Ally Clow’s April 2012 Film Round-up

If one is torn between the darkly lit cinemas of weekday afternoons but also likes to soak up any hint of the British sun, April’s weather made the choice of where to spend your days very easy indeed. The dreary weather meant the British Box Office was up against last year for three weeks out of four and many cinephiles took solace from the wet, dank atmosphere of the outside world in the dry (but sometimes equally dank) atmosphere of the local multiplex. I spent my April catching up with some classic docs, a couple of big budget affairs, some US indie and even a horror all-nighter.

A film I missed on release last month was Werner Herzog’s death row tale Into The Abyss. Over the last ten years, Herzog’s exposure has grown through his documentaries like Grizzly Man and his feature films Rescue Dawn and his remake of Bad Lieutenant. Before then he occupied the ground where cineastes and trash film enthusiasts (see his Even Dwarfs Started Small) would meet but his venture into the mainstream has been met with equally fervent support from the multiplex crowd.

In Into The Abyss Herzog tells the story of a triple homicide by two teenage boys who have spent the last ten years behind bars, one serving life and the other nearing the end of his time on death row. Herzog interviews the perpetrators of the crime (although each deny murder), their families and the victims’ families but also police officers and death row officials. Herzog is fascinated by human life and its twin, death and in his interview technique somehow manages to extract extraordinarily reflective statements from all parties involved. We see no monsters in this film and we see no hateful cries of vengeance – it is credit to all involved that this sensational crime can elicit considered responses and one sees Herzog’s humane questioning as being a conduit to these calm but utterly compelling characters as they search for answers to the seemingly nihilistic act of brutality.

Another documentary maker with high standing is Marcel Ophuls (son of the Hollywood director and refugee Max Ophuls) whose most famous film The Sorrow And The Pity (1969) is an investigation of France under the Nazi occupation and in particular the Vichy government’s collusion with Hitler and the first years of the war. When the film was finished, it was not shown in France until 1981 as its revelations were impossible to accept in its native country. Ophuls interviews former German Officers along with former Resistance fighters and perhaps most importantly hears from Pierre Mendes-France, a future Prime Minister of France who fled the Vichy government for England to join De Gaulle in fight against the acceptance of a German occupation of France.  The revelations are astounding although watching this film in 2012, we already know the story that in 1969 was buried deep within France’s national consciousness and was only brought to the surface with Francois Mitterand’s 1992 apology of the deportation of Parisian Jews during the war.

Ophuls’ 1988 Hotel Terminus: The Life And Times Of Klaus Barbie is another example of his exhaustive, investigative style interviewing people who came into contact with the Gestapo chief of Lyon and recognised war criminal Klaus Barbie. Ophuls details Barbie’s sadistic methods of torture and his role in killing Resistance leader Jean Moulin and his unbelievable life after the war when he was hired by the US secret services to give them information on East German communists, allowing him to operate under a pseudonym and live a free life. Perhaps more hard-hitting then even The Sorrow And The Pity, Hotel Terminus reveals that time is no healer when the war is concerned and that every man has his uses if the right person so desires. Ophuls, like Herzog, charms his interviewees to make them at ease and his empathy and respect toward Barbie’s victims is palpable.

An antidote to these important but harrowing films came in the form of Aardman Animation’s The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists!, losing out to Worst Film Title Of The Month to Salmon Fishing In The Yemen and narrowly beating Marvel Avengers Assemble (review next month for this). The Pirates! is a great addition to Aardman’s stable with one of the most detailed sets I’ve ever seen in an animated film. The story is fine although we can all guess what will happen from the first reel and the main characters have the right balance of silliness and pathos. The Queen Victoria character is a bit bonkers (as is the ending) but the film just about manages to keep her and the narrative under a modicum of control and Hugh Grant voices the Pirate Captain splendidly.

Equally bonkers were all five films in Filmbar 70’s Night of the Black Mass held at the Roxy in Borough on Easter Saturday night and Sunday morning. Projected on a screen in the back of the bar with extremely comfy sofas, these films were all about the dark arts, an Easter antidote if you will and although no Citizen Kane, each film held its own in giving the audience some laughs and not a few genuine scares too. Lamberto Bava’s Demons kicked off the night on a great Blu Ray transfer and was genuinely good and not in the abhorrent ‘so bad it’s good’ way of too many celebrated movies which are simply ‘just bad’. Evilspeak was fun in a Carrie sort of way and starred Ron Howard’s brother Clint while Satan’s Blood and Fear No Evil were the low points of the evening. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff’s The Black Cat (1934) however was a chilling slice of horror from the halcyon days of Universal and it was great to see these two stars on screen together.

April was a good month for horror and The Cabin In The Woods (written and produced by Avengers Assemble director Joss Wheden) was a fantastic genre-mashing romp through the conventions of sci-fi and horror but on the less humorous side of the Scream franchise. A film as intelligent and knowing as this can sometimes be too ironic but Wheden’s script and the solid performances, especially from TV’s Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), made sure the film’s integrity was not spoiled.

Finally Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture moved Mumblecore’s tropes into a more articulate world albeit in the same bourgeois circles. Dunham’s Aura arrives home from graduating college to find her mom and sister absorbed in their own lives and finds it difficult not becoming the centre of their attention. The film knows it is about some pretty obnoxious characters but its strength is in making them human and understandable and asks whether we don’t all have our flaws anyway. I like this solipsistic cinema which focuses on insecurities and rites of passage where the viewer can reflect on their own lives and either respond by saying ‘I’m glad I’m not them’ but also ‘can this film help me to understand me?’ I guess my message is for the rains to keep on falling.

Ally Clow