Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017

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Grandma (2015)

I liked Paul Weitz’s last film, Admission (2013), more than many people, perhaps because of its university setting (that’s where my day job is), but also because of its likeable protagonists. Yet I’d never have guessed the same person (responsible, lest we forget, for American Pie as well), might turn in something like Grandma. It’s just so unfussy and unpretentious, plus (surely unusual in the kind of political culture of the modern USA), it takes for its premise the unquestioned assumption that women have the right to want an abortion and be able to get one. It’s not as if the teenage character of Sage (an excellent Julia Garner, whose performance moves from teenage petulance to more sympathetic as the film progesses) is let off the hook for her decisions, just that it avoids the quirk (and moral compromise) of Juno. Still, whatever the excellent qualities of the script (and they should not be diminished, as a good script is the basis for all good films), it’s anchored by a fantastic performance from Lily Tomlin as Elle, an ageing lesbian academic and poet, who is irascible and cranky without ever being loveable exactly, but yet surely has the audience’s strongest sympathy in her response to the news from her granddaughter. It moves towards what you might expect is a group-hug heartwarming family moment, but never quite delivers on one’s worst fears in this regard. It’s a quiet champion of a film, and best of all, clocks in at under 80 minutes.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Paul Weitz | Cinematographer Tobias Datum | Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden | Length 79 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 31 December 2015

Tou ze (A Simple Life, 2011)

This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.


FILM REVIEW
Director Ann Hui | Writers Susan Chan and Roger Lee | Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai | Starring Deanie Ip, Andy Lau | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015

The Closer We Get (2015)

I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.


© Somewhere

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie | Cinematographers Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015

No Home Movie (2015)

Re-watching Akerman’s œuvre over the last few years with the help of film collective À Nos Amours has been instructive in tracing some of the repeated themes and motifs of her work. A lot of those can be found again in this final film of hers, which returns once more to her mother Natalia as subject, a presence who has haunted so many of Chantal’s films, even as she hasn’t often appeared. Compared to some of her more recent work, there’s a warmth and playfulness to the conversations between Akerman mère and fille which make it positively comical for stretches of its running time. And yet this is a film about loss and death, both that of Natalia (who died at the end of 2014) and, inevitably, sadly, Chantal herself. That sense of finality is played out in the metaphor that opens and closes the film, of a strong wind buffeting the fragile signs of life in a barren landscape (presumably Israel), which finally dies out. But it’s equally brought to mind by the spectral resonances here of all her film work. There are long lateral tracking shots taken from a car of this dusty environment (recalling D’est), shots taken through net curtains (Là-bas), and plenty of long, often empty, fixed shots through doorways (Hôtel Monterey). The domestic space in which most of the film takes place, Natalia’s Brussels flat, recalls too Chantal’s most famous early works, particularly Jeanne Dielman (1975), and her earliest, 1968’s short film Saute ma ville. The kitchen of that first film — in the Akerman family home when Chantal was aged 18 — still oddly resembles the one where Natalia sits and eats her breakfast here even though it’s a different home, while of course Jeanne Dielman’s methodical household tidying is clearly based on Natalia. For all that it’s freighted with this latent emotional baggage, it’s only ever captivating to watch these images (at least, such was my experience), both those shot in the family home (home no longer, as the title testifies) and on a laptop from Chantal’s travels — an implicit critique surely of all those recent narratives that try to lay the blame at technology’s door for some social failing of human connection. But death remains painful and powerful and the final stretches are difficult to watch, as Akerman’s mercurial 50 years of filmmaking cuts to black.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chantal Akerman | Length 115 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 30 October 2015

It’s Complicated (2009)

It’s very easy for critics to be sniffy about the oeuvre of Nancy Meyers: gentle, sometimes sentimental, romantic comedies about people later in life dealing with messy relationships and families. But I don’t know, I think her films have more going on than her detractors might allow. After all, it takes some skill to make actors like Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin into blandly appealing, even likeable leads when so much of their screen personae are based around being acerbic, dominating alpha males — to such an extent in fact, that star Meryl Streep (as divorcee Jane) almost gets the film stolen from her by this duo of her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin) and new flame, architect Adam (Martin). Sure it’s all very comfortable (and white) middle-class suburbia, people living in just-so houses doing delightful things like baking and architecture, but that’s these characters’ lives and it’s all put across expertly by Meyers and her actors. Within this world of existing jobs and familial obligations, the central relationship entanglement in which Jane finds herself almost doesn’t register, but it’s handled sensibly, in a mature way that most comedies can’t manage (especially those flirting with slapstick, as this does at times). It’s a pity that Lake Bell, a woman with plenty of comic talents both in front of and behind the camera, has such a thankless role as Jake’s vain new wife Agness, but that aside this is a likeable, warm-hearted film that works well when one is laying up ill on a sofa.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers | Cinematographer John Toll | Starring Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, John Krasinski, Lake Bell | Length 120 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 29 October 2015

Seven Songs for a Long Life (2015)

I would stop short of calling this documentary set in a Scottish hospice a ‘feel good film about dying’ but that’s what it amounts to, after a fashion. The patients are all diagnosed with terminal illnesses (though some rare cases do recover), so the hospice is dedicated to providing palliative care. There’s probably no good way to get through this, so the film’s focus on music as one way is quite fruitful. Throughout we see the patients involved in singing and performing, across a range of musical styles, whether on stage or to themselves (and the camera, obviously). There’s an easy bond between patients and staff, and a general sense of people trying to get through the bleakness of their situations, using music and self-deprecating humour, something that seems to come easily to the hardy Scottish people who take centre stage. Ultimately, Seven Songs for a Long Life is not nearly as sentimentally manipulative as one might expect, but simply well observed and keenly felt.


FILM REVIEW || Director Amy Hardie | Cinematographers Amy Hardie and Julian Schwanitz | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015

Mia madre (2015)

For all my filmgoing, I’d never seen a film by feted Italian director Nanni Moretti, though this seems like a good one to start with. As far as I can tell, his style is to make personal, often autobiographical films, and Mia madre (“my mother”) is little different, except that the director stand-in is played by Margherita Buy rather than Moretti himself. She’s making a film that reflects a certain crisis in capitalism, as workers protest lay offs by an unfeeling corporate boss (it’s not dissimilar to Godard and Gorin’s Tout va bien in some ways). However, it’s a difficult shoot, not helped by the American actor playing the boss (John Turturro) having a terrible time remembering his lines, and having only a patchy grasp of Italian. But more troubling even than this is that Margherita’s mother is dying. Moretti is still in there as an actor, as Margherita’s brother Giovanni, but the focus remains on Margherita, and Buy does excellent work in finding the right tone, a sort of detached malaise emphasised by the camerawork and aspects of the style that seem to isolate her even amongst other people. For all that’s going wrong, though, it’s not a depressing film exactly. Turturro as the inept actor Barry, who is fond of retailing a fictitious anecdote about working with Kubrick, is a comic highlight, and his energetic mugging contrasts with the scenes of the mother ailing in a hospital.


© 01 Distribution

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Nanni Moretti | Writers Nanni Moretti, Valia Santella and Francesco Piccolo | Cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari | Starring Margherita Buy, Nanni Moretti, John Turturro | Length 107 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015

The Intern (2015)

Having just written about Miss You Already, another recent directed-by-a-woman comedy/drama, and criticising its somewhat patchy use of musical cues, along comes this fluffily inoffensive new Nancy Meyers comedy and oh boy, what was I even talking about yesterday? To be fair, like Anne Hathaway’s little indie romance Song One, if I’d seen this film on a plane or on TV when I was feeling ill, then I’d undoubtedly be giving it an easier ride. It’s perfect for those occasions. But in a cinema with a crowd of other chattering (perhaps somewhat cynical) attendees, it has its difficult stretches, and most of those for me revolve around the treacly orchestral score that kicks in whenever something meaningful or emotional is happening, generally in the last third. However, if you can get past that, the precociously annoying kid and the rather overextended later stretch that deals with romantic infidelity, there’s still enough to make it passably entertaining. There are some good jokes as the film is setting up its premise, that 70-year-old Ben (Robert De Niro) has applied for a ‘senior intern’ position within Jules (Hathaway)’s internet fashion company, and has to fit in with clued-up tech-savvy youngsters. A lot of that revolves around familiar age-vs-experience clashes, but Ben is also called on to show his sensitive side quite a lot, so your tolerance for De Niro’s mugging for the camera will be tested — though luckily he’s largely pretty good at it, and inoffensive, which is this movie’s watchword. But I love Anne Hathaway, and am always happy to watch her; she has an easy on-screen charisma. So despite all that manipulative music, despite her “adorable” daughter and the fact that everyone seems to live in homes that look like boutique hotel fashion plates, despite the fact that the company (for all its financial success) never in the end actually seems to pay any of their interns a salary — perhaps a sly commentary on the modern workplace — I still didn’t leave hating this movie. Your mileage may vary.


© Warner Bros. Pictures

NEW RELEASE ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nancy Meyers | Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt | Starring Anne Hathaway, Robert De Niro | Length 121 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 28 September 2015

Elsa & Fred (2014)

To call this film gentle would probably be an insult to gentility, but sometimes that’s all that you want as a viewer. It’s a story of a love affair between two 80-somethings played by Shirley Maclaine and Christopher Plummer, after they’re moved into adjoining apartments by their fussy children (Marcia Gay Harden and Scott Bakula respectively). The character arcs — whereby Elsa is the sparky vibrant one who has a love of the film La dolce vita, and who coaxes Fred out of his shell — would be tiresome if the actors were a third their age, but you don’t see too many films about love amongst the elderly, so it’s nice to know the actors can still get work. Both have an easy charm, and the director keeps things firmly middle-of-the-road, avoiding the worst excesses of sentimentality (until the finale at least). Easy to forget, but hard to really take too vociferously against.


© Millennium Entertainment

FILM REVIEW
Director Michael Radford | Writers Michael Radford and Anna Pavignano (based on the film Elsa y Fred written by Marcos Carnevale, Marcela Guerty and Lily Ann Martin) | Cinematographer Michael McDonough | Starring Shirley Maclaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Scott Bakula, Chris Noth | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 30 June 2015