Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Welcome to my nightmare: Super Duper Alice Cooper

Most people of my generation know Alice Cooper as the goth rockstar who looks like a zombiefied old lady and sings about being eighteen and finishing school. Personally, I knew that Alice Cooper started out as a band before becoming a solo artist, but little more.

In a brief, slightly awkward introduction to the new, all access documentary Super Duper Alice Cooper, the great man promises a “schock-umentary- the story of how Jekyll became Hyde.” What follow is a fairly straightforward, very entertaining rock-documentary with very few surprises or shocks. The story is told, in chronological order, by Alice Cooper himself and his former band members, his manager and his wife through voice over narration. Some big name collaborators and admirers (Elton John, Iggy Pop) also chip in on occasion.

There are of course some great anecdotes. Here is after all a band, which got its name from an Ouija board and broke through after throwing a live chicken into the audience while opening for John Lennon. The chicken did not survive.  This was a band which was mental enough to be invited by Salvador Dalí for an art project. These stories, together with the music, make the documentary an entertaining enough watch for newcomers and a trip down memory lane for fans.

As a documentary, Super Duper Alice Cooper fails however. The darker periods of Cooper’s life (alcoholism followed by a cocaine addiction) and his status as a cultural icone are only skimmed over. The filmmakers repeatedly compare the transformation of Vincent Furnier, the preacher’s son, into Alice Cooper, rock and roll legend, by returning to clips from a silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The metaphor wears thin after about 5 minutes and there is no reason to reiterate it time and time again.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the film and learning about this intriguing character, but I doubt it will stay in my mind very long. It probably should be on TV (as long as it has good speakers) rather than in the cinema. The screening was followed by a fun but trivial Q&A session, which had been recorded previously. This feels like a tacked on DVD extra and I’m not quite sure why it was shown in the cinema.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

That would be an ecumenical matter: Calvary

After the Duke of York’s lights went up after this Sunday morning preview screening, there was applause. This is unusual enough, but it didn’t occur immediately after the film had ended, but after the credits had rolled and the curtains had closed. More than half of the audience was still in the cinema, digesting what they had just seen, collecting their thoughts. What they had just seen was John Michael McDonagh’s only second directorial effort (following The Guard), Calvary.

The tone of the film is set in the astonishing opening scene. Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is sitting in his confessional box, when an (to us) unidentified member of his congregation announces that he is going to murder the priest in a weeks’ time. A victim of sexual abuse through a cleric as a child, he, in order to make a statement against the church, decides to kill a good priest, precisely because he hasn’t done anything wrong. We then follow Father James throughout what could be his last week on earth. He is visited by his mentally troubled daughter (Kelly Reilly) and deals with several members of the small local community during this time.

Religion seems to be making a comeback in cinema at the moment. After last year’s Philomena, several 2014 films are looking at theology. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings mark the return of the big-budget bible adaptations, whereas films like Calvary or Ken Loach’s upcoming Jimmy’s Hall look at the role of the church in modern times. This comes at a time when religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, has arguably never been less popular. Calvary tries to counter this overwhelming negativity in many ways and makes a balanced argument. It’s not about ancient rituals and doctrines (there are only one or two scenes that takes place inside the church), but about the spiritual and social guidance the church can provide. If the priest is good, his influence is good.

Father James is, without a doubt, good. Good, but not perfect. There are hints towards a darker past, but he seems all the more wise for that. Here is a man of principle, a man with a vocation. This man is embodied brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson; aside from Brendan Rodgers, the greatest Brendan to originate from the Irish Isles. It may be too early for an Oscar shout, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him amongst next year’s nominees. The way he stands on the beach, defying the wind, his tunic and his hair blowing, commands instant respect. His stripy, ginger/grey facial hair forms a beard for the ages. He looks like Aslan the lion, but retains a certain vulnerability to him.

In an almost allegorical fashion, we see him impart his wisdom on various members of his congregation. Allegorical, because his small village seems to be populated with every stereotypical issue a priest could face: a vain rich man, a disoriented youth, a bored housewife, an immigrant and so on. There even is an ageing American writer looking for inspiration. McDonagh gets away with this contrivance because he uses these archetypes to make interesting observations (and because of the endings, but I can’t reveal why). Calvary is more like a fable; its goal is not to present a 100% authentic depiction of a rural Ireland, but to get to the metaphysical essence of it.

It is a comedy by the way. It is not as funny as The Guard, due to its darker tone, but there are many hilarious moments. The type of humour has been compared with the Coen brothers, not least due to the casting of Coen veteran M. Emmet Walsh. It would in many ways make an interesting companion piece to the Coens’ A Serious Man. Calvary is similarly witty, deadpan and intelligent, but it has more of an agenda, it is more satirical. Almost every joke serves a clear purpose, to establish a character or make a point.

Calvary is a powerful, mature and moving statement in defence of (aspects of) the Catholic Church. It is held together by Brendan Gleeson’s exceptional central performance and a stellar supporting cast. It is funny, it is intelligent, it is moving, it is surprising, it has Irish accents – it has everything you want from a movie. I doubt there will be any priests chained to the railing outside your cinema holding signs that say “Careful now!” or “Down with this sort of thing!”

Rating: ✝✝✝✝✝

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Story of Children and Film + Q&A with Mark Cousins at the Duke of York's

Mark Cousins knows more about cinema than you do. More importantly, Mark Cousins loves cinema more than you do. The concept for his latest documentary, A Story of Children and Film, is incredibly simple: he takes a home video of his niece and nephew playing in his living room as a starting point to take us on a personal journey around the globe and through time; on a journey through cinema. Like van Gogh looking through his window before painting the landscape, Cousins looks at his family before creating his essay film on children in cinema.

The approach he takes is not a historical or chronological one, but a loose, personal one. He does not attempt to construct a complete cinematic history; there is no concrete thread. It is the behaviour of his niece and nephew which reminds him of a certain aspect of childhood. This then makes him think about films whose young protagonists display similar patterns. At first, his niece is shy about being on camera, so Cousins looks at clips of shy children in movies. Thus A Story of Children and Film is roughly divided into several chapters, such as shyness, performance, framing, destruction or loneliness.

The range of films covered is incredible (a full list can be found here) and Cousins does very well to find connections between them. While sticking to live action, his selection stretches from the Hollywood blockbuster (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial) to the practically unknown work of Albanian director Xhanfize Keko, from 1921 (The Kid) to 2012 (Moonrise Kingdom), from Yorkshire (Kes) to Burkina Faso (Yaaba), and yet it somehow all fits together.

On one level the film works as a piece of cinema about cinema. Some of the choices may seem a bit erratic and some of the connections slightly far-fetched and/or underdeveloped, but Mark Cousin’s passion and intelligence make you accept this. However “intellectual” his thoughts may be, he is never talking down to the audience. He is not lecturing us, but he is sharing his ideas. Furthermore, it will give make you discover new films. You will walk away from A Story of Children and Film with curiosity, wanting to discover the films beyond the short clips you just saw.

On another level, it works as an examination of childhood itself. Cinema is arguably the art form which has explored childhood better than any other, and we can find similar (yet distinctive) thoughts and observations all over the world. Growing up ultimately poses similar pleasures and challenges to everyone, and seeing so many different perspectives on this universal theme is incredibly interesting.

I was lucky enough to attend a screening of this film in the attendance of the director, who made his way to the Duke of York’s in Brighton. Cousins took the stage to introduce his film and stayed for a lengthy Q&A session with the audience afterwards. He was, as always, a very engaging and intelligent presence, giving interesting answers and insights into the making of A Story of Children and Film. He brought along his “script,” which is basically a big, scruffy piece of paper with film titles written on it. It may sound simple, but A Story of Children and Film is an impressive achievement nonetheless and recommended viewing for all film fans.

A Story of Children and Film is also available on demand on multiple platforms here

My review of Cousin’s documentary about Albania, Here be Dragons is available here

Rating: ★★★