29 June 2010

Tuesday Title: Shaun of the Dead

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright/2004)

"You've got red on you."

It was at this point, right at the beginning of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's 's insanely entertaining and perceptively made partial parody of Dawn of the Dead/zombie movies (a zom-rom-com!), that I knew they had got their parody spot on. Shaun doesn't regurgitate anything from its influence, it simply responds with a loving nod; it draws great comedy - and startling moments of apt gore - from its premise.

is one of my all-time favourite zombie films (well, all-time favourite films full stop - see header image), so I was eager to see what Wright & Pegg would do with the concept (which they married to a contemporary British setting). Their firm grasp of comedy wasn't in question (the excellent Spaced came before it), and from interviews - and indeed some of the comedy references in Spaced - both had spoken eloquently about their passion for zombie films.

This opening title shot is witty, creative and doesn't hang about: undead teens trudge over the diegetically-Incorporated title: the words laid out flat on the ground if as like a corpse itself. From the opening titles onwards it just got better.

26 June 2010

At the Cinema: Whatever Works

Whatever Works (Woody Allen/2009) USA/92mins. *****

After three trips to the UK and a stop-off in Spain, Woody's back in Manhattan with Whatever Works - another of his unlikely ageing neurotic-ditzy girl romantic pairings (as in Mighty Aphrodite). He's treading old territory here - literally, the film is a reworking of an unused '70s script intended for Zero Mostel. Larry David is a replacement Allen striking up a baffling courtship with Evan Rachel Woods' stray southerner. The usual neurotic ups-and-downs occur. David remotely spouts misanthropic Allenisms hoping we can't tell the difference. But everyone knows that Woody Allen is the best vessel for Woody Allen's words.

After being creatively absent from New York for the last five years it feels as if Allen has lost his feel for the city. His sense of place is stultifying. Recycling a script he's dusted off, he appears to be running through the motions just to meet his criteria of a film or two per year for the sake of it. It feels like a rush job, and it shows in its lazy editing and framing: too many medium shots of actors uninspiringly coupled together, nattering without much purpose about, well, simply doing what you want (this is the film's overarching position on relationships) proves tiresome after a while; and gaps for laughs to resound are non-existent. (Actually, so too are any really good gags.)

His New York hasn't felt as hemmed in since Another Woman, and his locations haven't felt as insular since September. But at least those films had some atmosphere, however restricting. (And September was filmed on a sound stage.) Although cinematographer Harris Savides compensates with some beautiful lighting, and finds ways to create mood in often-repeated locales. David is a clumsy Allen replica, fudging many of the one-liners that Allen would've delivered with zing. But Patricia Clarkson (as Evan Woods' mother) is good value, as ever, slipping from flustered religious flake to slick bohemian artiste with ease.

The film takes a dim view of yee-haw Southern folk just so it can parade the brand of intellectually superior New Yorkers as the desired type of snob Allen only sees fit to populate the city with. (And he doesn't even seem that interested in them, either.) He's also still fixated on the idea that remodelling naive women into ideal, though improbable, sparring partners is fascinating (something '80s Woody essayed with far more self-deprecation and wit). Whatever he's saying here is conveyed with half-hearted opinion. This is listless, stationary Woody stuck on repeat. He's too reliant on old ideas. Instead of resuscitating discarded scripts he should've adapted one of his truly hilarious short stories from his Complete Prose collection: 'The Kugelmass Episode' would make a great movie. Time to get back to the real funny, Woody.

24 June 2010

7 Horrors, 7 Days, 7 Reasons, 7 Posters

Seven recent "cheap" horror films* (one for each day of the week) from the last seven years that:

I've gained far more (genre) pleasure from watching than the last seven Oscar-winning best pictures

I'd willingly watch again in a heartbeat (and then another time after that)

happen to have a vague average of 5-point-something-or-other on IMDb's ratings scale (as if that means much anyhow)

are infinitely more satisfying - on a shred of the budgets, and without the star wattage - than many, many theatrically-released, "highbrow" horror/thriller flicks (I'm looking squarely at you The Sixth Sense, Funny Games US, What Lies Beneath and your ilk - i.e. dishonest "horrors" that are, at heart, cheap 'n' scary ideas that could've made a nifty impact in 80 mins or less but, through their respective filmmakers' elevated sense of their own importance, come padded out in glossy, lengthy art film attire)

may not have neat edges, slick production values and the most expert performances ever seen (though this is perhaps negligible; I'm not seeking Oscar-level thesping here)

have more atmosphere in five mins of screen time than do Eli Roth's, M. Night Shyamalan's and Timur Bekmambetov's films throughout their dispiriting entireties

and g) are actually a lot of fun.

In short: the cheaper the horror, the more valiant the attempt to win us over.

(Call it championing the underdog, if you will, but a lot of the more intriguing and spirited horror films - though maybe not technically the very best on offer, depending on your viewpoint - these days appear less and less where they perhaps should and more and more buried beneath lesser deserving titles.)

An aborted first attempt at a new Scream-style trilogy?:

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
Dir: Scott Glosserman

Ghosts... of the Civil (War) dead!**:

Dead Birds (2004)
Dir: Alex Turner

Mad cow unease runs rampant through Ireland!:

Isolation (2005)
Dir: Billy O'Brien

Late-night screenings have never been more terrifying/less plausible!:

Midnight Movie (2008)
Dir: Jack Messitt

Don't come home to roost here!:

The Roost (2006)
Dir: Ti West

Getting an ASBO is the least of their worries!:

Wilderness (2006)
Dir: Michael J. Bassett

As it says, Pakistan's first gore film!:

Zibahkhana AKA Hell's Ground (2007)
Dir: Omar Khan

And a bonus poster for Zibahkhana as it was the most unique of the bunch, has a great score by Stephen Thrower and because this poster is gloriously indicative of the film's cheerful cheapness):

Have a ball, take a gamble, enjoy a week of cheap horror which is leagues better, and more entertaining, than what gets hoisted upon you at the cinema. (You can also add in Hush and any of Christopher Smith's work, too.)

* that I've had to seek out either on DVD or on the Horror Channel on Sky+, because, alas, they never showed up in the cinema
** godawful puns/wordplay and excessive overuse of exclamation marks is fully intentional

22 June 2010

Tuesday Title: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle/1939)

I remember way back when I was a kid watching this version of Hunchback on a random whim with my mother and brother. I didn't know it was the Dieterle/Laughton version then, as I was about six or seven years old - clearly long before I became manic about cinema. (A spot of research in the years since revealed this '39 Hunchback to be the one we saw.) My father was overseas a lot working when I was young, and so we often watched old films on television in the evenings.

I remember it vividly for how my young mind instinctively reacted to it (oh, how Quasimodo's life must have been so sad! The unfairness of it all!... Why, mum, why... does he ring so many bells all the time?), more than any technical attributes (who notices subtlties in lighting or editing at age six?). Its opening title is more a handy reminder, a simple visual nudge, of what a great film it is - and for the fact that it's one of my earliest film-watching memories - rather than anything particularly spectacular in itself. (It's typically straightforward for its time: shadows cast over the titles "etched" onto the side of the cathedral; bells ringing on the soundtrack) But, boy, is it a good opening. I loved the experience of watching this back then, and still do. I think I'm about ready to watch it again soon.

Also, it was this film - particularly Charles Laughton's starring role - that, years later, led me to seek out and watch his one and only film as director, The Night of the Hunter; it then ended up, alongside Hunchback, as being one of my favourite of his films.

20 June 2010

A Film Cut in Two: Create Your Own Intermission

To quote French & Saunders: "cut it in half and call it Regrets."

Unwrapped and unseen (as yet): Sátántangó

I've had Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr's eight-hour epic from 1994, Sátántangó, sitting on my DVD shelf for about three years now. I bought it knowing that having liked three of his previous films I'd relish the opportunity to one day sit back and let all that contemplative cinematic slowness infiltrate my brain (in the way that only his films can). Ah, lovely. If only - untouched, it's still in its wrapper gathering dust in between my dust-free copies of Ruthless People (1986, 93 mins - yay) and Scanners (1981, 103 mins - ooh), both of which I've watched numerous times. Fickle? Double standards? Laughs over length? Exploding heads over expanding run-time? Nah. Yeah. Well, maybe. But what's wrong with wrapping a film up in a tidy 90-to-100-or-so minutes?

Due to Sátántangó's gargantuan duration I've consistently put off watching it. Bad, BAD film watcher. But I simply haven't found the time for it yet. Where does someone find eight hours straight - or more precisely, because it sounds longer this way, 450 mins - to watch a film? That's longer than some international flights; it's practically a day's work. If someone paid me to watch Sátántangó, I'd pop it in the DVD player right now. But until that happens it will just have to wait. It'll have to abide by my film-watching clock. But what if I were to watch it in - gosh, shock - segments? This could the best and only way to digest it. Most others who've seen it on DVD in recent years must have broken it up into bite-size chunks when they watched it, surely?

Bette Midler & co. get the job done in 90 mins: Ruthless People

Of course, many times during watching a film at home we all hit the pause button for loo, snack and cup of tea breaks. Telephones go off; doorbells ring. Watching a film on DVD can often be a staggered affair at the best of times. Films often end up consumed piecemeal, viewed in small nuggets, more like adverts. Then there are channels that show films with adverts dotted throughout them - this I can't tolerate: I once caught an airing of Hitchcock's Psycho on TV and the channel thoughtlessly wedged an ad break in the middle of the shower scene!

One minute Norm-in-mother-drag pulled the shower curtain across, knife in hand; the next, poor Janet Leigh was slumped on the bathroom floor, her eye dissolving into the plughole. Annoying huh? But that's what you get for watching films on ITV, I guess. But controlling the pauses, managing your own film stop-gaps, can yield great results. I should add - just to keep up the appearance of being a Serious Film Buff - that the ideal is to see a film through to the end in one long stretch, as the directors intend. I don't like to do these things by halves ultimately. But where this isn't possible, create A Film Cut in Two*.

Shower scene sacrilege: TV Psycho is a no-no

Anyway, some films are better divided in two, or quartered, eigthed, whatever. I know this may sound scandalously sacrilegious to many a cinema buff, and I had to get over the idea of it myself at first, but a break, of no more than, say, 24 hours - 48, tops - can allow time for a film's first half to nicely percolate in your mind. It's a think space, a gap to let the film's magic continue to work its spell on you in its absence.

I know why films used to have intervals. Sure it's to grab a bite to eat or take a toilet break, but it also created anticipation for what was to come next. But on occasion 5 or 10 minutes isn't enough. And anyway, that was just for cinema releases - and those days have passed. Although, my copy of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963, 154 mins) contained a handy caper-free intermission; so, too, did the DVD copy of Funny Girl (1968, 151 mins) that I watched recently with friends - time enough to top up on some Streisand-watching snacks; and the lengthy, purely intentional prologue (ill-placed interval?) at the beginning of Dancer in the Dark was more like a get-out-early clause. Sometimes a longer intermission is required. So do it yourself...

Inland Empire's imaginary hookers are on a break

...or someone else will do it for you. Or not. Three years ago when I travelled 30 miles to see David Lynch's 180 min Inland Empire (hey, I'm a devoted Lynch fan) there wasn't an interval, despite vague and hazy rumours that there may be. (Lynch would've gone apeshit; apparently he hates any stoppages in his films; he doesn't even allow chapter breaks on his DVDs.) But two months later, when it played at a cinema nearer to me, I went again, and, whaddayaknow, they put in an interval (sloppily I might add, at two-thirds of the way in - I could see Lynch's point).

But what I most remember most about that Film Cut in Two were the expressions on the faces of a few not-as-mad-on-Lynch-as-I-am friends who I'd dragged along. They took the opportunity during this particular gap to not run for the exit as I might have expected, but to shoot me time-worn glares, brought on by its mammoth length: if looks could kill. Inland Empire wonderfully made not a lick of sense in its full form; a break just creates further confusion.

Streep on The Cobb: The French Lieutenant's Woman

In the late '80s I had a mad Meryl Streep phase (a marathon of 13 of her films in about two weeks) where I sat down to watch The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981, a snip at 124 mins - standard length now really). Halfway through I hit pause, inadvertently creating a sudden static snowfall over Streep in her cape on The Cobb, down Lyme Regis way - this was, of course, thanks to the trusty old VCR's wonky, fuzz-heavy pausing function back then. I sat for a moment, then decided on... a short walk. Streep and Jeremy Iron's love affair swirled around in my mind during my leg-stretching exercise. I felt slightly wistful. Sarah's (Streep in the film) melancholy was mirrored in my own. It was a good way to digest what just happened in the film, and gear myself up for what was to come next.

[If you think this piece is getting a tad too long, why not take a break, have a little walk, blink for a bit, before you read the second half]

The impromptu break allowed me to mull over many aspects of The French Lieutenant's Woman: what it meant so far, and to ponder what might happen to these characters in the second half. I'd devised my own self-created buzz at the halfway mark. I wanted to know if the rest met the high expectations conjured up in my mind, so I sped up my walk and trotted home. I hit the play button and let Streep and Irons resume their bouts of lustful longing for one another.

Just walk away (for a bit): American Gangster

I remember liking the film quite a bit back then, after it finally ended. But I'm hard-pressed to remember much about it now - apart from Streep's melancholic gaze out to sea. And not because that was the film's most iconic moment, mind you - it was likely due to having stared too long at the paused screen: the video cassette static and my hazy memory blurred into one.

Over the last year or so I've watched several halves of films, separated by a day or two. Spike Lee's American Gangster (2007) benefitted wonderfully from a spot of respite. It was tense and gripping for the first half of its 157 mins, so I allowed the tension to build up more so in the interim, ready for the next 78½. Also, it allowed me, after work, to get the other stuff done I needed to that evening, and still have time left over for other things. I like to think practically in these matters.

Banish it til tomorrow: The Banishment

Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment/Izgnanie (also 2007, also 157 mins) became more fascinating than it probably actually was in my mind thanks to a temporarily forced Ctrl+Alt+Pause. The film is full of brooding, doom-laden imagery, and is all the more mysterious for it. The suspense resulting from cutting it in two sent my brain into art-film appreciation overdrive, and, as a consequence, a far more mysterious and evocative film opened up... for a while. The film was now in two parts, but I was still in two minds as to what I really thought of it. The same went for another '07 arthouse heavyweight: Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light/Stellet licht (145 mins), albeit with a less enthusiastic feeling.

In fact, some films could benefit from a permanent pause. I could have easily left Twilight (2008, too many goddamn minutes) stranded at the halfway mark, never ever to see its dire conclusion. And I surprised myself by making it all the way through The Kite Runner (2007, 128 mins). Marc Forster should consider himself lucky that his ingratiating prestige pic didn't get halted before 15 mins. These two prove that the pause button is boredom's best friend.

One moment out of 15½ hours: Berlin Alexanderplatz

If your film has a length issue just cut it in two, I say. Create your own cliffhangers. Build up to your own dramatic pause (literally). Be a sofa editor and freeze the film for later. It'll still be there, fresh as ever. Increase your expectations. Stack all that momentum up for tomorrow night. You never know, you might turn a good film into a better one; or a mediocre film into a great one. Or just one long film into a makeshift TV series.

And God forbid I get a hold of a copy of Fassbinder's 931 min Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). It's nearly 15½ hours of visionary filmmaking. (Admittedly it was originally serialised for German television.) I'd need to take a fortnight off work just to see it, cut into manageable chunks or not. But now, how about that eight-hour Hungarian epic? An hour a day over the next week and a bit should see to it.

It seems I do do things by halves. Or, well, eighths.

*The title of this post has been shamelessly cribbed then paraphrased from the title of Claude Chabrol's 2007 film La fille coupée en deux/A Girl Cut in Two for no other reason than I just thought it sounded good.

Small moments of wonderful invention in True Stories (1986)

Step inside the film world of Virgil, Texas.

I'm still fond of watching David Byrne's mock road movie musical about the fictional town of Virgil, Texas. I saw it years ago on television, and have revisited it many times since. It's good-natured, funny and always leaves me with a strange feeling of melancholy.

"Metal buildings are the dream that Modern Architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don't realize it. That's because it doesn't take an Architect to build a metal building. You just order them out of a catalog - comes with a bunch of guys who put it together in a couple of days, maybe a week. And there you go - you're all set to go into business - just slap a sign out front."

Byrne takes his own playful look at American life. He offers up stages and platforms for the people of Virgil to parade themselves on - literally, in the wonderful scene where Annie McEnroe sings a version of Talking Heads' Dream Operator to accompany an outlandish fashion parade at the local mall's "Celebration of Special-ness":

"Shopping is a feeling. Sometimes I get a wobbly feeling. I have a commercial feeling. Be sexy in business; be successful at night."

"And you dreamed it all.
And this is your story.
Do you know who you are?
You're the dream operator."

It's corny, ridiculous - and strangely moving. There aren't many films that are as singularly bizarre, entertaining and unabashedly daft as True Stories. I've seen it roughly six times now - and could easily watch it six times more.

19 June 2010

Three Takes Only

Over the past few months I've been contributing articles for The Film Experience and a month ago I started my "Take Three" column, where I look at a different character/supporting actor's career through three of their most notable films. Each Sunday a new piece goes up on the site examining an actor or actress via the three chosen films, focusing on their characters, the similarities or differences in performance style, how they may steal scenes right from under the noses of their perhaps bigger, more routinely acclaimed co-stars and why character and performance is often far more interesting than star power. This is the intention, anyhow.

So far, I've looked at the four actors below - handy links are included for instant perusal (click on their names)

1: Veronica Cartwright
Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Witches of Eastwick

2: Ben Foster
30 Days of Night, Alpha Dog, 3:10 to Yuma

3: Thelma Ritter
Pillow Talk, Rear Window, Pickup on South Street

4: Don Cheadle
Devil in a Blue Dress, Hotel Rwanda, Boogie Nights

The next Take Three (Miranda Richardson) will be up on The Film Experience tomorrow.

15 June 2010

Tuesday Title: The Conversation

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola/1974)

The Conversation
is pretty much my favourite Coppola film. A small part of the reason for this is the incredible way it begins: a fade, from black, on to busy Union Square, San Francisco, California. Simple uppercase opening titles (in Gill Sans) unassumingly come and go. A barely perceptible jazz score plays (on the soundtrack? In the square?) as people (shoppers, businessmen, tramps, pedestrians, passers-by, anyone, everyone), like dots gradually getting bigger as the camera slowly and ominously zooms in, weave their way through their shadows and past one other.

The jazzy music increases in volume and is intermittently interrupted by electronic voices muffled and distorted by feedback or interference. The camera picks out a mime in the crowd to observe more intently; he mimics Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), the film's watcher and listener, drinking coffee; Caul walks off, often looking back over his shoulder...

Something's wrong, slightly amiss. But whether or not Caul has good reason to look over his shoulder is answered, perhaps, over the remainder of Coppola's excellent film. Is it a surveilance camera watching the scene below, or Coppola announcing from the off his exact, unsettling tone for the film? Well, indeed it's both. Or is it? Stay closely with it - eyes and ears on full alert.

The film follows a structured set of visual squares (as suggested in this title sequence). Restricting, destabilising lines - window frames, the contours of office walls, structural partitions, concrete blocks - trail off both vertically and horizontally, breaking up the film frame. This creates a sense of not only isolation, but also of being constantly surrounded: human figures appear boxed in, multiplied, looking like ants under close scrutiny.

The design of the film is clean, and more importantly, acutely subtle (much like the film’s rightly celebrated sound design - courtesy of the great Walter Murch), and its atmosphere is muted and discordant, as if entirely composed of (aural and visual) white noise. It's drained of colour almost; every scene is lit and framed in such a flat and near-monochromatic manner that the overflowing blood, when it appears in the toilet late in the film, is all the more shocking for its abrupt inclusion - it acts as a signifier of danger, or perhaps of dirt, within the otherwise hermetic surroundings.

It's a disquieting and compulsive film. This opening shot is tantalising and intriguing, and signals Coppola’s genius for framing disquieting images which retain their vivid intensity throughout every scene - from first to last. It also sets the tone for the film perfectly. It's all about the watching and listening.

12 June 2010

I Want a Refund on the Rent

There was a point about twenty minutes into Rent (Chris Columbus/2005) when I wondered if the cast weren’t actually singing with woe and despair about the unfortunate fact that 50% of them had AIDS, or that 100% of them had overdue rent payments, but more for the fact that they were upset that someone forgot to hire a cinematographer.

The film's tone is intentionally bleak, and the characters' lives are in turmoil (and, yes, their electricity was cut off), but you’d think that for the big screen outing of a much-loved musical they would want the audience to actually see the song and dance routine that all concerned made out of their irritating, precocious lives. A zip back to the credits to find Stephen Goldblatt’s name as director of photography made me wonder if he had cataracts.

Apart from the dimly lit drama on show the film was a dated, annoying mess. It’s set in 1989, so it's time period is indeed intentionally dated, but why needlessly enhance the point by having everyone sport ripped, faded denim and hair straight out of an A Chorus Line rejects list. There was one guy who I swear would’ve looked more at home filming an early Bon Jovi video rather than singing about how awful his lot is from a fire escape (the song he sings even includes the words 'blaze of glory'). It's often inaccurate with its timeline, too: early on there’s a song reference to Thelma & Louise, but that film wasn’t released until 1991.

Rent, as a movie, only really came about because people went film musical crazy over Chicago, so Home Alone director Chris Columbus thought he’d have a crack at Broadway on the big screen. It’s a fusing of that Oscar-winning film and an attempt at retreading what Angels in America did in its HBO form; Chicago was partially innocuous but had several moments of sparkling verve; and Angels went deeper than the few heart-tugging scenes of self-reflection on display here.

The songs - some of which feel too contemporary for its time period, others wouldn’t be out of place on MTV circa 1984 - create confusion. The music soundtrack and the sound design collide in a disorientating manner and don’t often appear to successfully sync with one another either; the hisses and clunks of the New York Subway badly jar with the kid’s singing voices on board.

The songs actually reminded me, above all else, of the kind of thing that appeared on Sesame Street (could Rent have been the inspiration for Avenue Q?). I kept hoping that Oscar the Grouch would pop out of his trash can for a grumpy put-down or two. (Cookie Monster singing about his sexually-contracted diseases and the difficulty he has affording copious amounts of cookies, whilst trying out for dance auditions every night, might have been something worth seeing!) But then of course Team America: World Police came along in the same year to add a puppetry piss-take on the film.

The characters are too bland to hold the attention for the duration of the film; there’s little personality beyond their problems. One character, Maureen (Idina Menzel), is touted as a real blast to be around by the other characters, but when she enters the film she just falls into the same charmless trap as the others. I thought she might bring some zest to proceedings, but all did was irritatingly act out a pretentious performance art skit, in perhaps the film's most cringworthy moment. (Anyone who’s seen Christopher Guest’s daft satire of the indie film community, The Big Picture, will remember how Jennifer Jason Leigh’s cameo as a video artist hilariously mocked filmed performance art.)

just felt like a big, fuzzy group hug, only with people singing high-pitched nothings in your ear. I haven't seen the stage musical on which the film is based - and maybe I should, as it might explain a few things - but I'll take a bet that it isn't half as tedious or as ingratiating as this mess. It’s just St. Elmo’s Fire with more tissues and issues.

8 June 2010

Tuesday Title: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Lee Daniels/2009)

1987. Ext. Harlem street. Day. A COLD WIND blows a bright red scarf tangled high on a street lamp.

This is how Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire starts. On screen the title appears as 'Precious (Base on Nol by Saf)' - with the full title in parenthesis underneath: an abbreviated, personalised and slang-style reconfiguring of the film's full name. (And it's often reduced to just 'Precious'.) A sense of place is clearly established, and the reoccurring motif of Precious' (Gabourey Sidibe) red scarf is the first thing we see. She carries it around with her everywhere - in her hair, wrapped around her wrist, or at times to be spotted somewhere in the background of a shot (as in the opening titles here).

Maybe it's an emblem that provides some kind of meaning in her life: lost, found, caught up, passed around; tied up in knots, wrapped up in her own private world, and finally let free. I haven't read the novel, although I'm sure it may very well explain the true significance of the red scarf and what it means. But going into the film cold, with no idea of its importance (if any), it can mean everything and nothing. Is it a symbol of Precious' personal state, a key visual token of her life - or just a favourite accessory? (It also relates, more obviously, to blood and anger, too.) Either way, red is the colour thematically chosen throughout the film to represent Precious.

Intentionally misspelled, personalised or just plain quirky plays on a film's title can often be annoying; simply there just to appear different for its own sake (I'm thinking of S1m0ne, Thir13en Ghosts, (500) Days of Summer and (groan) Inglourious Basterds here). But Precious is born out of an integrally personalised journey - an exploration of one girl's interior fantasies and sadly distressing real existence (she keeps a journal; the wording likely come straight from her) - so the title, in its own particular way, should show outwardly this in a visual manner.

The way the red scarf chimes with the red of the individually scrawled hand-drawn type, imposed over the image of the underside of a bridge on a chilly and downbeat Harlem morning, was clearly Lee Daniels' pertinent, visually arresting and distinct way to introduce us to the film, and his main character, and to give everything its own personality. Not since Julianne Moore wore that mauve headscarf in Far from Heaven has an accessory stood for just that little bit more than itself in a film.

The promotional posters for Precious are also some of the most artistically inventive and striking I've seen in a while, too:

1 June 2010

Tuesday Title: Back to the Future

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis/1985)

Great Scott! If you're of a certain age you may well have drawn this opening title - or is it more of a logo? - in a sketch or exercise book. I did. But it never looked as good as it did at the start of the film of course. Impactful, colourful (gradient red to yellow, "electric" blue outline), immediately recognisable and exciting. Type bent (leant?) out of shape: the 'back' pushed, by the arrow, back to the past; the 'future' zooming headlong into the future. So simple and - yes, groan - it's filled with nostalgia. I look at it now and feel like watching the actual film - I can almost hear Huey Lewis and his News (though is that a good thing?). Where's Doc Brown when you need him?