Criterion Sunday 257: Secret Honor (1984)

One of many films attempting to understand the character of Nixon, this is based on a stage play and it certainly shows, given the film takes place entirely in a single room (Nixon’s study) and aside from archival clips and images, the only person we see on screen is Philip Baker Hall. It’s a bravura performance, the kind of thing that on stage would wow a crowd, but at times feels like overacting on film, but in a sense that’s intentional: the way the thoughts tumble out of Nixon’s mouth, often incomplete, jostling with one another to find clarity of expression; the mad dashes he takes around his study, ranting at pictures, staring down the camera, speaking into his tape recorder and addressing an off-screen editor. Altman’s camera fluidly captures all the digressions and frantic movements, opening up the space a little but still with the claustrophobia that you get from a single, heavily wood-panelled, setting. The script touches on a lot of the issues that motivated Nixon, and suggest a deeper, darker reality than the one seen in the media of the time, as shadowy cabals of men are alluded to as his backers, and his misdeeds appear to be more than what brought him down in the end. It’s a passionate performance, but as a film it feels rather like a footnote to the ongoing retelling of the legends of American Presidency.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 22 minute interview with Philip Baker Hall discussing the project, his background in theatre and how that meant very little once he moved to LA, how the film kickstarted his acting career on film, but mostly how it was filmed and his work with Altman.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (based on their play); Cinematographer Pierre Mignot; Starring Philip Baker Hall; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 July 2019.

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Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory, 2019)

Stepping away from this week’s horror theme, I wanted to highlight another film that’s out in UK cinemas today, which is the latest by Pedro Almodóvar, a filmmaker who is getting older and has made a film about it. Maybe it’s me getting older — or maybe it’s Pedro — but I really warmed to his latest film far more than anything I’ve watched before by him (and I gave his films a few tries back in the 1990s in particular).


This is a fairly thinly-disguised self-portrait of the filmmaker as ageing man, dealing with the pains of growing up, and more particularly the pains of getting old, self-medicating (with heroin, but of course), and generally trying to come to terms with his own life and those around him drifting away and dying. It trades less on heightened melodrama but is given enormous gravitas by Banderas’s underplayed performance, finding all the right notes for this guy who’s rather at loose ends now that he can’t work due to chronic pain and depression. He still has a very precise eye for framing a shot, and the use of music is perfect, plus there’s no big event, just a sort of flow of moments in a man’s life. There’s levity and there’s self-reflexiveness (a scene with his mother telling him he better not be thinking about putting her in a film), there’s a bit of darkness, but mostly there’s light and colour (bold, saturated colours, of course), that I enjoyed spending time with.

Pain and Glory film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Pedro Almodóvar; Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; Starring Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 17 August 2019.

La Femme au couteau (The Woman with the Knife, 1969)

I have taken up doing themed weeks on my blog, and this week it’s all about African cinema, one of the least represented and worst preserved continents for film history. Although I touched on North African cinema in my recent week of Arabic language films, this week will be all about sub-Saharan Africa. Filmmaking on the continent stretches back through various colonial administrations (British, Belgian and French amongst others), but I want to start in the post-colonial era, rooted in the idea and dream of pan-Africanism that was celebrated by Ouagadougou’s FESPACO film festival, which started in 1969 and where this local Ivoirian film was shown (if not premiered). Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival has been involved in restorations of notable films for the past few years, and this year they had a strand dedicated to FESPACO and some highlights of its programme over the years.


Despite screening at the very first FESPACO festival, this Ivoirian film is certainly not currently prominent in cinematic discourse, as I can barely find an image of it online. I know there’s a poster because in another film screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato (Med Hondo’s excoriating Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins of 1974) it appears in the background of one sequence as an example of African cinema made for Africans. In any case, the film has been newly restored so with any luck it will regain some of its place in the history books.

The film deals with a man whose mind and existence seem to be fractured, apparently a result of his time in Europe. Played by the director (Timité Bassori), he is seen both as a young man and as an older one in black tie, possibly the same character at different times in his life, who imagines a woman with a knife trying to kill him and spends much of the film trying to get to the heart of his issues with women. The meeting between Africa and Europe becomes part of a dense psychoanalytic framework, and leads to a sort of double-consciousness from which the character may or may not fully recover, but it inhibits his socialisation into his own society. There are frequent repeated shots of him walking down roads, cast out and wandering, from rich streets to poorer ones, in his home town of Abidjan. Other elements of the film bring into focus his double life — the music moves from jazz to drums, the apartments we see have both high Western culture (shelves of books on French artists for example) as well as indigenous instruments and artwork — and if the film feels at times rather difficult and opaque, it is also brimful of ideas.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Timité Bassori; Cinematographer Ivan Baguinoff; Starring Timité Bassori, Marie Vieyra, Danielle Alloh; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

صوفيا Sofia (2018)

This feature film by a Moroccan woman director, which screened at the recent Shubbak Festival of art from the Arab-speaking world, was introduced there by the excellent British-Iranian producer Elhum Shakerifar (who for me most notably programmes the Middle Eastern and Arabic language films for London Film Festival, which have been a favourite of mine for several years). I didn’t always love it, but it shows a great deal of promise.


The title character’s affectless way of just looking like a deer trapped in headlights somewhat guides this film, as she gives frustratingly vague answers (if she gives any answer at all) to those who question her. She’s given birth to a baby out of wedlock — in what must be about the quickest pregnancy to birth sequence in any film — and this is, as the opening titles make clear, a big problem in conservative Morocco, where having sex out of marriage carries with it a year in jail. But in a sense that unjust law is merely what motivates a drama that goes further than just asking who’s the father, as she starts (in a rather strange way) to realise some power in her situation. Part of that is also a matter of class, as her cousin and aunt are very wealthy and chic, more European than Moroccan, and live in a nice neighbourhood. This accident of birth means she already has access to more resources than most, which becomes clear in the differential between her and the ostensible father, Omar, and between him and his own family. I can’t say I always responded to the central performance, but the film is examining some interesting dynamics in modern Morocco.

The film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Meryem Benm’Barek-Aloïsi مريم بنمبارك; Cinematographer Son Doan; Starring Maha Alemi مهى العلمي, Sarah Perles سارة بيرلس; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Wednesday 3 July 2019.

Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)

These three films all feature on a box set put out by the Korean Film Archive, though many of their film restorations (not just these three, but many others) are available to view for free on an official website and a YouTube channel, which I’d recommend checking out if you want to follow up on classic Korean cinema. As for the director, I can’t give you much information. His name is sometimes transliterated as Lee Man-hui, and he was born in Seoul in 1931 and studied there too. He started out in the industry as an actor in the 50s, but had graduated to directing in 1961 and as a director had a prodigious output for much of the 1960s, making up to 10 films in a single year (1967 seems to have been his most prolific). He died at the age of 43 from liver cancer, in 1975.

Continue reading “Three Films by Lee Man-hee: The Marines Who Never Returned (1963), A Day Off (1968) and Assassin (1969)”

Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)

For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.

Continue reading “Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)”

Criterion Sunday 154: The Horse’s Mouth (1958)

Having never heard of it before it popped up on our Criterion watching project, this is a perfectly likeable colour film about a colourful character who paints colourful works of art and injects a bit of épater into those bourgeois lives he drifts through (well, more upper-class really), but I’m not sure what deeper meaning it really captures. The one the filmmakers presumably intend — that art is valuable, damn everything — comes through clearly though, and Alec Guinness in the lead as dishevelled painter Gulley Jimson is as ever reliable, not unlike the Meryl Streep of his day, all accents and imposture in the service of wit and well-crafted journeyman material. It has its diversions, and is pleasing on the eye.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short interview with Ronald Neame from before he died (around when the DVD was released, presumably), who is a genial host and tells of the film’s production. There’s also a trailer. However, the standout extra is a short film which was shown with the feature at its original New York run in the late-1950s, a short film by D.A. Pennebaker called Daybreak Express. For all its five minutes running time, it is far the superior work. It’s a jaunting work of jazzy cinematic propulsion, like a city symphony made my Soviet constructivists with a penchant for Duke Ellington. Rich and resonant colours, bold modern architecture, a train ride from the city to suburbs both exceeding that experience but also encapsulating it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer Alec Guinness (based on the novel by Joyce Cary); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 April 2017.

Aquarius (2016)

For a film that’s been controversial in its native country (though I gather it’s more to do with politics external to the film itself), and for one with an 18 certificate, this isn’t quite what I expected. Primarily it’s that the tone is so unhurried, and lacking in melodrama. It’s a quiet film that takes its time to observe the elderly Clara as she lives her life by the beach in an upscale area of Recife. Recounting the plot (her desire to stay where she is leads to conflict with the building’s owners, who want to redevelop the site) suggests a kind of film that this really isn’t. Through this pleasant miasmatic haze of beachfront living there are periodic little breaks — tiny brief shots that jolt the audience: a body being disinterred, a baby which has messed itself being cleaned, some graphic sex — but these are just hints at the direction perhaps a flashier more insecure director might have gone. This is a character study, and a very fine one.

Aquarius film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kleber Mendonça Filho; Cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu; Starring Sônia Braga; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 29 March 2017.

Mãe só há uma (Don’t Call Me Son, 2016)

Perhaps going in with low expectations from some decidedly lukewarm reviews helped, but I ended up really rather liking this story of confused identity. It’s an emotive subject matter (mix-ups at birth have been the subject of several good films) but the film doesn’t wring it out for melodrama. That said, I found it affecting (in a low-key way) and the lead character Pierre’s​ clash with his new family to be quite moving. The gender fluid identity issues — specifically the believability of his emotional journey (and I use the masculine pronoun because that’s the one used in the film by the character, played by Naomi Nero) — aren’t an area I can really comment on, but although they do seem to be a reflection of deeper familial divisions being explored, it doesn’t feel like they are being deployed exploitatively, though of course I’d be keen to read some trans opinions. What I’m left with is the lead actor’s defiance of normative expectations about his behaviour, and the seething undertow of anger from his birth father, though the film ends with a touching moment of emotional openness.

Don't Call Me Son film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert; Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez; Starring Naomi Nero; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 24 March 2017.