A Blatant Act of Self-Promotion

So it's Northern Ireland Science Festival time again. With over 180 events across 50+ venues, the 2019 Festival offers a wide range of events focusing on the wonders of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all presented by scientists from NI and beyond. One of whom is me!

On Sunday 17th February, in the Black Box, Belfast, I take to the stage to present 'Fright Night: The Science of Horror Movies'. Like some sort of mad movie scientist, it's an attempt to splice together biology and film to see what sort of unholy creation emerges. Plus my psychiatrist says I should talk about these things, so it's a sort of therapy also.

The night before, in the Nerve Centre, Derry, I'm delighted to be introducing the film Alien as part of the day-long Trapped in Space/ Night of Aliens event, run by young people as part of the S-Team Takeover Initiative.

Both events are sold out, so I suppose I better actually crack on with preparing something. However, if you can't make it, here's a little taster, courtesy of the Mark Patterson Show on Foyleside Radio. Yes, they actually let me on the radio. Live. Now that is scary.

Listen to me, if you dare, around the 1.00 hr mark Yes, I know I sound a bit weird.

Right, I'm off to prepare the presentations. First, though, I need to grab my faulty torch to investigate that weird sound from the cellar. I'll be right back....

50s Double Bill

A couple of oldies I taped of the telly......

The Vikings (Richard Fleischer, 1958) is a textbook example of an old-fashioned historical epic romp, perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. The story of Viking prince (Kirk Douglas) and Viking slave (Tony Curtis), who come to blows over the same woman (Janet Leigh) unaware that they are actually half-brothers, is a handsomely mounted affair, thanks mostly to Jack Cardiff's stirring location photography in the Norwegian fjords. Plot-wise, Douglas spends the film chugging beer, whirling axes, walloping Nordic wenches on the arse and bellowing 'ODINNN!' at regular intervals. Meanwhile, real-life couple Leigh and Curtis moon soppily over each other, neither commenting that Curtis is wearing short shorts which cannot have been practical in Scandanavian climates. Elsewhere, Ernest Borgnine hurls himself into a pit of ravenous wolves.

It's all a bit silly, but I'll allow it.

Winchester '73 (Anthony Mann, 1950) was the first film in an impressive series of five Western collaborations between director Mann and star James Stewart. Here, the title refers to a gun, passed from owner to owner, with Stewart as the dogged cowboy following its trail as he tracks down a fugitive. In contrast to the sprawling epic above, this is a remarkably economical affair, packing a huge number of Western tropes into a mere 90mins; a shoot-out, a shoot-off, a stagecoach chase, the Cavalry, an Injun attack, a bar-room stand-off, a poker game, a bank robbery, Dodge City, Wyatt Earp and Little Bighorn. It's all good stuff and the film has gained acclaim in more recent times as a key film in both the revisioning of the Western genre and in the transition of Stewart's acting career towards darker characters. Watch out for small roles by Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Grandpa Walton and Roscoe P. Coltrane

Done. There'll be a 70s Double bill along soon.

40s Double Bill

Working my way through a rake of stuff I've taped (or 'recorded' if you must) off the telly. First up, a double bill from back in the day. Yes, they did actually make films back then, you know.

Yellow Sky (William A. Wellman, 1948) is a watchable Western about a gang of bank robbers (led by Gregory Peck) who end up hiding out in a ghost town, where the only inhabitants are an old man and his granddaughter Mike (Anne Baxter). Tensions start to rise as the gang compete for Mike's affections and discover the old man may have gold stashed nearby. The source novel drew inspiration from The Tempest, but Wellman was apparently unaware of the plot similarities, so the complexities of the play aren't explored here which seems like a bit of  missed opportunity. However, it does feature some striking photography in the early scenes in particular, while Baxter delivers a feisty performance in a more substantial female role than many Westerns offer. Although it is tiresomely inevitable that the script demands she succumbs to the (rather rapey) attentions of Peck's character - indeed it is notable that the nominal villain (Richard Widmark), simply by pretty much ignoring her, treats her more respectfully than the other men. Anyhow, it's a solid enough oater for the most part, but a risible ending undermines it a lot, and will no doubt leave Western fans, bank robbers, and women in hats shaking their heads sadly and rolling their eyes to heaven. Turn it off before that bit.

Everyone says The Stranger (Orson Welles, 1946) is Welles' weakest film as a director, lacking the depth and distinctive visual style of his other work. But when I actually sat down to watch it....it turns out everyone was right. It probably didn't help that Welles only accepted the job in an attempt to re-establish his reputation in Hollywood following the debacle of his Magnificent Ambersons project four years earlier. The story of a dogged investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who tracks down a Nazi war criminal (Welles himself) to a sleepy American town was straightforward thriller material and all Welles had to do was turn in the film on time and under budget, which he duly did. However, he had to cede creative control to the studio, thus restricting him from doing anything more interesting with the material. He did squeeze in an impressive tracking shot and it is also notable as the first feature film to include real documentary footage of Nazi concentration camps. However, the studio insistence on a short running time means character development is lacking and Welles' own limp performance reflects his disdain for the entire project. It amounts to nothing more than a serviceable noir, but remarkably it was the only film Welles directed which actually turned a profit at the box-office on original release, so it did pave the way for him to go on to greater stuff. however much he disliked the experience.

Next time, stuff from the 50s!

Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971)

What's it about? A disenchanted young teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) ends up in the godforsaken town of 'The Yabba' in the Australian outback, where he encounters some rather aggressively friendly locals, including the somewhat eccentric Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance).

Is it any good? Best get your soap ready, because this will make you feel dirty. Thanks to Brian West's cinematography, the heat, sweat, flies and dust of the Australian outback are palpable, and that's before we even get into the events that occur, as Grant succumbs to the poisonous macho camaraderie that pervades the town. Who'd have thought a simple question like 'Have another drink, mate?' could be imbued with such sinister undertones? Before long, Grant's intellectual veneer has slipped to reveal some much darker base instincts, egged on by his new 'friends'. And then there's the notorious kangaroo hunt sequence, which is sill shocking in its brutality - more of that below. It's a really impressive film that worms it's way under the skin, not least because it addresses some uncomfortable truths about male behaviour that will still strike a chord wherever young men gather to drink, gamble and fight as a sign of their 'manliness'. Queasy viewing, but certainly worth a watch.

I don't trust you. What do others think? Internationally released as Outback, Wake in Fright now has a big reputation as a masterpiece that was nearly lost to history forever. Screened at Cannes in 1971, it went down a storm, with a young Martin Scorsese particularly impressed (the depiction of drunkenness here must surely have influenced the drunk scenes in his Mean Streets two years later). However, it failed to find an audience and the negative ended up in a bin marked for destruction until its editor Tony Buckley tracked it down in 2004 and spent another two years restoring it. In 2009 it again screened at Cannes, championed by the honorary president - none other than Martin Scorsese - becoming one of only two films to be shown twice at the festival (along with L’Avventura). The 40th anniversary re-release saw it widely praised for its searing vision of toxic masculinity and cemented its reputation as one the the greatest Australian films ever made.

Anything else I should know? Director Kotcheff, who went on the experience greater success with First Blood, Uncommon Valor and...er...Weekend at Bernie's, later confessed that filming the kangaroo hunt scenes still bothers him, although he defends its place in the film. Determined not to harm animals for the film, he instead joined a 'professional' group of hunters to record documentary footage of their hunt, which was then inserted into the film. “It was a nightmare.  It was a total nightmare,” he recalled. “I did not use 75% of what I filmed that night as it was too bloody and horrifying.” So appalled were the crew, they eventually faked a power outage and forced the hunters to call it an evening, which was just as well since the hunters had gotten increasingly drunk and dangerous. The footage that did make it into the film certainly has the desired effect and adds another layer of grimy horror to an already unsettling film.

What does the Fonz think? Strewth mate! Think I need a drink after that...or maybe not.

Amazon Prime Triple Bill

Still vegetating on the couch, this time with Amazon Prime's selection of films to keep me entertained. After a vote of no confidence in my ability to do anything useful, the internal negotiations about exercise regime continue with no concrete deal in place (#topicaljoke). Meanwhile, I caught up on a few well-received films from last year. Be warned though: these aren't the happiest films in the world.

First Reformed (Paul Schrader, 2018) is the film to watch if you ever wondered what Travis Bickle would be like if he moved upstate and became a pastor. Well, wonder no more, because Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver) returns to a favourite trope of his; that of the tortured, male loner. Here, the lost soul is Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man struggling with his faith, his health and various personal demons. An attempt to counsel a depressed young man on the request of his wife (Amanda Seyfried) only serves to worsen his spiritual crisis and a bleak drama ensues. In the holy agony of the central religious character, there's echoes of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman's Winter Light, films which Schrader has long admired. So there's some intellectual food-for-thought and it's not quite as boring as those two films (he wrote, mainly to annoy film cineastes). Hawke is very good, as is comedian Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) in a rare, straight role. There's a lot to admire, even if it is heavy going. But that was all undone by the film's ending, which apparently couldn't decide what it wanted to be and ends up being rather ridiculous. Not one to watch if you're feeling a bit down.

Leave No Trace (Debra Glanik, 2018) is better. Glanik's first feature film since the excellent Winter's Bone in 2010 is a similarly quiet, composed affair with a strong emotional core. Will (Ben Foster) is living off-the-grid in the forests of Oregon with his 13-year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), isolated from society and subsisting off the land. However, events conspire to involve social services, creating a rift between father and daughter which threatens their simple existence. This all plays out beautifully, never grandstanding or over-stating its themes, just content to tell its story in low-key, but affecting fashion. Foster (who worked with Glanik to strip his character's dialogue back to the bare minimum) is really good, but McKenzie is the real standout here. The coming-of-age aspect of the film depends on her and she is never less than convincing as the child who starts to question her father's choices, whilst still loving him. If there is any justice, this'll catapult her to stardom in the same way Winter's Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence. A fine film, but not one to watch if you're having doubts about how you are bringing up your kids though.

You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2018) is my pick of the three films featured here. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired assassin who specializes in retrieving girls who have gone missing in sinister circumstances. Unfortunately, Joe is himself badly traumatized by his past and somewhat suicidal, which isn't going to help on his latest job. There's not much more to it story-wise, but this is all about the presentation. Ramsay's disorientating, kaleidoscopic approach to the editing of the film elevates a straightforward hitman film into something much more profound. Phoenix, an actor who often gives the impression of being disconnected from reality, is perfect for the role, conveying both gentleness and brutality in his depiction of a emotionally fragile man mired in violence. Add to that Jonny Greenwood's eerie score and some brilliant use of other music (we really need to talk about the CCTV-Angel Baby sequence which is mesmerizing) and you've got a unique vision of one man's hell. It might be dream-like and baffling at times, but it's hard to forget, and a further reminder of Ramsay's singular talent as a filmmaker. In fact, it might just be my favourite film of 2018, but certainly not one to watch if you're expecting a slick John Wick type of affair.

So not the happiest selection of viewing to start the year off, but all 3 appeared in various Top 10 list of 2018, including Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, The Playlist, with others (Mark Kermode, Indiewire, Esquire and The A.V. Club ) variously name-checking at least 1 of them in their countdowns. So either they're all wrong, or they're just miserable gits. Happy(?) viewing.