One Night in Miami… (2020)

It turns out I quite like a stagy talky film (like Fences), but that’s probably just because it’s good when a film project starts from having a good script with words that have already been proven. The fact that this one still feels like a play is almost beside the point, because this is an imaginative act of putting four iconic Black figures from the 1960s together in a room and having them riff off one another. The film opens with a bit of contextualisation for their respective situations in early 1964, and then spins its drama off from that. There’s a lot of fluid and carefully thought-out use of the camera in the largely confined space of the small motel room in Miami, but the bulk of the film rests on the shoulders of the actors, and they all deliver with conviction to the point I can’t really single out any one of the ensemble cast, but each of these characters gets their own fully realised arc and is never reduced to a mouthpiece for the familiar cliché about each.

One Night in Miami... film posterCREDITS
Director Regina King; Writer Kemp Powers (based on his play); Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Lance Reddick; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 390: Sweet Movie (1974)

This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 389: W.R. – Misterije organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971)

I’m very amenable to those critics calling this a masterpiece, but I fear that perhaps when I look at it, I find it difficult to perceive the depths that others do. It’s an assemblage of narrative fictional material — a Yugoslav woman (Milena Dravić) preaching free love who seduces a Russian ice-skating comrade hero (Ivica Vidović), only to lose her head — along with archival sources, an old Soviet propaganda film, and documentary elements dealing with the later life and research of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Indeed, for much of the early portion it seems like a straight documentary, in so far as anything about Reich could be called straight. His theories deal with the orgasm and sexual potential, and other segments (like Nancy, the “Plaster Caster”, making a mould of the Screw editor’s penis, or the hippie, Tuli Kupferberg, who stalks through New York masturbating his toy rifle and menacing the bourgeoisie) sort of develop these themes in relation to capitalism and the West, while the propaganda footage suggests a misunderstood sexual dimension to Soviet Communism. It’s all pretty feverish and clearly you may love it, but while I certainly wasn’t bored, I guess I didn’t really connect at the level the film was aiming for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographers Aleksandar Petković and Pega Popović; Starring Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 16 January 2021 (and a long time before that on VHS at home, Wellington).

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

Talking About Trees (2019)

One of my favourite films of last year was a documentary about filmmaking, and about film culture, in a place where it’s been allowed to die. Four elderly men try to revive cinemagoing in Sudan, and it’s a film about life and the difficulty of living in certain political conditions, but the drive to keep on going anyway.


Although it’s a documentary, fairly straightforward as these things go, there’s something of a deeper resonance to it. Partly that’s the style, the way it unfolds at a leisurely pace. After all, it’s about four elderly filmmakers trying to bring back the cinema to their country of Sudan, trying to find a suitable space, getting the screen and cameras and sound sorted, looking for the right title, and getting the official permissions in order. And so if it feels unhurried, that’s partly because these are all men who don’t have anywhere else to be going, or so it seems. The passion, though, is real and very evident as they try to get their project going. As it moves along, the documentary also hints at some of the promise of Sudanese cinema, which died back when these men were young, and about the political state of their country. In one memorable scene, one of the men counts off all the times they lived through: “colonialism, the first democracy, the first dictatorship, the second democracy, the second dictatorship…” So in fact the film is not really talking about trees or insubstantial subjects, but dealing with something that feels more tragic in its hue. You hope for their success, but it seems to recede further the more the film plays.

Talking About Trees film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Suhaib Gasmelbari صهيب الباري; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 February 2020.

I’m Your Woman (2020)

Continuing my posts catching up with my favourite films of last year, this is the last film I saw in 2020, and a rather good one too.


I think this crime film works more in thinking back on it than it does while it plays out, in some respects, given the way that it reframes a familiar story from the viewpoint of the gangster’s wife. And not just in presenting a clueless moll character, for Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean is hardly an idiot, but more the way it really throws us as the audience into her perspective as someone who is perpetually in the dark, flailing around trying to understand why the bad things are happening to her with just this nagging sense at the back of her brain of why things might have gone wrong. Her inability to function without her gangster husband’s help becomes what drives the story and provides the arc for her character, as she is helped along by some of her husband’s associates. I suppose part of the worry is that this might become a story in which her self-actualisation is facilitated by the Black characters (Teri, Cal and his father), but the film gives them their own believable arcs, avoiding certain magical cliches, and becoming a film about a lot of people struggling with the pain caused by these (largely unseen) violent white men in their lives. The perspective can make it a little hard to get into, but it’s effective and the denouement is I think fairly won by the screenplay.

I'm Your Woman film posterCREDITS
Director Julia Hart; Writers Hart and Jordan Horowitz; Cinematographer Bryce Fortner; Starring Rachel Brosnahan, Arinzé Kene, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Frankie Faison; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Thursday 31 December 2020.

左様なら Sayounara (2018)

Still catching up this week with my favourites I saw last year, this one’s a bit of an anomaly. I saw it in that first flush of film festivals moving online, via a “Japanese Film Festival Magazine” website which was streaming a number of recent Japanese films, many by women directors. Perhaps it was seeing this during lockdown that made me respond positively, who knows, but I did very much like it.


There is, of course — given the title, which is reminiscent of the French adieu, in the sense of a final goodbye — a deep seam of sadness and melancholy that laces through this film. This much is clear in its setup: Yuki (Haruka Imo), who seems to be a fairly popular girl in her high school class, starts to become sullen and distant after her friend Aya (Kirara Inori) dies. Despite this, there’s something in the way that it unfolds that has a deeply-felt warmth to it; for all Yuki’s grief, it feels over the course of the film as if Aya’s death allows her to come to value what’s really important in her life. And so she finds herself cutting out the mean girls who share gossip about Aya (speculating that her death in an accident may have been a suicide and revealing that they never really liked her anyway) and starting to welcome new experiences, like going to gigs with the guys in her class who make an effort to reach out to her and don’t seem to hold her in the same shallow judgement. In flashbacks, she relives her times with Aya, rehearsing her grief and admonishing herself for not crying or being appropriately sad at her friend’s death, even as it’s perfectly clear to read on her face how she feels.

None of the drama comes in big gestures or speeches, just in little moments like a classmate shuffling shyly behind her at a school fieldtrip, in which you can see the classmate wanting to reach out to Yuki but opening rather gauchely with “Were you good friends with Aya?” to be rebuffed with a simple “Why?” before falling back, uncertainly, as they both walk on. A lot of the movement of the film is similarly captured by the camera in these emotional exchanges with a thankful paucity of dialogue, but it seems to me that this is as much about the writing and direction allowing this space as it is to the excellent acting of Imo. For all the film’s melancholy, it’s heartening and affecting, and ultimately is not so much about the death of a schoolmate as it is about another finding out how to live (which sounds so much more melodramatic when I write it down than it is in the film).

Sayounara film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Yuho Ishibashi 石橋夕帆; Cinematographer Shu Hagiwara 萩原脩; Starring Haruka Imo 芋生悠, Kirara Inori 祷キララ; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Japanese Film Festival Magazine streaming), London, Thursday 14 May 2020.

The Lighthouse (2019)

While I was compiling my favourite films of 2020 list, I realised that there were still some titles I hadn’t posted full reviews of, so I’m going to try and knock the rest of those out this week. I’m going to start with a distinctive 2019 film that took its time getting to the UK, which is probably why I forgot to post a review of it. Still, it remains strikingly vivid in my mind.


I’ve not seen a Robert Eggers film before, but he’s certainly a stylist. It’s a film that hints strongly at a certain period without ever being specific, but then it moves between heavyweight historical grime, supernatural horror and something even rather mythic — and without giving away anything in my review, this becomes fairly explicit by the last shot. I came to this via Robert Pattinson (a very fine actor), whose accent also hints strongly at geography without ever quite landing on any one place (which may well be a conscious decision) but the one thing you can’t say about either of the leads (Pattinson or Willem Defoe) is that they’re afraid to commit. This in many ways is most reminiscent — in that commitment, in its blend of history and fantasy, but perhaps above all in the sheer unrelenting grimy muddy mulch of the film — of Hard to Be a God, and both pretty far out in performances. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but I did rather admire it nonetheless (and discovering it was at least partly shot and funded by Canada, makes a lot more tonal sense to me).

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Eggers; Writers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke; Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 26 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 388: Le Vieil homme et l’enfant (The Two of Us, 1967)

Given that the director’s birth name is Claude Langmann and he was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1934, and this film, set in 1944, is about a 10-year-old called Claude Langmann who is sent to stay in the countryside by his Jewish parents, I think it’s fair to assume this is at least semi-autobiographical. In the opening scenes, we see the besieged spirit of Paris in the months leading up to the D-Day invasions (chronicled in 1975’s Overlord, just added to the Criterion Collection shortly before this film) and the liberation of Paris in August that year (covered in Melville’s Army of Shadows, also recently introduced to the collection). Claude’s parents worry about the fate of their kid under the Nazis and so they send him off to the (non-Jewish) family of a friend out in the countryside, where he is exhorted to use the surname Longuet and avoid anything that might give away his ethnic and religious identity, and that’s really where the film gets going. He’s introduced to his new grandfather figure (played by Michel Simon) and when he learns of grandpa’s antisemitic beliefs and Pétainiste solidarity, hilarity ensues. I’m only slightly joking though: ultimately the film isn’t about the terror of being Jewish under a Nazi puppet government (we never learn the fate of his parents back in Paris, for example, and there are no scenes of threat or violence against the boy, mercifully) but instead there are a lot of gently comedic scenes which hint at his situations, like his desperate attempts to avoid anyone looking at his penis, or the exchanges with his grandpa where Claude subtly mocks his antisemitism by using his own prejudices against him. The film largely progresses this way, and while it’s not perhaps fair to say it’s soft-pedalling the war, it definitely has a sentimental view of the past, and this much is acknowledged by the opening text: it’s a child’s-eye view of the war, spent in relative bliss in a rural setting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Berri; Writers Berri, Gérard Brach and Michel Rivelin; Cinematographer Jean Penzer; Starring Alain Cohen, Michel Simon; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).