This had a low-key online-only release in the middle of the year, though I’d be interested to see it in a cinema and I hope it does get a chance to get some kind of screenings, maybe in festivals next year — though I wonder whether a lot of films will never now be seen in cinemas? I feel like maybe if anything I underrated it, because it’s striking and expressive and really builds an intensity all of its own, while nodding towards genre classics. The Pure Cinema Pod guys did a whole episode with its director, which is interesting in terms of drawing out these influences, but I felt the film also went a little under the radar, which is a pity.
This is a horror film, but intriguingly (or not, depending on your tastes) it fits more into the modern strain of anxiety-based indie cinema, somewhere between Josephine Decker’s disorienting camerawork and some of the slow-burn intensity of, say, Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. After all, nothing really physically threatening happens in it, but it’s suffused with a sense of dread that invades the characters’ psyches, evoked by a slightly distant acting style, but also inflects the filmmaking itself (some of the colour choices, the expressive editing). It’s definitely a film you either connect with at the level of its acting and atmospherics, or which you discount as a failed experiment. Either way, I think it’s a fascinating film that effectively uses what I imagine is quite a low budget (and quite a few surprising guest stars) to evoke a sense of heightened drama.
Director/Writer Amy Seimetz; Cinematographer Jay Keitel; Starring Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Chris Messina; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (BFI Player streaming), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.
I’ve been doing a themed week focused on ‘foreign’ science-fiction, due to the recent release of French film Proxima in cinemas, but once again today’s film is one I’m rather squashing into that remit, being a British film (albeit a co-production with Austria and Germany) in English with British stars. However it’s directed by the wonderful Austrian director Jessica Hausner, one of my favourites, especially for her recent films like this one and Amour Fou. She creates a very controlled and threatening atmosphere in this dystopian sci-fi about genetically modified plants.
I see that this film has been pulling in fairly mixed reviews, probably on account of blending Jessica Hausner’s very particular style, honed over the course of a number of inscrutable dramas about alienation and resentment, to a generic form (broadly speaking, a sort of sci-fi horror thriller). Of course, Hausner’s 2004 film Hotel has a not dissimilar general feel, but she has developed quite a bit as a director since that film, and Little Joe has a supremely polished style. The camera glides around, quite often moving in to focus on the intangible space between characters as much as the people themselves. The threat here, then, is an unseen one in the air, particularly apropos for this particular historical moment one might say (mid-2020), and feels reminiscent of Safe (along with a dissonant score and subtly alienating sound effects), though this film is more directly about the dangers of messing with Nature.
Emily Beecham (sporting a shock of ginger hair reminiscent of earlier iconic roles by her co-star Kerry Fox) is Alice, a scientist working with Ben Whishaw’s Chris on a new houseplant which they hope will promote happiness via some genetic modifications, but… things start to go awry, and eventually it just seems to be Alice who questions the potential dangers of this new plant. Unlike in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the way that others become infected are subtle and deniable, such that Alice finds herself questioning her own experiences; the allegorical danger the film raises is not simply that of interfering with nature, but implicates the recognisable contours of our own current workplace culture. It’s stylish and atmospheric, building tension impressively without resorting to hysteria.
Director Jessica Hausner; Writers Hausner and Géraldine Bajard; Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht; Starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Monday 22 June 2020.
In a sense this film is about one person, Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist who sadly died the year after this was made, but in talking about his work and life, it touches on the history of the United Kingdom, its colonialism and its own struggles in relationship to that colonial past, that continue to echo today, that continue to in fact resound very loudly at this very specific moment.
Despite being born in the UK, I wasn’t educated here and therefore was never really introduced to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, having found out about him near the end of his life when this film was made (he died in 2014). However, the archival clips orchestrated here by John Akomfrah, with a backing of musical clips from Miles Davis records, impresses upon me that he really was one of that dying breed of accessible public intellectuals, so thin on the ground in contemporary discourse and surely never more sorely needed. He speaks of his West Indian roots, of coming to Britain to study at Oxford, and of the persistent racism and colonialist attitudes he encountered. In dealing with periods of his life, and of the history of late-20th century Britain, the film also elucidates the social changes that Hall dealt with in his work, the ways that dreams of the past may have died and that other newer ideals came to replace them, but with a throughline relating to the immigrant and postcolonial experience. The film is as much about the construction of identity itself as it is about telling a story of Hall, but it sort of manages to do all of these things, and though I can’t claim to be a great intellectual, it was persuasive and likeable, and idiosyncratic in its ways as something of a multimedia art project (which Akomfrah has done several of, including about Hall), but also a compelling documentary.
Director/Writer John Akomfrah; Cinematographer Dewald Aukema; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player on Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 10 June 2020.
Toshiro Mifune gets a lot of recognition for his roles in Kurosawa’s samurai epics, but in some ways he’s even better in a business suit and tie — it seems to be a milieu that all the actors familiar from samurai films slip into with great ease (Masayuki Mori here plays the big boss, Takashi Shimura his creepy co-conspirator, and Ko Nishimura a craven stooge). Unlike the period samurai films, however, this contemporary tale of corporate double-dealings pointedly lacks any kind of honour. It’s a revenge story, and apparently loosely based on Hamlet, though it seems to invert just about everything in that particular tale. Mifune’s character is the one out for revenge (for the death of his father of course), and so you imagine the worst for his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) — who surely must be about to be driven mad at any moment — but Kurosawa and his co-writers visit the story’s punishments instead on its hapless salary men, hoping for a break by pleasing the boss. It’s all carefully controlled and framed, and though it runs long it never fails to be stylish in its widescreen black-and-white.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国英雄, Eijiro Hisaita 久板栄二郎, Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三 and Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍; Cinematographer Yuzuru Aizawa 逢沢譲; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Kyoko Kagawa 香川京子, Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Ko Nishimura 西村晃; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player via Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.
For my final film of the BFI Player week, I’m focusing on this one which was initially due to be presented at the BFI Flare Film Festival. Because that fell through, a limited number of the films were able to screened online and this is one of those (it expires on 5 April, along with a handful of other titles). I signed up for a two-week free trial in order to see it, which I can certainly recommend. I might even continue paying after this trial period, but let’s see how things go; I’m already signed up to a few other services.
I can see from what’s written online that there are people who weren’t thrilled by this film, but it’s a gorgeous debut, which channels the feeling of a Hou Hsiao-hsien film — long shot long takes dealing with the dynamics within a family — with its own little surreal touches, such as car trips filmed on a soundstage. It’s about a woman whose husband is revealed to be having a gay affair, and who has another relation (a cousin I think) who is herself hiding being lesbian, but (perhaps understandably, given Chinese filming restrictions) these storylines are pushed to the side, in favour of focusing on the relationship between the mother (Naren Hua) and her oldest daughter (Nan Ji), whose transgression was marrying an American. I didn’t notice until I researched the film that the two lead roles are played by actors of Mongolian ethnicity, but I can’t imagine a Chinese viewer would miss that, and perhaps in that sense it should ultimately be seen as a film about being an outsider — in whatever way that might manifest. It all unfolds at a deliberate pace, beautifully filmed by a Spanish cinematographer (it’s a Chinese-Spanish co-production, it seems), and I look forward to further films from this debut director.
Director/Writer Xiang Zi [aka Lisa Zi Xiang] 相梓; Cinematographer Jose Val Bal; Starring Naren Hua 娜仁花, Nan Ji [aka Siqin Gaowa] 斯琴高娃·南吉; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Monday 30 March 2020.
Following up further with the BFI Player’s women directors list, having already gone on at length about the offerings in my post about My Twentieth Century, I spotted an odd little film I’d not previously heard of, a Mongolian drama set out on the steppes amongst a traditional family, with a gentle energy (it’s only a U certificate).
This Mongolian film very much reminds me of those 1980s and 1990s Iranian films, which were always so empathetic and understanding towards children and families — though of course they also often symbolically loaded the films further with political allegory that is not quite so relevant here. However, some of the same strategies are at work in terms of crafting a gentle story that barely really has any plot — a young girl played by Nansal Batchuluun takes in a dog, the presence of which is resisted by her parents — but is more of a pretext for presenting traditional peripatetic Mongolian life on the steppes, in all its harsh beauty, as the family settles for a time in various valleys before packing up and moving on. It all looks great, and it never really rouses itself much from its ambling pace, but partially that’s just the movement of life, and it’s a wonderful thing.
Director/Writer Byambasuren Davaa Даваагийн Бямбасүрэн; Cinematographer Daniel Schönauer; Starring Nansal Batchuluun Нансал Батчулуун, Urjindorjyn Batchuluun Ү. Батчулуун; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Thursday 2 April 2020.
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.
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).
If you’re looking to subscribe to the BFI Player there are no shortage of films directed by women, which they have collated into the useful Woman with a Movie Camera subscription collection. For example, amongst films I’ve seen and reviewed, there are: debbie tucker-green’s Second Coming; Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean; displaced-Iranian-in-London drama Gholam and the mindbending bit of French weirdness Evolution; Australian documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts; great films by Lucrecia Martel and Annemarie Jacir; two of what I personally consider the films I’ve most underrated, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark; the list goes on and on. I’ve seen the film I’m reviewing today twice since starting this blog, yet have managed not to write about it either time, which is a mistake because it’s great.
A strange, at times disorienting, take on themes in European and Hungarian history. It ranges freely over themes, times and places that defined the 20th century (unsurprisingly, given its title) and yet it always retains a sort of light-hearted optimism, helped enormously by its double central performance by Dorota Segda as twins Dóra and Lili, separated in childhood, and living different aspects of the bourgeois struggle — one sexually libertine (and positively thrilled by it), the other with feminist anarchist ideals. Something about that Hungarian practice of post-synching dialogue gives a heightened sense both of diegetic sounds (not just words, but breathy little noises that the twins make) and also a sort of fantastic soundscape abstracted from the images, which combined with the diffuse ethereal electric lighting (Edison plays a key role) and the twinkling, chattering stars, has a beatific effect. You would never guess it was made in the 80s, having barely appeared to age. Indeed, on the big screen it truly shimmers with a radiant, crystalline yet slightly soft-edged monochrome beauty. It’s the kind of oneiric cinema that I wish were praised over the dark fantasies of Lynch, et al.
Director/Writer Ildikó Enyedi; Cinematographer Tibor Máthé; Starring Dorota Segda, Oleg Yankovsky Оле́г Янко́вский; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018 (and originally on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017).
Showing up in a few of the BFI Player’s collections, most notably the Controversial Classics collection, is this lengthy Japanese modern classic, although perhaps not fully to my taste. Still, it certainly has style thanks to prolifically subversive filmmaker Sion Sono.
I’m prepared to accept there’s greatness at work here — there’s certainly an intense weight of issues around the influence of the Catholic church being worked out, and that’s often shorthand for artistic profundity in Western society. It somehow also feels relevant that I never managed to connect with the novel The Master and Margarita either, because stylistically it feels of a piece — there’s a freewheeling carnivalesque cavalcade of satirical black comedy going on at an unremitting clip. Some of it is very funny, even dealing with some fairly loathsome behaviour. And then there’s the group of girls who go round beating up men, which is great too. It’s just that four hours of discursive mayhem is wearying (for me), stylish and prettily acted as it so frequently is.
Director/Writer Sion Sono 園子温; Cinematographer Sohei Tanikawa 谷川創平; Starring Takahiro Nishijima 西島隆弘, Hikari Mitsushima 満島ひかり, Sakura Ando 安藤サクラ; Length 237 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 17 May 2017.
In my week of films available on subscription to the BFI Player, I mentioned yesterday the special LGBTQI+ BFI Flare subscription collection and one of those films is the one I’m covering today, which I saw at the London Film Festival in 2018, and was produced by one of the programmers (Elhum Shakerifar) who has also been involved with several other documentaries I’ve really liked.
A lovely, gentle documentary about what seems to be (but shouldn’t be) a tough subject in Japan — being out and proud of it — and focuses on two gay lawyers in a relationship, who are thus approachable for those not just within the LGBT community, but for anyone who feels ostracised or excluded from mainstream society, who need representation under law. This is a film in many ways about fighting against oppression for those who are different, but it’s also grounded in the relationship between these two men — after all, I didn’t expect quite so much off-key singing over a cheesy keyboard for a film about the law. Partially, that’s because the film focuses on the relationship, but also because there’s not so much they’re (legally) allowed to show of the cases the pair are involved with. We get a few details, and a few brief sequences in actual courtrooms, but for the most part this is a film about principles, and it has strong ones.
Director Hikaru Toda 戸田ひかる; Cinematographer Jason Brooks; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Saturday 20 October 2018.