Criterion Sunday 488: Howards End (1992)

I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.

It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).

Global Cinema 27: Burkina Faso – Samba Traoré (1992)

It may be a rather poor and (relatively) small West African country, but Burkina Faso has a really strong cinematic history, not least thanks to the FESPACO film festival, celebrating pan-African cinema. I’ve reviewed a number of films from the country, and here I cover one of the lesser-known works by its greatest director, Idrissa Ouedraogo.


Burkinabé flagBurkina Faso
population 21,510,000 | capital Ouagadougou (1.5m) | largest cities Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso (490k), Koudougou (88k), Banfora (76k), Ouahigouya (73k) | area 274,200 km2 | religion Islam (61%), Christianity (23%) | official language French (français) | major ethnicity Mossi (52%), Fula (8%) | currency West African CFA franc (CFA) [XOF] | internet .bf

A landlocked West African country, formerly known as Upper Volta, and whose official language is only spoken by around 10-15% of the people (Mòoré, the language of the Mossi people, is far more widely spoken). The name comes from the Mossi for “upright” and the Dioula for “fatherland” (the old colonial name comes from its position on the River Volta). Habitation in the country stretches back to 14000 BC in the north-west, with more permanent settlements from the 4th millennium BCE. An Iron Age Bura culture existed until around the 13th century CE, while the modern day ethnic groups arrived just prior to this. Several separate Mossi kingdoms were set up, and these various tribal groupings existed side-by-side until the arrival of European colonialists, who started to claim territory from the 1890s onwards, and the French protectorate taking in the present country was formed in 1896 and by 1898 took in all the present-day lands, although as part of an Upper Senegal and Niger territory. It wasn’t until 1919 that the present country was separated as Upper Volta (Haute Volta), before being dismantled in 1932, then revived again in 1947. Autonomy was achieved in 1958 and full independence on 5 August 1960, under its first president Maurice Yaméogo, who swiftly suspended democracy and was ousted in 1966. A series of military and military/civil governments marked by coups governed until the coup which installed Capt Thomas Sankara in 1983; he pushed through the country’s change of name the following year and an ambitious programme of anti-imperialist reforms, though another reactionary coup replaced him with Blaise Compaoré in 1987. A semblance of democracy was introduced in 1991, though power still resides largely with the President, who appoints the Prime Minister and has the power to dissolve government.

Though the country is underdeveloped in many ways, Burkina Faso is one of the chief countries in African cinema, not least due to the establishment of the pan-African FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou in 1969, which continues to take place every two years. A number of internationally renowned directors have come from the country, including Idrissa Ouedraogo (one of whose films I review below) and Gaston Kaboré, amongst others.


Samba Traoré (1992)

The great Burkinabé filmmaker Idrissa Ouédraogo died on 18 February 2018, so in the weeks following that I had wanted to check out one of his lesser-known films, and this is the one I alighted on. There is no hint in Samba Traoré (which takes its name from that of the lead character, played by Bakary Sangaré) of any deficiency of production or craft: it’s a handsomely shot and beautifully acted film about a man returning from the city to his home village, to settle down and find a new life. He’s running from a life of crime, or at least, one specific crime (the film starts with him staging an armed robbery of a petrol station), and of course the narrative demands that this eventually catches up with him. In the meantime, this is an easy, fluid portrait of small village life, as Samba reconnects with old friends and meets a woman he wants to marry (Mariam Kaba). It’s never condescending to its characters or to its audience: the film is simply constructed, but the camera moves expressively and there are layers to the characters that go beyond any simple didactic drama of wrongdoing, punishment and redemption. This really is a fine film.

Samba Traoré film posterCREDITS
Director Idrissa Ouedraogo; Writers Ouedraogo, Santiago Amigorena and Jacques Arhex; Cinematographers Pierre-Laurent Chénieux and Mathieu Vadepied; Starring Bakary Sangaré, Mariam Kaba, Abdoulaye Komboudri; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 1 March 2018.

Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Suhrkamp Verlag) (Antigone, 1992)

Taking a rather more abstract approach towards the theme of resisting demagogues is this film by the directing partnership of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, whose films have increasingly illustrated a certain high modernist style in the cinema, one that is almost architectural, especially given the unmoving statuary of their actors (though that at least seems earned given this film’s origins in ancient Greek drama). It also features one of their typically unwieldy titles, which is far more about explaining the origins of the text as evoking any particular feeling. At some point, I need to devote some proper space to the way that my own feelings towards Straub-Huillet’s films has progressed over the years (sometimes they bore me, sometimes I love them, and I think most of that is in me, as their own gaze seems almost sublimely disinterested in how anyone might feel). For more context about their work, Pedro Costa made an excellent documentary called Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001). This film, Antigone, is currently on Mubi, though leaving very soon I believe.


I’ve seen a number of Straub/Huillet films, and I find myself constantly on the cusp of really “getting” their work. By this period of their output, certainly, they had pared down their dramaturgy to having their actors stand and emote in particular ways in a particular setting, often not looking at one another, often unmoving, sometimes just looking at the text, and it certainly has a peculiar affect. Here they take a Brechtian update on Sophocles play, but stage their actors in ancient Greek ruins, bringing it somehow back to the original in a way. There is perhaps less artifice in the staging (in terms of sets), but the ruins and the togas and the statuesque poses bring their own form of reinvention to the text. I feel I would have got a lot more out of this (and it’s a feeling I have with a lot of Straub/Huillet’s work) if I had been familiar with the original play better, but through the staging and editing and the excellent declamatory acting, it becomes clear what’s going on, and it’s a universal theme as resonant today, right now in our world of demagogues and oligarchs, as it was when it was written, of a powerful ruler who loses all those around him whom he loves because of a hubris that slights the gods (the refusal to bury a fallen leader). Even when I felt the text going over my head, there was still a solid, silent power in the staging, almost a purity that carries the film through.

Antigone film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the play Antigone by Bertolt Brecht, itself adapted from Friedrich Hölderlin’s translation of the play Ἀντιγόνη by Sophocles Σοφοκλῆς); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Astrid Ofner, Werner Rehm; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 27 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 11 March 2018.

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes.
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes.
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films].

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes.
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes.
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute.
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes.

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes.

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes.
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes.
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes.
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute.
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute.

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes.

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes.

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes.

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes.
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes.
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes.
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes.
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes.
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes.

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 165: C’est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog, 1992)

Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).

The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)

There’s a kind of solidly-realised unflashy, observant and quiet drama that gathers up awards when it’s released but then fades away from memory, its DVD cover yellowing slowly on an unfashionable shelf somewhere (something like The Kids Are All Right is a more recent example that comes to mind). I like those films, and I know this is one of them because, now almost 25 years old and very popular on its release (admittedly I was living in NZ so that may skew my memory), hasn’t racked up many views on most of the popular film websites like IMDb. Well, if nothing else, it reminds me that Kerry Fox is really one of the best actors, though it’s another New Zealander (Lisa Harrow) who steals the spotlight in this little family/relationship drama, as the older sister Beth to Fox’s younger Vicki, between whose affections flits fickle Frenchman J.P. (Bruno Ganz). It’s all done so well, so subtly, that you barely notice how affecting it all is as it unfolds.

The Last Days of Chez Nous film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Helen Garner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Lisa Harrow, Bruno Ganz, Kerry Fox, Miranda Otto; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 November 2016.

Criterion Sunday 100: “Beastie Boys Video Anthology” (1981-99)

There’s a certain type of film that gets characterised as your typical Criterion release, though in truth they do keep their slate of releases relatively varied from long-established ‘classics’, to slow arthouse films to more recent releases and documentaries. However, even amongst these, an anthology of music videos by a single band is rather unusual, so I’m not really sure how to review it per se. It should be fairly clear that if you don’t like the music of the Beastie Boys, you probably won’t get much from Criterion spine number 100, though some of the productions (which are mostly directed by the sadly departed Adam Yauch aka MCA aka Nathanial Hörnblowér, the latter of which is his directing credit) have a sort of lo-fi amateur energy.

Chief amongst these, and perhaps typical of much of their output, is the one which opens the set “Intergalactic”. It’s a genre pastiche which utilises cheap props and cardboard sets intercut with our three rapping heroes in close-up. The genre here is the monster movie (it’s your usual giant robot vs giant octopus scenario), but when they do genre pastiches it’s usually the low-budget end which gets satirised, meaning the amateurish effects are part of the formal charm of the films. My favourite is probably “Body Movin'”, a 60s-style heist spoof that has the style that Austin Powers was going for, but funnier and frankly more interesting than that franchise, and some great sets and laugh-out-loud moments. Most people, though, will at least recall “Sabotage”, the Spike Jonze-directed cop film pastiche that still ranks amongst their (and his) finest works.

The rest of the videos vary from cut-ups of archival footage (for example, “Ricky’s Theme” or “Something’s Got to Give”) to straight-to-camera fisheye-lens setups of rapping, though “Three MCs and One DJ” mixes it up a little by having the three Beastie Boys frozen in their studio for an amusing minute-long prologue until their DJ arrives. One thing that becomes clear (and is probably the reason for the omission of some of the more famous late-80s cuts) is the maturation of the group from goofing-around frat-boy types with crude sexual humour to being rather more reflective about social issues (the last video on the set, “Alive” from 1999, even includes lyrics addressing the economic situation).

And if, like us, you’re watching them all from start to finish, you’ll probably move on to watching their other videos on YouTube, in which case check out the 30-minute long “Fight for Your Right Revisited”, which packs in a huge variety of celebrity cameos, and plenty of the sense of humour you’ll have picked up on from the 18 videos on the Criterion set.

Criterion Extras: Almost all the videos have multiple remixes which can be played over the videos, and some include alternate takes and angles. There’s an extended short film of “Intergalactic” which presents the monster movie plot without the music track (which doesn’t really help). Finally, and perhaps most usefully, there are lyrics subtitles for all the videos so you can keep up with what the boys are rapping about.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Evan Barnard (“Root Down”, 1995), Adam Bernstein (“Hey Ladies”, 1989), Spike Jonze (“Sabotage” and “Sure Shot”, 1994), Tamra Davis (“Netty’s Girl”, 1992), David Perez Shadi (“Gratitude”, 1993), and Adam Yauch [as “Nathanial Hörnblowér”] (“Holy Snappers”, 1981; “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, “Shadrach” and “Shake Your Rump”, 1989; “Pass the Mic”, “Something’s Got to Give” and “So What’cha Want”, 1992; “Ricky’s Theme”, 1994; “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic”, 1998; “Alive” and “Three MCs and One DJ”, 1999).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 4 June 2016.

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 9: 辣手神探 Lashou Shentan (Hard Boiled, 1992)

When I was younger, I seem to recall liking this film best of John Woo’s output (that I’d seen), but those were long-ago days, and frankly it’s quite likely that more than one viewing just leads to exhaustion — if anything, it’s the defining feature of Woo’s agressive style. Woo uses a lot of his fondest techniques, including the one so heavily-used in The Killer of two dudes pulling guns on each other while the camera circles around and they cagily exchange words, but mostly there’s just a whole lot of explosions, ensuring that Hong Kong’s film pyrotechnists are kept in work. Basically, the two guys are both cops, though Chow Yun-fat is the detective, and Tony Leung the one working undercover in a criminal gang. Stuff happens, there’s a generous dollop of sentimentality, and of course, there are lots and lots of stylishly violent gun battles.

Criterion Extras: For the most part, due to necessary lack of funds, most of the films have been seen in non-Criterion editions, but I managed to source a copy of this rather vintage out-of-print DVD, which has a collection of intriguing extras. There’s a commentary, as well as an early student film, a strange little soundless black-and-white Super 8 oddity called Accidentally (1968) which features a story of a boy and a girl and some rope, all very rough and unflashily done, though with a few interesting shots. More substantial is a collection of 11 trailers covering Woo’s Hong Kong career from a bunch of early kung fu films in the 1970s as well as some odder projects like a Cantonese opera adaptation and what looks like a fairly broad capitalist satire, through to his gangster-and-guns films of the 1980s. Because the trailers use large chunks of Woo’s filmmaking and run to three or four minutes in length, there’s a good sense of his developing style, and brief text introductions contextualise the films. There are also some essays, but presenting written contributions on DVD screens seems like a fad which has had its day, and more recent Criterion editions prefer a chunky booklet.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Woo 吳宇森; Writer Barry Wong 黃炳耀; Cinematographer Wong Wing-hang 黃永恆; Starring Chow Yun-fat 周潤發, Tony Leung 梁朝偉; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, December 1997 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 16 November 2014).

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.

When the film came out, I seem to recall it being a matter of wide discussion how much effort it — and particularly its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis — had gone to in researching the historical details. The usual stories that accompany your ‘method’ actors. Perhaps some of it was true, perhaps some of it was just feeding the legend. As it happens, I’m not a paid-up member of the cult of Mr Day-Lewis, which seems to bear similarity to that around Meryl Streep. He’s still a star actor, and however deep he goes into a role, he’s always that famous actor playing that famous role. Here, as Hawkeye, he is lanky and pale, an awkward misfit sticking out from his co-stars because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but that works perfectly for the character, who is not comfortably part of any culture.

Around him is marshalled all the pomp and brutality of the Seven Years’ War — surely one of the first truly ‘world wars’ — here fought between French and English on American soil, recruiting Native Americans of various tribes to each side’s cause. But pre-dating independence, there is no real patriotic side to support, so the story cannily focuses on Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ and his fellow poor frontiersfolk. Hawkeye, having been brought up by a Mohican father, Chingachgook (played by Russell Means), limns the divide between the two largely antagonistic cultures, and suffers recriminations from both sides. He is eyed suspiciously by the Huron when he goes to make peace with Magua, just as he is treated with barely-disguised condescension by Colonel Munro on the English side. Nevertheless, he prevails because his calling is always a greater one: the love he feels towards Colonel Munro’s daughter Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), the duty of care towards his father and brother Uncas, his sparring with the petulant Major Duncan Hayward (Steven Waddington) — who is also in love with Cora — and his enmity towards the traitorous Magua (Wes Studi), whose object is the obliteration of the Munro family. All the film’s emotions are passionately felt and rousingly marshalled.

This is the end to which all of director Michael Mann’s skill is put, ensuring the film doesn’t slow down for anything so banal as mere exposition. Dialogues are never spoken between two characters when they can be declaimed. It’s not so much the exchange of facts as deeply-held feelings that are the subject of the characters’ interactions. What we do glean about the conflict is not spelled out and the film is all the better for that. For example, there’s an early role for Jared Harris on horseback imperiously demanding the subjection of the frontier dwellers to the English cause, and though he is a character set up so as to be openly mocked by Nathaniel, we get a sense of what’s at stake for the settlers. Or else there’s General Webb recounting the tactical situation on the front lines as part of an extended personal joke with his second-in-command at the expense of French sybaritic indolence. When the film does slow down for a quiet moment, the air is pregnant with the conflicts to come — a coach crossing a bridge between two warring worlds, a broken branch on the trail that leads to Hawkeye’s kidnapped sweetheart, or the water lapping listlessly at the crest of a massive waterfall (this latter moment being the least ‘realistic’, intercut as it is with stock footage of a roaring crescendo of water clearly not in the same space).

The chief co-conspirator to the film’s rousing romance is not so much the actors (though they are all excellent) as the musical soundtrack, composed largely by Trevor Jones with help from Randy Edelman. The string-laden theme takes its influences from traditional folk music, and in fact moves more purely into this idiom at the most heightened moments, taking on a urgent percussive quality, whenever Nathaniel is pursuing some perilous adventure — which means it’s heard often, particularly in the last half-hour of the film. The strings are yearning and evocative but never quite descend to gloopy sentimentality, even when the staging most suggests this quality — Nathaniel and Cora embracing one another in profile against the sunrise, for example.

The film is filled with excesses of this kind, little flourishes of pure melodrama and Boy’s Own adventure heroics. It’s against this background that it needs to be assessed, not as a naturalistic depiction of 18th century combat (though there is that) or the difficulty of living on the frontiers of such a dangerously young country (and that’s there too). I could affect ironic distance, but the film works too hard to break it down. It’s the kind of film you either wholeheartedly and passionately embrace, or you laugh off as inconsequential fluff. I trust, though, that I’ve made my own position clear.

CREDITS
Director Michael Mann; Writers Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper); Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously).