Amour Fou (2014)

Amour fou DVD

My review of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is over at Flickering Myth.

Also below:

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Berlin, the Romantic Era. Young poet Heinrich wishes to conquer the inevitability of death through love.  After initially being refused to form a suicide pact with his cousin, he meets the young and impressionable romantic Henriette, the wife of a business acquaintance…

The delicately balanced Amour Fou treads a fine line between soul-baring emotional drama and delightfully slick deadpan black comedy. Developing its characters’ whims and motivations at a languid pace, this alternative take on a rom-com allows for a depth of artistry in backgrounds, details and composition.

Focusing on young poet Heinrich’s (Christian Friedel) wish to instil a sense of meaning in his privileged and comfortable life through love and ultimately death, the central premise of the film does not sound like much of an easy ride. However, the beautifully shot and drawn scenes provide plenty of compelling and amusing portraits of early 19th Century Berlin life.

Based on the true story of the poet Heinrich von Kleist, who in 1811 found a drastic way of simultaneously entering the history books and gaining some romantic meaning to life, Jessica Hausner’s (Lourdes) film is a sharp look at obsession. It is pretty hard to feel too much sympathy for Heinrich; he can only tempt himself to go through with his plans when a ‘love’ takes the bullet first. Still, he certainly had ambition…

Friedel’s portrayal brings out these ambiguities extremely well, but when the film shifts its pitch slightly to concentrate on the young wife and mother Henriette (Birte Schnoenik) it finds even more of a disturbing edge. Previously happy with her work and family, when a terminal illness casts a pall over her, Kleist’s morbid wooing begins to hold an attraction for her.

It is this dual pull of death and the possibility of a different sort of love that is at the heart of the film, and it is one that is explored with a poetic lightness of touch.  ‘Crazy love’ indeed.

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Dying of the Light (2014) Out Now

My review of the recently disowned Dying of the Light is over at Flickering Myth and appears below…

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Nicolas Cage. Nicolas Cage screaming. Nicolas Cage screaming LOUDLY. AGAIN.

Given what has been made of the latest Cage-rage low budget effort in many quarters you could be forgiven for thinking this’ll be on a par with that The Wicker Man remake for overall- albeit hilarious- lameness.

In truth, it’s not quite as bad as all that. It’s just a bit weird really, with Schrader and the cast recently disowning the finished product and claiming something of a studio takeover from the creatives in control. They wore T-shirts. They were disgruntled! Surely something must have gone wrong in what could have been a classic?

Well, rather than awful, Dying of the Light is more a bit odd rather than anything else. The central story of a terrorist torturer Banir (Karim) and his victim (Cage) both succumbing to illness and varying levels of decrepitude is not in itself a bad idea.  Varying levels of political conspiracy and obsessive personal ties could have been woven in together in a striking way. Could have.

Instead of that, we’re left with a movie with a few decent ideas but a whole that is roughly carved together and appears to be something of a showcase for the contrasting roles of writer and director. The writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver takes on both jobs on this picture, and it seems as though the whole process was somewhat troubled to say the least. There are jumps and cuts which are fumbled and a whole darker story of state sponsored terrorism that gets lost in the mix.

The easy thing to presume would be to suppose that Schrader is not a director, but that would be far too simplistic. This is someone who directed the classic American Gigolo back in 1980 for one thing, and is more than capable of rendering a story complete up on the screen.

However, this follow up to the Lindsay Lohan starring The Canyons is certainly no recovery to a recently stumbling career.

Anton Yelchin is admirably creepy as an ambitious and seemingly psychopathic agent, but the true horror is how his behaviour is left unstudied and uncommented upon. Almost as though a huge chunk of action had been lifted out of the film, his disturbed internal workings are left for the audience to ruminate upon, unaided by the film itself.

By that point even the most dye-hard in the wool Cage fans could well be flagging. Cage himself can still bring out the fireworks but it all seems a little try-hard and wholly at odds with the mournful tone created by the rest of the performers. In effect then, an ill-fitting curiosity.

Tommy (2014)

My review of Swedish crime story Tommy is over at FM now and also appears below…

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Focusing on the grim underbelly of Stockholm’s criminal networks and organised gangs, Tommy is a well paced mystery thriller creating a few sparks of gritty realism in the frosted side roads of the Swedish capital. A strong central performance from the lead Moa Gammel as the partner of the titular Tommy caps off a fine display of ever- building tension.

A year ago Estelle, Tommy and their daughter disappeared from Sweden following a huge bank robbery. The notoriously unpredictable crime lord now wants his money back and sends his wife Estelle to retrieve the loot from his former underlings.

Concentrating on Gammel’s Estelle as she cruises around the shadowed Stockholm streets invoking the name of her lover and partner, the film brings a decent sized portion of dread to the proceedings. This plus a few scenes of unexpected Nicolas Refn style uber violence intermittently interrupt an almost scenic roam around the city.

Many will find the pace quite slow, but the effect of the jilting terror of Tommy himself that the mobsters – most crucially Ola Rapace – feel is gradually filtered through to the audience, who in the best scenes, can feel something of this fearful experience.

The singer Lykke Li gives a reasonable showing as the sister of Estelle and the bullied girlfriend of Rapace’s Bobby – providing a glimpse of a self-sustaining abusive relationship unlikely to finish well.  The volatile temperament of top local boss Steve (Tommy, Bobby and Steve; new Stockholm underworld boy-band??) proves to be another well documented capture of frayed gangland loyalties and disturbing rages of anger.  It is Gammel’s turn as the unsmiling Estelle that is at the true icy heart of the movie, however.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

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Review of the new Blu-ray release for The Manchurian Candidate is over at Flickering Myth now and below…

Exploring the extremes of cold war paranoia in a stylish cloak and dagger format that must have raised more than a few eyebrows on its release in 1962, The Manchurian Candidate is a film that takes a look beyond the usual political invective.

Following the terrifying experiences of Korean War veterans as they attempt to settle back into ‘normal’ American life, the film is a supremely dark portrayal of influence and control. Laurence Harvey (Room at the Top, Darling) as Raymond Shaw creates a magnificently understated performance as the pawn in the games of the political elite. Specifically, his character is controlled through the use of code words and stimuli – in his case the card game of Solitaire – and can be used to do, or kill, anything .

Also into this mêlée of confusion where everyone has another side or identity is Frank Sinatra’s Major Bennett Marco, a troubled ex-crew man of Shaw’s. Ol’ blue eyes injects a memorising intensity into the role and is at all times fully believable. His scenes – particularly the abstract and vaguely surreal not so small-talk lines delivered by him and Janet Leigh (Psycho) in their first train line meeting – bring a raw power and almost improvisational strength to the proceedings.

The film also captures one of the most controlled sinister performances of all time from Angela Lansbury (still best known to many for Murder, She Wrote) as Elenor Shaw Iselin; the poor Raymond’s mother. Her ability to express so much beyond the picture is one of the many reasons why the film deserves continued reanalysis and consideration. The film is firmly rooted in the dynamics of  political intrigue and is at once a sharply turned thriller and a deeply unsettling appraisal of what might be going on in the corridors of power…

The original The Manchurian Candidate arrives here elegantly delivered by Arrow Films in a Blu-ray/DVD combo package. The film – which was out of circulation from 1963 to 1988 due to fears surrounding the assassination of JFK – gathered a new generation of fans when it was finally re-released. Here, a full examination of the implications and quandaries expressed in the film also receive a full airing. This alongside superb remastering and redefinition brings forth another way to enjoy this mind-wrangling film. In effect, another excellent package from Arrow.

Special Features

  • Audio commentary by director John Frankenheimer
  • The Directors: John Frankenheimer, an hour-long portrait from 2003, including interviews with Frankenheimer, Kirk Douglas, Samuel L. Jackson, Roy Scheider, Rod Steiger and many others
  • Interview with John Frankenheimer, Frank Sinatra and screenwriter George Axelrod from the film’s 1988 revival
  • Queen of Diamonds: an interview with Angela Lansbury
  • A Little Solitaire: an appreciation of the film by director William Friedkin (The Exorcist)
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jay Shaw
  • Collector’s booklet containing new writing by Peter Knight (Conspiracy Culture) and Neil Sanders (Your Thoughts Are Not Your Own), illustrated with original production stills

Seen/Unseen

Seen Unseen

Eye in the Sky

eye in the sky

The Duke of Burgundy – Film Review

My review of Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy is over at Flickering Myth now and below. . .
Unmissable.

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Directed by Peter Strickland.
Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna, Fatma Mohamed, Eugenia Caruso and Monica Swinn.

Peter Strickland is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most exceptional filmmakers currently around. His previous two works Katalin Varga and Berberian Sound Studio took on vastly different subject areas and genre tropes and succeeded in bringing an individual flair and passion for the dreamlike straight to the screen.

The first was a revenge thriller set in the heartland of Romania and the other a psychological unpicking of an individual located within a tribute to the creation of the giallo films of Italian cinema. Together, these two striking films share a platform of wilful artistry and a capability to constantly impress and ask serious questions of the audience.

The Duke of Burgundy once again shows off Strickland’s uncanny ability to go beyond the expected. Taking its starting point in the soft-focus daze of  the world of art-house pornographic features and a mixing of the kind of vantage points favoured in Hammer and Amicus productions of the 60’s and 70’s, it’s clear right from the opening sequence that we’re in for a unique experience.

And it could well be a surprising experience for many. For despite cursory appearances, this is not really a film about sex, porn or exploitation at all.

In fact, the detailing of Cynthia (Babett Knudsen) and Evelyn’s (D’Anna) ailing relationship is more concerned with the internal dynamics than the outward displays of S and M adventurism. Sex scenes are either dryly humorous or tender shows of affection and the main thing that comes across in the dramatic telling of the relationship is how honestly it is portrayed.

Most of the truly graphic stuff is shown off screen aided by a few choice (erm running waterworks, anyone?) sound effects. The real joy of the film is in the little shows of amusing weirdness, crossing between a form of dark humour and the surreal. From Evelyn’s lit up eyes at the mention of a ‘human toilet’, to the phantasmagoric world seemingly located between Cynthia’s thighs, this is a dramatic world that we are being admitted to without any rudimentary guidebook.

Focusing on the two lovers’ attempts to keep their spark of passion alive through sex-play and dominant and submissive role play, The Duke of Burgundy is a film that does not explain, hint or evaluate. It allows the experience of these two women to wander across the screen without traditional signposts or signifiers. As with the emotional life of everyone, there is no traditional beginning or end, just a series of scenes and memories from a life that gets played out in various different ways.

The setting for these two lives largely switches between Cynthia’s house – or is it Evelyn’s? – of fading glamour deep in some rural forest, and an unnamed institution hosting lectures on the study of butterflies. Cynthia is an amateur lepidopterist – that’s a butterfly expert to you and me – who regularly attends the lectures. Amongst the rows of seats of people listening to the lectures there are on closer inspection a couple of motionless dummies. What Strickland intends with this is anyone’s guess, but it lends an air of the fantastic to the whole.

Strickland clearly understands more than most that it is what is going on just outside the scene that brings power and depth to the whole picture. When Cynthia and Evelyn argue about Evelyn’s possible infidelity with a local woman it is clear that there is a whole other series of fragments which we have not been allowed into. When you add the fact that more or less everything can be part of a game, you are left with the ambiguities and mysteries of real life. The alternately melancholic and romantic arrangements and compositions provided by the musical duo Cat’s Eyes beautifully contribute to this overall haunting and esoteric impression.

It is only after the credits roll that it becomes clear that the world we have just witnessed is a world entirely without men, and as such the film takes on even further routes of expression. Just as the house cat watching the two will testify, the film wonderfully gets across just how rich the world behind our eyes really is…

It will be more than interesting to see which avenue Strickland will go down next…

Snow in Paradise (2014) Out Now

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My review of the art-house/gangland thriller cross Snow in Paradise is over at Flickering Myth.
Strongly recommended…

Review also appears below…

Focusing its attention on gangland London interspersed with the lead’s gradual and sympathetic conversion to Islam, Snow in Paradise is a film with its sights set firmly on the bigger picture of many socially significant topics. Featuring a powerfully gripping central performance from first time actor Frederick Schmidt, the film was largely ignored by British investment and mostly relied on French and German finances. This comes as something of a surprise, for as well as being a strongly written, acted and directed piece, the film has plenty to say about directly relevant topics to the UK and beyond…

Andrew Hulme’s debut feature film is packed to the rafters with the sort of social issues and big city problems that many are aware of but don’t wish to address or confront. The various subjects of organised family crime, gentrification of city areas and the spiritual life of religion are all brought out in an artfully produced crime drama.

The mixing of gangster film with an art-house internal philosophical quest occasionally sits uncomfortably, but for the most part Hulme has brought a powerful and enlightening piece to the screen. Having previously worked as an editor, the new director’s tight reign of a sharp story is fully evident. Possibly drawing on some of the distinctive experiences gained through working on high profile features such as Control, Gangster No.1 and The Imposter, Hulme’s ability to construct a sombre and melancholic air while also serving up profound jolts and jumps contributes to the film’s richly profound atmosphere.

Indeed, the mixture of heavy, drug fuelled internal psychic reordering calls to mind another film that brought a meditative hallucinatory feel to the life of London gangsters; Donald Cammell’s Performance (1970). Both films share a kind of internal stress drama amidst mobsters and East End villains.  In the case of Schmidt’s Dave character he has to deal with a far more traditionally horrific double than Mick Jagger, his Uncle Jimmy (Martin Askew).

Askew, who is also the writer of the memoirs the whole story is based on, provides a terrifying performance as a local crime lord. A big noise in the Hoxton and Dalston areas of East London, the character is the sort of guy who kills to get what he wants, which is most of the time. An alarming creation, and based largely on Askew’s own upbringing and associates prior to finding Islam, the character is a fine creation of almost demonic intensity.

Bridging the gap between thriller and character piece is an ambitious project at the best of times, and when underpinned by the arguable benefits of organised religion perhaps even more so. Which  is why it is is such an interesting film – with plenty of scenes beautifully detailing spiritual progression alongside sharp observations of social conduct and interactions, Snow in Paradise largely succeeds as an arresting picture designed to ruminate on long after the beautifully shot closing scene.

iF anD wHen…

If and When

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