Mar 1, 2023

Best Premiere Viewings of February 2023

1. Ilektra / Electra (Michael Cacoyannis, 1962)

If beauty (in the eye of the beholder) could kill, this adaptation of Euripedes’s tragedy would be the death of me. The first five minutes alone are the masterclass in visual storytelling, with Walter Lassally’s eloquent B&W cinematography, and Cacoyannis’s absolute control over the cast’s tiniest expressions and slightest of gestures capturing the tension that leads to Agamemnon’s death in the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. Intensifying the overwhelming power of imagery is the dramatic score by the legendary Mikis Theodorakis who harkens back to the ancient past through the solemn dialogue between classical and traditional music. The (now largely forgotten) art of blocking is brought to breathtaking perfection, elevating Irene Papas’s noble histrionics in the role of the titular anti-heroine whose pain, sorrow and burning desire for revenge engulf the rugged landscape under the silent sky. ‘Electra’ is so stunning, it hurts to the point of filling your eyes with tears.

2. Ďáblova past / The Devil’s Trap (František Vláčil, 1962)

‘The Devil’s Trap’ opens with an awe-inspiring extreme wide shot that juxtaposes a miniscule human figure against an armless crucifix statue ominously towered over the barren landscape, as the spectral vocalization worthy of a gothic horror sneaks under your skin, underlining the transcendental nature of that first image. Following it is a virtually uninterrupted succession of masterfully composed frames that – imbued with meaning, and backed by Zdeněk Liška’s moodily haunting score – capture the invisible, id est the tension between superstition/religion and reason/research embodied, respectively, by the chaplain and the miller who’s rumored to be collaborating with the Devil himself. The entire cast gives strong performances, their movement in the beautiful mise en scène synchronized with the elegantly choreographed camerawork by DP Rudolf Milič. There’s a grim folk/fairy tale-like quality to the story, particularly towards the end, with the supernatural elements remaining hidden or rather, ambiguous, and young love posing as an extra light on the path to the liberation from reactionary ideas...

3. Bruges-La-Morte (Ronald Chase, 1978)

In a delirious and highly POEtic psychological drama delicately laced with gothic horror undertones, Ronald Chase effectively amalgamates the lavish Victorian setting, dreamily mesmerizing camerawork, haunting sound design, eerily ambient score, and progressively disorienting narrative to establish a phantasmal atmosphere so thick that you can cut it with a knife. A darkly romanticized depiction of mourning over the death of a beloved one, ‘Bruges-La-Morte’ is told from the unreliable perspective of its (anti?) hero whose dance with the ghosts of the past puts a robe of delusions on his reality. Awakening from the nightmare may be just another trick of his faltering mind... 

Available on the authors official Vimeo channel, HERE.

4. La femme bourreau / A Woman Kills (Jean-Denis Bonan, 1968)

If you’re a fan of gialli, Godard, neo-noir, ‘Dressed to Kill’, dizzying POV takes, twisted camera angles, cacophonous music scores, disorienting chase sequences, the atmosphere of uneasiness, and biting social commentary thrown in for good measure, it’s about time you check out Jean-Denis Bonan’s feature debut – an obscure New Wave gem that was reportedly lost for 40 years.

5. The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger & Tim Whelan, 1940)

Considering the troubled production which involves the beginning of the WWII, creative disagreements and another three uncredited directors, this version of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ feels almost as magical as Raoul Walsh’s 1924 feature starring Douglas Fairbanks. Had I seen it as a kid, its dazzling color palette and fascinating set pieces, such as the battle with a giant spider inside the goddess statue, or the dance of six-handed ‘silver maid’ that probably inspired Ray Harryhausen’s Kali for ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’ (1974), would’ve certainly shaped one of the most cherished cine-memories of my childhood. And for that reason alone, I just can’t find any major flaws – it is one of the most ravishing (and influential) fantasies ever to hit the silver screen.

6. Nije bilo uzalud / It Was Not in Vain (Nikola Tanhofer, 1957)

The fascinating directorial debut by Nikola Tanhofer (1926-1998) – considered one of the best Croatian filmmakers – blends social drama and rural gothic (with elements of crime thriller) to captivating effect, its story built around the clash between science and superstition. Set in the (fictitious?) village of Krnje in the proximity of Baranja swamps contributing to the eeriness that permeates the film’s dense atmosphere, it sees the practice of an enthusiastic physician, Jure, challenged and often thwarted by provincial mentality and local witch doctor, Čarka, whose herbs and spells are trusted more than his advices and medications. What makes this narrative as relevant as decades ago is the introduction of vaccine as the symbol of progress, and we all know very well that you don’t have to wander into a remote area of Balkan for a chance meeting with an anti-vaxxer. The people’s ignorant resistance on one side and Jure’s passionate dedication to his call on the other create a psychological tension reflected in the hero’s slightly deteriorating mental health, as well as in Slavko Zalar’s expressive lensing, particularly in the great use of deep focuses and noirish lighting, admirably complemented by Milo Cipra’s soaring score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hollywood flick of the time. 

7. Tiere / Animals (Greg Zglinski, 2017)

Taking cues from Bergman, Polanski and Lynch, Greg Zglinski delivers a mind-bending psychological drama / thriller that questions identities, realities and even a possibility of alternate dimensions through the prism of a dysfunctional relationship. Structured like an Escher’s artwork of impossible objects, perspectives and geometries, it keeps branching into multiple subplots that parallel and/or collide with each other, as well as pulling the rug from under your feet until you can’t tell what’s imaginary, and from whose point of view the nightmare unfolds. Whatever the solution to the mystery may be (and I have a feeling that only a black talking cat knows the answer), ‘Animals’ is an intriguing cine-puzzle, sharply directed, framed with a keen eye, and tightly edited, with brooding score complementing the dark and twisty mood.

8. Yek Etefagh sadeh / A Simple Event (Sohrab Shahid Saless, 1974)

Unfolding at a leisurely pace that corresponds with the rhythm of a young protagonist’s everyday routine, ‘A Simple Event’ portrays a dry slice of a boy’s life in a coastal town on the north of Iran. The film’s narrative minimalism – an unsentimental, matter-of-fact observation of struggling with, or rather accepting of poverty – translates into the thoughtfully framed imagery of raw poetry and austere beauty, channeling the apathy of the universe. The hardened unity of desaturated colors, sparse dialogue, almost complete absence of music, and Bressonian performances from the non-professional cast operates like a pathos-free elegy in which even mourning is a luxury.

9. Sherekilebi / The Eccentrics (Eldar Shengelaia, 1974)

On the way to find the means of repaying his recently deceased father’s debts, orphaned Ertaozi ends up in a prison where he meets a quirky, da Vinci look-alike inventor Qristepore, and after breaking free, the duo comes up with a flying contraption. The events leading to their chance meeting, as well as those surrounding the luckiest of escapes and construction of the strange machine are presented in the form of a delightful farce that must be even funnier for viewers familiar with the Georgian culture. Much of the humor stems from the mockery of authorities and officials (the priest, the police, the doctor), so I wouldn’t be surprised if I learned that the film had been banned for many years. What leaves a lasting impression, however, is the surrealist finale in which the aircraft so shaky and ramshackle that it barely stands on the ground actually starts flying, with no use of rear projections or any obvious special effects. Shown from various angles, this beautiful illusion alone is enough to seek out this gem of classic Georgian cinema.

10. Lulu (Ronald Chase, 1978)

(read my short review HERE)

Watch it at Vimeo.

11. Johnny Gunman (Art Ford, 1957)

A sole directorial credit of radio station DJ turned filmmaker Art Ford (1921-2006), ‘Johnny Gunman’ is an indie / low-budget crime drama whose charm derives from its ‘naïveté’ and sincerity which marks not only the author’s writing and direction, but also the two leading performances of Martin Brooks as laid-back gangster Johnny G. and Ann Donaldson as an aspiring writer nicknamed Coffee. The unlikely romance that blossoms between these characters – as delightfully stereotypical as ‘bad boy’ and ‘good girl’ get – is one of the main reasons the reality of the story appears somewhat dreamlike or rather, intrinsically filmic, keeping all the cogs of your ‘suspension of disbelief’ mechanism well-oiled. Part pulp noir, and part cautionary tale, the film isn’t without its share of continuity goofs and other flaws, and yet, it comes across as a compelling labor of love, with some nifty B&W shots of NY nightlife and evocative score that ranges from jazzy to (melo)dramatic supporting Ford’s vision.

12. Neugdaesanyang / Project Wolf Hunting (Hong-sun Kim, 2022)

Hong-sun Kim’s previous film – possession horror ‘Metamorphosis’ – has pretty much faded from my memory, but his latest offering won’t be nearly as easy to forget. A self-consciously pulpy, not to mention excessive combination of action and splatter (with a capital, dark-red S), ‘Project Wolf Hunting’ takes a ship hijack thriller premise, adds some ‘Universal Soldier’ elements, and turns it into a blood-soaked survival game that brings to mind Rob Jabbaz’s 2021 shocker ‘The Sadness’. Gallons and gallons of vital fluid paint the walls, floors, ceilings and peripherals of a freighter Titan in handsomely framed and dazzlingly color-graded compositions, as limbs are ripped, chests are pummeled and punctured, heads are smashed with a hammer, and knife stabs are followed by anime-style ‘geysers’, even before a Frankensteinian superhuman stowaway awakes from his hibernation. This gleefully nihilist, decidedly animalistic symphony of violence sees a great majority of (psychopathic) characters as nothing but cannon fodder, with a couple of villains you just love to hate stealing the spotlight, and a silent-type hero being saved for the grand finale which leaves room for a sequel... 

13. Sharper (Benjamin Caron, 2023)

“You can’t cheat an honest man, right?”

Benjamin Caron’s first big-screen outing underscores the deceptive nature of cinema, as well as its reliance on its own history. His (anti)heroes are con artists – brilliant ones at that – and they are portrayed by the cast who knows exactly what they’re doing which is making the viewer believe their dirty little swindling schemes. Written with wit, these characters never reveal their true selves, and honesty is reserved for their ‘victims’ until the final and most predictable of many twists in the story told in non-linear chapters. It is not a revelatory experience that Caron & Co. provide, yet it is a refreshing and entertaining one, elevated by the  sleek direction, Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s stylish cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s classy production design. 

14. Μια Νύχτα στο Θέατρο / A Night at the Theater (Sotiris Stamatis, 2022)

Small or rather, minimalist in scope, but ambitious in its playful juggling with the plethora of themes, Sotiris Stamatis’s feature debut comes across as a politically charged arthouse drama heavily relying upon leading (and sole) performances. Thankfully, both Rea Samaropoulou and Andreas Konstantinou are up to the task of pulling you in and keeping your attention on a decidedly meandering, dialogue-propelled narrative, as they portray the characters whose mythologically grandiose names – Athena and Odysseus – anticipate their transformation. Spending a night at a closed theater, as the title clearly indicates, the duo faces a coup d’état crisis in alternative present-day Greece, and simultaneously, their own set of issues that plunges them into a state of confusion – a  reflection of chaos raging outside. Their oft-heated conversations on politics, cinema, literature, historical hysteria, and much more betray the author struggling to find his place in the mad world, all the while making the most of the limited setting, with cinematographer Peter Salapatas as his right-hand man.  

15. Faces of Anne (Kongdej Jaturanrasamee & Rasiguet Sookkarn, 2022)

One of those ‘the less you know, the more you’ll enjoy’ kind of films, ‘Faces of Anne’ explores identity crisis (and depression) in a mind-bending blend of psychological thriller and slasher, utilizing an extensive palette of ‘tricks’, from hints provided through the details in production design, to red (meta)herrings, to depictions of the same event from different perspectives, in order to keep you as disoriented as the extremely vulnerable heroine(s) locked in a strange institution where all the inmates’ rooms look (almost) the same. Although it is intended for the ‘young adult’ audience, it will surely reach the older demographic who enjoy stubbornly ambiguous cine-puzzles with vague resolutions. The co-direction of Kongdej Jaturanrasamee & Rasiguet Sookkarn (whose previous offerings I’m not familiar with) is coherent, despite the story’s twisty nature, with cinematographer Boonyanuch Kraithong capturing some dark corners of the subconscious, and editorial duo of Harin Paesongthai and Nisarat Meechok cutting through nightmarish reality of Anne (played by 20 actresses!) with aplomb.