The Compleat Ingmar #21: The Virgin Spring (1960)

It is quite amazing to see how prolific a filmmaker Bergman was, and how varied his oeuvre was within a fairly short time. To make a somewhat arbitrary cut, between Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), a romantic comedy with a melancholy streak and a wonderfully light touch, and Persona (1966), whose psychological drama veers into something not too dissimilar from Lynchian horror, lie ten films that include the strange, phantasmagoric The Magician (1958), the chilling, existentialist Winter Light (1963) and, of course, The Seventh Seal (1957), a film so iconic that its central image is surely familiar to many more than have actually seen the film. Even halfway into Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, I still tend to have a somewhat reductive image of Bergman as the writer-director of psychological drama set in upper-middle-class circles, films of midlife crises and marital strife – and along comes the primal, harrowing The Virgin Spring to remind me that Bergman’s films were much more than just this.

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #41: The Musical Episode

Sing, sing, sing: for our February episode, we celebrate the genre where people are constantly at risk of breaking into song and dance and where one-word titles just don’t feel right unless you add an exclamation at the end. Yes, your damn fine cultural baristas finally take a closer look at the musical! Do we love it or are we musical sceptics? What musical numbers do we sing under the shower? For this episode of the podcast, the films that bring a song to our hearts are the pre-code gem Gold Diggers of 1933 by Mervyn LeRoy and choreography by the iconic Busby Berkeley, Jacques Demy’s marvellous movie meringue Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (your best chance to hear Gene Kelly speak French!) and the Polish horror fairytale The Lure, a sexy, scary and surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. (Take that, Disney!) So, warm up your vocal cords, don your dancing shoes and join us in a celebration of the movie musical!

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #14: Two for the Road

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

In 1951, when she had a small appearance in The Lavender Hill Mob as Chiquita (sadly not having seen the film, I cannot tell whether this means she played an actual banana), Audrey Hepburn wasn’t yet the movie star that she would later become. Roman Holiday was still two years away, then came Sabrina, War and Peace and Funny Face, and in 1961 she made her iconic appearance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Much has been written and said about what exactly Hepburn’s character in that film, Holly Golightly, is exactly: is she merely selling companionship needy men, or is she selling sex? Truman Capote, who wrote the novella the film was based on, called her an “American geisha”, but he didn’t exactly answer the question.

In any case, for all of Hepburn’s tremendous charms and attraction, she never struck me as particularly sexual in her performances; her characters were largely cute as the cutest of kittens, but also oddly innocent, almost to the point of sexlessness. On screen, she always came off as something of an anti-Marylin Monroe.

So consider my surprise when I found out that she was in a film written by Frederic Raphael, whose other works include Eyes Wide Shut. Yes, Stanley Kubrick’s last film. Yes, the one with the orgy that caused Warner Bros. to digitally alter the respective scenes, Austin Powers-style, to avoid an adults-only NC-17 rating.

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I don’t know if I like it, but it sure sounds dramatic: music and The Crown

C’est le ton qui fait la musique.
— French saying

For the longest time, I avoided Netflix’s The Crown, even though I’d mostly heard good things. I knew that they had a strong cast and that the creative team had been involved in films and series I’d liked (though not exclusively – I enjoyed Peter Morgan’s work on, say, The Damned United, but I was decidedly less keen on Bohemian Rhapsody, even if he was responsible for the story rather than the script). My main problem was this: my interest in the Royal Family is, let’s say, minuscule, and I’m no big fan of the British monarchy and the culture it’s a part of. There’s simply not much appeal there for me, especially if part of the attraction seems to lie in enjoying the aesthetics and the iconography, the sheer nobility of it all.

Then this little pandemic happened, my wife and me started spending much more time at home, and there are only so many good HBO series to enjoy, so I guess we started watching The Crown. Personally, I blame Olivia Colman. How could I not be more interested, knowing that she’d be in it before long?

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Howl, howl, howl! Wolfwalkers (2020)

This will come as no surprise to those who have seen The Secret of Kells (2009), Song of the Sea (2014) and The Breadwinner (2017) by the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon: their latest, Wolfwalkers, is gorgeous to look at. More than that, their films all have very specific visual styles derived from what they’re about, even if they’re recognisably Cartoon Saloon. I like it when animation creates an aesthetic that is emphatically not realistic, for instance the way that Pixar’s Soul did in its metaphysical spaces – and Cartoon Saloon has been great at using and combining visual styles taking inspiration from sources such as illuminated medieval manuscripts and Afghan miniature painting. In Wolfwalkers, the designers and animators evoke two different worlds by means of very different aesthetics: 17th century Kilkenny has the flattened, right-angled quasi-perspective of woodcut prints of the time, creating vistas and compositions that use depth to striking, even unsettling effect not too dissimilar from deep focus, yet always grounded in the historical style it imitates. In contrast, the woods not far from the town are depicted in a more free-flowing, rounded style, giving these places a distinctly different feel, at once more naturalistic than the stylised streets of Kilkenny and more mystical. Visually and narratively, nature in Wolfwalkers is imbued with a life and spirituality that reveals Wolfwalkers – and Cartoon Saloon’s films in general – to be kindred to the worlds of Studio Ghibli, in particular the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

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The Compleat Ingmar #20: The Silence (1963)

I was not prepared for the extent to which Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre would embrace the uncanny. He may not be a David Lynch, but where Lynch’s nightmares are often emphatically surreal, Bergman’s use of the dreamlike is more subtle, more psychological, and probably more Freudian – though not in the overly literal way that pop-Freudians tends to go for. Unless we’re talking about Hour of the Wolf, which indeed feels like proto-Lynch in its final third, Bergman’s onereic sequences – when they are not explicitly dreams, as for instance in Wild Strawberries – always leave it up to the viewer whether what they are seeing is really happening or not, and to what extent it is filtered through, or even distorted by, a character whose perception is less than reliable.

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The Corona Diaries: “Backlog” is just another word for great films you can still look forward to

It’s been a while since we posted one of these. In the meantime, 2020 is history, but 2021 is aiming to show its elder that it can be just as much of a pest. (As someone said: 2021 is shaping up to be the mutated version of 2020.) Will the vaccine help? Perhaps, at least I hope so, but for now we’re left to wait and see. While we were lucky in Switzerland that cinemas were open for half the year, they’ve now been closed since October, and the day on which they can open again seems to be moving further and further into the distance. In the spring of 2020, Mege posted this photo of one of the local cinemas:

Back then, this seemed like an optimistic act of defiance. These days, when I pass the building, it still says the same, but that “Coming soon” sounds like a feeble act of denial.

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #40: Star-Spangled Paranoia

Ah, 2021. We expected so much of you, but you decided to one-up your predecessor. The events of the last week have made John Frankenheimer’s paranoia classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962) look surprisingly sedate – who needs one sleeper agent brainwashed by hypnosis into becoming a terrorist when you can mobilise thousands via Twitter and distorting reality? Nonetheless, The Manchurian Candidate retains all of its unsettling potency. Join Julie, Sam and Matt – and quite possibly exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party – as they talk about Frankenheimer’s seminal film and why it still works so well. (One part of the answer is obviously Angela Lansbury.) So, instead of passing the time with a game of Solitaire, why don’t you join us as we explore not only this classic film of political and personal paranoia but the rich seam of paranoia that goes through American cinema?

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Ho^3

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #8: Jason Robards

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that sometimes very bad films can have a surprisingly good cast. Take Chernobyl: The Final Warning, for instance, which I would have been blissfully unaware of if it hadn’t been for last week’s Six Damn Fine Degrees entry by Alan. Sure, Jon Voight has been in films that should have been delivered to the nearest trash compactor before ever seeing the light of day, but he’s also been in some stone cold classics. (No, Baby Geniuses and the Mystery of the Crown Jewels isn’t such a classic. Sorry.) Speaking of trash compactors, Chernobyl: The Final Warning also features the Death Star MVPs Ian McDiarmid and Sebastian Shaw, who memorably co-starred in Return of the Jedi as the wacky duo Emperor Palpatine and Anakin “NOOOOOOOO!” Skywalker, at least before Shaw fell foul of the original Jedi Purge and was digitally replaced by a bald, scarred, Humpty Dumpty-looking Hayden Christensen. Then there’s Annette Crosby, who played Victor Meldrew long-suffering wife for eleven years before later taking on the famous Dickensian role of “Mr. F’s Aunt” in the BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit. Seriously, though, Crosby’s no slouch, as is evidenced by her OBE for services to Drama. The cherry on top of this particular radioactive sundae, though, is Jason Robards.

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