Criterion Sunday 182: Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah undoubtedly has an ability to put together a film, maintain tension, choreograph an action sequence, and find exactly the right moment for a blast of strident bagpipe music. But modern cinema’s endlessly repeated theme — stuck in a groove like a particularly obnoxious record (let’s say, bagpipe music) — rears its evergreen head, namely ‘the toxic perils of masculinity’. It’s not something that doesn’t bear repeating, of course, it’s just the particular way that Peckinpah approaches it is to sacrifice everyone to it (and the title does, I believe, reference a ritual object). In this way, Straw Dogs ends up reminding me of the films of Michael Haneke, one of my least favourite auteurs (but if you love him, maybe you’ll get a kick out of this).

Dustin Hoffman plays a weedy American academic mathematician, in his young wife’s home town in Cornwall (England), where they are both swiftly targeted by the ruffian-like men who dwell there: him for having the temerity to not be from around there and thinking himself better, she for not wearing a bra (or so it seems). Anyway, she is certainly brought down a peg, the film’s editing repeatedly emphasising that he does not have sufficiently ‘manly’ attributes to protect his property (his cat, his wife, eventually his home). When he does eventually gain something of this presumably-failed masculinity, it’s one of those ‘ah ha DO YOU SEE, oh audience, how you are complicit in the violence inherent in our society’ kinds of ways so beloved of Haneke, and which you can either take as a masterstroke of authorial self-reflexivity, or, I don’t know, obnoxious and mean-spirited.

From my review, you can probably see the way I am critically leaning with Straw Dogs, and of course you may disagree. Yes, it’s a well-made film, but the way I feel about it is not so far from the way I feel about Dustin Hoffman these days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sam Peckinpah | Writers David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams) | Cinematographer John Coquillon | Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George | Length 117 minutes || Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017

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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

Get Out (2017)

Being one of the most discussed films in recent years there’s little I can meaningfully add to the online discussion (which I can at least finally read without spoilers), besides saying I also greatly enjoyed its mixture of satire, tense psychological thrills, comedy and gore. It uses the cinematic language of horror to dissect racism, and though some of the later twists seemed a little ridiculous (the grandparents in particular), they nevertheless​ fit nicely into the comedic-absurdist tone created by Jordan Peele’s directorial debut. Also, there’s a point in the film (I shan’t say which) that got the biggest cheer I’ve ever heard from any cinema audience I’ve ever been in — some films are best watched in a crowd.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jordan Peele | Cinematographer Toby Oliver | Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 27 March 2017

Maryland (aka Disorder, 2015)

There is, it seems to me, a strong tradition in French cinema for the kind of atmospherics created by this film of Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote festival favourite Mustang). It properly puts itself inside the head of its protagonist Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier on leave due to post-traumatic stress, who takes up a security job to keep him busy. There are textures that remind me of aspects of Claire Denis‘s or Philippe Grandrieux’s works, a sort of low-key threatening feeling that’s constantly in the background. For much of the film it’s very difficult to be sure if this is all just in Vincent’s head, or if it represents an actual danger to those he’s in charge of protecting — Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a foreign businessman, and her son. The tone is expertly mediated through an evocative sound design and electronic score that keeps the mood tense even when little appears to be happening narratively on-screen. It’s an open-ended film with a mysterious resolution that seems to come more from the emotional state of its protagonist than from anything in the diegetic world of the film, and despite what some have written, it never quite follows the well-trodden path of multiple Hollywood action thrillers covering the same kind of themes. Certainly for those such as myself who have not been the biggest fans of Schoenaerts’ acting work (admittedly I’ve only seen films of his in English), this is a welcome surprise and an intelligent, absorbing thriller.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Alice Winocour | Writers Alice Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron | Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois | Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger | Length 100 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 30 March 2016

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

Criterion Sunday 35: Les Diaboliques (Diabolique, 1955)

Acclaimed as a classic psychological thriller, Les Diaboliques was an inspiration for Hitchcock’s Psycho (he worked another novel by Boileau & Narcejac into Vertigo, after all) and a whole strand of creepy haunting horror films. There’s certainly a tension throughout between the supernatural and the all-too-real, though it’s never in doubt as to what an unpleasant, controlling character headmaster Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is, simultaneously keeping his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) in check while carrying on with his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). Putting the viewer onside with Christina and Nicole’s plot to do away with Michel is a key to the way the subsequent events play out, and though the end title card may warn against spoilers, the set-up probably seems quite familiar thanks to its influence over subsequent filmmaking. Clouzot is excellent at building suspense through the womens’ plotting and then over the uncanny turn things take when he’s gone, using the shadows in the black-and-white photography to good effect. There’s a nasty streak to the film, but it remains an effective genre exercise, even 60 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi (based on the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse | Length 117 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2015

Criterion Sunday 30: M (1931)

Justly acclaimed as one of the great films of all time, and certainly among the greatest German films, is this early sound-era film by Fritz Lang, which seems to hint at something noxious in German society of the era. It focuses on the hunt for a child murderer, played by a bug-eyed young Peter Lorre, and suggests a parity between the police and criminals, who are both on the case, the latter with somewhat more effective results. If the way in which the criminals try Lorre suggests something proto-Fascist on the rise, that might be the result of hindsight, and yet the film is beautifully shot, all inky pools of darkness on the Berlin streets and effective use of expressionist shadows to suggest the creeping evil. Sound design is restrained, perhaps due to the infancy of the technology, but the repeated whistled refrain from Peer Gynt is effective as a way of marking the presence of Lorre’s murderer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang | Writers Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang | Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner | Starring Peter Lorre | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 5 July 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 March 2015)