Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).

Selena film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregory Nava; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017.

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بانوی اردیبهشت Banoo-Ye Ordibehesht (The May Lady, 1997)

A quiet, thoughtful film about a middle-aged woman reflecting on motherhood, and how to weigh the feelings of her (almost grown) son with her own desires. It uses documentary footage of women talking about being mothers — the protagonist is a filmmaker — to introduce these themes, as she talks about her feelings in voiceover. Her son really is quite an annoying chap, but it leaves it until the very last moment to resolve her indecision.

The May Lady film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad خشان بنی‌اعتماد; Cinematographer Hossein Jafarian حسین جعفریان; Starring Minoo Farshchi مینو فرشچی; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 12 January 2017.

Love Jones (1997)

I guess there are elements here that seem dated (no one having cellphones, spoken word clubs, some of the fashion) but they’re part of a rich texture that evokes an era and a place and a group of people — which is to say, Chicago in the late-1990s. Twenty years on and this film is excellent at giving a sense of this group of friends and acquaintances, and what it’s like to be around them. As the film progresses, so from out of the group emerge the two protagonists, Darius and Nina (played by Larenz Tate and Nia Long), who fall in love, sort of, then actually, then not so much. It creates a bewitching atmosphere, never needy and boisterous (like, say, the more overtly comedic The Best Man a couple years later), and never reliant on the ubiquitous 1990s tropes of black filmmaking (drugs, violence, ghettoes). As the star of both those films Nia Long should have been everywhere (maybe she was; her career is a blindspot for me and I need to remedy that), and this director should have defined romance in film for the following decade, but that didn’t happen and who knows why. This is great.

Love Jones film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Theodore Witcher; Cinematographer Ernest Holzman; Starring Larenz Tate, Nia Long; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographer Tom Elling; Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016.

Criterion Sunday 75: Chasing Amy (1997)

I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith; Cinematographer David Klein; Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016).

Criterion Sunday 47: Insomnia (1997)

This Norwegian film is consciously harking back to film noir with its murder-mystery plot and harried, increasingly strung-out and disoriented detective trying to solve the crime, while in the meantime desperately attempting to cover up his own misdeeds. Stellan Skarsgård steps into the role of a Swedish detective who arrives in town with his almost-retired colleague, and behind him a vague and chequered career history (hence why he’s working in the north of Norway), but instead of drink and drugs and dames, it’s the effect of the constant sun which causes his mental dissolution. It’s a small quirk of the setting in some respects, but it comes to define the look and feel of the film. Of course, this kind of Scandi noir has since become very popular in fiction and on television screens, but Insomnia sets itself apart by Skarsgård’s fine acting, who as Detective Engström projects an almost emotionless surface while everything seems to be going awry beneath. By the end, the locals seem to be happy to wash their hands of their Swedish interlopers, but the sun never does set.

Criterion Extras: The disc includes a 20 minute interview from 2014 between the director and his star in which they revisit the film and talk about how it was made and about Skarsgård’s acting method. There are also two of Skjoldbjærg’s early short films, made under the auspices of the UK’s National Film & Television School where he studied.

Vinterveien (Near Winter, 1993) is a quiet rural Norwegian film about an elderly man, suffering from some unspecified but degenerative illness, being visited by his nephew and nephew’s (English) girlfriend. It uses its focus on the natural world, which is starting to draw in as winter comes, finding metaphorical links with the elderly man’s decline, before moving into some boldly apocalyptic imagery towards the end.

The other is Close to Home (1994), in which an uptight older English man is visited by the cops regarding a woman he talked to outside a club who had subsequently been raped, in which although apparently innocent of the charge, he starts to wonder about his own capacity to commit the crime (thus making the audience wonder about his culpability). It’s an interesting little psychological study, around half an hour in duration.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Erik Skjoldbjærg; Writers Skjoldbjærg and Nikolaj Frobenius; Cinematographer Erling Thurmann-Andersen; Starring Stellan Skarsgård; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 2 August 2015).

Criterion Sunday 45: طعم گيلاس… Ta’ame Gilas… (Taste of Cherry, 1997)

It’s a simple premise: a man drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone who will help fill in his grave after he commits suicide. In many ways it’s a simple film, too, or at least it’s very straightforward. Kiarostami points his camera at our protagonist Mr Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) as he sits in the driving seat, and occasionally gets out. Sometimes there’s a reverse shot to see the man he’s talking to in the passenger seat, but it doesn’t overtly challenge one’s sense of film grammar. Except that in its very simplicity it hides a delicately shaded tale, which is largely unconcerned with the reasons for Badii’s actions, but more about the dialogue that happens as he looks for an accomplice. His interlocutors are working folk, migrants who’ve come to Iran from elsewhere (a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminary, a Turkish taxidermist), of differing ages, and in each of them Badii (or the viewer perhaps) seems to find an implicit challenge to his decision. After talking about his conscript days with the Kurd (who, in one of the film’s occasional bursts of something approaching comedy, runs away), Badii stops to watch the soldiers jogging by as the sun sets, chanting the refrain Badii had just been nostalgically recalling. His later dialogue with the seminary touches on religious arguments against suicide and we see Badii standing by a quarry afterwards, his shadow commingling with the parched earth being churned up by the machines. And the taxidermist, who has agreed to help Badii, talks of the transformative power of nature (which is what the film’s title alludes to), and again there are these long, gorgeous shots of the dusty landscape, with Badii’s car moving across it, as he drives to the picturesque spot he’s picked out to dig his grave. I don’t feel there are any spoilers in recounting this, as the film’s power and grace comes from the way it unfolds and the dialogues Badii engages in, in the world-weary faces (surely Badii is some kind of stand in for the director), and in the unexpected self-reflexivity of the coda, which hardly seems to answer any questions, but also places them in a different context entirely. Its simplicity of form can be challenging (not every critic has warmed to it, though it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in its year), but it lingers in the mind for a long time afterwards, and its enfolding mystery drew me back to watch it a second time in two days. Full understanding may never be possible, but despite its premise, it’s a film that seems to deal with the simple wonders of being alive.

Criterion Extras: Aside from a really pointless biography page listing a handful of films, and a trailer, the only significant extra is a filmed interview with (the sunglasses-wearing) Kiarostami where he talks about a number of issues related to his filmmaking, which is interesting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Homayoun Payvar همایون پایور; Starring Homayoun Ershadi همایون ارشادی; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 1 August 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 26 July 2015, and at my home, London, Monday 27 July 2015).

Anastasia (1997)

I don’t choose every film I watch, and this was one my wife wanted to watch, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief, as I confess I don’t have too much to say about it. I remember when I was a child really liking Don Bluth’s directorial debut The Secret of NIMH (1982) and watching it back-to-back several times one day, so I didn’t want to discount that this film 15 years on (and now over 15 years old itself) might be a good animated feature. And yet I feel a little disappointed by the result.

To a certain extent, I imagine some of my antipathy towards it comes with being somewhat older than I used to be. The animation is still beautifully clear, with little concession to changing trends in modern animation, though I recall one scene of Anastasia hurrying up a staircase that surprised me with an apparently unnecessary ‘crane shot’ (i.e. the film’s point of view mimicking a camera craning out and back). Other scenes integrate the ‘camerawork’ better, particularly some nice massed ball scenes in the Winter Palace near the start.

Where the film does follow trends is in its amalgam of action and song, as was the fashion in the popular Disney films of the 1990s. The music rather anchors it in its time period (when it was made, not when it’s set) and though the musical numbers aren’t too shabby, I still find myself a little underwhelmed.

And then there’s the history. Here I should mention the film’s plot — it follows the travails of the young Anastasia (voiced by Kirsten Dunst), Grand Duchess of the Imperial Russian family and daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, deposed by the 1917 Russian Revolution and executed. Almost ten years later, it transpires that Anastasia escaped but lost her memory and grew up in an orphanage as Anya (Meg Ryan). She meets a young man and con artist called Dimitri (John Cusack), who helps her to learn the truth about her identity and then aids her flight to Paris, where her grandmother lives and is offering a reward for Anastasia’s return.

It has now been definitively established (admittedly after the film was made) that Anastasia was shot with her family in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but the legend that she survived has been persistent throughout the century as a sort of aspirational folktale. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to get any sense of the political events of Russia in this period from this film. The chief antagonist is Christopher Lloyd’s mad monk Rasputin, and it’s his curse that spurs the Revolution so it seems. When Anya comes to light again, he continues to pursue her.

Obviously, one shouldn’t get too hung up on the history in this kind of animated fantasy musical, but nevertheless the very gap between history and folk legend presented here is so wide as to make it rather ridiculous. That said, I imagine the film will please plenty of people who are perhaps closer to the target demographic, and indeed its box office figures at the time were very healthy. If you are able to put aside the questionable history and embrace the film’s wayward romanticism, you may really like it. I’ll just be the grump in the corner on this one.

CREDITS
Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman; Writers Susan Gauthier, Bruce Graham, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White and Eric Tuchman; Starring John Cusack, Meg Ryan, Kirsten Dunst, Christopher Lloyd, Kelsey Grammer; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 30 August 2013.