This Friday in the UK sees the release of Last Christmas, the latest romcom themed around the annual holiday, which presumably will lean heavily on snow, baubles, lights, eating and love. And of course, at this time every year, all the online streaming services provide unceasing Yuletide content, whether higher-end bigger-budget fare from Netflix (often starring Vanessa Hudgens, who will I gather be in The Knight Before Christmas for Netflix this season) or the Hallmark-style TV pabulum that often is made with the same stars, writers and directors every year, and probably throughout the year in dedicated studios in LA, Canada and Eastern Europe, I’m guessing. I already did a post about made-for-TV Christmas movies a few years ago, so I guess it’s time to update with a few more recent titles. Perhaps there’s a great film in this genre out there (or at least one I can rate as highly as being merely “good”), but I still seem to be searching.
Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.
I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018.
As a Criterion release, I’m somewhat underwhelmed by this film, even watching De Sica’s longer, original cut (as Terminal Station rather than the shorter version Indiscretion of an American Wife, recut by producer David O. Selznick). It takes the romantic setting of a train station as the locus for its story of two lovers pulled apart then together then apart, a little dance of passion that should be more… well, more like Brief Encounter I suppose. There’s a strange inertness to both Montgomery Clift’s Italian/American Giovanni and Jennifer Jones as the adulterous wife Mary, despite the passionate bond they seem to share. Still, there are some lovely shots and it does create an atmosphere for this forbidding, steamy, loud Italian location.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writers Luigi Chiarini, Giorgio Prosperi and Cesare Zavattini; Cinematographer Aldo Graziati; Starring Montgomery Clift, Jennifer Jones, Richard Beymer; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 March 2018.
Sam Peckinpah undoubtedly has an ability to put together a film, maintain tension, choreograph an action sequence, and find exactly the right moment for a blast of strident bagpipe music. But modern cinema’s endlessly repeated theme — stuck in a groove like a particularly obnoxious record (let’s say, bagpipe music) — rears its evergreen head, namely ‘the toxic perils of masculinity’. It’s not something that doesn’t bear repeating, of course, it’s just the particular way that Peckinpah approaches it is to sacrifice everyone to it (and the title does, I believe, reference a ritual object). In this way, Straw Dogs ends up reminding me of the films of Michael Haneke, one of my least favourite auteurs (but if you love him, maybe you’ll get a kick out of this).
Dustin Hoffman plays a weedy American academic mathematician, in his young wife’s home town in Cornwall (England), where they are both swiftly targeted by the ruffian-like men who dwell there: him for having the temerity to not be from around there and thinking himself better, she for not wearing a bra (or so it seems). Anyway, she is certainly brought down a peg, the film’s editing repeatedly emphasising that he does not have sufficiently ‘manly’ attributes to protect his property (his cat, his wife, eventually his home). When he does eventually gain something of this presumably-failed masculinity, it’s one of those ‘ah ha DO YOU SEE, oh audience, how you are complicit in the violence inherent in our society’ kinds of ways so beloved of Haneke, and which you can either take as a masterstroke of authorial self-reflexivity, or, I don’t know, obnoxious and mean-spirited.
From my review, you can probably see the way I am critically leaning with Straw Dogs, and of course you may disagree. Yes, it’s a well-made film, but the way I feel about it is not so far from the way I feel about Dustin Hoffman these days.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sam Peckinpah; Writers David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams); Cinematographer John Coquillon; Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.
There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.
Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016.
The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016.
Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.
Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular.
Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society.
Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts.
Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold.
I missed days four and five of the London Film Festival what with being away for the weekend for my birthday (I was in Manchester at a beer festival). Anyway, I returned on Monday 10 October and resumed watching films…
LoveTrue (2016, USA, dir./DOP Alma Har’el עלמה הראל)
Psychodrama is a new one on me, but it fits into a burgeoning interest in examining the intersection between the stories we have in us and the ways they can be presented: the focus seems very much to be on documentary-as-performance (with, notably, some acted recreations of events, though the actors are clearly identified and the nature of this collaboration becomes part of the film at several points). Here, there are three central protagonists (in Hawaii, Alaska and NYC) but the ways they deal with the other players in their lives, specifically at the level of love, are quite different. I think the achievement of Alma Har’el’s film is getting under the skin of characters who can be quite unlikeable (here I’m speaking chiefly of the men), and making them empathetic at some level. Romantic love almost seems like an illusory idea by the end, but there are definitely other forms of love that haven’t been abandoned in all three, and in the telling it goes in some surprising emotional directions.
Interchange (2016, Malaysia/Indonesia, dir. Dain Iskandar Said, wr. Said/June Tan/Nandita Solomon/Redza Minhat, DOP Jordan Chiam)
There’s an interesting film in here about the appropriative gaze of white colonialists, whose early-20th century photography was thought to steal the soul of tribal peoples. This idea is parlayed into a vampiric metaphor (people literally sucked of life and turned inside out) within a detective thriller genre framework, which would be fine if it didn’t rest its characters and narrative on so many other referential crutches (Se7en, Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Vertigo, not to mention a whole strand of Hong Kong police thrillers and that kind of thing). Ultimately I just couldn’t care about photographer Adam, or the police detectives — or anyone really — and too much of the characters’ dialogue was filled with portentous platitudes. Still, it never fails to look stylish, and there are some beautiful images.
ນ້ອງຮັກ Nong Hak (Dearest Sister) (2016, Laos/Estonia/France, dir. Mattie Do, wr. Christopher Larsen, DOP Mart Ratassepp)
This is something unusual — a Lao-Estonian-French co-production — though as the director mentioned in a post-film Q&A, there’s no real Lao cinema to speak of (all her local actors are non-professional, even if they all do a great job). The film is ostensibly a ghost story, looping in supernatural lottery prediction, but the heart of the drama is of class and social mobility dividing the rich city woman Ana (who is losing her sight, her sense of perspective — do you see) from her poor country cousin Nok, whom Ana barely knows but who has been moved in to help her around the home by the rich woman’s white (Estonian) husband Jakob. The film is also canny about calling out the presence of western NGOs and their workers’ assumptions about Lao women. But this is not a film which fits into South-East Asian horror stereotypes, nor does it quite match up to the kind of slow-burn Thai weirdness of, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (though I’d put it closer to that). It has its own rhythms, and uses a tightly-focused handheld aesthetic to help put across some of the terror and uncertainty felt by its blind central character.