Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

Criterion Sunday 87: Alexander Nevsky (1938)

By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).

Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev | Writers Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko | Cinematographer Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Vera Ivashova | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 62: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

© The Criterion Collection

I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer | Cinematographer Rudolph Maté | Starring Renée Falconetti | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, an on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, Sunday 15 November 2015)

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

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


The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare, 2003)

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany, dir. John Irvin) [Sun 1 Mar at home]. A rather forgettable and silly little film about a group of musicians in Liverpool led by Colm Meaney’s gruff expat, convening on an Irish music competition in County Clare, where he works out some issues with his estranged brother (Bernard Hill, doing a rather patchy accent). It’s pleasant enough, in a passing-the-time sort of way. **


Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014, USA, dir. Neil Burger) [Fri 27 Mar at home]. As the second one is out now in cinemas, I thought I’d catch up what I’d missed. There’s plenty to like here, especially Shailene Woodley in the title role of Tris, who doesn’t fit into her society. It’s based on a popular young adult dystopian novel cycle (one of several in recent memory), and I’d guess the vision of society is particularly appealing to teenagers who want to imagine themselves as standing out from the herds of their easily-categorised conformistly slavish peers. So it works on an emotional level, perhaps, but even a moment’s further thought about the practicalities of a society in which everyone is supposed to fit into a single personality type (Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, et al) — except for (SURPRISE!) our heroine — reveals it to be particularly ridiculous. Still, it all moves along at a fair clip, and films about righteous revolutionaries challenging the basis of society are always fun to watch. **½


London: The Modern Babylon (2012)

London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK, dir. Julien Temple) [Sun 15 Mar at home]. This was always going to appeal to me, what with being quite a London-phile, so it’s hard for me to offer a perspective to those not quite so wrapped up in Britain’s capital city, but I really enjoyed this documentary assemblage of London throughout (visually-recorded) history. As one who has done particularly strong work documenting punk music in the 70s and 80s, Julien Temple naturally dwells at greater length on this era, but it’s fascinating to see the development of the city over time, using archival clips, film and TV footage, and contemporary interviews with witnesses to the past, including a vivacious Tony Benn. ***½


Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany, dir. Éric Rohmer) [Wed 4 Mar at the BFI Southbank (NFT1)]. This is quite the oddest film from a director otherwise known for his small-scale, intimate and improvised relationship dramas. It’s an adaptation of a medieval story cycle by Chrétien de Troyes, dealing with King Arthur and his court, specifically on the journey of the titular character (here translated as “Perceval the Welsh”) through youth to adulthood, as he undertakes tasks that prove his worthiness as a knight. This would be straightforward enough as a standard big-budget epic, but it’s rather as if Rohmer had seen Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac of a few years earlier and decided that that film, despite its cartoonish bloodletting and knights constantly clanking around in heavy armour, was just far too naturalistic. And so here there isn’t even the barest attempt to try and render the long-lost world of knights and chivalry with any realism, as it all takes place on a soundstage with colourfully-painted props and stylised two-dimensional trees, while dialogue is frequently delivered in the third person. There’s a chorus, too, of musicians and singers who stand to the side and narrate some of the action. However, after the initial shock, it all starts to exert a sort of fascinating hold and ends up working rather nicely. ***½


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).jpg

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA, dir. Stephen Chbosky) [Sat 28 Mar at home]. There’s never been any shortage of high-school-set coming-of-age films, and in a sense this story (adapated from the director’s novel about his own upbringing) offers little that’s particularly surprising. However, there are nice performances from Logan Lerman as the shy central character Charlie, and Emma Watson and Ezra Miller as the flamboyantly self-dramatising pair he latches onto, who help him to come out from his shell. ***


The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige (2006, UK/USA, dir. Christopher Nolan) [Sat 7 Mar at home]. I’ve never been particularly enamoured of director Christopher Nolan, who like his contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson has always seemed to craft films which are almost too self-consciously full of their own importance. However, Nolan has tended to show more interest in generic trappings, and at the very least this story of a pair of rival 19th century stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) is plenty of fun to watch. The film delves particularly into class differences between the two, while using its setting and theme to pull some narrative tricks on the viewer, in ways that are far more satisfying than more recent fare like Now You See Me. ***

Criterion Sunday 11: Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957)

Ingmar Bergman, and particularly this film of his, has long been considered a sort of byword for chilly existential angst, and indeed the iconic scene of the knight (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) has been recycled more regularly than most film images over the years, often for mocking comic purposes. And certainly there’s a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the existence and nature of God and the Devil — the story is filtered through the consciousness of a man who has been away ten years on the Crusades, torn asunder from his happy home life, not unlike Odysseus. At the film’s outset he finds himself, along with his squire (Gunnar Björnstrand), dashed on the rocks of his homeland, hence the visitation from Death. Yet what I think gets lost in that reductive summation of the film’s legacy is quite how comic it is (though it’s comedy sometimes like that found in Bresson, another forbidding cinematic master of the existential — you’re never quite sure if it was really intended or how deeply it runs, and that can make for a confusing viewing experience). It’s a much fresher and more watchable film than you might expect, coming to it only from its reputation, and the ways that it deals with crises of faith never overwhelms the human drama, as the story of the knight and his squire intersects with a band of travelling players. Along the way there are comic characters (the carpenter Plog, for example, whose story involves a bit of knockabout farce) and an understated sense of life in the mediæval era, which points up both the social and religious miasma without undue condescension.

Criterion Extras: There’s so much packed onto this disc that I haven’t yet watched it all (will update this post when I do), but the commentary is by film scholar Peter Cowie, who certainly knows his Bergman. He narrates a half-hour featurette charting Bergman’s entire career, and though he gets a bit carried away at times (stating that Bergman had a “unique understanding of the psyche of women” is surely a bit of a stretch on several levels), it’s still a good introduction to the man’s work. Cowie also interviewed the star Max von Sydow, presented here as a 20-minute audio interview. There’s a short filmed introduction by Bergman himself (made in 2003 for Swedish television), who is, to say the least, rather cranky, and his interviewer Marie Nyeröd made a longer portrait called Bergman Island (2006), also included here. Finally, there’s an audio tribute by Woody Allen presented alongside clips of Bergman’s key films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman (based on his play Trämålning) | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Bengt Ekerot | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1998 (and at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 7 December 2014)

LFF: Trudno byt’ bogom (Hard to Be a God, 2013)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Capricci Films

This last film by Russian director Aleksei German (or Guerman, or Gherman), best known for his 1984 film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin), was completed and released posthumously by his wife (and co-screenwriter) Svetlana Karmalita. German is a director with few credits over his long career, and this film too was made over a long period, starting as far back as 2000. It’s an adaptation of a science-fiction novel and indeed shares some elements with it, but the overwhelming sense of period setting is rather more mediæval — the film is set in an alternate universe which is stuck in something more akin to our own so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The stark monochromatic visual world of the film is dominated by mud. There’s mud, blood, faecal matter, sweat and piss everywhere, permeating every shot, utterly inescapable. So dense are these textures that it is in fact very difficult to even follow what the supposed plot is, such that reading the plot summary on Wikipedia made me realise I’d taken almost none of this in. This should probably be a damning excoriation, then, except that the film is such an effective evocation of a thoroughgoing worldview, one of fleshy corporeality in all its excesses. The shots are often carefully choreographed, in what seems like a parade of squalor, as a series of mud-caked faces pass by the camera, often in close-up and frequently breaking the fourth wall, like the camera is moving across a vast Bosch-like canvas, revealing yet further depredations of humanity in extremis. This does mean that what plot there is can be rather hard to decipher, save that the central character is one Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a nobleman who even amongst all the filth often manages to keep his white silk shirt spotless, who witnesses and comments on all the squalor he sees, as he searches for a mysterious character called Budakh. Beyond that, I really couldn’t say much, save that it is at its heart a spectacular visual work.


CREDITS || Director Aleksei German | Writers Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita (based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) | Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko | Starring Leonid Yarmolnik | Length 170 minutes