A Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970)
Where’s it on? Second Run Blu-ray
Pavel Jurácek’s A Case for a Rookie Hangman is a film that contains nested worlds hidden from first sight. On one level it’s a surrealist adaptation of the latter parts of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (by way of Alice in Wonderland), on another a political satire intrinsically tied to its period and place of production: late 60s Czechoslovakia. “In the midst of such magical goings-on,” says Lemuel Gulliver (Lubomír Kostelka), “I was wasting time searching for truth, not realising it might well be outweighed in this world.” It’s a line in which first-time viewers seeking narrative and thematic mooring might find comfort, especially amid the visually jaw-dropping collisions of memory and fantasy with which the film begins. “Have you ever had a dream where all logic goes up in flames?” Better to let the film lead you down the dark path of its imagination, before jumping into Michael Brooke’s essential contextual essay included with this Second Run restoration. In fact, Jurácek’s earlier film, the 38-minute Josef Kilián (1963), serves as a magnificent primer to both the feature and his career as a whole. One of the great short films, it’s included in this superlative Blu-ray edition.
Black Joy (1977)
Where’s it on? Indicator Blu-ray
What little writing there is about Anthony Simmons’ Black Joy emphasises its problematic reputation. Many a commentator at the time of its release was uneasy with both its racial and gender politics, with considerable ire directed at what was perceived to be a white filmmaker’s misrepresentation of black culture. Reassessments have trickled through in recent years, but, if nothing else, this Indicator Blu-ray premiere affords an opportunity for the rarely screened film to rejoin a conversation on black British cinema that often jumps from Pressure (1976) straight to Burning an Illusion (1981). Politics aside, the film offers a street-level portrait of 70s Brixton, animated by a dynamic soul and reggae soundtrack. A fascinating artefact, with a spirited performance from Norman Beaton as Coldharbour Lane’s foremost hustler.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)
Where’s it on? Eureka Classics Blu-ray
Before he ushered in a hugely influential action aesthetic with A Better Tomorrow in 1986, John Woo was a filmmaker struggling to find his niche. Employed by the major Hong Kong studios Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, he had accidentally become a comedy director when his 1977 film Money Crazy made some serious bunce. Dreams of a Jean-Pierre Melville inspired gangster flick would have to wait. In the meantime, Woo kept on truckin’ in journeyman mode, churning out a Korean-shot kung fu picture (Hand of Death, 1976) and his sole wuxia joint, Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), a tribute to his Shaw Bros mentor, Chang Cheh. Both films land on Blu-ray this week courtesy of Eureka Classics, looking as good as they ever have. The later film is the superior article, but it’s great to have them side by side as a means of charting Woo’s formal development from imitator to innovator.
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1987)
Where’s it on? Indicator Blu-ray
Following Bellman and True (1987) at the end of last month, Indicator continue their stellar work releasing the lesser-known back catalogue of British independent producers Handmade Films. This week, it’s the turn of Jack Clayton’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a study in alcoholism and unrequited love set in mid-century Dublin. Maggie Smith gives the performance of her career as the titular protagonist, an unmarried piano teacher whose ‘lonely passion’ at once refers to a repressed sensuality and fondness for the bottle, both sources of a barely chastened shame and self-loathing. Bob Hoskins is the landlord’s brother back from America, stirring Judith’s fantasies while leading her to the brink of psychological ruin. It’s a devastating picture that deserves to be considered among the British greats.
Where’s it on? Montage Pictures Blu-ray
It’s hard to keep up with Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa these days. Last year he had films at Berlin, Venice and Cannes, while his Palme d’Or nominee from 2017, A Gentle Creature, played UK cinemas. Donbass is his 2018 Cannes joint, a panoramic satire of a city and its inhabitants in eastern Ukraine. Grotesquely funny until it definitely isn’t, the film begins and ends in ironic reflexivity, as a film crew respectively prepares to shoot and is set upon by Russian forces. On the evidence here, Loznitsa doesn’t hold much truck with the effectiveness of cinematic and journalistic representation, taking harsh aim at its practices across the film’s two hours. It’s a portrait of an occupied city, sprawling in both subject and tone, episodic in nature before thematically coalescing for an extended deadpan final shot. Savage stuff, and makes for a fascinating absurdist double with the first film on our list.