Nope (2022)

Continuing my round-up of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here) and there was no shortage of opinions in either direction about Jordan Peele’s third feature, after Get Out and Us. In a sense, that’s what it was made for, so it succeeded brilliantly well, in conjuring up all kinds of conversations, not all of them particularly positive, but in the end it worked for me.


I’ve seen some fairly underwhelmed reviews of this film, but I do wonder if that’s not just from elevated expectations. The pace is somewhat lugubrious, although I do think it consistently builds tension throughout, and there’s a subplot involving Steven Yeun as a child star in a sitcom which doesn’t quite sit very comfortably with the rest of the film to my mind. However, its central premise — of a family of Black horse trainers whose history is deeply tied into filmmaking, trying to figure out a mystery happening around their homestead high out above Hollywood. There are evidently (maybe) aliens involved, possibly hiding behind a cloud, and the way this unfolds is nicely grounded in comedy, as one might expect. Its central conceit is grounded in the idea of looking, about the terrors and dangers of the image, and thus is tied pretty strongly into filmmaking, but while it never truly horrifies, it looks gorgeous and holds together nicely.

Nope (2022) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jordan Peele; Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun 연상엽, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission, San Francisco, Wednesday 10 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 586: Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Given when this was made, this remains a fairly terrifying film, but one that nevertheless retains a certain empathy (like the contemporaneous Freaks to a certain extent). That’s not to say it’s entirely unproblematic to modern audiences, but there’s a consistent theme within the film that actually the monsters of the film (its “lost souls”, if you will) are worth protecting and fighting for, as our hero does at several points, much to the annoyance of Charles Laughton’s gentleman scientist who is actually — perhaps itself a commentary on the myth of the enlightened colonial project — quite clearly a monster. Anyone who knows The Island of Dr Moreau knows how this plays out, and it suffers a little from its early sound era origins at times (seeming almost too quiet and slow for our modern tastes), but it’s a great and fascinating early horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erle C. Kenton; Writers Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young (based on the novel The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells); Cinematographer Karl Struss; Starring Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi; Length 70 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 4 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 584: 藪の中の黒猫 Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko (Kuroneko, 1968)

Kaneto Shindo also directed Onibaba, and both are supernatural stories that lean heavily on the quality of the filmmaking for their effect. It’s a film dominated by dark shadows and silence, scenes of great stillness that effectively convey the ghostly conceit of its title characters, avenging angels after a fashion, seeking cosmic redress against all samurai for the misdeeds of a group of them. Like any revenge, this takes its toll on both those doing the revenging as against their victims, but there’s a sense of justice to the punishments they mete out all the same. It ends as mysteriously as it begins but the atmosphere it evokes never falters and it remains a fine example of the ghost horror movie.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kaneto Shindo 新藤兼人; Cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda 黒田清己; Starring Kichiemon Nakamura 二代目中村 吉右衛門, Nobuko Otowa 乙羽信子, Kiwako Taichi 太地喜和子; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 1 November 2022.

Criterion Sunday 579: Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921)

There’s a lot going on in this silent film, which is based on a novel by the first woman to become a Nobel Laureate in Literature (Selma Lagerlöf). The story is of a layabout drunkard called David Holm, who has abused his wife, left her and his children and is slowly drinking himself to death carousing with his friends. And yet a Salvation Army woman, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), believes he can be redeemed, and she calls for him on her deathbed — apparently too late, though.

Just at the story level, via the device of the dying woman seeking to save his soul, we are drawn sympathetically to the story of David (played by the director himself, still most famously known as the lead in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries), despite his being repeatedly a compromised, abusive and unlovable man. But what’s striking is the way this is all unfolded, in a series of flashbacks nested within other flashbacks, stories within stories, as like the narrative structure itself we start to get closer to the heart of this character. And all of this is quite aside from the central titular conceit of the film, which is that one who dies at the chiming of New Year’s Day has to serve Death by riding his carriage to pick up the dead bodies.

Putting that all together — the intense melodrama, the supernatural horror — makes this an extremely evocative film, and the Criterion release has an excellent musical score by Swedish composer Matti Bye complementing the on-screen action perfectly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Victor Sjöstrom (based on the novel of the same title but usually translated as Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! by Selma Lagerlöf); Cinematographer Julius Jaenzon; Starring Victor Sjöstrom, Hilda Borgström, Astrid Holm; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 5 October 2022.

Criterion Sunday 551: Cronos (1993)

This is Guillermo del Toro’s first feature film and if it’s a little rough around the edges, it certainly shows a lot of flair. You can see in his work some of the same interests as in Peter Jackson’s early stuff: the latex effects and the light gore, but to illustrate what is, essentially, a vampire story. There’s a mysterious device, an antiques dealer, a lot of tropes that will seem familiar, as in Gremlins for example or any film where an ancient evil totem is hidden amongst the exotic miscellany of a shop. This particular one prolongs life, but also drives the person to blood lust, and so this story progresses, filmed beautifully on some expressive sets. Del Toro is excellent at making his (presumably fairly minimal) budget go a long way, and this has a burnished look and some excellent effects.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • With his 1987 short film Geometría, you can very much see the indebtedness del Toro has to Italian giallo filmmakers like Mario Bava and Dario Argento, just from that neon-hued deeply saturated lighting. This is very 80s, sure, but it also has an inventiveness and a sense of humour — like many good short films, it builds to a joke.
  • There’s an interview accompanying the short film in which del Toro reflects on making it, and on making some changes more recently in order to bring it more into line with his original vision, which largely involves dubbing into Italian, as well as fixing the soundtrack.
  • Del Toro is also an amiable host in conducting a 10-minute tour of his collections, which are large and obsessive but also beautifully presented in an old home, and I guess that’s the perk of achieving some success, is in having your own personal museum of weird stuff you’ve gathered over the years.
  • There are a set of interviews, interspersed with archival photographs of the production, in which the lead actor Federico Luppi speaks (this is an old TV interview, not such great quality) as well as more recent ones with Ron Perlman, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and of course del Toro himself.
  • There’s a good gallery of stills from the production, as well as of the fake ancient occult text produced for the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Guillermo del Toro; Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro; Starring Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 9 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 542: Antichrist (2009)

I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 539: ハウス Hausu (House, 1977)

This batty 70s Japanese jokey horror film certainly has its defenders and its detractors, and I imagine it’s as much for its off-the-wall anarchic style as anything else, but whatever it really all amounts to — and I’m not sure what that may be, exactly — it’s at least plenty of fun. Indeed at its heart its a generic exploitation movie, in which a group of teenage girls go to one’s aunt’s house only to find it’s haunted, as they get picked off by a mysterious killer (possibly a cat) one by one. But there is no way that a mere summary of what happens could convey quite how batty the whole thing is, the way it’s put together and edited, the constant shots pulling us out of reality into some other dimension that’s somewhere between a musical and a kids’ show in aesthetics. Ultimately that makes it a lot less horrific for me — there’s no real scares — but then again it plays more as a comedy in some ways. Hyperactive of course, and a sub-90 minute runtime is crucial there, but silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi 大林宣彦; Writer Chiho Katsura 桂千穂; Cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto 阪本善尚; Starring Kimiko Ikegami 池上季実子, Miki Jinbo 神保美喜, Ai Matsubara 松原愛, Kumiko Oba 大場久美子; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 537: Ansiktet (The Magician, 1958)

I know this will come as a great surprise to all adherents of the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, but this is a film about faith, about the failures and disappointments of organised religion but also about the supernatural, using a Christ-like central figure to channel doubts about the divine. Added to this, it is, as is perhaps rather more underappreciated when it comes to Bergman, essentially a comedy, albeit one with a body count by the end, though everyone just seems to shrug that off (but maybe that’s more a sign of the times). No this is in many respects a bawdy, silly romp but with added occultism (and a touch of horror, too), as Max von Sydow’s apparently mute mesmerist Albert Vogler travels around towns with his little magical sideshow. But… is there more to his powers? The scepticism of one small town he enters, particularly of Gunnar Björnstrand’s physician Vergerus, open up these questions, to which von Sydow’s baleful eyes do a lot of answering. It’s pretty good, made during Bergman’s imperial (and rather more comedic) phase, well worth watching especially if you think it’ll be too dour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Naima Wifstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Bibi Andersson; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 July 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Titane (2021)

The closing night film of the New Zealand International Film Festival ended up being the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, which is certainly a very bold and disturbing film to be winning major awards but there’s something to that. I was never quite sure if I really loved it while it was going on, but I do know that it was surprising and confrontational, and quite baroquely stylish, with an excellent performance from newcomer Agathe Rousselle and grizzled veteran Vincent Lindon.


Watching this Cannes prize-winning film most strongly reminds me of the work of Claire Denis. The influence of David Cronenberg is perhaps most obvious in its body horror genre trappings, but for me Denis is the influence that seems clearest to me, and partly that’s a matter of tone. The one time I’ve seen Denis discuss her film at a live Q&A was after a screening of Bastards, which also stars Vincent Lindon and is set in a twilight world riven with anger (at least in my recollection), and reading interviews with this film’s director Julia Ducournau reminds me of the way Denis would confront her critics, never seemingly more engaged than when she was outraged by an angry comment.

Clearly there’s a lot that audiences and critics are divided over with Titane, and some of the criticism is probably quite at odds with what Ducournau intended, but it seems at heart to be about human connection. Along the way it dispenses with trite psychologising — we see Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) briefly as a child, but any relationship she has with her parents is very much only indirectly implied, and the reasons for her turning to murder are never really delved into — in favour of a heady immersion into a stylised world of machines and flesh. This isn’t the romantic abstraction of, say, Ex Machina, but instead a very fleshy world of scars and body transformation, which hints at a trans subtext (though the filmmaker denies that) and certainly speaks to gender fluidity, an in-your-face be-queer-do-crimes vibe. That said, when she comes into contact with Vincent Lindon’s firefighter, the film changes perceptibly to being one about acceptance and love despite everything — and there’s a lot there for his character to blindly accept.

The filmmaking is fearless when it comes to bodies, and that much is certainly evident from Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, but it’s also very much within a genre framework where this kind of horror is a little bit abstracted from the emotional reality (a scene with a knitting needle lands very differently in, say, Happening) without entirely relinquishing that primal response. That can make twists like Alexia’s relationship with the car make a certain amount of poetic sense, but her relationship with Vincent seems pretty profound too, and he is great in what must have been a challenging role. The textures of the colours and images, the propulsive music and relentlessness of the endeavour carries it, along with a fair amount of jet black humour. I’m not even sure if it’s a great film, but it feels pretty special.

Titane (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.