Apr 7, 2014

This Week We've Been Watching... March 31st - April 6th 2014

In this new series of mini reviews I, my friend and podcast Co-Presenter Mike and, with a bit of luck, a revolving cast of guest contributors, will be posting a collection of mini reviews of random films that we happen to have been watching in the past week.  Hopefully this will give us a way to write about films worth commenting on which otherwise wouldn't fit into our reviewing schedule.

Sam's Been Watching

Dir: Christian Petzold
I find director Christian Petzold to be one of the most hit and miss filmmakers around.  His work can be alienating; cold and airless in both emotional and visual register, but I keep returning to his films for one reason; his muse, Nina Hoss.

This film, from 2008, is one of Petzold's best and a riff on one of his favourite stories; The Postman Always Rings Twice (which I know only from one distant viewing of the Nicholson film).  Benno Fürmann plays Thomas an unemployed man in debt who lucks into a job driving for local businessman Ali (Hilmi Sözer) and ends up falling into an affair with Laura (Hoss), the young wife of his new boss.  Petzold takes the themes and some of style of noir.  For instance, a shot of Thomas emerging from the darkness to caress Laura, then disappearing when Ali might see him is noir through and through.  However, much of the film is less traditionally noirish; those themes sit under the drama, bubbling away as Ali and Thomas become friends.  This is a good touch, maintaining tension but also giving the film a feel that is different to much neo-noir.

Petzold's camerawork is typically austere, allowing the natural tension of the situation and the down to earth performances to do most of the work.  Fürmann and Hoss have worked together several times and they bounce off each other well here; there is an intensity to their sudden chemistry that convinces and the gaze between them, right from the first time they see each other, is riveting.  Overall Jerichow is a strong and suspenseful low key thriller, recommended for its excellent trio of central performances.

Next Door
Dir: Pål Sletaune
A couple of years ago I saw and enjoyed director Pål Sletaune's Babycall.  It had a tiny UK release, but nevertheless was, for the most part, a tense little thriller.  This earlier film has much the same mix of elements and also stars the great Norwegian actor Kristoffer Joner.

Joner plays John.  On the day that his girlfriend has left him he meets his strange neighbours, Anne and Kim (Cecilie Mosli and Julia Schacht), who may be sisters.  John is drawn into their apartment when he is asked to help them move a cabinet.  The women try to keep John in their apartment, ultimately resulting in a violent sexual encounter with Kim and from here John's life seemingly begins to unravel.

From the start Sletaune creates an unsettling tone, giving us the feeling, especially once John enters the women's TARDIS-like apartment, that something is off and that we may not be getting all the information.  The answer is obvious quite early on, but that doesn't undermine the tension quite the way you would imagine.  That this is the case is down to the excellent central performances.  Kristoffer Joner has a blue collar feel to him; he's not quite leading man handsome, and when he's as thin as he is here he has a naturally haunted look about him, which in this case works very well for John.  He's a character in whose company you are never quite allowed to become comfortable, and for a while you can't pin down why.

More outwardly menacing, but equally effective, are Mosli and Schacht.  Both beautiful women, they acquire a siren-like quality as you realise that John really shouldn't be going near them, but sense how he is drawn back, over and over.  When the reality of the film becomes clear it morphs into a disturbing character study, and I suspect watching it knowing where it goes will change both the film and the performances.  At just 72 minutes it's a minor investment of time, and one worth making

Mike's Been Watching

Dir: Jessica Hausner
From Malick's Days Of Heaven to Argento's Deep Red, the paintings of Edward Hopper have inspired cinema for almost fifty years, but for me their most prominent influence has been in the current slow cinema movement, of which Jessica Hausner's Hotel is a curious, genre-inflected entry. Its banal title may preclude those associations, but this is a horror movie - a feature-length suspension of the atmospherics which usually make up their first act, before tradition introduces a vengeful spectre or masked killer to reign hell over the protagonist(s).

Hopper's compositions and delicate light are here transposed to an isolated hotel in the Austrian Alps, where the mysterious disappearance of a receptionist named Eva, and the myth of The Lady Of The Woods, burned for sorcery in 1591, give Irene (Franziska Weisz) pause for her own safety. The hotel staff treat her coldly, almost with disdain, and only the tentative sexual relationship she forms with a local clubber, and two phone calls home to her parents suggest that she has any life outside of these new, foreboding walls.

Weisz's performance is practically unreadable, and made all the more unnerving by the fact that her surroundings are too. In fact, the white walls and chilly corridors could come from the films of David Lynch, and the insipid tones of hotel lobby music become imbued with their own sense of danger, a droning jingle carrying death and portent.

Hotel's intentions are inscribed visually with a sort of invisible ink, and ostensibly its narrative is one of inaction. Perhaps this is why its palpable sense of unease, the distinct impression that something very, very wrong has happened, and right before our eyes, is all the more impressive, and by the film's final shot - enigmatic on the verge of parody - we come to question just how much we have seen, and if the body moving past a window at the halfway point was a mere red herring, or a sign that  the titular establishment will need to hire a third receptionist before the season is out.

Dir: Gary Fleder
James Franco's drawling pothead from Pineapple Express has received an unexpected spin-off, and in a script by Sylvester Stallone becomes a meth kingpin, re-names himself Gator and hops on the trail of Jason Statham's retired DEA agent. Well, that's how I wish Homefront played out, but Stallone's generic, obnoxious thriller - actually adapted from the novel by Chuck Logan - clearly didn't pay Franco enough to deliver a different performance, so it's the theory I'm sticking with.

Actually, Franco's vendetta against the British lunkhead is inherited from his junkie sister (Kate Bosworth), whose son got an ass kicking from Statham's daughter when he bullied her at school. Yes, you read that right. Playground politics turn into all-out urban warfare in this ridiculous snoozer, which from Statham's biker toupee to Winona Ryder... yeah, just Winona Ryder, would be a whole star better if it just embraced its own silliness and toned down the irritating po-face which now comes part-and-parcel with this range of genre exercise.

But director Gary Fleder employs crash zooms, shaky-cam and rapid cutting over his template teal and orange aesthetic, an obvious cosmetic attempt to intensify the seriousness of his film, and one which makes it indistinguishable from a production line of identikit, moderately budgeted thrillers assembled from the weaker parts of better movies. Incomprehensible as it is, I can only imagine that the action set-pieces here are literally edited together with outtakes from other Statham vehicles.

Complementing the garish visual design is an awful sound mix (during one late bar scene Ryder is practically inaudible), an ear-drilling score of sliding and throttling electric guitars, and enough swearing in its lean ninety-minute runtime to compete with Wolf Of Wall Street's hundred-and-eighty-minute fuck-a-thon. As unfunny as I found the first outing, I kept hoping for this to turn into the Pineapple Express spin-off Franco obviously turned up to be in, so at least I could claim the laughs it delivers as intentional.

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