Criterion Sunday 136: Spellbound (1945)

There’s no shortage of likeable hokum in this film, filled as it is with the excitable babble of newly-learned psychoanalytic jargon and dated jokes about mental health issues. Bergman is excellent, there’s that Dalí dream sequence, the gun boldly pointed at the screen. But gosh it doesn’t half seem a bit ludicrous, with all kinds of conveniently-remembered details to move the plot along, the redemptive power of believing in someone’s innocence because they’re pretty handsome (oh Gregory Peck), and so much condescending and mansplaining to the unfortunate Ingrid Bergman’s doctor, who to her credit largely shrugs it off. My favourite sequence is where the police connect the dots by drawing glasses on her glamour headshot to figure out she’s actually (gasp!) that educated woman they met once in a doctor’s office.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writers Angus MacPhail and Ben Hecht (based on the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes by John Palmer and Hilary A. Saunders) | Cinematographer George Barnes | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 December 2016

Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016)

Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.

This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.

My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.

However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Larry Manda | Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio | Length 485 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017

Lezate divanegi (Joy of Madness, 2004)

There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf | Length 71 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017

B for Boy (2013)

Shot in that sort of vérité style that relies (perhaps too much) on handheld camera, this is a fascinating insight into familial dynamics in Nigeria. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) is nearing her 40th birthday, pregnant with her second child, and meanwhile her mother-in-law is desperate to know if it’s a boy so her late husband’s family name can be continued. She even has a contingency second wife lined up for her son, which, needless to say, creates a bit of tension within the household. What’s particularly on point here is that we don’t see any of the male characters exerting this pressure: such is the noxious ingrained nature of patriarchal expectation, it has all been internalised by the women to the extent that they at times literally gang up on Amaka. She has some difficult decisions to make, and even a plot development that leads her to wearing a fake pregnant belly doesn’t seem absurd by the time we’ve got to that point.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chika Anadu | Cinematographer Monika Lenczewska | Starring Uche Nwadili | Length 114 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 6 March 2017

A Way of Life (2004)

It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Amma Asante | Cinematographer Ian Wilson | Starring Stephanie James | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left, 2016)

At a certain level, this is a classic story of revenge, as Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is released from prison after 30 years of false captivity and seeks out the rich man who set her up. However, this is a Lav Diaz film, so events unfold slowly, in high-contrast black-and-white. As Horacia formulates her plan she comes into contact with a number of poor street people, and getting to know them becomes in many ways more important than the plot. It is, then, I suppose a film again about Filipino society (at a specific point in time, the late-90s) but also about time taken away — which is a little bit of meta-commentary for the patient audience, given the usual length of Diaz’s films (though this one is under four hours).


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Charo Santos-Concio | Length 228 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Sunday 5 March 2017

Complicit (2017)

There’s almost a subgenre of documentary that deals with activist issues of social justice campaigning, and that’s very much the wheelhouse of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Complicit is a fine example, focusing on the global electronics industry, specifically their factories in South-Eastern China (on the Pearl River Delta). It’s not so much the sweatshop conditions here as the workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals (benzene most notably, which causes leukaemia), a situation not really being tackled by the enormous global companies contracting out the work. The filmmakers here are canny to focus not on the Chinese government but on these companies in their (as the title suggests) complicity with human rights violations — though that complicity obviously extends to the audience also, those who use these electronic devices (a certain fruit-based designer is particularly targeted). It’s the stories of the workers, and their often futile attempts to get recompense from or to even be heard by the companies, which are the heart of the film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Director Heather White and Lynn Zhang | Writer Christopher Seward | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Monday 13 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 132: The Ruling Class (1972)

There’s a tradition of British comedy that we’ve seen already in the Criterion Collection of revelling in over-the-top satirical absurdity, with silly voices, musical sequences, delusions of grandeur, all that bit (think Monty Python’s Life of Brian or How to Get Ahead in Advertising as two examples), and this film clearly fits into that tradition. It’s certainly enjoyable, with Peter O’Toole on fine form as a delusional Christ-like aristocrat who comes into his inheritance. The film is made in a self-consciously theatrical style, with frontal framing, addresses to camera, no end of soliloquies, though it adds a few fine camera flourishes for cinematic effect. I just wish I could believe in the power of satire as something other than simply a way for an out group to laugh self-satisfiedly at entitled people they deem infra dignitatem but who retain the reins of power even so. It’s very hard in 2017 for me to be anything but angry at the self-appointed upper crust inveighing against immorality whilst revelling in it, invoking white imperialist legacies to justify their authoritarian tendencies. Still, there’s a lot to like if you’re willing to allow it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Medak | Writer Peter Barnes (based on his play) | Cinematographer Ken Hodges | Starring Peter O’Toole, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Carolyn Semour | Length 154 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 November 2016

Tank Girl (1995)

A colourful, brash and cheerfully perverse action film, Lori Petty seems well-matched to the title role, being every bit as quirky as a comic book character brought to life might be — somewhat hyperactive, but quirky without being grating. That said, it feels like the key here is that she isn’t constantly trying to present herself as sexually available at the same time as fighting off bad guys and blowing up compounds (a direction you imagine a male filmmaker might have gone, and one that has certainly hampered female characters in a lot of other comic-book and sci-fi films). There’s a kind of camp at play here that’s reminiscent of the Wachowskis in Jupiter Ascending (2015), with busy set design worthy of Terry Gilliam. The kangaroo creatures spoil it all somewhat, teetering too close to the cult perils of Howard the Duck, and the action sequences go on somewhat, but on the whole this remains good fun, with an iconic 90s alternative rock and ‘riot grrrl’-influenced soundtrack.


FILM REVIEW
Director Rachel Talalay | Writer Tedi Sarafian (based on the comic by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett) | Cinematographer Gale Tattersall | Starring Lori Petty, Naomi Watts, Reg E. Cathey, Ice-T, Malcolm McDowell | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 May 2017