Criterion Sunday 254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Back in the day I used to say this was my favourite of Cassavetes’ films, and though I probably like Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence better in retrospect, it’s still pretty powerful. Cassavetes approaches an almost genre theme — as the title suggests, there’s a gangland hit involved — but he approaches it obliquely. Watching the original 1976 135 minute cut, it takes almost an hour or so to even get to that point, and what we see is a portrait of a man who runs a nightclub (a strip club), arranging and putting together the shows. For all his evident sleaziness and self-absorption, he also clearly cares about his club and his dancers, but he also has a gambling problem that leads to the title’s killing, and ends up being his downfall. The film, however, remains focused at all times on Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo (who could be read as a directorial stand-in, in the way of many great films about art made by artists), on his flaws but also his strange, sweet integrity.

The shorter 1978 cut of the film certainly gets to the plot a lot quicker, and does a better job overall of setting up the machinations that lead to the action of the title, though we still get a strong sense of Cosmo’s world, particularly his drab nightclub with its ridiculous amateurish routines that nevertheless he is still utterly invested in. But once the hit happens, it seems to slip back into the rhythms of the longer cut, upping the existential angst of its protagonist as he faces (possible) mortality, with things unravelling on the business side as his ties with the mobsters who keep him afloat seem to fall away, even as he desperately tries to keep everything under control. The way Cosmo pretends everything is normal, that he is in (creative) control, even when he seems to be slowly losing everything is at the heart of both films ultimately.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban speak in the mid-2000s to the Criterion Collection about the film, with Gazzara in particular unpacking it as the portrait of a misunderstood artist (Cassavetes himself).
  • There’s also a short audio interview with two French critics from the time, where Cassavetes gets a little tetchy about his film being described as a genre piece — although the point the critics were making is that it uses such conceits as a starting place, but certainly doesn’t define the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Azizi Johari; Length 135 minutes [original version] and 108 minutes [1978 re-edit].

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2019 [original version] and Wednesday 24 July 2019 [1978 re-edit]).

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Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)

For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.

Continue reading “Two Films by Carlos Reygadas: Battle in Heaven (2005) and Our Time (2018)”

Víctimas del pecado (Victims of Sin, 1951)

Mexican cinema was responsible for a glorious run of full-blooded melodramas in the 1940s, and I’ve already covered a few in recent posts, including Another Dawn (1943) with Andrea Palma and Twilight (1945) with Gloria Marín, both directed by Julio Bracho, and the wonderful Dolores del Río in La otra (1945). I mention the female leads because it’s the women who really define this period in cinema, and before we move on to Ninón Sevilla, it’s worth mentioning my favourite restoration at the 2018 London Film Festival, Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946), which stars the glorious María Félix, who not only dominates the film but steals every single frame she’s in, a definite highlight of the era.


Ninón Sevilla as Violeta comes across a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), and like that film this is a melodramatic ride through the sleazy underworld of a (Mexican) city. Still, director Emilio Fernández shows a great deal of sympathy and generosity towards his nightclub dancers forced into street work thanks to the dangerous and violent vicissitudes of low-class gangsters like Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta). He is introduced in the opening scenes and, without any dialogue required, his character is perfectly set up: big suit, concerned about appearances, cheap with his barber but flashy with his money, he struts out into this underworld with the brio of a man who is clearly not only going to fall but ensure that he pulls down with him as many others as he can. Throughout, the grimy sweaty reality of inner city life is stressed, the vast plumes of smoke from the steam trains that pass by crowd the frame like a bleak Turner painting (and like a lot of red-light districts, this one is tucked up alongside railway lines). The women of this film aren’t victims of their own sin, but very much that of the men around them, who are violent and, with a few exceptions, thuggish brutes. If anyone here survives, it’s only by the slenderest margins, but those margins are what the film is all about.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Emilio Fernández; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.

La mujer del puerto (The Woman of the Port, 1934)

I’m doing a week of Mexican films on my blog, starting with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and building to some more modern films in advance of the UK cinematic release of The Chambermaid (somewhat less melodramatic than these early films, but still very attentive to the social structure).


Despite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.

Film posterCREDITS
Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 236: Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini’s second film is this slice of the kind of subject matter that Fellini was more used to serving up, which is to say a richly melodramatic story of the former sex worker of the film’s title and her relationship with her son Ettore. Of course, stylistically, Pasolini’s take is hardly comparable to Fellini, aside from the garrulous camera-hogging of Anna Magnani in the central role recalling Giulietta Masina. This is far more focused on the fragile ground on which Magnani’s character tries to rebuild her life, as her honest profession as a vegetable seller in the market is undercut by not just forays into vice in order to try and provide for her son’s future (a little play-acting with a pimp and a sex worker to blackmail a restaurant owner into getting him a job) but also the return of her former pimp Carmine. Fragile too is Ettore’s self-identity within his social circle — he’s a young man trying to prove himself by courting one slightly older local woman — while meanwhile given a hard time by his male friends, all of which combined with a revelation of his mother’s former career, seems to push him over the edge. Pasolini’s attention then is on wider society — including, of course, the church — and the part it plays in destroying a family. Magnani remains at the heart of the film, though, and there are some particularly striking tracking shots showing her walking around the darkened streets lit by ethereal street lights, as people hove into view out of the darkness to engage her in conversation before peeling off again. She may be trying to constantly move forward, but she never seems to be given the chance to get anywhere.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofalo, Franco Citti; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 21 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 223: Maîtresse (1973)

I think there are some interesting things going on in this film, primarily in the way in which power dynamics are worked out, but behind it all there’s a very familiar, very masculine 1970s French way of looking at the world which reminds me a lot of Godard and his fellow travellers. Essentially, it’s about a semi-criminal young man (Gérard Depardieu) who finds himself drawn into the world of a professional dominatrix (Bulle Ogier). He has no money and comes to rely on her, while she makes her money by dominating submissive men, but he finds himself needing to express his own dominance in their power relationship. In some sense, he is enacting familiar patriarchal pattern of behaviour; I’m just not sure that the film is interested in exploring both their subjectivities, so much as wanting to find some compromise whereby she becomes more submissive to his will. That said, there’s a lot of interesting interplay between the two, and I at least don’t get the feeling that her sex work itself is being criticised. Ultimately, it feels very much like a period piece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Writers Schroeder and Paul Voujargol; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Bulle Ogier, Gérard Depardieu; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 20 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan; Writers Jordan and David Leland; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016.

Afternoon Delight (2013)

This is an odd film, and there are things about it I really like, but ultimately it just comes across as somewhat introspective and petit bourgeois. It’s about suburban ennui, specifically that felt by middle-class mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She’s married to the slightly boring Jeff (Josh Radnor, the most annoying character on How I Met Your Mother), and does her best to work through her issues with her offbeat psychiatrist Lenore (Jane Lynch, with quite the most distracting glasses seen in recent cinema). The plot stretches credulity somewhat in orchestrating her becoming friends with a stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), but once that initial meeting is out of the way, it starts to promise something rather radical in exploring the overlap between McKenna’s sex work and Rachel’s frustrated desires, although it feels to me like it doesn’t quite deliver on that. There’s some melodrama, but the film remains closely focused on Rachel breaking out of what ultimately feels like a mid-life crisis. Still, Hahn does well with the central role, and there’s some excellent supporting work (notably Michaela Watkins as a hyperorganised busybody in Rachel’s Jewish women’s group).

Afternoon Delight film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jill Soloway; Cinematographer Jim Frohna; Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 30 October 2015.

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

It makes for fairly depressing viewing, this documentary, and I’m not convinced that any film about the porn industry could ever fail to be, at least a little bit. Then again, there are times during Hot Girls Wanted when I can’t help but feel we’re only being given part of the picture. It’s clearly an exploitative profession, and the film’s focus is on young women who have just turned 18 getting into the business, so the angle is that these women are prey for a rapacious industry that demands constant turnover of talent. And yes, quite a bit of the work we see them doing is blatantly misogynist, particularly the unsettling abuse porn. But at the same time it’s refreshing to hear from the women themselves, all of whom, despite their ages, are intelligent and self-possessed and hardly seem particularly ingenuous about what they’re getting involved with. The film makes it clear that most women are in the industry for only very short amounts of time (less than 6 months in most cases), though the end titles reveal that two of the five young women who are featured most prominently are still in the industry, so perhaps there’s an angle with their stories that wasn’t quite so evident. What the film prefers to focus on is the importance of social media (particularly Twitter, which informs the film’s on-screen titling), as well as the way that the work influences the women’s families and relationships, and to a lesser extent the casually possessive and derogatory way of some of the (male) filmmakers and agents. Perhaps indeed more regulation is required, and this feels like the film’s big message, but from what we see it almost looks like a quaint cottage industry (our talent scout is a puppy-loving 23-year-old dude, and the male actors all seem little more than pathetic). That said, I’m hardly about to mount a vigorous defence of pornography. Another of the ideas the film toys with in an early sequence is the way that the pornography industry redefines how people see and present themselves and the way that this affects their interactions at a far wider level (and social media certainly plays a part there) — and I think there’s a far more angry film to be made about that. However, as a film about the human cost of working within this world, I’d have liked to have heard more from the women who stuck around. In some ways, I think that might have been more challenging.

NB: This doesn’t technically qualify for my New Year’s Resolution, as it wasn’t officially released to cinemas, but instead premiered on Netflix.

Hot Girls Wanted film posterCREDITS
Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus; Writer Brittany Huckabee; Cinematographer Gradus; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015.