Criterion Sunday 257: Secret Honor (1984)

One of many films attempting to understand the character of Nixon, this is based on a stage play and it certainly shows, given the film takes place entirely in a single room (Nixon’s study) and aside from archival clips and images, the only person we see on screen is Philip Baker Hall. It’s a bravura performance, the kind of thing that on stage would wow a crowd, but at times feels like overacting on film, but in a sense that’s intentional: the way the thoughts tumble out of Nixon’s mouth, often incomplete, jostling with one another to find clarity of expression; the mad dashes he takes around his study, ranting at pictures, staring down the camera, speaking into his tape recorder and addressing an off-screen editor. Altman’s camera fluidly captures all the digressions and frantic movements, opening up the space a little but still with the claustrophobia that you get from a single, heavily wood-panelled, setting. The script touches on a lot of the issues that motivated Nixon, and suggest a deeper, darker reality than the one seen in the media of the time, as shadowy cabals of men are alluded to as his backers, and his misdeeds appear to be more than what brought him down in the end. It’s a passionate performance, but as a film it feels rather like a footnote to the ongoing retelling of the legends of American Presidency.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 22 minute interview with Philip Baker Hall discussing the project, his background in theatre and how that meant very little once he moved to LA, how the film kickstarted his acting career on film, but mostly how it was filmed and his work with Altman.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (based on their play); Cinematographer Pierre Mignot; Starring Philip Baker Hall; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 July 2019.

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Under the Shadow (2016)

There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.


This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.

Under the Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی‎, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.

Transit (2018)

Taking a brief break from my week’s theme of African cinema, I wanted to highlight a new release to UK cinemas this week which is one of my favourite films of the year I’ve seen so far, and which is definitely worth a trip to the cinema to see. The director’s previous film, Phoenix (2014), has already made it to the Criterion Collection (though it will be some time before a review of that makes it to my blog). However, he’s definitely a well-regarded contemporary German director worth watching.


For whatever reason, I’d not seen a Christian Petzold film before, but this is mesmerising work. In the early scenes, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is meeting a man at a café in Paris; there’s tension in the air as several police vans go hurtling past, and a sense that both these characters are being hunted; a plot is set in motion whereby Georg must deliver some documents to a fellow of theirs. So far, pretty standard thriller stuff, but then some dialogue suggests they are in flight from Germany and some unnamed authoritarian power, and suddenly you wonder if this is in fact the 1940s — there are no mobile phones in evidence and there’s none of that self-conscious recreation of the past you get with historical dramas (though there are some dowdy decaying hotel rooms with a faded sense of history to them), but the streets and the vehicles are modern, so there’s an immediate disconnect. Petzold exploits this beautifully, in updating a Nazi-era novel, to evoke an alternate reality which, sadly, doesn’t ever seem so very far from our own. We never do learn who people are running from — the characters here end up in Marseille desperately seeking passage via sea to Mexico or the US — or what exactly is the “cleansing” the fascists are enacting, but you never really need to know except that the characters live in fear. There aren’t many films that conjure a dystopia in a sunny French seaside city without the need for gloomy lighting or fascistic banners: this is our world, precisely unaltered and unadorned, but yet undeniably a dangerous place.

Transit film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Christian Petzold (based on the novel by Anna Seghers); Cinematographer Hans Fromm; Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 10 August 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir”

Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)

We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.

Continue reading “Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)”

Criterion Sunday 206: Lola (1981)

I’d seen this before when I was younger, but perhaps I was an idiot, because I remember almost nothing about this film, and yet it is so very striking. It feels like finally, after years of flirting, Fassbinder completely nails the Sirkian aesthetic, in all its garish heady blend of colours and framing and little satirical nudges about Germany society in the 1970s. It’s a story of corrupt small town politicians and developers, and of course it’s also about sex and desire too. It’s a venal world, and apparently little is going to change that, but Armin Mueller-Stahl’s bureaucrat tries his best all the same. Every successive shot is a masterclass in lighting, all saturated colours and a strange blue highlight used for Mueller-Stahl’s eyes whenever he’s in his office. It’s a gorgeous film about — what else — but moral turpitude and the baseness of the human spirit.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018 (and before that on VHS in the university library, Wellington, March 2000).

Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017.

Criterion Sunday 145: Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball aka The Fireman’s Ball, 1967)

This seems a very slight premise — the volunteer firemen in a small town throw a ball to honour a former chairman stricken with cancer — but it builds to quite a comic evisceration of small-town bureaucracy, small-minded men or, perhaps, an entire dysfunctional government, if you want to follow it through that way. In any case, it builds plenty of gags on its thin premise, as things get ever more absurd and those red-faced old men are shown up for the ineffectively authoritarian fools they are.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Miloš Forman; Writers Forman, Ivan Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek; Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček; Starring Jan Vostrcil; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 19 February 2017.

A Revolution in Four Seasons (2016)

There have been a number of recent films (documentaries and fiction films) about the Arab Spring and what has resulted from that, and it’s fair to say from what I’ve seen, there’s not yet any kind of triumphant narrative to be told about it. Charting the turbulent political developments in Tunisia (where the ‘Arab Spring’ began), this film focuses on two women from opposing sides of a political divide that’s roughly dissected by Islamist belief. However, the film is careful to avoid demonising either: both Emna (the ‘blogger’) and Jawhara (the politician) are intelligent, reflective women working within a legacy of feminist thought and activity. Both are equally committed to a future for their nation, even if one passionately believes in secularism where the other wants to retain a link to a rich Islamic cultural and religious heritage. In taking these two as subjects, the film also charts a relationship between women, work and family in modern Tunisia that’s quite fascinating in its own right, and even early assumptions a viewer might make about Jawhara and Emna’s husbands turn out, over the course of the years during which the film was made, to be misguided in differing directions. It’s hard to know where the future of the region lies, but one hopes in listening to these passionate women (and even their husbands) that there may yet be a positive way forward.

A Revolution in Four Seasons film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessie Deeter; Cinematographers Bassem Aounallah and Hatem Nechi; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 7 November 2016.

Weiner (2016)

We hear a lot in the news, even here in the UK, about US politics, but most of it makes little enough impact, and certainly you don’t expect to find much of interest in a documentary about a minor and latterly disgraced political figure. I vaguely remember Anthony Weiner for being mocked on the Daily Show years ago, but this film following his 2013 campaign to become New York mayor turns out to be surprisingly great and rather funny too. Sure, he comes across as immensely — almost pathologically — desirous of publicity and success, but his story isn’t without pathos: from all that we see, he’s a passionate advocate on behalf of various high-minded social causes, is a powerful public speaker, and clearly cares about his city and its people. It’s just that he’s also done some stupid things that overshadow everything’s he’s trying to achieve, not to mention putting strain on his marriage to Huma, a woman who turns out to the secret star (not to mention heart) of the piece. And so, in unspooling these events and recording Weiner’s wide-ranging and sometimes unguarded commentary, Weiner becomes a film about the hubris of modern political ambition.

Weiner film posterCREDITS
Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg; Cinematographer Kriegman; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 12 July 2016.