Monday 21 December 2015

Defending Cinephilia (9) - Scholar and lifelong cinephile David Hare reports from his vantage point in Wellington, NZ

Thanks to a second year running for the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) since moving here to Wellington. Under the inspired grace of director Bill Gosden, the NZIFF suppplied my best pics of the year, with only one exception outside in commercial release.

The exception was Polanski’s dazzling two hander, Venus Au Fourrure (France/Poland) from 2014 with his muse and wife Emmanuelle Seigner giving a multi faceted performance of outstanding wit and skill and Mathieu Amalric seemingly “doubling” for Polanksi as the impish and ultimately submissive director of the nominative play. This and  The Ghost Writer (UK/France/Germany, 2010) are simply Polanski at peak form and I feel as though he is literally the last living director of the grand classical narrative tradition and seamless invisible mise en scene.

Now, from the NZIFF, 
1. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s exercise in pure form, The Assassin (Taiwan, 2015),  is from a wuxia narrative which, it would appear, is one of several template tales of clan and territory war which are culturally familiar to Chinese audiences of a certain age. What is clear for me (after three viewings now and even the reading of a Dostoyevskian family character chart) the personalities are all doubles, sister for sister, Sage for Sage, Governor for Governor, older woman for older woman. Hou appears to despatch the narrative details with either highly abbreviated and expertly edited action scenes lasting no more than a minute, or  much longer dialogue sequences outlining yet more narrative, which are shot for minutes at a time with a seemingly still but actually constantly shifting camera through endless layers of Sternbergian decoration. This includes multiple planes of candle lit silk curtains, while the camera seems to eventually lose interest in the “story” for the sake of attending to the minute but electrifying plays of the candle light and wild color patterns on now visible now invisible figures hidden in the prosceniumed Academy ratio frame.
The end of the picture is completed with the last of Hou’s majestic wide and incredible deep focus shots with lenses that appear to capture literally infinite depth with razor sharp clarity. And we’re finally given a cinema which seems to be locating itself, like a couple of Hou’s later films, further and further away from character and narrative and into a Matisse like realm of pure color and form. Best of the year. 

Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction (USA, 2015). One of quite a few very fine documentaries from the year which were totally immersed in their subjects, not vehicles for their makers’ egos. This is an homage of very, very deep affection for this fine pianist who dipped out of a professional career while young and escaped the limelight of fame while gradually making a life of quiet but profound artistry mentoring gifted students.  Not a perfect film, which to me made it even more urgently important and necessary to be seen in an age where instantaneity and fame are paramount while quality and real genius are often quietly ignored.  

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014) had me in its clutches by the time we arrived at the Wet Pussy Camper Van. Maybe you need to be totally disreputable with a stoner past like mine to get it but he’s the great chronicler of Los Angles and by extension the USA in the 20th century.

Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney,USA, 1953) is neither the best Sidney musical nor the best 3D movie from the 50s era but it has Ann Miller, Bob Fosse, Bobby Van, Tommy Royle and Carol Haney dancing, itself a miracle.  And Sidney’s direction and Fosse’s choreography for 'From this Moment On' is one of the most privileged five minutes in American cinema. And in amazing 3D which the irrepressible Sidney seizes like a duck on speed with planar tracks cranes, twists and spins in three long takes. Hair raising.

Myrisalav Slaboshpytskiy’s astonishing first feature The Tribe (Ukraine, 2014) is made in something like eleven long single takes of from four to ten minutes each with an entirely mute cast who perform their dialogue with signing. There is just not space here to do justice but Slaboshpytskiy is a major new talent and this is a work of unique formal breakthrough. Woefully underseen. Mordant, bleak, funny, black caustic work.

A LETDOWN from the same festival program:
45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2015)– this was going to be wonderful and it could have been if only Andrew Haigh had cast almost anyone else in the female lead but Charlotte Rampling.  Never a favored actor by me, her performance here is now dominated by glacially dead eyes and a range from A to A+. Haigh showed in Weekend (UK, 2011) and his two shorts a skill with writing and directing actors which is only matched currently by Ceylan, and the nuances that might have come from the wife in this beautifully crafted chamber piece are underlined at every turn in a frankly destructive performance. I don’t write off Haigh though.

Blu Rays and some DVDs:
From Koch Media Germany Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1946) in a lovely refined Technicolor transfer. I now think this might be Tourneur’s masterpiece for dynamism, elusive purpose, the sheer rush of life and characters discovered between the two mysteries of arriving and then departing after the climactic meeting with the Demon.  

A Universal DVD on demand of Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (USA, 1931) from a very good UCLA 35mm interpos. Now for some Jo on Blu Ray please...

MK2 France’s Blu Ray of my favourite Carne of all, Hotel du Nord (France, 1938) not English friendly but one is hopeful for a UK subbed release next year.

Two top grade Farrow movies on DVD, Alias Nick Beal (La Sconfitta di Satana) (USA, 1949), pretty clearly a bootleg, on an Italian DVD but more than watchable.  And from Koch Media again the wonderful Night has a Thousand Eyes (USA, 1948).

Twilight Time’s gorgeous transfer from a Schawn Belston/Fox remaster of Fullers’ great House of Bamboo.(USA, 1955)  A must have. 

Belston and Fox again for providing superb new 2k scans for the BFI three 40s Preminger set including Fallen Angel (USA, 1945), Whirlpool (USA, 1953) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (USA, 1953) .

And Belston/Fox once more for a spanking new 4k for Masters of Cinema's (MoC) drop dead gorgeous Pickup on South Street (USA, 1953).

Kino Lorber’s Blu Ray of Pitfall(USA, 1948) finally from an excellent 35mm source through UCLA and the ever dapper and handsome Eddie Muller.

And a big tick to senior technician David Mackenzie at MoC for remastering a gorgeous new encode of the recent 4K of The Quiet Man (USA, 1952) which US label Olive released in a somewhat compromised transfer less than two years ago. The picture on the MoC disc now shines and glows with sweet color and grain and Irish mist and firelight.   As it must.

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