Shirkers (2018)

The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.


The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).

It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.

Shirkers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 October 2018.

Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)

Continuing my week’s theme of documentaries about women artists (photographers, filmmakers, painters et al.) are these two hour-long Barbara Hammer video pieces. One is autobiographical, while the other focuses on three different women living in different eras, whose image-making work intersects with their (sometimes contested) sexuality.

Continue reading “Two Films by Barbara Hammer: Tender Fictions (1996) and The Female Closet (1998)”

None Shall Escape (1944)

Looking back at war films I’ve seen in the last few years (a genre I’m not a huge acolyte of), I find most of the ones I’ve seen cover World War II, during which conflict cinema became a powerful propaganda tool (perhaps not for the first time, but certainly more widely than ever before). This 1944 film takes the war film genre and spins it as a speculative fiction, addressing in real time the war crimes of the Nazis and how they will come to pay for them (as, indeed, they did).


A rather extraordinary speculative fiction, made in 1943 (or at least that’s the production date on the film; it was released the following year) but set in a future where the allies have won the war and put Nazi war criminals on trial. It focuses on one character, Wilhelm Grimm (Alexander Knox), and charts his descent from schoolteacher in Poland to, well, Nazi war criminal. The trial is the framing device introducing figures from his life like the priest who tells of how in 1919 he was going to marry Marja (Marsha Hunt), a Polish woman who taught alongside him, except that World War I had changed him, and now he felt as if the Germans could yet conquer the world. Then his brother Karl takes the stand and narrates how Wilhelm returned to stay with him in Munich in 1923, but was attracted by the rising star of one A. Hitler, whose ideology continued to warp his mind in successive flashbacks to 1929 and 1933, at which point Wilhelm has his brother sent to a concentration camp (which he has somehow survived to be giving testimony), at which point we move to some pretty full-on wartime scenes of Nazi atrocities (not least the burning of books, the murder of all the Jews along with the town’s rabbi, who recites the kaddish as he dies, and then the forced prostitution of the women). The final speech of the judge is directly into camera and explicitly addressed to the UN, so this is essentially a propaganda film, but it’s one that’s fairly prescient about the way that things would be for a long time to come — and which sadly makes it still fairly contemporary now. Nazis are bad.

None Shall Escape film posterCREDITS
Director Andre DeToth; Writers Lester Cole, Alfred Neumann and Joseph Than; Cinematographer Lee Garmes; Starring Marsha Hunt, Alexander Knox, Henry Travers; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Wednesday 27 June 2018.

She Goes to War (1929)

Closer to the template for a war film, but with a woman as the protagonist (dressed up as man to fight in the trenches), and in dire need of proper restoration, is this late-silent film by Henry King, which screened as part of a retrospective on the director at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.


For a film that’s been utterly mangled by history — a strange hybrid of sound and silent filmmaking that was more or less lost upon its 1929 release, re-edited to half its length in 1939, and re-released with a sententious prologue that suggests it’s telling the TRUTH about war without bias, but in fact seems more keen to say “please America don’t join the current conflict” — this is a fascinating document. It doesn’t work very well at all dramatically: after an initial parade and soldiers shipping out, there’s a cut direct to a shot of a cemetery and thence an extended period of time with the soldiers in the trenches. Dramatic irony is deployed as one woman sings a song (aided by a ukulele for a bit) about a happy land while soldiers fall down dead around her (the happy land being Heaven, of course), and then the film only really gets going in the last third, as one woman disguises herself as a man to see the front, where she gets tediously mocked by the guys who’ve figured out her game, but eventually proves herself somewhat. There’s a terrifying sequence of tanks rumbling through flames, but this is a film crying out for proper restoration.

She Goes to War film posterCREDITS
Director Henry King; Writers Rupert Hughes, Fred de Gresac, Howard Estabrook and John Monk Saunders; Cinematographers John P. Fulton and Tony Gaudio; Starring Eleanor Boardman, John Holland; Length 50 minutes (as it currently exists, but originally 87 minutes).
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 277: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

It’s time for me to try something with my regular weekly Criterion Collection posts. I’m not changing the way they look or anything fundamental, but I have decided I am going to try to post two a week (both on Sunday, morning and evening). After all I’m fairly sure Criterion are adding around four new films every month, so it’s not looking like I’m going to catch up with them anytime soon. Therefore, I’ve taken the difficult decision to double my output on this, which means I’m going to need to watch twice as many each week if I’m to keep up. Therefore we’ll see how long this period of double-posting lasts.


It’s an odd one this, a film from the burgeoning independent gay cinema that was starting to move towards the mainstream, but looping in references (and sometimes entire speeches) from Shakespeare’s histories, without very much blurring between these two disparate registers. Its chief protagonists are Mike (River Phoenix), a directionless street hustler in Portland Oregon, who meets Scott (Keanu Reeves), who has chosen a life of hedonistic pleasure in defiance of his wealthy father, and both end up on a sort of road trip, though much of the trip seems to be more inside these characters’ heads. A Falstaffian figure is provided in the shape of Bob (William Richert), who acts like the boss of this loose coalition of street denizens, though beyond that it’s difficult to clearly set out what happens in the film given its fragmentary narrative structure, somewhat akin to the narcolepsy that afflicts Mike periodically. However, there’s enough looseness to allow small roles to odd and amusing characters, not least of all Udo Kier’s Hans, who does a dance with a lamp that’s probably the film’s comedy highlight. Elsewhere there are soliloquies and deadpan line readings that impart a rather glorious bathos to the proceedings, discursive as they are.

(Written on 8 February 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (loosely based on the plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards; Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 6 February 2016.

Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.


Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.

Dolemite Is My Name film posterCREDITS
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.

Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Her Smell (2018)

Another late entry for possible inclusion on my ‘best-of-year’ lists, as I try to catch up with things I’d missed (in this case, largely because it was dumped straight to VOD platforms at some point this year without any festival or cinema screenings in the UK), is also surely a contender for worst title of the year. It’s the latest from Alex Ross Perry, the auteur behind the self-loathing men of Listen Up Philip (2014) and the Bergmanesque chamber drama Queen of Earth (2015), both also starring Elisabeth Moss in key roles. It deals with a certain brand of self-destructive rock star behaviour (seen also this year in Vox Lux, and a few years ago in Beyond the Lights), and channels a kind of 90s energy that suggests to me that it is, subtly, a period piece (I don’t think it anywhere makes it clear when it’s set, but I’m assuming in the 2000s). Anyway, it looks fab and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. I’d have loved to have seen it on a big screen.


A messy psychodrama such as Alex Ross Perry now has form for making, but I think this may be my favourite of his. It’s certainly got a rawness to it, perhaps only sharpened by flirting with the danger that is inherent in trying to cinematically recreate music of the past (in this case sort of pseudo-Hole 90s woman-led rock music) in a way that doesn’t come across as embarrassingly off-key. For the most part, Moss and Perry pull it off rather well, but this is a story that focuses on Moss’s Becky Something as performer, pulled apart by the industry (personified by Eric Stoltz’s indie label boss; nice to see him on-screen for the second time after so many years), the demands of fame and performance, just barely holding it together. Becky’s problems run much deeper than drinking and drugs, of course, but those are catalysts to some epic disintegration in the first half of the film, which leads into reflective scenes towards the end. Still, even when it all seems to come together (beautifully, climactically so), it’s still always kinda falling apart, but in a way that feels earned by the ensemble. The title sits somewhat weirdly, but the loving recreation of 1990s and 2000s album art in the end credits is wondrous.

Her Smell film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Agyness Deyn, Eric Stoltz, Dan Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Virginia Madsen; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.