Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017

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Criterion Sunday 151: Traffic (2000)

Well, first up, I can’t really deny Soderbergh is a skillful director. He has a way with cinematic narrative that puts him up there with that other sibilant Steven of Hollywood preeminence. Despite a two-and-a-half-hour running time, Traffic (like the British television mini-series it’s based on) is never boring; it’s well-paced, tightly structured and it has plenty of fine performances (not least from Soderbergh regulars like Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of cops investigating a mid-level drug dealer, Miguel Ferrer — also excellent). It’s just, at a fundamental level, I’m not sure at some of the hand-wringing arguments being made here about drugs, not least the racialised aspect of it. I mean quite aside from the Mexicans (they’re all corrupt, all of them), there’s the weirdly morally judgmental descent of Michael Douglas’s daughter (played by Erika Christensen) — he’s a high-flying government drugs czar, she’s privately-educated (and hangs out with Topher Grace of all people), her nadir apparently being sleeping with a black drug dealer. I mean maybe I’m reading too much into it, though I found the attitude towards the teenagers generally a little condescending. Also, Soderbergh was deep into his own addiction to coloured lens filters (Cincinatti is BLUE, Mexico is YELLOW, and at least DC and LA are sort of normal), which gets trying too. Anyway, it’s enjoyable enough, but I wouldn’t call it his masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Stephen Gaghan (based on the television miniseries Traffik by Simon Moore) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”] | Starring Benicio del Toro, Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Catherine Zeta-Jones | Length 147 minutes || Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 25 March 2001 (and again on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 13 July 2017)

Criterion Sunday 150: Bob le flambeur (1956)

There’s style here undoubtedly: its tale of a down-on-his-luck gambler looking for one last big score by staging a heist has been cribbed for so many subsequent films that it can’t help but feeling like cliché. The plot’s not all that later filmmakers (not least early Godard and all his fanboy imitators) would take — the use of music, the laid-back style, the pop culture references (all those film posters; Breathless really did owe a lot to Melville). The problem is — and I concede this may just be because I’ve seen all its imitators first — I wasn’t grabbed by it. It looks great but these guys all feel like empty archetypes, and the young woman’s ​characterisation appears to be undressing in various men’s apartments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville | Cinematographer Henri Decaë | Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 149: Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965)

An attractive film to look at admittedly, made with an all-too-self-consciously flamboyant camera in some sequences, this still manages to leave me cold. It may be Fellini’s masterpiece, though, if we consider him a stylist of characters in hectic motion, a carnival of oddity, feeling, spirits, nostalgia and feminine charms. The plot can’t really be summed up easily — it’s about Giulietta Masina’s eponymous title character and her feelings, to a certain extent about her husband’s fidelity, though even that seems slightly beside the point — and instead we get 135 or so minutes of great sets, costumes, hair, camerawork, and an almost babble of manic expressionist madness.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano and Brunello Rondi | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Giulietta Masina | Length 137 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 12 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 143: Cet obscur objet du désir (That Obscure Object of Desire, 1977)

In the long pre-history to this blog, I’ve already written about this film after seeing it on the big screen back in 2007, and even posted it here. Revisiting it again for this project, I am reminded that I find Buñuel’s style, especially in these later French films, both beguiling and maddening in equal measure: short scenes, people wandering into and out of rooms, little attempt to always make any narrative connections or explicate “meaning”. That, plus the very 70s ways of working through issues of desire — by which I mean not just a certain normalisation of elderly male attention to young women, but casual domestic violence. Of course, Mathieu is hardly intended to be sympathetic — part of the ‘comedy’ is that Mathieu’s calm explanations to his fellow train passengers (the film is largely told by him in flashback) of how he’s in the right are undercut by what we see of his behaviour — and the terrorist conflagrations which periodically engulf the film (and which consume it ultimately) seem to be a sort of wilful erasure of Mathieu’s aggressive desires. Still, Conchita never comes across as much more than a surface onto which Mathieu’s confused desires are projected, though casting two actors in the role (the aloof Carole Bouquet and more sensuous Ángela Molina) does come across as something of a masterful stroke (however it was intended by Buñuel).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (inspired by the novel La Femme et le pantin by Pierre Louÿs) | Cinematographer Edmond Richard | Starring Fernando Rey, Ángela Molina, Carole Bouquet | Length 99 minutes || Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Wednesday 28 February 2007 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 12 February 2017)

Criterion Sunday 142: The Last Wave (1977)

There’s a slow-building foreboding intensity at work here that sets up its mystery plot nicely — darkness, torrential rain, apocalyptic imagery. The film explores that liminal space between dreams and reality, underpinned by indigenous Aboriginal culture and beliefs. The film makes a lot of play on tribal affiliations and mystical rites and objects, which sometimes comes across as a bit naive, especially given Richard Chamberlain isn’t the most effective lead, and there’s a bit of condescension at work it seems to me. Still, the Aboriginal cast (led by David Gulpilil) are excellent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir | Writers Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu | Cinematographer Russell Boyd | Starring Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil | Length 106 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 140: 8½ (aka Otto e mezzo, 1963)

It’s not that I don’t appreciate what Fellini is aiming for here — portrait of the artist as a narcissist with mother issues, one of his abiding themes — it’s just that there’s so much whirl and spectacle that I find it difficult to keep up with why I should care about Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido and his many women (and memories of women, and fantasies of women). I’ve apparently seen this film before but I don’t remember it at all, not that I’m holding up this response as any kind of proof of anything. It’s undoubtedly a well-made film which does all those reflexive filmic things (he plays a film director) that critics love when compiling their all-time lists, and the cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is fantastic. I just struggle to find what’s in it that I can connect with. To each their own.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Tuesday 31 October 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 January 2017)

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