Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 164: Солярис Solaris (1972)

Undoubtedly ponderous in its pacing, for me this still feels like Tarkovsky’s weakest film — which is to say, a lot better than most other films, but somehow thin, especially in comparison to his later science-fiction Stalker (1979). That said, it’s a film about grief and memory that happens to be partially set in space, as astronaut/psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent to figure out what’s going wrong on board the space station orbiting the title planet. It is beautifully shot, and it’s not even the pacing which mars it for me, so much as the sense of it being this choreography of people walking into and around the frame while grappling with some portentous metaphysics. Give me a few more decades on this one and I may come round.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writers Fridrikh Gorenshtein Фридрих Горенштейн and Tarkovsky (based on the novel by Stanisław Lem); Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk Наталья Бондарчук; Length 166 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 23 December 1999 (also before that on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1999, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 July 2017).

Tank Girl (1995)

A colourful, brash and cheerfully perverse action film, Lori Petty seems well-matched to the title role, being every bit as quirky as a comic book character brought to life might be — somewhat hyperactive, but quirky without being grating. That said, it feels like the key here is that she isn’t constantly trying to present herself as sexually available at the same time as fighting off bad guys and blowing up compounds (a direction you imagine a male filmmaker might have gone, and one that has certainly hampered female characters in a lot of other comic-book and sci-fi films). There’s a kind of camp at play here that’s reminiscent of the Wachowskis in Jupiter Ascending (2015), with busy set design worthy of Terry Gilliam. The kangaroo creatures spoil it all somewhat, teetering too close to the cult perils of Howard the Duck, and the action sequences go on somewhat, but on the whole this remains good fun, with an iconic 90s alternative rock and ‘riot grrrl’-influenced soundtrack.

Tank Girl film posterCREDITS
Director Rachel Talalay; Writer Tedi Sarafian (based on the comic by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett); Cinematographer Gale Tattersall; Starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Reg E. Cathey, Ice-T, Malcolm McDowell; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 May 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Eleven: Daughters of the Dust (1991), Park (2016), Born in Flames (1983) and Moderation (2016)

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular.


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society.


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts.


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold.

Criterion Sunday 92: Fiend Without a Face (1958)

After the previous week’s The Blob comes another film from the same year, but from the other side of the Atlantic — not that you’d necessarily guess, given its Canadian setting and imported actors (okay, Surrey stretches credulity even as Manitoba, and some of the accents are ropey to say the least). It’s a deeply silly sci-fi story of mind control gone awry, and the audience is kept waiting for the big reveal of the slithery brain monsters by the narrative contortions whereby these creatures remain invisible while they are drawing on… NUCLEAR POWER. It’s no less badly acted than any other similar film of the era, and there’s a hammy turn from English veteran Kynaston Reeves as a demented professor, while the leads are clean-cut Major Jeff (Marshall Thompson) and the professor’s stalwart student Barbara (Kim Parker, who has a stronger role than the poster’s depiction of her in a bath towel might suggest).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Arthur Crabtree; Writer Herbert J. Leder (based on the short story “The Thought Monster” by Amelia Reynolds Long); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Marshall Thompson, Kynaston Reeves, Kim Parker; Length 77 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 April 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)CREDITS
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.

美人魚 Mei ren yu (Mermaid, 2016)

Stephen Chow has a directorial reputation for silliness, though I’ve only ever seen one film of his from 20 years ago now (God of Cookery). However, by all accounts, this latest one, a box office blockbuster in its native China, is very much on brand: it is utterly, ridiculously demented. The plot basically involves a colony of half-human mer-creatures (what even is the collective noun for mermaids et al.?) whose existence is threatened by ruthless capitalist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) and his sea-life-destroying sonar technology. And so the mer-people send out Shan (Lin Yun), the mermaid of the title, to reel him in with her womanly charms, as she shuffles along, her tail awkwardly fitted into socks and shoes. For this effect — and in general throughout the movie — the CGI is pretty ropey, but presumably it’s intended to be, to point up the silliness of the conceit. By the time Xuan’s business partner Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi) is double-crossing him with a view to exterminating these aquatic pests, everything in the plot has become very contorted, but the film continues to throw out all manner of visual gags, while staying grounded in the budding romance between Shan and Xuan. Somewhere in all this there’s a strong message about environmental responsibility, and the power of love to transcend money (and, presumably, biology). Still, it’s all pitched at a sustained level of silliness that doesn’t always cohere, but at least ensures that it remains enjoyable even when the occasional aquatic bloodletting happens.

Pedantic Note: All the marketing calls the movie “The Mermaid” but I’ve gone with the English title appearing on-screen, which omits the definite article.

Mermaid film posterCREDITS
Director Stephen Chow 周星馳; Writers Chow, Kelvin Lee 李思臻, Hing-ka Chan 陳慶嘉, Chih-chiang Fung 馮志強, Miu-kei Ho 何妙祺, Ivy Kong 江玉儀, Zhengyu Lu 盧正雨 and Kan-cheung Tsang 曾瑾昌; Cinematographer Sung-fai Choi 蔡崇輝; Starring Yun Lin 林允, Chao Deng 鄧超, Yuqi Zhang 張雨綺; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Stret, London, Wednesday 24 February 2016.

Advantageous (2015)

The increasing dominance of Netflix as a source of home entertainment may be decried by many, but it does have the benefit of making more accessible a number of more niche titles that, outside their home country, may never get a cinematic screening and often don’t show up on home media formats at all. As an Asian-American authored science-fiction film, Advantageous has plenty of interest within it, occupying a similar kind of cerebral niche to the works of Shane Carruth, with a frosty understated detachment to the acting that made me think more of Todd Haynes’s Safe, or of Canadian cinema — though that might just as easily be a comparably low budget leading to a future world of largely sterile blankness. However, for a film presumably shot with few enough means, this all looks very polished. Gwen (Jacqueline Kim, also the co-writer) is an executive at a cosmetic surgery company, feeling pressured by the high cost of living in providing for her daughter’s education and whose job is under threat from younger women. Therefore she asks her boss (James Urbaniak) to take her as a test subject in her company’s experimental procedure to transfer a person’s consciousness into a younger body, thereby securing her job and the possibility of a brighter future for her daughter. Naturally there are complications, leading the film to delve into questions of the relative value of youth and racial whiteness within society (there are, unsurprisingly, limited choices as to available body types for the cosmetic procedure). There’s a sustained creepiness to the atmosphere which even encompasses some of the familiar guest actors (Jennifer Ehle and Ken Jeong both pop up, working quite against type), and provides plenty to think about in terms of where we’re all headed.

Advantageous film posterCREDITS
Director Jennifer Phang; Writers Jacqueline Kim and Phang; Cinematographer Richard Wong; Starring Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Finally, the review I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for, as undoubtedly you’ve all been hanging back, waiting cautiously about whether to see this film on the basis of my verdict. Well, I can unequivocally state that if you are fond of George Lucas’s original trilogy, then you’ll enjoy this new instalment from the auteur behind Star Trek Into Darkness, whereas if you are at best ambivalent about his franchise’s politically retrogressive and genocidally destructive worldview, then… it’s probably not for you? On the plus side is the welcome focus on three new and diverse young protagonists — Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. There are some heartwarming reappearances by original cast members, and there are more silly chirruping droids. Plotwise, it feels of a piece with the original film, but the spoiler police are out in force on this one, so I’m not going to go into detail and, frankly, I’m not even sure I could. Suffice to say I laughed at a joke about the Force, and in general there’s a good sense of bonhomie amid the good-vs-evil derring-do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens film posterCREDITS
Director J.J. Abrams; Writers Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt; Cinematographer Dan Mindel; Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Sunday 20 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.