Criterion Sunday 147: Huayang Nianhua (In the Mood for Love, 2000)

There’s a lot of stuff you can latch onto in this film, but yet it feels so difficult to pin down or talk about because it is so fraught. It’s about people being evasive, who don’t want to be seen to be doing the wrong thing and who, at a certain level, live their lives within the frame the narrative creates for them and the camera allows them — I’m not sure if they can exist beyond these 90-something minutes and I’m not sure if I want them to. Anyway I’m being a bit vague because I can’t really pin down how I feel but when I first saw this 16 years ago I wasn’t married, and who knows what it’ll be like in another 16, but I’m fairly sure I’ll still love it, and maybe I’ll even have a deeper sense of it. In any case, Wong is clearly infatuated with Godard but luckily that doesn’t determine the course of the film: this is very much its own thing. Doomed romance, that yearning soundtrack, Maggie Cheung’s high-necked cheongsam dresses, the rain, the endless food being dished up, the smoke, the empty corridors. All of it.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short film called Huayang de Nianhua made up of archival clips, beguiling images of old (and to me, unknown) Chinese actresses, like a hint at what Wong was thinking about while making his feature.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai | Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bin | Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung | Length 98 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 24 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 March 2017)

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Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 112: Play Time (aka PlayTime) (1967)

The films of Jacques Tati have never really been about the plot. Even his earliest efforts are more interested in the visual gag, how it’s set up and how it is executed, far more than in finding any kind of narrative-led justification for getting there. Play Time (or the camel-case PlayTime as Criterion prefers) is arguably Tati’s greatest achievement — it’s certainly my favourite of his films — and the refinement of his lifelong work on this pure gag-based visual technique. It’s essentially an absurdist avant garde film, almost entirely lacking in any kind of plot aside from having Tati’s familiar Hulot character bumbling around a gargantuan modernist set of his own devising. He encounters various people — bureaucrats, attendants, service workers and tourists — but it’s never clear what he’s trying to do or where he’s trying to go. Maybe I just missed something, but I’ve seen the film four times now and I’m no more the wiser. That said, I don’t really care. The visual world he creates is an advance on Mon oncle (1958), which contrasted the futuristic minimalist modernism of the nouveau riche upper-middle-classes with a decaying old world of Hulot. That latter world is entirely gone, aside from brief sightings of various familiar landmarks (like the Tour Eiffel and Sacre-Cœur) as reflections in the glass doors of Tati’s grim, grey concrete and steel office blocks. Hilariously, even tourist posters of other world cities just show these grey office blocks with their familiar tourist sights in the background.

A lot of the humour is of this variety and requires an active viewer scouring the many corners of the image to find them. Rarely is there a close-up to focus our attention, and many gags are played out across the space, sometimes with multiple different gags happening at the same time. One example might be when M. Giffard, a bureaucratic functionary, needs to give some data to a visiting American businessman, who calls his office from another in a series of hive-like cubicles viewed from above; Giffard then proceeds to leave his cubicle, open a filing cabinet on the outside of the office the American is calling from, and then returns to his own to relay the information back. All the while Hulot is standing in the extreme background waiting for Giffard to leave so he can speak to him (about what is never made clear). It’s this kind of long-shot staging that means the film is best seen on a 70mm print in the cinema, so for viewing at home, a big screen is almost required. Thankfully the Criterion edition presents the film in a pristine digital restoration that makes these kinds of setups clear, but no viewer will get everything going on in a single viewing, especially during a scene as hectic and extended as the bravura restaurant sequence that dominates much of the second hour.

Just recounting all the ways in which Play Time brilliantly uses its space to tell visual-led gags would take up far too long. Not all viewers will connect with this style, and I’ve certainly heard some say the film is boring or arid. It certainly makes little concession to the audience and requires an active, attentive viewing of the film — for example, there’s a 10 minute sequence inside an apartment which is viewed entirely from the street outside, and so we hear nothing of what is said by the characters. That said, it develops some of the most beautifully understated comic sequences in all of cinema, few of which even require the subtitles to be understood (there is some language-based humour emerging from the babble of voices, amongst which French, German and English dominate, but Hulot barely speaks at all), and all of it takes place on a set presenting a vision of modern times so self-contained and overwhelming that the experience can be a little deadening. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement all the same, and one that Tati would never again be given the same budget to achieve.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange | Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 12 September 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999 and August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 24 July 2016)

LFF 2016 Day Eight: Certain Women (2016)

I saw just the one film on Wednesday 12 October due to competing plans, and despite my avowed desire to avoid ‘big’ films destined to return, I made an exception… and it turns out to have been my favourite so far (albeit no surprise, given the director).


Certain Women (2016)Certain Women (2016, USA, dir./wr. Kelly Reichardt, DOP Christopher Blauvelt)
I always knew I was going to like this film, because Kelly Reichardt makes films I always like. Her last film at the LFF was Night Moves (2013), and that was practically a genre thriller, albeit with Reichardt’s customary style, but this new one dispenses with the genre baggage. So we’re left with a sort of purity to the slow rhythms, the steady gaze, the emotional depth.

I spent much of the running time wondering where it was going and what it was trying to achieve — although liking it a lot, don’t get me wrong; the 16mm-shot cinematography is spectacular for its framing and the beautiful open landscapes which are captured. But then the film finished with three brief coda scenes, to each of the three narrative strands (one featuring Laura Dern, another with Michelle Williams, and a third with Lily Gladstone and Kristin Stewart), and it all came into focus for me a bit. Sometimes you just need that cinematic nudge. I don’t want to overplay it though: if you’re bored by the film, the ending won’t suddenly turn you around. But this is stark, emotional, yearning, bleak at times but absolutely masterful filmmaking.

There’s a desire for human connection that runs through it, and there’s sometimes a paucity of connection too. There’s a weariness to some of these women, and for good reasons, but there’s nothing forced about the way it unfolds. I had felt initially that Michelle Williams wasn’t quite ‘right’ as a mother, but now I think that feeling was a response to her role and the way she played it: lacking support from her (cheating) husband and teenage daughter, why shouldn’t she be cagy?

No, this is fantastic stuff, up there with Meek’s Cutoff, and I’ll happily see it again. [****½]

Criterion Sunday 97: Do the Right Thing (1989)

It’s been over 25 years since this film was first released — the film that very much put Spike Lee on the map, even if he’d had a few features before this which had garnered attention. It still fizzes with energy, a bold primary-coloured work of cinematic joie de vivre that, thanks to its sterling cinematography from Lee’s collaborator Ernest Dickerson, has a warm filter placed over everything. Every surface seems to drip with sweat and refract with the heat of this, the hottest day of the year. It’s shot and set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn NYC, and presents a warm-hearted portrait of a community that certainly isn’t perfect but is trying to get along. There’s a foothold to an older generation of Italian-American immigrants (the traditional white working class of Sal and his sons, running a popular corner pizzeria), whose ancestors may have made up much of the original population but who by the late-20th century have also largely fled to other areas further out in Queens and on Long Island (so-called ‘white flight’). There are the Black Americans who’ve also been there for some decades, and who are the beating heart of the modern community. There are Puerto Ricans in the mix, there is a newer influx of Asian immigrants (the Koreans who own the corner grocery opposite Sal’s, somewhat stereotyped), and there are even signs of a monied white middle-class moving in to start gentrifying the block. And everything would largely be fine except for the blasted heat which seems to fry everyone’s brains, leading to the film’s denouement. The one thing the heat can’t fully be blamed for — and the one area where Lee’s generosity to his characters is notably absent — is the action of the New York city police.

If the film still feels contemporary, still feels like a relevant angry broadside, it’s not just because fashions come back around, or that the urgent music of Public Enemy never really dropped out of style, or because of the stridency and subtlety of much of the acting. There’s Danny Aiello as Sal who tries to get along but is still marked by his racist upbringing, Richard Edson and John Turturro as Sal’s divided sons, Spike Lee in the central role of the rootless Mookie who can’t really manage his adult responsibilities, Rosie Perez as his angry girlfriend, angry as much from Mookie’s inaction as from the stress of raising their son, and the range of Greek Chorus figures like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the elderly witnesses to their neighbourhood, the unemployed men sitting out on the sidewalk commenting on the action which passes them by, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ. These are all very strong performances, and keep the film seeming fresh. But mostly it’s still contemporary because the interactions between American police and the neighbourhoods they are supposed to be policing doesn’t appear to have moved on, even as a generation has since passed by. Do the Right Thing testifies to the illegal deaths of Black men in police custody (not to mention a passing graffito reference, “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH”, to a notorious rape denial case of the era), and the sad thing is that news headlines of 25+ years later have scarcely moved on. The film makes the useful point, one that never really becomes tired, that racism and injustice affects everyone in a community. Hence: do the right thing.

Criterion Extras: It’s a packed edition, one of the early tentpoles for the growing collection. Most notably is the hour-long documentary Making “Do the Right Thing” (1989, dir. St. Clair Bourne), which is more than just a puff piece making-of that you’d get on a mainstream release. This is very much a cinematic work, one that tracks the progress of the shoot from its very earliest beginnings, but also talks to and gauges the response of the locals who’ve been affected for almost six months by this production, as Lee’s team builds sets along a block, and then for eight weeks is out there filming, shutting down the street and calling for silence for chunks of the summer. Suffice to say, not everyone is happy, and the film hears their voices, but is also watches carefully as the actors grapple with their characters (Danny Aiello in particular has trouble grasping the essential racism of Sal). It’s a very fine bonus feature indeed.

Alongside this, there is also a significant amount of (somewhat shakily amateur handheld) videos documenting the rehearsal and filming process with Spike Lee and his actors. The 1989 Cannes press conferences is reproduced in full, replete with slightly confused questions from the white European journalists present, and a short piece in which Lee and his producer revisit their locations 12 or so years on. There’s Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which contextualises their words within a tradition of protest as seen on archival film footage. And there’s an interview with Lee’s editor Barry Brown talking about the challenges of the work. Each of these extras is prefaced by a short Spike Lee introduction, and he also wraps up with some final words.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Spike Lee | Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson | Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson | Length 120 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 May 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1997, and at university, May 1998)

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016)

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May…

New Releases (Cinema)

Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. Anthony Russo/Joe Russo) Surely many people are in the same position as me, of now being quite emphatically weary of superhero movies. I’d largely sworn off them this year (hence no X-Men: Apocalypse for me, no Batman v. Superman), but I dragged myself along to this third Captain America film (more if you include the Avengers ones which also feature most of these characters) because I’d liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) more than many other superhero flicks. Needless to say the demands on “fan service” (catering to the fans by featuring storylines for all the characters, which by now is getting to be quite a few) made it overlong, but there was a general avoidance of extended city destruction and it grappled with more complex moral issues than most of these films manage. [***]

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, dir. Richard Linklater) I saw this twice, because I wanted to be sure whether I really liked it. Granted, it has some serious problems, not least an overly affectionate regard for a group of people (and an era) some might say is beyond reclaiming. That affection goes for unironic female nudity (thankfully fairly brief) and lusty testosterone-fuelled sporting men (though that’s in the title), and yet I still find Linklater’s ability to put together a film pretty peerless, and for all that they were unlikeable characters (for the most part), I found it likeable watching these baseball players through Linklater’s fairly soft-focus filter. [***½]

Evolution (2015, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović) Seen for the second time also; I’ve written up my initial viewing at the London Film Festival last year. Still beguiling and mysterious, though even at its short running length and for all its excellent qualities, the sense of creeping dread and its ominous atmosphere means I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again in a hurry. [****]

A Flickering Truth (2015, dir. Pietra Brettkelly) A documentary about the beleagured Afghan film archives, and their attempts to preserve a film heritage which has suffered through various regimes and bitter warfare. Plenty of dusty shots of picking through rubble, and quite affecting in its interviews with long-standing workers there, who’ve dedicated their lives to these films, though it never really lifts off as a film. [***]

Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier) I wrote this up already here, though already its tinged with melancholy at the passing of its star Anton Yelchin. Now that it’s sat with me for a little while, I think if anything I may have underrated this gory siege film: it may not appeal to those who dislike this kind of content, but it’s done a lot more ably and interestingly — and stylishly — than many of this genre. [***]

Heart of a Dog (2015, dir. Laurie Anderson) A strange little personal documentary by musician/artist Anderson, who narrates a digressive story made up of animation, home-shot footage and various other media, in an attempt to deal with loss — ostensibly of her beloved dog, but at a wider level with her husband and with her own mortality. It seems too ragged to work initially, but it has a cumulative power. [***½]

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, dir. Miguel Gomes) I wrote this up with the other two already here. A bold experiment which didn’t entirely captivate me as it did other critics. [***]

Money Monster (2016, dir. Jodie Foster) There’s an oddly old-fashioned feel to this movie, perhaps because it harks back to Network and Broadcast News and other such newsroom-set movies. The hostage situation that TV host George Clooney finds himself in helps to draw in arguments about modern capitalism and recent financial woes, but in the interplay between Clooney and his producer Julia Roberts, this remains largely a story about a news anchor handling a complex situation. Like Our Kind of Traitor below, it may not be a major work, but it’s an enjoyable watch. [***]

Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, dir. Maïwenn) This relationship drama between Vincent Cassel’s self-assured chef and Emmanuelle Bercot’s (rather unbelievable) lawyer proceeds at a rather strained tempo. It’s not inherently bad, but your tolerance for melodramatic fireworks and exuberant Acting may affect how much you like it. [**½]

Our Kind of Traitor (2016, dir. Susanna White) A straightforward spy thriller with the terminally dull Ewan McGregor in the lead, though Naomie Harris as his wife is excellent, and Stellan Skarsgård runs away with the film as a Russian mobster/money launderer. Because of these performances, it’s actually a lot better than one might expect, and certainly passes the time ably enough. [***]

Special Screenings (Cinema)

Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, dir. Feriel Ben Mahmoud) It presents a broad sweep for an hour-long film and it does its best to fit in some key historical events and personas for a broad audience presumably unfamiliar with the subject. There are some interviews from interesting perspectives on the key issues as the film sees them, although these are predominantly polygamy and the hijab, which given the preponderance of French commentators is a little loaded. The audience I saw it with (primarily academic) came to the consensus that it was pretty simplistic, and notably omitted any class-based issues, not to mention focusing on key male figures in the early history. However, as a basic intro you could do worse, and it’s good to see another perspective on a narrative of Islam that doesn’t cleave to the usual subjects. [***]

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, dir. Aki Kaurismäki) A pendant to the BFI’s months-long Shakespeare season is this Kaurismäki film, which in its preponderance of plot puts it a little out of pace with his other films. That said, it still retains a mordant deadpan humour that works rather well, at least at times. [***]

Losing Ground (1982, dir. Kathleen Collins) I was trying to work up a review of this film, but I find it difficult to capture my feelings upon seeing it. More or less rescued last year by Milestone Video, the founders of that label provided a brief introduction. It’s one of the earliest feature films by a Black American woman (who sadly died only a few years after making it), and certainly doesn’t lack for the quality of its acting, or its unusual setting amongst fairly comfortable middle-class intellectual couple (she is a lecturer, he a painted) — indeed, eschewing the usual ghetto/violent setting of most African-American films probably didn’t help its commercial prospects at the time. In any case, I immediately bought a copy on DVD and advise anyone else to try and watch this film. Some of its technical qualities seem a little ropey, but it has a great energy and a keen visual eye. [****]

Radio On (1979, dir. Christopher Petit) A ‘mystery film’ screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, and it’s fair to say many of the audience were probably expecting something a bit more trashy, but Petit’s homage to German road movies (à la Wim Wenders) still has a sort of slow-burning spell of gloomy depressing English towns appropriately filmed in monochrome. It’s hard to make out all the dialogue, but there’s an energy to its peripatetic aimlessness which is helped along by the choice of music (Bowie, Kraftwerk, all the usual suspects) — well, aside that is from a cameo by one Sting. [***½]

Trouble Every Day (2001, dir. Claire Denis) A new feminist collective focusing on horror movies put on this screening as the introduction to their project, and as a fan of Denis’s work, I felt I should catch up with it. It’s a gory horror film with a hint of vampirism, but suffused with slow-mounting threat (though just looking at Vincent Gallo’s face will achieve that nicely). When it does go gory, nothing is held back, and the mood of frank eroticism only makes the bloody turns the more upsetting. Moreover it’s shot with a lot of extreme close-ups and a grainy weariness that only enhances that lack of distance. It seems to be saying something about the way love is (literally) an all-consuming passion, and in depicting that it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. [***½]

Home Viewing

Cold Comfort Farm (1995, dir. John Schlesinger) Broadly likeable in its way, though at times I couldn’t tell if it was going for warm-hearted satire on the ways of simple country folk, or nasty-edged class-based caricaturing of the yokels. Of course, Beckinsale’s Emma-like central character is little better, yet on the whole it remains fairly light in tone. [**½]

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, dir. Susan Seidelman) You don’t expect a mid-80s US film to recall Céline and Julie Go Boating, but then again why not? The playfulness and feminine camaraderie of that Parisian film transfers well to NYC, and the stars here never looking anything less than glorious — of their time, yes, but never ridiculous. It’s a film about performance and having fun and in the process finding out what you want. It’s a delight. [****]

Down with Love (2003, dir. Peyton Reed) I’ve reviewed this already here, but to recap based on yet another viewing, it’s a hugely underrated masterpiece of 2000s retro filmmaking which both delights in the costumes, set design, and possibilities of the widescreen frame which come from its early-60s NYC setting (although somewhat conflated with the 50s) via Doris Day comedies, Frank Tashlin satires and a hint of Nick Ray. Yet this isn’t ultimately nostalgia exactly — there are plenty of ways in which the zippy dialogue hides darker unpleasant facets to the era’s sexual politics. But chiefly this is a film whose real stars are its (nominally heterosexual, but that’s part of the satire one suspects) supporting players David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, so utterly perfect and so brilliantly played that even my usual dislike for McGregor and Zellweger is forgotten — though in truth, their goofy smiles fit the material quite well. Ah, “Catcher Block. Ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town.” I love this film. [****½]

Lemonade (2016, dir. Kahlil Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles Carter) I’ve listened to the album a lot since first watching this and it strikes me the film is quite a different proposition. If you can believe the album is just about her and Jay-Z you can’t really take that from the film, which broadens the focus, and really allows for a range of black stories and experiences, moving from the specific to the political. It’s ravishing, raw and moving, and it’s definitely one of the best films of the year. [****]

Lovely Rita (2001, dir. Jessica Hausner) As a big fan of Amour Fou, it’s interesting to watch this early film by director Jessica Hausner and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case. [***]

Luck by Chance (2009, dir. Zoya Akhtar) A likeable amusing behind-the-scenes take on Bollywood, ahem, the Hindi film industry. It’s a classic tale of the little guy getting a big break and (almost, maybe) getting corrupted in the process. If I were better versed with the context I’d have picked up on a lot more of the celebrity cameos and maybe a bit of the satire, but it all still works very nicely. [***]

My Life Without Me (2003, dir. Isabel Coixet) There’s a little clunkiness to some of the meaningful symbolism, but as far as films about women tragically dying young this is about as good as they can get, and its probably just as well it wasn’t directed by its producer Pedro Almodóvar. There’s a small dose of whimsical magic realism but it’s mostly grounded in the acting, primarily Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo. [***]

Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, dir. Lina Wertmüller) I was all set to detest this film at the start, with its grimy 70s palette and more to the point a protagonist who is vain, brutal, nasty, misogynist trash. And yet somehow it becomes something different by the end, as he undergoes a gradual dehumanisation when captured by the Nazis, as all of what he considered his integrity and morals (very little he had too, mostly around ‘protecting’ his sisters) are stripped from him. I’m not convinced by the use of concentration camps in this way, as it seems like a cheap exploitative means to making a moral point, but there’s no winners here after all so perhaps I’m overthinking it. In any case, it achieves some kind of cumulative power that is affecting. [***]

Picture Bride (1994, dir. Kayo Hatta) A sweetly sentimental film about early-20th century Hawaii and the practice of arranged marriage, focusing on city girl Riyo transplanted to a sugar plantation with a much older husband and coming to find some value in the life there. Nice performances and a surprise cameo by Toshiro Mifune as an ageing benshi. [***]

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, dir. Mary Dore) A very solidly made documentary about second wave feminism in the US which nimbly flits through a range of issues from a variety of women (of many races and classes), and also looks at some modern expressions of feminist action. I think it does a particularly good job of celebrating and honouring achievements while also acknowledging the range of opinions which exist (and have existed), and that continued action is necessary. It is ultimately about a certain period of history, but it’s not kept in isolation. There are still plenty of stories to tell. [***½]

Sisters in Law (2005, dir. Kim Longinotto/Florence Ayisi) Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one. [***]

Star Men (2015, dir. Alison Rose) A likeable documentary in which four British astronomers reunite in California 50 years after first meeting one another. It touches on the professional work and research each has done, as well as their respective personalities, and cannot help but address mortality. The filmmaker inserts herself as a sort of fan into the storyline, and her style (particularly with the music) seems to recall Errol Morris. Rather devolves into an extended hiking sequence towards the end, but does have some lovely nature photography not to mention some nice insights along the way (not least that evolution demands death to allow new ideas to take root, an observation by one of the elderly men). [***]

Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, dir. Darnell Martin) A very creditable film about one woman’s self-determination and struggle to find her identity in the American south, based on Zora Neale Hurston’s great novel (which I was reading at the same time). It’s made for TV and as such feels a little airbrushed around the edges (nobody really ages much despite its sweeping span), pushed perhaps more than it needs to be into a certain generic mould for such stories, but the acting is excellent across the board and the film is beautifully shot. [***]

Underground (1928, dir. Anthony Asquith) Excellent Tube-set London melodrama with a love triangle which goes awry. Expressive camerawork with a fine new score by Neil Brand. [***½]

L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, dir. Agnès Varda) There’s something almost disarmingly sweet-natured to this film about politically active 70s French feminists, but perhaps that’s the prevailing hippie vibe of its lead actor who travels around the country in a van singing right-on songs about a woman’s right to choose. It’s a good film though and it still looks great, with vibrant colours and a keen eye for framings. Its political message too is warmly inclusive while celebrating the right to a legal abortion. [***½]

Visage (Face) (2009, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) Every great director has their self-indulgent French film which premieres at Cannes and promptly disappears (well it passed me by at the time). It’s a typically visual film, with scenes that don’t seem to hang together, except perhaps as notes towards an essay on grief, loss, the passage of time, artistic creation, things like that. It has a lot of Tsai’s familiar motifs (it basically kicks off with a deluge) and has plenty of French acting greats. An interesting work that would probably benefit from being seen on a big screen. [***]

Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad) I found the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times, but basically it’s about a poor family whose son is struggling to make a better life for himself. Gets a little overwrought at times but mostly is a fine domestic drama. [***]

Criterion Collection Home Viewing

I also watched Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible) (1944/1958, dir. Sergei Eisenstein), L’avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), Pygmalion (1938, dir. Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard), Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee) and Gimme Shelter (1970, dir. Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin) as part of the Criterion Sunday series, but you’ll have to wait for those reviews.

Criterion Sunday 73: Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962)

Film texts and websites are apt to call director Agnès Varda “one of the best female directors of her generation”, but let’s start right off by saying the “female” caveat is nonsense. Even amongst the creative wellspring of the French Nouvelle Vague — which arguably began with Varda’s own debut feature La Pointe courte in the mid-1950s — she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her more feted (male) compatriots Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and Marker (amongst others). And as a demonstration of her talents, Cléo is pretty much peerless. It tracks in real time (albeit from 5 to 6:30pm), 90 minutes out of the life of its heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Yet, despite this morbid premise, the film is utterly filled with the vibrancy of life, specifically that in the French capital, as Varda inserts semi-documentary interludes into Cléo’s travels around Paris, shooting street views through the windows of various cars and trams, crowded café scenes, or pavement attractions she passes by. There’s even an amusing silent film pastiche starring Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina. As in her husband Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years later, the Algerian conflict lurks in the background as another pull towards the precariousness of life within an existential framework. However, the chief interest of the film is in the construction of Cléo’s identity, as she catches sight of herself in mirrors and is constantly looked at (and, she presumes, judged) by others. She changes hats, clothes and even hair throughout the film as a means to confound this gaze, as the film becomes the chronicle of her discovering how to live life on her own terms, such that the impending death sentence she believes the doctor will give her at the film’s end seems to be commuted by the sheer force of will of the film and of her, its heroine. It’s a glorious example of the best of early-60s French cinema, in beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography and with a spirited lead performance.

Criterion Extras: There’s a clutch of high quality extras on this disc, no little thanks to Varda’s skill at the documentary. Her Remembrances (2005) reunites her with Marchand as well as a number of other actors in the film, and revisits some of the locations. She talks of the importance of the trees, as well as getting all the clocks seen in the film to be accurate. Better yet are some contemporary short films, including the luminous L’Opéra-mouffe (1958), a glorious piece blending a modernist score by Georges Delerue with documentary footage and avant-garde reflections on personal experiences like pregnancy and drunkenness; it’s the very soul of the nouvelle vague. Another aspect on this movement is Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (1961), much of which is seen within the film, being a silent slapstick pastiche with Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina, and which warns of the dangers of wearing glasses (a sly dig at Godard’s self-mythologising by Varda). There’s also a short travelogue filmed from a scooter which traces Cléo’s path through Paris, with an overlaid map in the corner and occasional inserts of film stills to show where the scenes were set. Finally, there’s a short French TV clip of Madonna lauding Varda’s most famous film, as well as a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien which inspired Varda. Oh and a trailer, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda | Cinematographers Jean Rabier and Alain Levent | Starring Corinne Marchand | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016

Criterion Sunday 45: Ta’ame Gilas… (Taste of Cherry, 1997)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s a simple premise: a man drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will help fill in his grave after he commits suicide. In many ways it’s a simple film, too, or at least it’s very straightforward. Kiarostami points his camera at our protagonist Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he sits in the driving seat, and occasionally gets out. Sometimes there’s a reverse shot to see the man he’s talking to in the passenger seat, but it doesn’t overtly challenge one’s sense of film grammar. Except that in its very simplicity it hides a delicately shaded tale, which is largely unconcerned with the reasons for Badii’s actions, but more about the dialogue that happens as he looks for an accomplice. His interlocutors are working folk, migrants who’ve come to Iran from elsewhere (a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary, a Turkish taxidermist), of differing ages, and in each of them Badii (or the viewer perhaps) seems to find an implicit challenge to his decision. After talking about his conscript days with the Kurd (who, in one of the film’s occasional bursts of something approaching comedy, runs away), Badii stops to watch the soldiers jogging by as the sun sets, chanting the refrain Badii had just been nostalgically recalling. His later dialogue with the seminary touches on religious arguments against suicide and we see Badii standing by a quarry afterwards, his shadow commingling with the parched earth being churned up by the machines. And the taxidermist, who has agreed to help Badii, talks of the transformative power of nature (which is what the film’s title alludes to), and again there are these long, gorgeous shots of the dusty landscape, with Badii’s car moving across it, as he drives to the picturesque spot he’s picked out to dig his grave. I don’t feel there are any spoilers in recounting this, as the film’s power and grace comes from the way it unfolds and the dialogues Badii engages in, in the world-weary faces (surely Badii is some kind of stand in for the director), and in the unexpected self-reflexivity of the coda, which hardly seems to answer any questions, but also places them in a different context entirely. Its simplicity of form can be challenging (not every critic has warmed to it, though it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in its year), but it lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards, and its enfolding mystery drew me back to watch it a second time in two days. Full understanding may never be possible, but despite its premise, it’s a film that seems to deal with the simple wonders of being alive.

Criterion Extras: Aside from a really pointless biography page listing a handful of films, and a trailer, the only significant extra is a filmed interview with (the sunglasses-wearing) Kiarostami where he talks about a number of issues related to his filmmaking, which is interesting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami | Cinematographer Homayoun Payvar | Starring Homayoun Ershadi | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 1 August 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 July 2015, and at my home, Monday 27 July 2015)