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Giallo-a-go-go: Dario Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) – Blu-ray review

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

One of the most perfectly realised prototypes of any director, as Argento commits to honing florid style over substance.

1 Bird With The Crystal Plumage

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage
(Dario Argento, 1970)

The first film of any director is a calling card.  For Dario Argento, that card is designed to as stylish and memorable as possible, splattered in red and crafted by industry titans.  With the help of ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and legendary composer Ennio Morricone, Argento was out to grab the thriller from Alfred Hitchcock and create something lurid and spectacular.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a film that is all about its surfaces – elegant, seductive and exciting.  There’s a remarkable interest in the texture of things: décor, costume, colour and design, captured from arresting angles.  The set-pieces have a strutting pleasure in creating tension through sound and image, disconcerting in their voyeurism, but also a pleasure in their geometric precision, especially a chase sequence in a deserted bus station or the visual puzzle of Sam (Tony Musante) being trapped in a glass chamber, unable to intervene in an attempted murder.

Argento was part of a generation of Italian filmmakers who broke from neo-realist traditions and tackled American genres – don’t forget that he co-created the story of Once Upon A Time In The West with Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci. The difference is that Argento is much less political than his peers, preferring a near-abstract aestheticism that shuns deeper meaning.

That arguably leaves it slight, or misjudged – its bonkers twist somehow deepens the sense of misogyny. The biggest flaw, though, is that it simply doesn’t make sense.  The arrival of an assassin is never fully explained, nor is it clear how many victims were killed by the husband, or why.  But it coasts on pure movie logic, the sense that nobody should be safe and everybody is a suspect.  The film boils down the murderous impulse to a set of symbols – knives, black gloves – that became an iconic template for Argento and his peers to develop.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is released on Blu-ray on Monday 19 June by Arrow Films, who have put together a typically impressive package including a new interview with Argento.

Hard Of Earring: Max Ophüls’ Madame De… (1953) – Blu-ray review

May 20, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

Caveat emptor, and then some.  A pair of earrings provides the dazzling fulcrum for Ophüls’ bittersweet romance about the transience of love.

1 Madame De

Madame De…
(Max Ophüls, 1953)

What’s in a gift?  It’s a gesture of love and affection, a memento of times past – yet it can also denote ownership and control.  In Madame De… a pair of earrings take on hugely symbolic importance in mapping out the contours not only of several relationships, but also the society that underpins them.  The earrings are fiendish Macguffins, full of deathly irony and heartbreak in the narrative and emotional havoc they wreak.

Making a film on such a bizarre premise might feel silly and contrived, but there’s such precision to the way Max Ophüls tells it that its coincidences are forgivable.  There’s the sense that these earrings had to come full circle – sold, returned, given away, removed, resold and restored once more – because their place is within the rarefied world of French high society.  Even when they end up in Constantinople, they boomerang back.

That’s because of their initial wearer.  Madame De… has it all, but she’s unhappy.  In the film’s opening shot, she is defined – trapped, even – by her possessions, unable to exist beyond boxes full of jewellery and wardrobes full of furs.  Even when we first see her face, it’s in a mirror – and there still hasn’t been a cut.  Note the name, too.  In an increasingly disconcerting, running joke, we never hear the surname.  It’s cute, it’s funny, and then it’s alarming, because it tells us what the extraordinary, circular camera movements are showing us – she’s a possession, and there’s no escape.

So the earrings become a fleeting symbol of hope and self-expression, and they signal Madame De…’s doom because they bring back a lover.  What follows is a lovely, achingly sweet and sincere pas de deux between Madame De (Danielle Darrrieux) and Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica, whose matinee swoon factor is all the more remarkable considering the actor’s day job as the maker of neo-realist masterpieces like Bicycle Thieves).  As shot and cut, it’s as if they fall in love during one single dance, the camera spinning from one party to the next with seamless elegance – but of course, in going round in circles they’re really going nowhere.

But those telltale earrings have a cruel sense of humour, and soon restore the status imposed by the lady’s husband, the General (Charles Boyer).  Even he’s no simple villain.  Despite the hypocrisy of his objecting to an affair when he’s had at least one himself, he’s also a man who is likewise trapped by his role in this society.  Note that the film only ends when he renounces control of the earrings, the man forever in charge.  It’s at this point that the entire narrative, and even Ophüls’ visual approach, collapse into sudden, elliptical jumps as Madame De’s wheel stops turning.

Madame De… is released on Blu-ray by the BFI on Monday 22 May.  The disc contains a long documentary on Ophüls’ work, plus there’s a great essay booklet featuring the opinions of everyone from esteemed critic Laura Mulvey to filmmaker Lindsay Anderson – and an ace poem in honour of Ophüls by his occasional star James Mason.

Au hasard, Dachshund – Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog (2016) – DVD review

January 17, 2017 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

A throwback to 1990s shock-satire with one problem – enfant terrible Solondz has grown up and hasn’t figured out how to mix sobriety with scandal.


(Todd Solondz, 2016)

Once upon a time, Todd Solondz was the enfant terrible of indie cinema.  Films like Happiness were deliberate acts of provocation upon audiences.  But what happens when such a filmmaker grows up? As Danny De Vito’s Dave Schmerz, a filmmaking teacher observes, it’s a case of ‘what if’ and ‘then what.’  What if the mood of cinema moves on?  Then what?

This film is at once a throwback to Solondz’s 1990s heyday – it even resurrects the lead character in his debut, Welcome To The Dollhouse – and the work of an older director who is altogether more elegiac and less inclined to shock.  Yes, this has the mix of hipster cool and John Waters-esque outrage that made his name (who else would dare to have an extended tracking shot of a sidewalk covered in dog dioarrhea?), but the shock is very half-hearted.

It’s a co-production between Amazon Studios and Megan Ellison’s Annapurna, two of the few places interested in auteur cinema when today’s film culture revolves around superhero movies – here given typically short shrift.  Yet there’s also the sense that Solondz hasn’t quite figured out what to do with the beneficence of his funders.  It’s an awkward, fragmented film, a kind of arch remake of Au Hasard Balthazar as it follows the many owners of the titular dog, a mute witness to the pain, loneliness and stupidity of humanity.

As with many multi-strand films, it’s a mixed bag.  The segment with De Vito is the best by far, its sour vision of becoming culturally obsolete given emotional nuance by the star’s careworn performance.  The opening sequence is a sardonic detonation of the American family unit, with Tracy Letts in great form as a supercilious but inept father, but even this can’t quite escape the sense that it’s been done better before – not least by this very director.

The other two meander inconsequentially, notable mainly for the way that Solondz seemingly sets up opportunities for shock value – a Down’s syndrome couple, for instance – only to play them with disarming charm and sincerity.  It says something, though, when an already short film is padded out with – of all things – an intermission.

Wiener-Dog is released on DVD and digital on 23 January.

Sidewalk Surfin’: Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords Of Dogtown (2005) – Blu-ray review

November 28, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

A filmed memoir that drags you along in its slipstream with an exuberant sense of teenage freedom – and the cinematic style to match.


Lords Of Dogtown
(Catherine Hardwicke, 2005)

Skateboarding is one of the most cinematic of sports.  Not only does it thrive on the exhilaration of movement, but it’s also something that requires steadfast dedication, patience and the willingness to keep trying again and again until you get it right.  Put these things together, and it’s no surprise that the hurtling momentum and rhythmic editing of the skating sequences in Lords Of Dogtown have an indelible grace.

Of course, it also makes the film look somewhat like a skateboarding video with the bonus of celluloid’s grain – which is no bad thing because this is a film by the fans, for the fans.  Skateboard supremo Stacy Peralta turned filmmaker had already made documentary Dogtown And Z-Boys about his legendary teenage years as one of the sport’s pioneers.  His screenplay for this film is, essentially, the same story with the mythmaking dialled up to 11.

Does it work for non-believers?  Surprisingly, yes.  While the details of the sport are sketchy, Catherine Hardwicke brings an infectious energy to proceedings, taking the never-give-up attitude of her debut Thirteen and adding a semi-ironic vision of male bonding.  The twin models are Boogie Nights and Dazed And Confused; this has the subcultural detail of the former and the laidback drift of the latter, although the lack of a critical distance in the writing means it never quite matches these classics.

Still, there’s plenty of interest, with Hardwicke’s camera attuned to the sport’s roots in poverty in a dead-end coastal town where there’s nowhere to go except up and down an improvised turnpike.   At its best, it’s as strong on the ties between geographical stasis and cultural innovation as 8 Mile.  The film’s most memorable sequence shows the skaters sneaking into back gardens during a summer drought to skate in empty swimming pools – a symbol of class outsiderdom to rival the Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer.

It only falls apart, as films of this nature tend to do, when fame strikes and old friendships are sundered by money, rivalry and self-destruction.  The overfamiliarity of the narrative retrospectively makes the highs of the Z-Boys look insignificant – arguably, the formulaic arc fails at the fundamental task of truly explaining what made these boys so radical.

Still, as an immersive vision of being in the gang, it’s helped enormously by good casting.  While Emile Hirsch was a big deal back then, and John Robinson – as Peralta – was then familiar from Elephant, neither they nor Victor Rasuk, as the third in the trio, have fulfilled their promise.  A decade later, it really helps cement the film’s sense of this being a youngsters’ film about youngsters’ passions.   And the elegiac quality that Heath Ledger brings to his role, as the surf-dude-Falstaff who is ultimately betrayed by his princes, gets an added layer of melancholy knowing that he would be dead within a few years of this film’s release.

Lords Of Dogtown is released on Dual-Format by Eureka on 5 December 2016.

Master Shot: Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973) – Criterion Blu-ray review

November 2, 2016 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

One of the best films about filmmaking, because it’s literally about the making. It doesn’t even matter what’s being made. The making is reward enough.


Day For Night
(Francois Truffaut, 1973)

“I am not interested in any film that does not pulse,” said Francois Truffaut – saying that to pulse needed to depict either the joy or the agony of filmmaking.  The result is Day For Night, one of the definitive films about filmmaking because it captures exactly these myriad emotions.

In broadest outline, this is the archetype for the genre because it is the simplest: a crew makes a film and struggles with independently-minded cats and drunken actors; the cast fall in and out of love; the set is beset by hangers-on; and the director resets his ambition from masterpiece to just getting through the whole thing unscathed.  From such material dozens of films have been made.

But Truffaut takes a more philosophical viewpoint.  Here’s a film about the tortuous relationship between truth and fiction.  From the title onwards, with its reference to how cinema fakes reality, the film shows the old man behind the curtain.  A bit of wall is erected high up in the air to suggest an entire building; a man doubles as a woman for a death-defying stunt.  Even the lead actor donning a moustache becomes part of the artifice.

And yet Truffaut has fun.  The film being made is very generic in its plot, and stilted in its delivery – there are long sequences showing the monotony of repeating the same scene over and over again, the actors bound by their duty to hit specific marks.  But the film we’re watching is full of extraordinary sequence shots, the camera panning and tracking to capture remarkably naturalistic movements and dialogue.

What’s going on?  Most films about filmmaking assume that the banality of the process leads into the profundity of the finished product.  Yet Truffaut tricks us, shows us the exact opposite of this because the finished product is a melodramatic trifle and the process is the real star.  Even here, he’s toying with the illusion by bringing in real-life elements, not least his own casting as the director-within-the-director.  Then there are the autobiographical nods to his youth of stealing posters of Citizen Kane, or referring to Julie Baker as the actress from the film with the car chase – a direct reference to Jacqueline Bisset starring in Bullitt.

In the film’s most indulgent moment, Truffaut throws down a dozen or so books about directors he admires.  It’s his generation’s canon – Hitchcock, Hawks, Bunuel, Bergman… and Godard.  The presence of his friend and colleague shows how Truffaut is thinking in terms of a tradition: the French New Wave as evolution, not revolution.  And this is a film that might have been made at any time.  Perhaps that’s why an irate Godard fell out with Truffaut after seeing this film, but he’s missing the point.  It’s not about making grand statements, or trying to change the course of cinematic history.  It’s about taking cinema’s pulse.

Day For Night is out on Blu-ray now from the Criterion Collection.  Best extra is a smart analysis of the film’s dream sequences by video essayist kogonada.

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