Recalling my recent week devoted to films available on Amazon, I’m delighted to say that the recent Naomi Kawase film I’m covering today is now on that platform. She is a filmmaker who makes often rather gentle films, often about women, that have a sensory quality and a fundamental compassion, whether that of the old lady in Sweet Bean or the grieving family in Still the Water.
Director Naomi Kawase has always had a very particular way with her films, about translating texture, touch, taste and other sensory experiences through sound and image, so it makes sense that this film deals with Misako (Ayame Misaki), a woman who writes closed captions for visually-impaired filmgoers. She’s working on an apparently very subtle film by an older filmmaker about a man grappling with mortality (while also herself dealing with an ageing mother who seems to be slipping slowly away). Misako’s job is to relate the film-within-the-film’s themes to her focus group of blind audience members, but she’s having trouble finding the right balance of description and subjective editorialising. This seems to be particularly irksome for one of the group, a slightly older man (Masatoshi Nagase) who used to be a photographer but has now mostly lost his sight. The themes, then, are fairly clear, about seeing and not seeing, using the imagination to experience and move with the characters on screen, and so the film-within-a-film is more heard than seen, as we try to connect using the words to what the protagonist is going through, and this film too is equally oblique in some ways. There’s a romance of sorts between the two central characters, but I wouldn’t characterise the film itself as a romance, except perhaps that between two people and the physical world.
Director/Writer Naomi Kawase 河瀨直美; Cinematographer Arata Dodo 百々新; Starring Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女, Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.
Every year the Japan Foundation has a touring programme that takes over the ICA for a week or two, and then goes on the road around the country, with a (fairly random) selection of Japanese films, mostly recent but a few classics also. One of them this year was this 2018 family drama based on a series of children’s picture books, which has an appropriately engaging, childlike and colourfully comic sense of its subject.
There’s a lot of evident talent on show in this film, both behind and in front of the camera. It’s about this empty shell of a man, Takuji Kameoka (Ken Yasuda) — an actor of course (the actor of the title, named in the Japanese original) — who stumbles through his various minor film roles as thieves and heavies, often hungover from the previous night’s drinking. That’s a recurring theme, and the film is filled with recurring themes because partly it’s about a cycle of repetition in a life, and the way that a life spent being other people on film can lead to some strange blurring of the lines, as if he sometimes imagines his own life as an act, and how things might work out differently. Frequently the film moves seamlessly between what’s happening in the plot and the films-within-the-film that our actor Kameoka is in, or imagines, such that you’re never quite sure where the line is drawn. There’s a weird audition with a famous Spanish director that takes place on a soundstage and seems taken from some kind of filmed dream sequence, or the fight scene staged for a monosyllabic old timer which all seems to be going wrong except maybe it isn’t, and that’s somewhat how Tameoka lives his life. It definitely makes me wish the director had been able to make films more frequently than she has.
Director/Writer Satoko Yokohama 横浜聡子 (based on the novel by Akito Inui 戌井昭人); Cinematographer Yoichi Kamakari 鎌苅洋一; Starring Ken Yasuda 安田顕, Kumiko Aso 麻生久美子; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 5 February 2020.
Time and memory moves in strange ways. I loved this film when I first saw it, only a few years after it was originally released, but rewatching it over two decades later I find myself a lot less tolerant of David Thewlis’s witty, wisecracking Johnny. He’s a toxic figure, a man who is introduced to us before the credits raping a woman in a Mancunian back alley before stealing a car and driving to London. His erudition tends towards the apocalyptic and his constant allusions and references are a linguistic distraction, the dangers of a first class education wasted on idly baiting those with less education than he has without really saying very much at all. He is fatuously condescending towards anyone he doesn’t want to engage with, and particularly seems to like picking up women he considers his intellectual inferiors. (Which every woman character here seems to be; like many of Leigh’s films the women feel so shallowly drawn, an assemblage of actorly tics in some cases, and I wonder if that’s just because he devotes less time to drawing out their characters.) In any case, you spend the entire film waiting, maybe even hoping for Johnny’s comeuppance, and the only thing that makes him in any redeemable is that there are even worse men in this world (the oleaginous yuppie landlord Sebastian/Jeremy, for example).
The way that Johnny is placed into situations has an affect to it of course: this is not so much a kitchen-sink bit of neorealism as a very constructed series of self-aware Socratic dialogues, as Johnny’s interlocutor engages those he meets in one-on-one conversation, during which he reveals his deep cynicism at the state of the world and its future. His is an attitude very firmly tied to the legacy of the Thatcher years, and that is I suppose where the film’s anger lies. Like the recent Criterion release Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), this is a bleakly comic film angry about bourgeois privilege which is focused on an unkempt outsider who shuns society’s norms. And like that film, I find it hard to connect with its antihero, though there’s a sort of purity to its unrelentingly grim apocalyptic message.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring David Thewlis, Katrin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 5 April 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).
I guess I really want to love Nic Roeg’s films more than I do (not that I’m about to start a list of ‘overrated filmmakers that I dislike and you should too’ because that kind of thing is corrosive to cinephilia), but I just really cannot seem to connect with them fully; I liked Bad Timing and Walkabout and Don’t Look Now, but in an admiring sense more than loving them. Indeed a lot of passionate words have been penned about this particular film and perhaps that’s down to the star being David Bowie (who passed away a few years ago), but I imagine it’s just that Roeg’s vision of the world gels with a lot of people more than it does me. The Man Who Fell to Earth is surreal and it’s frantic at times, thanks to Roeg’s customary vivid editing. It sustains a sort of weird prelapsarian spirit both in its central character — there’s something about the gaunt, alabaster Bowie gliding through all his scenes which suggests innocence, though all accounts indicate this is likely because he was deep into a narcotics addiction — and its setting, an American landscape soundtracked in an almost rustic way, but combined with guns and alcohol and corruption and copious sex (sometimes quite roughly physical sex, but never particularly exploitative). It’s about an alien called Thomas (Bowie) who is looking to transfer resources from Earth back to his desert-like home planet but who falls into a lifestyle that seems to prevent his making progress, and maybe that would be a spoiler but the film seems genuinely more interested in the rhythms of his life; the ending, when it comes, just sort of happens, but then suddenly you realise that the title isn’t just because of his alien origins, it’s because of his inability to achieve his dreams, despite every resource available to him. It’s a cautionary tale, after a fashion. I admired it, but I did not love it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Paul Mayersberg (based on the novel by Walter Tevis); Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond; Starring David Bowie, Rip Torn, Buck Henry, Candy Clark; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 29 March 2020.
It’s another week where I suspect most of us are still stuck at home, and it’s looking like it’s going to stretch on. I’m taking a new tack with my themed weeks. Rather than focus on films I’ve seen on various online streaming services I’m already subscribed to (Netflix and Mubi in past weeks), I’m highlighting films available on other streaming services — or at least films for which I’ve not yet posted a review here. I’ll start with the BFI Player, which as a branch of an official national institute to support film and the moving image, has plenty of free programmes of largely archival and historical interest, many of which are fascinating. They also (for UK citizens) have a subscription service that seems like pretty good value (£5 a month, with a 14 day free trial period), as well as offering a range of straight rental titles (which as far as I can tell are separate from the ones available to subscribers). There’s also a special section of LGBTQI+ titles because the BFI Flare Film Festival was supposed to be finishing yesterday, but sadly was not able to go ahead. Some of the new films are being presented online, so maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial and review one or two of those if I can. In the meantime, here’s one of the big British success stories of last year.
The title Bait suggests a creature feature, and the way it looks suggests something with a real experimental edge (it reminded me a little of Rey, another recent film with a very textural and worn sense of film stock, despite being screened digitally). However, once you get over that initial shock, it’s actually an engaging drama. Still it’s quite a shock: there’s the obvious worn and scratchy black-and-white celluloid look but it’s combined with a very confrontational soundtrack in which all the sounds (of feet walking down the street, and the dialogue too) seem somehow abstracted and overlaid onto the image in a way that only heightens the constructedness of the enterprise. And then there’s the editing, which aggressively cross-cuts between different actions both at the same time and in the past/future, and the soundscapes, which constantly suggest the imminence of violence through scraping and dissonance. However, for all this, the drama remains focused on a small fishing village in Cornwall which is undergoing an unpleasant (and sadly, in our times, unavoidable) bout of gentrification. Our lead character Martin (Edward Rowe) has sold his family’s home to a posh couple with an utterly awful son (the daughter is less terrible), who’ve done it up and are letting out the loft to holidaymakers. At every stage, their sense of entitlement butts up against the traditions of the village and the family, a legacy of fishing and living off the sea, that Martin is desperately trying to maintain despite dwindling money. It’s a singular and fascinating film that really stands out thanks to its odd production, but it tells a classic story of precarity and gentrification that’s all too familiar.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Mark Jenkin; Starring Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 30 August 2019.
I’m pretty sure that most people going into this film aren’t exactly expecting anything thrilling. After all, as a film it exudes exactly the atmosphere of the scenario it depicts, black-and-white photography capturing the fusty old corridors of a large overprivileged English public school where Michael Redgrave plays a Classics teacher, Mr Crocker-Harris. He has a quote from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon permanently chalked up on the board behind his desk as he dispassionately surveys his classroom and speaks in a flat monotone to the boys, all but one of whom very much dislike him. It takes its time, too, for the drama to get going, but it works in some of the same ways, as, say, Brief Encounter in tracking these minute little changes of emotional register among a small group of central characters. It’s easy to miss what’s going on, and I suspect it only improves on re-watching, but this impressed me far more once it had finished than I had any expectation upon starting.
- There’s a five-minute clip from British TV in the late-1950s with Redgrave being interviewed about acting and how he gets into roles, during which he briefly touches on this film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Asquith; Writer Terence Rattigan (based on his play); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Jean Kent, Nigel Patrick, Brian Smith; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 12 February 2020.
I’m doing a week theme around Polish films, as today sees the UK cinematic release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film Mr. Jones. It’s an English-language co-production, and so is today’s film, which I’m including for that tenuous reason. One of the co-producing companies is from Poland and Agata Buzek co-stars, but aside from that there’s not much particularly Polish in it, although there’s something about the film’s very weirdness that puts it up alongside Has or Żuławski or other out-there auteurs.
Claire Denis has made two of my favourite films of two successive decades (that’s Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, and a few others I adore besides), but yet I guess I’m not fully subscribed to this latest one. It’s not that it’s broaching new experiences — science-fiction setting, English language screenplay — because a lot of the idiosyncrasies that lie within it are vintage Denis, but I think it may need more time to work itself into my psyche (like L’Intrus, another film of hers that I feel I’ve slept on). It primarily feels like a mood piece, evoking an extraordinary atmosphere of isolation, in a story of one man (Robert Pattinson) and his baby — its helplessness and reliance on him only magnifying the starkness of their situation — as they live on a prison spacecraft flying out towards a black hole. His story is intercut with flashbacks both to his childhood life on Earth (the 16mm photography evoking the infinity of time having since passed), and to a time when there were others on the ship with him, and how he has come to be on his own. There are some really quite indelible scenes, and some incredibly outré setpieces, but always there’s that sublime atmosphere, with its grinding Stuart A. Staples score adding to the mystery, a mystery that never quite resolves but extends outwards, a film drifting inexorably (like the spaceship) towards its own event horizon.
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 May 2019.
This was one of those early feature films in the New German Cinema, in which Schlöndorff turned his elegantly monochrome camera inward on German society, through the story of a young man at an Austrian boarding school in the early part of the century. It’s not so much about a boy’s coming of age, as it is about him learning about the depths of his own and his society’s cruelty towards others, about becoming institutionalised, seeking explanations (at one point, through imaginary numbers in mathematics) for the irrational desires of the heart. That said, it all moves fairly slowly and methodically through its story, and though the acting is rather frosty and stilted, I think that’s how it’s supposed to come across. I think I admired it more than I loved it, but it’s a fascinating film all the same.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Volker Schlöndorff; Writers Schlöndorff and Herbert Asmodi (based on the novel Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß “The Confusions of Young Törless” by Robert Musil); Cinematographer Franz Rath; Starring Mathieu Carrière, Marian Seidowsky; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 December 2019.
Antonioni, I feel, made a lot of films about boredom, or about people being bored, and it’s easy to slip into imagining they are boring films (to some, they are of course), but I love the moods he creates. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon slip into and around the frame in an almost endlessly reconfigurable number of ways, stopping only to look disconsolately off screen (and that’s how Vitti ends her screen performance in this film, last of a loosely-themed trilogy by Antonioni). She doesn’t seem to want love, or finds it boring perhaps, and then falls into the orbit of Delon’s stockbroker, whom she is equally unpassionate towards until near the end. Like the character halfway through L’avventura (1960), here all the film’s characters seem to disappear just before the end, as the world they’ve created continues, silent and without passion, in the places they have lived their lives and plan to keep living them, the water ebbing away from a rusted barrel, while the architecture blankly comments on the streets below. It’s a rondo of sorts between these two characters, and a movement through dead space, beautiful but always ultimately suffused with a boredom that emanates not just from the characters but from those around them, as if it’s the state of the universe.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 October 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 23 November 2019).
One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.
Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.