Criterion Sunday 283: Pokolenie (A Generation, 1955)

An excellent debut feature from Andrzej Wajda, which with his following two films, deals with Polish involvement in World War II. The stark black-and-white cinematography has enough flourishes to sustain cinematic interest — there’s a long opening tracking shot that’s almost Wellesian in its accomplishment, and seems to fit into a particularly Eastern European tradition that people like Miklós Jancsó would take up. It’s about a young man, Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki), who joins the Communist underground resistance to the Nazis, fighting on behalf of the Jewish ghettoes, with one particularly compelling sequence towards the end as his cell get rather too closely involved in the violence, which leads to consequences for a budding relationship that Stach has started up with Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska), one of the key organisers. It’s a fantastic and stylish first film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Bohdan Czeszko; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Tadeusz Łomnicki, Urszula Modrzyńska, Tadeusz Janczar; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

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.

Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017)

Agnès Varda made a lot of documentaries, and her final one, Varda by Agnès (2019), was the most direct film to deal with her own work. However, this penultimate film — while ostensibly being about pseudonymous French street photographer and sort-of-graffiti artist JR — is about her own practice as an artist in some way, or at least captures something of the spirit she brought to her feature filmmaking.


This is a sweet film in much of the way of Varda’s documentary works (a lot of which are extras for DVD releases, and all of which are worth watching), a very self-consciously confected tale of two people meeting and collaborating on artworks across a series of small French villages. JR’s art seems to involve photographing people and pasting them on buildings and other large-scale public spaces, which is fairly whimsical, and then there’s a made-up meet-cute and they hit the road in a picaresque tale of encountering small-town people on their level and then (very literally) aggrandising them. I’d feel weird about seeing myself on walls, but most of the people here don’t, and perhaps that’s Varda’s power. She is so sweet but always there’s that slight undercurrent of shade, such as hinting at JR being a Godard-like figure and then revealing later that Godard is a bit of a pr!ck (or a lot of one, though she’s quite nice about it). It ambles along amiably enough as a film, and perhaps that’s all any film needs.

Faces Places film posterCREDITS
Directors Agnès Varda and JR; Writer Varda; Cinematographers Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet and Raphaël Minnesota; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.

Criterion Sunday 280: 大菩薩峠 Daibosatsu Toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966)

There’s what feels like an almost unceasing parade of swordplay violence in this film, resulting in scores if not hundreds of piled-up casualties, largely of our antihero Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), though Toshiro Mifune weighs in for one memorable scene that gives the otherwise unstoppably evil-doing Ryunosuke a moment of brief pause. It’s enough to make you think that maybe that’s what the film is doing: the title could be referring to Ryunosuke’s sword, after all, but perhaps by extension it’s all swords and “doom” is just the outcome of violent behaviour. The film is set near the end of the shogunate, so samurai are on the decline and this film enacts in a sense this final death rattle of lawless mercenary violence. It does this with some fantastically composed monochrome style, as Nakadai moves blankly (he has the unfeeling mien of a sociopath) towards both swords and doom, with nihilistic rigour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato 中里介山); Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai 村井博; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Yuzo Kayama 加山雄三, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 29 November 2019.

Journey’s End (2017)

War films of the last few years have understandably been focused more on World War I, given its centenary, as does the new release 1917. I’ve hardly been following all of them (though I wasn’t a huge fan of Testament of Youth, to take one example), but one of the strongest was this film based on a 1928 play. It has a stagy feel to it, but set in the trenches that feels somewhat appropriate.


I was taken along to see this war film, and honestly had no expectation of liking it (it’s not a film or a genre I would have sought out otherwise), but it’s a really solidly mounted, excellently acted character study of men under duress in World War I. When I say solidly mounted, I mean it looks like a film with a big budget, but I expect it didn’t have that — I suppose it helps that it’s set largely in the trenches, but it never feels cheaply done. It really helps too to have acting as good as Paul Bettany gives here (and of course Toby Jones is no slouch either), and the whole project is immensely lifted by the way he plays his character: genial, world-weary, not given to false optimism, but never defeated by the grinding awfulness of the men’s lives. (We see a fair bit of that.) And when I say it never feels cheap, I mean too that it’s not prone to being overly sentimental — there are opportunities for tears (I found the letters home particularly poignant), and many of the men are emotional enough on screen — but it eschews the orchestral in favour of a cleanly minimal score, and it’s the telling moments of class divisions and generational conflicts that are among the most interesting bits.

Journey's End film posterCREDITS
Director Saul Dibb; Writer Simon Reade (based on the play by R. C. Sherriff); Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Tom Sturridge, Toby Jones; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Vue Piccadilly, London, Wednesday 22 January 2018.

Маяк Mayak (The Lighthouse, 2006)

I’m still going to be covering some of my favourite films I saw during 2019 until at least the end of this week, as well as inevitable best-of lists. As it happens, the end of this month sees the UK release of another film called The Lighthouse, but not to be confused with that Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe psychodrama is this 2006 film by Armenian director Maria Saakyan, who died far too young in January 2018, from cancer. It’s expressionist and beautiful and weaves a poetic tableaux of rural Armenian life interrupted by war.


This poetic, beautiful film that touches on war and family in rural Armenia is very much my kind of thing, where the narrative almost takes a back seat to imagery that suggests via metaphor and allusion to inner states, as Lena (Anna Kapaleva) tries to get her family out of a war-strewn area. It feels very much like some Theo Angelopoulos films (but without the overweening self-importance) or the more elegiac films of Aleksandr Sokurov, and to be sure there’s a lot of beautiful and potent imagery that can feel almost abstract. And yet, focusing on the women of this village grounds it in customs and lived experienced in a successful way I think. It’s really very sad that the filmmaker didn’t live to make many more films, because as a debut feature this is extraordinary.

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Maria Saakyan Мария Саакян; Writer Givi Shavgulidze Гиви Шавгулидзе; Cinematographer Maxim Drozdov Максим Дроздов; Starring Anna Kapaleva Анна Капалева; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 March 2019.

Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)

As I do a few weeks’ of some of my favourite films I’ve seen this year, ones I haven’t already covered, I can’t possibly miss out this Italian film, which much to my surprise was one of my favourites and is sure to do well in the end-of-year polls (at least, in my one).


I never much connected with The Wonders (2014), though I felt that was largely down to me (there’s a lot that I liked about the film even so), so it’s with some relief that Alice Rohrwacher’s follow-up film really grabbed me and never let go. It’s unassuming in its way, with that 16mm photography by Hélène Louvart imparting an almost nostalgic air to proceedings, with the frame’s gently rounded edges and dust accumulating around the edge of the image (all of which is appropriate, perhaps, given the sort of timeless, cut-off, rural setting in which the film opens). Yet this is no rustic peasant drama, and pretty soon the film starts to take turns that make it feel like a fairy tale or a morality play, and by the time our wide-eyed Lazarus figure is reborn (played by Adriano Tardiolo), it starts to take on the feeling of an almost religious parable.

There’s a lot going on here — mostly revolving around themes of exploitation of labour and of compassion — but there are moments of pure lyrical poetry such as are rare in any films, a blending of image, movement, music and sound that elevate individual moments somehow, perceptibly, into a rapturous ecstasy (before returning to the squalor of everyday life). Which isn’t to say it’s a film that’s all off in the clouds like a Malick picture, because it always has that neo-realist feel, it’s just that even through these down-and-out characters, the grime amongst which they live, the few opportunities they’ve been given in life, there’s also something transcendentally cinematic about the storytelling, and a search for some kind of meaning that puts it among some of the more spiritual films I’ve seen (and I suppose makes it appropriately Italian).

Maybe I’m putting too much on it; it’s a film whose abiding mystery is such that I can’t quite express what I particularly loved about it. Generally, too, I am suspicious of any films that may make claims on some kind of vaunted artistic status (though I don’t think the film itself is pushing that), but this really does feel special.

Happy as Lazzaro film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 April 2019.

Atlantique (Atlantics, 2019)

One of the strongest and strangest debut films this year was by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the niece of filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. Over the past decade she’s made a number of beguiling short films (a personal favourite is Snow Canon) and her latest has had distribution from Netflix, which means a smattering of cinema screenings and a permanent home online. I would love to rewatch this and think it would reward such an effort greatly, not least due to the wonderful cinematography from Claire Mathon, who also shot another of the year’s most beautiful films (and another of my favourites), Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


This is a beautiful, strange, but poetic film about migration — whether the kind we’re familiar with from the news, or the transmigration of the soul (what the ancient Greeks called μετεμψύχωσις metempsychosis), because both of these feature in the film. Indeed, they are in some sense intertwined in enigmatic ways that the film never explains or simplifies, it’s just present in the text which seems to effortlessly find a mythical quality to its storytelling, helped by the beautiful visuals and the specific performance styles which are elicited from the actors. It’s set in Senegal, as Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young middle-class woman, secretly meets with a young construction worker, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), though her family want her to marry Omar, a wealthy socialite who flatters her with gifts of rose gold iPhones as if they’re nothing. The problem is that Souleiman and his compatriots, being exploited by wealthy bosses over their pay, leaves to seek a better life in Europe, leaving Ada behind to deal with the fallout. The plot is largely incidental to the atmosphere created in this seaside city where the crashing waves along the shore become a constant refrain to the movement of her life, as a young cop starts sniffing around, certain that things aren’t what they seem. It reads as a genre piece, but it plays out as something far more mysterious, sensual, beautiful and intoxicating. Ten years ago director Mati Diop made a short film of the same name which had men sit around a beachside campfire speaking about their hopes from migration, and now finally she has this feature film which is so much more. I can see myself rewatching this, because it tells a specific story of people living their lives in Dakar, but it tells another story too, a stronger and more pressing one, in which those who exploit others to their deaths are still called upon to pay the ferryman.

Atlantics film posterCREDITS
Director Mati Diop; Writers Diop and Olivier Demangel; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Ibrahima Traoré; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 273: Thieves’ Highway (1949)

I like a noir, and I like a good American B-picture, because there’s an underlying desire to just get on with the story that’s almost refreshing. Here we get Nick (Richard Conte), back from the war to find his old man in a wheelchair thanks to some nefarious dealings with a San Francisco produce dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee Cobb). And so Nick gets on the road with his dad’s friend to haul apples to Frisco and settle some scores, which leads him to prostitute-with-a-heart Rica (Valentina Cortese, who died only earlier this year, as it happens). The pugnacious setup all feels fairly familiar, but the details about the fruit market and the bitter competition for prices is a nice twist that keeps things fresh, as we get a sense of the corruption and backstabbing that goes on to get to the top of the business world (I never knew such profits could be made on a Golden Delicious). There’s a straightforward charm to it, with the requisite pools of noirish darkness in the black-and-white lensing, some striking camera setups, and hard-nosed performances.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Director Jules Dassin speaks about the film over 50 years later (like Cortese, he lived into his 90s), fondly recalling details like the actor who zips up his jacket when he sees a man burned alive, or looking misty-eyed about Valentina Cortese.
  • There’s a four-minute snippet of the (at the time) under-production documentary about the life of screenwriter “Buzz” Bezzerides, of which further snippets are on the Criterion release of another Bezzerides script, Kiss Me Deadly (1955).
  • The original trailer is included, and of course a classic American pulpy trailer can be a wonderful thing. It obviously makes everything sound so much more lascivious than it really is, but it has its charms.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer A.I. Bezzerides (based on his novel Thieves’ Market); Cinematographer Norbert Brodine; Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)

One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.

Continue reading “Four Films by Jia Zhangke: The World (2004), Still Life (2006), Dong (2006) and 24 City (2008)”