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La commare secca (1962)
Essentially a murder mystery with a RASHOMON-esque narrative structure involving a prostitute's death - THE GRIM REAPER makes for a supremely impressive debut for Bernardo Bertolucci. The ensuing investigation focuses on the unreliable testimonies of various bystanders through flashbacks, as they recollect their movements on the previous day. However, unlike RASHOMON there's very little contradiction in the suspects' accounts and are merely disjointed by time. The elaborate digressions into each suspect's personal life get tiresome after a while but Bertolucci never loses track of the event that brings all these characters together. Based on a story by Pier Paolo Pasolini and shot in chilling B&W — THE GRIM REAPER offers a fascinating glimpse into marginalized Rome of the 60s - thieves, petty mariners, pimps, prostitutes, homosexuals and assorted disgruntled folk living on fringes. It's primitive Bertolucci to be sure lacking the visual flamboyance and aesthetic vigour of his subsequent epics but when viewed through the neorealist prism: the intentional pseudo documentary—rough edged—slice of life approach, works wonderfully. For a neophyte, Bertolucci displays extraordinary maturity and uncanny command over the medium attested further by his ability to extract effective (if occasionally inconsistent) performances from virtual amateurs.
Ingeniously applying his cerebral skill-set to the mechanics of historical war dramas and factual portraitures — Nolan unleashes a meticulously crafted, suffocatingly suspenseful survival epic that bears his patented structural spin on its dirt-covered sleeve. He doesn't follow a set template but creates his own — radically cross-cutting between perspectives of variable time-frames, the narrative unravels simultaneously on land, water and in air, before converging in a breathtakingly volatile finale. The audacious split-narrative works brilliantly and possesses the urgency that would've otherwise been lost to a more conventional approach, instead we get 100 mins of sustained panic-inducing climax which is further intensified by Hans Zimmer's pulsating score resembling a ticking clock and surging tide.
Nolan isn't really concerned with telling a story, preferring to create an experience - and a supremely immersive one at that! Devoid of didactic monologues and cheap sentimentality, thrusting us headlong onto the Dunkirk sands we're given a glimpse into the crack of rifle-fire, the maelstrom of war, the frenzy of fear, the distinctive wailing siren of the Stukas, the muffled screaming of drowning men or the shell-shocked groans of the ones that temporarily made it. The exclusively Brit ensemble (featuring the likes of Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy etc) is uniformly excellent with a particularly impressive turn from newcomer Fionn Whitehead. Technically, DUNKIRK is as much a visual feast as aural bliss. Hoyte Van Hoytema's evocative lensing lends stylistic harmony to the proceedings through careful juxtaposition of nerve-wracking air-combat sequences, chaotic underwater stretches with the panoramic paranoia of the war-torn beach, propelled further by bone shattering sound design and some crisp editing.
Ultimately, DUNKIRK is a masterwork of understated terror grounded in brutal reality and in the very best tradition of great (spectacle) cinema — packs the power to transport the audiences into the very heart of the action, especially when experienced on the all-encompassing IMAX screen.
Julia Ducournau's riotous debut feature is a coming-of-age tale spliced with cannibalistic horror. RAW is a visceral and curious attack on the senses, it is repulsive and arousing - often at the same time.
The plot follows Justine - the youngest daughter of a family of vegetarian veterinarians, as she arrives at college to pursue her familial vocation. Thrust into the unrelentingly sadistic hazing week (which among other things will warrant a departure from her dietary constraints), Justine embarks on a gory odyssey of self-discovery.
The heavily pronounced creepy visual aesthetic is maintained throughout, right from its terrifying veterinary school setting which at first glance gives off an "inmate-run-asylum" vibe, with customary behaviours ranging from socially-unacceptable to downright psychotic. And of course the unsettling ubiquitousness of the animals - alive and dead - further amp up the hallucinatory visuals to almost Lynchian levels. But the stomach-churning gore is smartly equalised by a keen sense of character and a savage sense of humour. Garance Marillier's turn as the initially mild- mannered, devout vegetarian Justine who subsequently devolves into a lustful, flesh-crazed carnivore is the backbone of this enterprise. Ella Rumpf is equally impressive as her apathetic elder sister with a dark streak.
Not everything works however, the adversarial sibling dynamic feels haphazardly motivated, characters take convenient sexual detours purely to serve the plot, and the climactic twist at best works as a mildly-amusing punchline. But despite its under-cooked symbolisms and flawed narrative RAW remains a cinematic feast boasting extreme imagery and wicked performances.
Greed is Good!
A hugely satisfying noirish morality-play, THE INHERITANCE follows the succession proceedings of a nasty industrialist's estate when he's diagnosed with terminal cancer. Locking horns over this potential fortune are: scheming subordinates, his trophy-wife, a femme-fatale of a secretary and a battery of illegitimate heirs. In their quest to secure a bigger slice of the pie, we witness them forming suspicious alliances and ruthlessly resorting to impersonation, fraud, blackmail and even murder. It's so callously cynical in its outlook that a couple's implied incest is broached as "remember when" and then immediately dismissed to concentrate on the central deception. What's refreshing and what further augments the plot's universality is that instead of conveniently blaming the capitalist mentality, Kobayashi indicts human greed (sexual and material) - as the primary cause of moral decay. Though less flamboyant than his sadistic gangster turn in BLACK RIVER - Tatsuya Nakadai plays another ethically unsavory character who's tasked with locating one of his client's unacknowledged daughters. In addition to its themes and characters, the film's noir credentials are further bolstered by a wonderfully moody jazz score and narrative voice-over.
Thérèse Raquin (1953)
A riveting modernization of the eponymous Emile Zola novel, THÉRÈSE RAQUIN chronicles the adulterous infatuation between a burly truck-driver and the beautiful, badgered wife of his feeble colleague that results in murder, blackmail and psychological-damnation. Marcel Carné deftly taps into the mechanics of American film-noir of the 1940s with conspicuous blending of plots of two celebrated James M. Cain classics: "DOUBLE INDEMNITY" & "THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE" and skilfully harmonizes it with the drab and monotonous lifestyle of the French bourgeoisie. There are subtle nods to Hitchcock's "BLACKMAIL" and uncanny parallels with Park Chan-Wook's "THIRST" (which in retrospect make perfect sense as Park also borrowed significantly from the Zola novel.)
Simone Signoret is phenomenal as the titular lead and her transformation from a browbeaten wife trapped in a loveless marriage to a sympathetic femme-fatale is adroitly handled. Her restrained turn might seem too stoic at first but she exudes volumes through her apathetic veneer. Raf Vallone (reminiscent of a brooding Burt Lancaster) is convincing as the impulsive truck driver who's determined on unshackling Thérèse from her oppressive, wretched existence. Roland Lesaffre's addition as the greasy, opportunistic sailor further strengthens the elements of suspense in the story. The naturalistic B+W photography is excellent and maintains a healthy balance between carefully choreographed claustrophobic scenarios and exquisite exterior compositions.
Thérèse Raquin represents French film-making of the old school where storytelling was paramount and is recommended to connoisseurs of classic film-noir
Aru kyôhaku (1960)
Koreyoshi Kurahara's INTIMIDATION is a delicious little heist-noir. It revolves around Takita - a corrupt, ladder-climbing banker who's blackmailed into robbing his own bank before he leaves for a cushy corporate promotion. There's also Nakaike, his guileless, unambitious subordinate (and childhood friend - who might make the perfect fall-guy) and his hateful sister Yukie who's harbouring her share of regrets and bitter resentments.
Cerebrally intense, INTIMIDATION never lets us off the hook throughout its 65 min runtime. Kurahara comes across as a seasoned exponent of the genre particularly during the supremely executed, tension-fraught heist sequence - effectively employing quick cuts, sweaty close-ups to highlight the desperation-infested, claustrophobic bank setting.
There's also some daring Hitchcockian camera-work: Like a distinctive high angle shot during a key extortion scene (a la DIAL M FOR MURDER) or a pair of eerily-lensed bookending train sequences (a la SHADOW OF A DOUBT).
But it's in its final act where INTIMIDATION soars, loaded with clever twists & turns as it transforms into a vengeful game of chess where the players use coercive leverage and deep-rooted hostilities to one-up each other.
This is a brilliant little film that needs to be seen and appreciated.
A New Year's Carol
Experiencing THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE in the wee hours of new year's morning was as haunting as advertised. The film is nothing if not a technical accomplishment in visual storytelling and uses everything from translucent super-impositions, multiple-exposures, colour-tinted photography to create some stunningly unsettling imagery. The relatively straight-forward supernatural account is told through a complex series of meandering flashbacks and eventually works like morality tale much like Dickens' A Christmas Carol. My viewing pleasure was further elevated by the spectacularly moody experimental score by KTL - creepy, uninhibited, atmospheric that brilliantly complements the eerie visuals. Matti Bye's orchestral score is more conventionally buoyant and might get a tad overbearing at times.
Going in I was aware of Bergman's reverence for TPC and the impact it had on some of his more famous works particularly THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES but had absolutely no clue that it also served as the inspiration for the famous "Here's Johnny" sequence in THE SHINING! THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE is one of the best advertisements of early, inventive bag-of-tricks film- making and necessary recounting of one of the most important life lessons - Not getting killed on New Year's Eve ;)
L'albero degli zoccoli (1978)
The Tree of Wooden Clogs
In true neo-realistic vein THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS follows the lives of a quartet of peasant families striving for daily existence in turn of the century Italy. There's no conventional plot here but a series of ritualistic vignettes that flawlessly capture their strenuous survival over a course of a year. A grandfather demonstrates and passes the secrets behind his early tomatoes, a bright five year old trudges miles to attend school wearing a pair of clogs, a devout widow with six children prays for their ailing livestock, a young couple's restrained courtship and subsequent marriage, a pregnant mother foregoes the services of a midwife to save for warm clothing. All these threads are expertly interwoven and are blended with a sense of humanity and poetic optimism.
Couple of movies that instantly spring to mind which succeeded in capturing the monotony emanating from its character(s) this arrestingly are - JEANNE DIELMAN (which was a brilliant character study within the contemporary setting) & THE NAKED ISLAND (another ruminative dissection of a farming family boasting stunning imagery). TTOWC on the other hand is more epic in scale and works like a gritty documentary featuring non-actors. There are couple of gruesome sequences of a hog being disemboweled and of a goose-beheading which purely serve to highlight the harsh realities of peasant life. TTOWC is also relatively more interactive while the above two were virtually dialogue-less.
I'd only seen Olmi's IL POSTO before this - which was an indelibly honest coming of age film. And considering the fact that he wrote, directed, shot and edited this meditative epic - speaks volumes of cinematic acuity. He had that unique ability of making the mundane almost miraculous.
La chienne (1931)
Jean Renoir's LA CHIENNE is an exhilaratingly nasty tale of a henpecked hosiery cashier's adulterous relationship with a manipulative prostitute, and the moral damnation that ensues. Noir aficionados will instantly make the SCARLET STREET connection but the unmistakable differences in execution and style render both of these masterworks sufficiently distinguishable.
Firstly, LA CHIENNE is more sexually charged of the two - evidenced by the explicit exhibition of its various on screen dalliances. SCARLET STREET on the other hand was shackled by the Hays Code where the furthest Edward G. Robinson's character gets is painting his mistress' toe nails. Restrictions of the production code notwithstanding SCARLET STREET is still the bleaker of the two and remains one of the hallmarks of classic film-noir, while LA CHIENNE benefits from its consistent tragicomedy tone.
Michel Simon is outstanding as the frustrated, love-struck painter who's almost destined to lose: he's domineered by his miserable wife when he's not being cuckolded and scammed by his deceitful mistress (and her scheming pimp boyfriend) and remains oblivious of the fact that he's merely a part-time lover but a full-time benefactor. EGR's rendition however was on a completely different level and had more psychological heft to it.
LA CHIENNE's visual aesthetic is loaded with quadrangular, window-framed, canvas-like compositions that not only resonate with the film's theatrical opening but also with the art produced by our protagonist. I also feel that it's too beautifully realised (or at least the restoration made it so) to be categorised as "noir" in the traditional sense and is devoid of conventional noir flourishes, rugged edges or pulpy vibes. Having said that it was undoubtedly instrumental in the proliferation of films that would come to be known as noir.
As an interesting aside, SCARLET STREET was not the only Lang venture that shared a literary source with a Renoir film; HUMAN DESIRE and the classic LA BÊTE HUMAINE also originate from the same Émile Zola novel.
Der müde Tod (1921)
Fritz Lang's DESTINY is an expressionistic romantic-fantasy that centers on a young 19th-century woman as she challenges "Death" in the hope of bringing back her prematurely taken lover. What follows are three moral parables - set in Persia, exotic Venice, and Imperial China, each dealing with ill-fated love. The multi-story format affords Lang limitless opportunities to exercise his cinematic chops. The sets are as usual breathtaking from Gothic cathedrals to eerie sky-scraping walls to oriental castles to never-ending staircases. There's some stunning imagery on view like a spectral horde disappearing into a wall at midnight and of a terrifying hour-glass vision, forecasting impending doom. Candles are used to great effect both aesthetically (to complement the surreal setting) and thematically (as an allegory for mortal life-spans). Bernhard Goetzke's mysterious, darkly-clothed, succinct embodiment of Death might seem stereotypical but is far from it. For Death is not depicted as an arrogant, mustache-twirling entity which revels in its limitless power or earthly dominance but contrarily has grown tired of it. Death has become weary of its inevitability, its invincibility and is compassionate towards his mortal subjects. I particularly enjoyed the newly composed score by Cornelius Schwehr and thought it blended seamlessly with the film's grim premise.
DESTINY is perhaps most famous for igniting Luis Buñuel's surrealistic flames and leaving an indelible impression on an aspiring Hitchcock but to be honest the influences are unquantifiable. From its unmissable Bergman (and consequent Woody Allen) impact (THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES to some extent) to P&P's A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. The multi- scenario life-saving premise was also reminiscent of Tom Tykwer's RUN, LOLA, RUN.
In the end DESTINY proves to be an ambitious little early-Lang which is frequently thrilling but doesn't come close to some of his subsequent masterpieces, then again few things do.