Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons | Length 100 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)

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Queen of Earth (2015)

Generally, I’m quite sceptical about films made by men about women’s experiences. There’s very much an arthouse tradition — perhaps going back to the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, but primarily derived from Ingmar Bergman — of this kind of tear-stained melodrama, of women pulling themselves and each other apart psychologically. Woody Allen took up that tradition in the 1970s, and this new film from young New York-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry seem to take it up too. Indeed, in many ways, it comes across as almost a throwback to the 70s, with grainy stock, murky close-ups, and of course Bergman-esque psychological torment aplenty. With unadorned actors attacking the script, this is a different beast from the director’s earlier film Listen Up Philip (2014), even as it seems to be capturing the same kind of lost spirit of writer-director filmmaking. Nevertheless, whatever my reservations, Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly terrific as Catherine, a woman coming apart at the seams — she may not be likeable, but you get the sense that she’s had a lot to deal with — not helped by her friend Ginny (played by Katherine Waterston). In its effect, it’s almost a psychological horror film, once you factor in the steady alienating thrum of the score, and it gives further evidence of Perry’s talent.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry | Cinematographer Sean Price Williams | Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Thursday 7 July 2016

Welcome to Me (2014)

Stories about characters with mental health issues crop up every so often, and I need to make it clear from the outset that I’m not one to judge how competent these films are with respect to the issues they raise. If for example Silver Linings Playbook seemed a bit cavalier with its characters — it seemed to me to have a propensity to treat them as adorably and irretrievably kooky — there are other voices who nevertheless adored it. I wouldn’t say quite the same about Welcome to Me (it seems less willing to laugh at its protagonist), but it does advance Kristen Wiig’s unlikely claim to be one of the most versatile actors currently working, or certainly one who’ll happily attach herself to outwardly uncommercial prospects (Kristens seem to make bold and unconventional choices, as her namesake Stewart is another I’d pick out in this category). Wiig plays Alice, a woman with a personality disorder who wins big on the lottery and uses it to realise her dream of a reality show on a local cable access network run by brothers Rich and Gabe (respectively James Marsden and Wes Bentley). Her flights of fancy become increasingly trying on the producers — one of whom is played by Joan Cusack, and indeed this is a film with many pleasing small roles for excellent actors — and on the brothers, but she garners a bit of cult success. Welcome to Me itself seems destined for cult status, and if it’s not always perfect, it does find a very interesting, blackly comedic tone in its awkward and stilted exchanges. Kristen Wiig is of course the glue that holds the whole thing together, and she shows great adeptness at the comedy, though this is perhaps unsurprising, given the overall sense that this film is like an extended final skit on Saturday Night Live (always the slot where the greatest weirdness is allowed to flourish).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Shira Piven | Writer Elliot Laurence | Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards | Starring Kristen Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Joan Cusack | Length 87 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 30 March 2016

Criterion Sunday 60: Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978)

The two (unrelated) Bergmans — director Ingmar and film star Ingrid — brought together at last, the advertising copy no doubt blared. However, in terms of thematics, this is firmly within Ingmar’s frostier territory, as mother and daughter psychologically battle it out in a confined chamber drama. Ingmar was always feted for his ‘women’s pictures’, though the women are invariably under some kind of terrifying emotional onslaught, in this case Liv Ullmann’s Eva coming to terms with abandonment by her internationally-famous concert pianist mother Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman). Perhaps there’s an underlying angst of Ingmar’s relationship with his home country of Sweden (he’d been in exile in West Germany for a decade or so), but in any case nobody really comes out particularly well, especially once the red wine — and the accusations — starts flowing. There’s something that seems peculiarly 70s about having a disabled character as little more than a metaphor for the disfiguring effect of emotional dishonesty (or whatever), so this daughter Helena’s periodic appearance remains unsettling, but for the most part the film’s moody melodrama is well-handled and ends with a hope of some forgiveness in the offing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 November 2015

Criterion Sunday 44: The Red Shoes (1948)

Powell and Pressburger’s classic fairy tale adaptation of a ballerina pushed to breaking point by a possessed red pair of shoes is a film I’ve taken quite some time to warm up to. It’s certainly easy to appreciate the spectacular Technicolor framing of master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, not to mention the resplendent set and wardrobe design, which along with the exotic locales must have seemed all the more luxurious in post-war England. However, it’s that melodrama at the film’s heart — the battle of its protagonist Vicky (former ballet dancer Moira Shearer of the beauteous red locks) to dance her way to success in life and love, putting herself in conflict with two powerful men, the composer Julian (Marius Goring) and impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook) — that has been difficult for me to appreciate fully. For Vicky is, like her character in the ballet-within-a-film, a pawn to forces which she cannot control, making her story a tragic and saddening one. Yet, thinking about the way The Red Shoes sets it up, these forces are explicitly patriarchal. One is tempted to cheer the love that blossoms between Vicky and Julian, yet from the start it’s clear that falling for him will destroy her by putting her on a collision course with her boss and patron Boris. As cruel and controlling as Boris may be, his demands are never unclear, meaning it’s Julian who ends up being the chief villain of the piece for the unfair burden he places on Vicky to subordinate her desires to his own career. Much of this only comes out in the film’s denouement, meaning the bulk of the film is about Vicky’s slow rise to fame, and there’s much to enjoy in the staging and the performances, particularly of Walbrook as the nominal stage villain, not to mention the extended ballet sequence at the film’s heart, which in some ways decisively changes the destinies of all the characters within the film.

Criterion Extras: Martin Scorsese has filmed a brief introduction to the film and particularly its restoration, presenting comparisons of how the film was beforehand (rather patchy) and afterwards. It’s this stunningly restored print that forms the basis of the Criterion edition, and it really is beautiful to look at. Of course, Scorsese loves the film. He loves it more than I ever will, and probably more than you. In fact, his personal memorabilia is also presented in another extra, a series of photographs, which also includes lobby cards, posters and stills from the production. There’s a short documentary made by British TV which features interviews with the (at that time) surviving personnel like cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his assistant Chris Challis, which is intermittently interesting, as well as a fawning interview with Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. There’s also a commentary, which takes the form more of an essay about the film by Ian Christie, intersplicing commentary from the ubiquitous Scorsese as well as from Shearer, Goring and Cardiff again (who despite his age at the time sounds in good health and is sharp about his artistry on the film). Finally, there are storyboards of the ballet sequence, and a reading from the original fairy tale by Jeremy Irons (which is an alternate soundtrack to the film, so it’s quite long).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the fairy tale De røde sko by Hans Christian Andersen) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring | Length 133 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 April 2014 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 July 2015, not to mention years earlier on VHS)

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I mentioned a certain psychosexual element to Josephine Decker’s earlier film Butter on the Latch, and that’s a quality which is decisively extended with this film. The setting is now entirely rural, at a small farm where Akin (improv indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) has been hired for the summer to help out Jeremiah and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) with their work herding and milking the cows. Akin seems fairly straightforward — he’s a quiet man, married with a child, though he has been trying to hide this fact — but it’s Sarah who’s at the heart of the piece. She’s a complex character, at once ingenuous and manipulative, who apparently fits into a certain bucolic ideal of untainted femininity, but who has a much more earthy connection to nature and, more particularly, to her sexual desires. So naturally things get complicated when Akin arrives. Once again Decker’s filmic style has an elusive, oneiric and even spiritual quality, poetic in its use of out-of-focus shots and off-centre framings, but no mere pastiche of, say, Terrence Malick (go search out Ain’t Them Bodies Saints if that’s what you’re looking for). This all renders the latter part of the film a sort of nightmarish phantasmagoria, or perhaps it’s just a descent into familiar generic tropes, but I don’t think the film is quite that straightforward. It may even be a stronger work than Latch, because it’s in some ways even more challenging — if not necessarily at a formal level, certainly to the idea of male patriarchal violence that is encoded into its setting and which seems to dictate its denouement. Whatever one’s opinion, though, Decker is certainly a filmmaker to watch (which is another way of saying, I need to go back and see this film again).


© Cinelicious Pics

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Josephine Decker | Cinematographer Ashley Connor | Starring Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg | Length 94 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015

Butter on the Latch (2013)

I’ve spent my year watching female written/directed films at the cinema, and one of the things that’s becoming most clear is that women’s voices are not well represented via traditional modes of distribution (get an official release slot, arrange exhibitors, organise marketing, posters, promos, et al.). Some of the best work, some of the strongest and most interesting work, can only be seen at festivals or via alternative modes of distribution, with one of the most prominent of these in recent years being the value-added practice of appending Q&A sessions to touring (or live-streamed) programmes of small, independent films. This is the way that US director Josephine Decker’s two recent features have been packaged for the UK, doing a tour of receptive cinemas during early-August.

Butter on the Latch, to be fair, is probably a hard sell. It focuses on a couple of New York women (Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence playing characters with their own first names) attending a musical camp/retreat out in the woods, and whose friendship is ultimately tested. But a recounting of the plot would only tell you so much, and would need to be hedged around with all kinds of qualifications, because the style of the film suggests something so much more volatile and evanescent. It has a sort of dreamlike fragmentary quality, leaning heavily on decentred close-up framings of women’s faces, often shot from behind, claustrophobic in its affect, and frequently out-of-focus. This disconnect feels of a piece with the emotional terrain, which I’d describe as being somewhat psychosexual — not perhaps to the extent of Decker’s follow-up film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but with strong hints at various dynamics at play between the two friends, as well as a man who is also attending the music camp. However, the febrile style seems to allow for all the possibilities to be in play simultaneously; indeed it would seem almost reductive to speak of events in the film at all except insofar as they reflect an underlying unease between the two women, in which the male character becomes almost fodder. There’s plenty of mystery underlying it all, and if the style can be challenging and even at times frustrating, it also holds things together with a really fascinating creative tension.


© Cinelicious Pics

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Josephine Decker | Cinematographer Ashley Connor | Starring Sarah Small, Isolde Chae-Lawrence | Length 72 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015

A Vida Invisível (The Invisible Life, 2013)

I don’t imagine much of Portuguese cinema is strange, oblique and dark, but if you’re judging on the basis of what gets released over here, particularly the efforts of Pedro Costa, then you may come to that conclusion. This film fits into that terrain, and is directed by Vítor Gonçalves, on whose first (and only previous) film Costa was an assistant almost 30 years ago. Well, I’ve not seen that film (nor even heard of it), so the narrative of ‘cult filmmaker returns after long gap’ didn’t make much impression on me, but The Invisible Life is certainly not a film that makes anything in the way of compromise with the audience. It is largely the interiorised struggle of one man with his own vanishing aspirations, as he witnesses the lingering death of a colleague (who might as well be himself in 30 years’ time). I can’t say I followed every twist, especially not as I nodded off a few times early in the film (busy week at work is my excuse, even if the dully bureaucratic surrounds of our protagonist here make all other offices seem lively in contrast), but it impressed me with its single-mindedness.


© Alambique Destilaria de Ideias Unipessoal

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Vítor Gonçalves | Writers Vítor Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista amd Jorge Braz Santos | Cinematographer Leonardo Simões | Starring Filipe Duarte | Length 99 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015

The Voices (2014)

This is a very strange film, but watching it I am reminded of Compliance. In many ways The Voices is totally unlike that film — for a start, it’s pitched as a black comedy set in a small town with a hyper-stylised saturated colour aesthetic — but that’s the film I find myself thinking about (and not just because I confused Jacki Weaver and Ann Dowd playing similar authority roles in each). In both cases, I feel like the filmmakers are trying to make serious points about alienation and modern society, but in both my personal reaction has been closer to one of revulsion at a level of exploitation of delicate issues (however intentionally and meaningfully these might be deployed). Here, we have Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a workman in a bathroom factory, who hears voices and is seeing Dr Warren (Weaver) to deal with these issues. The voices manifest in the form of his (sweary Scottish) cat and (affectionate drawling) dog, and that domestic madness aspect of the film is indeed very funny. It’s just that the film starts to walk a very fine balancing line between psychological drama and stylised black comedy when it shows him killing off the secretarial staff at his factory (among whom number a feisty Gemma Arterton as Fiona, and a winsome Anna Kendrick as Lisa). I suppose different viewers will have their own take on this — there are quite a few fairly positive reviews out there — but my own is that it is a misjudgement, and that the film’s tone (its horror-comedy balance) goes seriously awry, especially with the first murder and subsequent dismembering of Fiona. The thing is, there’s a delightful, luridly coloured and light-hearted dance sequence in the end credits featuring all the film’s by-this-point dead characters (I shan’t say which ones here), and I just wish the rest of the film had been closer to the tone of that.


© Lions Gate Entertainment

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Marjane Satrapi | Writer Michael R. Perry | Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre | Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver | Length 104 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Saturday 21 March 2015

LFF: The Falling (2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 13 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Metrodome UK (image from the film)

Films set at girls’ schools form a fairly distinct ‘coming of age’ subgenre by this point, many of them distinguished by their undertow of the uncanny. I’m drawn back to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), ten years ago now but still provoking indelibly eerie memories, so the fact that The Falling even comes close to the power exerted by that film is, I’d say, a good thing. It too is shot by a French woman (Agnès Godard, frequent collaborator of Claire Denis) and like that earlier film, the rites of adolescence are intricately bound up with mystery and death. Set in 1969, it centres on two young women, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and the free-spirited Abbie (Florence Pugh), but mainly within the context of their time at school, as they and their classmates share experiences and set themselves against the brusque Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the airily unconcerned headmistress. What’s interesting is not so much what happens, as in the languorous atmosphere, in which significant events are revealed in an almost off-handed way at times. The camera frequently returns to a sylvan scene of trees looming over a small pond, often empty shots of threatening portent, as if summoning some Pre-Raphaelite vision of drowned maidens, and it certainly adds to the general sense of uneasiness. By the end, things get pretty charged in ways that I’m really hoping function as allegory (in a live Q&A the director was keen to stress that at least some of it wasn’t autobiographical), but as a piece it is stylish, and carried by some excellent acting.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Carol Morley | Cinematographer Agnès Godard | Starring Maisie Williams, Maxine Peake, Florence Pugh, Greta Scacchi | Length 102 minutes