Feb 29, 2024

Best Premiere Viewings of February 2024

1. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935)

While ‘excavating’ for lesser-known pieces of cinema, I’ve often overlooked a number of must-see flicks, but as they say – better late, than never. When it comes to Whale’s masterful, ahead-of-its-time sequel to the most acclaimed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, it is easy to see (and more importantly, feel!) why it has fascinated both audience and film scholars for decades. Its lavish studio sets, expressionist lighting, and eye-popping cinematography lend iconic vibe to great many shots, with the ‘monster’ turned into the feature’s tragic hero / emotional core shining high above very human evil (partly embodied by Ernest Thesinger’s Mephistophelian doctor Pretorius). Karloff breathes soul into Frankenstein’s creation through the nuanced performance largely dependent on grunts, facial mimicry and limited wording, making you root for him, as the clever screenplay inspires diverse readings...

2. Poor Things (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2023)

Even at his most accessible, Lanthimos is weird as fu*k... pardon, ‘furious jumping’. A bizarrely constructed vehicle for Emma Stone’s bold, uninhibited performance, ‘Poor Things’ is a delightful blend of audacious sex comedy and sumptuous steampunk fantasy, striking the right balance between a raunchy crowd-pleaser and thought-out arthouse treat. Brimming with quotable, oft-irreverently / provokingly funny lines magically matched to whimsical, invasively tempting cacophonies by Jerskin Fendrix, this prurient beast of a feature eschews politeness in favor of cinematic excess, in equal measures overwhelming and engaging. Its costume (Holly Waddington) and set design (Shona Heath & James Price) bring forth an alternative, cotton-candied version of Victorian period straight out of a deranged fairy tale told from the distorted (fish-eye) perspective of its heroine, Bella. Stunningly framed by DoP Robbie Ryan, her emancipatory (r)evolution begins with an accidental discovery of ‘keeping oneself happy’ through a genital stimulation, and culminates in fluent French, social mindedness, the discovery of cynicism, and the pursuit of a medical career, as Lanthimos and screenwriter Tony McNamara play jokes on all men who want to control her.

3. The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

Kubrickian perfectionism meets the formal austerity of Haneke in a petrifying portrait of normality that is anything but normal, and of evil so immense that it staggers the mind, as it instills discomfort in your very viscera. That evil is not banal, as some reviewers have branded it, but rather horrifically and grandiosely absurd in its meticulously planned monstrosity / calculated absence of compassion. The atrocities it brings forth remain unseen – literally, behind the tall, concrete wall that separates the garden of earthly delights from hell, but they are strongly and insidiously felt in every fiber of your being, if your being hasn’t been robbed of humanity... Glazer’s vision – founded in history’s tendency to repeat itself – is unfaltering; his tautly unsentimental direction finely attuned to Mica Levi’s solemnly moaning score, Johnnie Burn’s eerily haunting sound design, and Lukasz Zal’s stunningly oppressive framing of ugliness that ferments under the pretty surface.

4. Banel e Adama / Banel & Adama (Ramata-Toulaye Sy, 2023)

An aesthetically triumphant debut for Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy, ‘Banel and Adama’ exists in a liminal zone between the reality and a fairy tale, as it deals with the conflict of collective superstition set in the stone of reactionary customs, and individual open-mindedness embodied by a headstrong woman. Mythically archetypal in its nature, with raw energies of non-professional actors igniting the emotional core, this simple, yet highly poetic drama also reflects on climate changes, and the power(lessness) of love in the face of nature’s harshness. The drought-stricken village whose sandy monotony is broken by colorful drapes and costumes provides a borderline surreal mise en scène expertly framed by DP Amine Berrada, and gently veiled in a delicate aural tapestry by composer Bachar Khalifé. 

5. La fille aux yeux d'or / The Girl with the Golden Eyes (Jean-Gabriel Albicocco, 1961)

In Jean-Gabriel Albicocco’s entrancing debut that appears as mature as a peculiar mixture of Antonioni and Resnais with the hints of Cocteau and Franju, love is in equal measures folie and melancholy; as bizarre as pigeons suddenly appearing and flying around the bedroom, and as clichéd as raindrops sliding down the window-glass. It feels like a slap in the face, as well as like a snow of feathers from a torn pillow; it makes one inebriated, and the other mysterious, while both fall victims of obsession. But, above all, it brings forth a super-reality (or rather, surreality?) in which lovers and the viewer get lost, until it starts disintegrating once the third player joins the whimsical romance.

A modernization of Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novella of the same name, ‘The Girl with the Golden Eyes’ is one of the most gorgeously photographed films, by virtue of the director’s cinematographer father Quinto Albicocco. Its elegant, shadowy film-noir looks subtly complemented by wistful acoustic guitar of Spanish virtuoso Narciso Yepes establish a dense, dreamlike atmosphere so seductive and immersive that you often find the dialogue transformed into cryptic, irrational codes under the weight of the mesmerizing images. The admirable stylistic artifice is further elevated by the leading trio of Marie Laforêt, Paul Guers and Françoise Prévost whose performances are perfectly attuned to the poetic sensibility of their characters.

6. Plein soleil / Purple Noon (René Clément, 1960)

Filmed as an invitation to a summer holiday in Italy (if only time travel were possible, to experience it in the 60’s), ‘Purple Noon’ is a loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’. I haven’t read the book, and I’d have to re-watch the 1999 film to make comparisons, but Clément’s version – a stark character study – appears tailor-made for Alain Delon, as everything and everyone gravitate towards him, or rather, the dangerous, yet fascinating antihero that he portrays. Largely reliant on the actor’s natural charisma and glassy, penetrating gaze, his performance is the very definition of magnetism, making the viewer root for this bad, devilishly clever boy, and thus challenging one’s own moral code. As compelling as Delon’s Tom Ripley is Clément’s assured direction, so neatly synergized with Nino Rota’s authentic score, seductive Mediterranean locations, and Henri Decaë’s handsome cinematography, elevating a crime story.

7. Le orme / Footprints on the Moon (Luigi Bazzoni, 1975)

Befittingly named Alice, an Italian translator – portrayed with utmost dedication and gripping intensity by Florida Bolkan – falls into the rabbit hole of her own deteriorating sanity. Plagued by a B&W nightmare in which an astronaut is left on the Moon under the command of Dr. Blackmann (an imposing cameo of Klaus Kinski), and suffering a memory loss of the past three days, she travels to the (fictitious) town of Garma (pictured in a torn postcard), in hope of figuring out what the hell has happened to her. Some of the locals there, including a red-haired horror-regular Nicoletta Elmi, believe she is a woman called Nicole, and seem to know more about her than she is willing to accept. The struggle between her conscious and unconscious mind, as well as the clash between her and others’ perceptions of not only her identity, but reality as well are distinctly mirrored in beautifully captured and strongly felt spaces, initially defined by rigid geometries of modern interiors and exteriors, and then increasingly ‘softened’ through curvier lines of Islamic architecture (Garma is represented by Turkish locations), natural environment (beach and forest), and stained glasses in the style of Art Nouveau. Luigi Bazzoni’s unhurried direction, Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking framing, and Nicola Piovani’s haunting melodies create a dense, entrancing, at times stifling atmosphere that put you in the paranoid heroine’s shoes, and leave you with a bitter, yet satisfying aftertaste. ‘Footprints on the Moon’ may not be a masterful psychological drama, but it is a noteworthy fusion of substance and style; an obscure anomaly from the period largely remembered by black leather gloves and brightly colored blood.

8. Glitterbug (Derek Jarman, 1994)

A punk patchwork of Super 8 ‘sketches’ captured in the period of almost two decades, Derek Jarman’s swan song is a cornucopia of filmmaking techniques; a poignant, if distorted self-portrait that transcends its essayistic form, erasing the boundaries between the private life and cinema. Featuring many of the director’s friends, from William S. Burroughs to Tilda Swinton, ‘Glitterbug’ is a sparkling, wordless stream of grainy imagery that flows whimsically across an infinite, melancholic soundscape composed by Brian Eno, evoking the sublime feeling of sadness, at once crippling, romantic and liberating. It is the angelic conversation of the creator and creation, in the shadow of the Sun that acts like the tempest...

9. All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh, 2023)

A deeply moving story of loss, grief, love and loneliness, ‘All of Us Strangers’ is firmly anchored in stellar performances and convincing chemistry of the leading duo, Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, spellbinding you with its delicate emotional textures bathed in warm lighting of Jamey Ramsay’s dreamy cinematography, and interwoven with soft aural threads of Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s melancholic score. The thick aura of nostalgia that envelopes the gently-paced proceedings materializes from the 80’s pop tunes which magically awaken the ghosts from the pasts for one last goodbye. If approached with a pure, sincere heart, this queer fairy tale provides a rewarding experience.

10. Pequeños milagros / Little Miracles (Eliseo Subiela, 1997)

“I have no philosophy, I have senses...
If I speak of Nature it’s not because I know what it is
But because I love it, and for that very reason,
Because those who love never know what they love
Or why they love, or what love is.

To love is eternal innocence,
And the only innocence is not to think...”

― Fernando Pessoa, The Keeper of Sheep II

The sweetest and most humane of four Subiela’s films that I’ve seen, ‘Little Miracles’ is a sensitive ode to (demure) adults who never lost their inner child. Directed with a keen sense of wonder, no trace of irony, and great sympathy for the characters, it follows a couple of lonely, lovely souls – a young supermarket cashier, Rosalía (Julieta Ortega, embodying innocence), who believes to be a fairy, and volunteers as a reader for the blind, and a nerdy scientist, Santiago (Antonio Birabent at his most introvert) who lives with his basset hound Lola, and works in the Institute for Radio-Astronomy, searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Connected only through a web-camera installed at a bus-station in what can be labeled as ‘a subversion of voyeurism through romantic yearning’, the two go about their lives as the viewer roots for their encounter, basking in the warmth of Daniel Rodríguez Maseda’s cozy cinematography, poetic quotes from Fernando Pessoa, and euphonious score by Alex Khaskin and Osvaldo Montes. Magic does exist.

11. Reflections in a Golden Eye (John Huston, 1967)

Beautifully framed in gilded widescreen, while swarming with suggestive lines, and overt symbolism, John Huston’s naughty melodrama eschews subtlety in favor of a stark, daring exploration of repressed desires – homosexual in the case of Marlon Brando’s character, major Weldon Penderton, and heterosexual for a reticent soldier, L.G. Williams, in a stoic, virtually dialogue-free portrayal by Robert Forster. Entangled in a sticky web of simmering emotions, Weldon lusts for private (parts of) Williams who embarks on nocturnal adventures that involve sniffing the lingerie of Mrs. Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor, camping things up) who enjoys riding her white stallion and ‘picking blueberries’ along with her next-door neighbor, Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith). Mrs. Langdon (Julie Harris) suffers from deep, nipple-cutting depression after losing a child, and finds comfort in her gay Pinoy manservant, Anacleto (Zorro David), much to the annoyance of her cheating husband. Such a set-up can only lead to tragedy portended by a quote from Carson McCullers whose 1941 novel of the same name is adapted by first-time writers Gladys Hill and Chapman Mortimer, to be subjected to firmly held directorial reins or rather, horsewhip. In someone else’s hands, ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ would’ve easily slipped out of control, but Huston nails just the right tone in the depiction of painful yearning, voyeurism, sadism, but above all, his main protagonist’s fallout, with Brando’s superbly committed performance lending gravitas to the gold-cold proceedings.

12. Le règne animal / The Animal Kingdom (Thomas Cailley, 2023)

The beauty of the beast and the ugliness of discrimination. A genre-bending examination of otherness and our relation to it, refracted through dichotomies – parent/child, society/individual, acceptance/rejection, cruelty/compassion. Coming-of-age drama whose fantastical premise is treated with the utmost realism, and tonal shifts handled with great skill. Cailley elicits extraordinary performances from his cast, with 22-yo Paul Kircher standing out in his full-fledged portrayal of a conflicted teenager whose transition to adulthood is made extra difficult through a lupine twist. The protagonist and other mutants of ‘The Animal Kingdom’ may bring to mind films such as ‘Nightbreed’ and/or ‘X-Men’, but what we have here is... well, a different animal, flawed, yet lovable.

13. Brzezina / The Birch Wood (Andrzej Wajda, 1970)

The film is Polish, but the colors of Zygmunt Samosiuk’s spellbinding cinematography speak a variety of languages, so the intense palette – a reflection of seasonal changes – alone is the reason enough to spend 90 minutes with it. An ode to life sung from the perspective of a tuberculosis-stricken musician, Stanislaw (Olgierd Łukaszewicz), and continually interrupted by the mournful sulking of his older brother, Boleslaw (Daniel Olbrychski), ‘The Birch Wood’ washes over the viewer like a fever dream of repressed emotions and incestuous desires. Oscillating between Stanisław’s lustful optimism and Bolesław’s fierce irritability, all the while squeezed between the two wars, this heightened, somewhat mannered drama strikes you as both deeply melancholic and broodingly joyful, fortified by ardent central performances.

14. Jigokumon / Gate of Hell (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1953)

The first color film for the Daiei Film studio, ‘Gate of Hell’ appears like a Japanese art scroll brought to life and then gently injected with the concentrated solution of George Barnard’s ‘Harmonious Arrangement of Pigments’, transfixing the viewer’s gaze with the spellbinding costume design alone. But make no mistake, the 12th century tale presented here is not a ‘jidaigeki’ spectacle, but rather a sternly solemn meditation on destructive obsession, unrequited passion, and the nature of honor. Its serene or rather, extremely disciplined surface conceals a torrent of conflicting emotions threatening to break the shackles of intense formality, yet the mask of quietude never cracks, primarily by virtue of Kinugasa’s unhurried, methodical direction, and mannered, dignified performances from his cast, especially by Machiko Kyō of ‘Rashomon’ fame.

15. Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (Jack Hill, 1967)

One of the most enjoyable pieces of camp cinema I’ve ever seen, ‘Spider Baby’ delivers a splendidly twisted blend of humor and horror, with its setting – a creaky, shadow-infested mansion of ‘impossible’ architecture – creating a ton of spooky atmosphere, and the trio of Jill Banner, Beverly Washburn and Sid Haig giving mischievously stellar takes on demented siblings at the core of the story. At once cartoonish and disturbing, the film is elevated to a whole new level by virtue of Lon Chaney Jr.’s emotive performance in the role of Bruno – a chauffeur turned guardian of family secrets, and it even dares to veer into a sexploitation territory, the courtesy of Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill) in black lingerie that anticipates Victoria’s Secret. It gives the impression that both the cast and behind-the-camera crew had a whale of time shooting it, limited by the shoestring budget, but liberated by their combined creative energies.

Honorable mention (short):

Last Spring (François Reichenbach, 1954)

A cinematically eloquent portrait of longing, as well as a historically significant piece of queer cinema, ‘Last Spring’ is a mighty fine example of visual storytelling, greatly influenced by Jean Cocteau, particularly in the dream sequence that comprises the second half of the film, with James Dean’s movie persona inspiring the appearance of two lovers (played by non-professional actors, no doubt). Tamer than its colorful, boldly homoerotic counterpart ‘Nus masculins’ (produced in the same year), this romantic drama eschews dialogue in favor of inventive camerawork (intimate close-ups, suggestive low angles, melancholy-infused long shots, oneiric superimpositions, etc), anticipating the free-wheeling tendencies of the New Wave.

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