepshow, “bee wrangler” on Signs of Life and “moth wrangler and stylist” on The Silence of the Lambs. If you’re making a film and need several hundred ants, cockroaches or well-groomed moths, Mendez is the entomologist to call. If you don’t call he might just show up anyway, towing along a colony of mole-rats.

 

SIN CITY (2005)

 

SIN CITY (2005)

Shot and cut by Robert Rodriguez

It would be unsurprising to discover that Robert Rodriguez has been secretly starring in his own films for years and that Antonio Banderas is just an elaborate feat of special effects. Rodriguez goes above and beyond in his multitasking, often working simultaneously as director, producer, writer, cinematographer, production designer, sound editor, composer, steadicam operator, sandwich-maker and anything else that needs doing. While a strong argument could be made that he’s spreading himself too thin, such dedication is undeniably admirable. Along with abbreviated credits – Once Upon a Time in Mexico is listed as being “Shot, Chopped, and Scored by Robert Rodriguez”, the film-maker is willing to share credit too, unsuccessfully petitioning the Directors Guild of America to acknowledge Frank Miller as the co-director of Sin City. The DGA refused, and so Rodriguez quit the guild. Since then he has presumably started his own directors guild and is acting as the chairman, secretary and treasurer.

 

TRAFFIC (2000)

 

TRAFFIC (2000)

Director of Photography: Peter Andrews

One of the finest cinematographers in contemporary American filmmaking doesn’t actually exist. Steven Soderbergh invented the pseudonym Peter Andrews after the Writers Guild of America wouldn’t let him use the credit “Directed and Photographed by Steven Soderbergh” for Traffic (their rules state that the next person credited after the director must be the writer.) “Peter Andrews” has subsequently been the director of photography on all of his films and television work. In terms of talented imaginary film personnel, Andrews is a peer of “elderly and unhappy” Roderick Jaynes, who edits the Coen brothers’ films and also doesn’t exist. We’re pretty sure that Kingsman: The Secret Service director Matthew Vaughn isn’t real either, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.

 

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

 

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

The Monster: ?

There aren’t enough question marks in modern cinema. The eroteme has a long history in gimmick-driven credits, from movies finishing with “The End?” to the first appearance of Bond villain Blofeld being credited to “?” in From Russia with Love. The best known example comes from James Whale’sFrankenstein, where the Monster was also credited as “?”. Following this idea through to its glorious conclusion, it suggests that the filmmakers honestly didn’t know who played the Monster, and some undead creature just stumbled onto the set one day. Unamused by this was the actor in question, Boris Karloff, who became a worldwide star as a result of the film. Perhaps in reaction to his early snubbing, most of his later credits just read “KARLOFF”. Unfortunately he wasn’t the only person to fall afoul of Frankenstein‘s credits: Mary Shelley is credited as “Mrs Percy B. Shelley” in a snide implication that the novel was written by her husband rather than her. Not cool, 1931, not cool.

 

GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984)

 

GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984)

Screenplay by P.H. Vazak

Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne’s second film as writer-director was supposed to be Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, but he was kicked off the project after after his directorial debut Personal Best flopped. In an understandable huff, he demanded that his writing credit be taken off too, and replaced with that of P.H. Vazak, his Hungarian sheepdog. In a delightful turn of events, the film was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, making P.H. Vazak the only canine to have ever been nominated for an Oscar for writing a major motion picture. Sadly, much like the screenwriting duo of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the dog was a one-hit-wonder and never wrote again. Of all the many questions that this incident raises, the most pressing is perhaps this: what kind of name for a dog is P.H. Vazak?


KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE / THE GUARDIAN

World leaders have been exploding a lot lately. In December North Korea brought Sony Pictures to its knees over their planned release of The Interview, a film that notoriously ends with Kim Jong-un’s head detonating when hit by a tank shell. Kingsman: The Secret Service concludes in similar fashion, but on this occasion the exploding head belongs not to a brutal dictator but the world’s most famous liberal politician. The scene, which takes place during a lavish montage of expiring dignitaries, acts as a grisly exclamation point at the end of one of the most sustained acts of right-wing film-making since its jingoistic 1980s action heyday.

Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), directed by Matthew Vaughn.

 

Kingsman is the fifth feature-length effort from producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn, whose filmography also includes Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and a 2008 short film used as a party political broadcast for the Conservatives. Adapted from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series The Secret Service – although given its prevailing interests it could have conceivably been based on a couple of old copies of FHM found in the woods – the film follows the talented but unvarnished youth Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as he vies to join the titular covert organisation, while being mentored by the agency’s top spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth).

Despite stealing much of its plot wholesale from Men in Black, Kingsman is a James Bond pastiche in its bones, teeming with quips, easily dispatched henchmen and umbrella-derived weaponry. Most crucial to completing the 007 look is a megalomanic villain, who takes the form here of Samuel L Jackson’s Richmond Valentine. A genius tech entrepreneur with a fondness for McDonald’s and limbless sidekicks, Valentine plans to use malevolent SIM cards to force most of the world’s population to violently kill each other, leaving only a select few to inhabit the Earth. The problem with this, other than it being ridiculous and making absolutely no sense, is his motivation. Rather than pursuing money, power, or any other capitalist goal traditionally desired by supervillains, his monstrous strategy is an attempt to halt global warming.

That last point demands to be repeated: the world-threatening villain of Kingsman is a climate change activist.

Colin Firth and Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), directed by Matthew Vaughn.

In the film’s most mortifying attempt at being self-referential, Hart and Valentine have a tense dinner together, with Hart expressing his distaste for modern Bond films, declaring: “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.” The depiction of Valentine’s plan as a throwback to a less serious era of spy movies is revealed as a feint, with the ulterior motive of undermining environmentalists: not only is the character amoral and dispassionate, but his methods are buffoonish, the doomed-to-fail scheme of a lisping, squeamish eccentric.

Everything about Kingsman exists to disguise the fact that it is solidly conservative – even the theme song is by Take That, presumably recorded as part of some elaborate tax-avoidance scheme. If the film is a throwback, then it’s a throwback in the worst manner: not a carefree romp, but James Bond shooing away a female masseuse with a smack on the bottom, telling her it’s time for “man talk”. It is an unpleasant, carelessly violent cartoon, in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class.

The extent of Kingsman’s troubling moral viewpoint is matched only by the determination of reviewers to overlook it. “Just try not to think too much,” suggests Time Out. This curiously disengaged sentiment runs throughout a surprising number of the film’s overwhelmingly positive reviews. Call it the Blurred Lines defence, where the unsavoury message of a work of popular entertainment doesn’t matter so long as it’s catchy. And in filmic terms, Kingsman is catchy: the action is well staged and attractively shot, Firth is an engaging presence as ever, and the whole thing thrums along at a steady clip. Vaughn is an undeniably talented director, but he is also a deeply reactionary one, a fact mostly ignored in light of his enjoyable, seemingly flippant output.

Is it meaningful that Kingsman’s genocidal villain is an environmentalist, or that it features a leering, lengthy scene involving the brutal massacre of dozens of innocent people, or another scene in which Taron Egerton’s hero will rescue an imprisoned woman he doesn’t know only if she agrees to kiss him, or that most of the working-class people it depicts are violent layabouts, or that it ends by killing the most notable left-wing political figure in modern history, who is shown earlier to support the antagonist’s plan to decimate the Earth’s population? Yes. These things are very meaningful: just because a film acts as if it doesn’t take itself seriously isn’t an indication that this is the case. Kingsman is the cinematic equivalent of Nigel Farage, hiding its unpalatable political convictions beneath a studied affectation of cheerful irreverence. It may as well be holding a pint, in tweeds, grinning with just its mouth.

Michael Caine and Taron Egerton in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), directed by Matthew Vaughn.


THE IMITATION GAME / CURZON

The Imitation Game (2014) feature for Curzon Magazine, directed by Morten Tyldum, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley

The Imitation Game (2014) feature for Curzon Magazine, directed by Morten Tyldum, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley


WINTER SLEEP / CURZON

Winter Sleep review-1


SKIN-CRAWLING BODY TRANSFORMATIONS ON FILM / DAZED

Horror, at its most potent, gives form and dimension to our deepest fears. The creature in the dark. The haunted house. The unstoppable figure with a knife. This is the reason that corruption of the body is such a common theme in the horror genre and elsewhere; we fear decay, disease and change. Given that it’s Halloween, and that this week’s new release Horns (2014) opens with its Daniel Radcliffe-shaped protagonist growing horns out of the top of his head, we decided to reflect on some of the most disturbing instances of bodily transmutation on film.

 

Jack Nicholson and Lia Beldam in The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick.

LIA BELDAM IN THE SHINING (1980)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Woman to dead old woman

In one of The Shining’s most notorious scenes, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) enters the Overlook Hotel’s psychically-agitated Room 237 and finds a beautiful naked woman waiting for him in a bathtub. They start kissing, only for her to change into an old lady covered with sores, simultaneously lying dead in the water and lurching towards him while laughing manically. While the woman’s presence is explained in Stephen King’s original novel, the moment’s power, like the rest of Stanley Kubrick’s film, is derived from its ambiguity and openness to interpretation. Regardless of what the scene actually represents, however, what unsettles isn’t the old woman herself, but the congealment of the erotic into the horrific.

 

ROBERT PICARDO IN THE HOWLING (1981)

ROBERT PICARDO IN THE HOWLING (1981)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Man to werewolf

It would be possible to populate this list entirely with lycanthropic transformations. Excruciating and thrilling in equal measure, such scenes are an essential component of any self-respecting werewolf movie. After the sort of deliberation accorded to the choice of a new pope, we landed on Joe Dante’sThe Howling. Released the same year as An American Werewolf in London (1981), genre partisans have debated ever since about which film has the better transformation sequence. While John Landis’ effort arguably wins, something about The Howling disconcerts on a deeper level: it’s the way Robert Picardo’s skin pulsates, an interminable throb that augurs the monster hatching violently into life.

 

TOMOROWO TAGUCHI IN TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)

TOMOROWO TAGUCHI IN TETSUO: THE IRON MAN (1989)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Man to iron man

Over the course of your lifetime you will see hundreds of films. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between them all, a problem that Tetsuo: The Iron Man will never have. After all, it’s the one where a man’s penis changes into a power drill. After running over a “metal fetishist” and dumping the body, an unnamed salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) starts finding shards of metal in his flesh, beginning a strange metamorphosis into the film’s titular Iron Man. Woozy, traumatic and completely silly, Tetsuo: The Iron Man seems exclusively designed to be stumbled across on television at some small hour of the night, strung-out by insomnia and unsure of whether you really saw it at all.

 

ANJELICA HUSTON IN THE WITCHES (1990)

ANJELICA HUSTON IN THE WITCHES (1990)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Woman to witch

The bright whimsy of Quentin Blake’s illustrations sometimes obscures the nastiness that festers within Roald Dahl’s books, where children are frequently tortured and disfigured by maleficent adults. Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches demonstrates that the ideal cinematic translator of Dahl’s writing is not a master of neatness like Wes Anderson but rather the lurid film maker behind Don’t Look Now(1973): the grotesque scene wherein Angelica Huston pulls off her face before a crowd of bald, toeless witches is surely burned into the mind of anyone who was unfortunate, and lucky, enough to see the film as a child.

 

BILL PULLMAN IN LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

BILL PULLMAN IN LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Man to completely different man

In The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony”, Britpop frontman and lank hair enthusiast Richard Ashcroft claimed he was “a million different people from one day to the next”. The reality of the idea is terrifying: you’d never be able to find your keys, for one thing. Ashcroft may have rethought his stance if he’d watched David Lynch’s nightmarish gem Lost Highway, released a few months earlier. In the film, jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is arrested for the murder of his wife, only to transform in his prison cell into a young car mechanic played by Balthazar Getty. The fact that the actual change takes place off-screen only increases the sense of existential dread.

 

SHARLTO COPLEY IN DISTRICT 9 (2009)

SHARLTO COPLEY IN DISTRICT 9 (2009)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Man to alien

At the beginning of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, the populace of Johannesburg are unwilling to empathise with the crustacean-like aliens stranded in their city, penning them in a shanty town where they are treated as second-class citizens and live off cat food. Circumstances progress when bureaucrat Wikus (Sharlto Copley) is exposed to an alien cannister, instigating his steady conversion into a “prawn”. What’s troublesome isn’t Wikus’ physical change but how it incites those around him into acting even less humanely than before. An equally accurate description of the transformation in District 9 would be ‘FILM TO VIVID APARTHEID ALLEGORY’.

 

 THE CHARACTER OKKOTO-NUSHI IN PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

THE CHARACTER OKKOTO-NUSHI IN PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Boar god to demon

Almost all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films feature instances of transmogrification, where parents turn into pigs, goldfish turn into boys, and fighter pilots turn into pig fighter pilots. Of all such shifts, however, there are few in his canon as alarming as the one that drives the conclusion of Princess Mononoke. Driven mad by a gunshot wound, the blind boar god Okkotto-nushi changes into a demon, his body consumed by tendrils of blood. Miyazaki may be most famous for creating the sleepy forest spirit Totoro, but Princess Mononoke demonstrates his gift for the abominable.

 

JEFF GOLDBLUM IN THE FLY (1986)

JEFF GOLDBLUM IN THE FLY (1986)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Man to fly

David Cronenberg is associated with body horror like Edgar Wright is associated with whip pans or M. Night Shyamalan is associated with squandering early promise. The most enduring of the film-maker’s studies of human decay and mutation remains The Fly, which follows the slow, putrescent metamorphosis of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) into the perversely grotesque ‘Brundlefly.’ The film’s excellence is as much a result of its casting as the nauseating special effects, with the gangly-yet-weirdly-attractive Goldblum perfect as a Dr. Frankenstein who makes a monster out of himself. Powerful, tragic and brimming with meaning, 28-years later The Fly has lost none of its capacity to move and repulse.

 

CHARLES HALLAHAN IN THE THING (1982)

CHARLES HALLAHAN IN THE THING (1982)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Man to thing

One of the key reasons John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing from Another World (1951) is so successful that it understands the uncomfortable vagueness of the word “thing”. A named antagonist has properties and capabilities that can be understood, if not easily overcome. The shape-shifting creature in The Thing, on the other hand, can be anything, or anyone. The terror it inspires comes not from any specific form but its unknowability. The lifeform’s most gruesome outing occurs as the research station’s doctor applies a defibrillator to Norris (Charles Hallahan). The patient’s chest subsequently changes into a mouth and bites the doctor’s arms off, before going through a hideous transformation into a spider-like severed head. After such bizarre and disquieting events, the only rational response is the film’s most famous line: “You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”

 

Natalie Portman in Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky

NATALIE PORTMAN IN BLACK SWAN (2010)

THE TRANSFORMATION: Woman to hallucinated swan

Darren Aronofsky’s heightened style of film-making has perhaps never found a more appropriate home than Black Swan, in which a vulnerable ballerina succumbs to madness and hallucinations as she chases artistic perfection. It’s difficult to pinpoint specific moments that startle by themselves, although scenes of Nina (Natalie Portman) pulling thick swan hairs from her skin and her legs bending backwards have their own grisly merits. Instead, it is Aronofsky’s intense delirium that unbalances the viewer, as Nina is overcome by feathery rashes, blood-filled eyes and voices that cry from mirrors, as she is transformed at a price into the role she’s desperate to perform.

 


A BIGGER BLOAT/ THE QUIETUS

One of the most significant milestones in recent cinema history occurred in a film you’re probably still trying to forget. Towards the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski’s infelicitous follow-up to their 1999 original, waistcoat aficionado and coloured pill dispenser Morpheus has a sword fight on top of a speeding lorry. Like most of the brawls in the film there’s little reason for its existence beyond it looking cool, but it’s tempting to imagine that producer Joel Silver had the superfluous scene in mind when he infamously boasted, “We’ve raised the bar so high, there is no bar.”

Just because something has been said in some mad fit of coked-up hyperbole doesn’t mean that it can’t also be true. The Matrix sequels mark the precise spot where the barrier of technology for live-action cinema was finally and irreversibly removed. Once it was possible to stage convincing sword fights on the roofs of heavy goods vehicles there were no limits to what could be depicted on-screen. Silver was right: the bar had been raised so high that it no longer existed. Providing that they had a large enough budget, film-makers were able to make whatever they wanted.

This wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix Reloaded (2003), directed by the Wachowskis.

The concept of the modern blockbuster was born in 1975 when a film starring a malfunctioning shark and an insufficiently large boat became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. In the nearly four decades that have passed since Jaws’ unprecedented box-office achievements (swiftly dwarfed by Star Wars two years later), blockbuster movies have become the “tent poles” around which major film studios construct their production schedules.

While an increasing emphasis on spectacle was inevitable – Jaws, after all, doesn’t even fully show its selachian villain until 81 minutes into the film – over the past fifteen years this has gone hand in hand with a systemic bloating of both content and running times. Where the average length of the top 10 highest grossing films of the 1990s was 132 minutes, the average for the 2000s was 154 minutes. A sea change has taken place: to get a project green-lit with the sort of budget demanded of a big summer blockbuster the film must now boast a running time that would have once required an intermission. Lean, efficient blockbusters like Men in Black (98 minutes) and the first X-Men(104 minutes) are almost unimaginable today.

The rapturous critical and commercial success of Titanic in 1997 can shoulder a little of the blame for blockbuster film-making’s descent into exorbitance, but the real catalyst was The Lord of the Rings. Formula-repeating, money-vacuuming sequels have always been a predilection for studios, but after Peter Jackson’s three-film opus grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide a movement towards monster-sized trilogies began.

Without rich source material like J.R.R. Tolkien’s twelve hundred pages of Middle Earth follies to draw upon, however, the power of satisfying one-offs like Pirates of the Caribbean were diluted by overlong sequels and bogged down by convoluted plotting and endless action sequences. Jackson himself fell prey to the temptation to expand unnecessarily when his adaptation of the 310-page children’s book The Hobbit unfathomably bloated into three enormous films in an attempt to emulate his earlier accomplishments.

As the films have become bigger, the possible forms they can take have narrowed. A blockbuster that can’t potentially birth a franchise has little value, irrespective of its other qualities. Not only is any picture with a budget over $200 million expected to be an epic in length, such films are now also required to anticipate at least two potential sequels, regardless of whether the story (inevitably pulpy and genre-based) can support this or not. While it’s understandable that a well-received and financially successful film might spawn a follow-up, the amount of effort many blockbusters put into world-building makes them feel like feature-length advertisements for their own sequels rather than distinctive pieces of popular entertainment in their own right.

This trend seems likely to burgeon further still as the major film studios – emboldened by the enviable profitability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – look for ways to tie properties together in a similarly gargantuan, synergy-promoting manner. Even though there has been an undeniable pleasure in watching Marvel Studios skilfully weave the warp and weft of its epic superhero tapestry over multiple franchises, their use of intensive serialisation and rigid commitment to an enjoyable-yet-cautious house style (this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy proving a joyful exception to the rule) makes it very difficult for their films to be genuinely surprising. Creating nine motion pictures that are mostly good-to-excellent is commendable, but their consistency can’t disguise the creeping sensation of exhaustion.

The tendency to engorge blockbuster films beyond their natural size has only been exacerbated by the strides made in CGI over the past twenty years. Once genuinely astounding, sequences like the battle that opened The Fellowship of the Ring are now commonplace. A few of the Harry Potterfilms aside, it’s difficult to think of a major blockbuster from this millennium that hasn’t featured either a gigantic battle or a city being destroyed, often at the same time. Such sequences provide diminishing returns as the sight of computer generated figures waging war against each other rapidly loses its attraction. In trying to top each other with their bombast and magnitude, such films become less distinctive, their impact dulled by visual noisiness. Accordingly, the third acts of many modern blockbusters are largely interchangeable: does it really matter if the CG buildings are being destroyed by Superman or some Transformers; by a crashing starship or one of a dozen Marvel superheroes?

The troubled state of contemporary blockbusters doesn’t deprive them of value. There remains a number of incredibly talented film-makers who manage to create interesting work despite being unable to entirely break free from dominant conventions. Until its skirmish-heavy, building-destroying conclusion, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is bleak, thoughtful, intelligent and gripping, while Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ lengthy withholding of the eponymous reptile’s first appearance overtly channels the work of Steven Spielberg.

Even 2012’s Avengers Assemble is a good example of a contemporary blockbuster that works despite being a colossal mess. Regardless of that film’s many positives, however, it could have undoubtedly been improved by a tighter narrative and less generic action. It’s not insignificant that the most memorable moments take place in the comic interactions between characters rather than any individual set pieces. An interesting thought experiment: aside from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, what do the other enemies in Avengers Assemble look like? Would you be able to draw one from memory? What actually happens in any of the action scenes, beyond people flying or hitting each other?

Confronted by widespread piracy, the terminal decline of physical media sales and attendant rise of streaming options, ever more sophisticated home entertainment systems and a booming era of television, the appeal of supersized blockbusters for film studios is obvious. Keen to discourage the growing allure of home viewing, studios focus their efforts on producing films best experienced in a cinema, ideally by purchasing a more expensive 3D or IMAX cinema ticket. This means that the major film studios are making fewer films and the ones they are making are aimed at as broad of an audience as possible.

The problem with this strategy is that as the studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars making and marketing a handful of films, the risk increases exponentially: Disney’s underwhelming John Carter had a budget so gigantic that it had to become one of the highest grossing films of all time in order to make its money back. When a film has to earn over a billion dollars to avoid being considered a flop then something in the industry has gone wrong. This level of risk incites predictable caution, leading to the exclusion of original screenplays in favour of a near-talismanic dependence on pre-existing properties with any semblance of audience recognition, from sequels to reboots to the adaptations of board games.

The propensity for studios to place all of their financial eggs into a couple of cinematic baskets each year also has ramifications across all of film-making, as the diverse range of mid-priced pictures that studios used to make now struggle to secure funding. If such films are made at all they’re often stuffed into a vicious few months at the end of the year, doomed to be ignored and forgotten if they don’t pick up immediate Oscar buzz.

For all the damage that this endemic bloating has had on the film industry, it’s the blockbusters themselves that have suffered the most. It takes the viewing of another of Spielberg’s superlative blockbusters to see how things have gone awry, and to contemplate a possible road back.

Laura Dern and Sam Neill in Jurassic Park (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Re-watching Jurassic Park twenty-one years later, a dozen of them filled with increasingly distended blockbusters, what’s most striking is how elegantly constructed and efficient the film’s narrative is. It’s easy to imagine that if the film had been made today it would be a shapeless, three-hour-long muddle, lousy with subplots and gratuitous destruction. Instead, Jurassic Park spends its first half patiently establishing its world and characters before the park’s security system shuts down and hell breaks loose. Even after that cataclysmic event, David Koepp’s screenplay takes efforts to space out the action scenes, interspersing them with moments of character development and reflection.

By exercising restraint, Jurassic Park avoids the sort of fatigue that besets anyone trying to make their way through a Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers film more than once. Aside from an unfortunate outdoor toilet no buildings are destroyed, there are no indistinct crowds, and each scene features only a handful of characters who spend much of the film in immediate danger. Populating its story with easily-injured humans rather than superheroes, Jurassic Park provides actual stakes: the world isn’t at risk, but the protagonists are.

Almost every aspect of Spielberg’s film seems to now stand as a rebuke to prevailing trends in blockbuster film-making. Despite being commonly seen as a turning point in the development of CGI, only 80 shots in Jurassic Park actually employ computer-generated effects – by contrast,Avengers Assemble features over 2,200 visual effects shots. In using the technology so sparingly, relying on animatronics, long shots and sequences set at night, the film’s effects hold up remarkably well. Even if technical limitations played a part in deciding how its threats were depicted, the austere usage of CGI enhances the audience’s sense of both wonder and fear: a single Tyrannosaurus Rex is scarier than hundreds of them.

Like its dinosaurs, each of Jurassic Park’s action sequences are memorable and distinct: the night-time T-Rex attack, the race to turn the security system back on, climbing the fence, the raptors in the kitchen. Excluding Hitchcock there has probably never been a director more gifted at staging set pieces than Steven Spielberg, and their impact throughout Jurassic Park serves as a reminder of how much more effective a blockbuster can be when it isn’t just lurching from one giant fight to the next.

After twenty-one years of unrelenting technological advances Jurassic Park has inevitably lost some of its capacity to astonish, but regardless of how far CGI develops the film will remain a fulfilling undertaking because it’s a good story, well told. Disappointing sequels were to follow but the film itself is completely self-contained: the heroes escape, the dinosaurs commandeer the island, and that’s it. There is no need for a post-credits tag.

The impetus for film studios to make blockbusters is – and has always been – to make a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be something beautiful about the idea of populist entertainment. Are there many cinematic enterprises more enjoyable than rounding up a group of friends to see an eagerly anticipated blockbuster, or cramming onto a sofa with your family at Christmas to watch that same film, out of your gourd on Quality Street? There’s a reason why blockbusters are often the first films people fall in love with. At their best, they provide a communal experience that combines spectacle with a satisfying narrative. As the spectacle overtakes the narrative, that unique joy is in danger of being lost.

Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Peck in Jurassic Park (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg

 


FADING GIGOLO / CURZON

Fading Gigolo (2014), directed by John Turturro and starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara and Vanessa Paradis.

Fading Gigolo (2014), directed by John Turturro and starring John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Sofía Vergara and Vanessa Paradis.


THE LAST FLIGHT OF HAYAO MIYAZAKI / OH COMELY

A pig is strolling along a beach in Tynemouth, thinking about the dead. Still weary after his lengthy flight from Japan, he decides to rest on a nearby bench for a moment. It’s here that he’s accosted by the ghost of the late author Robert Westall, who has taken the guise of a terrier. The pair discuss literature, aeroplanes and World War II, and before they go their separate ways they head to a nearby pub for a drink; they’re in Newcastle, after all.

Tynemouth

The visitor’s name is Hayao Miyazaki, and when he not assuming porcine form he’s considered Japan’s greatest living filmmaker, beloved for co-founding Studio Ghibli as well as writing and directing many of its finest pictures, from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away. For most, turning into a pig would be noteworthy, but Miyazaki has made a career out of extraordinary acts of transmogrification: in Ponyo, the eponymous goldfish starts to become human after eating an errant piece of ham, while the fighter pilot protagonist of Porco Rosso is changed into “The Crimson Pig” by a curse, and the Boar God Okkoto-Nushi in Princess Mononoke becomes a demon after a corrupting gunshot wound.

Miyazaki’s encounter with Westall takes place in his short manga, A Trip to Tynemouth. It is one of many such efforts in which the animator appears in his printed comics – known as manga, as opposed to the animated medium, anime – as a moustachioed swine with bottlecap spectacles, reflecting upon the influences and obsessions that have shaped his work.

Like an aging prizefighter, Miyazaki has had a tendency to erroneously retire from his chosen profession. Indefatigably hard working – he has typically drawn or redrawn by hand thousands of frames on each of his films – his assorted retirements have usually been greeted with a reasonable degree of scepticism. Recently, however, he announced that the forthcoming historical epic, The Wind Rises, would be his last film. At the age of 73 it’s probably wise to finally take him at his word. As his cinematic career draws to a close, then, it is worth contemplating, as Miyazaki himself often has through manga, not just his body of work, but how he became the filmmaker that created it.

With Studio Ghibli’s output widely admired and the tree-growing narcoleptic Totoro a burgeoning global icon, it can be easy to forget that the company’s cultural eminence is a relatively new development: not only did Miyazaki not form Studio Ghibli until 22 years into his professional life, but several years passed subsequently before any of the studio’s films were actually seen in the west, outside of the illicit, battered videotapes that circulated amongst communities of anime enthusiasts. Even today, when Studio Ghibli’s films are dubbed by Hollywood actors and aggressively distributed internationally by Disney, being a western admirer of Miyazaki means that one is still exposed only to a small segment of his work: his superlative Studio Ghibli films represent merely the part of the iceberg that we’re able to see.

What’s missing from our understanding is the underberg, comprising Miyazaki’s mangas and early television serials that have largely evaded English-language release. Momentarily putting aside their own merits as ragged, vibrant works of art in themselves, it is possible to trace the beginnings of ideas, motifs and characters that found fuller expression in his films. A panel in a 1969 manga anticipates an identical image that occurs a decade later in his theatrical debut, while a story Miyazaki struggled with in 1980 about a boy-turned-giant-mountain-lion was reconfigured into the very different historical fantasy Princess Mononoke seventeen years later.

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It shouldn’t be expected that mangas like Air Meal (a comic rumination on the history of in-flight food) or For My Sister (a graphic poem about a boy taking his terminally ill twin sister on a flight around the world) will provide a Rosetta Stone to fully understanding Miyazaki any more than his cinematic efforts do. Like any complicated, prolific artist, his artistic identity is multi-faceted; a fact illustrated by the Japanese critical reaction to The Wind Rises. An embellished biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, chief engineer of the notorious A6M “Zero” fighters in World War II, Miyazaki was criticised by both the country’s left and right for his nuanced and contradictory portrayal of his protagonist as a brilliant, sensitive man whose exceptional talents nevertheless contributed to widespread destruction.

Miyazaki’s non-film work rebuffs reductive suppositions. Instead, it shows how despite his enduring interest in supernatural elements, Japanese folk tales and British children’s literature, everything he creates is deeply personal, regardless of scale or content. Daydream Data Notes, for instance, is a collection of illustrated essays on pre-WWII military vehicles contributed to the hobby magazine, Model Graphix. Miyazaki had grown up during World War II, when his father’s manufacturing company was producing rudders for Japanese fighter planes. The essays demonstrate how his childhood obsession with sketching such vehicles developed into the persistent reoccurrence of similar aircraft throughout his films. A thoughtful pacifist, his early passion for aircraft was counteracted by witnessing their devastating potential during the firebombing of Utsunomiya. From this perspective, the tension in his films between wonder and horror at what technology can do becomes more comprehensible.

The unique and specific combination of Miyazaki’s creative obsessions and personal history conspire to render his progressive values – feminism, environmentalism, pacifism – in ways that are visually exciting, original and moving. Miyazaki’s storytelling instincts, honed by the thousands upon thousands of images he has personally drawn in his lifetime, have always tended towards depicting complex ideas through vivid imagery – hence his early discovery that supernatural metamorphosis was an elegant way to portray on the outside what’s happening on the inside. While his narrative reliance on forms of transmutation can be partially attributed to its place within Japanese literary tradition, the process exists as a useful visual metaphor for man’s ruinous treatment of the environment, a theme he has been exploring for decades.

For all of the marauding demons, wood spirits and dust creatures that find their way into Miyazaki’s films, the key to their lasting appeal is the humanism imbued in them by their creator. Where most of America’s animated feature films, for example, are created in industrial parks in Southern California, Miyazaki has maintained a genuine connection with nature, spending much of his time in a remote mountain cabin. His emphasis on the importance of the natural world stands in stark contrast even to Pixar at their peak—a company whose films, perhaps by virtue of their use of computer animation as much as their environment can’t help but be relentlessly modern, even as they eschew the lazy pop culture references of their peers. While Studio Ghibli have also incorporated the use of computer animation into their filmmaking, their work is still mostly produced using traditional cel animation. Even if the paint is digital, their features are still largely drawn by artists, one image at a time. This increasingly anachronistic approach finds an affinity with the films themselves, which allow for moments of stillness and beauty largely absent from comparable animated films emerging from other studios.

Studio Ghibli’s reputation has been built almost entirely on the creative brilliance of two men: Miyazaki and Isao Takahata – the studio’s other co-founder and director of Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko and Only Yesterday. While the studio has released appealing films from other directors, increasingly so as Miyazaki and Takahata have slowed their work-rate, their imminent departure can’t fail to have an effect on its fortunes. Based on the principles instilled by Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli will doubtlessly endure, and continue to produce excellent work. Even so, the unavoidable fact remains that a significant era in the history of animation is ending.

In searching for an appropriate way to consider Miyazaki’s departure, it is perhaps best to look to the man himself. As a developing artist, he made a conscious decision to eschew the influence of seminal manga artist Osamu Tezuka in favour of developing his own style. Writing in his memoir Starting Point, he recalls: “When I was finally forced to admit that my drawings actually did look like Tezuka’s, I took out the sketches I had stored in the drawer of our dresser and burned them all. I burned them and resolved to start over from scratch.”

Miyazaki would inevitably be the first to argue that his retirement should herald the arrival of something new, rather than inspiring pale imitations of his own work. His career breakthrough came when he and Isao Takahata co-directed fourteen episodes of a popular television series about the master thief and scoundrel Lupin III. But after achieving enormous success with Lupin III on film and television, Miyazaki decided to leave him behind to pursue fresh ground. In his memoir, he bids farewell to the character, whose time had come: “I often think of Lupin fondly, for he was hungry in those days; he was a bit lecherous, fastidious, scattered, and headstrong, and he was crazy about mini-car races.”

Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty

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INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS / CURZON

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.