Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Smooth Talk (1985)

It feels like there were a number of interesting films being directed by women in the American cinema of the 70s and 80s, which perhaps went a little under the radar and haven’t been so easy to find on home video. Smooth Talk was the narrative feature film debut of a long-time documentarian Joyce Chopra, and though the narrative feels like it may have been guided a little too strongly by the man doing the writing, it’s still great at building up a sense of place, and features the young Laura Dern.


As this opens, there are few films that can match the sheer 80s-ness of everything: the fashion and haircuts, the music (particularly on the soundtrack), the filmmaking techniques. It’s like a soap opera, and it paints a persuasive picture of a certain kind of Californian upbringing, hanging at the mall and being with your friends. Laura Dern is brilliant in the lead role, and does an effective job of conveying this young woman, hanging out late and being flirtatious, although every so often there are these creepy men hanging around. But then the movie takes a lurch into a weird terrifying stalker narrative, and Treat Williams is good but the film suddenly just seems to want to punish her for her sexuality (no less than any contemporary horror films would), and it becomes uncomfortable in more ways than perhaps the filmmaker intended. Still, there’s a lot of great stuff in here, not least the acting.

Smooth Talk film posterCREDITS
Director Joyce Chopra; Writer Tom Cole (based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates); Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 June 2019.

Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985)

For my final post of this Asian diaspora theme week, I’m going to back to an early Asian-American film (though hardly the earliest, as there are examples even in the silent era), but one that perhaps has had some influence on subsequent filmmaking, given that sits pretty squarely and comfortably within an American indie context. Wayne Wang would go on to direct The Joy Luck Club (1993), but also indies like Smoke (1995), though his 2000s work was more straight-to-video genre fare, like Maid in Manhattan and Last Holiday (though I have a fondness for both of those titles).


This is a loving portrait of one Chinese-American family, as seen through the eyes of a 30-something professional woman (Laureen Chew) and her elderly mother (Kim Chew). Apparently the idea was originally a much denser work dealing with a larger number of intersecting inter-generational stories (which becomes more evident in the short film Dim Sum Take-Out the director compiled a few years later from the outtakes), but paring it down also works very nicely. There’s plenty of understated observation here, of customs and mores, of lives that perhaps are a little tinged with regret and others lived in the shadow of parents and expectations. It’s set in San Francisco, so there’s a bit of detail given of that community, largely via the character played by veteran actor Victor Wong (whose peculiar squint is familiar from Hollywood roles of this era, such as in Big Trouble in Little China), who runs a bar and thus connects a number of the different family members. It’s all very keenly put across, with a quiet open style that seems to be mimicking filmmakers like Ozu while also being very much within an American indie vernacular.

CREDITS
Director Wayne Wang 王穎; Writer Terrel Seltzer; Cinematographer Michael Chin; Starring Laureen Chew, Kim Chew, Victor Wong 自強; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 19 September 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis”

Criterion Sunday 178: Mitt liv som hund (My Life as a Dog, 1985)

A fairly sweet and innocuous film about childhood, set in 1950s Sweden, and it feels very… Swedish? The title refers to the young protagonist’s dog, as well as his reveries at night, while looking into the stars, about Soviet space travelling dog Laika. It’s at once sentimentally nostalgic yet without the cloying sweetness you might get in an American film with the same theme. As a film, it just sort of pleasantly washes over you, and nobody in the film seems too horrible, which is its own reward when you’ve been watching documentaries all weekend about genocidal imperialist aggression (as I had been, but that’s another review I suppose).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lasse Hallström; Writers Hallström, Brasse Brännström and Per Berglund (based on a novel by Reidar Jönsson); Cinematographer Jörgen Persson; Starring Anton Glazelius, Melinda Kinnaman; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 November 2017.

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May. See below the cut for reviews of…

Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995, UK)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, USA)
Down with Love (2003, USA)
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, USA)
Evolution (2015, France/Belgium/Spain)
Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, France)
A Flickering Truth (2015, New Zealand)
Green Room (2015, USA)
Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland)
Heart of a Dog (2015, USA)
Lemonade (2016, USA)
Losing Ground (1982, USA)
Lovely Rita (2001, Austria/Germany)
Luck by Chance (2009, India)
As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Money Monster (2016, USA)
Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, France)
My Life Without Me (2003, Canada/Spain)
Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, Italy)
Picture Bride (1994, USA)
Radio On (1979, UK/West Germany)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, USA)
Sisters in Law (2005, UK/Cameroon)
Star Men (2015, USA/UK/Canada)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, USA)
Trouble Every Day (2001, France/Germany/Japan)
Underground (1928, UK)
L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, France)
Visage (Face) (2009, France/Taiwan)
Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, Iran)

Continue reading “Film Round-Up May 2016”

Criterion Sunday 74: Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985)

After a period working on documentaries, particularly in the USA (some of these have been released on Criterion’s Eclipse sub-label), Varda had one of her biggest commercial successes with this story of a drifter called Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) found dead in the south of France. As is typical of her filmmaking style, Vagabond (the French title translates as “Neither roof nor law”) has a powerful documentary quality, being structured around a series of interviews with those whose path Mona crossed, sometimes breaking the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera. Varda’s fluidly moving camera tracks Mona in her movement from one place to another, as she finds temporary respite or shelter, and occasionally even a companion (though she is as likely to shuck these people off without any apology as the opportunity arises; scenes sometimes start with her walking beside someone, and then just leaving them, unprompted and unremarked upon). It’s a master class in filmmaking style, accomplished in framing and movement without being show-offy, but it’s also a deeply empathetic portrait of an often unlikeable central character, whose direction is largely her own choice — at least within the limits of the harsh wintery environment, not to mention those forces of authority she meets. Bonnaire is riveting in the central role, as she becomes ever dirtier (contrasted with other female characters, who are sometimes seen bathing to emphasise the contrast) and is gradually divested of her possessions as her shoes inexorably wear down, though she never loses her dignity or desire to keep moving. There are so many little moments of good humour, fleeting portraits of people living with what they have (but more often have not) got, that the film is never boring, and it’s certainly never condescending.

Criterion Extras: The director has filmed some excellent extras to this disc, which given her strength in the documentary format, are all well worth watching. The most significant is Remembrances (2003), in which Varda looks back on the film and its impact and talks to her star Sandrine Bonnaire as well as other people who appeared in the film, revisiting some of them and asking what they remember about the film (in much the way their characters recall Mona within the film). She also amusingly reveals that in fact trees were central to her original idea, hence the long digression about canker in the film and the presence of Macha Méril’s character, who looks after dying plane trees. The Story of an Old Lady is meanwhile a shorter piece she shot at the time of making the film, about the rich old woman played by Marthe Jarnias (herself far from rich), though the film is presented as it survives, rotten with mould. There’s a short contemporary radio interview with novelist Nathalie Sarraute (to whom the film is dedicated), prefaced by Varda, though as the interview makes clear, Varda isn’t exactly sure where the inspiration lies exactly. There’s also an informative conversation between Varda and the film’s composer in Music and Dolly Shots (2003), where she talks a bit more about the key lateral tracking shots which structure the film and how these were combined with the musical score.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda; Cinematographer Patrick Blossier; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

童年往事 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.

The Time to Live and the Time to Die film posterCREDITS
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文 and Hou; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin 李屏賓; Starring Yu An-shun 游安順, Tang Ju-yun 唐如韞; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015.

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

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

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA)
Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA)
Lifeforce (1985, USA)
Lovelace (2013, USA)
La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy)
The Selfish Giant (2013, UK)
Somersault (2004, Australia)
Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)

Continue reading “February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”