Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)

For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.

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Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 223: Maîtresse (1973)

I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 220: Naked Lunch (1991)

I worry that this is a film for those who like to vaunt the magisterial status of author William S. Burroughs, or who laud the cinematically outré and self-consciously cultish qualities of David Cronenberg as director — and I assume many of the same people will rep for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam and/or Thompson) in many of the same ways, or perhaps something out of the filmography of David Lynch. For this is a film about being a writer as well as a habitual user of narcotics, and is made with an attendant kind of insane dream logic that leads to hallucinatory bugs-as-typewriters who speak through anus-like holes and set up complex plots in alternate worlds (the Interzone) that touch as much on Burroughs’ own life (his well-known murder of his spouse for one) as on any kind of verifiable reality. Peter Weller is a capable straight man for this carnivalesque creepshow, which has some of the qualities of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (maybe I’m thinking of the prosthetics) and a typically Gilliam-esque crowded mise en scène, while of course the spirit of Kafka seems to hover over it all… and if any of these swaggering artistic men do not thrill you, then perhaps this is not the project for you.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg (based on the novel by William S. Burroughs); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 16 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 200: The Honeymoon Killers (1970)

This seems an intriguing film in many ways, because it’s taking that evergreen trope of lurid Americana — the serial killers — and stripping it of any of the glamour usually afforded them in cinema. It doesn’t make either particularly attractive and it doesn’t beautify their crimes, as the film grimly moves its story on from initial meeting to murderousness in slow stages of development, she no less instrumental than him in driving them to their end. Its black-and-white graininess and low-budget quality effectively recalls Sam Fuller’s 50s pseudo-exploitation flicks, those true-crime ripped-from-the-headlines type of films which could run as a B-movie in a grindhouse.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Leonard Kastle; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Shirley Stoler, Tony Lo Bianco; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February 2018.

Criterion Sunday 182: Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah undoubtedly has an ability to put together a film, maintain tension, choreograph an action sequence, and find exactly the right moment for a blast of strident bagpipe music. But modern cinema’s endlessly repeated theme — stuck in a groove like a particularly obnoxious record (let’s say, bagpipe music) — rears its evergreen head, namely ‘the toxic perils of masculinity’. It’s not something that doesn’t bear repeating, of course, it’s just the particular way that Peckinpah approaches it is to sacrifice everyone to it (and the title does, I believe, reference a ritual object). In this way, Straw Dogs ends up reminding me of the films of Michael Haneke, one of my least favourite auteurs (but if you love him, maybe you’ll get a kick out of this).

Dustin Hoffman plays a weedy American academic mathematician, in his young wife’s home town in Cornwall (England), where they are both swiftly targeted by the ruffian-like men who dwell there: him for having the temerity to not be from around there and thinking himself better, she for not wearing a bra (or so it seems). Anyway, she is certainly brought down a peg, the film’s editing repeatedly emphasising that he does not have sufficiently ‘manly’ attributes to protect his property (his cat, his wife, eventually his home). When he does eventually gain something of this presumably-failed masculinity, it’s one of those ‘ah ha DO YOU SEE, oh audience, how you are complicit in the violence inherent in our society’ kinds of ways so beloved of Haneke, and which you can either take as a masterstroke of authorial self-reflexivity, or, I don’t know, obnoxious and mean-spirited.

From my review, you can probably see the way I am critically leaning with Straw Dogs, and of course you may disagree. Yes, it’s a well-made film, but the way I feel about it is not so far from the way I feel about Dustin Hoffman these days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sam Peckinpah; Writers David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams); Cinematographer John Coquillon; Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.

Criterion Sunday 176: The Killers (1946/1964)

This Criterion release bundles together two adaptations of the Ernest Hemingway short story from 1927, each separated by almost twenty years and with a different generation of Hollywood direction, though it’s the first adaptation that really sticks out. After all, there’s something immensely satisfying about this key early film noir picture, and it’s not just the high-contrast shadows thrown across the screen, or the world-weary way that Burt Lancaster’s “Swede” meets his death (that’s not a spoiler by the way: that’s the set-up of the film). It’s not in the writing either (although excellent) and not just the first scenes in the diner (which are the ones taken from Hemingway’s short story) which leads into a backstory of intrigue that as it unfolds doubles-down on its double-crosses by piling them on thick and fast. No, what’s satisfying is that all of these elements come together with the excellent noir acting, all that heavy-lidded sense of fatalistic doom conveyed by Lancaster and Gardner but also all the character actors who round out the cast. Even when the plot’s events start to seem like they’re getting out of hand, the film keeps it all in check, and all the character types that seem so familiar to us now are all presented new and fresh.

Don Siegel’s remake may not perhaps be the equal of the Siodmak film (which the producer originally wanted Siegel to direct, apparently), but there’s certainly something to Don Siegel’s reimagining. Despite the film’s title and trailer, there’s not very much left of Ernest Hemingway’s original short story here except the sense in which a man fatalistically accepts his own death at the hands of the title’s killers. Thereupon these two, primarily Lee Marvin (always excellent), take it upon themselves to find out why he was killed, and uncover a ring of gangsters led by Ronald Reagan. The film’s plot takes about half the movie to kick in, and as a film, it feels quite different — less a noir than a doomed romance. It also proves that Reagan was much more convincing as a bad guy, a sad realisation to come with his last performance (maybe if he’d tried it earlier and found more acting success, we all could have been spared his political ambitions). Still, as a film this is a watchable piece of high-toned 60s murder mystery which seems to pave the way for Marvin into the greater, yet somehow stylistically reminiscent, Point Blank a few years later.

Criterion Extras: Joining these two is a film primarily known now as Andrei Tarkovsky’s first (student) film from 1956, although it was co-directed by three film students. It takes on only the events of the short story (clearly influenced visually by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 adaptation) and re-presents it, including some of the racist language that Siodmak’s work had omitted. Indeed, the scenes with the black(face) cook, even at this remove, seem pointlessly racist, but as a film this still shows some flair with its staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 October 2017.

The Killers (1946)
Director Robert Siodmak; Writer Anthony Veiller (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway); Cinematographer Woody Bredell; Starring Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien; Length 103 minutes.

The Killers (1964)
Director Don Siegel; Writer Gene L. Coon (based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway); Cinematographer Richard L. Rawlings; Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Clu Gulager, John Cassavetes, Ronald Reagan; Length 95 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 175: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

I can’t really imagine anyone else adapting this work, and what Gilliam does feels about as faithful as one is likely to get to the tone of Thompson’s novel: it’s a constant barrage of surreal, warped visions of drug-addled psychedelia shading over endlessly into the bleak darkness of the American Vietnam War-era psyche. And yet it’s so exhausting to watch, so unrelentingly ‘gonzo’ in its approach. Surely this is the genesis for the rest of Depp’s later career, as his director makes no effort to rein in Depp’s absurdist tics whatsoever (he probably demanded more), and so his Thompson/Raoul Duke is bouncing off the walls — apt for the character no doubt, but as I say, tiring to watch. Which probably makes this film adaptation some sort of masterpiece, maybe even Gilliam’s best work (he’s certainly not done anything since that, to me, matches it), but it’s also a weary, weary descent into a very specifically American madness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox and Tod Davies (based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson); Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini; Starring Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 3 October 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 October 2017).

Criterion Sunday 165: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992)

Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).

Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore); Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017).