Dec 1, 2021

Best Premiere Viewings of November


1. Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948)

If I were asked to describe Corridor of Mirrors in only two words, I would say something along the lines of ‘incredibly posh’ or ‘extraordinarily elegant’. A film of lush beauty, visual and aural alike, and mesmerizing atmosphere, it recounts the story of dangerous obsession and delusions in the form of a heightened Gothic melodrama which, by the end, flirts with psychological horror, filling you with a strange sense of discomfort. Gently shrouded in the veil of mystery which isn’t completely lifted even after the big reveal, this ‘noir fairy tale’ tackles the idea of a ‘previous life’ through its eccentric (anti)hero (an imposing performance from Eric Portman) whose unflinching commitment to the past is turned into a sort of a romantic fetish continuously reflected in gorgeous costume and production design. What makes the feature all the more impressive is the fact that it marked a debut for both its director Terence Young and art director Terence Verity who left an impression of more experienced artists.

2. Eye of the Devil (J. Lee Thompson, 1966)

It is for films like this that I often wish multiplex theaters in my home town were showing at least one classic a week. A highly atmospheric blend of gothic, occult and folk horror, Eye of the Devil is as stunning as Sharon Tate’s beauty, and eerily ominous as the aura surrounding her enigmatic character Odile whose archer brother is portrayed by David Hemmings at his most broodingly malevolent. Deborah Kerr’s hysteric histrionics give rise to the sense of paranoia pervading the story, with Donald Pleasence’s calm, velvety voice operating as a counterbalance that puts you in a state akin to a hypnotic trance. 

3. The Beast with Five Fingers (Robert Florey, 1946)

Despite the bits of humor and a somewhat goofy premise that most probably inspired Thing from The Adams Family franchise, The Beast with Five Finger is a prime example of Gothic elegance, primarily thanks to the combined genius of composer Max Steiner, DoP Wesley Anderson and art director Stanley Fleischer. The shadowy interiors of a sumptuous Italian villa in which the psychologically tricky story is largely set are nothing short of breathtakingly eerie, though a good deal of creepiness comes from a character played by the inimitable Peter Lorre.

4. Follow Me Quietly (Richard Fleischer, 1949)

On the surface, this early offering from Richard Fleischer whose late career involves a couple of cult sword & sorcery flicks – Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja –  appears like a generic police procedural noir, with a hard-boiled hero in a trench coat, a nosy ‘hussy’ of a journalist, a perpetrator who operates under the moniker of ‘The Judge’, and everyone’s favorite hangout place called ‘The Tavern’ that exists in some unnamed American City. But, what elevates Follow Me Quietly above similar films are the perseverance of mystery (an important ingredient of many great pieces of art), even after the serial strangler (who kills only during the rain) is given a face, as well as intriguing details such as a creepy profiler dummy that comes to life at one point. Its economic running time of just about an hour, and the climactic ‘gas refinery’ set piece alone are reasons enough to check it out. 

Also recommended is elaborate MUBI essay Deadpan in Nulltown by B. Kite and Bill Krohn.

5. Marianne de ma jeunesse / Marianne of My Youth (Julien Duvivier, 1955)

There is unabashed über-romanticism at play in Julien Duvivier’s strangely alluring fantasy drama which exists in two simultaneously shot versions – French (which I’ve seen / starring Pierre Vaneck) and German (which I’m compelled to see / with Horst Buchholz in his first big-screen role). Set in and around a Bavarian boarding school for boys, it tells a simple, yet somewhat unconventional story of a young man, Vincent, falling for a mysterious girl, Marianne (incredibly charming Marianne Hold), held captive in a supposedly haunted manor. He appears to be a magnet for both his friends (it’s hard to deny a strong homoerotic subtext in the way they all orbit around him) and entire population of deer and does who inhabit a lush surrounding forest, whereas she may only be a figment of his fertile imagination; a symbol of unattainable love/beauty. The film has a Cocteau-esque vibe attached to it, bringing to one’s mind his ‘Beauty and the Beast’ through the exquisite production design, but it also feels like there’s a Gothic horror buried deep, deep underneath the surface of a tonally elusive fairy tale. But, regardless of how you look at it, Marianne of My Youth is a cinematically inspired piece dreamily captured by the keen eye of Léonce-Henri Burel (Diary of a Country Priest).

6. Wênd Kûuni / God’s Gift (Gaston Kaboré, 1982)

A film of lyrical beauty and hushed atmosphere, this diamond in the rough from Burkina Faso plays out like a blend of pastoral drama and ethnographic documentary shrouded in a transparent veil of mystery. Directed with a gentle hand and shot with a poet’s eye, it tells a mute boy’s story in which time seems to be at a standstill. The strong feeling of authenticity which pervades it arises from the performances by the largely non-professional cast.

7. La note bleue / The Blue Note (Andrzej Żuławski, 1991)

Maddeningly fascinating in its decadent beauty, irreverent fancy and ferocious hyper-theatricality, The Blue Note reflects on the destructive power of creativity, unapologetically glorifying ‘l’art pour l’art’. Insolently whimsical and Dionysian, it swirls you around like a whirlwind of colors, textures and oscillating emotions.

8. Damen i svart / The Lady in Black (Arne Mattsson, 1958)

Sven Nykvist’s name in the credits is the reason enough to spend 100 minutes with a Sherlock Holmes-like whodunit that occasionally feels like a German krimi mixed with a proto-episode of the Scooby Doo series, thanks to the titular lady in black – a ghost who forebodes death and tragedy. The aforementioned virtuoso cinematographer provides the viewer with highly expressive visuals, often trapping the characters in door and window frames, between balusters and in deep shadows, as we’re trying to solve the mystery along with a married couple of detectives failing to enjoy their summer vacation.


1. Ryū to sobakasu no hime / Belle (Mamoru Hosoda, 2021)

The Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is relocated to online kingdom in the latest feature by Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children), only to be subverted in the most unexpectedly poignant fashion. Exploring the duality of our identities in a digital era, the healing power of music, distances that bring us together, and transformation of pain into strength, inter alia, Belle reminds us of the forgotten art of empathy, as it sees physical and virtual realities bleed into each other like never before. Combined in perfect balance, the timelessness of a heartfelt coming-of-age dramedy and the epic sumptuousness of maximalist sci-fi/musical/fantasy provide the viewer with two hours of pure anime magic – a masterwork of hi-tech surrealism that will highly likely find its place amongst the best animated features of the current decade.

The wildly varied designs seen in the metaverse of ‘U’ where the phantasmagorical action takes place evoke comparisons to everything (but the kitchen sink) from Disney to Studio 4°C experiments, from Tatsunoko heroes such as Casshern to the 80’s shows Voltron and Jam and the Holograms, from the unforgettable parade scene in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika to Gothic aesthetics of Tim Burton’s stop-motion films, and yet, they strike us as idiosyncratic as it gets. And back in the real world, we are treated to the hyper-stylized version of a painterly Japanese countryside, with the bluest of skies and the puffiest of clouds crowning simple buildings surrounded by thick vegetation. In such a gorgeously illustrated setting supported by thematic richness and elevated by the soaring score, everything familiar feels completely new, and even a Hosoda sceptic such as myself can’t help but admire imagination and creativity at display. 

2. The Nowhere Inn (Bill Benz, 2020)

Bill Benz’s (promising) feature debut is what happens when you remove ‘vanity’ from the ‘vanity project’ equations and after filtering it through the prism of self-irony bordering self-satire, put it back in. It is a whimsical piece of fiction that strives to be a musical documentary, only to turn into a witty mockumentary gradually taking the form of a delightfully weird and oh-so-meta psychological drama/thriller dealing with identity crisis, as well as with the authenticity of our creations and reality.

The star of the film is Annie Clark better recognized by her stage persona of St. Vincent, and she is simply wonderful in her role, singing and acting alike, even though you’re never sure if she’s Annie or St. Vincent or an actress playing Annie and St. Vincent, as her film within the film grows increasingly bizarre. (And this praise comes not from a fan, but from someone who has previously played a YouTube video or two by the said musician – active for more than a decade.)

Benz directs The Nowhere Inn unpretentiously, with a keen sense of humor and cinema artifice, employing a disorienting blend of digital, 16mm and VHS footage to emphasize the highly subjective viewpoint(s). He elicits excellent ‘art-imitates-life-imitates-art’ performances from the entire cast, whether those people play themselves, their alter egos or someone else... And in times like these, one can completely identify with the ‘madness’ at display.

3. Gwleđđ / The Feast (Lee Haven Jones, 2021)

If Pasolini’s Teorema had been re-imagined as an anti-capitalist, ecologically conscious art/folk horror in the vein of Greek Weird Wave, but shot in Welsh... well, you can already assume how this sentence ends. The Feast may not be the subtlest of allegories – in fact, it is decidedly ‘on the nose’, but it is a visually stunning piece of cinema created with unmistakable formal discipline, great attention to detail, and strong sense of foreboding atmosphere. Its meticulous framing, cleverly used music and tautly controlled direction are only matched by the unnerving central performance from Annes Elwy whose empty/confused stares, eerie micro-expressions and odd body language betray the non-human nature of her character, Cadi. Although we never get to know the true form of a mysterious force of nature possessing Cadi’s body, our reward comes as the grisly final act seasoned with some good ol’ psychedelia. A rock-solid feature debut for Lee Haven Jones.

4. Das Mädchen und die Spinne / The Girl and the Spider (Ramon & Silvan Zürcher, 2021)

Dubbed ‘a poetic ballad about change and transience’, German-spoken Swiss drama The Girl and the Spider also operates as a fascinating character study in which glances, body gestures and micro-expressions – perfected by the entire cast – speak much louder than words... unless the protagonists are intent on keeping their secrets. They walk around the confined spaces of a few apartments in almost choreographed fashion, captured in minutely composed mid-shots and close-ups which channel their emotional states through the great use of predominantly primary colors. Moving out has never been portrayed with such lyrical simplicity that, once you scratch its surface, reveals complex psychologies and whimsical peculiarities, particularly in the quirky character of Mara who’s brought to life through a magnetic performance by Henriette Confurius. The Zürcher brothers direct the with an architectural precision, imbuing the mundane with deeply human significance.

5. Ukkili kamshat / The Owners (Adilkhan Yerzhanov, 2014)

A spiritual prequel to The Plague at the Karatas Village (originally, Chuma v aule Karatas), The Owners is a Kafkaesque black/deadpan comedy, brutally wacky, cynically surreal and cheerfully tragic (!) in its lucid exploration of poverty, corruption, nepotism, legalized crime and systematic bullying. Interrupted by some unexpected bursts of feverish dancing, it bewitches you with its unhinged weirdness and strong sense of visual composition.

6. Das kalte Herz / Heart of Stone (Johannes Naber, 2016)

Enchanted by Henriette Confurius’s performance in the Zürcher brothers’ quirky drama The Girl and the Spider, I tracked 2016 adaptation of Wilhelm Hauff’s fairy tale Heart of Stone in which she portrays the hero’s sweetheart, Lisbeth, and lights up the screen every time she’s in the frame. The story revolves around a coal miner’s son, Peter (Frederick Lau of Victoria fame), who sells his heart to a Mephistophelian figure, Dutch Michel (ever-reliable Moritz Bleibtreu), for money and power, which Johannes Naber employs to create a spiritual sequel to his tart, cynical satire of capitalism Age of Cannibals (Zeit der Kannibalen). Although he executes a 180 degrees turn in terms of aesthetics, production values and his approach to anti-corporate messaging, he delivers a tautly directed film with a heart that is definitely not of stone; a beautiful dark fantasy that doesn’t shy away from its grim aspects. Speaking of which, Naber takes liberty to spice up the whole organ-transplantation business with graphic depictions that feel closer to the Grimm brothers’ writings, and introduces Lisbeth much earlier than Hauff, allowing her character more space to breathe. The accent is on Peter, of course, and Lau does a commendable job in portraying his transformation from a kind and reticent coal boy (looking like a member of Rammstein in the music video for their single Sonne) to an unscrupulous rich man deeply steeped in greed. On top of that, Pascal Schmit as cinematographer and Julian R. Wagner as production designer provide the viewer with plenty of eye-candy, completely immersing you in the world of yore, inhabited by both humans and forest spirits, and ruled by woodcutters and glassblowers.

7. The Trouble with Being Born (Sandra Wollner, 2020)

“We were outside all day and up all night. Mum would never have allowed it. I swam until my skin turned wrinkly and my lips turned blue. But I wouldn't get out of the water.”

Thought-provoking with the emphasis on ‘provoking’ is one of the safest ways to describe the controversial, sophomore feature from Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner. An unsettling visit to the uncanny valley, it raises a number of ethical questions and makes some “deep cuts into ontology, memory, identity and our increasingly boundary-obliterating relationship to tech” as Jessica Kiang notes in her Variety review. It puts you in the uncomfy shoes of an android modeled after an underage girl (a stunningly cool performance from a 10-yo first-timer playing under the mask and pseudonym of Lena Watson) who we initially see living with her ‘papa’. The above-quoted words which she is pre-programmed with, along with the memories of we-better-not-know-exactly-who, get covered in a dirty patina as soon as we realize (only through implications, thankfully) that the father-daughter dynamics fall under the category of ‘techno-incest’. And what intensifies the viscerally unpleasant feeling is the fact that the ghost in the machine is not aware of the concept of consent, nor does it recognize the exploitative nature of its situation. Even after it wanders off and ends up gender-bended into an object of consolation for an old lady who lost her younger brother long ago, the viewer can not shake off the heavy gloom, as Wollner strikes us with her icy formalism. Dialogues are often eschewed in favor of lingering silences and ‘understated’, yet unforgettable imagery that establish an oppressively brooding atmosphere. The Trouble with Being Born is yin to Marjorie Prime yang.

8. Mariphasa (Sandro Aguilar, 2017)

How does one portray the aftermath of a personal apocalypse triggered by the loss of a child? Is it even possible to find the right ‘colors’ to paint such a horrid tragedy? In his sophomore feature, Sandro Aguilar strives to answer these questions, and delivers a deeply depressing mood piece in which moving on feels like a paralyzing and suffocating stasis. A day rarely dawns, and harrowing nights drain the last drops of energy. Shadows devour the uninviting world of dimly lit spaces and miserable phantasms who inhabit it. Watching their inert ‘struggle’ can be best described as walking on the very brink of the abyss, with steely clouds of grief and pain threatening to crush you. It is only the film’s impressive (and coldly oppressive!) formal rigor that one is allowed to hold on to... 

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