Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

© The Criterion Collection

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS)

Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring | Length 133 minutes

Dohui-ya (A Girl at My Door, 2014)

Dohui-ya (A Girl at My Door, 2014)

Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 25 September 2015

© CGV Movie Collage

For an 18-rated film this is an odd experience, not least because it avoids entirely the kinds of things you expect in 18-rated Korean films. Largely that’s because most Korean films that get a Western release are horror movies or otherwise extreme depictions of violence and revenge. A Girl at My Door has plenty to offer that’s disturbing (why else would it have an 18) but it’s not due to body horror or violence, it’s more down to the basic stuff of human interrelationships. Young-nam (Doona Bae) arrives in a small coastal town to take up the post of police chief; the reason for her posting remains mysterious, though there’s a hint at some wrongdoing in her previous role. She takes a place near to where young girl Do-hee (Sae-ron Kim) lives, and witnesses the girl being terrorised by her drunken father (Sae-byeok Song) and grandmother, so she steps in, over time taking on an almost maternal role to Do-hee. It all ambles along in an unhurried way, building up a picture of this community and the various relationships within it, folding in immigrants working there illegally, a measure of racism, sexism and homophobia, all the familiar stuff of small town drama. The kicker is the child abuse allegations and this is where things get really complex, but there’s a hint this may be less an issue of pædophilia as pædophobia, and importing a real sense of unease to the situation. There are hints in the setting of something like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, but the character drama is much more internalised and controlled, with excellent performances from both of the leads.

CREDITS || Director/Writer July Jung | Cinematographer Hyun-seok Kim | Starring Doona Bae, Sae-ron Kim, Sae-byeok Song | Length 119 minutes

Tongnian wangshi (The Time to Live and the Time to Die, 1985)

Short Review: Tongnian wangshi (The Time to Live and the Time to Die, 1985)

The BFI have been doing sterling work this past month putting on a retrospective of the works of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, so I took a chance to see this key early film of his. It bears many of the hallmarks of his mature directorial work, particularly his great masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989). Both films deal with the tumultuous political events affecting China’s relationship to Taiwan during the mid-20th century, refracting it through one family, though this earlier film is perhaps more attentive to the domestic drama. Undoubtedly there’s plenty happening behind the scenes, though its political commentary is more subtly done. It’s primarily a coming of age story dealing with Ah-ha (or Ah-hsiao, a stand-in for the filmmaker, played by Yu An-shun as he gets older), though the most dynamic presence within the family is the grandmother (Tang Ju-yun). She is convinced the family will be returning soon to the mainland, as evoked by the cheap wicker furniture the family have for their home, as they had always assumed their relocation would be temporary. It spans a couple of decades, as family members grow older and die, and deals in an almost deceptively calm way with the passage of time and of youth, as Ah-ha moves from studious child to rebellious teen.

RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW || Director Hou Hsiao-hsien | Writers Chu Tien-wen and Hou Hsiao-hsien | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin | Starring Yu An-shun, Tang Ju-yun | Length 138 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015

McFarland, USA (2015)

McFarland, USA (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.

CREDITS || Director Niki Caro | Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson | Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw | Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor | Length 129 minutes

The Intern (2015)

The Intern (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 28 September 2015

© Warner Bros. Pictures

Having just written about Miss You Already, another recent directed-by-a-woman comedy/drama, and criticising its somewhat patchy use of musical cues, along comes this fluffily inoffensive new Nancy Meyers comedy and oh boy, what was I even talking about yesterday? To be fair, like Anne Hathaway’s little indie romance Song One, if I’d seen this film on a plane or on TV when I was feeling ill, then I’d undoubtedly be giving it an easier ride. It’s perfect for those occasions. But in a cinema with a crowd of other chattering (perhaps somewhat cynical) attendees, it has its difficult stretches, and most of those for me revolve around the treacly orchestral score that kicks in whenever something meaningful or emotional is happening, generally in the last third. However, if you can get past that, the precociously annoying kid and the rather overextended later stretch that deals with romantic infidelity, there’s still enough to make it passably entertaining. There are some good jokes as the film is setting up its premise, that 70-year-old Ben (Robert De Niro) has applied for a ‘senior intern’ position within Jules (Hathaway)’s internet fashion company, and has to fit in with clued-up tech-savvy youngsters. A lot of that revolves around familiar age-vs-experience clashes, but Ben is also called on to show his sensitive side quite a lot, so your tolerance for De Niro’s mugging for the camera will be tested — though luckily he’s largely pretty good at it, and inoffensive, which is this movie’s watchword. But I love Anne Hathaway, and am always happy to watch her; she has an easy on-screen charisma. So despite all that manipulative music, despite her “adorable” daughter and the fact that everyone seems to live in homes that look like boutique hotel fashion plates, despite the fact that the company (for all its financial success) never in the end actually seems to pay any of their interns a salary — perhaps a sly commentary on the modern workplace — I still didn’t leave hating this movie. Your mileage may vary.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Nancy Meyers | Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt | Starring Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro | Length 121 minutes

Miss You Already (2015)

Miss You Already (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015

© Entertainment One

It appears to be the time of year for what are often dismissively termed “chick flicks”. I hate that term, like “women’s pictures” for the melodramas of the 1940s, it smacks of snobbish derision. There are already too many self-satisfied dude auteur films dealing with alienation and violence courting the film school pseuds, not to mention all those deadening superhero epics, so there can never be too many contrasting visions of the world. That all said, I’m not a huge fan exactly, though as far as a melodramatic ‘weepie’ goes, Miss You Already does fine. Drew Barrymore remains a potently charismatic and cheerful presence on any cinema screen even as she reaches her (shock!) 40s, but this film is all about Toni Collette’s English rock-n-roll chick (her accent doesn’t grate, thankfully), with whom Drew’s character grew up, as she acts out, gets into trouble, then has a family (apparently adjusting with ease) and, as we catch up with her, is now coping with a cancer diagnosis. Being set in London, everyone has those kind of perfect London homes that surely don’t really exist (Barrymore and boyfriend played by Paddy Considine live together on a boat overlooking Battersea Power Station!), and meaningful moments take place in picturesque locations — though at least the geography isn’t strained too far beyond credulity. More to the point, Collette gets through the tearful and angry scenes with her dignity intact, which is more than can always be said for whomever scored the film, though leaning on late-80s alt-indie classics is I suppose in keeping with the characters. It’s certainly not a bad film, and it’s even heartwarming in its way.

CREDITS || Director Catherine Hardwicke | Writer Morwenna Banks | Cinematographer Elliot Davis | Starring Toni Collette, Drew Barrymore, Paddy Considine, Dominic Cooper, Jacqueline Bisset | Length 94 minutes

Dreams of a Life (2011)

Dreams of a Life (2011)

Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 22 September 2015

© Dogwoof Pictures

As readers of the small print on my reviews may have noticed, I go to see films at the Cineworld in Wood Green a lot (it’s one of the closest cinemas to where I live), which is the last place I expected to see featured in a film, but that shows how much I know. But while Dreams of a Life might be memorable to me for that small fact — the woman whose life it presents met her end in a flat in that same building — it is instead a fantastic film with an emotional effect I can only pinpoint as Uncanny (or Unheimliche if you will). Of course, director Carol Morley has form with that: her most recent film, the eerie The Falling, was one of my favourites at last year’s London Film Festival.

Outwardly there’s not much to say about Dreams, for it’s ostensibly a documentary about a woman called Joyce who was discovered dead in her Wood Green flat in 2006, having lain undisturbed for over two years. But grisly details of her end aside, the film is more interested in trying to find out about Joyce’s life, largely filtered through the recollections of her friends and lovers. As part of this, and perhaps to make clear that this is a film interpreting who Joyce may have been, rather than merely presenting the strange facts of her case file, the film is built around dramatic reconstructions of her with actor Zawe Ashton portraying her onscreen. For it turns out that Joyce was no maladjusted outsider for whom such an end seemed predestined, but instead — it seems — a beautiful, intelligent and apparently happy person. There are darker hints that domestic violence and abuse have contributed, so in a way it’s as much a film about what people keep hidden and how that can be undetected by even those closest to them.

However, perhaps most of all, it’s a film filled with the hopefulness of human contact, and the sadness of losing touch, which is perhaps the real reason for my calling it uncanny, for there’s something strangely familiar that I imagine to it that all of us can relate to. Over its running time, the film casts a real spell, one that is only broken by the end credits, as we hear Joyce singing, her voice dreadfully out of key, almost painfully reminding us that this is still a real person who has died, no mere dream.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Carol Morley | Cinematographers Mary Farbrother and Lynda Hall | Starring Zawe Ashton | Length 95 minutes

Criterion Sunday 43: Lord of the Flies (1963)

© The Criterion Collection

William Golding’s famous dystopian novel about the breakdown of society along class lines, refracted through the story of kids marooned on a desert island, is a staple of high school curricula surely everywhere; it certainly was for me growing up, along with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, so I often get the two confused. Maybe that’s just because there’s a character called Piggy (here played by bespectacled Hugh Edwards, in a caricature of the intelligentsia), but in any case the film adaptation quickly focuses on the relationship between the two dominant boys, Ralph (James Aubrey) and Jack (Tom Chapin). The former is keen to ensure the rule of order in the common interest, while Jack soon stalks off to found his alternative society based on principles of self-interest and aggression. It’s all very beautifully shot by Tom Hollyman, a photographer rather than a cinematographer, and it gets to the core of Golding’s novel I think. However, as a film, it’s still very clearly just a group of public school brats run amok on a desert island, and your tolerance for that may affect how much you enjoy it.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 July 2015

Director/Writer Peter Brook (based on the novel by William Golding) | Cinematographer Tom Hollyman | Starring James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards | Length 92 minutes

Sicario (2015)

Sicario (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015

© Lionsgate

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.

CREDITS || Director Denis Villeneuve | Writer Taylor Sheridan | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro | Length 121 minutes

Blackfish (2013)

Short Review: Blackfish (2013)

As someone who was never likely to trouble the doors of a marine theme park, at least not one that entertains audiences with orcas (known more commonly as ‘killer whales’ or ‘blackfish’) doing tricks, I’m probably not the target of this documentary. And I can’t say that any of what it presents is really a surprise, except in so far as I’d never really thought about the practice of running such a theme park. But it turns out that it entails a fair amount of animal cruelty, not to mention some brazen disregard for the safety of human trainers. I have no doubt that working practices for the humans have improved at SeaWorld and other such facilities presented here, but to a certain extent this documentary isn’t even about the trainers — though the deaths of several of them are covered — but about the whales. Chief among them is Tilikum, a whale who has not only lived longer than many in captivity (reaching over 30 years, though still a fraction of an orca’s lifespan in the wild), but has also sired a huge number of SeaWorld’s orca stock, and, as it happens, caused the injury and deaths of more than one trainer. The chief insight then is into the lifespan of a captive orca, using ‘Tilly’ as an example: from capture, to being passed around a number of parks, kept in a variety of conditions, and required to take part in shows for sometimes scant reward. All of this, Blackfish suggests, seems to contribute to a level of psychosis in the whale that leads to them lashing out. Whatever the reasons for the whales’ violence under captivity, the clear message remains that capturing them and exploiting them for entertainment is just a bad idea for everyone who’s involved in it.

FILM REVIEW || Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite | Writers Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Eli Despres and Tim Zimmermann | Cinematographers Jonathan Inglis and Christopher Towey | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 21 September 2015