Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Tsukuroi tatsu hito (A Stitch of Life, 2015)

There’s a style of modern Japanese cinema that always seems just a little bit precious to me, in danger of being too arch, too cute, too sentimental, often with syrupy music that juts out even amongst all that. I’m not saying this is entirely one of those films, but it’s on a spectrum — one that, to be fair, also includes the work of Naomi Kawase and the very fine films of Hirokazu Koreeda. There is restraint in this story set in Kobe of a thirty-something seamstress Ichie (Miki Nakutani), following her grandmother’s designs, but wondering whether to update them, do her own designs, move into the modern world of branding and shopping centres. Even that thematic focus makes the film a little out of time itself, and it has a sort of quiet classical beauty to it. It’s based on a manga series, which only makes it clear that my idea of manga is pretty narrow, if they include ones about middle-aged women sewing suits and dresses for even older people. I like, too, that the film toys with a romantic subplot but doesn’t make it the core to our protagonist’s narrative, has a character in a wheelchair whose disability doesn’t define her entirely, and isn’t rushed in its storytelling. It does still have rather too big an orchestral soundtrack for my liking, but on the whole, it’s fairly inoffensive.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Japan Foundation Touring Programme
Director Yukiko Mishima | Writer Tamio Hayashi (based on the manga by Aoi Ikebe) | Cinematographer Kazutaka Abe | Starring Miki Nakutani, Takahiro Miura | Length 104 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

Circumstance (2011)

I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz | Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard | Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

Banoo-Ye Ordibehesht (The May Lady, 1997)

A quiet, thoughtful film about a middle-aged woman reflecting on motherhood, and how to weigh the feelings of her (almost grown) son with her own desires. It uses documentary footage of women talking about being mothers — the protagonist is a filmmaker — to introduce these themes, as she talks about her feelings in voiceover. Her son really is quite an annoying chap, but it leaves it until the very last moment to resolve her indecision.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad | Cinematographer Hossein Jafarian | Starring Golab Adineh | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 12 January 2017

This Is the Life (2008)

Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.


FILM REVIEW
Director Ava DuVernay | Cinematographer Isaac Klotz | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017

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

Yi ju ding yi wan ju (Someone to Talk To, 2016)

Sometimes the way that film distribution works really confuses me. Most foreign language films which get a release in this country, along with write-ups in the press and coverage by major film critics, come via favourable film festival screenings, or — if they’re from established directors with a public profile — they may get a release directly to cinemas. Usually any films released this way make it to a small handful of ‘arthouse’-friendly cinemas like the ICA or the Picturehouse or Curzon chains (based primarily in London; a bit sparse elsewhere in the country).

But then there is the popular cinema of non-western countries, which may make it into major chains like Odeon or Cineworld (easier to access and with more screenings, in many cases, than the more discussed arthouse releases from these places), and fly almost entirely beneath the radar of the English-language press. It seems to be rare for there to be much of a crossover between these two niches. If you live in the North-East of London, you may see Turkish films down the schedule on your local Cineworld; if you live out East or West (Ilford or Feltham, say), you’ll see a large number of Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani films. And if you go to the Odeon Panton Street, there will always be some Chinese-language films. Any of these can be an unexpected delight, but more often western viewers (okay, I’m talking about me here, obviously) will just be confused, for it turns out that the popular cinemas of various countries come with their own, often impenetrable, customs and codes of behaviour (I recall fondly seeing a South Indian film where every frame showing any kind of alcoholic product merited an onscreen warning about over-consumption for as long as it was pictured).

My point here is that I don’t really always understand what separates the two categories, for in many ways Someone to Talk To (the novel it’s based on translates the title as “One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand”) shares plenty of characteristics with the usual well-regarded dramatic pabulum you get from the US or UK domestic markets. You can easily imagine the four central characters being played by A-list actors in the US and the film would be reviewed as a solid, engaging relationship drama which gives space and time to its actors, and largely effaces any showiness (there are a few overly ingratiating travelling shots during scenes of exposition, but that’s all I can remember noticing). The way it develops its central theme — that people just need to communicate with one another to have successful relationships (hence the title) — can be pretty clunky at times, too.

Still, there’s a lot of sensitive acting on display, whether the perpetually perplexed and hang-dog looking Hai Mao as Aiguo, a cuckolded husband who won’t grant a divorce to his estranged partner Lina (Qian Li) for quite evidently petty reasons, or Wei Fan as cheery local chef Song, who remarries Aiguo’s sister Aixiang (Pei Lu), both lonely but ardently hoping to have… someone to talk to. The women get a little bit of melodramatic suffering to play, but the film isn’t about their unhappiness so much as the blinkered expectations of its two male leads, which are gently corrected as the film goes on. There’s rather a lot of suicidal ideation (and I feel I can’t not provide a content warning for a plot point which puts a child’s life in the balance), but for the most part this is a solid, involving relationship drama.


Yi ju ding yi wan ju (Someone to Talk To, 2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Yulin Liu | Writer Zhenyun Liu (based on his novel, though the book is usually translated as One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand) | Cinematographer Di Wu | Starring Hai Mao, Qian Li, Pei Liu, Wei Fan | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Thursday 10 November 2016

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny (2016)

After his most recent films, I don’t really think it’s the time to try and write about my fondness for the cinema of Richard Linklater. For a start, his 2014 film Boyhood has already elicited all the hagiographic column inches any person could ever want (including from me, I must confess), and it’s in this adulatory vein that this documentary proceeds, anchored around interviews with Linklater by Louis Black (an old Austin, Texas colleague).

I like Linklater’s films, I do, but they are pitched pretty firmly at me — white male, middle-class, educated, straight, able-bodied — and so don’t really open me up to anything new exactly, aside from an appreciation of the amiable jock (a mythical creature, surely) in the American psyche. This documentary, likewise, doesn’t exactly get under his skin so much as marshal a bunch of clips of his movies (except subUrbia for some reason), interview him and some of his collaborators, and show him directing Everybody Wants Some!! (2016). I don’t know if it adds much, but Linklater seems like a thoroughly nice guy, his films are largely pleasant enough (even when, as in EWS, they elide significant issues of representation), and I do still like them. I expect this to end up as a bonus feature on a Criterion blu-ray, and that’s fine.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein | Cinematographer David Layton | Starring Richard Linklater | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 26 October 2016

Burn Burn Burn (2015)

I fundamentally liked this film, even if there was a lot of stuff I didn’t believe at all: because it’s set up as a sort of kooky comedy, it often seems a little too cutely precious in the way characters come together, while some of them seem to have been introduced just to push along a magical sense of healing (particularly re: mothers, which provides a little bit too much sentimentality towards the end for my personal liking). Indeed the entire framework — a road trip by two women to scatter a dead friend’s ashes, who addresses them via self-recorded videos (and quotes Kerouac) — could easily be too much self-conscious quirk. And yet there’s something about those three central performances (by Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie as Seph and Alex, and as Jack Farthing as their dead friend Dan) that gets to a kernel of emotional honesty that I found unexpectedly moving. At its best it reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis (a film I adored) in acknowledging the way that emotional pain can cause people to act horribly to one another. Meanwhile, gosh, British filmmaking has no shortage of tall pretty posh young women with cut glass accents acting atrociously while being funny (see also the Fleabag TV series just for a start), though it also makes the all too brief appearance of Alice Lowe (most recently seen as director/star of festival favourite Prevenge) all the more delightful.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Chanya Button | Writer Charlie Covell | Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho | Starring Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 November 2016

LFF 2016 Day Twelve

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun. [***½]


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise. [***]