See It: The Shape of Water


Many thanks to Peg for the chance to see this ahead of release. We were both saying that it will be great to see it again on a big screen. It’s del Toro, so of course it’s just a lovely lovely film on the visual level: the greens and the reds! Breathtaking. The cast of course are wonderful: Sally Hawkins always is, ditto Octavia Spencer and of course Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins — well, really. What a cast — the whole cast.

But a word about Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins together: this is a film about being in love with the movies. All I really knew about it was del Toro and a nod to The Creature from the Black Lagoon (probably from Bissette mentioning it). But it’s also about musicals and the magic of films and how that can make your horrible (or even just difficult) life bearable. So yeah, there’s music and movie magic and a movie house showing its age.

At the centre though is a silent pas de deux between Hawkins and Jones. At the ISATMA conference Michelle Temple talked to us about American Sign Language not just as a tool for communication but as a part of a culture. She gave us an example of how to leave a party, going around and saying farewell individually not just to make sure everyone knows you’re going but because ‘we watch out for one another’ Temple emphasised. Hawkins’ character is mute (though not deaf) and speaks through sign language. Jones’ character lacks human speech, but they soon learn to communicate. So many films rely on dialogue and facial expressions. This is whole body acting. Hawkins and Jones will slay you.

It’s melancholy magic, sad and beautiful, fun and painful — which is to say it’s del Toro, right? I more often think about Pan’s Labyrinth than I watch it because it’s so harrowing. This film covers traumatic subjects but with a lighter touch–more fable than fairy tale, perhaps. This makes it sound lesser. It’s not. But takes place on a more intimate stage. You peel back the Technicolor skin and you see people struggling against forces they know may crush them (oh, the scene with Spencer and Martin Roach or the pie shop). But in spite of that — or maybe because of that — they won’t back down from doing what they know has to be done.

And that’s what we need to see right now. I don’t want that to be a fairy tale.

Film for a Friday: Woman Who Came Back

Yes, it is written like that in the title card: no article on Woman. Low budget offering from Western Television, Woman Who Came Back (1945) offers a tale of the past invading the present in the form of a witch burned at the stake who wants revenge. In New England — where of course no one was burned as a witch.

Criminy people: witches were not burned in the US, they were hanged (and occasionally pressed). Also EARLY MODERN ERA was the time of the  wild witch crazes: you needed the print era to really get propaganda going on a massive scale.

Anyhoo: this is a fun little no-budget film. Including great creepy vintage Halloween costumes.

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The story is simple: Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly) on a bus returning to her hometown and the man she ran away from at the altar meets an old woman who claims to be Jezebel Trister (Elspeth Dudgeon – best name I’ve heard in a while), the witch who had been condemned by Lorna’s great grand pappy. Of course she’s back to curse his progeny and the bus crashes killing everyone except Lorna and the old woman’s dog who haunts her the rest of the film.

Her paternalistic head-patting fiance (Now Voyager’s John Loder) assures her everything will be fine and the epically old guy pipe-smoking Rev. Jim Stevens (Otto Kruger) agrees. Let’s just all forget this bus full of dead people and get on with our charming New England lives of small town paranoia: Shirley Jackson meets Grace Metalious.

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Of course weird things happen: everything Lorna touches dies and it spooks people, like Expositio her housekeeper (okay, her name’s not really Expositio but she does explain a lot of back story before giving notice presumably because the windows won’t stay shut and the curtains billow mysteriously in the ever-present wind).

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Naturally, Lorna discovers the truth about her curse from a volume in old grandpappy’s study that just happens to be in a mausoleum in the crypts under the church. The townfolk don’t like these goings on especially when her fiance’s niece falls ill and they react accordingly.

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Will they gather into an angry mob or will clearer pipe-smoking heads prevail to show they’ve all been Scooby-Doo’d? It’s only a little over an hour so you can watch and find out for yourself. Hardly a masterpiece, it’s nonetheless fun and goes on my list for the course on witch films I’m thinking about doing sometime in the near future.

I learned about this film from a terrific piece on the folk-horror of Powell & Pressburger’s Gone to Ground.

Review: Love & Friendship

What absolute joy this film is. The sense of fun and delight in being bad is not what one usually associates with Austen but it is exactly the reason her best observations cut so deeply. I may have to reconsider Whit Stillman.

First I should admit to being a hoarder. I had not read Lady Susan which is the text for this adaptation despite the title. With so few Austen novels in existence, I had always kept this early epistolary novel in reserve for a day so terrible that only some ‘new’ Austen could cheer me. I suppose I ought to be happy that day has not yet arrived, but having seen the film of course I hoard it no more.

Kate Beckinsale is flawless in the title role, which is a challenge: she is so awful that everyone hates her and yet she is such a genius that they cannot help admiring her. How wonderful it is to see a woman on screen called genius with genuine admiration. Her confidence is unflagging and no set back cannot be out-maneuvered. Her pleasure in manipulating others is too great to be kept to herself, so she needs a confidant in Mrs. Johnson, married to respectability though it is not to her liking. Indeed she finds her husband, ‘too old to be agreeable, and too young to die’.

Chloë Sevigny is certainly not the obvious choice for the role and I found her American tones a bit discordant at first (cf. Sarah Polley as ‘Selma the Witch Woman’ in Beowulf & Grendel) but they did a smart thing in making her nationality the point. Her husband’s only real weapon against her is the ever-present threat of moving to the US. I laughed out loud at her shuddering in the face of the horrifying prospect of being sent to –gasp! — Hartford.

The cast is terrific. Small roles are made vivid: Jenn Murray as the wailing Lady Manwaring, who conveys incredible frustration and fury. Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet as the DeCourceys convey effortlessly the rich complications of a long relationship. Morfydd Clark, in addition to having a wonderful voice, brought to life the transformation of Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica from a timid and frankly abused child to a young woman who blossoms under her first experiences with kindness.

Tom Bennett’s comic turn as Sir James Martin verges on going too far but stops just short of it. His misunderstanding about the name of the Vernon estate had me guffawing. Not an idiot, just ‘a bit of a rattle’ is an Austenian phrase we really need to bring back.

But this is Lady Susan’s story and it is so much fun. It has all the brashness of youth: Austen’s mature work is both kinder and more sharply observed, but this is spirited and reckless, a tone the film captures precisely. Watching Lady Susan turn the prejudice of the smug Reginald DeCourcey (Xavier Samuel) into admiration offers a showcase of both Lady Susan’s skill and Beckinsale’s. Fabulous.

The trailer has some of the really good lines, so watch it at your peril.

TOAV: Lizzie (1957)

LIZZIE (1957)

Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest

Big tip of the hat to Noirish’s John Grant, who first tipped me off by writing about it a week or so ago, and then arranging for me to see it as I was so excited to hear of an adaptation of Jackson that I’d never seen before. He’s got some great photo stills, too, so be sure to check it out. In fact his detailed write up is so thorough go read it first. I’ll just add a couple things here that strike me in seeing it for the first time.

I do love the opening credits. I am easily charmed by simple movie magic, but somehow the inkblots just work nicely for me. They give a shortcut to the theme of revealing the hidden within the mind and yes, from childhood I was obsessed with these narratives of women going bonkers probably because I figured I was one of them since I realised early on that my mind worked differently from other people’s (took me a while to feel sure that ‘different’ didn’t have to mean ‘crazy’). And as Grant points out, before Three Faces of Eve Jackson had her finger on the nature of these coping mechanisms from trauma (I always suspected her mind worked a bit differently, too).

Eleanor Parker is fine but the supporting cast is so stellar she can’t really shine. Even Marion Ross in a small role as a co-worker outshines her on screen. It’s a tough role that fluctuates between the harsh ‘Lizzie’ and timid Elizabeth. And of course Joan Blondell is magnetic whenever the camera is on her, so there’s little chance of capturing the audience’s sympathy for Elizabeth/Beth. It’s great to see Richard Boone as a good guy for once, though I don’t recall the psychiatrist being all that appealing in the novel, but maybe that’s either 1) my bad memory or 2) seeing him from a different P.O.V. in the book. And wow, a shockingly young Johnny Mathis with the voice just as velvety smooth.

I’m really glad I heard of it and got to see it (thanks, John!). It’s in the rotation at TCM, so if you have the channel keep your eyes peeled.

Best of all, it makes me desperate to find the time to go re-read Jackson’s novel. And that’s a good thing.

Find other overlooked gems via Todd’s blog.

TOA/V: Straight to Hell Returns

So I got to meet Alex Cox at the Hudson Basilica run by former Hole member Melissa Auf der Mauer (who introduced him) and see the rejiggered STRAIGHT TO HELL RETURNS so how big was my smile? Very! I love this film. I felt for years as if I were the only person crazy enough to do so (though Bertie is too if only by osmosis), but it was so great to see it with new colouring, cleaned up and with some of the missing bits restored as well as the final song from Strummer. How was it Awesome. I won’t pretend to have any critical distance about this film. It only improves upon reacquaintance. I was laughing my head off.

We don’t half live in hipsterville, eh? Many of the local varieties in attendance. We should write a guidebook to the varieties.

The basilica is an amazing space. I was imagining all the things that might be done with it. I have to read up a little more on their plans. Hudson really is chock full of — yes, hispters — but also people who are trying to do cool things with the space here. I’m all for it.

Cox talked about the making of the film — how a planned tour in support of the Sandinistas fell through and he had bands with time on their hands, film crew and Joe Strummer’s love of Almeria. Three days to script and boom. They were on their way. He spoke graciously of Tarantino ripping off paying homage to Sy Richardson’s role (the man does not get the respect he deserves) with Samuel L. Jackson’s take on the role in Pulp Fiction. You cannot see this film and have any doubt about that debt. Cox is teaching in UC Boulder and seems to enjoy working with the students and is ambivalent about working in Hollywood. He characterised it as getting rid of all the people with talent and filling up the studios with not very smart admin — just like academia.

No argument here.

I got to ask him a couple questions including whether the cameos were planned or just whoever happened to be in Spain at the time. A combination: Grace Jones was filming Siesta and stopped by. Dennis Hopper had just got clean and his manager was keen to keep him far from temptations so he was available. Cox spoke about how impressive Hopper’s work was, his ability to be natural that he tries to convince young actors to hold onto: “Every reaction is a gift” which captured it perfectly. In contrast to Shane MacGowan who couldn’t repeat a take no matter what but was always entertaining. The Pogues on the whole were very good — and I’m not just saying that because they looked so good in their bandito outfits especially Jimmy Fearnley and Spider Stacey (rowr). I also asked about how he got to work with Kathy Burke who is such a phenomenal woman; again it was sort of coincidences but he went on at length to talk about how amazing she is (hope the hipsters were taking notes).

As we were leaving I told him how obsessed I was with the film when it came out. Nice to have the opportunity. And be sure to check out Cox’s books on films including his Spaghetti Western book, 10,000 Ways to Die.

Be sure to check out all of Tuesday’s Overlooked Audio/Visuals at Todd’s blog.

Tuesday’s Overlooked A/V: Härmä


In the plainlands of Ostrobothnia, Western Finland, a tradition prevails, according to which the first-born son inherits everything and the remaining offspring must fend for themselves. The law has been cast aside in many areas and groups of men, knife-wielding thugs, nicknamed ‘toughs’, control the fields. The blade rules the land. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH, directed by Jukka-Pekka Siili, had its international market premiere in Cannes 2012.

When I saw there was a Finnish ‘Western’ you know I had to have it. Ignore the attempts to market it as Once Upon a Time in the NorthIt’s based on a very real phenomenon of the knife-gangs who strong-armed folks in the sparsely inhabited west in the late 19th century. When you’re accustomed to the hail of bullets in modern Westerns, it’s a bit disconcerting to see someone whip out a knife with menace (and impossible not to think of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). But the knife fights are well done — in fact all the action is nicely done.

It’s weird seeing a western that’s all green rolling hills and birch forests. We’re accustomed to the plume of dust rising behind a rattling wagon. The folks mostly drive small two wheelers that look like the chariots Brigit or Cuchulain would have driven. There’s nothing remarkably new about the story told, but it’s told well. Older brother Esko Välitalo (Mikko Leppilampi) gets passed over for his younger brother Matti (Lauri Tilkanen) when their father makes his will. Matti is happy because it will allow him to ask for the hand of Aino Kantola (Pamela Tola).

But Esko is not a man to take this lying down; in fact, he’s the terror of the district with his gang of knife thugs. Things unfold more or less as you would expect, though Siili wrings every bit of drama out of the constant reversals for the two lovers. Esko wreaks havoc among just about everyone in the district in order to get everything his brother wants and Leppilampi fills the role with glee without ever becoming a caricature. Tilkanen keeps Matti from just being a cow-eyed sap and delightedly, Tola gets to do a lot as Aino despite keeping within historical restrictions because Finnish women have always been tough. I’d also say a word about Aku Hirviniemi who plays Kalle, Matti’s loyal friend. He manages to bring subtlety to the cajoling sidekick role, giving hims humour, as expected but also a kind of wounded vulnerability.

It’s not Sergio Leone, but it’s not really trying to be. See some beautiful countryside, enjoy traditional clothing (you know you want the wedding crown!) and keep your puukko close to hand.

See the roundup of overlooked gems over at Todd’s blog.

Switzerland: Gruyères, Giger & Fondue

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Argh, as I prepare this post I hear the news that H.R. Giger has died. How very sad! The lovely anomaly of this medieval town high in the mountains is that it is also home to the museum & museum bar of Giger. I couldn’t take photos in the museum, but it was quite a fascinating place, no less so on the top floor which not only offered an amazing view but also shared items from the artist’s personal collection.

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Chocolate chaud á la Giger avec Grand Gruyère eau de vie

Chocolate chaud á la Giger avec Grand Gruyère eau de vie


The rubber tiles were also the floor in the museum

The rubber tiles were also the floor in the museum


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The HR Giger Museum entrance: a lot of work packed into three floors, including an alien hanging over a door to freak out visitors as they walked through the galleries.

The clouds were so low you couldn't see the peaks.

The clouds were so low you couldn’t see the peaks.


I didn't take any pictures of us eating fondue, so here's more beautiful mountains.

I didn’t take any pictures of us eating fondue, so here’s more beautiful mountains. The fondue? Delicious.