Criterion Sunday 193: Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A whodunit movie, I suppose, but one in which that all seems a little beside the point by the end (it’s a really short scene of ‘it was me all along!’ ‘Oh, okay then’ or something like that; and I won’t remember the plot contrivances by this time next week). This is a film about the detective (Louis Jouvet) — the title refers to the address of the Paris city police, somewhat in the manner of Scotland Yard in the UK — and the film tracks him as he follows leads and hunches in investigating the murder of a wealthy creep. In the course of this, the detective stalks around the theatre and its milieu, interviewing people, teasing out relationships and the underlying currents that connect people and push them apart. It’s a film of great style, and lived-in weary performances, which seems something of a trait of the Clouzot films I’ve seen. Everyone talks a whole lot, but it’s the kind of solidly unflashy film resonant in lived-in period detail that seems to characterise an older, black-and-white, era of filmmaking. As such, it would probably make a lot more sense if I were watching it in a cinema.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Clouzot and Jean Ferry (based on the book Légitime défense by Stanislas-Andre Steeman) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier | Length 106 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 January 2018

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Criterion Sunday 106: Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981)

There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.

Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier | Writers Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson) | Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn | Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert | Length 128 minutes || Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016)

Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore | Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston | Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016

Dohui-ya (A Girl at My Door, 2014)

For an 18-rated film this is an odd experience, not least because it avoids entirely the kinds of things you expect in 18-rated Korean films. Largely that’s because most Korean films that get a Western release are horror movies or otherwise extreme depictions of violence and revenge. A Girl at My Door has plenty to offer that’s disturbing (why else would it have an 18) but it’s not due to body horror or violence, it’s more down to the basic stuff of human interrelationships. Young-nam (Doona Bae) arrives in a small coastal town to take up the post of police chief; the reason for her posting remains mysterious, though there’s a hint at some wrongdoing in her previous role. She takes a place near to where young girl Do-hee (Sae-ron Kim) lives, and witnesses the girl being terrorised by her drunken father (Sae-byeok Song) and grandmother, so she steps in, over time taking on an almost maternal role to Do-hee. It all ambles along in an unhurried way, building up a picture of this community and the various relationships within it, folding in immigrants working there illegally, a measure of racism, sexism and homophobia, all the familiar stuff of small town drama. The kicker is the child abuse allegations and this is where things get really complex, but there’s a hint this may be less an issue of pædophilia as pædophobia, and importing a real sense of unease to the situation. There are hints in the setting of something like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, but the character drama is much more internalised and controlled, with excellent performances from both of the leads.


© CGV Movie Collage

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer July Jung | Cinematographer Hyun-seok Kim | Starring Doona Bae, Sae-ron Kim, Sae-byeok Song | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 25 September 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

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller is known for his punchy dialogue and scenarios in films like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (not to mention a clutch of films based on his World War II experiences), a holdover from his early days as a hard-nosed journalist on the city beat. So any concerns one might have about the social-problem trappings of The Crimson Kimono, with its ready-made racy poster headlines (interracial romance!), are avoided by Fuller’s deft script. Fuller proves himself to be quite far ahead of the times in allowing his Japanese-American cop hero Joe (James Shigeta) to be the lead, to love the girl (Victoria Shaw), and to avoid any narrative punishment for either. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal with issues of racism and discrimination, just that they’re handled in a much less muckraking way than you might expect. There’s also plenty of the exploitative thrills from the kind of seedy underworld setting so beloved of Fuller, but with Shigeta’s sensitive characterisation and some fine cinematography, this is a particularly vivid effort.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller | Cinematographer Sam Leavitt | Starring James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015

Criterion Sunday 24: Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low, 1963)

After so many period samurai-related collaborations between Kurosawa and his lead actor Toshiro Mifune, it’s somewhat jarring to see a story from these two which is set in the modern world, although the police thriller was another genre with which Kurosawa had plenty of familiarity, and this is far from shabby as a film. Shoe company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) starts out the film in his apartment, high above Yokohama, apparently battling with his board to take over his company, before the film adeptly and speedily veers away from what promises to be a business drama into something a bit darker, as a kidnapper calls him demanding a ransom for his child — except that it turns out the kidnapper has taken Gondo’s chauffeur’s child. The high and low, then (or “heaven and hell” in the literal translation), turns out to be a story of the class differences in a rapidly developing capitalist society — the high being Gondo’s splendid isolation in full view of the rest of the city, contrasted with the low of the kidnapper’s squalid dwellings amongst the sailors and the drug addicts in a close-packed streets and alleys of the city. But it’s also the difference between Gondo’s executive and his chauffeur, and between where Gondo starts off and where he ends up; it’s a productive dichotomy, certainly. The film is all crisply shot in monochrome widescreen, and structured in distinct acts — the first is a long sequence of elaborately long-take shots in Gondo’s apartment, before moving first to the cramped confines of a bullet train, and then to the police investigation around Yokohoma (led by Tatsuya Nakadai’s detective), in search of the kidnapper. The depiction of some of the city’s squalor doesn’t always convince (its drug den seems torn from the pages of a particularly sensationalist tabloid), but it does capture a good sense of the cosmopolitan spirit of this seaport town, and the story never lets up on the tension of the hunt.

Criterion Extras: There are some great bonus features here, including a 30-minute TV interview from the 80s with Toshiro Mifune as he looks back on his career, which touches only briefly on his years with Kurosawa but which remains fascinating, as he chain smokes his way through a series of exchanges with a cheerful Japanese lady host. The documentary It Is Wonderful to Create, from just before Kurosawa’s death, is more informative, featuring a number of interviews with key personnel, and which gets into details about how a lot of the film was shot and how certain scenes were put together, both technically and creatively. There’s also a commentary by an academic which is pretty informative, too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 143 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 15 February 2015

Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven | Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015)

En chance til (A Second Chance, 2014)

There’s a lot of very intense thematic material in this Danish domestic drama (what the BBFC title card judiciously warns us are “bereavement themes”). It swiftly sets up the work life of Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as a cop, contrasting one of his cases — a thuggish heroin junkie who’s just relocated to his neighbourhood and has a maltreated baby and girlfriend in tow — with his almost-perfect home life alongside wife Anne (Maria Bonneville) and their tiny baby Alexander. Then horrible things happen, bad decisions are made, and tragic consequences are reaped, and well… it’s just not convincing, not the characters, and certainly not the choices they make. Andreas’s police partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) has his own generic and perfunctory character development, and comes in at the end to clear things up all too neatly. Sure, there are lots of lingering close-ups of furrowed eyes and harrowing music on the soundtrack to guide our feelings, so I could at least say there are some believable emotional arcs being expressed. It’s just that as a viewer I don’t feel any engagement or sympathy with Andreas or his wife or his partner, while the working of the plot suggests a madcap screwball comedy, not the stark grief-filled drama Susanne Bier and her screenwriter Anders Jensen have crafted. The contrast of Andreas’s life with that of the criminal family, along with a tacked-on coda, have the effect of pat moralising, and when the credits come up there’s a feeling you’ve been watching a TV social-issue-of-the-week movie. If you are a parent, it may be more emotionally engaging, but then again I can’t imagine a parent wanting to watch this film either, given the events it depicts.


© Nordisk Film

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Susanne Bier | Writer Anders Thomas Jensen | Cinematographer Michael Snyman | Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015

Chappie (2015)

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this scenario from the director of South African sci-fi film District 9, it’s just that as a finished film it feels a bit all over the place. The director returns to his homeland of South Africa for a story that examines dystopian class distinctions in a police state governed by a huge weapons corporation Tetravaal (whose CEO is played by Sigourney Weaver). If you think RoboCop (1987) you won’t go far wrong, especially as the film starts out with a fake news broadcast to set the scene, and has two competing robot-police projects — the “Scouts” (read: RoboCop) developed by earnest techie Deon (Dev Patel), and the “Moose” (read: ED-209) by gung-ho ex-military Vincent (Hugh Jackman, sporting quite the fiercest mullet and shorts combo ever seen on screen). After efficiently setting up the society and the company’s role, along with its warring developers, the film settles down to follow a group of gangsters (Yolandi and Ninja from the rap group Die Antwoord) who have stolen a Scout being worked on by Deon, the latter of whom has been working on developing a full AI including human emotions and learning. The gangsters proceed to name their stolen robot Chappie and inculcate him with their gangster lifestyle and values (the robot is voiced and ‘acted’ by Sharlto Copley). This would all be fine except that very little of the detail is believable: whether about the company itself (all its staff work in a small open-plan office, and security measures ridiculously lax) or about the interaction between the gangsters and robot. I found it very difficult to believe in the characters played by Die Antwoord or care about their story arc: Ninja is set up as a tyrannical and hateful father figure, but there’s a later twist in which we are required to care about his fate. The film skips back and forth between so many emotional registers that it can become exhausting, and it feels like its natural demographic should be young teenagers, though it’s probably too violent for them. Yet it shows a lot of promise in its filmmaking, in its excellent robot effects, and the big name actors were all a pleasure to watch. Enjoyable enough, but a missed opportunity all in all.


© Columbia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Neill Blomkamp | Writers Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (based on Blomkamp’s short film Tetra Vaal) | Cinematographer Trent Opaloch | Starring Sharlto Copley, Die Antwoord, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 16 March 2015