Debuts Blogathon: Christopher Nolan – Following (1998)

Debuts Blogathon

It’s Day 7 of the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and next up we have Elroy from The Silver Screener‘s insightful take on Christopher Nolan’s low-budget neo-noir debut Following (1998). Elroy’s great looking site covers new releases in an intriguing way, while his Kubrick Awards dig deep into why cinematic ‘classics’ are so revered. As if that wasn’t enough, Elroy also does audio reviews on YouTube and SoundCloud. This guy’s got it covered!

Christopher Nolan

Following (1998)

Following is a beautiful film to watch. It unfortunately suffers from ‘amateur-itis’ in several ways, but had it been made by a Christopher Nolan 10 years into his professional career, I believe it would almost certainly be considered one of the great crime dramas of the modern era.

Following Poster As I said, it does suffer from ‘amateur-itis’ – a term I’ve made up to describe elements of a film that really tell us ‘this was made by someone early into his career’. There is a fight scene that isn’t the most amazingly shot sequence in film history. Some of the acting seriously lacks.

FollowingThe main character is referred to by Nolan as The Young Man, and played by Jeremy Theobald pretty well actually, although really there isn’t much to do emotionally – all the emotions are written into the dialogue. But the other two leads, Cobb and The Blonde, are not very well portrayed by their actors – Alex Haw (Cobb) seems to have difficulty making any of the swears he so often says seem needed, and Lucy Russell (The Blonde) just isn’t believable in the first place.

The sound mixing isn’t very good as well, which is somewhat surprising seeing as the editing of the shots is one of the better exponents of the film. A lot of the time it’s hard to hear what the actors are saying, yet I guess we can probably assume that Cobb’s swearing his head off.

FollowingBut put all of that aside and you have yourself with a pretty damn good film.

FollowingNolan’s direction early on, while the actual premise itself of ‘following’ was being explained, gives us a great connection to the action. We are viewing things from a faraway point, in the midst of cars blocking our view as they pass by, as people scatter the streets, like we’re the ones spying, like someone’s being watched, and that really taps into the tone of the film – black and white colours, two-faced people, two-faced situations. That’s one of the real feats of the film; how it establishes the mystery, the disguises these people represent.

The non-linear structure of the screenplay isn’t too dissimilar to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in that it tosses back and forth between time periods, so the story isn’t told completely in a row. That technique, when harnessed properly, can be extremely effective. It is harnessed very properly in Following. It works so well because we feel confused in the beginning when the non-linear style kicks in, but by the end of the film we can understand why this is done – because the effect of mystery and deceit in confusing times is transferred perfectly from characters to viewer by Christopher Nolan.

FollowingFollowingBut I find that the film isn’t as similar to Reservoir Dogs as it is to one of my all-time favourite movies, The Usual Suspects. That story is also somewhat non-linear and told through flashbacks and a constant narrative from the protagonist, Verbal. That’s how the early goings work in Following – we hear The Young Man telling his story and giving background. But more than that is how the story unravels to such a point where it finally gets to the ending and the plot twist hits you over the head in a blaze of smoke and sudden surprise. That’s the best thing about The Usual Suspects and it’s also the best thing about Following. We know it’s perfectly choreographed because once you see the film and think back, you can visualise all the clues left, and say to yourself “wow, that’s damn smart”.

I have no doubt that this is Christopher Nolan’s love letter to noir films of the 50s; the Dial M for Murder’s, the Double Indemnity’s, the Sunset Boulevard’s. It was shot in lovely black and white; I was completely infatuated with its raw beauty, and even though I didn’t get the chance to watch it on a cinema screen, I could still feel the raw graininess of Nolan’s Following. That’s how lovely it was to watch. I could feel mystery in the air.

It was almost like it had put the thought in my mind that at any moment, I could turn around and find a completely unknown man following me.

Meanwhile, over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Kim from Tranquil Dreams provides a great piece on Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Next on the slate I have the pleasure of introducing Mark from Marked Movies‘s take on Joel ‘Coen Brothers’ Coen’s Blood Simple. Hope you’re looking forward to this one as much as I am. See you then.

Debuts Blogathon: Frank Henenlotter – Basket Case (1982)

Debuts Blogathon

Today it’s the turn of Elwood over at From the Depths of DVD Hell to contribute to the ‘Debuts’ Blogathon with a dissection of Frank Henenlotter’s 1980s horror classic Basket Case. I’ll be honest; Elwood’s site was new to me before he got in touch requesting to join the Blogathon club, but since then I’ve become a fan. As well as an impressive review archive, he’s also gradually working through the 1001 Movies to See Before you Die list; something I think a lot of us out there have thought about doing at some point.

Frank Henenlotter

Basket Case (1982)

It’s safe to say that there are few directors who embrace the sleazy side of cinema as much as Frank Henenlotter who, while not the most prolific of directors with only six films to his credit since unleashing this debut film in 1982, has retained his exploitation inspired style throughout.

Basket Case PosterWhile other directors such as those who came through the Roger Corman film school, including Joe Dante, John Landis and James Cameron, moved onto making more mainstream movies and moved away from their exploitation cinema beginnings, Henenlotter has remained true to his grimey 42nd Street-inspired roots. He’s even continued his passion for exploitation cinema through the website Something Weird Video,  where he has been instrumental in rescuing numerous titles from being destroyed, including Bloodthirsty Butchers and  the truly random The Curious Dr. Humpp, as well as this debut film from Henenlotter himself.

Opening with what could almost be described as a video postcard of New York’s 42nd Street (true, not one that anyone would want to receive) as cinema marquee’s advertise kung fu movies and sleaze, the softly spoken and awkward Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) wanders down the neon lit sidewalk carrying a larger wicker basket. Unsurprisingly, everyone wants to know what’s in the basket, from the cackling street walkers to the residents of the seedy hotel were Duane decides to stay. Unknown to them all, though is that this wicker basket is home to Duane’s monstrous twin brother Belial, who is deeply resentful at being surgically separated from his brother, so much so that the two brothers are now on a mission of revenge to kill the doctors who separated them.

Basket CaseHenenlotter’s vision of New York has always been one caked in grime and sleaze which he established with this debut, where the residents are either sleazy or just plain oddballs. Even Duane’s love intrest Sharon (Terri Susan Smith) seems to not be quite all there, especially when she frequently talks so breathlessly and wide eyed. This film establishes a lot of Henenlotter’s favourite themes, including bodily mutation and over-the-top violence, as well as his now trademark scuzzy sense of humour. They craft a unique film to say the least, but one which wears its exploitation colours proudly, with Henenlotter himself classifying his films as exploitation films rather than Horror films.

Here he crafts a tale full of sleaze, gore and sheer randomness, yet one which also surprisingly has quite a few touching moments as well, such as the boy’s aunt reading them The Tempest. Despite Belial only being able to communicate telepathically with his brother the two share a clear bond for each other. Even if it might seem that Duane is being led by his monstrous brother’s lust for revenge, the rage at being detached from each other is clear to see in them both.

Basket CaseStill, despite these tender moments the tone throughout is decidedly schizophrenic, especially when Belial starts to demonstrate a serious jealously streak, which soon sees him soon setting off to pursue his own perverse pleasures, including one scene which managed to offend even the crew to the point where they walked off the production, something that would also happen again on Henenlotter’s next film Brain Damage.

Warped tastes aside, this film remains a master class in low budget filmmaking with a measly budget of $35,000. This fact is only further highlighted by the roll of cash Duane carries with him actually being the film’s budget, while Henenlotter’s crew was so small he made up most of the names listed on the credits to make it seem like a bigger crew than he actually had.

Basket CaseStill, despite the lack of budget the film has still dated well, with the stop motion effects used to animate Belial having a real charm to them which CGI just doesn’t have. Equally not hampered is the healthy gore quota on hand here, as we get a head pushed into a drawer of surgical equipment and bloody maulings amongst the bloody delights, as well as some gooey looking surgical scenes as we see in one flashback the two brothers being separated.

Despite Belial’s murderous tendancies, he is still a restrained killer and only kills for revenge. The only time he breaks from this is in a fit of jealousy towards the end of the film, almost as if Henenlotter was keen to show that while he might look like a monster he possesses none of the usual monster psychology, though at the same time he is unquestionably a pervert as seen in several of the more questionable scenes, where Belial decides to explore the world outside of his basket.

Basket CaseMore focused than some of his later films, the film has a quick pace and outside of some truly questionable acting there is a lot to enjoy here. At this point Henenlotter is still not as caught up in his themes as he becomes in his later films, which frequently seem to be more about shocking the audience than crafting an intelligible story, as his last film Bad Biology only serves to highlight.

Still for anyone looking for a starting point for Henenlotter’s film this is certainly a gentle entry point and for many this remains the favourite of his six films, so much so that it would spawn two sequels despite the ending of this film being pretty final. But then, like any good exploitation movie, if there is a chance to make money there is always a way.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Nick from The Cinematic Katzenjammer casts his critical gaze over Duncan Jones’ acclaimed 2009 debut Moon. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

For your next slice of Blogathon gold, Elroy from The Silver Screener will be examining Christopher Nolan’s devious debut Following (1998). Don’t miss it.

Debuts Blogathon: Alfred Hitchcock – The Pleasure Garden (1925)

Debuts Blogathon

The Debuts Blogathon has been a lot of fun so far and today’s entry is no exception. Melissa has been running The Soul of the Plot for less than a year, but already she’s carved out her own particular niche in the film blogging world with a great site featuring reviews of films past and present. Here, she takes a look at The Pleasure Garden, the 1925 debut of one my very favourite directors, Alfred Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock

The Pleasure Garden (1925)

For my entry in the Debuts Blogathon, I decided to cover Alfred Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden. Although Hitchcock did make a film before this, it was never finished; and while he considered his next film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog his first ‘Hitchcock Film’, history remembers The Pleasure Garden as his debut.

The Pleasure Garden PosterIt’s easy to see why Hitchcock didn’t give this film much credit looking back. It’s not bad – it’s actually quite enjoyable – but it’s so thematically and tonally different from what he normally does that it bears little resemblance to the later films he is most well known for.

The Pleasure GardenThe first thing you will notice is that the film is silent. Hitchcock actually made a total of nine silent films (excluding the lost ones), with his last, Blackmail, being redone for sound in 1929. The Pleasure Garden is the only one I’ve seen thus far, and from what I remember Hitch does a pretty average job at telling the story through the visuals. There are a couple of shots where he focuses on a specific object, as he did in his later films (such as the key in Notorious), but there aren’t a whole lot of super technically impressive standout shots here (though there are some).

Another thing to note is the very poor picture quality of the film. I know I can hardly complain as I watched it on YouTube, but it’s free there and the restored version isn’t available on DVD yet. The BFI has just restored all nine of them, but they are only showing them in very select theatres. At certain points the picture quality is so awful you can’t even see the actors’ faces; they’re just blobs of white.

The Pleasure GardenThe Pleasure Garden is the theatre at which our two main characters work as part of a chorus line. Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) is already established there, and helps out newcomer Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty). Jill eventually surpasses Patsy on the showbiz ladder, and reveals her true nature as greedy, manipulative, and selfish. Though she is promised to Hugh (John Stuart), she doesn’t have a problem flirting with the director of the show and a fan, Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg). Worried about Jill, Hugh trusts Patsy to look after her while he is away, and also introduces her to a colleague of his, Levett (Miles Mander). In Hugh’s absence, Patsy can do little to keep Jill in line, but does manage to marry Levett before he leaves as well. Once Levett leaves, his behavior starts to mirror Jill’s more than is desirable.

The Pleasure GardenAt this point, Hitchcock does offer us a shot worth mentioning. As Patsy is seen waving goodbye to Levett, another woman’s hand waving hello to Levett overlaps hers. Right then you know he’s a pile of cheating scum, even if you didn’t already, and Hitchcock is able to convey this in a wonderfully simple way. With this scene transition, you know all you need to know about Levett and he’s not even in it!

The ending gets wonderfully melodramatic. It’s quite a laugh really, seeing all the over-the-top things that end up happening. I rather doubt it was intended to be funny, but nevertheless I had a real good time watching it and heckling it a bit as it went along. Everything escalates pretty quickly and it’s humorous to see. There’s betrayal, and then an attempted and some actual murders, and someone’s ghost comes back, all in the last few minutes. It’s pretty crazy.

The Pleasure GardenOne complaint I do have though, besides the dismal picture quality, is the plot itself. It’s very uneven and unexpected things keep happening. Not in a good plot-twist type way, but in a really random way. I could never really tell where the story was going, which is fine in general, but it also felt weird going through, because all of this random stuff kept happening. That’s not to say that it didn’t hold my attention, because it did. I was worried about that, because I have been known to fall asleep during silent films upon occasion. This one is only about an hour and is so jam-packed with random and crazy plot points that it stays pretty interesting throughout, if only because I was wondering what crazy thing was going to happen next.

I’ll have to say that The Pleasure Garden is a pretty good film, but it’s nowhere near the standard of his later films like Psycho or Vertigo. I didn’t expect it to be, so I was just glad I could get into it at the time. In terms of themes, I wouldn’t have noticed the similarities that I did unless I was looking for them. You still have murder, and men being jerks to women, but the way they are presented doesn’t seem to me uniquely Hitchcockian. Also, there’s no signature cameo here; he didn’t start doing that until his next film. It’s worth a look if you like silent film, or Hitchcock, or movies with crazy plots, but for the casual film viewer it’s not really essential watching.

Over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Darren Aronofsky’s striking directorial debut Pi is being covered by KaramelKinema. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Meanwhile, back on my patch, you couldn’t ask for anything more different as we have Elwood over at From the Depths of DVD Hell taking a peek at Frank Henenlotter’s micro-budget 1982 horror classic Basket Case.