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)

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LFF: Dap canh giua khong trung (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.


It may be a co-production between many different countries, while the title may be a little unwieldy, but this Vietnamese film is a serious and stylish take on one, relatively poor, young woman’s life. The lead character is Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), who lives in a little apartment by a railway line, just about making ends meet when she gets pregnant to her somewhat deadbeat boyfriend. Her resulting indecision about whether or how to get an abortion is partly what the title is alluding to, not to mention her boyfriend’s addiction to cockfighting that becomes one of the film’s key metaphors. Huyen’s repeated attempts to go through with the procedure never quite seem to work out for various reasons, and when she gets involved with sex work in order to pay her bills, her feelings alter subtly again when she meets up with a concerned client. One gets the sense at times that perhaps not all of this plotting is entirely believable if taken as naturalistic, but the film’s style pushes beyond that into a more dream-like world. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, though the film’s female first-time director never quite fetishises the poverty of the lead characters (as some other films are wont to do in this kind of setting). There’s a sense of eroticism throughout, as well, although this is sometimes resisted by Huyen as a character. The film ends on an unresolved note — an increasingly common practice these days I fell — but this works well within the narrative which the film has constructed. Definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and a film well worth checking out.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director/Writer Hoàng Điệp Nguyễn | Cinematographer Quang Minh Pham | Starring Thùy Anh Nguyễn | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Ritzy, London, Saturday 17 October 2015

Miss Julie (2014)

It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.


© Columbia TriStar

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg) | Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman | Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015

Drone (2014)

The contention that the aggression (if not strictly speaking “wars”) undertaken by the US government take an unacceptable toll on not just the lives of civilians around the world, but on basic human liberties, is surely not much contested at a broad level. In this film, it’s the use of the titular unmanned war craft which structures a story of unseen (and often unacknowledged) conflicts, largely in the border provinces of Pakistan under the guise of targeting Al Qaeda. The filmmaker interviews compelling and loquacious subjects including a number of former drone pilots, suggesting unsettling links between that programme and modern video gaming (one of these pilots is disarmingly like one’s mental stereotype of the gamer), as well as others working around the industry. A particular highlight is a startlingly ingenuous take on drone warfare from a man who helped to create and market the technology. Understandably, perhaps, there’s little in the way of corrective voices from the agencies who most rely on drone warfare, so the film’s thesis tends to be a one-way street. Yet it’s terrifying to consider the implications of this impersonal method of warfare — voiced in the film most cogently by a former military adviser to Colin Powell — not just to unnamed Pakistani targets, but to all of us wherever we live, and that’s something the film puts across keenly.


© Flimmer Film

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Tonje Hessen Schei | Cinematographer Anna Myking | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Monday 1 June 2015

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA, dir. Joss Whedon) [Sat 25 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Look at how crowded that poster is and you’ll get some sense of the film, assuming you haven’t already seen it. I enjoyed it perfectly fine, but I get the sense that whereas for the average punter, it’s a long film, for fans of yr Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who are heavily invested in these characters, it’s probably not long enough. They even add new characters (one of whose superpowers I’m still not clear about, but perhaps it’s the power to do whatever’s required by the narrative at any given point). The crowdedness of the ensemble cast is evident in the number of scenes where everyone’s just standing around, stepping forward periodically to deliver their line and then stepping back. Whedon does the best he can and adds those nice little self-aware lines which define his work (like Linda Cardellini’s “I’ll always support your avenging…”, not the mention the snarky asides) but it’s still a big pummelling superhero film that has a protracted denouement, a nonsense evil villain plan (though James Spader is always dependable in such a role) and lots and lots of CGI effects (which are at times so indifferently executed I thought I was actually watching a video game, as in the opening sequence). YMMV. ***


The Book of Life (2014)

The Book of Life (2014, USA, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) [Mon 6 Apr on a plane]. A film I missed when it came out was available on my trip over to the States, so I availed myself of the opportunity, and even given the small size of the screen, it still impressed by its artful and gorgeously-coloured use of Mexican motifs in its story of rival suitors for a lady’s affections. It nods towards female empowerment, even if it has an old-fashioned adventure feel, but ultimately it’s the richly textured design that saves it. ***


En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2014)

En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France, dir. Roy Andersson) [Thu 30 Apr at Curzon Soho]. Its pace is slow and deliberate, constructed in a series of tableaux-like images which frequently fade to black before the next image commences, and in many ways it takes its cue from that first scene, in which a tourist couple examine birds in glass cases, one of which is the titular (stuffed) pigeon. The humans throughout the film are themselves as waxy and pallid as dead creatures placed on display, and the sets are deliberately minimal in a depressingly beige way. But while Roy Andersson’s film is nominally a (black, deadpan) comedy, it’s really a cautionary moral tale of the bleak dangers inherent in capitalism, as our two Beckettian like heroes wander through a glum dyspeptic world retailing their ‘comedy’ joke items to little interest. There are restrained outbreaks of weirdness — jaunty songs, alternate realities, dreams — which suggest something deeper is going on, and indeed I think this one will work in most people’s minds afterwards, even if it sometimes seems a little inert while it’s going on. ***


Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent, 2015)

Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA, dir. Robert Schwentke) [Sun 29 Mar at Cineworld West India Quay]. Having enjoyed star Shailene Woodley’s work elsewhere, I decided to watch the first film in the Divergent series in anticipation of this new one (and reviewed it in my March roundup). Usually the way these kinds of series go is that they drop off in quality with each successive instalment, but the first set up such a ridiculous and unbelievable world (dividing everyone into mutually-exclusive castes based on ability) that the bar wasn’t too high, and indeed has been cleared by Insurgent. I’m not saying the second film is a triumph — the world is still constructed along weirdly rigid lines, and the test that evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) sets for Woodley’s Tris is a bit confusing — but it opens up its world in interesting ways and sets up a next episode that I’m actually looking forward to.


Notting Hill (1999)

Notting Hill (1999, UK, dir. Roger Michell) [Sun 19 Apr on a plane]. I’m probably not supposed to like this, but what can you do. Every time it comes on — and I only tend to watch it when it’s there right in front of me — I end up watching the whole thing, and this has happened more than once, so it’s not just some kind of momentary weakness. I’ve not been sold on all screenwriter Richard Curtis’s films, though I’ve liked more than I’ve disliked, but Notting Hill just seems to work despite all its inherent naffness. Julia Roberts plays a big-time Hollywood star, Hugh Grant is a diffident English bookshop owner, they meet cute, one things leads to another, there are some funny setpieces, and well, it passes the time very pleasantly. **½


Pitch Perfect (2012)

Pitch Perfect (2012, USA, dir. Jason Moore) [Fri 24 Apr at a friend’s flat]. I’ve reviewed it before, and it’ll probably show up on this list many times more in the future, because I do love Pitch Perfect. It’s not just Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve recently had cause to hymn once again for The Last Five Years, but the ensemble cast and the time-honoured building-to-a-big-showdown narrative construction, not to mention the hummable music. ****


Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush (2012, USA, dir. David Koepp) [Sat 4 Apr at home]. At a certain level this is a fairly slight premise — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bicycle courier must deliver a package across Manhattan by a deadline, hotly pursued by Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop — but this is essentially an action film, and you don’t want to complicate the purity too much. That said, the filmmakers weave in a story of immigration and bureaucratic corruption without overwhelming the central chase motif, which is handled with a great deal of vigour and momentum. It also (as far as I can tell) charts a realistic depiction of New York geography as Gordon-Levitt frantically switches up routes to his destination. ***½


Wild Card (2015)

Wild Card (2015, USA, dir. Simon West) [Tue 31 Mar at Cineworld Wood Green]. The great Jason Statham returns in another action romp which as per some other recent outings, shows just a hint of actorly character development around the edges, as he essays the role of Nick Wild, Las Vegas security specialist. Most of the big name cast members (and there are a few: Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara, Hope Davis, Anne Heche) are there for single scenes only, leaving the main showdown to be between Statham and Milo Ventimiglia as a narcissistic, abusive gangster. If you’ve seen a Statham actioner before, you’ll probably recognise the broad contours, but in the tightness of the filming and the polish of the script this one is probably his best since Safe. ***