As part of our exploration of ground-breaking Polish director Walerian Borowczyk, our comic strip review looks at the wonderful animation short Les Astronautes, made by Borowczyk in 1959 in collaboration with Chris Marker.
As part of Kinoteka, ‘Walerian Borowczyk: The Listening Eye’, an exhibition of preliminary studies for his animated shorts Les Jeux des Anges (1964), Le dictionnaire de Joachim (1965) and The Theatre of Mr and Mrs Kabal (1967) as well as his unique wooden sound sculptures is on at the ICA’s Fox Reading Room from 20 May – 6 July 2014.
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, Daniel Brühl, Nina Hoss, Willem Dafoe
USA, UK, Germany 2014
A Most Wanted Man – what a weirdly plummy, English title, but this is a John le Carré adaptation, after all, even if most of the characters are Germans. Played by Americans. Doing German accents. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is an anti-terrorist spook in Hamburg, and is as electrifying as you’d expect, though it’s odd seeing him apparently do an impersonation of Anthony Hopkins pretending to be German, while Willem Dafoe seems to be doing Peter O’Toole as another German, possibly in Night of the Generals.
A Most Wanted Man is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray on 19 January 2015 by Entertainment One.
Is Tarantino right to propose that films in which foreign characters speak English are outmoded? People still seem to be making them. In this case, the man responsible is Anton Corbjin, the talented music video director who made a strong debut with the Ian Curtis biopic Control and followed it with the Melvillean thriller The American. This movie aims for a similarly crisp, glassy surface, a deadpan thriller full of moral ambiguities and questionable alliances.
A Chechen/Russian fugitive arrives in Hamburg illegally and attempts to claim a vast inheritance left by his father. He could be a terrorist, or the Arab philanthropist he plans to donate the money to might be funding terrorism. Hoffman might have a plan for how to turn them both to his side, but the Americans, led by Robin Wright, might not be trustworthy (you think?).
The film’s biggest problem is one particularly affecting audiences who know le Carré’s work: the story’s outcome is never in doubt. Maybe the attempts to make it a surprise were misguided. No doubt the doom-laden setting and tragic denouement are true to the reality of these situations, but the audience would appreciate some surprises. Still, things going wrong allows Hoffman to display his extremely skilled deployment of the F-bomb one last time.
Elsewhere there are a few unfortunate sops to the dummies, which patronise the rest of us: when Dafoe, a wealthy banker, reads a name on a card, he is obliged to read it aloud, despite being alone in the room and the card being held in a giant close-up so we can read it ourselves. When Hoffman lights one of his constant cigarettes, there’s a slight hissing crackle as the tobacco catches fire, a movie cliché that has no real place here. And the early suspense scenes feature ominous music playing over shots of Muslims praying, pandering to an Islamophobic mindset the film is otherwise at pains to avoid.
Cast: Michael C. Hall, Wyatt Russell, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson
Set in the late 1980s, Cold in July starts with a masterfully directed scene, in which father and husband Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills an intruder in his living room. Richard has the cops on his side and faces no charges, but soon enough the dead man’s father (Sam Shepard) comes to town seeking to avenge his son.
Although the film starts in straightforward fashion and director Jim Mickle demonstrates clear abilities in economic direction, it gradually becomes apparent that Cold in July is not your average thriller but a camp bomb primed to explode. From the cinematography and cheesy electronic music to Michael C. Hall’s ridiculous moustache, the movie cleverly undermines itself, and the audience is not sure whether they should invest in the story or burst into nervous laughter.
For a time, Jim Mickle walks the fine line between the two modes more or less successfully, but the narrative detours betray him and reveal the film’s true colours. Somewhere after the halfway mark, it becomes clear that Cold in July is more of an 80s Carpenter homage than a stand-alone film with a coherent plotline. What begins as a gripping psychological thriller develops into a buddy movie and ends with an absurd bloodbath. In the course of the story, Richard goes from being the clear protagonist to a mere helping hand in the final scenes, and it’s Sam Shepard who takes the reins as the narrative’s most important character. The plot’s various twists and turns feel forced and unreasonable, and so do the characters’ motives. The second act’s slow pace doesn’t help, and despite its strong start, Cold in July soon becomes boring. Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (playing a silly, Tarantinian cowboy/detective) do a decent job and seem to enjoy themselves when the movie slips into buddy-movie territory, while Michael C. Hall’s unsure performance mirrors the fact that his character doesn’t have a goal to pursue after the middle of the film.
Even at their most outlandish, the Carpenter movies that are such a strong influence on Cold in July retained gripping plotlines and clear protagonists. By denying us either, Mickle makes it very difficult to care about his film. The continuous shift in styles, protagonists and storylines becomes tiresome after a while; the audience has nothing to grab onto, and there isn’t much of an emotional or intellectual point being made by these constant changes, apart from the message that Mickle likes to stuff as many different influences and genres as possible into a single film.
Cold in July works pretty well as a goofy commentary on other films and genres and it’s funny enough to be an amusing, rather than an annoying, failure. Judged on its own, however, the film is slow-paced, uneven and shallow. The effort might have been admirable but the film is plainly forgettable.
Cast: Emily Foxler, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Lorene Scafaria, Elizabeth Gracen
Coherence begins like any number of US indie flicks: a group of affluent young professionals gather for a dinner party. The faux-improv dialogue and shaky camerawork are as you’d expect. The performances are completely convincing. But there are references to a comet passing overhead and the strange things that can happen as a result – a not too convincing pretext for a sci-fi twist.
However, when the twist comes, it bounces off the naturalistic style in a way that’s very entertaining. A power cut blacks out the neighbourhood except for one house up the hill. A couple of the guests go to investigate, and return with a crazy story: the house with lights is the same house, and the same people are inside, eating their dinner. A box has been retrieved, which contains numbered photographs of everyone at the party. And a table tennis paddle.
If you’re susceptible to this kind of plot hook, you are now hooked and must keep watching (the way you watched Lost) in hopes of a satisfactory explanation. A dramatically – not scientifically – satisfactory answer does actually come together with a snowballing set of peculiar consequences to what is apparently a breakdown in the barriers that normally keep us from mingling with the people in the universe next door, and the one next to that, and the one next to that…
As the situation develops into increasing craziness, perfectly logically given its loopy premise, relationships break down along with reality, and a mild form of Lynchian terror is unleashed. It’s also rather funny. ‘There are a million universes out there and I slept with your wife in all of them!’ I found it all rather irresistible. The one wrong step seemed to me the introduction of violence, the breakdown of civilisation, which misses the point of the particular anxiety the story concept trades on, which has to do with doppelgangers and being unable to trust your senses, and what is sometimes called jamais vu – ’I have never been here before,’ said as you walk into your own home and meet your loved ones without any sense of familiarity.
This review is part of our 2014 EIFF coverage. Coherence is released on DVD in the UK on 16 February 2015 by Metrodome.
Cast: Philippe Avron, Jirí Sýkora, Magda Vášáryová
Original title:Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni
It’s easy to see why director Juraj Jakubisko was known as the Slovak Fellini. Birds, Orphans and Fools (1969) instantly sweeps the audience along with a liberated camera that plunges joyfully into the film’s carnivalesque world. It has been called a surrealist film, and like other films that fall under this loose designation, Birds, Orphans and Fools focuses less on storyline, more on original images and unpredictable digressions. Unlike some so-called surrealist films which alienate the audience with a lack of structure, Jakubisko’s work has a developed sense of timing, keeping the audience engaged by regular changes of scene. Furthermore, these diverse scenes are given meaning and unity by the continued presence of a central trio: Yorick, his girlfriend Marta, and his best friend Andrej, a photographer. They live in a tumbledown barn, presided over by a maudlin old man, with a variety of little birds flying in and out at will. The title comes from the old Slovak saying that God looks after birds, orphans and fools, but the film seems to contradict the proverb with a tragic ending, announced by the director’s voice-over during the opening sequence.
The source of the tragedy is jealousy, already present early on when Yorick, Marta and Andrej live together in near-utopian bliss. They enjoy a playful existence, always clowning about, living up to their reputation as fools. But every so often, the men show signs of resentment towards Marta: Andrej sees her as an unwelcome newcomer who disrupts his friendship with Yorick, while Yorick suspects her of unfaithfulness. The men’s unkindness and injustice in these moments is emphasized by their regression into anti-Semitic insults. Later, when the characters adopt a more bourgeois lifestyle, feelings of ownership and exclusion become more pronounced, leading to the film’s shocking finale.
Completed in 1968 just after the Soviet invasion and banned the year after, Birds, Orphans and Fools is a key example of the lesser-known Slovak side of the Czechoslovak New Wave. With its stylistic experimentation and non-conformist characters, the film recalls Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), but is less manic and more pastoral. It also invites comparison with French New Wave masterpieces: its ménage à trois recalls Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), but its stylistic virtuosity and affinity for youth culture makes it closer in spirit to Godard’s Breathless (1960). Jakubisko has a talent all his own when it comes to integrating the contemporary hippie zeitgeist into the traditional Slovak countryside. He emphasizes an organic relationship between modern and traditional lifestyles, rather than taking the more obvious approach of ironic contrast.
In an excellent and wide-ranging essay in the DVD liner notes, Peter Hames traces the film’s lineage back to Slovak surrealism, with its characteristic attachment to folk culture. Equally, though, I would suggest that this film has roots in Poetism, a uniquely Czechoslovak version of dada, which emphasized a good-humoured, self-deprecating, playful attitude to life and a powerful attachment to nature.
As a critic with an interest in the history of Japanese animation and manga, it is refreshing once in a while to come across a film that is like nothing you’ve seen before. While some animé films save money by using limited animation here and there, before Belladonna of Sadness I’d never seen a movie where around 40% of the running time consists of the camera panning across still drawings and paintings. By using this technique so extensively in-between the more traditionally animated sections, it avoids appearing like a cost-saving exercise (which is not to say it wasn’t, as the film actually bankrupted an animation studio) and creates a very different kind of storytelling that seems to hark back to older forms of Japanese entertainment such as Kamishibai or Emaki-mono. Kamishibai storytellers would travel from town to town entertaining children with a box that had an opening at the front, in and out of which different painted scenes could be moved, like a 2D version of paper theatre, with a soundtrack performed by the storyteller. Revived in 1920s Japan during the global economic depression, Kamishibai had its roots in an older form of pictorial narrative, that of Emaki-mono scrolls, which display a story to the viewer as they roll the unfolding image from one end of the scroll to the other.
By containing filmed versions of both Kamishibai and Emaki-mono and mixing the style of older visual narratives with more modern animation (which in this case lifts imagery from 1970s fashion magazines and even a brief homage to The Beatles’ 1968 Yellow Submarine), Belladonna of Sadness almost feels like a tour of Japanese visual storytelling culture. All of this may sound charming – and indeed it often is – but the film is certainly not suitable for children, as the starting point for the screenplay was a 19th-century book called Satanism and Witchcraft (La sorcière) by Jules Michelet, and the film contains many scenes of rape committed against the central character. Although these scenes are thankfully tamer than hentai animè from a decade later, such as the risible Urotsukidôji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), or even live action cinema at the time – for example Lady Snowblood released the same year – the imagery of a woman split apart by a river of blood that splinters into bats is still the stuff of nightmares.
The plot is a somewhat misogynist tale of a poor couple who try to raise the tithe needed to get married on their local Baron’s estate. When he demands 10 times the amount, the fiancé has no choice but to let his bride spend a night with the Baron instead. Deflowered and full of shame, the next day Jeanne welcomes a penis-shaped demon into her bedroom (and body) so she can be empowered with the forces of evil to fight the corrupt regime they live in. The fantastical and erotic elements of the film are sometimes an uneasy mix, and perhaps only the use of scrolling images to replace much of the animation prevents the film from being a gruelling experience, as the focus of the plot is often on the repeated abuse of the female protagonist.
The third in a trilogy of animated ‘pink’ films made under the supervision of Osamu Tezuka, the most revered creator of Japanese manga, Belladonna of Sadness followed two light-hearted erotic fantasies by the same director, which contained animation that was recognisably by Tezuka himself – One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). However, this film swaps the child-friendly artwork of Astro Boy (1964) and Kimba the White Lion (1966) for a striking style influenced by fin-de-siècle European artists such as Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt. The soundtrack is also exemplary, and like the globetrotting visual aesthetics, mixes sleazy Euro-pop – of the kind that might grace a 1960s film by Roger Vadim – with Japanese jazz. Only the subject matter leaves a bad taste in the mouth, which the filmmakers clumsily try to belatedly justify with a coda comparing the events of the movie with the sacrifices made by women who died during the French Revolution. But the many unique elements that make the film stand out from its peers, including the art on screen, combined with the Emaki-mono presentation, make Belladonna of Sadness a must-see for fans of Japanese animation.
Arrow present a handsome Blu-ray set of Robert Fuest’s two campy, art deco black comedies celebrating the sinister machinations of an evil genius played by Vincent Price, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). Rather than a mad scientist, Anton Phibes is a doctor of musicology and theology, studies he relies upon when he decides to revenge himself upon the surgical team who failed to save his wife’s life. It’s a slender motivation, but a very thorough revenge, murdering the medicos according to his own interpretation of the 10 plagues of ancient Egypt.
Co-writer and director Robert Fuest was an art director in the early days of commercial television in Britain, graduating to director on early episodes of The Avengers, where he obviously responded to the campy, surreal sense of Englishness. (He also introduced Richard Lester to the music of the Beatles, whom he had made amateur recordings of.) A heavy drinker, rumoured cross-dresser, and a favourite of Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, Fuest made only a few features, and the last two were heavily compromised, but between Hitchcockian thriller And Soon the Darkness, pop art sci-fi apocalypse The Final Programme, and his two Phibes films, his cult reputation is assured. His first film, comedy Just Like a Woman, is a funny and convincing portrayal of 60s media people, and his version of Wuthering Heights (1970) with Timothy Dalton is actually one of the finest Brontë adaptations.
The first Phibes film inaugurated the mini-sub-genre of themed murder movies continued in Theatre of Blood and Se7en, and is a precursor of the slasher genre: the plot is essentially a string of elaborate killings, with the authorities continually several steps behind, so as not to interfere with the fun. The themed killings are sometimes horrible, sometimes enjoyably ludicrous, but it’s actually the incompetent investigation following Phibes that provides most of the fun.
Price, that inveterate ham, is somewhat muted by the script’s casting him as a man with a prosthetic face and no vocal chords, relying on a gramophone plugged into his throat to communicate. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to constrain Price’s mugging… The presence of Joseph Cotten points up the film’s debt to Citizen Kane, joining disparate scenes together with witty links, in which a spoken question is answered by the first image of the following scene. All in all, The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a unique, crazy, and rather personal film, devoted to Fuest’s love of jazz, elaborate art direction and costume design, fruity performance, and naked sadism.
The sequel struggles a bit, lacking the structure of 10 curses, and has to keep inventing excuses to kill people in ridiculously elaborate ways, and shuffling guest stars on and off, but it benefits from Robert Quarry’s faded matinee-idol charm, and a rather intriguing mythological grounding, capitalising on the 20s-30s enthusiasm for Egyptology. Rather than relying on a virtuous hero (ditching Joseph Cotton’s crusty protagonist), the film pulls off a nice trick by opposing Phibes with an equally ruthless villain, while Inspector Trout scurries in their wake, perpetually baffled.
Like the original, it lurches from one gruesome highlight to another, sometimes stumbling, but helped along by grace notes of performance (Terry-Thomas, Beryl Reid) and set design (by Brian Eatwell, consistently ravishing). And Peter Jeffrey, as Trout, accompanied by his truculent, yapping terrier of a boss, John Cater, is a joy, delivering some truly awful joke dialogue with stiff-upper-lipped aplomb.
Guy Pitt’s debut feature Greyhawk takes place on a London housing estate. Mal, a blind ex-soldier (the excellent Scottish actor Alec Newman), is playing fetch with his guide dog. On the third throw of the squeaky ball, his dog does not return. An escalating moment of anxiety (‘Anxiety has no upper limit.’ – Roman Polanski). The dog has been stolen. And so the determined man, who’s carrying quite a bit of barely pent-up anger anyway, must venture into the scheme to get his companion back.
The filmmaking is assured, using the frame, and the focus, to give a stylised sense of the limitations of its hero’s perceptions, and there’s some arresting architectural framing, positioning the central location as antagonist. Greyhawk is at its best using the tense dramatic premise, which you can’t help invest in emotionally, as a means of exploring character. As a study of anomie it’s not entirely convincing: it feels less intimately familiar with its story world than something like Attack the Block, even though its intentions are more serious. Some people might even be offended by the suggestion that so many people on one housing estate would be so unsympathetic to a disabled person’s plight. But the combination of an interesting, defiantly un-ingratiating central figure, strong support from Zoë Telford and Jack Shepherd, and a nerve-racking situation, make the movie a compelling experience. – The detective story aspect of Mal’s investigation is cleverly scripted, just barely avoiding too neat a feeling of contrivance, while continually throwing difficulties in his path.
Greyhawk is one of several imaginative British features screening at EIFF (including opening film Hyena), offering encouraging signs of life and the possibility that this year’s Michael Powell Award for best British film might conceivably go to something Powell would have recognised as cinema.
Cast: Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Elisa Lasowski
Opening the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2014, Hyena divided opinion, though most were favourably impressed by its moody, pounding soundtrack by The The. Since director Gerard Johnson is brother of that band’s frontman Matt (really the only consistent member, as well as the songwriter), it makes sense that film and score are such a good fit. Albums such as Infected and Soul Bomb covered a similar territory: male angst and self-laceration, violence and bodily fluids.
The film benefits from boasting very few familiar faces, so its hyped-up, steroidal realism is unimpeded by recognition. Peter Ferdinando is suitably tortured as a corrupt drug squad cop whose covert deals and coke habit start him on a road to destruction when he comes under investigation, and a pair of psychopathic Albanian brothers move violently into his turf.
Admittedly, the story boasts plot holes its fat sweaty coppers could march through four abreast: at one point, plot points are revealed by a tape recorder on which an enemy has recorded things that, for some reason incriminate himself; and scenes in which a man taunts somebody training a pistol on him never really convince me. But part of what I like about the movie is the way it bursts the constraints of realism in favour of a gross, emotive and infernal feeling of nightmare.
Unlike a lot of commercial crime films, Hyena doesn’t try to be ingratiating: when it errs, it does so by being too stridently unpleasant. For the first half of the film, Ferdinando is in every scene, except for a few cutaways showing a woman being abused. They didn’t need to be there for narrative reasons, since what happens to her is recapped later. And they dilute the first-person tunnel-vision quality of the rest of the filmmaking. In particular, an explicit rape scene with the woman unconscious seeks to gross us out with a hairy and overweight (and swarthy) assailant, in a manner not seen since Michael Winner’s Dirty Weekend. It’s offensive not because of his visible erection, but because it’s using his less-than-ideal body shape to disgust us. Since the victim is unconscious, what he looks like is irrelevant. It’s her powerlessness that should be the source of our discomfort.
If you can forgive the film the excesses that don’t work, the excesses that do work make for a pretty pungent experience. You may need a shower afterwards.
Cast: Grazyna Dlugolecka, Jerzy Zelnik, Olgierd Łukaszewicz
Original title:Dzieje grzechu
Eve is traditionally the temptress, but in The Story of Sin, it is Ewa who is tempted when a handsome anthropologist, Lukasz, comes to stay as a lodger in her parents’ house. Already married, Lukasz is in the process of seeking a divorce – no easy task for a Catholic. In the meantime, a relationship begins between him and Ewa with, on her side, all the passion of first love… and all its obsessed desperation when Lukasz suddenly departs. Ewa leaves her job and family to go in search of him, a bold decision for a woman living around the turn of the century. As she and Lukasz are successively reunited and separated by a series of melodramatic events, Ewa’s downfall is assured by the predatory men she encounters on her travels.
Made the same year as The Beast (La Bête), with its fantasy sequences of bestiality, The Story of Sin has been subject to critical debate about whether it is art or soft-core pornography – the same debate that has surrounded the majority of director Walerian Borowczyk‘s features. Adapted from a novel by Stefan ?eromski, it has a period setting, complete with its costumes and manners. When the film departs from the expected tropes of the period piece, the effect is startling. Ewa and Lukasz meet each other with all the expected formality, so buttoned-up that a corset left carelessly on a bedpost intrigues Lukasz and mortifies Ewa. Just a couple of scenes later, Lukasz is groping Ewa in a public park. They begin writing ardent letters to each other, Ewa slipping her billets doux discreetly into Lukasz’s mailbox, only to lie stark naked in bed as she reads his replies. The film’s artistic credentials are boosted by Borowczyk’s virtuoso use of close-ups and point-of-view shots, which lend something of the unexpected to an otherwise slavish blow-by-blow, over-long enactment of the novel.
Most scenes in the film are permeated with sexual threat, from the lascivious artist (another lodger), to the priapic villain who propositions Ewa in a village tavern and, when she refuses, improbably pursues her across Europe. If every man lusts after Ewa (apart from her father and one homosexual character), it is not that she is irresistible: it is that they see Ewa, like all women, as nothing more than prey, which they have a god-given right, as men, to use for their pleasure. Even Lukasz may be a fly-by-night – it is Ewa who makes all the effort to find him, while he never seems to be around when she needs him most. There is just one scene in the film where male and female bodies, in lovemaking, appear equally vulnerable and desirable beneath the camera’s gaze. Yet even this image is severely compromised by the fact that Ewa is being forced: her partner, completely in love with her, doesn’t realise that another man has orchestrated the encounter against her will. All in all, The Story of Sin makes for uncomfortable viewing.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews