Criterion Sunday 265: Short Cuts (1993)

It’s strange the way memory works: I’ve read the Raymond Carver short stories this film is drawn from, and I’ve seen this film too, back in the 1990s. I was then (and probably still am) an enormous fan of Carver’s spare prose, and I remember some of those stories and the traumas within them — the two lads peeling off from their families to chase after some girls while on a picnic, or the guys out fishing who find a dead body, amongst others; they’re not exactly cheery tales, but rather exhume a certain fascination with everyday working class lives and the pathology of downtrodden men in particular. So it’s odd that I remember the film adaptation with such warmth, though perhaps I confused its technical qualities, and the careful emotional construction (with its cross-cutting that only heightened the onward rush of narrative revelation), with some kind of uplift to the story as a whole. No, this is bleak stuff really, even if it is compelling and wonderfully well-made. Almost all of these characters have trouble relating to one another — husbands with their wives (the wives have rather less trouble understanding their husbands), fathers with sons, groups of friends, and then of course there are business-client relationships (Lyle Lovett is not a happy baker).

To this extent, when there is a shared moment of understanding or emotional honesty — like Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore as sisters, laughing themselves silly at their respective a*hole partners (Tim Robbins as a humourless and adulterous cop, and Matthew Modine as a self-important surgeon), or Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin patching up their differences for what feels like the umpteenth time — it hits home that much more forcefully, and compensates a little for some of the darker interactions. Some characters can be empathetic in one scene, but boorish in the background of someone else’s, and there’s a constant fluidity to the way that identification moves throughout the film. And while at times it does feel a little dated — there’s a throughline of cynicism that feels very much of the 1990s, as is some of the class commentary — Altman never loses the compassion for any of his characters (though, okay, Chris Penn’s Jerry is very trying), and it never gets boring.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The chief extra is Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country (1993, dir. John Dorr/Mike Kaplan), a fairly solid video-based 90 minute making-of documentary. There are sit-down interviews with the actors on the set about working with Altman, which veer from the bland pabulum to more in-depth discussions — Frances McDormand lays out Altman’s way of shooting master shots and the technical challenges of that, or Julianne Moore thoughtfully reflects on one key scene for her character. There’s plenty of footage of Altman on set, which gives you an idea of how he manages actors, and we see him making little changes or suggesting different ways of capturing a scene. There are also interviews with Carver’s widow (and the film’s screenwriter) about the process of adapting the stories and what exactly she sees as the continuities between Carver’s Pacific NW-set short stories and Altman’s LA film.
  • There are a couple of short minute-long or so additional scenes, as well as an alternate take for the big confrontation between MacDowell/Davison’s parents and Lovett’s baker.
  • Three of the songs which were penned for Annie Ross’s character are presented in audio demos, as sung by their original composer, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), in his customary drawl.
  • Some years later Tim Robbins and Robert Altman discuss the film in a likeable half-hour piece for the Criterion release, sharing memories of the production and going over some of Altman’s influences and the way he shaped the project in collaboration with his actors.
  • There’s also some good context for the marketing of the film, including a huge number of suggested posters (some of which really betray their 90s roots), as well as the eventual teaser trailer, full trailer and six 30-second TV spots that emphasise different aspects of the production (including one which just drops the actors’ names, and two which heroically try to recount the storylines).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Altman and Frank Barhydt (based on the short stories “Neighbors”, “They’re Not Your Husband”, “Vitamins”, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”, “So Much Water So Close to Home”, “A Small, Good Thing”, “Jerry and Molly and Sam”, “Collectors”, “Tell the Women We’re Going” and the poem “Lemonade” by Raymond Carver); Cinematographer Walt Lloyd; Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davison, Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, Frances McDormand, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Madeleine Stowe, Matthew Modine, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Penn, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Peter Gallagher, Jack Lemmon, Lyle Lovett; Length 188 minutes.

Seen at university library (laserdisc), Wellington, October 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 26 August 2019).

Showgirls (1995)

This review doesn’t link in with any theme weeks (except a very old one that I did for ‘films about filmmaking’, which this tangentially is). It’s rather because the London Film Festival starts next week and my first film is You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about Showgirls that I hope will be illuminating about its long legacy, as it comes up on 25 years old. I will be trying to post regular updates from the Festival in between other theme week reviews.


It’s difficult to imagine, looking at some recent reviews by cinephiles on Letterboxd (at least those of them that I follow), that this was considered one of the ne plus ultra turkeys of its year — not a financial disaster perhaps, but certainly a critical one. It’s fair to say most of Verhoeven’s films have been underappreciated or just flat out misunderstood by critics and audiences upon their release, but it’s equally hard to say that in this case it was all misplaced. After all, it does feature some truly dreadful acting and a fairly limp script (albeit with some, perhaps unintentional, zingers that have probably aided its long gestation as a cult classic).

Still it very much has now been rehabilitated and it’s just as well, because there’s a lot going on in this film worth talking about (and not just being pointed and laughed at, as many contemporary responses seemed to prefer to do), even if its thematic throughline — the seemingly endless exploitation, carnality and corruptibility of American capitalist society — is hardly original. In fact, this is very much in the territory of filmmakers looking with poisoned self-regard at their own art, a form which stretches back further than Peeping Tom (1960); I’m pretty sure that even as cinema was first being formulated, there were directors being cynical about its artifice. Of course, overlaid on that is the artifice of Las Vegas, the perfect setting for such a story (again, hardly new), and the power dynamics of the sex industry. But while men in positions of power hardly get let off the hook here, neither does anyone else — not least women of colour, who seem to bear the brunt of the violence. Indeed, aside perhaps from Molly (Gina Ravera), the costume designer friend of aspiring star Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), nobody acts with anything approaching a moral compass, and everyone is on the grift. And those like Molly who do have morals get punished for them in the end.

It’s a coruscating film, at once flashy in its style and pointed in its criticism. The characters in the film aren’t the only ones getting punished, for so does the viewer, because the film at every level resists being easily loved: for every sharp thematic critique comes something lascivious and exploitative, a Me Too story heaped with a side of misogyny, because that’s just how the American Dream is packaged. It’s how it came in 1995, just as it does now, and so it’s a film that hasn’t lost any of its kitsch-drenched melancholia.

Showgirls film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writer Joe Eszterhas; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Ravera; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 26 September 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999 and January 2002).

For Sama (2019)

With this review, I’m returning to two theme weeks, primarily my one focusing on Arab cinema, because this is a documentary filmed in Syria during its (ongoing) Civil War. However, it’s also partly a recent British film directed by a woman, due to its funding and Al-Kateab’s work for British news media. It’s certainly a striking and urgent piece of filmmaking.


There have been a number of documentaries in recent years about refugees, especially as these have impacted Europe, but relatively few films about where these refugees come from (though The Day I Lost My Shadow springs to mind). I imagine this is largely because there hasn’t been persuasive footage of the situations in the kinds of poor, war-stricken countries that generate so many refugees — and documentaries thrive on nothing so much as imagery — but this film has plenty of that. It’s a first-person narration dedicated to the filmmaker’s newborn daughter, born to shelling and constant blood and destruction in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, where her husband (Sama’s father) is one of the city’s leading doctors, mainly because he’s one of the few still there helping to run a hospital. It’s not, needless to say, a happy scene and you may be fairly warned that there is a significant amount of footage of dead and dying people, and particularly children — because Assad’s civil war, backed by the Russian planes we see involved in bombing runs, is not one without a lot of human casualty. Amongst the carnage there are these little stories of hope, a baby cut from his mother who miraculously survives, or indeed the story of the title character, young Sama — and one gets the sense that without stories such as these, the misery and death would probably be unbearable. It’s all very heartfelt stuff, and wrenching too.

For Sama film posterCREDITS
Directors Waad Al-Kateab وعد الخطيب and Edward Watts; Cinematographer Al-Kateab; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 17 September 2019.

The Receptionist (aka 接線員 Jiexianyuan, 2016)

Economics and demography mean that Asian-American cinema rather dominates the Asian diaspora experience on the cinema screen, but there are stories from around the world that deal with similar themes. One such is this smallscale British-Taiwanese co-production set in London, about a young woman with few means trying to get a foothold on employment in a strange city.


This is yet another recent film which deals with the precariat, young people who can barely subsist, have difficulty finding work and are often expected to take on unpaid labour — the situation in which our Taiwanese-born protagonist Tina (Teresa Daley) finds herself at the outset. We see her encouraged to intern to bolster her CV by an unhelpful agency, whose agent also dolefully jokes about possibly losing his job. She has a degree, speaks English very well, and is presentable and professional in interviews, yet all she can get is work as a receptionist at an unlicensed brothel in the London suburbs (as an aside, it looks like Barking or Romford to me).

The film has a taut running time and effectively conveys a sense of claustrophobia, as much of the film unfolds in either this suburban terraced house with its ageing decor, or Tina and her (frankly horrible, although also likely depressed) English boyfriend’s tiny, drab flat. At one level, Tina’s work in the brothel is just a job, really, even if it’s one that puts her in rather closer touch with violence and exploitation than most jobs (much of that is due to her workplace’s illegal status, I daresay). Indeed there are repeated references to death (worms dying when out of the ground is a repeated metaphor, and one of the plotlines literalises it), hinting at the lives of these immigrant women, who are all just trying to keep their heads above water in an expensive foreign country.

It’s an interesting film, and a different viewpoint on life in London (in that respect, I am reminded of Gholam, another such London-set story), that largely stays away from the tourist views and, even given the sex work setting, is likely to be redolent of many young workers’ experiences (especially those of women, and particularly women of colour, in the service industry).

The Receptionist film posterCREDITS
Director Jenny Lu 盧謹明; Writers Lu and Yi-Wen Yeh 葉宜文; Cinematographer Gareth Munden; Starring Teresa Daley 紀培慧; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 24 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Look, everyone else has registered their opinion on this film by now, and the discourse is frankly probably pretty boring to you all. But I wrote this when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I might as well put it on my blog, because I have mixed feelings.


I don’t think the world needs another review of this film, and those I’ve seen (at least amongst the people I follow on here, and in the press) have run the gamut, to say the least, and among them have been some very solid critiques and responses. My own feelings are fairly mixed, and the experience reminds me somewhat of Blue Is the Warmest Colour in the sense that it mixes technical prowess I really love to watch with some amazing performances, but has other stuff I feel is deeply questionable (and also is almost three hours long).

So let me focus on the positives. Some of the earliest criticism I’d seen focused on Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate — and sure, she doesn’t say much — but in the end she had the scenes I enjoyed the most, and was the heart of the film. Those scenes of her in the cinema (with, yes, her feet up in the foreground), totally digging the film she’s watching, the film she herself stars in, and getting a kick out of the audience reactions around her: that was pure cinema. I loved that. (What Tarantino is to Godard, so Robbie here is to Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie.) I also loved the scenes of her next door neighbour Rick, the washed-up TV star, when he’s making a pilot for a new Western show — it’s where DiCaprio does his best acting (and it’s lovely to see a bit of Luke Perry, too). Usually I hate when filmmakers depict their own craft, because they rarely show how films are actually made and instead make them into these continuous scenes with barely any intervention. Well, I went with it here partly because the framework of this whole film is fantasy, and so when Tarantino shows the filming of a show, he completely omits all the cameras except the one we’re watching through (and the off-screen voice of the director, in this case “Sam Wanamaker”).

But then there’s the more troubling stuff, and I suppose it comes down to how you’re responding to this, and what you think Tarantino’s position is. He’s doing a lot of pastiche work here, and I imagine that recreating 1969 Hollywood, the films and TV shows themselves, the look and feel, the road signs and the fonts and the adverts and the packaging and all that, was probably a really big part of the appeal. When Tarantino talks about films he loves (as he does on podcasts and interviews with film publications), I am convinced by his all-out nerdery, and I think he’s extremely knowledgeable about that stuff. But pastiching a nasty exploitation film within the film (such as when Rick plays a character with a flamethrower burning up some Nazis in an on-screen role for some kind of Corman B-movie quickie) and making that part of your own filmed fantasy world (such as the next time we see that flamethrower) feel like qualitatively different things, and I’m pretty sure he’s getting off on the fun of staging it all rather than considering its moral implications.

Then again, for me, part of it is also just hearing people react with pleasure and enjoyment around me in the cinema when this kind of nastiness is happening, so maybe it’s not all on QT, but it’s also not unrelated to his strategies in the film and as part of his involvement in wider film discourse. I think he takes great pains to problematise this stuff in, for example, Cliff’s character — almost a leaf from the Haneke playbook (and, to be clear, I dislike most of Haneke’s films). Pitt’s laidback golden boy likeability as Cliff is clearly intentionally offset by his use of weird little off-hand racialised slurs and, more to the point, the insistent hints about his character’s dark past. This comes to a head in the scene with Bruce Lee via the forthright and unironic response of Janet (who plays the wife of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator character Rudy, but is also OUATIH‘s actual stunt coordinator, and given that Brad Pitt is playing a stuntman himself, is I think a pointed intervention). It’s an intervention from 2019, and it’s hardly the only one, but there’s plenty enough that doesn’t feel particularly informed by present circumstances, and so when I dislike this film, it feels particularly egregious because there’s so much stuff he’s doing — technically and visually, but also with some of the characters — that I love and could have made for a more rewarding film.

But I don’t want to be that person critiquing a film for not being the film I wanted it to be. And so I shall continue to think about Margot Robbie looking up at the movie screen with such sheer unalloyed pleasure in the moving image, and wish that I could be her.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Robert Richardson; Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley; Length 161 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho [35mm], London, Tuesday 20 August 2019.

Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

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.

Continue reading “Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)”

Suspiria (1977)

I only started watching ‘giallo’ films a few years ago, that peculiar hyper-stylised Italian sub-genre of horror, and among those first three was Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso (1975). I’ve watched only a few from the genre since then, like Femina ridens (1969) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972), but they’ve all offered fascinating little glimpses into an alternate world of filmmaking. Finally, I managed to catch up on Argento’s most famous film, recently remade by Luca Guadagnino (though I haven’t yet seen the remake, and may not ever bother).


One of the taglines for this film is “The most frightening film you’ll ever see!” and I should point out right away that this isn’t quite true: part of what Argento seems to be doing here rather undercuts the scariness. There’s terror and horror and gore, but the use of colours and sound, the heightened acting (a nice way of saying it’s pretty ropey), the whole Grand Guignol nature of the enterprise, somewhat mitigates against the scares. Still, what colours! What sound! The score by Goblin is just fantastic, ultra-70s electronica, and combined with the deeply saturated colours, it makes the film that much more immersive. From the very opening scenes, the tone starts out at hysterical turned up to 11, and then… it just cranks it up ever more. The witches’ coven/German dance school conceit suggests deeper tensions within society that remain allegorical (I believe these are made more concrete in the remake), and while I may remain unconvinced by the acting, it’s some kind of a film.

Suspiria posterCREDITS
Director Dario Argento; Writers Argento and Daria Nicolodi (based on the essay “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas De Quincey); Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 9 December 2018.

Revenge (2017)

In my post about The Mafu Cage, I mentioned writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who has also written a book about the Rape Revenge film. This recent French outing fits into that particular sub-genre, which sort of lurks off to the side of the horror film, its films often nasty and exploitative, which can be varied as to the way they treat the moral quandary at their heart.


This is definitely one of those films that feels like it’s in dialogue with retro trends. Like The Guest and its ilk from the US, it seems to be reimagining the 80s exploitation flick, with a helping of French cinéma du look values, while also in those bold title cards and twisted sexual politics calling back to Baise-moi (2000) and films by Gaspar Noé, et al., which attacked with glee certain notions of gendered violence. But if you are willing to accept its larger than life formal qualities — a saturated sun-drenched Mexican setting, its rape-revenge premise, the superhuman survival qualities of its four characters (a woman and three nasty, predatory men), and all the fake blood that exists in the world (that hadn’t already been used by Raw the year before) — it’s quite a ride. Its central character of Jen (Matilda Lutz) starts out as the kind of cipher for female sexuality you might find in a Michael Bay heroine, but soon comes to find a stoic resilience to pain that sets up the final two-thirds of the film, though beyond that there’s hardly much characterisation: this is a very simple concept, executed (as it were) very well.

Revenge posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Coralie Fargeat; Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert; Starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 12 May 2018.

Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002)

Of the horror films which are directed or written by women, ones that dwell on themes of body horror do seem to be popular, and I’m sure plenty has been written about that. Cannibalistic themes have been the focus both of Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day (2001) and more recently in Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016).


This may not perhaps be surprising, given this is a film about a woman progressively pulling away her skin as a form of self-mutilation, but this film is really intensely disturbing. Of course, like any good modern horror film, it’s not just a story of a particular woman (played by the director, Marina de Van), but in a sense a film about dissociative, destructive feelings towards one’s own body. Our lead character is successful in her business career, but there are throughout little vignettes with her work colleagues and her boyfriend, articulating small but noticeable ways in which they control her body — pervasive and persistent forms of abuse which set the stage for her own proactive extension of her bodily wounds. I think there’s plenty that’s fascinating going on here under the surface (if you will), though it all operates at such a pitch of studied, detached intensity that I continued to find it difficult to focus while watching.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marina de Van; Cinematographer Pierre Barougier; Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 31 October 2017.