Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

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Films #92-95: Ed Wood Marathon

film 92 93 94 95 ed woodathon

Ratings: The Violent Years (1956), 2.5/5; Night of the Ghouls (1959), 3/5; The Sinister Urge (1960), 2.5/5; Ed Wood (1994), 5/5

“I look at this slush and I try to remember, at one time I made good pictures.” – Johnny Ryde, The Sinister Urge

Edward D Wood Jr is a fascinating character; those who have heard of him will probably already know all the famously quirky anecdotes surrounding him – he was a transvestite, he was the worst director of all time, Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film of all time. He is best known for three movies: his debut feature Glen or Glenda; mad scientist movie Bride of the Monster; and sci-fi/ horror hybrid Plan 9 (it’s also these three films that feature in Tim Burton’s big budget biopic). The films I watched for this Woodathon represent some of his lesser known features. Arguably none of them are as “bad” as his better known films, and probably none are as entertaining as a result. What is important to remember is that being known as the “worst director of all time” doesn’t mean that there can’t be moments that work – Night of the Ghouls in particular, while obviously low budget, actually suggests the writer-director-editor-actor-producer wasn’t entirely oblivious to his previous films’ failings. But more on that later.

First up, The Violent Years. Written by Wood, this juvenile delinquency movie is directed by William Morgan, better known as an editor (his work includes several episodes of Lassie, and Portrait of Jennie). While the language is clearly Woodian, the picture itself is a far more gloomy affair: particularly in later years, with long-time collaborator William Thompson working as Director of Photography, Wood’s films were visually sparse, but crisp, and this sharpnesss is missing from this movie. The plot itself is fairly unremarkable – a judge introduces the story (to add gravitas) of a young girl who, not receiving any attention from her parents, turns to a life of crime with her girlfriends. It’s a typical kind of movie for the time, with a typical kind of conclusion not dissimilar from the earlier exploitation pictures – it serves both as titillation (girl gangs, guns, fights, lots of smooching, and even the implied rape of a young man by the gang) and as a warning against considering such a lifestyle, cheekily justifying the presentation of such titillation in the first place. Jean Moorhead is good as Paula Perkins, the leader of the gang; the rest of the girls are non-distinct. Poor Mr and Mrs Perkins get all the blame – at barely an hour in length, oddly the “violent years” themselves are notably brief and Wood’s script gets significantly more preachy as it progresses, with the judge berating the parents and, oddly, claiming that a return to religion would fix this ghastly teenage problem. An interesting, short little curio, the film is largely unremarkable, though undoubtedly benefits from the Wood connection.

Next, Night of the Ghouls. This is Wood’s best known later film and, at the risk of sounding controversial, one of his most interesting movies. It’s his most light-hearted picture, and his most self-aware; it’s also his first feature film not to star Bela Lugosi. This is a shame, because Dr Acula (yes, you’ve read that correctly) is in many ways a role made for Lugosi, initially at least – Kenne Duncan, a legitimate actor with over 270 credited roles, does bring some authenticity to the performance, and seems to be having fun with the ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek premise.

After a strange introduction from legendary hack psychic Criswell, appearing as himself, which includes some vague social commentary about the youth of today (over footage of Ed Wood himself and Wood regular Conrad Brooks having a fight outside an icecream parlour before a car spins wildly out of control and careens down a cliff) Night of the Ghouls starts properly. Despite this introduction, the film is actually about a fake medium, Dr Acula (aka Carl), who preys on mourners for monetary gain. It’s also a kind-of sequel to Bride of the Monster – Acula’s home is built on the ground of the house on Willows Lake, and characters specifically refer to the events of that film. Lobo (Tor Johnson) also features here, having apparently survived the atomic blast that ended Bride of the Monster; so too does Kelton the Cop (Paul Marco), who confuses matters even more by lamenting his latest assignment: his remarks of “Monsters! Space people! Mad doctors!” implicitly also refers to this characters’ appearance in Plan 9 as well.

And there’s more: there’s a crude “Wanted” poster on the wall of the police station, with a headshot of Wood himself below. The lieutenant (Duke Moore, another acting veteran) does his entire investigation wearing a top hat and tails, most probably so that Wood could include a whole section of the short film Final Curtain in this production (legend has it that Lugosi was reading the script for Final Curtain when he died). But most interesting are Acula’s methods of conning his victims. His seances, which take place in barely constructed sets (lots of curtains, bits of carpet lining parts of the floor), include some particularly shoddy effects – a trumpet floats, with the strings holding it up clearly visible in the shadow; a person wearing a sheet (yes, really) crab-walks across the frame; a cup and saucer bob around in front of yet another curtain. These effects are terrible, yet no worse than the UFOs in Plan 9, but – and here’s the point, they are revealed to be fake. On first viewing, knowing the infamy of Wood’s previous films, it’s easy to revel in the ridiculousness of his effects, but the joke is on us in the end. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it’s easy to do with Wood’s movies), but surely the fact that he actually includes a flying (cup and) saucer is a deliberate nod to his previous film’s inadequacies?

Night of the Ghouls, for whatever reason, has never received as much notoriety as Wood’s earlier movies – it’s best known for being the movie that remained unreleased for twenty-three years due to the director being unable to pay the lab processing fees. Perhaps part of the reason it is not as cherished as Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda is that, quite simply, it lacks the naivety of these badfilm classics. It seems as though Wood is having fun here, but also that he is at least somewhat aware of his limitations and, importantly, he’s intentionally playing with the audience’s expectations. In the realm of badfilm, even the weakest attempts at self-awareness are not particularly embraced – it’s the innocence and unintentional badness that captivates people, and with Wood in particular no one wants to believe that he was ever anything other than enthusiastic, but hopeless.

Next, The Sinister Urge. This film serves as a warning against pornography and “smut” pictures, taking on a similar format to The Violent Years. Ironically, it is the last feature film Wood made before his descent into pornography (see One Million AC/DC as one of the last surviving Wood pictures). Much like The Violent Years, it is neither a particularly good movie, nor is it bad enough to be considered one of Wood’s “masterpieces” – as much as people may not want to admit it, his later films did contain significantly more acceptable filmmaking standards, suggesting that the man was learning and developing his technique. The Sinister Urge is fairly unmemorable, save a few moments: one includes an entirely unrelated fight that takes place in an icecream shop – yes, that’s Wood and Brooks grappling around in the sand, with the scene taken from Night of the Ghouls. In typical Wood fashion, there are some winks to the Wood-universe: posters for his previous films line the walls of one of the smut directors, who says they are “made by friends of mine.” There’s also a large subplot about a girl arriving in Hollywood from a small town that is repeated in (or taken from) Hollywood Rat Race, a truly fascinating book written by Wood on how to “succeed in Hollywood.” Other than that, the film is generally unremarkable – there’s a brief moment of actual nudity, which is unusual, and there’s a fun game to be had in seeing just how many outfits Jean Fontaine’s porn-kingpin wears over the seventy minutes, but it’s a fairly dry movie, with too much time spent in the police station and, for a film all about the porn business, not half enough nudity.

Interestingly, none of these films are mentioned in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s fanboy biopic. It’s a wonderful film nonetheless, inspired by Rudolf Grey’s excellent biography, Nightmare of Ecstasy, with Johnny Depp bringing a wonderful, boyish energy to the enigmatic director. Yet it’s as much a film about Lugosi as it is about Wood – Martin Landau is superb as the former star, and he deservedly won an Oscar for his performance (ironically Lugosi never received such acclaim). The film emphasises the friendship between the director and star – and, by all accounts, they truly were friends, with a mutual respect and admiration at the core of their relationship. It is, of course, a highly stylised biopic, with plenty of liberties taken; whole sections are fabricated, including an important pep-talk Wood receives from his (real) hero Orson Welles – so too is the way in which Plan 9 is finally shown to the world. Yet all the strangest, weirdest bits are true: the stolen octopus and its missing motor; the entire cast and crew getting baptised in a swimming pool so that Plan 9 would get its funding; the reasons for Bride of the Monster ending with a nuclear bomb… And there are parts that may or may not be true – not even Grey manages to establish the “truth” in his biography, with personal anecdotes contradicting each other and Wood himself reiterating myths and legends.

Burton’s biopic, as loving and inoffensive as possible, glosses over the darker side of Wood – the film ends with Plan 9‘s first screening, and only alludes to the filmmaker’s troubles after that – and is arguably as instrumental as the Medveds in establishing the cult of Ed Wood. Shot in black and white, it’s ironically a big budget, expertly shot, well crafted movie, one that pays homage to Wood but never makes fun of him, presenting him as always optimistic, charismatic and handsome, filled with enthusiasm, surrounded by a random assortment of Hollywood rejects (portrayed with aplomb by the likes of Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones and, in a particular coup, bona fide wrestling legend George “the Animal” Steele as Tor Johnson) yet always upbeat and prepared for success that somehow never quite materialises.

I always wonder how Wood would have felt about his films being considered some of the “worst of all time.” He died two years before the Medveds’ readers voted him worst director, a bloated, homeless alcoholic. While today his fans like to think he would be pleased at his films’ current popularity, surely it would sting just a little to know the reasons for their fame? As he said, in Hollywood Rat Race: “It’s terrible to hear someone say about someone else’s work, ‘Ahh, that stinks.’ Yet the critic probably couldn’t ink his way out of a paper bag. You put it on paper. Good, bad, or indifferent. At least you had the guts to put it there.”

Film #88: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

(Quvenzhzé Wallis)

Rating: 4.5/5

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

Generally when the Oscars comes around, there’s a surprise movie included in the Best Film category – a low-budget, indie movie (Her, this year), perhaps, or a genre film (remember when District 9 was nominated?). They rarely (if ever) win, but it’s at least an acknowledgement from the Academy that they exist. In 2013, Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four Oscars – Best Film, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Actress (the impossibly named Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest Oscar nominee in this category to date) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It won none of them, inevitably, and perhaps it didn’t deserve to, though arguably it is a more distinctive, memorable movie than that year’s winner Argo and, while it was only a matter of time before Jennifer Lawrence secured her acting gong, based on their nominated performances, Wallis was a far more impressive surprise. Still, the nominations alone gave Beasts of the Southern Wild some much needed publicity. The film itself received very mixed reviews on release; if it had won, it would have surely been a controversial choice.

This is Zeitlin’s first feature film. Based in New Orleans, he is part of a filmmaking collective, Court 13, that had, until this point, concentrated on shorts. The collective has a distinctive style, clearly rooted in their surroundings, and a dedication to their craft that some might argue was downright irresponsible (you can read more about their previous escapades in an article I wrote way back in 2010). Having made the acclaimed, award winning short film Glory at Sea in 2008, Beasts of the Southern Wild feels very much like an continuation of it, both in terms of visuals and plot – though it is in no way a remake or extended version of the same story. Both are clearly motivated by Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed it; both are set in an unnamed community obviously inspired by New Orleans (particularly the poor areas); both reject CGI in favour of man-made objects – notably a distinctive, upcycled kind of world, in which detritus and trash is transformed into homes, boats, and curios. Court 13’s world is, in many ways, a very childish one – one in which they, as adults and filmmakers, continue to make forts out of pillows and sheets, precariously balanced on the backs of chairs and wedged between doors and bookshelves. There’s a very natural, light-hearted, idealistic sensibility at play that somehow manages to met with much divisive response – perhaps distinguishing the cynical from the playful, the young-at-heart from the jaded realists.

Beasts of the Southern Wild presents a fantasy world, one recognisable yet different; the Bathtub, a small community of unemployed drunkards and their grubby children somewhere on the outskirts of the world we are familiar with. It’s a swampy environment, inviting in the way that a jungle is – a place you’d enter with equal measures of trepidation and excitement. There Hushpuppy (Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, a man clearly incapable of providing any kind of balanced home-life for his child, a parent whose only way of showing love is by making his daughter a survivor. The community, a tight-knit but unromantically presented group of layabouts and boozers, are awaiting the great flood promised by the melting ice caps, and Hushpuppy knows that when the glaciers melt, great prehistoric aurochs (giant tusked boars) will begin their journey to her precious home.

Those who criticised the film challenged its idealistic view, questioning the appropriateness of championing alcoholism, unemployment, and child neglect. Yet the Bathtub is a particularly unglamorous place, and Zeitlin never seems to really endorse the actions of Hushpuppy’s father in particular. The characters, while located in this fantasy-reality, are presented very much as people – flawed people whose motivations and rationale often seem to remain out of our grasp. We only ever get an insight into Hushpuppy’s mind – we are guided by her voice-over narration while on screen she remains mostly silent. Wallis’ perfectly embodies Hushpuppy, this quiet, stoic child who seems in many ways wise beyond her years and in others is naively childish. Without saying a word she brings a pensive, contemplative, determined personality to the character, and it goes without saying that much of the film’s success relies on the audience being willing to follow her journey.

Where Beasts of the Southern Wild falters is the late intrusion of the real world into the fantasyland of the Bathtub. It’s easy to get drawn into the community spirit and strange aesthetic of this district, and it’s disorienting when, all of a sudden, the characters find themselves evacuated by the authorities and dumped in a sterile hospital/shelter. There fantasy and reality clash, and it’s an uncomfortable clash, one further emphasised by the largely unexplained illness plaguing Hushpuppy’s father. Yet this is, happily, a minor blip in the movie, one that perhaps carries more weight on a metaphorical level than an aesthetic or narrative one.

Zeitlin’s film is a curious picture – it feels small, intimate and hand-made, clearly revealing the Court’s motivations and inspirations. It is, of course, strengthened by the events of Hurricane Katrina, but even more than that, it feels so obviously rooted in Louisiana and the atmosphere of the Big Easy – they need never mention the words New Orleans, but there’s no doubt as to where its creators are based. What the film’s critics rarely mention, although it is perhaps the only thing that really encourages its audience to feel as though the world presented is a desirable one, is the soundtrack – a score written by Zeitlin and Dan Romer that brings a playful joy to the movie. The soundtrack is deeply manipulative, directing us to feel elation, sadness, and yet more elation. And that’s really the crux of Beasts of the Southern Wild: it’s a film that, despite the trash and the hardship, is filled with optimism and light. Whether you buy into it or not, well, that’s really up to you.

(Note: you can also read my programme note for Beasts of the Southern Wild here)

Film #73: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

film 73 moulin rouge

Rating: 2.5/5

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”

Baz Luhrmann’s third feature, following the superb Romeo + Juliet (1996), continues – and develops – the writer/director’s unique vision, transforming Paris of the 1900s into a hyperrealistic whirlwind of hedonism, colour and gaudy glitz. At the centre of the film is a story about love, but it’s a rather trite tale in comparison to the beautiful, timeless tragedy of Shakespeare – the similarly doomed romance between an impoverished bohemian writer (Ewan McGregor) and the glamorous “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge (Nicole Kidman) benefits from the natural chemistry between the two stars but lacks any sense of originality. Instead, Luhrmann distracts us from the banality of the story with a constant barrage of spectacle – it feels like everything needs to be punctuated with exclamation marks. The costumes! The dancing! The theatre! The overacting! Yet although the frenetic pace and manic editing style does capture the overwhelming sense of dizzying debauchery, there is no time to pause and actually focus on what is being shown. Luhrmann further infuriates by constantly overusing extreme close-ups – the actors’ faces dominate the frame, and there’s barely a hint as to the undoubtedly impressive sets surrounding them.

It’s a shame, because the few brief glimpses of Luhrmann’s Paris are beautiful – a Melies-inspired moon watches over the city, with the Eiffel Tower and the city’s sole hill, Mont Martre, looming on the skyline. At the foot of the hill is the Moulin Rouge, arguably the most famous cabaret club in Europe, if not the world. Its parties are legendary, its girls equally so, and Luhrmann revels in the spectacle of the place. This is the ultimate bohemian dream – a world in which “freedom, truth, beauty and love” rule supreme. Writer Christian’s life is turned upside down following his encounter with Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo; perhaps it’s just me who always feels somewhat uncomfortable at the frequency of “regular-sized” actors portraying dwarves, though he does a good job despite the strange fake legs) and the artist’s merry band of fellow bohemians. Together, they conspire to ensure their play, the ultimate bohemian artwork championing the aforementioned ideals, is put on at the Moulin Rouge. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Satine (Kidman) believes Christian is the Duke, a potential patron of the new theatre, and soon the star-crossed lovers are hiding their trysts while the villainous, nameless Duke (Richard Roxburgh in an impressively sleazy role, complete with spindly moustache) attempts to remain oblivious to the treachery under his nose.

It’s a messy plot, symptomatic of a generally messy film, though it does eventually calm down somewhat. The initial rendezvous, held in the magnificent giant elephant in which Satine lives, is a particularly cluttered, confused sequence; Kidman shrieks and pouts while characters pop up with comic sound effects, McGregor turns on the charm and lights the screen up with his irresistible smile, but it’s all too manic. All the pizazz, while undoubtedly working to create a unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic, is far too distracting. The characters are entirely two dimensional, with no sense of depth or development, and the love story – the most important thing, as we are constantly reminded – fails to make any significant emotional impact as a result. It doesn’t help that its tragedy is reduced to a blood stain on the handkerchief of Satine, whose delicate coughs and sparkly beads of sweat on her brow are simply tiresome; the ending is inevitable, and particularly uninspired. Furthermore, the romance starts to grate – the two are so caught up in love that they barely even try to conceal this apparently “secret” love affair, despite knowing the potential damage they could cause, not just to themselves, but to everyone around them. Their selfishness and immaturity may be a sign of passion, but for anyone even remotely cynical, it’s just irritating and, quite frankly, rude.

There is a lot to praise, however, and it’s frustrating to see such talent and vision destroyed by excessive overuse and a lack of self-control on the part of the director. The music, continuing the distinctive style of Luhrmann, consists of a vast array of famous songs, reappropriated and combined in medleys. Some work better than others – the rendition of Roxanne by the Unconscious Argentinian (Jacek Koman) is wonderful, the first dance number of the Moulin Rouge less so. When the camera pauses long enough for us to actually see the choreography of the dance routines, they’re wonderfully evocative and, at times, quite powerful. The central performances of McGregor and Kidman fizz with energy, and McGregor has a beautiful tone to his voice – in fact, it is his star quality that really comes to the fore. Neither, however, quite match Jim Broadbent, who utterly steals the show as the Moulin Rouge’s owner Zidler – he is also the only character with even a hint of depth, and he is fantastic. Yet the film’s biggest flaw is Luhrmann himself, whose directorial style is manic; he shows a distinct lack of self-restraint, and the emotion of the story is compromised as a result (it’s perhaps for this reason that the Academy chose not to consider him for best director despite the film’s other nominations). Despite its apparent emphasis on the bohemian ideals, what really emerges is that there’s very little substance beneath the glitzy, crazed style.

Film #72: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

film 72 shadow of the vampire

Rating: 3.5/5

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Max Schreck, who will be portraying our vampire, Count Orlock. As you no doubt have heard, Max’s methods are somewhat… unconventional, but… I am sure you will come to respect his artistry in this matter.”

The first vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) remains to this day one of the most eerie, haunting, and iconic films of all time – Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is arguably the least human representation of a vampire. There’s little hint as to the romanticism now overwhelming the horror aspects of these creatures; Orlok is entirely inhuman in both his physical appearance and his actions. It’s no wonder, then, that legend suggests Schreck was truly a vampire. He wasn’t (probably), but Shadow of the Vampire plays fast and loose with the myths and tales surrounding F R Murnau’s silent masterpiece (aptly subheaded A Symphony of Horror), presenting Schreck as the ultimate in difficult leading actors, and Murnau (John Malkovich) himself as a director obsessed with realising his vision.

If Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu is central to the film’s inate creepiness, Willem Dafoe’s performance as Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire is equally crucial, and he was (deservedly) Oscar-nominated for the role that was written specifically for him. The role of Orlok demands a strong performance from an unconventional actor, and has been played by three very different men – Schreck, Klaus Kinski (in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake), and Dafoe. Technically Dafoe plays Schreck-playing-Orlok, but the distinction is particularly blurry, as it soon transpires Schreck is simply a character created to disguise the fact that the vampire is real. Schreck-the-character and Orlok are one and the same, with Murnau so determined to create a piece of documentary-art that he’s willing to sacrifice several members of his cast and crew in the process. In this way, the film is not only about a myth, but about cinema – this extreme example of method acting demonstrates the problems it causes for other members of the cast and crew as well as the success of a truly authentic performance. Meanwhile, Murnau’s obsession cleverly alludes to a conflict within the film industry – the director as auteur, forced to work with others who may somehow taint or damage his unique vision. It’s particularly telling that Murnau is so derisive towards his writer, practically willing Orlok to devour him first.

Such is the success of both director E Elias Merhige’s attention to period detail, and Dafoe’s performance, that when scenes from Murnau’s original film feature, it’s almost impossible to see the distinction. Following the film’s troubled production, Merhige allows his audience to watch the silent movie come into being – the camera rolls, the iris is in, and the colours drain from the image as Gustav (Eddie Izzard) attempts to act – in that delightfully overwrought, overly emphatic style prevalent in the silent era – opposite Orlok. Accompanying these scenes are the unobtrusive yet evocative orchestral score (taken from John William’s score of the 1979 version of Dracula) and the soothing, distinctive tone of Malkovich’s voice as Murnau tells his actors the story of their shot. It’s highly effective, not only in providing a rather romantic representation of the film industry at the time, but also in bringing a literary feel to the film – after all, Nosferatu is famously not an adaptation of Dracula, but the story is undeniably, blatantly rooted in Bram Stoker’s gothic novel.

This is not just a period piece, however, and while at least a basic knowledge of Murnau’s Nosferatu is preferable, it’s not essential. Due to the overtly fictional reimagining of a genuine historic moment, it’s easiest to just accept the supernatural elements, and to enjoy the wonderful performances and, in particular, the brilliantly strained relationship between Murnau and his most difficult actor. Malkovich brings a natural, tightly-wound lunacy to Murnau that frequently threatens to explode. Dafoe is clearly in his element, hamming up the inhuman aspects of Schreck/Orlok – while the real Schreck brought a kind of naïve alienness to Orlok, Dafoe’s creation is indulgent in his strangeness, and often very funny as a result; both he and Izzard in particular encapsulate the black humour permeating the script.

It’s a shame then that Shadow of the Vampire becomes rather cluttered at the end, the script getting messy and seemingly struggling to find an ending that will satisfy all the various elements established to that point. The result, which brings both the supernatural elements and Murnau’s doggedly obsessive vision to a climax, feels far more rushed than the earlier scenes, which gradually built up the sense of on-set unease in much the same way as Nosferatu, with long, shadowy fingers creeping into the frame and ominous shadows in dark corners. Merhige’s version of this well-worn story remains more a well-made curio than a true classic; if it inspires more people to seek out the film on which it is based, then that can only be a good thing. As to whether it will convince audiences that Schreck really was a vampire, well, his performance is still strong enough for that myth to endure without any help.

Film #55: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

film 55 lars and the real girl

Rating: 5/5

“You won’t be able to change his mind, anyway. Bianca’s in town for a reason.”

A few years before Ryan Gosling became every woman’s idea of a perfect man, he starred in this, a wonderfully heart-warming, quirky tale of small town life and one man’s attempt to finally forge a human connection. This is the first film I saw him in, and I remember being quite captivated by his understated performance. He’s barely recognisable here; his finely sculpted body is concealed beneath old-man-jumpers and layers upon layers of clothing, he’s sporting a moustache that makes him look far older than he really is, and he’s less muscly than cuddly, but he is utterly endearing. Yes, I probably sound like every other swooning fangirl, but for anyone critical of his recent acclaim, I implore you to watch Lars and the Real Girl – it will change your mind.

I’ve always been a fan of the unconventional love story, and this film definitely falls into that category. Like Secretary (another of my favourite films, which will get reviewed here at some point), in the wrong hands it could become sleazy or uncomfortable, but all the elements work in perfect harmony. What’s so great about this film is that there are no bad guys, no enemies; in Lars’ time of need, his whole community comes together to support him. In fact, despite some initial reservations about playing along with his delusion (particularly from his brother Gus), they all benefit from his girlfriend’s arrival – the “real girl” of the title, who just so happens to be a life size sex doll.

Bianca (the doll) appears one day in a giant wooden crate, her blank face covered in garish make-up and her body barely hidden underneath fishnet and pvc. Her first encounter with Gus (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant, well-meaning wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) is one of the most hilarious moments in the film; for the first time, Lars voluntarily comes to visit, to tell them of his new girlfriend. He met her on the internet, he tells them. She’s very religious, having been brought up by missionary nuns, and therefore doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the garage with him. And, would you believe it, someone stole her luggage and her wheelchair! Despite these slightly odd comments, Gus and Karin are so happy to discover he’s got a girlfriend that they dig out the new towels, make up the bed in the spare room, and invite Bianca over to dinner. And then, dumbfounded silence. Schneider’s face says it all – he perfectly encapsulates the utter disbelief that would no doubt be shared by anyone put in a similar situation. It’s a brilliant moment: Karin’s quiet confusion, Gus’ incredulous expression, Bianca’s blank stare, and Lars’ big, happy, oblivious smile.

Crucially, at no point does it feel as though either the characters, or us as an audience, are laughing at Lars. It’s the situations that are so entertaining; the reactions of the townsfolk as they are confronted with Bianca attending church and the doctors; their attempts to understand exactly what is going on; their willingness to play along if it means helping one man who, as they all confirm, is a nice boy, albeit a troubled one. Yet his delusion is not harming anyone and, as one particularly understanding church member points out, everyone has their strange quirks. As they take Bianca under their wing, she becomes an invaluable member of the community – her slutty clothes are replaced by more weather-appropriate attire, she gets a haircut, her make-up is wiped off, and she gets several jobs. In fact, she’s so busy, poor Lars starts getting rather sidelined, and gradually, this apparently perfect relationship begins developing cracks.

While Gosling is the star of the show, he is supported by a wonderful cast – Schneider and Mortimer are brilliant, as is Kelli Garner who plays Margo, a new girl at Lars’ workplace who is evidently rather smitten by the taciturn man, and Patricia Clarkson as the town’s doctor. The actors are all blessed with a pitch perfect screenplay by Nancy Oliver, who deservedly received an Oscar nomination (she lost out to Juno‘s Diablo Cody); there’s not a moment that feels out of place, contrived, or cruel. Lars and the Real Girl is a delicate, poignant, and truly hilarious tale – I can feel the clichés itching to come out: words like heart-warming, touching, quirky. But it is all of these things, and more.

Film #54: Man on Wire (2008)

film 54 man on wire

Rating: 5/5

“If I die, what a beautiful death!”

In 2009, James Marsh’s superb film Man on Wire won Best Documentary at the Oscars. In any other year, I would have been happy, but I must admit this win was tinged with sadness for me, because it beat Encounters at the End of the World. Yet general consensus quietly agrees that the latter was included predominantly because Werner Herzog’s previous documentary, Grizzly Man, had failed to even secure a nomination in 2006, and this was the Academy’s way of putting right an egregious wrong. So, as biased as I am towards Herzog, whose films have (sadly) yet to be picked out of the bag, even I must concede that if he had to lose out (again) at the Oscars, at least he lost out to a worthy opponent – and, to be honest, I doubt that the director himself actually cares at all. Man on Wire is fantastic, make no mistake – an exhilarating memoir disguised as a heist film, it gathers you up and pulls you into Phillipe Petit’s obsessed world until, finally, you are rewarded with an unforgettable moment: it’s a moment of lunacy, undoubtedly, but it’s also beautiful, serene, magical.

Based on a book by Petit, Man on Wire recounts the Frenchman’s efforts to achieve his dream – to walk along a tight rope between the Twin Towers in New York. It was an obsession that haunted him from the moment he first discovered the skyscrapers were being built in the early 1960s. It wouldn’t be until 1974 that he would finally have the opportunity, carrying out the “artistic crime of the century” with the help of a band of people who had been caught up in his wake and dragged along for this delirious ride.

The film’s style brings to mind that of acclaimed documentary maker Errol Morris, combining the traditional talking heads – a perfunctory inclusion that generally lacks visual dynamism – with monochrome re-enactments. Yet Petit in particular is such an engaging character that even his interview segments are filled with excitement and vitality – he is spry and hyperactive, expressive with not just his face but his whole body. It’s easy to see how he persuaded the motley crew of friends, associates, and virtual strangers to help him on what could so easily have been a suicide mission. The re-enactments, in contrast, are muted in colour and slightly grainy, yet no less engaging: Marsh cleverly creates his heist caper here, as Petit recalls the almost slapstick manner by which they broke into the Twin Towers, with their vast quantities of rigging and equipment. Were it not for the reiteration of his story by his co-conspirators, it would be easy to dismiss his version of events as fanciful and highly exaggerated: having to hide under tarpaulin while the security guards smoked cigarettes, the near-misses and ridiculous situations they managed to get themselves into. The good humour and often hilarious descriptions mask, or at least undermine, the criminality of their actions, not to mention the hugely dangerous potential of his dream, so that Man on Wire remains eternally optimistic and invigorating.

Alongside these talking head interviews and re-enactment segments, Marsh’s film undoubtedly benefits from an impressive wealth of existing footage of Petit’s various exploits. From his jaunt across the Sydney Harbour bridge, to small, tender moments shared between friends, the combination of photos and film footage nostalgically capture the decade just as they capture the closeness of this group of friends. They are an inviting bunch; if there were fights and disagreements, they are hidden away – what matters, it is implied, was the fun. For this period of time, the group lived, breathed, slept and dreamed Petit’s dream; they vicariously lived his obsession, which he had infected each and every one of them with. And, in the end, it was his life at risk, but they all reaped the rewards of his actions, as they helped him achieve something that was insane, of course, but somehow life-changing for them all. Just listening to his former girlfriend as she recalls watching him from the streets below, and you get the sense that there was something utterly profound about his actions; this was an experience shared by friends and strangers alike, one that would never be forgotten. Yet there is a somewhat bittersweet element here, emphasised in the film’s final moments as the group discuss what happened after they had finally achieved Petit’s dream. After all those years of planning, the obsessive detailing and meticulous (or not) preparation, what is left afterwards? It’s a poignant end to a beautiful, and ultimately very human film.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing James Marsh twice over the years, and you can read both interviews here:
Citizen Nim
Subdued Suspense