A Clockwork Orange

Every now and again, a film will come along that changes the way I look at cinema. When I was still in my teens, I attended a cinema on Bourke Street late one evening to see a motion picture I had long been curious about: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), adapted from the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel. It had been parodied in Mad magazine, it wasn’t available at my local video store, and it didn’t screen on television. The film had been around for nearly a quarter-century by that stage, but as someone who has always been fortunate enough never to have that terrible aversion to old films, I didn’t care. I had to see it.
imageIn short, I was flabbergasted. It was around about the time that I started going to see films by myself, and it was the first revival screening of a classic film that I can vividly recall attending. Okay, so I may have attended some Disney screenings as a wee child, I can’t recall, but if I did, those don’t count because (a) as a small child, I thought all films at the cinema were new films, and (b) they were suggested by my parents, and as such weren’t “entertainment electives”.  After experiencing A Clockwork Orange for the first time…well, I was shocked, horrified.

So much so that I ended up returning to the cinema on Bourke Street twice the next week for another couple of go-arounds. For many years, it was my favourite film. The only reason it’s no longer my clear-cut favourite is because I’ve been exposed to so many cinematic masterpieces, I couldn’t possibly choose one film to stand alone as my most beloved.

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Pauline Kael was not so pleased with A Clockwork Orange. She had the following to say about Stanley Kubrick’s nightmarish science fiction classic:

At the movies, we are gradually being conditioned to accept violence as a sensual pleasure. The directors used to say they were showing us its real face and how ugly it was in order to sensitize us to its horrors. You don’t have to be very keen to see that they are now in fact de-sensitizing us.

With that comment, I disagree entirely. A Clockwork Orange, if anything, re-sensitised me to violence on celluloid. I grew up watching action flicks like so many others in the 1980s and 1990s. I didn’t think I could be disturbed by any act of simulated violence on the silver screen, because they’re just movies…right? Stanley Kubrick changed that.

There are very few films on my list of favourites that I wouldn’t recommend wholeheartedly to anybody, but A Clockwork Orange is an exception. Recommend to most, absolutely, recommend to all, no. The infamous home invasion scene shall be deeply disturbing to the first-time viewer, especially if you’re a fan of Gene Kelly. And it’s not exactly the world’s greatest first-date movie (I know this from personal experience). Having said all that, if you’re up for some challenging cinema, attend the movies by yourself, and don’t mind having your rose-coloured memories of Singin’ in the Rain (1951) spoiled for life, then by all means, please do see Clockwork on the big screen.

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Notice that I haven’t raved at length about Malcolm McDowell’s charismatic central performance as Alexander DeLarge, the unforgettable electronic musical soundtrack by Wendy Carlos, John Alcott’s stunning cinematography and all the rest of it. I haven’t even delved into the film’s storyline. A Clockwork Orange is a film that can speak for itself.

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

A Clockwork Orange screens in a double bill with Full Metal Jacket on Monday 23rd March, 7.30pm

 

 

Scarface

Whenever I learn that a Hollywood remake of a classic film is about to reach the big screen, I think to myself “Hollywood has run out of ideas” (but it’s not just Hollywood). With very few exceptions, remakes are  passable at best, horrendously offensive at worst. However, every now and again (not often enough, for my liking) there comes a remake that is not only a superb piece of cinema on its own terms, but can also be compared favourably to its predecessor. Such can be said of Scarface (1983), the epic crime drama directed by Brian De Palma; the film where Al Pacino portrays his most over-the-top character a Cuban refugee and notorious underworld figure Tony Montana.

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Perhaps there are readers who have visited the Astor Theatre numerous times to see Brian De Palma’s Scarface yet haven’t seen the original film version, released in 1932, or, until now, have been totally unaware of its existence. If you are one such reader, then you would be correct in guessing that the Depression Era edition is nowhere nearly as graphic as its 1983 counterpart. That said, for its time, the original Scarface was extremely controversial, a product of what is known as the Pre-Code Era.

The Great Depression swept across the United States, causing severe financial hardships for countless Americans. The joyful ritual of visiting the cinema suddenly became a luxury for working class Americans and, in times of economic disarray, such luxuries are often sacrificed in favour of necessities. Desperate to lure audiences back to the cinemas, Hollywood took advantage of the relatively lax censorship guidelines (prior to rigid enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934) to present films with taboo subject matter. Numerous films about organised crime, Scarface among them, exhibited levels of simulated violence previously unseen on the big screen, as millions of Americans who had only read and heard about the criminal exploits of real-life gangsters, such as Bonnie and Clyde and the real “Scarface”, Al Capone, flocked to cinemas to see hard-boiled fictional gangsters played by Hollywood actors. Directed by Howard Hawks, the original film (Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, based on the novel by Armitage Trail) is one of the most celebrated of these Pre-Code crime films.

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It is worth noting that in the 1960s, the Code was revised, then abandoned in favour of a ratings system—with the rapidly burgeoning popularity of televised entertainment in loungerooms across the United States, Hollywood again changed tack to lure audiences back to the cinemas, picking up where the Pre-Code period left off several decades earlier. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was one of the first films to take full advantage of Hollywood’s increased liberalism—and how fitting this was, as the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, legendary outlaws of the Great Depression, were at their most active in the early 1930s, the Pre-Code period, before their demise in 1934. An especially graphic film in terms of its depiction of violence, Bonnie and Clyde started the modern trend of ultra-violent crime cinema that would reach new extremes with the release of the Scarface remake in 1983.

Readers who have seen the 1932 version as well as its 1983 successor will note, despite the obvious stylistic differences between the two, numerous similarities that link them together,  a few of which are mentioned below. Most obviously, both films feature a dangerously ambitious protagonist named Tony (Tony Camonte, as played by Paul Muni, in the 1932 original, Tony Montana in the 1983 remake) who is determined the become a major player in the criminal underworld. Tony Camonte seems obsessive about protecting the sexual purity of his younger sister Francesca (Ann Dvorak), as is Tony Montana in regards to his junior sibling Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). In both cases, it is suggested that Tony’s motivation for steering his sister away from potential suitors is less about protecting her virtue and more about his own taboo desires (those readers who have seen Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 classic Sweet Swell of Success, and recall Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker character and his possessiveness regarding his teenage sister Susan, will understand what is being implied). Even the scene in the 1983 remake where Tony Montana gazes at a Pan-Am blimp, with its advertising slogan “The World Is Yours”, is a direct hommage to its 1932 predecessor, as illustrated below.

tumblr_m33uxuVIEH1rtdyilo1_1280Despite these and other similarities between the two films, Brian De Palma’s Scarface, like any great remake, refuses to be a carbon copy of its predecessor. Running more than one hour longer than the original, De Palma’s version has plenty of time to expand its storytelling boundaries and add ingredients not present in the 1932 Pre-Code classic. Instead of being a hoodlum of Italian descent and living in Chicago, as was the case when Hawks filmed the story, the protagonist in De Palma’s 1983 film (written by Oliver Stone) is a refugee from Cuba, one of the countless emigrants from the small nation who didn’t share in the spirit of President Fidel Castro’s revolution, and like so many others enters the United States by landing in Florida. Determined to never again go wanting for anything, having suffered enough under the statist-socialism of Castro’s Cuba, Montana and his closest friend Manolo (Steven Bauer) enter the criminal underworld as small-time hoods. Soon, Montana, his ruthless nature matched by extreme cunning, becomes a major player in the illegal narcotics trade, and rich beyond his wildest dreams, his palatial abode reminiscent of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941). However, the richer Tony Montana gets, the more dangerous he becomes. Consequently, Montana, not exactly the most stable personality when we meet him at the beginning of the film, becomes extremely paranoid, spending an inordinate amount of time watching the security monitors inside his home (video surveillance being a motif that appears in several of De Palma’s films.)

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They say that money can’t buy happiness. This is definitely true in the case of Tony Montana. The more influential he becomes in the criminal underworld, the wealthier he gets, but of course it also means that he makes more enemies for himself, which then makes Tony even more distrusting of others. Almost nobody is safe from Tony Montana and, as we shall learn before the conclusion of this epic crime thriller, Tony Montana is safe from almost nobody else. The world might belong to Tony, but after a while, he questions, loudly and profanely, if it’s a world worth having, in a drunken restaurant monologue that is one of the highlights of the film.

While some will claim that Tony Montana is a self-made success – which is to say that his millions of dollars is all that matters – the reality is that Tony is a loser, a victim of his own insatiable avarice. It’s easy to fall under the spell of Tony’s larger-than-life personality, a testament to the charisma of Al Pacino (let’s face it, Pacino, who disappears into his role, is rather funny as Montana—I have a Tony Montana talking keychain somewhere, he’s one of the most quote-worthy characters in the history of cinema!) But despite being a psychotic killer and drug baron, Tony his own moral boundaries, refusing to commit to any assignment that may directly endanger the lives of women and children. Of course, Tony seems to forget that the men he either kills personally or has killed by his goons may be partnered with children of their own. There is no telling how many children Montana has left fatherless, no guessing how many widows he has made, and no way to count how many women and children have become addicted to the thousands of kilos of poisonous white crystals that he has sent flooding into the cities of the United States. But in the mixed-up mind of Tony Montana, he is a criminal with a conscience.

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But going back to the restaurant scene, for those who have seen it, we must ask ourselves, is Tony Montana really “the bad guy”? This is to ask, is he really any worse than the countless “respectable” types typically adored by society, who screw and manipulate their way to the top legally, albeit no more ethically than the likes of Montana? Remember, this film was released in 1983. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and along with his wife, Nancy Reagan, declared the “war on drugs” which, unfortunately, was not accompanied by a “war on poverty” and a “war on greed”. The so-called “war on drugs”, much like the current “war on terror”, was merely an empty promise designed to draw favour from the more reactionary elements of American Society. Let us not covet Tony Montana’s tragic lifestyle, fuelled by a certain misguided desperation to escape the clutches of poverty, but at the same time, let’s remember that so many “self-made” success stories are anything but self-made, and an overwhelming percentage of the “respectable members of the social elite”, whether they be politicians, casino owners, world bankers, diamond barons, you name it, profit greatly from the misery of others. It’s just that unlike Tony Montana, they don’t get their hands dirty.

De Palma’s Scarface is a masterpiece of modern cinema. If you have not yet delved into the blood-soaked, drug-polluted, money-grubbing world of Tony Montana, you have the opportunity to do just that (at a safe distance that cinema affords, of course) at the Astor. And, if you ever have the chance, please do take a look at Scarface: The Shame of a Nation as directed by Howard Hawks, one of numerous classics available from the world of Pre-Code cinema.

Written by Mark Vanselow for The Astor Theatre.

Scarface screens Monday March 16th 7.30pm

Malick: on the SuperScreen

The Astor has admired and honoured Terence Malick’s films for many years. We’ve had mini Malick retrospectives in abundance since the release of Tree of Life (2011) and that particular film has graced our SuperScreen more than a few times. His work simply demands the big screen. Or at least that’s what we’d always thought…

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I know George and some of our other staff fell in love with Tree of Life. It was a joy to watch for me too: throughout its narrative it sustained a true sense of the sublime. I found its aesthetic rhythm mesmeric, I loved how softly the characters dancing onscreen grounded the ethereal nature of the film. The wind rustling through trees and fields captured by a wide angled lens harked back to The Thin Red Line (1998) and earlier, but still held its own contemplation relevant to the story in Tree of Life.

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Then came To The Wonder (2012). With this film, Malick was losing me. The conversations around this film have remained contentious and the opinions divided. There is so much to love about the look of the film and the ideas that break the two lovers apart. And yet, somehow, it felt empty to me. Watching Olga Kurylenko dance around a home supplies store just didn’t say anything. I felt as if at a precipice: when Malick next returns to the big screen, I wondered, will I go with him?

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Malick’s depiction of a male/female relationship can be beautiful and heartbreaking, but is that enough?

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At this year’s Berlinale I saw Knight of Cups. With each whispering philosophical contemplation and beautiful waif-like woman dancing around before me onscreen, I found myself falling farther and farther away from the film. There was nothing here for me; no character to cling to, or even to observe with interest; no words that gave the incessant beach side scenes sincerity; no philosophical ideal that gave me pause for thought beyond why I was sat watching something so insufferable.

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Okay, so it’s is not necessarily an auteur’s job to please his or her viewers; theirs is the pursuit of art. For some, I know Knight of Cups will bring joy and revelation. For others, it will be a great disappointment. It is bittersweet that the Astor does not have another calendar in the works, into which we could program Knight of Cups, because ours has always been the pleasure of letting you decide, as the curtains unveil the Astor’s majestic SuperScreen.

And so, we invite you to enjoy Malick once more, as it ought to be seen, in grandeur, at the Astor. Tree of Life screens Thursday February 26, 7.30pm

Inherent Vice

Quick – everyone stop what you’re doing and get excited about Inherent Vice. Oh, you were already excited? Okay, but things just got a whole lot more exciting for Melbourne movie-going PTA fans. Why’s that, you ask? Well, we’re only going to be screening PTA’s latest on 70mm PRINT FORMAT is all. With six-track DTS sound. TWICE.

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Having put the good news in paragraph one, I realise that you may not reach this, paragraph two. But, if you have managed to read on, then thanks, and get even more excited because Inherent Vice is packed with the kinds of loveable, flawed characters and broad caricatures that PTA has become so well known for. It’s got a big cast, it’s a generic hybrid minefield of a movie and another lengthy watch at almost two and a half hours. It’s funny, crazy and bold and the kind of film that wants movie snacks.

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The first film to be adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice is certainly ambitious. It’s a drama/comedy/crime caper that blends classic noir with self-reflexivity and stoner gags. PTA apparently describes it as “a Cheech & Chong movie”, while Raymond Chandler served as one of his major inspirations. If you can imagine Bogie’s goofy smile under neon lighting, and if you replaced his smokes with smokes, and if you asked all the femme fatales to get naked, then you’d kind of have PTA’s vision of Pynchon’s world.

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It’s set in a fictional location: Gordita Beach, LA. The protagonist is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Doc is an endearing f**k-up. He’s smart and can probably crack the case, but his lackadaisical attitude, propensity to spark up and that broken heart he’s been dragging around town are slowing things down.

True, sometimes his work is dangerous and, as a PI, it seems both the cops and the crooks see him as as adversary. Poor Doc just can’t catch a break.

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The cast is jam-packed with other big names including Reese Witherspoon, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston and Benicio del Toro. Even PTA’s wife, Maya Rudolph, makes a cameo appearance in this star-studded drug-fuelled investigation into the comic underworld of the Golden Fang. There’s drugs, violence, nudity, a man with a swastika on his face and pancakes. It’s everything a devoted PTA fan could want in a movie! And it’s coming to the Astor in 70mm print format, for two very special screenings on March 13th.

To find out who or what the Golden Fang is and why you might want to avoid them, get thee to your local art deco movie theatre and catch this movie the only way it ought to be seen: on the BIG screen, in a BIG screen format.

Inherent Vice screens in 70mm print format at the Astor Theatre in two very special sessions, Friday March 13th, 7.30pm and 10.30pm. No Free List.

Valentine’s Day, once removed

You may have noticed that our Valentine’s Day screening of An Affair to Remember isn’t actually on Valentine’s Day, it’s the day after. Our reasons for putting it on in the Sunday matinee time slot are varied. But, suffice it to say that romantics and anti-romantics alike are welcome to spend that Sunday afternoon welling up in the opulent surrounds of this great building.

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As for V-Day itself, we’ve got our Michael Keaton bat/bird double. Romance doesn’t have to be about schmaltz. Equally speaking, costumed superheroes and theatrical performances about contemporary life and the crisis of authenticity doesn’t have to be anti-romantic. The score in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is truly brilliant and the film’s search for meaning in a (potentially) meaningless world is, for some (me), just about as romantic as it gets.

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Meanwhile, it’s also a Michael Keaton double bill. It has a number of things that may or may not be romantic to you: action, adventure, Kim Basinger, a 35mm film print, Edward Norton giving an insanely great performance, some fantastic music and a whole lot more.

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Whatever your feelings on the matter – and we know they’ll be divided – there is plenty of romance to be had here at the Astor. From Choc-Ice to SuperScreen, with a warm candlelight glow from the chandeliers, any day of the week, we’ve lots of ways to romance you. And so, we look forward to welcoming you Saturday or Sunday – or any other day you want to come while we’re still here. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Turkey Shoot + Turkey Shoot

Get ready for a high-octane action evening! First up is the cult classic feature film, Turkey Shoot (1982), before we come at you with the 2014 remake AND a Q&A with one of the producers from both films, Anthony Ginnane, along with members of the remake’s cast.

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Made by popular grindhouse director Brian Trenchard-Smith, the original Turkey Shoot was a ‘1984′ parable, with a high gore factor, and one that went on to become one of the highest grossing Australian movies at the US Box Office. Released in the US as Escape 2000, Quentin Tarantino cites it as one of his personal favourites. In the UK, Enterprise released it as “not a film for chickens”.

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Packed with mayhem, stunts and special effects, the remake is a warped reflection of the global fascination with increasingly brutal reality-television competition game shows. It’s been re-crafted and updated by co-writers Belinda McClory (X) and Jon Hewitt (X, Acolytes). Set in the not-so-distant future, it follows a smash hit live reality TV show that combines a stalk-and-chase adventure with the ultimate twist: death.

In the wake of a shocking civilian massacre in a foreign war zone, disgraced Navy SEAL Rick Tyler is sentenced to rot in a maximum security military prison until he is offered the opportunity to put his life on the line to win his freedom. A one-man force of nature, Tyler will have to take-on and take-down some of the world’s most ruthless killers in the some of the world’s most brutal locations to win the game, obtain his freedom, and find out why he was set up. The question is, can he accomplish all of this before Game On is Game Over?

What’s wrong with the government and society at large? Well, in a nutshell, lots. The whole thing gets a little satirical and a lot bloody in our Thursday night double bill of Turkey Shoot and Turkey Shoot. Check them out, back to back, on the big screen at the best cinema in town.

Turkey Shoot and Turkey Shoot screen in a double bill on Thursday January 22nd, 7.30pm. This special event screening includes a Q&A with producer Anthony Ginnane and members of the 2014 film’s cast. Advance tickets available. Special prices, $20/$18. No Free List.

 

Maps to the Stars

Hollywood cartography is, like everything else in those buoyant hills, a version of something, that knows both truth and artifice. Tightly bound; entwined, to mask any division between the two; Hollywood relationships form a constellation. There are personal and professional personas in its midst but they all exist for us, mere mortals, to admire.

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In David Cronenberg’s savage satire, Maps to the Stars (2014), he explores these lethal connections. It is not, however, from a distance that we see the fascinating, brightly shining stars of a vast universe. Rather, Cronenberg gives us extreme close-up, so that what we see is flames. Each of these stars can be reduced to burning gases, sucking up all of the available oxygen.

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When Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Hollywood, she jumps straight into a limo; it’s driver is Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison). She has made friends with Carrie Fisher (Carrie Fisher) on twitter and is hoping to find work in Hollywood – perhaps as someone’s personal assistant. Her first stop is star gazing at the nothingness left behind. It is the site of the family home of child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird). We soon learn that he is her brother and that their home was burnt to the ground.

As the connections between this nothingness and Agatha’s past are slowly revealed, her story turns from ‘burn victim from a small town moves to Hollywood to find a job amongst the stars’ to ‘return of the repressed, and battle between multiple and incestuously formed mental illnesses in a troubling family home’. Agatha’s physical scars mirror the much deeper emotional ones that she has suffered through childhood. Her backstory greater resembles the reality of a reality tv show than the reality of real life.

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Alongside this, and true to her twitter word, Carrie Fisher introduces Agatha to a big star: Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). Agatha’s impish, pathetically plain nature is just what megalomaniac Havana is looking for in a new personal assistant. Though their relationship has several moments of faux sentimentality and the sugary sweetness that only a narcissist baiting prey is capable of producing, theirs is mostly sado-masochistic. There is some violence, and much humiliation.

If this sounds subdued for Cronenberg, I can assure you that it’s every bit as savage an attack on Hollywood as any of his earlier works are on conventional ideology and societal values.

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Maps to the Stars follows Cronenberg’s trajectory of body horror well: still concerned with Freudian womb fantasies, only this time showing us the horror of what Hollywood has birthed, he makes us want the characters to return to an impossible state of regression. This is well explored through Havana’s obsession with her late mother, the beautiful movie star Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), whom Havana hopes to play in a brand new Hollywood remake of her fictitious famous film, Stolen Waters. To this end, Havana is in therapy with Dr Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), a popular television quack whose methods include an intense physical therapy that seems to require dubious closeness. He is also Agatha’s estranged father.

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The incestuous relationships between characters – chartered like a constellation out of control, one that can’t help but burn up every other shining star in its wake – are overt and covert. They involve generations, and are linked through an inability to escape the grotesque reaches of intense narcissism.

Cusack and Moore are admired but their fame masks hideously disfigured personalities. Agatha, our physically scarred and emotionally damaged protagonist, is their casualty and their biggest fan. She eventually charts her own way into the centre of their constellation. Inside, it is rotten. Somehow, it is still beautiful. It is true and it is false.

And it really should be seen with its David-Cronenberg-film-featuring-Robert-Pattinson-in-a-limousine companion film, Cosmopolis (2012). Screening in a double bill on Thursday January 15, 7.30pm. All tickets $13

Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.