Citizenfour (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Radius-TWC

The revelations last year by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden made a lot of waves — at least in the kinds of newspapers I read, particularly The Guardian, who were the ones to first report on the story — so it’s fascinating now to see a documentary account of how that came about. The revelations tie in to one of the great stories of our time, which is the way that governments increasingly use their citizens’ reliance on the internet to track them and spy on them, without any safeguards or oversight, so this documentary is not just torn from the headlines but itself a part of them. After all, director Laura Poitras was one of the people whom Snowden first contacted, and it was through her that lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald came into the picture. Of course, all of them now live outside the United States, for reasons that become fairly obvious, given the abuse of state powers to crack down on information that it is the public’s right to know about (Snowden is charged under a 100-year-old espionage law enacted during wartime that gives him no effective legal rebuttal). Poitras’s resulting documentary is largely based around their first meetings in an anonymous Hong Kong hotel room, where the strategy for reporting the story is formed, as she and Greenwald learn about their source. This could be a limitation, but even in this restricted setting (and partially because of it), there’s plenty of nailbiting drama to be had, as mysterious phone calls and fire alarms puncture their discussions. There’s contextualising footage too from various political hearings and activist meetings (not to mention a brief appearance from a certain Australian also on the run from authorities, for rather different reasons), but it’s Snowden and his revelations which are very much at the heart of this story. It makes for a fascinating account of our relationship to our own governments and to our online presence, even if the participants’ clearly idealistic beliefs in the power of an open internet can (I feel) sometimes be tested in practice by some of the opinion on offer out there. Still, even the ill-formed opinion of anonymous internet bullies is as nothing compared to the activities of the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, and this documentary provides a welcome warning about the dangers of unchecked state aggression, wherever it exists and however it is cloaked.


CREDITS || Director Laura Poitras | Cinematographers Kirsten Johnson, Katy Scoggin and Trevor Paglen | Starring Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald | Length 114 minutes

The Babadook (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Thursday 6 November 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Entertainment One

I’m no connoisseur of horror films. In fact, I can hardly remember the last time I went to see one in the cinema (it might have been The Others back in 2001… so, a long time ago, basically). But every so often I feel the need to shake up my viewing habits, and currently I’m trying to get along to see as many films by woman directors as possible, so here’s this one, it’s Hallowe’en time of year, and it’s a horror film. Thinking about the genre, and why I don’t really get into it, it feels to me like its signifiers — the silence preceding the fright, the things jumping out at the viewer unexpectedly due to very careful control of the point-of-view, the threatening music cues — are often deployed for no greater effect than just to scare people. That has its value of course, and I get that lots of people enjoy the ride, but when it does things right — horror no less than any genre film — it ties its frights into something rooted in character. That’s certainly what The Babadook does. It’s about a single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wieseman) who live together in — naturally — a creaking old wooden house with a dark basement and strange noises at night. When Amelia starts reading the eponymous children’s pop-up book to her son, a book which has appeared mysteriously on their shelves, things start getting scary. So far, so generic — albeit with an excellent sense of depicting empty threatening space, and with a quiet narrative momentum — but what the film does particularly well is to root the terrors in a formative act of horror: the tragic death of Amelia’s husband while rushing her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. It’s this experience that opens the film, as Amelia wakes from another nightmare about it, and it’s implied that this has resulted in Samuel’s difficulties forming attachments, and it certainly informs the way that the family deals with the monster of the title. The film never really gets nasty at a visual level (this is no ‘torture p0rn’ of the Saw variety), but the sense of mounting terror and threat — which at times seems to emanate as much from Amelia’s grief and depression, and then from her son’s bitterness, as from any scary monsters — provides a series of chills and scares, and does so increasingly effectively. So maybe I need to get over my hang-ups with the horror genre.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Jennifer Kent | Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk | Starring Essie Davis, Noah Wieseman | Length 94 minutes

Nightcrawler (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 5 November 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Open Road Films

This film, which appears to be largely a family affair (director, producer and editor all hail from the Gilroy family, the first of whom is married to the female lead), is another flourish of retro respect towards the scuzzy lo-fi VHS aesthetics of the 80s, a very literal ‘video nasty’ in many ways, which at certain levels reminds me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It’s a character study of Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal, lean, slick of hair and with a stooped shuffle), a low-life criminal and sociopathic grifter just looking for a career, who stumbles into filming real-life crime footage for breaking news items on cable news. In finding his niche, Lou is at some level just exploiting the already dubious ethics of TV news journalism, though in his own work he pushes at these pretty hard, and it doesn’t take long before he’s breaking police lines and moving bodies for a better shot composition. And yet it’s also a subtly twisted satire on management techniques, as Lou takes on the naïve and desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, lecturing him on being a good employee and deploying all his online business learning in negotiations first with Rick and then with the TV station and its producer Nina (Rene Russo). There are plenty of laughs in fact, though a lot of them are of the excruciatingly uncomfortable variety, as we recognise the intensity of Lou’s delusional beliefs being played out, an unfettered id wreaking havoc with real-life consequences. All this is shot in an immersively lo-fi digital video format (notably by Robert Elswit, a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and who has in the past inveighed against digital), which gives it all an extra level of discomfiting presence. Ultimately, how the viewer responds is likely to be related to their tolerance for these techniques, not a million miles from the morality plays of Michael Haneke if (thankfully) lacking some of the more acute skewering of audience complicity. It’s certainly a strong directorial effort for Gilroy, and a fine performance for Gyllenhaal.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Dan Gilroy | Cinematographer Robert Elswit | Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo | Length 117 minutes

Bande de filles (Girlhood, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pyramide Distribution

Like 1995′s La Haine, it’s not always clear how much this story of poverty-stricken banlieue (suburban) life can be called ‘authentic’, in so far as it represents a stylised filmic depiction of a group of fictional characters rather than a documentary exactly (and certainly that was the main objection of the friend with whom I went to see this film). But for me, such issues seem to be beside the point, for the key is the representation of a specifically female perspective on such an existence. Yet in putting this across, it also largely avoids cinematic cliché — there are threats from the men who lurk around the central character Marieme’s housing project, certainly, but Marieme’s main interaction is with her fellow girls, and the way that they both nurture and compete is central to her development (and is a key theme to the film). Newcomer Karidja Touré as Marieme sometimes struggles to fully convince in her character’s move from shy wallflower to queen bee of her clique under the assumed name of Vic (for “Victoire”) to eventual drug mule via a number of makeovers and some schoolyard scrapping, but the filmmaking has vigour and style. At times there are extended musical sequences (including a long one as the titular ‘band of girls’ sings along to Rihanna in a Paris hotel room, shot more as music video), but these serve to underline the importance of music to community identity. It’s a film ultimately about being part of a group and the dangers of trying to live outside of one, and at depicting that it does very well.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Céline Sciamma | Cinematographer Crystel Fournier | Starring Karidja Touré | Length 112 minutes

Zabriskie Point (1970)

RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 27 October 2014 (and several times previously on VHS) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© MGM

It’s fair to say that in the year 2014 one of the last things I expected to get a cinematic re-release would be a cleaned-up digital print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. After decades of critical acclaim for his brand of existential non-thrillers made in his native Italy, this film was his pitch to the American market, getting on-board with such contemporary topics as student activism and free love. Needless to say, it was far from either a critical or commercial success at the time, and has at best a cult reputation now (largely due to its soundtrack album, I suspect). Yet in many ways it’s a fantastic film and a successor to Antonioni’s earlier works in its sense of characters adrift in vast threatening landscapes, as well as a film rightly critical of consumerism and rampant property development (themes which are still very much a part of the world 35 years on). I can’t in all good faith, however, recommend it to people who like strong dialogue and witty repartee: the flat line delivery, period affectations and (somehow typically Italian) use of imprecise post-synching can easily come across as lazy screenwriting. But these are not characters who are able to enunciate their issues with the world: on the one hand, there’s Mark (Frechette), angrily adrift at university, listening to articulate Black Power activists and witnessing his friends’ radicalisation, able only to offer cheap jokes (he gives his name to a cop as Karl Marx); on the other, Daria (Halprin) is a PA at a property developers’ office, where a succession of identikit men in beige suits delivers boardroom presentations so dull that even the camera seems to prefer losing focus, drifting away to off-centre framing, and frequently reflecting the discussion in mirrors and through other surfaces. As characters, these two uneasily inhabit their own respective worlds of words, but only meet in the centre of the film, as Mark buzzes over Daria’s car in a light plane he’s stolen for a joyride, out in the middle of the desert. The two make love in dusty Death Valley, at the Zabriskie Point of the film’s title, as their bodies hallucinatorily multiply, after which point they return to separate narrative strands. It’s here that Mark’s story, which has dominated the first half of the film, cedes to that of Daria, as she travels on to Phoenix for a conference with her bosses. It doesn’t always work perfectly — whether the actors’ jarringly disconcerting delivery of the script, the modish alienation effects, or the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism — but when it does, it just seems perfect. The pulsating psychedelic drone of the soundtrack, the dizzying procession of vapid billboards in Los Angeles, the subtly interwoven and interleaving narrative strands, the long takes, and of course that apocalyptic desert dream of an ending, in which a materialistic world is beautifully pulled apart in the most visceral way. These are all things I continue to love about this overlooked classic of the American cinema.


CREDITS || Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe | Cinematographer Alfio Contini | Starring Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin | Length 110 minutes

Les Vampires (1915-16)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD), Saturday 25 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Gaumont

The silent film serial is sort of like a precursor to the modern TV mini-series, but feels like it must have its roots in the serial publication of novels so popular in the 19th century. Les Vampires, too, was wildly popular in its time (although not with the contemporary critics, who dismissed its vulgarity), and it’s still possible to make out some of that excitement even through the almost hundred years of distance from us. Indeed much of its frontal staginess now seems quaintly archaic, though Feuillade was no slouch at composing his shots, even when writing and filming at such speed. There’s some great use of depth, as well as occasions when the camera is unmoored to present such scenes as a car chase through suburban streets. There’s a good use of location filming in and around Paris, as well as a formal playfulness, as our journalist-detective and hero Philippe (Édouard Mathé) and particularly his put-upon sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) break the fourth wall to gesture towards the audience when things are getting particularly heated. To try and summarise the plot of 10 episodes’ worth of cinema would be futile, suffice to say it involves the titular criminal gang, who are not in fact vampires, but rather masked hoodlums — not just literal masks as frequently modelled by one of their key associates, Irma Vep (the delightful Musidora), not averse to prowling around Catwoman-like, but also the masks of respectable society figures like lawyers and aristocrats. The gang has inveigled itself into polite society, where it is causing particular havoc. The focus on this piercing of middle-class respectability hints at a political undertow on the part of Feuillade, who has a critical eye cast towards society’s entitled plutocrats and which is no doubt part of what resounded with popular audiences at a time of European war (and perhaps raised the hackles of establishment critics). However, even without this layer of social commentary, it’s still an enjoyable watch once it gets going for all its mystery thriller twists and turns, though not one perhaps for which you’d want to clear seven hours in one sitting.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Louis Feuillade | Cinematographer Manichoux | Starring Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque | Length 417 minutes (10 episodes)

Cavalo Dinheiro (Horse Money, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Sociedade Óptica Técnica

Portuguese director Pedro Costa makes films which are oblique, to say the least. In scene after narratively-indeterminate scene of Horse Money, faces loom out of an inky blackness like shards of light piercing the viewer’s imperfect understanding of what exactly is going on. But though I can’t say it’s always clear, it does make some kind of poetic sense, as we get Costa’s most frequent collaborator Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean man with a scraggly white beard and a haunted look, wandering astray around a night-time Lisbon. From what I can gather, he’s been confined to a hospital (or a prison maybe) and has escaped, but to be honest I’m really not sure. He has dialogues with others, including Vitalina Varela (a fellow inmate? a revolutionary?) and the disembodied voice of a militaristic statue while riding in an elevator. Scenes come upon one another as if in a dreamlike fugue, snatched remembrances, dialogues with the past. It’s impressionistic at the very least, and maybe even a bit boring if you don’t attune yourself to its peculiar rhythms, but it’s not easily dismissed.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Pedro Costa | Cinematographers Leonardo Simões and Pedro Costa | Starring Ventura, Vitalina Varela | Length 103 minutes

Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany, Pale Mother, 1980)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 18 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Basis-Film-Verleih GmbH

Historical dramas based in the period during the 1940s when World War II was being fought are hardly rare, but what remains interesting about this piece, newly-restored and extended with material cut after its original release, is that it bases its focus on a German story, and specifically that of a German woman (reputedly based on that of the writer-director’s own mother). In many ways, she is the “pale mother” of the title, an allegorical representation of the country perhaps, and subject to the many whims of fate visited upon it by the men in the story. In the central role is Eva Mattes as Lene, the beautiful young wife of Hans (Ernst Jacobi) at the film’s outset; Hans is not a Party member but when war breaks out is nevertheless conscripted into the Army. Hans’s best friend on the other hand is very much a party apparatchik who gets a cushy job in Berlin and lords it over everyone in a petty way. The film focuses on Lene’s struggle to make it through the wartime period, first in the city and then out in the countryside where it is presumed to be safer. There is no big comeuppance for any of the characters, as they continue to muddle through after the war has ended. Yet for all that it is bleak, and for all that it presents a vision of Germany that is far from optimistic or hopeful, it is still made with a great deal of sensitivity and craft.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Helma Sanders-Brahms | Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges | Starring Eva Mattes, Ernst Jacobi | Length 151 minutes

Why Be Good? (1929)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 19 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Warner Brothers

Every year the London Film Festival presents a mix of archival screenings from restorations of well-loved films to those which seem to be unknown to the film canon and present a rich surprise to the audience, and this 1929 film falls firmly into the latter camp. Apparently it was only rediscovered in the last few decades and has now finally been restored, one of a small number of star Colleen Moore’s films to survive (the sad story being that though she herself had had the forethought to submit them to an archive for preservation, that archive had managed to lose them all in the intervening decades). Moore, however, it turns out, is a delightful screen presence with the kind of perky smiling jeu d’esprit that reminds me of Betty Balfour over in the UK during the same period. In any case, a film that starts off almost immediately with a Charleston dancing contest will always have my attention. The plot, such as it is, takes the form of a romantic comedy. Moore plays the aptly-named Pert, a party girl who falls for a dapper chap (Neil Hamilton) who keeps her up late; when she’s late for work at her shop the next day, she’s summoned to the office of the new personnel manager, who turns out to be none other than that same chap, Peabody Jr, son of the store’s owner. Things develop from there in the way of such films, but the delights are to be had in Moore’s effervescent performance and in the jaunty swing of the party scenes (soundtracked by a surviving Vitaphone disc, which aside from the jazzy period tunes includes a few sound-based jokes, notably one where a group of intoxicated men ‘sing’ outside Pert’s home; despite this, the film remains in the form of a traditional silent, with intertitles for speech). There’s also a rather liberated sensibility to Pert’s characterisation, who may live with her strict father and caring mother, but who is also pretty clear about what she wants from life (to have a good time, to dance as much as she can) and about the double-edged sword of male attention (there’s a great speech where she she notes that men expect women to dress and act with a certain licentiousness, and then damn them for doing so). In short, it’s a late delight from the silent era of cinema and an enduringly good-natured romantic comedy, and Colleen Moore deserves all the fame of her contemporaries Clara Bow and Louise Brooks.


CREDITS || Director William A. Seiter | Writer Paul Perez | Cinematographer Sidney Hickox | Starring Colleen Moore, Neil Hamilton | Length 84 minutes

3 cœurs (Three Hearts, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Saturday 19 October 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Wild Bunch

There’s a certain kind of French film, like this one, which has a light and frothy quality to it — all well-heeled middle-class houses and high society fashion worn by venerable actors at the top of their game (including Catherine Deneuve) — while nevertheless trying to pick away at something hidden under that luxe surface. Here we get the story of a civil service accountant Marc (Belgian actor Benoît Poelvoorde) who finds himself doing an audit in a provincial town, where he bumps into Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and they have a one-night stand. They agree to meet again in Paris, but he misses the appointment and doesn’t have any details for her. Some time later he returns to the small town, where he meets Sophie (Chiara Mastroianni) and strikes up a romance with her. She, of course, and unbeknown to him, turns out to be Sylvie’s sister. There’s a well-worn pleasure in the way things progress from here, ever reliant on some rather stretched plotting, but you get the sense that the filmmaker’s interest is in the way this conventionally-boring man can inveigle his way into the lives of others and upset their carefully-ordered world. There’s a recurring musical motif in the soundtrack that suggests the intended tone is more horror film or dark, psychological thriller than comedy, but if so, it’s a peculiar form of middle-class domestic horror. I’d perhaps have had more time for it if Poelvoorde was more convincing as the buttoned-up lothario character; I never really believed that these women would fall for him in the way they did. That said, it’s all perfectly enjoyable fluff that, unlike its central character, doesn’t outstay its welcome.


CREDITS || Director Benoît Jacquot | Writers Julien Boivent and Benoît Jacquot | Cinematographer Julien Hirsch | Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve | Length 106 minutes