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

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Criterion Sunday 106: Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981)

There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.

Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier | Writers Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson) | Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn | Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert | Length 128 minutes || Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016)

Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: BFI Black Star
Director Dee Rees | Writers Dee Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois | Cinematographer Jeff Jur | Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique | Length 107 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016

Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert (13 Minutes, 2014)

After the commercial and critical disappointment of Diana a year or two back, director Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to the subject that made his name (on Downfall), which is to say, the Nazis. Specifically, this new film focuses on an unlikely resistance fighter, Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler at the outset of World War II. Obviously, even if one is unfamiliar with the plot, we all know how it’s going to turn out, hence the English title (the amount of time by which his bomb missed its target); the German title instead poses the idea that “he could have changed the world”, to which the unspoken rejoinder is obvious. After the initial excitement of the preparation and outcome of the plot, the bulk of the film lies in flashbacks exploring Elser’s life and influences for the actions he took, in which it becomes clear he acted on his own. Central to Georg’s backstory is a romance with a married woman, Elsa (Katharine Schüttler), whose abusive husband and the way the local village tolerates his evident failings, is symptomatic of a strand of close-mindedness to the threat posed by the Nazis. It is very easy to imagine one as a resistance hero under such circumstances, but the reality of the situation is that I imagine most of us would be like the village’s civic leader, fairly apathetic to the Nazis and happy to do whatever suits him personally. The film makes a great case for Elser’s exceptionalism in such a society, as once again (after the recent Amour Fou), Christian Friedel convinces as a troubled hero in the tragic romantic mould. That said, there’s also plenty of torture involved — those Nazis, they weren’t nice people — so it’s never an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile historical drama with plenty to recommend it.


© NFP Distribution

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel | Writers Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorder | Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann | Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler | Length 116 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 19 July 2015

Atonement (2007)

Director Joe Wright is pretty decent at literary adaptations, which is a way of saying I liked his Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina more than Hanna. In between all those films was Atonement, which I think was a pretty big deal at the time; I remember reading the novel and really liking it, but it’s been too long for me to make any kinds of meaningful comparison between the two. That said, on its own merits this is a fine film and showcases that both Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are excellent actors with quite a bit of emotional depth (though we already knew that about the young Saoirse Ronan, who plays the character seeking the atonement of the title). It’s all very doomy, set against a backdrop of the build-up to and aftermath of World War II, but it’s a handsome and diverting production all the same. Also, Knightley wears a particularly excellent green dress for those who appreciate that sort of thing.


FILM REVIEW
Director Joe Wright | Writers Christopher Hampton (based on the novel by Ian McEwan) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan | Length 123 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 21 June 2015

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full.


Ari Kyohaku (Intimidation, 1960)

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara) [Tue 12 May at home]. You’ll have seen my Criterion Sunday series, working through all of the Criterion Collection releases in spine order week by week. Well, Criterion have their bare-bones sub-label Eclipse as well, but I shan’t take to doing an Eclipse Monday or anything, though one result of watching all these Criterion films is I’ve picked up a few Eclipse releases along the way. Intimidation is the first film in the five-film set by director Koreyoshi Kurahara, whose work (and indeed name) I must admit to being entirely unaware about before now. This film is a short feature (around 70 minutes) and an engrossing psychological thriller, focusing on a bookish bank clerk and his lackadaisical boss, the latter of whom due to various personal circumstances finds himself in the position of holding up his own bank. For the most part it’s tautly told through close-ups of the lead characters, who seem to be constantly calculating their meagre options. ***


Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera (1950, Mexico, dir. Alberto Gout) [Fri 1 May at Barbican Cinemas]. A short series at the Barbican focused itself on the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican melodrama in the 1950s, and sadly this was the only film I made it along to. However, it is entirely delightful, dealing with Elena, a young woman (the ‘adventuress’ of the title) who finds herself alone in the world as the film starts, with only her wits to get her by, as she moves to the big city to make her way as a dancer. She’s entrapped by a dubious offer, and finds herself in the employ of shady brothel-keeper Rosaura, but there’s a TWIST and soon Elena is back in a position of power. There are double-crosses and twists of fortune, which at times suggest a rather more delicate staging of Showgirls (a classic ingenue-corrupted-by-the-system movie). There are also a handful of song numbers punctuating the melodrama, just to keep us going. ***½


Belle Epoque (1992)

Belle Époque (1992, Spain, dir. Fernando Trueba) [Sat 30 May at home]. A lightly comedic historical romp set not in fin-de-siècle France, but pre-Civil War Spain of the 1930s, which amounts to much the same thing I suppose. It’s a nostalgic time in which people take sides and fight for what they believe, though our republican hero has deserted his military posting and now finds himself holed up at a country home where he woos each of the four daughters of an elderly gentleman he has met. It’s all self-consciously light-hearted, and pleasantly diverting. It won Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, so that probably gives some idea of its artistic achievement. ***


The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010, USA, dir. Sylvester Stallone) [Mon 18 May at home]. A thoroughly overblown exercise in action film narcosis, which is somewhat enlivened by its star-studded cast of genre greats, led by director Sylvester Stallone, still game for a bit of running around and blowing sh1t up. It goes through the setpieces and fulfils the usual expectations, but I can’t pretend it’s not forgettable, because I can’t really remember very much of it at all. However, it does feature Jason Statham, for whose work I always have time. **


Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany, dir. Joe Wright) [Fri 8 May at home]. Director Joe Wright has shown himself to be something of a film stylist with literary adaptations like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012), both of which I rather liked. However, this original screenplay seems to lack a certain something, maybe a sense of anything particularly personal. I love Saoirse Ronan as an actor, and she’s excellent here as in every role she’s played, but her teenager taught by ex-CIA father to be a lethal killer seems a bit by-the-numbers. Wright’s style is still in evidence — this is no straight action thriller, but indulges plenty of other expressive elements — though it is all carried along by a propulsive score in a post-Bourne style. **½


Hit So Hard (2011)

Hit So Hard (2011, USA, dir. P. David Ebersole) [Mon 11 May at home]. A fairly straightforward talking-heads and music-clip documentary charting the career of Patti Schemel, primarily known for her time as a drummer in Hole, of which band this film functions as something of an encomium. You get a sense of some of the tumult of the early-90s grunge scene, and especially touching are the home videos of the band with Kurt Cobain and his daughter with Courtney Love. Yet despite my love for the band and their music, there’s nothing especially inspiring in the filmmaking. **½


John Wick (2014).jpg

John Wick (2014, USA, dir. Chad Stahelski) [Thu 30 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Like The Expendables above, in truth this taut revenge thriller does nothing particularly new, but the pleasure is in the way it does so, emphasising the physicality of the fight scenes — understandable, given the directors (one of whom, David Leitch, is uncredited) come from a background in stunt choreography. Indeed, unlike many such films it has a direct approach to conflict, emphasising the brutality underpinning the genre, as our eponymous protagonist (played by an ever-laconic Keanu Reeves) methodically despatches his adversaries, and even has to reload his weapon. It’s also nicely paced, starting out slowly, building Wick’s character and anguished personal life, before launching into the inevitable violence of the protracted denouement. ***


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA, dir. George Miller) [Sun 17 May at Cineworld Wood Green]. I never got around to writing a fuller review of this film, mainly because I struggle to find the kinds of superlatives which a lot of people have heaped on it. Undoubtedly it is a spare and at times electrifying chase movie within a dystopian sci-fi desert world — one in which water is a scarce resource, hoarded by a cadre of genetically-deficient mutant creatures who need the blood of the underclasses to survive. It’s in this context that we meet the title character (Tom Hardy), though his central role is swiftly supplanted by that of convoy driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is on a mission to liberate her enslaved concubine compatriots, and it’s her character that has understandably excited the internet. Quite whether this all amounts to some kind of feminist victory is unclear to me, though at the least it offers the rare prospect in this context of a kickass (yet believably human) female action hero with agency, and who is not reliant on the help of others (i.e. men) to succeed. Still, this is all but window-dressing to the almost unrelenting forward momentum of the thundering vehicular chase that is at the film’s heart, not that I mean that as a criticism exactly. It fulfils its action remit and does so in a way that largely avoids offensive stereotyping, which sometimes seems like victory enough. ***


Plemya (The Tribe, 2014)

Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy) [Sun 31 May at the ICA]. Another recent film that’s picked up plenty of critical love is this brutal, nasty film about a dystopian society of the underclasses in Ukraine, which has the novel quality of being entirely in unsubtitled (Ukrainian) Sign Language. Our characters are all deaf-mute and largely confined to the crumbling premises of their special school, which seems at the outset to have teachers and administration but is soon, we learn, largely operated by a cabal of brutally bullying students aided by a number of key members of staff. One, for example, exploits a couple of the girls as prostitutes to the local trucking community, and it’s into this milieu that newcomer Sergey is recruited. In some respects, The Tribe reminds me of Alan Clarke’s film Scum, dealing with English borstal life in the 1970s, and there’s plenty here that visually harks back to that decade, if only because one senses that everything we see has been left to decay since then. However, the film is vivified by bold directorial flourishes, including long tracking shots lifted from the Dardenne’s repertoire, as well as a casual brutality and dispassionate carnality that calls to mind Haneke. For all this — or perhaps because of it — The Tribe seems to me to be a hard film to really love. ***


Tomboy (2011)

Tomboy (2011, France, dir. Céline Sciamma) [Sun 24 May at the ICA]. Director Céline Sciamma’s most recent film Girlhood hit cinemas recently, giving me the opportunity to revisit an earlier film of hers. It again picks up on gender issues, but refracted through the story of Laure, a young girl who moves to a new neighbourhood as the film starts out, who amongst her new friends begins to play at being a boy under the name Mickaël. It’s a very subtly balanced film which avoids the expected moralising and overdetermined plot points, preferring a far more naturalistic ambiguity to some of the relationships (such as Laure/Mickaël’s affection for local girl Lisa). ***½

Criterion Sunday 4: Amarcord (1973)

Try as I might, I have to concede that there’s a certain temperament of Italian (if not wider Mediterranean-rim) filmmaking that I just don’t enjoy. That said, this extrovert cinema of big boisterous emotions, vibrant music, saturated sun-dappled colours and boyish sexual crudity can sometimes be fitted well to the themes of a film. This at least is the case with Amarcord, a film from later in Fellini’s well-awarded career (this film won an Oscar, in fact). It’s a coming of age film (another less favoured genre of mine), but being set against the backdrop of Fascist 1930s Italy, the aforementioned stylistic traits — with all their effervescence and constant flow of motion and chatter — seem to suggest something cruel and reactionary just beneath the surface, as if people are trying just a little too hard to maintain that facade. It tracks Bruno Zanin’s Titta, growing up in a small Italian town, but you could easily miss his presence, as the film unspools in a series of only loosely-connected vignettes, with an occasional commentator popping up to be pranked and mocked by unseen offscreen townsfolk. There are restagings of local traditions, wistful nostalgic reflections, busty local women (including Magali Noël’s town beauty Gradisca, lusted after by Titta and his fellow schoolboys) and plenty of the usual kind of incident you get with these films, but with uniformed officers flitting through the background and suggesting what is to come. All of this is expertly shot in sumptuous colour by Giuseppe Rotunno, making for a beautiful spectacle. Whether you enjoy it quite as much or not, however, may be down to your taste as it is to mine.

Criterion Extras: There’s a 45 minute documentary called Fellini’s Homecoming which deals with his complicated relationship to his hometown of Rimini. It’s made clear along the way that Amarcord is not intended to be set in Rimini (it’s more supposed to be an any-small-town of Europe), but that many of the characters are based on real childhood figures Fellini grew up with. There’s a series of interviews with childhood friends (include the real ‘Titta’), colleagues and biographers, and it becomes evident that Fellini had no particular fondness for Rimini, though the two patched things up later in his life, and after death.

Aside from this, there’s a short interview with the French star of the film Magali Noël, who talks about what she knew about the real Gradisca and about working with Fellini (he called her to fly into Rome literally hours before the start of filming), and a soundless deleted scene presenting another character in the town. There’s a demonstration of the restoration of the film for the new edition, with old and cleaned-up images side-by-side for comparison, and the American trailer. Plus there are lots of images of drawings and photos, as well as posters and marketing ephemera for the film, which are of passing interest.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno | Starring Bruno Zanin, Magali Noël | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 1 December 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Wes Anderson | Cinematographer Robert Yeoman | Starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Jude Law, F. Murray Abraham, Saoirse Ronan | Length 99 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 24 March 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Fox Searchlight Pictures

And thinking again of the sameness of Vinteuil’s works, I explained to Albertine that the great men of letters have never created more than a single work, or rather have never done more than refract through various media an identical beauty which they bring into the world.
— Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière (1923, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

Like perhaps many (too many?) in the English-speaking world, I have never encountered the writing of Stefan Zweig, from whom director and writer Wes Anderson claims inspiration for this confected mittel-European tale set over three successive post-World War II generations. However, I find myself drawn to comparisons with the work of Marcel Proust, which I am reading at the moment and have been for about the last year (making such connections rather more inevitable perhaps; I don’t know whether the quote above is really relevant, but I read it this morning, so it’s in my mind, and it does seem to speak to Anderson’s oeuvre). Mainly it’s the sense that this huge cast of characters have been distilled down into a series of fragmentary glimpses as relayed via an unreliable narrator through many layers of history and nostalgia and refracted by a world-changing war. It’s this last detail which seems most to suffuse the film, for it provides most of the pathos, that sense which is only hinted at around the edges and in small almost-throwaway lines, as it becomes clear in the telling that all of these characters — indeed this whole worldview and way of life — have since disappeared. But in many ways that’s what Anderson’s filmmaking has been building to, conjuring up a spectral reminiscence of a lost world.

Continue reading “The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)”

De-Lovely (2004)


FILM REVIEW || Director Irwin Winkler | Writer Jay Cocks | Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts | Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally | Length 120 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.

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O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)


FILM REVIEW || Director Joel Coen | Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based on the epic poem The Odyssey by Homer) | Cinematographer Roger Deakins | Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, John Goodman | Length 108 minutes | Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Friday 4 May 2001 (and at holiday apartment in Rovinj on TV, Saturday 1 June 2013) || My Rating 3 stars good


© United International Pictures

At their worst, the Coen Brothers can come across as dilettantish, with an air of superiority to their characters (who often seem little more than caricatures), and it would surely be possible to argue that they’ve shown this hand in O Brother. They’ve certainly marshalled a whole host of period references to the 1930s into a comic book confection to little lasting effect. And yet I have a warmth of feeling towards this film that derives primarily from the music, not to mention the gorgeous widescreen Cinemascope photography and the easy affability of George Clooney as a lead actor. I don’t think any of this makes the film less shallow, but it does make me more fondly disposed towards it.

Continue reading “O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)”