Blu-ray Review: Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy)

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Retro-futurist classic from the Cold War era continues to delight.

One of the most significant names in the history of Czech animation, Karel Zeman has frequently been referred to as the Czech Méliès. Working in the pre-CGI era, his pioneering use of special effects anticipated digital techniques used in contemporary science fiction films.

Admired by Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson, Zeman was one of the few Czechoslovakian directors to receive international acclaim in the period before the Czech new waves searing satirical bite lit up art house cinema screens.

Previously the head of a department store’s advertising section, in 1943 he was offered a job at the Bata Film Studios in Zlín after film director Elmar Klos submitted a report on Zeman’s window-dressing. At the studio he collaborated with Hermina Tyrlova on the short film A Christmas Dream. Released in 1945, the film was Zeman’s first attempt at combining live-action footage with animation. The film won the Grand Prix International for best short fiction film at the Cannes International Film Festival.

In 1955 Zeman directed his first feature-length film Journey to the Beginning of Time. Predating Jurassic Park by several decades the film was a semi-educational adventure story that extensively employed animation, models, matte-paintings, and puppetry.

Today the director is best known to international audiences for his cycle of Jules Verne inspired films and The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen. Four years after the release of Journey to the Beginning of Time the director received widespread international acclaim for Invention for Destruction.

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A strong contender for the first steampunk film, Invention for Destruction (alternatively known as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne ) was exported to 72 countries. In America, a dubbed version was initially released as the bottom-half of a double bill with the kids’ friendly circus film Bimbo the Great. At one point 96 cinemas in New York City were simultaneously screening Zeman’s film.

Marketed in America as a children’s film, in other territories it was recognised as a major achievement in the development of European cinema. The film won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58 in Brussels and was praised by André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma.

Ostensibly based on Jules Verne’s 1856 book Facing the Flag, Zeman’s film incorporates plot points from the French writer’s Voyages extraordinaires novels. The film presages the phantasmagorical imagery offered up in CGI heavy blockbusters.

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A 2010 Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication stated that Invention for Destruction was the most successful Czech film of all time. Despite the acclaim washed upon it and international box office success, the film is perpetually out of time. The techniques employed by Zeman may have been reused by Terry Gilliam but the experience of watching the film offers no other reference point except other Zeman movies. The director created cinematic art which was undeniably unique and stretched the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve with special FX in a pre-Star Wars era.

Commentators have suggested that the film is Zeman’s response to the detonating of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A warning of the dangers of technology should it fall into the wrong hands. The film celebrates science’s advances but strikes a cautionary tone.

Emphasising artifice the film’s distinctive retro-futurist visual style is a homage to woodcuts and illustrations featured in early editions of Verne’s novels. Posters for the film’s American release declared it was ‘The First Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mysti-mation!’ Zeman’s smorgasbord of techniques incorporates multiple layers of effects and live-action to create one of Czechoslovakia’s most visually distinctive films.

Narrative cohesion is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of visual splendour but when every frame is filled with wit and inventiveness any discontinuities are swiftly ignored. Zeman’s playful juxtapositions emphasise the fantastic. The film is an inventive steampunk odyssey filled with mechanical wonders and an exploding octopus.

Invention for Destruction is available to order from the Karel Zeman Museum.

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Desert Island DVDs: Douglas Skelton

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Douglas Skelton is a former journalist. He has written eleven acclaimed true crime and Scottish history books before making a splash on the Tartan crime fiction scene with his dark novel Blood City. Years spent researching Glasgow’s criminal underworld for newspapers and his non- fiction books have ensured his novels are packed with authentic details. His fourth novel, Open Wounds, was nominated for the 2016 McIlvanney Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award. His most recent novel is Tag You’re Dead.

Ahead of his appearance at Bloody Scotland Douglas Skelton chatted about the five DVDs he’d take with him if he was stuck on a desert island.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Spain, 1966)

‘I’m a huge fan of westerns and, although not overly enamoured by the so–called spaghetti western genre (apart from the music), I am very fond of the Sergio Leone films. This one carries all the trademarks of his later work – big, loud, bags of style and sly humour. And, of course, there’s Morricone’s score.’

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The Guard (Ireland 2012)

‘Proudly and defiantly profane, John Michael McDonough’s blackly humorous thriller is a sheer delight. Very much in the vein of his brother Martin’s classic ‘In Bruges’ – and sharing a star in the always wonderful Brendan Gleeson – this is pitch perfect and stands up to multiple viewings.’

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The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (Spain, 1973/74)

‘No, not cheating here – these were originally supposed to be one long epic but the producers released the footage in two parts, much to the annoyance of the cast who were paid for only one film. Director Richard Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser tapped into the humour of the novel, attracted an international roster of stars and mounted a sumptuous production. Funny to think the producers originally planned it as a vehicle for The Beatles.’

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ZULU (South Africa, 1963)

‘Good old British grit was served up in this classic adventure along with a fine cast of well–known faces (Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, James Booth, the marvellous Nigel Green and, of course, Michael Caine), stunning location shoots, exciting battle scenes and a thunderous score from John Barry. ‘

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The Ipcress File (UK, 1965)

Michael Caine (again), Nigel Green (again) and composer John Barry (again), this time competing against director Sydney J. Furie’s camera angles in a stylish adaptation of Len Deighton’s book. The agent is given a name – Harry Palmer – and a pair of glasses and an icon is born. Nicely chilly and downbeat. And let me mention Barry’s work again – twangy, evocative and so sixties.’

Bloody Scotland booking information.

Douglas Skelton is published by Contraband

DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

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Slow-burning Icelandic Folk Horror.

Bleaker than Disney adaptations, this version of a Brothers Grimm fairytale is an overlooked film that viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective is a much-needed antidote to Twilightified narratives.

Director Nietzchka Keene was originally in Iceland on a Fullbright scholarship to make a different film when she decided to jettison the project and bring the dark Grimms story to the screen.

Keene’s melancholic and austere film evokes the story’s unsettling tone without being too slavish in following the original text. Wisely choosing to be free with the source material, the director relocated the story to Iceland. Removing the narrative from its original Germanic setting and placing it in a new historically specific context gave it a grounding which would have been resonated with Icelandic audiences. Trimming the story’s more fantastical elements, the director was committed to communicating a sense of plausibility.

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Recording a then vanishing folklore tradition, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were originally written for an adult readership. Sanitized by publishers and Disney screen adaptations, the original versions of the tales are dark and disturbing explorations of a society’s social, cultural, psychological, and psychosexual fears. Nietzchka Keene had studied the narratives and wanted to wed their commentary on female sexuality with a study of Icelandic folklore traditions in the period immediately after the nation converted to Christianity.

In Icelandic folk tales, the divide between the worlds of the living and dead is not firm and fixed, deceased family members return to issue warnings or tempt the living into tasting death’s embrace. Nietzchka Keene’s changes to the Grimm’s narrative incorporates this strand of folk literature. Adding the ghost of a deceased mother to the story accentuates the already palpable sense of unease.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, the film seemed fated to rot in an archive. Lead actor Bjork’s propulsion to internationally successful recording artist resulted in funds to complete editing being made available and the film was released in 1990.

Self-consciously meshing contrasts, the film demands total concentration. Its commitment to historical authenticity is deliberately offset by the decision to get Icelandic actors to record their dialogue in English. Filmed in stark monochrome, the dramatic beauty of an Icelandic summer has never before seemed so menacing on screen.

This Nordic Folk Horror is worthy to be placed alongside The Wicker Man, BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and Witchfinder General.

The Juniper Tree is available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: Getting Carter by Nick Triplow

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Comprehensive biography delivers everything you wanted to know about the rise and fall of an influential writer.

Despite being well respected in France and attaining cult status in America, Ted Lewis is largely forgotten in his native Britain. Author of nine novels, his legacy today largely rests on the move adaptation of Jack’s Return Home, filmed as Get Carter.

Fusing techniques borrowed from the hard-boiled American crime fiction with social realism he founded a new school of British crime writing. Continuing to exert a strong influence on contemporary fiction, echoes of his most famous work can be found in Jake Arnott’s underworld novels, Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy, and Shane Meadows’ film Dead Man Shoes. Notable fans of the author include Derek Raymond, James Sallis, Max Allan Collins, Ben Myers, and Cathi Unsworth.

In life and death, the author drifted into relative obscurity and his most famous work has been obscured by the better-known Michael Caine starring film version. Despite being championed by a small but dedicated group of admirers greater acclaim continues to elude Lewis and his work. Currently, most of his novels are out of print in print in the UK. For decades Ted Lewis was one of the most significant British crime authors most people had never read.

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Nick Triplow’s meticulously researched biography is the definitive account of Lewis’ life and his work’s continued relevance. The book is a nuanced study of a tortured soul that is as compelling and rich as anything written by Lewis.

Equal parts social document and crime fiction, the best of Lewis’ novels attempted to stretch the parameters of what it was possible to achieve within the confines of British crime fiction. Defined in the popular consciousness by the Mike Hodges directed film Get Carter, Triplow reveals that the adaptation was largely ignored or misunderstood until undergoing rediscovery and rehabilitation in the 1990s courtesy of Loaded magazine’s aborted attempt to publish a comic-strip version. Triplow suggests that Crime Time‘s publication of a Lewis retrospective issue in 1997 alongside the screening of a restored Get Carter at the National Film Theatre momentarily placed the author, or more specifically his most commercially successful work, in the new laddism zeitgeist. It was particularly apt that the book and film were reappraised in the dying days of Britpop having previously been recognised as signalling the end of the 1960s.

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Interviewing school friends, university classmates, work colleagues, drinking pals, and fellow writers Triplow examines possible causes of Lewis’ self-destructive behaviour and his excessive drinking. Discussing Lewis’ literary output in relation to his life Triplow reveals that the author frequently transposed real events, people, and places into his work. The experience of being tormented by a sadistic headmaster was retold in Lewis’ 1975 novel The Rabbit. Gangsters met in Soho drinking clubs inspired characters and events in Get Carter and subsequently written crime novels and TV scripts.

Getting Carter is an impressive study that shatters numerous half-truths and myths about Lewis that have circulated since his death. Triplow skilfully recreates a long lost era enabling the reader to momentarily walk in Lewis’ path and understand why he stood apart from other crime writers.

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press

Book Review: Folk Horror by Adam Scovell

 

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What is Folk Horror? When did a group of disparate texts become linked under the banner of a relatively new subgenre? Do the works of M.R. James, Dennis Wheatley, and Nigel Kneale share common preoccupations? Were The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Witchfinder General exploitation films or did they reveal something deeper about that era’s attempts to reconcile conflicting views of past? How has this previously critically scorned subgenre become the focus of scholarship?

Writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell’s text is a subjective survey of the genre that explores its genealogy, formation of a cannon, and wider considerations about cultural shifts. Arguing that the subgenre is fluid, the author suggests that instead of using Folk Horror as a term to retrospectively categrorise books, films, and TV series, it should be employed to open up discussion about thematically connected texts and what present day attempts to form a cannon may say about the critical community.

Acknowledging that ‘Folk’ is an ambiguous term, Scovell’s study suggests that it may refer to cultural practices, aesthetic practices specific to a particular community, and thematic commonalities. Particular focus is paid to the 1960s counter-culture movement and the emergence of alternative lifestyles. This subculture sought to establish a socially progressive model of society which incorporated Folk traditions.

Scovell concedes establishing a precise definition of ‘Horror’ is equally problematic. The term is constantly modified and historically has incorporated Folklore based narratives.

The author suggests that the term may have been originated by director Piers Haggard in a 2003 interview for Fangoria Magazine.

Mark Gatiss’ 2010 documentary series A History of Horror used the term to categorize three films; The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General, and The Wicker Man. Gatiss noted that the films ‘shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore, and superstitions.’ Scovell uses the same three films to form a Folk Horror Chain which provides a theoretical model for analysis of the subgenre, commercial imperatives, reception by later generations of critics and fans, alongside an analysis of contemporary cultural trends.

Scovell’s study is wide-ranging in scope and rigorous in its analysis. The book analyses a vast array of Folk Horror literature, films, and TV series demonstrating that the subgenre is still a potent creative and commercial force. Establishing a theoretical base for further academic investigation, he identifies core thematic elements and offers potential explanations for why Folk Horror continues to resonate.

Folk Horror is published by Auteur Publishing

Adam Scovell’s has written about key Folk Horror films for the BFI.

Interview with Giedrė Žickytė

Director of documentary on the life of one of the most important photographers of the Soviet era talks about the film ahead of its screening at Ciné Lumière.

I wanted to ask you about working with archival footage: your previous film, “How We Played the Revolution”, and “Master and Tatyana” are both related by you working with material that was sourced from archives.

The footage was radically different in both instances – I do not want to repeat myself, I am interested in constantly finding something new. I am simply telling stories that were happening then, but are also connected to the now. And when one tells stories of the past, one cannot do without the archive.

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In one interview, you went as far as to call the film “Tanya and the Archive”.

That’s what seemed alive to me in this film – its main character Tanya with her archive, the archive of Vitas Luckus that she has kept safe for all these years. This film opened a door into a stunning, touching story that happened more than 30 years ago and was kept completely silent. This was a massive challenge – how do you create a film about someone who is no longer here with material that is not, so to say, live, and about photography, which is not a live medium? Cinema is a living thing. That was one of the toughest tasks – how to make a touching film out of all of this. I decided to tell this film through a love story – love was and is something that is alive, that is still alive with Tanya. Her love manifested through the preservation of this archive.

How did Vitas Luckus become your character, how did he come to you?

I feel as though this story is becoming quite well known. Skirmantas Valiulis told me of Vitas Luckus while I was still at university. A journalist from the Netherlands who had published an album of Luckus visited Vilnius and Skirmantas Valiulis invited me to a meeting with him – to talk about a Lithuanian photographer about whom no one was talking about in Lithuania… We met at the “Neringa” and I had no idea that this story would turn my life upside down years later – I was only 19 years old, after all. The story touched me.

Seven years later I found the photocopied pages of the photo album. I read them and I could not sleep for several nights. I started looking for information online and I was astounded at the lack of it – and started having an idea about making a film… Everything fell into place. I wrote a letter to Tatyana since I had to start somewhere and I could not start without her. It was an immensely long letter – you are not going to say, “hi, Tanya, I want to make a film!”. I told her about myself: who I am, how I found Vitas, what I felt, the questions that I have and why this story is important to me. So many questions that I cannot ask of him. Perhaps I could talk to him through her? The last sentence of the letter was: “will you take me back to Vitas’s life and time?”.

She did not answer me for two months – I kept checking every single day and cannot remember ever waiting for something so intensely. It was Christmas in 2008 and she wrote to me on Christmas Day, as if sending the best Christmas gift. The response was this: “yes, Giedre, I will take you back to Vitas’s life and time”. The following year we communicated intensively on the phone – Tanya did not use “Skype” back then, I installed it for her after going to the USA. We talked so much – she would call me, it would be daytime in the USA, night time in Lithuania… And when I visited her, it seemed to me as if I had known her for a hundred years. This is how we started our journey.

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It seems like there was a conversation between the three of you – Vitas, Tanya and you. In the beginning, perhaps, she was a mediator, but the conversations and the bond between you two changed that.

Tanya could never be just a mediator. Everyone had an individual relationship with Vitas – Tanya, his friends, others. I knew I could not speak about Vitas objectively since it’s simply impossible. I do not believe in an objective reality in cinema – what is real in cinema is the feeling, something we all feel. Everything else is simply interpretation. If I had attempted an objective portrayal of Vitas, it would have been an encyclopaedia, a collection of every single version of events. Cinema is something else. Like “How We Played the Revolution” – there were many historical events, but the film is their interpretation. Its essence lies in human emotions, their feelings, the fact they could stand before tanks without being armed. That is true and undeniable. Tanya is alive – she has changed, but her love is alive and it served as a basis for my film and helped me orient myself in that great flood of material.

Interview by Paulina Drėgvaitė

Master and Tatyana screening Wednesday plus Q&A with director Giedre Žickyte – 14th June at 6:30 PM at CINÉ LUMIÈRE – Institut Français du Royaume-Uni.

DVD Review: Maigret – Season 1

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For French viewers, Bruno Cremer’s performance of Paris-based detective Maigret is the interpretation against which all others are judged. Owning the role in the way that Jeremy Brett and Joan Hickson did respectively with Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple, Cremer’s realisation of the pipe-smoking detective is the most authentic screen embodiment of Simenon’s fictitious sleuth.

Premiering a year before ITV’s Michael Gambon starring adaptation, the Cremer series remains a regular fixture on French TV thanks to constant repeats. Running for fourteen years, the producers originally intended to adapt the entirety of the Maigret canon (75 Maigret novels and 29 short stories). 54 feature-length episodes were filmed before plans were abandoned due to Cremer’s ill health.

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Best known to English-speaking audiences for his appearance in William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Cremer appeared in more than fifty films. He worked with many of Europe’s most prominent directors, including Costa Gavras and Luchiano Visconti.

Already in his early 60s at the time of casting, Cremer had the unenviable task of following Jean Richard who had played the role on French television since 1965 and for an entire nation was Maigret despite being publicly derided by Georges Simenon.
Cremer’s core appeal was that he perfectly conveyed Maigret’s world-weariness, compassion, and humour.

Restoring credibility to a character that over the course of numerous adaptations been reduced to a hat wearing sleuth, Cremer’s fondness for the novels and determination to be true to the source material resulted in the most complex portrayal to date.

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Comprising the first six feature films, this DVD boxset is more faithful to Simenon’s material than ITV’s recent Rowan Atkinson starring version. Despite its age, the series remains a satisfyingly atmospheric recreation of Simenon’s world thankfully devoid of the ersatz Frenchness which has plagued other adaptations.

If you’ve discovered Maigret via Penguin’s issuing of newly translated editions this should be your next DVD boxset purchase.

Maigret – Season 1 is available to order from Amazon.