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Film Carew

Berberian Sound Studio
Dec 20th 2012 | Anthony Carew
We've got an abundance of flicks for you this week including some British humour and a feminist look at comic books.

There's like one actually interesting scene in Quartet, in which Tom Courtenay's retired tenor is teaching a group of Benetton rainbow youths about opera. It starts out as an unfunny joke, in which this stuffy, starched-shirt toff tries to connect with the kids by talkin'bout the hippity-hop; yet, in it, the film becomes a dialogue across generations, that alights on the idea of music as mass culture, as vehicle for ideas, and as extension of the ancient human traditions of narrative storytelling. It's utterly tokenistic, of course, this the moment in this film-about-old-people-made-for-old-people in which a shaky olive-branch is extended to anyone, like, under 50 in the crowd. But this moment of tokenism feels like one of the few moments in which this fluffy, geriatric fantasy actually engages with the real world; this concession to the changing-times of the modern day something the rest of the film —and its very central dramatic idea— cowers from. It's set in a fanciful retirement home populated solely by former stars of the stage, and the big conflict is whether or not they'll return to the stage and sing even though they're ashamed that they're no longer at the peak of the powers, and the height of their fame. The film has art-imitating-life wrinkles: as these elderly artists take what could be their final curtain call, so, too, does a cast of knighted English thesps get showered by devotion from director Dustin Hoffman; there a sense of reverence in the way he watches on as Courtenay and Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon ponce about in their theatricality. Like the world depicted within, it has a feeling of self-contained, celebratory back-patting; of such heightened nostalgia and refined upper-crustiness that this delightful retirement home feels, for an audience far less than delighted at all this pleasantness, a lot like a prison.

Up On Poppy Hill is the latest Studio Ghibli picture, adapted from a shojo manga serial from the '80s by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, and directed by his son, Goro. The film is Ghibli at its least fantastical, and most sentimental; similar in tone to Only Yesterday or Whisper Of The Heart. Set in Yokohama in 1963, it's a tale of adolescent romance tinged with loss, both personal and cultural. Umi, its 16-year-old heroine, is effectively functioning without parents; her father died in the war, her mother is in America. The film is fascinated by her daily routines: raising and lowering nautical flags in honour of fallen sailors, or constant preparation of meals; borrowing what are thought of as realist techniques —calmly watching her chop vegetables, or deep-fry prawns— in dignified portrait of domestic routine. Umi feels the first stirrings of love —presented, in time-honoured Ghibli fashion, with no notes of condescension— with a class-mate Shun; and, if you throw out a kids-battling-to-save-the-old-Latin-Quarter-from-a-developer storyline, then Up On Poppy Hill is a portrait of their passage into adulthood as succession of their lost parents; and, in symbolic turn, the New Japan moving on from the trauma of WW2.

Wreck-It Ralph isn't a Pixar film, but it falls well-and-truly under its scope of influence: managing to make a super-sentimental family-animated-comedy that lays off the regular moralising that goes with American family entertainment. Here, the narrative takes place in a richly-realised video-game world, where characters from arcade games come to life, Toy Story style; Zangief and Bison from Street Fighter, for example, tending to a support group for arcade-game villains. It's there that the titular character (voiced by John C. Reilly) yearns to throw off his encoded narrative and become a hero, thus threatening the carefully-balanced arcade universe, and etc.etc. It's that carefully-balanced arcade universe that sparks the joy that persists throughout; there a genuine love of the video-game mythology they've created which gives its whole familiar-feeling narrative a sparkle. Black comedies in which UKTV-ish caricatures 'hilariously' kill a whole bunch of people —I'm not sure if we have Shallow Grave to blame for this noxious sub-genre's existence, and persistence— are never high on my list of things to recommend.

Yet Ben Wheatley's Sightseers has something about it that goes beyond this twee, British comic conceit of the bumbling backwards into droll dispatching of corpses; not least of all because it doesn't treat murder-most-foul as simple punchline, but as complicated device at once dramatic, tragic, and comic. Wheatley isn't interested in greed or guilt or the sitcomishness of the cover-up, but, instead, the thin veneer of civilisation; of those animal desires —for violence, power, control; and of jealousy, envy, lust— the lurk just beneath the surface of daily politeness. The script was written by comics Alice Lowe and Steve Oram —who play a pair of polar-fleece clad dimwits off on a 'romantic' caravanning holiday through the Midlands' industrial belt— and it's built around their comic turns, and their bantering dynamic. Lowe, in particular, relishes a chance to place a complicated, conflicted character who is at once naïve and scheming, sexless and seductress, pathetic and vicious. Her ever-shifting position echoes the greater dynamic of the central relationship, which tilts back-and-forth in its balance-of-power with every murder. Gladly, Sightseers reveals this central pair not as lovable, good-hearted duffers who've fallen into an unlikely —and understandable, hell relatable!— run of fatalities, but as miserable pricks who grow instantly intoxicated with a newfound ability to get their way.

Berberian Sound Studio reads better on the page —or in the mind, as imagined prospect— that it actually plays on screen. The film is a knowing shrine to Italian giallo films that seeks not only to reference old films, but to reanimated their spirits; staging a cinematic exorcism long on spookiness, in which the terror of those old films is a real kind of magick to be unleashed. Peter Strickland's previous picture, Katalin Varga, was one of the best barely-seen movies of the '00s; a dark, meticulously-directed tale steeped in folkloric myth, set in the eeriest wilds of Transylvania. It was a magnificent debut, and the fact that he could make a magnificent piece of cinema out of, essentially, a rape-revenge tale cast Strickland as one of the most interesting English directors to arrive in aeons, and suggested that his gialli homage could rise beyond fanboy recreationism. And it does, even if it doesn't quite alight on its magnificent potential; as Toby Jones plays an English sound engineer who heads to Italy to work on a shady, super-low-budget giallo, and finds himself sucked into an unreality in which the lines between fiction/reality blur. Befitting a film whose central character is a sound engineer, Berberian Sound Studio is a sound-nerd's delight; making the foley artist into a mystical magician, in touch with a dark underworld, channeling spirits from beyond. Again, this reads better on the page than it actually is; Strickland hoping his final reel can hit some kind of transcendent Irma Vep territory, but not quite getting there.

Wonder Women! The Untold Story Of American Superheroines dares take a feminist look at that least feminist of institutions: the comic book. It's effectively the story of Wonder Woman as iconic figure; her creation as Amazonian, protofeminist, progressive figure of female power in the '40s, to being systematically stripped off that power, becoming subservient, weak, and girlified over time. It's a micro/macro study of American 20th culture, effectively, that goes into an interesting discussion on the place of women in action movies and TV shows through time, touching on Thelma & Louise, Buffy, and other icons, then question their feminist credentials. There's a host of winning talking heads, best of all Kathleen Hanna, who is like the anti-Henry Rollins of the talking-heads set: every time she shows up, you know she's going to say something actually enlightening, and usually hilarious.

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