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.

Advertisements

Suspiria (1977)

I only started watching ‘giallo’ films a few years ago, that peculiar hyper-stylised Italian sub-genre of horror, and among those first three was Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso (1975). I’ve watched only a few from the genre since then, like Femina ridens (1969) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972), but they’ve all offered fascinating little glimpses into an alternate world of filmmaking. Finally, I managed to catch up on Argento’s most famous film, recently remade by Luca Guadagnino (though I haven’t yet seen the remake, and may not ever bother).


One of the taglines for this film is “The most frightening film you’ll ever see!” and I should point out right away that this isn’t quite true: part of what Argento seems to be doing here rather undercuts the scariness. There’s terror and horror and gore, but the use of colours and sound, the heightened acting (a nice way of saying it’s pretty ropey), the whole Grand Guignol nature of the enterprise, somewhat mitigates against the scares. Still, what colours! What sound! The score by Goblin is just fantastic, ultra-70s electronica, and combined with the deeply saturated colours, it makes the film that much more immersive. From the very opening scenes, the tone starts out at hysterical turned up to 11, and then… it just cranks it up ever more. The witches’ coven/German dance school conceit suggests deeper tensions within society that remain allegorical (I believe these are made more concrete in the remake), and while I may remain unconvinced by the acting, it’s some kind of a film.

Suspiria posterCREDITS
Director Dario Argento; Writers Argento and Daria Nicolodi (based on the essay “Suspiria de Profundis” by Thomas De Quincey); Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli; Starring Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 9 December 2018.

곡성 Gokseong (The Wailing, 2016)

I recently did a themed week on Korean cinema, starting at its origins and covering a number of films across the decades. The one thing I didn’t really touch on, and probably the element of Korean cinema that’s been most marketable in the West, was what video label Tartan used to call “Asia Extreme”: the brutal, often gory and very stylish thrillers and horror films that got the best distribution over here. Obviously someone like Park Chan-wook with his Vengeance film trilogy and Oldboy (2003) was the most famous proponent from South Korea, but Na Hong-jin had his share of notable films. Therefore for my horror week it seemed only fitting that I catch up with a recently lauded piece of taut genre cinema from the country.


Opening in one of those small town settings where not much happens and the cops we see are lazy and slightly incompetent means you already have a sense of just how much things are about to change, but this is a long film and it makes its move into full-on gory horror fairly slowly. That said, the filmmaking is stylish and pulls you along as first we get these little flashes of incipient disturbance (a mysterious stranger, a naked woman in the dark, and the spectre of death in a place which sees very little of that kind of thing) before it all becomes just a hectic rollercoaster of fury and emotion. Our hero of sorts is the slightly overweight Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won), a police office who has the permanent look of someone who’d much rather have a lie down, and over the course of the film he gets increasingly put upon, cut up and rained on, until he just seems to be pinging around like a pinball shouting at people to explain what’s going on — which isn’t very far from the viewer in a lot of the scenes. It’s called The Wailing but there’s much more screaming, shouting and crying in it, and if you can follow all the twists and turns then the filmmaker probably hasn’t done his job very well. That said, for all the extended running time, this is well worth watching.

The Wailing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Na Hong-jin 나홍진; Cinematographer Hong Kyung-po 홍경표; Starring Kwak Do-won 곽도원, Jun Kunimura 國村隼, Kim Hwan-hee 김환희, Hwang Jun-min 황정민; Length 156 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 24 August 2019.

Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002)

Of the horror films which are directed or written by women, ones that dwell on themes of body horror do seem to be popular, and I’m sure plenty has been written about that. Cannibalistic themes have been the focus both of Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day (2001) and more recently in Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016).


This may not perhaps be surprising, given this is a film about a woman progressively pulling away her skin as a form of self-mutilation, but this film is really intensely disturbing. Of course, like any good modern horror film, it’s not just a story of a particular woman (played by the director, Marina de Van), but in a sense a film about dissociative, destructive feelings towards one’s own body. Our lead character is successful in her business career, but there are throughout little vignettes with her work colleagues and her boyfriend, articulating small but noticeable ways in which they control her body — pervasive and persistent forms of abuse which set the stage for her own proactive extension of her bodily wounds. I think there’s plenty that’s fascinating going on here under the surface (if you will), though it all operates at such a pitch of studied, detached intensity that I continued to find it difficult to focus while watching.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marina de Van; Cinematographer Pierre Barougier; Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 31 October 2017.

Possibly in Michigan (1983)

One of the most prolific genres in cinemas is horror, and with It re-released this week in UK cinemas ahead of It Chapter Two in a couple of weeks — along with a few other titles like the latest by prolific genre director Alexandra Aja, a Guillermo del Toro production, and a documentary about Satanism — it’s about time I featured a few films in this genre (or closely adjacent to it) on my blog. Honestly, I’m not a huge horror genre acolyte, and it’s rather a blindspot for me — one I heartily acknowledge and am trying to remedy, given that a great deal of the most impassioned cinephilia revolves around horror. After all, I only watched my first few giallo films three years ago. There’s a huge range of work that falls under the ‘horror’ mantle, and it’s often a genre that attracts directors with a great amount of technical skill or visual flair (somewhat like metal in relation to other popular music), and as such has a committed fanbase of knowledgeable commentators. I’m not one, so this week I’ll just be picking out some things I’ve found interesting, starting with a short film for a change. It’s on YouTube and is worth 12 minutes of your life.


Due to my 2018 project to try to watch a film every day I was watching a lot more short films that year, and this strange video-shot 1980s oddity has been through periodic flashes of internet interest, because after all, it. Is. Wild. It feels like the kind of lo-fi found-in-an-attic thing that John Darnielle would be writing a novel about, except it is very au courant about its themes (because those themes, sadly, are always au courant) — being the link between capitalism and murder, and the creepy violence of weird dudes. It’s set largely at a mall, and it has the best Casiotone-style chunky keyboard music — it’s basically a musical short film. It is, in case this isn’t clear, thoroughly delightful with a strange, slightly surreal edge reminiscent of early Lynch.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Cecelia Condit; Cinematographers Amy Krick and Jeff Chiplis; Length 12 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 4 October 2018.

Criterion Sunday 256: A Constant Forge (2000)

An extensive and sprawling documentary about John Cassavetes, though really just about his films and filmmaking (there’s an all-too-brief mention of the cirrhosis that killed him in the end, but very few other personal details are offered). Indeed, much of the documentary focuses on clips from the five films in the Criterion box set, which I can only assume is due to rights issues (there’s a lot that’s great about Minnie and Moskowitz, and I’d have liked to have heard more about the studio movies or his last films in the 1980s), but all the same it does a good job of laying out his philosophy and practice. The structure appears to be along fairly oblique lines, cued up by somewhat pretentious quotes, and finished with a bit of verse, but it’s making for a case for Cassavetes as something quite unlike the ordinary run of American directors, which is understandable, though beyond these little flourishes it never really manages to be as distinctive as the films it’s about. Obviously, at over three hours it could have been a bit tighter, and it’s solidly conventional in form, with a range of talking heads and clips, but it’s nice to hear from his frequent collaborators (plus a few academics, including the ubiquitous-when-it-comes-to-Cassavetes Ray Carney).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The original DVD of this had some poster galleries, but the Blu-ray edition added those images to the separate films, and relegated this entire documentary to the supplements on the Shadows disc, so despite having its own spine number, it no longer really has a separate identity as a film within the Collection.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charles Kiselyak; Starring John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, Lelia Goldoni, Carol Kane, Sean Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Jon Voight, Al Ruban, John Sayles; Length 200 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 26 March 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 18 July 2019).

አድዋ Adwa (1999)

As my week of African cinema draws to a close, one final documentary, which for a change touches on a successful instance of 19th century resistance to the European coloniser. It was made by the Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima, much of whose work has been made in the United States, as a leading proponent of what has come to be known as the “LA Rebellion” of African and African-American filmmakers working and studying at UCLA.


This is essentially a documentary about an important battle, about the way that battle shaped a country and, to a certain degree, a continent, but it’s also at least in part about who gets to tell these stories. After all, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its resistance to typical documentary conventions. Instead of the authoritative figure of a scholar or critic seen as a talking head and lecturing the audience, instead filmmaker Haile Gerima gives these words to a variety of Ethiopians. Sure one of them could be an academic (he’s seated at home and wearing a suit), but others appear to be people in the street, farmers or peasants, from all walks of life, though there are no on-screen titles so it’s unclear.

The point is: this story belongs to everyone in Ethiopia, because it’s a story of resistance against the tide of European colonisers forcibly trying to annexe vast swathes of Africa during the 19th century. This is a story of a battle fought by the Ethiopian leader Menelik II against the Italians in 1896, who like the rest of Europe’s powers were involved in carving up Africa for profit (leading to the so-called “scramble for Africa”). Ethiopia’s successful resistance meant that it was one of the very few places on the continent not colonised at that time (it succumbed briefly later during WW2), giving it a totemic place in the burgeoning Pan-African movement.

Gerima’s film therefore narrates his film through these people who know parts of the historical tale and context, but also through images (artworks, carvings, other visual representations of the Battle of Adwa and the events surrounding it) and, vitally, through folk songs. There are many layers of interpretation swirling around her, overlaid on one another, not complicating the history but rather rendering it richer and perhaps better suggesting its importance.

Adwa film posterCREDITS
Director Haile Gerima ፕሮፌሰር ኃይሌ ገሪማ; Cinematographer Augustin Cubano; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 8 August 2019.

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)”

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)”

Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).