I feel like I spend quite a bit of time trying to say nice things about films which aren’t objectively any good. I shouldn’t really have liked Exeter or Return to Sender to take two recent low-achieving candidates for the straight-to-DVD shelf, but they had at least a kernel of something I enjoyed within them. Hot Pursuit is no doubt competently put together by a Hollywood journeywoman — and it’s nice to see that women just as well as men can be picked on for such a thankless task — but it suffers from a fatal flaw, without which no film can ever truly achieve its potential. It has a shitty script. It has a script so insufferably bad that it contrives ridiculous plot twist upon banal cliched plot device to try to distract the audience from the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Now this kind of thing can be redeemed by a light touch and self-aware acting (I’d say She’s Funny That Way manages to at least partially rescue a tired and similarly-screwball scenario by such means), but neither Witherspoon as the by-the-book strait-laced Texan cop or Vergara as the sultry gangster’s wife are ever allowed to stop being shrill and incompetent at everything they do, except for a short scene of heart-to-heart bonding (I think it’s over Witherspoon’s character getting a man) and another which allows us to imagine just for the briefest of moments (like, maybe 10-15 seconds) that Vergara may turn out not to be a hideous Latin American stereotype, but another slightly-less-hideous Latin American stereotype. In fact for a female-directed film with two female leads it’s remarkably willing to degrade and insult them for our comic delectation — except that it’s not funny, not even a tiny little bit. Not during the “hilarious” transphobic sight gag in the opening montage, nor the “comedy” explanation of menstruation in order to get out of a fix which relies on all men being entirely unaware of either its existence or what it actually entails, certainly not during the “slapstick” sequence where they pretend to be lesbian lovers to get out of an entanglement with a redneck wielding a rifle, and most of all not for the fact that Witherspoon is apparently a trained law enforcement officer and one who is supposed to take herself incredibly seriously (for laughs, of course), yet cannot seem to do anything with any measure of professionalism. But you know, whatever. I’m sure it’s been successful and everyone who made it are happy with their paycheques and the return it’s made on its investment and etc etc. Just don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking this will be interesting or transgressive or even enjoyable just because it’s a female buddy comedy directed by a woman and passes the Bechdel Test. Because it isn’t interesting and it isn’t transgressive and it definitely isn’t enjoyable.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Anne Fletcher | Writers David Feeney and John Quaintance | Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton | Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara | Length 87 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 3 August 2015
Justly acclaimed as one of the great films of all time, and certainly among the greatest German films, is this early sound-era film by Fritz Lang, which seems to hint at something noxious in German society of the era. It focuses on the hunt for a child murderer, played by a bug-eyed young Peter Lorre, and suggests a parity between the police and criminals, who are both on the case, the latter with somewhat more effective results. If the way in which the criminals try Lorre suggests something proto-Fascist on the rise, that might be the result of hindsight, and yet the film is beautifully shot, all inky pools of darkness on the Berlin streets and effective use of expressionist shadows to suggest the creeping evil. Sound design is restrained, perhaps due to the infancy of the technology, but the repeated whistled refrain from Peer Gynt is effective as a way of marking the presence of Lorre’s murderer.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Fritz Lang | Writers Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang | Cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner | Starring Peter Lorre | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 5 July 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 March 2015)
Jean Dujardin certainly can do suave. He could probably take Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm, though I probably shouldn’t be spending so much time imagining some kind of fictional scenario of these two suited men facing off while smoking picturesquely. However, there’s something about the 70s setting of La French that makes me want to go there. The titles (original and English-language version) should tip you off that this is related to the (real-life) events earlier chronicled by The French Connection (1971). As of this review, I haven’t seen that film (sorry) nor know much about the events, except that the earlier film was made before this one’s events even get going, so here we’re looking at the tail end of the drug trade in France. It’s Jean Dujardin’s magistrate Pierre who largely brings it down, targeting the figure of Gilles Lellouche’s gangster Tany. There’s nothing particularly flashy on show, and while the filmmaker channels the work of Scorsese (music-led sequences; a vivid sense of period place) and others from that vaunted era of American film, it stays restrained like, for example, J.C. Chandor’s recent 70s-set A Most Violent Year. The focus remains on the procedural aspects of Pierre’s work in provincial seaside city Marseille, as he struggles to corner the slippery Tany, and even the strain it puts on his family life is only elliptically touched upon. It’s very much a film about a man’s world (even if co-scripted by a woman), but it’s a compelling one nonetheless.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Cédric Jimenez | Writers Audrey Diwan and Cédric Jimenez | Cinematographer Laurent Tangy | Starring Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 1 June 2015
On first look, The Long Good Friday is a film very much of its period with its clothes and hairstyles, its clunky technology and pulsating synth-led score, but there are a few reasons for the film’s resilience. It was made at the tail end of the 1970s as the UK was anticipating its new right-wing Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and thus a period of intense business investment and privatisation, and the plot taps into that, as Harry Shand (a mesmerising Bob Hoskins) tries to leverage his gangland supremacy into business success by redeveloping an area of the defunct docklands in the East End. Of course, as we’ve all seen in many subsequent films and TV shows (The Wire season 3 is one that springs to mind), whatever control gangsters may exert over people are as nothing to the coldly brutal machinations of global capital. However, the very area where this film is set was to become a symbol of 80s property developers’ greed and corporate excess — no doubt the local government corruption and dubious investment practices charted here was a factor in real life. (Indeed, the huge Canary Wharf project that did away with many of this film’s locations not long after it was made became a victim of the 1987 crash and it was quite some time before it recovered to become a shining beacon of capitalism.) Still, at the heart of the film is a simple tale of gangland revenge, as Harry’s business dealings are put in question by a series of anonymous attacks on him. Thus it very much hangs on Hoskins as an actor to hold things together, and in this he does marvellous work (the director’s confidence in his actor is suggested by the final long take of Hoskins’ face), ably assisted by Helen Mirren as much more than merely a gangster’s moll, but a strong and equal partner in developing Harry’s business concerns. There’s plenty of iconic lines as well as small appearances from familiar faces (it even nods to last week’s Alphaville with Eddie Constantine as the American businessman). It’s not always a vision of London that one wants to get behind, but Hoskins makes it compelling.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director John Mackenzie | Writer Barrie Keeffe | Cinematographer Phil Meheux | Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren | Length 114 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 8 March 2015
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this scenario from the director of South African sci-fi film District 9, it’s just that as a finished film it feels a bit all over the place. The director returns to his homeland of South Africa for a story that examines dystopian class distinctions in a police state governed by a huge weapons corporation Tetravaal (whose CEO is played by Sigourney Weaver). If you think RoboCop (1987) you won’t go far wrong, especially as the film starts out with a fake news broadcast to set the scene, and has two competing robot-police projects — the “Scouts” (read: RoboCop) developed by earnest techie Deon (Dev Patel), and the “Moose” (read: ED-209) by gung-ho ex-military Vincent (Hugh Jackman, sporting quite the fiercest mullet and shorts combo ever seen on screen). After efficiently setting up the society and the company’s role, along with its warring developers, the film settles down to follow a group of gangsters (Yolandi and Ninja from the rap group Die Antwoord) who have stolen a Scout being worked on by Deon, the latter of whom has been working on developing a full AI including human emotions and learning. The gangsters proceed to name their stolen robot Chappie and inculcate him with their gangster lifestyle and values (the robot is voiced and ‘acted’ by Sharlto Copley). This would all be fine except that very little of the detail is believable: whether about the company itself (all its staff work in a small open-plan office, and security measures ridiculously lax) or about the interaction between the gangsters and robot. I found it very difficult to believe in the characters played by Die Antwoord or care about their story arc: Ninja is set up as a tyrannical and hateful father figure, but there’s a later twist in which we are required to care about his fate. The film skips back and forth between so many emotional registers that it can become exhausting, and it feels like its natural demographic should be young teenagers, though it’s probably too violent for them. Yet it shows a lot of promise in its filmmaking, in its excellent robot effects, and the big name actors were all a pleasure to watch. Enjoyable enough, but a missed opportunity all in all.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Neill Blomkamp | Writers Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (based on Blomkamp’s short film Tetra Vaal) | Cinematographer Trent Opaloch | Starring Sharlto Copley, Die Antwoord, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver | Length 120 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 16 March 2015
FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Boaz Yakin | Cinematographer Stefan Czapsky | Starring Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, Robert John Burke, James Hong, Chris Sarandon | Length 90 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 27 December 2013 || My Rating good
I’ve not yet seen enough Statham movies to discern the particular mechanics by which he has acceded to action film superhero status — aside obviously from his competence at fight choreography — but comparing this film to the recent Homefront suggests that being a father figure to young, life-hardened but yet vulnerable girls is part of his persona. In Safe, for example, he has to protect Mei (Catherine Chan) from a triple threat of Chinese triads, Russian mafia and corrupt New York cops. The script, also by director Boaz Yakin, is hardly going to win any plaudits for its sensitive portrayal of New York’s criminal underbelly, but then the action film genre is hardly the place to do this. Instead, what the film has is plenty of taut, well-directed and well-staged action sequences — which at least puts it ahead of the aforementioned Homefront — and some small but touching hints at vulnerability on the part of Statham and his pre-adolescent charge.
Following the glorious widescreen colour films of Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is a Woman, 1961) and particularly Le Mépris (1963), Godard returned to the American B-movie inflected black-and-white of his debut with Bande à part. There’s a freewheeling energy to this film which is delightful, though there’s still plenty of recognisable Godard themes and obsessions.
If À bout de souffle was one of the first films of the nouvelle vague, then I am inclined to believe that this film marks one of the last. It makes a connection in its style to that first film, but also has traces of the changes that had already taken place in French cinema. There are references to other films from nouvelle vague filmmakers which had already taken their place in the mainstream, most prominently Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), whose title theme is heard twice. Then there’s the brief scene where our protagonists walk past a shop called Nouvelle Vague, the name now co-opted to commerce. Clearly within only five years, the New Wave was no longer particularly new.
The plot itself, like the monochromatic look, also harks back to Godard’s debut. It’s another crime-based story, lifted this time quite literally from an American pulp novel, featuring the kind of slightly incompetent would-be gangsters that are a mainstay of the genre. Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) are young and bored, living at the edges of Paris. They meet Odile (Anna Karina) at school and hatch a plan to steal money from her wealthy family. There’s a hint that the plan has been hijacked by Arthur’s own criminal family, but as ever Godard isn’t really interested in the specifics.
Bande à part is primarily about suburban kids and their experience of the big city. Aside from an all-too-brief scene in the Louvre, one of the few unambiguously happy moments in their lives, this is not tourist Paris. It’s a film of the outer limits, the unremarkable streets clogged with traffic and pollution, the down-at-heel cafes and the semi-rural backwaters on their doorstep. They sit in the woods by a river reading the papers, which promise a world of crime and murder that they aren’t a part of. US pop culture, as peddled by its movies, promises something different, so Odile will only accept Arthur’s Lucky Strike cigarettes over Franz’s local ones, before asking for a Coca-Cola. They play-act scenes from movies, too, like Arthur’s comically melodramatic turn pretending to be Billy the Kid, shot in the street, which is reprised later on, if less comedically.
Then there’s the dance sequence — ostensibly of another American import, the Madison — which they perform together in a cafe. It’s become one of the iconic scenes of the 1960s New Wave and is one of the most famous in Godard’s filmography, and for good reason. It’s a bracing, seemingly spontaneous expression of youthful joie de vivre, and yet encodes everything the film wants to express about individuality. The three protagonists dance it side-by-side, not looking at one another, each in their own space. Every so often the music cuts out and in voiceover Godard speaks of each one’s feelings, emphasising their outsider status, to one another as much as to the (fictional, movie-inflected) society they want so desperately to be part of.
If Karina’s presence recalls her earlier role in Vivre sa vie, she’s here playing a quite different character. The camera still loves her, but she’s not the wearily glamorous Nana but the cheerfully naïve Odile, not confident about either how to wear her hair or how to react to the bad ideas of those around her. By the time she turns to the camera on the Métro to deliver some existential doubts, it’s no longer clear that she wants to be part of this band that Arthur and Franz have created with her. It’s Brasseur who impresses most as Arthur, and its his charm that carries the plot forward.
The film’s set-up feels like a hundred more recent American indie movies, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the film’s title was purloined by Quentin Tarantino for his production company. Yet Bande à part still retains a real vivacity and a charm that makes it one of Godard’s most accessible works. From here onwards, the films he made became progressively more opaque and difficult, with frank political messages and an ornery idiosyncrasy to their construction. In some ways that’s why this film feels like the close of a chapter, and a winding down of a certain mythology.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens) | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2002 (and since then on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 14 September 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: The final shot of Bande à part promises a Technicolor widescreen extravaganza set in the new world. Though Alphaville (1965), with its monochrome sci-fi modernism, didn’t exactly deliver that, yet Pierrot le Fou (1965) seems to possess some of that quality. I won’t be discussing either (primarily because I don’t own them, though they’re both fantastic in different ways, and well worth watching), so shall be moving on to Week End (1967), which seems to mark the apocalyptic denouement of an entire era and is maybe where the protagonists of Bande à part really ended up.
This post was written for the Debuts Blogathon jointly organised and hosted by Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and Mark at Three Rows Back (and can be read there with comments). Aside from presenting my thoughts on the film, in this case the debut of French director Jean-Luc Godard, it attempts to answer the questions they posed about “how your director of choice’s first feature has impacted on their work. How have their subsequent films fared against their debut? Have they improved or steadily declined over subsequent features?”
There were, in 1960, certain ways of making feature films wherever you were in the world, methods that had been built up over the preceding half-century of filmmaking and which continue to endure to this day in mainstream cinema. The key thing about this debut film from young French film critic Jean-Luc Godard is that few of these methods were followed, though such rulebreaking might have had less effect had the film not also been an enjoyable pulpy retrofitting of familiar American imagery. One of Godard’s famous aphorisms, which he attributes to D.W. Griffith, is that “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and here indeed there’s a girl (Patricia, played by the American Jean Seberg) and a gun, generally wielded by gangster Michel Poiccard (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo). He’s on the run, she hooks up with him: that’s all you really need to know about the plot.
Referencing pulpy B-movies from the States was part of a deliberate strategy by a number of like-minded French critics making their first films all at the same time, loudly rebelling against the staid cinema of their fathers’ generation. This movement became acclaimed as the nouvelle vague (or ‘French New Wave’), and if François Truffaut gained a lot of early attention for his Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), it’s Godard who set out a lot of what made this New Wave memorable and which define its lasting legacy. In his films in particular you can see a youthful passion for cinema combined with formal innovations showing a blatant disregard for classical techniques, often informed by a self-consciously revolutionary politics. Even in this very first film of Godard’s can be seen a lot of what would later come to dominate his style.
First let’s talk politics. Not party politics (of which there’s plenty as Godard gets older), but la politique des auteurs. That phrase translates as “the policy of authors” in French, but the common translation of the term in the English language has been “the auteur theory”, thanks to Andrew Sarris’s writings from the 1960s onwards. It was a critical idea of Truffaut’s that helped to shape the way that the New Wave first developed, as a director-focused movement, but I think its value has been overstated. In many ways it’s a provocation like the Dogme 95 manifesto of Lars von Trier (and others), a way of focusing attention and signalling a change in methods from the mainstream. It has also helped to focus critical attention on the French New Wave, though similar changes in filmmaking practice were taking hold in various parts of the world at the same time, whether the Italy of Antonioni and Pasolini, or the American films of John Cassavetes.
The “auteur theory” is alluring for Godard’s films in particular, which often seem like such personal expressions, but even in this very first film he liked to expose the mechanics of filmmaking. It starts here with Michel addressing the camera directly as if the audience is a passenger in the car he’s driving. There’s also a sequence later on when Michel and Pauline are walking and talking down the Paris streets, and all the passers-by can be clearly seen turning and staring at them and the camera. (This scene also neatly illustrates both the simple energy of just capturing a spontaneous and improvised scene directly — an energy that suffuses the film as a whole — but also the technical changes in filmmaking that had in part opened up the way for the nouvelle vague, as smaller and more portable cameras became available.) Only a few years later, in Le Mépris (1963), Godard would kick off the film by showing the cameraman Raoul Coutard backed up by his crew dollying down a track filming the actors while Godard read out the credits, and this kind of breaking of the fourth wall would become a regular feature of his films.
Not unrelated is Godard’s habit for improvising dialogue. The script here is credited to Truffaut — and there was creative input too from Claude Chabrol (another critic and nascent filmmaker) — but that script was only apparently the outline of the film. The scenes as they play in the film were as often scribbled out by Godard himself, shortly before filming took place, and this would often be his method in future. Yet this personal inspiration (that of the auteur) is one that draws heavily on other texts and influences. There’s scarcely a scene that doesn’t quote the American cinema he so loved — whether it’s Michel standing in front of a poster of Humphrey Bogart (The Harder They Fall), tracing his fingers around his lips as he imagines Bogart to do, or mimicking Debbie Reynolds’ melodramatic mugging in Singin’ in the Rain as he sits around Patricia’s apartment. These are just two examples, though. There are many more allusions to Hollywood movies, and it’s a habit that Godard would only extend, taking influences and presenting decontextualised quotations from film and literature like a magpie, until eventually entire films of his (such as Histoire(s) du cinéma) become playful interrogations of sources. Godard, more than most directors, has always remained a critic.
This first film also exposes some common techniques and themes that Godard liked to use. There are those long-takes of characters talking that do away with the classical shot-reverse shot construction, so here you have Patricia questioning Michel in the car while you hear his replies from off-screen. There are the sequence shots of couples in cramped domestic spaces bickering about meaningless topics, trying to escape one another (and the film’s frame), but never succeeding. There’s the fecklessness of male desire, and its betrayal by women — it’s interesting in this regard that Patricia was explicitly noted by Godard as an extension of Seberg’s character Cécile in Bonjour Tristesse, another young woman isolated in a world of unconstrained chauvinist desire (and she’s great in both films). Yet if there’s often in Godard’s films a self-important male figure (like Jean-Pierre Melville’s author at a press conference near the end) espousing generalisations about women, it’s also often accompanied and set in juxtaposition to lacerating self-critique (Godard himself plays an informer in the film). And I haven’t even mentioned the famous jump cuts.
But in 1960 none of this would mean very much if it was just another young director showing off his Brechtian or cineaste credentials, as so many like to do. The point is that around this time there weren’t any mainstream filmmakers doing this stuff. Sure, there were occasional isolated examples of these techniques beforehand, but for Godard (as for like-minded young directors of the era such as Cassavetes) it was just the way he made films. It shows most of all in the looseness and jazzy rhythms of this debut, more akin to documentary than to feature films of the period. Godard would extend his interests as his career progressed, becoming ever more esoteric as his meaning became more opaque, but he was never more accessible than in this first, exciting despatch from the front lines of a new wave.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director Jean-Luc Godard | Writer François Truffaut | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 1997 (and several times since, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 27 August 2013)
My Rating excellent
Next Up: Moving forward a couple of years, I will look at Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (1962), an ever more Brechtian assemblage of beautiful women (Anna Karina) and the exploitative crassness of capitalism.
FILM REVIEW || Director Billy Wilder | Writers Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond | Cinematographer Charles Lang | Starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe | Length 122 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wednesday 31 July 2013 || My Rating a must-see
I already have a habit on my blog of giving the shortest shrift and the weakest reviews to my favourite films. It’s been over a week since I watched this, and for my memory that’s probably already too long to give it its due. In part, perhaps, I feel a little ashamed that I’ve let so many decades pass before getting round to seeing this highly-regarded comedy classic by the great Billy Wilder for the first time. But it is indeed a great film, and an enjoyable one.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW (for DVD new release) || Director Yasujiro Ozu | Writers Tadao Ikeda and Hiroshi Shimizu | Cinematographer Hideo Mohara | Starring Minoru Takada, Hiroko Kawasaki | Length 92 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Monday 22 April 2013 || My Rating excellent
Reviewing a silent film screening is not just about the film, but also about the unique aspects of the live performance, for of course (as is now I hope a widely-understood truism) silent films were never silent. This screening featured music from the duo Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell, and (rather more unusually) a benshi narration by Tomoko Komura. The latter is a traditional form of accompaniment which is largely confined to Japanese cinema, as it derives originally from kabuki theatre. As Tony Rayns explained in his introduction to this screening, silent cinema held out as the dominant form of film production in Japan until the mid-1930s due in part to the unionised power of the benshi, who resisted the coming of sound film technology. Their role was to narrate the film (and translate foreign films’ intertitles), often doing different voices for the different characters, and this indeed is how Ms Komura accompanied Walk Cheerfully, all the time nattily dressed in a hat and suit similar to that of lead character Kenji ‘The Knife’ (played by Minoru Takada).