Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

Back on cinema screens for a third time (last time was 2001 for the Redux version), Coppola’s epic meditation on Vietnam and the horror of war gets a digital makeover for this outing. Not only does it look beautifully crisp and clean, it also sounds amazing. What really grabbed me from the outset was the quality and clarity of the soundtrack, as the sound of rotor blades whir from side to side over The Doors’ The End, you could almost be in the jungle with Kurtz, Willard and Co.

Composed of a number of outstanding set-pieces, and featuring screen chewing performances from Robert Duval (“I love the smell of Napalm in the morning”), Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, to mention but a few, this is one you really have to see on the big screen. Famous as much for the facts behind how it got made, as for the towering success it became, Apocalypse Now still stands up, not just as a film, but as a great film. It’s often accused of being indulgent, chaotic and sprawling (actually it’s not), but by god it’s an amazing couple of hours of pure cinematic pleasure.

 

Apocalypse Now is showing exclusively at The IFI until Thursday, June 2nd.

Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, 2010)

I recently caught up with Joanna Hogg’s second feature on DVD. I had originally intended to see it during the Dublin Film Festival earlier in the year, but clashing film schedules wouldn’t allow it. It’s probably just as well, as shouting at your telly in the comfort of your own home is much more preferable to venting your frustration in a packed cinema.

Hogg’s film centres around an upper middle-class English family holidaying in a rented house on the Scilly Isles. Mother Patricia (Kate Fahey), daughter Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) and son Edward (Tom Hiddleston, making his second appearance for Hogg after 2007’s debut film Unrelated) convene for a few weeks’ relaxation, by way of a send-off for Edward, who is due to leave for Africa to take up a post as a volunteer aid worker.

Edward is conflicted about his decision and seems to be having a bit of an early mid-life crisis about where his life is going in general. He doesn’t get much in the way of support from his mother or sister, both of whom seem incapable of reaching out, or making any kind of real emotional connection with the others. He finds some mild distraction with Rose (real-life cook Amy Lloyd), the cook the family have hired for the holiday (I know), who he can at least talk to and connect with.  Cynthia is harbouring her own inner anger and frustration, which manifests itself in her bossing the other’s about, and being generally bitchy to Edward. In one terse exchange over dinner (most of the arguments seem to involve food) Edward mentions his regret at not inviting his girlfriend along on the holiday, as he will only have one night with her before he goes; to which Cynthia replies that this is a family holiday and that he’s only known his girlfriend eighteen months anyway, so she can hardly be counted as family.

The Mother, Patricia, withdraws into silence at any confrontation; preferring to lose herself in the painting lessons that the family has arranged (I know!) for the duration of their stay with local painter Christopher (real-life painter Christopher Baker). William, the husband/father of the bunch is notable by his absence; he rings a number of times obviously explaining the reasons for his delay, but he never actually arrives. This only adds to the growing tension between mother and siblings, who become more isolated from each other as the holiday progresses; each remaining their own little island. I can’t say I blame him for staying away.

My main problem with this film is that I simply don’t care about this bunch of simpering, whimpering toffs.  Who cares about a mollycoddled bunch of Hooray Henry’s who can’t connect emotionally anyway? I only continued watching in the hope that the house would somehow catch fire and they’d all perish in the blaze; or that the helicopter, which ferries them to and from the mainland, would be blown off-course by strong headwinds, dumping the rotters in the sea. But no. While I’ll never be heard to say that I love the films of Joanna Hogg; I can’t deny that she has a firm grip on her craft and shows a skill in observing and dissecting the complex familial relationships of these, albeit well-off, characters. This is her milieu after all.

She also takes chances with her camera, sometimes going for unusual framing, using long-shots and painstakingly composing every scene like a painting. In fact, painting seems to have been a huge influence on her visual style here, as the act and art of painting features heavily, through the conversations and observations the group share with Christopher Baker.

So not one to rent for a fun night in, but certainly an assured, accomplished second feature from a director not afraid to stay true to her course. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes from here.

Archipelago is out now on DVD.

Apocalypse Again and America’s Other Heart of Darkness

I’m very excited about seeing the Francis Ford Coppola-approved new digital restoration of his 1979 masterpiece, Apocalypse Now, which opens today in the IFI. There’s probably very little left to say about this movie, but an opportunity to see it on the big screen should certainly not be missed.

Also at the IFI, beginnning June 1st, is a season of Classic American conspiracy thrillers, set in the era of Watergate and Vietnam. Some highlights for me are The Manchurian Candidate, The Conversation, Chinatown and Klute. Also featured are some rarely seen films such as Winter Kills and Rollover, and the season ends with Costa-Gavras’ Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. Check out this link for more details.

Red Hill (Patrick Hughes, 2010)

Patrick Hughes’ debut feature rides into town all guns blazing. The first-time Director-Writer-Editor-Producer has only gone and fashioned a modern-day Western, in the vein of No Country For Old Men or, more closely, Bad Day at Black Rock. 

Located in a remote outpost of Northern Australia, Red Hill is the town to which new Police Constable Shane Cooper (True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten) comes, with his pregnant wife in tow. Shane is a city boy who has requested a transfer to the titular town on account of his wife needing peace and quiet, following an earlier miscarriage. But boy, have they come to the wrong town.

Red Hill is presided over by the Police Inspector, Old Bill (Steve Bisley). Bill is passionate about the town and its heritage; he is eager to preserve the old ways and will not allow Red Hill to become the sort of place that attracts new fangled tourism.  But as in all the best westerns, Old Bill and the town of Red Hill hide a dark secret.

Things start to go badly wrong for the town’s police when convicted murderer Jimmy Conway(Tom E Lewis) escapes from prison, and heads for Red Hill to settle some old scores.  Conway, an Aborigine and one-time tracker, is also very handy with a gun and as the body count mounts, Shane begins to learn the awful truth about Jimmy’s bloodthirsty quest for vengeance.

Hughes has said that he was drawn to the Western genre on account of its moral code, and Red Hill certainly gives us clearly defined characters, each acting to their own particular code; though he doesn’t allow it to be quite as simple a story as good guy versus bad guy. In making Jimmy an Aborigine, Hughes draws parallels between Australian and Native American social history. Jimmy has been displaced by Old Bill and his gang in a bloody row over land and returns to seek retribution.

Ryan Kwanten puts in a gutsy performance as new boy Shane Cooper, being put through the mill on a memorable first day in the job. Tom E Lewis is terrific as Jimmy; a dark menacing presence throughout, he only actually gets one line of dialogue in the entire movie, but you don’t really notice due to the swift pace of the action, and he makes for a great “bad guy”.

Apparently Red Hill is the first film in a trilogy planned by its director; it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. Though not without its faults, Red Hill is a strong addition the contemporary Western genre. The cast acquit themselves admirably and the soundtrack adds to the Western theme with fingerpicking country guitar and the odd blast of mariachi. This is one first day at work you really don’t want to have.

Red Hill is currently showing at the IFI. Trailer here

Malick’s Tree of Life Comes to Fruition

Cannes seems to be buzzing with somewhat mixed reports, after the screening of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. No, of course I’m not there silly, but it seems it was greeted by boo’s as well as cheers, according to this Guardian report. It’s fair to say that this is one of the most widely anticipated films of 2011. It was due to premier at Cannes last year, but wasn’t ready in time; unsurprisingly perhaps as controversy seems to have dogged the film, what with release dates being scheduled and then cancelled at short notice.  It was initially slated to open in cinema’s before Cannes!

Apparently Malick first conceived the idea after he’d made Days of Heaven back in 1973, and this is only his fifth picture since that film. Old Terry’s not known for his speedy work rate. Anyway, his latest opus is finally with us, although a release date for UK / Ireland still seems uncertain. I hope it’s soon, ’cause it looks great!

Attack The Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)

 

Block Party

The debut feature from Joe Cornish, of Adam and Joe fame, is a fast-paced Action/Adventure/Sci-fi mash-up about a gang of teen delinquents defending their South London tower block against an Alien invasion.

Recently graduated, underpaid nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is walking home to her council estate flat after a late shift, when she is mugged at knife-point by a gang of masked and hooded teenagers. The gang relieve her of her money and jewellery, just as a meteor crash lands beside them, enabling Sam to make her getaway. The meteor turns out to be an Alien, which first attacks gang leader Moses (the excellent John Boyega), injuring him in the process; and then flees pursued by the teen gang, out to get revenge. When the gang catch up with and kill the Alien, they bring it back to the tower block, little realising that the Alien onslaught is only just beginning.

From the production team that gave us Shaun of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul; Attack The Block is a smart, savvy slice of film-making that ticks all the right genre boxes, while presenting the young, mixed-race Hoodies in a believable, non-patronising, non cringe-inducing way. The young cast is excellent and look as if they’re having a high old time.  Coming across like a mixture of Alien, E.T. and Attack On Precinct 13, the film obviously relishes its genre antecedents, while also having a pop at some social commentary along the way. The comment Moses makes about his feeling that the government have somehow arranged the Alien invasion, because “black boys aren’t killing each other fast enough”, is pretty clunky but Cornish doesn’t overdo the heavy-handedness. The budget constraints show in the slightly disappointing Aliens, though Cornish more than makes up for this lack with a cracking script and a breakneck pace.

While Sam initially goes to the police to report the young thugs, pretty soon they’re teaming up as it becomes apparent that the gang are the only ones who can save the block, and possibly even the planet. Things get complicated however as local unhinged kingpin Hi-Hats (Jumayn Hunter) is also on their trail, after an earlier run-in with the gang; and Moses starts to realise the consequences of his earlier actions, as he begins to lose friends in the battle with the bloodthirsty Aliens.

Cornish also indulges his inner sci-fi geek, not only with movie references, but with a nice touch of naming the council estate towers after notable sci-fi writers, Wyndham, Clarke and Huxley. Attack The Block is an assured and likeable debut that doesn’t break any new ground, but is made with an infectious enthusiasm and obvious love for (mostly 1980s) genre films. The “Hoodies vs Aliens” conceit works a treat and the comedy flows naturally from the situations Cornish creates for his unlikely ASBO heroes. I’ll allow it.

Deep End (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970)

Polish director, scriptwriter, producer, actor, ex-boxer and all round tough guy Jerzy Skolimowski’s “Deep End”, made in 1970 and out of circulation for many years, gets a digital scrub and polish courtesy of the BFI. This curiously funny, surreal coming of age story( set in London but actually shot in Munich) has the director’s trademark skewed take on love and lust; this time set at the fag end of the Swinging 60s.

The story concerns 15 year old Mike (John Moulder-Brown), recently finished school, who gets his first job as an attendant at a local public baths. He is immediately taken with his sexy female co-worker Susan (Jane Asher), who is engaged to be married but is also seeing one of Mike’s old teachers, a lascivious swimming instructor played by Karl Michael Vogler. Susan takes Mike under her wing but also teases and flirts with him; while steering him in the direction of female clients who tip him handsomely for his attentions.

While Mike makes quite a splash with the female clientele at the baths, he only has eyes for Susan and so begins an infatuation that starts innocently enough, but soon has Mike practically stalking her every move. As his behaviour becomes more erratic, his desire for Susan becomes more unhinged and sets him on a destructive course, which has terrible consequences for them both.

“Deep End” is very much a film of its time, and some of its more louche moments now seem a tad cringe-inducing. The narrative has an almost jump-cut like quality; leaping all over the place while staying very much located in the story, but there are some notable scenes. One such features British actress and pin-up, Diana Dors, who plays a very under-sexed, but overheated client with a penchant for football. She makes Mike an unwilling accomplice to her infatuation in one of the film’s funniest scenes. What’s most compelling about the narrative is the way Skolimowski veers from Mike’s initial child-like infatuation with Susan to something altogether darker. Love is always a complicated emotion in Skolimowski’s films, and here Mike’s motives become ever more sinister, until the final denoument, when he “consummates” their relationship in his own off-kilter way.

Jane Asher is fantastic as the steamy, teasing Susan while Moulder-Brown is just right as Mike, the handsome young innocent. The film makes great use of music from Cat Stevens and newly invigorated soundtrack favourites Can, whose track Mother Sky, is a particular highlight.

 Regarded as something of  a “lost classic” (largely because its been so little seen since it was made) it certainly is worth seeing; especially for the final sequence set in the empty swimming pool, which culminates in a pitch-perfect ending.