One of the things I love about this era of filmmaking is that the great stars were just these unassailable icons, and questions about how old the character they were portraying should have been (a lot younger) or how believable their relationship was with the inevitably dull and rather wooden guy cast opposite as the romantic lead (not particularly compelling) fade away almost to irrelevance. The fact — the only salient fact — is that Barbara Stanwyck is in charge here, and she’ll let you know it, like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar a few years later: an icon. As it is here, another moral might be: don’t name your New Mexico landholding after vengeful characters of Greek mythology, because surely someone will be punished and it’s likely to be the one hubristic enough to have chosen the name, though in fact there’s just a lot of punishment to go round here and the look of the film emphasises that, all glowering monochrome skies weighing heavy on the actors. This is, looking back, a great film, more interested in the character dynamics between father and daughter than in the weedy guy (Wendell Corey) who for all his relatively young years when this film was made still somehow seems too old, too conservative, too boring for someone as flashy a character as Stanwyck’s Vance (though she is older). Luckily the father is played by veteran Walter Huston, in his last screen role, and the sparring between them is the core of the film, driving the narrative and providing plenty of fodder for the avenging deities to work with.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Mann; Writer Charles Schnee (based on the novel by Niven Busch); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 May 2021.
Sofia Coppola has made some films I love, while never quite being a filmmaker whose work I seek out. Somehow at their worst — and this is one of her weaker films — they feel quite safe in some ways, but for me The Beguiled and The Bling Ring have been fascinating dramas about what it is to be American. Perhaps this is too, and like those other films it has a very specific sense of place, even if (like all her films) it’s abstracted from lived reality into something rather cozily familiar.
Halfway through watching this film and I was very willing to dislike it, but by the end it had grown a little on me. I still don’t think it’s one of director Sofia Coppola’s most accomplished works, but it’s a deft little miniature about those kind of very privileged New York City people that too many filmmakers make films about. Part of what grated on me, what made me want to dismiss the film, is that by halfway through a quotidian story of a middle-class Black couple (Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans) negotiating their relationship after many years of marriage, gets sidetracked into being the Bill Murray show. He plays Jones’s father, an art dealer and something of a fantasist who knows everybody and has an easy charm, but his character pushes this into being a different kind of film. His ongoing habit of opining about women is of course tedious, and the way that he makes things about himself becomes what the film is about: his soliloquies are very much to showcase all the ways that Jones has to roll her eyes at him, while his impishly adventurous spirit leads to a catharsis that pulls the movie back to something that feels more emotionally truthful. It’s not a masterpiece, but I did end up liking it just a little bit.
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Academy Cinemas, Auckland, Thursday 29 October 2020.
The highlight of the archival strand of the London Film Festival was undoubtedly recently rediscovered Iranian film The Chess Game of the Wind, which I saw at the online version of Il Cinema Ritrovato (though I haven’t posted about it here yet). However, there was also this silent programme of Australian director Paulette McDonagh’s surviving feature, alongside a fragment of her earlier Those Who Love (1925).
This surviving Australian silent film, directed by Paulette McDonagh and starring her sister Isabel (as “Marie Lorraine”), has a somewhat hoary old feel to it, given the advances being made in silent (and indeed sound cinema) at the time in other parts of the world. It’s a melodrama of criminals and cheats, but also a romance in which “Marie” falls for the son of an old enemy of her father’s, prompting all kinds of contorted plotting that I didn’t fully keep up with. Still, it’s jaunty good fun and a perfectly solid bit of early filmmaking from a nation not known for its cinema for quite a few decades yet.
Director/Writer Paulette McDonagh; Cinematographer Jack Fletcher; Starring Marie Lorraine [Isabel McDonagh], Arthur Greenaway, John Faulkner; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 12 October 2020.
The 2020 London Film Festival (LFF) just closed yesterday with a smaller more focused programme, conducted largely online via the BFI Player, though they offered some socially-distanced screenings of the more popular titles — along with one or two only in the cinema. I wasn’t ready for the in-person screenings, though as I’ve chronicled on this blog I have recently ventured back to a few (carefully selected to be sparsely attended) cinema screenings. Anyway, I’m now in a managed isolation hotel in Auckland (day five, certified Covid-free for now), so I missed the last few days of the LFF, but I did get to see some of the first week of titles and I’ll be doing a week focusing on those.
Some of the best American films are stories of immigrants making their way in the big city. Last year in the LFF we had the fabulous Lingua Franca and this year is this story of an African family (from Tanzania via Angola during the latter’s civil war) reunited finally after 17 years apart. The husband has been working as a New York taxi driver, and we meet them as they come together at the airport, before following each of the three of them in separate strands which loop back and then intersect again in a few places. These are lives in flux, and the film has empathy for each of the three — the father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who is trying to hide that he’s had a previous long-term relationship, before the return of his wife Esther (Zainab JAh), who after the stress and troubles of the war and the loss of her husband has found solace in Jesus, and the daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), trying to hide her interest in dance from her mother. It’s a gentle film in many ways, though there are emotional traumas not far below the surface that it alludes to throughout, and it’s a beautiful one as well.
Director/Writer Ekwa Msangi; Cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole; Starring Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Joie Lee; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Saturday 10 October 2020.
I’ve had a bit of break again for the last week and a half, as things are busy at work, and preparing to move to the other side of the world, but I’ve seen a few more films in cinemas (all directed by women as usual), and as Miss Juneteenth is out this Friday in the UK, I’ll post reviews of the cinema releases I’ve seen since the last week I dedicated to these. I’m starting on Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday with the new Sally Potter film, a great director and already a veteran of several decades. Perhaps her recent films haven’t been my favourite of her work, but she’s still producing interesting drama at under-90-minute lengths.
Sally Potter’s most recent film is about a fragile relationship between the creative urge and memory in an older man, as his mind becomes fragmented in a period of dementia. It uses Javier Bardem in a small apartment by the subway tracks in New York, and contrasts this quotidian and slightly sad setting with him living by the sea in Greece as a writer, and again with Salma Hayek in Mexico, each time pursuing relationships that, as the title suggests, perhaps he never did do and perhaps has only imagined. So in fact, we get three outcomes for the same man’s life, three ways things could have gone, and who’s to say which is right; perhaps in his dementia, he’s imagining these lives, but perhaps just as much he (as a writer in Greece) has written the life of the man in NYC, whose daughter (and this is a stretch) is played by Elle Fanning. I like a lot of what Potter is doing here, but I don’t think it really quite comes off — partly perhaps because Bardem’s dementia performance seems like a caricature, or a fancible creation by a writer (although, to be fair, it could be a creation by another character within the film as much as outside it). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I think it’s a nifty idea.
Director/Writer Sally Potter; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 15 September 2020.
I remember checking this out after Peter Greene’s memorable turn as Zed in Pulp Fiction (1994). It’s a film he made with first-time director Lodge Kerrigan over a couple of years in the early-90s, due to a lack of budget for the production, and to a certain extent that shows in the stripped-back mise en scène. The film very much harnesses these monetary setbacks into the feel of the film, from the grittiness of its working class small town settings to the graininess of the image, and the texture of Greene’s feverish performance as a schizophrenic man (also called Peter) recently released from hospital, looking for his daughter. The film makes all sorts of implications that he may be a dangerous child killer, but never shows any direct evidence of this, and at least part of what it’s trying to do is suggest that perhaps those with schizophrenia are not killers, somewhat against the tangent of most pop culture. That said, he’s clearly a danger at least to himself, and his own interior world is evoked through the soundtrack, all buzzing radios and white noise, accompanied by flashes of old photographs, some kind of kinesthetic attempt to get inside Peter’s brain. There are moments of real gruesome horror that make you flinch, and a message that the cop (Robert Albert) — whose hunt is intercut with Peter’s own search for his daughter — may be the really dangerous one here, as both are fairly unpleasant, single-mindedly driven people. It’s a fine debut, the first in Kerrigan’s small filmography dealing with outsiders.
NB: The Criterion Collection date on this release is 1994, though it was made available publicly in 1993 according to Wikipedia.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lodge Kerrigan; Cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci; Starring Peter Greene, Robert Albert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 19 September 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, in the late-1990s).
I daresay A Brighter Summer Day may attract more plaudits for director Edward Yang, but this three-hour family drama is its own perfectly-satisfying work, channelling something of the quiet reflectiveness of an Ozu film without being hackneyed. In fact, there are a number of themes that could easily have been executed in a heavy-handed manner (not least this idea of the kid taking photos of the back of people’s heads) but which seem integrated into the film’s structure, which generally seems to prefer little scenes that don’t immediately connect up with one another but build into a patchwork that pays dividends by the final third. Yang’s camera often frames scenes via reflections, giving these dense deep frames through glass, reflecting both the outside world and the interior dramas scarcely contained within them, which is why when those dramas do exceed the frame in a rather bloody way near the end it seems so surprising (and maybe even a little unnecessary). That aside, the emotional arcs of the three main characters — dad NJ (Wu Nien-jen), frustrated by corporate greed at his workplace, and his children Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang), each dealing with their own alienating circumstances — are all handled with aplomb and move towards a satisfying conclusion.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Edward Yang 楊德昌; Cinematographer Yang Wei-han 楊渭漢; Starring Wu Nien-jen 吳念真, Kelly Lee 李凱莉, Jonathan Chang 張洋洋, Issey Ogata イッセー尾形, Elaine Jin 金燕玲, Chen Xisheng 陳希聖; Length 173 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Friday 13 July 2001 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 25 July 2020).
I somehow contrived to put off watching this film for years, despite my deep love for the other films in the so-called “Noriko trilogy” which comprises this, Early Summer (1951) and Tokyo Story (1953). The radiant Setsuko Hara, of course, plays the Noriko in each of these films (a different character in each, though), and remains best known for her work with Ozu. She retired from film acting the year he died, and herself lived until the age of 95 (she would have been 100 in June this year).
However, I needn’t have worried, because both this film and Hara’s performance are both exceptional, though made in what would become Ozu’s signature style, which is to say contemplative, almost meditative, with a still camera and sequences broken up little still lifes from nature or detail from the environment the characters are in (like the empty railway station that begins the film). That’s not to say the film is without humour — there are these moments of comedy between characters, as when Noriko denies her professor father (Chishu Ryu) a game with his friends, so he huffily grumps about having no tea, or when the professor’s sister Masa (Haruko Sugimura) finds a purse and he keeps urging her to hand it in. These moments would probably not make much impact in most films, but each finds a distinctive place in Ozu’s world, making up a complex movement of emotions. For while I used the adjective “contemplative” above, I’d probably avoid one like “gentle”, given that, for all its deliberate pacing and quietly observant nature, much of the film is essentially roiling with bitterness between the characters (for all her winning smiles, Hara even glares a few times at her father). This all leads in the end to a sort of heartbreak, albeit one prompted by the father doing what he feels is best for his daughter’s long-term happiness. And at the same time, there’s a critique of occupied Japan in a sub rosa way, with these glimpses of English-language signs alongside an affirmation of traditional Japanese culture. It’s a complex film in many ways, and an emotional one, but it’s very easy to watch.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Setsuko Hara 原節子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 4 July 2020.
Every exploitation genre has its austere or vaunted arthouse predecessor, and just as slasher horror in 1960 had Psycho, so the rape-revenge film has Ingmar Bergman here. That said, I don’t mean to impugn it by association; the bleakness and moral ambiguities are very much intended by Bergman, and you can tell what’s coming by quite how innocent and jolly the opening third is, as Karin (Brgitta Pettersson), the daughter of farmer Töre (Max von Sydow), prepares for a journey to church through — of course — a big scary forest, the very sight of which seems to push their servant (Gunnel Lindblom) into overacting/breakdown. In that sense the folktale elements loom large (and is indeed adapted from a 13th century narrative, though these are themes that recur throughout fairytales and legend), and the fate of our titular virgin is pretty clear as soon as these elements are introduced. I think what sets the film apart is the moral complexity and even dubiousness that’s cast on the revenge, and though the father purifies himself and atones for his sins, there’s a clear sense that what he’s doing has some equivalency to the crimes he’s punishing, albeit given thin justification with invocations of God (and I don’t think Bergman is presenting this as a particularly Christian victory). This film also marks his first major collaboration with Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer who could go on to make most of the rest of his films, and it is immaculately lensed, with great expressive pools of light and dark as the film progresses.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writer Ulla Isaksson (based on the traditional ballad “Töres döttrar i Wänge” [“Töre’s Daughters in Vänge”]); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2020.
Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)”