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.

Transit (2018)

Taking a brief break from my week’s theme of African cinema, I wanted to highlight a new release to UK cinemas this week which is one of my favourite films of the year I’ve seen so far, and which is definitely worth a trip to the cinema to see. The director’s previous film, Phoenix (2014), has already made it to the Criterion Collection (though it will be some time before a review of that makes it to my blog). However, he’s definitely a well-regarded contemporary German director worth watching.


For whatever reason, I’d not seen a Christian Petzold film before, but this is mesmerising work. In the early scenes, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is meeting a man at a café in Paris; there’s tension in the air as several police vans go hurtling past, and a sense that both these characters are being hunted; a plot is set in motion whereby Georg must deliver some documents to a fellow of theirs. So far, pretty standard thriller stuff, but then some dialogue suggests they are in flight from Germany and some unnamed authoritarian power, and suddenly you wonder if this is in fact the 1940s — there are no mobile phones in evidence and there’s none of that self-conscious recreation of the past you get with historical dramas (though there are some dowdy decaying hotel rooms with a faded sense of history to them), but the streets and the vehicles are modern, so there’s an immediate disconnect. Petzold exploits this beautifully, in updating a Nazi-era novel, to evoke an alternate reality which, sadly, doesn’t ever seem so very far from our own. We never do learn who people are running from — the characters here end up in Marseille desperately seeking passage via sea to Mexico or the US — or what exactly is the “cleansing” the fascists are enacting, but you never really need to know except that the characters live in fear. There aren’t many films that conjure a dystopia in a sunny French seaside city without the need for gloomy lighting or fascistic banners: this is our world, precisely unaltered and unadorned, but yet undeniably a dangerous place.

Transit film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Christian Petzold (based on the novel by Anna Seghers); Cinematographer Hans Fromm; Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 10 August 2019.

Rafiki (2018)

My week of African cinema has covered many different countries, touching on issues of post-colonialist political transition, civil war, religious divides and the like. However, increasingly filmmakers are grappling with social issues that have been undervalued across a largely conservative continent. The issue of LGBTQ rights comes up in this recent film from Kenya, which amongst other things was notable for being (at least briefly) banned in the country.


A charming, brightly coloured, energetic film set in Kenya about two young women falling in love, and their lives growing up in a suburb of Nairobi, with parents each running for political office and a general sense of neighbourhood gossip. It hits a lot of points that are maybe somewhat familiar, but in a setting and featuring characters who very much aren’t (at least, not in the cinema most of us get to see in the UK). It’s not that it finds a new message, but it’s an enduring one all the same, and the story it tells is told very well, with a glossy sheen and easy performances from all the leads that belies its presumably low budget origins.

Rafiki film posterCREDITS
Director Wanuri Kahiu; Writers Kahiu and Jena Cato Bass (inspired by the short story “Jambula Tree” by Monica Arac de Nyeko); Cinematographer Christopher Wessels; Starring Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 14 October 2018.

Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)

These two recent Nollywood films (which is the popular name for mainstream film production in Nigeria), both by women directors, share that they are set against the backdrop of office politics. Within them is the suggestion, though each follows its own genre cues, of a shared problem in how the country deals with women in positions of authority. They may not have the polish of Western films (thanks largely to their shoestring budgets), but both are pretty successful exercises and well worth watching. It’s worth noting that the director of The Department has also made a number of documentaries, including Faaji Agba (2015), which I reviewed a few years ago.

Continue reading “Two Recent Nollywood Films on Netflix: Lionheart (2018) and The Department (2015)”

Films by Moustapha Alassane: Return of an Adventurer (1966) and Two Short Films

My themed week of African cinema has seen a lot of strategies for dealing with post-colonial issues, but Nigerien (that is, from Niger) filmmaker Moustapha Alassane used the generic codes of that most American of genres, the western, to critique Western involvement in Africa. It’s witty and never outstays its welcome. Equally amusing are his shorter, animated films, most of all the glorious Kokoa (which may have been made in the 1980s, though most resources list its year of production as 2001). Needless to say, Niger isn’t currently one of the most highly-developed film-producing nations in Africa, although Wikipedia relates that it was once far more productive, with the ethnographer Jean Rouch being heavily involved in work there, followed by a number of native-born directors. Production in the last few decades has dwindled, although at a recent London Film Festival, I did see The Wedding Ring (2016) by a woman director, Rahmatou Keïta.

Continue reading “Films by Moustapha Alassane: Return of an Adventurer (1966) and Two Short Films”

Wênd Kûuni (aka God’s Gift, 1982)

While a number of post-independence films in Africa have focused on specific issues related to colonialism and development across the region, a number of filmmakers instead turned to pre-colonial stories of traditional life, perhaps to recall what had been lost, or else highlighting the powerful continuity of traditions that can be recognised even in a continent reconfigured with enforced new religions and political leadership. The Royal Belgian Film Archive has led on a new restoration of the Burkina Faso film Wênd Kûuni, which showed at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.


Although made in Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta when the film was made), this is set before the coming of Europeans, in a dusty and sun-drenched village. It moves at a gentle pace, as first we hear of a woman whose husband has disappeared, and then we see an abandoned child (Serge Yanogo), apparently mute, taken to a local village by a passing traveller. The villagers look after him as he grows, naming him ‘God’s Gift’ (Wênd Kûuni). The narrative, such as it is, involves his backstory, finding out where he comes from (which brings in local folk narratives, witchcraft and a rather brutal expulsion). However, it also suggests a time when such lives could be lived without the greater threat of the destabilisation created by the outside world, of a lost culture that no longer existed in Burkina Faso.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gaston Kaboré; Cinematographers Issaka Thiombiano and Sékou Ouedraogo; Starring Serge Yanogo, Rosine Yanogo; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.

Muna Moto (aka The Child of Another, 1975)

A beatifully-restored new (digital) print of this Cameroonian picture which deals with traditional ideas of marriage, with a fairly thoroughgoing critique of the same. Our two leads are N’gando (David Endene) and N’kome (Arlette Din Bell), young lovers, but he’s the ward of his uncle M’bongo (Philippe Abia, who has taken N’gando’s mother as one of his four wives), and now his uncle sets his eyes on N’kome as a possible mother to the child he hasn’t yet had. Key to this is the uncle’s access to money for a dowry (which N’gando must rely on his uncle to provide), and so there’s a battle for her affections which takes little account of her feelings, and so she is slowly closed off from both of them, leaving nobody in a good place. The structure of the film is fascinating, as it intercuts N’gando searching for N’kome during a local festival (filmed in a documentary verité style) long after they’ve been forced apart, with reminiscences and flashbacks of their time together. It’s also beautifully shot in black-and-white and undoubtedly a key work in African cinema.

Muna Moto film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa; Cinematographers Jean-Luc Léon and Jean-Pierre Dezalay; Starring David Endene, Arlette Din Bell, Philippe Abia; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Safi Faye

Born in the capital of Senegal in 1943, and trained as a teacher, Safi Faye had worked with filmmaker Jean Rouch and went on to formally study ethnography (gaining her doctorate in Paris). Therefore, this perspective runs strongly through her work, which frequently blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Her ethnographic focus is not, however, on documenting some exotic Other but often on her own family and their rural background (further explored in her 1979 film Fad’jal, named for her parents’ village), reclaiming it perhaps from the hands of Rouch and the French and European colonialists who deeply affected the entire region (if not, indeed, the continent).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Safi Faye”

Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)

Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.

Continue reading “Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)”