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“A Cottage on Dartmoor,” “Casshern”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: Anthony Asquith’s “A Cottage on Dartmoor,” Kino Video]

Poor British cinema — no matter how you slice it, it just never gathered steam like other national cinemas (several of which have multiple peaking eras). Its “new wave” — the post-Free Cinema “social realism” movement of the ’60s — was never quite world-class; prior to that, only Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell were landmark voices, and Hitchcock, along with many or most of the first half-century’s best British directors, followed the money to Hollywood. In the last quarter century, there have been blips of brilliance, but only Ken Loach emerges as a pantheon figure. For such a prosperous, well-cultured and cosmopolitan nation, you’d have expected more from a century of cinema.

Perhaps Hollywood’s brain drain, for English-speaking artistes, was a major factor; so too might be Britain’s undemonstrative public character. Whatever the diagnosis, it has been difficult to, say, even name an English silent film not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and this is why Anthony Asquith’s “A Cottage on Dartmoor” (1929), recently rediscovered and restored, comes as a legitimate revelation. Given my dire summary of Brit film history, it may not seem extraordinary to assess this tumultuous, restless, eye-popping masterpiece as, arguably, the greatest English film until “Brief Encounter” — but that’s almost a 50-year period we’re talking about, and one that includes early Powell, “The 39 Steps,” “Pygmalion” (another Asquith film) and “In Which We Serve.”

A kind of modern-Gothic psycho-thriller that is astonishingly frank for its day, Asquith’s movie manifests what old-school movieheads have long said about silent-vs.-sound cinema — that had sound come along a few years later, rather than in the silent-renaissance year of 1927, then film itself would’ve reached heights of expressive power it didn’t attain for years afterwards (if it ever has). One look at the ’27-’28 roster — “Sunrise,” “Metropolis,” “Napoleon,” “October,” “Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,” “The Crowd,” “The Man Who Laughs,” “The End of St. Petersburg,” “The Wedding March,” “The Wind,” “Hindle Wakes” — gives you pause. Here’s one way to consider the difference between what we had and what was lost: “A Cottage on Dartmoor” feels like a movie that doesn’t need sound, and that doesn’t lean upon the conventions of silent film (overacting, numerous intertitles, simplistic characterization, etc.). It begins with a prison break and a chase on the moors, but soon “wakes up” to life in a busy London salon, where a socially awkward barber (Uno Hemming) loves a manicurist (Norah Baring), who really has eyes for a goofy rich client (Hans Adalbert Schlettow). You’d think the scenario would careen down predictable avenues, but it doesn’t — and neither do any of the three characters remain defined by our initial impressions.

In the meantime, Asquith pulls out the Expressionist-Murnovian-Eisensteinian-Hitchcockian stops — POVs reflected within other reflections, arch shadow design, hypnotic use of Vermeerian light, sweaty off-kilter close-ups, skewed compositions, even instances of illustrative montage (cutting to what the characters are thinking or talking about as they talk or think about it) several years before Fritz Lang’s “M.” Even the second act’s throat-cutting climax, complete with the dazed razor-wielder absent-mindedly wiping his victim’s blood on his own face, has nothing on an amazing 13-minute set-piece in a movie theater, in which we never see the screen — on one hand, it’s a smashing multiple-perspective satiric dig at the early talkies, where the orchestra relaxes with beer after the overture, and the audience relearns how to watch (and strain to listen to) movies. On the other, it’s a propulsive montage of viewers being menacingly watched and homicidal fantasies being shared. Perhaps most of all, the drama of “A Cottage on Dartmoor” crystallizes in the characterizations and the shockingly subtle acting, the most adroit and telling I’ve ever seen in a silent film. Imagine — exalted ambivalence, in a medium dependent on the emphatic. British silent cinema may well have been unjustly maligned and ignored, as goes the argument in the new, supplementary BFI doc by David Thompson, “Silent Britain,” which also reveals that the language of narrative cinema was not in fact invented by Edwin S. Porter in 1903, but four years earlier by George Albert Smith, an Englishman.

Something of a new way forward, you could say, spills out of Kazuaki Kiriya’s “Casshern” (2004), one of the first “greenscreen” movies released in the same year as “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Able Edwards” and “Immortel (ad vitam),” all of them manufactured (as were “Sin City” and “300”) as live-action dramatics played out in front of optical greenscreens and then stage-dressed with all manner of high-flying digital poppycock. As a form, greenscreen movies are beautiful to look at but are often as lively as posed dioramas, and their stories and characters can be as flat as the comic-book pages from which they originated. Never released here, “Casshern” is the microgenre’s high-water mark — its visuals are denser, its story (derived from an old Japanese TV series) is crazier and its emotional tone is truer than the competition’s. That said, the primary product on sale in Kiriya’s film is confabulated futuristic chaos like you’ve never seen before, not even in the looniest anime; the mecha-destruction visuals and action set-pieces are conceived, designed and edited like elaborate, tarnished, whiplash clockworks. The plot is classically Japanese — a mad collision between “Akira”-style übermensch, genetic mutation, robot-war back story, and swoony heartbreak, plus an inexplicable stone lightning bolt — but its “Blade Runner”-ish future is immersively realized, and the current of tumult and crisis is startling.

“A Cottage on Dartmoor”/”Silent Britain” (Kino) and “Casshern” (Paramount Home Video) are now available on DVD.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.