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)

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full.


Ari Kyohaku (Intimidation, 1960)

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara) [Tue 12 May at home]. You’ll have seen my Criterion Sunday series, working through all of the Criterion Collection releases in spine order week by week. Well, Criterion have their bare-bones sub-label Eclipse as well, but I shan’t take to doing an Eclipse Monday or anything, though one result of watching all these Criterion films is I’ve picked up a few Eclipse releases along the way. Intimidation is the first film in the five-film set by director Koreyoshi Kurahara, whose work (and indeed name) I must admit to being entirely unaware about before now. This film is a short feature (around 70 minutes) and an engrossing psychological thriller, focusing on a bookish bank clerk and his lackadaisical boss, the latter of whom due to various personal circumstances finds himself in the position of holding up his own bank. For the most part it’s tautly told through close-ups of the lead characters, who seem to be constantly calculating their meagre options. ***


Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera (1950, Mexico, dir. Alberto Gout) [Fri 1 May at Barbican Cinemas]. A short series at the Barbican focused itself on the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican melodrama in the 1950s, and sadly this was the only film I made it along to. However, it is entirely delightful, dealing with Elena, a young woman (the ‘adventuress’ of the title) who finds herself alone in the world as the film starts, with only her wits to get her by, as she moves to the big city to make her way as a dancer. She’s entrapped by a dubious offer, and finds herself in the employ of shady brothel-keeper Rosaura, but there’s a TWIST and soon Elena is back in a position of power. There are double-crosses and twists of fortune, which at times suggest a rather more delicate staging of Showgirls (a classic ingenue-corrupted-by-the-system movie). There are also a handful of song numbers punctuating the melodrama, just to keep us going. ***½


Belle Epoque (1992)

Belle Époque (1992, Spain, dir. Fernando Trueba) [Sat 30 May at home]. A lightly comedic historical romp set not in fin-de-siècle France, but pre-Civil War Spain of the 1930s, which amounts to much the same thing I suppose. It’s a nostalgic time in which people take sides and fight for what they believe, though our republican hero has deserted his military posting and now finds himself holed up at a country home where he woos each of the four daughters of an elderly gentleman he has met. It’s all self-consciously light-hearted, and pleasantly diverting. It won Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, so that probably gives some idea of its artistic achievement. ***


The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010, USA, dir. Sylvester Stallone) [Mon 18 May at home]. A thoroughly overblown exercise in action film narcosis, which is somewhat enlivened by its star-studded cast of genre greats, led by director Sylvester Stallone, still game for a bit of running around and blowing sh1t up. It goes through the setpieces and fulfils the usual expectations, but I can’t pretend it’s not forgettable, because I can’t really remember very much of it at all. However, it does feature Jason Statham, for whose work I always have time. **


Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany, dir. Joe Wright) [Fri 8 May at home]. Director Joe Wright has shown himself to be something of a film stylist with literary adaptations like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012), both of which I rather liked. However, this original screenplay seems to lack a certain something, maybe a sense of anything particularly personal. I love Saoirse Ronan as an actor, and she’s excellent here as in every role she’s played, but her teenager taught by ex-CIA father to be a lethal killer seems a bit by-the-numbers. Wright’s style is still in evidence — this is no straight action thriller, but indulges plenty of other expressive elements — though it is all carried along by a propulsive score in a post-Bourne style. **½


Hit So Hard (2011)

Hit So Hard (2011, USA, dir. P. David Ebersole) [Mon 11 May at home]. A fairly straightforward talking-heads and music-clip documentary charting the career of Patti Schemel, primarily known for her time as a drummer in Hole, of which band this film functions as something of an encomium. You get a sense of some of the tumult of the early-90s grunge scene, and especially touching are the home videos of the band with Kurt Cobain and his daughter with Courtney Love. Yet despite my love for the band and their music, there’s nothing especially inspiring in the filmmaking. **½


John Wick (2014).jpg

John Wick (2014, USA, dir. Chad Stahelski) [Thu 30 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Like The Expendables above, in truth this taut revenge thriller does nothing particularly new, but the pleasure is in the way it does so, emphasising the physicality of the fight scenes — understandable, given the directors (one of whom, David Leitch, is uncredited) come from a background in stunt choreography. Indeed, unlike many such films it has a direct approach to conflict, emphasising the brutality underpinning the genre, as our eponymous protagonist (played by an ever-laconic Keanu Reeves) methodically despatches his adversaries, and even has to reload his weapon. It’s also nicely paced, starting out slowly, building Wick’s character and anguished personal life, before launching into the inevitable violence of the protracted denouement. ***


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA, dir. George Miller) [Sun 17 May at Cineworld Wood Green]. I never got around to writing a fuller review of this film, mainly because I struggle to find the kinds of superlatives which a lot of people have heaped on it. Undoubtedly it is a spare and at times electrifying chase movie within a dystopian sci-fi desert world — one in which water is a scarce resource, hoarded by a cadre of genetically-deficient mutant creatures who need the blood of the underclasses to survive. It’s in this context that we meet the title character (Tom Hardy), though his central role is swiftly supplanted by that of convoy driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is on a mission to liberate her enslaved concubine compatriots, and it’s her character that has understandably excited the internet. Quite whether this all amounts to some kind of feminist victory is unclear to me, though at the least it offers the rare prospect in this context of a kickass (yet believably human) female action hero with agency, and who is not reliant on the help of others (i.e. men) to succeed. Still, this is all but window-dressing to the almost unrelenting forward momentum of the thundering vehicular chase that is at the film’s heart, not that I mean that as a criticism exactly. It fulfils its action remit and does so in a way that largely avoids offensive stereotyping, which sometimes seems like victory enough. ***


Plemya (The Tribe, 2014)

Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy) [Sun 31 May at the ICA]. Another recent film that’s picked up plenty of critical love is this brutal, nasty film about a dystopian society of the underclasses in Ukraine, which has the novel quality of being entirely in unsubtitled (Ukrainian) Sign Language. Our characters are all deaf-mute and largely confined to the crumbling premises of their special school, which seems at the outset to have teachers and administration but is soon, we learn, largely operated by a cabal of brutally bullying students aided by a number of key members of staff. One, for example, exploits a couple of the girls as prostitutes to the local trucking community, and it’s into this milieu that newcomer Sergey is recruited. In some respects, The Tribe reminds me of Alan Clarke’s film Scum, dealing with English borstal life in the 1970s, and there’s plenty here that visually harks back to that decade, if only because one senses that everything we see has been left to decay since then. However, the film is vivified by bold directorial flourishes, including long tracking shots lifted from the Dardenne’s repertoire, as well as a casual brutality and dispassionate carnality that calls to mind Haneke. For all this — or perhaps because of it — The Tribe seems to me to be a hard film to really love. ***


Tomboy (2011)

Tomboy (2011, France, dir. Céline Sciamma) [Sun 24 May at the ICA]. Director Céline Sciamma’s most recent film Girlhood hit cinemas recently, giving me the opportunity to revisit an earlier film of hers. It again picks up on gender issues, but refracted through the story of Laure, a young girl who moves to a new neighbourhood as the film starts out, who amongst her new friends begins to play at being a boy under the name Mickaël. It’s a very subtly balanced film which avoids the expected moralising and overdetermined plot points, preferring a far more naturalistic ambiguity to some of the relationships (such as Laure/Mickaël’s affection for local girl Lisa). ***½