Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016

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The Terminator (1984)

Re-released to cinemas in time for Terminator Genisys‘s upcoming return to the same events, it’s easy to think of this as an Arnie film, or as a James Cameron film — and it is those things (certainly it cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, and was Cameron’s breakthrough) — but it’s also a film that centres on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, as well as being a film co-written by a woman (its producer and Cameron’s wife for the next five years, Gale Anne Hurd). In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Arnie’s eponymous character is somewhat peripheral, like a lurking terror, leaving us with a story of two people (Connor and Michael Biehn’s military man Kyle) in a twisted time travel narrative that owes perhaps a little to the modernist Chris Marker short film La Jetée. However, far more than any of those things it’s a shlocky exploitation flick, very much in the Roger Corman mould (one of his favourite actors, Dick Miller, even shows up as a gun shop clerk), a refinement of the kind of things that Cannon Films was putting out during this era. The film’s best lines carry an unmistakable ring of campness (those bouffant 80s hairstyles certainly help), and Arnie’s iconic “I’ll be back” gets a little cheer from the audience I was watching with. It only occasionally overstretches in trying to find deeper meaning, but for the most part it stays on the right side of being a lean and pulpy action film, meaning that it’s aged perhaps a little better than some of its contemporaries.


© Orion Pictures

RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director James Cameron | Writers James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd | Cinematographer Adam Greenberg | Starring Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, earlier in my life)

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.


Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA, dir. Don Hall/Chris Williams) [Wed 11 Feb at Cineworld O2 Greenwich]. There’s a lot of sweetness to this film, just as there’s a lot of sadness too, and I think for the most part the balance is really well maintained. The hero’s name is Hiro and his brother has created a big soft lovable health droid (voiced by the reassuring Scott Adsit), but when his brother dies in a mysterious lab fire, it’s down to this odd couple to solve the crime. It all gets a bit superhero-film towards the end, and there’s intermittent mawkishness, but for most part this is a delicate story of growing up, as well as an unashamed paean to technological geekery. Its fictional setting too, the Pacific city of San Fransokyo (a composite of American and Japanese culture) is beautifully rendered and makes one wish such a place really did exist. ***


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA, dir. James Whale) [Wed 25 Feb at home]. A classic horror film which I’d never seen before, and indeed is quite excellent, including its use of beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography allied to some quite nifty techniques on the part of the director James Whale. His life story provided its own interest in the 90s biopic Gods and Monsters, which lifts its title from a line in this film, and indeed Bride has plenty of good quotable lines in its story of Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a superbly campy performance) who wants to create a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff). Most of the (relatively short) film is taken up with the machinations of Pretorius, though the story of the monster allows for some ever welcome lessons in tolerance and understanding of the Other. But at its heart this is a classic gothic horror film. ***½


Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi, 1966)

Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan, dir. Seijun Suzuki) [Tue 3 Feb at the ICA]. From the archival strand of a touring programme of Japanese films is this curious little number from the prolific Seijun Suzuki (most famous for the contemporaneous Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the film that got him fired from his studio). He has a real way with deliriously pulpy subject matter splashed across the widescreen black-and-white frame. This film takes themes from the opera of the name, by presenting our heroine Tsuyuko as a poor woman from a working-class suburb working her way up in the big city, including a stint as a hostess at a bar (given the period, it’s all fairly indirect, but seems to imply prostitution), but she’s knocked back by circumstance and some pretty terrible behaviour which affects both her family life, her relationships and her living situation. In fact, almost all the men here act callously, pushing her by turns towards a vengeful track, though the film withholds the kind of judgement you’d expect in a Hollywood morality play of the era. If the sheer force of events suggests a tragic dimension to the character, then this is partially countered by the forthright acting of the leading lady (Yumiko Nogawa), and the film offers much, too, in the way of stylish camerawork and staging. ***


Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).png

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA, dir. Stephen Chiodo) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. Coming into this film with no prior awareness except to expect a certain level of trashy exploitation, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent comic inventiveness of the premise. The title sets out a fairly self-explanatory story, but it’s the little details — like when the murderous alien clowns use balloons to make a sniffer dog to track down their human prey — which show the creators have made a real effort to follow through on their shonky premise. The acting is pitched appropriately, and the film delivers plenty of good fun. **½


Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985, USA, dir. Tobe Hooper) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. I get the sense that a lot of thought has gone into this big budget space horror epic featuring naked vampire aliens running amok in London, but the execution is just a little iffy. There is, however, plenty of bonkers over-the-topness on show, plus a pleasing hamminess to a lot of the performances — particularly Peter Firth’s by-the-book SAS commander, as well as a short appearance for Patrick Stewart — but it’s all in the service of a leering story that lingers over Mathilda May’s body. Perhaps you could read it as a punishment for patriarchal oppression, but I can’t even convince myself of that. **


Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace (2013, USA, dir. Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) [Thu 18 Feb at home]. I appreciate the film’s attempt at a sort of modern-day Rashomon in presenting two sides of the story of Linda Lovelace, protagonist of the 70s most famous p0rn film Deep Throat. She is alternately a bright young ingénue taking hold of her career, and someone unscrupulously exploited by her then-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) — though obviously the latter is given more prominence, surely being closer to the truth — but either way it’s clear that adult film was the not the world she wanted to be part of. There’s a deep strain of melancholy that runs through Amanda Seyfried’s performance in the title role, and this was clearly a difficult period of Lovelace’s life, but it’s something the film only intermittently captures. **½


Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014, USA, dir. Gillian Robespierre) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A second viewing of a film I loved and reviewed last year, and it’s fair to say I still love it. Jenny Slate does some wonderful work. ****


La Reine Margot (1994)

La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy, dir. Patrice Chéreau) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A lot of Chéreau’s directorial work for film was in comparatively little psychodramas, but his background in opera means I can’t imagine many others being able to handle such a grand spectacle of a film, and he does so very comfortably. The tendency with this kind of prestige production is to get bogged down by celebrity showboating and overblown melodrama, but despite having plenty of famous (French) faces and a long running time, Chéreau keeps it all in check, such that the details of what to foreign eyes is a relatively little-known period of European history becomes a vital and interesting study in corrupted power and its bloody effects. It’s been re-released recently in France in a longer cut, closer to the director’s original vision, but even the truncated version I watched had plenty to love. ***½


The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013, UK, dir. Clio Barnard) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Clio Barnard’s earlier docu-drama hybrid The Arbor (2010) now receives something of a companion piece with this fiction film, also set in the grim industrial north, focusing on a couple of wayward kids living on a council estate trying to make ends meet. The particular path the two follow, of collecting scrap metal and racing horses in the street, seems like something from another era of British history, but despite dealing with a familiar coming-of-age loss-of-childhood-innocence character arc, the film’s performances and setting give it a freshness that this genre can so often lack. ***½


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Somersault (2004, Australia, dir. Cate Shortland) [Tue 10 Feb at home]. This little Australian film shows a sure hand from its first-time feature director, with a great sense of its rural locale and a fine performance from Abbie Cornish as the young woman forced to flee home and live by her wits. It’s another coming-of-age but one done with sensitivity to its protagonist’s sexual awakening, along with the dangers attendant on that. ***


Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984, USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Still a giant of the concert film, Demme’s staging and filming of a gig by the New York new wave band Talking Heads masterfully cuts to the heart of the music’s drama. Obviously, any concert film is going to stand or fall on how much you like the band’s music (I love it, having grown up with it), but it helps that frontman David Byrne is a compulsively watchable performer, and that there’s so much joy exhibited on stage, as the spectacle slowly builds up song by song. ****½

Flight to Berlin (1984)

This screening was presented as part of the ongoing celebrations of author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair’s 70th birthday. It’s a film by his colleague and friend Chris Petit, who has made some excellent films and documentaries over several decades (some with Sinclair), and I hardly wish to go on at length about a film I found disappointing, especially when it’s a film that is relatively obscure and unavailable. Therefore I shall keep my comments brief. (NB I can find no poster online for this film, so the attached image shows the lead character, played by actor Tusse Silberg.)


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Iain Sinclair 70×70 || Director Christopher Petit | Writers Christopher Petit and Hugo Williams (based on the novel Strange Days by Jennifer Potter) | Cinematographer Martin Schäfer | Starring Tusse Silberg, Ewan Stewart, Eddie Constantine, Paul Freeman | Length 91 minutes | Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Tuesday 11 September 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© BFI

Petit’s film, his third feature following his excellent debut Radio On (1979), is built around a mystery involving a woman, Susannah (played by Tusse Silberg), though it’s never quite clear what she’s involved in. We are introduced to her being taken from her German hotel to be interrogated by police agents, by whom no more than teasing hints are dropped as to what’s happened, before the film flashes back to her arrival in Berlin. Susannah meets up with her sister, and then, giving an assumed name, falls in with a handsome young Scot, Jack (Ewan Stewart), at a cafe. He has followed her from her sister’s workplace, and it turns out that he, the sister and the sister’s husband are all wrapped up in something shady — again it’s never clear what. There’s also a sense that Susannah is running from her past, as her husband Nicholas (Paul Freeman) is in pursuit of her, though he never quite catches up. And then there’s Eddie Constantine, who just shows up as himself (an American-born French actor), as part of the sister’s circle of contacts.

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