Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach

I’ve not been having the greatest success at keeping my ‘Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday’ strand going, so I’ve decided to change it up a bit to be more film-focused. I recently watched two films by French-Icelandic director Sólveig Anspach, and they each struck me as interesting works. Digging into her biography, she was born in 1960 of an Icelandic architect mother and a German-Romanian father who had fled Nazi Germany. She studied psychology in Paris, and then filmmaking at FÉMIS, and lived much of her life in France. She sadly died of cancer not so long ago (2015) at the age of only 54. She has a number of documentary works to her name, as well as these feature films below (two of six features she made in total, or seven if you include her TV film) — for some reason each of them having an English language title, even in France. Needless to say, I believe she deserves to be better known.

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پنج عصر Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.

At Five in the Afternoon film posterCREDITS
Director Samira Makhmalbaf سمیرا مخملباف; Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف and Samira Makhmalbaf; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Samira Makhmalbaf; Starring Agheleh Rezaie عاقله رضایی; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)

Surely Charles Burnett is the most adaptable of modern directors, able to work successfully at all levels of production (indie and mainstream, feature-length, short film or, as here, hour-long History Channel-type TV documentary). This is a film about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave rebellion, but it’s equally about the impossibility of knowing or representing this event, filtered as it is through so many other voices, not to mention experiences of the troubling history of race relations in the United States. Burnett’s documentary presents not just interviews with historians and commentators, but also recreations, recreations of interpretations, and even behind-the-scenes of those recreations. It’s really excellent, powerful stuff, and surely the only film you need about not just Nat Turner, but about the pitfalls of historiography on screen.

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Burnett; Writers Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg; Cinematographer John Demps; Length 57 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 8 December 2016.

铁西区 Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003)

One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).

It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.

The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.

Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.

Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing 王兵; Length 551 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 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. See below the cut for reviews of…

Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995, UK)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, USA)
Down with Love (2003, USA)
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, USA)
Evolution (2015, France/Belgium/Spain)
Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, France)
A Flickering Truth (2015, New Zealand)
Green Room (2015, USA)
Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland)
Heart of a Dog (2015, USA)
Lemonade (2016, USA)
Losing Ground (1982, USA)
Lovely Rita (2001, Austria/Germany)
Luck by Chance (2009, India)
As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Money Monster (2016, USA)
Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, France)
My Life Without Me (2003, Canada/Spain)
Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, Italy)
Picture Bride (1994, USA)
Radio On (1979, UK/West Germany)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, USA)
Sisters in Law (2005, UK/Cameroon)
Star Men (2015, USA/UK/Canada)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, USA)
Trouble Every Day (2001, France/Germany/Japan)
Underground (1928, UK)
L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, France)
Visage (Face) (2009, France/Taiwan)
Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, Iran)

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Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003)

French director Jacques Rivette’s recent death may not have been a surprise, but it was unwelcome for fans of his kind of long-form slow-burn filmmaking — always a rarity on the film landscape — which seems to have aged little in the intervening years, unlike some of his mainstream contemporaries. The 1970s was a difficult decade for a lot of the old nouvelle vague filmmakers — difficult in the sense of seeing them struggle to integrate narrative with a rapidly fragmenting anti-authoritarian politics, though plenty of essential works came out of it — but Rivette continued to put out excellent films in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that repay the effort in watching them. The 2.5 hour running time of Histoire de Marie et Julien is about average for most Rivette films, but it allows for the development of feeling between two actors who seemingly couldn’t be more mismatched, Polish emigré Jerzy Radziwiłowicz as a clock repairer, and Emmanuelle Béart, who for various reasons doesn’t seem defined by her work. That said, the development of the story makes it clear that they’re not supposed to be, as there are increasingly odd hints that Marie isn’t what she seems. It’s all elaborated very subtly in the filming over the course of the four-act structure, with a certain quality of detachedness to Béart’s performance and the use of various mysterious objects imbued with an uncanny power (something of a favoured device for Rivette). As ever, Rivette’s cinema rewards greater attention from the viewer, so for my own part I can only confess to having watched it at home (never ideal) and that a cinema screening — should one ever come around, and one can only hope that there will be some retrospectives mounted over the next few years — may be the best way to experience his films.

The Story of Marie and Julien film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Rivette; Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Rivette; Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Emmanuelle Béart, Anne Brochet; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 January 2016.

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)

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January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.

Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)

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Down with Love (2003)

EDIT (May 2016): I’ve upgraded this from 3.5 stars (which I gave it when I reviewed it back in December 2013) to 4.5 because I’ve realised upon rewatching that it is clearly one of my favourite films. It is just such sheer delight to watch Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce in particular.

Occasionally when rewatching DVDs, I like to look back at its entry on Rotten Tomatoes and check what the critical consensus (in so far as it’s represented there) suggests about a film. Therefore I was surprised to find a distinct lukewarmness with regards to this brightly-coloured Technicolor pastiche of 1960s romantic comedies. Surprising because although I can’t honestly hold it up as a masterpiece [EDIT 2016: I can and I do], I do still love Down with Love (I own it on DVD after all). Perhaps telling you about how it provided me cheer on a dreary evening in Prague, when I was travelling around East Europe ten years ago, is hardly effective film criticism, but there you go: it is a zippy, frothy, stylish little film that doesn’t really set out to make any grand statements.

The leads are stylishly iconic journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) and arriviste naïf and newly-published author Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger), who do their best Rock Hudson and Doris Day impressions — appropriate, given that the film takes its most visible cues from such period comedies as Pillow Talk (1959). Yet, as much as you may imagine that I appreciate McGregor’s mellifluous name, I’ve never been a huge fan of either him or Zellweger as actors. It’s not that they have great chemistry here, but they certainly do both look the part. They wear the clothes well, in other words, and show a fair amount of gameness in putting across such gurning caricatured characters, blending effortlessly into the saturated colours of the mise en scène.

What really sells the film, though, are David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as Pete and Vikki, the respective editors of the two leads. Sure, Pierce is doing a version of his neurotic character on TV show Frasier, which can hardly have been much of a stretch for him, but his performance also harks back to Tony Randall in such films as Frank Tashlin’s sparkling Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957, and which for the record is a masterpiece). That Randall himself makes a cameo appearance as the head of Pete’s publishing company is just another nod towards that rich filmic heritage. As for Paulson, seen most recently by me as the uptight sister in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), she is unrecognisable here, achieving some perfect comic timing in her delightful repartees with Pierce, and guiding Barbara towards her hard-headed feminist success. Both actors put across a degree of acting brio that lifts the film, and if it never really moves beyond pastiche, it is at least a very accomplished and enjoyable one.

I’ve mentioned the look of the film, all saturated colours in the set design and widescreen cinematography, and bold contemporary fashions. There are certainly far worse stylistic benchmarks to emulate than that of Frank Tashlin (whose pop culture films from the 1950s are particularly worth checking out). Elsewhere, there’s some predictably broad humour in some of the touches, like the anti-war protestors and the ridiculous use of iconic buildings in the intro sequence, where every change of shot — from Barbara’s arrival to her getting a cab uptown — showcases a different (and geographically impossible) New York sight. Elsewhere, use is made of the kind of split-screen techniques seen in Pillow Talk, but for groaningly double entendre purposes.

It would of course be very easy to marshal all this detail as successively damning points against the film’s sunny inanity — like baking a souffle, this kind of enterprise, aiming for light frothiness, can so easily collapse. Therefore it’s up to each individual viewer to judge whether it’s been successful. For me, though, Down with Love is a consistent joy, and one I like to revisit every so often.


© 20th Century Fox

FILM REVIEW
Director Peyton Reed | Writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a cinema in Prague, Friday 3 October 2003 (and since then at home on DVD, most recently on Tuesday 10 December 2013 and Thursday 5 May 2016)

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)


FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director John Singleton | Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas | Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti | Starring Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson (as “Tyrese”), Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser | Length 107 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Sunday 12 May 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Universal Pictures

If the first film was a bit perfunctory with its plot, this second instalment pushes it into the entirely forgettable. The villain here is an unctuous drug dealer Carter (Cole Hauser), whose shadowy trafficking ring Customs have been trying to infiltrate. It’s when they capture the first film’s protagonist Brian (Paul Walker) at an illegal street race in Miami, that their plans take a new tack. Since the first film, Brian has been on the run from the law, making ends meet via winnings from street racing (illustrated in a short film/teaser trailer, included as an extra on the Blu-ray). With the promise of a clean slate, he is now conscripted back into the crime-fighting cause, and must pick a partner. He chooses former friend and ex-convict Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson).

Questions of exactly why Brian needs to get a partner, and just what value street racers have to Hauser’s drug lord, are barely addressed. Maybe they were and I wasn’t paying attention (I concede my mind may have wandered during some of the early scenes), or more likely they just don’t matter. In any case, the film has plenty of ways to distract one’s attention from the gaping plot holes.

Eva Mendes plays the drug lord’s girlfriend — and is possibly a federal agent as well, though the possibility is held out that she may have gone rogue — who glamorously crosses the screen in a succession of flattering dresses. The street racing is still going on, under the auspices of local impresario Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who has his own little tricks for making the race scenes more exciting (a spectacular and ridiculous bridge jump in the opening sequence, which one of the drivers wisely opts out of). There’s even an all-woman racing crew under his sidekick Suki (Devon Aoki); I am particularly fond of the scene where the various drivers are tinkering with their engines, cosmetically daubed with oil, except for Suki, whose blindingly white dress is entirely free from any kind of smudges.

I’d hardly want to be particularly strident in proclaiming the film’s progressive agenda, though: there are still plenty of scantily-clad women dotted around, even if a macho misogynist Spanish driver gets his deserved and amusing come-uppance at Suki’s driving hands. It is, however, worth pointing out there’s a fairer racial balance in the film from the first one, with more of a buddy-sidekick dynamic at play between Brian and Roman. Some of this may be down to the film’s director, John Singleton — still most famous for his debut Boyz n the Hood (1991) — and if this outing is the most blandly commercial of his films, it’s still put together with plenty of zip (as you’d hope for in a film of this title).

Ultimately, like the others in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious represents a throwback of sorts. Thematically it’s not unlike a juvenile delinquency film of the 1950s (the title of the series is after all taken from one such), and in style like an buddy-cop action film of the 1980s. This, combined with the sun-blanched Floridian settings, call to mind the recent action of Parker (2013). Neither are particularly groundbreaking, but they do have their transient pleasures.


Next Up: The series gets back on track with a new director and a new location in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).