Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.

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Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.

Medicine for Melancholy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins; Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017.

This Is the Life (2008)

Ava DuVernay’s first feature-length film was this documentary (just up on Netflix) which focuses on a scene she was not only close to, but part of — the rap community based around the weekly hip-hop open mic nights at LA’s Good Life Cafe from 1989-1995 (we even get to see a short clip of her MCing, and she features in a lot of the talking heads interviews as part of her duo Figures of Speech). Formally, it’s very straightforward, blunt even: those interviews interspersed with video footage recorded at the time (and a few more recent clips to illustrate points being made, or subsequent careers). Sometimes someone will be remembering something (a notable MC’s flow, perhaps, or their distinctive stage presence) and then we’ll get the exact footage they are referring to — clearly, there exists plenty of documentation of the Good Life’s open mic nights, always good for this kind of project. If it seems raw and earnest, that’s hardly a failing, but comes from the love of filmmaker for subject. It’s good, too, to witness a scene explicitly founded in resisting what by that point were considered the boring tropes of gangster rap (so prevalent at the time, and this was around when Boyz N the Hood was filmically defining South Central Los Angeles). Much of the rap education I got from my ex in the early-00s was alternative hip-hop acts like Antipop Consortium and Blackalicious, and seeing this documentary makes it clear that other communities in the US were crafting lyrical, thoughtful reflections on the genre (leading to careers for rappers like Aceyalone and acts like Jurassic 5, the latter probably the most famous of the outfits which came from the Good Life scene). A film both inspiring and sweet.

This Is the Life film posterCREDITS
Director Ava DuVernay; Cinematographer Isaac Klotz; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 11 January 2017.

The Intervention (2016)

I recognise that perhaps the setup for this film is not the most original, and the characters are fairly dull as characters (they’re mostly variations on entitled middle-class white people), but yet I really enjoyed this relationship dysfunction comedy because it’s funny, and I am a huge fan of the always-underrated Melanie Lynskey, not to mention Alia Shawkat. The former is playing within her comedic element, as Annie, a woman who invites all her closest friends to a retreat at a family home out in the countryside as the pretext for staging an ‘intervention’ for her friend Cobie Smulders’ marriage, which ends up giving Annie a chance to rethink some things for herself. The film’s narrative arc is fairly predictable as are the ways everyone falls out with one another and then comes together again, but this is all about the performances from its ensemble cast, who are uniformly delightful. It also, importantly, doesn’t overstay its welcome.

The Intervention film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Clea DuVall; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Melanie Lynskey, Alia Shawkat, Clea DuVall, Cobie Smulders, Natasha Lyonne; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 2 January 2017.

À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960)

Debuts banner

This post was written for the Debuts Blogathon jointly organised and hosted by Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark at Three Rows Back (and can be read there with comments). Aside from presenting my thoughts on the film, in this case the debut of French director Jean-Luc Godard, it attempts to answer the questions they posed about “how your director of choice’s first feature has impacted on their work. How have their subsequent films fared against their debut? Have they improved or steadily declined over subsequent features?”


There were, in 1960, certain ways of making feature films wherever you were in the world, methods that had been built up over the preceding half-century of filmmaking and which continue to endure to this day in mainstream cinema. The key thing about this debut film from young French film critic Jean-Luc Godard is that few of these methods were followed, though such rulebreaking might have had less effect had the film not also been an enjoyable pulpy retrofitting of familiar American imagery. One of Godard’s famous aphorisms, which he attributes to D.W. Griffith, is that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and here indeed there’s a girl (Patricia, played by the American Jean Seberg) and a gun, generally wielded by gangster Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo). He’s on the run, she hooks up with him: that’s all you really need to know about the plot.

Referencing pulpy B-movies from the States was part of a deliberate strategy by a number of like-minded French critics making their first films all at the same time, loudly rebelling against the staid cinema of their fathers’ generation. This movement became acclaimed as the nouvelle vague (or ‘French New Wave’), and if François Truffaut gained a lot of early attention for his Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), it’s Godard who set out a lot of what made this New Wave memorable and which define its lasting legacy. In his films in particular you can see a youthful passion for cinema combined with formal innovations showing a blatant disregard for classical techniques, often informed by a self-consciously revolutionary politics. Even in this very first film of Godard’s can be seen a lot of what would later come to dominate his style.

First let’s talk politics. Not party politics (of which there’s plenty as Godard gets older), but la politique des auteurs. That phrase translates as “the policy of authors” in French, but the common translation of the term in the English language has been “the auteur theory”, thanks to Andrew Sarris’s writings from the 1960s onwards. It was a critical idea of Truffaut’s that helped to shape the way that the New Wave first developed, as a director-focused movement, but I think its value has been overstated. In many ways it’s a provocation like the Dogme 95 manifesto of Lars von Trier (and others), a way of focusing attention and signalling a change in methods from the mainstream. It has also helped to focus critical attention on the French New Wave, though similar changes in filmmaking practice were taking hold in various parts of the world at the same time, whether the Italy of Antonioni and Pasolini, or the American films of John Cassavetes.

The “auteur theory” is alluring for Godard’s films in particular, which often seem like such personal expressions, but even in this very first film he liked to expose the mechanics of filmmaking. It starts here with Michel addressing the camera directly as if the audience is a passenger in the car he’s driving. There’s also a sequence later on when Michel and Pauline are walking and talking down the Paris streets, and all the passers-by can be clearly seen turning and staring at them and the camera. (This scene also neatly illustrates both the simple energy of just capturing a spontaneous and improvised scene directly — an energy that suffuses the film as a whole — but also the technical changes in filmmaking that had in part opened up the way for the nouvelle vague, as smaller and more portable cameras became available.) Only a few years later, in Le Mépris (1963), Godard would kick off the film by showing the cameraman Raoul Coutard backed up by his crew dollying down a track filming the actors while Godard read out the credits, and this kind of breaking of the fourth wall would become a regular feature of his films.

Not unrelated is Godard’s habit for improvising dialogue. The script here is credited to Truffaut — and there was creative input too from Claude Chabrol (another critic and nascent filmmaker) — but that script was only apparently the outline of the film. The scenes as they play in the film were as often scribbled out by Godard himself, shortly before filming took place, and this would often be his method in future. Yet this personal inspiration (that of the auteur) is one that draws heavily on other texts and influences. There’s scarcely a scene that doesn’t quote the American cinema he so loved — whether it’s Michel standing in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), tracing his fingers around his lips as he imagines Bogart to do, or mimicking Debbie Reynolds’ melodramatic mugging in Singin’ in the Rain as he sits around Patricia’s apartment. These are just two examples, though. There are many more allusions to Hollywood movies, and it’s a habit that Godard would only extend, taking influences and presenting decontextualised quotations from film and literature like a magpie, until eventually entire films of his (such as Histoire(s) du cinéma) become playful interrogations of sources. Godard, more than most directors, has always remained a critic.

This first film also exposes some common techniques and themes that Godard liked to use. There are those long-takes of characters talking that do away with the classical shot-reverse shot construction, so here you have Patricia questioning Michel in the car while you hear his replies from off-screen. There are the sequence shots of couples in cramped domestic spaces bickering about meaningless topics, trying to escape one another (and the film’s frame), but never succeeding. There’s the fecklessness of male desire, and its betrayal by women — it’s interesting in this regard that Patricia was explicitly noted by Godard as an extension of Seberg’s character Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse, another young woman isolated in a world of unconstrained chauvinist desire (and she’s great in both films). Yet if there’s often in Godard’s films a self-important male figure (like Jean-Pierre Melville’s author at a press conference near the end) espousing generalisations about women, it’s also often accompanied and set in juxtaposition to lacerating self-critique (Godard himself plays an informer in the film). And I haven’t even mentioned the famous jump cuts.

But in 1960 none of this would mean very much if it was just another young director showing off his Brechtian or cineaste credentials, as so many like to do. The point is that around this time there weren’t any mainstream filmmakers doing this stuff. Sure, there were occasional isolated examples of these techniques beforehand, but for Godard (as for like-minded young directors of the era such as Cassavetes) it was just the way he made films. It shows most of all in the looseness and jazzy rhythms of this debut, more akin to documentary than to feature films of the period. Godard would extend his interests as his career progressed, becoming ever more esoteric as his meaning became more opaque, but he was never more accessible than in this first, exciting despatch from the front lines of a new wave.


© UGC

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director Jean-Luc Godard | Writer François Truffaut | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 1997 (and several times since, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013)

My Rating 4 stars excellent


Next Up: Moving forward a couple of years, I will look at Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (1962), an ever more Brechtian assemblage of beautiful women (Anna Karina) and the exploitative crassness of capitalism.

Pitch Perfect (2012)


FILM REVIEW || Director Jason Moore | Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin) | Cinematographer Julio Macat | Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin | Length 112 minutes | Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 31 December 2012 (and also at home on Blu-ray on numerous occasions, and at a friend’s home on DVD, Saturday 27 July 2013) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Universal Pictures

The last film I saw in 2012, and one I enjoyed so much I immediately went and ordered the Blu-ray from the USA where it had already been released, is this campus comedy tapping in to the (presumably burgeoning) activity of collegiate a cappella singing. And yes, although that’s the kind of thing that TV series Glee does, this film feels far more fresh and interesting.

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وجدة Wadjda (2012)

© Sony Pictures Classics

If the story of the making of Wadjda — notably the first feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, and one written and directed by a woman — somewhat overshadows the film itself, I don’t mean that to be a criticism, for the story is a remarkable one, and the film is perfectly enjoyable. In fact, I’d be surprised if anyone said they really hated Wadjda, for it has a sweet and earnest charm to it, even if it may not be the height of sophisticated filmmaking technique.

I feel as if there’s been a theme with my reviews this week of exploring unknown worlds, and of all those, Saudi Arabia must rank amongst the most exotic. I say “exotic” partly because of our assumptions about places which are so hidden from the Western gaze; in fact, what the film is at pains to put across is how quotidian reality is there. Outwardly the part of Riyadh we see looks like any Middle Eastern city, with wide concrete pavements and apartment blocks, schools and shops. The title character is a young girl (Waad Mohammed), growing up with her mother (played by Reem Abdullah) and going to school. Her dad occasionally passes through, but he and her mother have fallen out and there are suggestions throughout the film that he is going to get married to another woman.

It’s in the little details that the differences lie. The filmmakers thankfully avoid any speeches about inequities, preferring just to depict how things are. For example, with the relationship between Wadjda’s mother and father, the problem is that she hasn’t given birth to a son and can no longer have children; they are still married, and it’s his mother that is arranging a new wife for him. Meanwhile, Wadjda shows little signs of independence — wearing sneakers under her skirt, making bracelets to sell to her classmates, listening to cassettes of pirated music — that are frowned on by the school’s headmistress. Two other girls are shown hiding in a corner of the school yard, applying toenail polish or drawing fake tattoos on their legs with marker pens. It’s small stuff, none of it visible to outsiders and only caught through the watchfulness of the camera, but these actions all seem transgressive within the strict context of this society.

The most potent metaphor, however, is the the one concerning freedom and it’s the one the film starts and ends with: the women we see (and the film is mostly concerned with women) are not allowed access to transport without a chaperone. Wadjda’s mother must rely on the whims of her increasingly erratic driver Iqbal (paid for by her husband) to get to her distant job; she is given the opportunity to apply for a more local job, but fears society’s rules about exposing her face to the gaze of men. Meanwhile, Wadjda herself desperately covets a bike, but finds resistance from everyone she speaks to, for exactly the same reason. She finds resistance even though it leads her into a bit of self-improvement — she enters a Qur’anic learning competition at her school (presumably the Saudi equivalent of a spelling bee) in order to get the prize money which will allow her to buy the bike.

If these are all depressing signs of societal repression, the film takes a sunnier tack entirely, preferring to gently hint at the inequities in the hope of bringing about a softening of attitudes, which I can only hope has some effect in its country of origin — though given Saudi has no cinemas and no film industry (Wadjda received largely German funding), I have no idea to what extent this is possible. In fact, given these privations, it’s a wonder that the film exists. It’s not flashy filmmaking, at times distinctly televisual, but at its best it recalls the similar films about young protagonists which came out of Iran some decades ago — for example, Jafar Panahi’s Badkonake sefid (The White Balloon, 1995) or Samira Makhmalbaf’s Sib (The Apple, 1998).

The hints at women’s place in Saudi Arabian society are all there for people who want to read them, but Wadjda remains a sweet-natured and wholly optimistic film about a feisty young girl, whose individuality is surely not a threat to anyone and who has the tenacity to prevail. I only hope that this small first step can lead to further inroads, both in society and in Saudi cinema, but at the very least we are left with hope for a better future.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور | Cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier | Starring Waad Mohammed وعد محمد, Reem Abdullah ريم عبدالله | Length 97 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 23 July 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

Fast Girls (2011)


FILM REVIEW || Director Regan Hall | Writers Jay Basu, Noel Clarke and Roy Williams | Cinematographer John Lynch | Starring Lenora Crichlow, Lily James, Noel Clarke, Rupert Graves | Length 89 minutes | Seen at home (streaming video), Sunday 14 July 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© StudioCanal

In 2012, London hosted the Olympics, an event which was both a source of considerable local pride (as it turned out, though many of us, including myself, had been rather sceptical in the years running up to it) and the occasion for this movie about a group of young women competing in the 4x100m relay athletics event. Of course, the word Olympics is nowhere mentioned in the script, and the “2011 World Championships” at which they compete were made up for the film — the IOC jealously guard their brand — but this film was unquestionably intended to tie in with the incipient mood of London 2012 fever.

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Last Night (1998)


FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Don McKellar | Cinematographer Douglas Koch | Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley | Length 95 minutes | Seen at home (VHS), August 2000, and at home (DVD), Saturday 6 July 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Lionsgate

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

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StreetDance (2010)


FILM REVIEW || Directors Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini | Writer Jane English | Cinematographer Sam McCurdy | Starring Nichola Burley, Richard Winsor, Charlotte Rampling | Length 98 minutes | Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Monday 1 July 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Vertigo Films

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the dance film genre — which can surely thank the Step Up series for its recent proliferation — is a bit predictable. Genres can be that way, and ones that emphasise physical performance over acting or writing need simple and recognisable structures. Opera, for example, trades on hackneyed plots and tropes, and it’s no different with the dance film. We have our kinetic urban protagonists, who come into conflict with the established authority as they progress towards a final showdown that will gain them credibility and respect amongst their peers. As a British entry into this nascent genre, StreetDance (or StreetDance 3D as it’s more commonly called, though I didn’t watch it in 3D) is a perfectly satisfying film. It does the stuff it needs to do well, and seems to be having fun with it.

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