Jun 30, 2022

Best Premiere Viewings of June 2K22


1. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Snappy dialogue, brisk pacing, taut direction, beautiful cinematography, but above all, utterly magnetic Barbara Stanwyck as one of the most fatal dames of classic noir, and – more than 50 years later – a ‘role model’ for Patricia Arquette’s character of Renee / Alice in David Lynch’s neo-noir Lost Highway.

2. El Escapulario / The Scapular (Servando González, 1968)

A mighty fine piece of zealous Mexican Gothic, The Scapular is one of those films which tend to snatch your attention from the very prologue. The preparation for an execution by a firing squad is captured in a manner that makes the inevitability of death palpable as much as the presence of something inexplicable. After a perfectly timed cut that prolongs the tension by shining a ray of hope upon the convict, the viewer is taken into the night of a small town, and put into the shoes of an unknown man (or entity?) ‘embodied’ by the very eyes of the camera that guides a young priest into the house of a dying woman. Her moribund story revolves around the titular object – believed to bring luck to its owner – and is told in flashbacks reminiscent of a subtly dark folk tale / local legend, revealing the circumstances which led to the aforementioned capital punishment. What follows is a timeless forbidden romance seasoned with some spine-tingling supernatural elements whose irrational powers come into full force during the twist ending.

Paired with Servando González’s directorial versatility that sees him crossing the genre boundaries with great ease, and seamlessly blending various influences, from (presumably) classic Hollywood to European arthouse to Japanese horror, the inspired lensing by Gabriel Figueroa turns even the most mundane portions of the narrative into micro-spectacles, with virtually every pan, zoom and canted angle impregnated with meaning. Also praiseworthy is the superb editing by Fernando Martínez allowing the action to flow smoothly and – by the standards of cinematic illusion – naturally. 

3. Zabitá neděle / Squandered Sunday (Drahomíra Vihanová, 1969)

“Silence! Forget everything you see and hear.”

Created under the regime which didn’t allow artists to think, let alone philosophy on the absurdity of life, Drahomíra Vihanová’s extraordinary feature debut was confiscated by despotic authorities, with the author herself banned from filmmaking until 1977, when she made the first out of several documentary shorts, only to return to fiction in 1994. Revolving around an apathetic army officer, Arnošt (Ivan Palúch, brilliant!), who can neither mend nor end things that bother him, Squandered Sunday balances on a tightrope between the protagonist’s realities and illusions / suicidal thoughts and drunken escapades, his twisted perspective reflected in both the heavily fragmented narrative and bold formal experimentation. From the very first scene set at the funeral of Arnošt’s mother (death portends death), it is absolutely clear that Vihanová knows the rules of the game very well, which allows her to break them in the most creative ways, pulling the viewer ever deeper into a feverish, delightfully irrational (meta)cinematic universe that evokes the likes of Godard, Chytilová and Jakubisko. Her apolitical stance is what makes the film so politically defiant, and the liberty she takes in the oft-freewheeling portraiture of metaphysical meaninglessness intensifies the confrontation. An absolute must-see for the Czech New Wave aficionados!

4. Götter der Pest / Gods of the Plague (Reiner Werner Fassbinder, 1970)

The (w)holy cinematic trinity of Fassbinder’s mesmerizing, formally seductive neo-noir, and its antithesis:

- A Godardian antihero, Fritz (stoic performance from Harry Baer), posing as an apathetic, almost desensitized embodiment of disenchanted youth, as well as of the artist’s anti-conformism. His slaps (in the dinner scene with Margarethe von Trotta and Günther Kaufmann) hurt more than bullets. / Hanna Schygulla’s very presence which brightens up the screen even when her character Johanna is struck by melancholy. Despite her deeply flawed nature, there is something saintly about her...
- Dietrich Lohmann’s rigorous, hauntingly beautiful framing, emphasizing Fritz’s nihilistic unconcern, and the society’s cold  indifference. / Upbeat soundtrack, at once complementary and opposed to the deliberate dreariness of the atmosphere. Maybe childlike innocence hasn’t died yet?
- The welcome sparseness of dialogue, allowing the viewer to feel the heavy impact of virtually every image. / The placement and movement of actors within mise-en-scène, louder than words.

5. The Element of Crime (Lars von Trier, 1984)

Kim: “Why do you keep torturing yourself?”
Fisher: “I have to. I believe in joy!”

In June, I was reading Stig Björkman’s Trier on von Trier, realizing it’s about time I checked out Lars von Trier’s early works. And what a killer feature debut The Element of Crime is! A hellish noir nightmare that proudly wears Tarkovsky influences on its long-take sleeves, and portends the immensely heavy atmosphere of Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters (1986), it plunges you into its post-apocalyptic-like setting, hypnotizing you with the overwhelmingly grimy imagery soaked in the most dismal of yellows, oranges, reds and browns, as well as with the melancholy-induced sound design, particularly the cast’s voices that give off some strong ASMR vibes. It is a film which lays bare its author’s fetishistic relation to cinema and art in general, from the elaborate lighting and peculiar camera angles to literary quotes and the omnipresence of water, and as such, it makes you feel the cold, feverish sweat of its inherent mystery.

6. I Wonder If Daylights Were White Nights or Something Childish But Very Natural (Sibi Sekar, 2022)

(read my short review HERE)

7. Stella Polaris (Knut Erik Jensen, 1993)

During the film’s brilliant opening scene in which the unnamed heroine wanders the streets lined by mostly dilapidated and abandoned buildings, there is something coldly Żuławski-esque enveloping the gloominess at display. Then comes the awakening, and the gray nightmare turns into a memory-laced reverie set in the northmost part of Norway – the woman’s birthplace somewhere in Finnmark where the author also comes from. Her past and her present intertwine to the point where one cannot distinguish dreams from reality, and personal reflections from the universal pain, in what could be best described as an almost wordless tone poem whose unfaltering lyricism evokes the spirit of Tarkovsky. Jensen’s oneiric, stream-of-consciousness narrative plunges the viewer into the protagonist’s inner world, as the highly evocative, beautifully captured imagery of home, childhood, friendship, love, sex, work, war, death and finally, (re)birth is caressed by gently weeping strings, haunting drones and sparkling chimes...

8. Wolf Alice – Blue Weekend (Jordan Hemingway, 2022)

Gorgeously shot with an ARRI Arriflex SR3, on 500T Kodak stock by cinematographer Molly Manning-Walker, the visual version of 2021 album Blue Weekend by Londoners Wolf Alice feels like a tender, hazy yet palpable, Christopher Doyle-esque dream! Its oneiric, intoxicating, deeply immersive atmosphere – the equivalent of a night out in town turned smoky night club limbo – owes a lot to the raw warmth of grainy 16mm texture of saturated colors, distorted angles achieved through the use of wide lenses, as well as to the ethereal, caressing vocal of singer Ellie Roswell, and the band’s sultry, simultaneously mellow and edgy melodies. Whether you’re their fan or have just discovered them, you owe yourself these 45 minutes of aural and pictorial beauty. (Click on the title to watch it on YouTube.)

9. Poslednji kolosek / The Last Railway (Živorad ‘Žika’ Mitrović, 1956)

In the sophomore feature by Žika Mitrović famous for his ‘partisan westerns’, a classic Hollywood crime movie formula works amazingly well, even when Olivera Marković – superb in the supporting role of singer Olga – performs jazzy tunes in a tavern which usually has accordion folk on the menu. The noirish scenes shot at the rails during the night are the film’s main forte, with deep blacks of Dragoljub Karadžinović’s great cinematography tightly shrouding the smuggling operations by greedy railroad workers. And when the film’s polished genre surface is scratched, its political subtext shines through in its subtlety. A beautiful anomaly of Yugoslavian cinema.

10. Noita palaa elämään / The Witch (Roland af Hällström, 1952)

“In the depths of our soul, there is a junkyard filled with ghosts and horrors.”

In the horniest 50’s film that I’ve seen, horror tropes are employed as a backdrop for a spunky blend of psychosexual drama and somewhat campy comedy exploring (fatal) female seductiveness. Set in and around the manor of baron Hallberg, it follows a young woman, Birgit (Mirja Mane, quite uninhibited, with the mannerisms of a silent film star) whom the villagers believe to be a resurrected witch, and three young men – an archeologist, Hannu (engaged to one beautiful and full-of-understanding Greta), an artist, Kauko, and baron’s playboy son, Veikko – who all go mad in love or rather, burning desire for the mysterious dame. As Kari Salminen notes in his 1989 article, “conflicts between science and art, rationalism and irrationalism, the conscious and unconscious, reality and fantasy are all found hiding in its layers”, under “the most direct references to sexuality”. (At one point, Veikko says: “I’ll explode if I can’t relieve myself.” And you can’t get more to-the-point than that!) Also present are the hints of the class struggle, as both bourgeoisie and common folks are depicted through the prism of subtle mockery, Bunuelian way. Hällström directs with a keen sense of pace, even during the overwrought parts that betray the theatrical origins of the screenplay, and delivers a rousing romp, vastly superior to his 1946 noir drama The Callbird which  introduced me to his work. Not to mention that The Witch is ahead of its time in terms of nudity which – as male-gazing as it may appear – actually is not gratuitous.

11. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Sophie Hyde, 2022)

“Pleasure is a wonderful thing. It's something we should all have.”

Two thespians, one location, a dialogue-driven story. That doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, and yet Sophie Hyde’s sex dramedy worked like a charm for me. Directed with effortless fluency, written with honesty, wit and warmth by Katy Brand, shot with a keen eye for composition by Bryan Mason, and gently wrapped in euphonious score by Stephen Rennicks, this amusing and poignant romp is anchored in exquisite central and, most of its running time, only performances.  

Always reliable Emma Thompson who plays a widowed, sexually repressed ex-Religious Education teacher, Nancy Stokes, and Daryl McCormack in the role of a charismatic, eloquent and, as Nancy puts it, ‘clearly, aesthetically perfect’ gigolo, Leo Grande, give us believable, well-developed characters, baring their souls prior to baring their all. They have a strong on-screen chemistry, beautifully complementing each other, and allowing the humane factor that’s built upon their strengths and insecurities alike to shine through and through. And Hyde shows great understanding for both Nancy and Leo, treating them equally and giving them enough space to breathe, despite the setting limitations. Highly recommended!

12. The Shadowed Mind (Cedric Sundstorm, 1988)

Now, this is one fine B-movie! Set in a bizarre private asylum (a slightly adapted abandoned warehouse) for the ‘sexually challenged’ patients, The Shadowed Mind takes cues from giallo cinema, and assaults the viewer with a top-notch mixture of baroque lighting, stalkerish camera, sinister music, and generous amounts of nudity and knife stabbing (often combined). There’s some wonderful scenery chewing attached to leading performances, as well as wooden acting in supporting roles, but Sundstorm (who would direct two sequels in the American Ninja series!) seems to benefit from all the imperfections, and delivers both artistically satisfying and highly entertaining flick which is – according to some sources – based on a semi-improvised screenplay. 


1. Рози в нощта (Пенчо Кунчев, 2019) / Roses in the Night (Pencho Kunchev, 2019)

Based upon Les Chansons de Bilitis by Pierre Louys (1870-1925), Roses in the Night is an absolutely stunning piece of traditional animation, accompanied by a miraculous score from prolific and acclaimed Serbian composer Zoran Simjanović (1946-2021). Through the series of surreal transitions informed by the art of optical illusions, Bulgarian animator Pencho Kunchev plunges the viewer into a magical world straight out of a myth, depicting the sexual awakening of a young girl in Ancient Greece. Available as a part of HYBRID GENRE FRANCE: Paris VOD Film Awards at Vimeo.

2. The Fall of the House of Usher (James Sibley Watson & Melville Webber, 1928)

Wow! German expressionism meets French avant-garde in a cinematically eloquent adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name. A masterfully crafted experimental short! What a damn shame that Watson & Webber co-directed only two films – this one and utterly spellbinding Lot in Sodom (1933).

3. Le monde en soi / The World Within (Sandrine Stoïanov & Jean-Charles Finck, 2020)

A brilliant use of the medium of animation in an almost wordless exploration of artist’s heightened anxiety. Watched at Festival Scope.

4. MeTube (Daniel Moshel, 2013,2016,2020)

MeTube is a series (at this point, trilogy) of extremely weird and highly memorable music videos created by Vienna-based director Daniel Moshel who boldly blends SFX, opera, techno, retro-futurism, absurd comedy, queer art and S&M aesthetics into one hell of an audio-visual smörgåsbord. It revolves around Nerd (Swiss tenor August Schram) and his elderly mother (Elfriede Wunsch, appearing in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith) – one of the coolest grumpy characters ever, and follows their cosmic adventure in remixing famous arias – in the cozy atmosphere of their home, as street performers, and eventually, as guerilla artists who crash the production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the theatre. Has to be seen to be believed!

5. Equilibrium (Kasey Brodwater, 2022)

A meditative 16mm dive into a natural world, wrapped in a veil of dreamy music.

6. Loose Joints (Clemens Tolstrup, 2022)

Clemens Tolstrup gently and beautifully captures human faces (of whom I presume to be his friends) in his 16mm short debut produced by European Film College (Denmark), and accompanied by ethereal music that evokes the sense of mystery. 

7. Dream of Kafka (David Babayan, 2019)

A computer-animated nightmare laced with absurd humor.
Watched at Festival Scope.

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