Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014

Talk to Me (2007)

I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.


FILM REVIEW
Director Kasi Lemmons | Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa | Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine | Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel) | Cinematographer David Johnson | Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016

Mavis! (2015)

There’s no shortage of strong, feel-good films about performers (indeed it was only a few weeks ago that Janis: Little Girl Blue was released), and like those, Mavis! — complete with an exclamation mark somewhat like its subject, singer Mavis Staples — leaves a smile on the face. We see Mavis, accompanied by her surviving sister Yvonne, play to appreciative audiences, before cutting back to her earlier life as the lead vocalist of the Staple Singers, a group started by their ‘Pops’ Roebuck in the late-1940s primarily in the gospel tradition, though later moving into more secular areas throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It’s fascinating to see his centrality to this group in archival footage and interviews, bringing the group in as backing singers for Martin Luther King and taking them to the Newport Folk Festival, with in later years his shock of white hair and good-natured charm. Still, it’s Mavis’s voice and personality which shines through most of all, and if the film doesn’t take any great departures from established documentary practice, it coasts by on the likeability of its subject and her storied life.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jessica Edwards | Cinematographer Keith Walker | Length 80 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 20 February 2016

Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)

I was born in the late-1970s, so I never really got exposed to Janis Joplin’s music much, which means I never really had much of a sense of her life or her career. She’s famous now, it seems, largely for dying young — the kind of story that’s sadly all too common — so this documentary makes a concerted effort to be more about a celebration of Joplin’s life and voice, rather than her demise. It leans heavily, as you’d expect, on archival footage of concerts and TV appearances, as well as the talking heads of friends, lovers and fellow musicians, who of course are all now in their 70s — giving that extra layer of disconnect when matching up these lined and aged faces with the youthful hippies in the old footage. A lot of this doesn’t really transfer well to the cinema screen — blown up, a lot of the sources look grainy and disfigured by digital compression — but what comes across clearly is both Joplin’s tremendous voice, but also her intelligence. As fond as she was of drugs, sex, dressing up and acting wildly in the public eye (an act that is perhaps stretched closest to breaking when she goes to a high school reunion in her small southern home town), she’s more often seen in interviews trying to make serious points while surrounded by a bunch of blokes whose progressive stance on free love and drugs just as often seems like little beyond schoolboy laddishness — though they’re nothing compared to the 50s-holdover model of masculinity as buttoned-down square so evident when she’s quizzed on a talk show appearance by Don Adams. Her mortal dalliance with drugs aside, Joplin comes across quite clearly as someone with talent and compassion and a far more interesting and appealing role model than perhaps she’s given credit for. And that’s the Joplin that Little Girl Blue is interested in.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Amy J. Berg | Cinematographers Francesco Carrozzini and Jenna Rosher | Length 103 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 February 2016

Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

© The Criterion Collection

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman | Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin | Length 171 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 54: For All Mankind (1989)

I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert | Length 80 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Spielberg | Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015

An Education (2009)

Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of growing up, this 1960s coming of age film put star Carey Mulligan in the spotlight, and deservedly so. She is excellent in the central role of Jenny, a smart and studious schoolgirl in the prim suburbs of ‘swinging’ London who meets socialite David (Peter Sarsgaard) by chance and soon gets caught up in the romance of his whirlwind life, itself largely built on lies and deception. Her education, then, is not of the academic variety, but amongst the chancers and hangers-on of the real world. It’s all very handsomely mounted in its period detail and settings (though one gets the sense that these leafy West London residential streets haven’t necessarily changed all that much), and tells its story with economy and verve, thanks to Nick Hornby’s script and the help of an extensive range of English acting talent.


FILM REVIEW
Director Lone Scherfig | Writer Nick Hornby (based on the memoir by Lynn Barber) | Cinematographer John de Borman | Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (blu-ray), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015

Tongnian wangshi (The Time to Live and the Time to Die, 1985)

The BFI have been doing sterling work this past month putting on a retrospective of the works of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, so I took a chance to see this key early film of his. It bears many of the hallmarks of his mature directorial work, particularly his great masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989). Both films deal with the tumultuous political events affecting China’s relationship to Taiwan during the mid-20th century, refracting it through one family, though this earlier film is perhaps more attentive to the domestic drama. Undoubtedly there’s plenty happening behind the scenes, though its political commentary is more subtly done. It’s primarily a coming of age story dealing with Ah-ha (or Ah-hsiao, a stand-in for the filmmaker, played by Yu An-shun as he gets older), though the most dynamic presence within the family is the grandmother (Tang Ju-yun). She is convinced the family will be returning soon to the mainland, as evoked by the cheap wicker furniture the family have for their home, as they had always assumed their relocation would be temporary. It spans a couple of decades, as family members grow older and die, and deals in an almost deceptively calm way with the passage of time and of youth, as Ah-ha moves from studious child to rebellious teen.


RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien | Writers Chu Tien-wen and Hou Hsiao-hsien | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin | Starring Yu An-shun, Tang Ju-yun | Length 138 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015