Criterion Sunday 325: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

The fact of Alec Guinness playing eight roles is of course always the headline fact about this Ealing comedy of 1949, but that alone would certainly not make it a great film. He’s not even the only actor to take on a dual role as its lead, Dennis Price, plays social climber Louis Mazzini as well as (briefly) his own father, but his character is the core of the film, a sleek and urbane charmer who, as an opening framing scene makes clear, has managed to get himself sentenced to death, and who as we discover from his prison-penned autobiography, the narration of which provides most of the film’s incident, has made a habit of knocking off the obstacles to his becoming the Duke of Chalfont. We may be thankful that his half-Italian heritage was changed from the Jewish one of the original source text, though there’s some disturbing (for us, now) use of the N word near the end which clearly was not considered bothersome at the time for its British makers (indeed, its use in the ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ children’s rhyme was still around the schoolyard when I was a kid in the 1980s I’m fairly sure, though even the contemporary American release version changes it, so it can hardly be said to have been unproblematic at the time). That aside, this is an astute satire on the presumed superiority of the nobility, that a fine education and a quick wit somehow makes you a better person — whether it’s the callous behaviour of the d’Ascoyne family (Alex Guinness) which leads to Louis’ crimes, or the similarly high-handed way that Louis treats those he presumes to be below him from the very outset. Very few characters are indeed likeable throughout, though Louis does at least have the wrong done to his family, a sympathy increasingly worn thinner by his every subsequent action. Still, and perhaps for that reason, it remains a great black comedy about social climbing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This two-disc DVD release has on the first disc a trailer and some photo galleries, both stills taken of the actors as well as behind-the-scenes production photos, including some rather striking costume designs and handsome portraits and group shots.
  • There’s also the American ending to the film, which differs just in the final shot, which (sorry, obviously spoilers follow for those who are concerned) makes Price’s inevitable come-uppance all the more clear by instead of showing his tell-all memoirs sitting on his prison table unread, has a guard run up to the warden and thrust them under his nose. This clarification was due to the Production Code requiring all crimes to be clearly punished.
  • The main extra on the second disc is a feature-length episode of the BBC documentary series Omnibus called Made in Ealing (1986). This is a straightforward run down of the history of Ealing Studios, particularly focusing on when it was acquired by Michael Balcon (whom everyone calls “Mick” or “Mickey”) and taking it through its heyday in the 40s and 50s, backed up by clips from the films and interviews with some of the key figures (archival footage of Balcon from 1969, along with contemporary interviews with his daughter and those directors and crew who still survived, like Sandy Mackendrick and Douglas Slocombe, amongst many others). It’s all narrated with a calm BBC gravitas, and is a decent introduction to the studio’s output until it was sold off in the mid-1950s.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Hamer; Writers Hamer and John Dighton (based on the novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman); Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe; Starring Dennis Price, Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 24 May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 13 June 2020).

Criterion Sunday 324: La Bête humaine (1938)

Billed as a proto-film noir, this is as gorgeously evocative as you might expect from a Renoir film of this period, which like Carné’s Port of Shadows (also with Gabin, and released the same year) has a way of conjuring a complex tangle of emotions out of the grey, smoke-filled skies of an industrial setting (Le Havre features in both films). Here, everyone is a creep though, not least Gabin’s protagonist, who confesses his familial madness is the desire to kill women, which is a pretty big flaw and makes him rather hard to sympathise with, but not exactly out of keeping with the genre. That said, the femme fatale (Simone Simon) is herself mixed up in a murder plot with her husband (Fernand Ledoux), who also has a tendency towards violent jealous rage, so really nobody comes off particularly well in this story, and one is left shaking one’s head at the futile pointlessness of everything by the end — which may well have been Renoir/Zola’s intention, but makes it difficult to love.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir and Denise Leblond (based on the novel by Émile Zola); Cinematographer Curt Courant; Starring Jean Gabin, Simone Simon, Fernand Ledoux; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 21 May 2020.

Sud (South, 1999)

A lot of people are talking about history at the moment; it seems to be a popular topic of discussion in online communities. Apparently statues are unquestionably a very important source of historical context and understanding to, I guess, some people, I don’t know, but apart from those, and apart from books, films can be a source of understanding of historical situations, as well as places and people, intangible things that are perhaps best conveyed via images and sound, things that film does well. I’m going to do a week of various historical films and documentaries, and while today’s is not strictly speaking about history (the specific incident is very recent history), in a way it’s about something that’s been ongoing for decades if not centuries, about the way that attitudes towards history — corrosive feelings of grievance, a lack of understanding in some cases — can inform present-day actions.


I suppose it’s fair to say that Chantal Akerman doesn’t do issues-driven documentaries quite the same way that others do. Sud is about the murder of a Black man in the American south (James Byrd), but it’s first of all a film about a place (Jasper TX) — its streets, shops, sounds and people — as Akerman’s camera tracks along from a car (long lateral car-bound tracking shots to take in a sense of a place are familiar from her other documentaries like D’est), or as she listens to residents. And then there’s a move into details of this specific case, which happened shortly before she arrived, and we get more details from a local reporter and from the town’s Sheriff, just as we see the funeral too. But all along her documentary is keen to return to the roads, the ones that mark this town out and give it a specificity, but also ones that are the site of ongoing racial violence, confined not just to the past but continuing into the present, haunted by white supremacism and racism.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 January 2019.

Global Cinema, Andorra: Nick (2016)

There aren’t a great deal of films from the small Pyrenees-set country of Andorra, as you might not be surprised to hear, and indeed there was only one I could find on streaming services, hence why I’m covering a rather low-budget thriller called Nick today. It’s all in English and it’s not very good, but perhaps along the way you might see a little of the natural beauty of the country.


Andorran flagPrincipality of Andorra
population 77,500 | capital Andorra la Vella (22k) | largest cities Andorra la Vella, Escaldes-Engordany (14.4k), Encamp (13.5k), Sant Julià de Lòria (7.5k), La Massana (5k) | area 468 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism | official language Catalan (català) | major ethnicities Andorrans (49%), Spanish (25%) | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .ad

A tiny landlocked state in the eastern part of the Pyrenees mountain range, between France and Spain. Its name’s origin is unknown, but may relate to a pre-Roman tribe (the Andosins, mentioned in Polybius), or to the old word Anorra containing Basque word ur (“water”), or the Arabic al-darra (for “thickly-wooded place”), amongst others. The earliest settlement dates to 9500 BCE, and the Iberian tribe of the Andosins dates to the 2nd century BCE, though Charlemagne is traditionally credited as having granted the Andorrans a charter, after which it was ruled by the Count and later Diocese of Urgell. The political history is complicated but eventually it came to be under the French Empire, until independence in 1814. It accepted refugees from both sides in the Spanish Civil War and was neutral during World War II, though resistance causes organised there. Modernisation, including entry into the Council of Europe and the UN, took place in 1993, with currency union in 2006. It is governed by co-princes (one of whom is the President of France, the other the Bishop of Urgell), with a Prime Minister as head of government.

While it appears as if filming in Andorra is encouraged, there is very little indigenous cinematic production, perhaps unsurprising given the country’s size.


Nick (aka Outlier, 2016)

As I watched this because it’s a film made by and filmed in the tiny European country of Andorra, I suppose I was hoping for something that would give me an idea of the place. The filming locations appear to be around a small northern town called Ordino, and from what we see of it, it does look rather pretty, with winding little streets in the centre, and lots of people living in large houses with great views. The problem with the film, then, is the rest of it, and looming largest perhaps is the decision to make it in English, which, from my meagre research, does not appear to be a major language in the country (where, as you’ll see above, Catalan is the official language, while Spanish, French and Portuguese are the more usual second languages). In fact, just about everyone (aside from the moody Catalan-speaking work colleague of our lead character Margret, a police officer whose stepson has just arrived in town) seems to be transplanted from England, which gives it the feeling of a rather unloved drama pilot buried somewhere deep down in the programming of ITV. This perhaps would be fine were it not for the fact that most nuance seems to be lost in the script, perhaps gone astray somewhere in translation, as characters introduce each other clunkily (“I can’t believe you’re doing that, given your recent, troubling history of alcoholism” is something that isn’t quite said, but almost is, things along those lines) and bad decisions are met with worse reactions — which makes up the entire character of Margret (Molly Malcolm) for most of the last third of the film (she’s honestly just not very likeable or sympathetic). Even all that might even be passable were it not for the fact that the acting is unable to find any emotional truth in these characters, perhaps because there’s very little there to work with, though of course I shouldn’t expect too much from the younger actor (the titular Nick is just called upon to pout, which he does well, and also shout a lot at his stepsister, which isn’t convincing). Somewhere in here is a murder mystery with supernatural elements, set up quite compellingly, but it’s all rather messy and the impetus quickly gets rather lost. Andorra probably deserves better.

Nick film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer José Pozo; Cinematographer Juan González Guerrero; Starring Molly Malcolm, Cooper Crafar, Melina Matthews; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon), London, Tuesday 2 June 2020.

S21, la machine de mort Khmère rouge (S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, 2003)

I haven’t seen much Cambodian cinema, but most of what makes it to the West has a tendency to deal with one very limited period in the country’s history, which is the Khmer Rouge regime of the mid-20th century and its leader Pol Pot. Undoubtedly it was a dramatic and turbulent time, a defining era for the modern age and a legacy with which the country and its people are still contending. It’s certainly made up a number of prominent films from director Rithy Panh, of which this is perhaps the most straightforward.


Some subjects demand a documentary style that’s not based in audacious formalism but in quiet documentation of atrocity. Here, survivors and torturers come together at the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prisons (and now site of a Genocide Museum) and discuss their experiences, as well as reading documents and handing around photos from the camp. In bearing witness and recounting experiences — and those who worked at the camp excuse themselves due to their teenage youth and victimisation by those higher up — there’s a clear sense of how easy it is for a people to slip into genocidal complicity. There are a lot of details of horrors, but it’s all couched in a calm reminiscence that almost heightens it all the more.

S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rithy Panh ប៉ាន់ រិទ្ធី; Cinematographers Prum Mesa and Panh; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 19 December 2016.

Knives Out (2019)

This is very obviously neither an indie film nor exactly is it much related to “mumblecore” in any way, but rather it’s a knowing genre film that uses these familiar murder-mystery whodunit tropes to tell a somewhat sub rosa story of class and race in modern America. At some level I guess I still think of Rian Johnson as indie, perhaps because of his first film Brick (2005), though he very quickly took to rather bigger productions, which this of course is. Still, my blog my rules, so I’m putting it in this themed week.


A very polished and fun whodunit murder-mystery thriller set amongst a rich family at their stately old New England pile, which revolves ultimately around capitalism, class and immigration, though without ever really overtly digging into these topics. In fact, nothing ever feels more important than when it’s prefiguring another twist or leading to some well-crafted satirical repartee, but that’s all part of the film’s easy charm. The old man who has died mysteriously (Christopher Plummer) is a renowned author, and we discover in flashbacks — because the film starts with his dead body being discovered — that most of his extended family basically live off him, much to his increasing chagrin. Saying more about it would be to trade in spoilers, which I do not care to do, but there’s a wealth of delightful little character details, as well as some big chewy roles for the assembled hams to have a crack at (none moreso than Daniel Craig’s Sherlock-like drawling Lousianian private investigator), and some fine casting does a lot of the work, but Ana de Armas as the old man’s nursemaid turns out to be the stand-out role in the starry ensemble. It’s all intricately plotted as you might expect, and its charms are fairly surface-level, but see it in a big audience and there’s plenty to delight.

Knives Out film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Lakeith Stanfield; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 1 December 2019 (and again at the Genesis, London, Sunday 8 December 2019).

Criterion Sunday 311: 獣の剣 Kedamono no Ken (Sword of the Beast, 1965)

Having recently rewatched the Jason Bourne trilogy, it’s clearer how some of the generic beats of that story have endured even for half a century. As this film opens, a man who has been left for dead is seen blinking into life, as he is charged by his own clan with a murder and must go on the run. We do eventually learn he is the samurai Gennosuke (Mikijiro Hira), as well as who he has killed and the reason why. In transpires that Gennosuke was involved in an attempted reform of antiquated values within his clan that has gone awry (this is after all set at the end of the Tokugawa period, and the American Commodore Perry, instrumental in the opening up of Japan near the end of this period, is given a namecheck). When he runs into a samurai stealing gold from another wealthy clan, he perceives something of a kindred spirit, though all relationships in this film (as one feels was likely the case amongst real samurai) are cagy and tentative. There are strong women in this film who are treated badly, and there are men too who try to uphold some form of honour, but by the end it seems more clear that there can be no viable reckoning of honour in such a broken system, so all that unites these disparate people is the sword. However, it’s generally a rather more jolly picture than Samurai Rebellion, and has a jaunty sensibility that suggests some of Kurosawa’s samurai films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • None at all, save for the booklet essay.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hideo Gosha 五社英雄; Writers Gosha and Eizaburo Shiba 柴英三郎; Cinematographer Toshitada Tsuchiya 土屋俊忠; Starring Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Takeshi Kato 加藤武, Go Kato 加藤剛, Shima Iwashita 篠田志麻; Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.

Criterion Sunday 306: Le Samouraï (1967)

That this film is now a world cinema classic is of course indisputable and I shan’t pretend to post a deep analysis of it. However, living in the times that we do, there’s something strangely comforting in the laconic rituals of this far-off culture — though to be fair, three weeks ago feels like an impossibly distant past right now. The film sets itself up with a fake Bushido quote, and Jarmusch would do likewise with his own pseudo-samurai film (Ghost Dog) many decades later, though unlike some recent Criterion films it’s set in 1960s Paris rather than feudal Japan. Our antihero Jef (Alain Delon, never more expressively inexpressive) moves through the motions of his job, from its start (or very near to it, as he lies on his bed contemplating things to come) to its rather final end. Every frame is a masterclass, every composition a blank slate waiting to be filled in with the ever-present threat of violence (albeit rarely actually witnessed). Melville understands space and time better than most filmmakers, and in the sequence of gangster films he made (many with Delon) he really finds something special in all those otherwise unpreposessing 60s Parisian interiors and street scenes. There’s something about the lighting, the performance, the frame and the movement that all come together perfectly, with a little Gallic shrug as everything softly trails off. What makes it a classic is the balance Melville attains, something that is very suggestive of its Japanese roots perhaps, something almost Zen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Melville; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon, Caty Rosier; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 22 March 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1997).

Bacurau (2019)

Everything being well, this is a film I should have seen in a cinema two weeks ago, but I returned from holiday on Friday 13th, just on the cusp of the COVID-19 crisis, and sticking around in a central London cinema didn’t seem particularly sensible, and would increasingly seem less so up until the point cinemas closed a few days later. Well, it’s on Mubi now, where everyone can watch it — and I might add, without wishing to become some kind of sponsored content, that for UK viewers they currently have a deal to get three months for £1 so you have no excuse if you want to see this and some of the other films I’ve written about (there are also seasons dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, Park Chan-wook, Jean-Luc Godard, not to mention new films by filmmakers I don’t know yet but soon will). Mendonça Filho’s debut film Neighbouring Sounds, the one he made before Aquarius, is also there, and I feel like that’ll be another one I’ll check out soon.


There is no shortage of art dealing with the sometimes brutal intersection between the fast pace of modernity and traditional communities usually left unsupported by government and big business. In a sense, that’s what this film is dealing with, using a sort of generic template that traces its lineage back to The Most Dangerous Game or alternatively to 60s acid westerns (there is some ingestion of psychotropic drugs towards the end, but it’s not filmed in a trippy way). The first half of the film is about the little titular village in the outback of Brazil, tracing the family dynamics and the local life, which has been upturned by the death of one of its elder citizens. Right from the start there are these little clues towards the upheavals to come, such as the way the town has disappeared from Google maps, and the arrival of a mayoral candidate from a (disliked) local town sparks the ire of the locals, who are very efficient at hiding themselves away in a hurry (this becomes a plot point later on). Thus when Udo Kier and his gang of ne’er-do-wells arrives on the scene, we’re primed for something odd to happen and things slide downhill pretty quick, as the body count racks up. It’s brutal and gory in its way, but it’s also a film that’s angry about governments and about technology and about Western capitalism and probably also pretty angry about Bolsonaro and his ilk. And it’s an anger that will probably percolate for a while through the cinema of many nations now finding themselves perched precariously on the edge of this kind of rapacious economic system.

Bacurau film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles; Cinematographer Pedro Sotero; Starring Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Udo Kier, Sônia Braga; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 26 March 2020.

American Psycho (2000)

If there’s one thing that Netflix is most commonly criticised for, it’s the relentless focus on the new. If you want old films generally you go to other places, like the Criterion Channel or TCM (if you’re in North America), or Mubi, or even Amazon Prime. Still, you can sometimes find some vintage classics on Netflix, and that’s the film I’m covering today, because yes the year 2000 is now a good 20 years’ away in time. I should mention, as an aside, I have not read nor at this point would I read the original novel on which this was based; it has its adherents, but I don’t think I need to welcome the voice of Mr Ellis into my life.


For Christmas Day, my wife and I watched this film, what I would now consider a modern classic (and almost a Christmas film itself), though I’m not sure I was quite so sold on it when I first saw it almost 20 years ago. If anything, I think age has only made the satire sharper and more resonant, though the core of the film remains the monologues of Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), often critiquing popular music of the era, which he delivers in a completely straight way that only heightens their comic impact. For me the key thing the film does is blur the line between what’s actually happening and what’s in Bateman’s head, to the extent that it’s never clear where anything lies as the film progresses. It’s a film about the opulent allure of specifically American wealth creation, and a nasty dissection (as it were) of all the flaws inherent in corporate consumerism, about the way it turns society against itself, and leads to the murderous psychosis that’s at the film’s heart, and which it very clearly links to the functioning of American capitalism itself. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted. I wonder that Mary Harron never again had a chance to emulate its success, but this film at least stands as proof of her talent.

American Psycho film posterCREDITS
Director Mary Harron; Writers Harron and Guinevere Turner (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis); Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 9 September 2000 (and most recently on Netflix streaming at home, London, Wednesday 25 December 2019).