Before Midnight (US, 2013)

Idyll?

Idyll?

This is likely to be a brief post as anyone who’s enjoyed the first two films (Before Sunset here) about Celine and Jesse will have to see this one. An extremely episodic narrative, Linklater’s (and Delpy and Hawke’s) films track three days, over 18 years, of two characters. I say characters but so vivid are the leads’ performances they do almost transcend the screen to be ‘real’. These guys are about 10 years younger than me and their experiences of love, and life, are extremely convincing.

I’m not going to give away where these two are in their relationship (or even if they have one). If you haven’t seen the earlier films, I urge you to do so and then catch this one. I’m not exactly hankering after a fourth, however, as that’ll probably appear when I’m in my sixties!

One film buff note: there’s an astonishing – in terms of performance – 14-minute take early in the film. This is great film-making at the service of script and performance.

Body Heat (US, 1981)

Too hot to handle

Too hot to handle

There was a series of neo noirs in the eighties and nineties where the femme fatale not only seduced the hapless male protagonist but was allowed to get away with her ill-gotten gains. Unlike during the classic noir period where the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ meant that they had to be punished for their sins. The Last Seduction‘s (US, 1994) femme could be the hardest of them all but Kathleen Turner’s (above) Maddie Walker certainly isn’t far behind.

I won’t give the plot away (though it is a remake of the brilliant Double Indemnity, 1944), suffice to say Lawrence Kasdan’s atmospheric (he also scripted) direction superbly conveys the sultry Florida atmosphere aided by great performances from all involved; William Hurt remains one of my favourite actors, he was great in this year’s The Challenger – a TV movie.

Some writer’s speculated that the resurrection of noir at the time was a reflection of male anxiety, just as it was in the post-war period when men were suspicious of their woman’s fidelity during the war. In addition, at that time women were being put back into the home having done ‘man’s’ work as part of the war effort. In the latter years’ of the 20th century anxiety was occasioned by feminists’ gains in the workplace and home. Looking at the ‘gender wars’ landscape now, however, it’s clear that men continue to win.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Germany, 1920)

Expressionist mise en scene

Expressionist mise en scene

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari is indisputably a landmark film; it made a massive impact when it was first released and is as near a unique film that you are likely to see. Its uniqueness (well there are one or two that are similar) resides in its painted Expressionist sets that remain extraordinary to look at even 100 years on. Siegfried Kracauer’s history of German cinema (published 1947), From Caligari to Hitler, suggested that we can see the antecedents of authoritarian Nazis in the character of the director of the asylum, who has a sideline in serial killing. Such teleological historical methods are both out of  fashion and rubbish; Lotte Eisner’s The Haunted Screen suffers similarly in talking about ‘mysticism and magic, the dark forces to which Germans have always been more than willing to commit themselves’ (p9).

I think it’s useful to look beyond this historical ‘baggage’ and simply consider it was a film. Of course contextualising film is of utmost importance, it’s just that Kracauer and Eisner’s views may have ‘tainted’ perceptions of Caligari.

As one of the first ‘art film’ successes, it’s ironic that if suffered from producer interference regarding the ending; something that is usually reserved for commercial cinema. But then Caligari was always a commercial enterprise it’s just that it doesn’t look like that, then or now. SPOILER ALERT: to what extent does the framing device that exonerates the director (brilliantly played by Werner Krauss) alter our

Werner Krauss' Caligari (lfet) is wrapped as tight as a cotton reel

Krauss’ Caligari (left) is wrapped as tight as a cotton reel

understanding of the film? Does the fact that the ‘Expressionist’ sets merely indicate the ravings of a madman diminish the subversion of the suggestion that the ruler of the asylum is a lunatic? My view is that it doesn’t because too much of the film focuses upon Caligari – as manipulator of the somnambulist Cesare – as a dodgy character for that to be alleviated at the end. It could even be that Francis, the protagonist, has been entrapped in the asylum by director. Too often those in power are able to cover up their own incompetence.

Horizontals and verticals disallowed

Horizontals and verticals disallowed

Regardless of the narrative the key to the film is the marvellous mise en scene where the world is a place of artifice. The wonderful town clerk’s chair that emphasises his superiority; the bunch of houses on a hill; the triangular windows. These are what matter most in Caligari.

District 13: Ultimatum (Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum, France, 2009)

Macho elegance

Macho elegance

Sampling a few reviews I find a degree of unanimity about how bad this film is… but it isn’t. I had enjoyed District 13 (France, 2004) only for its stunning stunts – parkour and martial arts. My memory isn’t good enough to state whether they are even better in the sequel but some of them are literally jaw-dropping. I enjoyed the humour too and – possibly most of all – the unbelievable plot that unites (class consciousness) the ethnicity-based ‘tribes’ in the banlieu against the corrupt establishment.

OK this is a Marxist fantasy but how often is Marxism dramatised in cinema? At a time where Marxist analysis of Capitalism is demonstrating its accuracy it’s good to see the underclass winning. Of course, the film isn’t a ‘call to arms’, a Brechtian shout to get involved, but it can be read that way.