One of Jarmusch’s early minimalist existentialist black-and-white films, structured around a fairly genre setup (crimes, trials, imprisonment, escape) without bothering to show any of the mechanics, just the interpersonal relationships of its three leads. It really looks gorgeous thanks to Jarmusch cannily recruiting Wim Wenders pre-eminent DoP of the 1970s, Robby Müller, and the style works well within that high-contrast black-and-white frame. The New Orleans/Louisiana setting is used well for its expressive architectural and natural possibilities, though the film is a little less sure-footed when it comes to race, which you’d think would be a bigger part of a story from that part of the world. But what it does do, it does with exemplary finesse, that same spare deadpan storytelling that Jarmusch would continue to deploy throughout his career. There’s also a memorable comic turn from Roberto Benigni, a figure who would become far more grating in the following decade.
A fine early sound film which deploys its synched sound only sparingly and has a sort of musical structure to it. The plot is convoluted, but revolves around two friends who attempt a prison escape together, are separated and thereafter take a different path through life. Its key conceit seems to be that prison and factory work are pretty much interchangeable, and for something billed as a comedy, it’s comic in only the most cosmic sense as there’s little that’s really uplifting in the plot and paves the way to Tati’s own later satires on modernisation.
I was thinking I’d already seen a film like this one in the Criterion Collection before I came to write it up here and realised I’d seen this film before, years ago. That said, the prison escape thriller is hardly an exotic genre, and some of the procedural matter-of-factness and the way it dwells on little repeated details is very reminiscent of thrillers of the era like Rififi, which likewise focus on elaborate carefully-orchestrated plans made in luminous black-and-white. It all passes very swiftly, as there are plenty of long sequences that are gripping because of all the things you imagine could go wrong. The fact it’s cast with mostly non-professional actors (including one of the chaps involved in the escape upon which the original novel was based) is all the more surprising given they all give the feeling of being seasoned pros — the guy in the poster is a ringer for Sterling Hayden, which is probably why I thought I must have seen him before in something. (The only real professional actor was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola, so he is easy to spot, being quite photogenic.) No, this is fine filmmaking at a very granular level, building up character through the tiny accretion of details.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker, José Giovanni and Jean Aurel (based on the novel by Giovanni); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 October 2016).
The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Michael Bay; Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016.
With the London Film Festival just getting underway, I present short reviews of the four films I saw at the London Georgian Film Festival last week.
This is another story of recent Georgian history, but from the unusual viewpoint of a woman whose partner (and father of her kids) is in jail. We never find out why but from the other stories mentioned, it’s likely his 10 year sentence is for something petty and minor. The film focuses in on the face of actor Mari Kitia, who does excellent, understated work in this slow and deliberate drama. Much of the film takes place at the prison, starting with a perfunctory wedding ceremony, required so she can visit her husband, and ending with an almost domestic day she gets to spend with him in the prison grounds. It’s a slight movie, but with powerful moments and a great central performance.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Sunday 12 October 2014 || My Rating likeable
Jon Stewart is well-known already for his work as a comedian and host of The Daily Show, engaging on a regular basis with current affairs, world politics and the incompetencies of his own government, but with this feature he moves into filmmaking. Thankfully, on the whole it’s pretty well-made stuff with some entertaining digressions, about how journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested on a visit to his native Iran to cover the 2009 elections and accused of being a spy. In the lead role is Gael García Bernal, who may not be Iranian but seems to specialise in this kind of role these days (like in No), the small pawn ranged against wider governmental forces of oppression. He does pretty well at it, though the film is bogged down in its middle section by longueurs as Bahari is detained in Evin Prison, though enlivened occasionally by the dialogues with his captor, the shadowy figure known only as ‘Rosewater’ (played by Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian). It all looks great and is edited together skilfully, and though not perhaps as narratively compelling as Ben Affleck’s Oscar-baiting Argo of a few years back, I feel it avoids some of that film’s pitfalls in presenting Iran at times as an exotic, dangerous Other. What is emphasised is more of the shared experiences of people under that regime that may be common to journalists in similar situations around the world. It’s a fine first feature, and I only hope that Stewart continues to develop his filmic voice, though in the meantime his television show continues to do pretty well.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Jon Stewart (based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy) | Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski | Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia | Length 103 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 10 August 2014 || My Rating good
The films of Abel Ferrara are a bit of a challenge it must be said: aggressively confrontational and fascinated by the sordid depredations of fleshy corporeality. I haven’t seen his Bad Lieutenant (1993) for years, but this new film feels of a piece, being about a corrupt (and corrupted) public official, unafraid to let it all hang out and to flirt with a sense of quotidian ennui. On the first point, there’s the ageing Gérard Depardieu playing Georges Devereaux, a French bureaucrat heading an international financial organisation in New York, a man whose carnal tastes are pursued not only behind hotel room doors, but even in his office (after the credits, the film gets straight into a rather awkward business meeting). On the second point is the way all this is presented, at length and with the camera often uncomfortably close-in to proceedings — lengthy (and rather tedious) orgy scenes kick things off, but later, after Devereaux’s predictable fall from grace, there are similarly lengthy procedural scenes following him through the justice system to home imprisonment.
The story is a thinly-veiled rendering of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn abuse case (he was alleged to have sexually assaulted a hotel maid, but was never convicted). The film, though, maintains a self-conscious charade of fiction with habitual playful references to its own constructedness (a pre-credits sequence of Depardieu being interviewed about the role, and occasional breaking of the fourth wall by having him address the camera directly). All this is necessary because the character of Devereaux is never presented as anything less than fully culpable for his actions. The film thus becomes a character study of a bitterly pathetic man, one apparently at war with himself and with those around him. Following his arrest, his New York-born wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) enters the fray, a woman with the self-interested ambitions her husband lacks, and very unwilling to continue putting up with his behaviour. Like much of Ferrara’s work, it feels a bit like car-crash cinema at times: a film about repellent people presented in an at-times rather sleazy way, and yet it’s fascinating.
CREDITS || Director Abel Ferrara | Writers Abel Ferrara and Christ Zois | Cinematographer Ken Kelsch | Starring Gérard Depardieu, Jacqueline Bisset | Length 125 minutes