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.
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.
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.
THE 21st CENTURY CINEMA
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.