Criterion Sunday 199: Schizopolis (1996)

I think maybe Soderbergh is onto something here, a three-part comedy satire about, well, I don’t know, adultery? The American Dream? The suburban middle-classes? It seems to touch on a lot of things with a deadpan that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python, or low-budget Wes Anderson at times, but mostly this is just demented throwing-ideas-at-the-screen-and-seeing-what-sticks kinda stuff. By the time it’s finished, the manic energy has calmed a bit into something a little more contemplative, about the leading lady (Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s ex-wife) and a feeling of ennui, perhaps, comes through. But mostly, it’s just quite exhausting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh | Starring Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2000 (and on DVD at a friend’s house, London, Sunday 18 February 2018)

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July 2018 Film Roundup

A bit late with it this month, but after my lacklustre effort in June to watch new films (I only managed three in total), I’ve redoubled my efforts and can for July present you an EXPANDED new films list, that even so manages to miss out the wonderfully enjoyable Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again… It’s been a month of SUN and HEATWAVE temperatures (for Britain) which means that the cool comfort of a cinema screen has been particularly welcome. (As ever, daily write-ups are at Letterboxd.)

Last month I also promised an update for stats fans, and I can confirm that 50% of the features I watched in July were directed by women (20 out of 40 films in total), and as you can see six of them show up in each of the top 10s below. Moreover, 53% of the films I saw (i.e. 21) were directed by people of colour.

Top 10 New Films (on their first release in the UK)


Leave No Trace (2018, dir. Debra Granik)
Cold War (2018, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)
Shakedown (2018, dir. Leilah Weinraub)
In the Fade (2017, dir. Fatih Akin)
Naila and the Uprising (2017, dir. Julia Bacha)
Outside In (2017, dir. Lynn Shelton)
Speak Up (2017, dir. Amandine Gay)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Claire’s Camera (2017, dir. Hong Sang-soo)
Pin Cushion (2017, dir. Deborah Haywood)

I saw all but one of these films at a cinema (the odd one out was Netflix-only release Outside In). For some of them, saying they were on “release” is a little misleading (Claire’s Camera was a one-off Korean Film Festival preview screening, Speak Up was another one-off screening, while Cold War is being released properly at the end of August).

It’s good to see more 2018 films finally making these lists, and the two up the top are surely the strongest of 2018’s dramatic narrative films I’ve seen so far this year. Leave No Trace for me is superior to the same director’s Winter’s Bone of almost ten years ago, and the young woman at the centre of the story is a New Zealand actor it turns out. In any case, she gives a great performance, coming across (and I mean this as a compliment) as an unrehearsed non-actor, someone who’s really living the part. Ben Foster also disappears into the film, as he tends to do (he’s been in so many good films, but I still don’t really know how to spot him). Cold War, meanwhile, in a sense extends Pawlikowski’s black-and-white historical Polish stories after Ida, but strikes a quite different tone. There’s a heavy sense of doomed romance, and Pawlikowski cuts out everything that’s extraneous, so that it comes in at under 90 minutes.

Elsewhere, there’s a strong showing from documentaries, which this past month have ranged across subjects like underground LA queer sex workers in Shakedown (a fascinating story of people who aren’t much represented on screen) to reminiscences of the Palestinian Intifada in Naila and the Uprising, and French feminists of colour speaking direct to camera in Speak Up.

Outside In and Pin Cushion are little indie dramas from the US and UK respectively, the latter of which has a bleak edge that makes what initially seems like a twee coming of age story feel a little more raw by its conclusion. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is the blockbuster on the list (which feels a little rote now in this franchise, but still manages to pack plenty in), and In the Fade is a fine German film anchored by an amazing performance from Diane Kruger. Finally, if you haven’t really enjoyed some of Hong Sang-soo’s recent films, you probably won’t like Claire’s Camera because it continues his improvisational non-style-as-style technique, and has a daffy Isabelle Huppert wandering around Cannes.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

beDevil (1993, dir. Tracey Moffatt)
I Am Somebody (1970, dir. Madeline Anderson)
Chocolat (1988, dir. Claire Denis)
The Battle of Chile (1975-79, dir. Patricio Guzman)
Mamma Mia! (2008, dir. Phyllida Lloyd)
Mossane (1996, dir. Safi Faye)
Little Fugitive (1953, dir. Morris Engel/Ruth Sorkin/Ray Ashley)
Thursday Till Sunday (2012, dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
The Man by the Shore (1993, dir. Raoul Peck)
The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (1990, dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

After last month’s blow-out at Bologna, most of these were seen at home, although it’s notable that the top two were seen at Bristol’s Cinema Rediscovered festival, which takes direct inspiration from Bologna. It’s a new festival, but Bristol is a lovely city with plenty of sense of artistic discovery and I look forward to revisiting it. Tracey Moffatt is an Australian artist of part Aboriginal descent, and beDevil was her only feature: it is very much the film of an artist, and has a singular sense of place, with the kind of stage-bound feeling of old Hollywood movies but riven through with a confrontational sensibility that makes it very much an outlier of everything else being made at the time. I Am Somebody, meanwhile, is a short film made during the Civil Rights movement which deals with intersectional ideas of the struggle for social change at a time when these ideas were still in their infancy.

The others largely just reflect what I’ve been renting from my video shop, although the Raoul Peck film is from me struggling to work through a box set of his Haitian films, and Mossane was a one-off screening at the BFI of a singular Black African woman filmmaker (one of very few).

Criterion Sunday 198: Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, aka Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974)

It’s such a simple setup really: an older woman falls for a younger man, an immigrant to her country (although she herself is the daughter of a foreigner, as her neighbours are quick to note to one another), and is thus swiftly ostracised by everyone around her. However, it’s remarkable how many ways Fassbinder finds to approach this. As a starting point, it’s a story set in post-War Germany about how easy it is to fall into a judgement of outsiders, but it’s also a story of the ambiguous relationship between class and race (Emmi herself is a cleaner, but society already values her whiteness more). This latter concept then gets bundled up into a critique of capitalism, as tolerance fights against and is then co-opted by market needs. It’s a story of family tensions, which is where All That Heaven Allows enters the (TV) picture. It’s even a story of food as a locus of intercultural engagement and tension (couscous gets a pretty prominent role, and the local grocer is a key part of Emmi’s ostracism). And then when things seem to be lightening for the two, we realise that Emmi is unthinkingly being pushed into the behaviour she had so despised in others earlier on, thus so easily becoming once again part of multiple systems of oppression that, so briefly, she had shockingly been made to confront herself. But, at its heart, it still remains such a simple story and that’s where its power lies.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges | Starring Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Irm Hermann, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Barbara Valentin | Length 93 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 9 May 2001 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998 and at university, Wellington, March 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 11 February 2018)

Criterion Sunday 197: Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956)

It may only be half an hour but it puts across everything it needs to, about the scale and terror of some (very recent, contemporary) history, given it was made just 10 years after the end of the war. It deals a bit with the way that sites of abject misery so quickly return to verdant life: I remember visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and they seemed like such peaceful places, as they do at times in this film, but then there’s the archival footage, and the vastness of it is difficult to comprehend. I’m not really sure this film manages to make it comprehensible because in so many ways it’s not, but it hints at these appalling events and it’s important for people to be reminded.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais | Writer Jean Cayrol | Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny | Length 32 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 February 2018)

Criterion Sunday 196: Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

When people think about pretentious French movies, I think this is somehow the Platonic ideal they’re thinking about, an ur-text of reflective voiceover, alienated detachment and pain, the possibility (and impossibility perhaps) of cultural rapprochement following imperialist aggression, opening as it does with the conjoining of bodies under the ash of nuclear fallout. It is, as has been far more eloquently expressed by commentators far more engaged than I am, about the complex interplay of memory and desire, but it is also aggressively modernist in its construction and the way it engages with the viewer, so unlikely to be for all tastes. I first watched it 20 years ago, and I’ll watch it in another 20, and I can only hope to catch up with what it’s doing by then.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais | Writer Marguerite Duras | Cinematographers Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny | Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Eiji Okada | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 February 2018 (and earlier, on VHS in Wellington, December 1997)

Criterion Sunday 195: I fidanzati (aka The Fiances, 1962)

Presented side-by-side in the Criterion Collection with Olmi’s previous film Il posto, this has a quite different feeling to it, even if it has all the same beauty to its monochrome cinematography. Instead of moving to the big city of Milan, this film has a hero who leaves that city for the remoteness of Sicily. It’s about two people who are already together as of the film’s start, but who seem to be unhappy and drifting apart. It’s a film that doesn’t constantly look forward to a (possibly bleak) future, but continually seems to look back to a (apparently happier) past from that bleak present. This shifts some of the emotional weight of the film a little, but love — while uncertain in both films — here instead has a haunting, spectral presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ermanno Olmi | Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi | Starring Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi | Length 77 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018

Criterion Sunday 194: Il posto (1961)

I certainly didn’t expect a great deal from this film when I watched it, the first Olmi film I’d seen, expecting some kind of 60s extension of the neorealism ‘brand’. However, that would be to woefully undersell this beautifully shot and exquisitely judged film about young people. And unlike many in that ‘coming of age’ genre, this isn’t (just) about falling in love, it’s about having to move from school into the workplace, about moving away from home, it’s about navigating a world of responsibility that wears you down and faces you as a possibly bleak, possibly boring, possibly unceasingly repetitive and yet ever uncertain future. Plus, the beautiful young woman who plays our hero Domenico’s inamorata turns out to have married director Ermanno Olmi, and apparently they’re still together, so maybe that’s enough to allay any concerns about what happens to the protagonist as he looks forward in life.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ermanno Olmi | Writers Ettore Lombardo and Olmi | Cinematographer Lamberto Caimi | Starring Sandro Panseri, Loredana Detto | Length 93 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 February 2018

June 2018 Film Roundup

Sadly, I have failed in my third month of my sub-quest to watch more than 50% films directed by women (last month was more succesful), though my general 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day continues apace. This comes down to my own poor planning in advance of a week-long jaunt to Bologna for its fantastic Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival. I loved that festival, I loved the town, I loved having dinner and Aperol/Campari spritzes with friends as well as meeting new people (mostly film writers and academics), and I loved the food and general vibe of both the town and the festival. However, as it’s a festival dedicated to old and archival films (as well as new restorations of old films), it does mean the demographics skew a bit white and male — not just on the films, but on the attendees too it might be added. I got the feeling that the festival was trying to address the diversity at least a tiny bit (it was my first year so I can’t really be sure), and I tried my best to fit as many films directed by women in, but it was not enough to pass my own little quest for this month. That said, I’ll redouble my efforts in the (not named after a woman) month of July. Also, I didn’t even watch enough films to get a top 5 for new release movies, but I blame that on film distributors — the weather has been rather sunny and lovely, and a few blockblusters clogged the screens.

PS Once again, I’m still posting notes on all the films I see over at Letterboxd but herewith my summary.

Top 3 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

Another Country (2015, dir. Molly Reynolds)
Casa Roshell (2017, dir. Camila José Donoso)
The Rape of Recy Taylor (2017, dir. Nancy Buirski)

The first two films were on Mubi this past month, and only the last had a cinema release. Moreover, I only really liked the first film; the other two are the only other two new-release films I saw, so they’re there by default (and even then, I’m including Another Country because I believe this is its first proper release in the UK, aside perhaps from some one-off screenings).

That first film is a documentary about Aboriginal people, and the way in which their lives have been affected by racist policies of the Australian government: it’s a strong film about giving a sense of a community, but it’s also depressing, with little apparent hope for change to the way these Aboriginal reservations are organised. The other two are also documentaries, the first sort of a hybrid documentary-fiction about a Mexican nightclub and its genderqueer and trans performers, the second about a footnote to the early history of the Civil Rights movement in the USA largely composed of historians and archival footage.

Top 15 Old Films (but new to me)

Cabaret (1972, dir. Bob Fosse)
È piccerella (1922, dir. Elvira Notari)
Late Chrysanthemums (1954, dir. Mikio Naruse)
Lieutenant Kizhe (1934, dir. Aleksandr Faintsimmer)
In Jackson Heights (2015, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
Journey to the West (2014, dir. Tsai Ming-liang)
Crown Prince of the Republic (1934, dir. Eduard Ioganson)
Jane B. by Agnès V. (1988, dir. Agnès Varda)
Black Goddess (1978, dir. Ola Balogun)
Chronicle of the Years of Fire (1975, dir. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina)
Lights of Old Broadway (1925, dir. Monta Bell)
Mysterious Shadows (1949, dir. G.W. Pabst)
Haitian Corner (1988, dir. Raoul Peck)
The Winter of Three Hairs (1949, dir. Gong Yan/Ming Zhao)
Carita de cielo (1947, dir. José Díaz Morales)

Because of the shorter list above, and because of the Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival (accounting for all the pre-80s films above except the Naruse), I’ve expanded the list this month to 15 choices, and there are plenty more I could have added that I’d still have liked more than even my favourite new-release film this month.

In Bologna, most of the films I saw were vintage 35mm prints from various archives. The Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles furnished vintage Technicolor prints, clearly the best and most impressive way to see Cabaret for the first time — a film I loved, despite its Oscars success (never a guide to quality, of course). Various national archives came through for the rest. There were Soviet films, and two of the four I saw from their 1934 strand are above, both amusing and wry. There were silent films, both my choices above by women filmmakers (Monta Bell in the States, and Elvira Notari in Italy), and both also amusing, if broad, comedies. There was a strand of Chinese films, from which I saw three films, with the one above my favourite, a beautifully shot portrait of an era filtered through a comic book sensibility. I didn’t end up including any of the 1930s Fox films, or the John M. Stahl melodramas, perhaps because in the case of the former, they were not the best films (though they were interesting), and in the latter I’m just not a huge melodrama fan, even if I can appreciate the artistry Stahl brought to his work. However, one of the Mexican melodramas sneaks in, the grandly enjoyable and daffy Carita de cielo, though I’m kicking myself I missed Victims of Sin, which I hear was wonderful.

Additionally, there was a programme called ‘Cinemalibero’ that included various activist and revolutionary films, not least Nigerian filmmaker Ola Balogun’s Brazilian film Black Goddess, who was there to introduce it, and was a real highlight (and a rare film to get to see). The other film I’ve included above from that strand was a new restoration (therefore presented in digital format), the grand and sweeping story of Algerian independence, taking in much of the early-20th century, the beautiful Chronicle of the Years of Fire (its director was also there, but I didn’t get the chance to listen, and my French wouldn’t have been up to it, in any case).

Finally of the Bologna films was another recent restoration in digital 4K, which was the late Pabst film Mysterious Shadows. It may not have been a masterpiece, but it was great fun — taking in cave exploration, ice skating, bad capitalists trying to exploit science, a romantic three-way, and some deft camerawork. With all that, and the relatively cheap eating and drinking, I shall definitely be returning to this film festival.

Criterion Sunday 193: Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

A whodunit movie, I suppose, but one in which that all seems a little beside the point by the end (it’s a really short scene of ‘it was me all along!’ ‘Oh, okay then’ or something like that; and I won’t remember the plot contrivances by this time next week). This is a film about the detective (Louis Jouvet) — the title refers to the address of the Paris city police, somewhat in the manner of Scotland Yard in the UK — and the film tracks him as he follows leads and hunches in investigating the murder of a wealthy creep. In the course of this, the detective stalks around the theatre and its milieu, interviewing people, teasing out relationships and the underlying currents that connect people and push them apart. It’s a film of great style, and lived-in weary performances, which seems something of a trait of the Clouzot films I’ve seen. Everyone talks a whole lot, but it’s the kind of solidly unflashy film resonant in lived-in period detail that seems to characterise an older, black-and-white, era of filmmaking. As such, it would probably make a lot more sense if I were watching it in a cinema.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot | Writers Clouzot and Jean Ferry (based on the book Légitime défense by Stanislas-Andre Steeman) | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier | Length 106 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 January 2018

Criterion Sunday 192: Coup de Grâce (Der Fangschuß, 1976)

There’s a lot of really strong stuff in this film, set in 1919 towards the latter stages of the Russian Civil War, but it all seems so curiously distant and alienated, perhaps because it’s partly a film about the way the ravages and atrocity of war makes people curiously distant and alienated from one another. They don’t even always speak the same language to one another (sometimes French, sometimes German), as if even at a production level they couldn’t quite connect. It’s a film of passionate feelings conveyed coldly, suppressed and pushed away, and finally snuffed out. The black-and-white cinematography is beautiful and glacial, and Margarethe von Trotta (usually a director in her own right, but who wrote the script with two other women adapted from a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar) is excellent in the lead role of Sophie, who almost callously demands the love of Erich (Matthia Habich), an officer, who pushes her away, leading them to get tangled up in a strange psychosexual relationship (somewhat reminding me of The Night Porter too). However, the film never enunciates anything quite so clearly as that, and a lot of these dramatic shifts in their relationship seem to happen off-screen or almost in passing. But as I said, it has that strange distancing affect to it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff | Writers Jutta Brückner, Margarethe von Trotta and Geneviève Dormann (based on the novel Le Coup de grâce by Marguerite Yourcenar) | Cinematographer Igor Luther | Starring Margarethe von Trotta, Matthias Habich | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 January 2018