Another key figure not just for the American musical but for music and indeed society itself, from the 1960s on, is Barbra Streisand. She is a towering presence in a number of films created around her charismatic on-screen persona, but she moved into directing as well, most notably with this adaptation of a Isaac Bashevis Singer play and short story.
There’s probably no real intellectual response to this film, because you’re either partial to Barbra Streisand or you’re not. She certainly does dominate the film, though when he shows up a young Mandy Patinkin does distract attention somewhat, even if (perhaps wisely) Streisand doesn’t give him any singing to do — the music is all for Yentl to perform, for hers is the central drama. Her struggle is against the religiously-mandated life that has been set out for her in early-20th century Poland — wife and motherhood — when all she wants to do is study and learning, right from the very outset (when we see her buy a religious text off a passing bookseller). So she cuts her hair and goes into town, dropping quotes from the Talmud and enrolling in a yeshiva with aforementioned Avigdor (Patinkin), who’s engaged but doesn’t really want to get married. The production values are big, of course, and it’s all rousingly put together. The incipient gender-non-conformist themes are somewhat let down in the final act, but it does enjoyably flirt with these ideas for at least part of its running time, and that (along with those central performances) probably keep it worthwhile.
Director Barbra Streisand; Writers Streisand and Jack Rosenthal (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, itself based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Singer); Cinematographer David Watkin; Starring Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.
You can’t possible cover musicals without touching on the output of Doris Day, truly a luminous figure in the 1950s for Hollywood musicals. Today’s film marks rather an odd and startling entry into the genre, with some pretty dark themes. However, it has its share of big numbers, and Day carries it through easily.
Having gone to see this because I assumed “Doris Day” + “musical” would mean light and fluffy (thinking to her 1960s roles perhaps), I was rather taken aback by quite how dark this behind-the-scenes of the entertainment business story is. It’s a fictionalised version of a real story from the 1920s and 30s, of nightclub dancer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) whose career takes off as a singer and Hollywood actor thanks to some initial help from small-time gangster Marty Snyder (James Cagney), but then she finds herself stuck with him. Right from the off he’s aggressive and unpleasant, believing himself to be far more than he really is and taking violent umbrage to anyone who disputes his narcissistic idea of himself. There are these occasional quiet moments where you get the sense of his inner turmoil, but he’s never anything less than utterly vile, a nasty violent spirit of pure patriarchy at work, shaping Ruth’s career and pushing her to do things he wants (and to quit the things he doesn’t want as soon as the power starts to go her way).
Day is excellent in moving between this glamorous stage presence to a woman behind the scenes who is barely able to control anything she does and lacks the will to follow it through — being a big mainstream musical, there are times when you can see how much darker this could go though the film sort of swerves to avoid some of the narratives being set up: for example, we see her starting to drink heavily as her relationship gets worse; or there’s the fade to newspaper headlines about her sudden marriage to her manager Marty just after he basically initiates a rape to extract what he think’s he’s “owed”. Truly, there is some deeply bleak stuff in what is otherwise a handsomely staged period musical, which makes it both difficult to watch at times but also fascinating.
Director Charles Vidor; Writers Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; Cinematographer Arthur E. Arling; Starring Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 July 2019.
My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)”
Last week’s new release also takes us back to last week’s themed week, which was what I termed ‘Asian diaspora cinema’, which deals with Asian identities in the West, and this one tells of a clash of cultures between the US and China, two of the modern world’s great competing superpowers, through the story of Awkwafina’s suitably awkward artist.
This is a sweet, reflective film that doesn’t shout too loudly, though occasionally the characters in it try to make statements about what it means to live and die, at least in Chinese society. In that respect, having the young family members — most notably Awkwafina’s budding writer Billi — having grown up in different countries meant that it got to explain things a little bit, which is probably just as well given the central conceit is the idea of not telling a dying person that they are dying (or “based on an actual lie” as the film puts it on its first title card). Billi is a muted presence, which already marks a change from Awkwafina’s usual on-screen persona, though it does mean she shuffles around in a slump, looking dejected and sad for rather too much of the film, even as those around her are trying to encourage her to fake a smile — to the extent that I found it hard to believe grandma (and I don’t think she’s ever named aside from the Mandarin Chinese word for grandmother 奶奶 nai nai) didn’t immediately figure out what was going on. Still, there’s a lot of unforced emotional heft just from the set-up, as well as an examination of what it means to be torn between two very different cultures (the film itself is fairly scrupulously balanced, and avoids denigrating either). The final credits reveal therefore comes as rather a surprise, but it’s a sweet end to what’s otherwise quite the weepie.
Director/Writer Lulu Wang 王子逸 (based on Wang’s story “What You Don’t Know”); Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano; Starring Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen 赵淑珍, Tzi Ma 馬泰, Diana Lin 林晓杰; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 26 September 2019.
For my final post of this Asian diaspora theme week, I’m going to back to an early Asian-American film (though hardly the earliest, as there are examples even in the silent era), but one that perhaps has had some influence on subsequent filmmaking, given that sits pretty squarely and comfortably within an American indie context. Wayne Wang would go on to direct The Joy Luck Club (1993), but also indies like Smoke (1995), though his 2000s work was more straight-to-video genre fare, like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday (though I have a fondness for both of those titles).
This is a loving portrait of one Chinese-American family, as seen through the eyes of a 30-something professional woman (Laureen Chew) and her elderly mother (Kim Chew). Apparently the idea was originally a much denser work dealing with a larger number of intersecting inter-generational stories (which becomes more evident in the short film Dim Sum Take-Out the director compiled a few years later from the outtakes), but paring it down also works very nicely. There’s plenty of understated observation here, of customs and mores, of lives that perhaps are a little tinged with regret and others lived in the shadow of parents and expectations. It’s set in San Francisco, so there’s a bit of detail given of that community, largely via the character played by veteran actor Victor Wong (whose peculiar squint is familiar from Hollywood roles of this era, such as in Big Trouble in Little China), who runs a bar and thus connects a number of the different family members. It’s all very keenly put across, with a quiet open style that seems to be mimicking filmmakers like Ozu while also being very much within an American indie vernacular.
Director Wayne Wang 王穎; Writer Terrel Seltzer; Cinematographer Michael Chin; Starring Laureen Chew, Kim Chew, Victor Wong 自強; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 19 September 2019.
These two recent Nollywood films (which is the popular name for mainstream film production in Nigeria), both by women directors, share that they are set against the backdrop of office politics. Within them is the suggestion, though each follows its own genre cues, of a shared problem in how the country deals with women in positions of authority. They may not have the polish of Western films (thanks largely to their shoestring budgets), but both are pretty successful exercises and well worth watching. It’s worth noting that the director of The Department has also made a number of documentaries, including Faaji Agba (2015), which I reviewed a few years ago.
Continue reading “Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)”
Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.
Continue reading “Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)”
Following 1955’s The Widow, there are barely any films directed by women throughout the rest of the century in Korean cinema. One of the earliest to gain any widespread acclaim was this one directed by Jeong Jae-eun (born 1969). She has largely moved into documentary filmmaking since then, but far more women have take up directing in the Korean cinema industry since.
Every generation has its ‘state of the nation’ ‘here is how the kids live now’ type of statement film, and I guess this is it for 2001 Korea — five friends, just out of the education system, making their way in the world. Bae Doona as Tae-hee is the kind, thoughtful one who keeps the group of friends together, who goes out of her way to help others in need, and who is generally the best person in the film, especially in the way she reaches out to Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), who lives in poverty with her grandparents, and scrapes a meagre living with her art, eventually withdrawing almost completely except for the cat of the title. (Cat lovers incidentally may note there isn’t all that much of it in the film.) Take Care of My Cat may not have any big set-pieces or bold action, but it makes its quiet, compassionate way through several divergent stories and really gives a sense of these different women at a moment in their lives.
Director/Writer Jeong Jae-eun 정재은; Cinematographer Choi Young-hwan 최영환; Starring Bae Doona 배두나, Lee Yo-won 이요원, Ok Ji-young 옥지영; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 December 2017.
I gather that the title sort of loosely means “the idle men”, but I like to think of it as “the lads”, because that’s what this film is about, a group of five young men in a small seaside town, who have hopes and aspirations and find them somewhat waylaid in the whirl of life. The film is largely focused on the ladies’ man Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), who despite his early marriage and child finds plenty of time to flirt with other women, though the other four variously come into focus throughout the piece. It’s beautifully shot, with a fantastic sense of framing, as these five men are first seen hanging out with one another, before the framing starts to fracture and they each move into their separate worlds. There are some lovely set-pieces, and a strong sense of a world that’s been left behind, and a nostalgic pull to a certain vision of provincial Italian life (even though this is a film contemporary to when it was made). Perhaps that’s the black-and-white, perhaps it’s just innate in the thematics of the story. But escape from the dreary monotony is an ever-present pull in what is to my mind one of Fellini’s finest films.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographers Carlo Carlini, Otello Martelli and Luciano Trasatti; Starring Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi, Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Trieste; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 21 April 2019).
People talk about this being a proto-noir, and I’ll defer to those more knowledgeable about their genres than I am, but it somehow feels less doomed, though it’s bleakly fatalistic in its way. It does, however, have an amazing sense of setting, as fog constantly closes in around all the characters in the port setting of Le Havre, shot by the great Eugen Schüfftan, who did Metropolis amongst others and so has a hand in defining how noir might (and would come to) look. It’s been described as “poetic realism”, and this feels like Carné’s thing in this film, harking back to earlier examples of the style through the casting of L’Atalante‘s Michel Simon. Jean Gabin’s army deserter Jean finds himself trying his best to stay out of trouble, but as they say trouble constantly seems to stick to him, like the fog, the oppressive sets, and the petulant baby-faced pretend-gangster Lucien (Pierre Brasseur) who’s on his case the whole time. It’s all rather glorious.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné; Writer Jacques Prévert (based on the novel by Pierre Mac Orlan); Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Brasseur; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 March 2019.