Criterion Sunday 117: Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964)

Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.

As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015

Kimi no na wa. (Your Name., 2016)

I feel like I’ve seen live action versions of this mystical, supernatural, body-swapping elegiac romance but animating it somehow makes the sentimentality more palatable. Also, let’s be fair, it makes it gorgeous to look at. There’s a lot going on here under its slightly twee premise — an attempt perhaps to grapple with a troubled 20th century — and the storytelling is quite dense (a lot of play on language means subtitles at the top and bottom of the screen at times), but it creates a wonderful atmosphere.

(PS Also, yes, the full stop is part of the film’s title.)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Makoto Shinkai (based on his novel) | Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 January 2017

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)

Yi ju ding yi wan ju (Someone to Talk To, 2016)

Sometimes the way that film distribution works really confuses me. Most foreign language films which get a release in this country, along with write-ups in the press and coverage by major film critics, come via favourable film festival screenings, or — if they’re from established directors with a public profile — they may get a release directly to cinemas. Usually any films released this way make it to a small handful of ‘arthouse’-friendly cinemas like the ICA or the Picturehouse or Curzon chains (based primarily in London; a bit sparse elsewhere in the country).

But then there is the popular cinema of non-western countries, which may make it into major chains like Odeon or Cineworld (easier to access and with more screenings, in many cases, than the more discussed arthouse releases from these places), and fly almost entirely beneath the radar of the English-language press. It seems to be rare for there to be much of a crossover between these two niches. If you live in the North-East of London, you may see Turkish films down the schedule on your local Cineworld; if you live out East or West (Ilford or Feltham, say), you’ll see a large number of Indian, Sri Lankan and Pakistani films. And if you go to the Odeon Panton Street, there will always be some Chinese-language films. Any of these can be an unexpected delight, but more often western viewers (okay, I’m talking about me here, obviously) will just be confused, for it turns out that the popular cinemas of various countries come with their own, often impenetrable, customs and codes of behaviour (I recall fondly seeing a South Indian film where every frame showing any kind of alcoholic product merited an onscreen warning about over-consumption for as long as it was pictured).

My point here is that I don’t really always understand what separates the two categories, for in many ways Someone to Talk To (the novel it’s based on translates the title as “One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand”) shares plenty of characteristics with the usual well-regarded dramatic pabulum you get from the US or UK domestic markets. You can easily imagine the four central characters being played by A-list actors in the US and the film would be reviewed as a solid, engaging relationship drama which gives space and time to its actors, and largely effaces any showiness (there are a few overly ingratiating travelling shots during scenes of exposition, but that’s all I can remember noticing). The way it develops its central theme — that people just need to communicate with one another to have successful relationships (hence the title) — can be pretty clunky at times, too.

Still, there’s a lot of sensitive acting on display, whether the perpetually perplexed and hang-dog looking Hai Mao as Aiguo, a cuckolded husband who won’t grant a divorce to his estranged partner Lina (Qian Li) for quite evidently petty reasons, or Wei Fan as cheery local chef Song, who remarries Aiguo’s sister Aixiang (Pei Lu), both lonely but ardently hoping to have… someone to talk to. The women get a little bit of melodramatic suffering to play, but the film isn’t about their unhappiness so much as the blinkered expectations of its two male leads, which are gently corrected as the film goes on. There’s rather a lot of suicidal ideation (and I feel I can’t not provide a content warning for a plot point which puts a child’s life in the balance), but for the most part this is a solid, involving relationship drama.


Yi ju ding yi wan ju (Someone to Talk To, 2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Yulin Liu | Writer Zhenyun Liu (based on his novel, though the book is usually translated as One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand) | Cinematographer Di Wu | Starring Hai Mao, Qian Li, Pei Liu, Wei Fan | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Thursday 10 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 91: The Blob (1958)

Criterion occasionally pulls out a vaguely exploitational B-movie from the vaults, and this is no less enjoyable than, say, Carnival of Souls or Blood for Dracula, and hinges on a similarly low-budget aesthetic that maximimises the scares by only obliquely referring to the terror at its heart. In this case, it’s the gelatinous threat of the title, and the film’s unsurprisingly hokey effects are pushed into the background by a story that focuses on “teen” couple Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) and their friends in a close-knit small town. The teenagers aren’t the wild rebels that Corman had started to capitalise on earlier in the decade, but largely conservative law-abiding ones (they do all look firmly in their 30s, to be fair), and occasional moments of tension between them and the authorities are quickly subsumed by a shared desire to defeat the unknown threat. You get the sense, given the era, that this is allegorising any number of things, but most notably the Red Scare of Communism, meaning its outcome may never be in question but the ending has an amusingly provisional quality. Of course, if you remember anything, it’s likely to be the jaunty and goofy Burt Bacharach-penned title tune.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. | Writers Kay Linakar [as “Kate Phillips”] and Theodore Simonson (based on an idea by Irvine H. Millgate) | Cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding | Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Paul Greengrass | Writers Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles | Length 123 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

It is apparently incumbent on every white dude on the internet to register his opinion on this new ‘reboot’ of Ghostbusters, the 1984 film which brought together a handful of comedic actors and writers (most prominently from Saturday Night Live) in a supernatural-themed comedy pitting aforesaid actors against a demonic threat to New York City. And so again we have a handful of comedic actors and writers (mostly from SNL) in a supernatural etc. etc. The remake largely refocuses the film on the four titular characters (three dorky scientists and one subway worker played by Leslie Jones) and their comedic interactions. Supporting characters — including their chief antagonist, who in a nod perhaps to the source of much of the online “criticism”, is an introverted, maladjusted guy with very little in the way of a defined character — are reduced to a number of cameos from the original cast, and a fine turn by another SNL alum Cecily Strong as the mayor’s sceptical and unhelpful aide. Oh, and Chris Hemsworth as a beefy but very very stupid receptionist, who threatens at times to steal the film. He doesn’t though, because Kate McKinnon does that, as the compellingly weird Jillian Holtzmann, who also gets one of the key later action sequences, a relatively short but thrilling single-handed paranormal combat. I don’t know, maybe the script isn’t so tight in all respects, and I have to concede I was pretty drunk when I watched it, but I really fail to understand a lot of the film’s critics. Perhaps the humour won’t appeal to everyone, but it all seemed pretty funny to me, plus there were scares reminiscent of the first film. And as far as I can recall, there aren’t any scenes of anyone being sexually pleasured by a ghost, so bonus marks for that. As I see it, though, quite aside from the comedy and horror, the key points are: representation for leading characters who are women, who don’t need the help of men, who get to be intelligent and have that define them rather than their looks or their sexuality, and who get a happy ending. That much seems rare enough in contemporary Hollywood blockbuster films that I think it’s worth trumpeting.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Paul Feig | Writers Katie Dippold and Paul Feig (based on the 1984 film by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth | Length 116 minutes || Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 22 July 2016

The Divide (2015)

There have been no shortage of either documentaries or fiction films about the post-2007/8 economic recession and its effects over recent years, though The Divide isn’t specifically concerned with this so much as widening wealth inequality within society generally (which has, if anything, only been exacerbated by 2008 and its fallout). The director Katharine Round, basing the subject of her film around a non-fiction book called The Spirit Level, does use knowledgeable talking heads (including the source book’s authors) to get some context on the issues, but the primary focus is a number of case studies on either side of the Atlantic. Because these interviewees are well-chosen, the film is never boring. These people range from the poorest folks in both countries (most notably a KFC worker in the US South, an former-alcoholic rapper in a grim bit of Scotland, and a prisoner caught by the USA’s “three strikes” rule who is intelligent and reflective but has also been startlingly worn down by the system) to the embattled middle-classes ever striving upwards (there’s a NYC psychologist with a nice apartment in New Jersey, and a very articulate mother living rather against her better convictions in a gated community). Moreover, it has a striking visual style with clean careful framings of its shots, and this visual excellence sets it apart from many documentaries. This style may make it a little easier to listen to some powerful individual testimonies about the effects of endemic poverty and the dangers of being trapped into a cycle of payments and fines, but it doesn’t dilute the anger you are ultimately left with at the end, which very briefly — and not entirely convincingly — suggests action is still possible, and change can happen. One can only hope it is, given some of the lives seen here.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Katharine Round (based on the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett) | Cinematographer Woody James | Length 78 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 29 April 2016

Beijing Yushang Xiyatu Zhi Bu Er Qingshu (Finding Mr Right 2 aka Book of Love, 2016)

The title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle”, but those were the settings of the first film (which I didn’t see), and instead our star-crossed lovers (Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo) here live in Macau and Los Angeles, the former setting introduced in tourist-brochure terms as a mecca for glamorous international gamblers. Indeed, I gather this sequel uses the same actors and the same basic premise, but is an otherwise standalone film — not that anyone would have any difficulty catching up with it, given the broad generic sweep of its storyline. The plot leans heavily on the romantic novel 84 Charing Cross Road in orchestrating a romance based on the anonymous exchange of letters between lovers which have been sent to that London address (London only shows up in the film’s rather absurdly, but almost touchingly romantic, denouement). In a sense, all of its contrivances are little more than absurd nonsense — and in its insistence on written letters, a strangely old-fashioned film — but after all, it’s a romantic weepie in which our two photogenic leads keep almost bumping into each other, as their feelings gradually deepen into love. Therefore, whatever reservations I may have, I still find it ultimately likeable, though it helps to see a film which finishes up in London at a cinema mere steps away.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Xiaolu Xue | Cinematographer Chi-Ying Chan | Starring Wei Tang, Xiubo Wu | Length 129 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Friday 29 April 2016