The subject of this film is undeniably tough, like Steve McQueen’s later film about American slavery (12 Years a Slave), and one that I had put off viewing for some time. I remember watching Wang Bing’s epic documentary Dead Souls a few years ago (about Mao-era Chinese re-education camps) and one of the most striking and upsetting things was the extensive descriptions of what happens to the human body when it’s starved. Here instead we get a visual depiction, and though McQueen leaves much of it to the last 15-20 minutes, it’s still impossible not to reckon with the image of Fassbender’s body, not unlike that of the slaves in the later film, even if their situations are obviously different. Bodies remain a focus throughout, and wounds, like those on the knuckles of the prison guard that start the film, making us wonder how they were sustained (and pretty quickly we find out). Quite aside from his knuckles, that guard’s fate makes it clear that nobody really benefits from these struggles. That said, McQueen is fairly circumspect with the politics: the points it makes are largely visceral ones, and Bobby Sands’s place in re-energising nationalist republican politics isn’t explicitly confronted, though the centrepiece of the film is a bravura single-shot dialogue he has with a partisan priest (Liam Cunningham) shortly before starting his hunger strike, in which he sets out his philosophical basis for the action. (I didn’t learn from the film, for example, that Sands had been elected an MP in the UK Parliament while he was striking, nor about the specific demands that led to the end of the strike, after 10 men had died.) After all, you don’t need to have characters speaking about the brutality of British rule when it is enough to see the conditions of the prison and their struggles to retain some dignity. So ultimately, for all my fears about the film, it walks a line between the visceral evocation of horror and a visual artist’s eye for semi-abstraction in the compositions; this is McQueen’s debut, but it merely begins a new phase in his artistic work after many years at the forefront of gallery-based visual arts.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve McQueen; Writers Enda Walsh and McQueen; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.
This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).
The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.
Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).
It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.
The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.
This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.
I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).
Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.
Of the major post-war ‘neorealist’ directors, I think that Roberto Rossellini remains the most mysterious to me, not least because I haven’t seen a great deal of his films. However, it strikes me that his move into historical dramas isn’t necessarily as far from his roots as one might think (at least at the superficial level I have to draw on; I certainly look forward to immersing myself in more of his work, as it comes up in the Criterion Collection). While Rossellini’s focus in this historical film does certainly dwell on details of location and costume, it’s not in order to provide some kind of glamorous backdrop to melodrama, but rather as facts that are used to understand characters and motivations (when Louis insists on florid wigs and extravagant clothes for his court, it’s as part of a plot to bankrupt them and make them dependent on his own largesse).
Dramatically, this seems to share more with avant-gardists like Straub and Huillet (if not quite with their radical focus on the text) and studiously avoids the melodrama you might expect with this film’s title to instead focus on the essential humanity of the characters in the midst of these machinations. Louis (Jean-Marie Patte) has a doughy youthful face and delivers his lines flatly, moving around not heroically but nonetheless with the expectation borne from wealth and privilege, while his mentor Cardinal Mazarin (Giulio Cesare Silvagni) lays dying in bed. The events of the film stick closely to this period around the early-1660s, with much discussion of past dangers still an active threat to Louis’s reign (the Fronde, particularly) and to Louis’s strategy for consolidating his power, but amongst this there are forays into court intrigue (featuring his faithful courtier Colbert, played like everyone by a non-actor, Raymond Jourdan) and his love interests. But it’s almost like a social realist filmmaker’s eye (and camera) is being cast over the past. The work of those around Louis becomes as important as his own presence — the cooks in the kitchen preparing a banquet, or the courtiers ushering these figures between rooms, helping the Cardinal to vainly apply his makeup even on his deathbed — memorable little details that help to place us as viewers into the midst of this grand court. In the end, it’s a rather effective way of presenting history.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Philippe Erlanger and Jean Gruault; Cinematographer Georges Leclerc; Starring Jean-Marie Patte, Raymond Jourdan, Giulio Cesare Silvagni; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 5 August 2021.
In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).
A film that came out earlier this year, and got some Oscar nods (including a win for Kaluuya), is this impressive biopic. It’s hardly perfect but it’s put together well with some fine performances, and shines some light on an underappreciated aspect of revolutionary American history.
This feels in many ways like a pretty traditional biopic showing all the strengths and weaknesses of that genre, with its arc through to someone’s death, and though it’s not clunky or badly directed, it really stands or falls on the quality of its actors. Luckily Daniel Kaluuya as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as FBI informant Bill O’Neal, along with (notably) Dominique Fishback as Deborah Johnson, the partner of Hampton, all do brilliant work. Kaluuya’s is the more up-front role, the more direct angry young man, but it’s Stanfield who particularly impresses as this fraught character (the ‘Judas’), torn in many directions who communicates that well without big speeches, but just in these quiet scenes between himself and his handler (Jesse Plemons), that means the epilogue about the real life Bill O’Neal somehow comes as no real surprise while also being quite shocking. But the greatest shock of the epilogue — and something not fully conveyed by the film and its casting (however fine the actors) — is just how young all these people were. Hampton was 21 when the film ends. It’s a film not just about his work with the BPP but also about the policing culture (at the time, though I think we all know that time hasn’t changed much in that respect), and about the way this authoritarian power was directed at those trying to make positive change and resist the racist, capitalist narratives of the mainstream. Ultimately this is still a studio product, but it allows for those voices to be heard, that protest to be enunciated, and as protest this is striking.
Director Shaka King; Writers Will Berson, King, Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas; Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Martin Sheen; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 March 2021.
I think there are a lot of opinions one could hold about the films of Paul Schrader as about the art of Yukio Mishima, and though I’ve read a novel of his and enjoyed it at the level of writing, you don’t have to dig very deep into his life to get profoundly concerned. He’s the kind of man who would probably in our modern age have connected far more readily with the army he was looking for, and perhaps we can be glad of the times he lived in that this didn’t happen. He wanted to roll back post-war changes in Japanese society that he detested and restore Japan to its rightful place of honour, or something along those lines. And Schrader’s own work has been so boldly sadomasochistic and masculinist at times that it feels that matching the two might make for discomfort, and yes it’s certainly not easy to watch this story, either as a character study of a man fixated on honour and death, but also at a formal level it can be challenging to follow. After all, as the title suggests, it’s split into four chapters but is further fractured by various re-enactments of his works (shot in luridly saturated colours) as well as flashbacks in black-and-white to foundational moments in Mishima’s development, as played by Ken Ogata. Still, it remains a beautiful work, with gorgeous lighting and framing and a transcendent Philip Glass score which for a change doesn’t overwhelm the film (mainly because the filmmaking has a strong enough visual look and narrative structure to withstand Glass’s hammering and repetitive musical cadences). I will surely never feel any kinship with Mishima’s ideas but the film does give a visceral sense of his strange relationship to his society, and the fact that this is made by an American creates a strange thematic connection to some other contemporary titles in the Criterion Collection, like The Ice Storm (a quintessential suburban white American story as told by a Taiwanese filmmaker) or The Last Emperor (in which Chinese political history is interpreted by an Italian).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Schrader; Writers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 May 2021.