Criterion Sunday 133: Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988)

Watching this film for a second time (albeit decades after my first viewing), I find it a curious experience. Obviously I knew the outcome but in a sense the film never really tries to hide it — you may not know the specifics, but it’s clear from the outset who the bad guy is, and once he’s selected his target, it’s broadly clear what happens to that person. The drama is in the details of the crime, and the single-mindedness of purpose of each of the three men wrapped up in this drama: our bad guy (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), our victim’s boyfriend (Gene Bervoets), and our director (George Sluizer). It prefigures some of what Michael Haneke would go on to do in the 1990s onwards, cynically manipulating audience expectation in quite a nasty way. I don’t like Haneke’s films but I have at least a respect for the craft, and so it is here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director George Sluizer | Writers George Sluizer and Tim Krabbé (based on Krabbé’s novel Het Gouden Ei, “The Golden Egg”) | Cinematographer Toni Kuhn | Starring Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 20 November 2016)

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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

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015

Criterion Sunday 108: The Rock (1996)

The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay | Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Paul Greengrass | Writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles | Length 123 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016

Femina Ridens (The Laughing Woman aka The Frightened Woman, 1969)

The two English language titles (The Laughing Woman vs The Frightened Woman) are suggestive of the ways in which Italian films of the giallo style sometimes straddle the line between gynophobic/misogynist exploitation and empowered critiques of patriarchy. Rather, I should say that most fall pretty clearly on the former side, but this one manages to be both — the original title is in Latin, which seems to place ‘woman’ as something of a scientific curio — and in doing so is rather delightful. That said, having called it giallo (a heightened form of Italian horror film), it isn’t exactly that, but is mixed with comic pop-art inflected psychodrama. The drama of the film — a two-hander of power and control between Mary (a glorious Dagmar Lassander) and the manipulative Dr Sayer (Philippe Leroy) — moves one way then is suddenly reversed, much like the visual jokes which come suddenly out of nowhere, masterful uses of the set design and quirks of acting: the leap from bathtub to trapeze! the automated partition between halves of the bed! the car-boat!! Femina Ridens is filled with the joy of mise en scene, plus a bit of stylish S&M-lite in its story of toxic masculinity confronting its emasculating other.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: She’s So Giallo Season
Director/Writer Piero Schivazappa | Cinematographer Sante Achilli | Starring Dagmar Lassander, Philippe Leroy | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016

Green Room (2015)

I haven’t been writing as many reviews recently, though I’ve been going to every bit as many films. Just one of those fallow periods I guess. There are still interesting movies coming out, though, and one that may have got missed in the glut of fine films is Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin. Aside from the colour-themed titles (which inflect each film’s respective cinematographic palette), the two films are linked by Saulnier’s reliance on mining genre conventions — in this case, he’s set up a tense thriller format in which our heroes, an anarchist punk band, gets trapped in a cabin in the woods by a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads. I’ve seen it called a horror film and perhaps those more familiar with that genre will find things in common, but to me there’s a lack of horror to the way the story is set out (though there’s plenty of tension). Sure, when things get going, the gore does properly fly, but the curious thing to me is the almost matter-of-fact way it’s presented. All the actors, even the ones playing the skinheads (led by Patrick Stewart), have a human quality, almost as if they all want the best for the situation even if their personal ideologies are inflected by hate (being set in the Oregon backwoods, so beloved of libertarians and survivalists, there’s a notable lack of any people of colour, so racism never really comes into play). It somewhat complicates the genre trappings not to have anyone to actively hate, and when our punk band get into the action, their violence is every bit as nasty as that inflicted on them. I suppose that makes it a film in which nobody wins, which perhaps accounts for the tone of the ending, but in any case it’s another strong cinematic outing for Saulnier.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jeremy Saulnier | Cinematographer Sean Porter | Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Macon Blair, Patrick Stewart | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 19 May 2016

Victoria (2015)

This new German film has shown up at festivals and now on general release on a wave of film geekiness around the fact it’s shot in one continuous 138-minute take, which is of course impressive, but doesn’t make it de facto a good film. Other films have gone this route in the past (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark most notably, which I am embarrassed to say I found boring and inert, though I don’t mean to impugn its filmmaking credentials by any means), and far more films have pretended to (last year’s Birdman, or Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, most famously). Victoria seems to be the real deal, though, and technically yes it’s very accomplished.

As dawn rises over Berlin, the camera sinuously follows our eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa) from a club to palling around with some lads outside, chiefly the chatty Sonne (Frederick Lau), to getting sucked into a heist — which, as heists tend to do, goes badly wrong. If the method of presentation does anything it shows how easy it is to be pressured into something that turns out very badly for everyone, not to mention keeping an oppressively close focus on Victoria herself and her feelings, largely impassive though Costa’s face remains throughout.

Victoria’s backstory, the emotional crux of the film, is a short scene between herself and Sonne in the cafe where she’s working, about half an hour into the film, when she plays the piano for him. It highlights the struggle she’s had to make her way in life, and the bitter blow that this has dealt to her self-esteem, such that for all its genre trappings the film as a whole seems to really be about just how bleak the situation is for the younger generation (explaining to a certain extent why she’s willing to place herself in what seems to us complacent viewers as danger). For all her training and opportunities, she’s teetering on the edge of the precariat, living away from home (from Spain originally), speaking no German yet working a less-than-minimum-wage job at unsocial hours with no benefits or apparent prospects, certainly not much more than the lads she meets up with. It hardly seems surprising she should grasp at any opportunity, if not to succeed, then just to do something, and that’s an emotional nugget which the film seems to get right.

Still, given the way it’s filmed, Victoria is hardly action-packed, and there are long digressive stretches of quiet observance, for periods of which the sound is replaced by a musical score (perhaps the dialogue was less successful at these moments). Maybe the film shouldn’t work, and yet it largely does, thanks to the single-mindedness of its actors, its director and of course (as has been mentioned many times already) its indefatigable camerman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.


Victoria (2015)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sebastian Schipper | Writers Olivia Neergard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper and Eike Frederik Schulz| Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen | Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 5 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 64: The Third Man (1949)

There’s a certain kind of ‘cinema of quality’ prestige big budget production, especially from the UK, that I am somewhat allergic towards, and for many years I’d lumped The Third Man in with that. However, rewatching it again recently I realise the problem is with me when it comes to this film, because it’s not only glorious — and it truly is spectacular, even if just for the depth of its shadows and the luminosity of the light in those sewer sequences, though it’s sustained throughout by canted framings and canny compositions — but it’s also rather less triumphalist and morally clear-cut than you might expect from its American-in-Europe plotline. The film’s world is one of moral grey areas, a position staked out by the Harry Lime character (Orson Welles, in what amounts to a brief but memorable cameo), and constantly questioned by its pulp novelist protagonist Holly (Joseph Cotten). He has come from the US to Vienna just after the end of World War II looking for a job with his friend Harry, only to find himself at Harry’s funeral wondering what happened. No one has a clear story, and the details seem to be being hidden by the various forces — the city is split between four occupying armies, with their own respective languages — as well as various shadowy characters who interact with them at an official or semi-official level. It’s a film about profiteering, which makes clear the moral equivalency between wartime acts and those same acts outside wartime. It also features some excellent performances by Cotten as well as Alida Valli as Lime’s girlfriend Anna, but primarily it’s a triumph of writing and direction, whatever snobby canards towards Carol Reed’s “non-auteur” status the critics might throw.

Criterion Extras: A packed reissue includes an introduction by Peter Bogdanovich, retailing the Reed-as-non-auteur line pretty hard.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carol Reed | Writer Graham Greene | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli [as “Valli”], Trevor Howard, Orson Welles | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Saturday 2 May 1998 (and most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 29 November 2015)