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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.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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