Criterion Sunday 136: Spellbound (1945)

There’s no shortage of likeable hokum in this film, filled as it is with the excitable babble of newly-learned psychoanalytic jargon and dated jokes about mental health issues. Bergman is excellent, there’s that Dalí dream sequence, the gun boldly pointed at the screen. But gosh it doesn’t half seem a bit ludicrous, with all kinds of conveniently-remembered details to move the plot along, the redemptive power of believing in someone’s innocence because they’re pretty handsome (oh Gregory Peck), and so much condescending and mansplaining to the unfortunate Ingrid Bergman’s doctor, who to her credit largely shrugs it off. My favourite sequence is where the police connect the dots by drawing glasses on her glamour headshot to figure out she’s actually (gasp!) that educated woman they met once in a doctor’s office.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders) | Cinematographer George Barnes | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 December 2016

Criterion Sunday 135: Rebecca (1940)

What a film, eh? Rebecca feels in many ways like the ur-text for every filmed gothic melodrama where people stand in gloomy rooms withholding secrets from one other, whilst dolefully looking out of frame clutching some treasured object. It’s all gripping novelistic stuff that most people will probably be familiar with already — a naïve, unnamed young woman (“I” in the novel) marries a wealthy landowner and finds she can never live up to her unseen but omnipresent (not least in the title) predecessor. It’s Hitchcock’s first proper Hollywood film, even if still largely set in England, and it’s made with panache, employing a fluid, gliding camera in glorious monochrome. Joan Fontaine pitches her role just the right side of coquetry, and Laurence Olivier has the gruff ways of a Mr Darcy type.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier) | Cinematographer George Barnes | Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson | Length 130 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 November 2016

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)

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan | Writers Neil Jordan and David Leland | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016

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 98: L’avventura (1960)

Like a lot of filmmakers favoured by the Criterion Collection, Italian modernist auteur Michelangelo Antonioni has been through his critical ups and downs, but I think his minimalist dramatic style makes him more apt for modern reassessment than the carnivalesque spirit of his compatriot Fellini. For a long time, L’avventura was his quintessential work, and looking back on it around 55 years on, its shimmering monochrome has held up well. It still resists easy enjoyment though, primarily due to its still-radical narrative aporia (though perhaps less controversial than it was upon its release): not unlike the same year’s Psycho, it builds up a central character for the first half hour (in this case, Lea Massari’s Anna), only to have her disappear suddenly from the narrative. Antonioni doesn’t appear interested in why she disappears — it’s more of a narrative device than anything else — but in the way the remaining characters, Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), react to her disappearance and find solace in one another. I readily admit, though, that this is a simplistic assessment of the way things progress; this is no grand romance, so much as part of a game played by the bored bourgeois upper classes, reminiscent of the dissipated world of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (another almost contemporary story in its original form). In this sense, a character disappearing seems more like a statement of feelings (lost, disconnected from her friends), than a tragedy to be solved. Much of the emotional turmoil is rehearsed not through words but via formal means, using the carefully-controlled mise en scène, framing characters against landscapes and buildings, while others leave or re-enter the frame in a sort of choreography of passion. It’s wonderfully strange stuff, and is undoubtedly one of the finer and more classically-balanced achievements of a cinema starting to become obsessed instead (via various New Waves) with the energy and brashness of youth.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the commentary, there’s a 25 minute piece with Olivier Assayas gushing over the film, excitedly throwing out ideas in a quintessentially French way, illustrated with clips from the film. It’s quite informative and does suggest ways into what is a notoriously opaque and difficult film. There are also a couple of essays by Antonioni, one about the film and one about acting, which are read by Jack Nicholson, who also contributes his thoughts about working with him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Aldo Scavarda | Starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari | Length 143 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 8 May 2016 (and previously on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, April 1998)

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

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016

Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.


Midnight Special (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols | Cinematographer Adam Stone | Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016

Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003)

French director Jacques Rivette’s recent death may not have been a surprise, but it was unwelcome for fans of his kind of long-form slow-burn filmmaking — always a rarity on the film landscape — which seems to have aged little in the intervening years, unlike some of his mainstream contemporaries. The 1970s was a difficult decade for a lot of the old nouvelle vague filmmakers — difficult in the sense of seeing them struggle to integrate narrative with a rapidly fragmenting anti-authoritarian politics, though plenty of essential works came out of it — but Rivette continued to put out excellent films in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that repay the effort in watching them. The 2.5 hour running time of Histoire de Marie et Julien is about average for most Rivette films, but it allows for the development of feeling between two actors who seemingly couldn’t be more mismatched, Polish emigré Jerzy Radziwiłowicz as a clock repairer, and Emmanuelle Béart, who for various reasons doesn’t seem defined by her work. That said, the development of the story makes it clear that they’re not supposed to be, as there are increasingly odd hints that Marie isn’t what she seems. It’s all elaborated very subtly in the filming over the course of the four-act structure, with a certain quality of detachedness to Béart’s performance and the use of various mysterious objects imbued with an uncanny power (something of a favoured device for Rivette). As ever, Rivette’s cinema rewards greater attention from the viewer, so for my own part I can only confess to having watched it at home (never ideal) and that a cinema screening — should one ever come around, and one can only hope that there will be some retrospectives mounted over the next few years — may be the best way to experience his films.


FILM REVIEW
Director Jacques Rivette | Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette | Cinematographer William Lubtchansky | Starring Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Emmanuelle Béart, Anne Brochet | Length 150 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 January 2016