Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan | Writers Neil Jordan and David Leland | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016

Dear Zindagi (2016)

This isn’t perfect as a film, far from it — our heroine (Kauri, or “Koko” for short, played by the lovely Alia Bhatt) spends much of the time acting like an entitled brat, for which there’s an explanatory backstory near the end which is far too neat and allows for a perfunctory ending that stretches credulity — but I really liked this film. It has its heart in the right place. Maybe it’s better to say what it’s not: it’s not a film in which a wayward heroine is cured by a hunky love interest (though the reliable Shah Rukh Khan does play a key role as a therapist, while the film at one point even suggests Kauri may be lesbian, and there’s a little coda that plays with gender identity); and it’s also not a film that stigmatises mental health issues (even if I don’t believe Khan’s therapy sessions at all). It has visual flair, and I really wished Kaira’s job as a cinematographer were more developed than the opening half hour, but it shows plenty of promise.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gauri Shinde | Cinematographer Laxman Utekar | Starring Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan | Length 150 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Monday 28 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 106: Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981)

There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.

Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier | Writers Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson) | Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn | Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert | Length 128 minutes || Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016)

Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003)

One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).

It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.

The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.

Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing | Length 551 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016

Faaji Agba (2015)

In a manner not dissimilar to Buena Vista Social Club, this documentary tracks the efforts of Kunle, the owner of a Lagos, Nigeria-based record shop and label (Jazzhole Records), to bring together a disparate group of largely-forgotten or underappreciated older musicians from his country’s history, so that they can record their music and pass it on to a new generation largely unfamiliar with this musical tradition. His friend Remi Vaughan-Williams was on hand with a camera, and in due time (six years after she started filming in 2009) brought the footage together into this 90-minute film. Sadly, by this point many of the musicians have passed, but their legacy is vividly rendered here. There’s a lot of great music, in a variety of traditional styles (not just Afrobeat and Highlife, but others far less familiar to Western audiences), and some excellent footage of these musicians, as they come together, rehearse, bicker, fall out, reconcile and eventually put on a show in New York City. And although getting the music out to the Western world was never precisely the point of the project or the film, but it’s still obviously a big deal for the group and is given a fair chunk of the running time. The film itself is largely a one-woman operation, so there’s not a great deal of polish to the filmmaking itself — the camera jerks around shakily at times, while the editing tries to cram a huge amount of material in and so everything seems hectic and a bit rushed — but given the means available to Vaughan-Williams and her producer Kunle (i.e. next to none), it’s all fascinating and enjoyable stuff which conveys a great sense of change both in Nigerian music and in Lagos itself.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Black Star: Beyond Nollywood
Director/Cinematographer Remi Vaughan-Williams | Length 90 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 20 November 2016

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: French Film Festival
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid | Cinematographer Hélène Louvart | Starring Manal Issa, Vincent Lacoste | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)

There’s a kind of solidly-realised unflashy, observant and quiet drama that gathers up awards when it’s released but then fades away from memory, its DVD cover yellowing slowly on an unfashionable shelf somewhere (something like The Kids Are All Right is a more recent example that comes to mind). I like those films, and I know this is one of them because, now almost 25 years old and very popular on its release (admittedly I was living in NZ so that may skew my memory), hasn’t racked up many views on most of the popular film websites like IMDb. Well, if nothing else, it reminds me that Kerry Fox is really one of the best actors, though it’s another New Zealander (Lisa Harrow) who steals the spotlight in this little family/relationship drama, as the older sister Beth to Fox’s younger Vicki, between whose affections flits fickle Frenchman J.P. (Bruno Ganz). It’s all done so well, so subtly, that you barely notice how affecting it all is as it unfolds.


FILM REVIEW
Director Gillian Armstrong | Writer Helen Garner | Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson | Starring Lisa Harrow, Bruno Ganz, Kerry Fox, Miranda Otto | Length 93 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 November 2016

Shoot the Messenger (2006)

A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ngozi Onwurah | Writer Sharon Foster | Cinematographer David Katznelson | Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird | Length 89 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016

Pojkarna (Girls Lost, 2016)

At one level this is a Swedish coming of age film, with intolerant school bullies picking on young women, who look to each other for love and support. However, it quickly becomes evident that one of them, Kim (Tuva Jagell), feels uncomfortable with her gender identity, while Momo (Louise Nyvall) has feelings for Kim. Via a fantasy expedient of a magical plant, the film allows the young women to transform Cinderella-like into men for a night, thereby experiencing facets of privilege and masculinist behaviour, in their interactions with a group of rebellious boys who go to their school. It’s actually done really well, at least from my admittedly gender-normative point of view. There’s a delicate artistry to the transformation sequences and it makes tangible, via its magical premise, some of the identity fluidity that’s (I think) natural when you’re growing up.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alexandra-Therese Keining (based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer) | Cinematographer Ragna Jorming | Starring Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, Wilma Holmén | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 November 2016