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)

Queen of Katwe (2016)

There’s no shortage of varied string-tugging that goes on in this film, but surprisingly — for a triumph-against-the-odds narrative, for a Disney film, for a big Western-funded film production set in Africa — it does so without hitting the expected marks. As one example, there’s no orchestral score overwhelming the scenes at key moments (which is to say, there is a score, but my point is it doesn’t unduly ingratiate itself; the African pop music is more noticeable, and excellent). More importantly, there’s no white/European central character to channel a condescending understanding of the struggles the African characters face. The closest the film comes to such a figure is David Oyelowo’s university-educated coach, who lives a relatively middle-class life. That said, everyone in this film has and does struggle through poverty, and for a Disney film it does show a lot of that. It’s picturesquely shot, with plenty of vibrant colours, and despite the difficult lives of its characters there’s little reliance on some of the more overworn African film themes (there are some threatening characters, but no gang violence for example), and it gives its characters a chance at lives that aren’t just punchlines to the usual tropes of colonialist filmmaking. I wouldn’t call it perfect, and it’s definitely still a feel-good triumph-against-the-odds sports movie — even if the sport is chess — but for all that, it’s done well, with passion and with great acting from its three leads.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Mira Nair | Writer William Wheeler (based on the non-fiction book by Tim Crothers) | Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt | Starring Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 24 October 2016

LFF 2016 Day Six

I missed days four and five of the London Film Festival what with being away for the weekend for my birthday (I was in Manchester at a beer festival). Anyway, I returned on Monday 10 October and resumed watching films…


LoveTrue (2016)

LoveTrue (2016, USA, dir./DOP Alma Har’el)
Psychodrama is a new one on me, but it fits into a burgeoning interest in examining the intersection between the stories we have in us and the ways they can be presented: the focus seems very much to be on documentary-as-performance (with, notably, some acted recreations of events, though the actors are clearly identified and the nature of this collaboration becomes part of the film at several points). Here, there are three central protagonists (in Hawaii, Alaska and NYC) but the ways they deal with the other players in their lives, specifically at the level of love, are quite different. I think the achievement of Alma Har’el’s film is getting under the skin of characters who can be quite unlikeable (here I’m speaking chiefly of the men), and making them empathetic at some level. Romantic love almost seems like an illusory idea by the end, but there are definitely other forms of love that haven’t been abandoned in all three, and in the telling it goes in some surprising emotional directions. [****]


Interchange (2016)

Interchange (2016, Malaysia/Indonesia, dir. Dain Iskandar Said, wr. Said/June Tan/Nandita Solomon/Redza Minhat, DOP Jordan Chiam)
There’s an interesting film in here about the appropriative gaze of white colonialists, whose early-20th century photography was thought to steal the soul of tribal peoples. This idea is parlayed into a vampiric metaphor (people literally sucked of life and turned inside out) within a detective thriller genre framework, which would be fine if it didn’t rest its characters and narrative on so many other referential crutches (Se7en, Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Vertigo, not to mention a whole strand of Hong Kong police thrillers and that kind of thing). Ultimately I just couldn’t care about photographer Adam, or the police detectives — or anyone really — and too much of the characters’ dialogue was filled with portentous platitudes. Still, it never fails to look stylish, and there are some beautiful images. [**½]


Nong Hak (Dearest Sister, 2016)Nong Hak (Dearest Sister) (2016, Laos/Estonia/France, dir. Mattie Do, wr. Christopher Larsen, DOP Mart Ratassepp)
This is something unusual — a Lao-Estonian-French co-production — though as the director mentioned in a post-film Q&A, there’s no real Lao cinema to speak of (all her local actors are non-professional, even if they all do a great job). The film is ostensibly a ghost story, looping in supernatural lottery prediction, but the heart of the drama is of class and social mobility dividing the rich city woman Ana (who is losing her sight, her sense of perspective — do you see) from her poor country cousin Nok, whom Ana barely knows but who has been moved in to help her around the home by the rich woman’s white (Estonian) husband Jakob. The film is also canny about calling out the presence of western NGOs and their workers’ assumptions about Lao women. But this is not a film which fits into South-East Asian horror stereotypes, nor does it quite match up to the kind of slow-burn Thai weirdness of, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (though I’d put it closer to that). It has its own rhythms, and uses a tightly-focused handheld aesthetic to help put across some of the terror and uncertainty felt by its blind central character. [***½]

Criterion Sunday 85: Pygmalion (1938)

George Bernard Shaw’s satirical play about the fragility of the English class system gets a fine adaptation here, with Leslie Howard (also the film’s co-director) portraying the mercurial and largely detestable Henry Higgins, and Wendy Hiller as his flower-girl muse, her Cockney accent rather patchy in the early portions of the film. There’s a prickly intensity to the relationship between the two, and it’s not exactly clear who ends up with whom at the film’s close (without giving anything away, there’s a hint that’s what’s seen may be imagined, or so it seems to me), but in the meantime there’s a feisty comedy of manners, as Higgins seeks to teach Eliza the King’s English, well enough to pass as aristocracy in the right kind of setting. And so, without quite meaning to, he essentially destroys her — or effectively tries to — by replacing her self-respect with the indignities of middle-class morality. It moves along at a fair clip with some jaunty editing (by David Lean, in an early film role for him) and the two leads trade barbs in a watchable and comedic manner.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard | Writers George Bernard Shaw, W. P. Lipscomb, Cecil Lewis and Ian Dalrymple (based on the play by Shaw) | Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr. | Starring Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller | Length 96 minutes || Seen on a train to London (DVD), Sunday 22 May 2016.

The Violators (2015)

There’s been a lot of talk amongst my friends recently of hating other people in this country — for the way they vote, and for the opinions they seem to trumpet (or latch on to) — but desperate people have very little power and the more they’re ignored, left out in the cold with no options and no jobs, the more society will split apart. Now this isn’t immediately relevant to this film, first screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2015, but the film does give a vivid sense of life lived on the margins, and I think that’s always good to think about. If looked at as a story about the emotional toll of various forms of abuse (whether the societal burden placed on those without means, or, more immediately germane to the plot here, sexual), this is a persuasive film about one young woman (Lauren McQueen) living in a poor Northern town. It’s just that the film takes a swerve towards something more contrivedly ‘gangster’ towards the end, not to mention featuring a supporting character, a rich young woman called Rachel (Brogan Ellis), whose relationship to the lead is pretty confusing and the plot contortions that bring them together aren’t particularly persuasive. But even if it lost me a bit, it does set up a strong sense of a specific environment, and that’s worth something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Helen Walsh | Cinematographer Tobin Jones | Starring Lauren McQueen, Stephen Lord, Brogan Ellis | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016

The Divide (2015)

There have been no shortage of either documentaries or fiction films about the post-2007/8 economic recession and its effects over recent years, though The Divide isn’t specifically concerned with this so much as widening wealth inequality within society generally (which has, if anything, only been exacerbated by 2008 and its fallout). The director Katharine Round, basing the subject of her film around a non-fiction book called The Spirit Level, does use knowledgeable talking heads (including the source book’s authors) to get some context on the issues, but the primary focus is a number of case studies on either side of the Atlantic. Because these interviewees are well-chosen, the film is never boring. These people range from the poorest folks in both countries (most notably a KFC worker in the US South, an former-alcoholic rapper in a grim bit of Scotland, and a prisoner caught by the USA’s “three strikes” rule who is intelligent and reflective but has also been startlingly worn down by the system) to the embattled middle-classes ever striving upwards (there’s a NYC psychologist with a nice apartment in New Jersey, and a very articulate mother living rather against her better convictions in a gated community). Moreover, it has a striking visual style with clean careful framings of its shots, and this visual excellence sets it apart from many documentaries. This style may make it a little easier to listen to some powerful individual testimonies about the effects of endemic poverty and the dangers of being trapped into a cycle of payments and fines, but it doesn’t dilute the anger you are ultimately left with at the end, which very briefly — and not entirely convincingly — suggests action is still possible, and change can happen. One can only hope it is, given some of the lives seen here.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Katharine Round (based on the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett) | Cinematographer Woody James | Length 78 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 29 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward) [uncredited] | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016)

Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges is fairly acclaimed as a master of screwball comedy with a penchant for narrative experimentation in films like Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve (both 1941), but even amongst his oeuvre, it seems like Christmas in July, his second feature film as director, is underrated. Which is a pity because it has two qualities I greatly admire in a comedy: laughs; and a concise running time. A lot of filmmakers probably think their films need more of everything, but the 67 minutes of this film proves quite the opposite — though Sturges does cram his scenes with quite a lot of action and an abundance of plot.

We start, however, with our protagonists, Jimmy (Dick Powell) and Betty (Ellen Drew), sharing a NYC rooftop view while talking about Jimmy’s dreams of winning a contest, any contest — he habitually enters them in the hopes of making a fortune and a break for himself — though at the moment the film begins, he’s specifically focused on the slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee. The couple live together, unmarried and in relative poverty, wondering at gadgets that make the most of a single-room apartment. In any case, things snowball from there, and the couple experience ups and downs, all borne along at the whim of those who have money, but exemplifying the caprice of capitalism and the way it confers moral authority on those who are presumed to be wealthy.

The film is a masterclass in tight narrative structure, conveying all kinds of details about their lives with great economy, revelling in the warmth of their extended tenement community, and poking fun at the self-important manager classes. It’s also, as is not unusual either for Sturges or for films made during this wartime period, partial to a bit of sentimentality. However, Sturges never wallows in it, and there’s always a sharp riposte even after a period of relative mushiness. And along the way, Jimmy repeats his absurd winning slogan so many times that it goes from being idiotic to maybe-actually-good-who-knows, proving the words of Jimmy’s boss that he hasn’t a clue whether any idea is any good unless someone else says so. So perhaps it’s because Christmas in July didn’t win any awards that it’s underrated? In any case, it’s easily worth 67 minutes of your time.


Christmas in July (1940)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Preston Sturges Retrospective
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on his play A Cup of Coffee) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Dick Powell, Ellen Drew | Length 67 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 12 February 2016