I've got just less than forty films I've not posted any thoughts on this month. Here are a few...Frankenstein 5/5 (rewatch)James Whale 1931 USA
An ambitious scientist recreates a living being from dead bodies and a murderer's brain.
Adorably studio-bound, exemplary horror that has a man of science able to "play God", pitting scientic endeavour and its necessary curiosity against religion, that cautionary institution of political reaction; the scientist himself is a man of privilege, whose vitriolic father is far more horrific than the 'monster', in his haste to judge and eternal expectation to have wants fulfilled. The critique is implicit: while there's a playful nod to an inherent evil to come by having Frankenstein's assistant steal a murderer's brain over that of a genius, the reality sees the monster as a victim to social prejudice and an impatience with the unlearned. When he inadvertantly drowns a child after making the wrong assumption that she will float like the flowers she has given him, the townsfolk seek punitive vengeance that finds its official expression all too easily, as the political elite cries for murder against both the monster and the science that created him. Before any of its wider implications, though, it's simply a joy to watch.
Chocolat Chocolate 4/5Claire Denis 1988 France / West Germany / Cameroon
A Frenchwoman remembers her childhood in colonial Cameroon, as a soldier's daughter who's friendship to the family housekeeper was challenged by the arrival of racist family friends.
Subtle and complex film in which class anxieties and racial tensions are bound as one and provide the contextual backdrop to the sexual and familial struggles felt by a French soldier's wife and young daughter, both protected in the absence of said soldier by the quiet, assuring figure of loyal masculinity in their native housekeeper, played with wonderful presence by Isaach De Bankolé, whose physical posture and alluring face betray at once a pride, a barely suppressed desire, and a brooding, restrained ferocity in the face of a racism more and more explicit. Denis, directing her feature debut, heightens the power struggles of masculinity - and even perhaps of French neo-colonialism - on a visual level by having François Cluzet's soldier carry out escapades in the shadow of a phallic hill, whose more distant features can be seen from the house he leaves behind. Told as an extended flashback and incorporating the director's own memories of a childhood spent in Cameroon, it's a brilliant and powerful introduction to her impressive work.
The Salt of Life Gianni e le donne 4/5Gianni De Gregoiro 2011 Italy
>>> I reviewed this here
Che Part Two 5/5 (rewatch)Steven Soderbergh 2008 Spain / France / USA
Following the success of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara leads a band of guerillas through Bolivia in the hope of spreading socialism.
Restrained to a fault, this follow-up to Che Part One
is a fiercely episodic, almost fragmented account of Che's failed attempt to lead a guerilla uprising against the Bolivian government. It's doomed from the off, when Mario Monje and his Communist Party of Bolivia betray the guerillas' cause; thereafter, the Bolivian jungles prove physically defeating as the US-trained government army move in on the rebels. Stylistically, it both pares down the first film and extends it. Soderbergh's cinematography is excellent, while Pablo Zumárraga's editing lends a rare sort of purity to scenes, which succeed one another with little contextualisation. Its ground-level focus - with only sparing reference to a wider picture - could be its downfall if it wasn't so content with providing an account at once distanced and detailed. Palpably atmospheric and haunting, it's also the audaciously unconventional biopic its subject matter demands.
Damnation Kárhozat 5/5 (rewatch)Béla Tarr 1987 Hungary
In love with a singer who performs in a bar he frequents, a man all but detached from society offers her husband an illegal job…
A sparse, minimalist take on noir
traditions, with the simplest of plots employed for a bleak and ruminating film built around notions of social disintegration and the personal jealousies that erupt from an unreciprocated declaration of love. Its protagonist is already half-way to despair when the film begins, and seen through his eyes, its mise-en-scčne
is unrelentingly downbeat; but as its story is fleshed out before an elongated conclusion in a bar, the film becomes more abstract and surreal and haunting, the circular musical numbers to which extras enact a cyclical comradely dance providing a kind of beauty, even if the relationships between the four main characters are doomed. Forgive it its loftier dialogue and the film is often staggering.
Badlands 5/5 (rewatch)Terrence Malick 1973 USA
A schoolgirl from suburban South Dakota falls for a garbage worker and follows him on a killing spree…
Unsettling and beautiful in equal measure, Malick's debut film takes a Bonnie & Clyde
-style tale and has it narrated with barely reliable, half-knowing, nostalgic whimsy by Sissy Spacek, as images of her and a disquieting Martin Sheen unfold with impending doom and increasing lyricism. Sheen's Kit is an alienated, dispossessed sociopath whose homocidal tendencies are as much his way of communicating anger as an attempt to enact a certain romanticism particular to the time, not least of all the celebrity cult of serial killers and their strange affinity with the ordinary folk of 1950s America. The film is on one level a killers-on-the-run tale narrated like a fable and shot like an irresistible romance; but from its opening images it's also brimming with class tensions, and after a scene involving a door-to-door salesman at "a rich man's house", in which Kit's affected dialogue betrays the difficulty he has in playing out of his social class with any conviction, it becomes a sad story in which an increasingly delusional young man not without humour or guts accepts his potential as a James Dean imitator whose route to a temporary fifteen minutes of fame is one of aimless wandering and murder.
Last Year in Marienbad L'année derničre ŕ Marienbad 5/5 (rewatch)Alain Resnais 1961 France / Italy
At a vast country estate, a man tries to convince a woman that they have met before, but he cannot tell if it was at the same manor or at another…
The frank eroticism of gesture, as captured by memory, finds an explicit outlet in this monumental arthouse classic, notable for its deliberately aloof plot and the controlled precision with which its camera tracks and frames the artificial proceedings, with actors 'freezing' mid-conversation so that a voice-over can retrace the architectural labyrinth of memory and its associative nature. Editorial cuts have never felt so violent and in contrast to a subject matter of dormant romance (or is the violence complimentary to something more menacing?). Whatever of the highbrow waffle and esoteric interpretations it leaves itself open to, it seems as much as anything else to the conveniences with which society's privileged classes defer responsibility for a brutal past with which they are complicit, and the lengths to which they'll go in order to fictionalise or romanticise history itself.
Satan's Tango Sátántangó 5/5 (rewatch)Béla Tarr 1994 Hungary / Germany / Switzerland
Towards the end of communism in Hungary, a collective farm's inhabitants are excited by the arrival of a mysterious stranger they'd thought was dead.
A monstrous epitome of post-soviet cinema, four years in production and seven hours long. Gábor Medvigy's camera observes and tracks its subjects as their daily lives, on the verge of ruin, unfold: alcoholism and monetary scheming seem to be the combined result of geographic isolation and economic disposession, and the beginning of the relentless rains of "an unsufferably long autumn toward the end of October" takes on a symbolic significance throughout the film; as does the notion of time itself: the film is full of dead time just as its characters' lives are determined by the disintegration, waste and the hot air of bureaucratic promises sent from corridors and offices whose mise-en-scčne
is far removed from the barren mud of the workers' farm. Incident is sparse but not absent; what lingers more is the magnified sense of life as a process, embodied explicitly in the movements of the community doctor, who speaks the film's opening and final lines, as he fumbles in and out of his chair, breathing heavily and compiling notes on his neighbours between shots of liquor. At the centre of the narrative is the ambiguous figure of Irimiás, played by Tarr's regular music composer Mihály Vig, who insists not to be taken "for a liberator, but a sad researcher investigating why things are as terrible as they are", charming words said with beguiling conviction, which makes the penultimate chapter (of twelve, like a tango) all the more powerful. Besides its political character, it's full of remarkable imagery and mesmerising moments: the lengthy sequence in chapter five, in which a child of domestic neglect turns to her cat to assert power by torture and poison is as unsettling as the drunken dance sequence at the end of chapter six is extraordinary.
Days of Heaven 5/5 (rewatch)Terrence Malick 1978 USA
A farm labourer encourages his lover to marry the owner of the land they work on, in order to make a fortune.
A deceptively complex ménage ŕ trois
foregrounded against collective labour, Malick's film is beautifully shot by Nestor Almendros and scored by Ennio Morricone. Moving without ever being sentimental, its tragic story emerges naturally from the material conditions of its setting: at a base level, the shifting emotional bonds between the three principals - whose story is narrated with poignant passivity and acceptance by Linda Manz - have their foundation in the contradictions of a social hierarchy antagonistic to harmonious notions of love, which by its title is rendered a temporary utopia under capitalism. Once a privileged landowner (Sam Shepard) takes an interest in Abby (Brooke Adams), girlfriend to itinerant worker Bill (Richard Gere), the subsequent chain of events seem unavoidably destined for failure. Because action is motivated by such economic necessity, there's a sparseness afforded to incident and dialogue without neglecting a realism. Elevating as this does particular glances and other gestures, the film is both succinct and enduring.
The New World 5/5 (rewatch)Terrence Malick 2005 USA
After the first English settlers form Jamestown in America, captain John Smith embarks on a brief romance with one of the natives.
Editorially, a fascinating work, unfolding in constant ellipses whereby the dialogue of a scene is voiced over its 'establishing' shot(s) and great, complex use is made of the Kuleshov effect. It lends a real sweep to the narrative, a deeply suggestive and elusive sophistication tempered by a childish curiosity and romanticised whimsicality that embodies the duality of explorative science and imperial expansion, the latter being at the intrinsic expense of an alluring foreign people. It's a seductive work that both complicates and problematizes its own subject matter, and builds through ever-shifting perspectives to an extraordinary climactic sequence. Lubezki's cinematography is beautifully naturalistic, his imagery edited together to imbue an associative symbolism; its finest achievement might be the humane authenticity with which it combines two transitional processes: that by which a female holds onto a past romance whilst a more enduring love carries her along with a certain inevitability, and that by which two new worlds clash with a cyclical, to-and-fro tension with one another, their history forever entwined thereafter if determined by the more advanced oppressor.