Saturday, 16 February 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 35. Letter Never sent

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Letter Never Sent
Director - Mikhail Kalatazov
Country - Soviet Union
Year - 1960
Runtime - 96 Minutes

The Soviet Union had a burgeoning cinema scene at the start of the 1960's with auteurs such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Mikhail Kalatazov and Grigory Chukhray pushing the boundaries of its art by experimenting with innovative filming techniques to tell powerful and unforgettable stories. One masterpiece of this era that doesn't get the attention afforded to most of its contemporaries is Kalatazov's Letter Never Sent; a bittersweet paean to a small band of explorers seeking diamonds in the uncharted Siberian wilderness. It roots its exposition in a description of the group as pioneers, a description that those familiar with Christopher Nolan’s recent foray into space with Interstellar are likely to draw comparisons to. This is not an intergalactic journey but its story is just as epic in scope, as it focuses on the drive that pushes these pioneers to explore the extent of our natural environment for the greater good of mankind, no matter how harsh or uninhabitable parts of it may be.

In charge of the expedition is Sabinin (Innokenti Smoktunovsky), a geology professor who pens a letter to his wife that he shares with the audience by reading part of it aloud as a narrative device near the start of the story. He is accompanied by the strong and reliable guide, Sergei (Yevgenj Urbansky), who is a veteran from the professor’s previous failed searches for diamonds, and a young and enthusiastic pair of geology students, Andrei (Vasili Livanov) and Tanya (Tatyana Samojlova), who are in love and both eager to prove their worth on this trip. From the moment the helicopter they arrive on departs they are totally isolated in the Siberian wild, and can only establish communication with the outside world via a radio link. This is an expedition that will test the very limits of human survival as a journey full of hope and ambition becomes fraught with life-threatening danger.

As soon as Letter Never Sent begins it is clear that you are about to watch something very special indeed. The superb camerawork seen in the opening shot as the helicopter departs from the landing area is a precursor to a visually stunning story, shot almost entirely on location in a vast array of naturally beautiful environments. There are few static shots in Letter Never Sent, and the fluid movement of the handheld camera demonstrates an impressive command of the medium. By positioning the camera amongst the explorers as they traverse difficult terrain, Kalatazov's cinematographer of choice - Sergey Urusevksy - makes us feel like a fifth member of the party; travelling with them to the edge of the world in search of endless riches and a place in the Soviet Union’s history books. Overlapping dissolves are used to heighten the intensity of the peril faced by the group when danger strikes, and many of the extended tracking shots display a bravura approach to film-making that is utterly astounding and needs to be seen to be believed. 

Certain scenes in which the explorers use a pick-axe to dig for diamonds clearly envisage the nation’s ideal of proletarian labourers; particularly when the muscular Sergei is pictured toiling hard, the camera kept low as it tracks his imposing torso pivoting back and forth with each blow. Striking imagery such as this creates a memorable impression whilst embodying the Soviet ideals of the time; a combination of artistic and political inspiration that was often at the forefront of the politically charged films of Sergei Eisenstein in the early days of Soviet cinema. Whilst Letter Never Sent can be enjoyed as a simple story, separate to the societal and political views of its era, there are underlying glimpses into a political agenda that add extra layers to the film for those willing to delve beneath the surface.

On a technical level, Letter Never Sent is an undeniable masterpiece. The enthralling storyline brings an emotional hook that elevates its majestic cinematography to that of high art, deepening the impact of the stunning imagery as the audience feels unconditionally invested in the outcome of the precarious expedition. When the inevitable disaster strikes, it is heartbreaking to watch as the group struggle against the odds to make it out alive. The breathtaking scenes that unfold pitch the volatile nature of the elements against the intrepid pioneers who will stop at nothing to bring home glory for their nation.

Kalatozov’s most well-known films Soy Cuba and The Cranes are flying are just as remarkable as Letter Never Sent, although both are far more revered than his unforgettable but overlooked adventure, which is why my focus landed on it for this feature. I cannot recommend this spectacular achievement of Soviet Cinema enough, and I hope that the experience of watching such a magnificent film inspires you to explore more of Kalatozov's stunning filmography. If you find yourself as enamoured with the greatness of Letter Never Sent as I am, then make sure you spread the word of its brilliance to others who share a passion for masterful cinema.

If you take the time to watch Letter Never Sent then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Saturday, 9 February 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 34. Woyzeck

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Woyzeck
Director Werner Herzog
Country - Germany
Year - 1979
Runtime - 82 Minutes

Werner Herzog has had a wild and varied career as a film director but is perhaps best known for his extraordinary depictions of men driven to the brink of madness. Both Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God were shot in the Amazon rainforest in Peru and starred Klaus Kinski in the leading roles under notoriously difficult and demanding conditions. In both instances Herzog overcame these challenges to create remarkable films thanks to his unwavering ambition and the unique perspective on storytelling he brings to all of his pictures.

Another stunning collaboration between Herzog and Kinski that explores the breakdown of a man's sanity is one of his overlooked gems, Woyzeck. Whereas Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God are original works by Herzog, Woyzeck is an adaptation of an unfinished German stageplay, and its unconventional storyline is perfectly suited to Herzog's style of film-making. This project was set in Herzog's home country of Germany where he faced less logistical challenges. Filming commenced only five days after he finished shooting Nosferatu and was impressively completed in just eighteen days. Kinski is as captivating as ever in his arresting portrayal of Woyzeck. His wild expressions and deep, soul-searching gaze perfectly evoke the descent into madness required for the role.

Woyzeck is set in a stunning German town overlooking a lake and the opening shot provides a picturesque view of this beautiful location. A gentle and delicate tune plays in the background conjuring up visions of fairy-tales as the camera pans across the town's tall and imposing buildings that gaze across the calm and still lake. This serene setting is interrupted with the unpleasant sound of a discordant accordion that heralds the arrival of the titular character, Woyzeck, a soldier who maniacally runs into shot and proceeds to frantically carry out the orders bellowed out by an abusive officer. Herzog delivers a memorable opening that sets the scene and introduces his crazy protagonist who we are instantly fascinated by.

It is clear from the outset that something is not quite right with Woyzeck, although it is difficult to pin down the source of his outbursts of lunacy. Those around Woyzeck berate his madness; his captain telling him that he always has a hunted look in his eyes - 'a good man doesn't have that', and his wife proclaims that he is so absent and 'might go crazy with those thoughts.' He talks in unsettling and confusing riddles and pays little attention to his young son. Kinski's chaotic performance is perfectly suited to this role; he embodies Woyzeck's scattershot and unpredictable existence with a commitment that showcases all of the agony and suffering his tormented character experiences.

As Woyzeck's agitation increases his actions become more unpredictable and alarming. A primary cause of this agitation is his wife, who is besotted with a proud dum major that she proclaims is as strong as an ox with hands like the paws of a lion. This major is depicted as the epitomy of man in comparison to Woyzeck who is downtrodden from constantly being used, abused and tormented by those around him. This situation has an ugly effect on Woyzeck's already failing mental state and drives him close to insanity, an insanity which leads to devastating consequences.

The accompanying soundtrack chimes with the film's theme of hysteria, exaggerating the deranged actions of Woyzeck and infusing Herzog's vision with a baroque sensibility that transports the audience back in time. Both the imposing architecture seen in the historic locations of the film's settings and the outstanding costumes bring life to the era depicted in Woyzeck. This is a breathtaking historical drama, albeit one with an enthralling storyline that visits dark places and does not shy away from depicting the inherent evil that can be seen in humanity.

Herzog uses a combination of static shots and shots that roam the setting horizontally; long takes that capture the unfolding action and allow the actors to flex their prowess by giving them time to develop fascinating characters. These lengthy scenes taking place in a single location emphasise the film's stage play origins but Herzog's set design and framing is so inviting that this doesn't detract from its impact as a motion picture. At times it feels like you are stepping back into history by visiting a strange museum that captures the essence of the era and tells a beguiling and haunting story.

Rich, poetic language is used throughout, varying from the philosophical to the obtuse and nonsensical. This dialogue is always enthralling and the delivery of the lines, particularly from Kinski, is utterly captivating, especially when he rambles away in one of his seemingly directionless monologues. These monologues are often regaled whilst others are present but he rarely meets the eyes of the people he speaks with. Conversely, when Woyzeck is not speaking, he is usually aloof and gazing aimlessly into space.

In one of the film's defining sequences, Herzog uses slow motion to great effect, emphasising the sheer horror of the scenario by lingering over the contorted faces of those involved. Grand, operatic music adds a powerful emotional edge to Woyzeck's despair during this earth-shattering breakdown. Shortly after this unforgettable scene the film ends in a similar fashion to how it begins; with a static shot of the town by the lake and a thought-provoking quote appearing on screen once more. The delicate notes of a music box flutter in to life once more although this time we are clear that Woyzeck is a far cry from a film with a fairy tale ending.

If you take the time to watch Woyzeck then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Saturday, 2 February 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 33. On The Silver Globe

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

On The Silver Globe
Director Andrzej Zulawski
Country - Poland
Year - 1988
Runtime - 166 Minutes

Andrzej Zulawski is an acclaimed Polish film Director best known for his exceptional body horror, Posession, that explores a difficult and disturbing divorce. His oeuvre is full of imaginative films that tackle a variety of genres from sci-fi to musical, most of which have drifted into obscurity, and any one of these would be perfect for a spot on my list of 100 essential films that deserve more attention. To choose just one of Zulawski’s films was an incredibly difficult task but I eventually settled on a film of his that has continually lingered in my mind since its dazzling imagery and breathtaking camerawork left me floored.

On the Silver Globe is a monumental science-fiction epic that was sadly never completed, with the version available today missing approximately a fifth of the scenes planned by Zulawski. These gaps in the film have been populated with shots of a camera flowing through busy streets and beautiful scenes in nature as a voice over narrates the missing sequences that were never filmed. This provides us with a complete story but leaves a bitter taste in the mouth regarding the furore over the film’s production shut down and the frustration of what might have been a revered genre classic had it been finished.

Coming off the success of his stunning film, That most important thing love, Zulawski was given free-reign to commence work on a project of his choice by the Polish cultural affairs. He saw this as the perfect opportunity to commence work on On the Silver Globe, which was based upon a series of novels by his great uncle. Funded by the Polish authorities who now viewed him as a beacon of brilliance in the Polish film industry, Zulawski created an incredible world with lavish sets and costume designs. This extravagance was the film’s ultimate downfall as the budget ran over and costs spilled out of control, leading to those funding the film to withdraw all support. In an upsetting turn of events, most of the film’s sets and costumes were subsequently destroyed, rendering it impossible for Zulawski to ever return to his incomplete project.

That which remains provides a tantalising glimpse into a fantastical future where astronauts embark on a mission to locate a new planet they can call home. These pioneers crash land on a strange planet that is capable of supporting life and the storyline follows their children and subsequent generations as this new breed of humanity struggle to survive alongside the hostile alien race they encounter. There are warring factions, staggering battle scenes and political power struggles bookended by a tragic romance that hints at the epic scale of Zulawski’s ambitious project.

Admittedly, parts of the storyline are difficult to follow but the breathtaking visuals and astounding camerawork carry the film through its more obtuse moments. Steadicam is used liberally throughout to place the audience in the heart of the action and this creates a thrilling viewing sensation, particularly in scenes where hundreds of extras are frantically moving around in the background. The scale and magnitude of the production is utterly mesmerising, with the audacious camerawork conjuring up comparisons to the great Tarkovsky and Kalatozov. Zulawski favours a free-flowing attitude to capturing the drama, rather than the precise work of his influences, and this makes the action feel visceral and dangerous; in a place where it appears that anything could be possible.

Religious and political symbolism is rife in both the narrative and subtext, and this is another reason behind the Polish authorities eventual decision to withdraw funding on the production. That which is alluded to could be interpreted as a sleight on the ruling totalitarian government of post-war Poland but, like all great works, there are a multitude of meanings which attentive viewers could make a convincing argument for. 

Filmed in an era before Star Wars revolutionised special effects, Zulawski’s crew relied on practical effects to bring the worlds depicted in On the Silver Globe to life. This pre-CGI era was awash with many incredibly inventive methods of storytelling being used, and the creature designs here demonstrate a bizarre originality that are clearly products of their time but still seem strangely impressive - even to those more accustomed to modern effects. 

On the Silver Globe suffers from a similar issue that blights David Lynch’s epic version of Dune; by cramming too much into its runtime there are too many storylines to fully comprehend and digest in a single viewing. This is a saga that may have been less challenging for the viewer if it had been approached as a trilogy or series of films so as not to overwhelm the audience with its ideas. It would be unfair to dwell on this factor given that the version we see today is incomplete but it is safe to say that a finished version would still potentially be less accessible than its mainstream counterparts in sci-fi epics such as Star Wars or Star Trek. The deep and intricate human drama at the heart of the story would resonate more if audiences were familiar with the complex source material that inspired such a phenomenal vision.

If you are new to Zulawski’s work I would suggest first delving into his completed films Possession and then Diabel. If his brand of savage and disturbing film-making appeals, then you will inevitably enjoy the transition of his style into the realm of science-fiction with On the Silver Globe. We are lucky that the film exists in its current guise and it deserves to be more well known as one of cinema’s grandest failures. Taken as it is, it is still a staggering achievement and a cautionary tale of how ambitious passion projects can sometimes be the downfall of the talented artists who overextend their reach.

If you take the time to watch On The Silver Globe then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here

Sunday, 27 January 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 32. The War Zone

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The War Zone
Director - Tim Roth
Country - UK
Year - 1999
Runtime - 99 Minutes

Tim Roth's hard-hitting directorial debut is a blistering assault on the senses that examines the pain and suffering experienced by a dysfunctional British family. Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton star as a married couple whose loving relationship breaks down into a tumultuous and torrid affair shortly after their third child arrives. The family have only recently left London for a new life in an isolated farmhouse on the coast of Devon, and this move has clearly had an effect on their fifteen year old son Tom (Freddie Cunliffe), who is struggling with his transition to manhood. His older sister Jessie (Lara Belmont) is far more confident and assured, which intimidates Tom, and is the cause of friction between their parents.

From the outset, the family dynamic appears to be warm and caring, with everyone rallying around as a tight unit in preparation for the new arrival. This makes the shift towards the infighting and mistrust even more surprising as their hope for a peaceful life in the countryside becomes chaotic as dark secrets are unraveled. The story is told primarily through the voyeuristic view of Tom whose curious gaze uncovers horrible truths that shock him (and us) to the core.

The subject matter of The War Zone is harrowing and utterly depraved but the story Roth tells is a powerful and gripping coming of age drama that doesn't skirt around the issues he presents. Aware that the world we live in can be a cruel and bleak place, Roth delves into the heart of an abhorrent situation to explore the emotional impact of the vile crimes that are carried out, providing the audience with a stomach-churning view of a family in turmoil. The graphic depictions of assault and violence are handled adeptly with no glamourisation; painting a visceral picture of how such heinous acts result in painful physical suffering and an irreparable emotional scarring that impacts all of those affected.

It is telling that each of the film's actors who are not part of the family only make a single appearance on screen. Roth's focus is settled firmly on his main characters and their bleak emotional arcs, with little exposition given to those who exist outside of 'The War Zone'. One of these characters happens to be a young Colin Farrell who plays a young man with designs on Jessie, much to the chagrin of her protective brother, who accompanies them to the beach after dark as an awkward third wheel. This situation demonstrates Tom's caring nature and a strength of character by emphasising the loving bond he has with his sister, despite the aggravated situation they are experiencing at home.

It is difficult to find any redeeming qualities in the twisted and manipulative nature of Winstone's savage father figure, which is a testament to his incredible ability to completely inhabit the persona of inherently evil characters. Those familiar with Ladybird, Ladybird (also featured in my series here) or Nil By Mouth, may have an idea of what to expect from his performance but are unlikely to be prepared for the devastating acts of violence we are forced to suffer through. Swinton is spectacular as the tough matriarch who does her utmost to keep the family together in a testing time. The conflicting details this troubled mother hears from her loved ones clearly play havoc with her emotional state as she grapples with the disturbing truth, and Swinton's potent performance throughout reflects this with painful accuracy.

Each of the cast members deserve much applause for their dedicated performances. There are many
challenging scenes of violence and distress that feel incredibly raw to watch and Roth has clearly coaxed the best from these talented actors. The abusive and shocking moments we witness would not be as impactful if it were not for the subtle, subdued moments of calm or the stirring of anguish we see unfurling inside these actors from their nuanced changes in facial expressions. These sublime actors sell the story, and convince us that the events depicted within The War Zone are all too real.

As a slice of gritty British cinema, The War Zone stands as a towering achievement that should be considered in the same vein as revered films by Loach and Leigh, who likewise coax ferocious and unforgettable performances from their casts. Its earth-shattering denoument comes as a welcome relief from the savage acts of violence and showcases Roth's affinity for powerful storytelling. That Roth has never since returned to directing is a crying shame considering the boldness of his first and only foray behind the camera. He continues to create captivating performances in front of the camera, so we can only hope that one day Roth will transpose his skills to capturing the talents of others once more.

If you take the time to watch The War Zone then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!



For previous instalments in the series click here