Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)
With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017
Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.
As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016
There’s a style of modern Japanese cinema that always seems just a little bit precious to me, in danger of being too arch, too cute, too sentimental, often with syrupy music that juts out even amongst all that. I’m not saying this is entirely one of those films, but it’s on a spectrum — one that, to be fair, also includes the work of Naomi Kawase and the very fine films of Hirokazu Koreeda. There is restraint in this story set in Kobe of a thirty-something seamstress Ichie (Miki Nakutani), following her grandmother’s designs, but wondering whether to update them, do her own designs, move into the modern world of branding and shopping centres. Even that thematic focus makes the film a little out of time itself, and it has a sort of quiet classical beauty to it. It’s based on a manga series, which only makes it clear that my idea of manga is pretty narrow, if they include ones about middle-aged women sewing suits and dresses for even older people. I like, too, that the film toys with a romantic subplot but doesn’t make it the core to our protagonist’s narrative, has a character in a wheelchair whose disability doesn’t define her entirely, and isn’t rushed in its storytelling. It does still have rather too big an orchestral soundtrack for my liking, but on the whole, it’s fairly inoffensive.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Japan Foundation Touring Programme
Director Yukiko Mishima | Writer Tamio Hayashi (based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe) | Cinematographer Kazutaka Abe | Starring Miki Nakutani, Takahiro Miura | Length 104 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 February 2017
I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.
Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz | Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard | Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017
Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017
By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016
I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).
Director/Writer Gregory Nava | Cinematographer Edward Lachman | Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda | Length 127 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017
A young man comes to the big city to track down his girlfriend, gets sucked in, spat out: the classic narrative. I can’t really speak to the subtext here: presumably there is some level of allegory about the Marcos regime at work (Mrs Cruz, abducting village girls into prostitution rings, looks a bit like Imelda). But then again a lot of the social criticism is fairly clear: this is a film about poor people, those marginalised within a crumbling, exploitative, venal, corrupt system. There are no protections for workers, no safeguard against crime, and the rising anger our hero feels — towards the dehumanising effects of his disenfranchisement, and those who would exploit him — propel him towards the film’s (withheld, but evidently bleak) conclusion. This is all heady stuff — violence, underworld criminality, gay sex rings (touched upon in a way that’s barely sensational, more a weary expectation of normality) — but done with empathy towards the suffering.
Director Lino Brocka | Writer Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr (based on the novel Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag by Edgardo M. Reyes) | Cinematographer Miguel de Leon | Starring Bembol Roca [as “Rafael Roco, Jr”], Hilda Koronel | Length 125 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 30 January 2017
This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015