Criterion Sunday 183: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

I don’t consider this typical Bresson, as it uses professional actors and it has a sort of Hollywood melodrama feel to it, although it has a dark edge of course. It’s about a woman who manipulates those around her to engineer their (social) destruction, and Maria Casarès is exactly the right person to have casted in such a role, given her admirable talents at looking mischievous. It all moves forward with admirable aplomb, and it has its lovely moments and some great high-contrast monochrome photography, admirable shadows falling across conniving faces, all that kind of thing. Its only real failing is that it’s not as great as Bresson later proved he could be as a director.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Bresson | Writers Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau (based on the novel Jacques le fataliste by Denis Diderot) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Maria Casarès, Élina Labourdette, Paul Bernard | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier in June 1999 on VHS in the Victoria University library, Wellington, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home in London on Sunday 3 December 2017)

Advertisements

Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station aka The Iron Gate, 1958)

There’s a potent, heady sense of melodrama at work here in this foundational Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine, even if it does turn on a rather creepy obsessive guy (played by the director himself). In its location shooting and heightened drama, it reminds me of the Italians of the period (it could stand alongside any early Fellini such as the ones I’ve been watching on the Criterion Collection recently). There’s a vibrancy to the filmmaking and a knowingness to the acting, and the black-and-white cinematography is striking. That all said — and I do recognise this film is 60 years old — I am certainly weary of scripts which use a disability (here a lame foot leading to a small limp) as a metaphor for some deeper existential malaise.


FILM REVIEW
Director Youssef Chahine | Writers Mohamed Abu Youssef and Abdel Hay Adib | Cinematographer Alevise Orfanelli | Starring Farid Shawqi, Hind Rostom, Youssef Chahine | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 March 2017

LFF 2016 Day Two

It’s that time of year: time for the London Film Festival (LFF)! And while I’ve not been doing a good job of getting reviews up on my site recently aside from my regular Criterion watch, I thought I’d best share the snippets of the films I’ve been watching at the festival. It’s unlikely any of them will break out as great successes in the coming year, because my policy these last two years has been to go and see films I don’t think will get another screening (with one or two exceptions).

Day One of the LFF was Wednesday 5 October, with its big premiere being the opening gala of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom which seems to be getting mixed reviews, though I shall go see it when it gets a proper release next month.

Day Two was Thursday 6 October, and I saw my first three films. Two of them I think are pretty obscure, but the Ava DuVernay documentary was always going to get a pretty strong release in the US election season and indeed, as I learned subsequent to purchasing my festival tickets, it’s already on Netflix.


Wild (2016)

Wild (2016, Germany, dir./wr. Nicolette Krebitz, DOP Reinhold Vorschneider)
There are some unsettling thematics being explored in this film about a young woman who is, essentially, in love with a wolf. Themes dealing with female sexuality, throwing off the burdens and expectations of bourgeois conformity, living outside the capitalist system, stuff like that. At times I felt the film wasn’t doing justice to all its ideas, but at other times it seemed pretty on the nose. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg, with the intensity of a young Sarah Polley) works as an IT person and general dogsbody at some kind of recycling company, while finding herself newly living alone and restless. The film has some nice little observations (all the women in the office picking up after their oafish boss Boris) and moments of great humour piercing the odd alienation that much of the film essays. It’s weird, but in a watchable way, and a provoking way. [***]


13th (2016) 13th (2016, USA, dir. Ava DuVernay, wr. DuVernay/Spencer Averick, DOP Hans Charles/Kira Kelly)
The thesis of this new made-for-Netflix documentary is that the prison-industrial complex of the modern United States is effectively perpetuating slavery by another name (the constitutional amendment of the title rescinds slavery except for convicts). It’s difficult to mount any criticism of it as a film* because it’s so focused — through sadness, anger and despair — on driving its message home that it’s hard to look away. A range of activists, scholars and politicians (of whom, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich doesn’t come off as being even close to the worst) comment on the legacy of America’s bitterly divided racial history in creating a massively commercialised and exploitative system that in preying overwhelmingly on the poor (often with little interest in their culpability for their charged crimes) also preys overwhelmingly on people of colour, deracinating communities and continuing to deprive them of voice in opposing the system’s swift extension during the 80s and 90s. Well, DuVernay certainly provides this voice and I can only hope it reaches the people it needs to. Sure it sometimes seems like it’s going after Trump and his cronies (and why not) but neither Clinton exactly comes out slathered in glory, and Obama is largely notable by his absence in this story. It effectively folds in police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also contextualises each as part of a history seemingly doomed to repeat. Sad but urgent stuff. [***½]

(* I only want to mention the endless gliding camera around its interview subjects; I found that technique distracting, but I daresay it works for Netflix, where it’s scheduled to appear on 7 October, and may many more see this film.)


Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women, 2016)

Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women) (2016, Egypt, dir. Kamla Abou Zekri, wr. Hanaa Attia)
Sometimes you can watch a film and the fact it exists and what it documents and the point of view it represents, the voice it’s presenting, is enough — to the extent that it hardly matters how ‘good’ a film it is. I guess that sounds like an apologia for not liking it, but really all I can say (not being Egyptian, not being a woman, not being a whole lot of things, a film writer not least) is that it’s not made for me, and that for what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a melodrama, with some good, subtle performances (and some which seem less so), about a community along a small alleyway in a big city, and the local pool which opens to women only on Sunday, and brings them all together. I liked the shared stories, the way they all have to step carefully on makeshift stones over a deluged alley to get to their homes, the incipient love affairs and personal turmoil each is navigating. Even the ‘simple’ woman and the ‘tramp’ archetypes were challenged by the end, and if nothing else it made a good case for safe spaces. [***]

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 95: All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Douglas Sirk was a director from Germany who was working within mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 1950s, where he had great success though at the time his pictures were largely sidelined as merely ‘women’s interest’. They later came to influence a diverse range of directors, not least his countryman Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose 1974 film Angst essen Seele auf largely remakes the one under discussion here), but his style is perhaps at its most refined in All That Heaven Allows. Certainly it looks spectacular (a palette borrowed by Todd Haynes for his own 2002 hommage Far from Heaven), and boasts some fine acting from Rock Hudson — just coming into his own around this period — as well as veteran A-list star Jane Wyman. The story concerns itself with the repressed middle-classes and the cumulative power of society’s judgement on Wyman’s widowed matriarch Cary, who falls for a younger man, her gardener Ron (Hudson). More than his age, it’s class which is the chief battleground, and Cary’s self-esteem is progressively whittled away by her friends and frightful selfish children. There’s a rather implausible denouement, albeit clearly tacked on where the story really finishes, and little opportunity is spared to heighten the campness of the settings (the appearance of a deer is particularly memorable), but this is a gorgeous, emotional film which still resonates.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by a couple of British academics, who draw attention particularly to the design and lighting of the film, but also favourably towards the acting and draw out some of the meanings of melodrama and camp at work in the film. There’s an hour-long excerpt of a 1979 British TV show Behind the Mirror about Sirk, based around an interview with him at his home in Switzerland, as well as a shorter French TV piece about him from a few years later, again featuring his own words. One of the actors in the film (William Reynolds, who played Cary’s son Ned) talks about working with Sirk from a vantage point of 50 years later. There’s also a rather glorious trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer Peg Fenwick | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead | Length 89 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 April 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2002)

Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

For all the rippling abs and tattoos sported by hero Inder (Harshvardhan Rane), there’s something old-fashioned to the way this film plays out (which may perhaps be due to the fact that there have been several films of this title over the years, not that their plots seem to bear much similarity). It’s a romantic melodrama, in which two neighbouring young people from either side of the metaphorical tracks fall for one another. Saraswati (Mawra Hocane) is a frumpy librarian (of course!) from a good family whom nobody wants to marry, and Inder is a sexy ex-con with a very long line in laconic brooding and trouble committing to relationships (although there’s a hint that he may have a backstory of privilege). When they are caught talking in his apartment (she wants a makeover to snag herself a business school graduate), her father dramatically severs all ties and performs funerary rites for his now-dead-to-him daughter.

To be honest, for all its big soap-operatic storylines, the film largely had me in its thrall up until the interval. Hocane is delightful as the dowdy Saru, with big dorky glasses looking for all the world like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (2001; a masterpiece, of course). This does all mean that inevitably there will be a makeover scene, and there’s a song and dance to go along with it that’s quite fetching. Meanwhile, the film spares no effort in showing quite how ripped and sexy Inder is, as he’s constantly caught topless (certainly, he’s never without at least three buttons undone on his shirt), or doing pull-ups in his apartment, throwing glances Saru’s way and even joining the library so he can bump into her. Naturally Inder has feelings for Saru that go beyond her looks, but he isn’t able to express himself (because backstory… it all comes out later on), and so every time they’re together (which is most of the time), there’s a whole lot of longing looks and sultry gazes off camera, eyes filled with conflicted emotions — you know the drill, really. Their relationship feels even a little transgressive, as they fall in love in spite of their families’ wishes (both have strained relationships with their dads, and that’s a big issue in this film, and one imagines in wider Indian society).

It’s just that the last third wraps things up just a little too neatly. Things take a sudden tearjerking turn as an illness plot is introduced, seemingly to punish Saru for her feelings (or maybe to punish her father). Needless to say, the patriarchal needs of society are healed, and it’s too bad for our lovers. Sure, doomed love is a plot as old as time, but when you care about your characters, sometimes you hope for something more.


Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru | Cinematographer Chirantan Das | Starring Harshvardhan Rane, Mawra Hocane | Length 154 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016

Wo De Shao Nu Shi Dai (Our Times, 2015)

If like me your experience of Taiwanese cinema is restricted to Hou Hsiao-hsien, then Our Times is going to come as a bit of a shock to the system. Or perhaps it won’t, as it fits pretty neatly into the mould created by US teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is not least because of its retro 90s setting, all bright saturated colours and perky kids, though as it happens the lead male actor (Darren Wang as school bad boy Tai Yu) also looks quite a bit like Andrew Keegan’s Joey in that film. The Taiwanese take on teen romance continues also to favour strong roles for its leading women — perhaps thanks to the women who wrote and directed the film. The story follows Vivian Sung’s dorky Lin Zhen Xin (“Lin Truly” as she’s called in the subtitles, no doubt to emphasise a key pun in the modern-day epilogue) through various travails of the heart (with heartthrob Tai Yu and the squeaky clean Ou Yang, played by Dino Lee). Where it differs from its US forebears is that the tone of Our Times strays frequently from comedy into overt (occasionally even tear-jerking) melodrama at several points, and lacks the tight script of the US film. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this broadly likeable film, even if many of the cultural references go far over your head — certainly the audience of young, presumably Taiwanese, women at my screening laughed and gasped at plenty of lines that meant nothing to me. There’s also an extended subplot (and obligatory cameo) featuring Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau, so that may or may not mean anything to you, but it hardly makes any difference to either enjoying or understanding the film, which is a candy-coloured delight.


© Hualien Media International

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Frankie Chen | Writer Yung-Ting Tseng [as “Sabrina Tseng”] | Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen and Min-Chung Chiang | Starring Vivian Sung, Darren Wang, Dino Lee | Length 134 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

A screening of a silent film, especially one that’s fairly obscure, is always an occasion to rejoice, because it’s (usually) more than just a film screening, but a live experience. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne didn’t disappoint either, seamlessly integrating piano, accordion and a few other exotic instruments — hinting at the pseudo-orientalist intrigue — into his score. It’s also wonderful to see the talented Anna May Wong on the big screen, still best known perhaps for her turn in the same year’s Piccadilly, but she is a luminous on-screen presence, and an underrepresented face in the pantheon of cinema. Wong doesn’t disappoint in the title role, as a lowly nightclub dancer in some vague Eastern city (Istanbul was suggested) who finds herself early on being attacked by a group of ruffians and saved by surly Jack (Heinrich George), a man seemingly on the down-and-out. Soon, Song forms an affection for Jack as they go into work together… for it turns out he is a knife-thrower! This is, however, where the film’s great weakness is exposed, for the script is full of this kind of scarcely believable whimsy, as it introduces a long-lost love for Jack in the form of the haughty ballerina Gloria (Mary Kid), her boyfriend, a rich impresario, and a plot line about Jack losing his eyesight after a heist gone wrong — although this does at least lead to some tension when he’s doing his knife act. By the time the impresario has promoted Song to lead dancer at his swanky club (shades of Piccadilly) and is asking her to choose between him and the cruelly-abusive Jack (who still pines for Gloria), the relationship drama has all become a bit ‘whatever’ for this viewer, but at least Anna May’s star still shines bright.


© Süd-Film

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Eichberg | Writers Helen Gosewish and Adolf Lantz (based on the novel by Karl Vollmöller) | Cinematographer Heinrich Gärtner | Starring Anna May Wong, Heinrich George, Mary Kid | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 15 November 2015

Shaandaar (2015)

Like many a Bollywood romcom (at least of the ones I’ve seen this year), this is glitzy, glossy, silly and set in an magical exotical foreign wonderland. Which would be Yorkshire, obviously. So we get the mist hanging close to the green fields, horse-riding and tweedy ensembles, people rolling around in Rolls’s, and humble homes straight out of Downton Abbey (although it seems the main mansion setting was filmed in Poland). There’s a dance sequence set in a barn, where everyone’s dressed up in their best Barbour, while the bride-to-be (Sanah Kapoor) jumps up on some kind of draycart outfitted with handpulls and bottles of real ale. It is, if I haven’t covered this already, dreadfully silly. But that’s fine, really, or at least it’s fine with me. The film is at least up-front about its wistful magical dream world, as via a short animated sequence it sets up how our heroine Alia (the winning and delightful Alia Bhatt) can’t ever get to sleep and has dreams drawn for her by her apparently-adoptive father Bipin, played by Pankaj Kapur, the actual father of the film’s male lead, Shahid Kapoor (playing wedding planner Jagjinder Joginder). There are periodic little outbreaks of this kind of animated fantasia world, but mostly the suspension-of-disbelief is at the vast enormity of the grandness or the blinginess of the bling (the gold-plated Magnum revolver constantly waved around by the film’s nominal bad guy, Mr Fundwani, is only the most ridiculous — that is until a diamond-encrusted pump-action shotgun arrives). It doesn’t all work — there’s a pair of txt-speaking girls whose stereotypical vapidity quickly gets wearing — but when it does, as in a fantastic battle-of-the-sexes dance number, it really can be quite special. Somehow by the end (just of that song, frankly), they’ve managed to lampoon laddish bantz, fat-shaming, rape culture and fit in a line about the groom-to-be being a “misogynistic prat” (although even he turns out to be not irredeemable). After a string of serious-hued nonsense, it’s refreshing to find this level of escapism, but I concede not everyone may be so charmed.


© Fox Star Studios

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Vikas Bahl | Writer Anvita Dutt Guptan | Cinematographer Anil Mehta | Starring Alia Bhatt, Shahid Kapoor, Pankaj Kapur, Sanah Kapoor | Length 144 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 2 November 2015

LFF: San cheng ji (A Tale of Three Cities, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, presented by the CEO of the BFI along with the film’s director and producers, who stayed for a Q&A afterwards (though I had to dash off to my next film).


It may be based on real people (the parents of film star Jackie Chan, apparently), but this sweeping historical romance in fact subsumes itself into a familiar overheady melodramatic register, making it a struggle to glimpse the reality behind the burnished cinematography and period set recreations. Still, it’s never boring and occasionally even transcendent at evoking Anhui (a province, not a city, as far as I can tell) and Shanghai during World War II. The third city of the title is Hong Kong, to which the family escapes after the coming of the Communists, and it’s where the film starts out, which may head off worries about our lead characters’ survival, though there’s still plenty of nail-biting tension in the backstory which the following two hours builds up. At the heart of the piece are Sean Lau and Wei Tang as the lovers Daolong and Yuerong, who first meet in a small fishing village when she is caught by him smuggling opium but then released because things are too chaotic and he feels a tug of pity. Like any good epic, the setting changes from scene to scene such that recounting the twists and turns of the plot is difficult, suffice that between Shanghai and their homes in Anhui province, they are reunited once again and fall in love. They each have two kids from previous marriages, but those seem like the story’s losers (certainly their fate is not dwelt upon), as Daolong and Yuerong struggle to make a home for themselves somewhere away from the threat of violence and governmental oppression. Perhaps the past is the safest place to tell a story of people who were openly working against the Communists, but it still imparts a frisson of topicality, and whatever the film’s weaknesses, a fondness for grand storytelling in the David Lean style is not one of them.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director Mabel Cheung | Writers Mabel Cheung and Alex Law | Cinematographer Yu Wang | Starring Sean Lau, Wei Tang | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 15 October 2015