A sumptuous treat for the senses would be putting it mildly. Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 The Tales of Hoffman is a film that exists beyond the borders of convention, halfway between a velvet-draped 17th Century playhouse and the grandiose stages of MGM musicals. It is a film to be enveloped by, rather than watched.
Featuring the finest crop of singers and dancers available, The Archers do not simply shoot Jacques Offenbach’s opera for the screen, but layer it in surrealism and sublime technical invention. Stop tricks, multiple exposures, a staircase painted on the studio floor and old fashioned sleight of hand are all employed to embellish the soaring score and dizzying vocals as the poet Hoffman huddles up with his raucous students in a Nuremberg alehouse to recount his triptych of lost loves. Olympia, the wind-up automaton he is duped into falling for. Giulietta, a temptress who is only interested in robbing Hoffman of his shadow, and the singer Antonia, his closest thing to love, who is stolen away by her father and conflicted with a mysterious illness that limits her ability to sing. In all three misadventures, the devilish scene-stealing presence of Robert Helpmann looms on as an incarnation of evil and Hoffman’s nemesis.
If offered the choice to take or leave opera, I’d have its bags packed before the first trill. It’s a medium I find annoyingly alienating – burying stories and character beneath layers of warbling, wardrobe and dance, leaving an impressive spectacle instead of human engagement. And so it goes with Hoffman: his tales are beyond tragic but our hearts do not bleed for him. There is a comparison to be made with Stanley Kubrick’s equally lavish – and meticulously observed – Barry Lyndon, if not in form, then the result of a grand intention creating something memorable, yet cold.
But such is the lavishness! The flowing gold drapery of Spalanzani’s workshop. The gothic fires and feasts of Giulietta’s Venice. The crumbling palatial beauty of Antonia’s home. All crafted and sculpted, stitched and woven by human hands on a dwarfing scale. The world of Hoffman reaches out and grabs you, not through the occasionally befuddling plot, but with its sensations. I never once fretted for the characters involved, but neither did I avert my gaze. There has to be space in cinema for uncompromised boldness. For the absurd, and the abstract. Michael Powell described his long-held ambition to ‘compose’ a film; and with the opera prerecorded he was able to achieve this with Hoffman, guiding the action and opulence while the soundtrack played on. The Tales of Hoffmann may not stir the soul like A Matter of Life and Death – few films can – but it touches with its spectacle and audacity. A vivid cocktail of colour and sound that leaps from the screen.
[ 1951 — Dir: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger — 128 mins — IMDb ]
To celebrate the release of Winter Sleep on DVD and Blu-ray we’ve got 2 copies of the film to give away!
The latest epic title from director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep won the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and prominently featured on many best of 2014 lists.
It’s the story of Aydin, a former actor, who runs a small hotel in central Anatolia. He lives with his young wife Nihal, with whom he has a stormy relationship, and also with his sister Necla who is suffering from her recent divorce. In winter as the snow begins to fall, the hotel turns into a shelter but also an inescapable place that fuels their animosities. Pure poetry.
Winter Sleep is available now from New Wave Films.
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“Pretty complicated inside the human mind, huh?” So says Ryan Reynolds’ talking dog Bosco, in this utterly bizarre genre spanning macabre comedy from Marjane Satrapi. After the success of adapting her own graphic novels for the screen – most notably with the award winning Persepolis – French-Iranian director Satrapi turns to shooting her first feature in which she hasn’t been involved in the screenplay.
Satrapi is a director with a seductive comic book sensibility and paints the world of The Voices in the postcard pastel shades of picket fence America – the ideal home for Jerry (Reynolds), a cheery wide eyed factory worker defined by his misshapen mental delusions that keep the world he sees clean and symmetrical, and coincidentally allow his pets to talk to him. Clearly he is harbouring an intense personal trauma, but his foul mouthed belligerent cat and dopey dog keep him company while he buoyantly goes about his small town life. But when entrusted with organising the work picnic – conga line and all – a desire for the sultry Fiona (Gemma Arterton) from Accounts awakens a blackness within him that, with encouragement from Mr Whiskers, leads Jerry into a delusional psychotic place.
Ryan Reynolds? Talking animals?... wait, come back! This is actually brilliantly twisted fun that owes most of its success to Reynolds' attuned, unhinged performance. All teeth and earnestness, the Norman Bates-esque loner hasn’t stuffed and mounted his animals but he’s hearing all the same murderous voices rattling around inside his head. Look Who’s Talking Now directed by Hitchcock, if you like. Support from Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver is all just as valuable, giving substance to what could have been a far more disposable affair.
Jerry’s Disneyfied version of reality is a joyfully messed up place to hang out, with the film’s animated lineage always apparent. Heart shaped pepperoni on pizza slices, lovestruck butterflies flittering around Gemma Arterton, decapitated heads chatting away in the fridge... The Voices is a unique, psychopathically funny experience.
As with anything that has such an adventurous spirit it does start to run out of steam as the initial delirium of the setup fades, revealing the awkward tonal conflict between the horror, comedy, drama hybrid more plainly. It doesn’t always hit the mark, but it succeeds more often than not with its bloody-minded conviction and enthusiasm for the weird, jet black material. Despite never forming a totally cohesive unit we’re still swept up by many strikingly inspired moments of humour and violence. The film admirably holds its nerve in the face of countless opportunities for a soft hearted get out, and is even able to eke out several moments of crippling sadness from Jerry’s lonely dysfunctional existence.
On my first watch I was catapulted along by the crisp indie sensibility and the film’s gruesome underbelly, but on reflection there is a powerful melancholy washing below the stylistics and guts. The jokes are funny, the blood is red and plentiful, and the animals can talk. This is what you hope from The Voices, but the lingering pathos takes it to a darker place than you might expect. Cult status beckons for this weird and wonderful, indefinable gem.
[ 2014 — Dir: Marjane Satrapi — 107 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
The Voices screened at Sundance London. Find out more here.
The narratives of war have changed. Enemies don’t all wear a red star enamel pin and are not easily caricatured on propaganda posters. What endures, though, is a paranoia of infection and manipulation. The headline-grabbing threat of ‘radicalisation’ in British schools and prisons may not be as far fetched as the McCarthy fuelled threat of commie brainwashing – but the media treatment of Islam bears many of these fear-mongering hallmarks. Seen today, John Frankenheimer’s cold war thriller The Manchurian Candidate is a film of such pace and, importantly, biting satire that it could’ve been made yesterday. Threats are different, but political and media manipulation are always prevalent.
It centres around brainwashed sleeper agent Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) who returns from Korea with his platoon as a celebrated war hero. The Sergeant has secretly been primed by the Soviets as a robotic, unquestioning assassination machine. Perhaps selected for his proximity to the halls of power, Raymond shares a frosty relationship with domineering mother (Angela Lansbury) and her partner, the raving right-wing Senator John Iselin (James Gregory). After a few trials of his compliance – Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire? – the extent of the communist ruse is unmasked. A plan that would be near undetectable if it weren’t for the recurring nightmare of Raymond’s Major, Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), who seems to glimpse flashes of the truth in the haze of his memory.
Frankenheimer toys with our minds like the Soviets with Shaw, laying the camera at odd angles and in deep focus that offsets the foreground and background – often allowing it to lose focus. So while the big picture, the driving plot, is in full effect, there always feels something deeper and a little more hypnotic at work. This surreal texture shines in The Manchurian Candidate’s most inventive scene: Major Marco’s dream sequences, where Ben believes he and his platoon are attending a lecture on hydrangeas at the garden club, only for the camera to complete a seamless 360 pan to reveal they are all under hypnosis and the focus of a communist experiment led by Soviet and Chinese top brass. A fantastically strange scene that shimmers unexpectedly from the film’s largely mainstream sensibilities. From here on, a Hitchcockian suspense takes hold, with every seemingly straightforward conversation cloaked in mystery.
The notions of the brainwashing and the iconic ‘red queen’ may be pretty laughable plot devices, but still, Frankenheimer's film stirs a sense of distrust and hysteria within us. From fairly early on we believe the lies within lies have been revealed, while unbeknownst slippery deceit is concealed with sleight of hand. Speaking of which, much of what allows the film to tick is the icy performance of Lansbury as Raymond’s mother, whose cold hearted political conniving is the beating heart of its satire. Once hooked in by the thrills and tightly wound suspense it’s this richness of thought that makes The Manchurian Candidate quite such a lasting pleasure. Who do you trust, what do you believe, and what is the overarching plan? It’s all there in plain view, twisted and warped by Frankenheimer in a ballet of misdirection and fear.
[ 1962 — Dir: John Frankenheimer — 126 mins — IMDb ]