Songs for Drella (1990, dir. Ed Lachman)

52-week film challenge, film 17

It’s a concert movie, but it’s not a concert movie. There’s no audience, no applause, no between-song banter. It’s two hugely influential musicians who were once in a band together reuniting to pay tribute to the man who helped them launch their careers: Andy Warhol. It’s a requiem and remembrance, entirely in song.

Cale, whose music I have enjoyed enormously, had a complicated relationship with Warhol, while Reed’s feelings

after Warhol’s unexpected death seemed to turn to a softer, more sympathetic side. Reed and Cale themselves, as the songwriting half of the Velvet Underground, also had a complicated relationship, but decided to work together on a song-cycle about Warhol for an album project, which became Songs for Drella. Both men were apparently caught off-guard by Warhol’s sudden death in 1987, and met up at the funeral and spoke to each other for the first time in years. From the suggestion of a mutual friend, they decided to write songs about their memories and perspectives on Warhol.

Some of the songs are based on their own memories and perspectives on Warhol, some are based on direct quotes or recollections from Warhol (either witnessed or drawn from his diary), and some are third-person narratives. As someone who grew up during Warhol’s biggest period of influence and art-world exposure, each and every song provides some fascinating insight.

The film, directed by Edward Lachman, is stark: a simple stage, some visuals on the screen above them, their instruments and microphones. There’s no audience, and it’s mostly harsh cuts between songs.

Lou sits for the whole thing, while Cale stands. Cale stares at Lou nearly continuously when he isn’t himself singing — sometimes quite sinisterly, always very intently — while Lou mostly looks at Cale near the end of songs to signal when to stop. There were public performance prior to the filming, but only a handful.

Following the filmed performance, Cale and Reed worked on the material further, and eventually recorded the album, which came out the following year. Most of the material is by Reed, but Cale’s contributions are, with one exception, my favourites: wistful and delicate, featuring clever piano and synth (complemented nicely by Reed’s guitar), sung in Cale’s trademark artfully-detached style.

Likewise, Reed’s songs are seriously enhanced by Cale’s stalwart keyboard and viola sophistication. Which is not to say Reed’s songs are weaker; they are performed in his own spoken/sung New York street poet style, full of emotion and observation, and he varies up the guitar work and structure of the numbers very nicely.

“Work” is by far my favourite Reed song from the project, and tells the tale of how Warhol pushed Reed to work hard to become a musical success. While Warhol himself fostered a public perception of kind of floating through the “scenes” and “happenings” he fostered, he was in fact a remarkably productive filmmaker, painter, and talent Svengali. We would likely not know of Reed and Cale (and may others) without him.

It’s fascinating watching both men express their complex feelings about “Drella” (the nickname a contraction of Cinderella and Dracula, which should kind of say it all) through their songwriting and style. That said, I’ll admit that I still think the best song about Warhol is Bowie’s whimsical tribute on Hunky Dory, simply named after the man himself.

If you have any interest in Warhol, or how he affected and helped shape these two deeply important but very different musical artists, you should absolutely watch this filmed performance. These two guys were the leaders of one of the most influential bands in the history of rock, came back together to pay tribute to their mentor, after which they vowed never to work together again.

However, they did anyway. In a great metaphor for their own complicated relationship, they did a one-off live show with songs from the Drella album, and then encored with their old VU bandmates Moe Tucker and Sterling Holloway on the song “Heroin.” This lead to a brief VU reunion, after which Cale and Reed vowed never to work together again (again). So far, this time, they’ve stuck to that vow.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – revisited

(2002, dir. Peter Jackson)
52-week film challenge, film 16


It’s difficult to believe that just over 20 years have passed since the release of this, the “middle bit” of Jackson’s epic LOTR trilogy of films. A local IMAX screen has been showing the trilogy recently, and I was intrigued by the “remastered for IMAX” tag they added, so I went along to visit this old friend of a movie.

(A brief side note on that particular screening: I should have stayed at home. It was not “remastered for IMAX,” it was just the Blu-ray theatrical version blown up (in proportion, thank heavens) to fit the wider IMAX screen. There were problems with resolution and frame-skipping in the action sequences as a result. Very disappointing.)

When these three films came out originally, I was pretty obsessed with them, since I was re-reading the tales for the first time since college — not to mention the impact the first film had had on fans and first-time viewers alike. It truly brought the story out of “cult” status, and captured the mainstream through a combination of clever screenwriting (to bring cinematic order to the sprawl of Tolkien’s world-building) and state-of-the-art effects work.

According to my first review (back in 2002 on this very blog), I watched The Two Towers at least 10 times while it was in cinemas, both as a student of filmmaking and a Tolkien fan. It was a wonderful feeling to see packed houses and appreciative audiences who would never in a million years have read the dense and nuanced source material.

It was great to see them enjoying a tale that, although laden with special effects, wasn’t a crap sci-fi misfire like Attack of the Clones or the forgettable fantasy Reign of Fire — the latter was about dragons, and nobody remembers it. No, The Two Towers was a “war” movie that focused on the foot soldiers, the power brokers, and the innocent victims who get swept along.

Ironically, the film is probably one of the best “epic battle” movies ever made, though I can think of a few others of that lofty ranking. Both as a book and as a movie, it benefits hugely from all the scene-setting and character-introducing work done in the first movie (The Fellowship of the Ring).

This means that there is little in the way of backstory — since if you were going to see this one, it means you saw the first one, and we get straight on into the action. We do start off with a brief (very brief) recap of the (film) climax of Fellowship, the fall of Gandalf the Grey (and a bit more of what happened in his battle with the Balrog).

Then there is a good-sized break in the action to update us on the progress of the other characters as we left them in the first film — Sam and Frodo trying to enter Mordor; Merry and Pippin held hostage by Orcs and Uruk Hai, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas in hot pursuit. Jackson wisely shifts around between the three disparate groupings, signaling the depth and vastness of the different paths the Fellowship is taking towards the same goal.

It is with Sam and Frodo that we quickly meet up with the real star of the second film; the stunningly-realised Gollum (Andy Serkis). Although the character is obviously a CGI-generated effect, he convinces us totally of his physical presence. This is entirely due to Gollum having a physical presence during the filming for the animators to work off of. Played (and voiced by) Serkis, Gollum is (pardon the pun) fleshed out and made convincingly whole as a result.

Not only do the other actors have someone real to interact with, but they hear the voice we hear (one of the more remarkable vocal performances in many a year) — this was the secret to making Gollum so credible, and it really holds up. I would have loved to have seen the faces of Elijah Wood and Sean Astin when they finally got to see how all but Serkis’ facial expressions and movements were replaced with the Gollum character.

Praise should not be spared to the animators as well; though they had a remarkable (and undersung) actor’s performance as a strong starting point, they beautifully embellished it, expanding on Serkis’ unseen physicality and captured facial expressions in an eerie yet beautiful way. Serkis and the animation team should have been awarded a shared Oscar, for Gollum was the most fluid of collaborations between computer animation and human performance that had yet been seen on screen.

What Elijah Wood and Sean Astin saw (right), versus what we saw (left).

The film jumps around between these three sets of main characters, as well as introducing us to new plotlines and the characters that go with them — the Rohirrim, King Theoden and his daughter Eomer, Grima Wormtongue, the Ents, and so on. We learn a lot more about the “manufacture” of the Uruk Hai and the raising of Saruman’s army (which is representative of several nation-states, not just Orcs and Uruk Hai), but of course this is all glossed over compared to the book, because we only have three hours!

We can feel the film’s elements coming together, slowly at first but quickening in pace alongside returning “minor” (in the film) characters like Elrond, Arwen, and Saruman, and the buildup to war is effectively communicated. The film’s climax is the first test of Sauron’s forces, the battle for Helm’s Deep and its aftermath, which makes sense from a film perspective but falls well short of where the actual second book in the trilogy ended.

Mind you, Tolkien never intended the story to end up as three books — that was a merciful publisher’s choice — so the divisions in the books are just as “artificial” as those in the films. Jackson is guilty of rearranging the storylines a bit, glossing over or underplaying some important foreshadowing, and I think it is fair to say that while Jackson and his fellow screenwriters had a genuine gift for boiling down the long and complicated sections of the books without dumbing them down, they are also guilty of lingering on their own invented/contrived segues a bit more than strictly necessary.

Once you accept that most of this was crucial in making a set of films that would perform well at the box office with mainstream audiences rather than just Tolkien wonks, the justification for Jackson’s alterations are much more understandable. Let’s not forget that this was a huge risk by the studio — shooting all three films simultaneously in New Zealand and relying on a relatively-obscure NZ effects house, with a total investment of over $280 million before they saw the first dollar back (but the films earned at least 10x the budgets, so the potential alienation of the Tolkienites paid off).

Almost to a fault, Jackson predictably compressed long sequences (such as the four-day hunt for the Uruk Hai by Aragon and company), lingered on visually beautiful but less-vital plot points (like Edoras and of course Helm’s Deep), and shorthanded drawn-out or not-strictly-vital scenes and characters. The Ents in particular got precious little, but very effective, screen time — and featured some well-done CGI-enhanced puppet work of the time, though it must be said some effects have aged less well than the film overall.

There are a few moments — rare, but notable — that are not as well done as one would have hoped. There are waaay too many shots of Saruman running about and fretting on his balcony as he sees the Ents destroying his Uruk Hai “factory” (but too late to stop the war), but for a wizard he just looks helpless and impotent — very unlike his presence to this point.

The battle for Helm’s Deep takes up the entire third hour of the film, and is wonderfully gritty and dark. How so many filthy, terrorised, unwashed people can be so damn good-looking is one of the main mysteries of the film — but another is how Jackson manages to squeeze in bits of humour even in the most tense of moments, as the soldiers of Edoras face off against an overwhelming army of nightmare creatures. The battle scenes are a bit drawn out, with lots of shaky-cam cutaways of chaos between the more choreographed set pieces, but it is effective and involving.

Jackson cleverly sets up the resolution of the battle much earlier, shortly after the “reborn” Gandalph reappears to (some of) our heroes after seemingly falling to his death — Balrogs apparently make hot but suitable cushions for a long fall — in such a way that when he fulfills the promise he made in Edoras an hour-and-a-half (screen time) ago, it is thrilling and wraps up a plot point that had seemingly been left hanging with the Riders of Rohan scene. I will mention again here that the Balrog scenes near the beginning of this film only touch — lightly, and inaccurately — on the actual reason Gandalph survived and defeated it.

If you’re one of the people who never saw the film because you never read the books, fear not: plot-wise, you will be able to follow this easily, and the lore/minutia you don’t know will roll off your back with ease (and this is the true genius of Jackson’s filmmaking on this project). The overall themes are the power of love and friendship, the underlying presence of evil as the root of all hatred and war, and of course emphasizing kick-ass action sequences over the generally more scholarly and pastoral tone of the source material.

As I said in my original, contemporaneous review, this is the kind of movie they weren’t often making: tales with enough magic to take a long time to tell; grand spectacle very well balanced with thoughtful interludes (the “peaceful” lands versus the terrorized war-torn lands is a particularly sharp allegory that I like to think Tolkien would have appreciated being preserved); characters both major and minor with real depth, even when we first meet them.

Theoden nearly stole the film — actor Bernard Hill was fabulous in the part and we would have liked to have seen more of his character.

Nitpickers gonna nitpick, and it should be noted that I haven’t seen so much as a single frame of Amazon’s pre-LOTR Tolkien series thus far, but in both my original opinion at the time and upon revisiting The Two Towers now, Jackson did a great job straddling commercial/studio concerns and creating the visual language of the world Tolkien created. That he really introduced the wonder of Tolkien’s epic to the larger world should not be under-appreciated.

Addendum: There was a successful animated film by Ralph Bakshi in 1978 entitled The Lord of the Rings that covered (very roughly) the first half of the LOTR story to roughly the same point where Jackson’s Fellowship and Two Towers gets to. I saw Bakshi’s film on its release, and it was the thing that finally got me to sit down and read the intimidatingly-long books at last.

Bakshi never got to do a sequel to finish what he started on his version, but it was very influential (even to Jackson) — and the rotoscoping techniques Bakshi used in selected moments was very memorable and innovative. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten Jackson’s version, so a hat tip where it is due.

I’m undecided about whether I should finally finish watching the extended versions of Jackson’s films (I have them, on Blu-ray even, but the extended Fellowship sated my appetite at the time), or dig up a copy of Bakshi’s epic and give that a second viewing ahead of its … gulp … inevitable 50th anniversary re-release in a few years’ time. I hope they’ll put it back in cinemas, and I hope they have a senior discount on it by then!

Ancient Caves (IMAX, 2020, dir. Jonathan Bird)

52-week film challenge, film 15

I’ve been staying out of actual cinemas for a long time due to the pandemic, but with the end of the global emergency (and with the option to mask up if the auditorium gets too crowded), I opted to take in an IMAX movie, as I generally love them and my local IMAX theatre is a museum right by my residence. My choice was Ancient Caves, a film about (mostly) underwater caves and what they can tell us about the most recent Ice Ages … and how man-made climate change may affect the natural cycle of the Earth’s cooling and warming.

As is generally the case with IMAX, the cinematography is stunning, and for once a film shot in 3D utilised that to good effect without getting cheesy about it, a la SCTV’S Doctor Tongue. There’s no brandishing a stalagmite repeatedly straight to the camera here, and indeed I doubt the divers and geologists in the film were even told it was going to be in 3D — but boy does it add depth and presence to spaces such as caves.

And what caves they are! The film starts off with some above-ground and underground (but not underwater) caves and introduces us to Dr. Gina Moseley, who really really loves caves and lowering herself into them on ropes. She serves as the narrator of the journeys into the caves, while Bryan Cranston serves as the narrator of the film overall.

It is of course a documentary, and the real purpose of the film is to use the caves and their stalagmites to study the previous Ice Ages — which happens about every 100,000 years. We’re not due for another one for a good long while (probably), but what happens during an Ice Age is interesting, and the way to get that information involves diving waaaay down into underwater caves to get core samples.

The film dwells a bit on the diving sequences, but the payoff is fantastic — eye-popping vaults of mineral and crystal stalagtites and stalagmites (and in the some of the less-deep caves, skulls and pottery), undisturbed and indeed untouched until this film in some cases for tens of thousands and up to a million years. I felt grateful to be able to witness these astounding scenarios in 3D without having to endure the diving and genuine risks taken to access these locations.

In short, Ancient Caves is educational but very interesting, particularly to anyone with the slightest interest in geology, cave exploring (above or below water), and the information scientists can extract from mineral deposits and such. The film does take a little time to discuss the impact of climate change currently, as it may have an affect on our future environment, and there was a brief but very interesting bit about the impact of human activity on the carbon dioxide count compared to the pre-mankind earth.

The film isn’t, however, focused on this point — it’s more a pure celebration of discovery, and the 3D and the diversity of locations really adds to the impact of the film. It’s playing on the IMAX circuit, so if it comes to your town and you could use a nice little escape from your day-to-day life — or just keep a pre-teen interested for an hour or so — this one might be second only to a dinosaur movie for edu-tainment value, and will definitely add value to your next trip to any local caverns.

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer)

52-week film challenge, week 6

If you only watch one silent movie from the 1920s in your life … well, you’re really cheating yourself out of some amazing filmmaking. But The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most riveting ones, lovingly restored and enhanced to 4K from a nitrite copy found in a Danish archive in 2005. It is — by far — the sharpest and clearest silent movie you’ll ever see, with a deep focus on faces, from its star, Maria Falconetti, and across the entire cast. You can count the pores on everyone’s faces in the close ups — that’s how amazing the restoration has been.

I’ve seen the film twice: once at a screening in Tampa accompanied by a live chorus and chamber orchestra many years ago, and just recently the slightly-abridged 4K version with the Gregory and Utley score from 2010. Both times, the film’s visuals grab you immediately and do not let you go — you scarcely want to blink for fear you will miss another pin-prick sharp facial close-up or tear falling from Falconetti’s face.

The film is based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc from 1431. Being a silent film, Falconetti spends most of her many close-ups portraying her suffering, her passion, her holiness, her hope, and her despair — her performance is often praised as one of the greatest ever. The evocative faces of her judges, prosecutors, pious church officials, and spectators are an astonishing gallery of human emotions, especially the uglier ones.

Eventually, Jeanne is convicted of heresy and nearly put to death before she finally agrees to recant at the last minute, whereupon she is sentenced to life in prison. Very shortly thereafter, she accepts the truth of her fate and takes back her recanting, finally understanding that her mission is to be a martyr and that her promised “release” from her suffering is her death.

Dreyer doesn’t shy away from filming the alarmingly violent and gruesome burning at the stake, with the villagers helplessly trying to revolt in anger at the betrayal of the church, and the murder of a saint. Following an hour of the trial, the change of pace of Jeanne in prison and then executed makes for a horrifying but fulfilling climax to the film.

The clarity of the restored print coupled with the skill of the filmmaking really makes you wonder if other silent-era classics that still have that softer, more cartoonish cast to them might also be able to get this level of restoration and enhancement, as the combination of interstitial titles, heroic music, and the riveting performances really make the silent era more relevant to modern audiences. In Dreyer’s relentless use of close-ups (combined with some surprisingly inventive shots during the final action sequences), his influence on many future filmmakers, particularly Fellini, is keenly felt.

In the most recent poll from Sight & Sound on the greatest movies thus far, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc ranked 21st (tied with Late Spring). It has always been somewhere on the top 100 list since the first version in 1962. Yes, you really ought to see it — preferably with a live chorus & orchestra, if possible. This is an essential film that should be seen by anyone who prizes film as its own unique art form.

Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)


52-film Challenge, week 5

I have seen many (though also not nearly enough) of the films often ranked in the top 100 of the “greatest films of all time” — as though time was over (or making films was over) and a final judgement could be rendered.

Playtime, made by and starring Jacques Tati, is a bona-fide masterpiece and visually one of the greatest films made … thus far. Forget Avatar, this 70mm exploration of humanity versus modernity blends several distinct film genres into one, with both deep philosophical and funny results.

In its way, it is a silent movie. Not literally of course, but dialogue is generally not viewed as that important and often pushed into the background. Actions take center stage and often key “gags” are performed simultaneously, meaning viewers have to keep their eye on virtually everything happening in the (wide) picture frame, and their ears open for any snippets of important “story” detail.

It is a film that demands, and rewards, your full attention.

Mostly, Playtime doesn’t really have a story as such: it is structured more like a “day in the life of” type film. That said, we do more-or-less follow a couple of key characters around a few city blocks over the course of around 18 hours — Tati himself, playing the hapless everyman of Monsieur Hulot (which appeared in some of Tati’s earlier films, most notably Mon Oncle), and the American tourist Barbara, who came to Paris to see the famous sights, but can’t seem to find them except for glimpses and moments.

The theme of the film seems to be that Paris is modernizing, and losing its character — but that humanity (at least as embodied by the Parisians in the film) fight back with chaos against the new, bland, glass-and-steel city they find themselves in.

Anyone who enjoys architecture as a topic of sometimes-appreciation, sometimes-debate — like me — will be positively swimming in the gigantic custom-built set of ultra-modern (and still uncannily relevant, 55 years later) “Tativille,” where traditional Paris is only seen in reflections in the endless glass doors or symbolised by a lonely flower shop on one of the exceptionally-clean street corners.

It doesn’t matter if you already know M. Hulot from the earlier films, his character is a universal silent-film comic archetype: a good person who continually falls into comedic misfortune or unwittingly helps drive events in the film through his difficulty in this unfamiliar environment.

Where nearly everyone wears smart suits or fashionably bland dresses, Hulot primarily wears a mack (overcoat), a traditional hat, ill-fitting clothes, and carries a pipe. He is a person living in the mid-60s, but not at ease with the pace of change and modernisation. The influence this must have had on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can scarcely be overstated.

Barbara, the tourist, often separates herself from the sheep-like tourist group she is with, determined to see the area on her own terms — but like a lost lamb she is often rounded up again and herded along to wherever the next encounter is supposed to be. When she sees only the reflection of the Eiffel Tower, she turns to gaze at it longingly — but she is miles away, in this concrete jungle.

Hulot stumbles around the film — seen more often than any other single character, but likewise often disappears for a while — bouncing from one hapless round of mostly-visual sight gags to another, all within a jungle of beautiful but sterile steel-and-glass storefronts and offices. One of the early scenes shows M. Hulot attempting to meet with an official of some sort, but the two only rarely intersect in the rat’s maze of a corporate cubicle farm (predicting that trend over 20 years early).

Barbara and M. Hulot do run across each other increasingly as the film goes on, because they are nearly always in what feels like about a four-block radius of each other. Unlike most films that feature strangers meeting, it never threatens to become a romantic comedy, and this is refreshing.

As mentioned, sound (and music) happens in this film to distinguish it from a silent film, but in the early scenes it’s used more like a paintbrush to set tones or support the visual language, and only much later in the film do both sound and human dialogue really come forward as equal elements.

Things build slowly, focusing on sight gags early on (and again, you have to pay nearly as much attention to the background as the foreground to get a feel for everything that is happening), but over time the film slyly shifts from being fascinated by the buildings and settings to focusing on the increasingly-chaotic humans as the action turns to the opening night of a not-quite-ready nightclub opening.

Eventually, full-blown chaos explodes among both the established characters and the myriad newcomers into the tale, but there isn’t really a climax in the traditional sense: things hit a peak, but as the dawn breaks we follow the climb-down and emerging calm that will reset the picture back to nearly the beginning, as the club empties, people find their way home, and Barbara gets back on the bus to go back to the airport — but not without spending just a bit of time with the old-fashioned gentleman that she’s been running into all evening.

At two hours, I’m not sure if modern attention spans will have as much love for Playtime as I do –– but the payoff on this film is enormous, and on multiple levels. It is a masterclass in visual comedy, multi-focus direction, sound as a background rather than foreground tool, societal commentary, and a celebration of messy humanity against a sterile, unfeeling backdrop.

Shot with 65mm film for a 70mm release, Playtime is ideal for HD and 4K TVs because everything, all the way back, is in focus. This gives Tati the opportunity to have lots of “business” happening throughout the entire frame, compared to the usual focusing on the main thing the director wants you to notice. This director wants you to notice it all.

The colour hues and theme of automation uber alles are stunningly gorgeous and, unlike most films of this period, would easily convince some viewers that it was made much closer to the current year than it was. Its contrast of de-humanising and re-humanising themes is endearing and still relevant.

The prolonged pre-production, wildly expensive full-size sets and clever illusions, the perfectionistic direction of almost every actor in shot and much more establish this film as a beautifully synchronised machine with only small moments of anarchy at the beginning, but by the end the wheels have completely come off in joyous defiance of sharp angles, and a smooth-running society.

It is a joyous movie that absolutely bankrupted and ruined Tati’s reputation, but he felt it had to be made at all costs — and he was right. It is an utter masterpiece, and nearly as relevant today as it was in 1967.

I’ll avoid talking about the ending of the film, but after (finally) some actual human moments in the denouement, Tati saves his best and most withering (visual) comment for the final scene. If viewers have tapped into Playtime’s zeitgeist and stayed with it, they are richly rewarded as it fades to black.