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Jeopardy On The Job: Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages Of Fear (1953) – Blu-ray Review

October 18, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Clouzot’s masterpiece remains one of the great action films, largely because the intricate suspense is so cleverly established in mood, story and theme.

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The Wages Of Fear
(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Alfred Hitchcock famously explained the difference between surprise and suspense – with the latter, the audience knows there’s a bomb under the table. To which Henri-Georges Clouzot obviously thought, “Let’s make the bomb as big as possible and stick it onto a truck.” In The Wages Of Fear, half the film consists of watching characters trying to drive these nitoglycerine-laden trucks along the world’s worst road. Now, that’s suspense.

This is a remarkable piece of action-adventure filmmaking, dripping in sweat and oil. It had an arduous shoot long before the likes of Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin (with his Wages remake, Sorceror) made such things fashionable. And it has extraordinary, agonising sequences of pure tension – a bumpy road, a dilapidated jetty, a rock blocking the road, a hellish oil pit. We’ve already seen that one drop of nitro will create a sizeable explosion, so each of these obstacles has to be navigated incredibly slowly. Every movement becomes a possible trip, stumble, fall or spill.

Why would anybody sign up for this ordeal? Well, that’s why only half the film is located on the road. Before that, there’s a brilliant hour of exposition to make it not only plausible but inevitable that these desperate men will agree to carry the nitro. Trapped in an unnamed South American village with no jobs and no money, the men drink, whore and gamble their way into an existential prison, so when the offer of $2000 bonus to transport the explosives to stem an oil well fire, they’ve got nothing to lose.

This could be dry, verbose filmmaking, except that Clouzot wields the same physicality he shows in the pure action ahead. Creating the decrepit village from scratch in a dustbowl in Southern France, he builds a world that is entirely convincing in its humid, slovenly languor. Shooting in deep focus and expertly choreographing the extras – including, at one point, a passing aeroplane – he lays out the tiny borders of the expats’ lives.

And this world comes with a worldview: pessimistic, misanthropic, nihilistic. These men have only arrived to get rich, and there’s a self-loathing in their realisation that they can’t even do that properly. Their masculinity in shreds, they form homo-erotic bonds, each trying to become the alpha male in this pathetic group. So they’re in no great mental shape when they start on the journey, and so Clouzot can anatomise the greed, hubris, cowardice (and occasionally, resourcefulness and skill) of the drivers.

That makes the film as much of an ordeal for the audience as for them – we’re not exactly rooting for anybody here, and the bleak punchline is satirical rather than traffic. The visuals emphasise the emptiness – monochrome has rarely been used as well, a world with all the colour drained out until we’re left with Yves Montand and Charles Vanel, drenched in oil and looking like walking corpses.

The Wages Of Fear is released on Blu-ray by the BFI on Monday 23 October.

Glimpsing Ghibli’s Future: Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle (2016) – Blu-ray review

September 19, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

If you feared that Studio Ghibli might be marooned with Miyazaki, its first international co-production offers a fresh voyage into the future.

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The Red Turtle
(Michael Dudok de Wit, 2016)

Studio Ghibli has such a strong legacy that it’s hardly surprising it’s taken until now, following Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, for the company to put its imprint on an international co-production. Fortunately, Belgian animator Michael Dudok De Wit’s debut is a worthy addition to the Ghibli name as well as offering thrilling new possibilities for the studio.

Dudok doesn’t go kid-in-a-sweet-shop crazy knowing who is backing him. Instead, The Red Turtle is a small, contained movie, a quiet marvel of narrative clarity and sensual detail. It’s the story of a man shipwrecked on a tropical island, with only some impish crabs for company… until he tries to escape on a raft and finds his efforts hampered by the titular reptile.

To say more would like away the bulk of this briskly told fable of repentance, acceptance and the passage of time.  So let’s talk visuals: Dudok has an extraordinary graphic eye. For all the touches that pay homage to the Ghibli canon (Miyazaki-esque dreams of flight, the way the crabs’ behaviour recall the studio’s semi-regular soot-sprites) there are new elements.

The character design feels touched by Dudok’s fellow Belgian Hergé, while his skies are a tactile, chalky smudge where Miyazaki favoured pristine blues and whites. And Dudok excels himself in a thrilling tsunami set-piece that suggests there is plenty of promise for the future.

For now, though, what’s most impressive is the way the cleanness of visual style is met by the simplicity of story. This could have been made at any point of the past 50 years and will feel just as fresh in 50 more. It is sad, funny, tense (you’ll hold your breath during one sequence of peril in a cave-pool) but mostly it is struck with the same kind of awe you expect when the famous Totoro icon appears at the start of a Ghibli film.

The Red Turtle will be available on DVD and Double Play on September 25th

Sapphic Swoon: Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (2016) – Blu-ray review

August 2, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Here’s a Brit-lit adaptation you won’t mistake for the BBC1 Sunday night slot. Park turns up the heat on everything: sex, violence, subtext and style.

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The Handmaiden
(Park Chan-wook, 2016)

Park Chan-wook’s career has underdone one of the most interesting transition over the past decade, from the purveyor of brutal revenge thrillers to the consummate stylist of Gothic romances.  This isn’t as strange a shift as it might first appear: the likes of Oldboy show a keen knowledge of Jacobean tragedy, while his English-language debut, Stoker, was still steeped in blood.

For The Handmaiden, Park has adapted a bona-fide gem of English Literature, but rather than look to Austen or Dickens, he’s chosen Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ contemporary, subversive riff on Victoriana, with its taboo blend of lesbian sex and crime.  It’s a reasonably faithful adaptation, although one in which he’s made some cunning changes so as to emphasise the fusion of form and content he started in Stoker and perfects here.

This is a lush, ornate vision of affluence, with a rapt grandeur to the production design and costumes.  Yet Park is more concerned with what’s going on behind the trinkets and garments, and not only when it comes to the copious sex scenes.  Like the Japanese-style sliding doors, whose thin walls let people see shadows and hear echoes, it’s a film of deceptive surfaces, and his camerawork glides to gain the best vantage point.  In the knotted flashbacks of the second act, he literally shifts position to give a fresh perspective on supposedly familiar events.

By setting the tale during Japan’s occupation of Korea, Park adds to Waters’ critique of power.  He retains the device of a rich pervert cataloguing vintage pornography, but it isn’t just about patriarchy in this context but a wider vision of mastery and servitude, in which Korean genuflection to Japan is a moral failing.  Only when the servant becomes her boss’ equal can this be righted – and that’s where the ladies’ love affair comes in.

So the film becomes a neat balance between its own surface pleasures – the storytelling has a crisp, Hitchcockian precision – and its political subtext.  Inevitably, this being Park, there’s only so long he can hold the pose of an elegant period drama.  By the end, the fanbase he’s brought with him since Oldboy can delight in a Grand Guignol torture sequence (complete with a cameo by an octopus!) while fans of exploitation movies can thrill to just about the loveliest, most romantic ‘love beads’ sequences in cinema.

The Handmaiden is released on Blu-ray on Monday 7th August.  A special 2-disc set also includes Park’s extended cut.

Welcome To Finland: Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side Of Hope (2017) – Blu-ray review

July 19, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Kaurismäki finds the funny side – eventually – to the refugee crisis, in a film whose bittersweet tone is gatecrashed by typically brilliant, deadpan slapstick.

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The Other Side Of Hope
(Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

“Finland is a good country,” says Khaled (Sherwan Haji), the Syrian applying for asylum in the Scandinavian country.  And, for anybody who has seen the work of Aki Kaurismäki, goodness is synonymous with Finland.  Films such as The Man Without A Past have revolved around the kindness of strangers and the restorative balm of rock and roll.  Even his last film, the French-set Le Havre, showed that this spirit crossed borders.

In The Other Side Of Hope, though, there’s a darker, less optimistic tone.  Like Le Havre, this sees a local – restaurant owner Wikström (Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) – take in a refugee rather than see him deported.  But this crucial incident takes place halfway through the new film.   True, Wikström and Khaled’s paths do cross, briefly, in the opening moments, but then their parallel stories run separately for over half the film.

It’s quite a contrast.  Khaled faces a life on hold, with the endless bureaucracy leavened only by the Arabic-speaking community in the refugee centre.  He’s desperate to settle so he can provide an end destination for his AWOL sister, but everything is hard – including the supposed enlightened, welcoming attitudes of the state.  These sequences are Kaurismäki without a lot of humour – for once, his style is deadpan because there isn’t much to laugh about – but still full of warmth and affection.

For Wikström, though, it’s practically a parody of Kaurismäki.  At rock bottom after separating from his wife, Wikström simply walks away and starts again.  He sells his shirt business, boosts his earnings at the poker table and then buys a restaurant, complete with diffident but reliable staff.  Life’s a lottery, and Wikström comes out on top whatever he does, even down to the ill-advised relaunch of his restaurant as a sushi bar.  This is pure comedy gold, one of the funniest sequences Kaurismäki has ever done – with the hangdog acting style, sardonic tableaux and exaggerated production design, complete with incongruous portrait of Jimi Hendrix on the wall, a far cry from the more realistic tone of Khaled’s half of the story.

Remarkably, Kaurismäki melds the two stories together, linked by his generosity of spirit and the inevitable live performances by Finnish blues musicians.  The fragile intersection is a reminder that the other side of hope is, of course, despair.  For Khaled, shunned by the authorities and prey to neo-Nazis – clearly, not everybody got the memo about Finland being a good country – it’d be easy to cave in.  Yet the film has let him into Wikström (and, by extension, Kaurismäki’s) world, and it’s a lovely, hopeful place to be.

The Other Side Of Hope is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 24th July.

Countryfail: Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling (2016) – Blu-ray review

July 13, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Cold Comfort Farm: the Unrated Edition – a mournful elegy for a rural community left to sink in the mud, with only rage and despair for company.

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The Levelling
(Hope Dickson Leach, 2016)

American cinema has created an entire genre – the Western – to celebrate its vast, untamed landscapes.  In Britain, the acres of land given over to agriculture have made it much harder to forge a lasting on-screen legacy.  In reality, British filmmakers tend to disregard it entirely, unless it’s as a place where unspeakable horrors take place well outside the suburban norm.

Fair play to Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling, then, for taking a fresh look beyond the A-roads.  This is an unsentimental, cool-headed depiction of the divide between city and countryside, and the terrible impact this fractured relationship has on the psyche of generations who give their lives to the soil only to be ignored by the population their labours help to feed.

There’s plenty of thought gone into the creation of a family facing untold pressures.  They’ve been left to fend for themselves over rural flooding – the insurance company won’t pay out and the fields are full of glass.  On the other hand, the law leaves them at the risk of contaminated livestock or prosecution for illegally culling badgers.  No wonder farmer Aubrey (David Troughton) is struggling to pass on the farm to his son Harry, even before the latter’s death by shotgun blast – an accident, or suicide?

While these are themes that percolate the news agenda, there’s little that is overtly political on screen, because Dickson Leach has reframed them as a modern spin on a timeless tragedy.  Our entry point is Clover (Ellie Kendrick), the prodigal daughter who has moved away to study veterinary medicine and returns for her brother’s funeral to find her childhood home in freefall.  That leads to strained relations with her dad, whose push/pull feelings have been exacerbated by repressed grief over the death of his wife, and now his son.  He wants her to help on the farm, but he paid for the education that took her away because he knows it’s no life for a youngster in the 21st century.

So the film captures both the timelessness of the countryside and the very modern challenges it faces.  Visually, this might be a Hardy adaptation in shots of wildlife or countryside walks, but Dickson Leach strips the film of glamour.  If British towns have kitchen sink realism, then this is septic tank realism, where a girl might be asked to shoot a calf for having the temerity to be born a boy.

And the acting is phenomenal.  Troughton has never had an opportunity like this on the big screen, and turns Aubrey into an ineffectual tyrant, using passive-aggressive neediness to keep his livelihood afloat.  And Kendrick is extraordinary as a capable, intelligent woman whose psychological demons come flooding back the longer she spends in the place she’s spent a live trying to escape from.

The Levelling is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 17 July.


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