Criterion Sunday 477: Bergman Island (2006)

There’s a film with the same title directed by Mia Hansen-Løve currently doing the festival circuit rounds, but this is not that film, it’s rather the Criterion release of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman, filmed a few years before his death in his reclusive life on the island of Fårö. It’s edited down from a much longer conversation, and you can see snippets of the rest appearing as introductions to the various Bergman films in the collection as he talks about his own films. However for this documentary a lot more focus is on his own life as an artist, with a few clips from his films and some discussion of a handful of specific titles, but really it’s about him as a creator and about him as a person. The latter leads to the most revealing stuff, as he admits to having been a cruel man in his life, playing with women’s feelings (he had five wives, nine children and a string of affairs). But perhaps the most indelible turning point is his return to Sweden after being invited to a pool party by Barbra Streisand. I’m sorry, Ingmar, you made some good movies but that was the wrong choice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marie Nyreröd; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

Talking About Trees (2019)

One of my favourite films of last year was a documentary about filmmaking, and about film culture, in a place where it’s been allowed to die. Four elderly men try to revive cinemagoing in Sudan, and it’s a film about life and the difficulty of living in certain political conditions, but the drive to keep on going anyway.


Although it’s a documentary, fairly straightforward as these things go, there’s something of a deeper resonance to it. Partly that’s the style, the way it unfolds at a leisurely pace. After all, it’s about four elderly filmmakers trying to bring back the cinema to their country of Sudan, trying to find a suitable space, getting the screen and cameras and sound sorted, looking for the right title, and getting the official permissions in order. And so if it feels unhurried, that’s partly because these are all men who don’t have anywhere else to be going, or so it seems. The passion, though, is real and very evident as they try to get their project going. As it moves along, the documentary also hints at some of the promise of Sudanese cinema, which died back when these men were young, and about the political state of their country. In one memorable scene, one of the men counts off all the times they lived through: “colonialism, the first democracy, the first dictatorship, the second democracy, the second dictatorship…” So in fact the film is not really talking about trees or insubstantial subjects, but dealing with something that feels more tragic in its hue. You hope for their success, but it seems to recede further the more the film plays.

Talking About Trees film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Suhaib Gasmelbari صهيب الباري; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 February 2020.

Criterion Sunday 360: “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes” (1971/2005)

This Criterion release collects two films, and I present below reviews of both of them. The first is listed as 1968 on the packaging, and I discuss the dates below, but I have listed it as 1971 because that’s the date on the film. Of course, strictly-speaking it was never publicly screened for a number of decades, so there’s a case that it should be much later.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1971)

There is some question about the date of this film: it’s generally listed as 1968 (including on the director’s website), but the date of production that shows up on-screen at the end of the film, and on the Wikipedia page and elsewhere, it states it wasn’t completed until 1971, and certainly doesn’t seem to have been screened publicly for quite some time after that (1991 according to AllMovie). Then again, this is hardly a straightforward film by any means, being ostensibly a documentary but one about a film-within-a-film (called Over the Cliff, being made with a variety of actors tested out, seemingly in the style of a Cassavetes picture). It’s also a film in which even its documentary subjects — the filmmakers themselves, the loudest among them soon becoming Bob Rosen (the production manager), and Jonathan Gordon (one of the soundmen), along with the director — may be characters or versions of themselves that don’t match reality. Most straightforwardly this can be seen in the character of the director, Bill Greaves (William Greaves), who seems rather coarse and even a bit flamboyant at times, but then we also see his crew sitting around discussing him, casting aspersions on his quality as a director, but also aware they’re being filmed and suggesting even that he may be outside the room listening (and all of these may well be true, along with the possibility that this is a staged scene). And of course there’s that extra level whereby the African-American director is being discussed and picked apart by a (largely) white crew, putting his actions in a spotlight that’s matched against their own expectations. The film, then, which frequently splits into two or three different images, openly toys with the limits of its own fictions (and truths), and does so in an evocative, constantly questioning sort of way that’s appealing to anyone who grew up as an audience regularly confronting such issues in self-consciously metatextual films of the 1990s and 2000s.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½ (2005)

It’s fairly clear at this point — even to the participants in the film — that this long-delayed follow-up to Take One lacks something of the immediacy of the first. It uses the footage shot in 1968 as a starting point, picking up from the final shot of the first film (over that film’s end credits) to lead directly into the opening credits of this one, following a brief crew introduction on a NYC balcony. It picks up with another two actors rehearsing the roles of Freddie and Alice, in this case a mixed-race pairing (unlike the two we see for most of Take One‘s running time). There’s half an hour following of footage from 1968 of what was presumably originally going to be Take Two (the director William Greaves even makes reference to it at one point, suggesting he had a very clear idea of how these films would have been delineated back then, had he had the funding). We then very briskly skip forward some 30 years to a Q&A following a screening of the original film, at which Steve Buscemi makes an appearance (as a champion of the original and a producer on its follow-up). The dynamics remain fairly similar, with crew discussions taking place without the director, and then with footage from Central Park of the filming of the two actors, who have returned, older and greyer, to reprise their characters. It seems more interested in the dynamic between them than the original film ever was, but then this one lacks the on-screen charisma of production manager Bob Rosen (though Jonathan the soundman is back). It’s a sweet film, and hardly ever boring exactly, but it feels more like a reflective tangent to the urgency and immediacy of the original film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One] Director/Writer William Greaves; Cinematographers Steven Larner and Terence Macartney-Filgate; Starring Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert, William Greaves; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Criterion Channel streaming), London, Monday 29 June 2020.

[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½] Director/Writer William Greaves; Cinematographers Steven Larner, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Henry Adebonojo, Phil Parmet and Jonathan Weaver; Starring Audrey Heningham, Shannon Baker, William Greaves; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Criterion Channel streaming), London, Monday 29 June 2020.

La Belle at the Movies (2015)

Talking about Belgian films, all of which have been co-productions this week on my blog, you inevitably can’t avoid the legacy of colonialism, especially in Africa. Like much European involvement on that continent, the history of the Belgian Congo is not perhaps one of the more fondly recalled projects of imperial Belgium, but of course at least one of the consequences is a film culture that (when it existed) was primarily for white people. This film has an Italian crew and British/Belgian financial backing, and tells an interesting story, although it doesn’t appear to be easily available to watch anywhere.


A documentary about film culture in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC (that city being the “La Belle” of the title), though it’s the apparent lack of film culture — no cinemas, no posters advertising movies — which initially drew the (Italian) director’s interest. So we start with buildings which used to be cinemas, and as she gets further into the subject, we start to get a bit of history of this country, and how under Mobutu Sese Seko and his “Zairianisation” project, the imposition of traditional values meant that there was a decline in what was perceived to be a foreign colonialist art form (many of the city’s cinemas were segregated to the white Belgians). There’s an interesting sidebar in the popularity of cowboy movies, and interviews with some men who continue to dress up that way, while film culture is reduced to roadside stalls selling pirated movies as well as fairly ad hoc community initiatives to screen videos, which is the closest the city comes to the idea of the cinema. Along the way there’s a solid sense of a city, its people and (some of) its turbulent 20th century history that makes this a fascinating work.

La Belle at the Movies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cecilia Zoppelletto; Cinematographer Paolo Camata; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 21 April 2018.

Romantic Comedy (2019)

At the lighter end of any festival’s line-up (not least Sheffield Doc/Fest’s) are the films about films. 2018 saw Shirkers, though that investigation of a lost bit of cinema history blended personal essay with criticism and went rather dark in the process. A different approach is taken by this film premiered last year, that provides a bit of cinematic film criticism, entirely made out of clips from the genre suggested by the film’s title.


This personal essay film/reflection on the titular genre borrows a lot of its approach from Beyond Clueless (2014, directed by Charlie Shackleton né Lyne), from the clip-based structure, to the poster design right down to the musical collaborators (plus Mr Shackleton shows up as one of the commentators, which is one way that it differs from that film at least, which relied instead on a single narrator). It may not offer any insights that aren’t obvious enough to anyone who watches the films (that they glorify a lot of extremely creepy male behaviour, and pander to the patriarchy) but of course it’s nice to hear it all expressed in one place. It even, thankfully, moves into what is compelling about romcoms, why they continue to be made and gain a lot of success, though I did appreciate the way it used the genre’s format to pull in some other titles that aren’t usually considered as romcoms. Some of the use of the commentators’ voices was to speak to experiences outside that of our director/writer Elizabeth Sankey, namely those of women of colour and gay men, though those sequences were touched on only very briefly towards the end. What becomes clear is that the bulk of the form has long been dedicated to heteronormative, white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class desire, so while counterexamples exist (for at least some of those categories), the strength of the genre in future will rely on a far more equal acknowledgement of all kinds of love.

Romantic Comedy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elizabeth Sankey; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 16 May 2020.

Art History (2011)

Joe Swanberg is one of the linchpins of modern American no-budget indie cinema, with a string of improvised titles made quickly for no money, but often made in collaboration with stars and directors who would go on to even greater work on their own, whether his chief collaborator here (Josephine Decker, whose new film Shirley is out soon) or elsewhere with Greta Gerwig (on Hannah Takes the Stairs and her first co-directing credit on Nights and Weekends) and, of course, the recently passed Lynn Shelton (who acted in Nights and Weekends). Swanberg went on to dabble with higher budgets and bigger stars, as in Drinking Buddies, but this earlier work, made in surely his most prolific year (he put out six films in 2011), is both very independent and also boldly experimental, not always shining the most positive light on its director.


I used to live with a filmmaker who liked to make deeply self-reflective projects (you might call them self-indulgent, though I have a fondness for self-indulgence) with a minimal crew, a handful of actors, and usually focused tightly around relationships, but sometimes they were more straightforwardly about sex — and specifically the operation of power within sexual relationships (whether successfully or not is another question) — and this Joe Swanberg film feels like one of those. I appreciate the attempt to navigate an understanding of the messed-up power dynamic between the person wielding the camera and the people having sex in front of that camera, especially when the director is in love with his leading lady (Josephine Decker, whose own films are brilliant, while I’m mentioning her). For all of that, though, there’s a complete lack of any kind of erotic or exploitative feeling in the film (this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, itself p0rnographic). Instead, it’s narrowly focused on three people and the feelings between them (the third is Kent Osborne), and if it doesn’t always succeed that’s often because it feels like the camera is too far away from the actors’ faces, so it’s hard to know what exactly is going on between them. It also seems to end just as things are coming to a head, so like the film I’m just going to end this review abruptly.

Art History film posterCREDITS
Director Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Josephine Decker and Kent Osborne; Cinematographer Adam Wingard; Starring Josephine Decker, Joe Swanberg, Kent Osborne; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 31 May 2019.

Honey Boy (2019)

The Israeli director who made Bombay Beach and LoveTrue — both of which I admired and both of which lurk uncomfortably somewhere between documentary and staged drama — gets an ostensibly fiction feature with this one written by its star Shia LeBeouf. However, it turns out to occupy a similar territory adjacent to Shia’s own lived experience, and tells a fairly traumatic story in an engaging and visually inventive way.


Shia LaBeouf is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like — perhaps because some of the media excoriation of him has been so very ad hominem for so long — but finally this is a performance of his I can really get behind. He plays a fictionalised (only lightly, I gather) version of his own father in a screenplay he wrote and it very much puts him in the same territory that Joaquin Phoenix has been going over for years. It gets big and ugly at times, proper emotional turmoil, but it’s all underpinned by a deep vein of tenderness. That’s helped along significantly by Noah Jupe, who plays the younger version of himself, and very much holds his own in what is essentially a two-hander between the two actors (there are also some scenes with an older version of Shia, played by Lucas Hedges, but the dynamic between father and son remains similar). Director Alma Har’el has made a number of fine films in the past decade, which at least ostensibly have been documentaries, although these have always had a strong sense of performance at play — as if finding the characters at the heart of real people — so perhaps this step into fiction (but fiction based on reality) is a natural progression for her. In any case, she makes films with verve, humour and warmth, and that’s always evident.

Honey Boy film posterCREDITS
Director Alma Har’el עלמה הראל; Writer Shia LeBeouf; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Shia LeBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 6 December 2019.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Another film which comes on the heels of the same director’s excellent work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and plunges her back into another gently middlebrow and lightly period piece about the anxieties of artists. I found it likeable, and it’s well worth checking out.


There’s something almost aggressively middlebrow about this film, indeed about a number of the season’s films, and perhaps I only say that because it fits into a certain kind of Oscar-ready category, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing here. It’s about a television personality (one I was not at all familiar with, as my upbringing did not feature Mr Rogers), and the film at times has a deeply televisual feel in the way it’s constructed — I don’t know that I can explain it, just that something about the way the shots were constructed, the musical cues, the scene transitions (both the editing and the interstitial model toy sets) felt almost uncannily like this film was intended to be a Very Special extended episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood (though as mentioned above, I obviously don’t know the original show except as it’s shown within this film). But rather than the TV personality, the film’s story focuses instead on Matthew Rhys’s journalist, an angry resentful man who’s trying to find an angle on Tom Hank’s Fred Rogers; the film and Hanks’s performance almost seem to play along, and he has these ways of staring intensely that suggest some deep buried secret is going to come out — certainly the legacy of 70s light entertainers on British TV led me to worry where this might lead. But no, in fact, Rogers seems like a genuinely decent guy, who cares deeply about the way that children are spoken to, and I think that all comes across really effectively in the film. It would also make an interesting double-bill with A Hidden Life (which was out in UK cinemas the week beforehand, hence was on my mind), because I think both are films deeply imbued with a very Christian faith, though in rather more subtle ways here, expressed primarily by silence (there’s one particularly striking scene in a diner) and by a sense of ritual.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood film posterCREDITS
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (based on the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod); Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 31 January 2020.

The Assistant (2019)

The biggest release of the past week in the UK has been this very minimal office drama, almost a chamber piece (it rarely moves outside of the office setting, aside from brief bookends of the darkened city streets), which engages with some of the dramas within the film industry in a frank way, while also making a strong point about casual misogyny ingrained in office culture, yet barely ever raising its voice, and a lot of that is down to Julia Garner’s performance (who until now has had more work on TV, as well as memorable supporting turns, such as in 2015’s Grandma).


This film is not quite what you expect when you read the précis, but if anything it’s more powerful for what it withholds as for what it shows — specifically, you barely ever actually see the Weinstein-like boss that our titular character works for. He is glimpsed, heard on the phone, read in subtly negging e-mails, and generally understood by everyone present to be the person being talked about when any talking happens about “him”. Of course it happens to be set in the world of film (and this one sure does have a lot of producers attached), but the non-specificity means it could be set in any office. It’s only as the film goes on that you start to pick up that he’s a film producer: the attractive women who always seem to be coming into the office; the tasteful poster art in the background; references to filming that become more pronounced as the story goes on, though the most we ever see of the actual art is a home-taped audition one of the women drops off (a woman who gets belittling comments once she’s gone, but, of course, she’s a good actor it turns out, not that anyone seems to care). What is effective (and affecting) is the way that it’s just the little microaggressions that build up, dismissive behaviour in the elevator, thrown bits of paper in the office, the expectation that she (of the three assistants, the other two are young men) will deal with “his” kids when they’re brought in, or will go fetch the food. As such, it requires a lot of discipline from Julia Garner as the lead actor — it’s very much her on whom the whole movie depends — and she does wonderfully well, and even the biggest setpiece (her confrontation with Matthew Macfadyen’s HR director) scarcely draws much more than a wounded look, as her defences are subtly but decisively battered down over a potential complaint she wants to make. This is in some ways a masterclass that shows how much you can achieve within a tight budget, evoking so much in its (long-)day-in-the-life portrait of this one woman.

The Assistant film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kitty Green; Cinematographer Michael Latham; Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.

王国(あるいはその家について) Okoku (Aruiwa Sonoka ni Tsuite) (Domains, 2019)

I couldn’t stay away from Japan for long, and this is actually a film I meant to include a couple of weeks ago when I was covering Japanese films, but I forgot. It’s a new release that came out on Mubi last month (though has since moved off there), and is a rather experimental work that reminds me a little of Rivette’s Out 1 in dealing with actors and rehearsals, if not quite possessing that film’s grand scope.


This is undoubtedly a rather challenging, experimental work. It has a structure which constantly loops back on itself — and which starts with a final confession of a murder that creates a simmering tension that runs through all the rather quotidian interactions which follow. Aside from the fiendish structure though, the experimentation is mostly in the acting, as footage of the actors performing their lines on location are interwoven with far more extensive scenes of them doing a table read beforehand and subsequent rehearsals, such that we hear bits of dialogue multiple times. This has the effect of sort of imbricating the past in the present, of creating a further level of awareness of what’s going on with the characters, though for me it wasn’t always successful and had an almost arid feeling at times. Clearly others have connected far more fully with this work, which is trying to stretch the means of cinematic storytelling in bold ways, and possibly would work better on a big screen with fewer distractions.

Domains film posterCREDITS
Director Natsuka Kusano 草野なつか; Writer Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yasutaka Watanabe 渡邉寿岳; Starring Asami Shibuya 澁谷麻美, Tomomitsu Adachi 足立智充, Tomo Kasajima 笠島智; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 9 April 2020.