Directors: 

Guy Maddin, Dušan Makavejev, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Terrence Malick, Louis Malle, David Mamet, Anthony Mann, Michael Mann, Chris Marker, Marx Brothers, Albert and David Maysles, Leo McCarey, Shane Meadows, Dariush Mehrjui,

Georges Méliès, Jean-Pierre Melville, Russ Meyer, Vincente Minnelli, Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli), Kenji Mizoguchi, Mario Monicelli, Monty Python, Lukas Moodysson, Michael Moore, Nanni Moretti, Errol Morris, Friedrich W. Murnau

 

 

Mabry, Tina

 

MISSISSIPPI DAMNED                                          B+                   92

USA  (120 mi)  2009  ‘Scope     Mississippi Damned

 

Alabama’s got me so upset; Tennessee’s made me lose my rest; and everybody knows about Mississippi goddamn!”  

Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone

 

Perhaps in response to the accolades received by a few white directors who have been making independent films about the black cultural experience, like Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW (2005) and BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007), Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (2008), even perennial indie filmmaker John Sayles taking a stab with HONEYDRIPPER (2007), all set in black neighborhoods using primarily black casts—perhaps the accumulated praise finally got into this director’s craw so she decided she was going to do something about it by writing her own script and directing her own movie.   Whatever inspired her, much of it feeling confessional, she’s written a sprawling complex work about black dysfunctional families which turns out to be the story of her life, a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, an eye-opening look into a world of poverty and depravity that most of us have never seen, certainly not the kind of relentless onslaught that is depicted here.  For its unflinching look at her own wrenching family horrors, as well as assembling a terrific cast, the feeling of authenticity deserves high praise, but it’s shot on video and blown up on Super 35 mm, so there’s plenty of intimacy through close ups and mobile camera movement, but the colors tend to be washed out or saturated, just the antithesis of realistic, and much of it remains in a grainy image.  But the fact that it’s on ‘Scope gives it a much more impressive canvas to work with, such as expanding the number of people in the picture, or isolating someone in the corner of the frame.  But in this film, people have no place to hide.  

 

Shot in just 22 days in North Carolina, reportedly with no rehearsals, its two halves are set in Mississippi in 1986, and again in 1998.  What’s really different here, what we haven’t seen that much of since Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE (1985), are the pervasive themes of lesbianism and sexual abuse, not exactly familiar household terminology in any world cinema, yet both are presented like natural components of growing up in such dire circumstances, reluctantly tolerated yet barely spoken about.  There are no arrests, charges filed, or police reports, as the perpetrators of sexual abuse are friends or family members who become stained or soiled by their actions, like a mark placed upon their backs, but remain part of the family.  It is significant to recollect the black lesbian writers, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and now Alice Mabry, where their sexual preference is of no significance really, yet artistically speaking what they all have in common is an unmistakably corrosive bitterness towards black men, embodied by this film as well.  Black men, even with Obama in the White House, couldn’t be viewed with greater negativity, both here and by America in general, where for these lesbian women the bridge between men and women seems unsurpassable.  The more familiar themes of adultery, domestic violence, abandonment, imprisonment, mental illness, death, and addiction and alcohol abuse feel almost benign in comparison.  There is a telling remark made late in the picture by Charlie who suggests “when you’ve got nothing else, you’ve got family.  You don’t have to like them, but they’re still family.” 

 

Based on the large number of characters, but most significantly the heavy reliance on dialogue, where dialect and regional authenticity are key, the spoken word becomes the essential component that drives this film, making this feel more like a theatrical play than a movie, especially the way it purposely uses such intensely uncomfortable subject matter, which feels much more at home in the theater than in cinema houses.  Even the need to portray miserablism with such authenticity feels like a theatrical device, as it will be difficult to find an audience for this film, especially without a known star, as it was for Toni Morrison’s slavery themed BELOVED (1998) which had both money and stars.  There is plenty of willful manipulation on display here even as the director wisely withholds judgment about any character’s actions, much of it through the use of children whose innocent faces see all, yet when they get older, must bear the brunt of so much of this communal pain.  What I found particularly distasteful was the way only one character was portrayed as if she had a halo on her head, continually perceived as thoughtful, kind, intelligent, remaining innocent and likable throughout, despite the horrors inflicted upon her.  And this character turns out to be the director herself.   On the other hand, this depiction does at least acknowledge that within the black community, there are layers of accountability, things one does to prove their blackness, their worth to family and community, while there are also powerful forces that do not wish intelligent kids to succeed, as if that’s selling out to the white world, as if they’re somehow better than the rest.  Unfortunately the majority of the male characters seen in this film would fall into the latter category.  

 

Much of this film was shot in claustrophobic interiors that become all too familiar after awhile, where the confinement of life behind the same four walls indicates prison, yet the degree to which homes are being snatched away due to foreclosure adds a constant element of anxiety and insecurity even within that restricted confinement.  And of course, when one character loses their home, they become a larger burden to someone else who must take them in.  Everything just adds more pressure, where life is seen as a hell on earth, and money the root of all evil, because few have it, everyone needs it, and many are forced to do horrible things to get it.  Initially we’re introduced to the matriarchal society of three proud sisters, Anna (Simbi Kali Williams), Delores (Michael Hyatt), and Charlie (Jossie Harris Thacker), who fight daily battles with violent, abusive, mostly absent or unemployed men to provide what passes for family stability.  Money is the key ingredient that no one has, so the wear and tear of these daily battles over money fester and boil over into scenes of violence, witnessed by three kids, Sammy (Malcolm David Kelly) the young basketball prodigy, his little cousin Kari (Kylee Russell) who plays the role of the director, and her older sister Leigh (Chastity Hammite) who has a full blown crush for girls.  Sammy is forced to perform sexual favors for money, Leigh is constantly chastised by her parents for her sexual interests, while Kari routinely runs next door for a meal. 

 

The constant shifting of tone from elation to defeat, from joy to pain, runs throughout this film where people are continually playing one another, trying to take advantage any way they can, as the lives of young hopefuls are crushed under the devastation that engulfs them, at times succumbing to the worst instincts that were heaped upon them and their elders at such a tender age, leading to unforgivable crimes inflicted upon their own family members.  If there is a damned creature in this film it is the alcoholic, yet bluntly outspoken Charlie, molested by her own father as a child, her mother turning a blind eye, eventually taking matters into her own hands and stabbing the girl of a good for nothing boyfriend who was cheating on her, serving time in prison, yet beholden to the bottle even after her release, becoming a ghostly presence where a fiercely independent woman once lived.   But her son Sammy carries the same burden of sexual molestation as a child into adulthood, a raging cancer as deadly as any economic force that could potentially wipe out a family.  Tessa Thompson as an adult Kari literally carries the hopes of her family and the entire community on her back, a musical talent with hopes of getting into NYU, she ends up postponing her college dreams to become the nurturing force of womanhood in the film, a young woman who has withstood the most intimate of crimes yet has maintained her integrity and idealism intact.  Hard to imagine, hard to dispute, but this is her life as she perceives it, and who are we to doubt any of it?  

 

Special Note – best lead actress Tessa Thompson, best supporting actress Jossie Harris Thacker, direction and screenplay Tina Mabry, ensemble acting

 

Slamdance Film Festival 2009 : Mississippi Damned  Drea Clark

 

Spanning across 1986 to 1998, this dramatically epic tale based on true events follows the heart-wrenching tale of three poor, Black kids in rural Mississippi. Stuck in a cycle of never ending abuse, addiction and violence, they independently struggle to escape their circumstances and must decide whether to confront what has plagued their family for generations or succumb to the same crippling fate, forever damned in Mississippi.

Bitterly honest and profoundly subtle, Mississippi Damned successfully captures growing up in a world where possibilities and opportunities seem to die in the face of the suffocating reality of physical and sexual abuse, obsession, and a myriad of destructive compulsions.

This movie had me truly riveted, simultaneously wanting to avert my eyes from all the pain but not daring to stop watching for a second in case I missed something. An emotional journey for both the characters and the viewer, Mississippi Damned is a notable filmic undertaking, with intense moments punctuated by responsive cinematography and detailed production design. The fact that all of the trials, the heart ache and the poignant happenings are so grossly captivating is a testament to the talent that went into crafting this film and the truth that comes across in the telling.
 

Mississippi Damned | Frameline33 | Tina Mabry | USA  Angelique Smith

 

Based on true events and spanning between 1986 and 1998, Mississippi Damned follows three young African Americans in the rural south as they suffer through the devastating cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse. Leigh is a bull dyke with an unhealthy, and long-lasting, obsession with her girlfriend. Sammy gives up his youth, innocence and body for a shot at his basketball dreams. Kari, the most promising of the three, has aspirations to attend New York University to further develop her musical talents, but fights to keep her head above water as her relatives and circumstances drag her down.

This captivating drama takes the viewer through his or her own internal conflict: you want the characters to catch a damn break already, but you almost don’t want to give them a chance to mess up another opportunity. Each well-written individual is raw and genuine, with hidden complexities and agendas, which is rare for an ensemble cast. Jossie Thacker’s Charlie is especially tragic and haunting, as a woman whose own dark past demands forgiveness for her inability to be a better mother.

Under writer-director Tina Mabry’s delicate touch, no plot twists feel forced, even when coming out of left field. Yet, the most predictable of actions leaves you blindsided. With the intimacy of handheld camera work, Mississippi Damned is a film that is both compelling and heartbreaking.

 

» A Dark Warmth: A Review of MISSISSIPPI DAMNED Post No Ills: A ...   Nijla Mumin

Mississippi Damned, written and directed by Tina Mabry, carves out an expansive visual presence with its bold and layered portrayal of a black family in Mississippi. The film follows two generations, spanning the years of 1986 and 1998. The older generation includes sisters Delores, Charlie, Anna, their husbands Junior and Tyrone and their mother Alice. They struggle through joblessness, alcoholism, domestic abuse, gambling and denial. The younger generation of Sammy, Leigh and Kari actively rebel against the vices that their parents fall victim to. Yet, in many of their attempts to break free, they end up reinforcing that same behavior.

Mabry plays on the themes of silence and denial and their ability to attenuate the potential for a family to transcend their circumstances. In the film, we see Charlie, the mother of Sammy, struggle immensely with alcoholism and past sexual abuse. As she buries her pain in liquor and house parties, her own son suffers the same trauma. The silence between the two and other family members concerning this issue only exacerbates the toll it takes on everyone’s lives. Without a healthy mother-son relationship, they become one in the same.

Characters in Mississippi Damned are imbued with depth, making it difficult to describe them with the divisive categories of “bad men” or “good women.” This often separates many independent films from mainstream features: an ability to conceive of characters that do not fit into rigid roles. The heroes are also the villains in this film. Young Sammy, a wide-eyed teenager just trying to buy food for his family and get a basketball scholarship to college, ends up succumbing to the vices that he sought to escape and then recycles that same behavior with another family member in acts of sexual dominance. Further, Leigh, a lesbian young woman fighting to experience love despite the familial stigmas attached to her sexuality, becomes romantically obsessed and reckless. And as much as we would love to hate Tyrone, the abusive, trite husband to Anna, we see them share a tearful embrace in the hospital room following the miscarriage of their child, a recurring tragedy for them. Tyrone’s character and his actions are portrayed as consequences of the poverty and joblessness he endures throughout the film. So while there is no excuse for his disrespect of Anna, there is a foundation for his behavior.

Bradford Young’s cinematography serves as a rich, visceral supplement to the fearlessness of Mabry’s script and direction. It is ethereal and soft in places where sisters sit around trading jokes while a younger Kari plays the piano. It is bold and sassy in the opening scene where we are pulled into a lively party and card game accented with oranges and reds. At times, the complex character interactions mingle with evocative cinematography to elate and unsettle. In one scene, Charlie enters her mother’s room to ask for twenty dollars. Alice, who occupies a mostly comedic role throughout the film, attempts to thwart her daughter’s requests until Charlie speaks of being sexually abused by her deceased father and the silent consent that Alice gave. At once, the camera forms a tight close-up of Alice’s face as she twists and turns in discomfort at the mention of the abuse she ignored. The strength of Charlie addressing these issues is only compounded by corresponding visual of Alice, resulting in a deep feeling of uneasiness—the feeling of being trapped, as Alice appears to be in the shot. In another scene, young Sammy rides in the car with a drug dealer/molester, and we can barely see either character due to the darkness. The lighting and shadowed view into what is going on enhances the tension and anxiety. Sammy’s team had just won the basketball game and he would be on his way to getting a scholarship, but the quick transition to this dark car, and the following scene, only darkens the joy of that moment.

Mabry also demonstrates a knack with dialogue and foreshadowing with characters’ terse exchange hovering between humor and pathos. For example, concerning Anna’s pregnancy, Alice comments, “If this one make it!” A bitter honesty mixed with familial warmth colors such scenes, and illuminates the intricacies born of black families. Subtle touches of atmosphere also pepper the film with rich Southern nuances. Short interludes where an elderly black man plays a harmonica in the neighborhood or Delores and Anna sit outside talking and washing fish in a bucket fold in Mississippi culture with brilliant subtlety.

Yet for all of its bitter honesty and realism, one has to wonder how much emotional intensity an audience can endure. Screenwriters are often warned against writing scripts where dramatic or suspenseful scenes seem to run one after another, without a clear respite for the audience to breath before the next one. Mississippi Damned sequences scenes of violence followed by scenes of anger followed by scenes of sexual abuse. While the stakes are raised, one could notice audience members oftentimes squirming in their seats—uncomfortable, but also intrigued. This is the gravity, the pull of this film. It evokes discomfort as an inevitable result of pain and denial in this family. There aren’t many respites to ongoing cycles of pain and abuse. The respite results in the confrontation and acknowledgement of that pain, and that is the goal, albeit unachievable for some characters, of this film.

The closing sequence in the film magnifies parallels between the suffering that both generations face throughout. In one visual juxtaposition, we see Sammy and his mother Charlie, once again reunited by the alcoholism and sexual abuse that they never confronted, in a way that haunts and leaves one aching for them. In that same sequence, Kari takes a major step toward the recognition of her family’s flaws, and embarks on a personal journey that one is to believe will inevitably enrich her future and her family’s as well. Ultimately, Mabry’s genius lies in her ability to expose one family’s vulnerabilities, demons and love that remains amidst it all—a portrait of familial distress, angst and hope. In many families, just as with the one in this film, silence has its place. Mississippi Damned speaks into that silence and denial, the resulting echo being a daring cinematic journey.

Hammer to Nail [Brandon Harris]

 

Review of "Mississippi Damned" | AfterEllen.com   Danielle Riendeau


U.S. Dramatic Centerpiece: Mississippi Damned - 2009 Outfest  Jon Korn

 

Interview With "Mississippi Damned" Filmmakers Tina Mabry and ...  Karman Kregloe interview from After Ellen, August 10, 2009

 

HollywoodReporter.com  Duane Byrge

 

Mississippi Damned | Variety  Ronnie Scheib

 

Mississippi Damned - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Mississippi Goddam - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Alice Walker - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Alice Walker - The Official Website for Alice Walker

 

Anniina's Alice Walker Page

 

Ntozake Shange - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Women of Color Women of Word -- African American Female ...  biographical information

 

Ntozake Shange  biographical profile

 

glbtq >> literature >> African-American Literature: Lesbian

 

Nina Simone | Mississippi Goddam lyrics

 

Nina Simone 'Mississippi goddam' - Live in the ...  live performance on YouTube (5:06)

 

Maccarone, Angelina

 

THE LOOK

France  (94 mi)  2011

The Look  Mark Adams at Cannes from Screendaily, May 18, 2011

Part biographical documentary and part a series of musings on life and art, this extremely watchable film about actress Charlotte Rampling is a fascinating series of discussions between her and a series of photographers, writer and filmmakers. It will intrigue those who are fans of her work and should appeal to festivals and nice arts broadcasters.

For those, however, out for a look at her life and career The Look might be rather unsatisfying given that it features a series of head-to-head chats (or musings) separated into chapters - such as ‘Desire’ and ‘Demons’ - rather than featuring a plethora of film clips and lots of gushing praise.

The famous Rampling ‘look’ - the way that her increasingly hooded eye-lids help create of powerful stare that is much loved by her directors - is amusingly discussed by Rampling and photographer Peter Lindbergh, where she debates how a little surgery would actually rid her of the ‘look’ itself. Engagingly she takes the camera and turns it on Lindbergh, shooting some pretty impressive images.

Subsequent meetings with a series of friends - including author Paul Auster, German photographer Juergen Teller and artist Anthony Palliser, all annoyingly without titles to indicate who they are - are intriguing and at times fascinating, and while Rampling is a charming, witty and erudite personality she rarely gives anything away about herself.

The film does feature a few extracts from Rampling’s film work, with - unsurprisingly her role in Liliani Cavani’s controversial 1974 film The Night Porter receiving the most attention, as she discusses the film with Juergen Teller. Also featured are extracts from Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Sous le sable; Lumet’s The Verdict (and the scene where her character is hit by Paul Newman); Oshima’s Max mon amour and Visconti’s The Damned.

There are brief moments when the film dips into other more personal aspects of her life - such as when he briefly mention’s her younger sister’s suicide at the age of 23 - and while she can appear formidable and vaguely unapproachable she also has a ready smile and sharp wit. Towards the end of the film she is shot wandering around Paris, and casually engages in a conversation with a group of elderly men who vaguely recognise her. She immediately charms them with her warmth and easy grace…the same qualities that we have come to expect from her screen roles.

The Look: Cannes 2011 Review  Jordan Mintzer at Cannes from Screendaily, May 16, 2011

Engaging documentary, directed by Angelina Maccarone, offers a revealing glimpse into Charlotte Rampling.

CANNES -- Throughout her nearly half-century career, actress Charlotte Rampling has rarely shied away from exposing herself onscreen. In the new bio documentary The Look, she bares it all yet again, but this time in a series of compelling discussions with different artists, writers, photographers and filmmakers. Following a premiere in Cannes Classics, look for this one in fests, scattered arthouses and on public TV.

Providing less of a standard biographical study than a free-wheeling tête-à-tête separated into heavily thematic chapters with names like “Demons,” “Desire” and “Death,” director Angelina Maccarone (Vivere) accompanies Rampling on visits to various artists-cum-friends, with whom she chats about her unique approach to working in front of the camera.

The fascinating opening segment, “Exposure,” has Rampling being photographed by Peter Lindbergh, until she turns the lens on him for a bit of role reversal. After a few glasses of wine (used often throughout the film), their conversation concludes with Rampling saying something that could sum up her career as a whole: “If you want to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”

For those looking for ample proof of this, the “Taboo” segment with German photographer Juergen Teller will surprise some viewers who never saw the extremely raw photo series (Louis XV) the two did together in 2005. Their conversation drifts from that to Rampling’s early nude work with Helmut Newton, and then to her controversial portrayal of an S&M practicing concentration camp survivor in Liliani Cavani’s 1974 shocker, The Night Porter.

Other clips presented include scenes from Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Sous le sable. To describe her work in the latter, Rampling claims that “the best remedy for any form of pain is to let it happen to you,” and earlier on she makes brief reference to her sister’s suicide at the age of 23.

But beyond a few such personal details, The Look is much more of a cerebral rumination on the métier than any sort of trivia quiz, and it’s carried almost entirely by Rampling’s wit, intelligence and incredible screen presence. When she and Lindbergh joke about what a little plastic surgery would do to her face, we’re thankful that the 65-year-old star has chosen instead to age so gracefully.

Although technically apt, the documentary lacks titles to introduce each character, which is unfortunate for those viewers who won’t recognize artists like Teller or Anthony Palliser merely by their looks.

MacDonald, Heather Lyn

 

BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE                        B                     86

USA  (81 mi)  2005

 

Largely unseen, as it’s a documentary without an examination of a political world crisis, and somewhat reminiscent of SUNSET STORY (2003), it’s a shame there aren’t busses of senior citizens lining up to see a film like this, as it features aging in such a phenomenally positive light.  What was Gene Kelly singing, “Gotta Dance?”  Well these women were doing it decades earlier, featuring five women from the original dance lines at the Apollo and Cotton Clubs, among others, which highlighted soloists with a line of 16 girls in a supporting role, who were among the most glamorous girls in Harlem in the 30’s, working with the likes of Fats Waller, Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, or Lionel Hampton, who actually wrote a number specifically for these women (Marion Coles, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes, Fay Ray, and Bertie Lou Wood).  Now in their mid 80’s, they still rehearse regularly at the Cotton Club, and continue to perform in shows, known as the “Silver Belles.”  Their founder and guiding light (Bertie Lou Wood) is 96 and was dancing regularly with the group until she was 95, but now she sits in a wheelchair, has a cocktail, and provides a little sass and energy to the rehearsals, which are unending conversations, trading quips back and forth that reveal not only their agility, but their wit and extraordinary vitality.

 

Current dancers speak about them in reverence, as they have a style all their own, and at performances, they usually get the loudest applause.  Dancers today use number counts to keep time, not these ladies, who simply have a special relationship to the music and to the audience.  They move according to their own instincts, which, as one of the younger dancers states, adds plenty of spice to their steps.  The film clips of their earlier days performing at clubs in Harlem, or in movies from the 30’s or 40’s with Bill Robinson (who danced without taps, as do the Silver Belles), including STORMY WEATHER (1943), are simply amazing, as they were among the best dancers in the world, and at their age now, what they represent is a one-of-a-kind ethic of professional showmanship.  Each of them has had serious bouts of illness, overcoming cancer, hip injuries, or other falls, yet they retain a sense of optimism that is simply a state of grace.  They indicate when their kids call, they don’t want to hear them down in the mouth, so they always shine, even for their own families.  It’s as if they’re always “on,” that there isn’t a moment in their life that isn’t expressed without an enormous pride and dignity.

 

One actually fell down the steps to the subway, resulting in a cast on one arm and one leg, where it wasn’t clear if she would ever walk again.  But we witness her extraordinary mentality, and when the cast comes off, she’s there at the rehearsals, initially wiggling her toes to the beat, then she gets up from her walker and gets in line with the girls, doing her steps with her cane.  During the war years, some worked in factories, one became a welder of battleships, before returning to the stage after the war.  They performed in some of the original USO shows entertaining the troops, which were still racially divided at that time, and where the country would pay to see them perform, but then wouldn’t serve them a meal, or allow them to use a “white toilet.” One even worked in the oil industry in Alaska.  These women formed the first union of showgirls, refusing to go on stage one night until they got a raise, which resulted in payment for rehearsals for the first time ever.  One recalls meeting the love of her life in her 70’s, claiming the 15 years with him were the best years of her life, recalling with a bubbling up pride in her voice that she “loved that man.”  It was simply a delight to be in the same company of these women, as they have an indescribable joy of living, matching the enthusiasm of the jazz music of the era that they still continue to dance to.  Like the elderly, nearly forgotten Cuban musicians from BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (1999), these women should travel around the country and dance at Carnegie Hall.  They are royalty from a bygone era.   

 

Macdonald, Kevin

 

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER                      B-                    81

Great Britain (94 mi)  1999

 

One Day in September   Peter Matthews from Sight and Sound

This documentary blends archive footage and interviews with witnesses to relate the tragic events at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. On 5 September, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic village apartments and took 12 Israeli athletes hostage. A wrestling coach was killed while tackling a terrorist who belonged to Black September, a group connected with the PLO. They demanded the release of 236 political prisoners or the hostages would be executed at noon. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate.

With just minutes to spare, terrorist leader Issa extended the deadline and demanded a jet. Two helicopters were organised to take the Arabs and Israelis to a nearby military airport where undercover policeman and snipers lay in wait. When the Palestinians disembarked from the helicopters, the snipers opened fire and a 90-minute gun battle erupted. By the end, most of the terrorists were dead or wounded. Two surviving terrorists killed the Israelis with a hand grenade and a round of bullets. The three remaining terrorists never stood trial. Two were assassinated in the late 70s by Israeli hitmen. The third, Jamal Al Gashey, appears as a witness in the film.

Review

One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's sensational new documentary about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, tightens the screws almost from the start. The first few minutes lull you with kitschy infomercial tourist shots of the time-tykes frolicking in lederhosen as a voiceover announces this earthly paradise as the site of the Olympic summer games. But just when you're sniggering at the travelogue clichés, there's an abrupt cut to black. Ominous music rises on the soundtrack, while a babble of panicky news bulletins is heard, culminating in the sickening rattle of machine-gun fire. The mood swing is like a steel trap snapping shut and is preliminary evidence that One Day won't have the pontificating respectability of most feature-length documentaries. There's nothing remarkable about its hybrid format of talking heads, found footage and recreations, but what makes the movie startlingly original is how this historical material has been shaped to squeeze your emotions the way fiction does.

The two certifiable classics in the genre of films about the Olympics - Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia and Kon Ichikawa's idiosyncratic Tokyo Olympiad - inevitably place the accent on muscular striving and transcendence. Macdonald shows little of the athletic events at Munich because his real interest lies in their ulterior value as propaganda. The German hosts hoped to expunge memories of the Third Reich by showing off their smart new liberal democracy, while the Israelis were keenly aware of the symbolic role they played as historical survivors. And of course the hostage-taking was designed as a grand initial coup by the Palestinians themselves. The guerrillas could hardly have been more literal in their iconoclasm, the murdered athletes providing an obscene riposte to the vaunted Olympic ideals of health, peace and international brotherhood.

Refusing to take sides, the movie whips along with the cold-blooded excitement of a police procedural. Only here the investigation uncovers a level of official bungling that would be farcical in another context. From the evidence, it appears Germany's enforced demilitarisation after the war left it wide open to acts of terrorism. Macdonald and his research team catalogue each tragic misstep in the rescue operation so that the final massacre arrives with the inexorability of fate. Since the ending is known, the film doesn't generate suspense exactly - more like a feeling of helpless dread. The queasy atmosphere recalls the political thrillers (Z, State of Siege) Costa-Gavras specialised in 30 years ago, and Macdonald employs comparable pressure tactics: helter-skelter editing, a portentous score, jittery POV camerawork (in restaged bits such as the escape of the one surviving hostage) and post-production wizardry that slows down, speeds up or freezes the original coverage for rhetorical effect. Unified by its narrow time frame, One Day aims at a continuous dramatic grip, yet except in one or two places (a homely snap of a weightlifter and his daughter followed by a police photo of his bloodied corpse) the treatment doesn't come across as manipulative. The witnesses have been encouraged to relay their part in the story as simply and incisively as possible. Indeed, one could possibly fault the film for not going beyond exemplary reportage. The subject is kept on such a remarkably short leash you never feel it expand into regions more poetically resonant. One Day may lack the creepy ambiguity of an earlier docu-thriller, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, some of whose stylistic tics it shares (Macdonald made a doc about Morris). But for lean efficiency of presentation and sheer momentum, it's a brilliant movie. 

TOUCHING THE VOID                              B+                   92

Great Britain  (106 mi)  2004
 
A beautifully photographed, beautifully staged recreation of a British two-man team mountain-climbing expedition, the first to successfully climb up the west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000 foot peak in the Peruvian Andes in 1985, which has taken on legendary status in the mountain-climbing community, as one climber, alone and left for dead, with his leg broken in three places on the descent, his ankle, knee, and calf, literally crawled his way back from death.  The healthy partner was forced to make the tough decision to cut the already disabled climber’s line, who was, at the time, actually dangling in midair, in order to prevent them from both falling over a precipice, causing that injured climber to fall into a huge ice crevice where he was left for dead, while the other felt fortunate to save himself, believing there was no possibility of his partner’s survival.  Based on a book written by that survivor, both climbers were overconfident from the outset, believing failure was an impossibility, yet they each returned as ghosts of their former selves.  The real life climbers narrated the film, while simulated climbers recreated the climb that was magnificently captured by photographer Mike Eley.  Truly riveting from start to finish, earth-shattering emotionally, particularly the contrasting feelings of guilt from leaving a friend behind to the hopelessness of being the one who has been left, this film leaves little unseen or unspoken, it captures the vivid experience of surviving certain death in treacherous conditions.

 

Touching the Void   Richard Falcon from Sight and Sound

 

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND           C+                   77

Great Britain  (121 mi)  2006

 

Oddly enough, this film was written by Peter Morgan, the same person who wrote THE QUEEN with Helen Mirren, both featuring potential Oscar winning performances, yet they are like polar opposites, one a refined and finely observed portrait of the British royal family which comes to life from the brilliance of the performances as well as the deft direction from Stephen Frears, while this film which follows a decade of terror in Uganda falls off the tracks early and never recovers.  The problem, once again, exactly as in HOTEL RWANDA, and even more so in THE CONSTANT GARDENER, is that it places the focus of the film outside the real target, so it’s only accidentally that a character we follow closely wanders into some of the more brutal massacres in the last few decades.  These films appeal to the liberal guilt of whites and are pretty much worthless when it comes to telling the real story, especially when they center on the romantic misadventures of whites wandering through exotic locations in Africa, where the continent is used merely as a decorative backdrop.  To focus on the whites or the numerous secondary characters is to miss the real story, yet the appeal is made nonetheless through the pain and torture afflicted onto the white characters, as if they symbolically represent the brutality inflicted upon Africans.  But this racistly undermines the real truth, and suggests the filmmakers have an innate distrust that viewers will care about atrocities inflicted upon blacks, so they alter reality to fit a pre-conceived racial target audience.  All this really does is reduce the impact of the film to little more than inconsequential, as it’s a misguided white fantasy.  Haitian born director Raoul Peck had no such problem in his superb 2000 film LUMUMBA, which followed an earlier documentary he made on the same subject and is easily the most powerful of the lot. 

 

Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, however, is brilliantly manic, physically imposing and wildly charismatic, always charmingly engaging, catching you off guard with his unbridled energy, quick wit and friendly humor as he surprisingly makes you the center of attention, asking questions about yourself that make you feel like you’re his best friend in the entire world before he turns on a dime and intently broods about you as one of his enemies, thinking the entire world is picking on him, obsessing about the horrid things they say about him, rationalizing to himself and to his nation that they’re simply jealous that a black African country can survive without white intervention.  He is simply superb as the mood-shifting paranoiac maniac who sends death squads to brutally assassinate anyone who disagrees with him, accumulating numbers like 300,000 dead by the time he left Uganda in 1979 and fled in exile to Saudi Arabia. 

 

Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES and DOGVILLE, also the apocalyptic British zombie flick 28 DAYS LATER, using brightly saturated colors that make the images of Africa explode off the screen, where the vitality and joy of the nation is expressed in 1971 through music and dancing in the streets as they celebrate the overthrow of a deposed dictator (Milton Obote, who may have murdered more than Amin!) and greet the new ruler, General Idi Amin, who is welcomed as an internationally educated African nationalist who promises to bring prosperity to the homeland.  The musical selections are upbeat and energetic, the streets are filled with wide-eyed children, and there’s a feeling that African culture might actually be prominently featured in this film.  But our hopes dissipate quickly once we realize the story is actually about a white doctor from Scotland who randomly picks Uganda as the place to be and has absolutely no ethical interest in the country at all.  He is immediately snatched into the bowels of the Amin regime where he is whisked into the Presidential Palace, lured by a gluttonous life of luxury, easily exploited, intimidated, taken advantage of, and then spit out at their leisure without ever really understanding a thing about his journey or mission.  Kerry Washington makes the most out of her role of intense isolation, the youngest of Amin’s three wives, who is watched but completely shunned by the ruler. 

 

Poor James McAvoy, fresh out of portraying a fawn, Mr. Tumnnus in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, is dwarfed in every scene as Dr. Garrigan, Amin’s personal physician, by the explosive performance of Whitaker who simply overwhelms him in every sense of the word.  Garrigan’s stupidity in the presence of a mass murderer is mindboggling and unfortunately belittles the otherwise serious subject matter of the film, most of which was shot on location in the capital city of Kampala, sucking the very life out of what might have been an authentic historical journey into the heart of madness.  THE LAST KING really deteriorates badly, and continues this thread of racist-tinged movies filmed in Africa highlighting the plight of blacks through the trauma imposed on the whites, but Forest Whitaker's madness is genuine.    

 

The Onion A.V. Club review  Noel Murray

Because Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was such a murderous creep, it takes a lot to convince people that he might've also been a fun guy to party with. But in The Last King Of Scotland, director Kevin Macdonald has two strong persuaders: a kinetic style, and Forest Whitaker. As Amin, Whitaker gives a scarily charismatic performance, whipping quickly but naturally between joyous charm and steely rage. In the past, Whitaker has tended to lean too much on his low-key, mumbly side, playing off the irony that such a big man could be so gentle. But with his guest stint earlier this year on The Shield, and now with The Last King Of Scotland, Whitaker has started to use his oversized frame and off-center gaze to exude real menace. He's perversely attractive.

In Macdonald's hands, The Last King Of Scotland's breakneck rush through a heady half-decade of African nationalism plays like Boogie Nights: The Sub-Saharan Years. James McAvoy stars as a glib young Scottish doctor who wants to change the world and have a ball. When he meets Amin, McAvoy is initiated into the high life of state dinners, sports cars, nubile prostitutes, and high-level cabinet meetings. Macdonald—who previously directed the energetic documentaries One Day In September and Touching The Void—cuts together the first hour of The Last King Of Scotland to the rhythm of early '70s Afrobeat, driving viewers to identify with McAvoy's loyal defense of the madman who pays his bar bills. "I'm his doctor," McAvoy says to those who challenge Amin's ethics. "It's not my job to judge."

Of course, there must come a reckoning, and in The Last King Of Scotland, the loss of innocence consumes the whole final hour, during which time Whitaker appears less often, his screen time stolen by an increasingly weepy McAvoy. The climax of the movie juxtaposes McAvoy's attempts to flee the country with Amin's role in the Entebbe hijacking incident, which pushes audience identification past its limit. As one of the most famous hostage situations in modern world history takes place, audiences are asked to concern themselves primarily with the fate of one decadent doctor. The Last King Of Scotland makes a stronger case when it's demonstrating how opulent power-lunches corrupt absolutely.

Cinepassion.org  Fernando F. Croce

In The Last King of Scotland, young Scottish doctor Nicholas (James McAvoy) decides where to head for excitement by closing his eyes and plunking his finger on a spinning globe -- Uganda is the chosen spot, no surprise since Africa, after Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener, is still earmarked as contemporary cinema's main pit stop for white liberal guilt and neocolonial pillaging. The smug lil' bugger sets up camp at a local mission, but he's less interested in caring for the poor and sick than trying to bang the married medic (Gillian Anderson) tutoring him; since the year is 1971, the nation is under the control of President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), who over the course of his eight-year regime would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but emerges as a pretty fun fella when Nicholas goes to fix his sprained hand. Amin has pool parties and rock-star revelries, Nicholas has the Scottish blood that in the dictator's mind links them as buds against British imperialism, and in no time the scrawny youngster has been catapulted into Amin's orbit, enjoying new cars and women as his "closest adviser." But the ruler's chamber is filled with stuffed predators with bared fangs, so you know it's not long for psychotic cracks to appear in Amin's gaseous, prank-pulling ebullience -- people in whom he sees betrayal have a tendency to end up in pieces on underground slabs, which worries Nicholas, especially since he's been sleeping with one of the dictator's many wives (Kerry Washington).

Like Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland operates on continuous anxiety, though it lacks even that picture's basic decency to view a country's upheavals through African eyes -- as in Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season and The Constant Gardener, the filmmakers are too scared or racist to think that viewers could identify with the black people directly experiencing the horrors, so a pasty stand-in, no matter how unlikable, has to be offensively parachuted in. With a sinister monarch swaying the crowds and galvanizing everybody around him, the film also brings to mind the recent, stilted All the King's Men remake, where another actor sweated through a dozen shirts for Oscar recognition. Where Sean Penn suggested an apoplectic parade float, Whitaker turns into a swollen tiger, dropping in hints of the humanizing gentleness of Ghost Dog and The Shield before embodying the blowfish-boogeyman of Nicholas's "aberration of nature" diagnosis -- his Amin is a deranged buffoon writ large, and at one point, as he fills the screen inspecting a miniature building, the connection to Godzilla (or, considering the film's racism, King Kong) is inescapable. In fact, director Kevin Macdonald is very fond of looming closeups of faces and mosquitoes and buzzards, all of them dripping with sweat and cut together with high-pressure editing; shifting the colors from orange-toned light to fragmented darks means to mirror the main character's growing awareness, though it all comes out splotchy anyway. African doctors turn sacrificial lambs to get the truth about Uganda into the world, but by then the picture's disinterest in anybody besides the pale hero has long aligned it with the forces of oppression. No wonder critics love it.

The New York Times (Manohla Dargis) review

Strange to think that the flamboyantly lethal nut job Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia just three years ago. About 80 at the time, he had fled Uganda in 1979 after murdering upwards of 300,000 souls. Larger than life physically and metaphorically, he was a former heavyweight boxing champion with a brilliant sense of leadership as a performance: as a dictator, his methods were brutally antediluvian, but his public relations cunning was consummately 20th century. Smiling into cameras, he dropped provocations like bombs: “I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me.” Skip to next paragraph

The queasily enjoyable new fiction film “The Last King of Scotland,” based on the novel by Giles Foden and directed by Kevin Macdonald, creates a portrait of this famous Ugandan dictator from inside the palace walls. Furiously paced, with excellent performances by Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as the foolish Scotsman who becomes the leader’s personal physician, the film has texture, if not depth and enough intelligence to almost persuade you that it actually has something of note to say. It would make a terrific double bill with Barbet Schroeder’s mesmerizing 1974 documentary, “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait,” of which Mr. Macdonald has obviously made a close and fruitful study.

As it also happens, “The Last King of Scotland” would make an even better double bill with Stephen Frears’s forthcoming film “The Queen,” a sly peek at the current British monarch in the wake of the death of Princess Diana. (Amin once wrote milady: “Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to Kampala.”) Amin was an amateur merchant of death compared with the historic British monarchy, but he absorbed the lessons of its colonial tyranny fatally well.

“The Last King of Scotland” makes the case that Amin was rational enough to understand his country’s tangled relationship with British imperialism and to inject that sociopolitical understanding into words. If this lecture feels a little too neat and contrived, well, that’s entertainment.

And how! Cannily designed to please and repulse, “The Last King of Scotland” uses a self-anointed outsider, Nicholas Garrigan (Mr. McAvoy), as its initially empathic point of entry. Arriving in Uganda in the early 1970’s, this young doctor evinces an understandable wide-eyed enthusiasm and wonderment at the sights and sounds around him. He’s alive to his exciting new world, which the exceptional cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” and Lars von Trier’s recent films, paints in deeply saturated color. The otherworldly Fauvist palette, as well as the interludes of frenetic cutting, at times recall the Brazilian art-house exploitation flick “City of God,” though Mr. Macdonald, who has a background in documentary, proves somewhat savvier about the politics of representation.

Crucial to that savvy is the director’s vision of Amin as Dr. Frankenstein and monster both. A period fiction with a high-gloss historical finish, “The Last King of Scotland” is also a very contemporary, pointedly resonant film about blowback. That said, and despite some background filler, Mr. Macdonald isn’t interested in furnishing history lessons, and the details of Britain’s African adventures remain largely unstated. In 1888, much as it did throughout Africa and the world, the British government gathered together dozens of different ethnic groups and various kingdoms under its control, naming this new protectorate and commercial venture Uganda. Many pounds of profit later, in 1962, Britain granted Uganda its independence; the African nation has been struggling to recover ever since.

In 1971 Amin ousted Milton Obote, who had become president after tossing out the country’s king five years earlier. (Mr. Obote himself may have been responsible for half a million deaths.) “The Last King of Scotland” opens shortly after Amin has seized power, and his madness had yet to take at least visible bloom. After a brief spell working at a clinic run by a white British doctor (Adam Kotz) and his wife (a very fine, almost unrecognizable Gillian Anderson), Garrigan signs on with Amin. The Scot eagerly makes the transition from rural slum to Amin’s Kampala compound, embracing his ready-made privilege as he drinks in the general’s charisma and hungrily feeds on his praise. A master of manipulation, this Amin knows a choice morsel when one flies into his trap.

Despite his vaguely Falstaffian proportions, Mr. Whitaker doesn’t look like the man he’s playing, a point that becomes less crucial as the performance takes root. As much a seducer as a destroyer, his Amin changes moods on a dime depending on the gas percolating in his bowels or the threats on his person, real and imagined. It’s a role rich in gristle and blood, and Mr. Whitaker makes the most of it, even if the performance and the film’s essential conception of Amin never push deep or hard enough. This actor can play devious, as his brilliant turn in “The Color of Money” showed early in his career. But what you need in a film about a man who fed the corpses of his victims to the crocodiles is something more, something hateful and vile.

“The Last King of Scotland” delivers shocks worthy of the horror film it becomes. Garrigan is the kind of man who exploits his own boyishness, successfully with women, perilously with Amin, and Mr. McAvoy expertly makes the character’s naïveté seem at first appealing, then foolish and finally odious in the extreme. As a stand-in for all the white men who have unwisely and cravenly journeyed into the proverbial heart of darkness, the character effectively serves his purposes, and you shake your head, tsk-tsk, right on schedule.

Clearly, the film means this journey to be as inwardly directed as outwardly bound, though the larger message here, one that might make you blanch after you nod, is that the misery of other people makes unsettling entertainment, no matter how pretty the pictures and valuable the players.

Reverse Shot [Travis Hoover]

 

Slant Magazine review  Jeremiah Kipp

 

Pajiba (John Williams) review

 

indieWire (Michael Joshua Rowin]

 

DVD Times  Gary Couzens

 

Salon (Stephanie Zacharek) review

 

not coming to a theater near you (Tom Huddleston) review

 

PopMatters (Cynthia Fuchs) review

 

The Last King Of Scotland  Kevin O’Reilly from DVD Times

 

PopMatters (Emma Simmonds) review

 

Village Voice (Ella Taylor) review

 

Chicago Reader [J.R. Jones]

 

Slate (Kim Masters) essay ["What exactly is "true" about ___?"]  January 31, 2007

 

Political Film Review  Michael Haas

 

Culture Wars [Laure Thomas]

 

Movie Vault [Friday and Saturday Night Critic]

 

digitallyOBSESSED.com (David Krauss) dvd review

 

stylusmagazine.com (Imran J. Syed) review

 

filmcritic.com (Anne Gilbert) review [4/5]

 

Lessons of Darkness [Nick Schager]

 

Slate (Dana Stevens) review  also reviewing THE QUEEN

 

CultureCartel.com (John Nesbit) review [3.5/5]

 

Edward Copeland on Film

 

Film School Rejects [Clayton L. White]

 

Exclaim! [Travis Mackenzie Hoover]

 

Oscar Winners  Mark Harris from Patrick Murtha’s Diary

 

The Guardian (Peter Bradshaw) review

 

Austin Chronicle (Marjorie Baumgarten) review [2.5/5]

 

Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review

 

DVDBeaver.com [Gary W. Tooze]

 

STATE OF PLAY                                                    B                     89

USA  Great Britain  France  (127 mi)  2009  ‘Scope 

 

Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
long as I can see the light.

Pack my bag and let’s get movin’, ’cause I’m bound to drift a while.
When I’m gone, gone, you don’t have to worry long,
long as I can see the light.

Guess I’ve got that old trav’lin bone, ’cause this feelin’ won’t leave me alone.
But I won’t, won’t be losin’ my way, no, no
long as I can see the light.

Yeah! yeah! yeah! oh, yeah!

Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.

 

—“Long As I Can See the Light” by John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater (1970)

 

Interesting to see the trailer for Michael Mann’s new thriller PUBLIC ENEMY (to be released later in 2009) just prior to seeing this film, as without credits indicating otherwise, I would swear this was a Michael Mann film, thoroughly entertaining, heavy on tense atmosphere, complete with Russell Crowe as a world weary Washington reporter, as they worked so well together in THE INSIDER (1999 – nominated for 7 Academy Awards), while Rodrigo Prieto’s striking ‘Scope cinematography makes excellent use of the urban architecture in the region, right down to the meticulous detail of newspapers rolling off the presses onto the delivery trucks in the wee hours of the night over the end credits while John Fogerty’s raspy voice from Creedence Clearwater eloquently sings “Long As I Can See the Light.”  An homage to the significance of the newspaper business, much like a low level CIA operative going to The New York Times in THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975) or Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976), this is a fitting tribute to just how hard reporters work to get a story right, how many contacts they attempt, how often they are completely stonewalled, the dangerously precarious situations they put themselves in to get information, the sleazy, underhanded sources they have to deal with, the pressure of last minute deadlines, editing and rewriting that takes place which can effectively alter or undermine a story, not to mention stories being killed altogether because the corporate honchos that own the newspapers don’t like the content, as they are afraid of a lawsuit.  So it’s a wonder anything decent gets published.  All of which explains how multiple forms of news can be easily and instantly accessed by other cheaper and less reliable sources, from partisan radio broadcasts to special interest news websites to bloggers, very little of which is subject to fact checking.    

 

Rising from the ashes of insignificance, being subject to corporate takeovers, being downsized, feeling the effects of significant numbers of laid-off employees, the film has a The Last Hurrah feel to it, as if against all odds, one last major push for Pulitzer prize winning journalism was at stake at the Washington Globe investigating the Washington scandal of the moment, connecting a few recent dead bodies to a powerful military outsourcing corporation which is under investigation by a congressional hearing, especially after one of the lead investigators turns up dead.  Rumpled looking reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is on it, tracking down leads, taking a more personal interest when he soon discovers that the Congressman leading the investigation is his former college room-mate, Rep. Stephen Collins, the always wooden looking Ben Affleck, who sheds a few tears on camera at the loss, which certainly catches his wife’s attention, Anne Collins (Robin Wright Penn), where rumors fly that the congressman was having an affair.  When the newspaper blogger, the squeaky clean looking Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), comes searching for a few choice story tidbits, Cal coldly stiffs her, only to be called on the carpet by the resplendent Helen Mirren as the editor, who barks at him: “She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she turns out copy every hour!”  The two end up joined at the hip at the end under the guise of solid newspaper reporting, brought together by a circuitous route that resembles some of the best thrillers of the 70’s, using 3 top-notch screenwriters to do it, Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON and the BOURNE SUPREMACY series), Matthew Michael Carnahan (THE KINGDOM), and Billy Ray (SHATTERED GLASS and BREACH).  Not exactly action packed with car explosions and CGI effects, but interest is hyper-kinetically sustained from the opening moments, where there is never a loss of interconnected clues, and Cal’s hound dog style sniffs them all out.  

 

What the film doesn’t have is extensive character development, where the audience feels a connection to anyone, like Mann’s THE INSIDER, where a man wrestles with his conscience.  Instead it’s the newspaper business itself that is under siege, and all the inter-connecting parts that make up the daily operation, as they are so under pressure to simply sell a marketable product, dumbing down the news all the time for fewer and shorter feature exposé’s, bigger photos, and a more entertaining spin on celebrities in the news.  One of the interesting, behind-the-scenes aspects is the blending together of policework and investigative journalism, as what the police see as a case to crack is also fertile territory for a groundbreaking story, so the line between them is occasionally blurred.  The pace of the film heats up when Cal tracks down a sleazy, pill-popping, unsavory character (Jason Bateman, the sweet husband from JUNO) who is able to help connect some of the dots on camera, though he couldn’t be a more reprehensible witness.  From there it feels like a race to the finish line, all of which ends in the quiet calm of the near empty dark of a newspaper room, like something out of Charles Foster Kane typing up his editorial in the dim of night, an article to be featured prominently in the morning editions.  This act of putting out a newspaper will forever be memorialized and enshrined by this film, shown as if it’s the last great story on earth, the business itself soon to be downsized to blogs, editorials, feature photos and celebrity sightings. 

 

The Wall Street Journal (Joe Morgenstern) review

Sources are as crucial to filmmakers as they are to investigative journalists. In the glossy, ambitious thriller "State of Play," Russell Crowe is a powerful presence as Cal McAffrey, a veteran reporter for a newspaper that resembles the Washington Post. When the death of a congressman's female assistant suggests an elaborate cover-up, Cal goes into action with a vengeance: "This," he says of the story, "is as big and connected as they get." But the reporter has his problems with sources -- he and the congressman, played by Ben Affleck, are longtime friends -- and so does the movie, which was based on an uncommonly intricate and intelligent six-part, 350-minute BBC miniseries from 2003. There's simply too much stuff for a two-hour feature, and three writers, including Tony Gilroy, haven't figured out how to boil it down into a readily comprehensible narrative, or how to solve the problem of an ending that goes blah rather than bang.

Instead, they and the director, Kevin Macdonald, punch up a succession of mostly specious resemblances to Watergate -- "State of Play" even has its own Deep Throat -- and turn the Woodward and Bernstein of "All the President's Men" into a Woodstein comprised of Cal, the classic ink-stained scribe, and Rachel McAdams's Della, an ostensibly naive cub who exemplifies the new breed of online bloggers. This dichotomy lends topicality -- in many newsrooms, after all, economic pressures are putting traditional enterprise reporters on the endangered-species list. Yet it's a shallow substitute for the scintillating interplay in the BBC production, which drew much of its drama from the combined intelligence of a reporting team. And Helen Mirren's Cameron Lynne, the newspaper's fire-breathing editor, seems closer in spirit to the fashion dominatrix in "The Devil Wears Prada" than to the inscrutable eccentric played so wonderfully by Bill Nighy in the TV series. Measured against its original source, "State of Play" is both bigger and smaller.

Cinephile Magazine [Richard X]

Inked-stained wretches unite! That’s the battle cry of Kevin Macdonald’s latest film, State of Play. Based on a six hour BBC television miniseries, the film tells a intricate, if slightly convoluted, tale of murder and conspiracy that reaches all the way to halls of power. Set in Washington, DC, Russell Crowe plays Cal McAffrey, a veteran newspaper reporter for the fictitious Washington Globe. His latest assignment, the murder of a young drug dealer and a young Washington insider, takes him on a mission to expose the corruption of a politically-funded, private army called PointCorp—a stand-in for the private military outfit, Blackwater. Teaming up with Cal is an up-and-coming Internet reporter, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), a blogger who covers inside-the-beltway movers and shakers. The investigation reveals that one of the murder victims was having an affair with congressman Stephen Collins (played by Ben Affleck), who, it turns out is investigating the practices of PointCorp. This juicy setup allows Macdonald, working from a script by screenwriting powerhouses Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), to construct a film that plays like some of the best thrillers of the 70s.

With its heavy theatrics, intrigue, crazed killers, and a healthy dose of left-wing paranoia, State of Play works as a testament to the power of journalism. For example, one of the more interesting subplots involves the strained relationship between Cal and Della’s journalistic practices, between blogger and traditional reporter. Macdonald surrounds the leads with an incredible supporting cast, including the wonderful Helen Mirren as a feisty editor worried about the paper’s bottom line as much as getting the facts straight. Robin Wright Penn and Jeff Daniels perform admirably, despite not having much to do. Jason Bateman, playing a more sinister and sleazy version of the public relations spinster he played in last year’s Hancock, steals the few scenes he’s in. And lastly, we come to Ben Affleck. His performance is the weakest of the bunch but it works mainly because his charm and charisma carry him through. Filled with thrills and a terrific sense of pacing, State of Play is worthwhile entertainment that actually manages to say something about the role that journalism has in holding those in power accountable for their crimes and misdeeds. That it manages to do this with only a few moments of histrionics and left-wing preaching is welcome. Macdonald shoots the film in a style that mimics a milder, gentler Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass. It works nonetheless. In the end, the film’s surprise ending feels unnecessary, but it works within the context of film’s message: that journalists can save the world. I don’t know how realistic that is in today’s economic climate, but it’s fun to pretend newspapers still have that much of an impact.

culturevulture.net, Choices for the Cognoscenti review  Pamela Troy

On a London back street, a frightened young man is shot to death behind a dumpster. In a cheap cafe, a hard-eyed teenage girl waits, an expensive metal briefcase resting on the floor at her feet. In the halls of Parliament, a rising politician breaks down on camera after learning about the death of his political researcher beneath the wheels of a train on the London Underground. The first half hour of Paul Abbott's political thriller, State of Play, firmly hooks the viewer into following the twists and turns of its plot through all six of its smart, unpredictable, and fast-moving episodes.   

John Simm plays Cal McCaffrey, an investigative journalist and an ex-campaign manager for the MP whose relationship with the dead researcher has come under scrutiny. Did Sonia Baker fall onto the tracks? Was it suicide? Murder? And why, on the morning of both their deaths, did she receive a brief phone call from Kelvin Stagg, the boy killed in what is presumed to have been a drug related shooting?    

This is more than just another sordid domestic scandal, and McCaffrey and several of his colleagues at The Herald, (including the youthful, driven reporter Della Smith, played by Kelly MacDonald), set out in pursuit of the answers. It's a world of high-profile politics and journalism where the normal rules of personal interaction do not apply. Tape recorders are concealed in every pocket and absolutely nobody can be trusted to either tell the truth or respect a confidence.   

If there's a drawback to State of Play's combination of witty writing and smart performances, it's that there are very few moments where the viewer is going to feel comfortable about going into the kitchen for a coke and a sandwich. Unexpected revelations lurk around each corner, and some of the performances are so good it's hard to tear your eyes away. David Morrissey plays Stephen Collins, the adulterous MP, as the kind of pudgily handsome man who lies plausibly then slides without embarrassment into the truth only when it's plain the lies aren't working. Bill Nighy is The Herald's flamboyant editor, a lean patrician who lapses back into his working class accent when it suits him. Marc Warren's turn as the tacky PR wannabe Dominic Foy stands out not only because Warren beautifully captures his sweaty desperation, but because Foy is almost the only character in the film who's not a talented liar. Watching him getting effortlessly batted around by the smooth young sharks circling him in search of the truth is almost painful.   

Like any well-made political thriller, State of Play is believable enough to raise the question of where human consequences fit in when it comes to affairs of state and the pursuit of the truth. Some of the characters see their quest as a game where they can show off their skill and advance their careers. When they are touched personally, suddenly they're no longer "playing." McCaffrey's abilities as a reporter are undermined by his friendship with Collins and when Della Smith realizes she's in personal danger she changes quickly from a hard-edged journalist to a frightened and vulnerable girl. Occasional glimpses of the anguished, angry families of Kelvin Stagg and Sonia Baker are reminders of just how deadly it can be to play "games" where the stakes are too high.

CompuServe (Harvey S. Karten) review

A former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, once said, “There are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics.”  While statistics have little to do with Kevin Macdonald’s “State of Play” aside from the fact that three murders clock in by the story’s three writers (Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray), untruths make their way across the screen faster than you can say “politician” or “corporation.”  “State of Play” is an adaptation from a smashing BBC miniseries, one blessed with a terrific cast that includes David Morrissey, Kelly Macdonald and Bill Nighy.  The Scottish-born director Kevin Macdonald, known here mostly for “The Last King of Scotland” (the reign of Uganda’s brutal leader Idi Amin during the 1970s as seen through the eyes of his personal physician), broadens the characters for an audience not limited to BBC’s elite viewers. By necessity he pares down the subplots to fit the story into a couple of hours rather than the six hours allotted by BBC.  The result, despite this use of stereotypical situations such as the thrilling chase in an underground parking lot and some verbal clichés by the principals, is that the movie is as much an intellectual puzzle as it is an emotional thriller, with considerably more talk than action.  Some audience members motivated to go to the theater because they are fans of Russell Crowe may enjoy his role as a fat, going-to-seed reporter with long hair that he washes once a month whether he needs to or not.  But a second viewing  may be needed to uncoil the twists and knots that are part and parcel of this political thriller.

Like many films about corruption in high places, “State of Play” leans decidedly to the left, taking aim at Bush-era privatization  of war—the role of large companies like Halliburton in Iraq, sponsoring foot soldiers of a mercenary bent to supplement the regular armed services GI’s.  In the writers’ view, Iraq and Afghanistan are like a “Muslim terror goldrush” to these super-capitalists, people who send men and women to die to allow CEOs their yachts and villas in safer corners of the world.

The BBC miniseries dealt with a large oil company determined to put down protests of environmental abuses. “State of Play,” updating the 1999 programs, hones in on Pointcorps’ determination to turn away congressional watchdog meddling in their moneymaking ventures.  As a backstory, Pointcorps hired Sonia Baker (Maria Thayer) to seduce Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), paying her $26,000 a month to cast her wiles on a man who is digging into the alleged corporate abuses and come back with information on his strategies.  When she is run down by a train in the D.C. metro, folks believe the death to be a suicide, perhaps linked to a falling out with her lover.  A scruffy journalist, Cal McAffey (Russell Crowe) believes the death to be murder and, together with a young research assistant for the Washington Globe, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), seeks to connect the dots even if the investigation implicates the politician, once his best friend in college.   Could the distinguished member of the House of the Representatives, married to Anne Collins (Robin Wright Penn) be involved in the murder of his girlfriend?  Can the powers that be in the Pointcorps corporation be more directly involved given their natural hostility to someone they consider a double agent—who may have turned coat when she fell in love with the legislator?  Or was the death of Sonia Baker either an accident or suicide after all?

The movie begins with an intensity of physical action involving the chase and gunning down of an African-American and a pizza delivery man who seem anything but people related to political shenanigans.  From there Macdonald tones down the plot, creating an intellectual exercise that will lead the journalists to a story that can put new life into a newspaper that has been bought out by a strictly profit-seeking managerial group that wants blood.

The acting is fine across the board, albeit bereft of anything resembling Oscar performances.  Russell Crowe makes sure that we know him to be a slob not only by his appearance but by his casual tossing away of food wrappers on the floor of his cubicle and the impossible stacks of paper that frame his ample body.  Rachel McAdams is the perky Lois Lane, a cub reporter who may be out of her league but determined to prove herself, while Ben Affleck turns in a credible show of a man who seems incorruptible when questioning a corporate bigwig about a company’s war profiteering but is anything but invulnerable when seemingly frightened by the sudden death of his girlfriend.  Production values are ace.

Salon (Stephanie Zacharek) review

 

The New Yorker (David Denby) review

 

Pajiba (Daniel Carlson) review

 

Village Voice (J. Hoberman) review

 

New York Magazine (David Edelstein)

 

Reel.com review [3/4]  Bill Gibron, also seen here:  filmcritic.com (Bill Gibron) review [3/5]

 

eFilmCritic.com (Erik Childress) review [3/5]

 

ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review [3/4]

 

Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [4/5]  Scott Mendelson

 

Slate (Dana Stevens) review

 

eFilmCritic.com (Mel Valentin) review [3/5]

 

Eye for Film (Jeff Robson) review [3.5/5]

 

eFilmCritic.com (Peter Sobczynski) review [4/5]

 

Slant Magazine review  Bill Weber

 

Q Network Film Desk (James Kendrick) review [3/5]

 

CBC.ca Arts review  Lee Ferguson

 

Screen International review  Fionnuala Halligan in London

 

Film Freak Central review  Ian Pugh

 

Little White Lies magazine  Alan Mack

 

Eye for Film (Richard Mellor) review [3.5/5]

 

Tiscali UK review  Jonny Dawson

 

CHUD.com (Devin Faraci) review

 

Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review  also longer review seen here:  Cinematical.com

 

Entertainment Weekly review [A-]  Owen Gleiberman

 

The Hollywood Reporter review  Kirk Honeycutt

 

Variety.com [Todd McCarthy]

 

Time Out London (Wally Hammond) review [3/6]

 

Time Out New York (Joshua Rothkopf) review [4/6]

 

The Independent review [2/5]  Anthony Quinn

 

The Daily Telegraph review [3/5]  Sukhdev Sandhu

 

Russell Crowe's remarkable rehabilitation  Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, May 4, 2009

 

Boston Globe review [2.5/4]  Wesley Morris

 

The Boston Phoenix (Peter Keough) review

 

Austin Chronicle (Kimberley Jones) review [3/5]

 

Tulsa TV Memories [Gary Chew]

 

San Francisco Chronicle (Mick LaSalle) review [3/4]

 

Los Angeles Times (Betsy Sharkey) review

 

Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review

 

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [3/4]

 

The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review

 

YouTube - as long as i can see the light   (2:47)

 

YouTube - Creedence Clearwater Revival: Long As I Can See The ...    (3:30)

 

MacDonald, Scott

 

ONLINE  A Critical Cinema 5, five volumes of interviews with experimental filmmakers by Scott MacDonald, interviewed here by Michael Sicinski from Cinema Scope

 

Machado, Sérgio

 

LOWER CITY

Brazil  (98 mi)  2005

 

Lower City  from Sight and Sound

 

Machatý, Gustav

 

THE KREUTZER SONATA                                  B-                    80

Czechoslovakia  (95 mi)  1926

 

Based on an 1889 Tolstoy chamber drama, this is a film that very much resembles OTHELLO, only the role of Iago is the nagging jealous nature of man.  Opening in an ordinary train ride, where the passengers are freely discussing love and marriage, an elder gentleman known as Pozdnyshev breaks in with a scandalous confession of his own, initially questioning “What is love?” before revealing that he murdered his own wife in a jealous rage.  Rather than recoil in disgust, the passengers lean closer to hear all the pertinent details, which are revealed in flashback.  Married life is presented as a festering sore which only grows more painful in time, where the initial passion is replaced by boredom and abject passivity.  The joy of children is depicted without an ounce of gratitude, instead revealing adults who find them constantly in their way, as the children bicker and fight and are perceived as a nagging nuisance.  Rarely do they spend any actual time together, instead, marriage is realized through maintaining one’s distance. 

 

When a music teacher enters the scene, playing violin to his wife’s piano, where they practice Beethoven’s 9th Violin and Piano Sonata, known as the Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnyshev’s boredom disappears, replaced with a venomous rage of jealousy, where it’s unclear throughout whether he witnesses sexual transgressions or if he just imagines them.  Either way, he becomes obsessed with the idea of another man fondling his wife.  During a calm before the storm, where their vows of love appear to be rekindled, he goes on a business trip, frantically returning home early, suspecting he will catch them in the act, where time all but slows down to a crawl once he enters the house.  As he creeps from room to room, taking on the persona of Dracula in our midst, where normally the suspense would be building, here the drama is amped up to the max when we already know the outcome, and the dramatic attention paid to this sequence through Expressionist imagery is simply overly stylized with anticipated hysteria.  When it comes, he bursts at the lover with a knife, flailing away as he runs out the door, leaving the poor girl behind to suffer the consequences.  Of course the man was eventually acquitted, suggesting society as well as the individual are completely blameless for these actions, early evidence of the temporary insanity defense.     

 

CZECH MODERNISM IN FILM: The 1920'S to the 1940's  Charles Coleman, Facets Film Programmer

 

After several years in Hollywood working with Griffith and Von Stroheim, Machatÿ returned to Czechoslovakia to direct his first feature film, The Kreutzer Sonata. Based on the Tolstoy novel, the film recounts in flashback the story of a wealthy man who confesses to killing his wife, while at the same time denouncing the hypocrisy of contemporary society. Machatý employs a flamboyant style reminiscent of Expressionism that he would later perfect with Erotikon. With Eva Byronová, Jan W. Speerger, Miroslav Paul. Directed by Gustav Machatý, Czechoslovakia, 1926, 35mm, 95 mins.

 

Village Voice  J. Hoberman (excerpt)

 

The Czech New Wave was one of the glories of '60s cinema; "Czech Modernism" demonstrates that it was the continuation of a pre-existing tradition. The series opens sophisticated with Gustav Machatý's 1926 adaptation of The Kreutzer Sonata (November 30). Machatý, who spent the early '20s in Hollywood working with Eric von Stroheim among others, brought a measure of Stroheim's "European" cynical realism back home; updating Leo Tolstoy's once scandalous account of sexual jealousy with deco sets and expressionist lighting, he similarly uses crime and confession to critique the institution of middle-class marriage.

 

The Kreutzer Sonata - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  (excerpt)

The Kreutzer Sonata is a novella by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1889 and promptly censored by the Russian authorities. The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence and an in-depth first-person description of jealous rage. The main character Pozdnyshev relates the events leading up to his killing his wife; in his analysis, the root cause for the deed were the "animal excesses" and "swinish connection" governing the relation between the sexes.

During the international celebration of Tolstoy's 80th birthday in 1908, G. K. Chesterton would criticize this aspect of Tolstoy's thought in an article in the September 19th issue of Illustrated London News, writing: "Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in “The Kreutzer Sonata” he weeps almost as much at the thought of love. He and all the humanitarians pity the joys of men." He went on to address Tolstoy directly: "What you dislike is being a man. You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human."

The New York Times (Mordaunt Hall) review

While an obviously old German pictorial translation of Tolstoy's novel, "The Kreutzer Sonata," now at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, is not distinguished for its direction or its photography, there is an appealing simplicity in the outlining of the story until the climax is approached. But in that final chapter the producer in his eagerness for suspense overdoes matters to the extent of heaping ridicule upon the characters. The offended husband, after reckless driving and an impatient ride in an express train, appears to take hours to go from his front door to the drawing room where his faithless wife, as he suspected, is in the arms of a violinist.

The director evidently worked from a script which was mapped out in sympathy with the narrative. This is a relief, after the manner in which novels and plays are distorted by scenario writers. There are in this film some compelling scenes, especially those actually pictured in a German railway station. Occasionally the director shows touches of originality, but his knowledge of cinematography is, on the whole, limited. When the husband, Posdischew, enters a room, the camera is turned on his face at the moment one expects to see the surprised countenances of the wife and the violinist, Truchatschewsky.

At the outset five persons are beheld in a compartment of a railroad train. The trend of the conversation causes a man in the corner to surprise his traveling companions by admitting that he is none other than Posdischew, who stabbed his wife to death. His story then comes to the screen and now and again the director flashes back to Posdischew in his corner seat in the coach.

The acting for the most part is commendable. Eva Byron probably lets her eyes bear the brunt of the work, but in some scenes she plays creditably. Jans Petrovich officiates as Posdischew. He is capital in revealing the effect of jealousy on the character's countenance. An unlisted player handles the rôle of the violinist rather well.

The Reeler  Peter Hames

EROTIKON

Czechoslovakia  (85 mi)  1929

 

Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum) capsule review

Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty's erotic 1929 silent feature is less impressive than his subsequent and most famous film, Ecstasy (1933), but it remains a striking mannerist work with affecting poetic touches. Chronicling a Prague playboy's one-night stand with a provincial stationmaster's daughter and the aftermath when she becomes pregnant, the film is somewhat dated in its conventional morality, yet its camera work is fluid and free, and overall the film vibrates with sensuality. (Credited as "scene designer" is Alexander Hackenschmied, who years later collaborated with Maya Deren on her early films under the name Alexander Hammid.) Machaty, a former assistant to Griffith and Stroheim, never fulfilled the promise of his early work and wound up making classy commercials for European TV, but he's still a key figure in early Czech cinema, and the richer sections of this picture show why.

Time Out review

Machaty's silent second feature takes a simple, linear, fable-like story - a young woman's passage from girlhood to knowledge, from countryside to city, and from sentimental gullibility to a more level-headed, prudent sensibility - and invests it with a tumult of emotions: lust, longing, shame, jealousy, despair, courage and confusion. The plot might be knottier melodrama than Machaty's Extase, but its potentially sensational aspects remain subservient to the director's themes of emotional conflict and compromise. The daughter of a railway station guard, having run away after being seduced and left her pregnant, finds shelter with a gallant (if not so captivating) rescuer who has saved her from rape. But what really distinguishes the film is its wealth of poetic detail (merging raindrops, charging trains), and its bold, frank eroticism, most notably in the opening sequence of the girl's sexual initiation, with its luminous whites and ecstatic throes set almost in abstraction from her world hitherto. The film was censored, of course. This is the near-complete restoration made in 1993, and comes accompanied by Jan Klusák's score, performed by five members of the Czech Film Symphony Orchestra.

User comments   from imdb Author Marcin Kukuczka from Cieszyn, Poland

75 years after the release of EROTIKON, I had a chance to see it in a modern cinema in Wroclaw (Poland). The wonderful experience was intensified by the live background music played by the members of Prague Archa theater. It was a lovely return to the end of silent era, the year 1929. The film EROTIKON, made by Gustav Machaty, caused controversy among the audiences of that time. What particularly shocked them was the way the director showed love scenes. Some admired it, some condemned it and, as a result, it was underrated and lost for years. Fortunately, the copy was found in the 1980s and restored for today's audience who can admire the genius of Machaty.

EROTIKON, like many silent movies, does not offer much action. The content of the movie is, from today's perspective, quite naive. It is a story of complicated love affairs of George (Olaf Fjord) and his number of women. But, astonishingly, love is not showed as sweetly as in other movies of that time. Some love scenes are, indeed, very open and without taboo (Machaty's way of showing sex was mostly revealed in EXTASE (1933).

There are three most memorable moments in this movie:

- a love scene between George and Andrea (Ita Rina). It is in no way vulgar but it is directed towards her face in ecstasy for most of the time. That is probably the thing that shocked the audiences.

- a scene of playing chess. The thrilling atmosphere is really extraordinary. In very few thrillers nowadays will you find an equally well made scene! WONDERFUL!

- a considerable number of funny slogans throughout the movie. Some are dated but still funny in a way.

For anyone who likes European cinema and for whom film is art in itself, no matter of when it was made, Erotikon is a must to see. It was a great work of the Czech cinema. Partly thanks to this movie, I do believe that silent films may still be highly entertaining. Of course in an entirely different way. They require INTERPRETATION rather than AUTOMATIC WATCHING! Lilian Gish (1893-1993), a famous silent movie star, said once when asked about film art that "silent movies were well on their way to developing into an entirely new art; it was not just pantomime but something wonderfully expressive." After seeing EROTIKON, one may infer the same

Read the New York Times Review »   Morris Gilbert

FROM SATURDAY TO SUNDAY                                    A-                    94

Czechoslovakia   Austria  (72 mi)  1931

 

A film that plays out much like a silent film, and is in fact the director’s first work with sound, edited by Machatý himself, opening with a bizarre camera angles and constant camera movement from Václav Vích, offering the feel of a work environment that resembles Welles’ depiction of Kafka’s THE TRIAL, honing in on two cute co-workers who work at a drab job as audio typists all day long, where the more sexually aggressive Nany, (Jirina Sejbalová), gets a call asking her out and decides to bring along her shy work partner Mána (Magda Maderova), a girl who never goes out.  In a swank Prague night club that could just as easily be the evocative decadence of Berlin, where a dance orchestra plays continuously, including a jazz theme scored by Jaroslav Ježek that plays throughout the film, Mr. Ervin, a monocled older sugar daddy, reminiscent of Emil Jannings from THE BLUE ANGEL, buys plenty of champagne, leaving Mána feeling too tipsy to dance, so while Nany dances, Mr. Ervin crudely offers Mána money for the evening, which causes her to run away in disgust, but he places the money in her purse anyway.   By the time she gathers her things and runs outside, she runs several blocks before realizing she’s in the middle of a downpour and is soaking wet, taking shelter under an awning where she meets a man, Karel (Ladislav H. Struna), who offers the protection of his apartment nearby, as her clothes are thoroughly soaked.  Innocently enough, his actions appear chivalrous, but the sight of a beautiful woman dozing off in his apartment is too much, so he tenderly makes advances which play out offscreen. 

 

In the morning, Karel runs to Nany’s apartment to bring back a change of clothing, but also a note from her that Mr. Ervin wants his money back.  In what was a budding love affair, this takes the guy completely by surprise, and when Mána pleads with him that it’s not what he thinks, when she empties her purse to prove it, this money falls out.  Devastated, she leaves without her purse or the money, and pulls a ROSETTA scene alone in her apartment.  Karel has a change of heart and decides to run after her, but in a wild scene running through an army band marching through the streets of Prague, he’s arrested for stealing the purse in his hand.  When he’s finally able to explain, he runs, accompanied by the police, to save his ROSETTA, where in a crazy moment, the music of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” plays as they bash in the windows to let in air.  This is an interesting American reference, saved by the Americans, which may make little sense today. 

 

Magda Maderova is not your typical lead actress, as she seems molded by the silent era and appears shy and uncomfortable with words, which actually compliments her character, who is believable, totally unpretentious, and completely approachable.  At one point, she even breaks into song to express her newly discovered happiness, which is expressed with reserve, but also a delicate touch of tenderness and sweetness.  Needless to say, this is a wild film with terrific performances from the two girls, a veritable Céline and Julie from the early years, as they’re incredibly appealing, especially in long wordless sequences showing real depth of emotion, with occasional notes of humor –– a real discovery from the early archives that is simply saturated in recurring romantic musical themes. 

 

CZECH MODERNISM IN FILM: The 1920'S to the 1940's  Charles Coleman, Facets Film Programmer

 

Machatý, a master at conveying sexuality in Pre-Code cinema, makes his first sound film a simple tale of a young woman attracted by the glamour of the champagne set, only to find herself repulsed when she is offered money for sex. Fleeing the scene she runs into a good-hearted workingman, whose simple decency wins her over. Like Lang's M, this is a fantastic example of a silent director embracing sound and using it creatively, as Machatý does with an innovative score by jazz great Jaroslav Jezek. With L. H. Struna, Magda Maderová. Directed by Gustav Machatý, Czechoslavakia, 1931, 35mm, 72 mins.

 

Czech Modernism in Film: The 1920s to the 1940s  Andrea Gronvall from the Reader

 

Gustav Machaty started in silent films as an actor, then learned to direct in Hollywood as an apprentice to D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim. In this 1931 Czech feature, his first talkie, he engages the new technology with inventive playfulness and leavens his Depression-era story with subtle humor. A shy typist is recruited for a night on the town by her wanton girlfriend, and after the friend's sugar daddy insults the heroine by offering to pay her for sex, she wanders forlornly through Prague until rescued by a chivalrous man of the people. Though not as graphic as Machaty's notorious Ecstasy (1933), this compact melodrama takes a sophisticated approach to love, treating sex frankly and romance skeptically.

 

Time Out review

 

Slighter than either Erotikon or Extase, Machaty's first sound film remains typical in its technical and stylistic elan, its transcendence of a potentially banal narrative, and its thematic focus on female innocence and experience in love. Two working women go out on a Saturday night double date with a pair of prospective sugar daddies. Unlike her more knowing friend, shy Mary (Maderová) proves out of her depth, and eventually takes flight into a humbler watering hole, where she meets a man after her own heart. It's a sweet yarn, bolstered by some gentle discursive comedy (the girl surreptitiously returning the skin of her coffee to her host's mug; a delightfully odd cut-away to the corpulent physique behind the voice of a morning radio exercise programme), and an unforced attention to differences of class, character, moral habit and expectation.

 

Village Voice    J. Hoberman (excerpt)

 

Sex was Machatý's major theme. The lone Czech director of the period with an international reputation (mainly for Hedy Lamarr's bare-all debut in 1933's Ecstasy), Machatý is also represented in the BAM series by his 1931 partial talkie From Saturday to Sunday (December 3). Mildly racy and pleasantly experimental, the movie follows a pair of plump dumplings for a night on the town. Scored by avant-pop composer Jaroslav Ježek, their jaunty trajectory through cabarets and pubs anticipates Martin Scorsese's After Hours complete with romantic switch: Taken out by a rich man, the heroine winds up going home with a poor one.

The Reeler  Peter Hames

Jezek bio  Jaroslav Ježek, musical director

 

ECSTASY

Czechoslovakia  Austria  (82 mi)  1933

 

Chicago Reader (Jonathan Rosenbaum) capsule review  

 

Gustav Machaty's erotic classic (1932) from Czechoslovakia, which introduced Hedy Lamarr to the world, is considered a curiosity and a period piece by some, but if my own memories are anything to go by, it still has its charms, both cinematic and sensual. Lamarr plays a sexually frustrated young wife who leaves her older husband and subsequently finds bliss with a younger man. 82 min. In Czech with subtitles.

 

Extase  from Time Out London

 

Opening with an exquisite image of a groom carrying his bride over the threshold of their conjugal abode, Machaty's film immediately unravels this romantic ideal, with the seemingly urbane husband proving an impotent dilettante unable to give his wife any attention. Sympathy lies strongly with the woman's plight, but not to the exclusion of other characters' feelings; and when the now abandoned husband comes across the farm labourer his wife has fallen in love with, his tragedy again intercepts her happiness. The simplicity of the story couches some stunning visual coups: a wry, idyllic pastoralism when the woman retreats from the town to her father's horse farm; and the famous sequence of Hedy Kiesler (later Lamarr) bathing nude, with its suggestion of a return to prelapsarian innocence (Vatican censure helped bring the film to a wider audience); the detailed attention to the play of light and shadow, animal and plant life and imagery (from flowers to fly paper); and a magical coda, turning a montage of static machinery into a reflective ode to love and labour.

 

Cinepassion.org  Fernando F. Croce

 

Neither experimental masterpiece nor pioneering stag movie, Gustav Machaty's controversial, even scandalous search for the female orgasm is to lascivious movie buffs like myself the earliest example of celebrity skin -- namely pre-MGM, 19-year-old Hedy Lamarr (née Hedy Kiesler), running through fields with nary a stitch on and mimicking rapture (in writhing close-up) as a brawny lover goes down on her. She plays a young bride laying heatedly on her honeymoon bedspread while her older, finicky hubby (Zvonimir Rogoz) spends the night organizing his toothbrushes. Her desires neglected, Lamarr files for divorce and runs back to her father's house, until one day she bumps (naked, natch) into virile handyman Aribert Mog, whose proletarian vigor finally delivers the head-tossing fuck denied by the circumscribed bourgeois Rogoz. Despite the association of life forces with working-class studs and the culminating montage of peons happily toiling the earth, the movie's politics are resolutely sexual, and its sense of nearly flabbergasted wonder at the sublime heights of female sexuality keeps interest from waning through an ocean of pedestrian symbolism. (Mostly clearance night at Freud's, opening with a key penetrating its hole and proceeding to toss in horses, trains, dew-dripping pods, phallically extended shoes.) Shot as a monosyllabic semi-talkie, the film is crammed with tilted angles, laboriously idiosyncratic camera placement, abstracting editing, and the poetry of flesh -- the kind of avant-garde sensuality panted over by horny Henry Miller during his European sojourn. (In fact, Miller did praise the work as worthy of D.H. Lawrence, though even as early as 1933 Eros had already been more expressively served by the likes of Dreyer, Von Sternberg, Buñuel, Vigo and Pabst.) In black and white.

 

Turner Classic Movies review  Felicia Feaster

 

The Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy (1933) begins on a joyful note as the beautiful, young newlywed Eva (Hedy Lamarr) is carried over the marital threshold by her far older husband Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz). But Eva's nervous anticipation is immediately dashed by her husband's prim, unromantic manner. Pulling a frumpy sleeping cap on to protect his hair, Emile fails to respond to Eva's seductive overtures. Emile's sexual neglect of his young bride eventually drives her back to her father.

But Eva's romantic dreams are reawakened when she meets a handsome young engineer Adam (Aribert Mog) while skinny-dipping. He helps her recover the horse who has trotted off with her clothes and subsequently helps Eva achieve sexual fulfillment. Disaster ensues when Emile discovers the couple's affair.

A beautifully photographed and, for 1933, unabashedly erotic drama, Ecstasy, also known as Symphony of Love is just that -- a dreamy, nearly wordless sexual reverie. Even today, Ecstasy is most notorious for 15-year-old Lamarr's scenes of nude bathing and lovemaking which the actress claimed were not in the original script, but which director Gustav Machaty sprung on the actress during shooting outside Prague. After much cajoling and tears, Lamarr finally agreed to do the scene if a camera was placed at some distance on a hilltop, though the actress was unaware that the camera was equipped with a telephoto lens. For the indoor lovemaking scenes, Lamarr's desired ecstasy was achieved via Machaty's pricking of Lamarr's buttocks with a safety pin and the enthusiastic ministrations ("his vibrations of actual sex" Lamarr called them) from costar Mog. In her autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, the actress wrote, "If you have ever seen Ecstasy, I can only say that in the close-up section, you may have seen me agonizing over pinpricks! And I have seen that section once myself in which the emotion on my face was pure exhaustion. Because there were takes when I just had nothing left, and could hardly focus my eyes."

Expected problems with censors led to more conservative regional authorities, like the Germans, demanding an alternative version in which Lamarr's nude form was hidden behind bushes.

Ecstasy had even more trouble from American censors. When the film was first imported to America in 1935 a federal marshal burned the film, the first time customs laws had been invoked to keep a film out of America. It was only after significant features of the film were altered that customs allowed the film to pass. The film's initial eyeful of Lamarr's naked body was replaced with the German version featuring Lamarr's hidden nudity. Scenes of copulating horses were removed. Any implication of an adulterous affair between Adam and Eva was removed by tacking on a "happy" conclusion in which a baby made Eva and Adam's married union clear.

However, though the film now passed customs, the Production Code Office was less forgiving and refused to grant Ecstasy its Seal of Approval. Production Code head Joseph Breen reported the film "highly--even outrageously-indecent." And many states refused to show the film. The New York State Board of Regents rejected Ecstasy calling it "indecent, immoral, and tends to corrupt youth." The censors were not so much disturbed by the nude bathing, Lamarr stated in her autobiography, but by a close-up of the "love-starved bride in the act of sexual intercourse." Distributors booked the film in Washington, Newark, Los Angeles and Boston in art theaters to get around Code disapproval.

Ecstasy caused almost as much turmoil in Lamarr's private life. The film so infuriated her new husband, business tycoon and munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, he ordered his staff to buy up every print of the film in existence, spending some $280,000 in the process.

Ecstasy was such a key component in Lamarr's professional identity, she entitled her autobiography Ecstasy and Me and said of the notorious film "I had no idea of the humiliation it would cause me...or that it would catapult me out of my Middle-European circle into world fame."

After fleeing her hometown of Vienna and her controlling husband Mandl -- who Lamarr said kept her under lock and key -- the actress had a fateful meeting in London with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. The MGM mogul was captivated by her beauty, but disturbed by her nudity in Ecstasy warning her, Lamarr recalled, "no more dirty movies. We make clean pictures at MGM."

Lamarr was eventually signed to MGM after shrewdly negotiating a contract that upped Mayer's initial offer of $125 a week to $500, though Mayer did add a "morality" clause in her contract, to keep the European sophisticate in her place. Lamarr waited anxiously to be cast in a film at MGM, but eventually got her lucky break outside of MGM when she met actor Charles Boyer at a party. Boyer thought she would make a perfect co-star in producer Walter Wanger's American adaptation of Pepe Le Moko (1937), to be titled Algiers (1938), Lamarr's first Hollywood film. It proved to be a smash hit and confirmed Lamarr's superstar potential at MGM.

 

DVD Savant (Glenn Erickson) dvd review

 

Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web

 

San Francisco Chronicle [Mick LaSalle]

 

The New York Times (Bosley Crowther) review

 

Mackay, Yvonne

 

THE SILENT ONE

New Zealand  (95 mi)  1984

User comments  from imdb Author: rcraig-3 from United States

A delightful little film set in the South Seas dealing with the trials of a tribe in crisis that touches on several somewhat unrelated topics. While the emphasis is on the integration of a deaf orphan into a tightly nit society, it also deals with several other issues. It highlights the origins/role of religion in society, the evolution from 'medicine man' to organized religions. It also shows how in 'traditional' societies boys were introduced to manhood, a process completely lacking in society today. It also deals with traditional societies interacting with the modern world. All this wrapped in a fun story line with a fantasy ending which may put some folks off, but a good movie nevertheless.

User comments  from imdb Author: Jochen Klaschka from Berlin, Germany

The films is about a south pacific tale of a young deaf boy with no friends until he meets a (rare) white sea turtle and they become friends. Filmed at the scenic location in Aitutaki lagoon, Cook Islands, this is the type of low budget film with a lot of heart and warmth. Remarkably a lot of locals where involved playing various roles; some of them can be still met today (2000) in Aitutaki. The film highlights both the problem of being isolated because being different (here the main character is deaf) and the joy and strength of friendship.

I recommend this film for anyone 6 years and older.

SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review review [2/5]  Richard Scheib

 

A child is washed up in a basket in the Cook Islands. He is reluctantly adopted by a tribe as his being a deafmute is considered a bad omen. Isolated Jonasi, as he is named, befriends and gains a mystic communion with a white sea turtle. But the turtle is also regarded as a bad omen by the tribe and when Jonasi steps in to protect it, he is ostracized.

 

This New Zealand-made production, shot on the New Zealand protectorate of the Cook Islands, is such an earnestly nice production that one feels reluctant to fault it. While not many people went to see the film when it came out, it does have a small group of critical admirers. As with many such productions of its type, its very featuring of a ethnic cast and delving into native lifestyle has given it a certain critical respectability that has blinded many to its faults. It’s not a particularly great film. Just think if Jonasi were a white kid the story would only really be a banal alienated youth story.

The depiction of Jonasi’s deafness is nevertheless well done – the way director Yvonne Mackay suddenly cuts to silence in the middle of dances and jeering crowds aptly portrays the confusion a deaf person must find at things we take for granted. It all works reasonably well, although the acting is rather too simplistic to carry it more than adequately, and the hint of reincarnation at the ending is just banal. It is very nicely photographed, both above and below water. For some though the sea turtle’s voice is dubbed as the sonar cry of whales.

The film has many similarities to the later New Zealand-made Whale Rider (2002).

 

Mackendrick, Alexander

 

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

USA  (96 mi)  1957

 

Time Out review

 

A film noir from the Ealing funny man? But Mackendrick's involvement with cosy British humour was always less innocent than it looked: remember the anti-social wit of The Man in the White Suit, or the cruel cynicism of The Ladykillers? Sweet Smell of Success was the director's American debut, a rat trap of a film in which a vicious NY gossip hustler (Curtis) grovels for his 'Mr Big' (Lancaster), a monster newspaper columnist who is incestuously obsessed with destroying his kid sister's romance... and a figure as evil and memorable as Orson Welles in The Third Man or Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. The dark streets gleam with the sweat of fear; Elmer Bernstein's limpid jazz score (courtesy of Chico Hamilton) whispers corruption in the Big City. The screen was rarely so dark or cruel.

 

Sweet Smell of Success   Mike D’Angelo from Time Out New York  (link lost)

Pitiless and corrosive, Sweet Smell of Success may not be the most cynical Hollywood movie ever made—that honor goes to another picture about journalism at its most heartless, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole—but it's undoubtedly the most quotable. So distinctively pungent is the film's dialogue, in fact, that Diner, Barry Levinson's wry portrait of sexual neurosis among a group of young Baltimore men in the late '50s, features a minor, monomaniacal character who does nothing but walk around quoting it to anybody within earshot. Alternately tart and florid (the handiwork of screenwriters Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets, respectively), the lines fly from the actors' tongues like tiny darts, barbed to ensure that retraction will cause still more damage. It's no slight to James Wong Howe's gloriously seamy evocation of midtown Manhattan to observe that Sweet Smell would work beautifully as a radio play. (Instead, it's been transformed into a gaudy Broadway musical, due to open shortly in the very neighborhood where the story takes place.)

Walter Winchell, the inspiration for Machiavellian gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster, oozing rancid bonhomie), has largely been forgotten, and today's tabloid mudslingers are a pale shadow of their forebears in terms of power and influence; if hungry press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) were still around, he'd be pitching his clients to the producers of Inside Edition. The symbiotic relationship between overlord and sycophant, however, never changes, making this caustic masterpiece feel surprisingly modern. In a move that would still raise the eyebrows of studio suits 45 years later, Sweet Smell explicitly equates publicists with pimps, as a desperate Falco palms one of his floozies off on a Hunsecker rival in exchange for the latter's agreement to run a scurrilous item designed to torpedo the relationship between Hunsecker's beloved sister (Susan Harrison) and a clean-cut jazz musician (Milner). "Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off," Falco tells his secretary early on; the sordid pas de deux that follows resembles a couple of porcupines doing the tango without moving their feet.

Turner Classic Movies review   Jeff Stafford, also seen here:  Sweet Smell of Success - Turner Classic Movies

Alexander Mackendrick was best known as a director of British comedies (The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers, 1955) when he was chosen to replace Ernest Lehman as director on Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The result was a visually stunning and hard-edged film noir melodrama which was actually a little too strong for mass audience acceptance in its time. It told the story of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a powerful and dangerous national columnist, and his obsequious assistant, Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). Hunsecker, who has the power to make and break reputations in his daily newspaper column, was said to be modeled on Walter Winchell who had made his share of enemies during his peak years.

The screenplay was inspired by an original story from Ernest Lehman who worked for celebrity press agent Irving Hoffman in Manhattan in the late 1930s. Lehman had ample opportunity to observe the treacherous world of celebrity gossip he was working in and he even supplied Walter Winchell with column "items" on occasion.

Due to heath reasons, Lehman, who was serving as director and screenwriter, had to abandon the film production of Sweet Smell of Success in the early stages and MacKendrick took over direction. Clifford Odets was brought in to give the dialogue more punch with street slang and New Yorker vernacular.

Lancaster, whose production company had optioned Sweet Smell of Success, was considering Orson Welles for the role of Hunsecker when he decided to play the character himself. Compromising himself further, he also began to challenge Alexander MacKendrick's directorial decisions once filming began, a possible result of identitying too closely with the overly manipulative Hunsecker character. Although Lancaster delivered a final cut of the film without Mackendrick's involvement, he soon realized his mistake and called the director back in to fix the ending. The result is without a doubt MacKendrick's most accomplished film and a testiment to his careful rehearsal and elaborate storyboard preparation for the film.

What's most surprising is the fact that Sweet Smell of Success was totally ignored during the 1957 Oscar race. Not only was Tony Curtis's breakthrough performance as the self-loathing Sidney Falco ignored but even Elmer Bernstein's dynamic, jazz-influenced score failed to garner an Academy Award nomination. The latter featured notable contributions from Chico Hamilton's Quintet and such fine musicians as Frank Rosolino, Curtis Counce, Paul Horn, and Buddy Clark.

The Greatest Films (Tim Dirks) recommendation [spoilers]

 

Edward Copeland on Film [Wagstaff]

 

Images Movie Journal  Kevin Jack Hagopian

 

Turner Classic Movies review  On the film restoration, by Jeff Stafford

 

Erasing Clouds [Dan Heaton]

 

Movie Martyr (Jeremy Heilman) review [4+/4]

 

Cinepinion [Henry Stewart]

 

VideoVista review  Lucinda Ireson

 

Goatdog's Movies (Michael W. Phillips, Jr.) review [5/5]

 

digitallyOBSESSED.com (Joel Cunningham) dvd review

 

Crazy for Cinema

 

100 films  Lucas McNelly

 

Film Court (Lawrence Russell) review

 

Guardian/Observer review

 

TV Guide Entertainment Network, Movie Guide review [5/5]

 

Time Out Chicago (Hank Sartin) review [6/6]

 

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) recommendation [Great Movies]

 

The New York Times (A.H. Weiler) review

 

Noir and the City: Dark, Dangerous, Corrupt and Sexy  Terrence Rafferty from The New York Times, July 22, 2007

 

DVDBeaver.com [Ole Kofoed]

 

Mackenzie, David

 

THE LAST GREAT WILDERNESS

Great Britain  Denmark  (95 mi)   2002  ‘Scope

 

Time Out review

 

'McDogme' is the word for this loosely plotted first feature. It's comparatively low rent and pleasantly retro, and feels like it belongs on the small screen - and not just because Monarch of the Glen heart-throb Mackenzie plays Charlie, vengefully driving through remote Scotland to incinerate the house of the pop star who stole his wife. He picks up hitch-hiker Vince (Phillips), a motormouth fleeing unidentified heavies, and when the car runs out of gas they seek refuge at Moore Lodge - a retreat run by the gruff but seemingly benign Rory (Hayman). It's here matters pick up. As we're introduced to the oddball residents, the film stakes out the atmospheric, queasily comic terrain of the 'weirdo-filled mansion' sub-genre. As with most semi-improvised projects, the screenplay is wildly uneven - but director and cast mostly keep the balance tilting the right way, resulting in a promising digital debut full of unpredictable, thistly charm.

 

The UK Critic (Ian Waldron-Mantgani) review [3/4]

Alastair Mackenzie is driving to Scotland to get revenge on his ex-wife and her lover, when he finds himself hooking up with Jonny Phillips, a weirdo who makes his money pretending to be an Italian gigolo and is currently being stalked by gangsters. The pair end up at a remote motel, whose inhabitants include a frigid widow, a sex addict, an ex-paedophile and their priestly leader. There seems to be a ghost around too. The movie starts as a road picture, but as has been pointed out by several reviewers, there ain't much road in Britain. By the time we get to the boarding house, we have no idea whether "The Last Great Wilderness" is going to turn into a zombie flick, a philosophical black comedy, a chase film, an experimental piece of weirdness or all/none of the above. And that's the gift of Mackenzie, who wrote the screenplay, and his brother David, who directed. They keep subverting our expectations, while balancing absurdity and naturalism in their individual scenes so as to hold our attention. The movie is gripping, and even though it has been filmed on video, the compositions are strong, and commanding a cinema-sized canvas was obviously always in mind.

There are too many people making independent films on home equipment these days, who seem to think that when they've got enough footage for feature length, they've got a movie. They should take a look at "The Last Great Wilderness", which is a terrific example of how to make real cinema on a low budget. The guys behind this thing are going places, while so many other wannabes are just pissing in the wind and kidding themselves about it.

Jigsaw Lounge (Neil Young) review [6/10]  which includes an interview with the director and his brother:  click here

Actors aren’t often any great shakes in the scriptwriting department, which is why projects billed as improvised or even semi-improvised seldom turn out very well – especially if it’s the director’s first feature. According to this theory The Last Great Wilderness has all the makings of a real dog’s breakfast – a semi-improv, dogme-influenced blend of black comedy and horror that barely bothers to conceal its debts to its many celebrated cinematic forerunners. But somehow it just about manages to work and assert an endearingly rough-edged identity of its own – suggesting director and co-writer Mackenzie is a name to watch when he settles down to more orthodox projects like the forthcoming Alexander Trocchi adaptation Young Adam.

Here he’s working with his brother Alastair, whose character Charlie isn’t a million miles away from his ‘English-accented posh-bloke in Scotland’ role in the BBC’s Monarch of the Glen. Charlie’s wife has recently run off with a pop star (unidentified in the movie, but audibly Jarvis Cocker of Pulp) whose tunes dominate the airwaves. The infuriated Charlie seeks revenge, and sets off for the musician’s rural retreat with the aim of burning it to the ground. Stopping en route at a motorway service station, he picks up a livewire hitch-hiker, Vicente a.k.a. Vince (Jonny Phillips) who claims to be a half-Spanish lothario on the run from unspecified heavies. Not long after, Charlie’s car runs out of fuel in a remote spot where the only visible sign of life is Moor Lodge, a retreat for the psychologically unstable run by the gruff but seemingly benign Rory (David Hayman).

Getting us to Moor Lodge is a rather laborious process, and the basic set-up (moody, vengeful loner driving through countryside, picks up ‘zany’ hitch-hiker) is a standard-issue scriptwriter’s contrivance. Luckily, things pick up once we’re introduced to the characters who populate the retreat, and the film starts staking out the agreeably atmospheric terrain previously covered in ‘weirdo-filled mansion’ movies like The Old Dark House (1932, remade in 1962), The Horror of It All (1964) and What A Carve Up! (1961) – with inevitable ominous hints of the ‘Tartan terrors’ in The Wicker Man (1973). The final act, meanwhile, when push comes to shove in an unexpectedly gory climax, belongs firmly alongside paranoid rural nightmares like Deliverance (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971).

The Last Great Wilderness, while no masterpiece, is nevertheless a little more than the sum of its many parts. The mood of the film is pleasantly retro – as well as the many movie references, there’s much ‘mad people are the sane ones’ talk ripped straight from the 1960s tomes of R D Laing, plus a decidedly 80s-ish soundtrack from Scots folk-popsters The Pastels, who even make a brief appearance in a party scene in which everyone, the band included, appears in drag (star Mackenzie looks unexpectedly like Juliette Binoche).

Director Mackenzie creates and sustains an intriguing tone, helped by the fact that he has a good eye for composition and landscape, aided by cinematographer Simon Dennis capturing some suitably intense widescreen DV images of the wintry Scots landscapes. Apart from the soundtrack, and a couple of minor (and ill-advised) special effects touches in which a ghostly presence flits in and out of sight, this could probably be described as a ‘McDogme’ project, and the intimacy of the video cameras (not to mention their capacity for infinite retakes) suits the thrown-together, defiantly unpolished, rough-Scots vibe that gives the film its unpredictable, thistly charm.

eFilmCritic Reviews  Beth Gilligan

 

Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [4/5]  Rich Cline

 

DVD Verdict (George Hatch) dvd review

 

Eye for Film (Angus Wolfe Murray) review [2/5]

 

Future Movies (Jay Richardson) review

 

Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web

 

sneersnipe (David Perilli) review

 

Guardian/Observer review

 

YOUNG ADAM                                             A-                    93

Great Britain  France  (93 mi)  2002  ‘Scope

 

If ever anyone says to you, “You can put that where the sun don’t shine,” think of this film, as I don’t believe the sun ever shines in this film, a deeply probing, but excessively gloomy adaptation of Scottish Beat author Alexander Trocchi’s novel.  This is a tense, sexually explicit lower class version of Polanski’s KNIFE ON THE WATER with a brilliant cast, the menage a trois, Les and Ella, played by Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton, an unhappy couple who transport post-WWII fuel rations on a barge up and down the narrow canals from Glasgow to Edinburgh, who take on hired help in the form of Ewan McGregor, who plays Joe, a chain-smoking, handsome lothario, a self-absorbed character largely based on the author himself, who was a heroin addict who died young.   Filled with an attention to detail, few words, and an endlessly gray mood, the film opens on the docks as they sweep a nearly nude body of a woman out of the harbor.  Shortly afterwards, Joe is staring at Tilda Swinton’s every move, sharing close quarters underneath the decks of the barge, concealing little from her husband.  In this film, no words are needed, and after a brief sexual escapade outdoors on the grassy slopes, when Joe tries to say something, Ella cuts him off quickly, “You’ve said enough for one evening.”  In a series of well-placed flashbacks, Joe is seen meeting and romancing the drowned woman found in the water, so the film seems to be moving in slow motion backwards and forwards, all at the same time.  The style is absorbing, moody, incredibly detached, but extraordinarily focused on each single moment at hand, which when gone, seems to have never meant very much to anyone at all, as if all is lost in an existential void.  The story moves to the murder trial of the drowned girl, as the police seem to be accusing the wrong man, which sparks the interest of Joe, who slowly, but surely, falls farther and farther from grace.  The title, I assume, refers to original sin.  To quote Michael Wilmington, “ This is an unvarnished, pitiless look at real life by a man who knows his character is deeply flawed and does nothing to disguise or excuse it.” 

 

Time Out review  Geoff Andrew

 

Set in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1950s, writer/director Mackenzie's impressive film from a novel by the Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi centres on Joe (McGregor), a drifter helping out on the coal barge owned by Les (Mullan) and his wife Ella (Swinton). Soon after the two men find the corpse of a young woman floating down by the docks, Joe embarks on an affair with Ella that will have dramatic consequences for all three. It's a dark, brooding film, most notable perhaps for the surprisingly forthright eroticism of Joe's scenes with both Ella and Cathie (Mortimer), the lover seen in the film's many flashbacks. Now and then the dialogue grows a little too florid (which may almost be explained away by Joe's past), but Giles Nuttgens' noir camerawork and the excellent performances of all four principals carry the day.

 

Young Adam  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

This is a tricky film to critique, since its intent is clear and, I think, worthy. But this can't excuse its ultimate failure to deliver on its promise. Ewan McGregor is Joe, not so much a human being as a primal male force. Following his huge schlong (played by Ewan McGregor's penis) into an endless string of Penthouse Forum encounters, Joe seems to embody a certain strain of virility fantasy, recoded as absolute psychopathology. He's "innocent" in a Nietzschean sense, a guilt-free Superman acting without plan and shrugging off consequences. This Adam works aboard the Glaswegian barge the Atlantic Eve, screwing everything in sight, both literally (Tilda Swinton's Ella) and metaphorically (Peter Mullan's cuckolded Les, whose name is pronounced with a distinct, feminizing Z-sound at the end). The rapidity with which women shed their frocks clearly marks this film as some sort of allegory, as does its gorgeously deliberate use of the river, but first-timer Mackenzie loses control of his material. The flashback-subplot involving Joe's girlfriend Cathy (Emily Mortimer) works in tandem with the overall critique-of-the-unchained-male-libido structure for most of the first half -- Joe and Cathy's sex is even more rutting and animalistic than his encounters with Ella -- but these passages veer into the risibly outsized (the bizarre, jaw-dropping custard sequence, successful in itself but belonging in a more psychologically oriented film), culminating in an interminable third-act trial. Beautifully lensed, mostly well-acted (within the limited emotional framework), but shoddily structured and -- worst offense overall -- gratingly scored by David Byrne, obviously trying for "minimalist New Age crime drama," and hitting that dubious mark.

 

Eye for Film (Angus Wolfe Murray) review [4.5/5]

Emotion stains the walls of this period film like gutter waste. It is as if Dostoevsky walked in the shadow of the Clyde canal, infecting the air with his existential view of a world grown tired of romance. The truth is dark and ugly, brooding and sensual. Only imagination plants seeds of hope on wasted ground to wither in the wind before any sun can save them.

The way that writer/director David Mackenzie has adapted Alexander Trocchi's novel makes it difficult to describe without puncturing the plot. It's like being dealt a hand of cards, before arranging them into suits. The cards are moments in time and there is no order yet.

The use of flashback has always been a delicate business. There is the one-blink effect of instant memory, or the blurry fade into nostalgic soup, or the whooshy light show that precedes recollection. Mackenzie allows the past and present to flow together. The story emerges by chance, scene by scene. It is a technique that could easily lead to confusion, especially without the safety harness of a voice-over commentary, and yet it works beautifully, enhanced by exceptional performances and a taut, literate script.

Joe (Ewan McGregor) works on a coal barge, with Les (Peter Mullan), his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their young son. Once he was a writer, but now he's a hired hand. There is a sense of loss about him.

The body of a girl is fished out of the water. The incident becomes news, followed by a murder enquiry. Les is proud to have been part of something that was reported in the papers. For Joe, it is different. The girl's name is Cathy (Emily Mortimer). Once, they were lovers. As the river runs through it, their story floats to the surface.

This is a film about the responsibility of action, how desire cuts at the roots of loyalty, how the weakness of a moment destroys the lives of the innocent, how retribution seldom finds what it's looking for. The evocation of the Fifties, when everyone had a fag in their mouth and women drank neat gin and sex was barely understood, except by men like Joe who took it where they could, violently. The atmosphere of repressed passion is as strong as the taste of blood on the lips of the wounded.

The colour is drained to the shade of a drowned baby's lips. David Byrne's music swamps the senses. Mackenzie shows courage and demonstrates a confidence that British films have been crying out for too long. This is genuine auteur cinema from Scotland, neither a pastiche, nor an attempt to be something else.

McGregor gives the strongest, most sensitive performance of his career. Swinton, as ever, is fearless and Mullan shows dignity in a role that is painful to watch at times, while Mortimer allows herself to be humiliated with a dedication that is brave beyond reach.

Young Adam  Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound

Scotland, the 50s. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a young drifter, works with Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) on their coal barge plying the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One day Joe and Les find a young woman's near-naked body floating in the sea and notify the police. Joe and Ella are physically attracted, and one night while Les is at the pub they have sex.

In flashback, Joe meets a girl called Cathie Dimley (Emily Mortimer) and moves in with her. After breaking up, they meet by chance on the dockside. They have sex under a truck, but when she suggests they get married, Joe pushes her away and she falls into the harbour. Joe panics and runs off, later disposing of her clothes.

The Gaults' young son Jim (Jack McElhone)falls overboard; Joe rescues him. He becomes increasingly involved with Ella. Les discovers the affair and, as Ella owns the barge, sullenly leaves. It's reported that Cathie (whose body Joe and Les retrieved) had been seeing a married man, Daniel Gordon, now arrested for her murder.

Ella suggests she and Joe should settle down together. Her sister Gwen (Therese Bradley), recently widowed, comes to visit. Joe and Gwen have sex on a street corner. When Ella senses this, Joe leaves and finds lodgings, where he starts an affair with his landlord's wife. He attends the trial and sees Daniel condemned to death before trudging away along the quayside.

Review

Portraying an emotionally amputated protagonist without either soliciting sympathy or alienating your audience is no mean trick. It defeated Visconti in his over-literal adaptation of Camus' L'tranger (Lo straniero, 1967), a novel with which Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam has often been compared. Other directors have been more successful with less head-on tactics; in Leo the Last (1969) John Boorman undermined his exiled, passive-aggressive aristo with subversive humour, and the Coen Brothers brought a cool monochrome elegance and glittering irony to bear on The Man Who Wasn't There. David Mackenzie, in his second feature as writer-director, takes his own route but still hits the target.

Trocchi's 1954 cult novel is written in the first person, but Mackenzie rejects the obvious solution of giving his anti-hero, Joe Taylor, a doomy noirish voiceover. Instead Joe's affectless state of mind is expressed through the gritty visual texture and cold, grey-blue palette, flat, detached dialogue and above all Ewan McGregor's performance. Paring away the streetwise perkiness of his earlier roles, he evinces a hungry, raw dissatisfaction, his mouth skewed in a grimace of anticipated distaste.

Mackenzie's debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, had atmosphere to spare but lacked focus, veering wildly; if divertingly from road movie to black comedy to Polanskian Grand Guignol, all leavened with a hint of The Wicker Man. Young Adam, with the spine of Trocchi's terse novel to keep it on course, establishes its tone with far more assurance, and sticks to it. The script deviates very little from the original, least of all in its key narrative obliquity: Joe's connection with the girl whose corpse he drags from the water when working on a barge is withheld from us until halfway through. By the time we find out, it's evident that any recourse to Dostoevskian redemption-through-guilt is beyond Joe's moral compass.

The script includes only one significant deviation from the novel, in which Joe rescues his employers' young son from drowning. It's hard to see why this was inserted, unless to soften Joe's character which would be odd, since there are no other attempts to ingratiate him. Otherwise Mackenzie handles his material with a light touch and intimate attention to physical detail: the sense of grimy, sweaty flesh, especially in the sex scenes on the barge, is startlingly vivid. In a moment of supreme post-coital disaffection, Joe watches expressionless as a fat black fly takes a leisurely stroll around Ella's nipple.

Mackenzie draws edgy, exact performances from Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, while Emily Mortimer makes the most of an underwritten role as Joe's put-upon girlfriend. There's a relishably slatternly cameo from Therese Bradley as Ella's sister Gwen, complete with black-rooted hennaed hair, blood-gash lipstick and chillingly reductive attitude to sex ("Drink up. We've got business to attend to").

Mackenzie resists jazzing up his story with any spurious sense of urgency or passion. Barring one brief, bizarre scene of erotic violence involving custard and spanking with a wooden slat Young Adam moves with the torpid, inexorable pace of the coal barge itself, abetted by David Byrne's moody score. Such assured film-making augurs well for Mackenzie's next project, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's gothic tour de force, Asylum.

Written On The Body   Ryan Gilbey from Sight and Sound

 

Reverse Shot review  Bob Carroll

 

Raging Bull Movie Reviews (Mike Lorefice) review [3.5/4]

 

PopMatters (Cynthia Fuchs) review

 

Eye for Film (Jennie Kermode) review [4.5/5]

 

Kamera.co.uk review  Jon Ashton

 

digitallyOBSESSED.com (Matt Peterson) dvd review

 

Village Voice (Jessica Winter) review

 

Not Another Teen Neophyte [Vadim Rizov]

 

Slant Magazine  Ed Gonzalez

 

filmcritic.com (Jeremiah Kipp) review [1.5/5]

 

sneersnipe (Robin Castle) review

 

culturevulture.net, Choices for the Cognoscenti review  Arthur Lazere

 

d+kaz. Intelligent Movie Reviews (Daniel Kasman) review [C+]

 

Jigsaw Lounge [Neil Young]

 

ReelViews (James Berardinelli) review [3/4]

 

Reel.com review [3/4]  Pam Grady

 

sneersnipe (Sara Cathie) review

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Keith Phipps]

 

Film Freak Central Review [Walter Chaw]

 

Macresarf1 Epinions Review.

 

Plume Noire review  Moland Fengkov

 

Kamera.co.uk dvd review  Charlie Phillips

 

New York Observer (Andrew Sarris) review

 

Looking Closer (J. Robert Parks) review

 

CineScene.com (Chris Knipp) review

 

Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [4.5/5]  Rich Cline

 

DVD Talk (Jason Bovberg) dvd review [3/5]

 

Reel.com dvd review [2.5/4]  Bonnie Fazio

 

sneersnipe (David Perilli) review

 

Bina007 Movie Reviews

 

CultureCartel.com (Dan Callahan) review [1.5/5]

 

hybridmagazine.com review  Leah Churner

 

CultureCartel.com (Lee Chase IV) review [2.5/5]

 

Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web and Tuna

 

Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review

 

Strictly Film School review  Acquarello

 

Guardian/Observer review

 

Guardian Interview with Tilda Swinton  Interview by Suzie Mackenzie, September 20, 2003

 

The Globe and Mail review [2/4]  Rick Groen

 

Seattle Post-Intelligencer review  Sean Axmaker

 

Austin Chronicle (Marrit Ingman) review [3.5/5]

 

Washington Post (Michael O'Sullivan) review

 

Washington Post (Stephen Hunter) review

 

Boston Globe review [2.5/4]  Ty Burr

 

Chicago Tribune (Michael Wilmington) review

 

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [3.5/4]

 

The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review

 

Los Angeles Times [Manohla Dargis]

 

DVDBeaver.com [Per-Olof Strandberg]

   

ASYLUM

Great Britain  Ireland  (99 mi)  2005  ‘Scope

 

Time Out London review

 

Like ‘Asylum’s’ Dr Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), the movie industry specialises in sexual pathology and its associated catastrophes. Making a useful contribution to the subject is therefore pretty tough, but David Mackenzie managed it in his last film (‘Young Adam’, also adapted from a British novel set in the 1950s), telling an affecting story about disaffected characters across whose torpid sexuality death flickered like a fly around a nipple. Unfortunately, ‘Asylum’ proves a disappointingly uninvolving follow-up.When Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) is given a top position at a secure psychiatric hospital, his bored wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) finds her 60-a-day habit and plunging necklines out of step with other asylum wives. Instead she forges a blunt, Chatterleyesque liaison with inmate Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), who is mad, bad and decidedly dangerous to know. Meanwhile McKellen hovers with predatory charm, as if belatedly auditioning for Hannibal Lecter, and Bonneville is left spitting unpleasantries (although the sharpest lines go to Judy Parfitt as his mother: ‘Don’t let your shame degenerate into self-pity,’ she sniffs at Stella). Each character is unlikeable and deluded, their problems self-inflicted; worse, Mackenzie’s hands-off stance leaves them cold to the touch. Similarly, the setting of drab garretts and blasted plains is not just austere but miserabilist: a long shot of a minibus puffing its way up a desolate Welsh hillside verges on camp. There are some nice touches – the long tracking shot that follows Edgar’s initial bee-line towards Stella at a hospital dance – but others tend towards glibness: a broken glass frame separates them before the tension boils over. The narrative feels broken-backed too, reaching an apparent climax an hour in, and then episodically prolonging Stella’s decline towards a denouement apparently modelled on ‘Vertigo’. But where Hitchcock made tragedy of willing delusion, ‘Asylum’ offers only self-absorption.

 

Slant Magazine review  Jeremiah Kipp

David Mackenzie relishes dark tales of sexual obsession like a gleeful masturbator, following up last year's Young Adam with this adaptation of Patrick McGrath's modern gothic novel. Once again, he takes a compelling literary work and renders it trite, and, since he appears indifferent to visual storytelling, he lets his well-cast actors dictate the rhythm of scenes. But the greater problem seems to be his use of highbrow literary works as an excuse for tawdry sex scenes, which seem calculated, not earthy. In Young Adam, the scene where Ewan McGregor sprays condiments all over his nubile girlfriend tries so willfully to be edgy that it becomes laughable.

Asylum is likewise doomed by its own self-importance. Buttoned-down psychiatrist's wife Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) takes up residence at a high-security mental institution for the criminally insane. Her uptight husband (Hugh Bonneville) has become deputy superintendent, and has little time for her. Enter handsome, brooding gardener Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a former sculptor who brutally destroyed his wife in a jealous rage. Late 1950s housewife repression gives way to naked desire, and Cinemax-style sex in the greenhouse. But the enigmatic Dr. Cleve (Ian McKellen) keeps a close watch over his patient, and develops an unhealthy fascination for Stella. Screenwriter Patrick Marber preserves the radical plot twists intact from McGrath's novel, but his translation loses the author's tone of dry macabre.

This failed opportunity is nearly saved by Richardson, who hasn't had so meaty a role in years—a curse that befalls many a talented fortysomething actress. She digs into it with the fearlessness of her mother Vanessa (who she strikingly resembles). It's a woman's dream part: the Queen Bee surrounded by amorous would-be suitors. Richardson's supporting males are mostly up to the job, though none of them (particularly McKellen's dirty old queen) are any match for her. As her sanity gives way, her performance wonders whether it's better to give in to your desires than maintain boring decorum. Would that the movie surrounding her was so fearless.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer review  Paula Nechak

 

Patrick McGrath's 1997 gothic novel is on my list of favorite books, so with anticipation, and wariness, I asked to review the film.

I was wary because David Mackenzie was onboard as director. He made an aberration of a movie called "Young Adam" two years ago and its crassness was so distasteful I wondered if he could get sophisticated nuance in a story dealing with psychological obsession and the societal and literal confinement that punishes its rebellious lovers.

Also a little worrying was playwright Patrick Marber, who with Chrysanthy Balis, wrote the script. I feared the cold disconnect of character in Marber's play "Closer" would pervade McGrath's balanced insight and make it difficult to connect with people whose helpless, monstrous actions may have been impossible to fathom in the 1950s, but not in our age of reality TV and road rage.

I'm delighted to say I've been proved wrong. "Asylum" is a reverently faithful and compact adaptation and, though it skims over the book's initial tone in favor of a NASCAR race of sexual sensationalism, it captures the tragicomic hypocrisy of McGrath's narrative and manages to mine the emotional ballast in a consumptive love that destroys all in its path.

"We wish you many contented years here among the confined and the confused," toasts Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland), superintendent at a decaying, depressed English asylum for the criminally insane. He's hoisting a glass to forensic psychiatrist Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). It's 1959 and Max, his wife, Stella (Natasha Richardson), and their young son, Charlie, have come to this end-of-the-earth place to wait for a better one. There's tension between Max and Stella, perhaps a hint of some previous transgression by a wife toward her husband's inability to understand her -- and so tries instead to contain her.

The family meet Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), a bloodless doctor who is as diabolical and controlling as a spider in a web waiting for the fly to make its fatal mistake. In the early, languid days of settling in, Max decides to renovate an old conservatory at the far end of a garden.

A handful of inmates are assigned the task of glazing the broken glass with new panes. And it is here that Stella meets Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a sexy artist-turned-murderer afflicted by "severe personality disorder with features of morbid jealousy." The two become acquaintances and more -- swallowed up by a lust that upends rationale.

"Asylum" is a film that takes you by surprise, refusing to relinquish its grim, fascinating hold. Better yet, it has crept up on us without much advance promotional fanfare. The less known about its twists, the better.

Author McGrath stated in a 1998 interview that "to sacrifice all for love would soon find (one) in a very difficult situation ... love at a certain point, has to relinquish its exclusiveness, lovers have to become rehabilitated into the wider society." It's the exquisite performances that draw on this tenet and bring suspense and comprehension to a startling turn of events.

Richardson, who also executive produced, is a heartbreaking, strong Stella, failed by being born in the wrong era -- and by the wrong men.

She is the moral compass of the story. New Zealander Csokas, who has been relegated to playing villain roles in "xXx" and "Kingdom of Heaven," heats the screen with a leading man fragility mixed with potently dangerous sexual simmering. Together they make comprehensible -- and combustible -- a doomed alliance.

DVD Times  Anthony Nield

 

Movie-Vault.com (Mel Valentin) review

 

Raging Bull Movie Reviews (Mike Lorefice) review [3/4]

 

sneersnipe (David Perilli) review

 

Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir]

 

filmcritic.com (Chris Barsanti) review [3/5]

 

The Village Voice [Jessica Winter]

 

PopMatters (Cynthia Fuchs) review

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Keith Phipps]

 

The New Yorker (Anthony Lane) review

 

DVD Verdict [Michael Rankins]

 

CultureCartel.com (John Nesbit) review [2.5/5]

 

CompuServe (Harvey S. Karten) review

 

Reel.com review [2/4]  Tim Knight

 

The New York Sun (Nathan Lee) review

 

Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web

 

Guardian/Observer

 

Austin Chronicle (Marc Savlov) review [3/5]

 

Boston Globe review [2.5/4]  Ty Burr

 

Washington Post (Michael O'Sullivan) review

 

San Francisco Chronicle [Jonathan Curiel]

 

Los Angeles Times (Kevin Thomas) review

 

Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review

 

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

 

The New York Times (Manohla Dargis) review

 

HALLAM FOE                                                          B                     84

aka:  Mister Foe

Great Britain  (95 mi)  2007  ‘Scope

 

A dirty little story about dirty family secrets, and my how the ultra rich have secrets.  There are strange goings on at this Scottish estate, which is a massive home on plenty of forested grounds where one young boy, Hallam (Jamie Bell), retreats from his father and stepmother as much as possible, preferring instead to live in a giant treehouse which servers as a veritable shrine to his deceased mother, including candles and a giant, wall-sized photo, a place where he picks up the habit of using binoculars to spy on people, also wearing a badger pelt half naked and swinging from the tree unannounced, but let’s not concern ourselves with details.  Believing his step-mother (Claire Forlani in her best Cruella De Vil) is the re-incarnation of Hamlet’s step-father, namely that she secretly killed his own mother to be with his father, Hallam has difficulty remaining civil around her, where conversation runs ice cold, to say the least.  When Hallam’s sister goes off to college, the step-mother confronts Hallam in the manner of the rich and famous, by sleeping with him, after which she insidiously suggests he fly the coop on the first train out of town.  Finding himself alone in Edinburgh, he hasn’t a clue what to do until he sees a young woman who is the spitting image of his mother, Sophia Miles as Kate, sort of a cross between Kate Winslet and Julia Stiles.  It’s all he can do to take his eyes off of her, as Hallam follows her everywhere, setting up space for himself in an empty storage room just behind a giant clock tower that overlooks Kate’s room, a perfect place to keep an eye on her, which is exactly what he does.   If this was the extent of his strange alienation from society, becoming a homeless man that is an obsessive Peeping Tom, the audience would somehow understand.  But what happens instead stretches credulity. 

 

Because of the wish-fulfillment aspect of his fantasy world, one would think it possible to see Hallam actually meet Kate onscreen, while it might never have really happened.  But not only does he walk into her office asking about a job, she actually gives him one working in a hotel kitchen as a dishwasher—perfect for our muddle-minded spyboy who gets to stay in short range of his obsession.  Instead of rejoicing at his prospects, he is not satisfied and wants more, sneaking into her home and peering into her windows while perched on the roof at night, like some kind of creepy Phantom of the Opera, fascinated and repulsed by what he sees, watching her have sex with his overly pompous hotel manager (Jamie Sives) where they work, a married man who leaves as quickly as he comes.  Most incredulously, upon reaching his 18th birthday, Kate notifies him of an automatic pay raise he’ll receive, even suggesting she’ll join the boys after work for a celebratory pint at a local pub.  After a marathon night of binge drinking, when she whispers dirty thoughts into his ear and actually brings him home, it defies belief.  When we see a shot of him staring through her roof window looking down at him in bed with her, it could only be happening inside his head, a thought prolonged until the mandatory day after talk when of course she tells him it was all a mistake.  From this point on, despite Bell’s performance and the exquisite use of indie rock music throughout, one of the best edgy soundtracks in recent memory, it’s hard not to find the story completely contrived. 

 

Once Kate takes him in, her role in the film accelerates and she’s nothing less than remarkable, especially in the indignant manner that she holds him accountable after she discovers the dead mother connection and that he’s been stalking her the whole time, a somewhat bizarre scene where I thoroughly expected Etta James to be singing “Tell Mama.”  The film is nicely paced and gorgeously filmed by Giles Nuttgens but truly falls into the eccentric category, perhaps a distant cousin to LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007), both films released the same year featuring tender young men who have extreme difficulties accepting reality, each walking a fine line between sanity and mental retardation.  Hallam is surprisingly resilient and lucky with the ladies, all the more impressive since he’s one nut from being in either the lunatic asylum or prison.  Their scenes together are mysteriously compelling and both sizzle with a strange erotic attraction.  Still and all, the peculiarities of accepting this scenario as plausible undermines the dramatic power of the film, where identifying with either lead character Hallam or Kate becomes near impossible, lessening the overall impact, which is certainly enjoyable, but only from a distance.   

 

The Observer (Philip French) review
 

Most of the interesting Scottish films of recent years have had a certain oddball feeling, seeing the world from the point of view of an alienated, sometimes voyeuristic outsider. One thinks of Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, Andrea Arnold's Red Road and David Mackenzie's Young Adam. Mackenzie's new film, Hallam Foe is an addition to this cycle.

 

Jamie Bell, now a seasoned performer in his early twenties, plays a wealthy architect's son, unhinged by his mother's recent death, which he blames on his father's former secretary, now his stepmother (Claire Forlani). He runs away to Edinburgh where he sees his mother's double (Sophia Myles), gets a job at the hotel where she works and starts stalking her. A curious film, perched on a razor's edge between the sinister and the whimsical, it's erotic, well acted, beautifully photographed but not consistently convincing. The denouement is particularly unhappy.

 

The Guardian (Peter Bradshaw) review
 

A happening indie soundtrack, a nice lead performance - it's all here, and yet it can't somehow cancel out my feeling that the story's tosh-level is considerably in excess of the EU maximum. Jamie Bell plays young Hallam Foe, a tortured teen who lives in a very grand house somewhere in the Scottish borders. He has lost the plot since his mother died: murdered, he suspects, by his foxy stepmother, played by Claire Forlani, who has ensnared the heart of his good-natured but ineffectual dad, played by Ciarán Hinds. So now Hallam spends his time hanging out in his treehouse - a sign of ineffable creepiness in any other film, but here the token of wounded, eccentric sensitivity - and spying on local folk with his binoculars.

 

When he runs away to Edinburgh, Hallam finds himself scampering roguishly along the rooftops and working a menial job in a hotel, with whose personnel manager (Sophia Myles) he conceives an obsession, because she is the dead spit of his dead mum. Jamie Bell has grown into a performer with warmth and style, and David Mackenzie's direction is exuberant, but the story itself is self-regarding, and the ending, with its muddled vengefulness, strains both sympathy and credibility.

 

Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir]

A persistently off-kilter blend of Gothic, thriller and comedy, Scottish director David Mackenzie's "Mister Foe" may not be entirely original or entirely successful, but it's definitely fun to watch. A director bursting with verve and technical prowess who's somewhere between the mainstream and the margins of British film, Mackenzie seems almost overdue for an American breakthrough. But his Hitchcock-via-Patrick McGrath erotic thriller "Asylum" wasn't quite that movie (although I really liked it), and "Mister Foe" -- "Hallam Foe" in its United Kingdom release -- probably isn't either.

Eponymous Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell, in a memorable performance) is a lonely and demented Scottish teenager with occasional transvestite tendencies, a habit of spying on people while they're having sex, and a half-baked idea that his vixenish stepmother (Claire Forlani) actually poisoned and drowned his late mother. Mind you, he's thoroughly charming and without question the hero of the film. There's an entire British Isles Gothic-horror tradition invoked here, from Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom" to Neil Jordan's "Butcher Boy" and Cronenberg's "Spider," but morphed into a combination of outrageous melodrama and romantic comedy. After the first time Hallam tries to murder his snaky stepmom (there are others) they wind up doing the deed on the floor of the treehouse where he keeps his meticulous peeping Tom diaries, and then we understand: OK, this is that kind of movie.

Most of the film concerns Hallam's increasingly insane relationship with a blond hotel manager (Sophia Myles) who, at least in his mind, strongly resembles his mother. Boy peeps at girl, girl finds boy a job, girl has rough sex with married man, girl falls for boy (without yet knowing that he's already seen her naked). But the enjoyment in "Mister Foe" flows more from its foulmouthed wit and from the often dazzling cinematography of Gilles Nuttgens than from its ludicrous plot. As in "Asylum," Mackenzie's passion for brooding, rotting, half-ruined Victorian architecture sometimes throws the characters into the shade.

Electric Sheep Magazine  Sarah Cronin

Both thriller and comedy, Hallam Foe is an enticing coming-of-age film about love, grief and redemption. Directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), and based on the novel by Peter Jinks, it’s dominated by Jamie Bell’s exciting performance as the title character – a screwed-up teenager addicted to voyeurism.

Grieving over the mysterious death of his mother, Hallam is an almost feral creature, hunting his prey on the family estate in Scotland. Rejecting the luxury of his stately home, he lives instead in a tree house, surrounded by his mother’s photos, clothes, even her make-up. Obsessed by sex, he compulsively spies on his family and neighbours, furiously detailing his observations in a diary. His father (Ciaran Hinds) has re-married after his wife’s death; his new bride and former secretary (Clare Forlani) is a gorgeous, enigmatic temptress. Shamed by an erotic encounter with her, Hallam flees his home for anonymity in Edinburgh, where fate leads him to Kate (Sophia Myles), a woman who looks almost identical to his mother. He soon charms her into offering him a job as a kitchen porter at the hotel where she works. Hallam takes to life on Edinburgh’s stunning rooftops, spying on Kate in her home, piecing together the minutiae of her personal life, desperate to be near her.

A humorous current runs through the film, from the opening credits (animated by the much loved off-kilter illustrator David Shrigley) through to the very end. But at its heart, Hallam Foe is something of a thriller. Echoes of Hitchcock permeate the film’s style and narrative. In Edinburgh, Hallam’s pursuit of Kate, and her blonde hair, pulled back tightly, recall Kim Novak in Vertigo; so too do the vertiginous views of the city as Hallam clambers over the slate rooftops to spy on her. There is also something Rear Window-like in his insatiable voyeurism; not physically bound in a wheelchair as Jimmy Stewart is, he’s handicapped instead by his grief. Spying on other people is Hallam’s way of escape, of submerging his pain over the loss of his mother. But it’s also an addiction that spirals out of control; seeing only fragments of the big picture, Hallam, like Stewart, comes to suspect that a murder’s been committed. The suspicion that his stepmother might be involved in his mother’s death becomes an obsession, tormenting him until he has no choice but to act. The film unravels, like Hitchock’s movies, as part mystery, part thriller, and part romance.

The claustrophobic camerawork forces us to see through Hallam’s eyes. On the family estate, sweeping views of the Highlands are almost conspicuous by their absence. Rather Hallam’s world is close up and uncompromising: writhing, naked bodies are seen through an entangled web of trees; the glassy lake where Hallam’s mother drowned dominates the field of vision, forcing Hallam and the audience to confront the mystery of her death. We see Kate as Hallam sees her, framed by windows, seen through binoculars. But instead of making us feel alienated by Hallam’s behaviour, Mackenzie compels us to share in his pain and desire. Though Hallam’s voyeurism is pathological, his violation of privacy frightening and disturbing, Bell imbues his character with a humour and wit that makes him both charming and vulnerable, even innocent. He’s an outsider, just a teenager trying to fit in.

While Bell so thoroughly dominates the core of the film, the characters on the periphery somewhat languish in their supporting roles. The women are especially two-dimensional, and come perilously close to serving as little more than the ‘mother, sister, whore’ triptych all too often found in popular culture. Hallam’s devotion to his own mother borders on the religious, while the villainous stepmother uses sex to manipulate both Hallam and his father to achieve her own ends. Kate is both enigmatic and vulnerable, an object of desire who is characterized by her affair with a married man and her vampish attitude towards sex. Though Hallam’s relationship with her is central to the film, her character is never really flushed out – would he fall in love with her if she didn’t resemble his mother? It’s a shame that the female roles aren’t stronger, and more complex, but it’s a common fault, and one that Mackenzie is also guilty of in Young Adam.

Though the film celebrates Edinburgh, this is one British film that is not trying to earn its success by being a tourist promotion for the UK, unlike the objectionable Notting Hill, or even Woody Allen’s Match Point, which pander to American audiences by creating a false, idealised view of Britain. Instead, Hallam Foe is a touching, funny and intelligent portrayal of a teenager stumbling through his grief in the cold, inhospitable climate of a grey country.

www.european-films.net (Boyd van Hoeij) review

 

PopMatters [Cynthia Fuchs]

 

Last Night With Riviera [Matt Riviera]

 

Slant Magazine [Ed Gonzalez]

 

FilmJerk.com (Brian Orndorf) review [B+]  also seen here:  eFilmCritic Reviews  here:  DVD Talk and here:  BrianOrndorf.com

 

Bina007 Movie Reviews

 

Reel.com review [2.5/4]  Bonnie Fazio

 

Movie House Commentary  Johnny Web

 

CompuServe (Harvey S. Karten) review

 

Ferdy on Films [Kathryn Ware]

 

Nick's Flick Picks (Nick Davis) review [B]

 

The New York Sun (Steve Dollar) review

 

The New Yorker (Anthony Lane) review

 

Film Journal International (David Noh) review

 

Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review

 

Time Out New York (David Fear) review [4/6]

 

Time Out London (Dave Calhoun) review [3/6]

 

Austin Chronicle (Marjorie Baumgarten) review [3.5/5]

 

Seattle Post-Intelligencer review  Bill White

 

San Francisco Chronicle (David Wiegand) review [4/4]

 

Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips) review

 

The New York Times (A.O. Scott) review

   

STARRED UP                                                         B-                    81

Great Britain  (106 mi)  2013  ‘Scope                 Official site

A highly acclaimed British prison drama shot by an independent minded Scottish film director, the maker of YOUNG ADAM (2002) and HALLAM FOE (2007), one that uses a grim, ultra realistic style featuring ferocious acting, but at the same time stretches credulity, seemingly in contrast with one another, where many viewers will be scratching their heads wondering why violent criminals are contained in such a seemingly lax prison environment, as so much of the depiction of endless violence inside the prison is simply never contained, where there never seems to be appropriate consequences for obvious violations.  As the film is actually shot in the unused correctional center of HM Prison Maze in Belfast, Northern Ireland, closed since September 29, 2000, the irony is not lost on the viewers, as this was the site of the notorious 1981 Irish hunger strike when ten Irish political prisoners starved themselves to death, including Bobby Sands, who was a Member of Parliament at the time  The reason for his imprisonment was the possession of a handgun, for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in maximum security prison, some of which was spent naked while in solitary confinement, whose life was depicted with stunning clarity by British director Steve McQueen in HUNGER (2008).  This film initially has the feel of authenticity, adapted from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser who worked as a voluntary prison therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth in London, home of some of the country’s most violent criminals.  The title of the film represents the prison terminology used when they transfer a youth offender to an adult prison unit, in this case teenage Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a troubled kid from working class London with a violently abusive past.  However, nothing is known about him in the opening except he is a new prisoner, where the attention to detail is meticulously accurate, where he is forced to strip, his body inspected for contraband, and given a prison uniform to wear.  This begins a long, extended walk in real time that couldn’t be more precisely choreographed, wordlessly unlocking one set of doors while closing and locking the door behind, perhaps asking him to step forward, repeating the process again and again as a guard leads him through an elaborate maze of endless locked doors and empty walkways before finally arriving to his solitary cell.  The degree of locked down order and professionalism maintained in this sequence quickly erodes, where the conditions inside eventually descend into chaos and madness.  While it never reaches the heights of Jacques Audiard’s unflinching, near documentary realism in 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), and is near unintelligible (no subtitles) due to the non-stop use of profanity and heavily accented slang, MacKenzie nonetheless creates a bleak portrait of conflicting prison interests. 

This kid doesn’t waste any time and immediately gets to work melting the handle of his toothbrush where he’s smuggled a razor blade, molding the blade into the handle as a makeshift knife, immediately hiding it in the florescent lighting fixture on the ceiling.  This sequence has a Bressonian feel to it that’s told in a worldless rhythm defined by this particular environmental space, where he calmly measures each move even as internally he is emotionally rocked by this major change in his life.  By morning, he’s already verbally sparring with another large black inmate, where a bit of name calling will likely lead to predictable results, where it appears he intentionally picked this fight, publically, and in front of all the other inmates.  Taking his food to his cell, he lies in wait afterwards, pretending he is sleeping.  When another black prisoner from across the hall walks into his open cell, Eric springs from the bed and viciously attacks him, knocking him out with a single blow, dragging the man to the end of the hallway where the guards can provide medical treatment.  It’s little more than profanity being spewed back and forth between the prisoner and the guards, where no one simply talks, instead they shout and intimidate, where every act is a threat, using unintelligible slang that seems to define an unbalanced prison state of belligerence, where being a little mental can be used to one’s advantage.  By the time the guards enter his cell with riot gear, he fends them off with the broken legs of a wooden desk, using them as clubs, waving them in the air like a maniac.  Even after he’s apparently subdued, he chomps down on a guard’s testicles like a pitbull, eventually leading to a standoff, but only after a prison counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) insists that he attend group therapy, “I can reach him,” he pleads, seemingly locking heads over the issue with Deputy Warden Hayes (Sam Spruell) who gives his permission.  Unlike Destin Cretton’s equally gut-wrenching Short Term 12 (2013), where there is a clear line between administrators and supervisory staff, not always in agreement but the film adequately explains the differing perspectives, this film makes no attempt whatsoever to provide any rational view of the administrators in charge of the prison, and instead turns them into bigger monsters than the prisoners themselves, modeled apparently after Cruella De Vil, as their criminally heinous acts throughout are nothing less than villainous.  It is surprising, however, to see female guards in an all-male prison facility that is this violent, where the head administrator is a big-bosomed, cruel-intentioned blond woman (Sian Breckin), using Hayes to run interference in the trenches for her. 

It’s a half-hour into the film before we discover a major revelation, curiously revealed by Eric’s improbable exploration into another inmate’s cell on the same wing where he finds a drawing he made as a child crudely showing a young child standing alongside his mother and father, all holding hands, with the inscription, “I Love you daddy.”  Meet Eric’s father, Neville Love, Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor from David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), separated from Eric at the age of 5, who adds something of a psychotic presence to an already hysterical prison environment, as his hair-trigger temper and propensity for violence makes him one of the lifers, his sentence extended as he apparently killed another prisoner, where he represents the hardened view of an inmate that will never see the light of day.  Eric, on the other hand, has only five years to serve and he’s free, his Dad reminds him, so he needs to cooperate and keep his hands clean, urging him to listen and follow instructions in therapy, which is little more than anger management sessions, though Eric does eventually acknowledge he was abused by a pedophile at the age of 10, where prisoners may become unhinged and subject to making vicious assaults when verbally provoked, where standing up for yourself isn’t so much a choice but a mandatory prerequisite to staying alive.  Eric, however, has little regard for the rules and remains out of control throughout, trashing his own cell as well as others, assaulting multiple guards, cutting up another inmate’s face, yet has free reign to wander the place at will with little, if any, consequences for his actions.  This defies belief, where the film is not without its flaws and has a clear ideological agenda, pitting the idealistic motives of the “volunteer” unpaid prison therapist, whose unconventional motives suggest his own dark past, against the more corrupt aims of the embattled administration that holds no hope whatsoever in the idea of prisoner rehabilitation, and instead routinely covers up their own treacherous crimes of targeting certain incorrigibles with murder faked to look like suicides.  When Hayes decides to implement such a plan against Eric, his father Neville goes ballistic, forced to fight through a battle royale of prison guards standing in his way to finally get to his son, which despite the authentic tone throughout adamantly strains belief, turning this into a kind of superhero prison drama, where the prisoners continually exert their moral and physical superiority over the continually outmanned and overwhelmed prison system that is crushed by the weight of its own ineptitude.  While the performances throughout are stellar, this grim and tightly edited drama literally makes the audience choke on the suffocating conditions, graphically raw and intense, never allowing the transcendent release of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), continually tightening the screws, allowing no space to breathe in this taut prison thriller. 

 

Review: Starred Up | Film Comment  Graham Fuller

In the British prison system, an inmate under 21 who proves too dangerous to be held in a youth offender institution will be moved—or “starred up”—to an adult facility. So it is with Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a 19-year-old working-class Londoner in Scottish director David Mackenzie’s punishing realist drama, written by Jonathan Asser, who drew upon his own experiences working as a counselor in HM Prison Wandsworth.

Initially held in solitary, Eric is unfazed by having to keep company with all the Choppers and Bronsons when he’s assigned a cell in a communal wing. He batters the faces of two prisoners, trounces a handful of guards in riot gear who try to subdue him, and clamps his teeth around another guard’s testicles, then slashes the face of another prisoner with a weapon he’s made from a razor and a toothbrush.

Eric is so violent that the ineffectual Deputy Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) feels he has no option but to have him hanged, and the killing passed off as a suicide. By the time Hayes reaches this decision, however, disclosures about the kid’s history and his attempts to manage his anger via the group therapy sessions run by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), an unpaid upper-class voluntary worker, have made him a character with whom it is possible to empathize, if not identify.

One sign of this is the drawing Eric made, as a child of 5, showing himself, his mother, and his father holding hands, above the words, “I Love you daddy.” It turns out to be stuck to the wall of his father’s cell—which happen to be in the same wing as Eric’s: Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) is an intimidating long-term con whose sentence has been increased because he killed another prisoner. With his father in prison and his mother dead, Eric was taken into care as a boy and abused by a pedophile on whose face he poured boiling water and sugar when he was 10. He’s serving his current sentence for “offing” a man who killed or hurt (it’s not clear) a woman dismissed by his father as a “junkie Slut.” Because of Starred Up’s murky sound and criminal argot, U.S. viewers may miss some of these details, though Mackenzie’s tense, fluent storytelling—more indebted to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped than Alan Clarke’s Scum, the obvious antecedent—is emphatically visual.

Neville encourages his son to attend Oliver’s meetings—from which the savvy Eric quickly benefits—but twice disrupts them. He is jealous that another man is usurping his long-forsaken paternal role. Intrigued by therapy’s potential to help him curb his own ferocious rages, he is too proud or too conflicted to sit in. He also resents Eric’s “fraternizing” with other men who value the sessions, not least because they are black. As it portrays the battle of wills between two men for one savable youth’s soul, Starred Up unostentatiously depicts other integral aspects of prison life—administrative corruption and homosexuality, as well as racism.     

Whereas Scum, adapted by Roy Minton from his stage play, excoriated the inability of the British borstal system to rehabilitate young offenders, Starred Up is more optimistic, given Eric’s growing control of his temper. The reconciliation between Eric and Neville after the film’s histrionic final battle redeems the latter, yet the last words he speaks to his son—“I’m proud to be your dad”—are bitterly ironic. His removal from the scene doesn’t come a moment too soon. 

Slant Magazine [Elise Nakhnikian]

Starred Up opens in a dark anteroom where 16-year-old Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is being processed into a prison for adults, a status he earned (the Brits call it being "starred up") due to the violence and the frequency of his crimes. O'Connell plays Eric as a near-feral survivor of abuse and neglect; his movements economical and confident, he carries himself like a cat, quick to react to a threat and prone to bursts of ferocity. Soon after arriving, Eric nearly kills a fellow prisoner who's done him no harm and then battles the guards who try to subdue him, creating a standoff by taking one man's penis in his mouth through his pants and threatening to bite it off. Though this preemptive strike is presumably intended to keep the other prisoners at bay, it has the opposite effect, earning Eric the enmity of powerful alpha dogs like one of the guards who runs the prison and the suave prisoner who unofficially runs Eric's unit and doesn't want some crazy kid causing trouble on his turf.

Eric's volatility also earns the attention of two men who want him to calm down for his own sake: his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a longtime prisoner high in the pecking order, and Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer who leads an encounter group whose members learn to break the cycle of violence they've been trapped in. But what first appears to be a good dad/bad dad battle for Eric's soul, with Oliver demonstrating the power of respect and affirmation while Neville fails miserably with his hectoring and beatings, turns into something more interesting as both men exhibit more—and more complicated—aspects of their characters. Oliver's crusade to give Eric a place to be "just a kid" learning how to be a man turns into a battle with the prison brass, who are half-convinced from the start that Eric is beyond redemption. When Oliver loses that fight, Friend lets us see what's behind the hints people have been dropping about how unstable Oliver may be, despite his calm façade. Meanwhile, without ever lowering the wattage on Neville's fury or the power he wields over other inmates, Mendelsohn runs through an arpeggio of emotional changes as Neville struggles with jealousy over Eric's relationships with men who can mentor him better than he can, acknowledges his cluelessness about parenting, and fumbles his way through to a breakthrough of sorts.

The film's staunch realism probably owes something to director David Mackenzie's decision to film the scenes in chronological order and keep his actors on location in a former maximum-security prison in Northern Ireland, and to the care he took to make sure that even actors with just a few lines could match the intensity and complexity Mendelsohn and O'Connell bring to their roles. Mackenzie was also wise to work with a writer who was intimately familiar with his subject; screenwriter Jonathan Asser was, like Oliver, a volunteer therapist who led group sessions in a British maximum security prison, which may help explain why the dynamics of Oliver's group feel so believable. A peaceful conversation can turn into a confrontation on a dime, and when it does the men spring from their seats, using their chests to confront, block, or shield one another while the talk roils on, Oliver and the other noncombatants working hard to defuse the situation before it explodes.

But Starred Up isn't just about life in prison. It's also about the brutality and neglect in the outside world that made Eric near-psychotically violent and unable to trust others. Oliver's group saves the boy's life, teaching him how to gain control of his emotions and alter the behavior that's endangering him, yet when Oliver first reaches out, Eric shuts him down with contemptuous rage, pegging him for another predatory pedophile. In essence, this film is asking whether prisons like this can make space not just for containment and further brutalization, but for rehabilitation and forgiveness. The cautious optimism with which it answers that question is credible because the characters and setting feel so thoroughly authentic.

In the prison drama Starred Up, a father and son reunite behind bars  Ben Sachs from The Chicago Reader

A brooding romantic in the tradition of Nicholas Ray and Francois Truffaut, Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Mister Foe) would seem ill suited for a realistic prison drama. His films are rooted in a sense of liberty: his characters behave unpredictably, often changing the course of their lives on a whim, and the choreographic camera movements and highly physical performances of his actors evoke a world brimming with possibility. One can easily imagine a prison film by Mackenzie being overwrought or unconvincing, yet Starred Up, while entirely characteristic, says a good deal about what it means to live behind bars. One of Mackenzie's ongoing themes is that the way people live determines how they use their bodies. In Starred Up, he applies this perspective to lifelong prisoners, depicting them as modern mutants—part animal, part machine.

Mackenzie's perspective never feels overbearing, however, because Jonathan Asser's screenplay grounds the film in an authoritative portrayal of prison life. Asser worked as a therapist in a maximum-security London prison for several years; according to the film's press notes, he was on set throughout the shoot to vet every detail for accuracy. Viewed as a docudrama about the challenge of socializing violent convicts, Starred Up succeeds brilliantly, delineating the issue without resorting to platitudes or sentimentality. Indeed the protagonist resists our sympathy for nearly the entire first half. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) has been "starred up" from a juvenile detention center to an adult facility because of his compulsively violent behavior. When he attacks a group of guards in the new facility, the warden declares that one more violent episode will land him in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), intervenes, inviting Eric to join his therapy group in hope of curbing the boy's destructive impulses. But since the group consists only of violent offenders, fights often break out before any real discussion can take place. Moreover, Eric has already spent most of his life as a convict and doesn't believe that anyone can rehabilitate him.

One can understand his cynicism; in a sense, Eric was fated to be a prisoner from birth. His father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn, even scarier here than in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom), is a violent convict himself, and he's been serving a life sentence in the same prison since Eric was four years old. The irony of Starred Up is that Nev and Eric can begin to mend their broken relationship only when they're incarcerated together. The older man regards Eric's arrival as a belated opportunity to do right by his son, though he's been so thoroughly dehumanized that he doesn't know how to express his concern healthily. In one of their first encounters, Nev persuades Eric to agree to group therapy by scaring him. If he doesn't get in line, Nev warns, the guards will kill him and make it look like a suicide. "It happens all the time," he says brusquely. "So play their game and they'll leave you alone."

Asser doesn't reveal that Nev and Eric are father and son until 30 minutes in, and not until the 20-minute mark does he divulge anything about Eric's background. Until then, he simply immerses the viewer in the experience of living in a maximum-security prison, where the immediate threat of violence or degradation overwhelms any sense of past or future. Only seconds into the movie, Eric is admitted, stripped naked by guards, and subjected to a cavity search, in a scene that evokes farmers inspecting livestock. Mackenzie shows this process in real time, underlining the dehumanization that Eric submits to on a regular basis. Revelations about his parentage and his years in foster care (when he was repeatedly raped by one of his guardians) may not alter our fundamental understanding of him, but they're still surprising; the opening scenes make it hard to believe that Eric has experienced anything that might be described as childhood.

As soon as the guards deposit Eric in his cell, he goes to work making a shiv, using a lighter to melt the handle of his toothbrush and sinking a razor blade into it; he then creates a makeshift screwdriver to open up a lighting fixture and hides his weapon under the bulb. It's a remarkable sequence, using a few specific actions to convey the young man's hardened, survivalist mentality. After a few brief shots delineating the layout of the cell block and prison courtyard, Mackenzie returns to the cell, where Eric is napping. An inmate from a neighboring cell knocks on the door to introduce himself (delivering one of the first audible lines of dialogue); Eric snaps awakes and instinctively attacks the stranger, accidentally knocking him unconscious. Eric drags the man to the end of the wing, so that the guards might take him to the prison hospital; then, anticipating violent retaliation, he readies himself for battle, running back to his cell and breaking the legs off his desk to use as clubs. The riot squad disarms him, but the fight ends in a stalemate when Eric clenches one guard's testicles between his teeth.

This is strong medicine, yet it's also exhilarating. As usual, Mackenzie creates a sense of careening momentum, cutting briskly from one shocking detail to another or executing fast, nimble camera moves to follow characters from room to room. Even his use of color adds to the film's visceral impact: though prison movies are usually cast in blues and grays, Mackenzie had most of the cells painted yellow or orange, and some crucial scenes play out in deep red lighting. (The room where Oliver conducts the therapy group is painted in faded shades of green, which has a subtly calming effect.) As a result, the prisoners' intense emotional states seem almost tangible.

In Starred Up, violence is part of everyday communication, practically no different from speech. The inmates have lived amid violence for so long that they're always primed to fight; in fact Eric is so indoctrinated that he hasn't yet learned when not to. Mackenzie communicates this primarily through the body language of his performers, staging the action so fluidly and in such meticulous detail that the movie often suggests a monstrous ballet. Consider the early scene in which Nev meets with the leader of a prison gang to request that Eric be left alone. When the gang leader equivocates, Nev smacks him across the mouth, only to resume speaking calmly the next moment. Mackenzie presents the conversation in an unbroken shot, and in this context the gesture feels like punctuation, rather than a threat. A similar moment occurs when Nev roughly twists the ear of his lover before kissing him; he can't express any feeling of vulnerability without a qualifying act of violence.

Eric agrees to join Oliver's group only when the therapist admits to his own violent impulses. "I don't care about you," Oliver says when Eric tries to fend him off. "In fact, I want to hurt you." ("Now we're getting somewhere," Eric replies.) When Nev agrees to join his son in the group, setting off a series of events that precipitate the tragic conclusion, he can't believe that his son would want to settle their issues by talking. At the very suggestion of honest conversation, Nev rips off his shirt and challenges Eric to a fistfight; when Eric declines, Nev goes mad and starts striking out in every direction. "Get me off this fuckin' wing!" he shouts repeatedly, his voice so loud it echoes throughout the entire prison. Here is a man so convinced he's irredeemable that he'd rather behave like a rabid animal than confront his buried humanity. It's a terrifying sequence; Nev seems to be devolving before our eyes.

[Spoiler alert: The story's conclusion is noted below.]

In the end the most astonishing moments of Starred Up may be those of physical tenderness, which stand out like flashes of color in a black-and-white movie. Short, surprising sequences show Eric alone in his cell, jumping up to touch the ceiling or making funny faces for his own amusement. These moments hint at the emotional breakthrough of the film's penultimate shot, in which Eric and Nev—finally reconciled, but only as they're about to be separated once more—gently rub heads in lieu of an embrace (both men's hands are cuffed behind their backs). The image, ironically evoking a mother animal nuzzling her cub, shows that Eric and Nev have at last reclaimed their human need to love and be loved. (Unsubtly, the men's surname is Love.) Whereas Asser's script gives dramatic form to the pervasive violence of prison life, Mackenzie's images alert us to the life-affirming spontaneity of which all people are capable, and which enables people to change their lives, no matter where.

Sight & Sound [Michael Pattison]  March 20, 2014

 

Brutal Prison Drama Starred Up Stirs Rare Empathy | Village ...  Stephanie Zacharek from The Village Voice

 

Starred Up / The Dissolve  Tasha Robinson

 

Review: Jack O'Connell Gives A Breakthrough Performance ...  Jessica Kiang from The Playlist

 

Review: Starred Up is a brutal, but profoundly humane, look ...  Ignatiy Vishnevetsky from The Onion A.V. Club

 

In Review Online [Carson Lund]

 

ArtsHub [Sarah Ward]

 

Seongyong's Private Place [Seongyong Cho]

 

Film-Forward.com [Ted Metrakas]

 

Starred Up - HitFix  Guy Lodge

 

Indiewire.com [Eric Kohn]

 

Floatation Suite [Sheila Seacroft]

 

Starred Up - Newcity Film  Ray Pride

 

Film Pulse [Kevin Rakestraw]

 

[TIFF Review] Starred Up - The Film Stage  John Fink

 

Twitch [Jason Gorber]

 

Little White Lies [Adam Woodward]

 

Dog And Wolf [Mark Wilshin]

 

EyeForFilm.co.uk [Anton Bitel]

 

Prisonmovies.net [Eric Penumbra]

 

SBS Movies [Shane Danielsen]

 

Blu-ray.com [Brian Orndorf]

 

Starred Up | Reviews | Screen - Screen International  Allan Hunter

 

Writing: Movies [Chris Knipp]

 

Film Racket [Norm Schrager]

 

Eternal Sunshine Of The Logical Mind [Bob Turnbull]

 

Twitch [Jason Gorber]

 

Digital Spy [Stella Papamichael]

 

Sound On Sight [Lane Scarberry]

 

CultureCatch.com [Brandon Judell]

 

1NFLUX Magazine [Martin Hafer]

 

Grolsch Film Works [Christine Jun]

 

Spectrum Culture [David Harris]

 

Further thoughts on the climax of Starred Up: Old realism versus new realism  Ben Sachs from The Chicago Reader

 

The Digital Fix [Nick Chen]

 

Facets : Cinematheque Schedule: Starred Up

 

hollywoodreporter.com [Todd McCarthy]

 

variety.com [Peter Debruge]

 

Examiner.com [Travis Hopson]

 

'Starred Up' movie review - Washington Post  Ann Hornaday

 

Review: 'Starred Up' - Los Angeles Times  Kenneth Turan

 

Starred Up - Roger Ebert  Brian Tallerico

 

'Starred Up,' a Father-and-Son Prison Drama - The New ...  A.O. Scott from The New York Times, also seen here:  New York Times

 

Starred Up - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Top 20 Prison Movies - Film4

 

15 Great British Prison Films That Are Worth Your Time ...

 

MacKenzie, Kent

 

THE EXILES                                                            A-                    93

USA  (72 mi)  1961

 

A remarkable record of a city that has vanished.    —Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

 

Watching this early 1960’s film about American Indians adapting to their city environment in the now demolished Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles where in the space of 12 hours they go on an all night drinking binge, is literally like opening a time capsule to a different era, but despite the vintage cars and the dated vernacular of the times, this film is as relevant today as it was when it was made.  The film’s strength is its wrenchingly honest documentary style, where the reality of a marginalized people whose past has been stolen from them is stunning, as they feel as detached from the present as from their past, where they have literally become exiles in their own country.  The film opens with sage words:  “The old people remember the past,” along with Edward Curtis portraits of strong Indian faces in the late 19th century, a time when Indians were forcibly evicted from a life of freedom on the open plains and ordered to live on restricted reservation lands, a military and political act that effectively cut native people’s ties to their heritage.  More than a century later, they’re still searching for it.  The camera focuses on a neglected pregnant wife, Yvonne Williams, whose husband Homer Nish (the spitting image of César Rojas from the Los Lobos band, known for his wide girth, trademark black sunglasses and slicked-back, black hair) all but ignores her and lays about jobless all day long as he would rather hang around every night in the company of friends than be at home.  In the opening moments of the film, we hear her in voiceover describe how she’s glad to be off the reservation and hopes for a brighter future for her unborn child.  But life is no picnic in the city either, especially when her husband avoids any connection to family and abandons her every night while he and his friends mooch drinks and cigarettes, hustle up whatever change they can scrounge together, and pretty much joyride and barhop every night listening to Anthony Hilder and the Revels' primitive rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox, The Revels - Comanche 1960 YouTube (2:01), getting as drunk as possible on rotgut Thunderbird and Lucky Lager beer. 

 

Unseen for decades until Thomas Anderson featured the film in his amazing documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it was recently restored by preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, comprised of two distinctively different parts, almost as if they’ve been stitched together, as they aren’t always on the same track.  The luscious black and white photography by cinematographers John Morrill, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman is extraordinary throughout utilizing a very modern free-form camera technique of weaving in and out of crowds, capturing bar scenes, fights, sidewalk action, joyriding, and people gathering together high atop Hill X after the bars have closed for more drinking, drumming, and chanting Indian songs while also occasionally engaging in fisticuffs.  While the camera captures the free-spirited look of the times, the audio track reflects the lack of any script whatsoever where much is dubbed from recorded interviews, so it lacks the searing intensity of the images and despite its best efforts to remain relevant, falls short in many respects.  This may be what the “original” version of Shadows (1959) was like when it was completely improvised, filled with greetings, hip expressions, and an otherwise detached way of communicating with one another before Cassavetes sat down and wrote a more personal script.  However this lack of personal connection in THE EXILES matches the theme of the title.  The characters are so busy getting high and avoiding life and its responsibilities that their evasiveness even from one another leaves them completely detached from their own lives.  In one telling scene, Homer and his gang are sitting in a car smoking a cigarette watching the cops routinely roust some customers in a bar before he gets out, without a word, and enters the bar alone.  The guy doesn’t even feel like acknowledging his friends, he simply does whatever the hell he feels like doing.  No questions asked.  While in his mind this feels like freedom, it’s actually another failed connection, as he exists in a separate reality from the world around him.  This stands in stark contrast to those Indian portraits from the 19th century of men who lived in complete harmony with their environment. 

 

One could argue about whether this is even a documentary film, whether it might have been more powerful without fictionalized re-enactments, but as is, we have never gotten such an unflinchingly realistic glimpse of Indians carousing, particularly inside Indian bars.  As a social portrait on being poor and being Indian, this film is remarkable.  Speaking from personal experience, Indians don’t usually mix with whites in Indian bars.  In the early 70’s, Indians were a strong presence in the Uptown community of Chicago.  One of my friends was much like a character in this film, an Indian off the reservation who was attempting to redefine his own identity through reading, educating himself, exploring other cultural realms, so he was open to having a white friend.  We regularly discussed whatever we were reading at the time with longwinded conversations, but we also ventured into an Indian bar on Argyle Street, where I was warned ahead of time what would happen.  My recollection was that the conversation came to a halt upon my entrance.  When we ordered drinks, my friend was served while I was ignored.  No one ever uttered so much as a word to me or acknowledged my presence, but sat in silence and couldn’t have been more hostile, as if they were waiting for me to leave or say the wrong thing so they could kick the shit out of the white boy.  It was not hard to learn whites were not welcome in Indian bars, which makes this film all the more enduring, as in the film they are seen in their chosen element.  To its enduring credit, this film features almost exclusively transplants from Southwest reservations, men and women who have never been welcome anywhere, where Homer’s drinking buddy, ex-convict Tommy Reynolds, exclaims that life on the outside or inside prison is all the same to him, as either way it’s just doing time.  These young men and women live their lives hard and fast and age quickly, consuming ungodly amounts of cheap alcohol, where their treatment of women is equally abominable, and their own life expectancy is short.  Outside of Yvonne, a prisoner of cultural neglect who has to stay with a girlfriend for companionship, no one even hopes for a better existence.  This is all there is.   

 

CHICAGO READER  Jonathan Rosenbaum

Written, produced, and directed by Kent Mackenzie, this low-budget independent feature (1961) deserves to be ranked with John Cassavetes's Shadows, but it languished unseen for nearly four decades until Thom Andersen celebrated it in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself. Pitched somewhere between fiction and documentary, with nonprofessional actors improvising postsynced dialogue and internal monologues, it follows a few uprooted Native Americans from Friday night to Saturday morning in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles. Its moving portraiture is refreshingly free of cliches and moralizing platitudes, and the high-contrast black-and-white photography and dense, highly creative sound track are equally impressive (even the occasional imprecise lip sync seems justified). Mackenzie lived only long enough to make one other feature--Saturday Morning (1971), which I haven't seen--but this film's lowercase urban poetry suggests a major talent. 72 min.

Erendira to Eyewitness  Pauline Kael 

American Indians were granted citizenship in 1924, given civil rights in 1934. Since then many have left the reservations; dispersed, they are strangers-exiles-within the big American cities. It seems to be the same in each city: many of the Indians live "communally"-sponging off each other, drinking, brawling, working for a few days, perhaps committing petty thefts. And in each city there is a gathering place-a hill, a park, a beach, where, late at night, they gather to sing tribal songs, beat the drums, and dance. This documentary follows a group in Los Angeles through a day and a night of eating, drinking, and fighting, and to the hill where, high above the lights of the city, they sing and dance until dawn. The movie was made over a period of several years by a group of young U.S.C. film school graduates, headed by Kent Mackenzie; the group's convictions about moviemaking were strong enough to impress some two dozen people into financing it. The picture shows you things going on around you that you've been only dimly aware of, and it's made with skill and imagination. But it's very doubtful that the investors ever got their money back.

CINE-FILE: Cine-List  Ben Sachs

A major point of reference in Thom Andersen's essay film LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, this independent production from 1961 provides vivid evidence of California subculture rarely acknowledged by the movies. Or more appropriately, subcultures--it's about the lives of Native Americans who left their reservation for Los Angeles (hence the title) and takes place largely in working-class neighborhoods that have since been demolished. Director Kent Mackenzie, still in film school at USC at the time, encouraged his non-professional cast to improvise so he could most accurately capture their lives. Many critics have compared his approach to John Cassavetes' contemporaneous work in SHADOWS (1959), and Roger Ebert, reviewing this new print, went as far as to put the film on the same level: "[THE EXILES] would have been a key work of the New American Cinema, the Cassavetes generation, if it had ever been seen. It played three film festivals, never got picked up for distribution, has survived only in a low-quality 16mm print. Now the UCLA Film and Television Archive has restored it, apparently working from the original materials, and it looks like it was made yesterday." Ebert went on to laud to film for its bittersweet depiction of alcoholism. (1961, 72 min, 35mm)

THE NEW YORKER  Richard Brody

Kent Mackenzie’s miraculous independent film, made between 1958 and 1961 with scrounged film, borrowed equipment, donated services, and free labor, has, scandalously, not been released commercially until now. Mackenzie, while a U.S.C. film student, befriended Native Americans who had left their reservations and towns for Los Angeles, and he persuaded them to reënact scenes from their own lives for the camera. The resulting drama, a Pilgrim’s Progress of three characters through a night of urban loneliness and dissipation, has an epic grandeur and a monumental intimacy that belies its mere seventy-two minutes. Yvonne, who is pregnant and dreams of a better life for her child, drains away the hours watching B-Westerns in an all-night grind house while her layabout boyfriend, Homer, goes out to drink and gamble. Tommy, a smooth operator, hangs out in bars and tries to pick up women but likens his life to “doing time on the outside.” Mackenzie films the minutely incremental action (or, more often, inaction) in strikingly textured and composed images (the night photography alone would make the film immortal), balancing them with the character’s revealing, poignant voice-over monologues. Few directors in the history of cinema have so skillfully and deeply joined a sense of place with the subtle flux of inner life.

New York Magazine (David Edelstein) review

 

Largely forgotten since its release in 1961, Kent Mackenzie’s transfixing 72-minute drama The Exiles arrives like a message in a bottle—restored (by Ross Lipman at UCLA), in lucid black-and-white, a warning we ought to have heeded but didn’t want to hear (or, in the case of younger moviegoers, never had the chance to hear). The director regarded it as a documentary, and this is a rare case in which something shaped and partly scripted might qualify. The film centers on young Indians who’ve moved from the reservation to downtown Los Angeles, where the men drink and pick up women and drink and play cards and drink and sing tribal songs and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink. Nothing in the narrative is especially surprising, in part because so many filmmakers have absorbed The Exiles, either literally or by osmosis. But there isn’t a banal shot: not the faces of each man hunkering over a beer bottle or giving himself to a tribal song on a dark hill overlooking the metropolis, not the traffic tunnel with its unearthly glow under the neighborhood where these nomads can never seem to put down roots. The Exiles opens with photographs of tribal warriors before their tribes were decimated and ghettoized, but what follows can’t be reduced to a victimization plaint. The protagonists, Homer (Homer Nish) and his wife, the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), speak in voice-over about their dreams for a better life, but she is deposited at a downtown movie theater and he embarks on an all-night odyssey in search of a wholeness that will never come. You can only brood on the near half-century since The Exiles was shot—and be grateful that someone went to that place and captured it all.

User comments  from imdb Author: muputony (muputony@yahoo.com) from Southern California

Kent Mackenzie, USC Filmmaker, follows one 24 hr day of a native american couple and their friends in downtown Los Angeles, CA on & near Bunker Hill. With flashbacks to reservation life, the pathos of the "non-BIA approved" urban Indian life of poverty and utter hopelessness will move you beyond mere words. Homer & Yvonne are expecting a child - he is distant and lost, she abjectly passive and accepting of her fate. Absolutely real and so personal you may cry, knowing that nothing is going to get any better, and wishing that you could reach across time to make it different. Their child will be born in 1961-2 and is now age 40 if s/he survived.

Kent also made a film, "Bunker Hill" which followed an aged Doctor on his visits to patient's homes located on Bunker Hill area in Los Angeles where Homer & Yvonne lived. Scenes of Angel's Flight and old victorian buildings are in both films. Lost times and places now covered with corporate headquarters. Two American Tragedies.

User comments  from imdb Author: hudsonwa from United States

The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie, USA (Documentary). A 1961 documentary chronicling a day in the life of a group of twenty-something Native Americans who left reservation life in the 1950s to live in LA.

A unique and powerful film, blending storytelling with documentation. Mackenzie constructed a narrative about one day in the life of three main characters - a pregnant young woman (Yvonne), the father (Homer), and a man about town (Tommy). Both men are profound alcoholics, and the woman seems stunned by the circumstances of her life though hopeful for the future of her child.

The film opens with portraits from Edward Sheriff Curtis's monumental North American Indian, which I recommend as a starting place. Mackenzie has a sharp eye for cultural details - check out the Grand Hotel mattress in Yvonne and Homer's apartment, as well as the magazines, comics, advertisements, toys, and street scenes.

The story develops via voiceovers by Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy - and an amazing middle sequence from the rez, with generous doses of native language and music.

This is a must-see movie for anyone interested in social work, indigenous peoples, or the dark side of American culture. Never boring for any viewer.

User comments  from imdb Author: Mackzee from United States

"The Exiles" was made on a shoe-string budget by a number of idealistic young film-makers "led" by Kent Mackenzie as "writer/director/editor.

Mackenzie and his crew were dismayed (putting it lightly) by what they saw as a lack of use of film as an artistic medium. At the same time the standard "Hollywood" aesthetic sacrificed subject, in order to obtain perfect/yet unrealistic lighting schemes, camera movement, framing and pristine sound tracks.

Erik Daarstad, John Morrill and Bob Kaufman shot an incredibly striking 35mmm B&W film. It is truly stunning. And a testament to all involved.

"The Exiles" is phenomenal in that, Mackenzie agreed not to put anything in the film that "the actors" objected to in any way. Appropriately, but very unusual, the "voice" in the film is that of the subjects.

"The Exiles" is of a specific time: a Los Angeles that literally no longer exists. And it is timeless, in the questions it asks and in it's gut wrenching portrayal of a particular group of individual's lives. Lives that unfortunately could/and do exist as I write this almost 50 years later.

Mackenzie credits the viewer with the intelligence to relate to the human condition as seen on screen. And explore for one's self how we fit into a world in which these conditions exist. We aren't forced to listen to the traditional "voice of god" voice over that dehumanizes all involved in the experience.

Sadly, Kent Mackenzie died young in May of 1980. He made relatively few films. Yet, "The Exiles" and his USC student film: "Bunker Hill" (made with Robert Kaufman) spoke to a bright young artist who worked with an integrity few possess.

If one has the opportunity to see this film as it should be, in a theater on a 35mm print. It is well worth the time. And an experience which will stay with you from that day forward.

The Exiles: Soul and the City - Movies - Village Voice - Village ...  Jim Ridley

'The old people remember the past," a narrator says early in The Exiles over a prologue of Edward S. Curtis photographs—faces of aged Native Americans who may have had their lands taken away, but not their history or memories. For the length of Kent Mackenzie's 1961 feature, the past is not distant: It's vital, concrete, immediate—a record of vanished sites and vanquished dreams suspended in an eternally looped present. Thanks to a superlative UCLA restoration and the efforts of Milestone Film (who partnered last year to release Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep), this 50-year-old film about a Los Angeles neighborhood on the skids and its barely tethered dwellers stands as the freshest movie in theaters.

By the standards of The Incredible Hulk or Wanted—buzzing CG pixel storms in which lives, locations, and bodies exist in perpetual zero gravity—The Exiles may not seem that exciting. An account of 14 dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of scuffling Native Americans—the once-prosperous Bunker Hill—it unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents that the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. But Mackenzie (who died in 1980 at age 50 after making just one other feature) had an ear for the poetry of ritualized interaction, and an eye for the glint of hard light on city streets. The movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy—so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock 'n' roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future—that to enter it is to feel your blood surge. Even so, after its premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, it never received an official release.

Like mostly forgotten features such as Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil (1973) or Jacques Deray's The Outside Man (1972), The Exiles was plucked from obscurity by a shout-out in Thom Andersen's 2003 essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. In that expansive meditation on cinematic geography and the coded history lessons of film, Andersen held up The Exiles as a particularly evocative example of location shooting, the spiritual forebear of Killer of Sheep and Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts—films about the "outside" told from the inside. "The cinema of walking," Andersen called it—when one of its main characters, Yvonne, a lonely, pregnant Apache woman played by Yvonne Williams, trudges home after a night of dissatisfied window shopping, the camera takes in her real-life surroundings at the same pace, situating fiction within docurealism.

Started in 1958 and completed in 1961—a period encompassing the nouvelle vague's initial shock waves a world away, and roughly coinciding with the similar efforts of John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel at home—The Exiles offers possibilities for semi-doc narrative feature-making that extend beyond miserabilism or Andersen's derided "low-tourist" rubbernecking. Mackenzie conceived it as a film about the relocation of late-generation Native Americans from the reservation to the city. Starting with a bluntly sociological prologue—the one dated element—the movie charts a diaspora in microcosm. Yvonne shares two rooms with her Hualapai husband, Homer (Homer Nish), a beefy rounder with slicked-back Elvis hair and a sudden look of quizzical hurt; his wolfish mixed-Mexican buddy Tommy (Tommy Reynolds); and four other men who crash there and filch cigarettes. The guys ditch Yvonne at a double feature, then disperse like seeds into the night—Homer to a poker game for easy dough that doesn't pan out, Tommy to a joyride with a Choctaw bud and two thrill-seeking floozies.

Even in the city, there are reservations. The bar of choice, the Ritz, is a shrunken Native American nation where the displaced tribesmen meet before retiring to smaller groups and private spaces. (Their women serve as child-keepers and ATMs: Mackenzie watches without judgment as the guys habitually raid their wives' purses and split.) In Mackenzie's vision, no one here is beneath notice—not the grizzled regular reading a pamphlet at the bar, who's held for just a beat after the heroes leave; not the clerk who gives Yvonne a sullen look as she leaves Bunker Hill's Grand Central Food Market in the first scene without buying anything. We're left to wonder where their stories lead.

Deepening our involvement with the characters are the voiceovers they deliver on the soundtrack: documentary interjections that float above the street noise, music, and dialogue below. Independent of the action onscreen, they give the movie's semi-doc authenticity another layer of reality. "I haven't started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet," Yvonne says off-screen, as the camera watches her make her way home through the neon mousetraps of Bunker Hill. The "yet" in that sentence typifies the movie's profound sense of the indefinite.

The most immediately striking thing about The Exiles, shot through with humor and nerve and keyed to the throb of Anthony Hilder and the Revels' thrillingly seedy garage rock, is its look. The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.

"You could call [The Exiles] independent," Andersen wisecracked, slinging an elbow at the deep-pocketed Miramax "indie," "but you couldn't call it 'pulp fiction.' " And yet the area that Yvonne, Tommy, Homer, and their many friends wander is a literal film noir neighborhood: Its crooked angles and night-splitting neon also served as the backdrop for the atom-age apocalypse of 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. It's also film noir in that the city is inevitable, inescapable. As in Mean Streets and American Graffiti, two films about the confinement of community that seem influenced by The Exiles' incidental sprawl, every night out or stroll away circles back to the neighborhood. Even when Tommy gets behind the wheel of a car—in a sequence that's pure foot-to-pedal exhilaration, all whipping hair, cranking tunes, and gear-jamming low angles—he's back by daybreak. And the cycle of mooching, scuffling, and hanging starts all over again, on to the next dawn.

CINEMA SCOPE  Quintín

 

TIME MAGAZINE  Richard Corliss

 

Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir]

 

The House Next Door (Steven Boone)

 

Slant Magazine [Nick Schager]

 

THE NATION  Stuart Klawans

 

FILM JOURNEY  Doug Cummings

 

BRIGHT LIGHTS FILM JOURNAL  Marilyn Ferdinand, February 2005

 

FILM QUARTERLY  Benjamin Jackson

 

Film Journal International (Chris Barsanti) review

 

Movies into Film.com (N.P. Thompson) review

 

The New York Sun (Nicolas Rapold) review

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]

 

INDIEWIRE  Eric Kohn, including an interview with producers Charles Burnett and Sherman Alexie

 

Native American neighborhood lost - JSOnline  Steve Ramos

 

THE EXILES  Marty Rubin from the Gene Siskel Film Center

 

Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review

 

Jigsaw Lounge [Neil Young] Berlin Film Festival 2008

 

Time Out New York (Joshua Rothkopf) review [3/6]

 

Seattle Post-Intelligencer  William Arnold

 

LOS ANGELES TIMES  Saul Austerlitz, July 6, 2008

 

Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan) review

 

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [3.5/4]

 

Despair and Poetry at Margins of Society  Manohla Dargis from The New York Times, July 11, 2008

 

Displaced and Adrift in Los Angeles   Dennis Lim from The New York Times, July 6, 2008

 

The Exiles (1961 film) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

MacKinnon, Gillies

 

HIDEOUS KINKY

Great Britain  France  1998

 

Hideous Kinky  Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound

1972. Julia, a young Englishwoman, is living in Marrakesh with her daughters Bea (age 8) and Lucy (age 6). Julia hopes to study Sufism but, with money from the girls' father arriving only rarely, she scrapes a living making dolls for sale. The girls meet Bilal, an acrobat, and he and Julia become lovers. Bea persuades Julia to let her attend school.

When Bilal loses his regular quarrying job, all four set off for Bilal's home village. They are welcomed, but Bilal, uneasy at the presence of his neglected wife, insists they leave again, and goes to Agadir to find work. Back in Marrakesh Julia and the girls meet a Frenchman, Jean-Louis Santoni, and his English friend Charlotte, who invite them to stay in their grand villa. A cheque arrives from London; Julia proposes to hitch to the Sufi college in Algiers but Bea chooses to stay with Charlotte and go to school.

In Algiers the Sufi's leader makes Julia realise she isn't ready to leave her old life. She and Lucy return to Marrakesch to find Jean-Louis and Charlotte have departed, and Bea has run away. Julia tracks her to an orphanage run by a priggish nun and reclaims her daughter. Bilal returns, wearing a resplendent uniform for a tourist spectacular. Bea falls ill, and Julia realises she must return to London. Bilal sells his uniform to buy tickets for her and the girls, then flees to escape his employer's wrath. As Julia and the girls sit in the speeding train, they see Bilal racing alongside in a truck waving goodbye.

Review

Gillies MacKinnon is one of those stimulating film-makers who hates to repeat himself. Each film is different from his previous ones, and especially from the last. As if in reaction against the shell-shocked stasis of Regeneration, all chilly blues and greys in a desolate winter landscape, Hideous Kinky finds him plunging with infectious relish into the vibrant sun-baked colours, sounds and turmoil of Morocco. What's more, both films include nightmares, but in Regeneration the camera seemed to hover over the hellish trenches in mesmerised horror, trapped and helpless. The nightmare that opens Hideous Kinky, reprised later, is a tumult of noise, panic and headlong flight, as a small girl rushes terrified down narrow alleys, harried by clutching hands and grinning faces.

Despite appearances, though, this nightmare isn't being dreamt by either Bea or Lucy, the young English girls plunged into this fascinating, bewildering country, but - as if on their behalf - by their mother Julia. Though she insists, both to the girls themselves and to her compatriot Charlotte, that Morocco is a wonderful place for her daughters, far preferable to a dreary cold flat in South London, her dreams betray her. Subconsciously she's haunted by the potential dangers to them. It's not surprising either that Julia seems to live her nightmare through her daughters' eyes, since in some ways she's more of a child than they are: more naïve, less ready to confront reality. Much of the film's comedy derives from the contrast between her flower-child fantasies and the children's laconic, down-to-earth appraisals. To Julia, the longed-for visit to the Sufi will bestow "annihilation of the ego", magically solving everything. The girls, having pretty healthy egos of their own, are less than convinced. "What the hell is a Sufi anyway?" mutters Lucy in voice-over, eventually concluding that: "They live in a mosque, they pray all day and they never go out."

The set-up, if not the surroundings, recalls Bill Forsyth's underrated melancholic comedy Housekeeping. There too a would-be free-spirited mother-figure tries to bring up two young girls according to her own wayward lights, only to collide head on with the innate conservatism of childhood, and there too the elder girl insists on embracing what she sees as "normality". Bea, at that stage in a child's development when she wants to stand out as little as possible from the crowd, yearns for the conventional. And, as if in one of those fairy stories where you get exactly what you wished for, she finds it in the form of the pious orphanage matron Patricia.

Indeed, in many ways Hideous Kinky can be read as a fairy tale, not least for its loose, episodic structure and its mood of enchanted unreality. From this angle, Patricia serves as the wicked stepmother - or maybe as the Wicked Witch of the West, with Charlotte as the well-meaning but disorganised Witch of the South, and the charmingly unreliable Bilal, with his acrobatic tricks and dicey juggling (an engaging performance from Saïd Taghmaoui, who featured in La Haine) as a younger, handsomer Wizard of Oz. There's even a magic slipper to wish on, and the title comes from the secret, half-understood phrase that the two children repeat like a mantra in moments of stress. But the film's superb final image evokes a far older story-telling tradition: Bilal, standing in the speeding truck, waving madly as he recedes into the distance, his scarlet turban unravelling like a banner across the sky, is pure Arabian Nights.

PURE                                                             B+                   90

Great Britain  (96 mi)  2002

 

“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

 

A formulaic film that works, because of the degree of edgy realism that keeps flowing through every frame, led by a lead child actor, Harry Eden, an extraordinary performance by a ten-year old child, Paul, who is onscreen for nearly every shot, whose performance is so compelling it defies belief, who seems to represent a higher state of consciousness witnessing all the events, which is the basis for the title, as horrible things continue to be seen through his eyes.  Alison Hume's script, based on a detailed research of drug-addicted mothers in Leeds, is the centerpiece, as Paul’s mother is Melody, played with conviction by Molly Parker, a down and out junkie who is so out of sorts that Paul actually prepares her morning fix for her, believing this is her medicine.  His connection to his mother simply defies belief, but there it is, what can you do, that’s who he is.  In one of my favorite scenes, he gets beat up by older kids who call his mother a junkie, and he fights back, protecting his mum, saved by the intervention of Vicki, played by Marsha Thomason before she landed her plasticized role on the TV series Las Vegas, another junkie who eventually overdoses.  It’s heartbreaking to witness the scene where Paul witnesses his mother hand over Vickie’s daughter to a man proclaiming to be a doctor on a bus, and then leaving without her.  Off the bus, Paul punches his mother relentlessly in front of his younger brother, as he’s taken such care to look after that younger girl, and his mother simply gives her away.  It’s the moment in the film where he understands what a junkie is, and he finds her disgusting.  Along the way, he meets a young waitress, Louise, played by Keira Knightly, actually having to act here for a change, and she’s quite realistic as a would-be junkie who has not yet hit the skids, but has already given up one of her kids to child services.  Paul befriends Louise, like a big sister, as who else can he turn to, and she starts out being a terrific friend, telling Paul that “a junkie mom is better than no mom.”  There’s a wonderful scene where they go to an amusement park and ride carnival rides together.  It’s the only moment of joy in the entire film, as eventually Paul sees that Louise is supplied by the same guy, Lenny, played by David Wenham, who apparently supplies the entire neighborhood.  Paul intrinsically understands that Lenny is the root of all evil, but he’s only ten.  What can he do about it? 

 

Melody tries to kick her habit cold turkey, and Paul locks her in her room, refusing to answer to all manipulations, including one harrowing scene where she tells him she wishes he was dead, that he was never born, that he’s worthless, but he knows it’s the heroin talking.  But Lenny eventually intervenes through brute force.  Even after Melody is arrested in front of Paul, there’s a mesmerizing confrontational scene of mixed interests in the morning after she’s released when both Paul and Lenny come to meet her, and Lenny punches her in the stomach, forcing her into his car, while Paul helplessly runs away.  Much of the film is repeated scenes of Paul running away, hopping onto his bike going here, arriving in the dead of night somewhere else, usually enhanced by loud, pulsating music that represents heightened tensions, usually followed by extremely calm, melodic music written for the film by Nitin Sawhney, adding sounds of the Middle East or India to color the mood.  Paul’s grandparents intervene and want to take the kids away from Melody, believing it’s the right thing to do.  In a wonderful scene, Paul wheels his granddad to a meeting with the social workers, made more beautiful as the audience doesn’t initially understand the implications, but by his vote, they are persuaded to leave the kids with Melody, a heartbreaking scene where Paul is waiting outside in the rain, his hands on the window pane looking in, watching the proceedings in silence.  Eventually Paul helps Detective Inspector French, played by Gary Lewis, a man who speaks with an accent so pronounced that you can barely understand a word he says, which only adds authenticity to his role, and he and Paul hook up to catch the bad guy, leaving only “good things” from now on, as Melody goes into a treatment program, after uttering something like "I know I am a shit mother. I never say it, but I always think that. I love you."  There are dreamy sequences where Paul sees his mother all cleaned up, and another where Louise actually allows him to smoke heroin, leaving him in a dreamy state of wonderfully expressed cinematic disorientation that finally convinces his mother to go straight.  Interestingly, the past and the future somehow merge together, leaving us to get through the present, which in this film, seen through a child’s eyes, seems to last forever, as if we’re stuck there indefinitely.  The cinematography by John de Borman is highly effective mixing the dreary, lower class row-houses of East London with the odd mix of imagery that suggests mind-altering drug use.  Most impressively, the tone of the film is grounded by the naturalistic performance of Harry Eden as Paul, who simply provides an unforgettable and heartbreaking performance.

 

Maclean, Alison

 

JESUS’ SON                                                A                     96

USA  Canada  (108 mi)  1999

 

Jesus' Son   Danny Leigh from Sight and Sound

Iowa City, the early 70s. Fuckhead, or FH, a drug addict in his early twenties, is involved in a car crash while hitchhiking. He returns to his apartment and is visited by his ex-girlfriend Michelle. He then reminisces about his life so far, starting with his first meeting with Michelle at a party. Ignoring the attentions of her boyfriend McInnes, Michelle seduces Fuckhead. Months after the party, the two move in together and nurture their heroin habits. McInnes is shot by one of his house mates; he's driven to hospital by Fuckhead, but dies on the way.

Fuckhead and Michelle move into a cheap hotel. Fuckhead agrees to help Wayne, an alcoholic, strip a derelict house for salvage. Having made $40, the two men buy heroin. That evening, both overdose: Wayne dies, but Fuckhead is revived by Michelle. Fuckhead gets a job at a hospital, where he and his colleague Georgie steal various medication; later, Georgie saves a patient's life. Tripping, Fuckhead and Georgie drive into the country. When Fuckhead returns home, Michelle tells him she is pregnant. The baby is aborted. Michelle leaves Fuckhead for another man.

Following his car crash, Fuckhead gets back together with Michelle. After arguing with Fuckhead, Michelle dies from an overdose. Grief-stricken, Fuckhead overdoses himself, and is sent to a rehab clinic. Five months later, he is working at a hospice in Arizona; there, he finds peace among his terminally ill charges.

Review

For a director as seemingly talented as Alison Maclean, the seven years since her last feature - the taut, unsettling Crush (1992) - must have been hard to endure. She spent some of the time working in US television, on such series as Homicide Life on the Street and Sex and the City. But Jesus' Son shows how much she relishes her return to cinema. With its exquisitely muted colours, its aura of woozy narcosis and its defiantly fractured narrative, Jesus' Son pointedly resembles a compendium of things you're not allowed to do on mainstream television. And if her main aim was to get as far as possible from network strictures, what better source material could she have than Denis Johnson's 1992 collection of short stories, addled, disjointed tales about a young herion addict and his drifter friends?

Yet fitfully faithful as Maclean and screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman are to Johnson's smacked-out lyricism, it emerges here as something of a mixed blessing. On paper Johnson's fleeting insights are immaculate, peppering a bottomless, opiate, first-person fugue. And the temptation to have Billy Crudup's drug addict Fuckhead simply recite chunks of interior monologue has not been resisted. But while Crudup's recitations sound great, they often leave the film looking uncomfortably like an illustrated narration. The sense of displacement is almost too palpable. Maclean can't seem to make up her mind between honouring the skewed nature of Johnson's vignettes - by punctuating each segment with title cards - and trying to mould them into a coherent, viewer-friendly narrative. Take, for instance, the key character of Michelle. Despite Samantha Morton's fine, funky performance she seems an arbitrary and strangely hollow figure. It quickly becomes clear that her role is a composite of Johnson's numerous anonymous female characters, one designed to bind several threads into a conventional storyline.

Yet this hesitancy hardly negates the otherwise astute and idiosyncratic charms of Jesus' Son. Maclean's camera perfectly captures a mood of euphoric listlessness which is at once a homage to Johnson and a tribute to her and her team's sensitivities. If the scriptwriting mechanics of unifying Johnson's yarns prove troublesome, the potentially jarring disparities in tone are handled with greater ease. The film segues seamlessly from absurdist comedy (Crudup blankly watching a naked middle-aged woman paragliding), to documentary detail (Denis Leary's broken alcoholic Wayne mopping up a spilt scotch, then sucking on the napkin) to understated tragedy (his subsequent death from an OD). In a medium increasingly confused by the idea of pushing more than one emotional button at once, Maclean's fluency is startling, and her images achieve a cracked, off-kilter kind of beauty.

Her handling of heroin, though indulgent in terms of screen time, is otherwise strictly matter-of-fact. Rather than the ostentatious fetishism of drugs chic in, say, Trainspotting or Drugstore Cowboy, smack here is as regular and uneventful an activity as eating. People get high; sometimes they die. This uncondescending fatalism means that, when a doped-up Fuckhead wanders through a drive-in showing the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls convinced he's actually in a vast, sprawling cemetery, the effect is captivating.

All of which is enhanced by the accomplishment of the performances. Billy Crudup is a dazed, ruined presence whose poise gives the project its anguished heart. The supporting turns - particularly Morton, Leary and the inspired Jack Black - are equally impressive. The sublime interplay between Black and Crudup in the darkly comic segment 'Emergency', set in a blood-soaked casualty ward ("What am I gonna do about these fuckin' shoes, man? Listen to how they squish..."), is just one memorable scene in a film of many. Moments such as these leave you hoping Maclean doesn't have to wait another seven years for her next big-screen outing. 

Soundtrack:

"Surf Buggy" - Dick Dale & His Del-Tones; "Sweet Pea" - Tommy Roe; "Mute", "Big Pill" - Camphor; "Yes, I'm Ready" - Barbara Mason; "The Iowa Waltz" - Greg Brown; "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)" - Paul Revere and The Raiders; "Last Date" - Floyd Cramer; "Lover's Holiday" - Peggy Scott, Jo Jo Benson; "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone?" - Doug Sahm; "She's a Jar" - Wilco; "The Ballad of the Green Beret" - Barry Sadler; "Ooby Dooby", "Airline to Heaven" - Wilco; "Main Title Theme (Billy)" - Bob Dylan; "Hang On Sloopy" - The McCoys; "The Love You Save" - Joseph Accrington; "Cowgirl in the Sand" - Neil Young; "Soul Dressing" - Booker T. and the M.G.s; "The Family That Prays", "Satan Is Real" - The Louvin Brothers; "Unchain My Heart" - Joe Henry; "Farther Along" - Christine Mourad; "Misty Blue" - Dorothy Moore; "The Circular Hallway" - Gerald Beal, Hanna Tennen, Eliot Bailen; "Sweet Desire" - The Kendalls

Madden, John

 

MRS BROWN                                                          A-                    93

Great Britain  Ireland  USA  (105 mi) 1997

 

A beautiful portrait of Queen Victoria in the 1850’s, superbly played by Judi Dench, who remains isolated at Windsor castle in mourning for years after her husband’s death, just not up to facing “the people” until the arrival of a Scottish servant, Billy Connolly, who becomes her best friend and protector, so much so that he becomes the film’s title, causing whispers and rumors that continued to surround their life-long friendship and most likely unconsummated love affair.  The best parts of this film are the short glances, gestures, and looks of impossibility between the two.  Against this love story is the backdrop of the British Parliament discussing whether to abolish the Royal Family altogether, as they were spending so much time “away” from the people, causing the Queen to return to her rightful place playing a royal spectacle, the role she was always meant to play.  

 

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE                                    A                     97

USA  Great Britain  (120 mi)  1998

 

A deliriously happy film, a sweeping, powerful work filled with non-stop creative energy from all levels, it simply bursts with the joy of creation, as seen through the fictionalized re-creation of young William Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes, whose life’s everyday turmoil is captured with his love of life, theater, language, and the love of stage-struck Lady Viola, an elusive beauty wonderfully played by Gwyneth Paltrow, a fleeting spirit who inspires him to write again after he’s stuck with the tentatively titled work “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter – a Crowd Tickler,” aided by what must be the most intelligent and outrageously clever script of the year written by playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman.  While it is a costumed period piece, it worships the power of the imagination and one is literally taken aback by how completely this film lives up to the storyline’s dream of what love and inspiration can be, an ideal date movie.

 

Set in London in 1593, the film pits the rivalry of two theaters in Elizabethan times, the Court and the Rose, both engaged in ruthless competition, and one with a cash flow problem, the Rose.  Meanwhile young Shakespeare has writer’s block, “It’s as if my quill is broken,” and seeks help from a psychic soothsayer who tells him “words will flow like rivers.”  Judi Dench is perfectly cast as the frightfully pallid and serious Queen, wearing outrageous costumes, decorated to the nines with spikes coming out of her hair, chairs from one entire side of the theater must be removed so she may sit with a completely unobstructed view. Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, a twitchy theater producer who is always in debt to the local mob, rogues in robes that are always urging Shakespeare to write a comedy.  It is only after a beautiful, young woman, a cross-dressing heiress with dreams of a forbidden career in the theater, reawakens his gift that Shakespeare begins to discover his muse, a clever romp that makes clever use of theatrical conventions and Shakespeare’s own works.

 

Shakespeare in Love  Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound, also seen at Film Reference:  Shakespeare in Love

London, 1593. Will Shakespeare, an ambitious young playwright, has promised his new play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, to Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre on the South Bank. But Will is blocked and the play unstarted. Henslowe is desperate: deep in debt to brutal loan shark Fennyman, he fears Will may be lured away by Richard Burbage at the Curtain Theatre across the river, favoured by Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Queen's Revels.

Viola De Lesseps, a rich merchant's daughter betrothed to Lord Wessex, is enchanted by Will's verse. She joins Henslowe's company disguised as a man calling herself Thomas Kent. At the same time, as herself, she embarks on a passionate affair with Will. Inspired by his love, and following hints from fellow-playwright Christopher Marlowe, Will transforms Henslowe's commission into a love story, Romeo and Juliet. The company is boosted by the arrival of star actor Ned Alleyn. 'Kent' is cast as Romeo.

Tilney, tipped off that a woman has joined Henslowe's troupe, exposes Viola and closes the theatre on grounds of immorality, but Burbage magnanimously offers the Curtain to his rival. Will takes over as Romeo, while Viola resignedly goes through with the marriage to Wessex. But after the ceremony she escapes to the theatre for the premiere, and when the lad playing Juliet gets stage fright she takes over the role. The play is rapturously received but Tilney arrives to close it down again. He is forestalled by the Queen herself, who feigns to believe Viola is a man, while making it clear she must renounce Will and sail to Virginia with Wessex. Will starts writing Twelfth Night. Viola's ship is wrecked and, sole survivor, she wanders on a strange shore.

Shakespeare in Love is a hodgepodge – or, as the Elizabethans might more pungently put it, a gallimaufry and an olla podrida (rotten pot). The main plotline – well-born young woman named Viola dresses up as a boy, joins Shakespeare's troupe and has an affair with the playwright – is pinched straight from Simon and Brahms' classic comic novel No Bed for Bacon, as are some of the gags, such as Will practising multiple variants of his signature at moments of stress. ("Shakspaw, he scribbled viciously.") The stagestruck heavy is a blatant lift from Woody Allen's Bullets over Broadway, and the scene-setting pays homage to the Monty Python school of scatological reconstruction: Henslowe, striding through the London streets, treads in a heap of dung and is narrowly missed by the contents of a pisspot. We get romance, slapstick, bedroom farce, satire, jocular anachronisms ("I 'ad that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once," observes a chatty ferryman), starcrossed tragedy, a shipwreck, a full-on swashbuckled swordfight and enough sly literary allusions to sink a concordance.

Which is perfectly fine since the heterogeneous mixture, a rich but satisfying plum-pudding, works splendidly, absorbing its borrowings and negotiating its switches of mood with little sense of strain. (There's only one serious lapse, a jarring descent into Carry-On inanity when Will puts on a squeaky voice and pretends to be Viola's female cousin.) Besides, style and subject are ideally matched, since we're dealing with the greatest magpie genius of all time. Shakespeare was notoriously disinclined to devise his own plots, preferring to snaffle them from Plutarch, Holinshed or whatever dog-eared chapbook came to hand; he cared nothing for unity of mood, tossing dirty jokes into high tragedy in a way that gave the Augustans the vapours; and several of his plays (Richard II, for example) contain great chunks written by someone else. Shakespeare in Love may fall short of his exalted standard, but it's a film after his own heart.

Tom Stoppard, co-scripting, can likely be credited with some literary gags that may bypass the groundlings (a bloodthirsty small boy, given to tormenting mice, gives his name as John Webster, who later wrote the bloody play The White Devil) and some of the cod-fustian dialogue: "If you be man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag." But the chief delight of Shakespeare in Love, along with its gamy exuberance, is the acting. The chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow (after Sliding Doors, delivering yet another faultless Brit accent) and Joseph Fiennes inspires relief that the original casting (Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis) fell through. Around them cavort star turns from Imelda Staunton (born to play the nurse), Colin Firth sending up his arrogant Darcyesque image, Ben Affleck (a nostril-flaring Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench having a ball as Queen Bess, the increasingly superb Geoffrey Rush as the harassed Henslowe, and others too numerous to list. And the final triumphant premiere of Shakespeare's first true masterpiece, while edging dangerously near luvvie-ish self-regard, conveys something of what Nabokov called shamanstvo – the 'enchanter-quality' of great theatre. As Rush's Henslowe remarks, smiling beatifically as the whole shambles comes magically together, "It's a mystery."

THE DEBT                                                               B                     85

USA  (114 mi)  2011  ‘Scope

 

The truth is whatever we say it is.                   —Stephan (Marton Csokas)

 

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.      —Reporter from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

This is another one of those paranoid Cold War espionage thrillers that were the rage of the 1970’s with Alan Pakula’s KLUTE (1971) and PARALLAX VIEW (1974), or the recently deceased Sydney Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), each one a tense, well acted, and highly suspenseful drama with dark political undertones marked by the cool exteriors of sterile architecture, featuring plenty of empty space, and a near mathematical structure on which the story rests.  This film is also well served by such an extraordinary cast and a director who knows what he’s doing behind the camera, shifting all the pieces around like a chess board, re-enacting history through a kind of morality chamber drama, much like Roman Polanski’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994).  This is actually a remake of a previously released Israeli feature by Assaf Bernstein, known by its Hebrew title HA HOV (The Debt) (2007), where in the 1960’s a group of three young Mossad agents are sent behind enemy lines into East Germany to kidnap a Nazi war criminal known as the Butcher of Birkenau and bring him back to Israel to stand trial.  This fictionalized tale is based on the horrific medical procedures of Josef Mengele, a German SS officer who performed grisly medical experiments on the concentration camp inmates, particularly young women, such as sterilization, shock treatments, limb amputations or injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, leaving them blind, where many died afterwards from untreated infections.  In real life Mengele was hunted by the Mossad in the 60’s, but he evaded capture and died a free man in exile at the age of 67 in Bertioga, Brazil.  While adapted by three new screenwriters, it retains the original flashback structure, but it lacks a certain emotional urgency, not in the heart racing action sequences which are superb, but in the spare portrait of the characters whose real life personas are never fleshed out, where there’s never a sense that the audience is connecting with any of them, turning this into a kind of spy caper or a super hero Mission Impossible episode.     

At her daughter’s grand book opening celebrating her life by revealing the harrowing details of the historic mission, Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer is being lauded for her heroic work as an Israeli agent 35 years ago, but that concerned look on her face suggests she’s uncomfortable with all the attention.  Quickly flashing back to when she is played by young actress Jessica Chastain, we see the mission has gone terribly wrong, where the captured prisoner manages to escape by surprising his kidnapper and beating Rachel into a bloody pulp on the floor before making his way down a winding staircase, but somehow she summons the strength to crawl to the top of the stairs and shoot him before he could get away.  The book is a huge success, but the lives of the three remain in turmoil, remaining secretive and distant, where a disfiguring scar on Rachel’s cheek from a succession of kicks to her jaw is a daily reminder of this incident.  The Hollywood aspect to this story when told in flashback is adding a romanticized love triangle to the mission, which despite  the taut suspense of the precision of their operation adds an element of pure soap opera melodrama.  It’s hard to believe that secret agents actually have time for hanky panky, as one would suspect they need to eliminate distractions and focus on the business at hand.  As it turns out, that’s exactly the view of one of the agents, David (Sam Worthington), but not shared by the commanding officer Stephan (Marton Csokas).  This not only turns into a distraction but becomes a fatal flaw due to the intricate nature of what they need to do, which is kidnap a still practicing (under an alias) Doctor Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) after a series of routine fertility exams from Rachel as a pretend patient confirm he’s their suspect. 

 

Madden displays a deft hand in the action sequences, where each phase slowly unfolds with surgical precision, where the underlying tension, especially well drawn out during the visits when Rachel allows herself to be examined by a man she knows is a vile monster, couldn’t be more discomforting and creepy.  It’s all drenched in an eerie, completely detached calmness, shown with the cool veneer of excessive restraint, creating at times a dark, atmospheric mood of stillness that borders on horror.  Christiansen is chilling in his role as a Nazi-spewing Jew hater, which he uses against his captors every chance he gets.  Despite their meticulous planning, things go awry, and Bernhardt quickly realizes just how exposed and vulnerable his kidnappers have become, continually bickering among themselves about what to do.  The bumbling aspect of this Mossad crew is a bit unsettling, as instead of maintaining their hard corps discipline, as this is the elite of the elite, they lapse into moments of psychological weakness which their captive easily exploits.  Even with the elements of the narrative that one might find implausible, the choreography of the sequences moving back and forth in time is excellent, where the harrowing aspects of the kidnapping itself is a sheer delight and outweigh the misguided personal intimacies that evolve.  But a morality play is perhaps best expressed in the breaking down of trust and loyalty, where the bonds that hold relationships and even societies together may be shaken by the very root of their own unstable foundations, undermined by human miscalculations.  Rachel Singer is a complex figure, beautifully portrayed by both Chastain and Mirren, drawn by the opposing strengths offered by both David and Stephan, leaving her conflicted and perhaps even exiled from her own conscience, instead making an unholy alliance with history, where myth is always more captivating than the facts.      

 

The Reel Deal [Mark Sells]

Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt is a complex spy thriller about three Mossad agents in 1966 sent into East Berlin to track down a Nazi war criminal known as the "surgeon of Birkenau." Flashing backwards and forward through time, 1966 to 1997, the film carefully reveals what happened during the "supposedly" successful mission then and the impacts to those involved now. Filled with unexpected plot twists, acts of revenge and retribution, regret, and a unique love triangle, The Debt is a highly engaging, nail biter from Academy Award nominated director, John Madden. Its only drawback is that it lacks a real credible, historical context. Starring Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, along with terrific support from Sam Worthington and up and comer, Jessica Chastain, The Debt is a nifty little puzzler that satisfactorily pays off.

Mossad Retiree Helen Mirren Can't Escape Her Nazi ... - Village Voice  Michael Atkinson

A remake of the far more brisk 2007 Israeli film with a bullpen of aging stars, this rather old-fashioned espionage drama seems deftly engineered to please the middlebrow minions allergic to superheroes and vampires. It's hardly a challenging film, though not for lack of strain, bouncing between 1997, when scar-faced Mossad agent Helen Mirren endures some autumnal glory in Tel Aviv, and 1965, when, embodied by a wispy Jessica Chastain, she joins a team (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) intent on kidnapping a famous Nazi butcher (Jesper Christensen) passing as an East Berlin gynecologist. The rhythms of The Debt are emphatic and obvious, but at least the Israeli cult of heroism gets a side-swipe fuck-you, and the loaded thought of vaginal exams administered by a Birkenau mutilator is exploited for everything it's worth, especially when one exam explodes into a leg-lock fight to the near-death. The leading cast, strangely Jew-free, is all uncomplicated angst and brow-furrows, except for Worthington, who as always suggests a linebacker waiting for the whistle. Predictably, the holes in the narrative set us up for a twist or three, but, in balance, it's a pleasure to be back in the wet alleys and spy-patrolled streets of the GDR, however vague they seem without '60s black-and-white cinematography.

Reel Film Reviews [David Nusair]

The latest effort from Shakespeare in Love filmmaker John Madden, The Debt follows a trio of Israeli agents (Sam Worthington's David, Martin Csokas' Stefan, and Jessica Chastain's Rachel) as they attempt to abduct (and bring to justice) a notorious Nazi criminal - with the film unfolding both in the past and in the late '90s, when the three comrades (Ciarán Hinds' David, Tom Wilkinson's Stefan, and Helen Mirren's Rachel) are forced to reunite following the publication of a book detailing their efforts. Madden generally does a nice job of establishing an impressively tense atmosphere, with the stretch set within a dingy apartment - where the agents are holding the aforementioned criminal - undoubtedly standing as a highlight within the proceedings. All three of the younger actors are quite good in their respective roles, with the real surprise here Worthington (ie after his wooden turn at the festival's Last Night, it's rather unexpected to discover that he's actually quite compelling here). The inclusion of a few electrifying interludes - ie the Nazi attempts to goad David into beating him up - staves off the stagy atmosphere one might've anticipated, yet it's ultimately difficult to muster up much interest in the love triangle that crops up about midway through. It's also worth noting that the film does run out of steam as it progresses, with the anticlimactic (and increasingly preposterous) third act effectively diminishing the impact of the frequently enthralling opening hour. Still, The Debt is a solid little thriller that undoubtedly stands as a marked improvement over Madden's last foray into the genre (2008's miserable Killshot).

ColeSmithey.com [Cole Smithey]

What starts out as a gripping Cold-War-era espionage thriller devolves into utter fantasy in director John Madden’s remake of a 2007 Israeli film by the same title. Told mainly in flashback sequences, the story follows the 1966 efforts of three young Mossad agents assigned to capture and transport Nazi war criminal Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a.k.a. “the surgeon of Birkenau.” A fundamental flaw stems from the film’s fictionalization of the infamous Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele--a.k.a. “the Angel of Death.” Although hunted by the real Mossad during the '60s, Mengele evaded capture. He died a free man at the age of 67 in Bertioga, Brazil.

Given the “Inglourious Basterds”-themed nature of its revenge fantasy narrative “The Debt” plays it too straight when it should push at the boundaries of revisionist history. When the filmmakers finally get around to pushing the action over the top in the third act, the result is disingenuous.

In any event, a 1997 book release party for the biographer/daughter of retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) promises to reunite the three Mossad operatives for the first time in 30 years. With a prominent scar on her right cheek, Rachel reads aloud from the biography her daughter wrote about her intrepid experiences a lifetime ago. Rachel’s jagged facial scar evinces deeper emotional wounds. Mirren’s keen performance lets us see the broken internal pieces her character desperately wants to keep hidden. She reads a brutal paragraph in which she describes killing her hostage as he attempts to escape. The episode will pop up later in the movie, albeit under crucially different circumstances than those related in the book’s version.

Cut to 1966 when a younger Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain) arrives in East Berlin with fellow Israeli ops David (Sam Worthington) and Stefan (Marton Csokas). Their mission is to capture Dr. Vogel and transport him to Israel to be tried for crimes against humanity. Rachel and David pose as husband and wife, but their authentic romantic connection is rattled by their opportunistic leader Stefan who knows how to play upon their weaknesses. A love triangle develops between the agents, who live together in a large but barely furnished apartment.

Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) communicates continuity with her older incarnation (Helen Mirren). Although the same level of recognition doesn’t exist between Sam Worthington and his older version (Ciaran Hinds), or between Marton Csokas and his later personification (Tom Wilkinson), the connection between Chastain and Mirren presents sufficient glue to keep us hooked.

Mission planning quickly moves to execution as Rachel poses as a patient visiting Dr. Vogel at his gynecological practice. The real Dr. Mengele did indeed work as a gynecologist performing illegal abortions after escaping from Germany after the war. The medical examination scenes make for some very tense moments of calculated suspense. The diabolical doctor questions his vulnerable patient about her family history as if he might kill her on the spot for being Jewish. Vogel sees into Rachel figuratively and literally. After the team captures him, the evil doctor proves as monstrously unrepentant and manipulative as you might imagine. The conundrum that develops between our occasionally clumsy Mossad agents, about how to treat their cunning prisoner, presents the would-be crux of the story. Unfortunately, screenwriters Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman ("Kick-Ass") and Peter Straughan ("The Men Who Stare at Goats") are too insecure about their thematic intent and satirical implementation to push the necessary buttons.

The filmmakers attempt to shoehorn a lingering love story between Rachel and David that has simmered over the years. The relationship vies too heavily with a third-act spree of vengeance that hardly seems worth the effort for the pretentiousness it inflicts. A subplot regarding a long-held secret links the couple’s affair with the far-fetched action that serves as the climax. There’s an old saying that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” In real life, the Mossad gave up on tracking down Dr. Mengele and bringing him to justice even though they were at one time close to completing the mission. If the filmmakers wanted to recast history, they needed to have a better sense of war genre and espionage films to make it work. “The Debt” is entertaining enough. It just doesn’t function as a cohesive film.

Jewish Daily Forward [Jordana Horn]

What happens when you take an Israeli spy thriller and pump it up with high-budget steroids for a Hollywood remake? That is the question posed by “The Debt,” in which actors feign Israeli accents with varying degrees of success and attempt to tell a story that, while visceral and heartfelt in the Hebrew version, turns comparatively superficial and supercilious in the American one.

The original motion picture, “Ha-Hov” (“The Debt”) (2007), directed by Assaf Bernstein, was nominated for four Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, but didn’t garner much of an audience internationally. Focus Features and Miramax have reimagined the film to include Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, along with better costumes and dramatic music for chase scenes.

The story deals with retired Mossad agents Rachel (Mirren), Stefan (Wilkinson) and David (Ciaran Hinds), and a 1965 mission that won them renown. In East Berlin, during the Cold War, they killed Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), aka the Surgeon of Birkenau, infamous for his Dr. Mengele-like experiments on Jews. The film catapults between the mission and the present, in which there is ambiguity as to whether or not the mission actually succeeded, and that ambiguity needs to be resolved.

You see, the punch line — spoiler alert — is that the threesome didn’t actually kill Vogel, as they told Israel and the world. In fact he escaped and is now taking credit for his work at Birkenau in a hospital in Ukraine. So the three need to find Vogel and “finish the job” before people find out what really happened.

The film meets its first hurdle of casting challenges well. Because it flips between two eras, two people play each character: one older and one younger version of the same person. Sam Worthington as the young David meshes believably with Hinds as the older version of himself, and the fiery performance of Marton Csokas as the young Stefan (looking like a younger and even angrier Russell Crowe) outshines even Academy Award nominee Wilkinson.

In the original film, Gila Almagor played the lead female Mossad agent, and the inimitable Mirren is a worthy successor to Almagor’s prowess. Mirren has the actor’s gift of appropriating dialogue as though it were truly her own. Unfortunately, the contrast between her skills and those of her younger version, Jessica Chastain, reflects poorly on the latter. Chastain is certainly lovely to look at in the period clothes of the “Mad Men” era, but her character appears to vacillate between two states — distressed and disconcerted — and never seems to have a core competence, or even a sense of control, that would be a necessity for even a young Mossad agent.

While the psychological depth of the older characters is deftly portrayed, Chastain as the young Rachel is too much of an incomprehensible cipher to carry a story of this weight. Sure, the film’s most suspenseful moments are still there — the moments when Rachel, pretending to be trying to conceive, visits the surgeon of Birkenau, now in hiding as a gynecologist practicing in East Berlin. The interactions between Rachel and Vogel surely show the most dramatic tension ever established while knicker-free and in gynecological stirrups.

But such scenes were true to the original film and, because they were less heavy-handed, were done better the first time around, because of less Hollywood hype. This film, directed by John Madden, is accompanied by an ample, stirring score, rapidly changing camera angles and excessive admiration time penciled in for flawless Hollywood faces. These are the staples of the typical James Bond film, and seem to be what film audiences want out of a European-based thriller. It’s “Munich”-meets-“Fast and Furious” (“Fast and Fuhrerious”?).

Now, I’m not a purist — I don’t always believe that original versions of films are better (although actually, when I think about it, I can’t think of a single remade version of a film that surpasses the first). My problem with this adaptation, however, goes far deeper than quibbles with the Hollywood paradigm that the most attractive actress is the best one, and into the story itself. In the Israeli version, the pain of the Holocaust, and the need to find the murderers who participated and make them pay for their wrongdoing, was paramount. In the American version, one gets the sense that the Nazis are mere cartoons of evil, created long ago, and the real bad guys are the Israelis.

“You spent 30 years taking credit for it. Aren’t you tired of lying?” One character tells another, speaking of Vogel’s alleged death.

While I may be overly sensitive on this point, the film seems to be focused on the lie the Israeli characters allowed to exist rather than on the unutterable evils perpetrated by the person they are hunting. And by shifting the focus, from the quest for justice in the face of unspeakable evil to Israelis feeling bad about their own wrongdoing, “The Debt” stands the underlying story on its head in a far more dramatic and insidious way than casting choices alone ever could.

THE DEBT - Reelviews Movie Reviews  James Berardinelli

 

Critic's Notebook [Martin Tsai]

 

Helen Mirren in 'The Debt': movie review ... - Christian Science Monitor  Peter Rainer

 

SBS Film [Lisa Nesselson]

 

Tonight at the Movies [John C. Clark]

 

FilmFracture: What's Your Time Worth? [Kathryn Schroeder]

 

20/20 Filmsight [David O'Connell]

 

Twitch [Simon Kingsley]

 

Newsblaze [Prairie Miller]

 

Slant Magazine [Nick Schager]

 

Hubpages [Sychophantastic]

 

KillerReviews.com [Greg Roberts]

 

Review: 'The Debt,' a Taut Thriller Well Worth the Wait, Ushers in ...  Leah Rozen

 

It's Movie Time [John DeSando]

 

tonymacklin.net [Tony Macklin]

 

exclaim! [Robert Bell]

 

The Spoiler Free Movie Blog [Jade]

 

A Star Not Quite Overnight  Margy Rochlin interview with Jessica Chastain from The New York Times, August 24, 2011

 

Talk: Helen Mirren: The Reluctant Libertine   Andrew Goldman interview with Mirren from The New York Times, August 28, 2011

 

'The Debt' review: Evil's stain leaves a mark  Mick LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle

 

The Debt :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews

 

'Debt,' With Helen Mirren - Review - NYTimes.com  A.O. Scott

 

Josef Mengele - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Death and the Maiden (play) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Maddin, Guy               

The Canadian magazine Cinema Scope analyzes the Winnipeg Film Group, and has this to say about Maddin:  "Unquestionably the most successful filmmaker to emerge from the Film Group, Maddin has produced seven features and numerous shorts since 1985, all marked by his strange quest to create 'authentic' early sound cinema.  His obsession with early film styles is admirable in a way for, well, its sheer obsessiveness.  But ultimately, his films sometimes seem to end up in the dead end of irony, their cleverness preventing engagement and exhausting the viewer by dint of their relentless artificiality."

Postmodernism POSTMODERNISM AND FILM   Mattias Frey from Film Reference

Guy Maddin's films contain uncanny worlds that, at once strange and familiar, are archives of film and culture references from high to low. Born and raised on the Canadian prairies, Maddin is the best-known exponent of "prairie modernism," which developed around the Winnipeg Film Group.

Aesthetically, Maddin betrays a fondness for black-and-white cinematography and a silent-film look lit from a single source. But color footage often intrudes at unlikely places, accompanied by intentionally discordant music and ambient sounds. Errors in continuity or film equipment in the shot are par for the course in Maddin movies, which have been filmed in abandoned warehouses, a grain elevator, a foundry turned garbage depot, or in his mother's beauty salon. Capturing the essence of a Maddin film is difficult. Archangel (1990), for example, takes place in the Russian city of the title during World War I and involves several cases of mistaken identity. The plot is conveyed with visual references to F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, aged film stock, crackling soundtrack, and strange breaks in the action. All suggest a film that appears to be a relic from the 1920s, but with 1990s irony. The Saddest Music in the World (2003) is a fable set in 1933 Winnipeg: a brewing magnate with beer-filled glass legs announces an international contest to perform the world's most sorrowful song. Part imaginary (film) history, part madcap musical melodrama, The Saddest Music in the World is an offbeat film that is unmistakably postmodern.

In interviews, as in his films, Maddin refers to influences as diverse as Pablo Picasso, the film director Douglas Sirk, the punk group the Ramones, Mexican wrestling movies, hockey star Mario Lemieux, the 1933 musical Footlight Parade, Euripides, and Mary Pickford. His short The Heart of the World (2000), commissioned for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Preludes series by ten Canadian directors, is perhaps his masterpiece. In a mere six minutes he perfectly captures the style and tropes of Soviet montage cinema of the 1920s.

Irish Film Institute»Delirious Dreams: The Cinema of Guy Maddin ...  Mark Peranson introduction to Guy Maddin

Perhaps the time is right for Guy Maddin’s type of filmmaking. Nostalgia and romancing the past are currently as de rigueur as the glorification of kitsch, and Maddin provides all these in spades. The end of 2003 saw no fewer than three very major yet different films from Guy in wide circulation: the stupendous movie-ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the peephole gallery installation Cowards Bend the Knee, and the ‘proper’ feature film Saddest Music in the World. This is an astonishing cinematic output and all the more impressive if you’re aware of Guy’s laziness.

Guy Maddin claims to have been born on February 28, 1956, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a working class family of Icelandic heritage. He was reared above his Aunt Lil’s beauty salon and in Winnipeg’s hockey arena, where his father worked as a manager. Along with glorious memories of vacations north in Gimli, there was private tragedy: while Maddin was young, his older brother killed himself at the age of eighteen after his girlfriend died in a car accident. Tragedy lurks behind the gestating hysteria of his feature films like a child peeking out of the safety of the womb. While slacking off during his teens and early twenties, Maddin educated himself by borrowing books and films from the public library.

Maddin’s cinephilia reveals itself in a film like Careful, the Leni Riefenstahl-meets-Caligari mountain movie in which there are allusions to directors as diverse as Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, James Whale, Buster Keaton, Max Ophuls, Georges Méliès, Ernest Lubitsch and René Clair, all presented as if slapped together purposefully by Victor Frankenstein. But while Maddin wholeheartedly embraces primitivism in his delirious cross-breeds, he despises continuity and complicates nostalgia. One of his ongoing projects is remaking lost movies that even he has never seen. His celebrated short film The Heart of the World re-imagines Abel Gance’s 1931 science fiction movie La Fin du monde: other possible films in the project include Tod Browning’s London After Midnight and F.W. Murnau’s 4 Devils. These films, as well as those which inspire his other work, have in a way been murdered by history, and Maddin takes revenge. Yet he staunchly avoids literal remakes through his use of fast editing, absurdly complicated plots, hyper stylised sets and dialogue, and by injecting autobiographical elements as pure melodrama.

Before he became a filmmaker, Guy wanted to be a writer. Literature is as influential on his work as the cineastes mentioned earlier, including such writers as Knut Hamsun, John Ruskin, Herman Melville, Bruno Schulz and, in Cowards Bend the Knee, Marcel Proust and Euripides. The more one reads his own writing, the more intensely personal his films appear. His published diaries, strewn with passages of self-doubt amid the director’s amorous exploits, make it painfully clear that, for Guy Maddin, filmmaking is a way of coping.

All-Movie Guide  Jason Buchanon

Frequently referred to as "the Canadian David Lynch," Winnipeg-born filmmaker Guy Maddin's surreal, dreamlike works are often cited for their striking visuals and obscure sensibilities. Whether he is recreating the look and feel of a frantic silent film in the acclaimed short The Heart of the World (2000) or basking in the over-saturated hues of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), it seems slightly unfair that, due to Maddin's strikingly unique talent as a filmmaker, critics and audiences still find the need to define him through the talents of another filmmaker. Given the decidedly primitive aesthetics of his celluloid universe, though, his work may demand it.

Maddin's father was a prominent hockey coach and manager, and his mother the proprietor of a local beauty shop, and both of his parents' careers had a profound effect on the young filmmaker. Whether watching the teams practice at Winnipeg Arena or playing with his friends at his mother's salon, Maddin's unique take on everyday eccentricities was fueled by numerous unforgettable childhood experiences. Two of these, in particular, were a piggyback ride from Bing Crosby and the advancement of a common cold into an intense neurological disorder that resulted in strange physical sensations; these experiences gave the imaginative youngster an acute and unique view of the world. Childhood memories and stories passed on by his parents have frequently found their way into Maddin's unique films as well, with the tale of how his grandmother accidentally poked out his father's eye memorably recreated in his first feature, Tales From the Gimli Hospital. As for his education, Maddin received a degree in economics from the University of Winnipeg, and his following years were spent as a bank teller and a house painter. His film education came not with any formal training at a trade school, but with endless weekends of watching films with close friends John Paizs and Steve Snyder. Soon realizing that Paizs was making films and Snyder was teaching production at the University of Manitoba, Maddin eventually decided that he needed to put his own knowledge to work and step behind the camera.

Encouraged by his participation in a local cable access show in addition to the films that Snyder had produced while in film school, Maddin put light to celluloid for his darkly comic freshman effort, The Dead Father. Soon developing his own style in regards to camera movement and lighting aesthetics, Maddin was quickly on his way to filming his first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital. An expressionistic voyage that found two hospitalized patients embarking on a bizarre competition and which took viewers into "a Gimli we no longer know," Maddin's surreal and humorous freshman effort gained the burgeoning filmmaker international attention, and the film continually played as a midnight feature in the theaters of New York in the years following its release. Reluctant to abandon short films for features as many filmmakers do, Maddin subsequently averaged one short per year while preparing his next feature, Archangel (1990). Once again filmed in stark black-and-white and taking on the crackling texture of a film released at the turn of the century, the film held true to Gimli's promise, and fans certainly couldn't accuse Maddin of a sophomore slump. Dipping his toes into color for his third feature, Careful, Maddin's departure from black-and-white showed a filmmaker as adept at creating lush, over-saturated images as he was at re-creating the desaturated images of an age long past.

In 1995 Maddin was honored as the youngest ever recipient of the Telluride Film Festival's Lifetime Achievement award — an event which ultimately marked the beginning of one of the most creatively stifled periods in the young director's career. Though his critical acclaim was at an all-time high moving into the new millennium, it seemed that many of Maddin's works were not coming to fruition as originally envisioned. Though Maddin had collaborated with writer George Toles to pen what was to have been his fourth feature, entitled The Dykemaster's Daughter, the withdrawal of a major financier would ultimately result in the project reaching a standstill during pre-production. The disappointment resulted in a five-year hiatus from features, and Maddin spent his downtime refining his skills with a series of acclaimed shorts.

Though he would emerge in 1997 with Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the fourth feature from Maddin ultimately proved somewhat compromised and unsatisfying to all involved despite its admirable stylistic flourishes. Even though the film itself would prove something of a disappointment, Maddin's developing relationship with numerous Manitoba-based filmmakers began to find the generally neglected regions' filmmakers receiving some long overdue recognition. While Maddin was teaching film at the University of Manitoba and pondering his own future behind the camera, a film student named Deco Dawson caught the eye of the downtrodden filmmaker and proved just the inspiration he needed to get his career back off of the ground. In 2000, Maddin was commissioned to make a promotional short film for the Toronto Film Festival, and the resulting The Heart of the World not only stole the honor of being proclaimed one of the best films of the festival, but was also included on many critic's top ten lists for the year.

Maddin's fifth feature, a filmed version of a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of Dracula entitled Dracula, Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2001), proved that the renowned experimental filmmaker had lost none of his remarkably unique vision in his period of soul searching. In addition to serving as co-editor of The Heart of the World, former student Dawson also joined Maddin for the production of Dracula, Pages From a Virgin's Diary. Following an experimental autobiographical art exhibit entitled Cowards Bend the Knee, in which viewers could only witness the film through strategically placed peepholes in a museum wall, Maddin was back at work for his sixth feature, The Saddest Music in the World (2003). A dramatic musical fantasy revolving around a worldwide competition to create the eponymous composition, the film retained all of the typical Maddin surrealism of his best works — including a stunning turn by Isabella Rosselini as a brewery baroness with beer-filled prosthetic legs.

Welcome to A Tribute to GuyMaddin.net 

 

 Guy Maddin  Jason Woloski from Senses of Cinema, June 2003

 

Particles of Illusion: Guy Maddin and His Precursors  Darragh O'Donoghue from Senses of Cinema, June 2004

 

The Private Guy Maddin  Adam Hart from Senses of Cinema, July 2004

 

Images Journal: The Cinema of Guy Maddin  Derek Hill

 

The Film Reference Library   bio information by Jason McBride

 

The Film Reference Library  bio information from Guy Maddin Archive

 

GUY MADDIN, ARTIST - Artopia  profile from John Perreault’s art diary

 

TCMDB  Turner Classic Movie profile

 

Zeitgeist Films | Guy Maddin  biography

 

The Canada Council for the Arts - Guy Maddin: Imagining ‘entirely ...  profile by Christopher Guly

 

GUY MADDIN  brief profile from 4p8

 

CBC Digital Archives - Prairie Visionaries: Guy Maddin and the Winnipeg Film Group  including brief YouTube film clips

 

Series Details  Curated By…Guy Maddin, introductory comments and 7 films selected from the UCLA film archives

 

here   My Top Ten Criterions, by Guy Maddin

 

The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival  short films of Guy Maddin, by Jason Sanders

 

Film Foundation  member of the Film Foundation

 

Very Lush and Full of Ostriches, page 1 - Movies - Village Voice ...  Guy Maddin looks at his own films from The Village Voice, July 31, 2001

 

Playtime Review -- Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival  Northern Exposure, a reprint of Mark Peranson’s article from City Pages, February 4, 2004, also seen here (missing page 1):  Northern Exposure - Arts - City Pages - City Pages

 

Guy Maddin at FilmJournal.com  Wizard of Winnipeg, Kevin Lally from the Film Journal International, May 1, 2004

 

The pleasures of melancholy: an interview with Guy Maddin ...  feature and interview by Richard Porton and Marie Losier from Cineaste, June 22, 2004

 

Guy Maddin: Tales From a Maverick’s Diary  Donato Totaro on a Maddin retrospective from Offscreen, September 30, 2004

 

guymaddin  Notes from a Maddin restrospective at American Cinematheque, January 21, 2005

 

Guy Maddin takes a dream-like tour of Winnipeg - Arts - Toronto ...   Home Truths, by Alison Gillmor from CBC News, September 7, 2007

 

Guy Maddin Goes Home - June 6, 2008 - The New York Sun  Nicholas Rapold from The New York Sun, June 6, 2008

 

Maddin, Guy  They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They

 

Interview with Guy Maddin  Interviewed by Scott Shrake from Used Wigs, May 15 2002

 

A Guy Thing - Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice  Interview by Dennis Lim from The Village Voice, September 9, 2003

 

kamera.co.uk - feature article - Interview - A Quick Chat With Guy ...   feature and interview by Antonio Pasolini (2004)

 

GreenCine | article   Interview by Jonathan Marlow from GreenCine, April 28, 2004

 

2005 Twitch Interview With Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini  Interview by Todd Brown, September 12, 2005

 

Offscreen :: An Interview with Guy Maddin   Dissecting the Branded Brain, interview by David Church, January 31, 2006

 

Twitch - Guy Maddin Talks The Brand Upon The Brain  Interview by Todd Brown, October 13, 2006

 

Guy Maddin on The Hour  Interview by George Stroumboulopoulos, including a Maddin montage on YouTube (11:17)

 

IndieWIRE  Interview by Brian Brooks, May 9, 2007

 

Guy Maddin | The A.V. Club  Interview by Andy Battaglia, May 17, 2007

 

Twitch - Guy Maddin talks My Winnipeg, self-mythologizing ...   Interview by Kurt Halfyard, October 2, 2007

 

indieWIRE: TRIBECA PROFILE | "My Winnipeg" Director Guy Maddin  Interview by Peter Knegt, April 29, 2008

 

Exclusive: Guy Maddin on His Winnipeg - ComingSoon.net   Exclusive: Guy Maddin on His Winnipeg, interview by Edward Douglas June 10, 2008

 

Guy Maddin on Directing a ‘Docu-fantasia’ About His Hometown ...  Interview by Bilge Ebiri from Vulture, June 13, 2008

 

BIG RED & SHINY: INTERVIEW WITH GUY MADDIN, DIRECTOR OF MY WINNIPEG  Interview by James Nadeau, July 13, 2008

 

The Evening Class: 2008 SFSFF13—Guy Maddin In Defense of Melodrama  Interview with Maddin by Michael Guillen, July 14, 2008

 

Guy Maddin's 'My Winnipeg' takes him home  Interview by Walter Addiego from SF Gate, July 20, 2008

 

Film Reviews & Movie Showtimes | Guy Maddin Interview  Interview by Richard von Busack from MetroActive, July 30, 2008

 

Brian Darr  Guy Maddin: "I Had This Haunted Childhood," GreenCine interview August 6, 2008

 

Back Talk: Guy Maddin  Interview by Christine Smallwood from The Nation, August 13, 2008, seen again here: moleskinerie: Guy Maddin and his diaries 

 

Time Out Interview (2008)  Wally Hammond interviews Maddin from Time Out London

 

Guy Maddin's Docu-Fantastia: My Winnipeg, Premiere.com  feature and interview by Karl Rozemeyer from Premiere magazine

 

501 Movie Directors: A Comprehensive Guide to the Greatest Filmmakers

 

VBS MEETS - GUY MADDIN - Part 1 of 3 - VBS.TV    (3:09)

 

VBS MEETS - GUY MADDIN - Part 2 of 3   (2:10)

 

VBS MEETS - GUY MADDIN - Part 3 of 3   (3:13)

 

The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin  WallyDanger Channel Video with the correct aspect ratio (6:08)

 

Guy Maddin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

THE DEAD FATHER

Canada  (26 mi)  1986

User comments  from imdb Author: Claude Cat from United States

A surreal meditation on death, this short film contains some ideas and images worthy of the original Surrealists, with touches of humor. Though in some ways the movie feels like the first-time attempt that it is, the story is both more coherent and more profound than some of Maddin's feature-length efforts. The black-and-white cinematography and old-style dubbing set a strong mood, and the director makes good use of locations, props, and costumes to create a dreamlike but palpable suburban world from a few decades ago. A small note: 1930's movie buffs may be annoyingly distracted by the clips of familiar soundtracks in the background. You can find this short on the DVD of "Tales from the Gimli Hospital".

User comments  from imdb Author: bob the moo from Birmingham, UK

In a collection of memories, our narrator recalls the death of his father but not his actual departure. With the man's eldest son still feeling resentment, loss and guilt over the man's death bring the spirit of his father back in a semi-living state; ghostly if you will. These visits continue as the son finds himself driven to despair by his father's continued presence and he comes ever closer to a series of desperate acts.

Having been taken in by Guy Maddin's later work it was only a matter of time before I had a stab at his earliest film, specifically this short film that was one of his first forays into directing. Having gotten used to not understanding the narrative of any of his later films it was a surprise to find that not only did this appear to have more of a structure to it but that it also had a rather toned down visual style that I wasn't expecting even if this was his first film. Narrative wise it is still a bit thin but it produced enough to keep me interested and make me think more about the characters and the story I was being told, even if I could have done with a bit more in the way of explanation and background development. Ironically enough this is actually more accessible than some of his later work and could work as a way in for the uninitiated as well as some of his better films made more recently. Stylistically the film is very sparse and bare and may put some of his modern fans off who have come to expect great flair and style from him but for me both worked and this had enough going for it to be visually interesting without going over (or near) the top.

The cast are OK and do their part (posing well in the clever opening credits) but really Maddin is the star here as both writer and director. Overall this is an interesting short that is up to standard for the majority of Maddin's work. It may not win over those that find no value in any of his films (what would?) but it is a good short film that can be enjoyed on its own or as an example of the style and approach that he would continue to develop over later years.

Movie Martyr (Jeremy Heilman) review [4/4]

 

TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL               A-                    93

Canada  (72 mi)  1988

 

Time Out review

There's a thin line between weird and strange, and Maddin's debut falls just the wrong side. For all that, it's hugely enjoyable, a shaggy-dog story set in Manitoba in a bygone age of bucolic gambolling, innocent erotic idylls, and dark, dark shadows. Lonely Einar succumbs to an epidemic that leaves cracks across its victims' faces, and ends up in the local hospital, where he whiles away the hours carving bark fishes and envying the narrative skills of his voluminous neighbour. The two spin tales of love, loss and necrophilia, and mortal combat ensues, to the sound of ghostly bagpipes. A nearly wordless '20s pastiche, the film obeys no logic except the impulse to fling in as many campy, incongruous images as possible. There are moments of jaw-dropping inspiration, and many that are just impenetrably odd. But this is immensely winning for the rawness alone.

Nitrate Online (Eddie Cockrell) capsule review

"Please watch carefully," Winnipeg-born filmmaker Guy Maddin admonished potential viewers in the program note for The Heart of the World, the five-minute tribute to Russian silent film that for many attendees was the best single work at the recently-completed Toronto International Film Festival. Much the same can be said for Maddin’s first feature, the sinister and surreal 1988 Tales From the Gimli Hospital. While not a horror film per se, Tales so completely envelops the viewer in the turn-of-the-century title town, reeling from the effects of a smallpox epidemic ("a Gimli we no longer know," someone says), that the melodramatic competition between two patients becomes a life-and-death struggle comparable to the meditative and visually striking works of David Lynch, Luis Bunuel and F.W. Murnau. A blend of the new and old, complete with Icelandic traditions both accurate and invented, Tales From the Gimli Hospital is also available in a DVD edition that includes Maddin’s 1986 short The Dead Father and 1988 work Hospital Fragment. For those hooked on Maddin’s unique worldview, Kino Video’s day-and-date DVD release of his subsequent Careful (to be reviewed in the October video column) includes an hour-long documentary on the director and his career.

All Movie Guide [Elbert Ventura]

Guy Maddin's debut feature establishes the otherworldly, unfamiliar quality that he obsessively cultivates in later movies, albeit in different forms. Dreamlike or nightmarish depending on your taste, this black-and-white reverie creates a world seemingly unencumbered by Maddin's self-consciousness. The dreary, timeless Canadian backwoods that the film is set in appears to have sprung intact right out of Maddin's id, which in turn seems to have been deeply influenced by folklore, myth, and, most importantly, cinema. Surreal and distanced, Tales From the Gimli Hospital is more concerned with eliciting laughter through its clever use of the medium's formal and technical elements, rather than expressing or exploring distinct ideas. With its hissing soundtrack and hallucinatory black-and-white, one can almost imagine the film as a recently excavated sample from a forgotten genre. Even at its 72-minute clip, Tales From the Gimli Hospital might strike some viewers as overlong and laborious. For all its perversity, the movie doesn't quite sustain its oddball singularity. Before it's over, the novelty of the film's look and sound and Maddin's peculiar sense of humor fades, and monotony sets in. Wildly uneven, if undeniably inventive, the movie stands as a fitting introduction to one of the more unusual voices in world cinema.

DVD Times [Michael Brooke]

Much like David Lynch's Eraserhead or Lars Von Trier's The Element of Crime, Guy Maddin's first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, is almost unclassifiably strange. I have plenty of reservations about it, but there's no danger of déja vu: it's safe to say that even its detractors aren't going to be saying "Oh no, not another semi-silent melodrama based on Icelandic folk tales featuring weird diseases and traditional buttock wrestling!".

They will, however, be saying plenty of other things about it, mostly along the lines that it intersperses moments of jaw-dropping originality with almost wilful incoherence. There's a plot of sorts - the inhabitants of the town of Gimli fall victim to an unknown plague that causes their skin to crack, and when incarcerated in the local hospital they experience strange dreams and nightmares - but it makes the far more confident Eraserhead look like a model of narrative clarity by comparison.

The opening intertitle sets the florid tone: "O Mount Askja! Your Eruptions have put us in Boats and sent us to scar [sic] new Lands. But from across the celibate Ocean you cast your nets and haul us back to your smouldering bosom." In other words, although set in Canada, the various Icelandic characters that populate the film keep harking back to their roots, both in terms of their profession (fishing and wrestling, for the most part) and their various rituals.

One such fisherman, Einar the Lonely, catches the disease and ends up in the Gimli Hospital, waited on by suspiciously young-looking nurses (Maddin confirms on the commentary that their average age was thirteen) and sandwiched between such characters as the garrulous Gunnar and what must be one of the few blackface minstrels to have appeared in any film in several decades. It’s a decidedly unorthodox hospital, where patients have to watch puppet shows through binoculars in lieu of anaesthetics, and there are hints that the nurses have rather more to offer their patients than just medical treatment – though this is tragically denied poor Einar, who eventually finds himself compelled to challenge Gunnar to a traditional Icelandic buttock-wrestling duel...

And that’s pretty much all the plot summary you’ll get, because that’s about as much as the film gives us – and no mere summary can hope to convey the film’s uniquely off-kilter atmosphere: it’s like a cross between Eraserhead and an early sound film from the late 1920s, and it’s constantly breaking into eccentric musical interludes and moments that I imagine are supposed to be dream sequences, though it’s hard to tell what’s meant to be “real”.

To be honest, I’m not sure Maddin really knows either – he later admitted that the film wasn’t especially strong in the plot structure department, and confessed that the script should have gone through a couple of extra drafts before shooting started. As a result, it’s a film that demands a fair bit of tolerance and understanding from its audience – there are quite a few moments that look like an inept school pantomime, and others that are breathtakingly inspired. I doubt very much that it adds up to anything particularly significant (though the Icelandic roots aren’t just an affectation – Maddin is himself of Icelandic ancestry), and Maddin has gone on to make significantly better films (Archangel, Careful), but Tales from the Gimli Hospital does grow on you: I enjoyed this third viewing far more than I did the first! But if this review sounds evasive, it’s meant to be: to say that not everyone will appreciate this film is putting it very mildly indeed.

Plume Noire review  Fred Thom

 

digitallyOBSESSED.com (Dale Dobson) dvd review

 

MediaScreen.com dvd review  Paul Brenner

 

Thomas E. Billings review

 

Images (Derek Hill) review  also reviewing CAREFUL

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]  also reviewing CAREFUL

 

CBC.ca Arts (Patricia Bailey) review  Wicked and Weird, The kooky charms of the Gimli Film Festival, By Patricia Bailey from CBC, August 14, 2006

 

The New York Times (Stephen Holden) review

 

DVDBeaver dvd review  Mark Balson

 

ARCHANGEL                                                          B                     88

Canada  (90 mi)  1990

 

Time Out review

 

WWI. Deep in Russian snows, peg-leg Canadian soldier Boles, pining for his lost Iris, is billeted in Archangel with the family of the lovely Danchuk; but the addled Boles ignores Danchuk's feelings for him in favour of mysterious Veronkha, whom he mistakes for Iris, although she is really the spurned wife of a faithless Belgian aviator... Confused? No matter; so are the characters in this absurdist melodrama. Maddin's second feature is pitched straighter than Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but is every bit as inspired and patchy. Pastiche remains to the fore, with Maddin's acute sense of camp more historically motivated than before. Complete with hieratic '20s-style acting, the film is an extravagant mélange of All Quiet on the Western Front, Eisenstein and DeMille, all the more impressive for its cut-price mise en scène. The war scenes are extraordinary, although thrown in far too liberally; even better are the daft tableaux vivants which seem to comprise Archangel's only entertainment.

 

The Heart of the World  Guy Maddin from GreenCine

 

In Archangel (1990), all of Maddin's backward-gazing characters grope about in the murk of their memories in a sad attempt to regain loves and comforts lost. Archangel is a full-blown amnesia melodrama set deep in the confused winter immediately following the Great War -- the last war designed exclusively for the pleasure of children. (The uniforms worn in battle made all the combatants look like scaled-up toy soldiers, and Maddin himself described the movie as a "Goya painting etched upon a child's windowpane in frost.") Another part-talkie, this is Maddin's most delirious feature; there is a narrative, but it lies buried somewhere beneath a fluffy snowfall of forgetfulness. All the characters, being amnesiacs, have forgotten the war is over, and between naps continue to fight. They fight painful facts, they fight the love gods, they fight through thick mists of Vaseline. (The ARCHANGEL camera crew went through a whole keg of this unguent.) Soldier and viewer alike fight confusion, unsuccessfully. This is said to be the director's favorite among his movies.

 

User comments  from imdb Author: Robert Beaton (mlaucke@colba.net) from Montreal, Canada

During the First World War, a Canadian soldier, devastated by the recent death of his fiancee, arrives at the frozen Russian city of Archangel. While billeted with a local family, he is astonished to discover a woman that may or may not be the lover he thought lost. Unfortunately, she is suffering from amnesia and remembers nothing of their former passion. A rival suitor, claiming to be her husband and who may also be suffering from amnesia, is equally unsuccessful at winning her affection. The melancholy story plays itself out against the madness of the Great War.

Filming entirely indoors with homemade props and costumes, director Guy Maddin has created a very strange and intense movie. Cribbing heavily from the look and atmosphere of German expressionist cinema, Maddin goes much further in exploring some very human issues: loss, love, memory and redemption. He also examines patriotism and by stylistically depicting the horrors of trench warfare he delivers a pacifist message that reminds me of movies like Grande Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate power of this movie, however, lies in the sense of alienation we see among the characters. They are not only unable to love each other, they are barely able to communicate. In fact, under the cloud of forgetfulness that is a major theme in this movie, the characters are often not even capable of recognizing one another at all!

Thomas E. Billings review

Synopsis: A one-legged Canadian soldier is sent to the Russian Arctic town of Archangel in World War I. There he gets involved in a love triangle with the wife of his landlord and Veronkha, a beautiful married woman who could pass as a twin for Iris, his (now deceased) former lover. An experimental film done in a style similar to silent films. Although the film has plenty of warped humor, the film is ultimately unsatisfying because the plot is so circular and repetitive.

This is the latest film from Canada's Guy Maddin, who is perhaps best known (in the U.S.) for the weird and wonderful film, TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL. His newest film, ARCHANGEL, is another experimental black-and-white film that, like GIMLI HOSPITAL, is very strange indeed. The film is done in a style reminiscent of silent films (although the film is not silent; it has plenty of spoken dialog). A few scenes even have the characteristic marks (something like stains) that are found in old silent films that are in very bad condition. However, given the film's weirdness, and the fact that Maddin again creates a unique world (the town of Archangel), I would say that characterizing the film as purely a satire or parody of silent films is an incomplete description.

The film centers on Lt. John Boles, a Canadian Army officer who has one wooden leg, who is sent to the Russian Arctic town of Archangel in World War I. He is sent there to assist the Russians in their fight against Bolsheviks and Huns. However, his lover Iris recently died, and he pines for her; she is the center of his thoughts.

In Archangel he is billeted with a peasant family where both the husband and wife are soldiers in the Russian Army. Soon he meets Veronkha, a beautiful married woman who is physically identical in appearance to Boles' beloved former lover, Iris. Needless to say, Boles wants Veronkha very badly. Veronkha's husband returns, but his memory is damaged by mustard gas and he keeps forgetting he's married to Veronkha (he's forgetful, and has a very vague life, as the film tells us). Meanwhile, Boles' landlady is falling in love with him. The result is a strange love triangle, with Boles pursuing the mysterious Veronkha while his landlady longs for him....

The film showcases Maddin's weird sense of humor. When a boy faints, he is revived by brushing his stomach with horsehair brushes (a scene reminiscent of the one in GIMLI HOSPITAL where plague sufferers were massaged with dead seagulls). Early in the film the wife of the landlord offers Boles a fancy wooden leg to replace his peg-leg; we are told "it was her father's leg; I think she wants you to have it." Later, in the trenches, an attack by Huns is preceded by a large number of cute, white bunny rabbits (attack rabbits?) running into the trenches.

The film has a unique appearance and style. It has some nicely warped humor. However, I found the film lacking on a number of points. First, there wasn't enough humor in it to make it really appealing. Second, the plot is iterative (as you will discover if you see the film). Certain scenes are reused many times. Because of the cycling of the plot, you might eventually lose interest in the film. At times I looked at my watch to see how much longer the film had to run.

I should mention that the film has received very mixed reviews. Two local papers gave it very good reviews. However, word-of-mouth advance reviews from various sources indicated that it was pretty bad. (Some of the negative reviews came from fans of GIMLI HOSPITAL.)

As for a recommendation on the film, I would begin by noting that it is much too strange for a general audience. If you are a fan of silent films, you might find the film of interest for its technical aspects, namely the imitation of silent film techniques. If you are a fan of GIMLI HOSPITAL, and you might like a film of similar character (but with less humor), the film is worth considering (understanding that perhaps you might not like it). I found the film to be interesting for its technical aspects and unique character, but it was not very enjoyable (the plot cycling was just too repetitive).

DVD Talk (Thomas Spurlin) dvd review [4/5]

 

Reel.com DVD review [Rod Armstrong]  also reviewing TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS

 

DVD Talk (Matt Langdon) dvd review [3/5]   also reviewing TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS and THE HEART OF THE WORLD

 

The Vagrant Café - Christian Cinema [Seth Studer]   also reviewing LA JETÉE

 

Austin Chronicle (Marc Savlov) review [2.5/5]

 

The New York Times (Stephen Holden) review

 

CAREFUL                                                                 A-                    94

Canada  (100 mi)  1992

 

Time Out review

 

It's time Guy Maddin, the brilliant Winnipeg fabulist who gave us Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Archangel, was rescued from cult obscurity. Hopefully, this darkly idiosyncratic gem will do the trick. In the 19th century Alpine town of Tolzbad, the puritanical townspeople tread and speak softly, for fear of bringing down an avalanche. But beneath this soft blanket of repression lurk incestuous desires, unspoken fears, and the ever-present threat of violent death. A post-modern silent melodrama, its wry inter-titles and colour-tinted images hark back to, and yet cruelly dissect, a lost 'innocence'. Uniquely weird, subtly macabre, and utterly compelling.

 

Washington Post (Hal Hinson) review

“Careful,” the hilariously bizarre new film from Canadian director Guy Maddin, is like some lost masterpiece from a time-warped alternative dimension -- a strange artifact that time forgot.

Everything about this curious enterprise seems perversely anomalous. Its setting is a mountain village in the fictitious kingdom of Tolbaz, a place so precariously positioned that the slightest noise -- even a sneeze -- might cause a massive avalanche. To prevent such a calamity, the people of Tolbaz are forced to live according to the strictest rules of propriety and decorum. "Careful," a voice commands, like a schoolmaster. "Keep a lid on it. Don't get wet. Be still. Don't sit so close to the walnut tree."

Of course, beneath all this surface politeness and courtesy lies a swamp of depravity. The main characters are two brothers, Johann and Grigorss (Brent Neale and Kyle McCulloch), well-mannered boys, basically, who attend butler school and have the misfortune of being in love with their mother, Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). A third brother, Franz (Vince Rimmer), sits lonely by the window in the attic, where he is kept.

The story follows a mad logic all its own. In one scene Johann has a lurid dream about his mother and then as punishment presses burning coals against his lips. In another, Grigorss spills wax on the face of a corpse, then wipes it off in a panic, rubbing the skin raw. The fun of all this lies in the uncanny extravagance of Maddin's exaggerations.

Visually, the picture is an exceptional feat. Using wildly angled shots and footage that is tinted or intentionally distressed to mimic the texture of aged film stock, Maddin presents us with ghostly images that seem just beyond explanation. And the dialogue is equally baroque. (My favorite line is "Don't boast, Grigorss, it will make you callous. And stop eating those gooseberries.")

At times you feel as if you're watching some Jeanette MacDonald operetta gone insane; at others it has the haphazard quality of an Ed Wood cheapie. Perhaps the strangest aspect of all is that somehow Maddin manages to make all this outrageous inventiveness hang together. It's of a piece, though a piece of what I'm still not quite sure.

eFilmCritic.com (Elaine Perrone) review [5/5]

For the residents of the Alpine Valley hamlet of Tolzbad in the late 19th century, their greatest fear is of making the slightest noise and triggering an avalanche that would destroy the village. Their entire lives are muffled. People speak only in modulated tones. Musical instruments are “played” silently, or in acoustically soundproofed chambers. When a widow takes the notion to crank up the gramophone and dance with her two sons, the three of them cover the windows with protective drapes made from sheepskins so that the music can't seep out. Even the vocal chords of all the region’s animals have been surgically severed in order to avert any unintentional disaster. When a dog barks frantically, all one hears is the unnerving clacking of its teeth. The villagers' daily comings-and-goings are punctuated by their admonitions to each other. "Careful," one will say, "Don't spill it." “Never gamble with life,” counsels another. "Peril," all are assured, "awaits the incautious traveler," and restraint in all behavior is the dictated expectation.

Welcome to the deliriously inventive, wildly melodramatic, and blackly comic world of Guy Maddin – this time set in the Bavarian foothills of a mythical land called Tolzbad, a stand-in for Maddin's Winnipeg. In this setting, always looming over the murmur of hushed voices are the volatile emotions and closely guarded family secrets that, if unleashed, will surely bury them all. Underneath the veneer of gentility, a hotbed of sexual repression and incestuous lust percolates. Spouses hide their perfidy; siblings, their jealousy. Parents and their children wage a constant war of treachery and murderous intent against each other. When a dutiful son succumbs to his shameful Oedipal desires, he does the only thing he can do under the circumstances – he presses a burning coal to his lips, cuts off his fingers, and throws himself off a precipice, triggering an emotional avalanche that reverberates throughout Tolzbad.

Dreamily filmed in a glorious process much like that used for early cinematic two-strip Technicolor, Careful is a feast for the eyes and an intoxicating homage to German Expressionism and the German "mountain pictures" of the early 20th century, with a bit of Frank L. Baum stirred in to the heady brew. Think of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, Josef von Sternberg, Leni Riefenstahl, and The Wizard of Oz, and you start to get the picture.

If the visuals are homage, the goofily demented dialogue belongs entirely to Maddin and his frequent collaborator, George Toles, who had me alternately – and often simultaneously – mesmerized by the melodrama and giggling wildly at its outlandishness (when my jaw wasn’t dropped, that is). The film hits the ground running with an hysterical opening litany (diatribe) of adages, most of which start with the word "Don't," and which any child can attest he or she has heard more than once too often. Later, a prospective lover proffers a wad of hair to her beloved, with a heartfelt, "here is all the hair I've lost in the past few weeks." Likewise, I can't imagine a more sublimely absurd lovers' exchange than, "Oh, Klara, you are a frisky one!" and the rejoining, "Even the reindeer are such, when the spring is coming."

DVD Review of Maddin's 1992 Film Careful  Keith Waterfield from Alternative Film Guide

 

DVD Times  Michael Brooke

 

Michael Brooke review

 

digitallyOBSESSED.com (Joel Cunningham) dvd review

 

Max Hoffman review

 

eFilmCritic.com (Mel Valentin) review [4/5]

 

MediaScreen.com dvd review  Paul Brenner

 

DVD Confidential dvd review [A]  Scott Stanndish

 

Images (Derek Hill) review  also reviewing TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]  also reviewing TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL

 

Playtime Review -- Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival  Northern Exposure, a reprint of Mark Peranson’s article from City Pages, February 4, 2004, also seen here (missing page 1):  Northern Exposure - Arts - City Pages - City Pages

 

Austin Chronicle (Marc Savlov) review [2/5]

 

Washington Post (Desson Howe) review

 

The New York Times (Stephen Holden) review

 

DVDBeaver.com [Mark Balson]

 

DVDBeaver dvd review  Richard Malloy

 

SISSY BOY SLAP PARTY

Canada  (2 mi)  1995     DVD (4 mi)        France (6 mi)

 

JWR [S. James Wegg]

 

Brilliantly conceived and with an editor from the gods, this grainy black-and-white slap-fest produces a range of ideas and emotions that many features fail to find.  The notion of hands on skin-stretched for the African drummers, sculpted for the sissy sailors-is tossed back and forth as the men explore their pent up feelings to the pulsating rhythms (deftly coloured with eerie strings), despite their geriatric leader's admonishment before he headed out to the condom shack for supplies.

 

Sissy-Boy Slap-Party   Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

Note: I was watching this on crappy streaming video, so the rapid-fire edits mostly turned to blobby black-and-white, like a digitized beer logo on Cribs. Still, if Maddin authorizes the on-line put-up, it's fair game.]  In the past, we all know that Maddin has done wonders with the short-form. The Heart of the World is a flat-out masterpiece that gives and gives even after 10+ viewings.  Odillon Redon was suitably intricate and mysterious, a hazy homage to GM's surrealist forebear.  S-B S-P is just a lazy, one-joke affair, a sketchpad trifle more akin to how feature directors tend to treat short filmmaking.  It trades on Maddin's frequent ambiguously-gay ambiance, but then turns into a rather transparent treatise on the homoeroticism underlying the martial arts genre.  (Still, as Commentaries on a Disreputable Genre by  Eminent Intellectual Auteurs go, it's nowhere near as bad as Hal Hartley's abysmal short The New Math.)  Fey and smarmy where it thinks it's ironically deploying the tropes of "feyness" and "smarminess," it's partially rescued by a great sight-gag at the end.  Do you need a permit to park your bicycle like that?

 

DVD Times  Anthony Nield (excerpt)

 

Indeed, among the supplementary features are three such examples: Sissy-Boy Slap-Party, Sombra Dolorosa and A Trip to the Orphanage. Admittedly the latter plays like a Saddest Music outtake (though all three work as spin-offs, each being music based and concluding with the intertitle: “the saddest music in the world?” - though Sissy-Boy was made almost a decade ago), but the first two demonstrate how Maddin can be far more fulfilling when he allows himself a narrower focus. Sissy-Boy Slap-Party plays like a goofy homage to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks and Jean Genet (bare-chested sailors courtesy of Querelle; black and white photography courtesy of Un Chant d’amour) as well as some po-faced example of ethnographic documentary. There’s no narrative as such, just the “slap-party” of the title - had it been included in The Saddest Music of the World it would have made a standout moment, as it is it makes for a standout short. And the same is true of Sombra Dolorosa, a demented take on demented Mexican melodramas replete with grieving widow, masked wrestler and garish (yet oddly beautiful) two-strip colour.

User comments  from imdb  Author: Graham Greene from United Kingdom

A hazy, fever dream of riverbank eroticism played out as a mirror ball recollection of turn of the century soft-core surrealism; with the whole thing further abstracted by the continual stylisations of the director, his absurd sense of postcard caricature and bawdy humour, and the exciting presentation of music and movement that recalls the energy and sensuality of the continually fascinating masterpiece, West Side Story (1961). You can attempt to read the film on a deeper level if you must, however, I think the intention of Maddin was simply to play around with the various iconography of early gay cinema as an exercise in ironic style and sly subversion, whilst also experimenting with the representation of movement and rhythm in a purely musical sense (something that he would eventually return to with a film like Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, 2002). The emphasis is clearly on style and technique, as opposed to any kind of conventional narrative or accent on plot; with the director instead experimenting with elements of interpretive dance and his typically antiquated approach to cinema, as a parade of preening boy-toys in sailor suits indulge in fighting and frivolity as an extended metaphor for the nature of man and the continuing cycle of violence.

However, even with such suggestions in mind, the film is presented in such a way as to defy easy interpretation, with the spellbinding quality of Maddin's film-making approach and the sheer hypnotic quality of the rhythms of the music and the rhythms of the film transporting us in a way that the very best pictures often do. Even though many chose to accept this simply as an exercise in stylistic indulgence, you can still attempt to find some kind of sub-textual connection with the ideas, finding elements of metaphor or allegory perhaps in the way that Maddin juxtaposes an antique, anachronistic presentation of clearly defined sense of iconography, with an energy and excitement often lacking from many authentic films of the era that he is here making reference to. More fittingly however, the film can be approached as an infernal parody of the notions of machismo and male bravado, as ego and competition fuel the performance into more and more frenzied realms of dance-like violence that is 'acted' (both by the performers and the characters that they portray), as opposed to 'felt'. You could also see the film as an extended metaphor for sex, with the harsh foreplay giving in to a series of beautiful lines and movements before all participants lie back, exhausted and spent.

This interpretation is further suggested by the opening lines of dialog, in which the elder of the men announces that he's going into town to buy condoms, quickly reminding the boys that there will be "no slapping" - perhaps a pertinent allusion here to "no slapping / no sex". Again, these are just suggested interpretations on my part, with the film really working as a visual experience, no different from music video or performance art. It's all very silly and somewhat tongue-in-cheek as well, with the faux-kitsch implications of the title also going some lengths in suggesting the frivolous and amusing tone that the director seemed to be attempting. At the time of writing, I'm still a novice when it comes to the work of Guy Maddin, though I've seen most of his short films and find them all to be excellent in their own unique and compelling little way. Though it at first might seem like a ridiculous novelty, Sissy Boy Slap Party (1995) is actually a fascinating and highly entertaining six-minute film of captivating design, intelligent style and pure, unadulterated imagination.

Video(s) of the Day: Short Films by Guy Maddin - The Screengrab   on YouTube (4:02)

 

Guy Maddin - Sissy Boy Slap Party Director's Cut  (6:19)

 

ODILON REDON OR THE EYE LIKE A STRANGE BALLOON MOUNTS TOWARDS INFINITY

Canada  Great Britain  (5 mi)  1995

 

The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival  Jason Sanders

Asked by the BBC to create a short film inspired by a favorite artwork, Maddin chose a charcoal sketch by French Symbolist Odilon Redon. Emulating the smudgy, charcoal look of the original, Maddin feverishly retells the story of Abel Gance's La Roue in five minutes (the original was eight hours).

User comments  from imdb Author: Cory Lussier from Canada

After the successful art-house release of Guy Maddin's feature film Careful in 1992, and the made-for-tv half-hour The Hands of Ida, Guy was commissioned by the BBC in 1994 (along with a select few filmmakers around the world) to choose a favourite work of art and make a short film about it.

Guy chose "The Eye Like A Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (After Edgar A Poe, 1882)" by Odilon Redon, the great French symbolist painter. Eye Like A Strange Balloon taken from a period of Redon's life where he used charcoal almost exclusively up until the 1890's (when Redon started using pastels and colours in his work), contributes much of the inspirational source for this brilliant short film.

This film does remind one of a dark charcoal painting come to life. The film was shot in black and white on a 16mm Bolex, edited on a Steenbeck, with minimalist music added by Roger White and an excellent sound design by Clive Perry.

For those interested in short films and surreal art, The Eye Like A Strange Balloon is a great introduction.

DVDBeaver - Full Review by Richard Malloy

Commissioned by the BBC to create a short film inspired by a favorite work of art, Canadian avant-garde filmmaker, Guy Maddin, selected The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity, a charcoal sketch by the leading French Symbolist, Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Redon's piece was part of a series of illustrations he created for Charles Baudelaire’s French translations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe.

As Redon took a certain impressionistic distance from Poe’s text, Maddin does likewise with Redon’s illustration.  Though one shot is a direct cinematic rendering of the title work, Maddin was not really interested in duplicating Redon’s drawings or following the narrative of Poe’s text.  Instead, he sought to broadly emulate the black, smudgy texture of Redon’s charcoal, which he describes as “oily as a train engine,” and took narrative inspiration from the silent film, La Roue (1922), by one of his favorite filmmakers, Abel Gance.  Whereas Gance’s epic originally ran a full 8 hours, the BBC limited Maddin’s submission to “4 minutes, and not one frame more.”  Should you find the narrative a tad murky in sections, understand that a rather significant amount of redaction was inevitable.

The story, though fairly simple and straightforward, may well be lost to the casual viewer beneath the endlessly bizarre imagery and intricately layered soundtrack.  Like Gance’s La Roue, it is a love-triangle between a father, his son, and an orphan girl who joins them on their great railway journey across the surreal landscape of life.  Each character is conveniently identified by name-tag: the father, Keller, the son, Caellum, and the orphan girl, Bernice.  When we first meet K & C, they are happily riding the rails, a proud father and his young, adoring son.  Within the first 60 seconds, we are witness to C’s sexual maturing, dramatized by the flash of a beard sprouting across his face (spreading from one ear to the other in time-lapse fashion) and his emergence from a giant boulder-like snail-shell cladding his lower body.  It cracks open with an ominous explosion, and an adult actor emerges to take over the role of C.  K & C soon come upon the comely Bernice, still clad in her juvenile shell.  B joins them on their journey and quickly becomes K’s favorite.  Soon, B’s shell also breaks away, she emerges into maturity, and the inevitable sexual tension is born.

The rest I leave for you to decipher, though pay particular attention to the jackhammer teeth-chattering, the image of the double-blinded father, the son’s head hanging like plump fruit from a Dali-esque tree, and the eaten beard. This film is a catalog of exquisitely rendered, dark dream imagery.

Maddin’s original cut ran 5-1/2 minutes and he concedes that the 4 minute cut came at the expense of narrative clarity, such that the images appear to be ‘dealt out like a pack of cards’.  As with an earlier experience of being asked to pad out a film to feature length for exhibition (Tales from the Gimli Hospital), the easy-going Maddin complied and, in both instances, placed his stamp of approval upon the final cut (without stating a preference).  Although the film is timed at 5:11 on the packaging, it is, in fact, precisely 4 minutes – plus about 30 seconds for the credits.

Regarding the quality of the transfer, it is difficult to tell whether a particular hazy, murky or otherwise distressed image is Maddin’s doing or otherwise.  From the high quality of the other, more conventionally shot films in this collection and the lack of any pixelation or other obvious digititis, it seems safe to pronounce it a very good, if not excellent transfer.  Worth mentioning, however, is a peculiar, tiny, white silhouette of a camera superimposed like a TV network logo in the upper part of the screen just right of center.  It appears to have been added after-the-fact and remains totally unexplained.  Though present throughout, it quickly recedes from prominence amid the busy mise-en-scene and is not overly distracting.

The film features Maddin’s typical, densely-layered scoundscape, replete with hissing, steam-spewing clamshells, the incessant chu-chu-chu-ing of the train and tacka-tacka-tacka of the rails, the intermittent sounds of teeth being brushed and great waves crashing against rocky shores, and a single line of dialog: “Oh the humanity!”  Judging sound quality is hindered for the same reasons as the video, but by reference to other films on this disc, one may presume that it is an accurate reflection of the original mix.  As with all the commentary tracks accompanying the various short films on this disc, Maddin’s sounds, quite literally, phoned-in.  But he provides an insightful and nuanced commentary in his typically engaging style, detailing just the sort of information a curious viewer would be interested in knowing.  Brief but informative production notes are included, as well as an alternate angle feature displaying Maddin’s rudimentarily drawn storyboards.

A Note to the Perplexed:  One might be inclined to wonder why anyone other than a bona fide Guy Maddin fanatic would be moved to purchase a DVD for a single, four minute film, regardless of how interesting or innovative it may be.  Certainly, one would not likely be so moved even at its relatively inexpensive price of $10-12.  But in addition to Maddin’s film and a veritable trove of wonderful short features (including Bride of Resistor, Depth Solitude, A Guy Walks Into a Bar and the original short version of Big Brass Ring), there is also Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), the 30-minute science fiction classic that inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Marker’s film is one of the true landmarks in the history of cinema and something no sci-fi aficionado or lover of experimental cinema should be without.  So why not review La Jetée, you ask?  Simply because it’s a film that’s received so much critical recognition and appreciation over the years that any review I could muster would be completely superfluous.  Suffice to say that it is fascinating, mesmerizing, thought-provoking and – for one brief moment – utterly transcendent.

Bright Lights After Dark: The Eye Like a Strange Balloon (Guy ...   Noel Vera, which includes the film (4:21 mi)

 

The Evening Class [Michael Guillen]  not much to say about the film, but it’s an interesting perspective nonetheless

 

Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloo  YouTube (4:20)

 

THE HANDS OF IDA

Canada  (30 mi)  1995

User comments  from imdb Author: mr_avid (mr_avid@hotmail.com) from Winnipeg, Canada

The previous posting is actually describing Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee, which started as an installation piece before it was released as a film. Hands of Ida, on the other hand, is a half-hour TV drama which Maddin directed for hire and is probably the worst thing he ever made. In revenge for the rape and murder of a girl named Ida, a group of radical women go about surgically castrating randomly kidnapped men. A bickering pair of former lovers who work for a market research company conduct an implausible opinion survey to find out how people feel about what's going on. The script is ridiculous and the acting amateurish in what is, to date, Maddin's only attempt at a contemporary story set in the supposedly "real" world.

TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS                      B+                   92

Canada  (91 mi)  1997

 

Chicago NewCityNet (Ray Pride) review

 

From Canada's most eccentric anachronist, Guy Maddin, comes his first color film, a tale of romantic passion and ostrich-farming in the fever-dreamland of Mandragora. Upon his release, a political prisoner (R.H. Thomson) returns home via ocean liner to the ostrich ranch of his cranky sister (Shelly Duvall) and her even crankier hired hand (Frank Gorshin). He falls in love with several women, all of whom taunt him (Alice Krige, is, as always, an improper delight). I'm partial to Maddin's earlier black-and white pictures, but the world he conjures here of strange atmospheres and stranger performances is never less than awe-inspiring. 94m

 

The Heart of the World  Guy Maddin from GreenCine

 

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) drifts away from the familiar confines of the archaic film (it's shot in 35mm full colour with a contemporary aspect ratio and nary an intertitle) and into the deep waters of language, and therefore decadence. The dialogues are drawn from the ascetic Knut Hamsun's Pan, then corrupted by dollops of Prosper Merimée. The theatrical decors are inspired by fevered Gustave Moreau. [Screenwriter and longtime collaborator George] Toles gave actors Frank Gorshin and Shelley Duvall plenty to say, and Maddin let them say it all as musically as possible. Very lush and full of ostriches! Has the strongest final reel in the auteur's filmography.

 

Time Out review

 

An acquired taste they may have been, but from the mock early sound-era Nordic saga Tales from the Gimli Hospital to the deconstructed, de-Nazified mountain film Careful, the camp pastiche melodramas of Canadian experimentalist Maddin had a compelling (if confounding) hallucinatory logic of their own: surreally funny, but halo'd by a haze of 'lost age' romantic nostalgia. Forsaking at last the creaky conventions of '20s cinema, Maddin takes his inspiration here from the equally kitsch but more ethereal magical reaches of such '30s movies as the Reinhardt/Dieterle A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sadly, it collapses dizzily amid a baroque shower of bejewelled costumes, Kenneth Anger style colour overload, mock fairytale purple prose, and pixillated anti-naturalistic performances: mournful ugly sister Amelia (Duvall); mesmerist Dr Solti (Thomson), the object of her affection; widowed Zephyr (Krige); a returned convict, and a dog called Aesop among them. Finally pretty tedious.

 

The Globe and Mail review [2.5/4]  Liam Lacey

THE first reaction to a film such as Guy Maddin's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is simply not to get it. It is apparently some sort of fable, set in a musty twilight never-never island of a pale yellow light, moss and drifting ostrich down, where six characters live, in various states of delusion, talking strangely and acting odder.

After a bit, though, you recognize there may be nothing to "get" in any conventional sense: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs creates a textured world that is weird and wonderful (and sometimes monotonous). There's a debt to surrealism, a fascination with the unconscious and dreams, of symbols of power and death and disruptive eroticism. There are elements of mythology, snatches of Grimm's fairy tales and low humour (for instance, a character walking about with a spike through his head).

Like Maddin's previous three features (Tales From the Gimli Hospital, Archangel, Careful), there is an outrageous story of the hero looking for romance, told through a variety of artificial film techniques. If there is a problem with these poetic, hermetic films, it's the viewer's difficulty of attaching emotionally to what goes on in them. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is a an exercise in old movie and narrative forms for a new audience, for reasons that are obscure.

First, the story: A man named Peter, still wearing his handcuff scars from prison, arrives home to the mythical island community of Mandragora, on a ship. After an encounter on board, with a mysterious young woman named Juliana (Pascale Bussières), he arrives home at the family ostrich farm where his sister, Amelia (Shelley Duvall) lives and yearns to marry Dr. Solti (R. H. Thomson), the community's resident cruel mesmerist.

Amelia's hired hand (Frank Gorshin) wants to take over the farm. A mysterious pregnant woman named Zephyr (Alice Krige) wanders about the island, living in a tidal cave and waiting for her absent fisherman husband to return. Peter, the hero, discovers that the doctor, who recently had his leg crushed while trying to put a statue of Venus upright, has Juliana in his thrall. Violence ensues and the order is upset.

Shakespeare's The Tempest is one obvious source of inspiration here, with the island ruled by a magician, Juliana as an Ariel figure, and most clearly, Cain Ball as an anagram form of Caliban, the enslaved monster of Shakespeare's tale. But those Shakespearean elements from Georges Toles's screenplay, for all their foreshadowing of Freudian psychology, are merely the frame upon which to hang the movie's deliberately static, but visually opulent conceits.

No doubt there is a beauty to the appearance of the film, but it is a rather sickly beauty: washed-out pinks, yellow skies, moody green forests. Each interior shot is stuffed with prop images (skulls, statuary, netting), a fungal richness of purples and greens and icy blues.

The sound is even weirder. Actors have dubbed their own dialogue (the exception is actor Nigel Whitmey, as Peter, who has the voice of another actor, Ross McMillan). But the entire cast could have been dubbed in by Mel Blanc, for all the difference it makes. The dialogue seems carefully constructed to resemble literature in clumsy translation, with archaic constructions ("We have much to talk about"), and an avoidance of contractions. There are several accents running around, with Thomson, as the sinister doctor, hitting those hard Scandanavian 'r's like a malfunctioning coffee-grinder.

There is something compelling about these performances, so detached from expected motivation and the usual actors' tricks. Tight-rope walking in space without a net, the cast manages to find some grounding for its elusive characters.

In a movie world where every new release promises to be something you've never seen before, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs succeeds in being genuinely different -- even if you can't quite figure out exactly what it's supposed to be.

Movierapture [Keith Allen]

 

Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [3.5/5]  Ron Wells

 

DVD Talk (Matt Langdon) dvd review [3/5]   also reviewing ARCHANGEL and THE HEART OF THE WORLD

 

PopcornQ review   George Brent Ingram (Border/Lines)

 

DVDBeaver.com [Mark Balson]

 

HOSPITAL FRAGMENT

Canada  (3 mi)  1999

User comments  from imdb Author: Cory Lussier from Canada

With Hospital Fragment, Guy Maddin brought back some of the actors from his longer work Tales From The Gimli Hospital.

This film does seem to have been shot at the same time as Tales From The Gimli Hospital was (a full 11 years earlier), and that's part of the charm. It's like having an extra bonus after watching the longer film. We're treated to a sequel/remake/3 minute condensation? of a longer film with three of the main actors, with the same director, similar ambience, rhythmic editing, surreal storyline, etc.

This film is a bonbon in the oeuvre of Guy Maddin, and makes for a fun epilogue to Tales From The Gimli Hospital. After this film, one of Guy's highest achievements was to come next: The Heart Of The World.

Guy Maddin : Hospital Fragment  on YouTube (3:28)

 

PRELUDES – THE  HEART OF THE WORLD            A                     98                               

Canada – 7 mi short  2000                                           

 

The happiest and most joyous film event of the year, and by no means an accident, like all of Maddin’s films, it was painstakingly put together, frame by frame, and is simply wonderful.  The frenzied music is the engine that drives this piece, described by Maddin himself as “the world’s first subliminal melodrama.”

 

The Heart of the World  Guy Maddin from GreenCine

 

[ed."This wonderful collection also includes"] the five-minute agitprop pastiche The Heart of the World (2000). Some have described this frenzied feature-compressed-into-a-short as a call to arms meant to topple the complaisantly flaccid cinema of today, a plea to reinvent movies from scratch, or a reverent myth which finally places film at the very center of the universe where it belongs. Maybe Guy Maddin, that great lava-sprite, has been expressing all these impassioned sentiments since the very beginning of his career. Who am I to say?

 

the 38th new york film festival: views from the avant-garde

 

"Guy Maddin?s five minute feature is a thimble sized epic of sacrifice, salvation and innuendo turned inside out. Like a Kino Eye version of the Fleischer brothers' Koko?s Earth Control or Metropolis on an (unlaced) shoestring, The Heart of the World comes hurtling off the screen with the crazy determination of a runaway train. Maddin exposes a sibling rivalry of biblical proportions and a romantic triangle - beware when saviors attract! A fair haired fallen Messiah with a heart of gold divides the brothers but unites the world." - Mark McElhatten

"I'm sorry! I've abused this Prelude - turned it into a soapbox for my tireless campaign to redeem melodrama. Without anyone suspecting a thing, I've jammed tiny, microscopically fleeting plot twists between the images of my ostensible movie presentation, deviously submerging in this way an entire feature film, all in a mere five minutes - the world's first subliminal melodrama! Please watch carefully." - Guy Maddin

Mark Peranson from Cinema Scope (link lost):

As befitting their etymology, many of the other-congratulatory 25th anniversary Toronto International Film Festival-commissioned shorts called “Preludes” were ludicrous wastes of time and money. No need to get into those. Perhaps closest to the operatic definition of the word, Don McKellar’s bitter-toned, light-hearted and ultimately “merely” amusing A Word from the Management, based on his experiences as an abused Toronto film festival employee, was a snarky introduction that prepared the audience for the main event. Guy Maddin’s delirious The Heart of the World was the main event. Of the whole damned festival. Why? Because rather than suck up to anyone or reminisce about the past, Maddin took the money and ran with it, creating a short film that can exist on its own, outside of a festival setting, a film that improves with each viewing.

This praise comes from someone who doesn’t consider himself a die-hard fan of Maddin’s always intriguing features. My conjecture is that despite his apparent desire to tell fanciful stories (if not exclusively, of the heart), he’s willingly incapable of the constraint necessary to be a successful storyteller. The Heart of the World is another one of his idiosyncratic reveries, with the director’s customary obsessions and characteristics, including the idealization of women, blatant, playful cinephilia, masochism (both emotional and physical) and a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic plot. But it’s feverishly paced and dramatically encapsulated, at points even subliminal in its imparting of information – and perhaps that’s the key to this grandly concise success.

A five-and-a half-minute short containing approximately 800 edits, The Heart of the World is a frenetic machine-gun montage of low-angled images and ideas. Still, it’s more avant-gardish than avant-garde. Opening with an allusion to Un Chien Andalou in the form of a close-up of an eye followed by a mortician’s incision and ending with the repeated visual exhortation of Kino!, Maddin slices and dices a sexualized melodrama – complete with exploding phallic rockets and vaginal splits in the Earth’s cracking crust – into postapocalyptic shards. The effect is watching a narrative feature that’s been reassembled after being hit by a comet.

Set on the fateful day that a blonde state scientist named Anna (think: Aelita, Queen of Manitoba) uses her acumen and a really big telescope to discover the impending implosion of the earth’s core, the true tension of the film has to do with a simple love-triangle between Anna and two brothers, Nikolai, a youth mortician who tries to impress her with cadaver trickery, and Osip, an actor energetically playing Christ in the Passion Play. The Slavic revolution led by a vodka-swilling peasantry and the pending apocalypse aside, things between the three lovers are complicated when Akmatov the industrialist (played with cigar-chomping gusto by erstwhile Maddin producer Greg Klymkiw, credited by his Ukrainian name) enters and sweeps Anna off her feet.

Upon the first viewing of the onslaught, the perfect match between the rousing Soviet-styled patriotic score and the Russian Constructivist-inspired sets and images may trick a viewer into thinking that Maddin assembled some found footage and put it to a score of his own composition. Of course, the reverse is actually true – The Heart of the World was shot on an ancient hand-cranked Bolex on a massive set in Winnipeg’s Dominion Bridge Works building and the music, Georgi Sviridov’s “Time, Forward” (first composed for a popular 1965 Soviet film directed by Mikhail Shveitser and later featured as the theme music of successful TV program, “Novoe Bremya”) was found in the vaults of Preludes producer Rhombus Media. (A different sensation is created by the found-footage shorts of Jay Rosenblatt, most recently, King of the Jews – where the images of crucifixions culled from early silents slowly assume the status of historical documents.)

The excavation does not end there. The familiarity of the images may be imbedded in our collective film unconscious – while the film begs comparisons to Eisenstein and German Expressionism, the inspiration mostly comes from one of Maddin’s favourite filmmakers, Abel Gance. Maddin took the core of his plot from Gance’s 105-minute 1930 sci-fi melodrama La Fin du monde, a legendary lost, critically reviled, choleric melodrama of apocalypse. In the future, a comet is headed towards earth and the end is imminent; a stunned public meets this predicament – seen explicitly as a judgement from God – with either hedonism or religious stoicism. Itself based on a futuristic 1893 novel by astronomer-visionary Camille Flammarion (available in translation as Omega: The Last Days of the World), Gance’s film was shredded to pieces by unscrupulous American producers. It was only seen in the US in 1934 in a 54-minute version shorn of orgies and most of its main characters called The End of the World, and marketed as a standard astral collision panic flick (kind of a precursor to When Worlds Collide or Deep Impact). It finally ended up on the exploitation circuit bearing the 1954-dated title of Paris After Dark. (Excerpts can be seen in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s excellent 1996 documentary series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood.)

In La Fin du monde, Gance played Jean Novalic, the son of the astronomer who discovers the approaching comet. Jean becomes a would-be messiah, denouncing ribald excesses of humanity and getting himself crucified. How Maddin, his congested career in a semi-constant state of torment with regards to filming and funding, would identify is obvious. (The same goes for any other artist working in film in the year 2000.) This baggage also explains why he would make the kind of film that he did – audacious, challenging and unrelenting – when given free rein and a plentiful bounty, where others might have played it safe. Though The Heart of the World is a sly rebuilding of a film never seen, its mirrored shards a mournful legacy of Gance’s loss, the way Maddin shifts the thrust of the narrative alters history. For example, his replacement of an external cause (meteor crashing) with an internal one (heart failure) is both typical and inspired in its tragic implications. (And I think the glimpses of the resurrected dead allude to Gance’s J’Accuse, but don’t quote me on that.)

But, yet, there’s even more there. If McKellar’s laundry list of complaints revealed the general truth of panicked disorganization lurking behind any operation of the Toronto festival’s magnitude, Maddin kept his whining beneath the surface, and so made a Prelude that is irrefutably about the festival here and now. Beyond any doubt, the title also refers to Toronto, a city that for a week-and-a-half considers itself to be the heart of the film world. (And, to a Winnipeger, surely considers itself the heart of Canada for the other 354 days of the year.) As he has said, Maddin’s first thought upon being “ordered” to praise the festival was to compose a manifesto of agitprop. But what are the masses supposed to be stirred about?

Here’s a hint – The Heart of the World first played in front of a Gala. Maddin’s film bears with it some heavy negative sentiments. It ends with the self-sacrifice of its heroine, who after choking the evil industrialist, descends to the earth’s heart, saving the world and “creating” film. The two shots are linked by the old principles of montage; both are necessary functions to “save the world.” Rather than being the creation of an abstract “film,” I prefer to see it as an exhortation towards a new cinema, if not a new festival – ironically, this would have to be one less “populist” (at this point, clearly associated with imperialism) and more outré.

It is even more timely as certain historically determinant complaints about the way the festival has developed over the past several years arise from certain sectors of the public and an increasing number of journalists unafraid to speak out against the Stalinist party line: too many American films, too much of a reliance on world premieres, too many publicists. Too much big business. But, remember, Maddin’s tongue is ultimately in cheek – no revolution is imminent. The film is a dream. Even though the rights for The Heart of the World are owned by their commissioner, it’s unlikely that the only anti-heart of the film world Prelude will vanish from circulation any time soon. And if anyone ever has the notion to expand this already-expansive film to feature length, they should immediately be purged.

Best Short Narrative Films of All Time   Gerald Peary

 

No fat clips!!!: GUY MADDIN - Heart of the World

 

David Lowery  from Drifting

 

The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin  WallyDanger Channel Video with the correct aspect ratio (6:08)

 

Video(s) of the Day: Short Films by Guy Maddin - The Screengrab   on YouTube (6:18)

 

GUY MADDIN - The Heart of the World  (6:19)

 

Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World with live ...  (6:34)

 

DRACULA:  PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY          A                     95

Canada  France  (73 mi)  2001

 

What an absolute thrill, from start to finish, just experiencing the “artistic conception” of this reverent homage to silent film, featuring Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a stunning performance by Zhang Wei-Qiang as Dracula, and the brilliant production design of Deanne Rohde.  Once again, Guy Maddin has created a unique, conceptualized universe all his own; there’s nothing else in cinema quite like his eerie, dreamlike imagery.  This film is immersed in the thundering power of Mahler’s “Resurrection” 2nd Symphony, a work which itself features an ascension from all things human and earthly, and rises into the glorious heavens, a transcendent experience which, musically, grounds this film.  From this theme, we add vampires, whose lust for blood promises life everlasting.  The performance of Zhang Wei-Qiang dominates throughout, as he is easily the most fascinating stage personality, filled with a mesmerizing ability to seduce and ultimately possess his willing screen sirens, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I always root for him against his puritanesque nemesis, Dr Van Helsing, the leader of the repressed gang of vampire slayers.  Ballet director Mark Godden choreographed the ballet adapted by Maddin for this film, so there is constant motion on screen.  All this is done in image and in dance, with exaggerated gestures and with an extreme grace in movements, magnificently sensuous and macabre, shrouded in fog and black and white shadows, with only the tiniest color tints.  Each frame, by itself, is a still masterpiece; the imagery is that overpowering.  But when put in motion by such gifted hands as Maddin’s, the film experience is indescribable, but unforgettable.

 

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary   Ed Gonzalez from Slant magazine

 

Commissioned by producer Vonnie Von Helmolt to adapt Mark Godden's Royal Winnipeg Ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary for CBC's Opening Night, Guy Madden creates an expressionistic curio every bit as playful as his mini-masterpiece Heart of the World (though certainly nowhere near as consistently engaging). Madden successfully downplays the element of dance in this black-and-white neo-silent film to fabulous effect. Though movement is barely discernible beneath the endless fog and digital effects, it feels that much more special (almost cathartic) when characters do break into synchronized dance. Put simply, it's never boring! (A standout image is that of Lucy's saviors twirling inside Dracula's abode, the light from their lanterns twinkling in the night.) Madden seemingly refuses to broach the allegory of AIDS that's become so inextricably bound to modern vampire tales and adaptations of Dracula and does something entirely more relevant. Zhang Wei-Qiang stars as Dracula, referred explicitly in the opening scenes of the film as an Other that invades from the East (for added effect, his blood literally crawls across a map of the world from Asia to Europe). Madden's many fixations are exaggerated and fetishized to delirious proportions. The virginal women in the film are fiercely independent and hungry for cock; Jonathan Harker (a closet-case perhaps?) rejects his girlfriend Mina's advances, thus ushering in Dracula's amour fou. Madden elaborately likens the spilling of blood to ejaculation throughout the film, but there are more fascinating penetrations going on. Dracula shoves money (tinted green) in the faces of the men who will kill him. And when Dr. Van Helsing cuts Dracula's arm, it's gold coins and not blood that the vampire spills. A master conservationist and expert image-maker, Madden reimagines Bram Stoker's classic text as a feverish vision of Christian angst and cultural invasion.

 

Pages From A Virgin's Diary  Gerald Peary

North America is choked with competent feature directors, who can point a camera, move actors about, get a picture done on budget. But where oh where are the visionaries? Our Kieslowski, or Tarkovsky? Someone whose every buoyant, dizzy frame is a winged migration?

Well, there's Guy Maddin, for one, the wizard-in-residence of Winnepeg, Canada, and each shot in his oeuvre is sculpted, a starry night of wonder. Totally unique, Maddin is a comic visionary, whose work is as loopy as it is luminous. His warped, dream-fever fables-Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Careful, Heart of the World, etc.-are punctured with Grand Guignol jokes and with bemused homages to German Expressionism and cobwebbed 1930s Universal horrors.

Have you tuned into Maddin? On release, his peculiar movies were barely seen in the USA, banished to midnight screenings. But his cult status keeps spreading; fans are getting with it, discovering his masterly oeuvre via video. The Brattle Theatre's June 13-15 whole weekend is given over to Maddin's new, mostly brilliant Dracula.

Pages from a Virgin's Diary. This project began modestly, as a commissioned assignment, to capture on film a dance performance based on the Bram Stoker novel done by the Royal Winnepeg Ballet. But a Dracula story is prime Maddin material. What rises from the grave and to the screen becomes, at least for two thirds of the picture (the last section loses focus and energy), made-in-Maddin heaven.

There's ample ballet, much of it well-turned, as the Royal Winnepeg choreography is complemented by Maddin's swing-through-the air, supple cinematography. I especially like the fearsome dance, when Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) roars out of her grave, an undead refusing the stake to her heart; also Lucy's sensual pas de deux with her attentive vampire-master, Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang); also the amazing moment when Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) unwraps a scarf around Lucy's neck, and she leaps forward, a brazen, bitten victim.

"Vampyr!" Van Helsing declares, via title card.

What does a girl want? According to Maddin, it's to go down for the Count, to have Dracula pin your body and sink his notorious canines into your waiting swan-flesh. Maddin's revisionist Stoker is unabashedly pro-Dracula. The Count's a red-eyed, back-door man in high heat, giving the girls what the other guys won't, or can't. Here, lustful Lucy is pursued by three twit suitors, secondary dancers who flit about her but never, never go for the jugular. And poor, love-starved Mina (Cindymarie Small) is given the shivery shoulder by her fiance, Jonathan Harker (Johnny Wright), who definitely wants to save it for after the marriage: presumably, he's the unnamed virgin of the movie's title.

Maddin's POV starts early, with gothic-lettered tabloid headlines warning of Immigrants! The Other! From Other Lands! From the East! The male dance ensemble are all pale Canadians, except for the princely Chinese portraying Dracula. Is Maddin, a multiculturalist, taking note of an increasing conservativism and isolationism among long-settled Canucks? Zhang Wei-Qiang's Dracula takes on a perverse relevance with the film's release in Spring 2003. He's the Yellow Peril personified, coinciding with the pestilence of SARS brought to the Great White North by Asian carriers.

Less heavy: the filmmaker's stamp is located in the featuring in many humorous scenes of the 100% non-dancing "Renfield! Eater of Bugs!" He's played with gusto and a hairy face by Maddin movies regular, Brent Neale, so great as the incestuous-minded brother in Careful. Renfield! For anyone who has reached puberty on classic horror movies, the name positively sings! He's the wormy, slobbering, bootlicking sychophant who does the bidding of Dracula, whether from his jail cell or sniffing at the vampire's heels. A Guy Maddin kind of kooky guy!

Count of the Dance: Guy Maddin  Mark Peranson feature and Maddin interview from Cinema Scope

 

FANCY, FANCY BEING RICH – made for TV

Canada  (6 mi)  2002

User comments  from imdb Author: Cory Lussier from Canada

Fancy, Fancy Being Rich is a great addition to Maddin's filmography. It's everything you'd expect from Guy Maddin and more.

While you couldn't really call Maddin's previous short films music videos (though Maddin has directed a few of those as well), this short film comes closest, but it's not accurate to call it that either.

I've read one description of the film that comes close to what I think the film is about, that being about a lonely housemaid who can never find lasting love.

I'd say that's true since in the film, all the men she attracts leaves her, going back into the ocean from whence they came.

All along, she's singing the title song "Fancy, Fancy Being Rich". The song itself is from the opera Powder Her Face composed by Thomas Adès, with libretto by Philip Hensher. The play itself was commissioned by the Almeida Opera and first performed in 1995. Why do I bring this up? Well, there's a creative connection.

Does Powder Her Face influence Fancy, Fancy Being Rich? Definitely. Both include women with voracious sexual appetites. The motto of the Duchess in the play: "Go to bed early and often" could very well be the motto of the film. And in the film, when the men keep abandoning the heroine, well, you can imagine the frustration she feels.

And that's the beauty of Maddin's films. Seeing how his influences merge with his own genius visions, and ending up with something unique and nowhere close to what someone else could do.

Excellent! 9/10

COWARDS BEND THE KNEE                B                     84

Canada  (60 mi)  2003
 

Not up to the usual Maddin standards, as this was originally intended for art gallery viewers to be seen only as a peep-show, which, in bits and pieces, works wonderfully, but expanded to a full-length 60 minute feature, 10 titled sections of 6 minutes each, gets a little carried away with itself.  Abortion, infidelity, and revenge meet Guy Maddin the hockey player who goes through a succession of women as easily as crossing the blue line, only they have a few tricks up their sleeves that lead to his ultimate demise as a hockey star.  Despite moving along at breakneck speed, featuring a whirlwind of exasperated love interests, Guy has difficulty cuddling up to women.  I read this as a spoof on the morality of male sports figures who certainly live up to their reputations of love 'em and leave 'em.  Each section features different theme music, usually giant, somewhat bombastic themes, which included Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev, and more.  Not for the timid or the meek.

 

Cowards Bend the Knee  Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

MILD SPOILERS -- Am I growing weary of Guy Maddin's shtick? I don't think so, but there was something incredibly exhausting about Cowards, the fact that, in true melodramatic style, it is crammed with incident and struggles to keep, um, multiple balls in the air. Makes sense, given that it's a cautionary tale about male infidelity, "Guy Maddin"'s inability to keep his errant penis from getting the better of him. (Ever flirted with a hot medical assistant during your girlfriend's abortion? Cowards is a pretty scathing indictment of some uniquely male pathologies.) Interwoven through this narrative are the sort of themes we'd expect from Maddin, but delivered in new ways -- phantom control of one's will, Oedipal strife, hockey as masculine proving ground, and perhaps above all, an inquiry into whether "Canadian masculinity" is hopelessly oxymoronic. (The ease with which "Guy Maddin" slips from hockey star to hairdresser, all in the vain hope of getting laid, seems to foreground this problem, as do the unleashed-id locker room hijinx, "two long, two short.") The conclusion does add a level of poignancy to the mayhem, but I was still left feeling rather browbeaten, held prisoner by the most extreme expression yet of the director's sensibility -- this may not be Maddin's masterpiece, but it's certainly the most intensely "Maddin" thing he's done -- and by the end, I wanted to stumble back into the light, have a Coke, watch some TV, and rejoin the 21st century.

 

 COWARDS BEND THE KNEE   Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion (link lost): 

With three film releases in the past two years, Guy Maddin has taken a step out of the obscurity he endured during the 1990s after his disastrous “Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs.” Earlier this year, he published “From The Atelier Tovar,” a collection of diary entries, news articles and screenplay treatments.

Judging from the films, it’s easy to imagine Maddin as an utter eccentric barricaded in a Winnipeg basement with a collection of rotting 16-mm prints of silent movies. On the written page, however, he presents himself as an ordinary guy who worries about his weight and love life, albeit one with a vast knowledge of cinema and literature. The book’s most remarkable piece of writing is a 46-page treatment, “The Child Without Qualities.”

Casting himself as a passive observer of family melodrama and tragedy, the treatment is the most straightforward piece in the collection and the first piece of film work Maddin set during his own lifetime. “The Child Without Qualities” was never expanded into a full script, but Cowards Bend The Knee” revises the feelings and ideas behind it. Told in ten chapters, with intertitles and sound effects but no dialogue, “Cowards Bend The Knee” opens with a hockey team, the Winnipeg Maroons, winning a game.

One of their players, Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), finds out that his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) is pregnant. They go to the BlackSilhouette, a beauty salon/bordello/abortion clinic. During Veronica’s abortion, Guy becomes enraptured by Meta (Melissa Dionisio) and walks out with her, leaving Veronica to fend for herself. However, Meta has a different agenda. She wants Guy to avenge her father’s murder using his severed blue hands.

“Cowards Bend The Knee” picks up where Maddin’s Soviet silent-movie pastiche short “The Heart Of The World” left off. In addition to directing it, Maddin served as cameraman. As a cinematographer, he’s exactly the opposite of a craftsman like Vittorio Storaro. He likes degrading the image. “Cowards Bend The Knee” is designed to look like it could have been made in the 1920s. More importantly, it resembles a print from that time period.

The soundtrack is full of static, recalling the early 1990s hip-hop trend of sampling scratched records. The black-and-white image is grainy. The lighting fluctuates wildly, often being so bright that it obliterates the actors’ faces. The framing is eccentric and full of disorienting close-ups. Some montage sequences go by so quickly that they’re almost subliminal.

The subplot about severed hands comes from Robert Wiene’s 1924 German horror film “The Hands Of Orlac,” but the setting of “Cowards Bend The Knee” draws from real life. Maddin’s father Chas managed a Winnipeg hockey team in the 1960s. His mother Herdis ran a beauty parlor. He has taken these mundane facts and let his imagination run wild. The excitement running through the film derives as much from rewriting life in the style of Greek tragedy and Hollywood melodrama as Maddin’s usual joy in cinema as a toy set.

“Cowards Bend The Knee” is Maddin’s most sexually explicit film and, appropriately, it first came to life as a peephole installation at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery. With the Maroons stripping down in the locker room, it’s also his most homoerotic. Murder and sex with parental figures are a constant, unsettling preoccupation. Guy becomes terrified by his “out of control” limbs, but they merely give him an excuse to act out his subconscious urges, including murdering Meta’s stepfather in the middle of a hockey game. Both Maddin’s diaries and “The Child Without Qualities” are haunted by the death of Chas, who suffered a stroke at 59. In its own unconventional way, “Cowards Bend The Knee” exorcises some of this grief, but perhaps not in a manner that Maddin’s family would appreciate.

As always with Maddin, it’s difficult to tell where put-ons stop and start. He’s rumored to have invented some of the life story he’s written about and discussed in interviews. Is “Cowards Bend The Knee” a goof, or a serious attempt to penetrate the mystery of family life? I lean towards the latter.

In Maddin’s films, emotions often exist in quotation marks, filtered through irony and a plethora of movie references. “Sissy-Boy Slap-Party” and “Sombra Dolorosa,” the two Maddin shorts filling out Film Forum’s program (which also includes the Quay Brothers’ “The Phantom Museum”), help point up the merits of “Cowards Bend The Knee.” Pastiches of 1960s gay avant-garde cinema and Mexican melodrama, respectively, the two Maddin shorts have little resonance beyond camp value and a flair for mimicry.

Shot in five days, “Cowards Bend The Knee” is not exactly automatic writing—Maddin knows exactly which Greek tragedies he’s pillaging—but it feels like a direct flood from the unconscious. His most dreamlike film, it’s also his most heartfelt.

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD          B                     87

Canada  (99 mi)  2003

 

More comic brilliance from the Winnipeg film master who always seems stuck in a time warp, this time making a totally authentic retro-film, which looks like it was made in the 1930's, combining German expressionism with Hollywood extravaganza, setting this mostly frenetically paced, grainy, black and white film, with brief bits of two-strip Technicolor, in Winnipeg during the Depression, where his home town was named the world’s most sorrowful town, prompting no-legged, beer hall queen Isabella Rossellini to establish a contest to determine the world’s saddest song, where the winner gets $25,000.  Along the way we learn how she lost her legs to a drunken doctor who mistakenly cut off her “good” leg after a car accident that was caused by her giving a blow job to one of the doctor’s sons.  The father and his two sons are entrants to the contest, representing Canada, USA, and Serbia.  One son, Mark McKinney, represents the brazen and brassy USA, perceived as an overzealous Yankee Doodle Dandy with an overstylization of Jimmy Cagney’s role in FOOTLIGHT PARADE, one of the 1930’s best musicals, where each successive number has to constantly outdo the last number, with unforgettable set pieces by Busby Berkely.  He brings with him his femme fatale, an amnesiac nymphomaniac brilliantly played by Maria de Medeiros, who, it turns out, used to be married to the other brother, who plays his part as the world’s most sensitive man, playing the saddest cello music on the planet, which turns out to be the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein ballad, “The Song Is You.”  Also featured are musical acts from Syria, Mexico, Morocco, India, Scotland, Siam, and, or course, singing hockey players.  The film plays out like a 1930’s musical, as the songs feature a series of musicians representing their respective countries, judged by Isabella giving a thumbs up or down sign.  Of course she is bribed and bedded, but to no avail, as the circumstances grow out of control and all hell breaks loose.  The story loses steam at the end and doesn’t hold up as well as some of his best work, this film reunites Maddin with his favorite scriptwriter, George Toles, adapted from an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, which turns out to be, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, an allegory about Canada’s colonial relationship with the U.S.  Certainly all the countries are glorified, as if competing in an Olympic event, but most of the satire is reserved for Canada and the United States.   

 

Guy Maddin came to Facets last night.  He was an absolute delight, with a terrific Q & A interview led by programmer Charles Coleman, by the way.  The place was packed, turning dozens of people away at the door for a showing of his recent film, SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.  He has the most insatiable appetite for the weird and the bizarre, and seems to find a natural place for it in his life, indicating his mother used to work in a hair salon, where they swept the hair into containers, and that he used to smell the hair, putting them into clumps where he could play with it as a toy, as another kid might play with a wooden airplane.  This was the warmest, safest place in his childhood.  What a guy...

 

  THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD   Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion

 

Guy Maddin is a regional filmmaker. That region happens to exist in his head. An excellent mimic, he’s able to pastiche the look of ‘20s and ‘30s cinema - especially as seen on TV or in ragged prints - while turning its influence to his own eccentric purposes. In some ways, he’s not that different from Quentin Tarantino - whose films derive far more from his video collection than the real world - but he’s far stranger. Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN, which aped ‘50s melodrama, is another cousin, but Maddin’s work is more evasive. It never comes across as either entirely campy or serious. For all the laughter at the screening where  I saw  THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD,  the audience rarely laughed together.

In 1933 Winnipeg, amputee beer baron Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) holds a contest to determine what country’s musicians make the saddest music in the world. The $25,000 prize, offered at the peak of the Great Depression, draws groups from all over the world. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) and his amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) enter as the American contestants, although Chester is originally from Winnipeg. His father (David Fox) represents Canada in the contest, while his brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), disguised behind a veil and false mustache, pretends to be a Serbian cellist.

Maddin’s best film, the 2000 short THE HEART OF THE WORLD, distilled silent Soviet cinema  into one exhilarating five-minute burst. Of his first three features, one was set in an unidentified Alpine country and another in Russia.  His imagination usually hues closer to Europe than Canada and the past rather than the present. In fact, Maddin and co-writer George Toles adapted THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD from a screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, set in ‘90s London.

Even so, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD grapples with what it means to be a Canadian. Not surprisingly, that entails some engagement with the U.S.  Maddin’s critique of  America  is sharper and subtler than Lars von Trier’s sledgehammer allegories. His American Dream seductively encourages immigrants to assimilate by aping their new culture’s most meretricious and vulgar aspects. As a wannabe American, Chester’s showbiz pizzazz  attempts to hit new heights of excess, especially when he tries to win the contest by co-opting foreign musicians to work with him. In pretending to be European, his brother also seems ashamed of his Canadian roots. Their father, Fyodor (David Fox), is a parody of patriarchal pride, performing his patriotic song on a piano turned upside down.  Chester and Fyodor both hold responsibility for the loss of Port-Huntly’s legs: the former for crushing one in a car accident, the latter for drunkenly amputating the wrong one. None of these models of national identity works very well.

The performances in THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD  rank among its highlights. Members of an African troupe mutilate themselves while dancing to drums, producing “tears of blood.” An all-female Scottish group blares away on bagpipes. Compared to the Kent family’s wreckage, Port-Huntly’s contest seems rather benign. If it reduces countries to stereotypes, this is no less true for Canada than Mexico or Scotland. In fact, the competition brings a film festival to mind.

Where Tarantino brings together film noir, the French New Wave, blaxploitation and Asian action cinema without making any larger cultural critique, Maddin’s style flaunts its hybrid nature. On this level, there’s a more hopeful alternative to his characters’ identity crises. In a culture obsessed with youth and flash, he’s committed to bridging the cinema of the past, present and future. By commercial logic, there’s no  reason why a present-day Canadian filmmaker would be so heavily influenced by the ‘20s work of German directors Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, but Maddin  takes them as  his birthright. Importantly, he uses their influence irreverently, incorporating the technical limitations of Super-8 and video (especially the extreme grain created by a blowup to 35 mm) as a badge of pride. Grit is so central to the film’s look that one can imagine Maddin adding scratches to the stock.

As in many Maddin films, his energy went into creating a concept - and an enticing world around it - rather than a real narrative payoff. Unfortunately, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD  doesn’t sustain its initial brio. The jokes don’t add up to much more than clever bon mots. Although Maddin obviously loves melodrama, he has a better flair for comedy and music. When his performers sing and dance, the film takes flight; the more it turns to resolving the outlandish plot complications, the more it stays grounded. Even so, its high points are invigoratingly imaginative. Maddin’s not yet a great filmmaker and may never become one, but he’s a genuine visionary.

Jason McBride feature and interview from Cinema Scope, September 13, 2003 (link lost):

The Music Men: Guy Maddin and George Toles on The Saddest Music in the World

 

----Another goddamned piece on Guy Maddin

 

Six years have past since Guy Maddin’s last feature film, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), though that’s not counting his two most recent out-of-the-park home run successes: his made-for-TV dance film, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002) and the autobiographical peephole installation Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), both of which have been covered extensively in these pages. The Saddest Music in the World, however, is the first film in that period that Maddin has made for conventional festival-circuit and theatrical release, and it also marks a long-overdue reunion with his frequent screenwriter, University of Manitoba film professor, George Toles. Their prior collaborations included the scripts for Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), and Ice Nymphs, before murky personal and professional differences led to a prolonged estrangement.

 

Set in the dark days of the Depression in Winnipeg, Saddest Music is a musical melodrama about a competition to create, quite literally, the most mournful melody ever heard. The contest draws musicians from around the globe, and the snowbound Prairies are soon besieged by grief-stricken mariachi bands, bathetic bagpipers, and woeful West African drummers, all vying for the $25,000 first prize. Orchestrating all this is one Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), the hard-hearted – and completely legless – proprietress of Muskeg Beer, a brewery-cum-saloon that is the focal point of both the city and Maddin’s film. It’s her idea to sponsor the contest, believing it will help sell suds to the American market, soon to open up with the end of Prohibition.

 

Port-Huntley’s nemesis – and former lover – is Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a failed Broadway producer who has returned to his hometown, and is determined to win the contest at any cost, including buying out his rivals. Standing in his way, however, are impediments galore: his alcoholic, guilt-ridden WWI-vet father Fyodor (David Fox), who himself is desperately in love with Port-Huntley; Chester’s older brother Roderick (Ross McMillan, the voice of the lead in Ice Nymphs), a doleful cellist recently returned from post-war Serbia who has taken on the name of the infamous assassin Gavrilo; and Chester’s current amour (and, coincidence would have it, Roderick’s ex-wife), an amnesiac nymphomaniac named Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). Love triangles become quadrangles, confidences are betrayed and regained, accents and acting styles clash wonderfully, and as the film takes a Metropolis-like turn, Port-Huntly receives from the abject Fyodor a pair of indestructible glass legs … filled with beer.

 

While the film bears many of the Maddin hallmarks – the allegiance to antiquated filmmaking techniques, an unremitting affection for the absurd rigours of romance, missing limbs and missing memories as metaphor – there is much that is new in Saddest Music. This is the first time that Maddin and Toles have made a film based on material not their own (discounting of course the abundant myths, fairy tales, and other myriad films that informed previous creations). Saddest Music began life on the pen of British Booker prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, though Maddin and Toles wasted no time in transposing its setting and time period from 80s London to 30s Winnipeg. This is also the first feature that Maddin has set in his much-mythologized hometown and the first one to feature – apologies to Frank Gorshin, Pascale Bussières, and Shelley Duvall – a bona fide movie star. Rossellini, with her unusual accent, legendary parentage (at times she’s even dolled up to resemble her mother, Ingrid Bergman), and distinctive beauty, fits perfectly into the Maddin universe.

 

Saddest Music proceeds almost breathlessly, quickly sketching in its complicated and hilarious back-stories before the contest takes centre stage. The narrative then builds to an unadulterated emotional crescendo – I squirted real tears – that’s unlike any of Maddin’s previous films save perhaps for his success d’estime, the six-minute The Heart of the World (2000), a film whose frenzied decoupage and explosive ending signalled a filmmaker reborn. Saddest Music (as does Cowards Bend the Knee) employs a similar, though more restrained, editing style and a variety of film stocks – not including 35mm. A visit to the set last March revealed that, not only were Maddin’s cinematographers Luc Montpellier and Ruben Guzman shooting on Super 8, 16mm, and Super 16 (in black-and-white and two-strip “Melancolour”), but that almost everyone on the set – from the first assistant director to the actors themselves – were wielding small cameras. Needless to say, the set, though housed in an enormous and positively Siberian former steel works, was entirely relaxed and collaborative. Maddin, while he knows exactly what he wants, is no martinet, and Rossellini even voiced comical exasperation with the director’s excessive politesse.

 

While the film was being shot, the war in Iraq was just beginning, lending Saddest Music a layer of political relevance; even if they did not intend it as such, the film might go down on record as the most trenchant commentary on American cultural imperialism from the Canadian standpoint (because, not in spite of, the fact that the Yankee Doodle Dandy Chester actually is Winnipeg-born). As Toles and Maddin reveal, larger political issues were at work in Ishiguro’s original story. However, the politics that Toles and Maddin indulge in creatively are of the decidedly more personal sort, and in Saddest Music, questions of how and why and when life and love are consumed by art take centre stage. A refrain of Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” is threaded throughout the film, implying, among other things, that selfsame consumption. Likewise, a big influence on Maddin this time around was Lon Chaney, an actor who literally sacrificed his body for the movies. Indeed, Saddest Music, like all of Maddin’s ouevre, feels at times like a cadavre exquis, in this case composed of the Chaney vehicles The Unknown (1927) and The Penalty (1920), Compton Bennett’s The Seventh Veil (1946), Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), and most obviously, Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade (1933), featuring Jimmy Cagney as one Chester Kent, a Broadway producer bedeviled by talking pictures.

 

Finally, perhaps what feels most unique about Saddest Music is the sense of confidence, both in the work and in Maddin himself. The film, which premiered internationally in the New Horizons section in the Venice film festival (a first for the director) is the latest triumph in a year of – excuse the by-now hoary phrase – Maddin mania: retros in Rotterdam, Vienna, Toronto, and Washington, D.C., the crossover success of Cowards, Dracula’s surprisingly strong theatrical run, and the publication of a book of Maddin’s journalism and journals entitled From the Atelier Tovar. It remains to be seen whether Saddest Music will be the commercial hit that many have expected of Maddin, but it is certainly no “lateral move,” to use Telefilm Canada’s fulsome excuse for not funding the still-unmade musical The Dykemaster’s Daughter. Rather, Saddest Music is a move towards clarity and refinement, a distillation of all the themes present in the Maddin oeuvre. More arpeggio than dirge, it’ll be, at the very least, music to the ears of the quixotic auteur’s devoted fans.

 

****

 

Cinema Scope: Could you describe the nature of your collaboration? And how, on this particular film, that differed, as you were working from a story that wasn’t originally yours?

 

Guy Maddin: The process by which this film got written was different than most because of its tripartite nature: Ishiguro on one side of the Atlantic, the Toles and Maddin camp on the other. And Niv Fichman sort of brokering the whole thing with some Cyrano-ish mischief in the middle. But I want to set something straight in a way that still gives me a lot of credit about the script. George and I – to jump into the middle for a second – worked together quite closely on the treatment. We would discuss ideas that we both liked; it was George that actually convinced me to tackle the project. After we discussed a number of things, I went back to my word processor, typed up the treatment, and did all the negotiations with Niv. I really like indulging myself when I’m writing treatments. That’s when I allow my sentences to be virtually unreadable to someone who’s only used to a diet of screenplays. I just like to empurple the prose as much as possible to get myself into little trances that I hope will translate into visuals. Then there was a long process of rewriting the treatment until…

 

George Toles: You got something that no one liked.

 

Maddin: Yeah, basically. No, until we got permission from Ishiguro to proceed with his story to the next step: the screenplay. And that’s when it’s George’s turn to go off and write. I think the treatment is more or less a 50-50 collaboration. I’ve never really broken down the score. But George really wrote the screenplay, and what I basically did was go to his office at the university every few days, and listen to the last few scenes that he’d written. Sometimes he would write enormous amounts in one stretch, and then it was my job to run those handwritten pages over to my typist.

 

Toles: Oh, you’re being much too modest.

 

Maddin: I share a screenwriting credit with George, but I wish I could have used a really tiny font for my name. I’m very proud of the script and of my role in the treatment, but sheepish about my name sharing equal billing with George’s.

 

Toles: After the first draft, however, I was stymied about how to proceed to the next. Guy had the crucial, sensible, almost effortless (though it didn’t seem to me at the time) idea of combining Fyodor and another character – who served many functions but none of them important – into one character. I don’t want to get too specific about plot matters, because that doesn’t really matter to viewers – or even non-viewers. But, to make sure that one of them worked, I had written about four endings, with each one trying to top the next. I was committed very early on to an idea of revealing – surprise! – that the saddest music in the world is really “Happy Birthday.” I had written in the treatment this wonderful fantasy montage that convinced everyone in the world that we were right: “Happy Birthday” was the saddest. But there was simply no way finally to incorporate it; it was painless to see it go. Though it may strike anyone who watches our movies as a strange mantra, believe it or not, the phrase “keep it simple” does issue from both of our lips at various times. But anyway, from my end, what I’d like to say about the collaboration is that screenwriters are the world’s greatest whiners. And as a whole, they’re a pretty unhappy breed. I’ve been astonishingly fortunate to have someone to work with whose taste I absolutely trust. And that’s not something I say lightly or often. In other areas of my writing life, I’m fiercely protective and defensive and independent. I’ve never, ever felt that when Guy didn’t take a suggestion or go down for the count over something, that this would make the project a lesser thing. And I would be surprised if there were many screenwriters who have been so blessed.

 

Maddin: It’s probably true that screenwriters are miserable, but I should warn everybody now that, on whatever little junket I go on for this motion picture, I’m going to try to champion the undervalued state of the screenwriter. And also another craftsman who isn’t valued highly enough in the film world: the editor. So much is done that no one seems to care about by these two people. Really, when you’re collaborating with an editor, he’s saving your ass so many times. If possible, he’s restoring what the screenwriter intended. Usually he’s trying to make the best out of something the director botched in translating the story from the page. Not just George and David Wharnsby, who worked on this project, but attention should be called to all screenwriters and editors, and I’m going to try to do that as much as possible in the next little while. If I just get a few people to think about that for a few minutes, that’d be great.

 

Scope: How much of the original Ishiguro story was preserved?

 

Toles: The title, which I’ve always loved. I’ve never for one minute doubted that that was the title, and I’m proud to have it connected to me. The premise of the contest. His story was contemporary, and it had both irony but not too much … well, let’s say, in my reading of it, not too many obvious attempts at humour. And it was a liquor organization sponsoring the contest.

 

Maddin: And the media were involved, too. Was it CNN? We have a radio station.

 

Toles: It’s fair to say, in terms of story, characters, and tone, we started over virtually from scratch.

 

Maddin: It was something that Niv, with whom I had just worked on the short film, The Heart of the World, had given me. I read the script, but because it was set in the present, I couldn’t even imagine how I’d begin to handle it. I was so scared of the present. Still am, in many ways. Why shouldn’t you be? The present is more frightening than the future or the past. You’ve survived the past already.

 

Toles: The past can’t hurt us.

 

Maddin: Yeah, and the future can’t until it becomes the present. So I was having trouble getting into it, but I sent it off to George who instantly started talking about entry-points. So I started getting enthusiastic, and we started tripping over each other’s sentences and coming up with ideas. And started thinking about movies that we’d seen together that really mattered to us as reference points. We’d sometimes pull a movie half-off the video shelf and use it as something to hang story ideas onto. Just because we know it worked so well for Billy Wilder or Jimmy Cagney. We’ll sometimes use little precedents to more or less make a soup stock for the story.

 

Scope: What movies in this case?

 

Maddin: Well, there are many, but I don’t know whether I should reveal our secret recipes.

 

Toles: Shall we say, at least, that Chester Kent had another incarnation in Footlight Parade (1933)?

 

Maddin: Sure, he’s the Cagney character. After we finished Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), George and I vowed that we were going to deliver in our next feature a protagonist who was really aggressive and active and made things happen. The traditional Canadian protagonist is so often a passive person who lets things happen to him. And we decided we’d had enough of that. We wanted to improve the briskness quotient of our films so we decided to have take-charge guys, Yankee Doodle Dandies. We started thinking of men’s men, not just alpha males but people that are leaders and strong and don’t look back, that don’t doubt for a second that what they’re doing is correct. There are some people that we just kept channeling when thinking of Chester Kent: Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, those kinds of people. It would be nice to be able to get guys like this, but then having created this character on the page, you run into a few dangers. First of all, it’s very difficult to find those actors now. They’re dead or a little too hobbled by strokes to be of much use. But the real danger is once you do find your actor – Mark McKinney – you have to urge him to avoid doing impersonations of those people. He has to find a version of that character that makes sense to him as an actor and that he can comfortably inhabit. That was the most interesting part, just finding out how Chester would turn out.

 

Toles: The notion of the musical as a source has been percolating since The Dykemaster’s Daughter, the movie we were supposed to make after Careful. And which will always be the best movie we ever made because it didn’t get made. It’s a fantasy of perfection, like the missing 45 minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Nothing is marred by the actual circumstances of making it. But anyway, I think something of the Lubitschian musical flavour of The Dykemaster’s Daughter kept forcing its way back. If there’s ever been a subject dear to both Guy’s and my heart it’s the nature of the viewer’s emotional contract with a movie. To put that whole thing squarely in the foreground, to put it in our laps, I was ecstatic about it. I should also mention, for anecdotal purposes, that Guy and I had had a long and enigmatic falling-out for a two-year period. We had exactly one meeting prior to the arrival of the Saddest Music script; we had done the voiceover commentary for the Careful DVD, where we walked deliciously on eggshells. We really hadn’t had the rhythm of a conversation for a very long time. The Saddest Music meeting was literally the second talk that I can recall, and, believe me, I was determined to find something in that script to at least open a channel for possible collaboration. The basic elements though seemed made to order for something that we had long wanted to do. I was furious in 1996 when Fargo came out that I – not to mention everyone else in Canada – had missed snow and the cold as a topic. I mean, Christ, can’t we even do snow properly? Do we need an American film to show us that? It seemed to me in Saddest Music, once the decision had been made to go with Winnipeg and the Depression, then obviously it would be winter and it would give Guy license to mythologize, in an unusual way, hopefully, Winnipeg’s Siberian soul.

 

Maddin: That’s what excited me: when we decided it just had to be shifted to Winnipeg. It’s funny, when I started making movies I willfully decided not to set them in Canada at all. I hated Canadian film, just on principle; I hadn’t seen many. So I made my very first movie, The Dead Father (1986), in a place that was nowhere in particular. But I fell off of that pledge instantly with my second movie, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), setting it, even with the title, in a geographically specific place in Manitoba. And after that I just became more monomaniacal and always wanted to reference Winnipeg. Noam Gonick has really seized that mission and sort of wields his hammer beneath that banner, always working out myths of Winnipeg. So we’ve got a friendly competition there to just give people a sense of the city without having to visit it. Just the way people know what San Francisco is like without ever setting foot in it. I want it to feel like a place that you can go to in your mind. So that instantly sparked my interest in the project: the fact that it was set in Winnipeg, which is the geographical centre of the North American continent, during the Dust Bowl. In the depths of winter it represents the bottom of the temperature bowl; in those concentric lines, those isotherms, it’s always at the dead centre of those dipping temperatures. And, therefore, it’s the best setting for a contest for the saddest music in the world. Arguably the saddest city in the world. At the saddest point in its history.

 

Toles: In fact, it is our hope that, “Winnipeg: One Great City” – which is the sign greeting people as they enter town – will soon be changed into “Winnipeg: The Saddest City in the World.”

 

Scope: Guy, in a recent interview, you mentioned that you stripped out the political allegory that was in the Ishiguro story. I think, though, there’s a large political dimension to the film. This is partly because of the coincidence of the film being shot during the war in Iraq, but there’s also, I think, a certain gentle anti-Americanism.

 

Toles: Gentle?

 

Maddin: Well, Chester represents America in the contest, but he’s a Canadian. I guess whenever you assign characters nationalities it’s very tempting to project allegorical solutions to a story’s mysteries. I’m not usually a politically concerned person, but you can’t help but notice certain patterns. In order to sell our treatment to Ishiguro, it was our treatment’s thesis that different countries grieve differently. We always felt that Americans repress sadness. We just summoned as evidence the number of Tin-Pan Alley songs written during the Great Depression that tried to cheer people up: “We’re in the Money” or “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The list goes on and on. Not very many songs – maybe “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” is the exception – really embrace the miseries of the Depression. European musicians seem to embrace the miseries that happen to them, but maybe that’s because more miserable things happen – on a large scale – on the continent. Namely the two World Wars in the last century. But it does seem to me to be a national trait in America to write a John Philip Sousa march, to bury in an avalanche of stars and stripes and high-stepping happiness whatever might be making you miserable. All the miserable things still happen, they’re just treated differently in song and film, and still are to this day. So we thought, why not just highlight this difference, and then sort of decide whether that sort of repression is healthy or not? Maybe it is. George and I are two huge repressives, so a strong case can be made for repression, I think. Though there are prices to be paid for repressing too. Anyway, we told Niv and Ishiguro that we wanted to explore these different approaches to dealing with grief, and we felt it was important to make one character represent America and another one represent the old world. And then, for just the sheer fun of seeing all the costumes, have people coming from all the other countries as well.

 

Ishiguro’s original political concerns were almost entirely about the Third World, comparing them almost to street beggars the way they desperately need charity from the “have” nations. And the way they’ll take their already desperate situation and make it seem even worse. And in his script, they did it through song; they were competing in a musical limbo dance to see who could get down lower and seem more pathetic and win the First World’s sympathy for a season. Much the way the Ethiopian drought was such a “sexy” charity in the early 80s, and even though the drought never went away, the sexiness did when people got bored. It’s a highly competitive and volatile scene that reminds me of haute-couture fashion. Those were Ishiguro’s chief concerns, and we promised him that we would try to keep that in. I know, in the discussions I had with him over the one-and-a-half years of scriptwriting on this, it kept slipping away from us and we had to keep putting it back in. It’s still in the film, but maybe because it’s not so close to my heart it’s just not front and centre. Political satire has never been my favourite genre. As my old friend John Harvie says, satire opens on a Monday and closes on a Tuesday. George and I are always more concerned with timeless melodramatic structures that haven’t changed since pre-Euripidean times.

 

Toles: But politics is always implicitly there, to some extent. “Implicit” is a nice synonym for repressive, perhaps, in terms of structure. I think both of us detest the too-knowing attitude, the atmosphere of complacency which political art, when it’s terrible, can very easily generate. I always think of the $100 tickets for Les Miserables where everybody fantasizes that they’re on the barricades, watching brightly garbed workers storming for better working conditions, then going out into the lobby and thinking how stirring it all is. There’s so much potential for sanctimoniousness and pomposity when you use art as a sort of bully pulpit where you tell people something they already know – or you think they should know – in easily transcribable terms. And I just feel that’s counter to the way that art makes knowledge or thinking or feeling happen interestingly. It’s not that we can or should leave politics out, but the moment it begins to be placard politics, it’s dopey or insulting. There is something about that notion of competitive sadness, people trading away their tragic histories for image, and falsifying genuine tragedy. I think it’s still there very much, if not in specific scenes then in the underpinning of scenes. Also, I’m a powerful Bush hater. Without changing what I think of as my moderate political disposition at all, during the time I spend in the US, I’m moved, without taking a step, further and further to the left.

 

Maddin: The whole country is shifting beneath you.

 

Toles: Yes, further and further to the right. I haven’t been in such an angered state about my country of origin, America, since Nixon. Bush just enrages me. And I’m happy to say that my 85-year-old mother is even more enraged. We spend a good hour-and-a-half a day trying to top one another’s level of despair and distemper on this topic. Maybe some of that corkscrewed its way in. Though I should also say that I don’t think you can write a character interestingly from a cold, judging place. Chester is the American fellow, and I’m Chesterized through and through in so many ways, down to his insanely cheerful way of dealing with things he should be more properly mindful of.

 

Scope: You’ve been criticized for a lack of linearity. But in this film, there’s a real build to the film, emotionally and narratively. Was that an intentional direction?

 

Toles: Critics should always be listened to with at least half an ear. Often, you can’t do more than you do at a given time. You always have ample reasons or defenses for the things that you make. In fiction, Guy and I are enchanted by digression. You always play the demands of structure, which has a clear though-line, against the desire to do curlie-cues and zigzags. We were lucky again with this film. It was not something that was automatically apparent, but with a small amount of reflection we realized that the music contest would give us all kinds of room for digression as long as we tied the characters tightly to the contest in ways the audience understood. And the digression wouldn’t feel as digressive as maybe it has in other films. So we could have our cake and eat it, too.

 

Maddin: I’ve always been called not only non-linear but a non-narrative filmmaker. I was willing to take that assessment because if that’s the way someone felt, fine, I can’t doing anything about it. But what I was always trying to do was tell a story, just in a kind of fresh way. If most of the viewers, or even all of the viewers, couldn’t see a narrative there, then, well, that was my own storytelling ineptitude or something. But I’ve also been told I make silent films or black-and-white movies, even though the movies have plenty of conversation in them and plenty of colour in some cases. I know even after making Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, both of which are full talkies with full colour, some reviewers still called them black-and-white silent movies. I’m still waiting for this movie to be called a silent film. I don’t know what I have to do, make a movie in 3-D or something. I think clearly this is a narrative, and never more so before have George and I had to be answerable for the narrative. And we felt pretty protective of our narratives, because there was never a friendly atmosphere before. We would never show our scripts to anyone else, nor would I show cuts of my movies to anyone else, because I didn’t really feel it would be likely that anyone would be sympathetic to them. Whenever I showed something to a fellow Winnipegger in my early filmmaking days, I was always told I was doing things wrong. I had to fight for the sound mixes I got.

 

Toles: “Someday, you’ll make a real movie.”

 

Maddin: Yeah, it made me feel bad. So I made these movies in a vacuum. I realized years later how valuable it might have been to have a test screening for Archangel just to have someone ask some pointed questions about the narrative’s clarity. I never intended to make it quite as foggy as I did. So, the intention was always there to make stories. But in this one, George and I had to, as part of the process of securing permission from Ishiguro to proceed ahead, we had to go through the treatment, the negotiations, the back-and-forth. And this all went through Niv, and sometimes he had some good ideas; for example, making Narcissa’s Roderick’s former wife. Or maybe that was Ishiguro’s idea, and Niv just told me it was his idea for fear of my getting mad at the absent Ish. This went on and on. Once permission was granted, Ish was a very interesting reader of the script. He kept coming up with storytelling concerns just to make sure that the characters’ motivations were clear to the viewers. And he came up with some very valuable suggestions that we were able to incorporate at the last minute. And he is a good storyteller. Clarity is something that when you want it, you have to really work for it. It was easy starting out, and it was by design that our movies were semi-surrealistic because it gave us such a safety net when we fell off clearer storytelling pathways. We could just fall off into the big surrealistic net down below. In this one, we were treading really carefully. There’s still little intoxicating “what the…?” moments here and there, and big frosty gusts of obfuscating wind and snow. But I really hope that the momentum of all the characters makes sense. Maybe people won’t be able to answer all the questions of motivation, maybe some of that got lost in my execution, but the general trajectories seem to make some narrative sense. Almost at a lyrical level, anyway. The fact that it’s a musical gives you permission to skip over some of the really fussy back-stories of all of these characters and just let them make musical sense. They all end up crashing or landing or arpeggiating in a pleasing way, and the whole symphony ends up coming together in a nice coda at the last moment.

 

Toles: I always loved Shoot the Piano Player (1960). It seems to me the most magical of all of Truffaut’s films. It strikes me every time I view it or teach it. It seems both freeform and inevitable in a way that no amount of acquaintance can account for. The blend just feels right, improbable but right. This time the many helpful chefs in the early stages seemed to make things happen in a way that was magical in a potentially Shoot the Piano Player way. Sometimes you can’t exactly say why moving from point A to point B at this moment is so easy, it’s sort of a skewed logic, but somehow the structure makes it happen easily. Whereas with other structures, a lot of huffing and puffing is still going on. So, in my mind, in a lot of ways it’s not like Shoot the Piano Player at all, but the guiding spirit of that is visible to me.

 

Maddin: It would be great to chance on a premise that always allowed you to feel that confidence to move from A to B intuitively, making huge leaps and knowing that they’re just the right size. It’s just not always going to happen. It didn’t always happen with Truffaut. I always liked the illusion that Vigo managed to created in L’Atalante (1926): that everyone was ad-libbing. The cameraman, the composer, the actors, the director, and all while Vigo himself was dying. And the whole thing comes across as loose and pre-decayed, with that Fleischer Brothers bounce to it. That to me, has always been the movie I think of when I’m making a movie. It just seems to me to be so full of whims and caprices, and yet ends up exactly where it wants to end up by the time the romp is all through.

 

Scope: If the film is, on one level, about the exploitation of one’s misery for financial or artistic gain, what private miseries are you two exploiting in this film?

 

Toles: That’s an interesting question. Guy?

 

Maddin: I don’t know. I’ve been a privileged position of leaking not just disguised autobiography but sheer blatant autobiographical elements out there and seeing what people make of them. It’s a really self-indulgent thing, and I’m usually just doing it to masochistically mock my own feelings. I think I just repress knowledge of all the horribly irresponsible things I’ve done towards other people. It’s something that’s fun to confess to at times. And if you can at least confess it through a character and give him some sort of punishment if he’s guilty of the same thing, it’s an ersatz working-through of your problems. Because you still get to keep everything filed away secretly, but punish a stand-in for yourself. I did much the same thing in Cowards Bend the Knee, in which I even named a character Guy Maddin and got to beat him up badly. It felt quite good making that project, and for a while I wasn’t even that big a coward after making it. But I’ve found my old railway tracks again, and I’m just going about my day in the same sort of sheepish way that I usually do.

 

I’m not too sure what specifically I’m repressing, but I use amnesia a lot. I actually have a great memory; I can memorize statistics and I’ll never forget an insult. But I conveniently use amnesia all the time to keep myself in the same fuzzy, pleasant condition much in the same way the guy who wakes up every morning and lights up a big spliff. I guess I go through this ritual where every morning I wake up completely battered by dreams that have been confronting me with relatives I didn’t love properly while they were alive, with courses at university not completed. My dream director just loves to bash me about the head with a pillow with a brick in it all night long. And then the first thing I do is just light up the big amnesia hookah and chase it with a cup of coffee. Within a few minutes I’m happy. I think I use baseball box scores on the Internet the first thing in the morning quite a bit to sort of forget. And the next thing I know I’m a pretty nice guy, as far as I’m concerned, and I can go about my day. I do recognize though that some of those dreams do stay with you, as flashbacks, or if you write them down in your diary you remember them more specifically.

 

When it comes time to constructing a fiction with George, I strongly feel that the characters have to be true. No matter how far-fetched the movie or how stylized the acting, the things they’re doing have to be psychologically plausible. And I only have myself as a litmus test for these characters, so I screw up the courage, cast aside all amnesias for a moment, and then see if the horribleness of the characters jibes nicely with my own. Then I relight the hookah just to make sure. That’s how I process it. I’ve never even asked George how he runs character checks on his creations. I just have to see if a weak or flawed character – and they all are, at times, weak or flawed – is weak or flawed in a way that I recognize personally. So, in many respects, even if a character is solely a George creation, they are at least, in one respect, me on the screen. And I suspect it would be that way even if I were getting scripts mailed to me by other people. I’d have to translate them in the way I did Dracula; I had to understand every character in the ballet before I felt confident enough to film them. They all had to be me a little bit. I found it easier to enter the jealous male characters than the wronged female characters, but I found a way of rationalizing, or at least understanding, all of them.

 

Toles: I’m going to make this a deliberately short and self-protective answer. I think the phrase “always too late” covers a lot of ground. I don’t know if I’m exploiting this, I’m sure I am, but the failure of my first marriage, and the years of fallout, in terms of children, is something that I’ve never been able to – well, no one will let me – forget. The amount of chaos and subsequent lost-ness that came from that … I feel I can sail right into that particular vivid maelstrom of feelings. Let’s put it another way: my favourite kinds of narratives are those in which you just see for a couple of brief moments exactly the right thing to do, the right set of feelings to have. Unfortunately, the timing is wrong. In Chester’s case, he’s bleeding to death when he gets this little windfall of emotion. It’s one of the many ways that life trips us up by, yes, giving us a power of clarity, but never at a time when we can do anything with it. In that way, life is so much different than film where choices seem to come right on schedule, when they can do the most good.

 

Maddin: That’s a great starting point for story writing. Because you’re always out of synch with what you’re doing. You’re almost constructing a two-cylinder engine that can run forever on very little fuel. One cylinder being what you should do, and the other cylinder – delayed considerably – you doing it. And on it can go.

 

Toles: For me, each script I have the opportunity to write seems to be about learning, for the first time, a lesson I was supposed to have grasped, effortlessly, decades ago but then never quite put into operation. What I learned from Saddest Music was that if you’re going to do fantasy you better ground it more carefully than in any other kind of movie. Because you’re asking for so much freedom to be, to use that hateful word, weird, or off, or wacky, or strange. But I think you can’t forget for an instant that you need a grounding in the world set up for the audience to escape their own feeling of distance from it. I think Ishiguro’s concept of the contest, and the fact of the Depression, and the fact of Winnipeg gave us a more basic grounding for fantasy than was available to us in previous features.

 

Maddin: That’s true, it is more specifically set in a particular place. But I’m not so sure people out there in the world really consider Winnipeg a real place.

 

Toles: Yeah, but it’s like The Wizard of Oz (1939). Everything depends on the specificity of the cornfield, the road, the dog. It’s what makes the flight of the audience, as well as the movie, to Oz, feel effortless. And I think we’ve given more thought to that grounding. I like Buñuel’s notion: the more fantastic you’re trying to be, the more matter-of-fact you should be about it. You shouldn’t register astonishment. If you set up something psychologically, like Lady Port-Huntly’s feelings about her legs, the moment they become glass, the improbability of it becomes much less important than the sheer feeling. Kids know how to do this at age four, when they’re listening to “The Three Bears,” but it’s not so easy to do in movies. There are so many pitfalls. And I think Guy really understands this about as well as anybody working in movies.

 

Maddin: I never want to go too far for some reason. And I don’t think that’s the Canadian in me. I don’t want to fly too far away from the ground. I’d like to be able, if I fall, to get up again and keep flying.

 

Jason McBride edited From the Atelier Tovar, and is managing editor of Cinema Scope.

 

Pump Up The Volume - Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice  J. Hoberman from The Village Voice

 

Film Freak Central Review [Walter Chaw]

 

The Bitter Critic: The Saddest Music in the World  Martin Tsai

 

Sad Songs Say So Much - Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice  Part One:  This is Guy Maddin's production diary for The Saddest Music in the World, from The Village Voice, May 6, 2003

 

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs  Part Two, February 24, 2004

 

Fever Dreams and Funeral Scenes: Succumbing to Gravity on Garbage Hill  Part Three, March 16, 2004

 

Wait Until Dark  Part Four, March 30, 2004

 

The Saddest Diary in the World Wraps Up in a Torrent of Tears  Part Five, April 20, 2004

 

A TRIP TO THE ORPHANAGE

Canada  (4 mi)  2004

 

A Trip to the Orphanage   Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

The only one of Maddin's three Saddest Music companion shorts that remotely compares with his best short-form experimentation, Orphanage appears to consist partly of outtakes or short-end footage from Saddest Music (with Maria de Medeiros in her parka), but Maddin transforms it into something more. Instead of breakneck jump cuts and movie-geek in-jokes, we have long takes of a woman in the snow, lip-synching to a crushingly melancholy aria. Maddin textures the piece with gauzy curtains flapping into the frame, ghostly forms layered through slow fades and superimpositions. It recalls some of Janie Geiser's most plangent work, like The Fourth Watch and her recent Terrace 49. A much-needed change of pace, and a worthy addition to the Maddin oeuvre.

User comments  from imdb Author: Johannes Rinke (joh-ri) from Berlin, Germany

In my opinion, this short movie can be regarded as a beautiful link between "The Saddest Music in the World" and "Brand upon the brain!" The setting is - except for the curtains - the same as in one scene of "The Saddest Music": the winter night, the meeting between Narcissa and the sleep-walker who entitles her as "Mother". But why: the orphanage? In "The Saddest Music" there is no orphanage at all, but it will be the location in "Brand upon the Brain!" Many possibilities can be chosen: If "Brand upon the Brain!" is to be regarded as an autobiographical movie, then it has to be seen (in the light of "Trip to the orphanage" as a dream - or as a nightmare! - of autobiographical movie. Or: Could the sleep-walker be regarded as the "Guy Maddin"-character of "Brand upon the Brain!"? But: When the sleep-walker appears in this very scene of "The Saddest Music" you hear the voice of Narcissa's dead son. Summary: What a lovely short, opera-movie - and what a beautiful miracle!

A Trip To The Orphanage (2004  YouTube (4:01)

 

SOMBRA DOLOROSA

Canada  (4 mi)  2004     France (7 mi)

 

Critical Culture [Pacze Moj]

This four-minute short from Canada's most well-known experimental filmmaker, Guy Maddin, mixes Latin daytime television and Mexican wrestling with silent cinema and folklore to create a bit of well-edited nonsense that manages to wring a surprising amount of narrative from its brief running time. Like with most of Maddin's works, I don't get it—but it's certainly not boring.

Sombra dolorosa   Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

Pure stupidity, and borderline racist to boot. Yeah, I know I'm probably being oversensitive, and I know that Maddin's really just riffing on Mexican melodrama in the same anarchic, free-associative way he riffs on every other morsel of cinema history. But if you didn't know Maddin's other work, this would be indistinguishable from, say, SNL parodies of Telemundo, with a slackjawed Horatio Sanz jumping around in a bumblebee suit. What's more, Sombra isn't funny or clever, just trying way too hard to do The Heart of the World over again, Mexicano style. Refried, reheated, and retarded.

User comments  from imdb Author: kate from Philadelphia, USA

SOMBRA DOLOROSA is probably the best Guy Maddin short I've seen yet! Filmed in vivid color and edited in Maddin's rapid-fire collage style, it follows the story of a Mexican widow who must defeat El Muerto (think El Santo as the Grim Reaper) in a boxing ring in order to save her husband from death. When she fails, El Meurto must eat "The Meal of the Dead" before the solar eclipse so that her husband's soul may be released from his belly.

The short is extremely funny and a little bit unnerving. It shares the "dead father" motif, intertitles, and artificial atmosphere of many of Guy Maddin's works, but the colorful Mexican backdrop puts it into a class of its own.

Definitely check out SOMBRA DOLOROSA!

User comments  from imdb Author: Graham Greene from United Kingdom

A four-minute masterpiece of music and movement, montage and more; Sombra Dolorosa (2004) is typical of director Guy Maddin's work, filled with archaic film references and an appropriation of silent cinema conventions to tell a vague and enigmatic story that plays out in a dreamlike and metaphorical world rich in visual symbolism. Although Sombra Dolorosa isn't a silent film, as such - it does feature snippets of Spanish dialog and a densely layered soundtrack of music and atmospherics - it still borrows heavily from the style and tone of silent cinema in a way that is reminiscent of The Heart of the World (2000) or elements of Brand upon the Brain! (2006). In this respect, we have the incredibly quick cutting style and bombardment of visual information that reduces narrative to mere montage; as well as the use of on-screen captions and inter-titles, which present to us the information that is spoken on the soundtrack in a manner that is deconstructive, but also slyly satirical.

Though the worry of being overwhelmed by the rapidity of the on screen information and the complete genius of the director's mise-en-scene is always apparent with Maddin's work, Sombra Dolorosa is never inaccessible. In fact, it is fairly easy to pick apart and interpret the vague semblance of narrative if we carefully follow the information as it appears on-screen; with the director gleefully taking influence from Latin American melodrama, with its roots in arts and magic-realist literature to chart a tale of lost love, life and death, and the extraordinary ability to overcome. It is, like the vast majority of Maddin's work, an absolute marvel of film-making energy and imagination, with the presentation of suicide attempts, death and regeneration, and that striking image of a wrestling match between a widow and the grim reaper all working alongside that continually striking use of colour, composition, music, design, performance and all to create a one-off visual experience that is sure to delight and overwhelm.

Guy Maddin - Sombra Dolorosa  YouTube (4:01)

 

LOVE CHANT WORKBOOKS

Canada  (15 mi)  2004

 

The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival  Jason Sanders

 

In these short film blueprints from a lost Maddin feature, past loves and desires are polished to a fetishized gleam: fragmented, slowed to a crawl and unusually lurid. In Fuse Boy, a janitor's lust becomes his nightmare. Women's bodies, or parts thereof, make up the fevered scrawls of other workbooks.

 

MY DAD IS 100 YEARS OLD

Canada  (16 mi)  2005

 

The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival  Jason Sanders

 

Maddin's newest film is a collaboration with Isabella Rossellini to commemorate her filmmaker father Roberto's centennial. Rossellini plays all the parts—her father, herself and peers such as Hitchcock, Chaplin and Fellini—in this tribute to one of cinema's greatest directors and to cinema itself.

 

Slant Magazine [Keith Uhlich]

Even those unfamiliar with the work of Roberto Rossellini should get something out of Guy Maddin's haunting and memorable short film My Dad is 100 Years Old, which plays as a sort of personal exorcism for its writer and star Isabella Rossellini. It's not a document of the great Italian director's work (the only clip used is from the oft-excerpted Rome: Open City) so much as the younger Rossellini's reconciliation with her father's mystique. To her, he is a towering figure, represented here by a comically blubbering torso that argues with several famed figures from cinema past (all played by Isabella). Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, David O. Selznick, and Charlie Chaplin weigh in with their ideas about the art of motion pictures, while Ingrid Bergman expounds on her tempestuous relationship with Roberto, which begat both Isabella and a powerful series of films (Stromboli and Voyage to Italy among them). The actress is never presumptuous in how she inhabits the short's many roles and she even "directs" its most emotional scene, interrupting an in-character reverie to decry an ostentatious and manipulative crane shot that she feels does a disservice to her father's ideals.

My Father is 100 Years Old   Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

In his catalog description, Guy Maddin referred to his acclaimed 2000 short film The Heart of the World as "the world's first subliminal melodrama." With the help of collaborator Isabella Rossellini, Maddin has successfully brought his melodramatic leanings well above ground. True, he's done it before, most notably at feature-length with The Saddest Music in the World. But My Father is 100 Years Old stakes out some fresh territory for Maddin, since the affect it articulates is utterly straightforward. Well, as straightforward as a Guy Maddin film can be. Roberto Rossellini, for example, is played by a giant quivering belly, and one discerns the perfect coupling of the two collaborators' sensibilities in this "pregnant" image. Guy and Isabella have constructed a heartfelt meditation on Roberto Rossellini, the man, the theoretician, the father figure and, most importantly, the father. It strikes me as meaningful that this film is a daughter's love letter to her deceased father, since the cinema is virtually littered with father-son Oedipal struggles (most recently Baadasssss! and My Architect). By contrast Rossellini's engagement with her father's legacy is permeated with tenderness and even a degree of awe. Likewise, Maddin helps Isabella to surreptitiously assume the roles of the patriarchal cinematic canon (she appears as Hitchcock, Selznick, Fellini, and Chaplin), as well as her own mother. It's a Brechtian gesture (partly, I think, borrowed from the work of fellow Canadian filmmaker John Greyson), but it also serves to emphasize Isabella's position with respect to Roberto. His big bald belly is a globe, a heavenly body in her emotional firmament, holding all other discourses and attachments in its orbit. Whatever you do, though, don't try to circumscribe the Rossellinis' universe with a crane shot. [SECOND VIEWING, 11/6/06: Not much to add, except that in addition to finding the film even more moving the second time around, I noticed that it is very explicit, almost basic in its pedagogical aims. I brought it into the classroom on "Italian Neo-Realism Day" and it crystalized most of Rossellini's ideas quite elegantly. Also, seeing it again after Brand upon the Brain! makes me think Maddin should do a little more work like this: tight, focused, disciplined. That last word is one I type with gritted teeth -- I don't think of myself as that kind of critic -- but there you go.]

 

The Village Voice [Ed Halter]

Produced for the centenary of Roberto Rossellini's birth, My Dad Is 100 Years Old stars his daughter Isabella Rossellini, who also penned the script and previously figured in Maddin's Sternbergian tuner The Saddest Music in the World. Like Maddin's even briefer 2000 showstopper The Heart of the World, Dad is an exquisite and playful pastiche of cinema's lost golden age, rendered with the Winnipeg wizard's wonder cabinet of archaic effects: billowing smoke, jittering title cards, expressionist lighting, characters who wander through as loose and luminous back-projections.

Isabella Rossellini appears not only as herself, pondering whether her father's films were "ridiculous or sublime," but also in intergenerational drag as her father's contemporaries, drawn as broadly as a set of Hirschfeld caricatures. As Hitchcock, Isabella lurks in shadowy profile with potbelly and extended lower lip; her Fellini appears trench-coated and scarved. More poignantly, Isabella plays her own mother, Ingrid Bergman, who materializes as a towering movie goddess, smiling down lovingly from the big screen, her face framed in a glowing white Marian headscarf.

Roberto himself takes part, as nothing but a fat naked belly, jiggling as he intones uncompromising manifestos for the ethical demands of cinema. His voice—also provided by Isabella—seems to emerge from his cavernous navel. Compared in Isabella's narration to a pregnant male seahorse, Roberto is reimagined as both the fecund mother of modern cinema and the strict father who sought to impose its limits. His arguments with contemporaries, here staged within a decaying movie theater, become battles for the soul of cinema itself. Thanks to Maddin's visual humor, the old chestnut of Art versus Entertainment becomes a freshly engaging philosophical tussle.

But Hitchcock and Fellini aren't the only directors who counter Rossellini. Maddin too argues against his credo, not through words, but by example. As many other critics have noted, Maddin's own cinematic style is the antithesis of Rossellini's. Whereas the progenitor of neorealism sought to embody truth by pushing narrative cinema as close to raw documentary as possible, Maddin embraces the surface glamour of Hollywood's most sugary productions: musicals and melodramas, with hokey fairy-tale effects and careening camera angles. Both attempt opposite but equally quixotic struggles for artistic purity. Rossellini argues that filmmaking must be purged of all artifice, while Maddin wishes to remove almost everything but. Yet by showcasing a sequence from Rome, Open City in which soldiers gun down Anna Magnani's character, Maddin shows that he and Rossellini share a love for melodrama, whether gussied up with pasteboard sets or brutally realistic grit.

Roberto Rossellini’s Belly  Jonathan Rosenbaum

 

Raging Bull Movie Reviews (Mike Lorefice) review [3/4]

 

Twitch (Todd Brown) review

 

Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

 

The New York Sun [Nicolas Rapold]

 

eFilmCritic.com (Peter Sobczynski) review [5/5]

 

Planet Sick-Boy (Jon Popick) review

 

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!                                B+                   91

Canada  USA  (95 mi)  2006      Official site   Trailer (00.moviecentre.net)

 

I was unable to see the live orchestral version, featuring sound effects and the music of a ten-piece Ensemble Noamnesia along with a male castrato, which in Chicago was narrated by wildman Crispin Glover, while in other cities, Joan Chen narrated in San Francisco, with a rotation of Glover, Eli Wallach, Lou Reed, and the poet John Ashberry performing in New York.  Listening to Isabella Rossellini was weird enough, as this was presented as a Freudian children’s story, supposedly taken from truisms from Guy Maddin’s own childhood, perhaps embellished a bit, as most of it takes place inside the imagination of a young boy’s mind.  It typically features a faceless father, who we rarely see, as he’s always “at work,” and in this case a diabolical mother, with both parents running an orphanage in an island lighthouse, with the mother developing an ever-evolving rage, obsessed with reversing her aging process, supposedly extracting precious “nectar” from the children, obtained through a burrowed entryway from the back of the neck, using a horrendous sound effect that sounds like the highly amplified crunching sound of pulling an obstinate tooth, rocking it back and forth, as if with a pair of pliers, attempting to loosen it from the gum.  Yecchh!  But these are Guy’s childhood memories, which includes an adolescent sister whose neck shows the signs that she has a “brand upon the brain!”  While his white-coated father tinkers in a mad scientist, Frankenstein-like cavernous basement, the mother mans a searchlight-guided, high-powered telescope to constantly scan Black Notch Island, exerting control over all, even inventing an Aerophone, a gramophone-style earphone for the children to use which does not run by electricity, but by telepathic emotion, so they could always be within listening range of the parents barking out orders, usually insisting Guy come home right now for dinner. 

 

Shot in black and white, with just the briefest use of color, it again resembles the frantic, quick cut editing style shot to resemble German Expressionist silent era archival clips, largely shot by Maddin himself and Benjamin Kasulke, using intertitles with occasional rude interruptions from the “interlocutor,” the narrator, who at times resembles the overdramatic effects of a Wizard of Oz, repeating echoing phrases like “the Secrets…the Secrets,” or “the Shame…the Shame.”   A remembrance in 12 chapters, where the action of the previous chapter comes to a thudding halt when the screen turns to black, identifying a new chapter title, this is an autobiographical nightmare of sorts as a house painter appropriately named Guy Maddin returns to the lighthouse some 30 years after he left it to fulfill his dying mother’s request that he re-paint it, where we hear the thundering voice of Rossellini yell “Paint it over…cover it up,” a reference to his all-too vivid recollections which keep reappearing, morphing into strange variations on what feels like a dream.  Sullivan Brown is excellent as the ever impressionable young Guy who is always observing his sister’s activities, played by Maya Lawson, developing a crush on the female half of a brother and sister teenage detective duo, both played strangely enough by Katherine E. Scharhon, a couple of sleuths known as the Lightbulb Kids who are curious about the strange markings on the back of the orphan kid’s necks.  When Wendy mysteriously disappears, Sis develops a strange sexual fascination with her brother Chance, peeped on by her pubescent little brother, especially when Chance gets naked and he turns out to be a she, a reoccurring image (I wonder why?) that Guy can’t seem to shake from his head.   

 

Maddin feels quite comfortable using bizarre, avant garde elements, giving the film a detached, experimental feel, where bleached out images are met with overly dark, morbid humor.  There is never a real emotional connection to any of the characters, who aren’t so much dramatically realized as they are uniquely imagined.   What’s absolutely amazing is that Maddin in person is not at all shy, brooding, weird, or detached, but develops an immediate connection to an audience with his outgoing personal appeal using clever, descriptive, and nearly always humorous anecdotes.  It’s a shame he’s not a better financed artist, as many of his films like this one are made on the fly due to lack of funding, so it’s altogether amazing when he puts together a finished product that has such an extended interior and exterior range, utilizing a brilliant musical score from Jason Staczek, matched by superb editing from John Gurdebeke.  One patron snored all the way through this movie, which does feel like a somnambulistic experience, always featuring such startling imagery, where it’s a dizzying experience trying to keep up with the probing density in Maddin films, processing or internalizing so much so fast, as they don’t contain familiar narrative patterns, instead it’s a multi-layered, kaleidoscope effect, exhibiting a kind of magic or circus pageantry, where you never know what’s going to be pulled out of the hat. 

 

Slant Magazine [Fernando F. Croce]

Avant-garde to the last shuttering edit, Guy Maddin's signature aesthetic is also, paradoxically enough, a classical fusion of style and content. The search for youth that runs through much of his work is complemented by its projection as an outpour of archaic cinematic tropes—mementos from the medium's own past. The Canadian director pushes his style even further in Brand Upon the Brain!, where his conservationism extends to the film's very presentation as a live auditorium event meant to recreate the original silent-movie theaters, complete with orchestra, foley artists, and an incantatory narrator. (Few pictures will lose as much impact upon their DVD release.) Yet the theatrical experience isn't a William Castle-type gimmick any more than Maddin's feverish melodrama is a blur of shards from Feuillade, Borzage, and Gance. The director's profoundly felt biographical obsessions and love for film history go beyond parody and homage and into poetically inexplicable private reveries.

The story—subtitled "A Remembrance in 12 Chapters"—follows one "Guy Maddin" (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the isolated island of his childhood, where his family ran an orphanage out of a lighthouse. Memories are relived: Guy recalls his prepubescent self (Sullivan Brown) and his rebellious older Sis (Maya Lawson), constantly watched by Mother's (Gretchen Krich) dictatorial light shaft while Father (Tom Moore) holds the standard mad-scientist experiments in the basement. When a teenage detective (Katherine E. Scharhon) enters the island disguised as her own brother, their world short-circuits. The characters keep slipping into trance, either to acknowledge their forbidden passions or possibly to try to keep up with the film's hallucinatory rhythms.

Densely composed and outrageously Freudian, Brand Upon the Brain! offers psychosexual anxiety, resurrection, vampirism, and the kind of phantasmagoria that exists only in the mind of a playful visionary. (It's also a very funny film, my favorite moment being Mother's meeting with her brood following a rejuvenating experiment that makes her 20 years younger: "An awkward breakfast," reads the intertitle.) Maddin's fantasies can become easily overextended, and the film could have used some of the condensed brevity of Cowards Bend the Knee. As a frantic, lyrical spectacle, however, it has images unforgettable enough to do justice to the title.

The Village Voice [Aaron Hillis]

Adrolly phantasmagoric, silent-film spectacle in which Freud meets Feuillade and Frankenstein! An auditorium crammed with an 11-piece live orchestra, a Foley effects team, and an onstage castrato! Celebrity guest narration by the likes of Isabella Rossellini, Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Kiki (without Herb), plus that dude who sings for TV on the Radio! Countless intertitles spelled out in purple run-ons and punctuated by exclamation marks!

Brand Upon the Brain!—director Guy Maddin's latest pomo revitalization of early-cinema tropes and aesthetics—sees the Winnipeg-based fabulist attempting a blockbuster event; think of it as counter-programming to Spider-Man 3. Sure, the Tribeca Film Festival had $18 tickets (unjustified!) and the publicity machine dubbed "Spider-Man Week," but the first seven days of BUTB! in NYC offer all the aforementioned in-person excitement for only $30 a pop (totally justified!). And just when you thought the sprawl of Tribeca couldn't stretch any farther, check out the fest's executive director Peter Scarlet with his fingers in both pies: He's on tap to narrate a screening of Maddin's extravaganza himself.

At more than a half hour longer than Maddin's comparably autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee, BUTB! will be shown two ways: as a live spectacle in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, or with a pre-recorded Jason Staczek score and Rossellini soundtrack in subsequent screenings here and elsewhere. In other words: had-to-be-there jubilation versus clock-watching disappointment. Not to discredit its wild artistry by saying the gimmick's the prize, but . . . the gimmick's the prize. Without all the hoopla, there simply isn't enough variation to this stylized fever-dream to justify its fatiguing running time, nor to call it anything less than predictably Maddin–esque.

Behold the classically grainy, mostly monochromatic imagery that's yet again edited with a modern rapidity belying the bygone era it superficially represents! Gaze into the stark-contrast shadows of what might've been a German Expressionist horror flick, its Super 8mm pinhole visions strobing quickly to form a unique cinematic pointillism whose oblique linearity could only be pieced together by an overstimulated, 21st-century mind!

Erik Steffen Maahs frames the film as the middle-aged Guy Maddin, returning by rowboat to his Black Notch Island home, where his folks once ran an orphanage out of a lighthouse. Unveiled as "a remembrance in 12 chapters," the serial flashes back to the dysfunctional childhood of young Guy (Sullivan Brown), along with his budding teen sister (Maya Lawson), their age-obsessed tyrant of a mother (Gretchen Krich), and the workaholic inventor dad who never leaves the lab (Todd Moore). Familial melodrama absurdly slides into psychosexual misadventures with the entrance of a harp-playing teen detective, who disguises herself as her own twin brother (gender-bent lust!) while investigating the strange holes found in the heads of all the orphans (Cronenbergian penetration!). Vampirism, organ harvesting, Lord of the Flies primalism, and monstrous human resurrections soon bubble up from thick swamps of repression and secrecy. Seriously though, would any of this be half as outrageous without the voyeuristic jollies of staring at famous people in the flesh, each wishing aloud for a little keyhole to spy on two nubile lesbian lovers?

New York Observer (Andrew Sarris)

Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, from a screenplay by Mr. Maddin and George Toler, succeeds at one and the same time in functioning as both a celebration and a deconstruction of the conscious and unconscious glories of silent movies through the barely 30 years of their existence at the beginning of the 20th century. Let us say simply and definitely that I have never seen anything like it.

Brand Upon the Brain! is one of Mr. Maddin’s two dozen cinematic exercises in hyper-eccentric self-expression and self-revelation dating back to a 26-minute short feature, significantly entitled The Dead Father, in 1986. I say “significantly” because there is in Brand Upon the Brain! the father of a son named Guy Maddin, and this bizarre paterfamilias passes between life and death and back without ever turning around from his lifelong scientific endeavors. But the strangeness of this character is only a small part of the overall obsessive strangeness of Brand Upon the Brain!, which might be more precisely (if less poetically) entitled Hole in the Head!

Imagine for a moment an island with a lighthouse tower that once contained Guy Maddin and his mother and father, who operated an orphanage within the lighthouse. There is where the child Guy Maddin (Sullivan Brown) grew up with his older sister, Sis (Maya Lawson). Mother (Gretchen Krich)—often shown in vintage iris close-ups—keeps a watchful eye on her two children with the intrusive help of the lighthouse tower’s searchlight, which scans the entire island.

Then try and imagine the grown-up Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the now-deserted island he has inherited to dredge up the detritus of his childhood memories, and the once-tremulous passions they still evoke. The power of the flashback in old movies to bring the past to life and into sharp focus unleashes here a torrent of images of scrambling orphans of both genders, of a teenage boy-girl detective team, Chance and Wendy Hale (both characters played by the actress Katherine E. Scharhorn), and a very disturbed older orphan named Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), who wants to cut out the heart of a terrified younger Boy Neddie (Kellan Larson) for some primal ritual of reincarnation. Chance and Wendy have come to the island to confirm their suspicions of an illicit trade—run by Guy’s mother and father—in smuggled body parts from the orphans.

After a time, Wendy Hale pretends to be her brother Chance in a gender-reversal process familiar from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Sis develops a crush on him/her. Meanwhile, Guy has remained faithful to his childhood adoration of Wendy. When Chance/Wendy is finally unmasked and unclothed, both Guy and Sis remain constant in their obsessions. And so it goes, with Mother becoming incestuously involved with Guy—or at least with his tush—and Sis enthusiastically entangled in a lesbian relationship with the faux Chance/Wendy. There are magical elixirs drained from the children’s heads and necks that make Mother young again, with devastating consequences. Yet Brand Upon the Brain! escapes the gruesomeness of modern horror films by re-creating the visual indestructibility of the human image to death and beyond.

And the pace of the 12 chapters, told over the course of 95 minutes, surges along, propelled by the archaic silent-movie storytelling device of intertitles coupled with a faux-naif verbal narration expressing a remembered wide-eyed innocence at the dawn of the miracle of the movies. Brand Upon the Brain! has already been screened with a kind of live-action theatrical accompaniment at the venerable Village East Theatre at 12th Street and Second Avenue in the East Village. If it is ever revived there or released on DVD, don’t miss it. It is one of the most compelling avant-garde excursions into the narrative cinema ever.

Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir]

Guy Maddin leans over the cafe table and says, "I know that even though we're speaking in New York right now, my mother is watching us from the top of a lighthouse in Winnipeg with a very high-powered telescope and a searchlight. She can read my thoughts. She can send me messages."

It's never easy to tell when Maddin, who looks like a bank manager or a high school teacher, but has made some of the strangest movies of recent decades, is pulling your leg. I don't know that he exactly is here (even though, as he admits, his hometown of Winnipeg is landlocked and bereft of lighthouses). His new film "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a fantastical, sometimes farcical, rendering of his own childhood as a horror movie, a detective story and a debauched melodrama, but in some sense he really means it.

Like most of Maddin's numerous films (the best-known might include "The Saddest Music in the World," "Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary" and "Tales From the Gimli Hospital"), "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a bizarre hybrid of 1920s silent film and experimental or avant-garde film. Shot in bleached-out, archaic-looking black-and-white (with occasional unexplained flashes of color), it features cornball intertitles, hambone acting and intentionally fake-sounding sound effects. Some of its images, however, are spliced together in a super-fast, post-MTV blur that Maddin says was driven by contemporary technology, and that he hopes will echo the processes of memory itself.

"I was tickled by this notion that I could present memory as a more neurological phenomenon," he tells me over coffee in New York. "When you fast-forward in Final Cut Pro, things just don't go faster, they skip like a stone over your footage. They touch down on an image for a few frames, and then skip a whole bunch of frames. When you're searching for something, you go past the image you want and you have to go back. You go past it again but not so far and then you have to go forward again. You end up scratching back and forth like a DJ, going back over your favorite images just the way you might recollect your favorite romantic or sexual or sports triumph. You go back and forth, fetishizing, slowing, stopping, freeze-framing, going in slow motion, doing an instant replay. I really found in this neurological skittishness, all this skipping and jumping, some analogy for the way we remember." (Click here to listen to a podcast of my interview with Maddin.)

Despite the overtly melodramatic plot of "Brand Upon the Brain!" Maddin insists that its origins lie in his real childhood. "Anyone who's remembering his or her childhood is at that moment a poet," he says. "They're launching themselves into something lyrical. They're making erroneous but metaphorical leaps into explaining things, re-creating what they've been through. I try to re-create the act of remembering in this movie. My childhood was full of terror and titillation, as proper childhoods are. There were incredibly horny periods. There were confusing periods, adventurous periods, mildewy periods."

Maddin claims that "96 percent" of the film accurately reflects his childhood experiences. When I suggest that he was not raised in a lighthouse (one that was also an orphanage) and that his father was not a mad scientist conducting nefarious midnight experiments, he replies, "OK, so you nailed the 4 percent that isn't true." Under pressure, he further admits that (unlike the character named Guy Maddin in the film) he was never friends with an intrepid brother-sister duo of harp-playing teen detectives. But the sinister sexual warfare between Guy's mother and sister in the film, he says, is drawn from life, including a mysterious incident when a pound of butter ends up stuck to the kitchen wall.

Despite the evident jokiness of some elements -- most notably the exclamation-mark-laden intertitles, which spoof the explanatory mode of silent film -- "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a surprisingly frightening and affecting film, launching itself from vertiginous peaks into shadowy hollows. To heighten what Maddin calls the "melodramatic hysteria" of the picture, he'll screen it in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago with an 11-piece live orchestra and a troupe of live sound-effects artists, along with a series of live narrators (to include Isabella Rossellini, Lou Reed, Crispin Glover and others). The result is giddy, exciting and hilarious, not quite like any artistic experience you've ever had.

"I have a sense of showmanship that I never suspected I had," Maddin says. "I've been a filmmaker for so long, and there's something in that word that makes it sound like I don't care if I entertain you. I haven't turned into P.T. Barnum -- I'm not going to do Odorama or Sensurround next -- but I enjoy feeling that I'm engaging the audience."

Maddin's rejection of nearly all the cinematic grammar of the last 70 years does not, he says, come from highfalutin aesthetic notions, but rather from delight. "You know, you're shocked at how modern expressionism feels when you first encounter it," he says. "Or how cool the fashions of the '20s look if you've never really seen them before. They just feel so modern! This stuff just never smells like mothballs to me. When I look back on the early days of cinema, it's like looking back at my own childhood. I just see the wonderment that all its pioneers must have created and felt.

Besides, Maddin continues, there are lots of other filmmakers content to display the vocabulary units of mainstream film. "I don't know, I'm not exactly a polished technician," he says. "I'm not the best at any one thing. I'm not necessarily good at any one thing. I've somehow managed to carve out a niche where I can operate pretty well. I'm happy there, and I still have plenty to say. As a filmmaker it didn't always matter if people were listening. But as a showman, dammit, those suckers are going to come in and I'm gonna take their money!"

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Guy Maddin's new film "Brand Upon the Brain!" exists in the world Maddin has built by hand over several features that seem to be trying to reinvent the silent cinema. Flickering, high-contrast black-and-white images, shot in 8mm, tell a phantasmagoric story that could be a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and Salvador Dali. It's an astonishing film: weird, obsessed, drawing on subterranean impulses, hypnotic.

Equally astonishing is the live theatrical kickoff being provided by the Music Box Theatre. A narration will be performed by the actor Crispin Glover (who is not in the film). The throbbing, hard-driving score will be performed by Ensemble Noamnesia, from Chicago. Sound effects will be created by Foley artists. And a singer billed as a castrato will perform.

This live performance will play at the theater today through Sunday. And then the run will continue with a recorded soundtrack and a narration by Isabella Rossellini. Would I be correct in guessing you have never seen anything like it before?

The film opens with a man named "Guy Maddin" in a rowboat. He is a house painter, answering his mother's summons. She wants two fresh coats of paint on the family's lighthouse, an orphanage that is the only structure on the island of Black Notch.

Once Guy arrives on the island, he is cast back into flashbacks of the troubled childhood he had there with his sister and his sexually jealous mother. She stands fiercely atop the lighthouse, sweeping the island with a powerful searchlight and a phallic telescope, and issuing commands through an "aerophone," an invention of Guy's Dad, which allows communication between any two people who love each other, although few seem to love the mother.

The plot, as it always does in a Maddin film, careens wildly in bizarre directions, incorporating material that seems gathered by the handful from silent melodrama. There is a murder mystery involving an orphan named Savage Tom, and an investigation by two teenage detectives named the Light Bulb Kids, who discover suspicious holes in the heads of some orphans.

Elements from mad scientist and black magic stories also creep into the plot, while the film hurtles headlong into an assault of stark images.

Maddin, based in Winnipeg, is a pleasant, soft-spoken man who hardly seems a likely source for this feverish filmmaking. His world, his style, his artistry are all completely original, even when they seem to be echoing old silent films. The echoes seem to come from a parallel universe. In films like "The Saddest Music in the World," he creates haunting worlds that approach the edge of comedy but never quite tip over.

In a sense, you will enjoy "Brand Upon The Brain!" most if you are an experienced moviegoer who understands (somehow) what Maddin is doing or a naive filmgoer who doesn't understand that he is doing anything. The average filmgoer might simply be frustrated and confused. For me, Maddin seems to penetrate to the hidden layers beneath the surface of the movies, revealing a surrealistic underworld of fears, fantasies and obsessions.

"Ode to a Nectarite Harvest": On Brand Upon the Brain!   David Church from Bright Lights Film Journal

 
eFilmCritic.com (Peter Sobczynski)

 

Variety.com [Scott Foundas]

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Scott Tobias]
 
filmcritic.com (Chris Cabin)

 

Film Journal International (Chris Barsanti)

 

Brands upon the brain, meet director Guy Maddin  Didier from Cinetrange, including an interview with Maddin

Monsters and Critics [Ron Wilkinson]

d+kaz [Daniel Kasman]

 

Brand Upon the Brain!   Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack

 

Not Coming to a Theater Near You [Chiranjit Goswami]

 

Maddin on the Brain  Shannon Gee interviews Maddin for GreenCine

New York Times (registration req'd)  Manohla Dargis

MY WINNIPEG                                                         B+                   90

Canada  (80 mi)  2007 

 

I felt like if ever I was going to hear an obscure rendition of “O Canada” played on some archaic, Herzog-like phonograph, this would be it, but nooooo, we’re instead treated to the dulcet tones of “Wonderful Winnipeg” in this somnambulistic, autobiographical fantasy documentary on Maddin’s recollections of his youth in Winnipeg with his father coaching the Canadian National hockey team and his hairdresser mother with a maniacal fear of birds as well as a psychic ability using a tracking system like a laser beam to see through her children’s half truths.  Maddin continues to use black and white film as well as anyone in the business other than Béla Tarr, showing a dreary, industrial, snow-ridden town that apparently spends most of its time in the dark.  Opening with a Gloria Swanson style screen test, meet the mother (Ann Savage), “a force as strong as all the trains in Manitoba.”  Then ready yourself for snow, plenty of it, as it’s a predominate theme throughout the film along with trains, as Winnipeg is an enormous central train hub for the country, all going or coming from somewhere while Guy himself remains stuck in Winnipeg as if frozen in time.  He obviously dreams of getting out, claiming there are more sleepwalkers in Winnipeg than anywhere else, so certainly dreams play a prominant part of his life as well, as whatever you may say about Guy Maddin, his lack of imagination isn’t one of them.  Perhaps what troubles people about this film are the repeated images of a sleeping Guy (played by Darcy Fehr) on a train as if hopelessly trying to dream his way out of town along with several other sleeping passengers, images that recur quite frequently to the droning narration spoken by Guy himself, where the degree of repetition grates on the nerves after awhile.  Perhaps that’s the point, that everything in Winnipeg grates on your nerves after awhile.  Actually, despite some deranged detours, there’s quite a lot of repetition, especially for such a short film.

 

This is the first Maddin film to actually include family photos, a stark contrast from the actors playing the parts onscreen, but this certainly personalizes the material, accentuating his point of view along with what feels like subliminal inner titles.  He relishes telling the story of his mother’s fear of birds, as well as having her hair mussed, but recalls visiting a neighbor that had a 75-year old myna bird which had a fairly developed vocabulary and the freedom to be let loose from its cage a good deal of the time.  Apparently it jumped near her shoulder where she simply swung her arms and batted the thing to the floor killing it instantly.  Other scenes are dramatized in typical Maddin fashion, such as the scene where his sister is morose over killing a deer while driving in the snow, but her mother has other ideas and changes the subject entirely to suit her own mental framework, basically browbeating her daughter to confess to another crime, taking advantage of her daughter’s fragile, distraught state of mind.  Guy laments the loss of several city landmarks that fall by the way of demolition crews all in the name of progress, usually replacing something beloved with an artifical monstrosity that remains a persistent eyesore, the result of some corrupt backroom political deal where somebody benefited at the expense of everyone who lives there, sort of Winnipeg’s version of the new and improved Soldier Field, only worse, as they built a replacement hockey stadium that’s too small to actually book NHL games, so instead it just sits there empty.  Only during the demolition (which fails miserably) is there a brief appearance of color.  In one of the more remarkably extended fantasy sequences, Maddin can only reminisce about the glory days when hockey was the epicenter of his life, the bond between he and his father, the glue that held his family together, now only a fading memory where glitz, glamour, and money has replaced the tough, working class ethic that was once Canadian hockey.    

 

It’s hard to make an objective appraisal about your own home and family onscreen, so Maddin makes no attempt, instead he certainly displays more emotion in this film, particularly his own sense of outrage about what’s happened to his town, offering a thorough historical perspective that is doused with a heavy dose of his own imagination, switching the format from a newsreel item to animation followed by surrealism, as he recalls an event where an electrocuted squirrel on a telephone line started a fire in a horse stable, which led to a stampede out the door into a nearby river where they got log-jammed along with the ice flow, creating a stunning image of just their frozen heads elevated above the ice, like chess pieces.  As the horses can’t be removed until spring, the area is subsequently used as a lovers lane and also by kids playing games nearby at their annual jubilee event.  He also takes relish in describing the one hill in an otherwise completely flat city that is man made due to trash build up, where a carpet of earth is thrown above it turning it into a sled and tobaggon run, where inevitably someone gets impaled or injured from something sharp sticking out of the ground.  There’s also interesting sexual imagery, much of it from the perspective of a young boy drooling over the healthy physiques of grown men, or poking fun at the prettiest man pageant judged by the mayor where many of them end up later with city jobs, but he’s also enamored with streets named after prostitutes, where the women he fantasizes over suddenly turn into ballet dancers.  His introduction of the Citizen Girl (Kate Yacula) as the rectifier of all the city’s terrible mistakes is psychologically quite inventive, as if in a dream where all the characters in the film are really acting out a portion of his own inner thoughts. Among his funniest films, but heartfelt and whimsical throughout, we get another window into Maddin’s charming worldview which thankfully never takes itself too seriously, but does offer a fairly ingenious perspective on his own roots.  

 

[Note:  Unfortunately, at the screening I attended, only the bottom half of the screen was in focus, as the top half, which included the inner titles, was seriously out of focus for the entire film.  Amazingly, in a Maddin film, in focus or not, one can still appreciate his artistry, but I’m not sure I’ve seen the film the director had in mind.]

   

Planet Sick-Boy

I can say with absolute authority that you've never seen a film like Guy Maddin's love/hate/goodbye letter to his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Part real documentary and part drop-dead hysterical farce, Maddin's narration leads you through traumatic re-enactments of his childhood, the city's loss of iconic institutions like Eatons and the Jets, and bizarre facts about its citizens being much more likely to sleepwalk than those of any other city on the planet.  All over humorously ominous music.  It's almost more performance art than a movie -- a distinction that will be made even clearer when Maddin narrates live during the festival's official premiere later this week.  But to call it that shortchanges Maddin's unique ability to cobble together images in a distinctive way that makes his films immediately recognizable.

Paste Magazine [Jesse Jarnow]

 

A pleasingly personal history—both metaphoric and civic—of the Canadian capital

 

In his ninth feature, My Winnipeg, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin uses his native city in much the same way Michael Moore used Flint, Mich., in Roger & Me (if Moore were offering a requiem for a human soul rather than the American economy). With the 52-year-old Maddin providing macabre, occasionally snarky narration, the film employs silent-movie cards (“Fear!” to describe a workers’ strike), meditative motifs (“snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg”) and—most uniquely—a cast of actors recreating Maddin's family in its former home, with his dead father portrayed as a lump under the carpet. “Who gets to vivisect his own childhood?” Maddin ponders, though he leaves himself almost entirely out of the vivisection, with much of the subplot unresolved. My Winnipeg—ostensibly about why Maddin has to leave the city—rarely ventures into what the director was doing while physically there. Nevertheless, it’s a wholly and wonderfully personal piece of filmmaking.

 
The Lumière Reader  Tim Wong
 

Guy Maddin’s hometown phantasmagoria, a documentary within inverted commas

HILARIOUS! Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is an outrageous documentary tease, the Canadian’s most hysterical film to date. Ostensibly a paean to hometown roots, Maddin’s affection for ‘The Peg’ quickly turns south, and from within the frosty confines of a looping railcar, is compelled to reveal the truth about Canada’s ‘Gateway to the West’. A sleepy hollow as nocturnal purgatory, deviancy and absurdity lurks beneath the city’s wintry façade, with Guy, our tour guide, providing a lusty commentary on Winnipeg’s dark side: an unauthorized history, replete with shocking asides on brothels, hermaphrodites, man pageants, locker rooms, and other sexual mores. Amusing still, are Maddin’s autobiographical forays, where actors are cast in place of immediate family members (that’s Detour’s Ann Savage as Guy’s beauty shop mother), and long buried memories are exhumed and overanalyzed like a Ross McElwee film. Which is to say My Winnipeg is vintage Maddin, from the childhood anecdotes, to the insertion of ice hockey and ballet, to the lurid turn-of-the-century aesthetic: those grainy celluloid splashes, woozy cross-fades, brusque inter-titles, and extreme genital close-ups all contributing to the film’s drowsy, jokey malaise. Though angrily ensnared within a reoccurring dream, Maddin’s mock-umenting is not without fondness and good jest, and the director even turns fiercely protective at one point, lamenting the destruction of his beloved Winnipeg Arena, and the developers who’ve leveled the olde world charm. In a rare colour sequence, he films the demolition of the stadium, which refuses to topple even after the dynamite explodes – a sign, perhaps, that his beloved native city shares in his nostalgia, and has a life force all of its own.

Montreal Gazette blog [Al Kratina]

Guy Maddin is my favourite Canadian filmmaker, but even I had doubts he could make a documentary about Winnipeg interesting. Granted, there's a lot of history in the area, but most of it revolves around the Hudson's Bay Company, and there's only so many black and white photos of fur traders waving from canoes I can stand.

 

I needn't have worried. Maddin's film is bizarre, hilarious, and nothing at all like any documentary I've ever seen. Actually, that's not true. The film seems at least partly influenced by Canada's proud documentary tradition and, of course, John Grierson. As head of the NFB, Grierson helped institute the "voice of God" narration in documentary, and imbued early NFB films with a sense of authority and all-encompassing, soul-crushing boredom. In My Winnipeg, however, this style of narration quickly merges with deliberately pretentious film-school voice-over before going insanely south, and soon the film is less about Winnipeg than it is about how Guy Maddin is weird and really likes silent films.

 

Nevertheless, in the midst of My Winnipeg's flights of fancy, which include strange animation sequences and bizarre re-enactments of scenes from his childhood, Maddin manages to include plenty of actual information about the city. Granted, some of the facts presented are... unlikely, to put it delicately, but the way the film oscillates from tone poetry to straight documentary to a barely cohesive rant about the old Winnipeg Jets arena is absolutely brilliant.

 

I have no doubt that the grainy black and white photography, strange inter-titles, and occasional tangents into uncomfortable sexuality might be off-putting for those interested in more traditional documentary, but this is hands down the best film I've seen at the festival, and perhaps my favourite of the year. However, I still don't think Winnipeg is very interesting.  

The House Next Door [Lauren Wissot]

Guy Maddin’s thrilling, ingenious My Winnipeg is a love letter to the Canadian director’s hometown disguised as a Buñuel “escape from the bourgeoisie” comedy. Like a guest at a never-ending dinner party, Maddin (who narrates the B&W, MOS film) is plotting to finally leave the comfort of “snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg,” the city of his birth—the city he’s spent his entire life in—but must fight the unseen magnetic forces that are keeping him there. Fortunately, unlike Buñuel’s clueless characters, Maddin has a secret weapon—he’s a filmmaker. “What if I film my way out of here?” he proposes.

And thus begins one man’s incredible odyssey through a looking glass past. Using a combination of archival footage, scenes of narcoleptic train passengers, words flashing onto the screen as in an old train robbery silent, the sounds of chugging railroad cars and jangling keys, of hair clippers mixed with a symphony, repeating images of “forks, lap and fur” (the ingredients of the “magnetic pull”), not to mention hilarious narration (wherein Maddin dispenses “facts” like Winnipeg having ten times the sleepwalking rate of anywhere in the world), all mingled with descriptions of his “mother” (as strong as the railroad), Maddin creates a “docu-fantasia” that is more truthful than most nonfiction films. He deals not just in physical reality, but psychic as well. Maddin’s small childhood memories, just as momentous as the city’s grand history, are entwined as one.

And what memories he has—of “dreamy addresses” (Winnipeg has an ordinance that all residents must admit former tenants to their abode for one night), of a bizarre home that housed his mother’s beauty parlor. “I was proud of the strangeness,” Maddin admits. It was a “chunk of happy home.” Growing up in a salon, Maddin was forever surrounded by the “smell of female vanity and desperation.” Desperate to film his way out of the past, the director decides to sublet his childhood home for a month and recreate scenes from his youth using both actors and his “real” mother (played by the still-stunning, silver-haired, 40s noir actress Ann Savage).

Things get off to a start both good (the movers are a tax deduction—“I’m a filmmaker!” Maddin reminds) and bad (he’s forced to include in his reenactments the current tenant, “a strange lady who won’t leave her house”). The actors watch the TV program “Ledgeman!” (the titular character threatens to jump from a ledge in every episode, but is always saved by the director’s “actress mother”), and witness/perform the “straightening of the hall runner.” Maddin stages the day his sister hit a deer on the highway, his mother twisting the tragedy into a salacious tryst with the “man with the tire iron”, who put the dying deer out of its misery. “Did he pay you?” she huffs. “Everything that happens in the city is a euphemism,” Maddin explains. (Later he adds, “Mother is the most psychic of all Winnipeggers.”) He even accuses mom of trying to sabotage his film (the words “Passive aggressive!” pop onto the screen), captures every detail like the “YUG” carved “dyslexically” into his bedroom door. Much to his chagrin, mom wants to include his dead father in the proceedings, so they reach an uneasy compromise—pretending he’s had dad exhumed and buried in the living room. (It doesn’t get any more Buñuel than this!)

Even the city itself—with the frozen Ferris wheels of its amusement park “Happyland,” built in 1906 and shown in whimsical animation (as is the 1919 worker’s strike), and the “Academy of the Ultravixens” (a.k.a. St. Mary’s Academy)—is snow-piled in absurdist tradition. Maddin shows us ghostly “archival” scenes of a man who de-spooks furniture, of a séance that erupts into a ballet recital, of the sign graveyard (another Winnipeg law forbids throwing away old signs) and “Garbage Hill,” a park composed of trash where children are often impaled on car fenders. (“My Winnipeg!” Maddin exclaims with pride.) The director’s silent film style is always laced with a modern sensibility, though. While his camera records black footprints in the pristine white snow, Maddin describes how January is the coldest month—“the month when the condoms come off!” “Bareback” flashes across the screen. Navigating iced alleyways, the director explains Winnipeg’s “phantom grid,” a series of nameless back lanes existing alongside the formal streets. One street, Lorette, is half and half. “It’s a hermaphrodite street,” Maddin says. “No one speaks of Lorette.”

In this warped valentine to a city where “demolition is one of the few growth industries” and the “MT Centre” is empty, Maddin reminisces, stealing a hockey shirt from a famed Russian visiting player, wearing it for a few stick hits, then quickly tossing it in the wash, fearful of the KGB. He wishes he could say his father, employed on the management side of Winnipeg’s NHL team, “spontaneously combusted on the ice,” though he died a much less dramatic death. The best Maddin can do is craft a passionate dream in which elderly hockey legends (including one named “Smiley”, so called because head wounds left him eternally happy) go blade to blade at the old arena as demolition rains down upon them. Of the NHL, which sounded the death knell for Winnipeg pros and perhaps the city’s future itself, Maddin laments, “We never should have joined that league!”

And the hilarious romp continues right back to mom—afraid of “birds and messy hair”—being threatened with a parakeet by her own actor-children in a last ditch effort to get her to cook for them. Maddin’s camera captures the winter walkers as they visit the notorious frozen horse heads (yup, a herd got stuck in the snow up to their necks), which soon becomes a lovers’ stroll. “Golden boy!” and “Man pageants!” and “Corridor of Thighs” flashes onto the screen when Maddin trains his lens on Winnipeg’s infamous debauched nightclub, the mayor the judge of these risqué beauty pageants, which ceased when too many “golden boys” were found holding “golden jobs” at city hall. (The pipe-smoking contest that followed in the pageant’s wake just wasn’t as exciting.) From the “Dance of the hairless boners!” in the gender segregated spa (“Why? Why don’t we just swim?” Maddin wondered as a kid), to the animated gay bison that stampede Happyland, to “Aerial Happyland” (the rooftops of skyscrapers where Winnipeg’s homeless live out of sight), to the spectacular “If Day” in which 5,000 Nazis invade Winnipeg, renaming it Himmlerstadt, Maddin’s incomparable triumph is his sweeping annihilation of such quaint categories as “fiction” and “doc.” As sturdy a hybrid as Lorette, My Winnipeg is breathtakingly one-hundred-percent true to the heart, the only truth that matters in the “winter wonder” end.

By Jason McBride  The Secret Sharer: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, from Cinema Scope

 

Slant Magazine [Bill Weber]

 

PopMatters [Cynthia Fuchs]

 

My Winnipeg | Reverse Shot  Andrew Tracy

 

SpoutBlog [Karina Longworth]  offering a counter response to Tracy’s review

 

My Winnipeg  Michael Sicinski from The Academic Hack

 

The Village Voice [J. Hoberman]  also reviewing Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD

 

Mike D'Angelo

 

The New York Sun (S. James Snyder)

 

MY WINNIPEG  Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion

 

The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray]

 

Filmcritic.com  Chris Cabin

 

New York Magazine (David Edelstein)

 

The Auteurs' Notebook  Daniel Kasman

 

culturevulture.net, Choices for the Cognoscenti   George Wu

 

Reel.com [Pam Grady]

 

Twitch [Todd Brown]

 

Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir]  also reviewing Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD

 

not coming to a theater near you (Chiranjit Goswami)   (lengthy)

 

eFilmCritic.com (Jay Seaver)

 

CompuServe [Harvey Karten]

 

Cinematical [Monika Bartyzel]

 

Screen International   Leonard Klady

 

Guy Maddin interview  by Steve Erickson from Film & Video

 

Guy Maddin takes a dream-like tour of Winnipeg - Arts - Toronto ...   Home Truths, by Alison Gillmor from CBC News, September 7, 2007

 

Time Out Chicago (Ben Kenigsberg)

 

Time Out New York (Joshua Rothkopf)

 

Variety.com [Eddie Cockrell]

 

Philadelphia City Paper [Sam Adams]

 

The Globe and Mail   Rick Groen

 

Los Angeles Times [Kenneth Turan]

 

Chicago Tribune (Michael Phillips)

 

Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert)

 

New York Times (registration req'd)  A.O. Scott

 

KEYHOLE                                                                B+                   90

Canada  (94 mii)  2011              Official site

 

A Guy Maddin film is likely to be weird and creepy, among other things, although weirdness is his state of normalcy.  Maddin is one of the more original filmmakers working today, a highly inventive guy who thrives on Silent black & white movie techniques, where watching his films resembles sleepwalking, as his imagery is very dreamlike, usually writing his own scripts, using original German Expressionist lighting and set designs, where early in his career he actually hand painted each colorized celluloid frame.  He infuses a wonderful sense of surrealistic mystery with an audacious sense of humor, often intermixing graphic nudity with bizarre hallucination sequences, and makes frequent flashbacks to childhood.  His films often create a sense of chaotic confusion, blending fiction with non-fiction, using a stream-of conscious, experimental style where there’s little or no narrative, no character development, rather wooden acting, where a sense of the ridiculous predominates the mood along with a heightened melodramatic hysteria.  Frequent themes include the trappings of love, murder, mental anxiety, Russia, hockey, homoeroticism, his perennially absent father, not to mention everpresent references to his hometown of Winnipeg, where all his films are shot.  His best films may be CAREFUL (1992), where the residents of a small town in a snowy mountain village have to be quiet and keep their voices down or risk being consumed in snow from a lurking landslide, so all the characters keep whispering, or his recent MY WINNIPEG (2007), which is a hilarious tribute to his hometown.  If you'd like proof of his film mastery, check out his award winning 6 minute short The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin - YouTube (6:08) premiering at the 2000 Toronto Film Festival, where his film condenses so much into so little time, averaging two shots per second, a masterclass in film editing that literally shocked the world, many feeling it was the best film released that year.  There is no one on the planet that makes films like Maddin, an abstract modernist whose film puzzles are as intelligible as Cubist paintings, where the uninitiated often have a hard time making sense out of his highly condensed and extremely rhapsodic film expression, shot on Digital here for the first time, offering unrestricted freedom of mobility.   

 

KEYHOLE is largely a haunted house film, told in a murder mystery style, where a collection of oddball characters starts piling up, some obviously ghosts, but others who have the capacity to see and feel these haunting spirits who are easily spoken to, though they often disappear before your eyes.  This film does have a slightly demented narrative form that keeps challenging the audience’s reference points, as the eccentric goings-on in this ghost house don’t always make sense, though the opening is right out of John Huston’s KEY LARGO (1948), where a wanderer in the night named Ulysses, no less (Jason Patric), walks in out of an electric storm returning home where his gang has gathered and his first order of business is to have all the characters line up against the wall, the dead ones facing the wall and the live ones facing forward.  The dead ones are told they’ll have a pleasant police escort to the morgue, where they’re ushered out the door to the sound of rapid gunfire.  Gangster life was never easy.  Ulysses is the top dog who gives the orders around the house, where the film seems to be a collection of incidents that largely take place in his head, like an evolving memory piece where he wanders through various reflections of his own imagination, interacting with ghosts from his past, where it’s hard to tell if any are still living, as all have a deep connection to death.  Certainly since Maddin’s first short film, THE DEAD FATHER (1986), Guy Maddin - the Dead Father Clip - YouTube (2:00), the director has mixed absurd humor with surrealist flourishes, where mingling the living with the dead is a familiar theme, where here Ulysses actually carries around with him, wherever he goes, a bound and gagged blind prisoner strapped to a chair, who turns out to be his (very much alive) dead son Manners (David Wontner), also his own personal psychic (Brooke Palsson), who may be his daughter Denny, who walks around in a weakened and collapsing state of exhaustion from drowning, which certainly doesn’t prevent her from taking her clothes off frequently, apparently swooning from the heat.  These three set out to explore the house (and their family) through a secret passageway.     

   

Meanwhile, waiting upstairs, Isabella Rossellini as Hyacinth (his wife) lays covered in her bed with her naked father (Louis Negin) held hostage on the floor chained to the bed, “There will be no forgiveness, that's why I keep you chained to my bed,” while her lover Chang (Johnny Chang) lurks in the shadows, where at least the father offers an attempt to explain what’s going on via a recurring narration, though it’s clear they don’t wish to be disturbed by Ulysses and that racket he’s making in the house, so they have locked the door, where Ulysses can only stare in at her and speak through a keyhole.  The connections between the deadpan Ulysses and his family remain forever distant, as at times he doesn’t even recognize them, himself an absent father.  The morbid noirish atmosphere within the house is all drenched in claustrophobic detail, with other characters continually moving in and out of the scene, where there is always a new storyline to follow along with resurfacing family legend.  There’s even a Cinderella character continually scrubbing the floors, where someone gets electrocuted when they attempt sexual favors, and a brief appearance by Udo Kier as a dismissive Freudian era medical practitioner, also a James Whale FRANKENSTEIN (1931) style electric chair sequence powered by stationary cyclists, which has the effect of recharging many of the dead memory cells for Ulysses, while others who try are less fortunate.  An earlier Maddin short Guy Maddin - Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair (2009 ...  YouTube (6:53) with Louis Negin adds a familiar allure, even including the continued reference to the clock about to strike midnight.  Basically, KEYHOLE is a tour de force blitzkrieg of phantasmagorian Maddin images, often incoherent, somewhat in the manner of the infamous James Joyce stream of conscious novel, a masterful piece of editing that often resembles subliminal clues interspersed throughout that offer keys to Ulysses’ fragmented memory.  “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” calls the voice of the narrator, as if there is a secret code.  Forced to continually turn back the clocks, this is a conceptual exercise where in his search to get up the stairs into his wife’s bedroom, Ulysses is repeatedly frustrated by recurring thoughts and memories and has to continually contend with ghosts of the past, where often, even in our own lives, the living and the dead may feel interchangeable.    

 

Time Out New York [Keith Ulhich]

It was a dark and stormy night. What? You’ve heard that one before? Not the way Canuck director Guy Maddin tells it in his mind-bending black-and-white psychosexual melodrama. We begin in medias res, with gangster Ulysses Pick (Patric) and his lackeys hiding out in a creaky old house. Thunder claps, cop sirens blare, and a naked old man in chains rattles around in the attic. Uh…wha?!? The weirdness doesn’t end there: It slowly emerges that Ulysses—like his mythological namesake—has come home after a long absence, and his abode is filled with ghosts from the past.

Among these are his wife, Hyacinth (Rossellini), whose hair unlocks doors, and an under-the-stairs apparition who shouts “Double Yahtzee!” while masturbating. There’s also a mysterious handlebar mustache–sporting doctor (Kier) whose son has just died and a mobster with a taste for poltergeist booty (played by The Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald). And we’d be remiss not to mention the sentient, dust-covered penis lever because, well, it’s a freakin’ sentient, dust-covered penis lever! Maddin fans will no doubt be tickled (to death!) by each of the film’s outré elements, which only get more demented as Ulysses’s quest takes him closer to a reunion with Hyacinth and his son, Manners (Wontner), whom he is strangely unable to recognize. Yet for all the undeniable imaginativeness and visual dazzle (this is Maddin’s first entirely digital feature, and it positively glistens), Keyhole ultimately comes off like a feature-length private joke that revels a bit too gleefully in its overall inscrutability. Close, Guy. But no Double Yahtzee.

exclaim! [Bjorn Olson]

 

The latest offering from Canada's favourite oddball, Guy Maddin, Keyhole is bizarre, discomfiting, grotesque and perverse. In other words, it's another reliable Maddin product. Those expecting a straighter, more conventional film following the breakthrough of My Winnipeg will instead have to come to grips with something that fits well within his long-established weirder, claustrophobic tradition.

Keyhole is the loosely framed story of steely-eyed gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric, brilliantly deadpan) who barricades himself in an ancient, creaky house filled with familial ghosts mingling with psychosexual imagery, accompanied by a mute girl in a wet dress named Denny (Brooke Palsson).

While it would do Maddin a disservice to say that the plot is inconsequential, it's certainly not paramount, and at least half the pleasure of opening one of Maddin's elaborately enigmatic creations is the visual interplay and hilarious verbal non-sequiturs interwoven throughout his work.

With Keyhole, Maddin finally embraces the '30s gangster melodrama that one suspects he's been dying to tackle his entire career, but in his own particular way. His endearingly obsessive-compulsive eye for arcane detail is fully intact and Keyhole is the kind of film that's impossible to digest in one sitting.

In a way, this is the design flaw of his work, and Maddin has always sacrificed coherence for expressionism, yet it's hard to fault such a self-assured filmmaker for steadfastly sticking to his uncompromising aesthetic at this stage in the game. Everything you could possibly want from a Guy Maddin endeavour is intact, and when it peaks, Keyhole is as wildly unique and enthralling as his best work.

If the film goes slightly awry it's in its convoluted third act (around the time the great Udo Kier shows up), when the tautly paced noir style gives way to a deeper dive into the subconscious, and the sharp one-liners give way to soupy semaphore.

Regardless, one is inclined to give our Guy the benefit of the doubt and prep for repeated viewings.

 

Keyhole | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club  Noel Murray

For those who complain that Guy Maddin keeps making the same movies over and over… That isn’t entirely true. Maddin’s latest, Keyhole, is significantly different from anything he’s done before. In the past, Maddin’s work has felt like avant-garde re-edits of footage he found in the archive of some Eastern European country that didn’t survive the fall of communism. Keyhole feels more like some Poverty Row production that lapsed into the public domain decades ago, and ever since has been running at 2 a.m. every morning on a small state college’s dedicated cable-access channel. It’s still a pastiche of forgotten cinema, in other words, but the references are a little more modern and mainstream, at least by Maddin standards. Keyhole is a gangster picture crossed with a haunted-house picture crossed with a sword-and-sandal adventure, with Jason Patric playing a hoodlum named Ulysses whose mob is cornered in a crumbling house occupied by the ghosts of Patric’s past. The hero confronts his family issues as he goes searching for his wife (Isabella Rossellini) in the house’s secret rooms and nooks, while Maddin plays around with tough-guy patter between woozy black-and-white shots of half-naked people stumbling through a nightmare.

Few directors have Maddin’s visual imagination, which manifests in Keyhole via gun-molls with obscene graffiti scrawled on their underpants, a dusty wooden penis protruding inexplicably from a wall, an nude old coot chained to his bed, a woman with gold dust nestled in her pubic hair, a bicycle-powered electric chair, and more darkly perverse visions per minute than even most horror filmmakers could muster. Maddin and his regular co-writer, George Toles, are again dealing with memory and unconsciousness, creating a sensation not unlike nodding off during the late show and waking to find the furniture around your easy chair re-arranged. But while it’s nice to see Maddin broadening his range of influences (and moving beyond autobiography for the first time in a while), the genres he’s riffing on call for a little more narrative discipline than Maddin is inclined to give. It’s odd to see Patric apply his veteran polish to a story that’s often nonsensical by design, and one in which the rest of the cast is frequently either stiff or exaggerated. Keyhole’s flashes of actual B-movie coherence are enough to make longtime Maddin-watchers wonder if he could’ve played this material straighter, with more of a plot and fewer reveries. As it stands, Keyhole contains stretches as potent and distinctive as any in Maddin’s filmography, but they stand apart from each other, and fail to fully connect.  

EyeForFilm.co.uk [Anne-Katrin Titze]

"The ghosts are imposing their memories on the living" as we draw back the curtain to follow Ulysses through the keyhole into his mind. Guy Maddin's latest filmic inquiry into the nature of memory was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts and personates an enigma.

Keyholes make for curious frames and whenever you look through them, you are gazing at something forbidden, locked away - Santa Claus or the secrets of adults and children at work.

In Maddin's Keyhole, there are gangster ghosts who come from the 30s or 40s, film noirish and unyielding. One of them is a father named Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) and he returns, in Homeric fashion, to his hideout and a family strategically placed in (or dragged into) different rooms. "Many enemies in this house and I am one of them," foreshadows the re-callings inside the claustrophobic interiors.

The film is, unsurprisingly, in black and white, with only a glimpse of a dazzling pink and rose sequined gauze curtain (conceived by Maddin's daughter Jilian, who is a jewelry designer) blowing in from colorful times. We are transported to an imaginary American Weimar, where the figures from paintings by George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann freely mingle with an Orson Welles lookalike and a naked old man (Louis Negin), held hostage by Isabella Rossellini, who plays Hyacinth, the wife of Ulysses.

"There will be no forgiveness, that's why I keep you chained to my bed," she says to her father, the aforementioned old man. And here we are at the nucleus of Keyhole: The absent father.

Ulysses' children, a son named Manners (David Wontner) gagged and self-blinded, and a perpetually drowning daughter named Denny (Brooke Palsson) both have names with a double N in the middle, a phonetically soft voiced sound that stands in stark contrast to their parents' flinty voiceless S sounds.

"It's never too late to love a child," we are enlightened by the ageless, and all-ages encompassing Rossellini who dominates the upper floor of the house filled with mnemonic objects including a shiny toaster, a blanket with stripes and a Nugget shoeshine kit, all evoking smells of the past, which keep the longing for parental affection alive. True West of the spirits. Who can forget the aroma of toast in the morning? "Never trust your eyes, Ulysses, never trust your eyes!" He obeys, and smells a lingerie catalogue from a bygone era and sticks his nose into an urn instead.

Ulysses pulls strings through the keyholes, slender umbilical cords in daydreams or nightdress and undress. A blond Cinderella scrubs the floors and all clocks show midnight without a strike.

Similarly to Freud's story of the father, who had a dream that his child, next to his bed, pulled at his arm to inform him: "Father, don’t you see I’m burning?," every person and object in Keyhole is pulling at your arm, or is it your leg?

When I brought up the taboo subject of Freud in my conversation with Guy, he grinned and said "Maybe I can read him now." After flipping through The Interpretation Of Dreams in a bookstore many years ago, Maddin started interpreting his dreams while dreaming. The filmmaker believes in the irreversible impact of our earliest perceptions, or how he phrased it to me: "We are still standing on those furtive ruins."

Udo Kier (all ways fantastic, always different, from Fassbinder to Lars von Trier and beyond) portrays an unflinching doctor with a handlebar moustache and a sick child of his own, in a mode of naturalism, that is all but comparable to Kafka's naturalism.

Linear adventures, characters of flesh and blood reflected on the silver screen doing things in the great outdoors, can not be found here. To enjoy this kind of adventure, you have to get lost in Guy Maddin's house, because he has made a ghost of a film - "but a ghost isn't nothing."

Klymkiw Film Corner [Greg Klymkiw]

 

Full disclosure: I produced Guy Maddin’s first three feature films, lived with him as a roommate (I was Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger – Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sprang miraculously to life on the top two floors of a ramshackle old house on Winnipeg’s McMillan Avenue), continue to love him as one of my dearest friends and consider his brilliant screenwriting partner George Toles to be nothing less than my surrogate big brother.

Most importantly, I am one of Maddin’s biggest fans and refuse to believe I am not able to objectively review his work. Objectively, then, allow me to declare that I loved Keyhole.

What’s not to love?

Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. Like Terence Davies, Maddin is one of the few living filmmakers who understands the poetic properties of cinema, and this, frankly, is to be cherished as much as any perfectly wrought narrative.

This is not to say narrative does NOT exist in Maddin’s work. If you really must, dig deep and you will find it. That, however, wouldn’t be very much fun. One has a better time with Maddin’s pictures just letting them HAPPEN to you.

The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before – playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing.

Populated with a variety of tough guys and babe-o-licious molls, Ulysses is faced with ghosts of both the living and the dead, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini – gorgeous as always and imbued with all the necessary qualities to render melodrama with joy and humanity), her frequently nude father (the brilliant Louis Negin – perhaps one of the world’s greatest living character actors, who frankly should be cast in every movie ever made), chained to his bed, uttering the richly ripe George Toles dialogue and Udo Kier (the greatest fucking actor in the world), whose appearance in this movie is so inspired I’ll let you discover for yourself the greatness of both the role and Udo himself.

Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. For movie geeks, literary freaks and Greek tragedy-o-philes, the movie is blessed with added treats to gobble down voraciously.

Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s not all fun and games. Beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. For me, what’s so important and moving about the film is its literal and thematic exploration of a space. Strongly evoking that sense of how our lives are inextricably linked to so many places (or a place) and how they in turn are populated with things – inanimate objects that become more animate once we project our memories upon them – or how said places inspire reminiscence of said objects which, in turn, inspire further memories, Keyhole is as profound and sad as it’s a crazed laugh riot.

Of all the reviews about the movie that I bothered to read, I was shocked that NOBODY – NOT ONE FUCKING CRITIC – picked up on the overwhelming theme of PLACE and the SPIRIT of all those THINGS that live and breathe in our minds. It was the first thing to weigh heavily upon me when I first saw the movie. It has seldom been approached in the movies – and, for my money – NO MORE POIGNANTLY AND BRILLIANTLY than rendered by Maddin, Toles and their visionary young producer Jody Shapiro.

All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce), the animate and inanimate, the real and the imagined, these are the things that haunt us to our graves, and perhaps beyond. And they all populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole – a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in.

We are all ghosts and are, in turn, haunted by them.

 

TIFF '11 Review: Guy Maddin's 'Keyhole' Beautiful And Brassy...But ...  James Rocchi from The indieWIRE Playlist

 

@ Moria - The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review [Richard Scheib]

 

Slant Magazine [Bill Weber]

 

NPR [Ian Buckwalter]

 

Keyhole - Filmcritic.com Movie Review  Chris Cabin

 

Village Voice [Karina Longworth]

 

indieWire [Eric Kohn]

 

The House Next Door [Kenji Fujishima]

 

EyeForFilm.co.uk [Owen Van Spall]

 

CineVue [Patrick Gamble]

 

Smells Like Screen Spirit [Don Simpson]

 

Quiet Earth [Rick McGrath]

 

The House Next Door [Phil Coldiron]

 

ColeSmithey.com [Cole Smithey]

 

Georgia Straight [Mark Harris]

 

IonCinema [Blake Williams]

 

Movies.com [Dave White]

 

The Wrap [Alonso Duralde]

 

MediaMikes.com [Mike Gencarelli]

 

Keyhole at Gene Siskel Film Center | Film | Events | The A.V. Club ...

 

Canada's Top Ten List [Peter Knegt]  Indiewire, December 7, 2011

 

Read the interview now.   September 11, 2011

 

Guy Maddin talks about Keyhole and “the haunted ... - The AV Club  Interview by Sam Adams, April 6, 2012

 

The Hollywood Reporter [David Rooney]

 

Variety [Justin Chang]

 

Review: Guy Maddin's Keyhole - Montreal Gazette  T’Cha Dunlevy

 

Keyhole: A gangster locked in and locked out - The Globe and Mail  Liam Lacey

 

Vancouver Sun [Maggie Langrick]

 

Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert]

New York Times Theatrical Opening [A. O. Scott]

New York Times [MEKADO MURPHY]

Mader, Ruth

 

STRUGGLE                                     A-                    94

Austria  (74 mi)  2003

 

From the opening wish of Bill Wither's song, "Just the Two of Us," to the film's final curtain call, the subject is love.  STRUGGLE is a wrenching look at immigrants bussed into Austria to perform the menial labor jobs for Austria, driving past the meticulou