As Spike Lee arrives on Vimeo on Demand with the crowdfunded horror Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, there couldn’t be a better time to revisit – and rightly celebrate – the film’s visceral and poetic predecessor Ganja & Hess in original form, directed by revered playwright, novelist, actor and filmmaker Bill Gunn.

What began as a low budget vampire flick – produced to cash in on the success of 1972’s Blaxploitation cult classic Blacula – became a fascinating parable on addiction & redemption. The film can also be seen as a blood relative of subsequent left-field vampire gems, including George A. Romero’s disturbing Martin (1977) and recently Jim Jarmusch’s elegant Only Lovers Left Alive (2014).

Ganja & Hess zones in on anthropologist Dr. Hess Green, portrayed with stoic detachment by Duane Jones, famous for his considerably different and impressively commanding lead role in Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968). Contradicting the oft-repeated mythology of the vampire transformation occurring due to a bite, Hess becomes immortal when his schizophrenic assistant George Meda (director Bill Gunn) stabs him with an ancient ceremonial dagger.

Ganja, played by the striking and elegant Marlene Clark, then arrives searching for the vanished George and hits it off with the attractively enigmatic Hess. In a similar spirit to Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s superb 1970 film Performance, the film takes on a dark and sensual air, as the pair hole up in Hess’ remote country house and indulge in a transgressive vampiric lifestyle, feeding on murder victims to satisfy their need for blood. This is contrasted with rousing footage of African American church services and dream sequences of tribal scenes, which accentuate the deathly turmoil of their vampiric state.

But plot does not dictate form in Ganja & Hess; Gunn’s approach to its assembly grew out of improvisation and inspiration rather than pre-ordained logic. It is important to note that this new Blu-ray and DVD release from Eureka Classics represents Gunn’s original cut of the film, which screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 1973, to great acclaim. This differs from the much circulated commercial edit, which was (for financial reasons) re-structured adhering to the original script, after predominantly white New York critics slammed the film with the withering reasoning that it “was not the time for a black art film.”

With the perspective afforded by hindsight, as well as the admission that racism played a role in the film’s original reception, it is clear to see that Ganja & Hess was at the cutting edge of American cinema in the 1970’s. The film blurred the boundaries between art cinema and horror and ushered in Bill Gunn as a daring & poetic director of African American cinema. The film can be seen as a relative of Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), or even Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), in it’s disregard for traditional cinematic form and a need to break through longstanding modes of perception; a mission that is still entirely necessary today.

Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial effort Whiplash (which follows Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) has caused quite a stir already in critics and festival circles, and by the film’s end it is not difficult to see why. Here we see big, compelling, but not even remotely attractive performances from two actors, in their characters’ skin, playing a brutal game of one-upmanship in a terrifying battle over Jazz music as an art form.

Indeed, the relationship between young drumming protégée Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his unforgivingly tough mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) is a difficult watch at the best of times but it is equally a thrilling one. There is a real permeating sense of terror elicited by Simmons’ performance as the unrelenting band leader – at a top east-coast privileged music conservatoire – who over the course insults and attempts to maim his students, in an attempt to motivate the truly committed and extinguish those who don’t have the same fire as him. Meanwhile, the initially sympathetic Neyman becomes some kind of monster himself – adapting to the punishing perfectionism of his tutor – and turning into an equally obsessive beast in order to be “one of the greats”, like his hero Buddy Rich; he is expertly played by the young Teller.

It’s not surprising then that both are being tipped for Oscar nominations (and stand a strong chance of winning), given the visceral torture one puts through the other to achieve perfection, through hours of tedious practicing. As a musician myself who works in a highly distinguished music conservatoire, Chazelle captures the tedium and pain of rehearsal expertly well, ratcheting up the tension with Simmons’ terrifying ogre.

Whiplash is not without its problems however. At times the narrative clunks along just a little too conveniently: the use of foreshadowing and an off-putting “recap of everything you’ve seen so far” 3rd act plot point. Even more troubling is Simmons’ character as a homophobic, misogynistic bully. The repeated use of the word “faggot” amongst other charming terms, as well as repeated attempts to push Neyman to the brink (by repeatedly using the mother who abandoned him) in less than pleasant ways, gets a bit too cruel for entertainment’s sake.

While undoubtedly there are highly strung, highly driven people out there who use horrendous language and get away with it, it becomes problematic when Fletcher comes off as humorous. Worse so, when he appears vaguely heroic; he is given the opportunity to become sympathetic and redemptive, even after the audience has discovered that he may well have driven a previous student to suicide. The film is such a difficult and exciting watch, precisely because the two lead characters are so consistently ghastly.

But the constant undercurrent thread of the music itself is what underpins and drives Whiplash towards its thrilling conclusion. The film opens with a drum roll increasing in velocity with terrific force, setting the tone for large sways of the experience. The film is at its best when it’s highlighting the excruciating work it takes to become the best and the closing few moments are edge-of-your-seat stuff. Chazelle is careful to not give too much of the music away until this point – only highlighting titbits and the often exhausting rehearsals – so when we finally see the finished performance, complete with a new found sense of optimism, it is truly rousing, immersive stuff that captures what it must feel like to witness the real-life greats.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made a name for himself with a series of multi-stranded, seriously serious films, most notably Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Biutiful. The Mexican’s latest work is said to be somewhat of a departure, lighter in tone, set around one single location, and with some actual (whisper it) jokes. While on the surface it might seem a new leaf for Iñárritu, look a bit closer and you can see the same traits running through his previous films.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a washed up actor famous for playing a nineties superhero, who is trying to reclaim his reputation with a serious play on Broadway. A fully paid up misanthrope, Riggan spends his days trying to shepherd his failing play into something coherent, all the while having to contend with the hotpot of demanding women in his life. His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is a recovering addict trying to stabilise herself as his assistant, Lesley (Naomi Watts) is the insecure lead of his production and his girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) an unfortunate afterthought in the world of Riggan.

Yet it is Edward Norton as Mike who really rocks the boat. A last minute replacement/saviour, Mike is a sleazy yet talented hotshot who plays by his own rules and threatens to steal Riggan’s show from underneath him. Iñárritu films his cast almost solely in one location, a New York theatre, utilising the claustrophobia and endless corridors to dazzling effect. Shot in a frantic, marauding style by the virtuoso DP Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is edited to appear as one singular take, the camera essentially buzzing off the energy of the actors, much like a John Cassavetes film.

This is the best part of the film; the sheer energy of the film-making and the actors. It has been noted that the extended take can bring about a sense of hypnosis and disorientation in the viewer; recently we have seen the excellent True Detective utilise a breathless 6 minute tracking shot, and Enter The Void had a similarly feverish, dreamlike feel to it. The improvisational feel of the film is emboldened by a raw, jazzy percussion soundtrack, echoing the snappy action on screen. The actors look like they are having a ball as well; Keaton is the hangdog delusional keeping things glued together, but Norton is the real star, turning in one of his best performances in years.

Audiences will leave the cinema feeling dazed alright. The zing of the cinematography, the screwball playfulness of the performances – it is for a large part a real treat. Yet when the dust settles and the last flashes of lightning have dissipated, what are we really left with? This film has four writers on it, a troubling sign, and it shows. The basic concept, of a tired actor trying to reinvent himself, is a tired concept in itself. Meta-narratives have been overdone in recent years and we have a much more interesting, poignant film about theatrical delusions in Synechdoche New York, Charlie Kauffman’s messy tragicomedy.

When we look closer at the characters, not many of them really stand up behind the hubris of the performances. Riggan is essentially a bit of a sexist pig who gets given an unearned penitence at the end. Then we have a whole host of talented actresses pushed to the wayside in order to validate Riggan’s oh-so-tortured existence. Iñárritu, meanwhile, has not really changed so much; he still has a habit of filling his films with wall to wall profundity. Not a scene goes by when a character doesn’t give some kind of overwrought speech about their secret wound. We are, after all, all human beings with feelings. 

So, Birdman. As a piece of film making, as a playground of performance, a real dazzler. Just don’t think about it too much.

1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, USA/UK)

An ultra-early release of 2014 in the UK (January 10th to be precise), Steve McQueen’s third film 12 Years A Slave has endured, in my memory, as the most moving cinema experience of the year. Prior to this film McQueen had established himself – with Hunger and Shame – as one of the most important feature directors in the UK, for his ability to merge demanding topics with fresh visual language. With 12 Years A Slave he proved himself capable of this on a much grander scale, earning a Best Picture Oscar, a $187.7 million box office return and widespread critical support. It is essential that we revisit history through the eyes of great artists and Steve McQueen is one such artist.

2) 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (DIR. IAIN FORSYTH & JANE POLLARD, UK)
In a strong year for cinema documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth expanded the paradigm. Composed of elements from dramatic fiction, observational documentary and the rock film this Nick Cave biopic, set over the course of a day, is an expertly framed Petri dish of fascinating ideas. While the film might primarily appeal to Cave fans, it should interest anyone who creates, or simply wishes to understand themselves and their human impulses. Cave’s transcendental live performances feature prominently, while the meaning of these occasions is explored in moments of fascinating examination, as the frank and eloquent Cave reflects on his life to a therapist and lives out his life in atmospheric Brighton.

3) THE WIND RISES (DIR. HAYAO MIYAZAKI, JAPAN)
The Wind Rises is the final film of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and it is a bittersweet achievement, not only about about the cost of innovation, but the cost of dreams. Based loosely on the true story of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was responsible for designing fighter planes during World War II, the film surrealistically captures the glorious freedom of imagination and intellect and contrasts it with the devastation these powers can bring. In line with Horikoshi’s own attitude towards the futility of WWII, the film’s tone is one of profound melancholy. The film presents a man whose talent for innovation and love of flight is tragically undermined by the impulse, in others, for war.

4) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)
In the cinema, 2014 was a special year for the more esoteric side of rock n’ roll. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch took the horror genre into reverent territory and drew a line straight back through the history of art. The film, which centers around the reunion of a pair of vampire lovers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston), resonates with a universe of fascinating culture for those ready to listen. With locations in Chicago and Tangier the film takes us on a poetic punk journey, into a world once inhabited by Shakespeare ghost writers, Nikola Tesla, William S. Burroughs & The Stooges. The film’s soundtrack, featuring Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, Jozef van Wissem and Yasmine Hamdan is also not be missed.

5) VIRUNGA (DIR. ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, UK/CONGO)

This extraordinary film from prolific director Orlando Von Einsiedel is a thrilling piece of journalism and another fantastic expansion on the possibilities of documentary cinema. The film follows the current crisis of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the park’s security team and rangers attempt to hold off an onslaught from Congolese rebels who appear to be collaborating with British oil company Soco. The documentary creates extraordinary emotional stakes by telling the stories of Andre Bauma, who cares for the park’s gorilla population, park director Emmanuel de Merode and journalist Melanie Gouby. These individuals put their necks on the line for the park, which the film depicts as an integral element to the survival and autonomy of the DRC, while the filmmakers capture the unfolding violence and human displacement.

6) THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (DIR. GUILLAUME NICLOUX, FRANCE)
Back in 2011 controversial French author Michel Houellebecq (Whatever, Atomised, Platform) disappeared during a book tour for The Map and the Territory, leading to media speculation that he had been kidnapped by al-Qaida. The contention created by the author’s works may have justified such a possibility, but director Guillaume Nicloux’s dramatic interpretation of the situation (starring Houellebecq as himself) speculates on a much different – and hilariously funny – scenario. The integral joke of the film is that Houellebecq, in sly deadpan style, rather enjoys the experience, as he encourages his surprisingly benevolent captors to cater to his whims and vices. However you may feel about Michel Houellebecq, this film riffs brilliantly on his dark humour and outsider status.

7) NIGHTCRAWLER (DIR. DAN GILROY, USA)
Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The FallReel SteelThe Bourne Legacy) made his directorial debut with Nightcrawler and doing so brought to the screen a career best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, as aspirational anti-hero Louis Bloom. The film takes it’s cue from the post-recession job crisis, with Bloom as an ultra-opportunistic news cameraman who dispenses with all moral values to succeed in the business. His ambition leads him to film increasingly grisly crime scenes, as he simultaneously loses contact with the reality of what he films. The film is a thrilling romp, starring an unusually manic Gyllenhaal, which also works as a critique of the potentially exploitative nature of American news broadcasting.

8) 22 JUMP STREET (DIR. PHIL LORD & CHRISTOPHER MILLER, USA)
22 Jump Street is an unexpectedly great sequel, to an unexpectedly great feature adaptation (21 Jump Street), of a late 1980’s TV police comedy primarily remembered for kicking off Johnny Depp’s acting career. The beauty of 22 Jump Street is the way in which it comedically writes itself off as a pointless sequel. The irony of the film is that this bold sense of flippancy (embodied through the perfect buddy-chemistry of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) is precisely what makes the Jump Street films relevant. After years of terrible sequels, remakes and computer game adaptations, these films are the evidence that someone in Hollywood is finally thinking what the audience has been for a long time.

9) BELLE (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, UK)
Following her 2004 debut A Way of Life, Streatham born writer/director Amma Asante made a strong return with Belle. The film tells the story Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British career naval officer – who encouraged her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice) to recognise slavery as illegal in England and usher about its formal end. The film is directed with elegant style and frank sincerity, influenced no doubt by the 1779 Johann Zoffany painting that it was inspired by, in which a headstrong Belle appears animatedly alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray.

10) THE ROVER (DIR. DAVID MICHOD, AUSTRALIA)

David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was one of the most striking debuts of 2010, showing Michôd to be one of the most gifted directors of contemporary Australian cinema. The film was a dense and engaging drama of a Melbourne crime family, made with an impeccable grasp of tension and great style. With The Rover Michôd stripped down the scope of his vision, focusing primarily on Guy Pearce’s mysterious protagonist who harbours an undisclosed agenda. The minimalist approach to his second feature pays off, with Michôd delivering a lean, bleak and thrilling film with excellent performances and a beautifully simple central conceit.

1) IDA (DIR. PAWEL PAWLIKOWSKI, POLAND)

Ida, the Polish nun at the heart of Pawlikoski’s WW2 drama, perfectly encapsulates the lightness and darkness of the film, her beetlebug black eyes framed by a saintly, doll-like complexion. Beautifully played by Agata Trzebuchowska, Ida is told she is a Jewish survivor of the holocaust and must meet her aunt before taking her vows. Shot in austere monochrome, the film is a road movie/coming of age tale, with Ida forced to come to terms with her past and decide on her own future. While a black and white holocaust drama might seem heavy going, Pawlikoski has a lightness of touch which elevates it to something greater than simply a sob story.

2) BOYHOOD (DIR. RICHARD LINKLATER, USA)

rsz_boyhood_momentos_de_una_vida_-__ellar_coltrane_mason_finalLinklater’s much heralded drama follows one boy actor from childhood to adolescence, taking in all the growing pains that come with it. While the film often strays into schmaltz and cliche, it is hard not to be affected by the film and project as a whole. Lead actor Ellar Coltrane may have seemed gawky and awkward as the years passed by, but perhaps that is as accurate a reflection of teenager you can get? Estranged parents Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke provide the acting chops and the pathos of adult instability.

3) STRANGER BY THE LAKE (DIR. ALAIN GUIRAUDIE, FRANCE)

StrangerByTheLake_5_Christophe_Paou_Pi.JPGNo-one does voyeurism quite like the French. By a remote lake in rural France Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) cruises the beach for men in order to sate his desires. His attention is piqued by the athletic Michel (Christophe Paou) and soon his lust for him begins to override his moral compass. How dangerous could Michel really be? Guiraudie’s film is a brooding beast, high on intrigue and psychologically complex. It also has a great sense of place; I can’t think of another film that demonstrates the tranquil joy of lake swimming so much.

4) NYMPHOMANIAC PARTS 1 AND 2 (DIR. LARS VON TRIER, DENMARK)

rsz_1rsz_hero_nymphomaniacvol2-2014-1It is a little sad that Von Trier garners more headlines for his antics than his actual films; Nymphomaniac is another interesting addition to his ouevre. Part of his Depression trilogy this epic double header follows Joe, a young girl hurtling through life with a hard-on, unable to satisfy her desire for human flesh. Ably played by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Joe’s travails are often bleak and brutal- this is Von Trier in a self destructive mood. The film gains power in its sheer scale and rawness of emotion.

5) WINTER SLEEP (DIR. NURI BILGE CEYLAN, TURKEY)

rsz_1rsz_p02ckcsmIf Once upon a time in Anatolia was the brooding, silent brother in the family, then Winter Sleep is the talkative, narcissistic sibling. Aydin runs a remote hotel in rural Anatolia with his sloth-like sister and bored younger wife, all the while indulging his intellectual delusions with vanity book projects. Ceylan’s latest film is occasionally too verbose and meandering in its 3 hour length, yet it often finds its way to a point of real epiphany. The characters are so complex and fluid that you find yourself dividing your loyalty between each of them from moment to moment.

6) LEVIATHAN (DIR. ANDREY ZVYAGINTSEV, RUSSIA)

rsz_leviathanBased on a true American news story but with great parallels with contemporary Russian society, Leviathan is the tale of a local fisherman forced to give up his land for a pittance when the greedy local mayor comes calling. Zvyagintsev arrived with one of the greatest debuts of the 21st century in The Return, but his latest film sees the director opting for a more literal, moralistic form of storytelling. The characters and themes are set out in a blunt fashion but the sheer conviction of the actors and the anger of the director shines through.

7) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)

This is a peculiar one. While watching the film, and just after, I was left with mixed feelings about Jarmusch’s latest offering. His re-imagining of the vampire genre had a typically thin story, a penchant for sixth form level philosophy and a somewhat nerdy obsession with guitars and literary figures. There were probably a lot more ‘powerful’ and prescient films being made this year, but this one has stuck. The moody streets of Detroit and the gothic twang of Josef Van Wissem’s score has left a lingering atmosphere, while the central relationship between the evergreen vampires played by  Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston is oddly moving.

8) THE PAST (DIR. ASGHAR FARHADI, FRANCE/IRAN)

Film still from The Past by Asghar FarhadiFarhadi’s twisty family drama follows a family’s disintegration in Paris. Ahmad, the estranged father figure, travels to France to meet his ex-partner Marie and sign their divorce papers. However, he quickly becomes embroiled in family tensions as her new partner Samir is causing friction with her offspring. The film is a treasure chest of lies and misunderstandings, Farhadi creating a meaty drama out of miscommunication. While the film may become too tricksy and melodramatic at points, the quality of the acting and the dialogue makes it a very satisfying watch.

9) FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (DIR. JOHN MALOOF & CHARLIE SISKEL, USA)

rsz_211-628x425This excellent documentary unearthed the fascinating story of Vivien Maier, a New York nanny with a secret life as a master photographer. In the 60’s and 70’s, Maier would go out onto the streets of New York and take fantastic photos of everyday life; children, old pensioners, the rich, the homeless. Remarkably her talents were unknown to her well-to-do employers, and she lived a life of relative anonymity. This sparky film documents the discovery of her photographs to her eventual reappraisal, all the while demonstrating what a singular and complex individual Maier was.

10) HER (DIR. SPIKE JONZE, USA)

rsz_1rsz_her-screen-shotProbably one of the greatest films to reflect the ever blurring lines between online and real life, Jonze crafts an unusual and heartfelt work out of a challenging concept. Theodore (Joaquin Pheonix) is a lonely urbanite from the future who falls in love with his OS computer (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johannson), a completely intuitive, human-like system. The film has a woozy, wistful glow to it and Pheonix is excellent as the repressed lead. Jonze deserves all the plaudits, however, for concocting such a prescient, emotional film out of a far fetched conceit.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Lurking in the opening credits for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film were the ominous names of the Russian arts council and the government itself. This is quite perplexing because Zvyagintsev has announced himself as a formidable critic of contemporary Russia, which makes the approval of this film rather mysterious. Are Putin and his cohorts playing mind games worthy of Jose Mourinho? Is this a show of power by the government? Make your little film, we’ll even fund it, it won’t make a difference?

Although Zvyagintsev has stated that the film is inspired by a real story originating from America, it is hard not to see it as an explicit indictment of corruption in Russia. The parable-like Leviathan tells the story of Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov) and his family’s fight to save his property in a small coastal town in Russia. The piggish mayor Mer (Roman Madyanov) has decided Nikolay’s cherished spot of land is the perfect place to build his new abode, and Nikolay refuses to accept the pitiful compensation on offer for his life’s work.

He enlists the help of his old army comrade, the chiseled Moscow attorney Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who has unearthed some unsavoury information about Mer which could give them a fighting chance. Meanwhile Nikolay’s wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) struggles to cope with the isolation of the house and her frayed relationship with teenage Romka, who is unwilling to accept her as a new mother figure.  The characters are drawn out in broad strokes; Nikolay is the hot-headed, feisty underdog, Dmitriy the charming rationalist, Mer the bloated, corrupt authority figure.

It is in some ways quite a strange film coming from someone like Zvyagintsev. He started out with the enigmatic, brooding drama The Return, an incisive exploration of masculinity which reveled in the stoicism of its characters. The film was more about what was unsaid than what was said, a masterclass in atmosphere and icy, bleak visuals. Leviathan is quite the opposite, a film where most of the characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, emboldened by too many shots of vodka. The storytelling is quite conventional, dispensing with much of the ambience and intensity of Zvyagintsev’s earlier work.

Leviathan is almost three hours long but it doesn’t feel like it. The story is so involving that you are swept up in Nikolay’s plight and feel the pain and frustration that he is experiencing. It is a supremely confident tragedy, underlining the inherent rotten core of Russian politics. While Mer the mayor seems at times to be cartoonishly buffoonish and evil, the joke doesn’t really last that long as you realise that yes, this is actually the state of the world today. While I might quietly yearn for the mystique of Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, I cannot fault him for taking a hammer to bludgeon home the brutality of a corrupt society.

When Sin City was released way back in 2005 its mode of address was so striking – retro, aesthetically unique, violent – it got instant attention. Even with the same assets on show, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For barely garnered the same sort of notice. Even with the star-studded cast (adding Eva Green, Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson and Bruce Willis stock) and a bigger budget, there is little there to make the sequel/prequel any more fanciful.

The stand out aspect is the titular Dame, played with corrosive charm by Eva Green. Gorgeous and commanding, Green takes control over her chapter in the film, shadowing the rest of the cast, giving Josh Brolin only a slight chance to shine. Physicality in Sin City is continually fascinating (from Mickey Rourke’s square-shaped Marv, to the fluid dancing of Jessica Alba) with Green’s voluptuous body on show, making every rough-edged man weak from the sight of her. The noir element to Sin City is best on show with Green’s femme fatale story (the eponymous Dame to Kill For part of this film), so heavily harking back to the likes of Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck.

The issue with Sin City for film fans opposed to movie fans is the narrative only lends itself to violence, not story. Most action and reaction is based around someone getting their face smashed in (and this happens mind-numbingly often). The first film worked more effectively because the graphic nature was fast and spread out across the plot. Moments of shock would come in the first outing, somewhat levelled in the aesthetic; here it is all shameless. Remember that lingering notion of attack in Elijah Wood’s Kevin segment in number one? Well, Dame to Kill For relies on Powers Boothe for that and the terror is never felt. Nearly every chapter is a quest for blood – a boring basis for entertainment. There is only so much you want to focus your attention on, and as a moth to Rodriguez and Millar’s cool-looking flame, you are soon blinded by it all.

The fact that Robert Rodriguez directs, composes and edits the film earns him a lot of kudos. Respect must be given, first and foremost however, to his cinematography. The reason Sin City worked, and A Dame to Kill For was made, can be attributed to the way it looks. There are very few films using the same style as brandished here, and Rodriguez is a talented fellow for bringing the graphic novel to such life.

If you are a fan of the first and want to see more, this will certainly please. Those merely interested in seeing the progression of the story and style will also enjoy. Nevertheless, there is no direct call to watch A Dame to Kill For; it is a fan-boy appendage for the most part.

The second trailer for Blackhat by Hollywood thriller veteran Michael Mann has arrived. The film, starring Chris Hemsworth, tackles the timely topic of cyber crime and it’s visceral relationship with the real world. The film appears to retain Mann’s taste for glorious panoramas and gritty vérité style action, with events primarily unfolding in Chicago and Hong Kong.

Like Mann’s recent films, Collateral (2004), Miami Vice (2006) and Public Enemies (2009), Blackhat has an immersive feel with the camera close to, or almost inside the action. This approach recalls much of Mann’s best known work, in which his particular sense of cool meets his documentary training.

How the film will rate within the director’s filmography is yet to be seen, but the film carries a certain weight of expectation, owing to a six year break from features and a superlative, multi-decade spanning filmography that includes Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004).

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 17.35.28Life’s cruel deck is stacked against poor Thymian Henning from the off. After finding her father’s housekeeper – and mistress – has committed suicide, Thymian is herself taken advantage of by a pharmacy clerk, subsequently victim-shamed according to the conventional moral norms of the day, and cast out from her family to join a convent for disorderly young girls. Dark stuff then, though Louise Brooks, in her final pairing with director G.W. Pabst, infuses the character of Thymian with a will to persist; a vitality amidst the darkness. In her first appearance, Brooks appears framed in an interior archway, clad in a radiant white that bursts apart the film’s heretofore sundry shades of grey. She may a ‘lost girl’, but she’s the film’s guiding light.

Pabst navigates the reform school with simple tracking shots along ordered objects like identical bedheads, or figures spooning porridge into their mouths, each of these flourishes a subtle indictment at rigid strictures that hamper both consideration of the human spirit and liberating artistic potential. Select instances of camera movement are matched by efficiency of montage, such as when the sadistic headmistress of the reform school has the girls work out to the bang of her gong, therefore commanding the film’s editing rhythm and satiating her altogether suspect desires. The material here works to her ends.

However, to focus on the headmistress is to fatally sidestep the clear patriarchy at play in all its various guises. The sins of man here range, perhaps intentionally, from the subtle to the outwardly cruel. There’s the aforementioned opportunistic clerk, played like a snake by Fritz Rasp. There’s the headmistress’ sadistic bald assistant, who thrives on the girls’ oppression – and suffers under their inevitable revolt. Then there’s Doctor Vitalis, visitor at the brothel where Thymian is eventually forced to find work, said to ‘always want to save us, but in the end he joins us’, emblematic of a certain kind of solidarity posturing that swiftly gives way in the heat of the moment. And last but not least, there’s dear old Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne), Thymian’s young male acquaintance, unemployed as well, therefore possessing no qualms in pocketing one or two of his friend’s sex trade-earnings for himself. In fact, although an absolute prerequisite for survival, money is no apparent object to Thymian, and when she drops a note it’s almost always somebody else’s hand that picks it up.

In arguably the film’s finest and most defining scene, Thymian is spotted by her father in a gentleman’s club, thirty years on from the initial separation forced by his hand. Pabst’s continual framing of Thymian’s face, dead-centre in close-up, eyes appealing to the viewer, has led to this crucial moment. Thymian’s father watches on helplessly as a gaggle of grotesque grown men close in on his daughter, fawning and chomping at the bit to be in her presence; in seeing this, her father recognises his own transgressions, and in situating both him and Thymian central to the chaotic figures surrounding them in the composition, Pabst has honed in on that cutting moment of revelation, the identification of one’s self in another’s body. The fourth wall gaze implicates us to that effect. Events may sign off on a simplistic plea for peace – “A little more love and no one would be lost in this world” – but the larger takeaway is a rallying call for considered empathy as key to resolving our differences. The medium of cinema, as both a window and mirror, is unique in working toward these aims.

Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format restoration features a piano score by Javier Perez de Aspeitia, and comes complete with a brand new video essay by critic and filmmaker David Cairns, as well as 40-page booklet with writing from Louise Brooks, Lotte Eisner, Louelle Interim, Craig Keller and R. Dixon Smith.

In just the first sixty seconds of Fritz Lang’s silent spy thriller Spione (Spies), the following occurs: a safe is ransacked of its contents, a high-ranking Minister is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, and all-out panic ensues as news of the aforementioned events spreads along telephone wires like wildfire. Who is responsible for these heinous crimes? “Ich,” declares criminal mastermind Haghi (Rudolf-Klein-Rogge, titular lead in Lang’s Dr. Mabuse diptych), revealed to us instantaneously and in full close-up – a devilish goatee accentuating his sinister air – revoking his anonymity for the sole benefit of the viewer. His foes in the Secret Service are, unlike us, none-the-wiser as to his identity; they flail around like headless chickens, in stark contrast to the composed, prepared Haghi, sitting calmly behind his densely populated albeit organised desk as if waiting for nothing less than another successive confirmation of a mission gone entirely to plan.

The modern spy thriller traditionally establishes its heroic protagonist first and foremost, before steadily unravelling a web of conspiracy whose buck stops at an omniscient villain – usually someone we hadn’t guessed. Here, the villain has been introduced from the off, so that the viewer is almost complicit in looking over his shoulder at the ensuing chaos. As the plot circles around a MacGuffin and a tangle of myriad international figures – from honourable Japanese minister Dr Masimoto (Lupu Pick) to the traitorous Colonel Jellusic (Fritz Rasp) – it becomes apparent that what Haghi actually wants besides domination is unclear and not necessarily important, thereby placing the focus squarely on the adventurous, romantic qualities of the narrative. Nevertheless, one could feasibly draw on theorist Sigfried Kracauer, supposing that the character of Haghi anticipates a duplicitous authoritarian leader in the vein of Hitler.

Haghi’s unwilling accomplice is Sonja Baranilkowa, whom he charges with the task of fending off his adversary – and her love interest – Agent 326 (Willy Frisch). The latter spy is a far cry from the suave, hardened action heroes of the modern era; he smothers his lady with puppy kisses and sobs over a stiff drink when he fears to have lost her forever. There’s a boyish vulnerability and cluelessness to this man (Sonja always knows more than 326 at any given moment) that seems to have been bled out of the modern action genre in favour of rough or ravishing male leads and meaningless female sidekicks to match. That’s certainly true of the James Bond series, for which Spione is otherwise a clear heavy influence, from the ballroom masquerade, to the spy identified by a three-digit number, to even Haghi himself, an obvious forerunner to Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Despite Sonja appearing as an ostensible ‘captive princess’ to Haghi, it’s curious to note that the upper hand in Spione is almost always secured by its women. Colonel Jellusic allows his libido to get the better of him, with fatal consequences; Agent 326 is gamed by Sonja until he rather desperately chases her down the street; even Mitsamuto, equally as prepared as the all-seeing Haghi, has his last-ditch plans outsmarted at the eleventh hour by a new lady-friend. As for Haghi, his formerly fool-proof machinations never appear on such shaky ground as when Sonja begins to assert her free will.

All this human manoeuvring builds a steady momentum that culminates in a train crash, a high-speed car chase, and a bank siege waged against both the clock and an onset of poisonous gas. The script by Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, based on her original novel, feeds just enough dialogue and leaves the rest to these images of vehicular carnage and visually distinctive character designs. It’s a remarkable feat, considering the odds against a silent film in a genre since known for its convoluted plotting, but then for audiences in 1928 this would all have seemed as fresh as anything. At two-and-a-half hours, Lang’s penultimate silent feature is a brisk ride through the origin points of beloved spy thriller tropes.

Fritz Arno Wagner’s photography has been restored from a process begun in 2003 by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Stiftung working from various nitrate copies, the basis of which came courtesy of Národní Filmový Archive in Prague. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema dual-format set comes packaged with a 69-minute documentary on the film, and a 40-page booklet containing writing by Murielle Joudet and Jonatham Rosenbaum.

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