Criterion Sunday 121: Billy Liar (1963)

Someone had clearly been watching those recent French New Wave films and taking cues from Godard and Truffaut. Specifically, director John Schlesinger, one imagines, and he does a British version very well here. Billy Fisher is a chronic dreamer (I can only imagine he was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s own arch-fantasist Fischer) who just can’t be honest with anyone, least of all himself. It’s the 1960s and the film opens with a montage of modern housing estate developments; Billy lives in a northern city and works at a (literal?) dead-end job, not doing very well there. There’s an energy to Billy, as he bounces around the city from one failure to another, playing off his various fiancées, and enduring his parents’ scorn. There’s also a lovely role for Julie Christie, and while any character who has Julie Christie in love with him and doesn’t immediately ditch everything else to be with her is clearly a moron, Courtenay still manages to work up quite a bit of winsome charm. He’s still an idiot, though and his parents aren’t wrong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Schlesinger | Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based on the novel by Waterhouse) | Cinematographer Denys Coop | Starring Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie | Length 98 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Criterion Sunday 116: Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016

Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gregory Nava | Cinematographer Edward Lachman | Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda | Length 127 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017

Crossroads (2002)

It’s probably different to watch a screening of this in a central London cinema followed by a Q&A with the director than to see it on TV at home, but I find it difficult to say anything too harsh about what is evidently an earnest attempt to move Britney out of a certain (virginal) stereotype, while also making a film far more concerned with women’s friendship over time. Some of the plot points are a little leaden, and at times strain too hard for melodramatic resolutions (the script is written by TV stalwart Shonda Rhimes), and there’s some overburdened symbolism (waves crashing to indicate female sexuality comes to mind). However, the film cannot help but exceed all these quotidian referents, by which I mean (and I’m no theorist) that it’s not just a film with actors playing characters following a narrative, but the very definition of what I suppose we would call ‘camp’. For, by virtue of its production and cultural moment, it is above all a Britney vehicle, with all the baggage that entails: it’s an important cultural text of the 2000s (not unlike perhaps Desperately Seeking Susan in the 80s, and indeed Madonna is referenced in the very first scene), so your usual film criticism canards won’t work here. That said, while I do feel Britney’s acting is perfectly credible, Zoë Saldana is the break-out star, stealing all her scenes. It’s an underrated film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: London Short Film Festival
Director Tamra Davis | Writer Shonda Rhimes | Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards | Starring Britney Spears, Zoë Saldana, Taryn Manning, Anson Mount, Dan Akyroyd | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 15 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 112: Play Time (aka PlayTime) (1967)

The films of Jacques Tati have never really been about the plot. Even his earliest efforts are more interested in the visual gag, how it’s set up and how it is executed, far more than in finding any kind of narrative-led justification for getting there. Play Time (or the camel-case PlayTime as Criterion prefers) is arguably Tati’s greatest achievement — it’s certainly my favourite of his films — and the refinement of his lifelong work on this pure gag-based visual technique. It’s essentially an absurdist avant garde film, almost entirely lacking in any kind of plot aside from having Tati’s familiar Hulot character bumbling around a gargantuan modernist set of his own devising. He encounters various people — bureaucrats, attendants, service workers and tourists — but it’s never clear what he’s trying to do or where he’s trying to go. Maybe I just missed something, but I’ve seen the film four times now and I’m no more the wiser. That said, I don’t really care. The visual world he creates is an advance on Mon oncle (1958), which contrasted the futuristic minimalist modernism of the nouveau riche upper-middle-classes with a decaying old world of Hulot. That latter world is entirely gone, aside from brief sightings of various familiar landmarks (like the Tour Eiffel and Sacre-Cœur) as reflections in the glass doors of Tati’s grim, grey concrete and steel office blocks. Hilariously, even tourist posters of other world cities just show these grey office blocks with their familiar tourist sights in the background.

A lot of the humour is of this variety and requires an active viewer scouring the many corners of the image to find them. Rarely is there a close-up to focus our attention, and many gags are played out across the space, sometimes with multiple different gags happening at the same time. One example might be when M. Giffard, a bureaucratic functionary, needs to give some data to a visiting American businessman, who calls his office from another in a series of hive-like cubicles viewed from above; Giffard then proceeds to leave his cubicle, open a filing cabinet on the outside of the office the American is calling from, and then returns to his own to relay the information back. All the while Hulot is standing in the extreme background waiting for Giffard to leave so he can speak to him (about what is never made clear). It’s this kind of long-shot staging that means the film is best seen on a 70mm print in the cinema, so for viewing at home, a big screen is almost required. Thankfully the Criterion edition presents the film in a pristine digital restoration that makes these kinds of setups clear, but no viewer will get everything going on in a single viewing, especially during a scene as hectic and extended as the bravura restaurant sequence that dominates much of the second hour.

Just recounting all the ways in which Play Time brilliantly uses its space to tell visual-led gags would take up far too long. Not all viewers will connect with this style, and I’ve certainly heard some say the film is boring or arid. It certainly makes little concession to the audience and requires an active, attentive viewing of the film — for example, there’s a 10 minute sequence inside an apartment which is viewed entirely from the street outside, and so we hear nothing of what is said by the characters. That said, it develops some of the most beautifully understated comic sequences in all of cinema, few of which even require the subtitles to be understood (there is some language-based humour emerging from the babble of voices, amongst which French, German and English dominate, but Hulot barely speaks at all), and all of it takes place on a set presenting a vision of modern times so self-contained and overwhelming that the experience can be a little deadening. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement all the same, and one that Tati would never again be given the same budget to achieve.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange | Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 12 September 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999 and August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 24 July 2016)

Dear Zindagi (2016)

This isn’t perfect as a film, far from it — our heroine (Kauri, or “Koko” for short, played by the lovely Alia Bhatt) spends much of the time acting like an entitled brat, for which there’s an explanatory backstory near the end which is far too neat and allows for a perfunctory ending that stretches credulity — but I really liked this film. It has its heart in the right place. Maybe it’s better to say what it’s not: it’s not a film in which a wayward heroine is cured by a hunky love interest (though the reliable Shah Rukh Khan does play a key role as a therapist, while the film at one point even suggests Kauri may be lesbian, and there’s a little coda that plays with gender identity); and it’s also not a film that stigmatises mental health issues (even if I don’t believe Khan’s therapy sessions at all). It has visual flair, and I really wished Kaira’s job as a cinematographer were more developed than the opening half hour, but it shows plenty of promise.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gauri Shinde | Cinematographer Laxman Utekar | Starring Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan | Length 150 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Monday 28 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

Queen of Katwe (2016)

There’s no shortage of varied string-tugging that goes on in this film, but surprisingly — for a triumph-against-the-odds narrative, for a Disney film, for a big Western-funded film production set in Africa — it does so without hitting the expected marks. As one example, there’s no orchestral score overwhelming the scenes at key moments (which is to say, there is a score, but my point is it doesn’t unduly ingratiate itself; the African pop music is more noticeable, and excellent). More importantly, there’s no white/European central character to channel a condescending understanding of the struggles the African characters face. The closest the film comes to such a figure is David Oyelowo’s university-educated coach, who lives a relatively middle-class life. That said, everyone in this film has and does struggle through poverty, and for a Disney film it does show a lot of that. It’s picturesquely shot, with plenty of vibrant colours, and despite the difficult lives of its characters there’s little reliance on some of the more overworn African film themes (there are some threatening characters, but no gang violence for example), and it gives its characters a chance at lives that aren’t just punchlines to the usual tropes of colonialist filmmaking. I wouldn’t call it perfect, and it’s definitely still a feel-good triumph-against-the-odds sports movie — even if the sport is chess — but for all that, it’s done well, with passion and with great acting from its three leads.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Mira Nair | Writer William Wheeler (based on the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers) | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 24 October 2016

Criterion Sunday 98: L’avventura (1960)

Like a lot of filmmakers favoured by the Criterion Collection, Italian modernist auteur Michelangelo Antonioni has been through his critical ups and downs, but I think his minimalist dramatic style makes him more apt for modern reassessment than the carnivalesque spirit of his compatriot Fellini. For a long time, L’avventura was his quintessential work, and looking back on it around 55 years on, its shimmering monochrome has held up well. It still resists easy enjoyment though, primarily due to its still-radical narrative aporia (though perhaps less controversial than it was upon its release): not unlike the same year’s Psycho, it builds up a central character for the first half hour (in this case, Lea Massari’s Anna), only to have her disappear suddenly from the narrative. Antonioni doesn’t appear interested in why she disappears — it’s more of a narrative device than anything else — but in the way the remaining characters, Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), react to her disappearance and find solace in one another. I readily admit, though, that this is a simplistic assessment of the way things progress; this is no grand romance, so much as part of a game played by the bored bourgeois upper classes, reminiscent of the dissipated world of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (another almost contemporary story in its original form). In this sense, a character disappearing seems more like a statement of feelings (lost, disconnected from her friends), than a tragedy to be solved. Much of the emotional turmoil is rehearsed not through words but via formal means, using the carefully-controlled mise en scène, framing characters against landscapes and buildings, while others leave or re-enter the frame in a sort of choreography of passion. It’s wonderfully strange stuff, and is undoubtedly one of the finer and more classically-balanced achievements of a cinema starting to become obsessed instead (via various New Waves) with the energy and brashness of youth.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the commentary, there’s a 25 minute piece with Olivier Assayas gushing over the film, excitedly throwing out ideas in a quintessentially French way, illustrated with clips from the film. It’s quite informative and does suggest ways into what is a notoriously opaque and difficult film. There are also a couple of essays by Antonioni, one about the film and one about acting, which are read by Jack Nicholson, who also contributes his thoughts about working with him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Aldo Scavarda | Starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari | Length 143 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 8 May 2016 (and previously on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, April 1998)