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Les espions (1957)
Suspense and surveillance
8 April 2007
A somewhat over-plotted spy thriller by the French master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot, that features spies from different countries converging on a psychiatric clinic, run by doctor Malik (Gerard Sety), who is offered a substantial sum of money to shelter a new patient that happens to be an atomic scientist. Soon, the hospital beds are filled with international spies all desperate after the information the patient holds.

Just about everything in this espionage tale is open to question, with its wildly imaginative insinuations of nuclear devices, Amerian and Soviet secret agents and crackpot taxi drivers, doctors and patients. This film certainly has its moments, but is a little uneven and anyone familiar with Clouzot's work, knows this one is not strictly for laughs. It's all meticulously scripted, but is just a taut long (137 minutes) and soon becomes such an impenetrable puzzle, it's hard to keep track of the proceedings, but the film benefits from a good international cast, including Peter Ustinov (SPARTACUS, TOPKAPI, DEATH ON THE NILE), Curd Jürgens (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, THE LONGEST DAY), Sam Jaffe (BEN HUR) and Vera Clouzot (LES DIABOLIQUES).

Not without interest, but ultimately, the elements just don't glue together that well, with rather unsatisfactory results.

Camera Obscura --- 6/10
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The Third Eye (1966)
Interesting early mix of Gothic and Giallo elements
3 April 2007
THE THIRD EYE (Mino Guerrini - Italy 1965).

This interesting little chiller by Mino Guerrini, starring Franco Nero and Erika Blanc, certainly was much better than I expected. Often categorized as an early Giallo, it's actually more of a mix of Gothic horror and some Giallo elements. Definitely not the six-penny quickie, I expected. It's quite an elaborate production, well-shot, with fine acting and cinematography.

Franco Nero is Mino, a young count who lives with his dominant mother and jealous servant Martha in an isolated mansion in the Italian countryside. Like Anthony Perkins in PSYCHO - with which this film shares quite a few parallels - Mino has a fascination with birds, particularly stuffed birds. A few days before his marriage with the young and beautiful Laura (Erika Blanc), she mysteriously dies in a car crash and soon-after, his mother is killed. Mino begins to lose his sanity and starts luring young women into his mansion in order to kill them, together with his willing accomplice Martha, who secretly loves him, but one day, a young woman visits him who looks just like his late fiancée Laura.

Although the "Count gone mad scenario" was already a bit over-used by the time the film was made, the (then) contemporary setting, the murder mystery angle, elegant production design, professional cinematography and more than adequate direction, make this one well worth a look and definitely a cut above the average attempt within European genre-film-making, to say the least. The film is also surprisingly candid in its sexual nature (although complete nudity is absent) and, regarding that aspect, is a typical exponent of the transitional period in the mid-sixties. Fans of Franco Nero might wanna take a look at him in a role as a neat, well-dressed and impeccably coiffured young man, quite the contrast to the sweaty, unshaven Django-look, or generally sleazy look, he would cultivate later in his career.

The film was remade as BURIED ALIVE (1978), the gore classic by Joe D'Amato.

Currently only available in German, but with the DVD-age already coming to a close, it's unlikely that this film will ever see an English-language release, so the German-only version is perhaps something even English speaking fans of obscure Italian cinema should consider.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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Decidedly mediocre Italo-crime flick.
28 March 2007
THE LAST ROUND (Stelvio Massi - Italy 1976).

This moderately entertaining crime thriller by Stelvio Massi is pretty much a violent updating of YOYIMBO (1962) or A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Star of the show is former middle-weight boxing champion Carlos Monzón, a drifter who arrives in town looking for a job, but doesn't seem entirely serious about his future and starts looking for trouble immediately. Within ten minutes, he wipes the floor with a whole gang of motley henchmen at the gates of some factory where he wanted to apply for a job. Apparently, they don't like Southerners (he just arrived from Sicily) and turned him down (at the gates, the old days). This scene provides the viewer with some social commentary as well, stating it's not good when people are turned down because they look a bit scruffy or come from the South. Some other workers claim the union should put a stop to this and that it's not right banging up poor workers for no reason. Damn right they are. Turns out the owner of the factory in question is Gino Manzetti (Luc Merenda), who also happens to be the head of a murderous crime ring and a pretty good shot as well, we learn later on the film. Now, Carlos Monzón starts working for him, but plays out every bad guy in town in the process, or something.

Carlos Monzón is not the greatest of actors, to put it mildly. He is clearly there for his ... well, physique, or his fighting skills, or probably both, but he got what it takes to kick some serious ass, but after a while he kind of bored me. Director Stelvio Massi knows how to stage some effective slow-motion fight scenes. Problem is, the story is not very original and after 50 minutes or so, the film kind of lost my attention. It's attractively shot and starts out well, but the story loses much of its momentum halfway when the promising plot is dropped almost completely, with the second half of the film consisting of an endless array of nightly shootouts, fight scenes and lots of skulking in the dark between the various parties involved. Practically the entire second half of the film is devoted to a seemingly endless showdown between all kinds of rival factions whose interests were completely beyond my grasp. But, perhaps that's just me.

One thing I will remember about this charade is the score. No Shame's release came with a separate CD containing some seriously groovy tracks, that I've been playing in my car for the last week. Pretty funky. We also get an extensive 37 minute interview with Luc Merenda by some boot-licking Italian guy, which consists of an extensive tour of his Paris-based antique shop and a mere 5 minutes or so about his films.

Camera Obscura --- 6/10
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Patterns (1956)
Company politics
23 March 2007
This is prime hard-edged drama about greed, personal integrity and abuse of power in corporate America with Van Heflin as Fred Staples, a modest engineer, brought in from Ohio to serve at the company's head office in New York. Everett Sloane is the company head who runs the firm like a tyrant and wants to shove an older and morally conscious executive, William Briggs (Ed Begley) out of the company in favour of young and upcoming Heflin, who is unknowingly put forward as his replacement.

Perhaps the film doesn't offer a highly cinematic experience and betrays its television play origins as it hardly ever leaves the interior of the office with most of the action taking place in the executive chambers, but Rod Serling's superior writing and the universally excellent performances by a veteran cast elevate this far above the average.

Troma's Roan Group released the film on DVD, that includes an awkward introduction of the film by New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick, while he is standing in front of a large Troma Poster(!) in what looks like a theater lobby, looking distinctly uneasy, like Lloyd Kaufman is pointing a gun at his head off screen. In addition, we get Lloyd Kaufman interviewing director Vincent Sherman, who was blacklisted after the McCarthy hearings, but after a few "questions" Kaufman takes over and starts railing incoherently against the modern depiction of business in Hollywood and how he's unable to get a screen anywhere for his Troma films. He even compares his current position in American cinema with that of blacklisted directors in the McCarthy era! Now Lloyd, thanks for bringing this great film to wider audiences, but these remarks - especially while interviewing a man like Vincent Sherman - are truly off the mark.

Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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Bloody Friday (1972)
Extremely violent Italo-German police thriller
23 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
BLOODY Friday (Rolf Olsen - West Germany/Italy 1972).

A brutal police and hostage thriller by prolific German director Rolf Olsen, mostly active in the field of second-rate comedies, typically German "report" films about prostitution in Hamburg and Frankfurt, sleazy exploitation and even Mondo-style films like ON THE REEPERBAHN AT HALF PAST MIDNIGHT (1969) and SHOCKING ASIA (1974). Unsurprisingly, since this is a German-Italian co-production, the film is not unlike the numerous Italian crime films made at the time, although the film is set entirely in Germany. I don't wanna sound dismissive of Italian film-making with their often wildly overwrought, convoluted plots, entertaining in its own right, but in this case Germans get involved, and somehow logic seeps into the plot, a rarity in most Italian films of its type.

Supposedly, the film is based on a brutal bank robbery on August 4th 1971 of a branch office of the "Deutsche Bank" in the Prinzregenten Street in Munich, or is at least a reference to the explosive increase in violent bank robberies and rampant left-wing political violence in Federal Republic at the time. Either way, this is clear-cut piece of exploitation, but a pretty good one with Raimund Harnstorf dominating the screen as Heinz Klett, a fierce-looking red-bearded giant, well over six feet tall, clad in leather, and resorting to violence at the slightest incentive. He makes a plan to hold up the "Finanzbank" with his accomplice Luigi (Gianni Macchia), his pregnant girlfriend Heidi (Christine Böhm) and her reluctant brother (Amadeus August) and flee to Australia with the proceeds. The hold-up quickly deteriorates into a hostage situation, resulting in some horrendous bloodshed. An extremely unnerving scene takes place during the robbery, when a child gets hold of a dropped grenade outside the bank. An officer tries to grab it, but the pin is pulled just before he can throw himself onto the grenade, resulting in another blood-soaked scene with the man screaming in agony as he desperately tries to hold his erupted intestines.

For its low budget, it's a pretty good effort, with a good cast, a reasonably tense and entertaining storyline and some truly kick-in-the-face violence. The plot might be a bit too predictable, but the pace is brisk, with constantly changing scenarios like a the opening criminal breakout, weapons siege, bank robbery, hostages, some exciting pursuits with the cops and the final shoot-out. Leading man Raimund Harmstorf, who committed suicide at the age of 57 in May 1999, after hearing he had Parkinson's disease, will go down in my book as one of the most memorable bad guys in European cinema. Pretty frightening.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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Clever idea and good fun
21 March 2007
FOREVER NEVER ANYWHERE (Antonin Svoboda - Austria 2007).

Seen at the IFF Rotterdam, 3 February 2007.

The set-up is simple: Three men get into an accident with their car on a deserted mountain road when they try to avoid hitting a woman who is jogging there in the middle of the night. The car gets off the road, rolls of the mountain until it dashes against a tree. Problem is: they can't get out. The car is an armoured Mercedes, that used to belong to former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, bought by one of them at a bargain price. But now, the electric doors and windows won't open and they're stuck. Filled with brash and lowbrow humour, and with its single set-up of three men stuck in the small confined space of a car, it's surprisingly entertaining. The film takes an even more bizarre twist when suddenly the three men become the subject of a young boy who starts using these men as live guinea pigs, instead of rescuing them.

Since I couldn't find this one anywhere on IMDb, I gathered it went ahead under a different title, but apparently it was added quite recently under its German title IMMER NIE AM MEER. However, the English title FOREVER NEVER ANYWHERE must be one of the worst I've come across in a long time, but don't let that fool you. This Austrian comedy is good fun and was received with almost constant laughter during its screening in the Netherlands, but festival audiences do tend to be a little more acceptant than most..

With its micro-budget and basically one outdoor location, this film shows that one can make an interesting film when starting with an original idea, convincing acting, humor and some clever plot twists. I had a perfectly good time watching this.

Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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Almost Human (1974)
Stunningly nasty hostage thriller by Umberto Lenzi
20 March 2007
ALMOST HUMAN (Umberto Lenzi - Italy 1974.

I had missed out far too long on Umberto Lenzi's best known crime flick, which is hands down one of the best poliziotesschi I've seen so far, almost on par with the best of Fernando Di Leo's work, together with Lenzi one of the more prolific directors within the genre. Whilst generally acknowledged to be one of the better Italian crime flicks, Lenzi's somewhat ham-fisted approach to his gialli, had made me a little reluctant to catch up with any of his other work. Although Lenzi's own VIOLENT NAPLES is also a well-made, highly effective genre entry, this one comes close to beating out that one when it comes to sheer brutality and an almost unbelievable barrage of nasty violence.

A rarity in most Italian crime thrillers, this film benefits enormously from an intriguing and woefully ambivalent central character, played with tremendous vigour by Tomas Milian, who plays Guillio Sacchi, a violent low life scumbag with no regard for human life at all and with a real penchant for torture and rape. The other side of the law is represented by stone-faced Henry Silva, who switches to playing a cop this time, instead of his usual turn as the calculating crime kingpin. The story by Ernesto Gastaldi is simplicity itself and doesn't take all kinds of distracting side-roads that make many other genre efforts so forgettable in that department. Anyway, if you're still in doubt about the merits of Italo-crime flicks, watch this one. An intriguing story, Tomas Milian in a great role and Ennio Morricone contributes another impressive soundtrack what must be one of his most recognizable scores this side from Sergio Leone. I keep wondering if the members of the Academy, who recently honoured Morricone with the honorary Oscar, had any idea what kind of films the maestro generally got involved in.

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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Time Out (2001)
Highly nuanced psychological thriller
20 March 2007
TIME OUT (Laurent Cantet - France 2001).

The English language title Time Out is not entirely fitting. Perhaps Time Running Out would be a more appropriate title, since this is exactly what Vincent, the main character, is going through.

Vincent (Aurélien Recoing) is a highly motivated financial consultant. Or, at least, that's what he used to be. Fact of the matter is, he lost his job three months ago and now concocts an elaborate facade to cover up the fact he is now unemployed. While his wife, Muriel (Karin Viard), thinks he's at work, Vincent is aimlessly roaming the highways, hanging out at rest stops, and sleeping in his car, regularly calling his wife to give her an update about his next meeting and apologizing for coming home late, before turning in for his overnight stay in his car. Vincent lives like a ghost, increasingly detached from his wife, children and former colleagues, he doesn't seem to realize the truth is closing in. One day, they will find out. But Vincent has gotten to a point where he's constructed his own dream world. He resorts to reading all kinds of economic pamphlets about his apparent line of business, studying and memorizing them like he really is active in this line of work. As Vincent needs money, he makes up a plan to defraud old friends and his parents out of their savings by letting them in on some bogus investment scheme. He conducts his business out of a hotel lounge, where he catches the eye of Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet, a brilliant role), a "real" , experienced operator who immediately recognizes Vincent is a fraud. He offers Vincent a job in his own operation, meaning some extra pocket money and perhaps even a way out of his increasingly sticky situation.

Director Cantet's style is distinctly unflashy. Set against the wintry landscapes of Rhône-Alpes around Grenoble and Annecy, the film makes very good use of its locations. Whether it's the bland office complexes in the "zones commerciales" at the outskirts of anonymous towns, or the snow-clad mountains surrounding them, it seems to blend perfectly with the film's tone. Accompanied by a beautiful classical score, Cantet shows himself a remarkably sharp and observant storyteller. Although the film maintains interest throughout, the running time of 132 minutes did seem a tad long, and Vincent's lengthy economic arguments when conning his friends and relatives (some of them business men themselves) out of their money weren't terribly convincing. His arguments range from unconvincing to downright nonsense. At least he would'n have convinced me, but even my 91 year old grandmother wouldn't have bought any of this for a moment. But, some of these inconsistencies aside, this is a skilfully constructed film and an engrossing psychological drama that slowly unfolds like a thriller with a brilliant performance by Aurélien Recoing to top it off.

Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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Superb human drama
19 March 2007
THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (Jacques Audiard - France 2005).

It's usually the other way round, but this time the French took a shot at remaking an American film, James Toback's FINGERS (1978), which starred Harvey Keitel. And the result is excellent. This riveting human drama by Jacques Audiard features an impressive performance by Romain Duris as Tom, a 28 year-old hoodlum who seems destined to follow in his father's footsteps as a property shark working in a sleazy, barely legal twilight zone of the dodgy Parisian real-estate world. But a chance encounter with a former music teacher leads him to believe that he can become, like his mother, a concert pianist. With the help of a young virtuoso pianist, who just arrived from China, he starts preparing for a crucial audition, but soon the pressures from his former pals mount and he gets trapped between two opposite worlds. But Tom is not just a sensible artistic young man desperately trying to escape the world he lives in. He's not entirely sure he wants to leave his old life behind him. He's got a mean streak and when necessary, he takes care of some unresolved matters using whatever means he deems appropriate to take care of unwilling partners, squatters or whoever gets in the way of his (or his father's business interests), really putting the squeeze on people unwilling to cooperate.

Romain Duris injects his role with an enormous amount of vibrancy and energy. I've never seen Duris in another role before, but his character is complex, perennially nervous, strained, angry, but incredibly charming. One moment he's in leather jacket, wiping the blood of his face after a little bashing with some squatters. The next, he's in suit and tie and negotiates with real-estate moguls. The film's atmosphere is dark, moody and downbeat, but Tom's vibrant energy and aggression firmly keeps the viewer's attention. Jacques Audiard's direction is remarkable assured. He seems to know exactly what he wants to present on the screen, never showy and a keen camera eye to give the already top-notch performances maximum impact. What's so refreshing, is that the film doesn't make a big point out of the human relationships. It never becomes overly sentimental, but at the same time all these characters are real and completely believable, just incredibly vivid characterizations. Sharply written, stylish, expertly paced, directed and performed, this is definitely one to catch.

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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Scratch (2001)
Now, who's the king of digging?
17 March 2007
The omission of Jazzy Jeff, the creator of the chirp and transformer scratch, raised a few eyebrows, but it's good to see he made it to the extras of the DVD after all. With SCRATCH, Doug Pray, who previously chronicled the grunge phenomenon of the '90s in HYPE (1996), made an excellent documentary about the world of the hip-hop DJ and the evolution of turntablism. His latest documentary, INFAMY (2005), explores contemporary American graffiti culture. After a couple of viewings four years ago, my DVD had been gathering dust ever since, but recently I watched it again and besides the subject material, I was surprised how well-shot and edited this documentary actually is. An immensely enjoyable soundtrack as well and not just talking heads, but lots of music, old school footage, parties, break dancing, you name it. One of the best things about the film, is that it mainly examines where the art of turntablism is today (in 2001 that is), without disregarding the pioneers of course. Good stuff.

Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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My Architect (2003)
An inspirational journey through the live and work of Louis I. Kahn
17 March 2007
On March 17, 1974, a man is found dead in the toilets at Manhattan's Penn Station. Although well-known, he cannot be identified because he scratched out the personal information in his passport and his body lays unclaimed at the city's morgue for three days. It turned out to be the body of what many consider one of the greatest American architects of the twentieth century, Louis I. Kahn. He died at the age of 73, on his way from India, where one of his greatest projects, the Institute for Management in Ahmedabad, was nearing completion.

One of the most influential post-war American architects, Louis Kahn's architectural legacy includes the house of parliament in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, the Yale Art Gallery, the Salk Institute in California and a kind of mobile "music boat", designed to give concerts in harbours in various cities around the world.

While celebrated as an architect, very little was known about his private life. In addition to his wife Esther, and their daughter, Sue Ann, Kahn was survived by two mistresses, Harriet Pattison and Anne Tyng, and their two children. All three families lived within miles of each other in suburban Philadelphia, but their paths never crossed until the funeral. His son, Nathaniel, the director of this film, was only 11 years old at the time, and had only a few memories of his father's weekly visits at Harriet Patterson, Nathaniel's mother, in Philadelphia. Twenty-five years later, he sets out on a journey to confront his father by visiting Kahn's buildings, talking to relatives and colleagues and visiting the places that played a role in Louis Kahn's life.

One of the most moving confrontations is when Nathaniel asks his mother, a landscape architect and mistress of Louis Kahn, why she kept up with playing second fiddle to his wife and never confronted him with this. Tears shed her eyes, but she has no regrets. "It was worth it." It's such an intensely sad moment. She's obviously shattered, treated as an outcast at his funeral, which she was forbidden to attend, it's almost as if she led a substitute life. It all feels strangely unreal. Another interview with Edward Bacon, Kahn's architectural nemesis, who was in charge of the rebuilding of his native Philadelpia in the fifties and sixties, almost suffers a stroke on the spot, when he is reminded of Kahn's unsavoury ideas about architecture. His son, Nathaniel, listens uncomfortably when a very senior Bacon literally screams with anger whenever Kahn's name comes up. The final scene is reserved for Kahn's grandest creation, the Capitol in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It took 23 years to complete, a vast and extraordinary building, of which the Bangladeshi are extremely proud. It's one of the very few national symbols with stature in this impoverished nation. Some of the interviews with the locals brought tears in my eyes, especially when they find out they are talking to - God forbid - the architect's own son!

The film is as much a personal journey as it is an account of Kahn's grand architectural legacy and is above all about the fruition of the film itself and film-making in general. Perhaps Louis I. Kahn faltered as a father, but these shortcomings in his personal life make for an all the more interesting portrait in this extraordinary film.

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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Stasi-officers do have morals
15 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
THE LIFE OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck - Germany 2006).

DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN won practically every award it competed for and after it has won the Oscar for best foreign language film, I became a tad suspicious. Most films that won the Academy Award for best foreign language film are usually two-penny tragedies at best or grotesque monstrosities, but since this is the first feature by writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (I couldn't have picked a better name for a Prussian junker), I gathered it must have been the script above anything else that made his effort worth seeing. Sadly, he proves himself more of a decent - if somewhat unimaginative - cinematographer than a writer. The film seems to have been targeted at international audiences with scant knowledge of German history. That's fine by me, if an engaging storyline can make up for the sometimes insultingly obvious remarks some of the characters make about East-West relations or daily life in East Germany. The first half hour is full of over-explanatory comments about day-to-day practices, mostly rehashing Western capitalist clichés and some truly awful jokes, delivered in such an abysmal way (the jokes themselves not being that awful), not even the world's greatest comedian could make it work. Injecting heavy-handed films with humor is never easy. If the film intends to give the audience an idea what day-to-day life was like in the GDR, he did a good job. An almost total absence of colour, excitement or hope.

Stasi officer Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a caricature of German punctuality. When he attends a party in celebration of the latest play by writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), he suggests to his superior officer - also at the party - Dreyman may be flirting with The West as well. Next, he wiretaps Dreyman's apartment and installs himself in an empty attic in the apartment building. Dreyman's supposedly subversive activities were a bit hazy to me and why officer Wiesler commits himself to this case, remains unclear. He doesn't have a life outside his work. I guess the next inevitably constitutes some spoilers.


Years after the Wende, Dreyman is told that his house was wired and his every move was monitored by the Stasi. To my astonishment, he seems completely surprised by this piece of information. How could this be? How could a well-known writer, or any intellectual for that matter, in East Germany, not even assume his every move is being watched? Even cleaning ladies assumed they could be monitored and spied upon. That was the whole essence of life in East Germany. The trauma of East German citizens perennially paranoid of one another. Initially, this seemed the outlook of the film itself, but the only conclusion I could draw was that a) I missed out on some essential piece of information or b)Dreyman's character didn't know. In that case, it would make him pretty dim-witted.


The period and feeling of the GDR is well-captured and I must admit, the final denouement of Wiesler walking the streets of Berlin, alone and bereft of any goal in life after the demise of East Germany, was kind of moving, but as a whole, very disappointing.

Camera Obscura --- 4/10
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Stroszek (1977)
From Berlin to Wisconsin
9 March 2007
I recently watched Michael Winterbottom's 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE, where Ian Curtis hangs himself while watching the chicken dancing sequence in STROSZEK. He'd probably done that anyway, but Herzog's portrait of three eccentric oddballs trying their luck in America, is a sombre film, the most downbeat Herzog made. The only copy I own is a rather dark VHS-copy, which shows some of the interior shots in Berlin even darker than they already are, to the very limit of watchability, so perhaps it's time I update this beautiful film with a proper DVD.

The film handles the story of former asylum inmate Bruno S. (THE ENIGMA OF KASPAR HAUSER) as a Berlin street singer (in a role where he basically plays himself), who joins with his prostitute girlfriend Eva (Eva Mattes) and ageing eccentric friend Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz) to embark on a memorable journey, leaving modern Berlin, for the golden opportunities of America. The 'promised land' is represented by the dreary, austere town of Railroad Flats in rural Wisconsin, where they settle in a mobile home bought on credit, but it turns out America is not gonna fulfill their dreams that easily.

Shot in winter, Berlin is shown as a cold, forbidden and lacklustre place. Not a ray of sunshine. The dark facades of the battered apartment blocks, downlit bars filled with smoke and shabby characters, the only goal the folks in Bruno's world seem to have, is merely make the best of things.

Often read as a critique of how capitalist American society destroys the individual, Herzog sees the film as less a critique of the United States than as "a eulogy" in the wake of the American dream, for such shattered hopes could develop in virtually any country (see "Herzog on Herzog", p. 144). He does throw in some of the eccentricities of American life, but above all, it's a somewhat surreal account of three simple folks, short-changed in life, desperately trying to make ends meet. From the start it's clear that these three are made for each other. They simply do not fit in any stratum of society really. They're too fragile for the world of pimps and low lives that formed the background of their lives in Berlin. Although not dumb, Bruno is too half-witted to be taken seriously by most people. Eva's background is not fully explained, but she's emotionally fragile and dependent, while elderly Scheitz's chances to get ahead in life seems to lay in the past.

It's a bleak and uncompromising film, this tragicomic account of this odd trio in pursuit of a better life outside the dreary confinements of Berlin's lower casts of society, but it's so intensely moving and honest with its subjects, that alone is something to admire.

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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"The Beatification of the Beat."
7 March 2007
Still first choice for a late pop-in into the DVD-player when you're having friends over for a late-night drink. Most of them have seen it by now, but I've yet to disappoint someone. It's a great success every time, again and again. You'd wanna see this for the music, but you don't even have to like Joy Division, Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, A Certain Ratio, The Fall, Happy Mondays, this is just plain clever and fun. That's all there is to it.

I was a fan of Joy Division before I saw this film and basically became a fan of everything Mancunian afterwards. The film consists of two parts. The first hour is Joy Division and the second hour is for The Happy Mondays and the subsequent new rave and techno developments. It's a blast, filled with priceless observations about musical developments, hilariously delivered by Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, chief mogul of the chaotic Factory Records and Grenada Television reporter. All the other characterizations are simply brilliant. Don't miss it.

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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Delirio caldo (1972)
Delrious giallo-trash by Polselli
7 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
DELIRIUM (Renato Polselli - Italy 1972).

If it's sleazy '70s exploitation you're looking for, packed with sexual violence and some truly twisted proceedings, look no further. I've watched some weird stuff in my lifetime, but this one truly hits the mark. Clearly, Polselli is a first-class hack and this is an incredibly shoddy piece of work, but somehow it was compelling enough (or just plain weird) to keep watching. I'm not sure though what that says about the film's qualities. At least it says something...

Hungarian muscle man Mickey Hargitay is criminal psychologist Dr. Herbert Lyutak who picks up a sweet young thing at a local bar, and gets the uncontrollable urge to strangle her at the sight of the girls legs. This is one wacky doctor that turns out to be a homicidal maniac, or is he? The local police doesn't suspect him, that's for sure, and treat him with the utmost respect. As a criminal psychologist, they even consult him to catch the culprit. The investigating police officers don't seem very trustworthy of a murder investigation. The one in charge is a skinny, somewhat suspicious looking chap, wearing a garish red blouse through the entire film (this is 1972, ya know). His assistant is a seriously groovy dude, impeccably coiffured with a perfectly trimmed beard and wearing some very cool Italian suits. No, he does not look tacky at all, the latest fashions is all he wears. But this was the English countryside, I digress.

The primary source of income for the local female population seems to walk the streets, mostly on deserted country roads or the village square, where they don't seem to do a lot of business. It's only a small village, after all. But it's very convenient for deranged sex killers with a taste for young women. Problem is, our two police officers haven't got a clue how to crack the case. Even after the fifth killing, the two detectives come little further than exclaiming this is yet another identical case. They come up with the luminous idea of using some woman as bait (she was actually not just someone, but I can't remember) who is also killed, but these two don't hesitate to use this tactic again and employ some more female bait. To complicate matters, Dr. Lyutak's beautiful wife (Rita Calderoni) is tormented by visions of medieval torture and lesbian orgies, a perfect excuse to throw in some more naked female flesh and gratuitous torture scenes.

Rather distracting is the film's English setting, unconvincingly done as usual in Italian films, since the film excels in very picturesque outdoor scenes in the Italian countryside and even a shot from a roof that immediately betrays the location as Rome(!). To make up for its completely nonsensical "plotline", Polselli throws in three killers(!) and since there are no likable characters in the film anyway, the only way to watch this is for an almost continuous wacky stream of hallucinations involving torture SM-style, chain whipping, bondage, masturbation and lost of killings of course. It's a glorious mess, but Polselli keeps the action going, so it's never really dull.

Anchor Bay presents this as an "astonishing 1972 oddity by the notorious Renato Polselli (under the pseudonym Ralph Brown)." Well, this oddity is presented in both the Italian and U.S versions, which are radically different. The American version opens with Vietnam footage explaining how Dr. Lyutak got his trauma, an explanation completely lacking in the Italian version. Regarding the American version, Anchor Bay neatly explains the original Vietnam footage was lost and some of this footage was taken and inserted in this version from a Danish VHS-copy and is presented with subtitles. To my surprise, it's actually a Dutch copy they used here, the subtitles were unmistakeably Dutch. Furthermore, in the American version, Hungarian born Mickey Hargitay's own voice is used (he only spoke English, no Italian), but his accent is even thicker than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his early days (which Hargitay humorously admits in an accompanying interview), so it's very hard to understand what he's saying. Incidentally, Schwarzenegger would even play Mickey Hargitay in the 1980 film THE JAYNE MANSFIELD STORY!

In any case, the Italian version is taken from a much better print, so I'd advise anyone to start with that one.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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A key film in the development of the Giallo
7 March 2007
THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (Mario Bava - Italy 1962).

I finally got to watch this in the way of the relatively cheap French DVD-release LA FILLE QUI EN SAVANT TROP, which includes Bava's original Italian cut as well as the American cut (titled THE EVIL EYE), which has a completely different ending and excludes some references to marijuana, as well as a stronger emphasis on the romantic plot line between the two leads John Saxon and Letícia Román, reputedly to make the film more marketable for children(!), which I find impossible to comprehend, but apparently this was what U.S. distributors had in mind. Furthermore, a bombastic Les Baxter score was added, a common treatment for most U.S releases of Italian films in that period, instead of the charming jazzy score in the Italian version (and a very catchy theme song).

Letícia Román stars as a young American woman who loves reading mystery novels. In fact, she's seen reading a detective novel called "The Knife" when we meet her on the plane. She plans to stay with her aged aunt, but one evening, the old lady dies before her eyes. When she stumbles upon the streets, she witnesses a woman stabbed to death in front of the Spanish Steps and suspects it's the work of a serial killer. Going unconscious, she awakens in the hospital and tries to convince everyone she witnessed a murder, but since no body was found, nobody believes her. She does convince a young doctor (John Saxon) to help her investigate the murders, and they soon find out a series of murders was committed ten years ago, the "Alphabet Murders." She realizes that previous victims had surnames beginning A, B and C and, because her name starts with a D, she could be the next victim.

This is often cited as the first Giallo, that specific Italian breed of thriller, named after the line of books with yellow covers, hence Giallo, Italian for yellow. THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH basically contains most core elements attributed to this particular cinematic sub-genre, with the prime motive of the helpless heroine subjected to all kinds of dangers and physical as well as mental abuse. Nora Davis is seen reading a Giallo novel on the airplane; the foreigner as vulnerable outsider in Italy; an obsession with travel and tourism, the first murder takes place before the Spanish Steps, but the film shows countless tourist hotspots throughout Rome, and the fascination with fashion and style or the jet-set in general. Although it would take Bava's own BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964), lavishly shot in colour, to introduce the more elaborate, lengthy and - above all - much more violent and bloody killing sequences which would typify many later Giallos, carried out by the archetype Giallo killer with gloves and black raincoat. Wide-eyed Letícia Román is the kind of innocent looking girl with just the right combination of sexiness and innocence to pass as a very likable heroine, perhaps a touch too innocent and certainly worlds away from the sexually liberated female in later Giallos.

Early sixties' fashions and habits abound, such as Nora Davis' exuberant snake leather jacket. There's also a lot of smoking on the plane and later on Nora condones Marcello's smoking habits claiming it's bad for his health, which is presented as the audience is supposed to laugh at her "preposterous" observation, instead of Marcello's smoking habit. Typical role reversal. There's also the running gag with marijuana. In the first scene, the man next to Nora on the plane turns out to be a marijuana smuggler, but on arrival in Rome, the always alert Italian police is quick to take this character into custody. Perhaps Bava's way of saying the Italian police is always on top of these issues and malicious elements from abroad are dealt with in proper fashion.

Masterfully shot in black-and-white, the film doesn't contain the outrageous imagery of THE BODY AND THE WHIP (1963) and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, both sumptuously shot in colour, and certainly is much lighter in tone with the sadistic bloodletting so typical of that other pivotal entry in the development of the Giallo, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, largely lacking. Originally, it was conceived as a romantic comedy and - hence the title - as a light parody on Hitchcock's work, but Bava decided to put a larger emphasis on the more horrific elements of the story, but doesn't lose sight of the plot development, which I always found a major demerit of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. A bit old-fashioned perhaps by American or British standards, but combining these elements with a more typical Italian tone, Bava does create something new here. Nevertheless, the tone remains conspicuously breezy and that's probably why this film turns out to be such an endearing mixture of clever Hitchcockian suspense and the occasional comedy relief. Perhaps a bit too cutesy and innocent for many Bava-fans, but I found his a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Camera Obscura --- 8/10
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Intentional camp that works
5 March 2007
Seriously deranged stuff with a ridiculous premise of alien clowns setting up camp near a small town, abducting the local inhabitants and turning them into cotton candy and snacks. Any film with a title like this deserves this amount of attention and it's still a stellar cult favorite in the Midnight- and Bad Movie circuits. Most of the films intentionally made as bad movies or camp usually blow it (like most of Troma's disasters), but this is a surprisingly fun and good-natured homage to some silly sci-fi and horror classics of the fifties like FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and THE BLOB (1958).

Our heroes are Debbie and Dave, two of your typical annoying eighties' youngsters with bad hairdos and less than impressive acting skills, trying to persuade the locals something's seriously wrong here. "Nobody stores Cotton Candy like this", observes Debbie when they enter the alien Klowns' circus tent. Smart girl, but how to get rid of these cosmic bozos. Now, clowns are plain creepy and evil. We all know that. Although the tone is generally tongue-in-cheek, the film does manage to throw in some genuine scares. The make-up fx are very impressive and when these Klowns are on the rampage, they are a seriously scary bunch. Undeniably a campy affair, with its truly off-the-wall premise, cheezy acting and predictable storyline, the whole film is laden with an irresistible charm, nicely complemented with a catchy theme song by cult punk band The Dickies, so eighties and so dated, it was already seriously out of fashion by the time the film was released. Cheezy fun all the way.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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Cop (1988)
Sleazy James Ellroy cop thriller
1 March 2007
Based on the James Ellroy novel "Blood on the Moon", James Woods is LAPD detective Lloyd Hopkins who discovers the terribly mutilated corpse of a young woman and immediately starts comparing the scene with previously unsolved murders. He becomes convinced a serial killer is at work here, preying on women for the last fifteen years. Soon, more gruesome murders occur and detective Hopkins becomes a target himself. Detective Hopkins is the kind of amoral sleazeball that makes Dirty Harry seem like a little angel in comparison. He's the kind of cop that blows your date away, leaves his partner to clear the mess and then asks the woman if she needs a ride home and have some fun.

James Woods also co-produced with director James B. Harris, long time buddy of Stanley Kubrick and producer of THE KILLING (1957), PATHS OF GLORY 1958) and LOLITA (1962), who also wrote the script for this hard-edged cop thriller. I made the mistake expecting a really good film, mostly based on Woods' presence, the writings of James Ellroy, and Kubrick sidekick James B. Harris taking the directorial helm, but Harris hardly shines in that department. His direction is adequate, but not much more. Best to watch this as a gritty cop flick, trashy, cynical and sometimes a bit silly with plenty of misguided attempts at humor on account of leading man James Woods, always a plus, in any film. It's a reasonably well-executed cop thriller, but no classic. Expect an enjoyable slice of B-movie nonsense and you probably won't be disappointed.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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Handsomely produced French sex comedy, starring Serena Grandi
1 March 2007
EXPLOITS OF A DON JUAN (Gianfranco Mingozzi - France/Italy 1987).

Based on the novel attributed to free-minded Guillaume Appollinaire, probably written around 1910 (he never acknowledged writing it). He became most famous for his recognition of the works of Marquis de Sade in early twentieth-century French literary circles. Just as De Sade's work, most of his own work was banned (and totally obscure) until the late sixties.

Sultrous Italian bombshell Serena Grandi is the main female attraction in this French-Italian sex comedy set during WW I about a 15-year old young man who impregnates three women, including his aunt, while all the men are away in the trenches. Don't look for particularly stunning French beauties here, it's mostly well-rounded, somewhat older, women who awake young Roger's sexual interest, like maids, aunts and farm girls. Delivering this kind of erotic cinema remains largely the exclusive domain of the French. Although directed by Italian Gianfranco Mingozzi, this largely follows this pattern, but at times it's a bit of an odd mix of the more typically French high-brow erotic finesse and more low-brow, perhaps more typically Italian farce or slapstick, but altogether a surprisingly good film. It's well made, shot with relatively large means and good production values and period design, it's actually a very handsome production.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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French zombie yarn
1 March 2007
REVENGE OF THE LIVING DEAD GIRLS (Pierre B. Reinhard - France 1987).

The premise of spilling some toxic waste in awakening the dead is rather similar to Jean Rollin's girlie zombie flick LA MORTE VIVANTE (1981), in this case it's the spilling of contaminated milk that awakes three slumbering girls in a graveyard instead of one. Some even suggested Jean Rollin directed this one too, and that Pierre B. Reinhard was a pseudonym. Does three living dead girls mean more fun? Well, not exactly. Now, I'm not a big zombie fan, but sometimes it can be fun, even the bad ones, but the only thing this one delivers is a couple of truly sickening - but not too convincing - gore scenes, like a woman's abortion in the shower, a sword used as a dildo and some genital mutilation. Despite this, even gore lovers or those looking for a couple of laughs, better look elsewhere. In between the occasional and quite infrequent zombie action, we're treated with a hokum storyline, wooden acting and when talking atmosphere and cinematography, Jean Rollin's oeuvre begins to look brilliant in comparison. This one is plain dull, and Brigitte Lahaie isn't even in it. The pits.

Camera Obscura --- 2/10
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Night Run (2006)
Idiocy in Taxiland
28 February 2007
NIGHTRUN (Dana Nechustan - The Netherlands 2006).

I missed out on this film in cinema, but having been a taxi driver for many years, I still had to catch this one. I followed the conflict in the Amsterdam taxi world a couple of years ago (mostly in 2000, when the new taxi-law came into effect) with great interest, so I gathered this one was worth a look, all the more because of the film's enthusiastic reception, but what a disappointment this was. I could hardly believe what I saw. It really gave me a bad taste. The story revolves around main character Dennis (Frank Lammers) who loans a large sum of money to start up his own business. Naturally, he engages himself with the wrong people and gets himself into debt and all kinds of trouble with malicious characters in the taxi business. All this is set against the background of the tumultuous developments in the taxi branch in 2000, the year when a new "taxi law" was passed with the consequence that every idiot with a car and drivers license could become a taxi driver. The hitherto insanely expensive (and hard to get) taxi permits, sometimes acquired for hundreds of thousands of guilders with lent money, became worthless overnight.

Director Dana Nechustan and writer Franky Ribbens chose to make this as a human drama, rather than an account of the taxi conflict itself, but storywise the conflict ultimately is the sole drive for every action Dennis takes. It soon raised all kinds of questions with me and I kept asking myself; why is he going through all this trouble in the first place? The choice for a more human approach could have been a wise choice, if all the other characters weren't this collection of grossly inflated stereotypes. The taxi drivers are all racist idiots, muscle men or just plain stupid. Even main character Dennis and his brother (Fedja van Huet, not for a moment believable as a lower-class Amsterdam car mechanic) come off as little more than caricatures. The story is kept going by Dennis' utterly stupid and ultimately annoying self-destructive behaviour. There are some outside forces at work here to make his life miserable, but there were moments I hoped some of the bad guys could beat some sense into him. I doubt if this was the makers' intention. The actions of Dick Grijpink and his TCA-related bad guys are nothing more than a logical response to Dennis' stupidity. He's just so incredibly dumb and stubborn in his actions, I couldn't relate to the character at all. Very little he does, makes any sense.

The film confirmed what I already knew, as most tourists visiting the Dutch capital probably learned as well.

  • Don't take a taxi in Amsterdam, unless you absolutely have to.

I have a weak spot for Frank Lammers, but this film stinks.

Camera Obscura --- 3/10
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Crazy Love (1987)
Unique Bukowski interpretation
26 February 2007
LOVE IS A DOG FROM HELL (a.k.a CRAZY LOVE) (Dominique Deruddere - Belgium 1987).

Three Bukowskian tales set in a Belgian, mostly rural, setting. How about that? Despite good reviews upon its release, winning several awards and getting support by Hollywood heavyweights Sean Penn and Francis For Coppola, the film vanished into obscurity almost immediately after its release. Perhaps it was bad timing, because Barbet Schroeder's star-studded BARFLY was released almost simultaneously. Who knows? By any chance, this film is a beauty, clearly deserving wider attention.

The film has a three-act construction, all set around the live of Harry Voss, focusing on his difficult search for love and affection. The first act is set in 1955 and follows Harry when he's twelve years old. He is struck by his first notions of true love when he sees a dream-like film in cinema, only to be helped out of his dream by a more mature friend who claims the only reason people get married is to get laid. Remember, it's fifties' rural Flanders we're talking here. In the second act, in the early sixties, Harry is a shy 19-year old, his face horribly disfigured by a grotesque form of acne. When driving in the bus, he is stared at by all the children, while the adults look away. There's a high school dance, but Harry can't get a girl. In the third act we get a more literal adaptation of Bukowsky's THE COPULATING MERMAID OF VENICE, CA., when Harry is a down-on-his-luck alcoholic, devoid of any aspirations, spending most of his time in shady bars. When he meets an old acquaintance, they go on a joined drinking binch and rehash old memories while patrolling the foggy streets. In their drunken frenzy ("for old time's sake") they decide to steal a body from an ambulance they see on a deserted street and take it to an abandoned house. This makes - how morbid it may sound - for one of the most beautiful and touching scenes of the film. The ending is a beauty.

In the first act the film starts of a bit slowly with some awkward moments. I found the second and third acts the strongest, but all three segments show remarkable cinematic harmony. Beginning and ending the film with nicely contrasted mirror images of "the Princess" running across some dimly lit corridor and Raymond van het Groenewoud's haunting musical theme, it makes for a very neat composition indeed. Cars also feature prominently in all three segments. Most of the key scenes take place in or around cars. It all a very American feel to it, especially the second act. A homecoming dance, a prom, lampoons, American cars, it's small town USA transferred to Belgium. The lead performance by Josse de Pauw who plays the adult Harry in the second and third acts, is a joy to watch.

All the more recommended, because of Mondo Macabro's excellent DVD-release. A bit of an oddity in their usual catalogue of all kinds of exploitational sewers of world cinema (which I often like, don't get me wrong), their treatment of the film is excellent, with a luminous new transfer and jam-packed with extras. Two documentaries, the "making-off" with some great footage of Bukowski and his thoughts on the film, a filmed interview with director Deruddere, a text essay on Flemish cinema, and Mondo Macabro's usual trailer reel of the wilder side of world cinema to top it all off. With an almost surrealist setting and touching subjects like necrophilia, it's not a film most audiences will embrace easily, but any fan of Bukowski, Belgian cinema or good cinema in general should really give this one a try. It might be a far cry from Bukowsky's usual settings but liberal interpretations usually make for far more interesting films. This is worth seeing. Damn, the man even approved of it himself!

Camera Obscura --- 9/10
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Revolver (2005)
26 February 2007
Anyone still hoping for Guy Ritchie's return to form will be sorely disappointed. An undecipherable and pretentious mess with con-men, eccentric crime lords, a mysterious hit-man, set in some kind of no-man's land. The film is loaded with preposterous quotes from Julius Ceasar (some of the quotes must have been used only 200 times before in previous films) and Nicholai Macchiavelli.

You'll have to consult Guy Ritchie for some kind of plot synopsis. Any attempt on my account would be useless. I couldn't make A-N-Y-T-H-I-N-G out of this truly unbearable 100 minutes. In the future, if he still gets a chance at directing a film, he'll better leave the writing to someone else. Even Ray Liotta becomes a caricature after a while. Let's give 2 stars for some of the attractive camera-work and editing. Yes, it looks pretty but what's the point? It's a complete joke.

Camera Obscura --- 3/10
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Red Road (2006)
Dystopia on the Clyde
26 February 2007
Produced in collaboration with Lars von Trier's production house Zentropa and based on characters created by Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, this debut feature by Oscar-winning Andrea Arnold is the first British feature filmed under the rigid Dogma-principles. I guess I'll never become a big fan of Dogma-style film-making, but I must admit, this was a well-structured and ultimately intriguing piece of film-making, if you can make it to the final half hour, when part of the story is resolved and some sorely needed background information is given.

We meet a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a CCTV operator, obsessively observing the residents in a run-down housing estate in Glasgow. She seems obsessed by her work, compensating for her non-existent social life. Most of the story revolves around a dire housing estate, a huge 25-floor tower, on Red Road, from which the film got its title. On day, when she zooms in on a man having some back-alley sex with a young woman, she recognizes him and starts tracking his every move on camera, but in real life as well, even insinuating herself into his life, going to his apartment and even attending a party he's giving. Obviously, she has some shared experience from the past with this man. At first, it seems an ex-husband/boyfriend, but soon it becomes obvious he doesn't know her, apart from a vague recollection, "haven't I seen you somewhere before?" Who is he and foremost, what on earth could this woman possibly want from him? The film keeps you guessing till the very end. Perhaps a bit too long. For almost 90 minutes you keep wondering why the hell she goes through all this trouble meeting this mysterious fellow. Till then we're fishing in the dark.

The film is greatly bolstered by two extremely convincing performances. Kate Dickie commits herself to this role with such vigour, her every move comes off completely believable, despite her motivations are hard to understand, while Tony Curran's performance ranges from very frightening to even touching at times. It's interesting enough to keep watching, but only just, till the end, when the elements fall in place. The prominence of CCTV surveillance in the film and how far it has penetrated Britons everyday lives (and increasingly in other parts of the world as well), is quite revealing and disturbing as well. Since a large part of the film consists of CCTV-images and is strained by Dogma-rules in the first place, the images are not always pleasing for the eye. But some beautifully shot night scenes around Red Road-estate and the two powerhouse performances by the leads largely make up for some shortcomings in the film's narrative.

Camera Obscura --- 7/10
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Lemming (2005)
Got stuck in the kitchen sink
23 February 2007
I've recently been going through a couple of French films that lean heavily on the suspense. The French know their business. They make dozens of these every year. One might label them simply as thrillers. Some recent ones; this one, Haneke's CACHÉ (2005) (half-Austrian, all right), THE BEAT THAT MY HEART SKIPPED (2005) together with Chabrol's - mostly late '60s - work. This dream-like suspense-yarn compares rather unfavourably to the other films mentioned. This is mostly due to the rather ridiculous subtext of the titular Lemming (the framework is built around the mysterious appearance of a dead lemming in the kitchen sink of a young couple). Furthermore, Charlotte Rampling's character behaves in such an abnormal way, it becomes too much to swallow. In a dream sequence, thousand of lemmings appear in the home of Alain Getty, the central character. But his wife, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, has an almost equally important part. Perhaps I misread the whole thing and this was all a highly associative nightmare sprung from the main characters' minds. In that case, not a very pleasant one. It's quite suspenseful up to a point, but after a while the characters begin to behave in such an irrational (and stupid) fashion, it becomes very tedious. I just wanna know what happened to the lemming?

Camera Obscura --- 5/10
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