A bunch of Swedish movie bloggers decided to write posts about “men who run” and that’s how I ended up watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a classical British movie from 1962.
I chose it after having dismissed a bunch of other alternatives, such as: “Tom Cruise’s ten best running scenes” (too obvious), Chariots of Fire (probably too sleep inducing for me these days, even though I remember that I liked it a lot when I watched it a long time ago) Run Lola Run (she runs so well, but alas, she’s a woman) and The Running Man. I actually gave The Running man a shot, but after five minutes I had had enough of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s underwhelming acting performance. This was probably not good when it came out in the 80s, but at this point it’s really ugly.)
I knew nothing about The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; it was just a title that came up in a web search that seemed familiar to me.
Looking at the title I imagined that it was mainly about running. Perhaps you’d follow the career of a long distance runner who runs and runs and runs, sacrificing everything, including family and friends, in order to reach his goal, whatever that is – a golden medal, a world record or a championship And then when he’s achieved all that he suddenly stops and asks himself: was it worth it? But actually it’s not that film. Not at all. This is more of a war-between-the-classes movie, but with running.
The plot goes like this: Colin Smith is a young man who comes from poor conditions. When his father dies he starts to do petty crimes in company with a friend. Not to support his family, which perhaps would have been understandable, but more for the fun of it, as an act of defiance against authorities. He’s sent to a reformatory institution for young men where it’s suddenly found that he’s got a talent for running, which could give him a new career. The question is: does he want this?
A bit dated but still good
There are parts of the movie that feel a bit dated. Regardless your political opinion and what background you’re coming from, I think it’s a little hard to relate to this simple, black-and-white view on society, classes, capitalism and work. This kind of rhetoric was probably relevant at the time the movie was made, but for modern eyes, many of the characters feel more like caricatures than like real human beings.
Nevertheless there are a number of things about this film that I love:
1. The very opening, before the text credits appear.
We see Colin from behind, running alone on a road. The voiceover line captures everything that this movie is about, but also what running is about. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.
Running was always a big thing in our family, specially running away from the police. It’s hard to understand. All I know is that you’ve got to run, running without knowing why, through fields and woods. And the winning post’s no end, even though the barmy crowds might be cheering themselves daft. That’s what the loneliness of a long distance runner feels like.”
2. Tom Courtenay in the leading role.
I can’t quite identify or sympathize with this constantly sullen characters, who keeps taking decisions that won’t make his already miserable life any better. He’s somewhat incomprehensible to me, but it’s clear that Tom Courtenay understands him. He’s one with his role.
3. Every scene that includes running.
While he’s style is somewhat inefficient and I’m not entirely convinced that Colin would win any races in real life, there’s such a joy and freedom in them that you’re inspired to go out and run for yourself. Not to win, but to live.
4. The reoccurring theme of And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time (known as Jerusalem).
I’m not entirely sure of what this poem and hymn is supposed to mean in this context, perhaps it’s just the idea of a hope about a change. Whatever it is, I’ve always thought it’s a beautiful song and here you get plenty of opportunities to hear it in various versions.
5. The title,
which comes from the original source of this film, a short story by Alan Sillitoe.
There’s poetry in those words, enhanced by the rhythm and the alliteration of “loneliness” and “long”. According to Wikipedia there are about ten songs in pop culture by various bands who have picked up the title for their songs, among them Iron Maiden, which made a whole song text based on the short story. I’m not surprised. It’s a damned good line.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK 1962) My rating: 3,5/5
This post is a part of a blogathon arranged by Filmspanarna, a Swedish community of movie blogs. Here are links to posts on this theme by my fellow bloggers:
Two years ago I gave John Carter a two star rating. Compared to other reviewers I was kind – many gave it a 1/5. It had been appointed to be the laughing stock of the year and there was an ongoing competition in who could write the most scathing post about it.
I hate mob mentality for many good reasons. As much as I can I try to stay away from the crowd when I do my movie writing. I don’t want to be infected by other people’s thoughts. I want to think for myself, trust my own judgement.
The question is: did I give John Carter a fair chance when it came out? Would I have been as critical as I was if there had been a thousand headed choir singing its praise instead of bitching about it?
John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood
This nagging thought has been with me for a while, but it became even more urgent when I recently read Michael Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.
This is not exactly a behind-the-scenes book; Sellers had no personal part in the making of the film. But it’s a book about the making of the 2012 movie, starting with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp stories, going through previous attempts to make film of this franchise, explaining in depth what went wrong with this film, and finally sharing some thoughts about what the future looks like.
It’s written with the perspective of a true fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, but unlike most fans Sellers also works professionally in the film industry. He’s not rich or famous but it’s clear that he knows what he’s talking about. When he criticizes Disney for their missteps, it’s not the clueless rant by some random fan boy. It’s all well-argued and gives a new and much more nuanced picture of Disney’s actions.
Bad usage of social media
While some ill-judged decisions were taken during the production, the biggest problem according to Sellers was in the marketing. Compared to other movies there was very little effort put into it.
It was said that social media would be used to great extent and a supposed expert in the field was hired for this purpose. But in reality, the activity level on Facebook and Twitter was a joke. A comparison with The Hunger Games, which came out around the same time and competed for the public attention, makes it very clear. Lionsgate used several Twitter accounts, which were used actively. For instance they tweeted stories, warnings and encouragement in character. This helped to build a cool factor, and The Hunger Games ended up with over 400 000 followers on Twitter, compared to 9 400 for John Carter. Only on the opening day, The Hunger Games account put out over 40 tweets. Three weeks in to its release the John Carter account had managed a total of 240 tweets, all “largely uninspiring”, such as “John Carter is now in theatres; are you going?” And it hardly retweeted anything at all, which Sellers points out is essential to generate buzz.
The Facebook marketing was, if possible, even worse. All the updates consisted of canned “spam” announcements that could have been written months earlier. Examples of lacklustre updates are given: “In the film, Edgar Rice Burroughs is the nephew of John Carter. He inherits his uncle’s journal, which details Carter’s journey to a strange, new world”. “Bring Barsoom home with these John Carter items from the Disney Store.”
Meanwhile The Hunger Games had “daily updates with all kind of special offers, free downloaded games that were actually fun and inside activities with plenty of “cool factor”” For example there were 13 Facebook pages for the film, representing each of the districts. Fans could become virtual citizens of each district, and since there was a large novel fan base, familiar with the context, it worked. The John Carter books don’t have that size of audience nowadays, but there is a fan base that could have helped out to build a community and spread the word. However Disney didn’t bother to reach out and cooperate with them. And the social media marketing ended up being close to non-existent.
I go into a lot of detail here as I refer the part about this particular aspect, but it’s because I find it so interesting. Anyone who is interested in PR can learn from it; you don’t need to be a John Carter fan.
The alternative trailer
I also loved to read about the efforts that the fan community made to “save” the film when they realized that the marketing was poor and that Disney had given up on it even before it opened. The official trailer was so bad that Sellers put together an alternative trailer by material he found online, cut and presented in a different manner, which made more sense and caught the essence of John Carter to an audience that wasn’t familiar with the franchise. He put it on YouTube and within short the link had spread all over the net, through forums, blog posts and tweets. It was an instant success. If this had been a Hollywood film, it would have been the turning point that ultimately saved the doomed film, but alas that didn’t happen. It was far too late at that point to turn the ship. It was a nice try though.
Campaign for a sequel
In the final chapter the author argues why it’s totally doable to make a sequel to John Carter and why this even could be profitable. There is a way forward, he says, and reminds us that the literary property is good (or actually “exceptional” – yes, I told you, he’s a true fan) and that there is a substantial fan base in place and ready to support future films. He also points out that John Carter didn’t do quite as bad in the box office as the rumours have led us to believe. It did far better outside of US, particularly in Russia and China, yielding close to 300 million dollars in global sales. There is no reason to believe that a sequel has to be a loss, says Sellers, and explains how it could be done way cheaper than the first movie.
The Burroughs fan community is campaigning for a continuation of the John Carter franchise on the movie screen. They know that it may take some time before this can happen.
“Before there can be continuation, there must be a gradual rehabilitation of the image and reputation of the film and the underlying property it depicts”.[…] “Continue to use your voices; you will be heard”
3D, 2D or b/w?
I hear you loud and clear and once again I’m asking myself what role the mediocre 3D played for my assessment. There’s no way around it; it looked truly horrendous in my theatre, as if I had been watching it through a Viewmaster toy from the 60s, all characters looking like paper dolls, which was so distracting that I hardly could think of anything else. There was no 2D alternative in my city. What if there had been? Would I have liked it more? There is a way to find out. It’s currently available on Netflix. Perhaps I should give it another chance while I’m still under influence of the enthusiasm of a hard core fan?
Still: like I suggested last time, I think it would be very cool to make a black and white silent film based on John Carter, a piece of fan love, similar to the one that the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has made of Call of Cthulhu. If the Edgar Rice Burroughs fans ever run out of steam trying to convince Disney to make another film, I hope they consider this as an option.
Do you remember the green goblin who hijacked a model in the graveyard scene in Holy Motors? Imagine him entering the life of a dysfunctional, wealthy family in a neat suburb in Netherlands. Pour equal amounts of folklore, horror and humour into the pot. Spice it up with some Doogtoth flavoured absurdity.
This is my best attempt to explain the flavour of the Dutch movie Borgman, a film that isn’t altogether easy to label. IMDb has slapped a “thriller” tag to it, but I don’t think this is quite spot on. There may be someone out there who finds it scary. I wouldn’t recommend it to children, though clearly inspired by fairy tales, it would probably cause bad nightmares. But for me it was more funny than creepy, fascinating rather than thrilling. It’s a brew that doesn’t set out to make your blood boil. It’s one that you sip well chilled, with a smile on your face.
A modern Grimm story
The story begins as a party of armed men, ventures into to the forest to deal with the mysterious, demon-like man Borgman and his henchmen, who all live in small underground pits. However they fail and Borgman flees and ends up knocking on the door of the house where this wealthy family lives. He asks for them to let him have a bath. The man refuses, but the woman takes pity on him and secretly lets him into a guest room, unknowing of the evilness that she just has let in.
This is a dark and twisted story, where innocent people are manipulated and in some cases ultimately killed in the most horrific ways. But the way it’s told, you’re hardly likely to waste tears over the victims. Rather than being real human beings that you care about, they’re like puppets. It’s as if one of the Grimm brothers has risen from the grave and collected another story, an adult, uncensored one, with classical elements but put in the modern world. And the moral isn’t painted all over the place.
I’m certain that anyone who is into the combination of symbolism, religion and psychology will find plenty to dwell on in this film. It’s an excellent object for analysis. However analysis isn’t required to enjoy it. For instance I have absolutely no idea about the possible interpretations of the method they used to dispose with the corpses. It probably means something. However I could admire how imaginative it was and the visual effect of it. It’s an image that I won’t forget anytime soon, a piece of art in itself, in a good sense.
Not for everyone
I will probably think twice before I recommend Borgman to other people. It’s definitely not as challenging as Holy Motors or Dogtooth, but it definitely goes outside of the familiar territory of standard movies.
It doesn’t always make sense. In fact it isn’t realistic at all. It doesn’t follow the standard curve in plot development. And it doesn’t engage you emotionally in a way that you may expect from a thriller. On the other hand it’s not the most difficult, incomprehensive, artsy movie I ever saw either. You don’t need to be an introvert, pretentious elitist film snob to like it. But you need an open mind, which not everyone is fortunate enough to have.
Borgman (Alex van Warderdam, NL 2013) My rating: 4/5
I’m usually not a fan of feature films that are based on fairy tales that we’re all familiar with.
They always seem a bit at a loss in which target group they’re trying to reach: too violent for children to see, to unchallenging and unoriginal for adults. They fall somewhere in the middle. A typical example of this was Jack and the Giant Slayer, from last year. Admittedly I had a pretty enjoyable experience seeing it last year, but it was only thanks to that I watched it in a large IMAX theatre in the heart of New York City. I was thrilled at being where I was. But I was very clear over that if I had seen the film at home, I wouldn’t have finished it because it was dull and lacked soul.
Coming from this I would normally have avoided Maleficent, the new version of Sleeping Beauty, like I avoided Snow White and the Huntsmen, Hansel and Gretel and Red Riding Hood. Another fairy tale told with a twist was the last thing that I needed. But somehow, inexplicably, I ended up watching it anyway. It happens from time to time. A random slip-into-a-theatre watch. I didn’t even have an excuse, some 12 year old to accompany me. I saw it without any expectations and, as we all know, it’s the best starting point for watching a film.
So here are a few points about it that I liked about it:
- Angelina Jolie. The role suits her perfectly. When interviewed about their latest movies, actors often make claims about how much they enjoyed playing that particular part. Most of the time we don’t believe them. It’s a part of the promotion game. But in this case I would say that she actually did like it. She’s so committed.I loved the way they switched the perspective, making it into a man vs nature film, where the “evil” fairy, while not without fault, is the one that gets the sympathies of the audience. There were aspects of it that reminded me of The Lord of the Rings, in the way how myth, magic and nature are connected, and how a beautiful realm of fairies faces destruction due to the greed, selfishness and ignorance of mankind. I guess the presence of the ent-look-alike tree creatures helped to make that connection.
- I loved the look of the film. Like really loved it, especially the magical forest where Angelina Jolie rules. It’s imaginative, colourful, lush, beautiful and yet convincing in its own universe. When I see that world I feel the urge to jump into the movie and explore it on my own, which usually is a good sign. This is the first movie that Robert Stromberg directs, but he has 95 credits at IMDB for visual design of movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean, The Hunger Games and The Golden Compass. I’m not surprised.
- Once again it’s a princess movie where women are allowed to have agendas of their own. Men are either baddies, servants or tools, but they can’t dictate women’s lives, at least not in the long run. Together with Frozen (which this film does resemble in some aspects, in one scene so much that it does border to copy-paste of carrying idea), this gives me hope about Disney princesses in the years to come. We’re quickly moving away from outdated set gender stereotypes, at least the worst ones. Not to be missed by anyone.
I’ll keep this review short. This is certainly no independent movie that needs to have the word spread around. It seems to be doing very well at the box office and considering how many copies of Angelina Jolie’s ace I’ve seen posted in my city, it must have a hefty marketing budget.
I watched a movie I didn’t think I was going to like all that much and I found that my instincts were wrong. I wish that happened more often.
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014) My rating: 4/5
This was a new one. I looked at the poster on the wall, hesitating for a moment on what to do.
“No shoe removal” is one of the commandments in the Wittertainment Code of Conduct. The code mentions one exception: if you’re in Japan, you can go ahead and take off your shoes. My current geographical position wasn’t Japan, it was Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Japan was in fact a several hour flight away, but it was a great del closer than Sweden. So perhaps the far-east rules could apply anyway? And besides – even if it isn’t mentioned in the code, shouldn’t the first rule for good behaviour at the theatre be that you follow any guidelines given by the ushers?
3 dollar 50 cents per night
I looked at another note, which informed me that the entrance fee was 3,50 dollars for the entire night, including several movies. 3,50 dollars. Where I come from you wouldn’t even get the smallest sized popcorn boxes for that amount. It’s not that surprising though when you think closer about it. Different markets, different rules. If the ticket prices were European, you wouldn’t sell many tickets in Cambodia, if any at all. They take as much as they think they can from the audience, no more, no less.
Chicken nuggets and French fries
The third thing my eyes fell on was a menu. For someone who prefer theatres to be food free zones, the menu looked scary. Chicken nuggets? French fries? Pizza? Curry? If people really brought all that stuff into the theatre, I feared that I had a quite unpleasant ride ahead of me.
As it turned out, it wasn’t as bad as you could think. Perhaps we were just lucky, picking a screening where popcorn was the only thing that was consumed. (Popcorn is annoying too, but I’ve given up fighting them at this point. There’s no escape from it, not in Sweden, nor in Cambodia. They’re what make the wheels of cinema keep spinning. Or from a different point of view: movies are nothing but vehicles for popcorn sales.) Or maybe the ventilation was excellent. In any case I couldn’t sense any lingering smell of food, not even from the empty plates that were carried out from the previous show.
Beds instead of seats
But let’s move along into the screening room. It was a small one, seating approximately 20 people. No IMAX, but with a screen big enough to make it feel like a real theatre rather than as a glorified living room for home movie watching.
What made it stand out however, compared to what I’m used to, was that it didn’t have ordinary seats. It had beds (and a couple of sofas).
The obvious advantage of bed seating is the comfort. It’s basically like watching the film slacking in your favourite couch. I’m fairly short so I could stretch out my legs fully. Perfect for my constitution. I can imagine it’s less than perfect for tall people, who need to wrap up their legs in order not to kick people in the row in front.
Then there is the problem that too much comfort can be a problem when you watch movies. Watching a thriller or a comedy is fine from a horizontal position, but slower movies can be a bit of a challenge. And how intimate do you want to be with the one sitting beside you? There are no physical barriers between you and your neighbour. Fine if you’re a love couple on a date, but a little intimidating if you’re seated by a stranger.
Finally I need to say something about the programming. I hadn’t expected Cambodia to be the place to go if you want to see the most recent releases. It’s a small and very poor country about as far as you can get from Europe and North America and you could imagine that it would take some time for movies to reach this market. But in fact it’s the opposite. Most movies seem to open in Cambodia either earlier, or at the same time as they open in Sweden. As an additional bonus they also screen classics, something that is nearly impossible to see on a big screen where I live, unless you join a film club.
Movie theatres in Phnom Penh
Sadly I only managed to make one theatre visit during my three week trip in Cambodia. I ended up at The Flicks, which is run by expat volunteers. There are several other movie theatres in Phnom Penh, among them The Empire, which has a similar concept, also offering comfortable beds and brand new films mixed up with classics.
If you ever visit Cambodia as a tourist (which I sincerely recommend you to do, it’s as beautiful as it’s heartbreaking), don’t miss to spend at least a night in a cinema. It’s cheap, it’s fun and it’s a movie experience unlike what you get at home.
11 PM, Saturday night, downtown. I’m on my way home from the theatre and for once I’m not plugged into anything. My phone is resting idle in my pocket. I don’t listen to any podcast. I listen to the sounds of the night. I hear the cars humming, I hear the wind giving a tree a shake-about, I hear the soft ticking at a pedestrian crossing, telling me to be patient. I see a few people, lonely wanderers in the night like me. But they don’t see me. They’re too busy staring at the screens of their mobiles. Their faces are bright, illuminated. It makes them look creepy.
Any other night I wouldn’t react; this has been a familiar look for years. But this particular night the spell was broken and I suddenly I could see it from the outside. Somewhere on the way we lost the ability to spend time in company with ourselves. We developed this fear for being alone, and now it’s gone so far that even a minute of silence becomes threatening. As soon as the world goes quiet, we have to fill it with whatever distraction we find on the web.
In a different world
How different wasn’t the world back in the 70s, when Tracks, the movie I just watched, takes place? Robyn Davidson made her 3 000 km walk through the Australian desert in company with four camels and a dog. Reluctantly she brought a radio, but she didn’t want to bring a generator in order to make it run. Back in those days there wasn’t such a thing as a mobile phone, even less Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. She could walk for a month without seeing a single person, and she was fine with it most of the time. When she finally had to meet up with the photographer from National Geographic, in order to fulfil her part of their agreement, she only did it reluctantly. It was a disturbance in her meditation.
Today’s adventurers on the other hand are always available for communication. Always. If there’s nothing else available they’ll use satellite phones, whatever it takes to get in touch with the world. The question is if they’re in touch with themselves or if the screen gets in the way.
Expeditions that end up in magazines these days are usually dangerous ones. A walk in the desert isn’t enough to get a sponsor contract; you need to be more spectacular to get the needed attention. If you insist on climbing Mount Everest, like many before you, the least you can do is to leave the top flying with a jump suit.
Robyn’s walk in the desert is a surprisingly quiet for being the topic of an entire feature film. I have to assume that they changed very little from the true story that it’s based on. This is a basically a stroll in the desert, occasionally interrupted by someone or something getting lost: a camel, a compass, herself. The missing things are usually found within a minute, so you barely have time to get worried on her behalf before the order is restored. Oh, and of course there is that mandatory snake scene as well. As we all know you can’t have a desert movie without tossing a snake in the face of the protagonist at some point.
An enjoyable walk
This may sound as if it is a bit of a drag, and maybe it is to some people, but to me it wasn’t. I enjoyed this walking with camels quite a bit. There’s some beautiful photography that has a soothing effect on me. Every once in a while there’s a voice-over when she cracks a few words of wisdom, the kind of life-affirming insights you obviously get in the desert. It’s the kind of sayings that you could write down and put on your refrigerator as a daily reminder about what’s important in life.
Mia Wasikowska is excellent in the leading role, with an aura that is a perfect blend of determination, innocence and existential angst. Adam Driver on the other hand doesn’t convince me as a National Geographic photographer. As charming as he is, he looks more like one of his usual roles as chic urban geek, an odd mix of comic relief and love interest that lacks something. Perhaps it’s the chemistry that feels off.
Best in show
Best in show however are the animals. The dog Diggety is the cutest you’ve seen. And have you ever paid close attention to a camel? Have you seen the faces they can make? Have you heard them roar? Have you seen them drooling? It’s quite something, I assure you and altogether different from the tired, dusty hunchbacked zombies they keep in zoos.
A thought crossed my mind as I entered the bus. Wouldn’t Tracks make an excellent relaxation app? Aren’t people tired of listening to ocean waves, flutes and dubious affirmations? How about the sound of a desert storms and camel steps or a change?
For fifteen minutes I had lived in the spell of Tracks, paying attention to the world around me. The thought of the app broke it. I saw how my hand, as if governed by another will, slipped into my pocket. There it was.
Tracks (John Curran, AU 2013) My rating: 4/5
Is there an x-factor in how we rate movies, where “x” stands for “exotic?”
If I go to myself, I think there is. I’m biased. If I know that a movie comes from a development country, where the film industry is young and small and the available resources are limited, I will measure it against a different standard than if it had been a Hollywood production.
Normally I cringe at badly written lines, worn-out tropes and amateur acting. But if it originates from an unusual place, it somehow compensates for other shortcomings.
As far as I can recall, Una Noche is the first Cuban movie I’ve seen. This is a film about three young Cubans who try to make an escape over the ocean. Most of the time is spent in Havana, where we see the struggles they face in life and what circumstances that make them end up on a raft. It suffers a little from all those problems I mentioned. How many times do we for instance have to see those canary birds in cages in movies about underprivileged people? We understand that they feel trapped, thank you very much, there’s no need to spell it out. And what cliché comes to mind if someone is going over the ocean on a raft? Yes. That one. And of course it happens.
But this is when the x-factor comes at rescue. I’ve never been in Havana and I loved to see what it’s like, for real. Not in the tourist brochures, but in the backyards, on the rooftops, in a dirty kitchen, in the home of an old prostitute, in a taekwondo dojo. The young actors are so-and-so objectively, but there is something about them that feels genuine, despite the delivery of some lines. Perhaps it’s their desire to get away from it all that shines through. Two of the leading actors decided to make their own escape from Cuba, seeking political asylum in US when they attended the premier of the film in New York. My knowledge of those circumstances adds another layer to the experience of the movie.
I don’t remember if the film was based on a true story or not and frankly it’s not important. The setting is real, the situation is real. People do those desperate attempts to escape to what they hope will be a better life. Their stories are worth telling, even in a slightly flawed manner. That’s the only way we’ll hear them, because it isn’t likely that Hollywood will go out of its way to do it. And if it would, I’m afraid that some of the local colour might get lost with the added layer of polish.
Una Noche (Lucy Mulloy 2012) My rating: 3/5