Criterion Sunday 78: The Bank Dick (1940)

© The Criterion Collection

W.C. Fields is one of those distictively American comic performers who have always passed me by, having not been brought up on the brand of vaudevillian comedy of pratfalls and slapstick that he seems to fit into. Indeed, another great troupe in that lineage (the Three Stooges) is represented here by a small role for Shemp Howard as a bartender. It’s a comedy style that really emphasises physical grace, not something you’d expect from a man with his diminutive stature and alcoholic persona (which I gather rather carried over into his personal life), but Fields is excellent at these, no doubt due to a lifetime of stage training which began with juggling. This 1940 feature film also incorporates a number of tropes that are repeated throughout his oeuvre as elements of his comic persona, including a dismissive attitude to people of other races (luckily a fairly minor part of this film) and a strong dislike for children — though they tend to get one over on Fields’s protagonists in the end. As to the film itself, which follows the fortunes of one Egbert Sousé (who is indeed a souse, but not pronounced that way) as he unwittingly foils a bank robbery and quickly finds himself installed as a security guard, it’s a loose structure to hang a series of gags and setpieces. However, that needn’t be a bad thing for a comedy, and there are indeed plenty of laughs, though quite how you’ll take them depends on your taste for Fields’s work.

Criterion Extras: Nothing is included on the disc aside from the film, but there’s a printed essay with a bit of context for the new viewer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Edward F. Cline | Writer W. C. Fields [as “Mahatma Kane Jeeves”] | Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner | Starring W. C. Fields | Length 72 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016

The Divide (2015)

There have been no shortage of either documentaries or fiction films about the post-2007/8 economic recession and its effects over recent years, though The Divide isn’t specifically concerned with this so much as widening wealth inequality within society generally (which has, if anything, only been exacerbated by 2008 and its fallout). The director Katharine Round, basing the subject of her film around a non-fiction book called The Spirit Level, does use knowledgeable talking heads (including the source book’s authors) to get some context on the issues, but the primary focus is a number of case studies on either side of the Atlantic. Because these interviewees are well-chosen, the film is never boring. These people range from the poorest folks in both countries (most notably a KFC worker in the US South, an former-alcoholic rapper in a grim bit of Scotland, and a prisoner caught by the USA’s “three strikes” rule who is intelligent and reflective but has also been startlingly worn down by the system) to the embattled middle-classes ever striving upwards (there’s a NYC psychologist with a nice apartment in New Jersey, and a very articulate mother living rather against her better convictions in a gated community). Moreover, it has a striking visual style with clean careful framings of its shots, and this visual excellence sets it apart from many documentaries. This style may make it a little easier to listen to some powerful individual testimonies about the effects of endemic poverty and the dangers of being trapped into a cycle of payments and fines, but it doesn’t dilute the anger you are ultimately left with at the end, which very briefly — and not entirely convincingly — suggests action is still possible, and change can happen. One can only hope it is, given some of the lives seen here.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Katharine Round (based on the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett) | Cinematographer Woody James | Length 78 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 29 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 77: Et Dieu… créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956)

© The Criterion Collection

Against the backdrop of mid-50s French cinema, I can imagine that this film by Roger Vadim cleared a path for itself by virtue of the youthful insouciance of its lead actor, Brigitte Bardot — playing Juliette, a liberated young women toying with the affections of a number of men — not to mention the saturated colour of its widescreen cinematography. However, viewed from 60 years on, it seems somewhat inconsequential, though fitfully enjoyable and attractively presented. Her love interests are chiefly two brothers (Christian Marquand as Antoine, and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the younger one, Michel) working in a small independent shipyard, threatened by the interests of local big business (another of Juliette’s love interests, Mr Carradine). The much-remarked-upon sexuality of Bardot in the lead role is (literally) PG-rated now — the film’s poster (and cover art) is largely out of keeping with what we see on screen — and seems almost innocuous given what we are routinely presented with in modern cinema, though her ‘liberated’ character is very far from being feminist.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short piece showing the restoration work, which isn’t the most persuasive extra in the world, as well as a trailer. The Criterion essay included in the booklet gets rather obsessed about Bardot’s bottom, so I’m not clear quite whether this was the sole criterion for inclusion in the collection.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roger Vadim | Writers Roger Vadim and Raoul Lévy | Cinematographer Armand Thirard | Starring Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Christian Marquand | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Beijing Yushang Xiyatu Zhi Bu Er Qingshu (Finding Mr Right 2 aka Book of Love, 2016)

The title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle”, but those were the settings of the first film (which I didn’t see), and instead our star-crossed lovers (Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo) here live in Macau and Los Angeles, the former setting introduced in tourist-brochure terms as a mecca for glamorous international gamblers. Indeed, I gather this sequel uses the same actors and the same basic premise, but is an otherwise standalone film — not that anyone would have any difficulty catching up with it, given the broad generic sweep of its storyline. The plot leans heavily on the romantic novel 84 Charing Cross Road in orchestrating a romance based on the anonymous exchange of letters between lovers which have been sent to that London address (London only shows up in the film’s rather absurdly, but almost touchingly romantic, denouement). In a sense, all of its contrivances are little more than absurd nonsense — and in its insistence on written letters, a strangely old-fashioned film — but after all, it’s a romantic weepie in which our two photogenic leads keep almost bumping into each other, as their feelings gradually deepen into love. Therefore, whatever reservations I may have, I still find it ultimately likeable, though it helps to see a film which finishes up in London at a cinema mere steps away.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Xiaolu Xue | Cinematographer Chi-Ying Chan | Starring Wei Tang, Xiubo Wu | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Friday 29 April 2016

As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Miguel Gomes | Writers Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla) | Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom | Starring Crista Alfaiate | Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3]

Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

© The Criterion Collection

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward) [uncredited] | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016)

Dheepan (2015)

I get the sense that as a Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, this was a controversial choice, but when you watch it, it makes total sense. Quite aside from its genre trappings (which only really assert themselves towards the end, when the vengeance becomes rather more gung-ho), it’s a warmly humanist film about refugees which strikes a strong note of tolerance and understanding. That’s not to say the title character is a hero — as played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, he’s a flawed, slightly bitter man, whose experiences as a Tamil Tiger soldier have shaped him, and are the reason he’s driven to seek a better life. In doing so, he adopts a new name, picking up a similarly desperate woman in the refugee camp to be his ‘wife’ (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn essentially barters for a motherless child to be their ‘daughter’ (Claudine Vinasithamby). Their new location in France is a forbidding housing estate called ‘the field’, which is indeed surrounded by greenery, albeit the scrubby suburban variety, but which is a crumbling place ruled by gangs (led by a James Franco-alike turn from Vincent Rottiers). From thereon in, the film works to get across a sense of the “family”‘s life in France, at work and at school, beset by a series of small bureaucratic aggressions which take their toll, but never overwhelm the three. It’s never quite feels like the masterpiece the award suggests it should be, but it’s still a fine film from a director with some form on this ground.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jacques Audiard | Writers Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré | Cinematographer Éponine Momenceau | Length 115 minutes | Starring Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Wednesday 13 April 2016

Miles Ahead (2015)

This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Don Cheadle | Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle | Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer | Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 75: Chasing Amy (1997)

© The Criterion Collection

I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith | Cinematographer David Klein | Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee | Length 113 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016)

Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore | Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston | Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016