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

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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)

Blackhat (2015)

Critics directed quite a bit of derision towards this new Michael Mann film when it came out last year, and it’s certainly a very odd film in many ways. For a start, most obviously, it’s about computer hacking, a notoriously difficult thing to make visually interesting, though Mann does his best with an opening sequence tracking computer data transfers via swooping CGI shots along lit-up wires and through circuits across the world. More noticeably, he has Chris Hemsworth play our computer-hacking hero Nicholas — perhaps a suspension of disbelief too far for some — who is seen at the start locked up in prison, which can surely be the only excuse for his taut, muscled body. Then on top of this is added a bunch of fairly straightforward action scenes involving running, kicking, jumping, explosions, all the usual stuff, because basically the film quickly moves from the realm of cyber-terrorism to real-world undercover policework, as some FBI handlers are introduced (Viola Davis, most notably) and then Chinese government officials (Leehom Wang as Captain Chen, and Tang Wei as his sister Lien, also an IT specialist, and putative love interest for Nicholas). Setting all this aside — and there’s some slightly patchy pacing on the way as the story develops — it’s actually fascinating for being a mainstream big-budget Hollywood action-thriller which has a genuinely diverse cast. Sure, Bond and Bourne jetted around the world, but they don’t feel as properly international as this film does. My feeling is that opinion will shift over time to regard it rather more positively, as I think it moves the genre in an interesting direction, and there’s rarely so little of interest to most action thrillers.


FILM REVIEW
Director Michael Mann | Writers Morgan Davis Foehl and Michael Mann | Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh | Starring Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang, Leehom Wang, Viola Davis | Length 133 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 13 February 2016

Room (2015)

As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.

So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.


Room (2015)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lenny Abrahamson | Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Danny Cohen | Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016

Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015)

As a period-set detective film, this looks fabulous, as if a lot of money has been spent to recreate a sense of Calcutta in the 1940s. As the title character, Sushant Singh Rajput looks the part, fresh out of wherever detectives go to the school and eager to work. Aided by his geeky-looking sidekick Ajit (Anand Tiwari), Byomkesh soon comes up against a cabal of nefarious sorts. The film is heavy on plot, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re liable to lose track of who’s doing what to whom for what reason — and I’m not always convinced it’s particularly interesting if you do keep track — but just on the handsomeness of the sets and the costumes, this is a pleasant enough film to pass the time.


FILM REVIEW
Director Dibakar Banerjee | Writers Dibakar Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar (based on the novels Satyanweshi and Arthamanartham by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay) | Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis | Starring Sushant Singh Rajput, Anand Tiwari, Swastika Mukherjee | Length 147 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 1 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 57: Charade (1963)

This is, unquestionably, a bit of late-Golden Era Hollywood silliness, as Audrey Hepburn plays a wealthy widow to a man found dead under mysterious circumstances. Returning to their home in Paris, now stripped of all its furnishings, she finds herself being stalked by a trio of dangerous American felons (led by James Coburn), and helped — perhaps — by Cary Grant, whose name constantly changes throughout the film. All of these men believe she has access to some enormous wealth that her husband left behind ($250,000!). Things progress from there in a largely comedic (if not screwball) way, and if the film never seems particularly concerned with any profound depths of emotion (even the Criterion Collection likes to lighten things up occasionally), it’s also never particularly boring, thanks to the on-screen charisma of Hepburn and Grant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Donen | Writer Peter Stone (based on his short story “The Unsuspecting Wife”) | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn | Length 113 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 October 2015

The Forbidden Room (2015)

It might be possible to recount the plot of Guy Maddin’s latest work (made with co-director Evan Johnson, presumably as compiling all this material must have been an exhausting task), but it would probably not be advisable. It’s a series of nested narratives, little fragments of stories as if rescued from some ancient decaying store of early cinema nitrate footage, stitched together with perfunctory transitions, which loop into and out of an almost dream-like consciousness taking in mystery, thiller, adventure film, romance and more. It feels like a pastiche of silent film serials overlaid by noirish pulp fiction and a hefty dose of Canadian wintery surrealism, that will probably be more rewarding to those viewers who are somewhat au fait with early cinema or already know the film work of Guy Madin, and so have a fondness for his scratchy, grainy, alternately washed-out and hyper-coloured, stylised images. If it feels by the end a little long, it’s never short of inventiveness, and there’s a parade of guest actors, all introduced by a title card as they enter the narrative, without anyone really taking centre stage. Cinematic narcosis writ large.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson | Writers Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk and Guy Maddin | Cinematographers Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Arthouse Crouch End, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015

Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. It’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan) | Cinematographer Bernard Knowles | Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Spielberg | Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015

The Martian (2015)

A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.


© 20th Century Fox

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Ridley Scott | Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir) | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015