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, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 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

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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

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…

New Releases (Cinema)

Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. Anthony Russo/Joe Russo) Surely many people are in the same position as me, of now being quite emphatically weary of superhero movies. I’d largely sworn off them this year (hence no X-Men: Apocalypse for me, no Batman v. Superman), but I dragged myself along to this third Captain America film (more if you include the Avengers ones which also feature most of these characters) because I’d liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) more than many other superhero flicks. Needless to say the demands on “fan service” (catering to the fans by featuring storylines for all the characters, which by now is getting to be quite a few) made it overlong, but there was a general avoidance of extended city destruction and it grappled with more complex moral issues than most of these films manage. [***]

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, dir. Richard Linklater) I saw this twice, because I wanted to be sure whether I really liked it. Granted, it has some serious problems, not least an overly affectionate regard for a group of people (and an era) some might say is beyond reclaiming. That affection goes for unironic female nudity (thankfully fairly brief) and lusty testosterone-fuelled sporting men (though that’s in the title), and yet I still find Linklater’s ability to put together a film pretty peerless, and for all that they were unlikeable characters (for the most part), I found it likeable watching these baseball players through Linklater’s fairly soft-focus filter. [***½]

Evolution (2015, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović) Seen for the second time also; I’ve written up my initial viewing at the London Film Festival last year. Still beguiling and mysterious, though even at its short running length and for all its excellent qualities, the sense of creeping dread and its ominous atmosphere means I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again in a hurry. [****]

A Flickering Truth (2015, dir. Pietra Brettkelly) A documentary about the beleagured Afghan film archives, and their attempts to preserve a film heritage which has suffered through various regimes and bitter warfare. Plenty of dusty shots of picking through rubble, and quite affecting in its interviews with long-standing workers there, who’ve dedicated their lives to these films, though it never really lifts off as a film. [***]

Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier) I wrote this up already here, though already its tinged with melancholy at the passing of its star Anton Yelchin. Now that it’s sat with me for a little while, I think if anything I may have underrated this gory siege film: it may not appeal to those who dislike this kind of content, but it’s done a lot more ably and interestingly — and stylishly — than many of this genre. [***]

Heart of a Dog (2015, dir. Laurie Anderson) A strange little personal documentary by musician/artist Anderson, who narrates a digressive story made up of animation, home-shot footage and various other media, in an attempt to deal with loss — ostensibly of her beloved dog, but at a wider level with her husband and with her own mortality. It seems too ragged to work initially, but it has a cumulative power. [***½]

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, dir. Miguel Gomes) I wrote this up with the other two already here. A bold experiment which didn’t entirely captivate me as it did other critics. [***]

Money Monster (2016, dir. Jodie Foster) There’s an oddly old-fashioned feel to this movie, perhaps because it harks back to Network and Broadcast News and other such newsroom-set movies. The hostage situation that TV host George Clooney finds himself in helps to draw in arguments about modern capitalism and recent financial woes, but in the interplay between Clooney and his producer Julia Roberts, this remains largely a story about a news anchor handling a complex situation. Like Our Kind of Traitor below, it may not be a major work, but it’s an enjoyable watch. [***]

Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, dir. Maïwenn) This relationship drama between Vincent Cassel’s self-assured chef and Emmanuelle Bercot’s (rather unbelievable) lawyer proceeds at a rather strained tempo. It’s not inherently bad, but your tolerance for melodramatic fireworks and exuberant Acting may affect how much you like it. [**½]

Our Kind of Traitor (2016, dir. Susanna White) A straightforward spy thriller with the terminally dull Ewan McGregor in the lead, though Naomie Harris as his wife is excellent, and Stellan Skarsgård runs away with the film as a Russian mobster/money launderer. Because of these performances, it’s actually a lot better than one might expect, and certainly passes the time ably enough. [***]

Special Screenings (Cinema)

Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, dir. Feriel Ben Mahmoud) It presents a broad sweep for an hour-long film and it does its best to fit in some key historical events and personas for a broad audience presumably unfamiliar with the subject. There are some interviews from interesting perspectives on the key issues as the film sees them, although these are predominantly polygamy and the hijab, which given the preponderance of French commentators is a little loaded. The audience I saw it with (primarily academic) came to the consensus that it was pretty simplistic, and notably omitted any class-based issues, not to mention focusing on key male figures in the early history. However, as a basic intro you could do worse, and it’s good to see another perspective on a narrative of Islam that doesn’t cleave to the usual subjects. [***]

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, dir. Aki Kaurismäki) A pendant to the BFI’s months-long Shakespeare season is this Kaurismäki film, which in its preponderance of plot puts it a little out of pace with his other films. That said, it still retains a mordant deadpan humour that works rather well, at least at times. [***]

Losing Ground (1982, dir. Kathleen Collins) I was trying to work up a review of this film, but I find it difficult to capture my feelings upon seeing it. More or less rescued last year by Milestone Video, the founders of that label provided a brief introduction. It’s one of the earliest feature films by a Black American woman (who sadly died only a few years after making it), and certainly doesn’t lack for the quality of its acting, or its unusual setting amongst fairly comfortable middle-class intellectual couple (she is a lecturer, he a painted) — indeed, eschewing the usual ghetto/violent setting of most African-American films probably didn’t help its commercial prospects at the time. In any case, I immediately bought a copy on DVD and advise anyone else to try and watch this film. Some of its technical qualities seem a little ropey, but it has a great energy and a keen visual eye. [****]

Radio On (1979, dir. Christopher Petit) A ‘mystery film’ screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, and it’s fair to say many of the audience were probably expecting something a bit more trashy, but Petit’s homage to German road movies (à la Wim Wenders) still has a sort of slow-burning spell of gloomy depressing English towns appropriately filmed in monochrome. It’s hard to make out all the dialogue, but there’s an energy to its peripatetic aimlessness which is helped along by the choice of music (Bowie, Kraftwerk, all the usual suspects) — well, aside that is from a cameo by one Sting. [***½]

Trouble Every Day (2001, dir. Claire Denis) A new feminist collective focusing on horror movies put on this screening as the introduction to their project, and as a fan of Denis’s work, I felt I should catch up with it. It’s a gory horror film with a hint of vampirism, but suffused with slow-mounting threat (though just looking at Vincent Gallo’s face will achieve that nicely). When it does go gory, nothing is held back, and the mood of frank eroticism only makes the bloody turns the more upsetting. Moreover it’s shot with a lot of extreme close-ups and a grainy weariness that only enhances that lack of distance. It seems to be saying something about the way love is (literally) an all-consuming passion, and in depicting that it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. [***½]

Home Viewing

Cold Comfort Farm (1995, dir. John Schlesinger) Broadly likeable in its way, though at times I couldn’t tell if it was going for warm-hearted satire on the ways of simple country folk, or nasty-edged class-based caricaturing of the yokels. Of course, Beckinsale’s Emma-like central character is little better, yet on the whole it remains fairly light in tone. [**½]

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, dir. Susan Seidelman) You don’t expect a mid-80s US film to recall Céline and Julie Go Boating, but then again why not? The playfulness and feminine camaraderie of that Parisian film transfers well to NYC, and the stars here never looking anything less than glorious — of their time, yes, but never ridiculous. It’s a film about performance and having fun and in the process finding out what you want. It’s a delight. [****]

Down with Love (2003, dir. Peyton Reed) I’ve reviewed this already here, but to recap based on yet another viewing, it’s a hugely underrated masterpiece of 2000s retro filmmaking which both delights in the costumes, set design, and possibilities of the widescreen frame which come from its early-60s NYC setting (although somewhat conflated with the 50s) via Doris Day comedies, Frank Tashlin satires and a hint of Nick Ray. Yet this isn’t ultimately nostalgia exactly — there are plenty of ways in which the zippy dialogue hides darker unpleasant facets to the era’s sexual politics. But chiefly this is a film whose real stars are its (nominally heterosexual, but that’s part of the satire one suspects) supporting players David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, so utterly perfect and so brilliantly played that even my usual dislike for McGregor and Zellweger is forgotten — though in truth, their goofy smiles fit the material quite well. Ah, “Catcher Block. Ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town.” I love this film. [****½]

Lemonade (2016, dir. Kahlil Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles Carter) I’ve listened to the album a lot since first watching this and it strikes me the film is quite a different proposition. If you can believe the album is just about her and Jay-Z you can’t really take that from the film, which broadens the focus, and really allows for a range of black stories and experiences, moving from the specific to the political. It’s ravishing, raw and moving, and it’s definitely one of the best films of the year. [****]

Lovely Rita (2001, dir. Jessica Hausner) As a big fan of Amour Fou, it’s interesting to watch this early film by director Jessica Hausner and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case. [***]

Luck by Chance (2009, dir. Zoya Akhtar) A likeable amusing behind-the-scenes take on Bollywood, ahem, the Hindi film industry. It’s a classic tale of the little guy getting a big break and (almost, maybe) getting corrupted in the process. If I were better versed with the context I’d have picked up on a lot more of the celebrity cameos and maybe a bit of the satire, but it all still works very nicely. [***]

My Life Without Me (2003, dir. Isabel Coixet) There’s a little clunkiness to some of the meaningful symbolism, but as far as films about women tragically dying young this is about as good as they can get, and its probably just as well it wasn’t directed by its producer Pedro Almodóvar. There’s a small dose of whimsical magic realism but it’s mostly grounded in the acting, primarily Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo. [***]

Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, dir. Lina Wertmüller) I was all set to detest this film at the start, with its grimy 70s palette and more to the point a protagonist who is vain, brutal, nasty, misogynist trash. And yet somehow it becomes something different by the end, as he undergoes a gradual dehumanisation when captured by the Nazis, as all of what he considered his integrity and morals (very little he had too, mostly around ‘protecting’ his sisters) are stripped from him. I’m not convinced by the use of concentration camps in this way, as it seems like a cheap exploitative means to making a moral point, but there’s no winners here after all so perhaps I’m overthinking it. In any case, it achieves some kind of cumulative power that is affecting. [***]

Picture Bride (1994, dir. Kayo Hatta) A sweetly sentimental film about early-20th century Hawaii and the practice of arranged marriage, focusing on city girl Riyo transplanted to a sugar plantation with a much older husband and coming to find some value in the life there. Nice performances and a surprise cameo by Toshiro Mifune as an ageing benshi. [***]

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, dir. Mary Dore) A very solidly made documentary about second wave feminism in the US which nimbly flits through a range of issues from a variety of women (of many races and classes), and also looks at some modern expressions of feminist action. I think it does a particularly good job of celebrating and honouring achievements while also acknowledging the range of opinions which exist (and have existed), and that continued action is necessary. It is ultimately about a certain period of history, but it’s not kept in isolation. There are still plenty of stories to tell. [***½]

Sisters in Law (2005, dir. Kim Longinotto/Florence Ayisi) Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one. [***]

Star Men (2015, dir. Alison Rose) A likeable documentary in which four British astronomers reunite in California 50 years after first meeting one another. It touches on the professional work and research each has done, as well as their respective personalities, and cannot help but address mortality. The filmmaker inserts herself as a sort of fan into the storyline, and her style (particularly with the music) seems to recall Errol Morris. Rather devolves into an extended hiking sequence towards the end, but does have some lovely nature photography not to mention some nice insights along the way (not least that evolution demands death to allow new ideas to take root, an observation by one of the elderly men). [***]

Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, dir. Darnell Martin) A very creditable film about one woman’s self-determination and struggle to find her identity in the American south, based on Zora Neale Hurston’s great novel (which I was reading at the same time). It’s made for TV and as such feels a little airbrushed around the edges (nobody really ages much despite its sweeping span), pushed perhaps more than it needs to be into a certain generic mould for such stories, but the acting is excellent across the board and the film is beautifully shot. [***]

Underground (1928, dir. Anthony Asquith) Excellent Tube-set London melodrama with a love triangle which goes awry. Expressive camerawork with a fine new score by Neil Brand. [***½]

L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, dir. Agnès Varda) There’s something almost disarmingly sweet-natured to this film about politically active 70s French feminists, but perhaps that’s the prevailing hippie vibe of its lead actor who travels around the country in a van singing right-on songs about a woman’s right to choose. It’s a good film though and it still looks great, with vibrant colours and a keen eye for framings. Its political message too is warmly inclusive while celebrating the right to a legal abortion. [***½]

Visage (Face) (2009, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) Every great director has their self-indulgent French film which premieres at Cannes and promptly disappears (well it passed me by at the time). It’s a typically visual film, with scenes that don’t seem to hang together, except perhaps as notes towards an essay on grief, loss, the passage of time, artistic creation, things like that. It has a lot of Tsai’s familiar motifs (it basically kicks off with a deluge) and has plenty of French acting greats. An interesting work that would probably benefit from being seen on a big screen. [***]

Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad) I found the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times, but basically it’s about a poor family whose son is struggling to make a better life for himself. Gets a little overwrought at times but mostly is a fine domestic drama. [***]

Criterion Collection Home Viewing

I also watched Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible) (1944/1958, dir. Sergei Eisenstein), L’avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), Pygmalion (1938, dir. Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard), Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee) and Gimme Shelter (1970, dir. Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin) as part of the Criterion Sunday series, but you’ll have to wait for those reviews.

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)

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA, dir. Don Hall/Chris Williams) [Wed 11 Feb at Cineworld O2 Greenwich]. There’s a lot of sweetness to this film, just as there’s a lot of sadness too, and I think for the most part the balance is really well maintained. The hero’s name is Hiro and his brother has created a big soft lovable health droid (voiced by the reassuring Scott Adsit), but when his brother dies in a mysterious lab fire, it’s down to this odd couple to solve the crime. It all gets a bit superhero-film towards the end, and there’s intermittent mawkishness, but for most part this is a delicate story of growing up, as well as an unashamed paean to technological geekery. Its fictional setting too, the Pacific city of San Fransokyo (a composite of American and Japanese culture) is beautifully rendered and makes one wish such a place really did exist. ***


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA, dir. James Whale) [Wed 25 Feb at home]. A classic horror film which I’d never seen before, and indeed is quite excellent, including its use of beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography allied to some quite nifty techniques on the part of the director James Whale. His life story provided its own interest in the 90s biopic Gods and Monsters, which lifts its title from a line in this film, and indeed Bride has plenty of good quotable lines in its story of Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a superbly campy performance) who wants to create a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff). Most of the (relatively short) film is taken up with the machinations of Pretorius, though the story of the monster allows for some ever welcome lessons in tolerance and understanding of the Other. But at its heart this is a classic gothic horror film. ***½


Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi, 1966)

Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan, dir. Seijun Suzuki) [Tue 3 Feb at the ICA]. From the archival strand of a touring programme of Japanese films is this curious little number from the prolific Seijun Suzuki (most famous for the contemporaneous Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the film that got him fired from his studio). He has a real way with deliriously pulpy subject matter splashed across the widescreen black-and-white frame. This film takes themes from the opera of the name, by presenting our heroine Tsuyuko as a poor woman from a working-class suburb working her way up in the big city, including a stint as a hostess at a bar (given the period, it’s all fairly indirect, but seems to imply prostitution), but she’s knocked back by circumstance and some pretty terrible behaviour which affects both her family life, her relationships and her living situation. In fact, almost all the men here act callously, pushing her by turns towards a vengeful track, though the film withholds the kind of judgement you’d expect in a Hollywood morality play of the era. If the sheer force of events suggests a tragic dimension to the character, then this is partially countered by the forthright acting of the leading lady (Yumiko Nogawa), and the film offers much, too, in the way of stylish camerawork and staging. ***


Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).png

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA, dir. Stephen Chiodo) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. Coming into this film with no prior awareness except to expect a certain level of trashy exploitation, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent comic inventiveness of the premise. The title sets out a fairly self-explanatory story, but it’s the little details — like when the murderous alien clowns use balloons to make a sniffer dog to track down their human prey — which show the creators have made a real effort to follow through on their shonky premise. The acting is pitched appropriately, and the film delivers plenty of good fun. **½


Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985, USA, dir. Tobe Hooper) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. I get the sense that a lot of thought has gone into this big budget space horror epic featuring naked vampire aliens running amok in London, but the execution is just a little iffy. There is, however, plenty of bonkers over-the-topness on show, plus a pleasing hamminess to a lot of the performances — particularly Peter Firth’s by-the-book SAS commander, as well as a short appearance for Patrick Stewart — but it’s all in the service of a leering story that lingers over Mathilda May’s body. Perhaps you could read it as a punishment for patriarchal oppression, but I can’t even convince myself of that. **


Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace (2013, USA, dir. Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) [Thu 18 Feb at home]. I appreciate the film’s attempt at a sort of modern-day Rashomon in presenting two sides of the story of Linda Lovelace, protagonist of the 70s most famous p0rn film Deep Throat. She is alternately a bright young ingénue taking hold of her career, and someone unscrupulously exploited by her then-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) — though obviously the latter is given more prominence, surely being closer to the truth — but either way it’s clear that adult film was the not the world she wanted to be part of. There’s a deep strain of melancholy that runs through Amanda Seyfried’s performance in the title role, and this was clearly a difficult period of Lovelace’s life, but it’s something the film only intermittently captures. **½


Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014, USA, dir. Gillian Robespierre) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A second viewing of a film I loved and reviewed last year, and it’s fair to say I still love it. Jenny Slate does some wonderful work. ****


La Reine Margot (1994)

La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy, dir. Patrice Chéreau) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A lot of Chéreau’s directorial work for film was in comparatively little psychodramas, but his background in opera means I can’t imagine many others being able to handle such a grand spectacle of a film, and he does so very comfortably. The tendency with this kind of prestige production is to get bogged down by celebrity showboating and overblown melodrama, but despite having plenty of famous (French) faces and a long running time, Chéreau keeps it all in check, such that the details of what to foreign eyes is a relatively little-known period of European history becomes a vital and interesting study in corrupted power and its bloody effects. It’s been re-released recently in France in a longer cut, closer to the director’s original vision, but even the truncated version I watched had plenty to love. ***½


The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013, UK, dir. Clio Barnard) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Clio Barnard’s earlier docu-drama hybrid The Arbor (2010) now receives something of a companion piece with this fiction film, also set in the grim industrial north, focusing on a couple of wayward kids living on a council estate trying to make ends meet. The particular path the two follow, of collecting scrap metal and racing horses in the street, seems like something from another era of British history, but despite dealing with a familiar coming-of-age loss-of-childhood-innocence character arc, the film’s performances and setting give it a freshness that this genre can so often lack. ***½


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Somersault (2004, Australia, dir. Cate Shortland) [Tue 10 Feb at home]. This little Australian film shows a sure hand from its first-time feature director, with a great sense of its rural locale and a fine performance from Abbie Cornish as the young woman forced to flee home and live by her wits. It’s another coming-of-age but one done with sensitivity to its protagonist’s sexual awakening, along with the dangers attendant on that. ***


Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984, USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Still a giant of the concert film, Demme’s staging and filming of a gig by the New York new wave band Talking Heads masterfully cuts to the heart of the music’s drama. Obviously, any concert film is going to stand or fall on how much you like the band’s music (I love it, having grown up with it), but it helps that frontman David Byrne is a compulsively watchable performer, and that there’s so much joy exhibited on stage, as the spectacle slowly builds up song by song. ****½

Pulp Fiction (1994)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Tuesday 20 May 2014 (and on release in 1994) || My Rating 4.5 stars a must-see


© Miramax Films

It’s difficult to revisit this film after so many years, not because it’s not still a solid piece of cinematic entertainment (it is), but because for many of us who were film fans in their late-teens when it first came out, it has something of a watershed status. I initially saw it somewhat illicitly, with the thrill of being (slightly) underage at the cinema given its 18 certification, and subsequently watched it many times on home video — probably too many times, meaning I haven’t looked at it for a very long time. Plus so very much has been written about it over the years, I daresay there’s little I can add. In any case, this most recent screening was on account of its 20th anniversary (20 years!), and I can confirm it still holds up. Like director Quentin Tarantino’s best works, it has a loose shaggy feel to it, while still being tightly structured, and if there are strands and characters I’m less keen on, the overall effect remains undiminished. Part of that loose structural feeling comes from the fact that it features a number of separate stories, introduced by title cards and linked by some shared characters and — eventually — shared locations seen from different perspectives, but the tightness is in the interwoven nature of the storylines, which recalls Altman’s Short Cuts of the year before (and indeed the short stories of Raymond Carver on which that film was based). At the film’s heart are Jules and Vince, a pair of hitmen played by Sam Jackson and John Travolta, early and mid career highs for each actor respectively. Tarantino always was good at showcasing the best of his (often unfashionable) actors — here including Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman — but that sadly doesn’t extend to his own appearances; his infatuation with blaxsploitation filmmaking combined with a vocabulary that seems partly indebted to the gangsta rap of the period is not anything that should really be coming from his own lips, though I suppose his willingness to declaim it marks some kind of honesty. His other up-front influences are rather more delightfully integrated, including an obsession with Jean-Luc Godard that you’d perhaps expect from a filmmaker whose production company is called A Band Apart, and which manifests itself in an early shot of Jules and Vince framed from the back of their heads, and continues into Vince’s dance with an Anna Karina-like Mia (Uma Thurman), not to mention other little self-consciously cinematic flourishes. That’s not to say Tarantino lacks his own style, but a key part of that style is grounded in his own pop cultural education, and Pulp Fiction is where that all came together most forcefully, and still does.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino | Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula | Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames | Length 154 minutes

Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid, 1994)

I’m on holiday in France this week, so I’m re-posting some reviews (of French films, naturally) that I wrote many years ago when I was on LiveJournal, back when I was watching a lot more arthouse films. In fact, I saw this film during a retrospective of the work of Jacques Rivette, so I have several other reviews of his films from the same time. I’ve picked one that’s (slightly) more widely available than some of the others I saw, such as the 12-hour Out 1.


ARCHIVAL FILM REVIEW: French Film Week || Director Jacques Rivette | Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette | Cinematographer William Lubtchansky | Length 280 minutes (in two parts: Les Batailles and Les Prisons) | Starring Sandrine Bonnaire | Seen at National Film Theatre, London, Tuesday 16 May 2006 | Originally posted on 17 May 2006 (with slight amendments) || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Bac Films

Over the course of his career, Rivette has more and more adopted a stripped-down visual style. Often there will be empty frames, clear contrasts and frontal lighting, and a smoothly-gliding camera, all offset by very basic black titles and baroque music. This is very much evident here as well, over both parts of this lengthy film (and even this seems to be slightly shortened from its length on the original French release).

Continue reading “Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid, 1994)”