The Best of Dorien B 2019 ****

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The title comes from a ancient mix CD that Dorien (Kim Snauwaert) plays in her car to her children, who are none too impressed by their mother’s music. It’s one of a number of caustic scenes in this accomplished first feature from Anke Blondé, a Belgian film with dialogue in Dutch. Dorien’s problems are recognisable enough; her husband Jeroen (Jelle De Beule) is charming, but he’s had an affair and enjoys the company of other women in his workplace. Infidelity is an issue; Dorien’s mother has been cheating on her father, and moves in with Dorien’s family, to her distress. Dorien herself is contemplating an affair with an old acquaintance. And her veterinarian practice, which she inherited from her father, pushes her in directions she doesn’t want to do; she doesn’t like dealing with horses. Dorien is in need of a change; things just aren’t working out for her as they stand. All these problems are dealt with in some way by the narrative here; the screenplay is acerbic, and there’s a few blistering scenes, such as a parents evening that takes an unexpected turn. And Dorein’s martial arts ability takes another scene in an unexpected direction. The Best of Dorien B. is the kind of thoughtful, intelligent film that critics are keen to describe as promising, or that Blondé is ‘one to watch’; the point here is that The Best of Dorien B. is an excellent film in its own right, and not just as a harbinger of something better to come. Snauwaert is terrific in a film that gets right under the skin of the central character, and the punch-line is uncontrived. This kind of careful, observational film is increasingly rare; watch Dorien B. and ask yourself when you last saw a British or American film so in tune to a female central character. British audiences might hark back to Carla Lane’s much loved 1980’s tv show Butterflies, which had a similarly sympathetic, acerbic view of motherhood, but Blondé’s film doesn’t need comparisons; like the central character, it’s got a vibe of its own.

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White Dog 1981 ***

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A late entry in Samuel Fuller’s resume, White Dog is a film about racism that doesn’t shirk tricky issues; questions of nature versus nurture are raised and not easily dismissed. Based on a book by Romain Gray, a French writer who once challenged Clint Eastwood to a duel (Eastwood declined), this project was adapted by Fuller and Curtis Hanson with fairly explosive results. White Dog is the story of a black dog trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) who tries to retrain a stray dog that has been trained to attack black people. Whether it’s possible for the animal to overcome it’s racially-based training or not, Fuller advances a strong metaphor for the dog representing racial hatred, and Keys obsessively trying to break down ingrained programming. For various reasons, White Dog was barely seen on release, and a welcome return on streaming should allow cineastes the chance to enjoy the photography of Bruce Surtees and the score by Ennio Morricone. White Dog has begun to amass some critical momentum as an controversial and original take on a hot subject, and hopefully it’s availability on streaming for the price of a cup of coffee may lead it to the audience it deserved but didn’t get back in 1981. Kirsty McNichol and Burl Ives provide strong support.

Saint Jack 1979 *****

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There’s been a couple of flickers of interest from people about the ‘why can’t I see this film?’ category; this tag gets added if a film isn’t on any of the main streaming services, and occasionally a link is provided if the film is on You Tube or Daily Motion. This is tough on film-makers, who presumably are losing out financially by not having their film behind a pay-wall, but the thinking is that the exposure, temporary as it might be, might at least engender enough interest for a re-release or even a restoration. Both would be desirable for Peter Bogdanovich’s best film, 1979’s adaption of the novel Saint Jack. Reputedly, Orson Welles gave the book to Cybill Shepherd, who got the rights as part of a legal win over Playboy magazine; Hugh M. Hefner produces. In the late seventies, an adult-themed film like Saint Jack was still deemed to have potential at the box-office, although poor distribution kept Paul Theroux’s adaptation of his own book out of mainstream theatres. Ben Gazzara gives a huge performance as Jack Flowers, an ex-pat who runs a Singapore brothel, and turns to an auditor (the great Denholm Elliot) for help, only to find himself out of his depth when the CIA get involved. Saint Jack is a brilliant character study of a reprehensible man who is also a decent human being; this is a story where the moral messages are not cut and dried. George Lazenby, Rodney Bewes and Joss Ackland round out the cast as ex-pats; Saint Jack dares to point the finger at American and British behaviour abroad, and comes to unsavoury conclusions about human nature. The gap between the public perception of this film and it’s quality is remarkable; a portrait of a hustler’s hustle, it’s every bit as good as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but the lack of violent catharsis seems to have relegated it to the dustiest drawer in film history. See it while you can.

The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957 ****

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Sci-fi gets a bad name; good sci-fi blows the mind; The Incredible Shrinking Man’s title suggests schlock, but Jack Arnold’s film is anything but. With a Richard Matheson script, it traces the law of diminishing returns as it applies in literal terms to Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a businessman who is enveloped in a radioactive cloud while on vacation. He begins to shrink, his clothes don’t fit but his wife Louise agrees to stick with him. He loses his job, his brother sells his story to the press, he becomes friends with a local dwarf; radioactivity seems like a one-way trip to Skid Row. But things get worse when Carey moves into a dolls house, and is terrorised by a cat and eventually a spider, which he battles after falling into the basement. The Incredible Shrinking Man was the kind of film the BBC would cheerfully show as family viewing after the 6pm news and local round up, back in the late 70’s, when anything sci-fi was thought to have audience appeal. Many tiny minds must have been expanded by the decidedly adult ending, in which Carey’s strength is reduced to a sub-atomic level, but he retains his consciousness and somehow accepts his place in the universe in a way that might have pleased Albert Camus. Simple storytelling, vivid effects and a disturbing premise which is followed through to the bitter end; Arnold and Matheson are cult figures now, and The Incredible Shrinking Man is reason enough for their canonisation.

Transit 2018 *****

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You are under arrest from the moment Transit begins; this critic literally had to restart Christian Petzold’s film to get his head round the film’s uniqueness. This is an adaptation of a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers, but the details are not in keeping with the book’s period; the sight and sound of modern ambulances and police vehicles interrupt the action, and the clothes seem deliberately chosen to not evoke any specific era. In this German/French co-production, set in a parallel universe, the dialogue and the situations are set out in much more detail, and they relate as much to 2019 as 1942. The building of walls and the re-enforcing of borders has led to an inevitable conclusion; almost everyone caught up in this story is a refugee of some kind. Georg (Franz Rogowski) leaves Paris for Marseilles carrying the writings of a recently deceased author and a letter from the author’s wife; it allows him to pass himself off as the writer, and potentially access to a precious opportunity to flee the fascist occupation of his country and head to Mexico. Georg is in transit, even if he’s temporarily stuck in the port while he works through various official channels. But his journey takes a diversion when he attempts to help a sick child, and becomes involved with the doctor who helps him, and a lover Marie (Paula Beer), who was previously married to the writer he’s impersonating. The situation is oppressive; there are, to paraphrase a line from Titanic, ‘too many people and not enough boats’; Georg must consider who will make it out of Marselles alive, and what role he will play in the escape. Transit is a brilliant and powerful film that blazes an original trail that puts most film-makers to shame; there’s a great throwaway line about a zombie movie where the undead congregate on a shopping mall; even the dead, one character comments, seem to have run out of ideas. Petzold’s distain for genre tropes is invigorating; he brings a classic text to life in a way that never puts it behind glass to admire. Instead he updates the text in a way that focuses on the timeless personal suffering of the dispossessed; Transit is essential viewing for anyone wondering where the political directions of 2019 might lead.

Transit is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Streaming Services from Aug 16th 2019.

Venezia 2019 ****

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It’s something of a cliché to say that the backdrop can feel like a character in an evocative film; Rodrigo Guerrero’s Argentinian/French co-production makes extensive use of a wintry Venetian location that gives it a unique, haunting quality. Paula Lussi plays Sofia, a woman with a secret; part of the power of Venezia is that the audience only gradually uncover the details of what that secret is. She wanders the narrow streets, has language difficulties with local shop-keepers, a painful encounter with a local lothario. Some of the people she meets are sympathetic, and she manages to strike up a few bonds. But when she blurts out her story, it’s not believed; her fragile relationships are not ready for the weight of tragedy. The city of Venice has become something of a tourist trap, but Venezia returns it to the more spiritual and sinister realm of Don’t Look Now; some casual throw-away shots provide a useful index to Sofia’s feeling of alienation, and the way the dialogue switches between languages emphasises the communication issues. Venezia is a short story, heart-rending and effective in engaging the emotions; it’s prime assets are Venice itself, the bleak yet luminous photography of Gustavo Tejeda, Guerrero’s humanity and sensitivity, and Lussi’s arresting performance. At 74 minutes, it’s a snapshot of being alone in a foreign country which also carries a subtle political weight in 2019, and marks an effective third film from Guerrero.

The Legend of The Holy Drinker 1988 ****

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Rutger Hauer’s favourite amongst his own movies was untypical of his output; working with the esteemed Ermanno Olmi of Tree of Wooden Clogs fame, he gives a quiet and understated performance in this adaptation of Joseph Roth’s slim novel. Hauer plays Kartak, a homeless man in 1930’s Paris who is leant money by a stranger (Anthony Quayle) on the condition that he repays it when he can. Of course, that’s not easy for an alcoholic, and his struggle to find the strength within himself to repay the cash has a clear and simple allegorical strength. One of Hauer’s biggest fans, critic Dilys Powell, was horrified by the direction his career took in the 1980’s and 90’s; a decent into B movie hell through random vehicles such as Blind Fury, Salute to the Jugger and Split Second. The Legend of the Holy Drinker was developed for Marcello Mastroianni, then offered to Robert De Niro; no less an actor that either man on his day, Hauer excels as the fabled alcoholic here in this quiet, often wordless film, somewhat ironically given that he was the promotions man for Guinness in a series of expensive adverts at the time.