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

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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)

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

UKJFF: Saul fia (Son of Saul, 2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).


Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.

Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.

Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.


© Sony Pictures Classics

FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival
Director László Nemes | Writers László Nemes and Clara Royer | Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély | Starring Géza Röhrig | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lynne Ramsay | Writers Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 47: Insomnia (1997)

This Norwegian film is consciously harking back to film noir with its murder-mystery plot and harried, increasingly strung-out and disoriented detective trying to solve the crime, while in the meantime desperately attempting to cover up his own misdeeds. Stellan Skarsgård steps into the role of a Swedish detective who arrives in town with his almost-retired colleague, and behind him a vague and chequered career history (hence why he’s working in the north of Norway), but instead of drink and drugs and dames, it’s the effect of the constant sun which causes his mental dissolution. It’s a small quirk of the setting in some respects, but it comes to define the look and feel of the film. Of course, this kind of Scandi noir has since become very popular in fiction and on television screens, but Insomnia sets itself apart by Skarsgård’s fine acting, who as Detective Engström projects an almost emotionless surface while everything seems to be going awry beneath. By the end, the locals seem to be happy to wash their hands of their Swedish interlopers, but the sun never does set.

Criterion Extras: The disc includes a 20 minute interview from 2014 between the director and his star in which they revisit the film and talk about how it was made and about Skarsgård’s acting method. There are also two of Skjoldbjærg’s early short films, made under the auspices of the UK’s National Film & Television School where he studied.

Vinterveien (Near Winter, 1993) is a quiet rural Norwegian film about an elderly man, suffering from some unspecified but degenerative illness, being visited by his nephew and nephew’s (English) girlfriend. It uses its focus on the natural world, which is starting to draw in as winter comes, finding metaphorical links with the elderly man’s decline, before moving into some boldly apocalyptic imagery towards the end.

The other is Close to Home (1994), in which an uptight older English man is visited by the cops regarding a woman he talked to outside a club who had subsequently been raped, in which although apparently innocent of the charge, he starts to wonder about his own capacity to commit the crime (thus making the audience wonder about his culpability). It’s an interesting little psychological study, around half an hour in duration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erik Skjoldbjærg | Writers Erik Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius | Cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen | Starring Stellan Skarsgård | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a cinema in London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 2 August 2015)

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

It must be easy to take against this film, after all it has pretty much no likeable characters. The title character, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), is a sociopathic grifter in the 1950s, taking advantage of opportunities to inveigle himself into the company of the wealthy, upper-class New York set, sponsored to fly out to Italy by the father of dissolute Ivy Leaguer Dickie (Jude Law), who is living la dolce vita with his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), playing jazz and mooching from seaside resort to bustling city. Dickie is an entitled asshole, friendly to a point, with friends (like Freddie, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who are even worse. And along the way, Ripley manages to win the attentions of Cate Blanchett’s heiress Meredith by pretending to be Dickie, which leads to some almost-screwball situations (the comedy premise somewhat attenated by the resulting murders). Only Marge manages to be in any way pleasant, but she’s as much a product of her upbringing as Dickie, though she comes to see through Ripley’s dissimulations. Still, it may run long, but it’s all acted extremely well, with Jude Law particularly rising to Dickie’s arrogant golden boy, and John Seale’s cinematography looks great, though you can’t really fail with locations like Venice. Matt Damon plays Ripley very inscrutably, and the filmmakers toy with a gay subtext though they thankfully stop short of having it explain Ripley’s sociopathy. It’s a strong psychological thriller, and among Minghella’s finer films.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith) | Cinematographer John Seale | Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman | Length 138 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 29 August 2015

Hot Pursuit (2015)

I feel like I spend quite a bit of time trying to say nice things about films which aren’t objectively any good. I shouldn’t really have liked Exeter or Return to Sender to take two recent low-achieving candidates for the straight-to-DVD shelf, but they had at least a kernel of something I enjoyed within them. Hot Pursuit is no doubt competently put together by a Hollywood journeywoman — and it’s nice to see that women just as well as men can be picked on for such a thankless task — but it suffers from a fatal flaw, without which no film can ever truly achieve its potential. It has a shitty script. It has a script so insufferably bad that it contrives ridiculous plot twist upon banal cliched plot device to try to distract the audience from the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Now this kind of thing can be redeemed by a light touch and self-aware acting (I’d say She’s Funny That Way manages to at least partially rescue a tired and similarly-screwball scenario by such means), but neither Witherspoon as the by-the-book strait-laced Texan cop or Vergara as the sultry gangster’s wife are ever allowed to stop being shrill and incompetent at everything they do, except for a short scene of heart-to-heart bonding (I think it’s over Witherspoon’s character getting a man) and another which allows us to imagine just for the briefest of moments (like, maybe 10-15 seconds) that Vergara may turn out not to be a hideous Latin American stereotype, but another slightly-less-hideous Latin American stereotype. In fact for a female-directed film with two female leads it’s remarkably willing to degrade and insult them for our comic delectation — except that it’s not funny, not even a tiny little bit. Not during the “hilarious” transphobic sight gag in the opening montage, nor the “comedy” explanation of menstruation in order to get out of a fix which relies on all men being entirely unaware of either its existence or what it actually entails, certainly not during the “slapstick” sequence where they pretend to be lesbian lovers to get out of an entanglement with a redneck wielding a rifle, and most of all not for the fact that Witherspoon is apparently a trained law enforcement officer and one who is supposed to take herself incredibly seriously (for laughs, of course), yet cannot seem to do anything with any measure of professionalism. But you know, whatever. I’m sure it’s been successful and everyone who made it are happy with their paycheques and the return it’s made on its investment and etc etc. Just don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking this will be interesting or transgressive or even enjoyable just because it’s a female buddy comedy directed by a woman and passes the Bechdel Test. Because it isn’t interesting and it isn’t transgressive and it definitely isn’t enjoyable.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Anne Fletcher | Writers David Feeney and John Quaintance | Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton | Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara | Length 87 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 3 August 2015