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.

Bessie film posterCREDITS
Director Dee Rees; Writers 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 (with Downfall), which is to say: 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.

13 Minutes film poster CREDITS
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.

Atonement film posterCREDITS
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. Find reviews for the following below the cut:

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)

Continue reading “May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

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 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)

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.

Re-reading my pretentious opening paragraph, I suspect that it’s just in the nature of the film to encourage this kind of reading. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not abstruse or difficult in any way, but it is layered. The key metaphor for me is the elaborate layered cakes made by the bakers in the film, Mendl’s, which seem to reflect the way that the film is structured, not to mention its candy-coloured set design and the superficial sweetness of its surfaces. Most notably, the film is nested within four different generations of narration: the first is a young student visiting a statue of the Great Author and reading his eponymous account of his earlier life at the titular hotel; the second, the Author (Tom Wilkinson) at home in 1985; the third, ostensibly drawn from the book, is that Author as a young man (Jude Law) talking to Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) in the decaying 1968 lobby of the hotel; and finally, there’s Zero as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) working under the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) in the hotel’s 1932 glory days. For all these levels of narrative fragmentation, most of the film is set in the 1930s strand. The four are distinguished by different aspect ratios (a Cinemascope widescreen sweep for the late-1960s, with 1.85:1 at varying zooms for the more recent scenes, and finally ‘Academy ratio’ of 1.33:1 for the oldest), which along with the usual obsessively-detailed set and costume design, means it never gets too confusing when the film jumps around in time.

The actual plot of the film is something of a caper, as dapper roué Gustave H. is bequeathed the fortune of elderly heiress Madame Celine Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), which is quickly contested by her diabolical sons and leads to plenty of deadly ado, set against the background of a coming war. The posters already make clear quite how many people are in this film, but they and their stories all support the central picaresque tale of young Zero, accompanying Gustave everywhere, and in the process finding his way in the world. In the film’s title, location and the year of its setting, I am reminded of Grand Hotel (1932), itself a multi-character story of criss-crossing lives and old world European opulence. Perhaps more atmospherically linked are the mannered and beautiful films of Max Ophüls, such as La Ronde (1950) or his luridly coloured final work Lola Montès (1953) — indeed one of the best of his films (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948) is also based on a work by Zweig.

My point, in any case, is that Anderson has crafted a richly-detailed work that harks back to a history of twentieth-century culture and politics. One needn’t pick up all the references, so crammed in are they, but it adds depth to what at its heart seems like a very silly story with a large cast of colourful characters. All the small details accrue in the mind and work their way into the imagination, such that a week after viewing it I still have a strong sense of it and its delirious charms, which is more than can be said for most films. I can’t comment so soon on whether it’s Anderson’s best work (The Royal Tenenbaums remains my favourite), but it’s a strong reminder that he hasn’t yet disappeared within his own pretensions as many including myself had at one point feared. If he is here conjuring something of an identical beauty to those earlier films, it’s one that continues to resonate.

Update after Second Viewing: There’s a precarious sense of mortality which subtly encroaches around the edges of many of the film’s otherwise superficially innocuous action. It took me quite a while, after all, to realise that The Royal Tenenbaums was more than just a jolly colourful farce and realise it was laden with affecting pathos (which came home to me when I watched it with my wife, and found myself in tears at the end). Still, the febrile comic persona of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. comes through all the more strongly, with the running gags of his inappropriate swearing, not to mention the way his recitations of romantic poetry are consistently cut off, remaining especially funny on second viewing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel film posterCREDITS
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, and later at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 1 April 2014.

De-Lovely (2004)

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.

That framing device has Jonathan Pryce as the archangel Gabriel, come down (apparently to London’s beautiful Wilton Music Hall) to take the elderly and infirm Porter (Kevin Kline, under heavy layers of prosthetics) through scenes from his life, starting with his meeting the beautiful Linda, played by Ashley Judd. In real life, she was eight years his senior, but this is a show, and such details aren’t to get in the way of the feelings. The subsequent couple of hours gamely skip through scenes from their life together, his marriage to her at the tail end of the 1910s, his increasing success on Broadway in the 1920s, his (at least privately) unconcealed gay lovelife, his crippling horse-riding accident in the 1930s, and then the couple’s decline from there in the 1940s and 1950s, neatly avoiding any of the significant world events that may have happened in this period. This is, above all, a portrait of the artist, with only tenuous connections to the world at large.

What anchors the film, then, are the performances from Kline and Judd in the lead roles. Kline captures a benevolently patrician gravitas along with a self-laceratingly comic worldview, while Judd foregoes suffering — Linda was, it appears, quite aware of Porter’s sexual orientation, and their marriage had plenty of genuine and closely-felt love. It’s a difficult line to walk, but there’s a wonderful affection between the two, which reaches some moments of unforced pathos towards the end, even if the swiftly advancing passage of time in the film’s final third means the prosthetics and make-up are laid on rather quickly and heavily.

The director Irwin Winkler has been a producer in Hollywood for quite some time, working with the directors of the New American Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly his work producing the likes of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) have rubbed off, and there are some bravura sequences of technical virtuosity, particularly a single-take scene in a Los Angeles gay club as both the sultry lounge singer onstage as well as Kline quickly change costumes and re-enter the frame of the sinuously moving camera to mark the passage of time. Elsewhere there are some similarly well-staged movements through time, as the elderly Porter remembers his youthful self, not to mention the almost off-handedly integrated song numbers. Famous musical faces of the early-2000s pop up in passing to perform his songs, and the line between stage and life is effectively blurred (remembering that this is all very self-consciously framed as a pageant), so Robbie Williams mingles amongst a restaurant crowd singing the title song, Kline himself mugs through “Be a Clown” in front of producer Louis B. Mayer on a Hollywood backlot, and John Barrowman starts out reheasing “Night and Day” before segueing into a nighttime tryst in Central Park. Given the film’s way with staging, it’s entirely appropriate that we even see Cole and Linda watching the 1946 film Night and Day with Cary Grant, and commenting on the depiction of their own lives on screen.

It’s a strange blend of musical sequences, stagy flashbacks and romantic melodrama, and it clearly doesn’t work for everyone, but I enjoyed it. It’s all staged with flair and virtuosity, not to mention impeccably costumed. It’s like something out of time, a strange curate’s egg of a film, which I imagine as further decades roll past will be ever more consigned to a curious and dusty little corner of film history. However, it’s a corner worth exploring.

De-Lovely film posterCREDITS
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.

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)”

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

This screening was selected by the actor Terence Stamp as part of the BFI’s ‘Screen Epiphanies’ strand, whereby prominent figures from the worlds of film and the arts are asked to select an important film for them personally. In his introduction, Stamp spoke warmly about his early filmgoing experiences in Plaistow, East London (where he first saw this film), about his own encounter with Eastern enlightenment and mysticism in the 1970s, and about the quality of the actors in this particular film, especially the luminescent Gene Tierney (on whom he had a boyhood crush) and the resonant voice of Herbert Marshall.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Edmund Goulding | Writer Lamar Trotti (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham) | Cinematographer Arthur Miller | Starring Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Herbert Marshall, Anne Baxter, Clifton Webb | Length 145 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 May 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© 20th Century Fox

As a film which pushes into melodramatic territory bordering on kitsch, and as a classic example of a “woman’s picture” of the era, this adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel is apt to be written off too easily by critics. It possesses in Tyrone Power (PS his real name) an apparently bland lead actor perhaps more valued for his matinee idol appearance than his acting ability (an apt modern comparison might be Zac Efron, likewise undervalued as an actor). It’s also somewhat uneven in tone over its extended running time, and turns on some rather hokey religious transcendence. However, despite these flaws, it’s a ravishingly expressive film.

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Richard III (1995)

As this film is based on an over-400-year-old play (itself based on even older history), the events and characters of which are pretty much embedded into Western cultural history, I trust that the usual rules of ‘spoilers’ don’t really apply in the same way. However, if you remain concerned about this, then I shall sum up my review more pithily: track down this movie and watch it. It’s worth it, even if you think you don’t like Shakespeare.


FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Loncraine | Writers William Shakespeare, Ian McKellen and Richard Loncraine (based on the play by Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr. | Length 104 minutes | Seen at Paramount, Wellington, February 1997 (also at home on DVD, Tuesday 7 May 2013) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© United Artists

I first saw this film on the big screen a few years after it was released, which is to say, 16 years ago now. My memory is generally terrible, and there are films I’ve seen that I have forgotten to such an extent that I’ve rewatched them and not even realised that I’d seen them already in my life. So it should say something that I still very clearly recalled the opening sequence of this adaptation of the Shakespeare play when I sat down to rewatch it recently at home.

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