Criterion Sunday 92: Fiend Without a Face (1958)

© The Criterion Collection

After the previous week’s The Blob comes another film from the same year, but from the other side of the Atlantic — not that you’d necessarily guess, given its Canadian setting and imported actors (okay, Surrey stretches credulity even as Manitoba, and some of the accents are ropey to say the least). It’s a deeply silly sci-fi story of mind control gone awry, and the audience is kept waiting for the big reveal of the slithery brain monsters by the narrative contortions whereby these creatures remain invisible while they are drawing on… NUCLEAR POWER. It’s no less badly acted than any other similar film of the era, and there’s a hammy turn from English veteran Kynaston Reeves as a demented professor, while the leads are clean-cut Major Jeff (Marshall Thompson) and the professor’s stalwart student Barbara (Kim Parker, who has a stronger role than the poster’s depiction of her in a bath towel might suggest).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arthur Crabtree | Writer Herbert J. Leder (based on the short story “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long) | Cinematographer Lionel Banes | Starring Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 91: The Blob (1958)

© The Criterion Collection

Criterion occasionally pulls out a vaguely exploitational B-movie from the vaults, and this is no less enjoyable than, say, Carnival of Souls or Blood for Dracula, and hinges on a similarly low-budget aesthetic that maximimises the scares by only obliquely referring to the terror at its heart. In this case, it’s the gelatinous threat of the title, and the film’s unsurprisingly hokey effects are pushed into the background by a story that focuses on “teen” couple Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) and their friends in a close-knit small town. The teenagers aren’t the wild rebels that Corman had started to capitalise on earlier in the decade, but largely conservative law-abiding ones (they do all look firmly in their 30s, to be fair), and occasional moments of tension between them and the authorities are quickly subsumed by a shared desire to defeat the unknown threat. You get the sense, given the era, that this is allegorising any number of things, but most notably the Red Scare of Communism, meaning its outcome may never be in question but the ending has an amusingly provisional quality. Of course, if you remember anything, it’s likely to be the jaunty and goofy Burt Bacharach-penned title tune.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. | Writers Kay Linakar [as “Kate Phillips”] and Theodore Simonson (based on an idea by Irvine H. Millgate) | Cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding | Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Bayou Maharajah (2013)

This film seems to have had a long trail from festivals to release, and as there’s a 2016 date at the end of the credits, I assume there’s been some re-editing in the interim. It’s certainly an interesting piece, not least because its subject is himself an interesting character (James Booker, a multi-talented largely-jazz pianist from New Orleans; black, gay, one-eyed) but also one who is relatively obscure: obviously this isn’t more than anecdotal evidence, but I’d never heard of him. That said, the director here makes the choice to present much of his music in full and that’s a strong statement about the quality of his playing, something a lot of music documentaries (even ones about acknowledged ‘geniuses’) don’t do. And yes those performances are worth watching in full.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lily Keber | Writers Lily Keber, Aimée Toledano and Tim Watson | Cinematographer David S. White | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016

La Belle saison (Summertime, 2015)

Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Catherine Corsini | Writers Catherine Corsini and Laurette Polmanss | Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller | Cinematographer Sam Levy | Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader | Length 98 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 90: Kaidan (Kwaidan, 1964)

© The Criterion Collection

There is no doubting this film moves at a slow and deliberate pace and makes as much use of silence as it does of sound, but these are feelings that pass fairly swiftly as you get drawn into the uncanny atmosphere created by the studio sets and bold non-naturalistic use of colour (Kobayashi’s first film in colour, after a career of monochrome political and social dramas, some of which will show up later in the collection). There are four stories here, the longest being the third, “Hoichi the Earless”, but all of them largely revolve around the living betraying the secrets of the dead and being punished for it. The other stories are likewise strong, from the shortest, “In a Cup of Tea”, in which an author (Osamu Takizawa) is haunted by a face in his tea, to the first two: “The Black Hair”, following a poor swordsman (Rentaro Mikuni) who foolishly leaves his first wife to seek his fortune; and “The Woman of the Snow”, wherein a strange woman (Keiko Kishi) saves a young fisherman (Tatsuya Nakadai, doing his best gormless expressions), but with a caveat. It’s all set in a mythologised era in which the living and dead seem to live closer to one another, with characters like Takashi Shimura’s priest in “Hoichi” being unfazed by the idea of an undead army gathering in an amphitheatre to listen to blind bard Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura)’s epic oral tale unfold. We listen to it, too, and it’s a wonderful thing, but then Toru Takemitsu’s score throughout is revelatory, with its musique concrète textures integrated into the action almost as a chorus (and sometimes replacing diegetic sounds altogether).

Criterion Extras: This new disc presents the full 183 minute cut (the older Criterion release only had the shorter cut), and adds some more extras. There’s a 15 minute archival interview with the director reflecting on his work, as well as a fuller piece with an assistant director who worked on the film and explains the genesis of this latest restoration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Masaki Kobayashi | Writer Yoko Mizuki (based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn) | Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima | Starring Rentaro Mikuni, Tatsuya Nakadai, Keiko Kishi, Katsuo Nakamura, Takashi Shimura, Osamu Takizawa | Length 183 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Weiner (2016)

We hear a lot in the news, even here in the UK, about US politics, but most of it makes little enough impact, and certainly you don’t expect to find much of interest in a documentary about a minor and latterly disgraced political figure. I vaguely remember Anthony Weiner for being mocked on the Daily Show years ago, but this film following his 2013 campaign to become New York mayor turns out to be surprisingly great and rather funny too. Sure, he comes across as immensely — almost pathologically — desirous of publicity and success, but his story isn’t without pathos: from all that we see, he’s a passionate advocate on behalf of various high-minded social causes, is a powerful public speaker, and clearly cares about his city and its people. It’s just that he’s also done some stupid things that overshadow everything’s he’s trying to achieve, not to mention putting strain on his marriage to Huma, a woman who turns out to the secret star (not to mention heart) of the piece. And so, in unspooling these events and recording Weiner’s wide-ranging and sometimes unguarded commentary, Weiner becomes a film about the hubris of modern political ambition.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg | Cinematographer Josh Kriegman | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016

Queen of Earth (2015)

Generally, I’m quite sceptical about films made by men about women’s experiences. There’s very much an arthouse tradition — perhaps going back to the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, but primarily derived from Ingmar Bergman — of this kind of tear-stained melodrama, of women pulling themselves and each other apart psychologically. Woody Allen took up that tradition in the 1970s, and this new film from young New York-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry seem to take it up too. Indeed, in many ways, it comes across as almost a throwback to the 70s, with grainy stock, murky close-ups, and of course Bergman-esque psychological torment aplenty. With unadorned actors attacking the script, this is a different beast from the director’s earlier film Listen Up Philip (2014), even as it seems to be capturing the same kind of lost spirit of writer-director filmmaking. Nevertheless, whatever my reservations, Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly terrific as Catherine, a woman coming apart at the seams — she may not be likeable, but you get the sense that she’s had a lot to deal with — not helped by her friend Ginny (played by Katherine Waterston). In its effect, it’s almost a psychological horror film, once you factor in the steady alienating thrum of the score, and it gives further evidence of Perry’s talent.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry | Cinematographer Sean Price Williams | Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Thursday 7 July 2016

The Hard Stop (2015)

At a time when the US-focused Black Lives Matter movement is getting a lot of attention, it’s useful to remember that countries like the UK are no less problematic in the ways the authorities routinely target poorer, generally non-white, citizens. This documentary about Tottenham, a less affluent area of North London (representative of similar urban areas around the country), doesn’t have much that’s good to reveal about the police as it tracks the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan, via the prism of two of his friends, Marcus and Kurtis. Although Duggan’s killing kicked off a series of riots in 2011, the causes of those clearly are a lot wider and go a lot deeper than just police brutality. By closely tracking its protagonists and their lives in Tottenham — on the Broadwater Farm housing estate where they grew up (the site of the murder of a police offer at an earlier riot in the 1980s), their difficulties in finding housing and work (in one case requiring relocation to another county entirely), and above all their struggle to stay away from criminality — the documentary gives a sense of the background to those riots, even as its articulate subjects dissociate themselves from some of the ways that the 2011 rioting expressed itself. Clearly a lot of work still needs to be done — and there’s no real sense that similar riots aren’t still bubbling just under the surface of society — but it’s good to see two young men reflecting intelligently on their lives and the way they’ve been shaped by their surroundings, and looking for a way forward, both for themselves and for their community.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director George Amponsah | Cinematographers Colin Elves and Matthias Pilz | Length 85 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 19 July 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Paul Greengrass | Writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles | Length 123 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016