Six Damn Fine Degrees #68: The trouble with Sci-Fi

To quote Harrison Ford: it took me a long, long, long, long, LONG time to warm up to sci-fi.

You travel through space and time and end up with what is supposed to be an exciting new planet with an unknown species – played by clearly human actors standing around in what looks like – oh, I dunno, the Moroccan desert? Yes, I know, there is a limit to every budget, but sci-fi has such promise to dazzle me with something I have never ever seen before, only to disappoint me with the constraints of movie-making and its financial limits. If you want me to follow you to a place where no man has gone before, make sure the make-up department isn’t already there before us, setting up their trailer. Needless to say, I was never a Trekkie and never understood the exuberance of the operatic derring-do of something like Star Wars. To me, A New Hope looked like fun, but it was essentially a western set in space. It was all too familiar because most things and places and beings looked… too close to home. Not strange enough.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Love and Death in the Middle Ages

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.

If a week begins with Stanley Kubrick, it can’t be all bad: Matt started the Criterion Corner, a new feature exploring his Criterion back catalogue, starting with Kubrick’s The Killing. Again, not a bad start for anything.

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Criterion Corner: The Killing (#575)

While I’ve enjoyed the Stanley Kubrick films I’ve seen, I couldn’t say that I have a clear idea of what makes a Kubrick film. I recognise certain aspects or qualities, certain directorial quirks, but I couldn’t say that I recognise a red thread going from Paths of Glory, Spartacus via Lolita and Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon and finally Eyes Wide Shut, to name just a few. Every now and then there are scenes that remind me of the other films, such as 2001‘s notorious stargate sequence and Strangelove‘s aerial photography – but tonally, I couldn’t claim I have much of a grasp of who Kubrick is as a director, if he even has a typical tone. If anything, I would say there is a drily, drolly, sometimes even bleakly ironic streak that I’ve found in several of his films – but not in all.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: You’ve always been the Petula Clark

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.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy: on Friday, Alan took us back to the Overlook Hotel, to talk about Shelley Duvall’s performance in Stanley’s Kubrick seminal Stephen King adaptation The Shining.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #30: Shelley Duvall in The Shining

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 the inaugural awards ceremony for The Golden Raspberries back in 1980, Shelley Duvall was nominated for her performance as Wendy Torrence in The Shining. This fact is a useful reminder as to how mixed to hostile the critical reception was for the film on its initial release. And that the annual exercise in lazy trying-to-be-cool snobbery that is the Razzies really don’t know what they’re talking about.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Lolita (1955)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

It took me ages to read Lolita. No, that’s not quite correct: it took me ages to get around to reading Lolita. I avoided the book for a long time because it sounded offputting: an older guy lusting after a young girl. You don’t need to read literature, you see that everywhere, every day already. In the end, my first encounter with Lolita was, well, not even the 1962 adaptation by Stanley Kubrick but the glossy, shallow film version by Adrian Lyne. It’s a miracle I ever did get around to reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel after that.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Dispatches (1977)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a slim book, but it’s so densely written that I couldn’t get through it in one day. It’s his own personal diary from the Vietnam war, condensed into such sparse prose that you will have to set it down eventually. Herr throws you into the the mess of war and explains only what is crucial for the rest of the text so that the reader is set to feel very much like a newly drafted soldier joining the conflict – you have basic training, but no clue about the area they drop you in. The reason for that immediacy might be that Herr is not really a novelist, but a journalist. He volunteered to go to Vietnam, joined the reserve there in 1967, returned to the US, had a nervous breakdown, couldn’t write anything for five years and finally published this book in 1977.

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Mad Howling in the Red Dark

If you are ready for an agonisingly slow descent into hell, then Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is the film for you. There are many reasons to instinctively refrain from watching it in the first place: yet another Nicholas Cage over-the-top performance; outrageous violence and buckets of blood; killer demons on motorcycles. What’s more, the film might change from one viewing to the next, but for me, it worked because I was in the right kind of mood, and that might prove crucial with movies like this. And I never watched a chainsaw duel I didn’t like. Continue reading

Enter the Zone

Ever since I spent a few months in Glasgow in 2000 and fell in love with the Glasgow Film Theatre, I’ve been hoping that a good repertory cinema would open a bit closer to home. Last autumn, that wish came true, when a local cinema that before had mostly shown B movies along the lines of The Core and The Extraordinary League of Gentlemen was refurnished and turned into a cinematic time capsule. They show some current arthouse fare at the Kino Rex Bern, but mostly they show classics, whether American, European or otherwise, and organise series on particular themes or filmmakers.

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We need to talk about Christopher

I haven’t yet seen Interstellar. I’m definitely curious about the film and looking forward to it – I’m still as much a sucker for gorgeous space imagery as I was back when I was eight years old and had a poster of the solar system and its planets on my bedroom wall. At the same time, I have to admit to some apprehension, and that’s due to two things: Christopher Nolan and his fans. There’s a lot of hyperbole about Nolan and his films, just as there is too much criticism that dismisses his films, or patronises them, due to his making genre cinema. It’s difficult to find discussion of, say, The Dark Knight or Inception that doesn’t treat the films as either cinematic masterpieces or as hollow and derivative, as the sort of genre movies that let some sci-fi and superhero fans go, “Look? That’s brainy, isn’t it? The genre’s all grown up now?” At its worst, Nolan fetishism brings forth silliness such as proclaiming the director the new Kubrick.

I like Nolan’s films, even The Dark Knight Returns for all its flaws. Nolan has proven that he’s a skilled, smart director who knows how to handle his material well. He’s also deeply flawed: several of his films, for all their complicatedness, aren’t actually all that complex. He’s too enamoured of Big Questions that aren’t actually all that big or relevant, and that have been done before. Nolan likes a bit of the good old “… ah, but is it?” at the end of his films, but try to answer those questions and there’s not all that much there. That spinning top in Inception, the question whether at the end of the film Cobb is still in the dream? That twist is already there in the film’s premise – it’s predictable. Similarly, Memento‘s conundrum concerning Sammy Jankis’ identity? It’s a twist too far, an example of Nolan not trusting his film to have made the same point about Leonard’s malleable identity in the absence of memory already, taking it to near-absurdity. If Nolan’s films, and especially his scripts, insisted less on their apparent depth (which often totters on the border to pompousness), they’d actually make a more convincing case for being deeper than your general genre fare. As it is, through his films Nolan doth protest too much that he’s making grown-up films for grown-up people with grown-up brains.

There’s something else that Nolan doesn’t do all that well, and that’s action sequences. Given the right conceit, his action can be amazing: look at the hotel fight in Inception, divorced from gravity. In the same film, though, you get the sub-Bondian mountain action, which is dull and generic. Look at The Dark Knight‘s truck sequence and it’s a confusing mess of direction, cinematography and editing, while the Heat-with-clowns intro works tremendously well. I remember seeing The Dark Knight at the cinema and loving some scenes while wondering in others whether we were being shown a version of the film edited (and badly at that) to be shown on planes.

At the same time, Nolan does excel at doing films about men who make convoluted plans to avoid facing the emotional wrecks they are. Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige and Inception: in all of these, Nolan finds striking images and interactions to show his protagonists’ helplessness and the lengths to which they go to deny just how lost they are. To my mind, these themes are much more interesting than yet another treatise on what is real and what is a dream, or that central question that mankind has faced for centuries: whether Batman can be broken. Nolan has been accused of making cold films that are thin when they try to be emotional, and I don’t think sentiment is something he does well, either as a director or as a writer: but give him characters, especially men, who don’t know how to deal when faced with their own failure and loss, and he’s riveting. This is a director who should do a modern version of the Orpheus myth – if he hasn’t already done so in various ways. His Orpheus, when told he cannot look back, would be likely to construct an ingenious device of smoke, mirrors and cameras to trick Hades, without ever realising that Eurydice is gone for good.

As I said at the beginning, I’m curious about Interstellar, and I’m sure it’ll be a visual triumph. The trailer worries me, though; it looks like Nolan is making his Contact, complete with daddy issues. I’m not sure I trust him as a director to handle sentiment head-on: he’s no Spielberg, and even Spielberg isn’t always up to the task. Nolan has been best so far when he had his characters approach emotion at oblique angles, because they’re rarely good at handling them. At his best, there’s an understated but effective undercurrent of emotion in his films. I’m very much hoping that Interstellar will prove more The Prestige than Contact, and that he didn’t try to be both Kubrick and Spielberg at the same time. It didn’t work for Spielberg either when he did A.I.

P.S.: For anyone else who has a yen for astronomy porn, there’s the upcoming game Elite: Dangerous. In space, no one can hear you become speechless at the sight of all those planetary rings.