One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
Another film which comes on the heels of the same director’s excellent work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and plunges her back into another gently middlebrow and lightly period piece about the anxieties of artists. I found it likeable, and it’s well worth checking out.
There’s something almost aggressively middlebrow about this film, indeed about a number of the season’s films, and perhaps I only say that because it fits into a certain kind of Oscar-ready category, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing here. It’s about a television personality (one I was not at all familiar with, as my upbringing did not feature Mr Rogers), and the film at times has a deeply televisual feel in the way it’s constructed — I don’t know that I can explain it, just that something about the way the shots were constructed, the musical cues, the scene transitions (both the editing and the interstitial model toy sets) felt almost uncannily like this film was intended to be a Very Special extended episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood (though as mentioned above, I obviously don’t know the original show except as it’s shown within this film). But rather than the TV personality, the film’s story focuses instead on Matthew Rhys’s journalist, an angry resentful man who’s trying to find an angle on Tom Hank’s Fred Rogers; the film and Hanks’s performance almost seem to play along, and he has these ways of staring intensely that suggest some deep buried secret is going to come out — certainly the legacy of 70s light entertainers on British TV led me to worry where this might lead. But no, in fact, Rogers seems like a genuinely decent guy, who cares deeply about the way that children are spoken to, and I think that all comes across really effectively in the film. It would also make an interesting double-bill with A Hidden Life (which was out in UK cinemas the week beforehand, hence was on my mind), because I think both are films deeply imbued with a very Christian faith, though in rather more subtle ways here, expressed primarily by silence (there’s one particularly striking scene in a diner) and by a sense of ritual.
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (based on the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod); Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 31 January 2020.
I went back to YouTube recently to look up this film by Kinuyo Tanaka, the second woman to direct feature films in Japan and herself an acclaimed actor of some renown. I was inspired by the writing of critic Cathy Brennan, who has herself written far longer and better pieces about the actor/director for Another Gaze magazine, and the Screen Queens blog. Sadly, there are few opportunities to watch Tanaka’s films currently, which is surprising given her fame as an actor and the recent interest in women’s filmmaking, but one can dream of proper releases one day I suppose.
I’ve watched a number of mid-20th century Japanese films recently, but I haven’t seen any quite like this film, one of the handful directed by acclaimed actor Kinuyo Tanaka — and perhaps it’s her perspective that makes a telling difference, or that of celebrated screenwriter Sumie Tanaka (no relation), who also wrote most of Mikio Naruse’s greatest works during the same decade. It’s just that I hadn’t seen many films that deal fairly frankly not just with a difficult relationship — in this case young housewife and budding poet Fumiko (played by Yumeji Tsukioka and based on a real figure) being pushed away by her philandering husband — but also with her subsequent breast cancer diagnosis which gives the film its memorable title. It is, ultimately, a weepie of sorts, with a grand melodramatic arc that deals with this woman turning her back on love, before admitting into her life a big city journalist (well, she lives in Hokkaido and the journalist is from Tokyo), as she tries to recover from her mastectomy in a Japanese hospital while still writing poetry. There are big emotions, but also some delicate observation too, and it’s a film that shows plenty of care in its creation, only a few years after Kurosawa made the rather better known cancer drama Ikiru.
Director Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the article by Akira Wakatsuki 若月彰, and the poetry collections 乳房喪失 and 花の原型 by Fumiko Nakajo 城ふみ子); Cinematographer Kumenobu Fujioka 藤岡粂信; Starring Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路, Ryoji Hayama 葉山 良二, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.
Moving on with my films-seen-on-YouTube theme, it can be a great resource for television movies, given many of them never received “proper” releases. Two that I saw in close succession were fair-to-middling biopics about prominent Black women of the mid-20th century, albeit covering quite different stories in some ways. It may be telling that while one was itself directed by an African-American woman (Julie Dash! a great director at that), the other was directed by a white woman; however, the production history and writing credits suggest it’s not quite so straightforward. In any case, the film about Dandridge certainly dwells more on the more negative aspects of her life, although it’s covering a whole career rather than just a single defining time in civil rights history. It’s probably worth looking into the comparison between the two more closely, except that neither is a particularly memorable film in the end, though both are successful in their own ways.
One of the categories on the BFI Player is dedicated to films appearing in the Sight & Sound poll of critics, and includes several classics, not least the one I’m covering today. Although it’s a grand spectacle, especially with an orchestra backing it up, it probably wouldn’t make my greatest ever list, I’m afraid, but it’s worth watching. Alternatively there are plenty of other films, many of which I’ve reviewed for my Criterion Sundays, like L’avventura, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Faces, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, et al.
This is maximalist filmmaking. It has an impressionistic feel at times with its lap dissolves and rapid cutting, emphasising mood over clarity (I’ll never quite be sure what tactics were being deployed in the snowball fight scene), but it never shows a great deal of subtlety in its symbolism — the eagle, the waves crashing, the frenzy of the crowd, the guillotine. It’s also never anything less than triumphantly behind its eponymous hero, played as a lank-haired wunderkind by an actor named ‘God’s Gift’ in French (Albert Dieudonné). It has a long third act of romantic entanglements (including an entirely extraneous one with a minor character’s daughter) that drags a bit and yet when the film finishes it feels almost curtailed too early. It reaches — constantly, grandly, excessively — and I can’t really fault it for that, but whether that makes it great art I’m not so sure about. It’s still quite the experience, especially with a full orchestra and the triptych projection at the end.
Director/Writer Abel Gance; Cinematographer Jules Kruger; Starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Antonin Artaud, Edmond Van Daële; Length c330 minutes.
Seen at Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday 7 November 2016 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, December 1997).
Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.
- The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
- There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
- There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).
Well we seem to be getting closer, here in London, to the inevitable lockdown (perhaps by the time this goes up, it will have been announced), so my week themed around Netflix films wraps up with the most recent release, and if it’s not perhaps the best it’s still well worth watching if you’re a pop music fan or interested in fandom. I am sure we will all pull through this current period of intensive homeboundness but who knows how long it will last for. At the very least we can catch up with films we can watch at home, and that will no doubt be a great boon to all the streaming services, at the very least. I suspect we’ll see more of them on the blog in the coming weeks.
I think it’s fair to say that this ostensibly behind-the-scenes documentary — like everything that Taylor Swift does — is very carefully calculated, and you wouldn’t expect anything else really. For all that it feels shaped by the relentless pressures that are placed on Swift to be some kind of generational spokesperson or lightning road for fickle tabloid concerns — and the meeting she has with her people to discuss coming out with her political opinions during the 2018 midterm elections feels particularly orchestrated in that regard — it does shed plenty of light on the ways in which she is constrained by her peculiar position. In this, she channels a lot of her own self-discovery and you can see the more mature person she has become since being thrust into a media frenzy at such a young age. The most fascinating and interesting sections of the film are when she’s composing music, and just to see her work on a song, hammering away at a piano or plucking a guitar while working up melodies, or working with her producers in the studio, has its own lovely rhythms and provides a small insight into what gets her excited about her work. The rest, sadly, is largely about the way her life needs to fits with public and media expectations, though I continue to want to like Taylor Swift, so I felt warmly disposed towards this film.
Director Lana Wilson; Cinematographer Emily Topper; Starring Taylor Swift; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 3 February 2020.
As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.
I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.
Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.
This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.
This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).
I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.