Review- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

Review- The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978)

This 1978 Fassbinder movie starts with the film’s eponymous hero Maria getting married to her husband Hermann in Germany during World War II just as a bomb being dropped threatens to curtail proceedings. Thankfully the couple’s union is officially sealed and Hermann then goes off to fight in the war himself.

After learning later that her new husband has been tragically killed Maria starts to go to a local bar frequented by American soldiers to work as a waitress. She meets a black US soldier called Bill who she then starts a relationship with. They are just getting it on one day when…to tell you anymore would be to reveal a huge plot detail that I’m not going to spoil for you!

I first heard about this film when at university studying Film Studies as one of my tutors had the poster for the movie on her office wall.

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Whilst it’s interesting to see a character doing what needs to be done to survive and indeed prosper within challenging circumstances, I found this film to be a bit, erm, flat. I’ve read great reviews regarding it with many critics and casual viewers stating the opinion that this is one of Fassbinder’s best movies. When it was originally released it not only wowed the critics but also performed very well at the box office. But I think that this is maybe because many of the more radical and idiosyncratic aspects of Fassbinder’s films aren’t present here hence making it more palatable for cinemagoers used to more mainstream and linear films.

I think that if you have a lead character who can become so detached and cold as to exploit those around her for her own gain even if it’s done in exceptionally destitute circumstances, you don’t have an especially likeable character who audiences can engage with. At least that’s what I felt. Plenty of critics and moviegoing audiences disagree though.

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Not a complete disaster by any stretch of the imagination with great acting and fantastic cinematography as ever by Michael Ballhaus who would go on to work with Scorsese after his tenure with Fassbinder was over.

**and a half out of *****

Review- Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Review- Beware of a Holy Whore (1971)

Fassbinder’s 1971 film concerns a German film crew waiting for a production to start whilst on set in a Spanish hotel lobby.

The film starts with the verbal recanting of a Goofy cartoon. This is possibly the most linear and conventional part of the entire film’s narrative but that’s not an insult. The rest of the film shows fragments of how the characters interact with each other on many different levels. The movie also shows the power relations and how these shift throughout the film’s duration.

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The film crew resemble a Germanic version of the trope of superstars Warhol used to use. With waiting comes emotions ranging from an utter lack of enthusiasm through to explosive rage about proceedings not starting when they should or crew members not doing what they should when filming does actually begin.

This film was based on Fassbinder’s experiences of making the film Whity. It must have been hell for him judging by the events depicted here.

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If you’re looking for a film with a linear narrative, a ‘start, middle and end’, if you will, this isn’t for you. But if you’re looking to be swept away by Fassbinder into a film that is more of an experience, then you’ll love this.

Review- Martha (1974)

Review- Martha (1974)

More Fassbinder goodness with this 1974 film as we see the central character start out as a happy go lucky woman who feels pressurised to find a man, settle down and adjust to married life. Her own parents are revealed to be in a loveless marriage until Martha’s father collapses and dies when he is with his daughter on holiday in Italy.

I’m not going to give away too much about the plot and what happens during the course of the movie as I don’t want to blunt the impact of the film but all I’ll say is that this is a dark piece of cinema! And I mean DARK!

As the concept of coercive control is just starting to be spoken about in the popular media, Fassbinder had made a film about it 1974. And gaslighting. And marital sadism.

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A special mention needs to go to Margit Carstensen in the lead role whose performance is nothing short of astonishing as we see her character’s spirit and very existence being destroyed and disintegrating before our very eyes.

I also didn’t know that Karlheinz Bohm had ever depicted a darker character than his star turn in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. I was sooo wrong! His character here is a sadistic psychopath/narcissist and acted to grimy and reptilian perfection.

I remember when I saw the movie Threads for the first time. I thought to myself that it couldn’t get any darker but then saw that that it was only halfway through it’s running time. I then saw that it could get MUCH darker! The same happened when I watched Martha.

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This does for marriage and societal expectations for women what Jaws did for sharks. When I watched this I kept thinking to myself ‘I’m so glad that I’m gay. And that I’m happily single!’

****and a half out of *****

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Review- Ali- Fear Eats The Soul (1974)

Emmi, a 60 year old widowed cleaner decides to enter a bar that is playing Arabic music to shield from the rain. She sits at a table on her own far from the regulars who are at the other side of the bar. They dare one of their entourage, Ali to go and ask her to dance. Whilst they think he will refuse instead he calls their bluff and complies.

With this Emmi and Ali get to know each other and this develops into a relationship. But with this the couple come face to face with societal prejudices regarding inter-racial relationships and their age gap.

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Masterfully directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ali- Fear Eats The Soul shows how the love between Ali and Emmi is met with others hatred, ignorance and bigotries.

The couple are quickly ostracised and find themselves all alone which is depicted by the couple being depicted in long shots in many of the film’s scenes. One such is the heartbreaking scene in which they both sit in the rain outside a restaurant where there are no other diners. The couple sitting at the middle table of a huge and empty seating area emphasises their ostracised status within the restaurant and society in general. In fact the only others there are the restaurant’s staff who have decided to stand outside openly gawping at the couple in wide eyed disbelief that they would dare to be in a loving relationship whilst transgressing so many norms of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

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The scope of these extreme long shots which emphasise their isolation and separation is huge with Emmi and Ali being shown to be tiny within them. This emphasises just how cut off from everyone else they are whether that be the people around them or society as a whole. Another example is when they go to a restaurant just after they get married. The couple even seemingly break the fourth wall and look into the camera as they are shown to be the only figures in the frame and dwarfed by how far away the camera is and how small their figures are in the frame. Fassbinder holds this shot for seconds but it feels like hours with the audience being made to purposely feel a little uncomfortable at having the characters dwarfed in their surroundings whilst they look us in the eye.

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Emmi is shown to be shunned by her family who took her for granted anyway and then by her work colleagues, her neighbours and even the owner of the small convenience store she used close to her apartment.

The issue of their relationship being built on love but without sex also poses a problem within the film with Ali going to the female owner of the bar for almost functional sexual fulfilment which Emmi finds out about. Again, we get another shot to depict Ali’s loneliness and isolation, this time in another long shot but this time on his own sat on the bar owner’s bed, completely alone and without Emmi just as she was alone when sat at the table in the bar at which they met.

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The film shows that Emmi’s family and friends only start to speak to her again and seemingly accept her new marriage when they need something- her babysitting duties when it comes to her son who had previously kicked in the screen of her TV on hearing the news of her marriage (a reference to Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows which was an inspiration for this film), her storage space when a neighbours’s son needs to store his belongings in a hurry, her custom and hence money when she is accepted again by the owner of the local shop.

The film also explores how powerful the need to fit in with societal norms really is with Emmi’s narrow minded friends deciding to come to her apartment to meet Ali but which then leads to a scene in which Ali storms out to leave after being objectified by the women as a powerful, exotic object of their lust resplendent with big muscles. They express surprise when they find out that he even washes everyday just like any other civilised human being. Ali feels dehumanised by this and rightly leaves hastily. Even when he leaves, Emmi voices the opinion that it is down to his ‘foreigner mentality’ and ‘others’ him even further.

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Emmi is received back into her gang of co-workers and by doing so ostracises a new woman who has joined her team just because she is an immigrant just like Ali. Toxic behaviour is evidently highly contagious.

During the film, Emmi goes to Ali’s workplace to see him after he had left. She is then humiliated because of her age by his workmates who he laughs along with whilst pretending not to know who Emmi is. The pull of conformity and not wanting to be seen as ‘other’ or ‘different’ is a powerful one and affects both Ali and Emmi in different circumstances.

But nothing brings people together quicker than when adversity strikes and puts everything else into it’s true perspective. And that’s all I’m saying as I don’t want to ruin the conclusion of this extraordinary film.

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There are amazing performances all round but especially from Brigitte Mira as Emmi and the unbearably handsome El Hedi ben Salem as Ali. There’s even an uncredited cameo by Fassbinder himself as Emmi’s vile son in law.

Fassbinder’s film is so well observed that it aches with the love between the two lead characters but also with the hatred and wilful lack of understanding from others that makes it so poignant and heartbreaking.

We also get a peek into the beauty of 70’s Germany which acts as a fantastic backdrop to this extraordinary film.

Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is a masterpiece. It is so poignant that if it doesn’t pluck at your heartstrings and stir your soul then you possibly don’t possess either. It will stay with you long after the film has finished.

Ali-Fear Eats The Soul is beautiful and brutal and just as relevant today as it’s ever been. Every now and again I watch a film that makes me think that my life is better for having seen it. Ali- Fear Eats The Soul is one such film.

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

A teenage drag race goes dreadfully wrong with one car being forced off a bridge and into a river. From the car a woman, Mary manages to escape and clamber ashore.

However, Mary’s life after that isn’t the same. She seems to see ghostly figures when she seemingly disassociates herself with everyday life that is going on around her. One example takes place on a bus when she sees seemingly dead people coming for her. The film very creepily plays with space and time and does so without warning. The film is just as disconcerting and disorientating for the audience as it is for Mary.

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The ghostly figures she sees seem to be led by a man (in reality, the film’s director Herk Harvey) who seems intent on somehow coming for Mary to take her somewhere as yet unknown.

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Mary is a church organist by occupation but even this is affected now with her only playing the kind of funereal pieces that in the future The Cure would be playing in 1981. Yes, they’re that bleak! One priest who hears her playing stops her and deems her playing as ‘Profane! Sacrilege!’

Add to this a very sleazy and creepy housemate who gets off on perving on her as she gets out of the bath and won’t let up.

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The action builds up to an ending that actually takes place in an abandoned fairground. This all adds up to a truly great cinematic experience. There are sequences of this film that are far removed from anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture before or since. The haunting photography, the use of some sequences such as a dancing scene in the carnival being sped up, the way the film takes the audience with Mary as she enters her limbo world where the dead walk and stalk her.

The idea of a limbo world between life and death was also brilliantly explored later on in the classic movie Don’t Look Now. Carnival of Souls went on to influence George A Romero who said that it was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead as did David Lynch on Blue Velvet. The influence of the film can also be seen within the better parts of the Goth movement. The sequence where the undead run after Mary on the beach feels like a fantastic Goth version of something from a Fellini film.

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Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in cinematic terms, a one-off which is like no other. It’s also a masterpiece. I’m so glad it wasn’t forgotten. It was restored and released cinematically in 1989 after it’s original 1962 release and is now on the Criterion collection on Blu ray alongside the best of cinema. And rightly so!

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 21- The House With Laughing Windows (1976)

A young man who can restore frescos (ancient works of art) arrives to restore one such artwork but finds events within the remote town to be far from normal. Indeed, they are downright bizarre. Does the fresco hold any clues? Does it depict what people have been led to believe it shows? Will the events directly affect Stefano?

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This Italian film is one hell of a gorgeous (and VERY disturbing) journey. Not only do we get the backstory of the artist who first painted the fresco but also the freaky events that are happening in the Valli di Commacchio area that the action takes place in. 

With all the best of Italian horror/gialli, it also makes you want to go to Italy and experience such a seemingly fantastic and aesthetically pleasing way of life. The photography is magnificent. I’d love to see this film on the big screen. 

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The locales are sumptuous, the characters are left field to the max (at times I kept think of the films of Jodorowsky) which all adds to the overall vision and atmosphere of this gorgeous film.

I’d love to speak about the conclusion of the film but that would massively spoil the entire film for those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to see it yet. Also, if I tried to write down what happens you probably wouldn’t believe me. Just to say- it’s surreal, can’t be predicted and gets under your skin and inside your head and remains there long after the actual film has ended. Fantastic.

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****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 19- Dawn of the Dead (2004)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 19- Dawn of the Dead (2004)

A remake of the much loved and revered masterpiece Dawn of the Dead was always going to be sneered at by fans and film scholars alike when the project was announced.

I actually saw the film on it’s release when I was visiting Glasgow and was expecting to roll my eyes constantly whilst saying ‘Psst!’ under my breath a few hundred times (but not too loudly…) during the film’s running time. I was pleasantly surprised though. Whilst it was no worthy competition for Romero’s original film in terms of it’s coveted place in horror history, it was far from mediocre. In fact, it was really rather good!

The opening scenes show central character Ana finish a long shift as a nurse at her local hospital and return home. The next day a little girl from her neighbourhood comes into her house and shows that all it not well. She has changed into a zombie and fatally attacks her partner, ripping out a chunk of his neck with her teeth. Very quickly, he then springs back to life and also in a zombiefied state like the girl who attacked him.

Ana gets to her car and we then see that the very fabric of society has broken down almost completely. People are either dead and running around as zombies and trying to kill others, or they are still human but have either gone completely crazy (witness Ana’s neighbour armed with a gun) or are in ‘survival of the fittest’ mode with no regard for anyone else around them (someone attempts to hijack Ana’s car by trying to jump into it).

After running off the road, Ana crosses paths with cop Kenneth who, with other characters (one of them pregnant!), goes to the neighbouring mall for refuge.

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The mall is where the majority of the rest of the movie takes place just like the original. There’s even a nod to the first film with a sign for a shop called Gaylen Ross. The theme of a crisis bringing out the best and worst in a person’s character is explored well here with the security guards who are already in the shopping centre having marked it as their territory and only letting the new arrivals take refuge if they surrender their weapons and adhere to their rules and laws. This is very Lord of the Flies.

The next day even more characters are interjected into the narrative by way of a delivery truck and we now have our cast in place for the rest of the film. And this is one of the major strengths for the remake and that is that the characters are so brilliantly sketched and well rounded. There is a fantastic diversity and range within the characters with some changing by the time of the film’s conclusion so that our expectations are constantly being challenged and contradicted with seemingly vile people redeeming themselves and vice versa.

The film also perceptively displays human relationships at work. On first arrival most of the characters rub along pretty well. But being in a confined space together soon causes divisions and differences to develop and flare up. The film soon becomes something akin to events in a season of Big Brother but with, obviously, more at stake.

As well as great characterisation we also get great make up and effects. The special effects for the film were actually by the company owned by Heather Langenkamp aka Nancy Thompson from the Nightmare on Elm Street films! She should be very proud with the results as they are fabulous.

Scott Reiniger, Ken Foree and Tom Savini from the original all get cameos well as the Gaylen Ross reference/homage.

The zombies in this film move a lot faster than their blue-skinned counterparts from the original which massively divided fans with Romero himself saying that he didn’t like this aspect. I personally think it doesn’t really bother me as it’s something new just like the film itself. There’s also a new rule regarding the dead turning into zombies with there being a set time of a few seconds before the dead arise again. I thought this was also an interesting new aspect of this remake/reimagining.

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There is also some great humour in the movie also. Witness the ‘Celebrity Squares’ game that Kenneth plays with his gun shop buddy who is trapped on the roof of his business nearby. This also blossoms into a great moment of camaraderie and dare I say bromance between the two characters. Again, this echoes the same kind of relationship that Scott and Peter had in the original. I thought that it was great that this was reproduced in the remake.

I have to say though that on watching this film again for this review after seeing it on it’s original release brought diminishing returns this time around. It was almost like when you know what to expect with this remake half of the fun has gone.

This remake will never come close to the original film. But on first viewing it was interesting, innovative and had some artistic merit. It’s also a great rollercoaster ride that didn’t make me roll my eyes once.

***and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

A sequel to Village of the Damned which is less a continuation of the plot and instead like a film containing characters who possess the same powers as the children in the original but under different circumstances.

Whereas the original took part in a countryside idyll, the action within this film is based in London. A gifted child called Paul is studied and observed by the relevant governmental authorities. Other almost supernaturally gifted children are also discovered and brought to the city so that UNESCO researchers can witness them at work. They are brought from places as varied as China, Russia and Nigeria.

These gifted children then abscond from each of their respective embassies that they are staying in and take refuge in an abandoned church. It’s here that the authorities and the army find them and have to decide whether to try to coax the children out or destroy them if they pose a threat to humanity. It’s here that a tense standoff encroaches.

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This film as opposed to the original is firmly on the side of the children who we see as persecuted and in need of human support. The original depicted them as inhuman, devoid of emotion and empathy and very much as villains in a horror film. Children of the Damned elicits sympathy and compassion for the children who are shown as unjustly discriminated against, ostracised and treated as freaks in many ways. Having high levels of intelligence and other powers such as telekinesis are gifts but also hindrances. Witness the speech Paul’s mother shrieks at him that she should have destroyed him before she took him in her arms for the first time.

I made the mistake of reading the reviews for this film before I actually watched it. The few examples I could find were derogatory and very unflattering. They were also wrong, in my humble opinion. Children of the Damned may not be as good as the original film it is a sequel to but is still a vivid, well written, engaging film that is well worth a view. The shots of 60’s London are beautiful. A special mention to Ian Hendry (Repulsion) who heads a stellar cast.

***and a half out of *****

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31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 16- House of Whipcord (1974)

It’s 1974. A French starlet who isn’t averse to modelling with no clothes on is seduced by an enigmatic young man who asks to take her home to meet his parents. However, his home appears to be some kind of old institution like a long forgotten prison. And this is exactly what it is. His mother is the sadistic Governor of her own prison where her son takes flagrant examples of the new ‘permissive’ society so that they can be punished and even executed because of their lax ways.

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This is Within These Walls on steroids. I love the fact that there is a notice at the start of the film that reads “This film is dedicated to those who are disturbed by today’s lax moral codes and who eagerly await the return of corporal and capital punishment.” This is obviously a film that is parodying and sticking up two fingers to the puritanical types who didn’t like that the society of the time was becoming more permissive and free, the ‘Bring Back Hanging’ brigade. Britain was moving away from it’s more conservative ways and some weren’t happy about this as they flocked to fill the letters pages of every national newspaper. Precedents were falling and were set to fall even further as during the 70’s. One prime example of this movement that directly affected film was Mary Whitehouse and her Caravan of Light both of which would try to get exploitation films like House of Whipcord banned. Whitehouse was massively active during the Video Nasties furore that would occur during the next decade.

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But within the film’s duration there are currents of dissent as prisoners held at the institution secretly plan to overthrow the evil wardens and hopefully escape this kangeroo prison. This film adheres to but also subverts the conventions of prison genres but especially the ‘women in prison’ genre and only excludes lesbianism which maybe for the time in Britain would have been a step too far for that still conservative time. Had it have been included then the film may have fallen foul of the BBFC. The theme of an uprising is one of the prime tropes of this genre and I love that this was so brilliantly depicted. But I also love the result of this which ironically delivers back to the prison the woman who had successfully escaped.

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Special mentions go out to Barbara Markham as the deranged Governor and Sheila Keith as one of the sadistic wardens. House of Whipcord was called Flagellations abroad. Quite. 

Another Pete Walker masterpiece. Now, can we have a Blu Ray boxset of his back catalogue please?

****and a half out of *****

 

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 15- Village of the Damned (1960)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 15- Village of the Damned (1960)

Mysteriously one day everyone in the village of Midwich suddenly lapses into unconsciousness. After a few hours everyone just as mysteriously wakes up. Two months later every woman in the village who is able to become pregnant finds that they are pregnant.  Whats more the embryos are found to develop abnormally fast.

The children look eerily alike with blond hair and strange eyes. They are also shown to possess intelligence way beyond their years. As the children grown older they are shown to be able to control other’s actions through using their ‘stare’ in which their eyes seemingly glow and hypnotise their prey. They are also able to read other’s minds. As if that wasn’t enough, they display a telepathic bond between themselves also.

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There soon develops a separation between the ‘normal’ children and indeed people of the village and the ‘gifted’ children. The twain very rarely mix except within their respective families.

But then strange and unaccountable deaths of locals start to occur in the village. One example is of a villager who was an excellent swimmer suddenly drowning. Another example finds the children causing a man to crash his car into a wall at high speed. The dead man’s brother tries to avenge his death but is forced by the children to shoot himself instead.

The children appear to have a complete lack of empathy, compassion or indeed, humanity. They appear to be complete devoid of emotion or warmth.

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When dealing with such entities it is realised that drastic measures have to be taken as has been demonstrated by other countries who have also shown evidence of similar mutant children in recent years.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you! The ending is a real shocker! In fact this is a superb adaptation of one of my favourite books (The Midwich Cuckoos) by one of my favourite authors (John Wyndham- and if you haven’t read any of his books I implore you to read some NOW!)

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Amazing direction, perfectly acted, a great sense of tension until the shocking conclusion. This film wasn’t just taboo then but also feels taboo now, such is the power of the material. This was remade by John Carpenter in 1995.

There was a VERY funny parody of this movie within The Simpsons with a new movie called The Bloodening playing at a Springfield drive-in. Have a look on YouTube for the clip. It’s The Simpsons at their best.

****and a half out of *****