Criterion Sunday 172: Pépé le Moko (1937)

I’d already reviewed this film before embarking on this Criterion-watching journey, so my comments there still stand, though on second watch I’m prepared to be a bit more generous towards what it achieves. After all, as a classic of a certain genre (‘poetic realism’) and an antecedent for so much else (film noir, hard-boiled romantic leads, beautiful nihilism), this should really be more famous than it is. Jean Gabin is on fine form as the existentially ennui-laden yet dashing crim of the title, who falls for an upper-class woman slumming it in the Casbah of Algiers, and lets that lead him to lose his edge. The poetry comes through in the odd framing, an expressive use of the camera with a bit of soft focus and some nice little bits of montage (most notably when he first meets Mireille Balin’s femme).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Julien Duvivier | Writers Henri La Barthe (as “Détective Ashelbé”), Julien Duvivier, Jacques Constant and Henri Jeanson (based on the novel by La Barthe) | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Jules Kruger | Starring Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 19 July 2013 (and most recently at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 August 2017)

Advertisements

Criterion Sunday 171: Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963)

I’ve seen this film of Godard’s several times over the decades and I feel both compelled and distanced from it, though that may be by design. It’s about filmmaking at a certain level, it’s about the clash of cultures, it’s about a relationship being torn apart (mirroring Godard and Anna Karina, one presumes, at least to a point) and it’s about a lot in between, but mainly it’s about contempt. Not least, one might extrapolate, that includes the director’s difficulty with women, suggesting a certain unknowability. It’s beautiful and hard, and contains a lot, and for all that I don’t necessarily enjoy its characters, I think the filmmaking is about as good as Godard managed.

Criterion Extras: There are plenty of extras on a 2 DVD set, including Encounter with Fritz Lang (1964), a short film in which the director speaks a little on the set of Contempt, but is mostly clips illustrating his architectural style in his early German work. There’s also two Jacques Rozier short films. Le Parti des choses: Bardot et Godard (1964) is a slight little piece about Godard filming Bardot, which takes a sort of philosophical path. However, the better is Paparazzi (1964). Brigitte Bardot, it turns out, was very famous in the 60s, and this film deals with obsessive photographers using a fairly recently-coined term. Those guys are still with us because they’ve become embedded into a system that reinforces and commodifies fame, and that is hinted at with the context of magazine sales, but this short film is mostly about how they were annoying when she was filming Contempt. It’s quite strikingly put together, and has a zingy energy to it. Other extras include an interview with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, an audio commentary, and an hour-long discussion between Fritz Lang and Godard called The Dinosaur and the Baby (1967).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Il disprezzo by Alberto Moravia) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Brigitte Bardot, Michel Piccoli, Jack Palance, Fritz Lang, Giorgia Moll | Length 101 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 (and later on DVD at home in London on Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently at a friend’s home on Sunday 20 August 2017)

Criterion Sunday 170: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

On second viewing, this still impresses as Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece. It’s not just in the characters — whose love affairs are delightful, particularly that between gentleman thief Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and elegant pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins), handled with the ‘touch’ Lubitsch was known for, a sort of playful understanding of sex before that was a subject you were ‘allowed’ to address directly in cinema — nor the fabulous actors (oh, Kay Francis!) but in the subtler artistry. The camerawork for example, just little pans across to catch a detail (especially in that almost avant-garde sequence of clock faces dissolving into yet more clocks). Or the way a fade to black can suggest so much. It’s the way that every actor gets little tics that make them into real people, or that a famous city like Venice can be introduced by a garbage gondola in the night, undercutting with great economy the usual conventions. There are so many fine choices, articulated as part of a whole that moves towards a romantic comic resolution, and all of it in well under 90 minutes.

Criterion Extras: There’s a 45-minute long film from early in Lubitsch’s career included as an extra, Das fidele Gefängnis (The Merry Jail) (1917). Lubitsch likes the genteel contours of the sex comedy, though his famous ‘touch’ wasn’t perhaps so refined in 1917 as it would be a mere fifteen years later. Indeed, this is primarily a stagy (three act) farce, in which a frivolous dissolute womanising husband has one put over him by his wife, using the time-honoured (even 100 years ago) device of putting on a mask to fool him. There’s a side-plot about the wife’s maid and… I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with the jail, such is the economy/speed with which this 45 minute film just speeds by, but suffice to say there’s a lot of kissing — whether cheating men with other women, or jailed men with their drunken captors. Isn’t life a merry jail?


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernst Lubitsch | Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play A Becsületes Megtaláló by Aladár László) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis, Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles | Length 83 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Friday 23 May 2014 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017)

January 2018 Film Roundup

I rarely post here nowadays except for the weekly Criterion Sunday films (some day, some day, I’ll get round to posting more once again)… But I’ve still been watching films! My friend Pete has been doing a 2018 challenge to watch an unseen film (something new or new to you) every day, so that’s quite a few films. I’m posting notes on them over at Letterboxd, but hey why not have a round-up here!

Top 5 New Films (on their first release in the UK)

Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog (2017, dir. Julian Radlmeier)
Tempestad (2016, dir. Tatiana Huezo)
Field N—-s (2015, dir. Khalik Attah)
The Post (2017, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Journey’s End (2017, dir. Saul Dibb)

Signing up to the Mubi streaming service has introduced me to a wide range of new films, including some new releases that never came out in the cinema. The films of Julian Radlmeier are notable amongst these, and while his first two shorter works were interesting, it’s his first full-length feature which had me hooked on his particularly deadpan satirical style (a little bit reminiscent of Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou, by way of Jarmusch).

Then again, a couple of these favourites are poetic and somewhat experimental documentaries screened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (the two pre-2017 films above), so perhaps my tastes are taking me a little way from the multiplex these days. Rey (2017, dir. Niles Atallah), which I caught in the cinema but was also on Mubi during January, was another rather interesting film, a staged fiction but which intersected with documentary in surprising ways.

Of the big releases I saw, The Post was probably my favourite, but I found plenty to like in Journey’s End (a rendering of WWI via a stage play), and — just missing out on my top 5 — The Commuter (2018, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), wherein Liam Neeson punches people on a train, albeit in an efficient and entertaining way.

Top 10 Old Films (but new to me)

Street Without End (1934, dir. Mikio Naruse)
Snow Canon (2011, dir. Mani Diop)
My Happy Family (2017, dir. Nana Ekvtimishvili/Simon Groß)
Reprise (2006, dir. Joachim Trier)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972, dir. Jonas Mekas)
Mur Murs (1981, dir. Agnes Varda)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953, dir. Ida Lupino)
Dead Slow Ahead (2015, dir. Mauro Herce)
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969, dir. Toshio Matsumoto)
Jubilee (1978, dir. Derek Jarman)

My old film watching takes in one film first released on Netflix last December, which for my purposes counts as ‘old’ but isn’t really (My Happy Family, a wonderful Georgian film). Elsewhere, a screening of Mati Diop’s early short and medium-length works opened my eyes to a bright new talent I’d been missing this decade, and makes me excited for her upcoming feature-length debut.

As for older works, I’ve been trying to catch up on the classics of Japanese cinema, which brought me to Mikio Naruse’s silent works (most of which I watched towards the tail end of last year) and also Funeral Parade of Roses, a sort of unclassifiable piece of drama which seems to throw everything into the mix.

Several of the rest of my list above screened on Mubi, so they’re a blend of films I’ve long meant to get round to watching (Varda and Mekas) peppered with others by directors largely unknown to me, but whose films I was surprised by (Trier and Herce). I know Joachim Trier in particular has a profile, but like Diop, I’ve somehow missed his films. I shall have to do some catching up.

Criterion Sunday 169: Jimi Plays Monterey/Shake! Otis at Monterey (1986)

Certainly Hendrix had one of the stand-out sets at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival, so the single song he was allotted in the feature film released at the time (Monterey Pop) is expanded in Jimi Plays Monterey with what I presume is his full set, and released some years later in 1986. Most performers at the festival weren’t allowed more than about 20-30 minutes it seems, hence even the extended set’s somewhat abbreviated running time. That said, Hendrix packs a lot in, and while how he ended his set remains one of the iconic images of his short life — conjuring his fingers over a burning guitar — there’s plenty of other stuff to enjoy here, reminding me of how good he was when covering others’ songs.

Unlike the above pendant shorter film released more or less contemporaneously with this one, Shake! Otis at Monterey presents a musician’s set without contextualisation or narration (which for the Jimi film was provided by festival co-organiser, John Phillips). In this case it’s Otis Redding and one feels, given his demise very shortly after this was filmed (within six months), that a lot more context could have been given to his short but mercurial career. Luckily the music is riveting and Redding is an excellent performer, his backing band(s) among the tightest in the business. It’s only a shame he didn’t get more time, but what’s here, for 19 fascinating minutes, is great.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus | Cinematographers Nick Doob, Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy, D.A. Pennebaker and Nicholas T. Proferes | Length 63 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017

Criterion Sunday 168: Monterey Pop (1968)

If you’re a fan of classic 60s rock and pop music, then there’s plenty here to enjoy, with beautifully captured performances by the Mamas and the Papas (who helped organise the festival), Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar, amongst many others. Of course there are still a few of those acts whose legacy has been somewhat obscured by history (I have no idea who Country Joe are, nor much surpassing interest in finding out), but on the whole it’s a fine document. The filmmakers tend to prefer the close-up which can be a little frustrating at times, and their cameras wander to the audience with regularity, though plenty of little moments are captured thereby, the film being at times as much a document of late-60s counterculture fashion and style as of the music. But with the excellent soundtrack, it all coasts by very amiably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director D.A. Pennebaker | Cinematographers Nick Doob [as James Desmond], Barry Feinstein, Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Roger Murphy and D.A. Pennebaker | Length 79 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 September 2017

Criterion Sunday 167: The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

This box set collects the 1968 documentary Monterey Pop with two shorter pieces culled from outtakes and released in 1986, Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis at Monterey. All are taken from footage shot at the June 1967 Monterey Pop festival, and even aside from the two shorter stand-alone pieces, there’s several hours of unused concert footage, a lot of which is for bands who perhaps are not quite as well known anymore (if they ever were), some of which was not used because some of the set is missing, and some of which just gives more tunes by acts who already feature in the main documentary (most notably, and perhaps to my ears the best, being the Mamas and the Papas). There are also contemporaneous audio interviews with key figures, an audio commentary by Pennebaker, and (on the latest release) a short film by Richard Leacock called Chiefs.

Criterion Sunday 166: Down by Law (1986)

One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch | Cinematographer Robby Müller | Starring John Lurie, Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 6 August 2017

Criterion Sunday 165: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992)

Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde | Writers Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier | Cinematographer André Bonzel | Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017

My Favourite Films of 2017

Another year, another favourite films post! I’ve done one on Letterboxd, but that’s just my top 25 of films that were actually released in the UK in 2017, so it includes films that were on my favourite 2016 films list. Over there I’ve also got a list of all the 2017 films I’ve seen, which are the ones with a 2017 production date, and that list will keep changing and growing. Below is a list of my favourite new films that I saw in 2017, including ones that don’t have a UK release yet. As ever, it means it’s missing some that only got festival screenings which I haven’t yet seen (most notably Agnès Varda’s Faces Places, which I’m very much looking forward to), so expect those next year.

But to the statistics, because I love the statistics! In total, I saw fewer films in 2017: 340 medium- or full-length feature films (almost a hundred fewer than in 2016), 143 of which were in the cinema (which at 42% is exactly the same percentage, though still represents a drop from a high of 62% of films seen in the cinema back in 2013).

However the big news is that I achieved my resolution to see 50% of films directed by women and 50% of films directed by people of colour. I saw exactly 170 women-directed films and 170 PoC-directed films, which particularly in the latter case represents a huge year-on-year increase (last year I saw 43% films directed by women, and 26% directed by non-white directors). In total, I saw exactly the same number of films directed by women of colour as by white men (95 films, i.e. 28% of my total). Now that I’ve hit that, I probably won’t try to achieve it again in 2018, as it did mean I actively avoided a lot of films, especially when it got to December, and I want to focus on filling in some film history gaps, which is going to mean more (old) films directed by white men, but I will certainly try to keep watching a diverse range of new filmmaking.

In terms of quality, there were lots of brilliant films, and plenty that I loved which I haven’t been able to include here… I mean, somewhere below the 25 listed there’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (flawed, yet sensitive, with a brilliant performance from Rebecca Hall, maybe my favourite acting performance of the year), On Body and Soul (a strange, odd Hungarian film), Félicité (an African film with another brilliant central performance), Angels Wear White, Jeune femme, The Death of Stalin, Step, I Am Not a Witch, Good Time (a critical favourite, and with an undeniably brilliant Robert Pattinson), not to mention 2016 films only released in the UK in 2017 like Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, Toni Erdmann, the list goes on… So yes, I’m a big fan of 2017.

25 Girls Trip

Girls Trip (2017)It’s not perfect but this comedy is great fun, not least for Tiffany Haddish’s great performance. It also makes a stark contrast to Rough Night, which would be my least favourite film this year if I made a list of those (but generally I avoid films that look terrible).

24 Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth (2016)British cinema (and television) is littered with dull, worthy, handsomely-mounted period films, but this one is very far from being either dull or worthy. It is, however, very beautiful, and Florence Pugh is brilliant in it (after impressing in a small role a few years ago in The Falling).

23 Toivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope)

Toivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope, 2017)There have been plenty of films about refugees and immigrants over the last few years, for sadly obvious reasons, but this one from Kaurismäki has his usual glacial deadpan cinematic gaze but with a beautifully moving underlying empathy. Should probably have ranked it higher.

22 Human Flow

Human Flow (2017)Another film about refugees, and one with both grand, complex images of masses of desperate people, but also the filmmaker/artist (Ai Weiwei) moving among them. It’s not so much about their individual stories, as about the overall story, and it’s heartbreaking.

21 Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky (2017)Steven Soderbergh’s return to feature filmmaking this year may have had all his usual hallmarks, but its story of poor people marginalised by capitalism yet desperate for something better has all the hallmarks of that classic American theme wrapped up in its heist plot mechanics.

20 All This Panic (2016)

All This Panic (2016)A coming-of-age documentary in NYC with stark characters, alternately awful and yet growing into themselves, framed by a beautiful aesthetic from director Jenny Gage and her DoP.

19 Colossal (2016)

Colossal (2016)Surely the oddest film of the year, a strange hybrid of monster movie and small-town allegory. It’s pretty wayward at times, but at its best, it’s brilliant, not so much about the destructiveness of alcoholism as (in a late film twist) about toxic masculinity.

18 Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian (I Am Not Madame Bovary, 2016)

Wo bu shi Pan Jinlian (I Am Not Madame Bovary, 2016)The title character is a well-known femme fatale figure of Chinese literature, and this film is about a woman shunned. It’s also, pretty easily, the most beautiful film of the year I’ve seen, and the distinctive cameo-like picture framing is used to great effect.

17 The Big Sick

Film Review The Big SickI think in many ways this romantic comedy is best viewed as a film about being an immigrant and fitting in (it somewhat sidelines its female lead for understandable based-on-real-life plot reasons), but it’s also about finding empathy and being a better person, so I rate it highly for that.

16 London Symphony

London Symphony (2017)I live in London and I helped with the Kickstarter for this project years ago, so it’s great to finally see it. What could be an arch and rather affected conceit (hommaging the silent ‘city symphony’ films of the 1920s) is actually beautifully achieved, and makes London look a lot more beautiful than on my grumpier days I sometimes feel it deserves, but it makes me happy to live here.

15 Fences (2016)

Fences (2016)It came out in the UK this year hence its inclusion in my 2017 list (ditto the other 2016 films here), but Viola Davis is easily the MVP in this acting line-up, though Denzel is of course no slouch. Filmed theatre can be a tough ask and won’t work for everyone, but I thought this film was beautifully rendered, and it’s truly elevated by the acting above all.

14 Personal Shopper (2016)

Personal Shopper (2016)It wouldn’t be an end-of-year best-of list without a standout Kristen Stewart performance, and though I found this film somewhat more wayward than Olivier Assayas’ previous collab with Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria), it’s still a wonderful piece channelling grief and longing via some peculiarly 21st century mediation.

13 You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (2017)When I read the précis in the festival brochure, I expected to hate this (a sort of ripped-from-a-Daily-Mail-headline revenge type fantasy), but Lynne Ramsay manages to achieve something with her beautiful, elliptical editing: a profound sense of moral ambiguity. [festival screening]

12 Ava

Ava (2017)At times with a hint of the surreal, this coming-of-age is another fine film about people on the margins of society. [Festival screening; released direct to VoD in UK]

11 Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)Something I too often take for granted, but libraries are great. Frederick Wiseman returns with another of his sensitive, multi-layered films about a public institution, this one showing the huge range of important things a library does for its community. [Festival screening]

10 The Beguiled

The Beguiled (2017)It received some pretty mixed feedback when released, but I loved Sofia Coppola’s latest film. Sure it’s very white in many ways, but it’s a film that seems to capture something about the traumas of adolescence as refracted via the Civil War. Also, it looks great.

9 The Fits (2015)

The Fits (2015)A film that took its time getting a UK release, and another film about adolescence, but it has a wonderfully understated atmosphere, a slow, quiet build, that completely hooked me.

8 Grave (Raw, 2016)

Grave (Raw, 2016)A pretty intense film, and yet another coming-of-age (of sorts), but it does what the best horror films do, which is to make literal something very primal.

7 The Florida Project

The Florida Project (2017)This could easily be an exploitative film about poor white people living on the edges of the American Dream, abandoned (if not screwed over) by capitalism. I mean, it is a film about that, but it’s not an exploitative one: the love between mother and daughter seems profound, and it has real empathy for its characters.

6 Pop Aye

Pop Aye - Still 3Like Colossal above, this is an unusual film, but at its heart it’s a road trip movie about lives lost in the acquisitive forward thrust of modern city-bound society. Maybe it’s because it was one of the first films I saw at the London Film Festival and I just really wanted to love something, but I think this film is great. [Festival screening]

5 Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993)

Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017)Films about the experiences of childhood aren’t always great, but this Spanish one really takes an extra effort to centre its narrative (and its empathy) on the child at the film’s heart and that pays off. [Festival screening]

4 God’s Own Country

God's Own Country (2017)As a London-based city-dweller, I didn’t expect to like this film as much as I did (northern England, gay love story, set on a farm) but the interplay between the two lead characters is beautifully balanced by the cinematography and editing. It returns to the year’s favourite theme of being an immigrant, and it makes this outsider narrative compelling.

3 Wajib

Wajib (2017)The stand-out of this year’s film festival was this Palestinian film. It engages with the political situation there without being preachy, and in its story of a father and son hand delivering wedding invitations around their community, has something of the feel of an Abbas Kiarostami film. The best kind of humanist filmmaking in a conflicted world. [Festival screening]

2 Get Out

Get Out (2017)It’s fair to say this film has already been very widely discussed and lauded, but I just wanted to add my voice to that. The comic elements only underline the central — and very American — horror at its core.

1 Cameraperson (2016)

Cameraperson (2016)A film about the world we live in, and about the sometimes fractured and fractious ethics of documenting that world, it’s also a film about a person and a life and making a life within that world. It feels like a film about so many things, that could so easily fall apart, but instead it’s the strongest film I’ve seen this year.