Criterion Sunday 138: Rashomon (1950)

Though it may be one of those films that’s always on a best-of list somewhere, and therefore has the sense of being a boring dusty old classic, thankfully it’s for many good reasons and none of them involve being bored. Whatever else, it must be one of the most influential movies ever, not least for its audacious structure, moving back and forward in time and presenting overlapping testimonies on a rape/murder, each of which conflict with the others. It’s a film about the power and responsibility of storytelling, and of the infinite variety of interpretation, made by a filmmaker who — more than most others — has utter mastery over narrative exposition in filmic form. Kurosawa really is peerless in this regard; every cut and every scene moves the narrative forward in some way, or develops a theme of the film. The acting is iconic (suitably so) and much has been written about the sun-dappled cinematography. But for all the exegeses and critical plaudits, it stands up as a film which still entertains and educates.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is a documentary called A Testimony as an Image (2012). This is, essentially, a making-of extra, albeit with the benefit of over a half-century of hindsight. The few remaining living crew members who worked on Kurosawa’s film come together to discuss their memories of its creation, so we get plenty about how the script came together (from one of the assistant directors, and a script supervisor), then about the set construction (from one of the lighting people), about that notable cinematography and the challenges of shooting in a dark forest, and about the stresses Kurosawa was under to get the release finished despite setbacks include a studio fire. It’s based around these reminiscences, with a few archival shots and some explanatory text, but these elderly men (and one woman) retain vivid memories and their recollections are worth listening to.

Also on the disc are around 15 minutes of excerpts from a documentary about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and a short address to camera by Robert Altman about how all the influences he stole from Kurosawa and from this film in particular. There’s also a halting radio interview with Takashi Shimura from around 1960, which is interesting if not especially enlightening. Donald Richie’s commentary track helps to pull out a lot of the themes, and engages the viewer with an awareness of all that Kurosawa and his team achieve in the film, making it even better and more interesting (I rewatched it with the commentary immediately after the film, and it didn’t get boring at all).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (based on short stories “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 14 April 1999 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 January 2017)

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Criterion Sunday 81: Luci del varietà (Variety Lights, 1950)

Federico Fellini’s first film was this ensemble piece set amongst a travelling troupe of performers putting on a variety show, of fairly mediocre quality one assumes from what we see of it. It’s led by Checcho (Peppino De Filippo) who is seen at the start being hounded by acting hopeful Liliana (Carla Del Poggio), much to the annoyance of his sweetheart Melina Amour (Giuletta Masina). Her arrival ruffles a few feathers as her ambition leads her to try and use the break to further a career for herself, and the film proceeds in a sort of bumbling, peripatetic way, introducing a number of side characters and tracing the fortunes of these various performers, most of whom never really get out of the rut they’re in. It makes the film rather a bittersweet look at the acting profession, but no less generous and enjoyable for that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Federico Fellini and Alberto Lattuada | Writers Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano | Cinematographer Otello Martelli | Starring Carla Del Poggio, Peppino De Filippo, Giulietta Masina | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016

Esther Williams at MGM

A couple of box sets document swimming star Esther Williams’ career at its late-40s and early-50s heights, via a series of boldly Technicolor films shot for MGM studio. It can’t be claimed that all are masterpieces, but they seem to give a sense of this lost era of filmmaking, with its charms as well as its evident weaknesses. The latter largely involves Williams’ male co-leads, not least a stiff Howard Keel in Pagan Love Song (1950) and the perpetually unfunny Red Skelton in both Bathing Beauty (1944) — which, despite the title, largely focuses on Skelton’s annoying songwriter twit Steve — and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and while the latter at least is a far more supporting role, it’s still hard to see what the laughs are supposed to be, and these end up being the weakest films in the set. Still, it’s not all bad for the men, as Esther’s pairing with Ricardo Montalbán in this latter film, as well as On an Island with You (1948) and the Mexico-set Fiesta (1947), is the strongest through-line to her films of this era. She doesn’t always end up with him, mind, but aside from some of Fiesta (in which both play Mexicans, somewhat less convincingly in Williams’ case, though her skills as a female toreador are rather more in question), the films are largely free of any ethnic stereotyping.

Fiesta, in particular, points up Williams’ proclivity to ‘brown up’ for a role (undoubtedly forced on her by the studio, as it’s more a sad reflection of the era), which is at its worst in Hawaii-set Pagan Love Song. It seems initially that something similar is taking place in On an Island with You, but her Hawaiian temptress in that film’s opening scene turns out to be a swimming-based acting star in a film within the film, though hardly one that makes any particular argument about the dubious practice, and when the film takes a turn into ‘romantic kidnapping’ on the part of the boring (white) US Navy love interest played by Peter Lawford, it gets a little bit hard to accept, even under the veil of historical difference. Among these 1940s films, 1945’s Thrill of a Romance almost passes without notice, feeling more like an excuse to bundle a bunch of disparate acts (a Danish opera singer, the Tommy Dorsey Band, a teenage pianist) together in a wartime variety revue, though Williams does at least shimmer in the Technicolor.

If anything, it’s the saturated colours of the celluloid process which is the most impressive star of all these films — no one looks quite so good in Technicolor as Esther Williams — though the early-50s features The Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Dangerous When Wet (1953) are the best of the lot for more traditional reasons. In the former, Williams is playing a version of herself in the real-life story of silent film star Annette Kellerman, an Australian, not that you’d guess it from Williams’ accent (she thankfully doesn’t try for an accent either her or in her Mexican role in Fiesta). It also features probably the most spectacular swimming sequence of any of the films, in a grand Busby Berkeley-choreographed setpiece. And then there’s Dangerous When Wet, which may even be her best film, and is certainly most charming in a celebrated Tom and Jerry sequence. Williams plays a young woman who takes up a challenge to the swim the English Channel, with romantic entaglements very much in the background. The plot means there’s some genuine tension in the way things unfold, and it ends up finishing rather neatly.


Bathing Beauty (1944)

FILM REVIEW

Bathing Beauty (1944)
Director George Sidney | Writers Dorothy Kingsley, Allen Boretz and Frank Waldman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Red Skelton, Esther Williams | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Thrill of a Romance (1945)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Esther Williams, Van Johnson, Carleton G. Young | Length 105 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 February 2016

Fiesta (1947)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers George Bruce and Lester Cole | Cinematographer Wilfred M. Cline | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Mary Astor, Fortunio Bonanova | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 February 2016

Neptune's Daughter (1949)

On an Island with You (1948)
Director Richard Thorpe | Writers Charles Martin, Hans Wilhelm, Dorothy Kingsley and Dorothy Cooper | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalbán, Cyd Charisse | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 February 2016

Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Director Edward Buzzell | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Ricardo Montalbán, Red Skelton, Betty Garrett | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 February 2016

Pagan Love Song (1950)
Director Robert Alton | Writers Robert Nathan and Jerry Davis (based on the novel Tahiti Landfall by William S. Stone) | Cinematographer Charles Rosher | Starring Esther Williams, Howard Keel | Length 76 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 31 January 2016

Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Million Dollar Mermaid (1952)
Director Mervyn LeRoy | Writer Everett Freeman | Cinematographer George J. Folsey | Starring Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon | Length 115 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Friday 4 March 2016

Dangerous When Wet (1953)
Director Charles Walters | Writer Dorothy Kingsley | Cinematographer Harold Rosson | Starring Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson | Length 95 minutes || Seen on a train (DVD), Sunday 6 March 2016

Criterion Sunday 68: Orphée (Orpheus, 1950)

Orpheus is surely French artist Jean Cocteau’s most famous film; it is justly acclaimed, and it might even be his best (though I have enormous fondness for Testament of Orpheus, his last). I’ve seen it many times now, on the cinema screen and at home, though its sense of forbidding poetic mystery is still strong enough that the idea of putting my feelings into words delayed me writing up this review. Maybe, then, it’s best if I just leave it at some disjointed scraps of feeling and that Criterion cover art. Cocteau’s long-term partner and muse, Jean Marais, plays the poet (Orpheus of course) and though he is married to Eurydice, who figures in the story, it feels far more like a film about Orpheus and his relationship to Death, the ravishing and mysterious Princess who shows up at the film’s start flanked by another poet, and who is played by her usual intensity by María Casares. It’s a film of images, like the eerie motorcycle riders dressed fetishistically in black leather, or the ruined city of the underworld, of reverse photography (a real throughline in all Cocteau’s filmmaking) rendering the ordinary strange, and of mirrors as shimmering, watery portals to other realms. I’ll no doubt watch the film again, and, like the avant garde poetry which recurs on the soundtrack, only dimly perceive what’s going on, but it’s the feeling the film inspires which endures.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau | Cinematographer Nicolas Hayer | Starring Jean Marais, María Casares, François Périer | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 28 March 2004 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 December 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