Criterion Sunday 138: Rashomon (1950)

Though it may be one of those films that’s always on a best-of list somewhere, and therefore has the sense of being a boring dusty old classic, thankfully it’s for many good reasons and none of them involve being bored. Whatever else, it must be one of the most influential movies ever, not least for its audacious structure, moving back and forward in time and presenting overlapping testimonies on a rape/murder, each of which conflict with the others. It’s a film about the power and responsibility of storytelling, and of the infinite variety of interpretation, made by a filmmaker who — more than most others — has utter mastery over narrative exposition in filmic form. Kurosawa really is peerless in this regard; every cut and every scene moves the narrative forward in some way, or develops a theme of the film. The acting is iconic (suitably so) and much has been written about the sun-dappled cinematography. But for all the exegeses and critical plaudits, it stands up as a film which still entertains and educates.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is a documentary called A Testimony as an Image (2012). This is, essentially, a making-of extra, albeit with the benefit of over a half-century of hindsight. The few remaining living crew members who worked on Kurosawa’s film come together to discuss their memories of its creation, so we get plenty about how the script came together (from one of the assistant directors, and a script supervisor), then about the set construction (from one of the lighting people), about that notable cinematography and the challenges of shooting in a dark forest, and about the stresses Kurosawa was under to get the release finished despite setbacks include a studio fire. It’s based around these reminiscences, with a few archival shots and some explanatory text, but these elderly men (and one woman) retain vivid memories and their recollections are worth listening to.

Also on the disc are around 15 minutes of excerpts from a documentary about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and a short address to camera by Robert Altman about how all the influences he stole from Kurosawa and from this film in particular. There’s also a halting radio interview with Takashi Shimura from around 1960, which is interesting if not especially enlightening. Donald Richie’s commentary track helps to pull out a lot of the themes, and engages the viewer with an awareness of all that Kurosawa and his team achieve in the film, making it even better and more interesting (I rewatched it with the commentary immediately after the film, and it didn’t get boring at all).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (based on short stories “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 14 April 1999 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 January 2017)

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Criterion Sunday 133: Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988)

Watching this film for a second time (albeit decades after my first viewing), I find it a curious experience. Obviously I knew the outcome but in a sense the film never really tries to hide it — you may not know the specifics, but it’s clear from the outset who the bad guy is, and once he’s selected his target, it’s broadly clear what happens to that person. The drama is in the details of the crime, and the single-mindedness of purpose of each of the three men wrapped up in this drama: our bad guy (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), our victim’s boyfriend (Gene Bervoets), and our director (George Sluizer). It prefigures some of what Michael Haneke would go on to do in the 1990s onwards, cynically manipulating audience expectation in quite a nasty way. I don’t like Haneke’s films but I have at least a respect for the craft, and so it is here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director George Sluizer | Writers George Sluizer and Tim Krabbé (based on Krabbé’s novel Het Gouden Ei, “The Golden Egg”) | Cinematographer Toni Kuhn | Starring Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 20 November 2016)

Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera, 2001)

Unquestionably a singular and odd film by veteran filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, revisiting themes in his early-career masterpiece Branded to Kill, albeit with a woman assassin. The ‘opera’ aspect of the title shouldn’t be underestimated, as, although without songs, it has a lot of the theatricality of that format: the frontal staging, addresses to camera, the high-key lighting in a very clear and uncluttered frame, and the very frugal use of movement. Suzuki at times prefers to use empty shots with strong sound effects over people doing things in frame. So in short, it’s not your ordinary film. Like opera, though, the plot is actually fairly straightforward: an assassin (Makiko Esumi), ranked #3 by her Guild, has to contend with her fellow assassins (not least the mysterious Hundred Eyes, #1), in order to claim the first place, while also being stalked by a 10-year-old wannabe (Hanae Kan). It may be filmed in a very idiosyncratic way, but it’s never without visual flair and parades an array of gorgeous saturated colours.


FILM REVIEW
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writers Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura | Cinematographer Yonezo Maeda | Starring Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 17 January 2017

LFF 2016 Day Twelve

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun. [***½]


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise. [***]

Criterion Sunday 92: Fiend Without a Face (1958)

After the previous week’s The Blob comes another film from the same year, but from the other side of the Atlantic — not that you’d necessarily guess, given its Canadian setting and imported actors (okay, Surrey stretches credulity even as Manitoba, and some of the accents are ropey to say the least). It’s a deeply silly sci-fi story of mind control gone awry, and the audience is kept waiting for the big reveal of the slithery brain monsters by the narrative contortions whereby these creatures remain invisible while they are drawing on… NUCLEAR POWER. It’s no less badly acted than any other similar film of the era, and there’s a hammy turn from English veteran Kynaston Reeves as a demented professor, while the leads are clean-cut Major Jeff (Marshall Thompson) and the professor’s stalwart student Barbara (Kim Parker, who has a stronger role than the poster’s depiction of her in a bath towel might suggest).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arthur Crabtree | Writer Herbert J. Leder (based on the short story “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long) | Cinematographer Lionel Banes | Starring Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 91: The Blob (1958)

Criterion occasionally pulls out a vaguely exploitational B-movie from the vaults, and this is no less enjoyable than, say, Carnival of Souls or Blood for Dracula, and hinges on a similarly low-budget aesthetic that maximimises the scares by only obliquely referring to the terror at its heart. In this case, it’s the gelatinous threat of the title, and the film’s unsurprisingly hokey effects are pushed into the background by a story that focuses on “teen” couple Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) and their friends in a close-knit small town. The teenagers aren’t the wild rebels that Corman had started to capitalise on earlier in the decade, but largely conservative law-abiding ones (they do all look firmly in their 30s, to be fair), and occasional moments of tension between them and the authorities are quickly subsumed by a shared desire to defeat the unknown threat. You get the sense, given the era, that this is allegorising any number of things, but most notably the Red Scare of Communism, meaning its outcome may never be in question but the ending has an amusingly provisional quality. Of course, if you remember anything, it’s likely to be the jaunty and goofy Burt Bacharach-penned title tune.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. | Writers Kay Linakar [as “Kate Phillips”] and Theodore Simonson (based on an idea by Irvine H. Millgate) | Cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding | Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 89: Sisters (1973)

Another Hitchcockian genre exercise from his greatest directorial fan Brian De Palma (he even uses Bernard Herrmann for the score), this is an enjoyable story of a French-Canadian woman, Danielle (Margot Kidder), with a Siamese twin sister Dominique who appears to be guilty of murdering a man Danielle has brought home. Danielle’s ex-husband/doctor (William Finley) is involved in the intrigue also — he loiters around, keeping an eye on her at all times — and the unravelling of this twisted scenario provides the bulk of the film’s running time. The split identity of Margot Kidder’s character (possibility a split personality, too) is formally invoked by the periodic use of split screen to advance the action, but the truth is never quite clear. The film’s mental health themes are a little heavy-handed for modern audiences but if you see this as a filmic hommage rather than an exploration of personality disorders, it makes more sense, and even allows for an absurdist supporting role for Charles Durning as a PI who seems to be eternally doomed to keep watch on an abandoned couch (I can’t really explain). Still, if it’s hommage, it’s all capably done and executed with flair.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Brian De Palma | Writers Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose | Cinematographer Gregory Sandor | Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley | Length 92 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.


© The Weinstein Company

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino | Cinematographer Robert Richardson | Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern | Length 187 minutes || Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 58: Peeping Tom (1960)

© The Criterion Collection

Peeping Tom is famous for ruining Michael Powell’s career due to the venomous rage with which it was received on its release, yet there’s a lot now to say about it. Certainly you can see elements within it that might not have endeared it to a filmgoing public (or critics) brought up in an era before this film and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho of a few months later had such a profound effect on what it meant to do film horror. It’s a tortured allegory about the role of the filmmaker, as Michael Powell’s stand-in Mark Lewis (played by German actor Carl Boehm, later to star in a number of Fassbinder movies) is obsessed with filming women while he kills them, one of his victims being The Red Shoes star Moira Shearer. Powell himself shows up in cameos as Lewis’s sadistic father, an academic whose specialism was the concept of fear, so clearly this story of filmmaker-as-torturer was one that appealed to him personally (whether or not Powell himself was a particularly tyrannical director, though surely he was no Hitchcock in that regard). In any case, the result is a beautifully-crafted film, filled with rich saturated colours, and largely taking place in the London rooming house that Mark owns and partially lets out to a family, whose daughter (Anna Massey) strikes up a friendship with Mark. (For connoisseurs of London, there are also some fetching street corner scenes in Soho and Fitzrovia.) It may have inspired no end of graduate essays for its deconstruction of the wall between filmmaker, actors and audience, it’s also a fascinating film to watch and one which exerts a real psychological hold.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Powell | Writer Leo Marks | Cinematographer Otto Heller | Starring Karlheinz Böhm [as “Carl Boehm”], Anna Massey, Moira Shearer | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 28 June 2001 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 October 2015)

The Dressmaker (2015)

I’ve seen a fair few strange films this year but in some ways The Dressmaker might be the oddest of the lot, and the film it most reminds me of tonally is The Voices. There’s something to that blend of gruesomeness and light-hearted comedy which can often go wrong, and I’m not convinced that it’s been fully solved here, but it certainly finds a better balance than The Voices did. Largely that may be down to the bright, dusty, rural Australian setting, and to Kate Winslet’s spirited performance in the title role of Tilly Dunnage, returned to her hometown after 20 years, having left under the shadow of an unsolved child murder. The town she returns to has that Blue Velvet tinge of nastiness under the surface, and there are brief unpleasant hints of rape and spousal abuse that crop up and are just as swiftly dusted away (one hardly needs more than a hint of it to colour our perceptions of some of the characters). The town is filled with its odd local types, fairly broadly played in most cases (the hunchbacked pharmacist for example, or Hugo Weaving’s crossdressing policeman), and in others rather more delicately (nice to see Kerry Fox in a small role as a brutal schoolteacher). At a plot level, it swerves all over the place, and there are at least a few different endings that each have a finality in their own way, not least the budding romance between Tilly and the down-to-earth Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). The director and screenwriters (husband-and-wife team of Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan) do their best to keep it all together, but there’s a waywardness to the tone that at its best is delightfully barmy, but can get wearying at times. No, if this film is likeable it’s because of the winsome Winslet, and of course those glamorous 50s dress designs in which she soon has the town outfitted, for this is nothing if not a glamorous film.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse | Writers Jocelyn Moorhouse and P. J. Hogan (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham) | Cinematographer Donald McAlpine | Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015