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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).
Of course, punishment is still a key theme at some level, since the film deals with the Biblical story of Noah, who builds an ark to protect a few deserving creatures from God’s wrath. God, incidentally, is never named in the film, but as “the Creator”, he (still a man apparently) remains present in the narrative, and wisely Aronofsky refrains from having any of those high camp ‘voice from the clouds’ type moments. Instead we get a number of stop-motion animated interludes retelling the Creation myth and setting up these characters, which reappear later on in the film and manage to somehow interweave it with evolutionary theory. Stop-motion animation also gets used for the Nephilim, who here are fallen angels trapped on Earth in solidly rock form as “the Watchers”, and again it shows some nous from Aronofsky that he’s not tried to make them ‘realistic’, for what exactly would be the point of that? They’re giant rock creatures after all, and ones which are not even too abstracted from the original tale.
I think the key here is that this isn’t an attempt to resolve the story of Noah into something akin to realism by shearing it of its supernatural elements; not much would be left of it, after all. Instead, it sensibly focuses on the moral issues, as Noah grapples not just with the Creator’s intended punishment but with his own role in that punishment. He is pushed to the edges of sanity but what he perceives are the Creator’s demands, as he interprets the flood as a way of ridding the Earth of all the errors of humanity, including him. Of course, the world’s repopulation presumably leans rather heavily on incest, but that’s a consideration that is beyond the scope of the film.
So it’s a Biblical epic and also at some level an ecological horror story, as the forces of evil, incarnated by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone, doing his best Cockney hard man once again) wreak havoc on the world with their vicious tribal society, which we briefly glimpse as, I suppose, a pre- rather than post-apocalyptic dystopia. But however dark and barbaric Tubal-cain’s settlement may be when Noah infiltrates it, it’s his people’s insistence on hunting and eating meat that is presented most insistently as their greatest failing, making Noah something of a visionary evangelistic vegetarian epic.
Few of the actors really make much of a mark in the film next to Russell Crowe’s charismatic central performance. It feels only right that he should embody Noah in all his contradictions and vainglory, as the quest he embarks upon is the kind of single-minded folly that only the most confident of epics could countenance, and Crowe has already proved he can hold this kind of film together. Anthony Hopkins gets a few scenes as the decrepit old Methuselah, living atop a mountain and largely absent for most of the film, while the lovely Emma Watson gets written in as a love interest for Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, largely forgettable). Instead his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) gets a more prominent role, but then his conflicted character, who forges an uneasy alliance with Tubal-cain, is rather more interesting.
As is no doubt clear, I can’t really comment on the religious accuracy of this retelling, but then I shouldn’t really have to. As an epic story about humanity grappling with its own fate, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Maybe the Bible is finally the kind of excessive setting that suits Darren Aronofsky’s talents.
Director Darren Aronofsky; Writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014.
With this little Danish film about piracy in the Indian Ocean, the natural point of comparison is last year’s Captain Phillips (which of course came out afterwards, but such being the way of these things, I saw it first). There’s no doubt they cover a similar subject, but for various rather obvious reasons the way they go about it is quite different. Where the bigger budget film uses spectacular shots of the container ship’s crews fighting off the pirates and then the struggle for power onboard, this film is more about the way that the hijacking situation affects a couple of characters. One is the ship’s cook, a young man with a wife and child back home, and the other is the CEO of the shipping company in Denmark.
The settings are the staff quarters of the ship where the cook (Pilou Asbæk) and his colleagues are being held, and the boardroom of the offices where the CEO works (Søren Malling), and the drama largely unfolds in crackling telephone communications between the CEO and the pirates’ negotiator (he gets rather aggrieved when identified as one of the pirates), Omar. The film interests itself in the subtly shifting power dynamics amongst these groups, as well as within them — between the CEO and his second-in-command, between the CEO and Omar, and between Omar and the cook. Some of this is done so subtly that it’s not even clear the power has shifted, and certainly the advice the CEO gets from hijacking experts is to draw things out and grind the pirates down over time. This of course, though it may be good for the company by minimising any financial loss, has its own set of effects both on public opinion (towards which the company’s board are rather sensitive) and to the captives who find themselves at sea for many gruelling months.
The camera holds close to the two main characters, with some handheld work but not too immersively queasy (this is no Breaking the Waves). It’s a character study more than anything else, and it wants to draw out how the drama on the high seas reaches into the personal life of a relatively entitled and protected man. The CEO is seen negotiating a financial deal at the start for vastly more money than the pirates demand, and if it’s a rather obvious parallelism, it never feels too hamfisted because it’s not overemphasised. There are certainly places where you feel that maybe the writing could be a bit less subtle, but it’s staking out a different emotional terrain. In any case, the excellent, naturalistic acting grounds the film and makes it easy to get wrapped up in.
Director/Writer Tobias Lindholm; Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck; Starring Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 February 2014.
The end of the year, when people traditionally have more holiday time, always brings lots of interesting films to cinemas, which makes it difficult to compile a ‘best of’ before one has seen the whole year out. Here in the UK we have not yet had American Hustle (except in one West End London cinema) or The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave has only been at the London Film Festival, but Boxing Day sees the release of this one-man acting effort from Robert Redford, albeit a few months after it was released Stateside. And it’s fair to say that it makes a strong contender for a year-end best list, despite its very stripped-down plot. It’s going after similar survival-against-the-odds territory that Gravity was aiming for, but at its best All Is Lost more successfully earns its obvious spiritual dimension. After all, it deals with the grandest of themes — the ones usually focused on in the liturgies of organised religions — which is to say, redemption through suffering, grace and salvation.
There’s no doubt it’s a film which has been purposely shorn of anything extraneous, though, and it doesn’t surprise me to read perplexed accounts of it from people who did not perhaps connect with its narrative minimalism. After all, there’s barely any speech in it, aside from one loudly muttered imprecation, an attempt to radio for help, and a spoken introduction. It’s that introduction which sets the film’s stall: we open at a point where the unnamed protagonist, played by the ageing Robert Redford, clearly believes himself to be beyond rescue. He is writing to an unidentified person, and his words form the film’s credo, after a fashion. He apologises, he states he was trying but has failed, and then utters the film’s title. Any further backstory is mere speculation, and one spends a lot of the film trying to glean hints of what his situation might be — he is out on the ocean all alone, but he’s wearing a wedding ring, so one could suppose that he is writing to his (estranged?) wife, maybe children. Perhaps he’s on a voyage of self-discovery, perhaps his character has made mistakes in his life that he’s trying to rectify, or maybe he’s out there because he wants to die. All is speculation.
What’s certainly clear, though, is that whatever Redford’s reasons for being out alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, once tragedy strikes, he works tirelessly to keep going. The tragic event opens the film after the spoken intro (between the two is an intertitle taking us back eight days), when his boat hits a stray shipping container and starts taking on water. From there, the film unfolds as a tense account of survivalism at sea, as the elderly but still rather spry Redford first tries to fix his boat, and then finds himself taking to a life raft to continue his journey. The setbacks he continues to face — primarily from the weather (at once stormy, then burningly hot) — make up the bulk of the film’s plot, and it all keeps things ticking along with some of the same anguished desperation that Gravity had, but in the maritime setting of Captain Phillips (another survival story, but against humans rather than nature).
Obviously, though, the religious themes are unavoidable here, most clearly in that introduction and then in a denouement (spoilers: I shall try to be oblique but you may wish to look away for this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) which can certainly be read ambiguously, with a shining light that suggests transcendence. Whatever the physical outcome for the character, the ending at the very least offers salvation, and that final image implies that this is what the protagonist has been looking for. It’s a curiously uplifting final scene. In retrospect, it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter what the specifics are of the protagonist’s failings: his journey is one of repentance matched by a final act of grace. His journey then becomes a form of ascetic denial, perhaps, taking him finally away from all comforts and connections until he is utterly cut off.
In this regard, it’s all a very Christian film about redemption, but in its broad strokes rather than putting across any specific ideology. What can certainly be said is that Robert Redford, being the only actor in the film and on screen for its entire running time, does a fantastic job in what must have been very difficult filming conditions. The lack of dialogue (meaning the lack of verbal explanations for his actions) only sharpens the subtlety of Redford’s acting, as he attends to dealing with his predicament. Of course, part of his success can be attributed to his iconic status within the firmament of motion picture stars, as we can see this character as a sort of version of those golden-haired golden boy characters he once played, but extended into extremis, and his now craggy and lined face conveys its own resonance. With its grand allegorical sweep, All Is Lost is as fine a way as any to see out a year of films.
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco; Starring Robert Redford; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 26 December 2013.
I had not intended to review this most recent of Godard’s features, but then I had forgotten I’d put it on my rental list, and it just showed up the other week, so here we go. I could tell you that there’s a tripartite structure, like Notre musique (2004), and that there’s even a plot of sorts threading its way through the film (a young woman’s investigation into some gold which went missing during World War II). However, none of that would really capture Godard’s style, which is so elliptical and opaque as to make the film far closer to poetry than narrative. But if it’s poetry, it’s a densely allusive poetry that draws on influences that are largely unknown to me, meaning that like many of Godard’s late-period films, I find it difficult to connect with.
The bulk of the film is shot on board a cruise liner, intended by Godard to perhaps be the locus of late-Western capitalism in all its excesses (and a location which in real life, perhaps fittingly, came to its own rather controversial end a few years later, being the Costa Concordia). There are characters who flit in and out of the flow of scenes, but the chief way of describing the film is in the textures of its images — digitally shot, but alternately clear and cleanly framed, and degraded and pixellated, overlaid with white noise. There are certainly some beautiful shots, but by this point Godard’s cranky sense of “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has become a knotted tangle.
I don’t want to just write it off because it’s not to my taste. It’s just that there’s less a sense of characters and stories involved here, as ideas and themes. They are certainly grand themes at that, taking in the political history of the twentieth century (if not the whole sweep of Western civilisation) and all its traumas. Like Notre musique, Godard remains particularly interested in Israel’s relationship with Palestine, and Jewish and Arabic characters show up throughout. The film concludes with a brief section (“nos humanités”) taking in six sites of conflict from earliest times (Egypt and Greece) to the most recent (Barcelona in Spain, where the recent economic downturn has hit hardest).
The film moves from this wide focus, taking in the locations of world-changing events, to the minutiae of one family living in provincial France at a petrol station, but retains an interest in the grandest of themes (specifically those of the French Republic: liberté, egalité, fraternité) as the two children question their parents. However, by this point I must confess my attention had started to stray under the burden of the film’s unrelentingly discursive style. Perhaps it could be shown on loop in a gallery, but as a cohesive feature film, it is undeniably demanding, and for those with a taste for Godard’s allusiveness, it may well be a rewarding one. I fear I am not yet equal to it.
Next up: I do still intend to review Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinéma, but who knows when at this rate…
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013.
When I saw the trailer for this new movie many months ago, I have to say I was afraid it would be a triumphal story of an entitled white man single-handedly defeating the racial Other, though I perhaps didn’t take into account director Paul Greengrass’s involvement. As such, the end result is a movie that doesn’t follow the usual playbooks for this kind of story, and which engages with all its characters in a fair way. Greengrass after all has previous form with films based on real life events that take a sort of documentary aesthetic to their recreations: he gained early acclaim with made-for-TV docudramas before finding a bigger screen with Northern Ireland-set Bloody Sunday (2002) and most notably the gripping and claustrophobic United 93 (2006) about the 9/11 flight (not to mention that his forays into fiction in two Jason Bourne films have managed to retain this patina of realism). Therefore, it should have been no surprise that Captain Phillips is a tense and exciting thriller.
The film starts out on land with two matched prologues. One is set in Vermont where our eponymous Captain, Richard Phillips (played by Tom Hanks), is getting a lift with his wife to the airport. He is on his way to Oman to head up the crew of the Maersk Alabama container ship which is travelling to Kenya. Phillips and his wife have a brief discussion of the ways in which life is getting tougher and how their (now grown) children will have to work harder to succeed than they did. And then we cross to a village by the coast in Somalia, all but undercutting that low level of American middle-class anxiety to show us lives that are already lived in extremes of poverty and deprivation. The local warlord arrives in his fleet of cars to order the local tribal elder to get together a band of hijackers, as they want another payday. Two skiffs are swiftly organised on the beach, one headed up by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who chooses three men from those crowding around him, before they head out into the oceans.
This is the set-up and from this point onwards, no more than ten minutes or so in, the film is entirely set out on the high seas, in the cramped confines of the container ship heading down past the Somali coast, and then the even more claustrophic life raft taking the pirates and Phillips towards the film’s denouement. Given the story’s genesis in a book written by Phillips about his experiences, it cannot be any surprise that he makes it to the end of the story, but the film is very careful to focus more attention on the pirates, whose story is rather less well-known. These four are not simply portrayed as dangerous enemies to our heroic captain, as one might expect, but as human beings acting as much out of duty as Phillips does, each (including the Captain) displaying their own blend of vulnerability and unexpected daring.
Indeed, aided by the fine acting of Abdi, Hanks and the minor players, all the characters are shown to be operating under a sense of compulsion that comes from places unseen. Where Phillips feels an obligation to his company that leads him to plot a foolhardy course through an area known to be dangerous, so Muse has a task that he knows he cannot return from empty-handed. Elsewhere, there’s the tribal elder in Muse’s village, the captain of the US warship sent to aid the Alabama and the commander of a Navy SEALs team of trained commandoes tasked to bring the hostage crisis to an end, all of whom are seen just following orders. On all sides, this maritime world is one of very carefully-delineated roles that allow for little exercise of free will, and is a nice change from the kinds of single-handed heroics that dominate action films in similar settings (Tom Hanks here is no Steven Seagal in Under Siege, nor even an Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October).
Given its limited range of settings, the film manages to create a fair amount of tension (even though we know how things will end for the Captain at least), and much of this is down to the claustrophic locations and grainy cinematography that keeps the camera tightly focused in on faces. The film also engenders plenty of empathy for its Somali characters, as much victims as anyone else in the story. Even at the end, there’s no triumph or release, no pat return to normality, and some of Hanks’s best acting — not to mention the most emotionally wrought scenes, functioning as a kind of catharsis for the audience — is reserved for these brief moments when the plot has all been wrapped up. From start to finish, Captain Phillips (the film if not the character) is totally in control, and ranks as probably one of Greengrass’s finest works so far.
Director Paul Greengrass; Writer Billy Ray (based on the book A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips and Stephan Talty); Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi برخد عبدي; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Tuesday 5 November 2013.