I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.
Under the Skin  || Director Jonathan Glazer | Writers Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (based on the novel by Michael Faber) | Cinematographer Daniel Landin | Starring Scarlett Johansson | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 19 March 2014 || My Rating very good
I relish how strange watching this film must be to mainstream cineplex cinemagoers, because it’s the kind of strange and uncompromising object you usually only get at festivals. It’s had a decent release (at least over here in the UK) on the strength of its marquee name star and the interesting work of its director Jonathan Glazer — some notable music videos and two feature films, including Sexy Beast (which coasted in on the crest of the trend for geezerish British gangster films, but managed to stand out from that fairly bland crowd by virtue of its excellent performances). And yet it’s got such an odd sensibility. For a start, Scarlett Johansson is the only really recognisable presence in the film; the rest of the cast is made up of local extras and a few small, fleeting roles. Its style, too, is laconic — not just in the paucity of dialogue, but in its reluctance to reveal much of anything. It’s not a flashy film, and it can seem quite slow at times, but it at least seems very clear about what it’s doing. Stylistically, it starts strikingly with a series of close-up images that are hard to make out, but suggest something smooth and machine-like and, as it turns out, otherworldly. Once the first humans appear, images and faces loom out of the Stygian darkness, and there’s a bleak, dreich Scottish overcast to everything: this is not a film that makes Scotland look like a tourist destination, but the film finds a certain groundedness in the elemental forces of nature. Partly that’s a balance to its protagonist’s apparently alien origins, and the harvesting of human victims (for this is at heart a horror story) is presented as oddly theatrical, Johansson luring them by undressing into a black room, where they sink into an oily murk. The drama comes as she starts to have reservations about her mission, though nothing is so overtly stated in the laconic script. As I said at the outset, it’s quite unlike very much else out there, and if for that reason alone, is worth watching, although it exerts an oneiric, uncanny hold over the viewer at times.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo | Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (based on the comic book Captain America by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby) | Cinematographer Trent Opaloch | Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson | Length 136 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay (2D), London, Wednesday 2 April 2014 || My Rating good
There’s a point that can be reached in any serial work of art where it becomes so baroquely self-referential and so enveloped in the minutiae of its own mythology that unless you’ve been following it across all its media appearances, tracking its development, and discussing it in detail, you can feel lost. It’s not a point that I think film series often get to, and is more the preserve of cult television and (one assumes) comic books, so perhaps that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier something of a Rubicon for so industrialised an art form. It undoubtedly has already hugely pleased the (very many) fans of the Marvel franchise, but for the casual cinemagoer — even me, who has seen almost all the recent Marvel films — it is baffling. I don’t mean to say it’s bad, for there’s plenty to recommend it, it’s just quite exhausting.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Wes Anderson | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan | Length 99 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014 || My Rating excellent
And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
– Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)
Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.
As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014
Crainquebille (1922) || Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France) | Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster | Starring Maurice de Féraudy | Length 76 minutes || My Rating very good
The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.
Apologies for the intermission. I was away on holiday for the last week, and though I’d intended to put a few posts up, in the end I didn’t get around to it. Have sort of found myself spending rather more time proscratinating than writing, so I’m a bit behind. Just need to get back into the writing habit…
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Terry Gilliam | Writer Pat Rushin | Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini | Starring Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 17 March 2014 || My Rating good
There was a point, back when I started going to the movies, when a new film by Terry Gilliam was something that got people properly excited, and more to the point, got me quite excited. But that was the mid-1990s and a lot of time and projects (filmed and unfilmed) have passed through his career since then. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m not at university anymore that I’ve missed the frenetic and excited discussion about this new film, or maybe it’s that Gilliam’s peculiar vision is no longer aligned with the zeitgeist, but when a friend suggested going to see The Zero Theorem, I had to look up just what it was. So just to recap: it’s the new Terry Gilliam film.
FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Tobias Lindholm | Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck | Starring Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling | Length 99 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 February 2014 || My Rating very good
With this little Danish film about piracy in the Indian Ocean, the natural point of comparison is last year’s Captain Phillips (which of course came out afterwards, but such being the way of these things, I saw it first). There’s no doubt they cover a similar subject, but for various rather obvious reasons the way they go about it is quite different. Where the bigger budget film uses spectacular shots of the container ship’s crews fighting off the pirates and then the struggle for power onboard, this film is more about the way that the hijacking situation affects a couple of characters. One is the ship’s cook, a young man with a wife and child back home, and the other is the CEO of the shipping company in Denmark.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Alain Guiraudie | Cinematographer Claire Mathon | Starring Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou | Length 92 minutes | Seen at Shortwave Cinema, London, Saturday 1 March 2014 || My Rating very good
There are a bunch of observations you could make about this film upon watching its first half-hour, and then there’s a bunch of stuff that comes later on. Most obvious is that the setting of the film, by the lake of the title, is the film’s only location. The dialogue sometimes mentions things that happen elsewhere, but for the most part, these characters’ lives are defined by the time they spend sunning themselves on the rocky shores of this French lake in summer, enjoying one another’s company in the wooded area behind, and pulling into and out of the car park off the main road. The other early observation is that the characters are all gay men and spend most of their time entirely naked, to the point where the film’s signature shot has the camera positioned near the water’s edge, looking up at these men as they lay back and check one another out. But it’s just one of the repeated shots that suggest a languorous mood of possibility — which becomes one of threat as the film progresses.
This screening was presented as part of a series dedicated to the visual spaces of television, alongside a shorter work called “The Saliva Milkshake” (reviewed below). The image is a screen capture of the film’s title card. Both were originally shown on the BBC, with the feature originally aired on 12 May 1981 as part of the “Play for Today” series, and the shorter work on 6 January 1975 in the “Centre Play” series.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Alan Clarke | Writer David Leland | Cinematographer Ken Westbury [as film cameraman] | Starring Rosalind Ayres, John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke, Colin Blakely | Length 73 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014 || My Rating good
I feel as though I preface a lot of my reviews by claiming I’m no expert on what I’m about to write about, but I must at least be honest. This is going to occur fairly frequently when one dips into areas of filmmaking that are strange or unusual or otherwise outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In this case, the format of the standalone television drama (whether a half-hour segment or a feature-length presentation) is one that has been particularly ill-served by advances in distribution over the last few decades. There are still huge numbers of TV shows languishing in archives (or entirely wiped from them) that get very little airing nowadays. They may have garnered larger viewerships than many cinema-distributed films at the time, but for only one or two airings many decades ago. It’s this context in which I come to this film I’m reviewing now, a fascinating document of a past era (albeit tackling themes still very much relevant now), which I saw in a one-off archival screening at the British Film Institute.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Jaume Collet-Serra | Writers John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle | Cinematographer Flavio Martínez Labiano [as Flavio Labiano] | Starring Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Michelle Dockery | Length 106 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 3 March 2014 || My Rating likeable
I sometimes wonder what makes a great actor, and what really separates the performances that get recognised in major industry awards and the ones that prop up straightforward genre fare that won’t get anywhere near such recognition. Because this film — a taut action thriller set on a plane for which the threat of global terrorism is just a convenient prop for a bit of gung-ho men-with-guns nonsense — certainly has some good actors in it, ones who’ve had that taste of recognition (Lupita Nyong’o, who has a small role here, just the other night). But none of them are going to be getting any nods next year, except from their accountants, because the difference between those two planes of acting has little to do with the actor, but with the quality of the writing, and this right here is boilerplate generic action-by-numbers. It just so happens that it’s done with enough aplomb that it mostly stays on the right side of enjoyable hokum.
As ever, I’ve let my month of focusing on films about filmmaking peter out somewhat, but hello! Still here! I promised you a list and so a list I shall provide. (Thankfully, Wikipedia has its own useful list to jog my ever ineffectual memory.)
Of course, I should say a few words about the category. First off, these aren’t just films set in the world of filmmaking, of which there are plenty. In fact, at least one of the below isn’t even set in that world. No, these are films that engage with the issues around filmmaking, whether at the technical level or at a deeper more inchoate level of what it is to create a work of art, and all the moral and ethical issues this may involve, when you’re collaborating with and manipulating characters and lives (whether real or fictional).
What are your favourites? Do feel free to let me know!