Criterion Sunday 320: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Perhaps this just plays much more strongly to American audiences, but the swelling orchestral music that comes in at key moments makes it pretty clear what a fundamentally honourable man this simple Abraham Lincoln was, even when he was a young man just starting out in the law. This would be nothing more than hagiography (or perhaps a superhero origin story) were it not for Henry Fonda’s performance and John Ford’s guiding hand that somehow keeps it from turning too mawkish, focusing instead on the justice he wrings from a case of two young lads getting into a dust-up with a local ruffian (and Deputy Sheriff). Still, simple values isn’t the same as simplistic, and for all its overwrought melodrama, this is a canny film about a national hero made at a time of global crisis.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Lamar Trotti; Cinematographers Bert Glennon and Arthur C. Miller; Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady, Marjorie Weaver, Ward Bond; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 26 May 2020.

Vợ ba (The Third Wife, 2018)

Another strong area of interesting regional cinema in Southeast Asia has been Vietnam which, aside from a few films by Trần Anh Hùng I’d seen decades ago, I have regrettably not been very good at keeping up with in recent years. One recent example that got a UK release was this period drama directed by Ash Mayfair, a young Vietnamese woman director making her feature debut.


I really liked the languid pacing and style of this Vietnamese period film, about May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young girl who is married to a wealthy landowner as his third wife (the clue is in the title). Still, it’s a moving depiction of what in the period was not considered an unusual situation, and the film is about her contending with the familial situation into which she finds herself placed, negotiating her feelings with the other wives, and with the other family members. I can’t say that a great deal happens — there’s a secret affair that May witnesses, and meanwhile she strikes up her own feelings towards one of the other wives, but this all comes out in fairly oblique ways. Indeed, the woman directing the film is (understandably) good at avoiding sexualising or sensationalising the story, given the young age of her lead actress, and so it registers far more on an emotional level, though the visuals do have a real beauty to them.

The Third Wife film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ash Mayfair; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Nguyễn Phương Trà My, Mai Thu Hường, Trần Nữ Yên Khê; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 16 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 313: 斬る Kiru (Kill!, 1968)

Oddly enough, this sort of stands aside from the rest of the recent run of samurai chanbara films featured in the Criterion Collection, as it has broad comic elements to its (rather elaborate and confusing) story of rival clans fighting one another. Even more to the forefront is its reliance on tropes from the Western (as perhaps filtered through Italy, given the Morricone-like musical cues). Set in the mid-19th century, our two starving heroes wander into a one-horse town (or one-chicken town perhaps), beset by squalling winds, like some blasted valley in the American West, and stumble across a local power struggle. As Genta, the ex-samurai turned yakuza/vagrant, Tatsuya Nakadai exudes a raucous energy, recalling Mifune in Seven Samurai (this film even has its own group of seven rebel samurai, presumably another of its parodic elements, though the source author is the same as Kurosawa/Mifune’s 1962 collaboration Sanjuro). However, Genta has a more self-knowing air, as he brushes off courtly introductions and chuckles at the desperate desires of farmer Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) to become a samurai. The rest of the plot is too complicated to recount here, but suffice to say it’s the local chamberlain Ayuzawa (Shigeru Koyama) who’s the bad guy, playing the factions off one another. It has all the fight scenes you might expect, but the knockabout comedy moves into different, and rather refreshing, territory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writers Akira Murao 村尾昭 and Okamoto (based on the short story 砦山の十七日 Torideyama no Jushichinichi “17 Days at Fort Mountain” by Shugoru Yamamoto 山本周五郎); Cinematographer Rokuro Nishigaki 西垣六郎; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Etsushi Takahashi 高橋悦史, Shigeru Koyama 神山繁, Yuriko Hoshi 星由里子; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 311: 獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken (Sword of the Beast, 1965)

Having recently rewatched the Jason Bourne trilogy, it’s clearer how some of the generic beats of that story have endured even for half a century. As this film opens, a man who has been left for dead is seen blinking into life, as he is charged by his own clan with a murder and must go on the run. We do eventually learn he is the samurai Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), as well as who he has killed and the reason why. In transpires that Gennosuke was involved in an attempted reform of antiquated values within his clan that has gone awry (this is after all set at the end of the Tokugawa period, and the American Commodore Perry, instrumental in the opening up of Japan near the end of this period, is given a namecheck). When he runs into a samurai stealing gold from another wealthy clan, he perceives something of a kindred spirit, though all relationships in this film (as one feels was likely the case amongst real samurai) are cagy and tentative. There are strong women in this film who are treated badly, and there are men too who try to uphold some form of honour, but by the end it seems more clear that there can be no viable reckoning of honour in such a broken system, so all that unites these disparate people is the sword. However, it’s generally a rather more jolly picture than Samurai Rebellion, and has a jaunty sensibility that suggests some of Kurosawa’s samurai films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • None at all, save for the booklet essay.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hideo Gosha 五社英雄; Writers Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba 柴英三郎; Cinematographer Toshitada Tsuchiya 土屋俊忠; Starring Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Takeshi Kato 加藤武, Go Kato 加藤剛, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.

Челове́к с бульва́ра Капуци́нов Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines, 1987)

Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.


I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.

A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines film posterCREDITS
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.

The Nightingale (2018)

Some of the best Australian films really plumb the bleakness at the heart of (their/our) society, and you get the sense that some of that violence and nastiness goes back to the (European, colonialist) foundations of the modern country. That’s certainly the history that Jennifer Kent is confronting with The Nightingale, which took a year or two to get a release in the UK.


Ah yes, the history of Australia: it’s a bit like American history in some respects. It can get quite dark, and The Nightingale is a film that’s intent on peering into that darkness. It’s not a genre film in the way that the same director’s The Babadook (2014) was, except in so far as it plays with a rape-revenge narrative. It tells a gnarly, suffocating tale of British colonialism and state-sanctioned violence, as young officer Lt Hawkins (Sam Claflin) heads north from his rural posting in Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania) to the local city in order to seek a promotion, despite his clearly being unfit for command due to his sadistic violence and inability to discipline his troops (well, perhaps those qualities can’t truly be said to disqualify anyone from command in most colonialist enterprises). Aisling Franciosi’s Clare is the prime object of Hawkins’ violent tendencies, at least at the start of the film, and this section presents a bit of an endurance test (let’s just say that she at least starts the film with a husband and a baby), as the film sets out the circumstances for her pursuit of Hawkins.

Clare begins the film as someone who has been transported to Australia due to a criminal conviction, and the grinding circumstances of criminality, poverty and lack of opportunity, combined with the high-handedness of the British authorities, creates a toxic environment of bitterness and hatred that extends not just within the British settlements but outwards towards the native Aboriginal inhabitants of the country, and at no point does the director spare us from the language or the violence used in pursuit of colonialism. Indeed, at a certain level this film reminded me of The Last of the Mohicans (1992), but only if that film were remade to remove all the elements that make it appealing to cinema audiences, and left only the brute fact of colonial violence and exploitation.

I can’t say that I entirely loved The Nightingale, but I feel as if it fits into a context of films which confront something in history that few films seem prepared to do, territory that in recent Australian cinema is occupied by Sweet Country as one example, though very few other films that have been distributed here in the UK, at least.

The Nightingale film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jennifer Kent; Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk; Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr, Damon Herriman; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.


One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 291: Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Ernest Lubitsch made some classic films, and there are plenty of moments of elegantly satirical comedy in this one too, starting with Don Ameche’s elderly philanderer Henry Van Cleve showing up to an appointment in Hades, but finding a bit of resistance from the gatekeeper there. Thereupon he recounts his story, which largely revolves around his likeable old codger of a grandfather (Charles Coburn) along with his stuck-up parents and cousin. Gene Tierney as his love interest Martha shows up altogether too late, and seems rather poorly used by both Henry and the director (especially as she ages during the film). The film rather coyly suggests Henry’s infidelity, but also lets him off the hook for it, hinting at a clear double-standard at play, which is all played for delightful laughs, even if it hasn’t exactly aged brilliantly. Still, it all looks fantastic, shot in lush Technicolor, and played with spirit by the supporting cast (including an ever amiable Eugene Pallette, playing pretty much the same character as in The Lady Eve).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a half-hour 1982 TV episode dealing with writer Samson Raphaelson’s career, including some interviews with him, which touch on this film amongst others he worked with Lubitsch on.
  • We also get a few minutes’ worth of snippets of home recordings featuring Lubitsch playing the piano, accompanied by some personal photos, introduced by his daughter (I think).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernest Lubitsch; Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play Születésnap “Birthday” by Leslie Bush-Fekete); Cinematographer Edward Cronjager; Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 29 January 2020.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

A number of recent British heritage productions have attempted in their various ways to try to break away from some of the clichés of the genre, most notably the recent Lady Macbeth (2016). A lot of this has been in terms of casting (and certainly there’s a certain element of colour-blindness here), but the director also pushes the visual expectations of the genre with this adaptation of a well-loved and well-known novel.


Andrea Arnold certainly has an assured visual style. This film is shot in an Academy ratio (watch out that your TV doesn’t try to stretch it into widescreen) and frequently shoots through cracks and veils to further reduce the image size. When the camera does go outside there are some frankly beautiful shots, and some pretty taut editing too. It’s just that the script doesn’t always match this visual sense. There’s a lot of play with class and (newly for this adaptation) race, but most of it is enunciated at a formal level rather than in the dialogue, though that’s probably right for the period. There’s also an over-reliance on handheld camera; in many ways this feels like a period film for those who don’t tend to like them. Still, whatever else I might say, I do like it. The style is strong enough — and the performances too — to carry it.

Wuthering Heights film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Arnold; Writers Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Emily Brontë); Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 3 August 2016.

Criterion Sunday 280: 大菩薩峠 Daibosatsu Toge (The Sword of Doom, 1966)

There’s what feels like an almost unceasing parade of swordplay violence in this film, resulting in scores if not hundreds of piled-up casualties, largely of our antihero Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), though Toshiro Mifune weighs in for one memorable scene that gives the otherwise unstoppably evil-doing Ryunosuke a moment of brief pause. It’s enough to make you think that maybe that’s what the film is doing: the title could be referring to Ryunosuke’s sword, after all, but perhaps by extension it’s all swords and “doom” is just the outcome of violent behaviour. The film is set near the end of the shogunate, so samurai are on the decline and this film enacts in a sense this final death rattle of lawless mercenary violence. It does this with some fantastically composed monochrome style, as Nakadai moves blankly (he has the unfeeling mien of a sociopath) towards both swords and doom, with nihilistic rigour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Kihachi Okamoto 岡本喜八; Writer Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 (based on the novel by Kaizan Nakazato 中里介山); Cinematographer Hiroshi Murai 村井博; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Yuzo Kayama 加山雄三, Michiyo Aratama 新珠三千代, Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 29 November 2019.