Global Cinema 11: Azerbaijan – By the Bluest of Seas (1936)

As a former Soviet Socialist Republic, Azerbaijan has had some past form as a cinema-producing nation, though it’s never made as much of a world impact as say Georgian or even Armenian cinema. Therefore, for my Global Cinema entry this week I’ve gone back to Soviet times, to Boris Barnet’s well-regarded film set on and near the Caspian Sea, which plays an important part in the country’s identity.


Azerbaijani flagRepublic of Azerbaijan (Azərbaycan)
population 10,127,900 | capital Baku (Bakı) (2.15m) | largest cities Baku, Sumqayit (325k), Ganja (323k), Mingachevir (100k), Lankaran (85k) | area 86,600 km2 | religion Islam (97%) | official language Azerbaijani (Azərbaycan dili) | major ethnicity Azerbaijani (92%) | currency Manat (₼) [AZN] | internet .az

A Eurasian country in the South Caucasus, it sits alongside the Caspian Sea, with mountains the north and plains inland, and an exclave to the west (Nakhchivan), cut off by neighbouring Armenia. It also includes a contested territory, the Republic of Artsakh (or Nagorno-Karabakh), of primarily Armenian ethnicity, which has its own government but is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan. The name derives from the Persian satrap Atropates, who ruled around the time of Alexander the Great, which is itself a transliteration of Old Iranian for “Land of the Holy Fire”, and while the name evolved over millennia, it was only first applied to the region in the 20th century. The earliest settlement dates to the Stone Age, with Scythians and Medes arriving to create their own empires, merged into the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. Subsequent Sasanian Empire rule gave way to the Umayyads, then Turkic rule from the 11th century. A number of dynasties, many Persian, competed for control over the following millennium until the Russians invaded in the early-19th century. When that Empire collapsed, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was declared in 1918, though it was invaded again due to its strategically important oil and made an SSR in 1920. It declared independence in 1991, celebrated as 18 October. It has an elected President, who forms the Cabinet and appoints a Prime Minister.

The earliest films were made in the country in 1898 in the capital Baku, a prosperous oil town. A steady number of productions were made in successive decades, particularly after it became an SSR under Soviet control, though never more than a handful each year given its small size and the small number of cinema screens.


У самого синего моря U samogo sinego morya (By the Bluest of Seas, 1936)

The blue sea of this film’s title is the Caspian, and the film concerns two strapping young men who are shipwrecked and taken in by a seaside kolkhoz in Azerbaijan only to fall in love with the commune’s leader Masha (Yelena Kuzmina). It’s a very simple set-up, but there’s something engaging about director Boris Barnet’s way with waves, which seem to frame much of the film’s action, whether crashing over fishing boats, dragging away comrades to their (apparent) deaths, or just in the backdrop of the landborne action. The simple competition between these two men drives the film, one a tall blonde muscular heroic type (Nikolai Kryuchkov) and the other and native Azeri (Lev Sverdlin), shorter and solidly-built — though hardly unattractive either (Soviet or not, this is still the movies). Their aims are of course noble, and when they fall out it’s over their lack of commitment to the collective (with a side order of trying to impugn the other in the eyes of Masha), but the rivalry remains that of two friends, and when the final decision is made, it reminds you that it’s not just the men’s feelings which are at stake.

By the Bluest of Seas film posterCREDITS
Director Boris Barnet Бори́с Ба́рнет; Writer Klimentiy Mints Климентий Минц; Cinematographer Mikhail Kirillov Михаи́л Кири́ллов; Starring Yelena Kuzmina Еле́на Кузьмина́, Nikolai Kryuchkov Николай Крючко́в, Lev Sverdlin Лев Све́рдлин; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Wednesday 22 July 2020.

Drift (2017)

Rounding out my week of German-language women’s cinema is this slow cinema piece that barely features any language at all, often preferring the movement of water in the ocean to its human protagonists. It’s not perhaps going to be to all tastes, but it’s very much to mine!


I love a bit of slow cinema, but it’s no simple matter making a good work in this style; it’s not just a matter of pointing a camera at a swelling ocean and letting it roll, even though there are periods throughout this film where that feels like all there is — and certainly people reviewing this film who could not be more bored it seems (though I’m surprised they even watched it in the first place). The sequence of shots of ocean swells — roiling, calm, sun-dappled, moonlit, and all variations in between — that takes place for a significant stretch of the film feels a little like a minimalist film by someone like James Benning (though the final sequence rather more directly recalls Michael Snow), but it has its own sense of poetry. The sounds overlaid (of water obviously) create a beautiful, almost hallucinatory, series of shots in which I myself drifted off at times, but of which I can recall the various textures of the water, the sunlight catching corners of the waves and glinting out flashes of blinding light while on the soundtrack what sounded like water running down a drain as a wood fire burned nearby (it was all rather impressionistic, but that was what I heard), or at another time the bright glare of moonlight in the sky casting a faint trail of light across the waves. This, however, is a sequence that links two sections of the film with human protagonists, who themselves are connected somewhat yet find themselves drifting apart. There are a lot of exquisitely framed and lit shots of quiet (or disquiet perhaps), and a tangible sense of a spiritual movement. Obviously it’s not to all tastes, but those who like this kind of thing will love it.

Drift film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Helena Wittmann; Starring Theresa George, Josefina Gill; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 May 2019.

Bait (2019)

It’s another week where I suspect most of us are still stuck at home, and it’s looking like it’s going to stretch on. I’m taking a new tack with my themed weeks. Rather than focus on films I’ve seen on various online streaming services I’m already subscribed to (Netflix and Mubi in past weeks), I’m highlighting films available on other streaming services — or at least films for which I’ve not yet posted a review here. I’ll start with the BFI Player, which as a branch of an official national institute to support film and the moving image, has plenty of free programmes of largely archival and historical interest, many of which are fascinating. They also (for UK citizens) have a subscription service that seems like pretty good value (£5 a month, with a 14 day free trial period), as well as offering a range of straight rental titles (which as far as I can tell are separate from the ones available to subscribers). There’s also a special section of LGBTQI+ titles because the BFI Flare Film Festival was supposed to be finishing yesterday, but sadly was not able to go ahead. Some of the new films are being presented online, so maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial and review one or two of those if I can. In the meantime, here’s one of the big British success stories of last year.


The title Bait suggests a creature feature, and the way it looks suggests something with a real experimental edge (it reminded me a little of Rey, another recent film with a very textural and worn sense of film stock, despite being screened digitally). However, once you get over that initial shock, it’s actually an engaging drama. Still it’s quite a shock: there’s the obvious worn and scratchy black-and-white celluloid look but it’s combined with a very confrontational soundtrack in which all the sounds (of feet walking down the street, and the dialogue too) seem somehow abstracted and overlaid onto the image in a way that only heightens the constructedness of the enterprise. And then there’s the editing, which aggressively cross-cuts between different actions both at the same time and in the past/future, and the soundscapes, which constantly suggest the imminence of violence through scraping and dissonance. However, for all this, the drama remains focused on a small fishing village in Cornwall which is undergoing an unpleasant (and sadly, in our times, unavoidable) bout of gentrification. Our lead character Martin (Edward Rowe) has sold his family’s home to a posh couple with an utterly awful son (the daughter is less terrible), who’ve done it up and are letting out the loft to holidaymakers. At every stage, their sense of entitlement butts up against the traditions of the village and the family, a legacy of fishing and living off the sea, that Martin is desperately trying to maintain despite dwindling money. It’s a singular and fascinating film that really stands out thanks to its odd production, but it tells a classic story of precarity and gentrification that’s all too familiar.

Bait film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Mark Jenkin; Starring Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 30 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 300: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

A lot of people I follow on Letterboxd really like this Wes Anderson film, and it surely has all of his familiar touches: an emotionally resonant central story about grown-up fathers and sons trying to find some common ground; incredibly precise set and costume design; elaborate multi-room sets; bright colours; stop-motion animated ocean creatures; and all the actors you could want, most of them returning from previous Anderson endeavours. Of course, there’s also a frequent criticism of Anderson’s style that he is detached as a filmmaker, though it’s something that also used to get levelled at, say, Stanley Kubrick, and neither of them strike me as being unemotional. Quite often their stories revolve around very fraught, even melodramatic, relationships and that’s the case here too. However, for the first time in Anderson’s oeuvre, I don’t feel able to connect to these characters beyond their surface characteristics. The filmmaking, the texture, the detail is all there, but somehow for me, in this film, these traits are all just ciphers for some story ideas Anderson and his co-writer Noah Baumbach were working through. There are little generic touches, like gun battles and pirates, which seem oddly out-of-place, even when filmed in Anderson’s elliptical and deadpan style, and elements which seem perfunctory at best and possibly a little ill-judged (the Filipino pirates, or the topless woman who assists Zissou as scriptgirl). That said, it’s certainly never boring and has ravishing production values that are probably worthwhile even if the story itself feels beside the point.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a number of deleted scenes (and one outtake), none longer than a minute and most around 20-30 seconds in length, which are just further little vignettes that round out some of the characters and situations, although it’s interesting to see how they look before post-processing and colour correction.
  • There’s an Italian television interview on a show called Mondo Monda which has an interview between the slick Italian host and Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach which is clearly a parody (like the fake talk show included on The Royal Tenenbaums as an extra). That said, you can spend some time imagining it’s real, except that it has all these deadpan reactions as the host largely refuses to translate his questions despite speaking perfect English, and in which Anderson and Baumbach are often reduced to single-word answers to extravagantly self-involved questions touching on poetic and philosophical nonsense.
  • There’s about half-an-hour of short interview featurettes compiling interviews with various actors and crew, as well as behind-the-scenes footage, on topics such as two of the main characters (those of Cate and Owen), the fastidious costume and production design, the animation of the sea creatures, et al.
  • A series of still photographs of the production and the design are included, which are visually striking.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Noah Taylor; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at Ritzy, London, Tuesday 22 March 2005 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 16 March 2020).

崖の上のポニョ Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008)

I’ve reviewed a few of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s films on my blog (such as My Neighbours the Yamadas earlier today, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), but I’ve not yet touched on the most famous figure from that studio, Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve now seen a number of his films, though, and for all my sneering at the idea of them when I was younger, they are in fact all remarkably good. My favourite remains Spirited Away which perhaps one day I shall write about here, but in the meantime here’s the one with the catchiest theme song…


I’m not honestly sure how one reviews Miyazaki-san’s films. I resisted them for so long when I was younger, assuming them to be twee nonsense, but they have a genuine sense of wonder that is difficult to express in a critical discourse — something about the rush of colours, the transformative and magical that lurks in the everyday, and the blending of quotidian reality with supernatural undersea elements. The set-up is that Sosuke is a five-year-old boy living at home with his mum (who works at the local retirement community) while dad is out for long stretches on the high seas. This land-based reality is mirrored by an alternate underwater family structure: his absent father becomes Fujimoto, a grumpy sorcerer who hates humans and is trying to repopulate the oceans, the mother is now a mystical deity, and the magical fish-human of the title is like a reflected sister/partner for Sosuke. The themes of the environmental devastation (which Fujimoto is working to counter), and the way that this is reflected in the dangerous volitility of the ocean, are all expressed very gently, but even in the joy of the animation you get a sense of this threat underlying it all.

Ponyo film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿; Starring Yuria Nara ならゆりあ, Hiroki Doi 土井洋輝; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.

LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)

My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)”

Criterion Sunday 103: The Lady Eve (1941)

Preston Sturges has a knack for screwball comedy patter and pratfalls, all of which is very much in evidence here. It’s undoubtedly a very silly story — though that much is not unusual — about a father-and-daughter gambling duo working a cruise ship who spot an easy target in the foolish naïveté of Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), scion to a brewing fortune. However, their plans are complicated in that Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) falls in love with her mark. The action is all infinitely improved by the wittiness of Preston Sturges’ screenplay and the delivery of Stanwyck — a radiant light that keeps the film going through all its plot contrivances. Fonda acquits himself well too, even if he’s called on to be rather too clumsy in his frequent falls, and is supported by reliable character actors like Charles Coburn and the wonderfully gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the pair’s respective fathers. It may not be the greatest of Sturges’s films, but it certainly holds up to repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on the story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 August 2016 (and earlier on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016, and on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003), and since then at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 May 2019 [at which point I upped my rating to two ticks].

Criterion Sunday 50: E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983)

My sense of late Fellini is that his filmmaking moved into a more determinedly nostalgic register — it’s certainly the feeling I got from 1973’s Amarcord — but if that’s the case, there’s still plenty of interest, much of it rather idiosyncratic. With And the Ship Sails On what we have is a story about the journey of a cruise liner in 1914, around the outbreak of World War I and the delineation of some of the class antagonisms onboard. Obviously, there are shades of another famous (real-life) story here, and some of the same terrain is covered: we have the plutocrats in their opulent dining rooms and cabins while beneath decks are men heaving coal into the boiler’s fires, and a boatload of Serbian refugees from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Fellini’s style, though, is more playful, and the audience’s entry point is a journalist, Orlando, played with admirable campness by Freddie Jones — indeed, much of the core cast appear to be English actors, albeit dubbed into Italian. Orlando shares his commentary directly to the camera, but all the actors are aware of it and frequently break the fourth wall with nervous glances, as if they are being unwillingly shadowed by a film crew. There’s also a very obvious non-naturalism to the sets and the sea-bound effects, particularly in a sequence near the end, in which the waves are evidently tarpaulins, and a battleship’s smoke is drawn on. It all contributes to a precarious sense of a stratified society teetering on the brink of collapse, something perhaps summed up best by the opera-singing haute bourgeoise characters memorably showing off against one another in heated competition in the ship’s boiler room, egged on by the sweaty men below.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Freddie Jones; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice (Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey, aka Fidelio: Alice’s Journey, 2014)

There is, I think, a deceptive forwardness to this film: it’s about the woman of the film’s title (Ariane Labed) who works as a ship’s engineer and is torn between her dependable Danish artist boyfriend Felix, landside, and an old flame, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), a dashing ship’s captain, while on the sea. The ship’s name then, also part of the title (Fidelio), suggests already the key theme of fidelity, while the drama is presented without a great deal of fuss, and unfolds as one might expect, along with the kind of graphic sex scenes to which you might think censors would have given a higher classification. But it’s not prurient or exploitative, and the fact of her job being what it is and the way she takes pleasure from sex seem like aspects of a narrative which would have been cheered about in a film of 10 or 15 years ago (it shares some kinship with the films of Catherine Breillat in these respects), and which even here are worth acknowledging. That the film requires Labed to be a believable ship’s engineer is somewhat the least of her acting challenges in this film, as instead she needs to negotiate the tricky emotional terrain of having relationships with two men without making this seem like some flighty affectation. In any case, she does so admirably well, making for a fascinating psychodrama.

Fidelio: Alice's Journey film posterCREDITS
Director Lucie Borleteau; Writers Borleteau, Clara Bourreau and Mathilde Boisseleau; Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Ariane Labed, Melvil Poupaud; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 6 October 2015.

Criterion Sunday 7: A Night to Remember (1958)

Watching the Criterion Collection in order doesn’t take long to throw up oddities, and I can’t help but feel the influence of a certain more recent Titanic-based drama on the re-release of this older version of the same events. And yet, for all the grubbiness of Criterion’s cash-in timing, there’s a lot to recommend the 1958 “original”, not least its beautifully-toned monochrome lensing, and unflashy way with its ensemble cast. With all the drama of the original events, director Roy Ward Baker and writer Eric Ambler don’t feel the need to add a spurious upstairs-downstairs romance or creaky moustache-twirling melodrama. Of course, there’s still class-based antagonism, as the steerage passengers are more-or-less locked in while the rich folk depart on the life boats — judgement on which is conveyed only subtly. However, overall this is from a far more genteel school of English filmmaking (think Brief Encounter), with all your favourite pip-pip what-ho Downton-style affectations manifested in that stiff-upper-lip stoicism in the face of certain death, which has its own affecting emotional depth, even as we don’t really get much in the way of individual passenger stories. The hero, if there is one, is the Second Officer (Kenneth More), who more or less takes charge as the tragedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roy Ward Baker [as “Roy Baker”]; Writer Eric Ambler (based on the non-fiction book by Walter Lord); Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth; Starring Kenneth More; Length 123 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 9 November 2014.