345-Word Reviews: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives Ryan GoslingFollowing the popular and critical success of Drive, Ryan Gosling reteams with director Nicolas Winding Refn for a film that is both more and less of the same: more vengeance, torture, blows to the head, and less movement, less dialogue, less significance. From its stately depiction of a neon-and-bokeh Bangkok (shot by Eyes Wide Shut‘s Larry Smith), to its hyper-Freudian, return-to-the-womb conclusion (cribbed from George Bataille’s Ma mère), Only God Forgives is a great-looking but stilted drama, painfully obvious, studiously enigmatic, and boringly sadistic.  Continue reading

The Spectacular Attractions Podcast Archive

Last year, I made a series of ten podcasts, mainly to see if I could. It was time-consuming at first, and though it soon became easier once I got the hang of the software, I didn’t have time to keep it going beyond that run of ten. I’d like to try these again in the future, perhaps with a series of interviews (any tips on how best to record Skype or iChat conversations to make them suitable for podcasts would be greatly appreciated), but the next thing I’m going to try is a video podcast. I’ll probably use some of the same subjects, but being able to use clips will make things much easier for me, and hopefully more interesting for you. In the meantime here, in one place, is the whole collection of Spectacular Attractions podcasts to date. You can listen here, or download to play on your own devices:

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was always going to be billed as divisive, baffling, even pretentious. Maybe it was screened too early of a morning at the Cannes Film Festival to be able to enfold every critic in its warm embrace: on a high-wire that threatens at any moment to pitch him sideways from the heights of transcendent beauty to a plunge into grandiloquent navel-scrutiny, Malick, oblivious to the danger, has tended to turn cartwheels when he might have trodden tentatively. More than almost any other director, Malick has a reputation as a cinephile’s favourite, not least because he seems to have completely circumvented the commercial circuitry of cinema culture to make films completely on his own terms, at his own near-geologic pace. This might be taken to imply that his films are obtuse, obscure, or that dread word ‘difficult’ (by which we usually mean ‘worthy, probably nutritious, but barely entertaining). But The Tree of Life is far from mysterious, obtuse or baffling. Continue reading

Eight Things I Like About Ti West’s The House of the Devil

Hey, it’s not a perfect film. I didn’t quite believe that the heroine would do what she does at the film’s climax, and it thrills through its familiarity and its reconstruction of older films rather than through innovative, self-made scares, but it delivers exactly what it promises: a retro tribute to a certain era of American horror cinema where terrible things befell nice, pretty college students. Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, strapped for cash and persuaded, against her better judgement, to accept a baby-sitting assignment from a couple in a big old spooky house and, of course, it turns out to be a bad decision. To say any more would be telling. So, as part of a new series of short, accentuate-the-positive posts, I thought I’d praise the good points of whatever pops into my DVD tray every now and then. Here are the things I like about  The House of the Devil, with spoilers studiously avoided:

  • The retro poster campaign (see above). I feel like I know every piece of each of them (there are some Amityville horrors in there, and that’s Wes Craven’s Deadly Friend top right), even if I’m not enough of a genre specialist to be able to place them.
  • It knows that the first thing anybody faced with a harpsichord in a creepy old house would do is play a bit of ‘Heart and Soul’.

  • Greta Gerwig, the talisman of American Indie Authenticity, plays the sassy, slobby sidekick. It’s a P.J. Soles tribute act. There’s a long scene where, left alone in a stranger’s house, she tucks into a bowl of boiled sweets. It has nothing to do with the plot: it’s just a character note, but it points up how sensitively West creates tension through focusing on slightly “off” performances or tangential activities that could be the calm before a storm, or a genuine red herring.
  • Its minimalism – there only half a dozen speaking parts here, and a large portion of the film is taken up with a girl alone in a house, entertaining herself and trying to ignore the strange noises. It creates a chilling sense of isolation and vulnerability, all the while building up the sense of something sinister occurring in the silent spaces off-screen.
  • It takes thirty-seven minutes before anything nasty happens. And when it comes, it’s genuinely sudden and shocking. You have to admire a film that bides its time and doesn’t give up the goods immediately just to cater to viewers with limited powers of concentration.
  • Even though it’s a standard-issue haunted house, it still gets a legitimate creepy atmosphere out of prolonged silences, shadows and the simple existence of a basement. Remember when you were young and having a house to yourself was both an exciting opportunity and a slightly uneasy feeling of vulnerability and irrational fears? So does this film.

  • Jocelin Donahue’s extraordinary bone structure and feathered hair. Don’t ask me how, but the girl can evoke 1983 with just her cheekbones. As with the posters, I have a feeling she reminds me of someone in particular, but I can’t quite place it. Karen Allen?…
  • Are you making a horror movie set in an old empty house? Do you need a scene that explores that setting and shows where everything is, perhaps showing a lighter side to your otherwise reserved and quiet protagonist? Maybe with a bit of nostalgic period detail for good measure? I suggest you follow Ti West’s lead and insert a sequence where your heroine loads a cassette (remember those?!) into her big-ass Walkman (yeah, I had one of those!) and dances around the place, doing that hoppity, aerobics-video dance that lets her bounce from room to room, doing that hey-I’m-just-checking-what’s-in-the-fridge-oh-nothing-much action before pogoing on an armchair, hopping up the stairs, and generally announcing by asymmetric means that the long-awaited horrors are about to commence.

Air Doll

There is no reason why an inflatable sex doll spontaneously comes to life at the beginning of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Air Doll. It just seems to happen, and thus begins a tale of a toy’s explorations of human life and interaction. Maybe it happens because her owner, a lonely, introverted Tokyo salaryman, has invested so much energy in believing her to be a real partner that she is given agency: when we first see them together, they are having dinner, him telling her the gossip from the office while she “listens” passively. She shows the same composure throughout their subsequent one-sided sexual encounter:

Continue reading

Toy Story 3: All Things Must Pass

[See also Toy Story 3D]

I hope that the makers of both Shrek Forever After and Toy Story 3 will keep good on their implicit promise that these are the concluding chapters of their respective franchises, but for very different reasons. While the Shreks have become increasingly tired, desperate, repetitive and, by becoming what they used to mock, cynical, the Toy Story team have miraculously kept things fresh, developing their ideas rather than chasing their own tail for one last elusive chew of the same old piece of meat. Shrek Forever After moves quickly enough that you might not notice how heavily it is wheezing, hoping to squeeze a bit more milk out of the CGI teat before you get too bored. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, makes a virtue out of the story’s frailty: as a trilogy, Pixar’s three films have grown into an achingly beautiful introduction of themes of mortality, obsolescence, the passing of time and making the best of what you have before it’s gone. It’s about death, ageing and decay. You know, for kids? Instead of fabricating some tosh about wishing on a star, your dreams will come blah and your prince will meh, Toy Story reminds that you’re going to die – don’t waste the time you have in denial. Embrace the ephemerality of life – it’s what makes it delicious and thrilling. As this film heads towards its end it becomes clear that the toys are heading for retirement, and the suspense becomes about how they’d like to go out – fighting, passive, dignified, accepting?

Hopefully, kids won’t come away with a feeling that they’re hurtling towards the grave, though. Beyond that wish, I won’t try and second guess what an 8-year-old will find loveable about this film. I’ll just speak for myself. And I’m determined to keep this short and pithy, not least because you’re going to die, and you’ll be wanting to make the most of the time you have left.

Read on…

New Look, Old Posts.

I’m in a meeting. I’ll be back soon. Apologies for the relative lack of updates here at Spectacular Attractions. I’m entering a period of exceptional busyness which will keep me in meetings for the next week or so. The first casualty of gainful employment is blogging, apparently, so although I’m keen to share with you my current research on puppets, ventriloquism, motion capture, anime and bunraku, I can’t give it all the attention it deserves. Instead, I’m going on a brief hiatus.

To mark my absence, I’m testing a new look for the site (again). I may change it again, but this outfit should freshen things up a little. To see how the new theme sits with the archive of older posts (sometimes changing the furniture can upset the formatting of posts that were designed to sit in different places), I’m going to repost some of my old favourites which you may have missed. I hope you like them – most of them come from an earlier time when this place attracted far less traffic than it does today, so they may not have been noticed by more recent visitors. I’ll also repost, separately, my massive shot-by-shot analysis of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon, with updates, not least because it took me ages and I’m keen to get it noticed and to keep on developing it from your suggestions and comments. Thanks again for stopping by.

If you’ll excuse me lolling about on my laurels for a bit of self-reflection, here are Spectacular Attractions’ ten favourite posts:

2001: This Way Up?: Did the world really need another blogger’s opinion of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Was yet another interpretation going to finally solve its mysteries? Probably not, but this is one of my most concise and cohesive bits of blogging and it would make me feel warm inside if more people got to read it.

Avalon: Analysis of Mamoru Oshii’s beguiling/maddening, existential cyberthriller, distinguished by some fascinating discussion in the comments section – thanks to all concerned. Includes updates following repeat viewings.

Jacques Tati’s Playtime: Modern Life is Noisy: It’s one of my favourite films of all time, and it just gets more fascinating every time I see it. It’s also one of my most valued teaching aids when it comes to talking about film sound.

Kind Hearts and Coronets: The Gentle Art of Murder: I wrote this as an introduction for some first-year students who weren’t sure why they were meant to be watching it. Hardly anyone has read it, unfortunately. It took me a while to put together. Sadness.

Nine Minutes of Cows: When I wrote later about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, thousands of people at least glanced at it, and some may even have read the words, but next to nobody took a look at this, one of my first ever posts at Spectacular Attractions (and one of the early, funny ones). It talks naively about the opening shot of Tarr’s Sátántangó and could probably do with some sub-editing, but I’m a bit fond of it as a starting point.

Why don’t you send us a photo?”: Chantal Akerman’s News From Home: Against the odds, this film has quietly lodged itself in my mind as an all-time favourite. It’s a meditative, solemn experience, and most of my students object quite strongly against it, so I hoped that this post would go some way towards explaining its significance.

Unbreakable Patterns: Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was a promising talent who treated genre films with reverential care and a defiantly contemplative visual style? If not, I humbly hope this post about his classy, glassy superhero drama will jog your memory.

Two or Three Things I Reckon: Written as an introductory guide for some of my students to one of Godard’s trickiest, but most rewarding 1960s films, putting this together reminded me of how deliberately composed, how compassionate, humane and hungry his films were back then.

J.S. Bach – Fantasia in G Minor: I can’t get enough of Jan Svankmajer’s dense, incantatory short films, and maybe one day I will have managed a post about each and every one of them. There are four so far, but this discussion of his musical, montagist, puppetless masterpiece is the one most starved of readership to date.

Don’t Look Now: “Did You Really See Her?”: It took me ages to get the appropriate frame grabs to illustrate this analysis of Nic Roeg’s endlessly rewarding maybe-ghost story, and at the very least I want to repost it to check that the new theme hasn’t ruined the arrangement of pictures. If it picks up a couple of new readers, that can only be a bonus.

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Nowhere Boy

I don’t get on well with biopics. I don’t like the pre-fab structure that they all seem obliged to follow, and I wince at the dramatic irony of the little moments that wink at you to indicate a shared foreknowledge of what’s going to happen. Particularly in those films that deal with artists, musicians etc., we are offered a series of obstacles to their “becoming” the celebrity we recognise, finding their voice/muse/inspiration through a series of miniature origin stories. The indignities and problems they tackle are set into context by the greatness we know they will go on to achieve – we are expected to be fascinated by John Lennon’s youth not because of what it tells us about Britain in the 1950s and 60s, but because of how it stands in contrast to Lennon the self-possessed megastar adult. There’s a moment at the beginning of Nowhere Boy when a group of schoolchildren are walking to school through the park. There’s a cut to the sign that tells us what we really need to know: STRAWBERRY FIELDS. It’s a heavy-handed, early reminder that this has meaning because it will one day become meaningful. I was also tempted to claw my own flesh every time a moment was designed to gain force from it’s understatement – the casual introduction of Paul McCartney, Kristin Scott Thomas forgetting the name of the new band that will shortly take over the music world.

Click here to read on…


You may have missed Irish directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s debut feature film, Helen last year. Plenty of people did. I just caught up with it on DVD, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s certainly the kind of work that I wish was supported more often in the UK. Told at a stately pace in an understated, almost fussily deliberate style, Helen is the story of a teenager in care, who is brought to question her own sense of identity when she is picked to play the part of a missing girl in a police reconstruction of her final movements.

Read on…