DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog

Friday, 22 August 2014

Insomnia

While Erik Skjoldbjærg built upon the established cinematic traditions of procedural crime thrillers, in the light of the recent trend of atmospheric crime procedurals such as True Detective, The Killing, Prisoners, 1997’s Insomnia, in hindsight looks to be a direct aesthetic antecedent  for these other more successful pictures/series.

Insomnia (1997) dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Maria Mathiesen, Sverre Anker Ousdal

By Alan Bacchus

Insomnia was by no means an unsuccessful picture, the film received a prestigious slot at the Toronto International Film Festival, a US sale and theatrical release, but it will perhaps best be known by the Christopher Nolan remade version in 2002 starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams.

Set in the northern hinterland of Norway, a place so far north its seasons wax and wane between periods of near complete sunlight and near complete darkness, opening video footage depicts the death of a young teenage girl setting in motion the journey of maudlin Swedish police detective Jonas Engstrom (Skarsgård) into this land of the midnight sun. Immediately Engstrom is affected by the 24 hour daylight, wandering through the small town investigation in a delirious haze of sleeplessness.

Despite the delirium Engstrom is still able to execute his big city investigative tactics and quickly sort through the evidence to find the details of importance and attention. After looking through the victim’s wardrobe and noticing a number of high priced clothing items for instance he quickly deducing she must have had a older and wealthier benefactor/lover.

After randomly stumbling upon the victim’s discarded backpack, Engstrom cleverly engineers a trap to flush out the killer who presumably aims to reclaim the bag. This becomes the key set piece and turning point of the film, a superbly orchestrated chase sequence through the ominous Norwegain fog wherein Engstrom accidentally shoots his partner thinking it’s the killer. In any other situation Engstrom would likely have gotten off charges of homicide, but his insomniac delirium causes him to hide his tracks and pin the shooting on the chased killer.

This devious narrative twist turns around the conventions of the genre aligning Engstrom with the killer as he tries to hide the evidence of his accidentally malfeasance. Engstrom lies compound on one another devolving his moral judgment each step of the way.

While the narrative twist is a delightfully fresh take on the genre Skjoldbjærg’s depiction of Engstrom’s slow descent into madness anchors the picture in character. The identity of the killer becomes inconsequential to our focus on the Skjoldbjærg’s tortured hero. With limited dialogue Skarsgård's great physical performance is able to express the character's self-doubt, anguish and confusion through his movements, expression and posture.

The concept of a noir in daylight became one of the publicized hooks of the film, and Erling Thurmann-Andersen’s moody lighting compliments Skjoldbjærg’s quiet atmospheric tone perfectly. Unfortunately the career of Mr. Skjoldbjærg never quite took off after this remarkable film, or at least he has yet to better this debut film, but the reverence The Criterion Collection has demonstrated by anointing the picture in its library has assured Skjoldbjærg a legacy which can never be taken away.

***½

Insomnia is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection

Monday, 4 August 2014

Pickpocket

The Bresson brand of neo-realism is perhaps exemplified best with this unconventional character study of a Parisian thief desperately in need to self-fulfillment. Remarkably Bresson's seemingly simple approach uncluttered by the elements of traditional cinematic narrative allows the master filmmaker to create as much uncompromising tension as anything in Alfred Hitchcocks's filmography.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Noah

After rebooting his career with two small scale earth-bound pictures, The Wrestler and Black Swan, to my surprise Aronofsky launched back into big idea cinema with the previously unfilmed biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood. It’s a strange mix of epic swagger and Hollywood heroism and the intellectual cinematic gymnastics which Aronofsky has been known for. Ultimately it’s mildly rewarding and nothing of the intense feelings of emotion he made his name for in his more successful pictures.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Amistad

Steven Spielberg’s slavery drama exemplifies the late-career inconsistencies of the hitmaker. Startling moments of dramatic intensity and eye-popping depiction of the horrors of slavery are marred by heavy-handed preachiness. Thus, like many films of the post 80’s era we can admire the film but never feel fully satisfied by it in the end.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Crocodile Dundee

The story of the rustic Aussie cowboy Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee character brought to the vacuous Manhattan lifestyle in the height of Reagan-era 80’s decadence milks every ounce of comedy and charm from this scenario. It was an unlikely megahit in 1986, but even today the film remains highly watchable thanks to the easy-going naturalism and uber chemistry from its two newbie stars Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Breaking the Waves

Von Trier’s extravagantly conceived neo-realist fable seems now like a monumentally significant film in the cinema of the new millennium. Laying out Von Trier’s grandiosly tragic and melodramatic journey of her golden heart heroine under the handheld griminess of Von Trier’s shaky documentary style creates a strange but inspired cinematic experience unlike anything that came before it. Not only did it jump start the Dogme movement but legitimized the lo-fi aesthetic for all filmmakers to come.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Riot in Cell Block 11

Cinematic tough guy Don Siegel first exemplified himself as a director with vision with this razor sharp prison thriller, at once as a first-rate claustrophobic thriller but also as a critique of the inhumane conditions in US prison system at the time.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Considering the massive overkilled marketing push behind this film, the inspired mix of absurdest humour and sharp satire make Anchorman 2 a genuinely pleasant surprise. The almost 10 years between the first film and this one is worth the wait. While the character of lovable buffoon Ron Burgundy and his outlandish gags and set pieces are finely tuned, it’s the film’s sharp critique of the commodization of modern news which sets the film apart from other money-making franchise ventures, such as 'The Hangover'.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Agony and the Ecstasy

With Easter coming around, this also means the season of a historical epics – both in theatres and home video. Agony and the Ecstasy was one of the bigger films of its day, a 70mm showcase, telling the story of the Michelangelo and his tempestuous relationship with Pope Julius I who commissioned the surly artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. As usual with this kind of the film, the superb production value carries the weight over a dull story and hammy characterizations of historical figures.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

What a pleasure to see at age 70 Martin Scorsese, into the latter stage of his career, deliver one more sprawling crime picture, in this case a film which acts like a capper to a trilogy including Goodfellas and Casino, three pictures connected by the director's blistering cinematic pace, it's fascinating viewpoint into three segments of high stakes crime and corruption and it's sympathetic portrait of three contemptible characters. Once again Scorsese succeeds.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

George Washington

David Gordon Green’s dreamy feature debut renowned for its swath of Terrence Malick affectations feels even more warm and inviting fourteen years later. The consciously lazy narrative of a group of rural Texan kids, black and white, co-habitating happily, and growing up impervious to the pretty bleak squalor around them, is the functional foundation for Green’s lush tonal aesthetic. Essentially the film is made up of small moments of infectious and hypnotising beauty, moments and scenes which don’t always coalesce together fluidly, but collectively whet our palette through its nostalgic filter of childlike naivete.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen’s already celebrated picture consciously manages to find a medium ground between the intimate and avant-garde roots of his earlier pics and the broad historical canvas of American slavery. As devastating it is to see slavery depicted on screen he never seems to match the level of visceral impact as his debut Hunger. Thus, however powerful and moving there’s a feeling he’s tamed himself for the sake of American and Hollywood acceptability.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Brief History of Time

The story and science of renowned astro-physicist Stephen Hawking was given the Errol Morris cinematic treatment in A Brief History of Time in 1991. Morris’ ability to probe deep into unique idiosyncratic characters is put to the ultimate test in Hawking, the wheelchair bound genius with no way of communicating other than his hand controlled clicker and computer-translated voice. And yet through his inert facade emerges perhaps the most enlightening character study he’s ever made.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Saturn 3

There’s very little to praise in Saturn 3, the much-maligned Razzy-nominated science-fiction film from 1980, which appears like a stain on Stanley Donen’s ('Singing in the Rain', 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers') esteemed filmography. At the time, we could admire Donen’s desire to step into another genre, similar to Robert Wise’s success with 'Star Trek The Motion Picture' a year prior, but even with relaxed expectations today, the film never rises above a mere curiosity-piece for the talent involved.