Thursday, July 25, 2019

Circle of Danger (Jacques Tourneur, 1951)

Certainly not the film to introduce someone to the many virtues of Jacques Tourneur's films, but for the already converted this is something of a treat. Chris Fujiwara, in his excellent book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, opines that "[h]owever much goodwill one brings to viewing the film, one's interest in its leisurely development undergoes some strain, especially in it's second half", but that's not quite my experience. Oswald Morris's cinematography admirably maintains the effortless precision that characterises Tourneur's best work, and the performances are very fine all round, with Ray Milland as good as I've seen him. (The film's tour of 1950s representations of various UK accents is a particular pleasure.) The theme of the post-war letdown, the difficulty of returning to civilian life, is very effectively soft-pedalled. The film also rather pleasingly sets up expectations that it thwarts: a character's homophobia sets itself up to be mistaken as the film's own position, only to be undercut in the conclusion. Certainly, the gentle understatement that runs through the whole film could be accused of dropping the tension below that which we expect from a thriller (and I grant Fujiwara's point that the relationship between Milland and Patricia Roc is sometimes the weak link), but for the most part the slack tension helps connect the film to mundane reality. Heroics or dastardliness are constantly on the threshold, but only on the threshold. That this is entirely appropriate becomes clear in the ending - something of a twist but that plays entirely fair - that generates a quasi-Hitchcockian tension that is all the more effective in the way that it comes out of nowhere and then dissipates in a rather melancholy dying fall.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Sunset (Lázsló Nemes, 2018)

Meticulously crafted in every respect, for a while this was something like Phantom Thread meets The Werckmeister Harmonies, which sounds almost like my perfect film, but then it developed a strong strain of Eye Wide Shut, which was not to its benefit.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Die Puppe [The Doll] (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919)

Top marks for this one. The Eureka Blu-ray looks absolutely tremendous - gorgeous tinting - and the film is a delight throughout. The conceit of a woman who pretends to be a doll, when the "actual" doll is played by the very same woman, facilitates some lovely games with the ways that film can make humans seem like machines (and indeed machines like humans). Lubitsch and Ossi Oswalda play wonderfully with this facility in order both to exploit it and turn it against itself. While the notion of the young man terrified of sex is quite alien to us now (and the "hero", Lancelot [Hermann Thimig] gets over his phobia in a rather desultory fashion at the end of the film), it facilitates some very funny sex comedy (the dollmaker leaves Lancelot alone with what he thinks is his doll so that he can "get acquainted with the mechanism"), while Oswalda's exuberance prevents things ever getting queasily blokey.

Monday, May 27, 2019

High Life (Claire Denis, 2018)

I'm no expert on the cinema of Claire Denis, but I haven't really connected with what I've seen of it thus far - and I'm afraid High Life isn't really an exception. It starts out well, with the pleasingly puzzling setup of Robert Pattinson (who's pretty strong throughout) and a baby girl alone together on a space station, and there are some interesting moves towards the end as well. But despite a bunch of good ideas and some effective visuals (often pleasingly low-key and low-budget) the middle section didn't quite do it for me. It's not that the issues of criminality, sexuality, time, and bodily fluids in space were expended at the mercy of a ropey allegory, which might have been a danger, but rather that its themes are so close to the surface that it doesn't really allow enough of a gap to even start speculating about the relationship between text and subtext (Juliette Binoche's character is a bit like a witch, which is therefore made reference to in the dialogue). There's a certain stiffness in the screenplay (as is so often the case in films not made in a director's native language), and I find a stiffness or lack of conviction in Binoche as well (as I not infrequently do in her English-language roles, actually). But the middle part of the film also, for me, suffered too often from a fact well-known to pornographers and makers of snuff movies: sex and violence can get boring. And I didn't quite believe that Denis was invested enough in the "harder" sci-fi elements of the film to really pull off the ending; nor did the film's invested-in-character-and-yet-keeping-its-distance procedure quite work at the end, for me - we either needed more fully-drawn characters or something more unexpected to crown things off. It is possible that another viewing would shuffle the elements and help me watch it in a different way; it's certainly the case that, of the latter-day entrants into the post-Solaris microgenre, this is vastly preferable to Interstellar.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Death Line (Gary Sherman, 1972)

Not what I expected, this. The title, the premise (and certainly some of the original posters) suggest a violent claustrophobic horror with people getting picked off by cannibals living in the London Underground. But it's something very different - an attempt to create a properly tragic Gothic monster, rather in the Frankenstein tradition. I'm not sure that the above-ground plot (weary detectives, MI5 cover-ups) and the below-ground horrors mesh very satisfactorily - though perhaps there would be a way of watching it that made this very much the point - but it's an intriguingly valiant effort. And Donald Pleasence is absolutely terrific throughout (particularly entertaining when just about avoiding swearing, and in some splendidly sarcastic rapid shifts of facial expression).

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Long Day's Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Bi Gan is a very talented young man. This - which shares a number of themes and tricks with his debut, Kaili Blues, but arrives somewhere distinctively different - starts off a little bit like Wong Kar-wai meets Tarkovsky. Sumptuously colour-coded cinematography, an intricate weave of present and past, the ghost of a film noir plot. All very well executed and with a lot to recommend it, but we've seen similar things before. And then it descends into another world and really does generate something engrossingly magical, which restrospectively readjusts our sense of what preceded it. For once, I feel that spoilers really should be avoided, but suffice to say that the film ends up structured something like a Mulholland Dr. in reverse - except that the "dream" often makes much more sense than the "reality". It certainly calls attention to its own virtuosity, but in a way that feels entirely in keeping; some of that virtuosity is so extraordinary that it takes on a hallucinatory quality all of its own.

The Entity (Sidney J. Furie, 1981)

This came to my attention as the film of interest for being the film used by Peter Tscherkassky to make his Outer Space (1999), but otherwise dismissed as forgettable big-budget early 80s nonsense. But in his recent book Mysteries of Cinema, Adrian Martin makes a case for Furie's film, and he's quite right. It's a very efficiently done, entertaining - but in places genuinely distressing - horror about supernatural sexual assault, Barbara Hershey is very effective as the protagonist Carla, and there's a nice dose of De Palma-style split diopter shots to keep things off-balance in a very period way. The fact that - for the audience -  there's never for a moment a doubt that supernatural forces are involved is refreshing, and helps contribute to the fact that the film is also, for a fair amount of its length, an allegory about women's stories of assault not being believed. (A scene of white-coated doctors shrouded in various types of cigar and pipe smoke discussing Carla's case is a particularly clear instance of this.) The fact that the film is resolutely a genre thriller makes the allegory all the more effective, because it never becomes "the point". And also - how closely must the makers of Ghostbusters watched this film? It's full of little points of connection (similar casting [Hershey is rather Sigourney Weaver-like]; bits of dialogue, other business [the device the parapsychologists carry when they first visit the house])... Any film with a connection to Ghostbusters is off to a good start, in my book.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Vox Lux (Brady Corbet, 2018)

I don't get it. I was all with this at the beginning - the combination of a high school shooting with the birth of a pop star seemed a reasonable premise, there seemed to be quite a lot of interest going on cinematographically, and Raffey Cassidy's performance had an intriguing inscrutability that seemed to offer any number of possible future directions for the narrative. And then it all started to go wrong with a crushingly banal but supposedly edgy visit to a rock concert, and from that point on the film proceeded methodically to evacuate itself of all interest. Natalie Portman's performance as Cassidy's adult self is in many ways remarkable, but her character is beyond cliché. I wondered if things would perk up when Cassidy appeared again, this time as Portman's daughter, but I couldn't spot anything interesting that the film actually does with this. By the end we learn that pop stars are self-indulgent and hypocritical, but that people quite like their music and sometimes it means a lot to them emotionally even if it is pretty trashy. Which is not quite what I'd call revelatory... The film does also make some stabs at black humour, but they mostly fall pretty flat. It's of course possible that I've missed something, that I was just watching it all wrong, but the chief problem is that once it gets going most of the film - as well as being banal - is, quite simply, boring. And I don't think "that's the point!" cuts it as a plausible explanation.