Brian De Palma is one of the great American filmmakers whose work I’ve never properly explored. I believe he has many great, stylish, compulsive films and he certainly likes to dwell in the sleazy byways of American culture, and amongst those this may be one of the strongest. After all it’s about a filmmaker — well, a man who works capturing sounds to soundtrack sleazy horror slasher movies. In style, it’s 80s through and through but with a core of 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller, like Blowup or The Conversation. Yet despite being so uncannily reminiscent of those earlier (great) films, it holds its own as a stylish thriller, not least because of Travolta’s central performance as a haunted man desperate to find out the truth, and not something you’d expect the man as he is now to be doing. That said, De Palma’s camerawork is pretty slick, and he always knows the good angles to capture the mood he wants. The film never lets up its taut focus, making it another quality addition to this genre.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Brian De Palma; Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond; Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022.
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.
- 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).
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.
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.
I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).
I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.
The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).
It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.
The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.
It’s not as if I don’t feel that I’ve seen variations on this film before, but somehow this film, from this particular era of the 70s — with its slightly washed out, grainy look, its desolate landscapes, its lack of the glamour you might get from a more photogenic locale (this film is set in Boston I believe), and its world-weary acting — all combine to elicit something somehow more affecting. Robert Mitchum is towards the later years of his career and so he shuffles about with the sense of being someone who’s a lifer, who’s never going to get out despite all the young feds (like Richard Jordan) telling him to reform his ways. He continues to supply guns to criminals, and it’s weighing him down and he never quite gets out from under it. Along the way we get hints at the vicious younger kids under him (like Steven Keats as his contact for the guns), but the film doesn’t try to give a sense of an older generation with more scrupulous morals: everyone in this racket is living on borrowed time and can be vicious when they need to be, criminals, cops, the lot. And by sticking to Mitchum’s character for the most part, it keeps it anchored in something human and approachable, rather than being about the process — the thrill of the heist or the satisfaction of piecing it together via policework. In that sense, it reminds me of Melville’s flicks with Alain Delon, just him and some glum streets and the choices he needs to make to keep himself alive moment to moment.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Yates; Writer Paul Monash (based on the novel by George V. Higgins); Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper; Starring Robert Mitchum, Richard Jordan, Peter Boyle, Steven Keats; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 27 October 2021.
Truly, the ‘is it art or is it pornography’ debate is the most boring and irrelevant lines of discussion regarding this film. It certainly does intend to push boundaries, but it’s a film about primarily a sexual relationship, about two people who are inescapably, tragically drawn to one another and so they do spend a lot of their time at it. The filmmaking never feels exploitative though or even prurient, but its clear that as the story goes on and as (in the background) Japan becomes more militarised and drawn towards war, things take on a frantic and slightly dangerous note in their sex. The whole thing is gorgeously staged and filmed, and the leads are compelling to watch, even if they’re just mooching about at home, doing little more than drinking and fvcking, but it’s doomy and evocative, a fascinating way into a peculiar time period where everything looks set to break apart.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Cinematographer Hideo Ito 伊東英男; Starring Eiko Matsuda 松田暎子, Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2001).
A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.
This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.
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).
I’ve always had this film pinned in my head — having seen it a couple of times 20 years ago — as one that’s fun, and rewatching it again, it is, mostly. I feel like I should mention right up-front that there’s a rather hideously racist interlude with Anna Karina in a painted yellow face making some mock-Vietnamese noises, and even if it’s intended to be part of an anti-American satirical rehashing of the conflict in Vietnam, it can’t help but disrupt the film’s tone. Which is otherwise, as mentioned above, pretty playful. It builds on the saturated sun-drenched coastal resort colours of Le Mépris, and sets up some of the apocalyptic imagery that was to come in Godard’s career (in Week End, most notably), as his two criminal-lovers on the run rehearse a sort of Bonnie & Clyde script with a metatextual commentary and little asides to camera, but Godard never repeats the same trick twice, making it feel even a little exhausting at times, as things head towards their colourfully bleak ending. The deeper socio-political dimensions are more evident in some of his other films, but Godard was always most playful about genre and film itself, creating his own playbook of self-referentiality, than about empathy for people’s lives in the world (which may explain the yellowface). Certainly these characters never quite feel like much more than an author’s conceits, but Anna Karina (and Belmondo too, in his way) has an ever-likeable charm that suggests more than the film sometimes does.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Friday 10 September 1999 (before that on VHS at the university, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Wednesday 28 April 2021).