Criterion Sunday 483: Repulsion (1965)

This is a dark, atmospheric horror film, or perhaps more a psychological terror film, because much of the pain and panic we see is inside Catherine Deneuve’s heroine Carole. She seems traumatised by something, and while it’s not something that we ever see or is ever explained, it seems fairly clear that it goes back some way into her past, causing her to move through the world as if in a fugue state. That’s what the film’s camera is attempting to capture, along with a jarring score, that constantly fixates on small details that take on something greater, something horrific in the way that it all cuts together. And while nothing particularly shocking happens outwardly — though there are some deeply unpleasant men (even if a lot of their behaviour is just that of 60s London) — the accretion of details mount up to something tense, putting us inside Carole’s mind, inflicted by a constant state of terror. As an English-language outing from its director (Roman Polanski, who would go on to greater renown and of course infamy) it has a peculiar focus and a power that follows on from his (Polish language) debut Knife in the Water.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writers Polanski, Gérard Brach and David Stone; Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 November 2021.

Cruella (2021)

My week of newish cinema releases continues with this film, directed by the dude who did I, Tonya (2017). Again, I didn’t review that on here, but I quite liked it? It had some good performances. This film is equally stylised, and very silly, and probably not Good. I expect there are people out there who hate it, but I try to be positive and, well, it looks good. Jenny Beaven did the costume design, who I laud below as the auteur at work here.


This is not, I suppose a ‘good’ film in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense that most films that seem to get made these days are: big and showy and well-designed and just so, with big performances. It’s fun, is what it is, but it has no depth. They clearly spent an enormous amount on the music, but I don’t think it’s used very inventively — it’s largely all 60s music for a film set on the cusp of punk with a lead character who has a sort of Vivienne Westwood chic but even her central fashion show is soundtracked by Iggy and the Stooges (though perhaps that’s a commentary in itself on the reliance of British punk on American archetypes). Anyway, too many of the cues seem too obvious, and then the plot in general is also really quite stultifyingly straightforward. (Quite aside from having us believe that an actress as distinctive as Emma Stone playing a character as singular as this could play an alter ego without detection, though I assume there’s a Shakespearean level of suspension of disbelief happening here.) But Stone and Thompson camp it up, Paul Walter Hauser is excellent as a villainous Cockney sidekick (with a wandering accent) and the real auteur here is the costume designer, clearly. This is a film about frocks: great gowns, beautiful gowns.

Cruella (2021)CREDITS
Director Craig Gillespie; Writers Aline Brosh McKenna, Kelly Marcel and Steve Zissis (based on the novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith); Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis; Starring Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Strong; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Monday 7 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 441: The Small Back Room (aka Hour of Glory, 1949)

Powell and Pressburger made quite a few films, but few of them have the profile of their big Technicolor productions like The Red Shoes or The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, among many others, and this black-and-white World War II-set drama about a bomb disposal expert (of sorts) is one of their lesser-remembered productions. It stars David Farrar, best known from his turn in another of their better-known films from a few years below, Black Narcissus. He’s playing Sammy Rice, an embittered alcoholic scientist working away in a secret department during the war, who has some good ideas he feels are being smothered by bureaucracy and mismanagement (the government minister is a particular dimwit, as ministers always seem to be), and his relationship with Kathleen Byron’s Susan isn’t exactly going swimmingly either. That’s the set-up for the emotional dramatic arcs, while in the background there’s a MacGuffin involving a new German bomb that’s been killing kids, but the film is mostly focused on those interpersonal dynamics, along with his grumpiness at work. It’s an interesting angle on the war, not as a stage for heroics, but as a grim series of ordeals that everyone struggles through as best they can, not always handling things very well. It also has an excellent noirish, even expressionist, sense of dim lighting, as high contrast shadows are thrown over many scenes. Maybe not the greatest of the Powell and Pressburger collabs, but certainly an intriguing one.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Nigel Balchin); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jack Hawkins, Michael Gough, Cyril Cusack; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 25 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Criterion Sunday 405: Die 3 Groschen-Oper (The Threepenny Opera, aka L’Opéra de quat’sous, 1931)

There are two versions of this film by Pabst, filmed with different central casts but on the same sets on the same days. Both are included on the Criterion edition, but I watched the German one, and after also watching ten minutes of the French version, I do believe the former to be the better. The shadows are deeper and darker, and the lead character of Mackie Messer as played by Rudolf Forster is so much sterner and more forbidding a figure, plus he has a very evilly twirlable moustache unlike Albert Préjean’s clean-faced boyishly roguish criminal in the French version. Of course, I imagine we’re all familiar with the “Mack the Knife” song (“Die Moritat” in German), but aside from the songs the German film feels almost eerily devoid of sound. In this respect it differs from the kind of filmmaking, with orchestral scores to soften the empty moments, which we have since become used to — although it is perhaps also a choice, to emphasise the solitude and darkness of this vision of Victorian London, and the dangers within it. The greatest danger is withheld until the final shots, when Bertolt Brecht’s darkly cynical punchline is unveiled and of course it’s that capitalism is the greatest villain. Perhaps this seems a little old-fashioned, but it still has power.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from the French alternate version, which in some respects could be considered a separate film, there’s a 20 minute comparison of the two versions by academic Charles O’Brien, which is very illuminating about both how it was done, but also the different choices Pabst and his collaborators made in bringing it to the screen, including lightening the tone and literally lighting the set more brightly, giving it a softer more comedic feeling than the darker German original.
  • There’s also a strange and very brief introduction from a 1950s reissue in which Fritz Rasp (who played Peachum) and Ernst Busch (the street singer of “Die Moritat”) look on from a theatre box and Busch sings the original final lyrics. It creates a mood, for sure.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director G. W. Pabst; Writers Béla Balázs, Léo Lania and Ladislaus Vajda (based on the play by Bertolt Brecht with music by Kurt Weill); Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Forster, Carola Neher, Reinhold Schünzel, Lotte Lenya; Length 110 minutes [German version].

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 6 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 368: Corridors of Blood (1958)

Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 367: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler, 1958)

This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.

Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 357: The Fallen Idol (1948)

I mean, yes, the child in this film is annoying, but he’s a child, and it’s his point-of-view, however flawed and naive, that the film is built around. He is Philippe (Bobby Henrey), the son of an ambassador in London’s posh but boring Belgravia (there’s even a scene in the Star Tavern, making me already miss the place) whose parents are off away, so he’s in the care of the butler Baines (Ralph Richardson) and Mrs Baines (Sonia Dresdel), the latter of whom is best understood as a woman wronged, though she is a little bit one note. Which is to say that in his childish enthusiasm for the people around him, he happens onto some secrets and lies, and the rest of the film is about the way in which he tries to keep everything together, or at least the way that he thinks he does, while focusing on creating untruths that help precisely nobody in particular. It’s a film, then, about the corrupting influence of the adult world, with its tawdry affairs and its banal gossip alongside its grandiloquent storytelling (cue a bit of racist imperialism as Baines recounts his imagined stories of Africa). It all looks great, a bit noirish with the black-and-white and the shadows, with Richardson playing a fundamentally good man but whose face suggests a hint of threat at times, and if it feels in service of a moral lesson, it’s at least not hammered home too much.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed; Writers William Templeton, Lesley Storm and Graham Greene (based on Greene’s short story “The Basement Room”); Cinematographer George Périnal; Starring Ralph Richardson, Bobby Henrey, Michèle Morgan, Sonia Dresdel, Jack Hawkins; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 September 2020.

Rocks (2019)

There’s a new American film out in cinemas that’s catching acclaim right now, Miss Juneteenth, but last week saw the belated UK release of Rocks, one of the stand-out films which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival (and Toronto too), and was originally slated for an April release. It’s great to finally have seen it, one of the recent highlights of a new crop of great British films that deal with real lives.


Watching this new and acclaimed British film, I find myself surprised because I sort of had director Sarah Gavron (unfairly no doubt!) pegged in my mind as a fairly bland middlebrow director, though perhaps I was just feeling uncharitable towards the very heritage-film-adjacent Suffragette (2015). However, this project is an entirely different story of quite different people in a different era (well, it’s set in the present). It’s clear, as the filmmakers discuss in a brief video intro that screens before the film, that this was very much a collaboration not just between the two writers but between them and the young first-time actors they found to play most of the roles. And it’s very persuasive (though co-writer Theresa Ikoko is right to question the meaning of the phrase “authentic”), if only — but not only, let me be clear — because it tells a story of characters who aren’t often foregrounded in British films.

Specifically it’s about a Black British girl of Nigerian descent, Olu, but nicknamed “Rocks” (Bukky Bakray), her small brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and her entirely believable set of friends, most notably the slightly gawky Sumaya (Kosar Ali). Rocks finds herself abandoned by her mother and takes a picaresque tour of all these friends’ lives and their disparate living situations. The film is shot by Hélène Louvart as a constant jumble of movement and faces against its East London backdrops (somewhat more close-in than perhaps intended for me, because the cinema I was in showed it in the wrong aspect ratio). Anyway, it’s a great film that deals believably with young British kids navigating their lives, played very much as teenagers with all the awkwardness with words and difficulty around emotions as is too little seen, and makes it into a moving drama.

Rocks film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Gavron; Writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 September 2020.

Little Joe (2019)

I’ve been doing a themed week focused on ‘foreign’ science-fiction, due to the recent release of French film Proxima in cinemas, but once again today’s film is one I’m rather squashing into that remit, being a British film (albeit a co-production with Austria and Germany) in English with British stars. However it’s directed by the wonderful Austrian director Jessica Hausner, one of my favourites, especially for her recent films like this one and Amour Fou. She creates a very controlled and threatening atmosphere in this dystopian sci-fi about genetically modified plants.


I see that this film has been pulling in fairly mixed reviews, probably on account of blending Jessica Hausner’s very particular style, honed over the course of a number of inscrutable dramas about alienation and resentment, to a generic form (broadly speaking, a sort of sci-fi horror thriller). Of course, Hausner’s 2004 film Hotel has a not dissimilar general feel, but she has developed quite a bit as a director since that film, and Little Joe has a supremely polished style. The camera glides around, quite often moving in to focus on the intangible space between characters as much as the people themselves. The threat here, then, is an unseen one in the air, particularly apropos for this particular historical moment one might say (mid-2020), and feels reminiscent of Safe (along with a dissonant score and subtly alienating sound effects), though this film is more directly about the dangers of messing with Nature.

Emily Beecham (sporting a shock of ginger hair reminiscent of earlier iconic roles by her co-star Kerry Fox) is Alice, a scientist working with Ben Whishaw’s Chris on a new houseplant which they hope will promote happiness via some genetic modifications, but… things start to go awry, and eventually it just seems to be Alice who questions the potential dangers of this new plant. Unlike in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way that others become infected are subtle and deniable, such that Alice finds herself questioning her own experiences; the allegorical danger the film raises is not simply that of interfering with nature, but implicates the recognisable contours of our own current workplace culture. It’s stylish and atmospheric, building tension impressively without resorting to hysteria.

Little Joe film posterCREDITS
Director Jessica Hausner; Writers Hausner and Géraldine Bajard; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Monday 22 June 2020.