Barakah yoqabil Barakah (Barakah Meets Barakah, 2016)

If I were being flippant, I’d call this the best Saudi romcom I’ve seen, but of course the Saudi film industry is hardly developed (the only other film I can recall seeing from that country is 2012’s Wadjda, itself a German co-production). However, its existence in a very small industry aside, it’s actually — on any terms — a sweet story of romance, with two fetching leads (Hisham Fageeh as the male Barakah, and Fatima AlBanawi as the woman, though she goes by Bibi for short). It deploys many familiar structures to the romcom genre — the meet cute, the flirting, meeting the family — but these take on new meaning against the background of harsh social strictures designed to prevent any of these things from happening in real life. Barakah’s work as a civic functionary affords him little additional power (the unseen religious police have far more authority), and while it seems that Bibi’s far wealthier life makes her more able to shrug off religious obligations, even she has little power outside the private sphere of the home. Still, the film hardly dwells on such matters (given the wide-reaching grip of religious fervour within this society, it hardly needs to), and the tone remains light throughout: there are some great, properly funny scenes, and some touching ones too, as the two get closer.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Mahmoud Sabbagh | Cinematographer Victor Credi | Starring Hisham Fageeh, Fatima AlBanawi | Length 88 minutes || Seen on a flight from Beirut to London, Monday 29 May 2017

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Jao nok krajok (Mundane History, 2009)

There’s something to Anocha Suwichakornpong’s filmmaking, a sort of dreamy, elliptical oddness that has long stretches of quiet watchfulness (long takes with a fairly static camera, though often handheld so a bit shaky)… but then there are these little flares of strangeness (and I still can’t help but thinking about fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in this regard). This is a story of two men: Ake, from a rich family, who has mobility issues (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk); and the other, Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), his carer, from somewhat lower down the rungs of society. There’s almost an upstairs-downstairs dynamic (we also see the family’s cook), but that’s not really dwelt upon. What unfolds is largely this slow evolution of feeling between the two, with sort of mystical asides to astronomy and an unexpected scene of childbirth at the end (even the appearance of the opening credits 15 minutes in took me by surprise). I can’t explain what it’s doing, but it’s interesting enough for me to want to watch more by the same filmmaker (her more recent film By the Time It Gets Dark had much the same effect on me).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Anocha Suwichakornpong | Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung | Starring Arkaney Cherkam, Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk | Length 82 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 1 March 2017

A Way of Life (2004)

It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Amma Asante | Cinematographer Ian Wilson | Starring Stephanie James | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 132: The Ruling Class (1972)

There’s a tradition of British comedy that we’ve seen already in the Criterion Collection of revelling in over-the-top satirical absurdity, with silly voices, musical sequences, delusions of grandeur, all that bit (think Monty Python’s Life of Brian or How to Get Ahead in Advertising as two examples), and this film clearly fits into that tradition. It’s certainly enjoyable, with Peter O’Toole on fine form as a delusional Christ-like aristocrat who comes into his inheritance. The film is made in a self-consciously theatrical style, with frontal framing, addresses to camera, no end of soliloquies, though it adds a few fine camera flourishes for cinematic effect. I just wish I could believe in the power of satire as something other than simply a way for an out group to laugh self-satisfiedly at entitled people they deem infra dignitatem but who retain the reins of power even so. It’s very hard in 2017 for me to be anything but angry at the self-appointed upper crust inveighing against immorality whilst revelling in it, invoking white imperialist legacies to justify their authoritarian tendencies. Still, there’s a lot to like if you’re willing to allow it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Medak | Writer Peter Barnes (based on his play) | Cinematographer Ken Hodges | Starring Peter O’Toole, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Carolyn Semour | Length 154 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 November 2016

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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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

All This Panic (2016)

There are, I suppose, no shortage of films — no shortage even of woozy impressionistic documentaries — about the teenage experience of girlhood, but this one seems pretty engaged. Its New York-based subjects are, for example, hardly idiots (frustrating, piqued, flighty at times, but not stupid). Indeed, there’s some discussion amongst its (mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class) subjects of how young female voices are routinely mocked and ignored — an argument I’ve seen recycled quite a bit over this past winter of Teen Vogue‘s growing political ascendancy. Well, there’s no such danger here, as we watch this loose group of friends grow up and go to university (or not). It’s sweet, sad, and hopeful, often all at once. It’s also shot in tight close-ups, hazy in the camera’s focus, and always gorgeous to look at.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jenny Gage | Cinematographer Tom Betterton | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 25 March 2017

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Criterion Sunday 102: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972)

As Criterion in this period increasingly starts to look back to the great directors of history, it’s no surprise to see some representation for Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. His style has never been as flashy as some of the more vulgarian of auteurs, forever delighting in camera effects, but rather it’s the sly sense of humour which comes through so well, especially in his late period French films, which I adore. Much has been written about this film — still one of the best, though maybe if I were being stubborn I might opine the only great film, to have won an Academy Award in the US (for best foreign film, obviously) — but it stands up over forty years on. Some of the set design and costume choices are a little dated, but at heart this remains a delightful anarchic satire on the self-regarding, classist, greedy bourgeois class, forever just looking for a catered meal but, here at least, forever thwarted by Buñuel’s satirical ire.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Edmond Richard | Starring Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau | Length 102 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 August 2000 (earlier at home on VHS, Wellington, November 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016)