Criterion Sunday 141: Les Enfants du paradis (aka Children of Paradise, 1945)

It’s a grand achievement; any review you look at will tell you that. Made when it was, at the scale it was made, it shouldn’t have been possible, but yet it’s a big, bold, crowded film teeming with life. Of course, it’s still a grand handsome well-mounted epic that trades on all those classic (and classical) qualities of Cinema Art: a woman whose amorous conquests, or those attempts of her suitors, seem to allegorise a political situation; a witty script of over-talkative thespian types exploring the power of art; big camera moves; and mass crowd scenes for spectacle. I admire it even if I (philistine that I may be) never quite love it, but admiration goes a long way so I expect I’ll watch it again some day and admit it’s a masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné | Writer Jacques Prévert | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert | Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, María Casares | Length 190 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 January 2017)

Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, 2016)

Another of Lav Diaz’s epic-length films of people wandering about in the woods, which appeals to a certain type of self-congratulatorily masochistic film geek (I can hardly exempt myself). That said, it’s not that it doesn’t have its power, just that it’s rather attenuated if you’re not particularly familiar with Filipino history.

This is a story set around 1896 against the background of the Philippine Revolution, whose leader was Andres Bonifacio. Most of the characters in this film are connected with the key players and events (such the execution of Dr Jose Rizal, and the betrayal of Bonifacio by another revolutionary leader), and these are mentioned plenty of times, especially during an opening section set in the city, which features some lengthy dialogues in English and Spanish, but also in the long period of searching that Bonifacio’s wife Gregoria (Hazel Orencio) undertakes. I gather, too, from some quick Wikipedia research that at least some of the key characters (the ailing political leader Simoun, for example, who is seen for much of the film being carried across the islands by two retainers in the company of his friend) may be drawn from a novel by Rizal, albeit one based in part on the revolutionary actors in this national drama.

My point, though, is mostly that this is a film which is densely filled with allusions to Filipino history and literature, and which probably makes most sense on that level. There are occasional flourishes of supernatural mystery (a masked character who appears in the forest), somewhat à la Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but the real star here is the fabulous monochrome cinematography. The landscape is lush and threatening by turns, and some of the set-pieces are really something.

However, my immersion in the world of Lav Diaz, for all that it has many pleasures, does make me greatly appreciate the concision of a good 90-minute film.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Larry Manda | Starring John Lloyd Cruz, Piolo Pascual, Hazel Orencio | Length 485 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Thursday 2 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 101: Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972)

The experience of working through the Criterion Collection is one of having a slightly patchwork introduction to the ‘great directors’. We’ve had a few Fellinis, a bunch of Kurosawas and a clutch of Bergmans, amongst smatterings of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger, so I’m by no means an expert on these grand old men of the artform. However, my feeling is that for Ingmar Bergman, having largely moved on from his early, funny stuff (and I’m a fan of his 50s comedies like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), he went through a more bleak period of introspective psychodramas, and amongst these Cries and Whispers is perhaps a good — if not the archetypal — example. It’s a chamber film, largely set in a single home in the late-19th century, as two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), take care of their dying third sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson), with the help of the family’s maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan). No one really has much love for anyone else, save for Anna’s love and affection towards Agnes, as we learn in flashbacks. These depict each of the four struggling with earlier relationships, such as that of Karin with her husband, or Maria with a young doctor, and each is bookmarked by a brief image of the woman’s face in close-up, looming out of a red-filtered darkness. Indeed, red is a key colour in the film: formally, Bergman employs frequent fades to red to mark scene transitions, and in terms of the set design, one of the room’s in the home is the “red room” — truly a vision of bourgeois hell, though at least each of the sisters makes sure to wear white when they’re in there. It’s hardly genteel either, as under this etiquette-ridden formally-dressed exterior are all kinds of roiling emotions, expressed most forcefully by one scene of Karin’s self-mutilation in order to escape her husband’s attentions (which I’m sure didn’t escape Michael Haneke either). It has a certain cumulative force to it, though whether you love it depends on how you respond to Bergman’s moralistic hand-wringing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Harriet Andersson | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 June 2016

Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen (Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, 2014)

Another film I’ve belatedly caught up with for my 2015 New Year’s Resolution (one of the co-writers is a woman), I must confess that I’m not familiar with the source material or either of the two previous films in the trilogy, so this is all a bit of a blur. However, it’s an attractively-mounted 19th century period film blur, awash with rich costume design and the swish of samurai swords. If anything, the film resists the lure of its comic-book origins to give in to a videogame or clip-show editing style, and instead essays an almost traditional filmic sense of the jidaigeki, the camera movements more calm than the frenzy of blades one might expect. That said, the heroes all have floppy fringes in the modern style, and beyond their matinee idol looks, I’m not entirely sure a lot more is going on. Still, it’s a good deal better than one might fear and if I just had an investment in the story, this might be a more attractive proposition.


FILM REVIEW
Director Keishi Otomo | Writers Kiyomi Fujii and Keishi Otomo (based on the manga Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki) | Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka | Starring Takeru Satoh | Length 135 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015

Criterion Sunday 53: Tsubaki Sanjuro (Sanjuro, 1962)

After the success of Yojimbo the year before, Kurosawa practically rushed into production of this sequel, ahead of his bigger production High and Low the year after. It seems on first pass to be a talkier thing, as Toshiro Mifune’s wandering (and effectively nameless) samurai happens upon a plot by nine youngsters against an apparently corrupt chamberlain, an intricate court intrigue that can be at times difficult to follow. However, the gist is that the more experienced Mifune has the sense of the situation, guiding the youngsters away from rash action and directing their energies towards the real target, a henchman (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the local superintendent who is manipulating events to his own advantage. In doing so, Mifune finds himself in plenty of situations in which he is called upon to fight, but this time he’s not just out for money as in the first film, but for more honourable reasons. In fact, the film finds even more comedy than the first film, especially in the foolishness of the nine kids Mifune is in charge of, who act at times rather like a wayward family of cygnets following their mother (visualised literally at one point, as they follow him off screen in a line). It’s a beautifully shot film, too, with a large number of perfect compositions framing the ten faces, Mifune always set apart from the others. For all that it seems to have been made quickly, it’s in many ways the equal of Yojimbo and a worthy successor.

Criterion Extras: This is a relatively slender package, with a small gallery of production stills featuring Kurosawa and his actors on set, as well as a commentary by scholar Stephen Prince, and another episode of Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Prince covers all the bases pretty well in his exhaustive discussion, including various of the swordplay moves, and some careful notes on the framing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa (based on the novel Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamoto) | Cinematographers Fukuzo Koizumi and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 52: Yojinbo (Yojimbo, 1961)

The thing that’s surprising, re-watching this samurai film by Akira Kurosawa, is just how grimly violent it is. There are severed arms, spurting blood, and all kinds of injury details that seem almost shocking in the context of a black-and-white 1960s film, least of all one with the time-hallowed prestige of Yojimbo. In fact, the way the film gleefully works against that ingrained prestige — such qualities as come from being a period-set film with established stars and director, and its subsequent induction into the hallowed Criterion Collection, not to mention plenty of best-of/best-ever lists — is what makes it most interesting, and for me a more essential Kurosawa than his more-feted Seven Samurai (1954). It’s clear from its story of Toshiro Mifune as an unnamed and directionless ronin that plenty of later directors were watching carefully and cribbing notes, too, whether acknowledged influences like Sergio Leone’s ‘Man with No Name’ films, or rather more subtle ones — the Han Solo character in Star Wars (and thus much of Harrison Ford’s subsequent career) seems lifted from Mifune here, who has a laidback charm even as people scurry anxiously and murderously around him. His travels bring him to the small, bitterly-divided village where the film is set, where he keeps his identity guarded (calling himself only Sanjuro, for a field of mulberry he spots when asked the question), and largely hangs out at a local inn while surveying the shuttered buildings around him and their wary occupants. Watching Mifune play the various factions against one another to his advantage is delightful — he promises his services as a bodyguard (yojimbo) for ever-increasing fees to whomever is most desperate — and when he’s not impressing them with his bravura skills, he’s sitting back and watching each side unravel. It’s all shot in crisp black-and-white with lots of deep focus shots and musical accompaniment worthy of the Western genre Kurosawa so loved. It’s one of Kurosawa’s very best, and was popular enough that it would lead to a sequel the following year, Sanjuro.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa | Cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 7 April 1999 (earlier on VHS at home in Wellington, June 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home in London, Sunday 1 November 2015)

Crimson Peak (2015)

Having this year been watching almost solely the output of female directors, I’ve become used to seeing on screen a certain level of budget (something nearer to the $0 end of the spectrum, let’s be fair). And then you watch something like this, just a grand, gorgeous staging with the sets! and the costumes! and the art design so elaborate and intricate you worry it’s all going to get in the way of, oh, the acting, the characterisation, that kind of thing. (I gather some critics feel that it has.) Now, I don’t deny any of Guillermo del Toro’s talent; he’s clearly done a lot of legwork to get to the stage where he can make something like this, and I think his great films like Cronos and El laberinto del fauno have given him a peerless sense of what works filmically. Because that stuff comes effortlessly here, especially when he’s marshalling all the tropes of the horror genre — the depth of field in staging shots, the creepy sound design, flashes of spectral presences, and then the full-on gory costumework. Because yes, there’s a lot of gore here, whether explicit or suggested: much of the latter part of the film is set in a house whose walls and foundations seem to literally ooze blood. Within this, it seems like a canny choice to go for actors like Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston, all of whom have previous in this kind of enterprise — portraying doomed lovers in a period setting — so all of them look quite at home in what is a Victorian-era gothic romance hat-tipping visually to Hammer horror as mcuh as to Italian giallo, not to mention a bit of Kubrick’s The Shining too. It does in the end all feel a bit oppressive, and it should of course, but it’s a bravura piece of filmmaking and it hits all the right notes, honouring its sources without condescending to them.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Guillermo del Toro | Writers Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins | Cinematographer Dan Laustsen | Starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015

Captain Webb (2015)

This film set at the end of the 19th century, about a plucky English sailor who determines to be the first person to swim across the channel, is certainly handsomely done for what one assumes is a fairly modest budget. It evokes a nice sense of how the era might have looked, with its muscly moustachioed hero of the title (played by former boxer Warren Brown) being tutored in his task by a swimming showman (Steve Oram in the most entertaining turn of the film) and his far more competent daughter Agnes (Georgia Maguire). There’s some good use of its coastal locations and apparently it is filmed in the Channel for added authenticity. That said, despite some decent acting, it’s all fairly thin and the flashback structure, punctuating Webb’s epic swim with scenes that explain how he got there, feels a bit repetitive by the end. It also gets a bit jingoistic at times, especially during the rather belaboured showdown with a brash American showman, which is folded into a burgeoning love story between Webb and Agnes. Still, it’s fine entertainment for a slow Sunday afternoon, and there aren’t too many films out there about swimmers.


© Marathon Films

FILM REVIEW
Director Justin Hardy | Writer Jemma Kennedy (based on the non-fiction book The Crossing: The Extraordinary Story of the First Man to Swim the English Channel by Kathy Watson) | Cinematographer Matthew Wicks | Starring Warren Brown, Steve Oram, Georgia Maguire | Length 87 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 4 August 2015

Jaanisaar (2015)

As a sweeping period romantic epic set in the 1870s in the historical province of Awadh or Oudh in North India (the modern Uttar Pradesh), this hits all the requisite costume and set design boxes. After all, the resources of Bollywood film production can at least be relied on for exquisite costuming. The cinematography too is pretty lush, heavy on the soft-focus settings and filming in grand old buildings — even if there’s some use of slightly dubious landscape paintings as backdrops in the nabob’s stately home. Speaking of him (and I’m not sure “nabob” is exactly the right term, what with my admittedly not being much of an expert on this historical period, to say the least), the very English Mr Cavendish is a proper stage villain, all but twirling his moustache as he plots the division of the region, which is split between Hindus and Muslims, whom it is suggested have been living side by side in relative harmony up until this point. Our hero is a Muslim, Ameer (Imran Abbas), recently returned from receiving his education in England and dressed up as the colonial puppet ruler, who only slowly comes to comprehend the devastation wrought to his region by the English. His tutor in this regard — and eventually his love interest — is Noor (Pernia Qureshi), a dancer and stately courtesan, keen to overthrow the tyrannical outsiders. Everything progresses from here by episodic means, woven together by director Muzaffar Ali, who also appears as a mysterious elderly figure pulling strings in the background, though the action never really seems to spark off as it should do. The acting (and dancing) is restrained and elegant, almost too much so for the roiling melodrama of the setting, and it’s only Cavendish who seems to betray much anger (disconcertingly, this is largely directed at his mistress). While Jaanisaar is certainly not withouts its merits, it seems almost too bloodless to do justice to such a tumultuous period of history.


© Kotwara Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Muzaffar Ali | Writers Javed Siddiqui, Shama Zaidi, Ruchika Chanana and Muzaffar Ali | Cinematographer Gianni Giannelli | Starring Imran Abbas, Pernia Qureshi, Muzaffar Ali | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015

Slow West (2015)

It’s always nice to see a movie western, even if it’s not shot in the United States, though I am partial to the New Zealand landscape as someone who grew up there. I would say it seems to me to be pretty distinctive as far as landscapes go, but then this is a film shot through with plenty of style (and stylisation). If some of the still-life framings are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (albeit in colour), a lot of the film’s tone comes closer to the deadpan of the Coen brothers, and is freighted with some of their archness as well. The narrative is based around a one-sided romance of one young Scottish lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose has left Scotland to go on the run from the law with her father, while Jay pursues her out of love. He is taken in by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on Rose and her father’s trail. As a film shot in NZ starring Irish, Scottish and Antipodean actors, it’s really strong on that sense of the modern US as a nation of immigrants, though the Native Americans get fairly short shrift (and one overtly comedy sequence of horse rustling gone awry). So even if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace it, there’s enough in the film to suggest interesting work in director John Maclean’s future.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer John Maclean | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 84 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 July 2015