It feels like I’m long overdue on seeing this one. British film critic Mark Kermode called it his favorite film of 2012, but it’s only just been given a release over here in the U.S., and a fairly paltry one at that. At least the wait was worth it. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered sound technician who finds himself working in an Italian studio on a Giallo horror film. Accustomed to more innocuous fare, Gilderoy doesn’t approve of the new material he is working on, resulting in some clashes of attitudes between himself and other members of the production crew (including the pretentious director who keeps insisting his work is art, in an attempt to excuse his own misogyny). As the post-production takes longer and longer to complete, and Gilderoy spends more and more time with the material, his psyche starts to fracture. The film is in part about the sense of personal worth someone can feel when involved with a project of questionable purpose. It’s also about the potential damaging effects of spending prolonged time with dark material; it isn’t much of a surprise when Gilderoy eventually starts having trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy, to the point where it appears his consciousness has somehow melded together with the film.
None of this material would be particularly memorable if Berberian Sound Studio was content to just ape past influences, generating meaning only through its associations with other works. What elevates the film above simple homage is director Peter Strickland’s unwillingness to fall back on the more predictable tropes of the films he references. He never shows onscreen any images from the incomplete Giallo film, instead placing all the emphasis on the sound design (one of the real pleasures of the film is watching the operations of the studio, and how non-violent objects are manipulated to create sounds of horrible violence). Unlike so many Giallo films, there is no overt violence, making it’s consistently-unsettling atmosphere all the more impressive. The soundtrack, from British experimental pop band Broadcast, is a key contributor as well, recreating many of the sounds from influential Giallo films while also working well as its own standalone piece. Overall, it’s an approach that bears more resemblance to the films of Polanski and Cronenberg than to Argento and Fulci and Bava, and it’s this approach that gives Berberian Sound Studio more staying power than what you’re likely to find in more commercial horror films. 9/10.
This is the first film on Criterion’s Eclipse collection Masaki Kobayashi Against The System, a four film set that chronicles the early works of one of Japan’s most masterful filmmakers. Made in 1953 but delayed until 1956 because of studio Shochiku’s concerns over its more-challenging content, The Thick-Walled Room is really the first time Kobayashi was given the opportunity to tackle serious social issues on film (it’s also notable for featuring one of the earliest screen appearances from legendary Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai, who would go on to star in Kobayashi’s most famous works). The film focuses on a group of Japanese war criminals, imprisoned by American occupants after the war. None of the prisoners’ crimes are particularly egregious. In fact, most of them were executed under orders from their commanders, and the only reason they are currently imprisoned is due to the political environment that surrounds them. While they wait in prison, however, they all suffer from the memories of their crimes, with some unable to bear the weight of their actions.
With the exception of Kwaidan, a collection of intentionally-theatrical ghost stories, the other Kobayashi films I have seen have operated within the realms of reality. The Thick-Walled Room sees Kobayashi blurring the lines a little bit, incorporating scenes that make use of dream imagery to great effect. One scene in particular, where a character is assaulted by holes blasting through the prison walls, works as an inventive visual representation of the traumas soldiers could go through after their experiences in wartime. Perhaps because of its lack of a central figure through most of its running length, the film doesn’t have either the focus or the power of something like Harakiri or Samurai Rebellion. Still, historically it has significance as being, according to the Criterion box set, “among the first Japanese films to deal directly with the scars of World War II,” and it works as a first glimpse at the kind of challenging, socially-aware cinema that Kobayashi would master later on in his career. 6/10.
Bob Rafelson’s directorial debut also holds the distinction of being the first and only feature film starring the Monkees, as well as the first film from the short-lived but influential BBS production company. A key moment early on sets up the film’s underlying philosophy, in the form of a parody version of the classic Monkees theme song that slyly mock their own manufactured image. The script, by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, tries to move the members of the band through a series of unrelated sketches, from western homages, Lawrence of Arabia-style desert adventure, wartime action, Roger Corman-inspired horror, and a bunch of other material that frankly defies categorization. Occasionally though the Monkees will escape out into the studio backlot, their attempt to break free from the constraints that both industries and audiences have placed upon them. To make a comparison to another popular musical group who found their way into films, Head finds the Monkees completely bypassing the cinema verite style of the Beatles’ and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, jumping right in to the scattershot psychedelia of Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, and Yellow Submarine.
Actually, compared to those Beatles films, Head is really an altogether different kind of animal, a statement on how dissatisfied the members of the Monkees were with how they were perceived during their heyday by just about everyone. Even amid all the goofiness, the message still comes across clearly and effectively, and only occasionally does the film sink down into simple pretentiousness, as when a concert performance is intercut with footage of Vietnam atrocities. It can be very easy for a film this wacky and unwilling to sit still to wear out its welcome quickly and just become exhausting, and to a certain extent that is the case here. But to be honest, I kinda liked Head. I liked its free-wheeling spirit, its gleeful eagerness to confound expectations and break apart established images. For a film that burns down so many bridges, somehow it still manages to be strangely charming. 7/10.
After the commercial failure of Superman Returns in 2006, there had to be concerns as to what it would take for Superman to return again to the big screen. While the film had its problems, I’m starting to think maybe it was more a victim of bad timing than anything else. Now, in a blockbuster world where superhero films are the hottest commodity around, the revival of Superman feels like a surer bet, hence this new production from “visionary” director Zack Snyder. Unlike Bryan Singer’s continuation approach in the 2006 film, Snyder mainly repackages elements from Superman and Superman II, only with a more concentrated effort to provide a darker, serious spin to Kal-El’s origins. In the right hands, this approach could have yielded something interesting. But despite the pedigrees of some of the names involved with this production, it misses the mark. For all its serious posturing and attempts at gritty realism, the film in certain places is remarkably silly, and this creates a disconnect from which the film never really recovers. It’s tough to take things seriously when you have Michael Shannon taking scenery-chewing to embarrassing new levels, Amy Adams showing up wherever the hell she wants for the conveniences of the script, and an extended action climax that somehow makes the destruction of a city feel completely inconsequential (My favorite moment: Superman and Lois Lane sharing their first kiss and exchanging some playful banter in front of the post-apocalyptic wasteland that is Metropolis).
There’s something joyless about Man Of Steel, which is a strange thing to say in relation to a Superman film. The steadfast virtuousness and heroism previously associated with the character has turned into constant brooding and moral ambiguity (It’s perhaps appropriate then that the heroic strains of the classic John Williams theme are completely absent, but Hans Zimmer’s score doesn’t deliver anything close to the same level). As Superman, Henry Cavill does what he can, but he’s frequently let down by a blunt script that has almost nothing in the way of subtlety and direction that emphasizes busyness over any sense of visual coherency. I haven’t been much of a fan of Zack Snyder in the past, but at least before he could be counted on to deliver purely on the visual level. Compared to his other films, Snyder’s work here is drab and lifeless, relying too much on muted colors, an abundance of computer-generated visuals, and overly-restless camerawork. It’s a disappointing film, especially because I went into it hoping for something different than all the other cookie-cutter superhero films we’ve been bombarded by in the last several years. Instead, it ended up being something of a culmination of everything I’ve come to dislike about the modern blockbuster. Whether or not summer spectacles continue in this vein remains to be seen, but I probably won’t be witnessing it firsthand. 4/10.