All posts by Doktorb PR1

Of cows, war and tumours: Best Foreign Language Oscar 2016

df6ec999-0633-413e-9317-53de961e2b33-620x372

Booker Prize awarded, Mercury Prize on its way, the time of year is upon us when industries line-up the envelopes and hand-out the free champagne (….and often vice-versa).  The film industry loves dishing out the trophies more than most, and next year’s Chris Rock presented Academy Awards will trump all before it by most measurements, even if the current betting odds suggest a wider field than usual. There will soon happen the coalescence of opinion behind names, titles, figureheads, so prepare yourself for the post-award “missed opportunities” chat fans of “Inside Out”, we all know what you want, and it’s not happening.

What is happening, for the third year in a row, so I must be doing something right, is the swift eyeing-up of submitted entries for that ever maligned Academy Award staple: the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Fans of blue moons might like to know that, yes, the United Kingdom has an offering this year in the shape of Welsh-language Under Milk Wood, a thoroughly bonkers take of a famously unhinged text (remaining as a set-text across Welsh schools). In my hazy foggy memory, I recall taking one attempt at enjoying the tale of “Llarreggub” without much success, although that was before the days when Cerys Matthews would breathe softly into her 6Music microphone with a particularly saucy rendition, so maybe there’s room for me to be impressed yet. Whether the UK will get anywhere in Oscar-land with this version is doubtful, though I would hope that this submission means we’re still able to provide funding for minority language arts in this country. More, please.

Documentaries are eligible for this category with two takes on a similar, sadly depressing, theme taking my eye from this year’s longlist. Iraqi-Swiss filmmaker “Samir” (he avoids using his religious-based surname) helms Iraqi Odyssey, a deeply personal documentary casting a net from Baghdad to the numerous global cities where his family now calls home. Through the numerous, and seemingly never-ending conflicts in Iraq, the once proud population soon spread themselves across the globe; this ‘odyssey’ is covered by interviews and archive footage contrasting the past, the future, and the sense of a future denied.

By way of a tonal contrast of sorts, The Wanted 18 submitted by Palestine explores that region’s own conflicts in a much more esoteric fashion. Partly animated and re-enacted, this true story of how eighteen diary cows were hidden from Israeli security forces magnifies the surreal heart of the tragic reality of the Middle East conflict. The core element of the story may be one of constant battles, but its overall story has such humour that it appears impossible not to be charmed by Canadian Paul Cowan and Palestinian Amer Shomali’s work.

Conflict of a similar kind – drawing on historic borders, historic language, historic resentment – probably stopped Spain from ever submitting an entry in the Basque language. Indeed it took some time to find a YouTube trailer of Loreak not dubbed into Spanish, something of a reminder of the cultural friction between the country of Spain and the unsettled region of the Basque peoples. To this writer’s eyes, Flowers as it’s translated, hardly hides its analogy of discomfort and directionless behind the story of a woman receiving bouquets from an anonymous source, and the conflict which draws from her need to find her true destiny. It’s somewhat bleak and shadowy in its trailer, though there’s enough strong women to bring Pedro Almodóvar to mind, and that’s hardly a bad thing, now, is it?

There are some countries on which you can often rely for suggestions when running your fingers along the World Cinema section at HMV/on Netflix. This year, they have submitted something of a pic-n-mix. Japan does not impress this writer much with 100 Yen Love, which appears to be a darkly comic tale on a young woman slacking at home wasting her life when suddenly it becomes a version of every ‘turn your life around the easy way’ rags to riches tale you’ve ever ho-hummed over.

Goodbye Mr Tumor is not the kind of title I’d expect from a film outside High School biology class (and even then not outside an episode from Series 6 of The Simpsons). The full 2-hours of China’s submission is on-line if you fancy giving your Mandarin a good airing, I stuck with the trailer and cannot make head-nor-tail of any of it. Warning, the first two-minutes of that link is a trailer, the remaining two-minutes appears to be spoiler-tastic spoiler-ness of the most spoiler-ific kind. If you’re in need of that sort of heads up.

France used to be a safe-bet for shortlisting; they’ve gone for Turkish coming-of-age drama and it’s not doing anything for me. The Italians seem to have gone for a full-colour La Haine which has a certain charm, whilst from India comes a beguiling and deeply peculiar looking court-room drama with unusually slow and languid editing.

I cannot leave this article without mentioning Thailand, even if it does come across as a forced in-joke. It’s my article, I’m going to keep pushing this. Two years ago their entry slapped me around the face with a long-haired drug dealing Jesus inflicting torture on teenagers in a bath. Last year they went safe with a goofy romcom about a teacher. For this time around How To Win at Checkers (Every Time) firmly sets its stall as much as any mainstream Hollywood film possibly could for Academy attention: two brothers in sibling rivalry torn apart by an army draft, full of family tensions and road-trip soul searching. It’s bound to do well, isn’t it? Here’s my one hope for shortlisting above all others, with so many boxes ticked it surely can’t go unnoticed.

Best Foreign Language Film 2015

After running through the Academy Award Foreign Language submissions and candidates for 2012 and 2013, Liam kindly returns this year to do the same again with some lesser known entries for 2015.

by Liam Pennington (@doktorb)

timbuktuWriting this column each year rustles my inner workings more than your average Su Doku and no mistake. This year more than most, actually, as I trawl through the YouTube offerings of a record eighty-three submitted titles, causing my usually tolerant brain for all things art-house to frazzle like an overworked sandwich toaster.

I considered ‘going big’ by picking a title such as Russia’s submission Leviathan, already well regarded as an unexpectedly critical-of-the-regime drama and one with a UK release earlier this year. I further considered ‘going local’ and picking Uzun Yol, the Turkic-language entry looking at honour killings. Unfortunately the available on-line trailers for this film are minimal (and without subtitles) so out the window went that.

It was therefore left for me to rely on good old fashioned gimmickry: from the largest ever field of submitted entries there are four first time nominating countries: Malta, Mauritania, Panama, and the disputed territory of Kosovo. What better theme than that to look at, I thought, before checking that available material was easily accessed on line, than this? Here goes then.

There’s certainly not many laughs in the trailer for Three Windows and a Hanging, (“Tri Dritare dhe një Varje“), the first Kosovan entry for the Academy Award’s foreign language trophy. Difficult to make, let alone watch, the director Isa Qosja tells Cineuropa that the owner of the house they rented during filming would regularly threaten to throw them out as the contents made them feel uncomfortable. The film tackles highly charged content of rape in a closed, predominately male, society. That Eastern Europe has a reputation for male-orientated politics is well known: in Kosovo, still raw from the NATO-led bombing of Serbia and unrest across the Balkans, this subject matter must touch many an exposed nerve. Three Windows and a Hanging examines how a close-knit community deals with the rape of a woman and the effects on her family in the immediate aftermath of the Kosova war in 1999, making a brave film somehow all the more daring.

Plucky little Malta offers Simshar, and I won’t lie about this, one trailer looks to me like a ragbag of independent movie cliché. However, on finding something a lot better I was impressed and intrigued by the film, and hope that the tiny island nation gets some much needed attention for an ambitious and clearly very personal work. As a member of the EU placed within easy boat-hopping distance of north and northeastern Africa, Malta is obliged to administer the many migrants crossing the Mediterranean en route to Italy or beyond. This film examines both the conflicting sides of Maltese life – islands attractive to tourists and migrants, locals and foreigners – and from what I have seen, manages to present a very intense but balanced narrative. I wonder if Malta is simply too undeveloped a nation, film industry wise, for the Academy to shortlist the movie for next year, but it does appear there’s much to be positive about for the future.

Shown at this year’s Cannes Festival and championed by Variety magazine as “rendered with clarity and deeper, richer tones”, Timbuktu is established as one of the strongest submissions this year. Director Abderrahmane Sissako talks about the need to focus on the Islamist threat to African nations (Timbuktu is based on a brief occupation of Malian towns) and has slammed as “hijackers” those who have twisted the Muslim belief for their own ends. This stunning and stark film is Mauritania’s first ever submission to the Academy Awards, and looks highly likely to become a must-see film for anybody interested in what is a highly important subject given the on-going/never-ending news from home and abroad concerning Islamic extremism.

This theme of ongoing tragedy and conflict is brought into focus through a different perspective by Panama’s first ever submission, the documentary Invasión. As seen by the trailer, Abner Benaim’s much acclaimed feature explores the controversial US-led invasion of Panama with no holds barred, and all the better for that. It’s taken a clutch of South American industry awards already and I can certainly see it being something of a 2014-version of Chile’s well regarded (and very important) No from last year.

If you remember anything about last year’s column (snark, I know, it’s not likely unless you’re James Diamond, formerly of this parish), you might recall the quite unbelievable entry from Thailand. Full of drugs, sex, border line blasphemy and more drugs, I knew the trailer had to be included just for a sense of completion. Much to my disappointment, Thailand has gone all mainstream and ordinary this year, with Teacher’s Diary (all together now, it’s called “คิดถึงวิทยา” in Thai) and it’s a rather humdrum rom-com with the trailer stuffed to the gills with saccharine-sweet cheeky antics. I can see why this sort of thing would get your attention but I’m a long-term single 35 year old whose heart is solid as a rock, so what do I know? For point of reference, this trailer is what Thailand submitted last year. I did warn you…

The 87th Academy Awards ceremony will be held on Sunday 22nd February 2015. However, there’s still time for you to vote for your five favourite films of 2014 not in the English language in our very own Failed Critics Awards 2014. Voting closes 22nd December, 5pm.

Speaking in Tongues – the Foreign Language Oscar longlist

The GrandmasterThe Internet is often accused of shining too much light upon magic. No longer do blokes down the pub chat about the match without somebody flinging out their black mirror to quote every OPTA stat like an autistic vidiprinter. Stumbling over a potential classic read in a bookstore has become something of a minority interest sport, not just because bookstores are closing at a rate comparable to Working Men’s Clubs, but one quick scan of Goodreads gives you enough crib notes to appear as the most well-read member of your book club. With amateur YouTube accounts and news aggregator sites such as BuzzFeed and Cracked reducing everything from current affairs to album released into bite-sized cue cards, it’s little wonder that the pervasive opinion is that of the facilitation of diluted information somewhat reduces the anticipation, excitement and general thrill of how things used to be.

Partial credit for that view, as the drawing back of the curtain made possible by the Internet does have its positives points. What used to seem mysterious or oblique, such as the drawing up of nominated people in various award ceremonies, has become broadly open and available for comment. The ‘longlist’, so rarely mentioned before the expectation of transparency brought about by the Internet, is now part and parcel of the bauble giving process. No more is such openness exciting and, just perhaps, symbolic of the ‘window of the world’ ideal of on-line life, than the longlist for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (more correctly labelled by the august gentlefolk at BAFTA as ‘Film not in the English Langugae’, but who am I to suggest that our American cousins have an unfortunately skewed opinion of ‘foreign’.)

This year nine films from over seventy submissions have been put on the initial longlist, and I have endeavoured to find at least a trailer somewhere for a select few to chin-stroke for your delectation. In the spirit of the New Year, I will hand over to other Failed Critics to consider  those I have missed from both the longlist and unsuccessful others, out of a duty to be fair, and because I hope somebody else can stomach watching the entry from Thailand. No, I’m not doing it, watching it for research purposes was quite enough. Ask James. [I just watched it. Bloody hell. Do not click HERE – James]

From Bosnia-Herzegovina comes ‘An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker’ (‘Epizoda u životu berača željeza’). Low on laughs, this one. Director Danis Tanović explores what he considers to be the ‘omnipresent’ injustice in a country many years removed from the devastating civil war of the 1990s. A woman, Senad, falls ill during pregnancy, but has no means of paying for treatment when the child she is carrying dies. The trailer is unremittingly bleak. I recall watching Bosnia’s winning submission ‘No Man’s Land’ some years ago (it beat ‘Amélie’), so I know that their cinema has a somewhat downbeat side, and who could blame them? Stark and courageous as this clearly is, I think it’s not one for me to settle down of an evening to watch.

Similarly serious is the entry perhaps best known in the UK thanks to much broader distribution rights, Denmark‘s ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jagten’). This claustrophobic tale of mass hysteria in a small village beats particularly relevant drums in this country due to the ongoing concerns about paedophilia in the media and the well-known mob justice attacks on innocent people (including a disabled Iranian man earlier this year, and the infamous attack of a paediatrician.) As many fans of Nordic Noir will attest, ‘The Hunt’ speaks of shadow and light as close partners. It’s been a good time to be a Danish screenwriter, with ‘A Royal Affair’ making similar waves last year. The trailer for ‘The Hunt’ in its native language does look so much like ‘The Killing’, I’m just saddened by the lack of chunky knit jumpers.

I was taken aback by just how unexpectedly lovely ‘The Missing Picture’ looks. Already awarded the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, the third ever submission from Cambodia could well be the kind of film the Academy award themselves. Looking at the atrocities from the country’s dark past through a mix of animation and filmed segments, ‘The Missing Picture’  looks to be as much docu-drama as film, and is none the less compelling for that. The entire film can be found, without subtitles, on YouTube. From what I saw, this brave and moving piece would be a humbling and informative film and perhaps a companion piece to ‘The Art of Killing’, although not perhaps on the same night, or if you’re prone to emotional outbursts.

Hong Kong has made the longlist with ‘The Grandmaster’ (‘一代宗師’), a retelling of the story of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man. It is the first submission from the former British colony to make the January cut-off since 1993, and I can see why it’s been picked up for wider release. Slick, dark and beautiful in ways only East Asian martial arts films can pull off properly, ‘The Grandmaster’ is also notable for including scenes unique to whichever of the three edits you happen to find (original, European release and world-wide version). It could well follow in the ‘Crouching Tiger…’ tradition by crossing over into cult status if the mood is right, and I see no reasons why this isn’t possible.

These four take only but a sliver from the full seventy-odd entries from countries as diverse as Nepal, Italy and even The United Kingdom. I’ll await the results of the Academy’s considerations with interest. It’s worth the light being shone upon the world sometimes.

Euro Stars

oscarsI’m watching a film trailer for a 2012 release longlisted for an Academy Award, and from what I can gather this is the kind of film which would ordinarily do well with those who hand out the statuettes every spring. Unusually for a film which could be sharing the stage amongst the biggest superstars in Hollywood, there’s very little coverage out there in English, although twelve people have provided ratings for it on IMDB. The trailer suggests this is classic Hollywood territory: girl goes off the rails, is knocked up, kicked about, falls pregnant and then is laughed at by a woman with large glasses and wide gums. Oh, and she speaks in Kyrgyz and the film only has Russian subtitles.  That aside, it’s your typical mainstream storyline transferred to very atypical surroundings.

Whether the good folk of Kyrgyzstan had their hopes of Oscar glory with Пустой дом” (“Pustoy Dom” or “The Empty House”) is anyone’s guess, but even if they did have their collective fingers crossed, the Academy shortlist released this week dashed those hopes in one whoosh of a fax machine. A record seventy-one submissions for “Best Film in A Foreign Langauge” were received this year of which just nine were chosen as potential winners. These nine, including some of the most well regarded critics’ favourites of the year such as the devastatingly beautiful “Amour” and lavish “A Royal Affair, will be whittled down to five next month, a final figure which has been the only constant in the ‘Foreign Films’ category since the very first was handed out in the 1950s.

What strikes me about the class of 2013 is another common theme they have with their predecessors over the years. They are predominately European, and West European at that, and even those which don’t come from our continental neighbours fail to provide much of an exploration of world cinema. Canada’s submission this year, for example, is the sixth to make at least the shortlist in the last seven years.  Whilst France, perennial nominees with this being their sixth in the last decade, is a country you’d expect to see in the mix or thereabouts, this year sees the first ever shortlist inclusion for Chile. Now I’m no expert in Chilean cinema,  so maybe everything thus far submitted has been awful, but the law of averages suggests that to be unlikely. For the record, I’ve watched the trailer for their entry No, and whilst the deliberate use of outdated video stock is a bit glaring, it looks like an engrossing and madcap political drama, with the added bonus of a staring role for the ever dashing “Amores Perros” star Gael García Bernal.

Here’s the number crunching science part. This year seven of the 71 shortlisted entries are from Western Europe, last year it was six from 63, the year before four from 66, whilst for 2010 it was six out of 67. If I go back to the year of my birth, four of the five final nominees were Western European, with Japan making up the fifth, and there’s a country which is not a stranger to being amongst the possible winners. However you look at it, the most basic conclusion is either the basic fact that European cinema is intrinsically better than anywhere else, or the Academy has a blindspot-cum-love affair with the industry as an institution. Have they been in a spell since the days of Fellini or is there something more sinister going on? I don’t often fling around the accusation of imperialism, though when there’s an award specifically designed to celebrate non-American cinema it does strike an odd note that so much of it originates from developed, Western countries.

Another fact which strikes me as incongruous is the lack of recognition for perhaps the most prolific film producing country in the world; India. There’s been no shortlisted entry from India for twelve years, and before that it was 1988, a year when I was just about to start revising for my GCSEs. As with the Kyrgyzstan entry I checked out earlier, I’ve no doubt that the film was well regarded within its home market, so unless Bollywood is deliberately barring submissions from established directors I’ve no idea why there’s such an obvious snub. That said, I have to point this year’s Indian submission, “Barfi!, is one of the highest-grossing Bollywood movies of all time, even though its synopsis doesn’t sound like my kind of thing – deaf and dumb man has relationship with two women, one of whom is autistic, and if you want to know if there’s a happy ending don’t scroll down too quickly on Wikipedia….

Economic power house China has yet to win an Oscar and has once again failed to be nominated this year. I found a trailer with English subtitles for 搜索 (or “Sōusuǒ“, released with the English name “Caught in the Web”) and to be honest it seems to be part-pot boiling nonsense and part Chinese propaganda against the Internet, but that doesn’t mean every other entry they’ve tried is without greater merit. It was through Taiwan/Republic of China that the exceptional “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was submitted in the year 2000, and of course it won, though it’s worth pointing out that even then the majority of nominees were European – and one of those was from Belgium. Belgium!

Maybe I’m being naive and a little idealistic. Looking at this from the other side, could it just be that European cinema is better, broader, more mature and accessible to the jury? Could it be that the ideal of the award is to celebrate a good film rather than opening doors to the world of developing cinema? After all this is the Academy Awards and not a Sight & Sound Festival, and since the year 2000 the winners have included Iran’s “A Separation” and South Africa’s “Tsotsi“. If there’s a undeniable bias it’s towards drama and particularly morality tale drama, rich in the kind of lessons which could be lip service to liberal critics. What it could have been is an opportunity to taste cinema from different palates and with over 70% of Oscar winners coming from Europe, I’m not getting out my best plate and cutlery yet.

 

Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

@doktorb
www.liampennington.blogspot.com

Reboot-era Bond themes: A reflection

Today’s inevitable Bond-related piece is from Guest contributor Liam Pennington as he walks us through the modern-era Bond themes. 

Goldeneye – Tina Turner (Goldeneye – 1995)

How to do “old” with a new twist. It’s got Bassey all the way through it, with a touch of 90s bombast and a respectful air for both the franchise and Tina Turner. It still stands up today, its movie score background making it a little incongruous on a list of power ballads, though it retains a credible pop sensibility

Tomorrow Never Dies – Sheryl Crow (Tomorrow Never Dies – 1997)

Not the easiest title to put into a song and yet it’s not a bad job. The lyrics are clunkier than a car with square wheels but when you’ve got to retain Sheryl Crow’s country motif there’s no harm in throwing everything into a recording studio with a shit-tonne of melancholy and a slide-guitar. As ‘difficult second album’ type syndromes go, it’s not a bad song outside the context of Bond

The World is Not Enough – Garbage (The World is Not Enough – 1999)

Well I love Garbage as much as I do freshly boiled black pudding swimming in vinegar so yes, I’m gonna say it’s a good track. Oddly though, it’s not the most enduring of the ‘reboot’ songs, as it sits uneasily between a knowingly ironic Bond theme and a deliberately low-key Garbage album track. As such it comes across now as a bit too ‘arch’ or sneery. Very well sung

Die Another Day (Die Another Day – 2002)

And then the wheels fall off, the dog dies, the water dries up, the clouds part to reveal a sky made of stained bedsheets…..This was a leap too far in the wrong direction for the franchise, for Madonna, for just about everyone involved. This is face-swapping, invisible car driving nonsense of the highest order. As a dance song, it’s crap. As a pop song, it’s over produced, over-layered, badly structured, barely memorable. As a Madonna track, it’s weak, and that includes the one she did repeating “Hollywood” for approximately five hypergazillion times. Terrible, terrible song

You Know My Name – Chris Cornell (Casino Royal – 2006)

Reboot number 2 – the Bourne Years. It simmers, it burns, it catches in your ear for the rest of the day, it’s VERY good. I love this track still today – a broad-brush rock song which ditches the guns/Martinis/broken heart stuff and dumps the film’s name for a refreshing re-imagining of the franchise’s soundtrack.

Another Way To Die – Jack White & Alicia Keys (Quantum of Solace – 2008)

Given that Question of Sport was utter bobbins, this wasn’t such a bad song. It’s a bit clumsy and derivative lyrics wise, and I could do without the hash of a chorus, but it’s not all that terrible. I know it’s been labelled one of the worst, if not the worst, songs of all the Bonds, I don’t agree it’s that bad. Doesn’t stand out, doesn’t deserve to be labelled as rotten as Quandary of Boris

Skyfall – Adele (Skyfall – 2012)

Well I like it. Adele splits opinion right down the middle, I can understand why, though this one does it for me. The clichéd lyrics are back, the stirring of the Bond theme motif is back, the overblown choruses are back, and for all the lack of fashion, I think it all works really well. Having rebooted the franchise with Tina Turner taking on the task of being that era’s attempt of a Shirley Bassey number, it’s fitting to see the very same attitude with Adele. Here’s the 2012 version of “Goldeneye” – they needed a big, bold, brass ballad with all the subtlety of having anal pleasure with a switched-on kettle, and they got it.

Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

@doktorb
www.liampennington.blogspot.com

Downfall (2004)

Guest contributor Liam Pennington reviews another IMDB Top 250 film, Downfall, and finds thatthis film humanises Hitler, and that is its greatest strength.”

How do you deal with your country’s most infamous moment in history? With compassion, criticism or an uncomfortable compromise? For Germany, ‘Downfall’ marks its most thorough and stark re-examination of the Second World War, and one of the first feature films produced by the country before or since reunification set during the period. That Bruno Ganz is the first German born actor to play Adolf Hitler is highly significant enough before the analysis of his performance is taken into consideration. With fearful accuracy, and not once moving into parody, Hitler was brought back to life.

At the time of its release, ‘Downfall’ was heralded for its honesty and brutality. The question was asked; “Does ‘Downfall’ humanise Hitler?” When I watched the film for the first time, I was struck by the humanity and humility of the man, repulsed by the mindset I’ve always known despite learning almost nothing I hadn’t already known. That said, there was a new dimension to him which underlined or embellished that which is sometimes hinted by contemporary footage uncovered for documentaries. Here is the Adolf Hitler who smiles, who puts a comforting arm around his secretary, whose care about his vision of Germany is as much flavoured by love as hate. ‘Downfall’ produced a version of Hitler who existed behind the propaganda and jokes back home. Whilst the comedians back home painted him as ‘barmy’ and ‘a twerp’, the man himself was being slowly engulfed by the madness which surrounded him. To answer the question, yes, this film humanises Hitler, and that is its greatest strength.

‘Downfall’ records the closing weeks of Hitler’s grip on Berlin specifically and Germany generally. It’s a claustrophobic film, throwing the viewer deeper and deeper into the Führerbunker as liberating forces encroach the city. This is no mere ‘war’ film, though shots are fired and people do die – a good number by their own hand before the deaths of Hitler and Eva Braun.  The film’s pace has an arthouse speed, lingering and exploring, cold and compelling. It’s striking that such films are rare in the English speaking world, with such exploration of a nation’s failings often only produced on the sidelines and by independent minded directors. I always took ‘Downfall’ to avoid ‘cleansing’ the country of its unease about the Second World War, as though this was always intended not to be therapy.

It’s difficult to avoid one of the least expected creations to come from the film, and by which I mean the now over-used Internet ‘meme’ taken from the celebrated bunker scene in which Hitler is made painfully aware just how weak were the defences around Berlin. The scene grasped the fragility of a man whose inner strength came from the belief that he would be saved, that he would be proved right. The ‘meme’ replaced the original subtitles for whichever comedic (and most often, not very comedic) purposes of the creator. Football, soap operas, other films, even references to other ‘memes’, one by one hijacking the scene for their own amusement and taking away with it a tiny part of its soul. The fear of photographs doing the same for the subject perhaps coming true.

Nonetheless, that scene works so well because it manages to combine that which was known about Hitler and that which was always assumed, that the man was weak and vulnerable despite his bombast. The descent for him and his regime is covered with a detached inevitability. Its style is distinctly European, with its series of haunting scenes all the more notable for being captured through German eyes and spoken in the German language. What ‘Downfall’ leaves is a prominent example of storytelling, one which lacks fear and almost all bias. This is not ‘that Nazi film’ anymore than ‘The Counterfeiters’ (Die Fälscher) could be described as such. Quite how any other examination of Adolf Hitler during the last days of the War could be made in the aftermath of ‘Downfall’ is a chin-stroking question and then some. Any more brutal could be dangerously close to pure sympathy, something this avoids. Anything attempting absolute neutrality might fall into parody. Seventy years after the events it follows, ‘Downfall’ retains its unflinching importance.

Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

@doktorb
www.liampennington.blogspot.com

Some Like It Hot

Guest contributor Liam Pennington revisits the classic Billy Wilder comedy and presents a film that “had more in common with the British music-hall tradition than anything which came before from the United States”

This summer the Failed Critics podcasters cast their eyes across the much maligned rom-com genre, from which Hollywood’s relationship has been clearly cooling for some time. Boys meeting girls, girls getting cold feet, boys getting their girls in the end – such an easy to replicate pattern which can absorb the fashions of the age has been distinctly out of place of late, as though the family audience demographic has been judged distinctly uncool.

That’s not to say that family entertainment has always been wholesome and innocent until a cut-off point when the curtain fell, the lights dimmed and the punch-lines turned blue. There have always been winks to the camera and double entendre, not least in the UK where writers balanced innuendo in such a way as to make films more ‘mucky’ than ‘dirty’. On its release in 1959, an age far removed from our own, Some Like It Hot had more in common with the British music-hall tradition than anything which came before from the United States. Indeed it would be accurate to examine Billy Wilder’s work with reference to Britain’s Carry On franchise which would hit its peak in the following decade. For Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis could well have been Bernard Bresslaw and Kenneth Williams, running from crisis to crisis with increasing farce.

My experience with Some Like It Hot comes from countless Bank Holiday viewings, left alone with the living room television and a brain absorbing every throwaway line without even realising it. Years later, it became obvious that my own humour and character would be influenced by the camp wit and rapid delivery. Kenneth Williams himself would regale anecdotes from his days entertaining the troops on national service, and it is from this Army entertainment tradition that Some Like It Hot gets its pace and patter. I would learn to love the increasingly frantic and frenetic storyline as much as others would appreciate horror or crime dramas, although of course it is from the gangster stories of the immediate post-war period that Wilder found the scaffolding from which to hold his subverted take on rom-com conventions.

As ever with highlights from classic cinema, the legends and myths surrounding Some Like It Hot are worth publishing in books of their own – with many an anecdote brushed up and built upon in memoires and background books to this day. The legacy of the film echoes around the studios of the 21st century with reverence and relevance, for who doesn’t like a cross-dressing, simple misunderstanding farce? Many of the urban myths surround Marilyn Monroe, whose turn as the dizzy blonde Sugar Cane was art imitating life, perhaps deliberately. It is true that Monroe, whose stock rose considerably on the film’s release, would take over seventy attempts to say the innocuous line “It’s me, Sugar”, and another eighty to ask “Where’s the bourbon?” She is, in turns, brittle and beautiful and believable in the role of the jazz band singer, self-exiled to visit hotels from town to town in a desperate attempt to find the man of her dreams. This narrative has been and will be the hook from which scores of films would hang, and yet there’s nothing fresher than Some Like It Hot for taking the story of a girl looking for her prince and making it into a race against gangsters, gender politics and gender bending.

When I was a younger man, it didn’t occur to me that this film was a homosexual politics powerhouse, secretly telling its gay audience that everything would turn out right in the end. One vital line in this regard, “I hope my mother never finds out”, is one of the perfect subversive quotes in a screenplay overflowing with memorable lines. Much later comes the celebrated knockabout in the ‘girl’’s bedroom – “Why would a man want to marry another man?” asks Tony Curtis’ Josephine. Jack Lemmon’s Daphne replies “Security!”

Played “straight” in 1959, the implied queer culture undercurrent would be neon-lit in the modern era, surrendering the subtle interplay between male and female characters for explicit morality lessons. The manner in which the clues and codes are played, from Osgood’s overpowering mother to the celebrated boat scene between Curtis and Sugar Cane melting each other’s defences, shows an adept ability which could be so easily over-flavoured. Threats of a remake have surfaced for years, often taking in the best known/paid comedy actors of the day into contemporary settings with hilarious consequences, though all this talk clearly misses the point. There is a dark undercurrent to the story – there’s the St Valentine ’s Day shooting in the second great set piece of the story, echoed in one of the final sequences in which the Chicago gangsters, masquerading as fans of Italian Opera, are gunned down by a man in a cake. (This latter scene, you could argue, is another case of the gender bending motif).

With a quotable line and believable character around every scene, it is no surprise that Some Like It Hot retains its place at the top of many all time greatest lists. My relationship with the film as never faltered, for it retains the ability to cheer up and surprise. I’ve grown to appreciate the subversive narrative and camp humour, warm to the walking contradiction that was the strongly brittle Monroe (who was, incidentally, my sole reason for loving the Hitchcockian Niagara), and still guffaw as the dominoes of farce tumble onto our two heroes. If you’ve ever wondered where to find the starting point of modern comedy’s love affair with men in a frock, there’s almost nowhere else you could start but here.

Liam Pennington is at the action side of 30 years old and is the On-Line Editor for High Voltage. When not making good use of PR companies’ guff, he can be found groundhopping, writing for whoever else wants him, singing along to Eurovision records and sitting through arthouse films at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

@doktorb
www.liampennington.blogspot.com