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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Italy Month: The Visitor...Visits

Poster design at its finest.
The last week has finally arrived, my children. Movember is drawing to a close and soon we shall bid our lovingly cultivated facial hair goodbye, welcoming back instead the days of smooth skin and itchless chins. December shall be a time to celebrate the dawn of a new era for mankind, with peace and a clean shave to all men.

The birth of Gillette ProGlide; our lord and shaver.
On the subject of Christ-like figures in need of a good trim, our final movie of Italy month features one such character. May I introduce you to The Visitor (aka. Stridulum); a film, judging by it's trailer, that can only be described using the very technical film term of a complete and utter mindfuck. Like David Lynch straddling you, rubbing your forehead with a spoonful of peanut butter and whispering the Portuguese lyrics to "A Whole New World" in your ear levels of brain-humpingness.

Why was I not surprised when I Googled "David Lynch holding a chicken" and actually got a result?
Just to clarify, this film is in English and is set in the US with American actors, but it's still an Italian movie because the director is Italian and I say so, so mneh. I think it's best we just get this one over and done with; the glowing 3.8 out of 10 on IMDb is making this too tempting to resist any longer. On with the show!

And lo and behold, I'm already confounded by the five minute mark, if equal parts intrigued. I'll give credit where credit is due, the set design is captivating at the very least, with the film opening on some strange wasteland where two hooded figures approach each other, an unnatural mist rolling over the horizon followed by a gust of what I assume is either snow or blended feathers.

Or inter-dimensional dandruff.
The image is both unsettlingly pretty and clear in its message, immediately setting up the obvious confrontation that will form the basis of the rest of the movie; some kind of good/evil battle between the now revealed old dude and a creepy girl covered in feathery-snow-hair flakes.

Furries ain't so sexy now, are they internet?
And bam, we're now in some weird futurey-looking room with the aforementioned guy what looks like Jesus and a bunch of creepy bald kids, the whole scene giving off a very Star Wars-y Jedi teaching the adorable little padawaan kind of vibe. This is where the entirety of the film's exposition is laid down in the space of three minutes: basically there was some evil alien dude called Zateen or Satin or whatevs (sounds a bit like some other evil person, but I can't quite place it...) who escaped a space ship and fled to Earth where he spread evil and destruction, as you do, and shagged like, all the women, spreading his evil spirit to their spawn in a display of the most convincing argument for improved birth control since Honey Boo-Boo. He then got caught by some other good guy type dude called Piñata (I prefer my names for these characters) with his army of killer birds and now there's this little girl who's carrying Satin's evil spirit and something something epic Jesus reaction shot.

Insert appropriately dramatic 70's music.
Now that we're up to date on the story, we move on to Atlanta, Georgia (sadly very few zombies and painfully inept mothers about) where we meet our creepy little girl, Katy Collins, and her mother Barbara. I'll be honest, with a good third of the film under my belt I don't really feel like this is deserving of a rating on par with Batman and Robin. Despite some truly abysmal sound editing (everything sounds like it was recorded on the other end of a dodgy phone call with a passenger on the Costa Concordia) and scenes that abruptly cut off without warning, the characters are interesting but not hammy and the plot is so far relatively coherent, suitably captivating and drip feeds just enough weird and creepy to keep you watching without alienating the audience.

Something batsuit nipples didn't manage quite as well...
The film bears an uncanny resemblance to Damien: The Omen II, with our evil child being pulled on both sides by the forces of good and evil, the idea being that whichever one wins them over will have control over their power. The comparisons become almost too apparent as you get further into the film, with plenty tense confrontations and sudden, brutal animal attacks (big, scary ravens replaced here by a really adorable hawk) making up the majority of the run time. However, as Stanley Kubrick totally definitely probably said, it's not the recipe you use but the pie you bake that counts, and The Visitor is just different enough to stand it's ground. That said, The Omen's pie is probably still better.

Evil pie contest winner two years running.
The little girl at the centre of it all, Katy, is most definitely the biggest strength of The Visitor by far; Paige Connor (of no other memorable roles ever) manages to be spectacularly unsettling without ever overplaying her part, albeit helped along with her task by some very nice lighting.

You can get the same effect by rinsing your eyes with bleach.
Katy, although most definitely evil ("accidentally" shooting her mother early in the film), manages to play off her innocent child look better than you would usually expect in the strangely specific genre of terrifying hell-child films [see Orphan], making the often drawn out occasions when she does rear her ugly head all the more unsettling. Plus, by giving the air of a stroppy child groomed by the allure of evil Katy feels less one-sided than the rest of the film's cast, who literally don't even stop at wearing black or white to indicate the side they support like a bunch of weird colour blind football fans.

"Bad guys? Us? No, we drink goat's blood for the health benefits. Promise..."
The list of aspects this supposedly bad film should be commended for still goes on as well. The set design, particularly of Barbara's house, reeks wonderfully of 70's while also adding a kind of futuristic, post-modern vibe to the whole thing, making the sets equally as familiar yet alien as the little girl this whole thing is about. Then there's the cinematography which, although feeling at times like an over-enthusiastic art project, has been considered very carefully and presents the film with what I could only describe as a garish European style (think fabulous Italian men in tight tank tops, but the cinematography equivalent), cramming both subtle and obvious metaphors down your throat as often as it possibly can. Hell, look at the last two screenshots I've shown; one gives a little girl with shining eyes a pair of metal angel wings and the other shows a bunch of scary dark men being dominated in the shot by a brilliant white chandelier. Dat be sum bitchin' imagery, bro.

"Diggit." - Jay Z
By the finale the film takes a very sudden, very obvious Close Encounters of the Third Kind turn; that's two films made within two years of this one whose themes or styles have been shamelessly copied. Poor show. The pace also suddenly picks up, blasting through scenes before you can really get a hold of what's going on, making the last minutes of the film feel less frantic, which is what I assume the makers were trying to go for, and more rushed like when you finish your sentence really quickly while closing the door on some Jehovah's Witnesses.

"SorryI'mnotinterestedpleasedon'tcomehereagain." *SLAM*
I don't think you'd be at all surprised to hear that the good guys win at the end. Everything turns out hunky dory and no-one seems at all worried when Barbara's daughter, who has just been admitted for psychiatric evaluation for being an evil little shit, vanishes off the face of the Earth with a beardy old guy.

To have her head shaved and sit in a room with Jesus for the rest of eternity.
So to wrap up, The Visitor is alright. It's by no means deserving of the awful reviews it gets, but also ain't exactly a masterpiece. It makes up for what it steals from Omen II and Close Encounters (and to some extent The Exorcist) with a little bit of crazy and plenty of style, managing to straddle the oft-crossed line between weird and impenetrable quite comfortably. It's pretty shaggy round the edges in the sense of editing and characterisation, but nothing that detracts too far from what is in essence a pretty enjoyable and unique, albeit predictable, sci-fi.

Moustache Rating

The Poirot -
Looks all fancy and European. Although it pretends to be complex it's actually pretty straightforward.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Italy Month: Salò, or 120 Minutes of Squirming

I wholeheartedly and sincerely mean it when I say please don't read on if you are of a nervous disposition.
Seriously, no jokes for once.
Ok, maybe one joke.
Week 2 in the moustache month and things are heating up. Genuinely, I'm getting warm under this thin layer of browny-ginger fur that's continuing to expand across my face at an alarmingly glacial rate. Another few years and I'll almost look like a full on amateur hobo.

Start small, think big...
The Italians, on the other hand, somehow manage to actually look good with a small animal's coat taped to their faces. As such we shall continue our commemoration of their stoic defiance in the face of bristly adversity and focus once again on a cinema classic from the home of homicidal plumbers and funny-speaking immigrants.

Meanwhile, the Russians look on in calm, albeit feigned, drunken disinterest.
Our film of choice today is not dissimilar in the basic wartime theme of last week's post, but is most definitely of a different league in terms of tone and, more importantly, target audience. Please, for the love of god, don't get Life is Beautiful mixed up with Pier Paolo Pasolini's controversial 1975 film Salò (or the 120 Days of Sodom). This is a film so notorious that it's voted one of TimeOut's top 5 most controversial films ever and is worryingly often wrongly attributed as the motive behind the director's murder shortly before the film's release. When a movie is so horrific that people believe the director was run over multiple times as a result of it, you know you're in for some serious shit.

His legacy lives on thanks to this helpfully accurate dramatisation.
A short note before we begin: I'll try my best to stay away from describing whatever horrors await us and focus more on the setting, the characters and how Pasolini crafts the tone of the film, seeing as most other reviews focus predominantly on the former. Also, just so you're aware of the gravity of my decision to watch this, I'm genuinely a little apprehensive. This is a film that even my dear brother is unwilling to watch and one that I've also put off experiencing for a long while now; something evident in the amount of time I'm taking to write this intro instead of clicking the play button. With that in mind, rum is both necessary and in abundance for the duration of the screening.

If I don't make it, you'll find me in the freezer with the two captains.
Right, it could just be the already crushing sense of dread I have watching this, but must they make everything worse by playing something akin to smooth jazz during the opening credits while a list of names of first the "Masters" then the "Victims" are displayed in plain black text on the pale screen. This is the single most uncomfortable use of contrapuntal (conflicting sounds, my dear stupid readers) music I've seen since Reservoir Dogs, and ain't nothing even happened yet.

If the next shot is of Samara climbing out of a well, I will haemorrhage.
The film is set in Fascist-occupied Italy where we're introduced to four powerful men: the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President. I have a feeling there might be some kind of political critique at play here, but I can't quite put my finger on it... They've just agreed to marry each other's daughters and have now begun rounding up various men and women from around the surrounding area, evidently against their will, for some unknown diabolical purpose. Interestingly, hardly any of the men and women we see, obviously being treated like filth as they're displayed naked to the four men for choosing, show any sign of emotion in response to their plight. One boy even laughs when a soldier makes fun of another one of the men, and a girl smiles sheepishly at the four men as she's undressed for presentation.

Jack Dee was knocked back from auditions, that's how ambivalent they are.
This unsettling lack of emotion from the people we know, and whom are also likely aware, are about to suffer unthinkable atrocities serves to elevate the four men from a position of power to something even greater. In a time of conflict and anarchy they are the masters and these people are their play-things; their unrestricted power makes them gods, able to act out their every desire on people who have no choice but to bear the force of these twisted fantasies, their will crushed to the point that they can't even find the strength to cry.

You can achieve a similar effect by walking into any nearby bank.
Pasolini leaves no doubt in the mind of the audience as to his critique of the fascist regime through both the actions of the four men and some very scathing dialogue. You don't have to be an art critic to get the message when the President takes part in the rape of a victim during dinner before inviting the man doing the raping to have sex with him instead, almost comically presenting his backside to the man. That's blunt-force satire on par with going on Question Time and slapping each of the politicians in the face with a herring for a solid hour. As for the infamous scene later on in the film where the poor victims are forced by their leaders to eat mounds of steaming shit; I think that's a message we can all get behind.

"How's the meal, sir? Great! I'll get right on to cooking up another batch."
Despite heaps (sorry) of very obvious imagery, there's still something else floating (again, sorry) just beneath the surface. It's the mark of a solid (I have no regrets) director when you can show the audience everything they want, and in this case don't want, to see and yet still give the feeling that there's more there. Carefully aligned shots (some of which are purposefully skewed or at an unusual angle), sudden, unprovoked changes of mind in character's actions, unsettling music and jarring editing make for an uncomfortable experience which obviously compounds Pasolini's over-arching message whist also saying something more. There's a lot to find here than first meets the eye if you look close enough, just don't strain yourself too hard.

Poo jokes are always funny.
The structure of the film itself is unique enough to be worthy of note, taking the form of three acts each split into a standard rhythm; first, one of four prostitutes tells a story of her most debaucherous exploits to the whole group each morning, these tales are then used as the inspiration for the many depraved acts performed each day, usually all of a similar theme within that part of the movie. Each act also features a wedding of sorts, evidently meant to be another scathing remark by Pasolini who was famously anticlerical. This is most definitely a film by a person who has a lot to say and knows how to say it using the medium, but the whole thing still doesn't feel quite right...

Oh god, here it comes...
Distilled to its absolute essence, this is a film about the sadistic abuse of power by the Fascist regime (and, as Pasolini said himself, consumerist culture) in Italy under Mussolini's reign; it uses the idea of complete physical, emotional and sexual dominance over another as a metaphor for the control of the state over the people. The message is clear, poignant and hard hitting. But the film doesn't deserve the praise it often receives. Now, I'm always up for a good bit of nastyness in cinema, and I'll be the last person to ever say something can't be shown on film (freedom of speech and all that guff), but I do have a problem with the actions depicted here.

Yes, of course it's meant to evoke disgust and make you feel uncomfortable, and it does it very well.

Also much like visiting a bank.
But it's the previously mentioned lack of emotion from the entire cast which gets to me. Although it could be another allegory for the way in which society strips us of emotion and morality, it feels more to me like a simple lack of characterisation. There's very little character development throughout the the film, the four men experience neither doubt nor resistance from any external party for the entire run time and even the victims' character arcs can essentially be summed up as going from dejectedly disinterested to dead.

With no characterisation and no real emotional interaction between the cast (apart from one illicit affair with a servant, which occurs off screen, and an abrupt suicide), we're left with a group of people essentially carrying out the motions on screen. It feels like watching the visual representation of an angry avant garde philosophy major's essay on Fascist Italy; all of the thought and vivid opinions are presented with style and clarity, but there's no room for feelings, and it is most definitely a deal breaker in this case. Sure, it wasn't pleasant watching someone eat poo off the floor (which was actually chocolate and marmalade), but it would have been absolutely unbearable if we had got to know the victims and become more involved in their plight. Instead we're stuck in a strange middle ground between the masters and the victims, not really gaining perspective on the needs and motivations of either side and coming away from the whole experience neither shocked nor enlightened.

Poor show, Salò, poor show.

Moustache Rating

I apologise for associating you with this, Michael, but you're just so darn adorable.
The Paedo Moustache -
Creepy, unsettling and publicly abhorred for obvious reasons. Well nurtured, but often has large bare patches which ruin the whole thing while simultaneously making everyone feel even more weirded out.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Italy Month: Life Is B-E-A-Utiful

It's November, lads. That means put down your razors and get your bum fluff on in support of Movember, the only high-profile charitable event that gives a damn about men's health. If you don't have the capacity to grow hair out of your top lip, draw a moustache on with permanent marker, or maybe even donate some money to the cause by following the very handy hyperlinks scattered shamelessly throughout this paragraph.

The money will then be converted into even more hyperlinks.
But I'm not a man who would take more than a couple of lines worth of time out of my busy schedule to do something nice, so we'll have enough of that charity guff and get on with the moustachio-related matters of this post. In celebration of the month of all thing face-fuzz related, I have decided to dedicate this month's posts to the undisputed moustache champions of the world: the Italians.

Germany will reclaim their title when they reanimate Bismarck.
As such, I will be looking at three classic Italian movies, each famous in their own right, be that good or bad, and giving my usual well informed and witty critique on proceedings in real time, just like the other time that went so well. To start off, we'll be looking at Roberto Benigni's 1997 war comedy-drama Life Is Beautiful, so let's get going.

From a mere ten minutes of viewing, I can already safely say that the film's protagonist, the spectacular Guido (played by the director himself) is one of the single most charismatically crazy men I have ever seen. This guy bounces around the beautiful Italian countryside like a kid with ADHD and a serious meth-amphetamine problem who just took a bath in strong coffee. Two minutes of screen time and I'm already grinning just looking at him.

The hat does that for the whole film.
The humour comes thick and fast, suiting Guido's character down to the tee, with no scene seeming to last more than a few minutes but always giving us an almost touching insight into the place, the people and Guido himself as we follow his adventures of moving to a new town, getting a job, crashing an Aryan race-promoting school service and, obviously, falling in love. And it's this quiet love story between him and a school teacher, his "princess", that provides some truly "g'awhh, shucks" moments in the first act of the film. I'm far too busy gushing over such a perfect romance to even notice any of the actual filmic styles being used. As far as I can tell, it seems to be in colour and they appear to be using people for all of the talking and moving and such.

Early cinema used a bunch of rats taped together.
But yes, Benigni (who, on a side note, is playing alongside his real life wife-person, making this whole thing all the more adorable) is flawlessly creating a romance which I feel we'll get to see blossom into something even more over the course of the rest of the film. That said, I've already been warned, by my dad no less, to keep tissues handy so I have the faintest of inklings that I'm not going to be quite as thankful for this exceptionally well constructed relationship later as I am right now. But that's then and this is now, so onwards we go.

Back to the plot, which is currently successfully hiding behind a duck/ostrich/goose/bird egg.
Ah, here we go. As we get deeper into the film, the shark lurking under the water finally surfaces. We are, of course, in 1939 Italy; we all know what is about to come, and Guido's charming naivete gives way to a jarring nosedive back to reality during an engagement party when Guido's uncle's horse is vandalised for him being a Jew. Things are about to go very wrong for any poor sod, including Guido himself, who happens to be Jewish. And yet, simply through his charm and wondrous lust for life, we think maybe, just maybe, it might all be OK.

When there's dogs and profiteroles on the same platter, how can things not be OK?
Flash forward a few years thanks to a spectacularly well done time jump involving a greenhouse and some suggested ejaculation and Guido is married with a charming young son (sorry, spoilers I guess, unless you've read any synopsis for this film). We begin to see the extent of the persecution of Guido's people in the country, but he tries his best to hide it from his son, explaining away the signs in shops that deny entry to Jews. Now I think this is the point at which, for the sake of not spoiling any more of the film, I will cease to talk about the plot and focus on the more technical aspects of the film; partially to keep the post well-rounded and fair and also to stop me from weeping inconsolably into the keyboard any more than I already am.

Adding Fairy liquid didn't help.
If there's one thing I would have to congratulate this film on, it would be it's very conservative use of non-diegetic sound (to those who didn't waste their high school life taking media, that means sound not actually found within a scene like a soundtrack, or dramatic BNYAWHHH noises). Most scenes are almost completely devoid of music or sound effects, grounding the film very firmly within reality and forcing the responsibility on Guido's shoulders to shield his son from the horrors occurring around him. When music is heard it perfectly suits the tone of the scene, heightening the impact of the moment but never outstaying its welcome. Also, is it just me or am I making more sense from a critical point of view than I normally do? I should drink copious quantities of gin whilst writing more often.

If it worked for Fagin's singing, it'll work for my writing.
The bright, vibrant colours of the film's first half give way to Iwo Jima levels of dank, bland greys and dirty blue. This is a film that has spent it's entire first half preparing to knock you over and even when you know it's coming you can't help but feel the wave of helplessness crashing down on you. And I think that's what makes Benigni's film so special; even though it follows an already very clearly drawn path that we all know so well (apart from a select few people, of course), your attachment to the utterly fabulous characters forces you to hope that they'll somehow be spared from a force you already know was so unstoppable, so ruthless, that they couldn't possibly have any chance of escape.

Like cheery fat people and McDonald's, but with Jews and Nazis.
Oh, OK, so the whole reviewing whilst watching the film thing kind of went out of the window. It ended a good ten minutes ago whilst I recovered from my veritable cascade of tears. Actually, mind if I take another couple of hours...

Reach here and you'll understand why...
There we go. All good now, minus mild water damage, so I'll finish up. This film is fabulous. Although there's nothing special cinematographically or artistically to be found besides a few choice shots that really excel at capturing their scene in a whole, this is a film that has managed to cram more love and devotion into two hours than anything that I've ever seen before and for that alone it should be congratulated. 

That said, this wouldn't be a fair review if it didn't have a little bit of criticism so I'll finish on a downer for once. My one qualm with this movie is that it tries to fit too much into it's second half; by spending so much time building up to the inevitable turn of events I almost feel like the obviously very heavy conclusion is done a disservice. This is as much a criticism as it is a compliment because the film's ending is so alien from the world you were introduced to that it's as devastating to watch from a completely aesthetic point of view as it is from a personal one, leading to a complete emotional breakdown no matter what. Actually scratch that last bad point from the record and instead I say bravo, Benigni, bravo; you have touched the heart of a person who considers himself untouchable. And for that, I thank you.

On a lighter (and completely inconsequential) note, that girl's mouth doesn't close for an entire scene.

Moustache Rating

The Salvador Dali - 
A moustache that, just by looking at it, lifts you up even though you know that the basic laws of the universe dictate that it should be going downwards. I mean, seriously man, how much 'tache-wax do you use?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Me, Myself, and My Amazingly Interesting Life

Oi, you. Sit down. No, not there, that's my seat. Over there. Yes, there.

Scooch over.
Aside from a couple of posts about my new flat (a riveting series of posts that shall be concluded very soon) I've talked very little about the general goings on of my life, something we should all be endlessly grateful for because the last thing the internet needs is another person whining about their supermarket receipts and telling us how cute their pet vulture is.

She's great for cleaning up the children's organs I keep leaving on the lawn.
However it was inevitable that a day would come when I could no longer withstand the inherent human urge to force my crippling tedium on other people and/or I hadn't got round to watching any new films worthy of review yet, so you'd better get comfortable and read the words I'm going to speak at you good like.

First off, it was my turn to experience that special day of a person's life every year where you have the literal birth-right to be told you're wonderful and get showered with praise and adoration for not winning a Darwin award. In other words, it was my birthday on Saturday (rapturous applause).

"Woo. Go Ben."
I'm now a big 'ole 19, which means I've already wasted a third of Mozambique's average life expectancy watching TV and complaining about things, including TV. It's been a good run so far. To celebrate, Fiona (yes, that one again. I'll find a new woman soon to freshen things up a bit) and I went to see Henri-Georges Clouzot's fantastic Les Diaboliques at the local independent cinema type place. In true noir style, we dressed up and looked like utter fannys walking down the street at 11am on a Sunday in our finery.

Me caught off guard in a rare candid shot.
Also, I got a mango, so yay.

I would have taken a picture of the actual mango given to me, but it didn't last the night.
Secondly, before I levelled up (still no sign of learning Hyper Beam) Halloween happened. That's the spooky one with all the bats. I opted to go as the infamous Jekyll and Hyde (not that Jekyll and Hyde); the costume actually took a surprising amount of effort to get looking good. I've seen how some people do costume posts, with all the naming exactly what brand you used and such, so I've tried to do the same here. The costume itself looked a bit like this:

Making myself paper thin and headless was the tough bit.
So from top to bottom that's a Next tailored waistcoat (like this, but not), New Look braces (kindly borrowed from Fiona), some shirt from a charity shop, a 99p cravat from eBay, a pair of lovely, and now hopelessly ruined, brown trousers also from a charity shop and one each of some crappy brown Primark trainers and my darling brown leather Collezione wing-tip brogues.

To do the whole "tattered" thing going on on the right there, I used the tried-and-tested recipe of teabags (Tetley), a stanley knife (Tesco) and a lighter (Clipper). Boil up a nice strong pot of tea, pour one cup, drink it, pour the rest into a large bowl or tub and dip half of the shirt, cravat and trousers into it. Leave to dry then hang up each piece of clothing individually (or ask someone you moderately dislike to hold them up) and hack at the appropriate side with a stanley knife in a similar fashion to Norman Bates' mother when the TV signal isn't great.

Anything is better than another fucking episode of Come Dine With Me.
Once suitably slashed, take the clothes outside and set fire to them with a lighter in what we experts call a "controlled burn". This consists of lighting various portions of the clothing, allowing them to burn for a short time and extinguishing them before the fire spreads too rapidly. This is repeated until an authentic burned look has been achieved or you leave it for a little too long a couple of times and panic.

Once all of that's done you've got yourself a pretty shnazzy costume. Now for the makeup. I bought some pretty goddamn sexy stuff called Collodium which is used to make authentic looking scars and a set of blackout contact lenses to take care of the more striking aspects of my appearance. Those paired with some conservative make-up application (I don't know, nor do I care about the brands of these things), a generous helping of Brylcreem and a half-shaved chin produced a rather convincing face that had the limitless potential to be mistaken for a poorly done Two-Face costume all night.

"I'd like to play a game..."
The finished costume looks like this:

Just shooting the shit with Spidey.
And that was Halloween and my birthday. You now have an extremely intimate insight into my personal life, do with that information as you wish. If you would like to use it for blackmail, my people will be in touch with your people.