“Wow, look at this place. It’s like The Town that Dreaded Sundown.”
“Yeah I saw that movie. It’s about a killer in Texas, huh?”
-Sidney Prescott and Deputy Dewey, Scream
There’s certainly something to be said about expectations. I think everybody assumed The Town that Dreaded Sundown was a remake, and bound to be a decidedly average one at that, but it is actually a meta-sequel of sorts yet also works as a reworking of the Charles B. Pierce original from 1976. It in fact didn’t just overtake my expectations, but exceeded any possible best case scenarios I may have hazarded to predict.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 38-years-later return to the town of Texarkana – half on the side of Arkansas and half on the side of Texas that’d sound like a neat gimmick of a location if it weren’t actually a real place – and plays devilish games with the idea of remakes and sequels, making his film a surprisingly twisty revisit to both the original “Phantom” serial killer story and the 1976. Taking a similarly murderous winking tact to the original that Wes Craven’s New Nightmare had to its own franchise starter, it posits that the original Pierce film was in fact a real movie production that blew in to the town and made a film that capitalized on their very real grief. All of these years later, local teens consider the film a rural rite of passage rather than a horrific account of their hometown’s past. Little more than a moving picture postcard of their grandparents’ day for their amusement as they take dates with the hope of getting laid once the credits have rolled. For another example, the 1976 film is to the 2014 film as Stab was to the universe of Wes Craven’s Scream series, and I certainly didn’t expect that when I sat down in my nearly vacant Saturday afternoon cinema.
Much like 1994’s New Nightmare and 2011’s Scream 4, Gomez-Rejon’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown tries to examine the link between on screen violence and real-life violence when filtered through the prism of retrospection and nostalgia. Through a plethora of red herrings, it suggests that somebody from the past isn’t happy with either the film’s representation of the Phantom case (a real unsolved case from the ‘40s) or how much people in the town have turned the film into a reverential joke.
I recently caught up with John Curran’s Tracks and found myself marveling at star Mia Wasikowska. Not so much for her performance, although she is great in it, but rather how the Australian actress has somehow been able to carve a strong, viable, and successful career for herself making predominantly independent movies with the likes of David Cronenberg (Maps to the Stars), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), and Richard Ayoade (The Double). And that’s just in 2014. Oh sure, she has Alice in Wonderland to keep a steady big paycheck coming in, but she has become a sort of emblem for the way a generation of new filmmaking avenues – digital, independent, VOD, etc – when combined with the ever-expanding online news cycle granting wider coverage of an industry with a shrinking audience size, has allowed for her and other performers like her to have a newfound level of dictatorship over their own careers.
I thought similarly after having watched Peter Sattler’s debut film, Camp X-Ray. It’s a small movie and one that wouldn’t have gotten the amount of press it has received if it weren’t for starring Kristen Stewart, who, like Wasikowska, has a few giant blockbusters to her credit and is now parlaying that fame into a career that in 2014 has included an indie alzheimer’s drama gaining her Oscar buzz, a female-centric film from a French auteur, and this, a study of human moral conflict within the confines of Guantanamo Bay.
I am currently reading a Bette Davis biopic from the early 1980s, and it describes in details the many struggles that the famed actress had in finding films that she actually wanted to make. Held back, she felt, by a team at Warner Bros – the studio that had, in essence, purchased her in the day of star contracts – that were giving her bad scripts and not properly capitalizing on the fame she had amassed. I know it’s a long bow to stretch, but I find them a curious comparison, seeing how Stewart appears to be utilising her fame (even the face of sexist and ridiculous “just smile!” complaints) to now take on roles that challenge her idea of self and the narrative of her career.
I have been lucky in the last 12 months to have been able to see Wild Style, Beat Street, and Style Wars on the big screen. They are all exceptional films in their ways, and especially when viewed together they provide a wholly fascinating glimpse into a singular world – that of the Bronx in the mid-‘80s. A world of colourful graffiti, emerging hip-hop sounds, and people who don’t quite believe that they have the ability to be more than they’ve been assigned simply because they live where they do.
Offering a similar, and yet altogether different view of this landscape is Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated. Filmed in 1977, released in 1981, two years before Wild Style and Style Wars shined a mainstream-leaning spotlight on the scene. Kirscheimer, a German native but raised from a young age in New York City, brings a clinically observational eye to his 46-minute film, beautifully restored and projected on screens again.
He appears far less interested in the people behind the images with his camera only occasionally drifting into the same orbit as human beings. Instead, Kirchheimer appears more interested in the way the subway interacts with urban life, cutting through neighbourhoods like a scalpel through flesh and how people have taken to the individual subway cars as canvases to educate, provoke, and infuriate. By painting these cars, these people are forcing those in the richer Manhattan to acknowledge them and to not act as if they don’t exist. Juxtaposing the so-called vandalism of subway cars with the far more respectable art of billboards (still hand-painted in that time), the film asks viewers to contemplate why it is that we think these graphic images aren’t valid art. Stations of the Elevated doesn’t say this explicitly of course – it doesn’t “say” anything – but the idea is explicitly there.
Canopy begins with a five-minute sequence that sets the scene splendidly for the film to come, but may also test the patience of many viewers. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear of people leaving during it if for no other reason than nothing much happens. In fact, the first minute or two are a completely blank, black screen. This isn’t an oversight, however, but rather an effective way to instantly bring audiences into the world of Aaron Wilson’s film. Canopy is a movie rich of its own world, an 80-minute work of filmmaking that rises above mere war or survival films and becomes something unique. A rare film of the digital age that truly uses the medium to its advantages by crafting a work that is all-consuming and while perhaps minor in its dramatic aspirations – compare to, say, Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, also dealing with WWII in the South-East Asia region, but doing so on a more heightened, sentimental fashion – is nevertheless a vital film and one that suggests a fresh point of view from a debut director.
Having ejected himself from his plane, an Australian flyboy (Khan Chittenden) lands in the canopy of the Singapore jungle. Quickly freeing himself from the parachute chords that have entangled themselves in the long-limbed trees of the Singapore jungle, he sets out on a course to somewhere he probably doesn’t even know. He finds a stream of dirty water and looks rather aimlessly at his military-provided waterproof map that does little to help his sense of direction. As night falls he runs – literally – into a Chinese soldier (Tzu-yi Mo) and as the two realise they are on the same side of the war (Japanese soldiers are rarely seen above chest-height) they forge ahead, eventually building an unlikely friendship that may or may not develop into a more deeply-felt companionship. The two don’t share a language, and in fact the entirely of Canopy’s dialogue could probably be written on a napkin, and it isn’t until several days into their journey that they decide to share names: Jim and Seng. Despite having a wife at home, Jim’s eyes tell a different story and this gives the film an extra layer to which its minimalist tale can unfold.
Thomas Allen Harris’ Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People feels more like an element of an art exhibit more than a stand-alone film. It’s unsurprising to learn that it is adapted from a book (Deborah Willis’ Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present – Willis is also a co-producer on a film), and even the film’s title recalls that of an educational essay. And given the nature of its subject I can’t help but agree that it would probably work best as a feature of an art gallery. The imagery featured within Harris’ documentary is so captivating, so educational, so powerful that I wished I had the chance to view it for longer and notice more of the fine details that the film eloquently describes. As it stands the photographs that Harris chooses to show – and there are many – frequently go by at such a pace that their impact threatens to get lost.
The narrative of African American representation in society from the 19th to the 21st is a fascinating one and telling it through the disparity between white and black photographers is unique and one ripe for examination. Likewise, the Harris has assembled a fine collection of talking heads even if his own silky-voiced narration of the film occasionally goads the audience into slumber. Given its 90-minute runtime, I wish that some more attention had been given to more recent photography. As it stands the 1980s and later aren’t represented in any great dimension, which is a shame given the number of advancements that have happened in that time (hip-hop, social change, President Obama).
Through a Lens Darkly then is more a success for its subject than its filmmaking. Harris shines much-needed light on certain hidden corners of artistic history, but at times feels all too much like a supplemental part of a larger whole. Disappointingly, the subject is so under-represented (hardly surprising, sadly) in cinema and any mainstream way that the film, despite its shortcomings, is still a must-see for anybody interested in the history of race as well as those fans of the photography medium. I just wish that, given it’s a film about art, Through a Lens Darkly had taken a bit more of an artistic method to its message. It’s a filmed essay, and luckily for them the essay is one that we need to hear about.
The way the Australian film industry is at the moment, it’s hardly surprising that there have been several filmmakers this year alone that are finding exceptional and even complex ways of telling minimal stories. One such film was Aaron Wilson’s Canopy, which had a brief Australian theatrical run earlier in the year and will receive the same in New York City at the end of August. Another title is Kasimir Burgess’ Fell, which receives a month-long release at ACMI starting this week through to September 27. While it’s not as strong as the aforementioned Canopy, nor Sophie Hyde’s 52 Tuesdays or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook that were also released this year to box office grosses that did not reflect their superb qualities, Kasimir’s film is poignant and beautifully constructed film that once upon a time may have been seen as what was right with the local industry rather than a telltale sign of, supposedly, what’s wrong.
Fell isn’t exactly feel good, but it is certainly good, which is the most important thing of all. Kasimir and his screenwriter Natasha Pincus (both have music video experience, but you wouldn’t know it from the final product) explore grief, redemption, and forgiveness in the harsh Victorian hinterlands as two men, both mentally paralysed by a tormented soul attempt to forgive themselves and others following the death of a young girl. Thomas (Matt Nable), the girl’s father, retreats from society where his (ex?) wife appears briefly to lash out her grief onto him before a failed sexual encounter, eventually ending up working in the same logging district as the newly-released Luke (Daniel Henshall), who has done his time for the hit-and-run accident and now extols the almost born again virtues of being a father, having recently taken back care of his own five-year-old.
Thomas simmers, quietly observing Luke as he picks his daughter up from school and then later leaves her alone at night and visit the local pub and have sex on a car with a local woman. The two eventually find themselves working one-on-one with precarious ethics always in the forefront of Thomas’ mind. Does he have it in him to enact revenge?
I wonder if it’s for the best that the trilogy of acclaimed Tennessee Williams plays of the 1950s were all directed by different people, lest their power with themes of the repressed queer, simmering madness, and familial tensions be put into a lone director’s wheelhouse and criticized for repetitiveness. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz brought to Suddenly, Last Summer the most overtly camp and over-the-top sensibility of the three in what is actually also my favourite of three. I like how he doesn’t try to plaster over the inherent goofiness of the story – Homosexuals! Cannibals! Incest! Lobotomy! Peadophilia! – but rather finds wildly expressive ways to show it while keeping the story true to its relatively confined minimalist structure (Williams’ play was a one-act play consisting of two monologues).
That Suddenly, Last Summer got made at all so soon after its original production in 1958 is a testament to Williams’ material and his stature. That they were able to get an Oscar-winning director (for All About Eve) and three of the best actors to have ever lived (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor – both Oscar nominated for Best Actress for their performances, although Hepburn would surely be “supporting” in today’s world – and Montgomery Clift) is even crazier to consider. “These are powers and passions without precedent in motion pictures” exclaimed the deliciously salacious poster, and it’s hard to argue.
As always when it comes to doing this feature, and especially so when it involves one of my absolute all-time favourite films, I had to whittle it down from several.
Perhaps the obvious choice, but a worthy one. With Katharine Hepburn’s familiar voice, fragile and shaking and yet regal, having been heard off-screen for mere seconds already makes so many images appear in one’s mind that seeing her actual face for the first time nine minutes into the picture is almost calming. The framing of cinematographer Jack Hildyard (who won an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai just two years prior) is really sublime in this shot as Hepburn’s Violet “Aunt Vi” Venebal descends into view and into the world of the audience and Clift’s Dr Cukrowicz never to be forgotten. Camera tilted slightly upwards, Clift’s body taking up the left third of the screen because Hepburn needs that make space to make her entrance. It’s a shot worthy of an entry for both an actor and a character of this esteem.