Paranoid Park

Photo í‚© Scott Green

Format: Cinema

Release date: 28 December 2007

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Tartan Films

Director: Gus Van Sant

Based on novel by Blake Nelson

Cast: Gabe Nevins, Jake Miller, Lauren McKinney

USA 2007

85 mins

Gus Van Sant’s multiplex days already feel like a distant memory: one imagines the director working on Paranoid Park, looking back on Finding Forrester with a shudder and gaining the strength to cut in another five minutes of wordless 16mm skateboard footage. And although this new film is more straightforward than either Last Days or Gerry, it still bears the hallmarks of a filmmaker on a mission to escape convention.

Shot, like Elephant and Last Days before it, in Van Sant’s home base of Portland, Oregon, the film focuses on skate-obsessed teenager Alex and his involvement in the accidental death of a train yard security man close to the eponymous hangout. Deliberately oblique and open-ended, the fractured narrative is constructed through snippets of Alex’s memory and his written recollections of that night’s events. The script, adapted from a novel by local author Blake Nelson, feels loose and improvised, and engagingly natural. But the structure is uneven – Van Sant’s decision to hold back full revelation of the story’s key events is a sound one, and ensures a level of surprisingly intense, simmering tension throughout the first two acts of the film. The crime itself is revealed in a sequence of extraordinary horror, and the immediate aftermath is stunningly realised and utterly overwhelming. But once the shock has worn off the tension inevitably dissipates, and the final scenes struggle to maintain momentum: even at 85 minutes, the film feels a little overlong.

The actors, sourced via a casting call on MySpace, are largely non-professional, naturalistic and occasionally rather awkward. As Alex, Gabe Nevins is essentially asked to carry the film – he appears in practically every scene, the entire story told through his eyes. He never seems quite comfortable in front of the camera, but it is this very uncertainty that makes the character sympathetic. Set apart from the adolescent world that surrounds him, Alex seems somehow helpless, conflicted about his parents, his friends, his sexuality and most importantly how to absorb and deal with the terrible events in which he becomes involved. Alex’s only release is skating: watching it, talking about it, doing it. The film regularly lapses into golden reveries of skate footage, roaming 16mm cameras tracking floating teenage figures around parks, streets, empty swimming pools.

Aside from this rough footage by Rain Kathy Li, the majority of the film is photographed by Christopher Doyle and bears many of his familiar hallmarks. Although the direction is all Van Sant, with long tracking shots of characters in motion, close-ups on pensive faces and unexpected cutaways, the look of the film is unmistakeably Doyle: richly coloured, warmly textured and highly evocative.

Perhaps the film’s most bizarre and notable characteristic is its aural landscape: natural and artificial sounds are used to sparing but brilliant effect, accentuating the paranoia inherent in the central character’s situation. And ranging from blippy electronic soundscapes to excerpts from Fellini scores via thrash metal, hip hop, trad country and two inevitable (and perfectly chosen) contributions from the late Elliott Smith, the soundtrack feels at times comically incongruous, at others bewitchingly appropriate. But it works wonderfully, contrasting or complementing the images in a way that is occasionally perplexing but consistently memorable: an apt description for the film as a whole.

Tom Huddleston


4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 January 2008

Distributor Artificial Eye

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Original title: 4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile

Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean

Romania 2007

113 minutes

A remarkable new generation of filmmakers has erupted out of post-communist Romania in the last few years. Cristian Mungiu’s excellent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the latest film to achieve critical success, deservedly winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year.

Romania had one of the Eastern Bloc’s most vicious and repressive regimes under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Abortion was criminalised in 1966, forcing the practice underground. Mungiu’s film, the first in a series that he’s planning about the legacy of communism in Romania, takes place over the course of one day in 1986. A young student, Gabita, foolishly having left an unwanted pregnancy too late, enlists her friend Otilia’s help to get her through the backstreet abortion that she’s arranged with an unknown ‘doctor’, Mr Bebe. The faux-naí­Â¯ve Gabita (whose frailty is perfectly captured by Laura Vasiliu) is incapable of being honest with herself, and has deceived both the doctor and Otilia, who finds herself entangled in a web of lies. But it’s really Otilia, in a stand-out performance by Anamaria Marinca, who drives the film forward.

The girls, living together in a dorm full of fellow students, barter with each other for black market items. Otilia tries to hunt down a pack of cigarettes, hoping they’ll help her bribe hotel officials when she tries to book a room where Gabita can have the abortion. The hotels themselves are virtually impenetrable fortresses, reminding us of the police state that dominates the fringes of the film. The girls are unprepared for their eventual encounter with Bebe; he is both brutal and brutalised by the acts he is forced to perform. Furious at Gabita for lying about her pregnancy, he exacts a cruel, calculating revenge on the two powerless friends.

4 Months aesthetically captures the bleakness of communist Romania in the 80s, with its sterile dorms, soulless hotels and cement-lined streets. The film is composed of brilliantly choreographed long takes that demand utter commitment from the actors, wresting tortured, powerful performances out of each of them. The naturalistic camerawork creates an acute awareness of a dangerous world lingering just outside the frame, making the film an almost edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller. Every element of the film, from the acting to Oleg Mutu’s enthralling cinematography, comes together to create a powerful, coherent whole.

The film is something of a blank canvas, allowing the audience to project its own judgements and values on an all-too-familiar tragedy. Crucially, it’s not merely a film about abortion, but rather the degradation that Romanians suffered at the hands of a totalitarian dictator. Otilia desperately tries to hold on to her dignity in the face of the emotional and physical brutality that Bebe, and the regime, inflict on her and Gabita. The abortion itself is merely a metaphor for the cruelties unleashed on the country.

This wave of young filmmakers are the first to have grown up virtually free from communism. They seem to share a powerful sense of duty to reflect on their history, on the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a suspenseful, riveting tribute to the character and integrity of people like Otilia: she is the strong, quietly defiant young woman out on the streets of Bucharest in 1989 facing down the tanks, calling for Ceausescu’s overthrow.

Sarah Cronin

The Saragossa Manuscript

Saragossa Manuscript
The Saragossa Manuscript

Format: Blu-ray

Release date:
7 September 2015

Distributor: Mr Bongo

Director: Wojciech Has

Screenplay: Tadeusz Kwiatkowski

Based on: Jan Potocki’s novel Manuscrit trouvé à  Saragosse

Original title: Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie

Cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Iga Cembrzynska, Elzbieta Czyzewska, Gustaw Holoubek

Poland 1965

182 minutes

A dizzying, multi-layered maze of stories within stories within stories, Manuscrit trouvé à  Saragosse is a work of such magnitude, richness and encyclopedic reach that only a very brave man or a lunatic could ever have thought of adapting it for the cinema. Whether out of courage or insanity, Polish director Wojciech Has decided in 1965 to grapple with the legendary novel, written in French by his countryman, the aristocrat Jan Potocki, between 1797 and 1812. The original 182-minute version of the film was cut by one hour on its release, and this footage was only recently restored thanks to the efforts of two illustrious fans, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead and Martin Scorsese.

The film opens during the Napoleonic wars in Spain as two soldiers find an ancient manuscript that tells the story of Walloon Guard Captain Alphonse Van Worden. They read how, riding to Madrid through desolate, barren land, Van Worden decides to stay in the demon-ridden Venta Quemada inn for the night, despite the warnings of the inn-keepers. In the night he is led by an exotic young woman into a sumptuous secret room where two beautiful Moorish princesses are waiting for him. The next morning he wakes up under the gallows, next to the hanged corpses of two bandits. From then on Van Worden is led back to Venta Quemada again and again, and every morning he wakes up under the gallows. On this circular journey he meets not only the princesses but also a hermit, inquisitors, cabbalists and gypsies, each encounter providing an occasion for more stories to be told.

Watching Polish-speaking Spanish characters dubbed in English for three hours may sound like a strange cinematic experience, but it is certainly in keeping with the trans-national approach of the novel, set in Spain and written in French by a Polish man. Involving more than just several nationalities, Potocki’s novel is an all-encompassing, polyphonic work, and the many different stories all complement one another to create a picture of life in its totality. Naturally, it would have been impossible for Has to keep all the stories in the script and, as can only be expected, the film is a simplification of the original text. However, Has successfully manages to convey the atmosphere of Potocki’s work, presenting the same colourful mix of horror, comedy and eroticism. While the scenes with the princesses are enticingly suggestive, it is the nightmarish side of Van Worden’s story that Has evokes most adeptly. The land around Venta Quemada is dotted by white, almost skeletal rocks that give the landscape a ghostly feel while Krzysztof Penderecki’s excellent score, peaking in jarring shards of synth sounds every time Van Worden finds himself under the gallows, greatly enhances the sinister mood.

The Saragossa Manuscript is essentially an initiation to life in all its labyrinthine complexity. A baroque masterpiece, Potocki’s novel is about the fleeting line between reality and illusion, and film is of course a particularly appropriate medium to convey this. In Has’ work no one is ever who they seem to be, and it is not simply characters who reappear under different names in the many intertwined stories, but the two actresses who play the Moorish princesses also return in various guises, further blurring the boundaries. Constantly questioning what we take to be reality, The Saragossa Manuscript joyously affirms that there is no hard, solid truth in the universe, at least no truth perceivable by man. It is also for this reason that the three main religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are represented in the story. For Potocki, truth cannot be found in any one belief system: human life is the sum of all beliefs.

Potocki’s enlightened views lead to a certain optimism: in spite of all the trials he has to go through, his Van Worden successfully completes his initiation and is rewarded at the end. By contrast, Has’ Van Worden is eternally stuck in the same spot, going in circles, unable to find a way out. When he does, it is to discover that, in a very modern twist, his whole story is already written in a manuscript, and it is now up to him to write the end. Ultimately, he is unable to escape from the illusion he is engulfed in, and he ends up driven mad by his visions. As the comic side of the novel is much emphasized throughout the film, it is all the more striking that Has should choose to end on such a dark, hopeless note: Van Worden essentially fails his initiation to life. Whatever this says about 1960s Poland or about Has’ personal views, one thing is sure: Has’ modern recreation of Potocki’s all-embracing vision of life leads him to an entirely different, chilling conclusion from that of the nineteenth-century writer.

Manuscrit trouvé à  Saragosse remains one of the great, and unjustly obscure, monuments of literature and although Has’ film version is nowhere near as close to genius as the original text, it does possess several of its charms, offering a wonderful ride through the beguiling world created by Potocki.

Virginie Sélavy

This review was first published in 2007 to tie in with a screening of the film at the BFI.


All About Eve

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 November 2007

Venues: BFI Southbank, Curzon Mayfair, Screen on the Hill, London & key cities

Distributor: Park Circus

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Based on: short story ‘The Widom of Eve’ by Mary Orr

Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Gary Merrill

US 1950

138 minutes

It may be a cliché but some film performances have become so iconic that you cannot imagine anyone else occupying the roles. Bette Davis’ performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve is such a performance. Although the writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz originally wanted Claudette Colbert for the part of Margo Channing, and Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck favoured Marlene Dietrich in the role of the great but ageing theatrical diva, Bette Davis’ performance in Mankiewicz’s dark and cynical melodrama of backstage backstabbing and rivalry remains an astonishing achievement. All About Eve was based on a short story entitled ‘The Wisdom of Eve’ by Mary Orr, and Mankiewicz adapted it to create an astonishingly touching and effective portrayal of what it means to be a woman as well as a star.

The Eve of All About Eve is Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young woman who idolizes the famous star Margo Channing. Put bluntly, Eve wants to be Margo: she wants the applause that she surreptitiously listens to backstage, the feeling of adoration from the crowd; she wants to dress and drink like Margo (very dry Martinis of course); and she wants Margo’s director boyfriend as well. The fact that she will do anything to achieve this is at the heart of the film. It begins like Sunset Boulevard with a narration by a writer – the theatre critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who, like a hawk in a tuxedo, surveys the room at a theatrical awards dinner, notes the trophy reserved for Eve Harrington, and describes the people who willingly and unwillingly helped her climb to the top: her director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), Lloyd’s wife Karen (Celeste Holm), and above all, her idol Margo (Bette Davis).

An extended flashback brings us back to the moment when Eve’s story of hard luck and adoration earns her a place in Margo’s inner circle and eventually on stage as Margo’s understudy. As Eve ingratiates herself successfully, then forms an unholy alliance with the ruthless DeWitt, she soon discovers that not everyone is taken in by her. The director/boyfriend Bill (played by Davis’ soon-to-be real-life husband) turns Eve’s advances away with a merciless rejection: ‘What I go after, I want to go after. I don’t want it to come after me. Don’t worry; just score it as an unsuccessful forward pass’.

The real sardonic tone of the film is set, however, by Sanders, as the critic who introduces the characters. DeWitt, in this instance, has his own agenda; while Eve naively tries to steal the men who belong to the women who helped her, DeWitt schemes to keep her as his own possession. Sanders, who won the Oscar for best supporting actor, gets some of the best and most savage lines in the film: ‘Is it possible, even conceivable, that you’ve confused me with that gang of backward children you play tricks on? That you have the same contempt for me as you have for them?’, he admonishes Eve.

With such brittle and venomous dialogue it is tempting to see a ‘noir-ish’ fatalism at work here and, indeed, the chief rival of All About Eve‘ at the Academy Awards in 1950 was Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Both films are about ageing divas and unrequited love, and yet, All About Eve maintains the possibility of romance, even if disguised behind a witty layer of disenchantment with the human race.

In keeping with this, although Eve ends up having sold her soul to the devil, her desire for fame doesn’t exactly go unfulfilled. To this end, the movie creates Margo as a particular and very real woman, and Eve Harrington as a strangely convulsive and scheming type of villain. As a schizophrenic, Eve swerves from being calmly manipulative to wildly lying; she is, in other words, a genuinely great actress, maybe even a better actress than Margo. The film gives no answers to this uncomfortable possibility and this is as it should be. As the extent of Eve’s manipulative nature is by no means transparent from the start, we have to learn to dislike her as the story progresses. When we first see Eve she emerges from the back alley of the theatre in raincoat and hat: a strange masturbatory image of a woman in hiding and of course, as we will soon discover, she is indeed waiting for her grand moment of exhibitionism. Contrasted with Eve’s dowdy demeanour, Margo Channing is all cigarettes and hair; her satin dresses a bit too tight, her heels high. And true to form, Eve’s fascination with Margo also has a surreptitious but no less noticeable erotic edge to it. She nearly climbs into bed with Margo, wants to touch her when it is clearly inappropriate and above all appears to be jealously guarding her icon’s private life.

All in all, there is something slightly freakish in Eve’s desire for fame. After all, all good women – Margo Channing included – want a family and conventional husband, but not Eve. In crude terms, her name designates her as the original temptress but her apple is one already eaten by the majority of the characters. Thus, even though the film is supposedly all about Eve, we get closer to Margo Channing than to any other character. This is to Mankiewicz’s credit; given the choice between fetishising the breathless young fan, or the ageing doyenne Mankiewicz wisely chooses the latter. As Eve worms her way into Margo’s inner circle, becoming her secretary, then her understudy, then her rival, the spotlight falls on Margo – her increasing frustration and slow realisation that she has been had spreading across her features like a storm as the narrative progresses. The party sequence contains Davis’ best work in the movie, beginning with the famous line, ‘Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night’. Drinking too much, disillusioned by Eve’s betrayal, depressed by her 40th birthday, she looks at Bill and bitterly says: ‘Bill’s 32. He looks 32. He looked it five years ago. He’ll look it 20 years from now. I hate men’.

With Margo/Bette getting the best lines, one might think that Anne Baxter’s Eve lacks the presence to be a plausible rival to Margo, even if she is convincing as the scheming fan. When Eve understudies and gets great reviews, Mankiewicz never shows us her performance; this film is after all about the ramifications of stardom rather than its actual playing out. Margo expects applause with every emotional diatribe and by the end of it we feel like either giving this to her or slapping her across the face. Eve, on the other hand, can only wait for some other young starlet driven by ambition to come and steal her place, which is exactly what eventually happens.

As if Bette Davis wasn’t enough, the supporting cast is also fantastically emotive. The only person who sees through Eve, crusty old Birdie (Thelma Ritter), Margo’s wardrobe woman (a role she incidentally repeats in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window), is wonderful as the no-nonsense voice of reason. Likewise the scene-stealing Marilyn Monroe, who earlier that year was in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, appears at Margo’s party as DeWitt’s date, and when steered towards the ugly but powerful producer Max Fabian, sighs, ‘Why do they always look like unhappy rabbits?’

Ironically, although the film received a remarkable fourteen Academy Award nominations, including five for acting, and won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Sanders), vote-splitting probably held back its two Best Actress nominees (Baxter and Davis) and its two Best Supporting Actress nominees (Holm and Thelma Ritter). Then again, a film that marks the triumph of personality and will over the superficial power of beauty was not exactly mainstream Hollywood in 1950. Gloria Swanson’s ageing silent star in Sunset Boulevard was also nominated for best actress, and didn’t win. According to some cinematic lore, Mankiewicz was competing with his brother Herman who wrote Citizen Kane, another narrative about grand dreams and great failures, and All About Eve was a response to this. In the end this doesn’t matter: All About Eve is all about Bette Davis getting the chance to prove that Margo Channing still had it in her.



Lust, Caution

Format: Cinema

Release date: 4 January 2008

Venues: Curzon Soho, London, and nationwide

Distributor: Universal

Director: Ang Lee

Screenplay: James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang

Based on story by Eileen Chang

Original title: Se, jie

Cast: Tony Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen

USA 2007

156 mins

It would probably be a mistake to read too much into Ang Lee’s decision to follow up Brokeback Mountain with a film focusing so explicitly on heterosexual relationships. But this is by far the most overtly racy film in the director’s canon thus far, making all the bed-hopping in The Ice Storm look positively tame. Lust, Caution is a film about sex as communication, as struggle, as apology, even as torture. A shame, then, that there is so little genuine warmth and humanity to back it up.

The first section of the film is by far the strongest. Student Wang Jiazhi flees her rural home for Hong Kong, escaping the Japanese invasion. There she meets Kuang Yu Min, a dashing and charismatic playwright dedicated to the patriotic cause. After a soaring success on the stage, Kuang decides to use his acting troupe in the services of something more concrete – the entrapment and murder of Japanese agent Mr Yee. Wang Jiazhi agrees to act as a honey trap, luring Yee into her home so the others can finish him off.

This first act is pacy, sharp and exciting, as Wang Jiazhi grows into her role as an actress and a seducer. Tension is skilfully maintained, and the characters of Kuang and his fellow students are superbly delineated and genuinely likeable. Two key events have a shattering effect on Wang Jiazhi – firstly, an awkward and tentative bout of deeply unprofessional lovemaking with one of her fellow students, to ready herself for Mr Yee. And secondly, the startling, bloody and horrific communal murder of the traitorous Tsao, who uncovers their plan.

But after Yee’s escape and the group’s disbandment the film begins to falter. Wang Jiazhi moves to Shanghai and picks up her studies, when three years later Kuang contacts her again, asking her to resume her relationship with Mr Yee, now a key figure in the Japanese secret service. But as the two grow closer, and engage in extended bouts of explicitly depicted coupling, Wang Jiazhi begins to have doubts about her impending betrayal, culminating in a rash and drastic act which dooms her, and her fellow conspirators.

Lust, Caution was adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, but unlike the similarly sourced Brokeback Mountain there isn’t enough plot here to sustain the film’s epic runtime. The characters, while complex, are difficult to sympathise with – we actually seem to know less about Wang Jiazhi as the film progresses, and she makes choices which seem to conflict with everything we’ve previously learned. One scene in particular, a near-rape which Wang Jiazhi seems to enjoy, is particularly perplexing, and borderline offensive. And while the more traditional sex scenes are admittedly eye-opening, one is forced to question whether it was strictly necessary to include quite so many of them.

Perhaps Lust, Caution suffers from comparison with Paul Verhoeven’s trashier, but ultimately more intelligent and entertaining Black Book last year. Or perhaps it’s a cultural divide – the film draws on an Asian tradition of erotic cinema with which Western audiences may be unfamiliar. But in the end, however beautifully shot and acted Lust, Caution undoubtedly is, the film leaves the viewer cold and unsatisfied.

Tom Huddleston


Hotel Harabati

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 December 2007

Venues: ICA and Cine Lumiere, London

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Brice Cauvin

Screenplay: Jérôme Beaujour, Brice Cauvin, Pierre Schí¶ller

Original title: De particulier í­Â  particulier

Cast: Laurent Lucas, Hélí­Â¨ne Fillií­Â¨res, Anouk Aimée

France 2006

93 minutes

Brice Cauvin’s feature debut as director is an exercise in social exploration that succeeds in excavating an uneasy channel into the psyche of bourgeois society. Deliberately cryptic, Hotel Harabati charts the somewhat befuddling journey of a young French couple into the realms of urban disquiet and delusion. Cauvin’s vision is hypnotic and, at times, haunting in its depiction of an austere city slowly engulfing the young family in the wake of post-9/11 paranoia.

Philippe (Lucas) and his wife Marion (Fillií­Â¨res) begin their journey awaiting a train from Paris to Venice for an apparently long-overdue honeymoon. After Marion strikes up an innocuous conversation with a middle-aged Arabian man the couple discover that he has left behind a large holdall with a label for the Hotel Harabati.

The bag acts as a catalyst, propelling the young couple into a story where their relatively quiet lives are turned upside down. What happens on the honeymoon is never touched upon except that, despite telling family and friends otherwise, they never made it to Venice. In many senses the bag is the physical embodiment of urban paranoia over the threat of terrorism. Philippe becomes obsessed following the discovery of a bomb in Paris and his daily life becomes punctuated by constant radio bulletins on the looming terror threat. While Marion, in contrast, opts for reclusively barricading herself and her children in their apartment, Philippe embarks on a faintly homoerotic friendship with a young man he meets at a local synagogue.

Cauvin’s intentionally immersive mise en scí­Â¨ne lends a sense of suffocation to the couple’s struggle. But the deeply fractured narrative, overtly nonsensical in places, leaves so much open to audience interpretation that it proves slightly frustrating. There are certain instances in the film where the mystery seems unnecessarily opaque. The couple’s flight from Paris to Syria in search of the Hotel Harabati is beyond comprehension considering the psychosis they were both seen to develop over the threat of attack from Islamic nations. The sheer inscrutability of the picture is its one fault, and it is difficult to accept that the couple’s regression and eventual downfall from normal urban life are solely due to finding a strange bag while on holiday.

In Lucas and Fillií­Â¨res, the director finds a perfectly balanced chemistry and the picture benefits richly from both their performances. While so much of the plot remains unexplained, the characterisation is splendid and a short yet regal turn from Anouk Aimée is the icing on the cake. The dialogue is also one of the high points of the picture where, unlike the title, there is very little lost in translation.

The events of September 11, 2001 have had a pervading effect on cinema and art as a whole, and have spawned a predictable spate of pictures from Hollywood. With Hotel Harabati, Cauvin succeeds in bringing an exceptionally fresh and original take on the subject and offers a very thoughtful meditation on the lasting impact of terrorism on our lives. While repeat viewings are essential to fully appreciate both the plot and inventiveness of the film, Hotel Harabati has a boldness that is instantly captivating.

Merlin Harries



Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 December 2007

Venues: Empire Leicester Square, London, and key cities

Distributor: Yume Pictures

Director: Rigoberto Castaí±eda

Original title: Kilí­Â³metro 31

Cast: lliana Fox, Raíºl Méndez, Adrií­Â  Collado

Mexico 2006

103 minutes

Supernatural horror thriller KM31 became a huge hit at the Mexican box office after its release in February this year, grossing an impressive $15 million. Its success was due in large part to the production company, Lemon Films, who set out to make a commercial film that would raise the profile of the Mexican film industry and compete confidently in the International market. In that respect, KM31 demonstrates what a relatively small industry can achieve.

The film marks Rigoberto Castaí±eda‘s debut as a director and as such serves as a showcase of his diverse horror influences. The story revolves around twin sisters Agata and Catalina, who have possessed a strong psychic link since an early age, which enables them to communicate without speaking. One night Agata is involved in a serious car accident which leaves her in a coma. Visiting her sister in hospital, Catalina experiences Agata’s anguish. This urges her to investigate the scene of the crash, the marker KM31 on a local highway, a place she soon realises is haunted by ghosts of the past, spirits that claim their victims on the road. As the psychic link between the twins intensifies, Catalina, with the help of her friend Nuno and Agata’s boyfriend Omar, attempts to uncover the secrets of a local legend that has trapped her sister between life and death, between reality and a world of unearthly terror. But the further Catalina delves the more she uncovers long repressed secrets of their past, endangering both Agata’s life and her own.

Castaí±eda enhances the ghostly atmosphere of the film with lush hues and stunning locations. The dense forest that borders the road is ambiguously enchanting, a place simultaneously magical and sinister that invokes curiosity and a sense of foreboding. The house Catalina is drawn to in the depths of the forest is the stuff of fairy tales, replete with a wise and benevolent old lady and childhood toys. The film reinvents ancient Mexican folklore for a modern audience, lending an air of authenticity, a sense of place and tradition.

But despite some interesting stylistic flourishes and an intriguing premise the plot of KM31 is somewhat convoluted, and seems to spiral out of control towards the end. It feels like there’s too much going on within an incoherent structure, making the film difficult to fully engage with. The relationship between twins, and more specifically the unique psychic link between Agata and Catalina could have been genuinely interesting but instead feels underdeveloped, usurped by cheap shocks and an unruly use of special effects that feel showy rather than thrilling. Such devices just end up making the finale inevitably flat.

Castaí±eda clearly loves horror, and perhaps this is his homage to such modern classics as The Grudge and The Ring. But KM31 doesn’t add anything new: instead it feels like the director is fastidiously regurgitating aspects of the genre, sticking strictly to convention and budgetary demands. Any attempt to contend in an increasingly competitive international market demands a certain amount of conformity, but it is sad that invention and originality are inevitable casualties. The results make KM31 feel like a victim of Hollywood’s domination. One can only hope that the film’s success will give Castaí±eda the freedom to rein in his enthusiasm and unleash his creativity.

Lindsay Tudor

Read the interview with Rigoberto Castaí±eda.




Release date: 5 November 2007

Distributor: EMI

Director: Dean DeBlois

Iceland 2007

97 mins

Somebody once told me a story about an English TV director who spent six months working on a series of Wife Swap in the US. He came home and met up with some friends who were just setting off on a European tour in their punk band. He decided to go along and try and film the tour. For three weeks he tried to force his friends into aggravating situations for his film until eventually his conflict-generating strategies got the better of him and he ended up in an alpine sanatorium. In the calming atmosphere of his lightly padded chalet, he could finally acknowledge the bitter truth; he should have been filming himself all along.

Anyone used to the conventions of the modern documentary (Metallica’s Some Kind Of Monster for example, or Holiday Showdown) may find Sigur Rí­Â³s’ film Heima a similarly maddening experience. Sigur Rí­Â³s have every reason to be happy and well-balanced people (for one thing the band has become a massive success without compromising its musical weirdness) but their reluctance to let this slip at all, even though there is a film crew around, comes as a bit of a shock. The film follows them as they play a unique series of free concerts around their home country of Iceland. Part of the way through, a national newspaper publishes an editorial about the events. Are Sigur Rí­Â³s condemned as Satanists and cod smugglers? Do they have to evade arrest in a late-night escape, hidden under the sticky haul of some sympathetic Norwegian death-metallist trawlermen? No, of course not. The newspaper describes the tour as a gift to the country ‘brought forth with unforgettable modesty’ and encourages the population to go along in even greater numbers.

Not only is there no conflict in Heima, but the film actively embraces consensus. Brass bands and village halls, symbols of community, are celebrated in the film. The principle of the tour, playing free gigs in unusual and remote locations, encourages a sympathetic and unusually varied audience (old people, children and pagans), and it’s intriguing to watch how the rejection of commercial imperatives creates the setting for all this harmony. Maybe Heima really is the anti-Some Kind Of Monster, a film where the happiest band member we got to see was the one watching millions of dollars rolling in at an auction of art investments.

The other great virtue of Heima is the footage of Iceland. Not only are the band members and audiences cheerily appealing in a wrapped-up and hearty sort of way but the landscape looks amazing too. Sigur Rí­Â³s’ music has a topographical feel and its sympathy with views of hillsides has made it commonplace on TV shows. In Heima, it gets the perfect accompaniment. Not just hills, but water, rocks and a disused herring factory. The musical sections are all filmed in different locations and the mood of these pieces is varied. Even so, unless you are a fan of Sigur Rí­Â³s’ music or of heart-warming gestures generally, you may find that by the end you are badly missing Metallica’s interminable conflict-management sessions.

Nick Dutfield



Format: DVD

Release date: 19 November 2007

Distributor: Eureka Video

Director: FW Murnau

Screenplay: Robert Flaherty, FW Murnau, Edgar G. Ulmer

Cast: Anne Chevalier, Matahi, Hitu, Bill Bambridge

USA 1931

82 mins

Once Rousseau had taught disenchantment with civilisation, sophisticated Europeans came increasingly to look on ‘primitive’ peoples and their values not just as curiosities but as bearers of deep truth about humanity. Science followed on the heels of sentiment and for a hundred years anthropologists fed lore of the remote into our culture. Chronologically Tabu falls midway between two classic books of the genre, The Golden Bough by JG Frazer and La Pensée sauvage by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and connects the two in its themes of the sacred virgin, ritual prohibition, and profanation. We are no longer able to gaze upon the pre-industrial world as these adventurers did. The questioning of relations between Europe and the post-colonial world made anthropology a self-conscious enterprise by the 1980s; ethnographers shunned the South Seas and stayed closer to home. Enjoying the exotic may still be fun today, but it feels like a shallow activity. And the shrinking of the world has made us more aware of our similarities with people in remote cultures and less likely to see the differences as deep.

So Tabu is a souvenir of another world. It is not the Polynesian islands that are remote now, but the age of old-fashioned amateur anthropology. And yet, while it might be possible to get exercised about objectification and exoticization in the film if one tried, it is hard to see anything demeaning in its portrayal of the Tahitians. We can’t know whether the scenes the non-professional cast enact seemed to them authentic representations of their world, but the energy and grace with which they get stuck in are entirely disarming. For better or worse, the emotions which drive the film are not alien but recognisably those of Western stories of tragic young love. Matahi and Reri (supposedly the characters were simply named after the actors) are touchingly expressive as the lovers under the shadow of taboo.

The film is said to be much more Murnau’s work than producer Robert J. Flaherty’s, but to me it resembles the latter’s Nanook more than the former’s Nosferatu. Distinctively German, perhaps, is the robust enthusiasm for fresh air and nudity: Murnau is not particularly scrupulous about observing the convention that naked breasts should be concealed by a lei or flowing locks. I suppose there must sometimes have been an element of sexual tourism in viewings of this film, but I found it minimally prurient. There seemed to be a certain harmless relish in the depiction of muscular male divers in their trunks, but perhaps that was just me.

The plot is nothing inspired, but it flows easily enough from one bravura set-piece to another. Particularly memorable are: the opening scene of mixed bathing high jinks by a waterfall; the whole village (even a toddler and his pet pig) canoeing out to meet a visiting ship; the East-meets-West scene at the port, where bare feet, working shoes, and high heels mingle on the dance floor, while champagne is drunk (fatefully) from bowls; and the unforgettable night swim with which the film concludes. Floyd Crosby certainly earned his Oscar for cinematography: I’d say this is what makes the film.

Tabu is one of the last great silent films; this kind of innocent romanticism, non-verbal characterisation, and unhurried delight in the visual were perhaps harder to carry off once film narrative shackled itself to dialogue.

Peter Momtchiloff

Night and the City

Night and the City

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 28 September 2015

Distributor: BFI

Director: Jules Dassin

Writers: Jo Eisinger, Austin Dempster

Based on the novel by: Gerald Kersh

Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers

UK 1950

101 mins

As movie openings go, the first minute of this landmark British noir takes some beating. Surveying a night blacker than newspaper print, a disembodied voice introduces us to the scene we’ll spend the next 100 minutes touring: ‘the night is tonight, tomorrow night or any night. The city… is London’.

Based very loosely on Gerald Kersh’s excellent 1938 novel of the same name, Night and the City is the story of Harry Fabian, a small-time Soho club tout living in a derelict post-war capital populated entirely by a Dickensian array of beggars, forgers, con-men, bookies, gangsters and sharks. Fabian, played by Richard Widmark at his shifty, sweaty best, is keen to make something of himself, navigating the criminal underworld to achieve ‘a life of ease and plenty’ by becoming a wrestling promoter – the only hitch is that soon he’ll find the city turning in on him.

The story behind Night and the City is almost as compelling as the script itself. Directed by Jules Dassin following the success of The Naked City in 1948, it was his final film for Hollywood before the McCarthy trials exiled him forever. Foreknowledge of his precarious political position meant that Dassin and his largely American crew were forced to film on location on a tight schedule, often staying up all night to complete scenes – something which adds a pace and intensity entirely suited to Fabian’s descent into hell.

Far from the cosiness of some of the London-set British-produced movies of the period – Hue and Cry, say, or Passport to Pimlico – Dassin and his director of photography Max Green present the city as a savage prison – employing disorientating camera angles, claustrophobic compositions and documentary lighting that makes characters look like intaglios. A fine supporting cast – including Herbert Lom in the first of many roles as a heavy-lidded gangster, Googie Withers, and a remarkable turn from monolithic former professional wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko – wander through the shadows in near-constant blackness, through a skeletal city: with large tracts of industrial wasteland and bombed-out buildings at its very centre, it’s hard to forget that Night and the City was filmed three years before the end of partial post-war rationing. London here is a chiaroscuro city made up of physical and emotional scars, where there is no chance of redemption or escape and morality is merely a hindrance to survival.

This lack of moral resolution was the reason why Night and the City received such a hostile critical reception on its original release. Forget all that, though: if you want to be grabbed by the collar and dragged through the gutters of Piccadilly, there’s really nothing like it.

This review was first published in 2007 for the BFI DVD release of the film.

Pat Long