Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

Criterion Sunday 121: Billy Liar (1963)

Someone had clearly been watching those recent French New Wave films and taking cues from Godard and Truffaut. Specifically, director John Schlesinger, one imagines, and he does a British version very well here. Billy Fisher is a chronic dreamer (I can only imagine he was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s own arch-fantasist Fischer) who just can’t be honest with anyone, least of all himself. It’s the 1960s and the film opens with a montage of modern housing estate developments; Billy lives in a northern city and works at a (literal?) dead-end job, not doing very well there. There’s an energy to Billy, as he bounces around the city from one failure to another, playing off his various fiancées, and enduring his parents’ scorn. There’s also a lovely role for Julie Christie, and while any character who has Julie Christie in love with him and doesn’t immediately ditch everything else to be with her is clearly a moron, Courtenay still manages to work up quite a bit of winsome charm. He’s still an idiot, though and his parents aren’t wrong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Schlesinger | Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based on the novel by Waterhouse) | Cinematographer Denys Coop | Starring Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie | Length 98 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016

Maynila, sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975)

A young man comes to the big city to track down his girlfriend, gets sucked in, spat out: the classic narrative. I can’t really speak to the subtext here: presumably there is some level of allegory about the Marcos regime at work (Mrs Cruz, abducting village girls into prostitution rings, looks a bit like Imelda). But then again a lot of the social criticism is fairly clear: this is a film about poor people, those marginalised within a crumbling, exploitative, venal, corrupt system. There are no protections for workers, no safeguard against crime, and the rising anger our hero feels — towards the dehumanising effects of his disenfranchisement, and those who would exploit him — propel him towards the film’s (withheld, but evidently bleak) conclusion. This is all heady stuff — violence, underworld criminality, gay sex rings (touched upon in a way that’s barely sensational, more a weary expectation of normality) — but done with empathy towards the suffering.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lino Brocka | Writer Clodualdo del Mundo, Jr (based on the novel Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag by Edgardo M. Reyes) | Cinematographer Miguel de Leon | Starring Bembol Roca [as “Rafael Roco, Jr”], Hilda Koronel | Length 125 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 30 January 2017

Toni Erdmann (2016)

It’s been quite the festival darling, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe one’s reaction to it really does depend on being in the right room filled with the right group of people reacting favourably. I mean, I hardly disliked Toni Erdmann (and even laughed at a number of sequences), but it doesn’t quite elicit from me the same rave reviews others have been giving it. Calling it a “comedy”, for a start, is a bit misleading, as like the other films by director Maren Ade I’ve seen (2009’s Everyone Else and 2003’s The Forest for the Trees) it’s essentially about a person profoundly failing to connect with other human beings, so there’s a pretty deep sense of pathos to it — but then, that wouldn’t be unusual for the comedy genre.

The title character is an alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), the father of corporate consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller), and the film’s centre of attention shifts between them, following him for the first section, then her, then him again. She has a client in Bucharest, and so, feeling like she needs some further direction in life, he arrives unannounced to visit her. He’s a practical joker, she’s a business woman, and that’s where the comedy really comes from: that sense of hyper-awareness about how his actions are being seen by her, and some of the biggest laughs come from the abject fear you can sense behind her eyes, though she remains outwardly composed for those around her. Yet for a film that sort of bases itself in the comedy of humiliation, and as someone for whom that humour (mostly found in the sitcom format) is among my least favourite things, it never feels quite as squirm-inducing as I worried it would become, and perhaps the length at which it allows its scenes to unfold help with that (it’s not a short film).

It touches on a lot of issues pertinent to the modern world, and sure, locating a malaise at the heart of corporate culture isn’t exactly startlingly new, but it does it very nicely all the same. The generational disconnect is explored winningly too. And even if it never quite struck me as a masterpiece (cf. also La La Land), I certainly enjoyed it and for all that the characters may have been bored at times (or rather, perhaps, filled with ennui), I never found it boring to watch.


ADVANCE SCREENING NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Maren Ade | Cinematographer Patrick Orth | Starring Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek | Length 162 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 22 January 2017

Love Jones (1997)

I guess there are elements here that seem dated (no one having cellphones, spoken word clubs, some of the fashion) but they’re part of a rich texture that evokes an era and a place and a group of people — which is to say, Chicago in the late-1990s. Twenty years on and this film is excellent at giving a sense of this group of friends and acquaintances, and what it’s like to be around them. As the film progresses, so from out of the group emerge the two protagonists, Darius and Nina (played by Larenz Tate and Nia Long), who fall in love, sort of, then actually, then not so much. It creates a bewitching atmosphere, never needy and boisterous (like, say, the more overtly comedic The Best Man a couple years later), and never reliant on the ubiquitous 1990s tropes of black filmmaking (drugs, violence, ghettoes). As the star of both those films Nia Long should have been everywhere (maybe she was; her career is a blindspot for me and I need to remedy that), and this director should have defined romance in film for the following decade, but that didn’t happen and who knows why. This is great.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Theodore Witcher | Cinematographer Ernest Holzman | Starring Larenz Tate, Nia Long | Length 108 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 110: Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday aka Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953)

The Mr Hulot character is probably director-writer Jacques Tati’s most enduring comic creation. He’s a bumbling, almost speechless chap bent over a cane, with a distinctive floppy hat and long pipe, who wanders around getting involved in comedy situations, though just as often merely witness to the these (certainly by the time of later films like Mon oncle and Play Time, he’s more audience than actor). With a plot that sees Hulot off on his holidays in a rickety old car to the beach, we get to see him striding around the guest house, eating in the restaurant, taking sun on the beach — all very reminiscent of, and undoubtedly mined by, later British comedies like Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. There’s an implicit contrast between Hulot’s backward ways and the big modern cars, private cabins, and antisocial behaviour of the aspirational holidaymakers. It all moves along in a very likeable way, with nice careful use of sound effects, creating a very quiet, almost contemplative, atmosphere in which the comedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet | Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2001)

Paris Is Burning (1990)

It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).

As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.


RETROSPECTIVE SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Blackstar
Director Jennie Livingston | Cinematographer Paul Gibson | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016

Moonlight (2016)

I am hardly the person to attempt a critique of this film, for so many reasons, at so many levels, so take my comments as just a brief personal response to a film that will be sure to be in many top-10 lists this year and next (it’s not officially released in the UK until February).

I found a great deal to appreciate in the filmmaking, which, for all the limitations of its budget and shooting/rehearsal time (as the director talked about in a Q&A after my screening), has clearly been constructed with a lot of care. It follows a tripartite structure, three ages of a character, three different acts in one life, which is also refracted as multiple lives in a sense. The first character we see (Mahershala Ali’s Juan, whose role is confined to the first part of the film) is a reflection of the man the protagonist Chiron (at that point called ‘Little’) becomes by the film’s third part, and it’s tempting to read some of the same feelings into Juan that Little/Chiron/Black is grappling with.

The milieu the director is playing with at once seems all too familiar (something almost of clichés, and certainly of too many bad ‘ghetto’ dramas) but never follows the expected contours, such that the scenes are infused with the constant expectation of violence, and even when they don’t play out that way, a strong sense of trauma is still conveyed, a sense of an experience lived in this place, which is also (partially) the director’s own.

Ultimately, for all its formal gravitas — the polished lighting, the (presumably intentionally) dizzying camerawork, the music and orchestral score, the structure — despite all this, the heart of the movie, and what I liked so much in it, was in the acting: all three of the actors playing Chiron at different ages (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and then Trevante Rhodes) do wonders with very few words. The character of Chiron and the way he develops puts across the generational pain of toxic masculinity in a powerful way. It also, I hope — I really hope — augurs more films exploring its particular intersection of identities, because it also feels like a film that’s trying to make up for a lot of missed opportunities.


Moonlight (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins (based on the play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 5 December 2016

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

I hope Kelly Fremon Craig gets to keep making movies, and I hope she takes over from Richard Linklater’s deeply boycentric visions, which I’m only reminded of because Blake Jenner must be going through the ‘sensitive jock’ phase of his career. But no, this is a film about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and it’s wonderful. It has great timing and an ear for dialogue, whether comic or dramatic (and it does certainly run the gamut). The score isn’t too assertive, even if I did spend the first 10 minutes thinking it was a retro 80s film (fashions come around, I guess). I didn’t buy everything that happened, and the ending felt more than a little bit tacked on — the character cycle Nadine is trapped in doesn’t seem like it’ll have a happy resolution, but the film is above all generous to its characters. However, it felt particularly right in its character interactions and in the moves from angst (no Nadine, stay away from Jordan Catalano… or whatever his name is in this film*) to very droll comedy to lacerating drama, like any good coming of age film. And it’s definitely a good one.

[* It’s Nick, and he’s no good.]


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kelly Fremon Craig | Cinematographer Doug Emmett | Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Leicester Square, London, Tuesday 6 December 2016

Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)