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pandoras-box-1929-poster-1000x750SPOILER WARNING – this article contains spoilers for a ninety year old movie, and a three thousand year old myth – SPOILER WARNING

I think everyone knows the story of Pandora’s Box from Greek mythology.  Pandora  was created by various gods on the orders of Zeus to punish humanity after Prometheus stole the secret of fire.  She was given “a shameful mind and deceitful nature” and had the power to seduce and felt compelled to do so.  The gods gave Pandora a gift of a pithos (a jar, mistranslated as box a few thousand years later) containing all the evils of the world.  She could not resist the temptation, and opens the jar/box thus releasing evil on the world.  In some versions of the story, a dove remains representing hope (more on that later). Pandora

So why am I telling a well known story from around 8th centuries BC?  I have just watched G W Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Pandora’s Box at the MAC in Birmingham, thanks to the BFI in what they describe as ” New 2K DCP of the 2009 restoration of Munich Film Museum’s definitive cut, with score by Peer Raben”.

For those who don’t know, Pandora’s Box tells of the rise and fall of desirable and seductive but naive young dancer Lulu (Louise Brooks). origonal poster

Both an artistic and technical masterpiece, the film draws on the contemporary (German) studio realism, and French (Impressionist) as well a recalling earlier Expressionism.  There are numerous standout scenes, the backstage at cabaret performance is a master class in editing.  But all this disappears into the shadow of the film’s star Louise Brooks, with her iconic haircut, hypnotic eyes and enchanting smile.  Made during the final death rattle of silent cinema, Pandora’s Box Premiered less than two years after The Jazz Singer (1927).  At 23 Brooks gives a career best performance, but like the silent movies she appeared in her time was up.  Her career was all but over two years later. lulu

Today’s screening started with a caption explaining that no known original negatives survive.  This definitive restoration is made up of three early prints.  This made me look into different versions of the film.

Wikipedia describe a French version: the film was significantly re-edited, making Alwa’s secretary and the countess become Lulu’s childhood friend. Lulu is found to be not guilty at her trial, and there is no Jack the Ripper character, as the film ends with Lulu joining the Salvation Army.

IMDB describes an American cut: the film was released in a heavily censored 90-minute version, with a happy ending. This ending – in which Lulu joins the Salvation Army – was so unconvincing that when the film played in New York, its distributors placed a disclaimer at the beginning, emphasizing that they were not responsible for the censorship forced upon them, and they apologized for what was termed “an added saccharine ending.pandoras box louise brooks Alice Roberts

The current version isn’t the first attempt to restore the film, an attempt was made in the 1980’s but was around 20 minutes shorter than the original version.  This could be due to missing scenes, or running it at 24 frames per second, not 20.

I have seen the film three times before, the first time was in the early 90’s, I think possibly the American cut described above.  It therefore came as something of a surprise on my next viewing when Jack The Ripper entered the story.  My most recent viewing came on DVD five or six years ago, the same or similar to the cut I saw today, it sounds like this version described on IMDB: A 133-minute version, distributed by Janus Films from Film Museum München, was broadcast in America on the IFC channel in 2006. It has an unidentified orchestral score, including a 2-minute overture at the start, and it listed the credits in German, some of which were translated into English. With German inter-titles and English subtitles. This version was released on a British Region 2 DVD).Louise Brooks Lulu

The final act sees Lulu living in destitute squalor in London with Alwa and Schigolch.  Encouraged by Schigolch, and with only the weakest of protest from Alwa, Lulu resorts to prostitution.  Her first customer is Jack the Ripper, who appears to be fighting a losing battle with his sanity and urge to kill.  As he climbs the stairs to Lulu’s lodgings we see Jack drop his knife, but in the closing scenes he spots a knife (in true Chekhov’s gun style we saw Lulu us it earlier).  This is the last we see of Jack or Lulu.  Why don’t we see her die?  Is it the sensibility of the time and the censors, or did she survive?  As long as we don’t see her die, there is hope! pandoras box lulu and jack

The only time I have discussed the film or its meaning at any length was after seeing it at university.  I went into the debate knowing less than nothing.  Those who hadn’t seen the film before knew nothing, I knew less than nothing as I went in thinking I knew the film having seen it a couple of years before, but the rug was pulled from beneath me as I saw a different version.  Others came with an agenda to argue; sexual, feminist, political, socio-political. It was suggested that Lulu was punished for her wicked ways, or at least her refusal to conform to social norms.  Or that she was punished for her sexual liberation and ambiguity.  Those that argued on both sides saw this as a positive and a negative, does the film condemn or lament her? I wouldn’t argue with any of these, but I read it a different way, as mentioned above, as a message of hope.  Lulu, made mistakes, and refused to conform, but no matter how low things get, there is always hope, if she could be the one woman who encountered and survived Jack the Ripper, she could survive.  To be fair and give context, to this argument, I was in a class where truth and reality came a distant second to how well you argued your point, and as a cock eighteen-year-old I revealed in disagreeing with everyone else in the room.  However, two further screenings and twenty years later, I still see a glimmer of hope. 

After a rather lean June, normal service is resumed in July with ten movies, none of which disappointed.  Only one can be movie of the month, here are the contenders.

Leave No Trace – Debra Granik’s long awaited follow-up to Winter’s Bone.  A quieter and more subtle movie than her previous film, but like Winters Bone its strength lies in a combination of taught direction, and fantastic performances, here from Thomasin McKenzie and the always reliable Ben Foster.Leave No Trace

Sicario 2: Soldado – Sicario is one of my favourite movies of recent years.  I was sceptical as of a sequel especially without director Denis Villeneuve and star Emily Blunt.  On a positive note, writer Taylor Sheridan is back.  Looking back at the original film, while Emily Blunt is the audiences way into the story and gives the strongest performance, Josh Brolin and particularly  Benicio Del Toro are the most interesting characters.  While not as good as the original, it is still an excellent movie with Del Toro excelling in what has morphed into the leading role.Benicio Del Toro

Hereditary – Superior horror that relies on tension and suspense rather than jump scares.  The centre of the movie is Toni Collette’s sensational performance.  I’m not sure the greatest or defining horror of the era tags are earned but it certainly has more to offer than most movies of the genre. Hereditary

Ocean’s 8 – The latest instalment in the Oceans franchise swaps the original cast for an all female one.   As a con/heist movie it offers nothing new to the genre, but that really doesn’t matter when the stars are as charismatic and watchable as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett.  I would certainly be happy to see oceans nine and ten. Ocean's 8

Whitney – I wouldn’t call myself a Whitney Houston fan, I liked her earlier pop records from the late 80’s but never go got the whole diva, greatest singer in the world  claims of her mid career.  The second film about her in as many years, I didn’t see the Nick Broomfield film so learnt a lot here.  A solid film with some startling revelations but not as compelling as  Amy (2015), Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) or even Kevin Macdonald’s Marley (2012). Whitney-UK-poster

Mary Shelley – The story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin from just before she met Percy Shelley  upto and including the publication of Frankenstein.  An atmospheric and involving story that takes a few liberties with the facts as you would expect, and to quote Mark Kermode, ” there are plenty of “chubby, herm!” moments”.  Elle Fanning is always interesting to watch. Mary Shelley

The First Purge – The original Purge film was an interesting concept that did really well.  As you would expect for a Blumhouse Production, the first sequel expanded on both the idea and the scope of the film.  The third film was had run out of ideas so largely repeated the second film.  This latest film is a prequel going back to the origin of The Purge.  There is an interesting plot point that is very contemporary and prescient, but other than that, like part three, they have run out of ideas.  Unless someone has an interesting way direction to take the story, The First Purge should be the Last Purge. The First Purge

Hotel Artemis – Drew Pearce’s feature debut is a high concept sci-fi built on great characters, played by a fantastic cast.  A little more than the action film the trailer promises, it has more than a hint of High Noon. It is also often very funny usually because of Dave Bautista.  I could have done without Charlie Day. Hotel Artemis

First Reformed – Paul Schrader is back on form with a film in the transcendental style that he has spoken about so much in the past.  Ethan Hawke is on career high form at the heart of the film.  Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a religious Father Toller’s (Hawke) crisis is an existential one, not religious.   Not widely released, but worth searching for.   First Reformed

Mission: Impossible – Fallout – Back for the sixth instalment of the franchise, and breaking with tradition it has a returning director, frequent Tom Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie.  Despite the near two and half hour runtime you don’t get a moment to breath.  The plot that initially seems complicated is actually very simple, and also totally superfluous, this is all about the spectacle.   Possibly the best of the series, if not it comes a close second. Mission Impossible Fallout

Of the ten, four make the shortlist: Sicario 2: Soldado is better than many previous winners.  Mission: Impossible – Fallout comes close as proof that a big budget franchise movie can still be a great film.  Ultimately, Leave No Trace comes a close second to the haunting First Reformed. First Reformed poster

Sicario-Day-of-the-Soldado-FI-2-minAs I post less and less articles, I don’t walk out of a film thinking I must write about that.  That is also the case with Sicario 2: Soldado (UK title, it seems to have different titles in different territories), however, I do feel compelled to write, not about the film, but peoples reaction to it.  It has received mixed to positive reviews, the IMDB rating is similar to the first film but the Metascore is much lower.  There appears to be two main criticisms, 1: A lack of Emily Blunt. 2: It is right wing, and even pro Trump.  There is a third, the fact that Denis Villeneuve didn’t direct, that is a whole different conversation, who made it is less important than how well they made it, I am therefore parking that one. Taylor Sheridan

To give some context, I love Sicario it is a straight choice between this and Mad Max: Fury Road as my favourite film of 2015.  Both are amongst my favourite of the decade so far.  Written by (début) screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by upcoming Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners was the only one of his films I had seen at the time) it came almost out of nowhere.  When a sequel was announced I was a little unsure how I felt about it.  Sheridan was returning as writer, now with two great screenplays behind him, Hell or High Water (2016), and Wind River (2017) which he also directed.   Sadly Denis Villeneuve did not return as director, that job went to largely unknown Italian Stefano Sollima.  Although this article is about the reaction to the film more than the film itself, I do need to express my thoughts.  I really liked the film.  It is a solid and tense thriller with compelling, if not likeable characters.  I am led to believe that Taylor Sheridan always intended Sicario to be the start of a trilogy, as such, and given the strength of his other films, he was the most important returning element of a sequel, he has not disappointed.  Denis Villeneuve is missed, the film lacks of the style and vigour of the original.  The set pieces are larger in scale than those of the first film but don’t carry the same weight.  It is a slightly flabbier, less taught story, is this less assured direction, or the result of the expanding story? I’m not sure.  Any film is going to miss a director of photography like Roger Deakins, veteran Dariusz Wolski proves to be a good substitute, the film looks great.  The night-time exteriors are particularly well lit.   Benicio Del Toro

In the first film, Emily Blunt’s character was both our way into the story, and the stories conscience, she was the strongest thing about a flawless film.  This film need neither of those things, we don’t need a way in as having seen the first film we are already in, and the films lack of conscience is half the point, there are bad people on both sides, doing bad things, that they can all justify in their own minds.  Everyone is the hero in their own story, whether a real life or a fictional character, does anyone think they are the villain?  Yes I would have liked to see Blunt’s character again, but that would be a different film, she would not have had a place in this story, and this is the story the filmmakers have chosen to make.Soldado

So is the film right wing, and pro Trump!  All art is open to interpretation, and saw this very differently.  The film may glorify some of the actions, but it does not try to justify them. Furthermore characters do question their part in the situation giving the faintest glimmer of conscience .  To explain what I mean we have to delve into the plot so this will contain SPOILERS:  Drug cartels transport people illegally across the border.  Amongst the many innocents looking for a better life, there are a few terrorists.  A bomb is detonated in a shopping centre. This gives US politicians and what we assume to be the CIA a mandate to start a war between the cartels.  To achieve this Brolin and Del Toro’s characters start playing the two sides against each other, including assassinations and the kidnapping of a child.  When things go wrong.  The powers that be, pull the plug on the operation ordering the elimination of their own ally and an innocent child.  It further transpires that two of the three terrorists that prompted their actions were American citizens not smuggled through Mexico.  For the right wing, and pro Trump argument to work, the American’s must remain the heroes of the story.  They are pretty far from this: We already know that they are prepared to break the law (their own law, intentional law, and the law of a foreign sovereign state)  because they believe the end justifies the means.  They see life, including that of innocents as expendable (collateral damage).  They are happy to start a course of action before they know the facts.  They have no loyalty to their own allies.  To try and give some balance, I don’t know if terrorists are smuggled to the USA via Mexico.  The film could plant a seed that this is happening giving fuel to the pro Trump, pro wall brigade.  To put it simply I don’t see the story as a rallying cry for right wing xenophobia, it is more a condemnation of Americas foreign policy under Trump. Sicario 2 Soldado

As mentioned above Taylor Sheridan always intended Sicario as a trilogy, I for one am keen to see part three.  Given the great job he did on Wind River, I would like to see Sheridan in the director’s chair too.  As much as I loved Emily Blunt’s performance in the first film, she probably doesn’t have a place in the final film, just like she didn’t in this second film.  This doesn’t have to mean the end of her character, there is plenty of space for a side project away from Matt Graver and Alejandro.  The end of part two gives us an indication of where it may go, I suspect there is a little more to it than that, as with the first two films it will be a reflection on the time it is made. 

Earlier in the year saw the latest round of the battle between opposing views on film distribution and exhibition.  The battleground, the Caane film festival.  In 2017 Netflix had two films in competition: Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories.  This years the festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux, imposed a rule that all films shown at the festival must receive a French theatrical release.  This wouldn’t be a issue in most countries including the UK and USA, but France have more ridged rules on distribution.  Once a film is shown in a French cinema/theatre, it cannot be sold on DVD, or pay-per-view for four months, furthermore, it cannot be streamed on a subscription service like Netflix, or Amazon Prime for three years.netfix cover

So why is this a big deal?  Simply, Netflix is morphing into one of the biggest film production company in the world.  With an annual budget for new content reported to be around $8Billion, they are planning to make around 80 films this year.  Unlike Amazon Prime who are giving their higher profile movies cinema releases, Netflix distributes its content exclusively on its own platform.  This is beginning to look like the vertical integration of the big studios during the golden age of cinema.  That particular era ended in 1948 when United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. ruled that the system was in violation of US antitrust laws.

I am a firm believer that the cinema is the best place to watch a film, and do so frequently.   Over that last ten years, I have averaged about 2.5 trips to the cinema every week. I do however, also subscribe to both the streaming services I have mentioned here.    So where does that leave us?  Should there be restrictions on where, when and how films are distributed? Film critic Mark Kermode has spoken frequently and vocally on how films should be available simultaneously on multiple platforms.  Will imposing more restrictions help of hinder the situation?  Bizarrely, I think the best option may be one that would probably fall foul of competition laws.  If Netflix were to do a deal with a major cinema chain to give there bigger releases a cinema release, this would provide the best of both worlds.  They could then give free or heavily discounted tickets to their subscribers (the cinema will make their money selling food and drink).

I don’t think there are any simple answers to the issue.  I live in a major city with at least one cinema from all the major chains and several independents.  I also have superfast broadband, I am therefore well covered on all fronts.  But what of those who live in isolated places who don’t have access to a cinema? Or those that do have a cinema but no access to streaming?  Doesn’t the industry owe these people a chance to see more movies?  Ultimately, I think we all accept the MGM motto “Ars gratia artis” is at best a thing of the past at worst a myth. MGM-LOGO

Whatever the future holds, it is clear we are in a period of transition in the film industry, but then it could be argued that that it is an industry that is always in transition. 

A combination of a Holiday and The Football World cup has resulted in me only seeing three movies this month, they are:

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – Following the events of the previous film, but taking the narrative in a new direction.  The story starts and ends well but has noticeable lull in the middle.   Director J.A. Bayona, working with a blockbuster budget for the first time does a good job bringing so atmosphere and a few scares and a political subtext.  Enjoyable nonsense. Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom

Bobby Robson More Than a Manager – Portrait of the late Sir Bobby Robson, One of the best and most underrated managers in English and European football.  The film is very partisan, this doesn’t distract from the film that is both informative or enjoyable.  A must for football fans. Bobby Robson More Than a Manager

Animal World – A Chinese film based on a Japanese Manga about a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors on a cruise ship with Michael Douglas and a killer clown!  Sounds bonkers, it is. Of all the video games and board games made into terrible movies, who would have thought Rock, Paper, Scissors would be so compelling and so much fun.  It also how a bit of depth by way of social commentary. Animal World

Not much to chose from, my movie of the moth is a film I hadn’t heard of until a couple of hours before seeing it. Animal World

I know trailer breakdowns are a big thing, but I have never bothered writing much about trailers.  I don’t even go out of my way to watch them, but one has caught my attention; The Girl in the Spiders Web.  I have had the book on which it is based, for a couple of years, but only just gotten around to reading it.  David Lagercrantz was commissioned to write the book (and potentially a trilogy) by the Stieg Larsson estate.  The story has a more focused narrative and is less sprawling than the original books.  He is however, less assured in his use the leading characters; it is almost as if he hero-worships Mikael Blomkvist, and is afraid of Lisbeth Salander (or her legion of fans).  I got to impression that Blomkvist appeared in the story far more than Salander, he got more of whatever the literary equivalent to screen time is called.  Then I saw this trailer:

As far as I can see, Blomkvist doesn’t appear in the trailer.  I only recognise one character from the book other than Salander (I won’t mention who to avoid spoilers) and it inst Blomkvist.  Most of the scenes in the trailer are not from the book, or play out differently.  This is probably not a bad thing, it is a different medium after all, a good adaptation doesn’t have to be a faithful one! The photography and production design look impressive, reminiscent of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal TV show.Lisbeth Salander

The most significant thing about the trailer is Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander.  I was very excited about what she could do with the character after seeing her in Unsane earlier in the year.  Having seen a glimpse of her in the trailer I am even more interested.  As well as her performance, I am glad to see the filmmakers have given her, her own look and not copied Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara.

The Girl in the Spiders Web is Set for release in November this year.