Criterion Sunday 316: 乱 Ran (1985)

Twenty years on from first watching this film on (pan-and-scanned, no doubt) VHS at home, my chief memory of the film is a lot of horses rushing back and forth with primary-coloured flags — and yes there’s quite a bit of that in the film — but seeing it on the big screen seems to make a lot more sense of its human machinations. Those battle scenes do get a little repetitive by the film’s close, but the use of the coloured flags makes the engagements easier to follow, and there’s a real sense of physicality that you don’t get with massed CGI encounters of more recent films. Ran also feels like Kurosawa’s swansong (he’d do a few more, smaller-scale, films before his death a decade later), and at the very least it’s his farewell to the samurai period epic he’d become most well-known for after the break-out success of Seven Samurai (1954). The story, as is well known, follows the contours of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with an elderly warlord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) ceding control of his kingdom to his eldest child — the three here are sons — and in so doing, banishing his youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). When the elder two turn on him, he’s left almost alone, except for his fool, wandering in the wilderness of the Azusa Plain, driven almost to madness by the treachery. The staging is exemplary, with some spectacular and memorable imagery, such as a scene of Hidetora staggering out of a bloodied rampart as it burns to the ground, or an opening hilltop meeting amongst all the local warlords. As the film progresses, the second son’s wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) unexpectedly comes to the fore, quickly becoming the most notable obstacle to peace in the kingdom and pushing the film to its chaotic ending (the Japanese title means “chaos”). And all along the way, Kurosawa presents images of Buddha, implacably and serenely unconcerned with what is going on in the muddy, windswept plains beneath, as they increasingly run with blood.

(Written on 18 April 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 and Masato Ide 井手雅人 (based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers Takao Saito 斎藤孝雄, Masaharu Ueda 上田正治 and Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Daisuke Ryu 隆大介, Mieko Harada 原田美枝子; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 17 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (Napoléon, 1927)

One of the categories on the BFI Player is dedicated to films appearing in the Sight & Sound poll of critics, and includes several classics, not least the one I’m covering today. Although it’s a grand spectacle, especially with an orchestra backing it up, it probably wouldn’t make my greatest ever list, I’m afraid, but it’s worth watching. Alternatively there are plenty of other films, many of which I’ve reviewed for my Criterion Sundays, like L’avventura, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Faces, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, et al.


This is maximalist filmmaking. It has an impressionistic feel at times with its lap dissolves and rapid cutting, emphasising mood over clarity (I’ll never quite be sure what tactics were being deployed in the snowball fight scene), but it never shows a great deal of subtlety in its symbolism — the eagle, the waves crashing, the frenzy of the crowd, the guillotine. It’s also never anything less than triumphantly behind its eponymous hero, played as a lank-haired wunderkind by an actor named ‘God’s Gift’ in French (Albert Dieudonné). It has a long third act of romantic entanglements (including an entirely extraneous one with a minor character’s daughter) that drags a bit and yet when the film finishes it feels almost curtailed too early. It reaches — constantly, grandly, excessively — and I can’t really fault it for that, but whether that makes it great art I’m not so sure about. It’s still quite the experience, especially with a full orchestra and the triptych projection at the end.

Napoléon film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abel Gance; Cinematographer Jules Kruger; Starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Antonin Artaud, Edmond Van Daële; Length c330 minutes.
Seen at Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday 7 November 2016 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, December 1997).

وقائع سنين الجمر Waqai Sinin al-Jamri (aka Chronique des années de braise, Chronicle of the Years of Fire, 1975)

Algeria, even more than many of its North African neighbours, has been a subject of a lot of filmmaking, thanks to the Wars of Independence from France that tore the country apart in the 1950s and 1960s, a cause that galvanised a generation of French politically-engaged filmmakers who came of age in the New Wave and were receptive to the radical student politics of May 1968. The struggle is most famously covered in The Battle of Algiers (1966), but there are relatively few films told from the Algerian side. One such film, a work garlanded with plenty of awards and which is often found on lists of the greatest Arab cinema, is the one I cover below.


A grand, sweeping, widescreen epic of Algerian liberation from colonialist oppression which covers several decades up to the wars of independence in the 1950s. The film primarily follows a village farmer called Ahmed (Yorgo Voyagis, a Greek actor), who leaves his village for the larger local city with a family, and suffers various privations, especially during World War II. Their lives are almost entirely cut off from Europe, so the wars of France against Germany seem like nothing more than an opportunity to replace their despised colonial masters. Still, they are sucked in, and return to famine and typhoid, at which point a man arrives, banished to this remote outpost, and quickly starts to foment further revolutionary consciousness amongst the people. This is a new restoration commissioned by the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival and which hopefully will bring this Palme d’Or-winning Algerian film back to wider prominence. The director’s preferred cut is 157 minutes, and has some of that sweeping, epic, desert quality of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as well as a potent message of fighting against brutal oppression, but it remains always grounded in the small-scale story of Ahmed and his family.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina محمد الأخضر حمينة; Writers Rachid Boudjedra رشيد بوجدرة Tewfik Fares توفيق فارس and Lakhdar-Hamina; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Yorgo Voyagis Γιώργος Βογιατζής, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.

Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)

I’m spending a week looking at Arabic language cinema, from around the Arabic-speaking world, stretching from North Africa across the Middle East. One of the key early figures in modern Arab cinema is the work of Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, and indeed Egypt has always been the powerhouse cinematic country of the whole region, with a range of popular cinema rivalling that of Bollywood to the East. Chahine integrates influences from France and the Soviet Union, amongst other traditions, creating some of the greatest works of modern cinema and he has certainly been influential in Arab cinema. I’ve already reviewed one of his earlier films, the excellent melodrama Cairo Station (1958), though these 60s works feel like quite different films.

Continue reading “Two Films by Youssef Chahine: Saladin the Victorious (1963) and The Land (1969)”

Criterion Sunday 235: Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)

There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa); Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon; Length 185 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019).

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick; Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast); Cinematographer Russell Metty; Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons; Length 196 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000).

Criterion Sunday 88: Иван Грозный Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн; Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin Андрей Москвин and Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов; Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively).

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016.

三城记 San cheng ji (A Tale of Three Cities, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, presented by the CEO of the BFI along with the film’s director and producers, who stayed for a Q&A afterwards (though I had to dash off to my next film).


It may be based on real people (the parents of film star Jackie Chan, apparently), but this sweeping historical romance in fact subsumes itself into a familiar overheady melodramatic register, making it a struggle to glimpse the reality behind the burnished cinematography and period set recreations. Still, it’s never boring and occasionally even transcendent at evoking Anhui (a province, not a city, as far as I can tell) and Shanghai during World War II. The third city of the title is Hong Kong, to which the family escapes after the coming of the Communists, and it’s where the film starts out, which may head off worries about our lead characters’ survival, though there’s still plenty of nail-biting tension in the backstory which the following two hours builds up. At the heart of the piece are Sean Lau and Wei Tang as the lovers Daolong and Yuerong, who first meet in a small fishing village when she is caught by him smuggling opium but then released because things are too chaotic and he feels a tug of pity. Like any good epic, the setting changes from scene to scene such that recounting the twists and turns of the plot is difficult, suffice that between Shanghai and their homes in Anhui province, they are reunited once again and fall in love. They each have two kids from previous marriages, but those seem like the story’s losers (certainly their fate is not dwelt upon), as Daolong and Yuerong struggle to make a home for themselves somewhere away from the threat of violence and governmental oppression. Perhaps the past is the safest place to tell a story of people who were openly working against the Communists, but it still imparts a frisson of topicality, and whatever the film’s weaknesses, a fondness for grand storytelling in the David Lean style is not one of them.

A Tale of Three Cities film posterCREDITS
Director Mabel Cheung 張婉婷; Writers Cheung and Alex Law 羅啟銳; Cinematographer Wang Yu 王昱; Starring Sean Lau 劉青雲, Wei Tang 汤唯; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 15 October 2015.

Noah (2014)

I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).

Of course, punishment is still a key theme at some level, since the film deals with the Biblical story of Noah, who builds an ark to protect a few deserving creatures from God’s wrath. God, incidentally, is never named in the film, but as “the Creator”, he (still a man apparently) remains present in the narrative, and wisely Aronofsky refrains from having any of those high camp ‘voice from the clouds’ type moments. Instead we get a number of stop-motion animated interludes retelling the Creation myth and setting up these characters, which reappear later on in the film and manage to somehow interweave it with evolutionary theory. Stop-motion animation also gets used for the Nephilim, who here are fallen angels trapped on Earth in solidly rock form as “the Watchers”, and again it shows some nous from Aronofsky that he’s not tried to make them ‘realistic’, for what exactly would be the point of that? They’re giant rock creatures after all, and ones which are not even too abstracted from the original tale.

I think the key here is that this isn’t an attempt to resolve the story of Noah into something akin to realism by shearing it of its supernatural elements; not much would be left of it, after all. Instead, it sensibly focuses on the moral issues, as Noah grapples not just with the Creator’s intended punishment but with his own role in that punishment. He is pushed to the edges of sanity but what he perceives are the Creator’s demands, as he interprets the flood as a way of ridding the Earth of all the errors of humanity, including him. Of course, the world’s repopulation presumably leans rather heavily on incest, but that’s a consideration that is beyond the scope of the film.

So it’s a Biblical epic and also at some level an ecological horror story, as the forces of evil, incarnated by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone, doing his best Cockney hard man once again) wreak havoc on the world with their vicious tribal society, which we briefly glimpse as, I suppose, a pre- rather than post-apocalyptic dystopia. But however dark and barbaric Tubal-cain’s settlement may be when Noah infiltrates it, it’s his people’s insistence on hunting and eating meat that is presented most insistently as their greatest failing, making Noah something of a visionary evangelistic vegetarian epic.

Few of the actors really make much of a mark in the film next to Russell Crowe’s charismatic central performance. It feels only right that he should embody Noah in all his contradictions and vainglory, as the quest he embarks upon is the kind of single-minded folly that only the most confident of epics could countenance, and Crowe has already proved he can hold this kind of film together. Anthony Hopkins gets a few scenes as the decrepit old Methuselah, living atop a mountain and largely absent for most of the film, while the lovely Emma Watson gets written in as a love interest for Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, largely forgettable). Instead his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) gets a more prominent role, but then his conflicted character, who forges an uneasy alliance with Tubal-cain, is rather more interesting.

As is no doubt clear, I can’t really comment on the religious accuracy of this retelling, but then I shouldn’t really have to. As an epic story about humanity grappling with its own fate, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Maybe the Bible is finally the kind of excessive setting that suits Darren Aronofsky’s talents.

Noah film posterCREDITS
Director Darren Aronofsky; Writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.

When the film came out, I seem to recall it being a matter of wide discussion how much effort it — and particularly its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis — had gone to in researching the historical details. The usual stories that accompany your ‘method’ actors. Perhaps some of it was true, perhaps some of it was just feeding the legend. As it happens, I’m not a paid-up member of the cult of Mr Day-Lewis, which seems to bear similarity to that around Meryl Streep. He’s still a star actor, and however deep he goes into a role, he’s always that famous actor playing that famous role. Here, as Hawkeye, he is lanky and pale, an awkward misfit sticking out from his co-stars because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but that works perfectly for the character, who is not comfortably part of any culture.

Around him is marshalled all the pomp and brutality of the Seven Years’ War — surely one of the first truly ‘world wars’ — here fought between French and English on American soil, recruiting Native Americans of various tribes to each side’s cause. But pre-dating independence, there is no real patriotic side to support, so the story cannily focuses on Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ and his fellow poor frontiersfolk. Hawkeye, having been brought up by a Mohican father, Chingachgook (played by Russell Means), limns the divide between the two largely antagonistic cultures, and suffers recriminations from both sides. He is eyed suspiciously by the Huron when he goes to make peace with Magua, just as he is treated with barely-disguised condescension by Colonel Munro on the English side. Nevertheless, he prevails because his calling is always a greater one: the love he feels towards Colonel Munro’s daughter Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), the duty of care towards his father and brother Uncas, his sparring with the petulant Major Duncan Hayward (Steven Waddington) — who is also in love with Cora — and his enmity towards the traitorous Magua (Wes Studi), whose object is the obliteration of the Munro family. All the film’s emotions are passionately felt and rousingly marshalled.

This is the end to which all of director Michael Mann’s skill is put, ensuring the film doesn’t slow down for anything so banal as mere exposition. Dialogues are never spoken between two characters when they can be declaimed. It’s not so much the exchange of facts as deeply-held feelings that are the subject of the characters’ interactions. What we do glean about the conflict is not spelled out and the film is all the better for that. For example, there’s an early role for Jared Harris on horseback imperiously demanding the subjection of the frontier dwellers to the English cause, and though he is a character set up so as to be openly mocked by Nathaniel, we get a sense of what’s at stake for the settlers. Or else there’s General Webb recounting the tactical situation on the front lines as part of an extended personal joke with his second-in-command at the expense of French sybaritic indolence. When the film does slow down for a quiet moment, the air is pregnant with the conflicts to come — a coach crossing a bridge between two warring worlds, a broken branch on the trail that leads to Hawkeye’s kidnapped sweetheart, or the water lapping listlessly at the crest of a massive waterfall (this latter moment being the least ‘realistic’, intercut as it is with stock footage of a roaring crescendo of water clearly not in the same space).

The chief co-conspirator to the film’s rousing romance is not so much the actors (though they are all excellent) as the musical soundtrack, composed largely by Trevor Jones with help from Randy Edelman. The string-laden theme takes its influences from traditional folk music, and in fact moves more purely into this idiom at the most heightened moments, taking on a urgent percussive quality, whenever Nathaniel is pursuing some perilous adventure — which means it’s heard often, particularly in the last half-hour of the film. The strings are yearning and evocative but never quite descend to gloopy sentimentality, even when the staging most suggests this quality — Nathaniel and Cora embracing one another in profile against the sunrise, for example.

The film is filled with excesses of this kind, little flourishes of pure melodrama and Boy’s Own adventure heroics. It’s against this background that it needs to be assessed, not as a naturalistic depiction of 18th century combat (though there is that) or the difficulty of living on the frontiers of such a dangerously young country (and that’s there too). I could affect ironic distance, but the film works too hard to break it down. It’s the kind of film you either wholeheartedly and passionately embrace, or you laugh off as inconsequential fluff. I trust, though, that I’ve made my own position clear.

CREDITS
Director Michael Mann; Writers Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper); Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously).