May 1, 2024

Best Premiere Viewings of April 2024

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951)

Whether they want to admit it or not, artists are crazy folks, and not single one of them can tolerate reality, which is why they are cursed to create their own. Just like ma’am Blanche DuBois (Vivien Lee, majestically theatrical) – the broken embodiment of their constantly dreaming souls – they want magic, even though the illusion leads them to their demise. The truth they are aware of, but afraid to face is as smelly and brutish as it gets, albeit packed in an oversexed body of Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando, brilliantly appalling) who holds the power in his greasy hands. All of the Stellas eventually return to him, because they have accepted his ways as an inalterable, to a certain degree tameable matter of fact, and all the Mitches cowardly agree to yet another poker party, knowing in advance that they will lose. However, this is just one viewpoint and it may be deeply flawed, but what no one can deny is the overwhelming beauty of Kazan’s elaborate character study, or rather, the strong connection between its technical and aesthetical components.

2. Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)

Thrillers rarely get better than this one, and there aren’t many directors who could emulate, let alone surpass the cinemagic of ‘the master of suspense’. Even when taken on surface value alone, ‘Strangers on a Train’ works like a charm, keeping you on the edge of your seat, especially in the climactic carousel finale. Once you start digging deeper, the film rewards you with a cornucopia of diverse subtleties, making you wish to experience it all over again, this time from a different angle...

3. Hunted (Charles Chrichton, 1952)

The ever-reliable Dirk Bogard gives one of his best performances (but, seriously, was he ever in a bad acting shape?) as an ex-sailor fugitive, Chris, turned father substitute for a seven-year old adoptee, Robbie (Jon Whiteley, sincere in his naïveté), in a gorgeously framed road-movie noir. His (anti)hero is given a full arc, with the changes in scenery, from dark alleys of London to exuberant countryside to a small Scottish fishing port, reflecting the subtlest of nuances in his characterization, and simultaneously subverting the viewer’s expectations. As the sad yet never overly sentimental story unfolds, and the truth behind Chris’s heinous crime is unveiled, he is transformed into a victim of an uncaring society, eventually winning your sympathy. Of course, his fondness of the child running away from domestic abuse, and the boy’s attachment to this troubled man adds a lot of charm to both the protagonists and the proceedings, and makes you root for their escape. Accompanying them on their way to (the unattainable) freedom are deep and dark shadows of Eric Cross’s stunning B&W cinematography. 

4. Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955)

In his symphonic swan song which also marks his only color film, Ophüls gives Powell and Pressburger a good run for their money, with the ravishing production and costume designs casting a spell on the viewer in an instant. The lush mise en scène is wonderfully matched by the elegant camerawork, and sheer magnetism of Martine Carol (wearing stunning dresses!) in the titular role. Behind the opulent surface is, however, a sad, even tragic story of ‘the world’s most famous woman of scandal’ – a proto-starlet, so to speak, but one that could trigger a revolution. Told through the prism of a (circus) spectacle in which she is the prisoner of her own memories, this biopic feels even more relevant today, with celebrity culture reaching a whole new level.

5. Singapore Sling: Ο άνθρωπος που αγάπησε ένα πτώμα /
Singapore Sling: The Man Who Loved Corpse (Nikos Nikolaidis, 1990)

In the best surrealist tradition, Nikos Nikolaidis slices the eye with the razor – metaphorically speaking, but he goes even further, shoving a red-hot poker (and I’m not referring to the plant of the same name) into the freshly pierced hole, redefining the term ‘midnight movie’. His most (in)famous feature is hard to classify, as it blends neo-noir with sexploitation, mystery, horror and pitch-black comedy into an utterly twisted, perversely uninhibited, and boldly provocative examination of the nature of cinema through a wicked story of psychopathic, not to mention incestuous mother and daughter. (Think Brass meets Borowczyk by way of Wilder’s and (Jack) Hill’s evil twins possessed by the ghost of Frank Booth from ‘Blue Velvet’... or don’t think at all!) The ladies’ latest victim turned accomplice in a series of depraved games is a detective they name Singapore Sling after a cocktail recipe they find in his notebook – he talks solely in voice-overs / inner monologues, whereas the two continuously break the fourth wall in the act of anti-illusionist consolidation of illusion. The trio – involved in everything from kiwi-masturbation to bondage ‘torture’ – tear open plenty of space for psychoANALizing, but I’ll leave that to the experts in the field, and say that ‘Singapore Sling’ is a film of stunning beauty, its lace-and-chains-decorated house setting bathed exquisitely captured in stark B&W imagery elevated by Rachmaninoff, and Julie London’s performance of jazz standard ‘Laura’.

6. Les feluettes / Lilies (John Greyson, 1996)

It is well-known that in ancient Greece, and centuries later, in the Elizabethan theatre, all roles were played by men. John Greyson firmly embraces that tradition for Michel Marc Bouchard and Linda Gaboriau-written adaptation of Bouchard’s own play ‘Lilies’. And it makes perfect sense, given the queer love triangle at the core of the story which is largely enacted by the prison inmates as a part of a most elaborate ‘confession’. The highly romanticized past invades the grim present through surrealistic transitions, with the improvised sets of the jail chapel giving way to the elaborate location shots that bring the roaring 1920s to luscious life, and vice versa. Performances are subtly heightened, thickening the aura of romanticism, with the handsome framing by Daniel Jabin capturing the finest of emotional frequencies.

7. Innocent Blood (John Landis, 1992)

Has there ever been a blend of neo-noir, gangster flick, vampiric horror, dark comedy and erotically charged romance more entertaining than this one? I can’t recall of any. Admirably effortless in both tone-shifting and genre-bending, ‘Innocent Blood’ takes you on a wickedly fun nocturnal ride along a wild bunch of colorful characters frequently teetering on the verge of caricature, yet never falling into that trap. Portrayed by a cast that couldn’t be more on point, with horror icons such as Tom Savini, Dario Argento and Sam Raimi making cameos, they grace the grand-guignol-esque proceedings in most diverse ways. In her Hollywood debut, Anne Parillaud (of ‘La Femme Nikita’ fame) oozes sex appeal, playfulness and fierceness in the role of a mysterious, morally conscious bloodsucker, Marie, whereas Anthony LaPaglia elicits sympathy as not-so-average Joe – a sad-eyed cop bold enough to accept a risky undercover mission and share a bed with a lusty vampiress. However, stealing the spotlight is veteran Robert Loggia who chews the scenery with a voracious delight as a mob boss, Sal Macelli, reluctantly converted into a ‘child of the night’ going on a rampage upon learning of the newly acquired powers. Landis (An American Werewolf in London) directs the film with a flair to spare, assisted by a well-coordinated tech team.

8. Heart of Midnight (Matthew Chapman, 1988)

If ‘Repulsion’ was filtered through the prism of Italian horror, then softly imbued with a Lynchian sense of unease, the resulting film would probably feel close to ‘Heart of Midnight’. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as a mentally unstable young woman, Carol, faced with her fears in an inherited ex-brothel named Midnight, this film may not be the most groundbreaking of psychological (or rather, psychosexual) chillers, but it does deliver a gripping, finely balanced blend of pulp, thematic resonance and visual style. Driven by a strong central performance, slick editing (kudos to Penelope Shaw), and penchant for dreamlike irrationality that is reflected in Gene Rudolf’s labyrinthine and red-dominated set designs, Chapman’s effort deserves a wider recognition, in spite of its shortcomings. 

9. Мастер и Маргарита (Михаил Локшин, 2024) / The Master and Margarita (Michael Lockshin, 2024)

I have a feeling that on the next re-reading of Bulgakov’s masterful novel, I may see the faces of Lockshin’s cast, primarily that of August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds, A Hidden Life) who lends a magnetically elegant performance as professor Voland, i.e. the devil in disguise. Also commendable is Evgeniy Tsyganov as the dignified Master, and his closest partner, vampish (or rather, Eva Green-ish) Yulia Snigir, as Margarita who pushes her lover to write the doomed satirical novel in a metafictional story that sees two versions of the leading trio in the surrealistic (and romantic) intertwining of ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’. The unchanged setting is Soviet Moscow, ‘Gothamized’ through the prism of Art Deco and Brutalism, yet the mockery of greed, cowardice, authoritarian power structures, and petit bourgeois hypocrisies, although not as razor sharp as its source counterpart, couldn’t be more relevant today. High production values (on a budget that is but a tiny portion of any given Hollywood blockbuster) allow Lockshin to come up with some impressive set pieces – namely, the demonstration of black magic in the theater (regrettably, with the bare-all climax excluded), and the great ball at Satan’s where the imagination of costume designers comes to the extravagantly revealing fore. The pace is borderline breakneck, even though the film is two and a half hours long, so not all of the characters have enough room to breathe, but the final result (which marks Lockshin’s sophomore feature effort) far surpasses the ‘satisfactory’ level, especially when compared to a series of lackluster adaptations in the past. There’s enough nerve and verve, boldness and competence here for a recommendation.

10. Club Zero (Jessica Hausner, 2023)

What if some (ostensibly) forward-thinking ideas are actually shallow, or even worse, harmful? One such concept is so-called ‘conscious eating’ that gradually leads to no eating at all, as promoted by a nutritionist guru, Ms Novak (an unglamorous bravura by Mia Wasikowska), in an elite boarding school. Young and susceptible minds are easy to mold, especially when there’s a huge gap between the ‘kids’ and their parents who are condescending, despotic, too busy with their own projects, or preoccupied with their ambition of climbing a social ladder. A small group of teenagers with eating disorders, under the increasingly ‘spiritual’ guidance of Ms Novak, serve Hausner and her co-writer Géraldine Bajard as subjects in the exploration of manipulation / brainwashing, and blind following. Decidedly sardonic, bitingly satirical, and delightfully awkward in its formal austerity – almost as fascinating as that of Jonathan Glazer’s ‘The Zone of Interest’, ‘Club Zero’ is an acquired taste (pun intended!), especially when the Greek Weird Wave vibes kick in. The framing by Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy, Little Joe) is a masterclass in geometric rigidity, with the modernist set design evoking Cronenberg’s ‘Stereo’ (1969) and ‘Crimes of the Future’ (1970), Markus Binder’s cacophonous score is as befittingly off-kilter as it gets, and the author is relentlessly cold in her mockery of what can be dubbed ‘post-New Age charlanatism’, delivering a cautionary tale that can be viewed as a warning of cult-like machinations by media and politics.

11. Desaparecer Por Completo / Disappear Completely (Luis Javier Henaine, 2022)

After a few shorts and a couple of feature-length comedies, Mexican filmmaker Luis Javier Henaine takes a (straight-faced) stab at a supernatural thriller, finding a link between witchcraft, tabloids and politics in what can be labelled as a cautionary tale. His (anti)hero, Santiago, is hardly a sympathetic fella – an ambitious, ethically dubious photographer prone to bribing cops in order to get exclusive crime scene material for his ‘magazine’ – and yet, this deeply flawed human being turns to be the one we’re rooting for once he’s struck by a mysterious malaise. (Santiago’s kind and soon-to-be-a-mother girlfriend may be one of the reasons why we want to see him changed and saved.) Even the monstrous sacrifice he makes believing that it will lift the curse doesn’t turn the viewer (at least, the one writing these lines) into a judgmental bastard, because we don’t know what we would do if we were gradually being deprived of our precious senses – a vegetative fate surely worse than death. And besides, Henaine manages to put us in his protagonist’s shoes, so as his time inevitably flies, the tension gets heightened. The unnerving process of ‘disappearing completely’ unfolds at a measured pace, with local folklore thrown into the mix, and the deterioration of sound and sight saved for the last and best third in which the very cinematic devices come to the fore.

12. Barnvagnen / The Baby Carriage (Bo Widerberg, 1963)

In their feature debut, filmmaker Bo Widerberg and cinematographer Jan Troell come up with beautiful, yet not overly beautifying ways to translate the working class reality into cinema, as Wic Kjellin provides some stylish editing that brings to mind the earliest works of La Nouvelle Vague. A young woman’s sexuality, pregnancy and newfound independence are explored with utmost visual subtlety, jazz punctuation, straight-faced sincerity and unsentimental sympathy, which forms a patina of coldness and alienation that may turn off some viewers. Inger Tauber who would collaborate with Viderberg once again on ‘Love 65’ (originally, Kärlek 65) gives a lovably unaffected central performance, and her heroine, Britt Larsson, breathes the air of modernity into the story. 

13. Tenshi no kōkotsu / Ecstasy of the Angels (Kōji Wakamatsu, 1972)

To call ‘Ecstasy of the Angels’ provocative would be a severe understatement. As sex, violence and politics intermingle in assaults of absurd ‘poetry’, Wakamatsu explores the destructive power of radical extremism, his characters appearing like brainwashed puppets in a theater of ‘egoschismic’ anarchy. The intrusion of color scenes into a predominantly B&W reality lends a surrealistic edge to the rampant proceedings, with Yosuke Yamashita Trio elevating the chaos with their cacophonously groovy jazz score. The experience is abrasively alienating.

(Short) Honorable Mentions

Joy Street (Suzan Pitt, 1995)

Throw away your antidepressants, and watch Suzan Pitt’s masterpiece of hand-painted animation!

I have found your dream. (Johnny Clyde, 2020)

Available @ YouTube

Mabel, Betty and Bette (Yelena Yemchuk, 2020)

Ukrainian photographer Yelena Yemchuk whose directorial debut was the Fellini-inspired video for single ‘Zero’ (1996) by Smashing Pumpkins explores the ‘often elusive nature of identity’ in a twelve-minute short that couldn’t be more Lynchian. Her fashionable ‘woman in trouble’ protagonist is portrayed by Anna Domashyna who wears three different wigs as titular ‘personas’ lost in parallel universes that are based on ‘female archetypes of the Golden Age of Hollywood’. Disoriented in the threefold void of selves, she is a photo-model, an actress and a cabaret singer/dancer, each of the characters facing the dissolution of her respective reality in a series of dimly lit, dialogue-free vignettes accompanied by a vintage music theme and brooding sound design by the ballad collective.