Feb 1, 2024

Best Premiere Viewings of January 2024

1. O fovos / The Fear (Kostas Manoussakis, 1966)

A stunning closure of a regrettably short filmography (Kostas Manoussakis made only three features), ‘The Fear’ is a stark, psychologically uneasy portrayal of sexual frustration and patriarchal pathogeny. Set against the pastoral Greek countryside, to a superb, unnervingly pulsating score by Yannis Markopoulos, it tells a grim story of a heinous crime and its aftermath, plunging the viewer into the twisted mind of a villain – the son of a wealthy farmer – portrayed with chilling austerity by Anestis Vlahos. Both the build up to his appalling act (rape & murder), and the ensuing downfall of the family turned accomplices are gripping in equal measures by virtue of Nikos Gardelis’s gorgeous, high-contrast B&W cinematography, with Giorgos Tsaoulis’s dramatic editing heightening the tension. The film’s most memorable highlights are dialogue-free sequences, such as the ‘staring clash’ between Vlahos and Elena Nathanail (who plays the perpetrator’s half-sister, Anna) in the wheatfield, and the very epilogue – a dizzying dance montage fraught with symbolism.

2. Nar-o-nay / Pomegranate and Cane (Saeed Ebrahimifar, 1989)

“... And a shadow of my father’s hand was in the cupboard.”

Permeated by a bittersweet scent of nostalgia, and gently illuminated by elements of magic realism, Saeed Ebrahimifar’s debut is one of those films that make you deeply fall in love with cinema once again. A silky tapestry of one stranger’s memories as experienced through the imagination of a photographer protagonist, this tone poem of life and ennobling nature of art reaches the very depths of one’s soul, bringing to mind the likes of Mani Kaul and Sergei Parajanov. Its potent and sublime lyricism emerges from the knowing use of elegantly framed imagery in an oneiric fusion with poignant silences, sparse dialogues, introspective voice-over, and melancholic score of largely traditional melodies. That highly memorable tracking shot through the hospital corridor which takes us from the (bleak) present to the (romaticized) past gives the impression of a master, and not a beginner behind the camera.

3. Chłopi / The Peasants (DK Welchman & Hugh Welchman, 2023)

The directorial duo behind ‘Loving Vincent’ makes a triumphant return with an adaptation of Władysław S. Reymont’s Nobel prize-winning novel of the same name. Once again, their team pushes the boundaries of rotoscope animation, delivering a film in which literally every frame is an oil painting. When viewed on the big screen, it creates an overwhelming experience of poignant beauty, regardless of your attitude towards the art of realism. Nothing short of breathtaking, ‘The Peasants’ represents a combined effort of more than one hundred painters from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Serbia, with their painstaking brush strokes stirring a symphony of emotions. Wonderfully complemented by Lukasz Rostkowski’s evocative score inspired by traditional music, the deeply immersive visuals also serve as an ‘absorbent’ for the ugliness of human nature that is reflected in the characters’ hypocrisies and actions. Orbiting around an independent-thinking heroine, Jagna (Kamila Urzędowska whose magnetic presence is only matched by her acting talent), the villagers are portrayed as a colorful, if eventually appalling bunch, their herd mentality – a seemingly incurable malady even in this day and age – subjected to the Welchmans’ critical blade.

4. Il nido del ragno / The Spider Labyrinth (Gianfranco Giagni, 1988)

In his fascinating debut – a beautifully photographed love letter to the masters of Italian horror, Gianfranco Giagni transforms Budapest into a mystical maze, employing the city’s distinct, kaleidoscopic architectural character as a ‘thickening agent’ for the immersively foreboding atmosphere. That alone is reason enough to see this lesser known piece of gothic/occult cinema that brings to mind both Bava and Argento by way of its stylish lighting, and anticipates ‘The Ninth Gate’ through the narrative structure. Justifying its title, ‘The Spider Labyrinth’ weaves a sticky web of intrigue and secrecy around its protagonist Alan Whitmore (the first out of only three screen appearances of Roland Wybenga) – a young professor of oriental languages, and pulls him ever deeper into a surreal nightmare that evokes his childhood phobia. Ancient evil lurks behind every corner or rather, in a courtyard surrounded by ramshackle walls, among the tables and chairs of a posh hotel restaurant, above the spiral staircase, inside a windowless room and in a well-hidden antique shop, with the brilliant production design by art director Stefano Ortolani keeping you glued to the screen. Even the aged stop-motion effects, and creature animatronics in the finale add to the film’s irresistibly esoteric charm, whereby Wybenga and his partner Paola Rinaldi (as one enigmatic Genevieve) elevate its sexiness in a couple of steamy scenes.

5. El lado oscuro del corazón / The Dark Side of the Heart (Eliseo Subiela, 1992)

“Today’s man, as evolved as he thinks he is, hasn’t totally accepted his sexuality as God intended. Most of our problems are caused by people who haven’t had a good fuck. Badly fucked army officers and politicians... The masses are fucked too, but they are unable to find answers to the sexual violence of exploitation.”

The elements of magic realism appear as completely natural in the cinema of a country that gave us Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Knowingly incorporated into a (romantic) story revolving around a young idealist poet, Oliveiro (Darío Grandinetti, superb), here they manifest themselves through wry humor, carnal desires, and gusts of melancholy, oft-elevating the most banal situations into the realm of the sublime. As we follow the disheveled, rebellious, Mario Benedetti-quoting protagonist on his quest for a woman who can fly, not metaphorically, but literally, we see him disposing of one-night stands through a bed trap-door, conversing with Death (Nacha Guevara, at her most goth) who wields job ads instead of scythe, pulling a nine-feet tall statue of... ahem... guess-what through the streets of Buenos Aires, and tearing out his heart for a pragmatic, well-read prostitute, Ana (Sandra Ballesteros, utterly magnetic), the only one who meets his high standards of ecstatic levitation. At turns decidedly ridiculous, poetically salacious, nonchalantly philosophical, and emotionally resonant, ‘The Dark Side of the Heart’ is the film tailor-made for artistic, as well as other weird and passionate souls whose fire melts the shackles of mundanity, and rips open the portals to new realities. In the rare moments of outstaying its welcome, it still manages to keep you involved by virtue of Subiela’s keen sense of style, Hugo Colace’s handsome lensing, and/or enchanting soundtrack by Osvaldo Montes.

6. Dust (Marion Hänsel, 1985)

Jane Birkin’s astute portrayal of Magda – a sexually frustrated spinster going through a mental breakdown – imposes as the major focal point in Marion Hänsel’s adaptation of J. M. Coetzee’s 1977 novel ‘In the Heart of the Country’. Bound by servitude to her domineering father (Trevor Howard), Magda is a tragic heroine whose unreliable narration raises questions about what is real and what is but a figment of her imagination, leaving the viewer emotionally conflicted about her. The claustrophobic tone which Hänsel sets throughout the film, with a small, semi-desert farm setting mirroring the protagonist’s troubled state of mind, intensifies the viewing experience, in equal measures fascinating and harrowing. Not even the warmest hues of Walther van den Ende’s entrancing cinematography can conceal, let alone absorb the dry, overwhelming distress that weighs upon this stark character study, as it slowly creeps into you...

7. Faraon / Pharaoh (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1966)

At once alienating and fascinating, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s vision of ancient Egypt – an adaptation of the 19th century novel of the same name by Bolesław Prus – recounts a timeless tale of power struggle, boasting a state-of-the-art production and costume design in beautifully harmonized shades of sand, gold and bronze, with a decidedly stilted performances lending the film a dense aura of solemn ritual. Cinematically engaging in its carefully measured use of symmetrical composition and God’s eye view, tracking and subjective shots, subtle and overt eroticism, diegetic sounds and operatic chants, ‘Pharaoh’ can be labeled as a ‘Brutalist epic’ whose very scope demands the viewer’s appreciation.

8. The Mystical Rose (Michael Lee, 1976)

Holy penis of Yeshua Ha-Nozri, what did I watch?! A freewheeling hybrid of cut-out animation à la Larry Jordan by way of Terry Gilliam, live-action sequences ranging from a masturbation to a sheep slaughter to a religious procession, and archive footage serving as a witty break from the overload of sexually suggestive imagery (that brings to mind Marcel Mariën’s obscure 1959 short ‘The Imitation of Cinema’), ‘The Mystical Rose’ is a singular piece of (wildly!) experimental cinema which can probably be used in a fertility ritual... if screened backwards. Playfully subversive, ravingly iconoclastic and seductively arrhythmical, it provides you with a non-stop barrage of surrealistic / stream-of-conscious / symbolic visuals that evoke hippy trips of Pierre Clémenti at their most psychedelic, and appear to take cues from the likes of Luis Buñuel, Kenneth Anger and Fernando Arrabal when it comes to transgression tactics. 

9. Eileen (William Oldroyd, 2023)

They don’t make them like they used to... and then, this flick comes along. Set in 60’s Massachusetts, and feeling like a lost, at once offbeat and suave artifact from the past, ‘Eileen’ is a tautly controlled amalgam of an intriguing character study, stylish Hitchcockian thriller and latent lesbian romance, with a dash of delicious pulp spicing up the placidly paced proceedings. Its silent forte lies in the opposed, yet superbly harmonized central performances from Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie whose (anti?)heroine has such a vivid imagination, that you are left questioning the reliability of the whole story. Behind the quaint veneer of a small town, William Oldroyd conceals some perverse secrets, subverting the American myth of familial love, and delivering a down-to-earth neo-noir of attractively grainy visuals complemented by a cool jazzy score.

10. Le Cœur battant  / The French Game (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, 1960)

Call me old-fashioned, overly nostalgic or just plain silly, but I find it utterly charming when actors in old movies talk on rotary telephones, making the use of mobiles in modern cinema appear borderline vulgar. And when you have Françoise Brion and Jean-Louis Trintignant in their prime holding handsets, the sight comes across as more electrifying than usual. With sparkling chemistry, sheer elegance and great charisma, the duo portray gallerist assistant Dominique and abstract painter François in a sweet romantic dramedy of subtle humor and breezy atmosphere that elevate even the most uneventful portions of the story. Two sides of a love triangle, they play quirky little games during a holiday spent in a seaside resort, which allows DoP Christian Matras to treat us to some beautiful shots of a couple on a (magically) vacant beach. That doesn’t mean the imagery captured in a hotel and narrow streets around it is any less attractive – on the contrary, his camera transmutes the most banal of scenes into visual poetry so seductive that you’re rarely bothered by how saccharine Michel Legrand’s score sounds...

11. Door (Banmei Takahashi, 1988)

A Japanese answer to giallo and home invasion flicks, ‘Door’ plays out like a reserved, yet pretty unnerving psychological thriller for the first hour, only to go off the rails in the most viscerally rewarding way possible during the final third. Takahashi (whose pinku background is barely hinted at) puts his heroine, a paranoid (and often lonely) homekeeper, Yasuko, on equal footing with her stalker, a door-to-door salesman turned psycho, making their intense, cinematically unhinged clash a (queasy) delight to behold, and eliciting superb performances from the leading duo. The imposing formal austerity of the build-up is gradually ‘loosened’, with wry humor and unexpected stylistic flourishes seeping in through a hole chainsawed in the bathroom door, and the eye of Yasushi Sasakibara’s camera beautifully capturing the dominating greens of Yasuko’s meticulously furnished apartment.

12. Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996)

Veteran Kris Kristofferson portrays one of the slimiest Texan sheriffs in flashbacks of a cleverly written, austerely directed and tightly edited drama advocating an anti-racist attitude, and featuring smooth-as-silk in-camera transitions between the scenes of the present and the past. Also praiseworthy for their unaffected performances are the rest of the cast, from Elizabeth Peña to Chris Cooper to Frances McDormand in her bravura cameo role, all with a well-defined place in a story rich with subplots and hidden truths. Best viewed with fresh eyes, ‘Lone Star’ can be labeled as an examination of the sense of justice and its complexities, as well as an ode to the legends we weave to protect ourselves or the people we hold dear. 

13. Luminous Procuress (Steven Arnold, 1971)

Cross-dressing glee of Jack Smith’s ‘Flaming Creatures’, diluted solution of Kenneth Anger’s magick, and uninhibited flamboyance of Fellini’s ‘Satyricon’ are mixed, shaken and stirred in Steven Arnold’s first and only feature that elevated him to the rank of Salvador Dalí’s protégé. Coming across as a cacophonous ode to pansexuality, ‘Luminous Procuress’ is a phantasmagorical document of a saucy, LSD-infused burlesque by San Francisco-based theater troupe ‘The Cockettes’. Led by drag performer Pandora in the role of the titular character, the members of the group appear – often undressed or semi-nude, and sporting face paint – in a series of peepshow-like vignettes observed by a couple of friends in what can be described as a rite of passage through the mirror of gender fluidity. Apart from a hardcore sex scene (involving a straight couple), the proceedings largely play out like a queer farce, not without its flaws, but earning extra points by virtue of its sheer, perverse audacity. The hyper-colorful visuals brimming with outrageous hairdos, glittery makeup, and stupendous costumes inspired by diverse cultures are soaked in effervescent noises of Warner Jepson’s radical synth score and multilingual mumbling that, reportedly, replaces the poor sound recorded on the set (Arnold’s warehouse home).

14. Hung cheuk wong ji / Peacock King (Ngai Choi Lam & Biao Yuen, 1988)

A live-action adaptation of Makoto Ogino’s manga of the same name (serialized between 1985 and 1989), ‘Peacock King’ is a bombastic amalgam of wuxia action, high fantasy, horror and comedy in which twin monks, Peacock and Lucky Fruit (in English translation), are tasked with stopping the apocalyptic revival of Devil King. On their perilous quest from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Tibet, they will have to pass a handful of challenges posed by Raga Witch who looks like a singer of an 80’s hair metal band until she transforms into a gnarly, vagina-faced monster straight out of a ‘Giger meets Harryhausen in Wicked City’ nightmare. That and a couple of possessed dinosaur models in a department store are not exactly typical Buddhist exorcist affairs, but as long as the set-pieces are the tongue-in-cheek peak of B-moviemaking, bring it on! Ngai Choi Lam – best known for the cult action splatter ‘Story of Ricky’ – directs this extravaganza with briskness and flair, assisted by one of the stars, Biao Yuen, who peacocks in his role with a self-confident grin. Fine-tuning the leading duo is Hiroshi Mikami whose composed character take things more seriously, which is why his performance lends some stoic elegance to the flamboyant proceedings. If you’re looking for a deliciously cheesy companion piece to ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ or ‘The Golden Child’, you will certainly it here.

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