Criterion Sunday 214: The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy, 1941)

I was not enthused upon the prospect of watching this Criterion release, but its merits grew on me. It’s a moral fable, taken from the story of Faust, and like other tales of wealth coming to the wrong people (I’m thinking of Barry Lyndon myself), its central character is in some ways the weakest, with Jabez Stone being an insufferable weed of a man who sells his soul to the devil (consarn it!) and finds himself the recipient of untold wealth. It’s interesting though in the way it moralises about the responsibilities of wealth, siding it seems against capitalist exploitation (surely the natural mode of the American industrialist), this perhaps one of the surprising ways in which the wartime mood shifted people’s interests towards the common good. It all has the sheen of a fine picture, with some nice supporting performances, but it’s the film’s strong moral convictions that carries it through.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director William Dieterle | Writer Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét (based on the short story by Benét) | Cinematographer Joseph H. August | Starring James Craig, Anne Shirley, Edward Arnold, Walter Huston | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 April 2018

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Criterion Sunday 213: Richard III (1955)

These grand and handsome stagings of Shakespeare made Olivier something of a predecessor to Kenneth Branagh towards the end of the century, and as with Branagh, I feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not that the acting is stodgy (there have been some patchy adaptations, but on the whole Richard III is well acted, without egregious hamminess), and it certainly doesn’t lack in visual splendour. In fact, the Technicolor Vistavision looks gorgeous, all saturated colours on beautifully theatrical sets (not quite the Brechtian level of, say, Rohmer’s Perceval, but still mightily stagy and unreal-seeming). I just find Olivier’s adaptations unengaging, with too many scenes that don’t really seem to grab much attention (Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation seemed much stronger in that regard). I still think this is one of his better ones, and I prefer it to Henry V, so maybe I’m just being churlish.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Otto Heller | Starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke | Length 161 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 11 June 2018

Criterion Sunday 212: Ingmar Bergman gör en film (Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie, 1963)

A documentary tracking Ingmar Bergman during the making of Winter Light, split into five roughly half-hour chunks, as it was originally made for Swedish TV. That film is one of my favourite of Bergman’s efforts, and he seems relaxed talking about its making in great detail. We also get a chance to see some of the filming, as well as comparisons of differently-edited versions of the same scene, all presented by the director of the I Am Curious diptych. Fans of Bergman will undoubtedly get a lot more out of this fairly dry documentary than I did, but it gets into the craft a lot more than most filmmaker puff pieces.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vilgot Sjöman | Cinematographer Mac Ahlberg | Starring Ingmar Bergman | Length 146 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 23 April 2018

London Film Festival 2018: My Favourite Films

I’ve had a successful year in terms of attending other film festivals, but being based in London, naturally a lot of my focus every year — especially when it comes to the best of new films (rather than the archival screenings of, say, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) — is the London Film Festival. This year, the stewardship of the festival had been taken over by Tricia Tuttle (as acting director initially, but now confirmed), who as a deputy director of the festival in previous years had always been a lively and engaged presence in Q&As, and undoubtedly has been very busy behind the scenes, because it seems to me to have been a particularly strong selection this year. Obviously a lot of that is down to the vicissitudes of availability of various titles (the lack of the new Claire Denis film was the only one I really felt I missed), but what films I saw were all interesting, and almost all screenings had an introduction if not a Q&A with the director or producer afterwards.

Of course, I cannot claim that my festival experience is that of everyone else; any film festival necessarily exists in multiple guises. The screenings that tend to get all the attention are the big galas and premieres, primarily in Leicester Square cinemas (or the festival’s large pop-up space in Embankment Gardens), and as a regular filmgoer I largely avoid those: they are expensive, and all the films generally already have release dates, so the only attraction is to see a film early and with its famous stars in attendance, and while that’s fine for the festival itself as far as getting press coverage go, it’s not where my interests lie (I did go and see the Sight & Sound gala premiere of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, though). Instead, I tend to choose the titles that have no distribution in place, many of which are directed by first-time directors. In order to narrow my choices down, and not read up on every film in the programme endlessly, I usually shortlist films directed by women or people of colour — which also generally has the benefit of diversifying the range of cultures and experiences I see on screen during the festival.

As in previous years, the largest number of films I booked to see were from the Middle East and Arab-speaking world (programmed by Elhum Shakerifar, who also produced one of the films I saw in the festival), but it seems to me that the strongest selection out of what I ended up seeing were Spanish-language films. My favourite was the second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) feature by Dominga Sotomayor, whose debut De jueves a domingo (Thursday Till Sunday, 2012) I had caught up with on DVD earlier this year, and which is a strong film about a family breaking up, conveyed during an extended car trip across the country. When I saw that, it made me think of the child’s-eye point-of-view of Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017, dir. Carla Simón), one of my favourite films from LFF 2017, and it may be that there’s a certain circle of inspiration that moves from Sotomayor’s own debut to that film, and into Sotomayor’s second — indeed, the car of De jueves a domingo makes a reappearance in the opening shot of the new film, though this isn’t a road movie — and I thought of all of them again watching Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young). It’s set in a sort of hippie commune outside Santiago in the early days of the new democracy in the 1990s, conveyed through subtle details (it wasn’t until Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” swelled up on the soundtrack that I fully realised we were in the mid-90s). It’s all beautifully shot and acted (largely by non-professionals), and I can strongly recommend it. It’s also a film for dog lovers (in the way that most festival cinema, if we’re being honest, is really about cats).

Also making a strong impression was young Mexican director Lila Avilés’s first feature La camarista (The Chambermaid), which follows Evelia (an amazing Gabriela Cartol, another first-time actor), a young native-born woman working in a luxury hotel in Mexico City. It lacks any strong, melodramatic plot contrivances, preferring to subtly loop in ideas of class and race as markers of difference, feeding into the way that guests react to Eve’s presence, and her own ability to work her way around within the hotel’s confining hierarchical structure. It makes its points without fuss, and using a slow, long-take sensibility that really conveys a sense of place, even as the film never strays beyond the bounds of the hotel itself. Also dealing with race is Miriam miente (Miriam Lies), a film from the Dominican Republic made by a husband and wife team (native-born Natalia Cabral and Spanish transplant Oriol Estrada) previously known for making documentaries. Here the race angle is more explicit, because it’s about a young Black Dominican girl growing up in a rich white society of debutantes, and the film’s drama (such as it is) revolves around the preparations for Miriam’s quinceañera and the guy she has invited as her date, whose constant non-appearance turns out to be because he also is Black and therefore not considered a suitable partner by her family or friends, hence her lies of the film’s title. Without ever being overtly angry, the film very ably expresses some of the race and class-based resentments that thread through this society. Both films remind me of other recent films from the region dealing with class and race, such as the Colombian drama Gente de bien (2014, dir. Franco Lolli) or the Venezuelan Pelo malo (Bad Hair, 2013, dir. Mariana Rondón).

It’s also worth mentioning here that my highlight of the ‘Treasures’ strand of the festival was Enamorada (1946), a Mexican melodrama from its 1940s golden age, directed by Emilio Fernández. Its restoration was premiered by Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation took the lead in the restoration work) at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, before I arrived at that festival, hence why I missed it there. The BFI will be doing a season next year of Mexican films, which will undoubtedly be a real highlight, given how many of these films offer unrestrained pleasure in their melodramatic plots and forthright performances. In this case, it’s María Félix who tears up the screen as Beatriz in a small Mexican town during the revolutionary era, arms akimbo and both nose and eyes flaring at every moment, seemingly from having to be around such incompetent men. It’s a delight.

Returning to Middle Eastern films, my second-favourite film at the festival and the highlight of that strand, was for me the Iranian film Tehran: City of Love by another debut feature director, Ali Jaberansari. In a Q&A afterwards with Ms Shakerifar, he mentioned taking inspiration from the deadpan work of such directors as Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch, and all of that is quite evident on screen. It tells three stories, which only briefly intersect, but all of which seem to suggest a different aspect of romance, with specific reference to body image. One is an overweight woman working as the receptionist at a cosmetic surgeon’s office, another a self-loathing funeral singer who has just split up and doesn’t know how to be happy, and the third is an ageing bodybuilder with repressed gay desires (or so it seems; the film is very circumspect on this) who feels a chance to connect with another person when a younger man needs training for an upcoming championship. Because it’s Iranian, there’s a strong sense of melancholy that weaves through all these stories, but ultimately the deadpan humour is evident at all times and there’s even a small hint of hopefulness, even if nothing seems to go quite to plan.

Another highlight of this region’s cinema was the Egyptian pseudo-documentary Dreamaway, by directing team of Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke, which in its play with performance and the light fictionalisation that is applied at certain levels, brings to mind Alma Har’el’s work (like LFF 2016’s LoveTrue or her earlier Bombay Beach). In this case, you get the sense that the fictionalisation is partly to protect the workers themselves, who limn the conservative attitudes of their society with the relative hedonism and freedom of this entirely separate resort area. Indeed, the resort at Sharm-el-Sheikh, which seems strictly for foreign tourists, is also portrayed as largely desolate and empty — artistic licence, perhaps, but one that speaks eloquently to the drop-off in tourism as a result of Egypt’s recent turmoil. And so we see these young Egyptians cleaning rooms, doing fitness/dance routines, mixing drinks and performing as mimes (one man in full black-and-gold body makeup pretending to be a bronze cowboy is exactly the kind of thing you might find amongst the crowds in Covent Garden, or wherever your city’s tourist heart is found) to an audience of just each other. The uncanniness is further heightened by the conceit of a man in a monkey costume eliciting confessions from the back of a flatbed truck, and there are occasional brief interstices with these workers wandering aimlessly through the desert much as the characters traipse along roads in Buñuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie — surrealism is never far from the surface here.

I want to round up my summary with a trio of American films, two of which I saw when I visited the States at the end of August, and which I featured in my round-up of that month. If I’d seen Madeline’s Madeline and Sorry to Bother You at LFF 2018, they’d be in my top 5 (indeed, the former film, directed by Josephine Decker, would probably be my #1). As it is, I saw Andrew Bujalski’s latest Support the Girls at LFF (it was on release when I was in the States, but I couldn’t fit it in back then). It initially seems fairly unpromising — it revolves around the workers at a Texan ‘breastaurant’, a strangely American phenomenon of a family-friendly diner staffed by young women wearing revealing tops — but turns out to share more in common with some of the films discussed above than expected. Bujalski himself comes from a very specific type of NY-based indie improv background (he was one of the early filmmakers in the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, though with 2015’s Results he showed a tendency towards the kind of space he deals with in his latest film as well: a brightly-lit space redolent of the worst trends of modernity, with a cast of charismatic screen-friendly name actors). As such, there’s a strong sense of fellow consciousness with the women who work at the restaurant, their struggles with uncaring, bottom-line and image-obsessed management (embodied by James Le Gros), and with a generalised feeling of class-based disconnect within wider American society. It’s also tied together with a pair of divergently strong performances by Black woman leads: Regina Hall as Lisa, the very competent and well-liked general manager of the restaurant, who would probably never be seen in this environment if it weren’t for needing work, and Shayna McHayle as worker Danyelle, whose eye-rolls and attitude enliven the film no end. The versatile Haley Lu Richardson (familiar from Columbus and Edge of Seventeen) is also on fine form, and completely unrecognisable from those other performances. It’s a slow-burn comic highlight.

My Top 20 Films at LFF 2018 (that I saw there)

  1. Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, Chile/Argentina/Brazil/Netherlands/Qatar, dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
  2. Tehran: City of Love (Iran/Netherlands/UK, dir. Ali Jaberansari)
  3. Enamorada (1946, Mexico, dir. Emilio Fernández)
  4. La camarista (The Chambermaid, Mexico/USA, dir. Lila Avilés)
  5. Support the Girls (USA, dir. Andrew Bujalski)
  6. Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic/France/Germany, dir. Radu Jude)
  7. Dreamaway (Egypt/Qatar/Germany, dir. Marouan Omara/Johanna Domke)
  8. Miriam miente (Miriam Lies, Dominican Republic/Spain, dir. Natalia Cabral/Oriol Estrada)
  9. Beoning (Burning, South Korea, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
  10. Jiang Nu Er Nu (Ash Is Purest White, China/Japan/France, dir. Jia Zhangke)
  11. Monrovia, Indiana (USA, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
  12. Netemo Sametemo (Asako I & II, Japan, dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
  13. Ai to Ho (Of Love & Law, Japan/UK/France, dir. Hikaru Toda)
  14. Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, China/USA, dir. Cathy Yan)
  15. Rafiki (aka Friend, Kenya/South Africa, dir. Wanuri Kahiu)

… with a special mention to Madeline’s Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker) and Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley), which I’d already seen, and which would rank highly. Any of the films above, indeed, could have been higher-placed had I perhaps been in the right frame of mind to take them in, and there was plenty to like in all of them I thought. There was also an excellent “surprise treasure” film screening (a newly-restored 1988 medium-length film), but we were asked not to speak about that.

Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer (you may be able to tell; this is all strictly amateur), I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.

Criterion Sunday 211: Tystnaden (The Silence, 1963)

Bergman’s ‘faith’ films have been growing on me somewhat as I’ve watched them, and in some ways this is the most stripped back. As the title suggests, it is a quiet film, with long stretches lacking dialogue. It helps too that it’s set in a fictional central European/eastern European country where none of the principal characters understands the language (which looks like Serbian or Czech, but sounds a bit French or German). There’s a sense of a world still recovering from a war (World War II is undoubtedly the reference point), and one abandoned by faith, although in some ways Bergman’s deployment of those tropes are the weakest in the film for me. What I liked was the suffocating atmosphere, lustrous close-ups and enigmatic actions blending together to create a strange dreamlike affect. It’s one I’ll need to see again to properly appreciate, I suspect.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 210: Nattvardsgästerna (Winter Light, 1963)

The second of Bergman’s loosely-defined faith trilogy, I do much prefer Winter Light to Through a Glass Darkly, though obviously they share a number of threads — the idea of God as a spider, a questioning attitude to the divine presence, many of the same actors and Sven Nykvist’s extraordinary camera. This film has a lugubrious pace, but also, at times, touches of what seem like humour (much the way I find humour in Bresson too: utterly po-faced, but yet somehow not without mischief). Its central character, a priest (Gunnar Björnstrand), is unable to reach God, feels himself a failure, and watches as his congregation dwindles. The film’s title in Swedish is “The Communicants” and there’s a sense in which each character in the film is trying to somehow commune with God. If the previous film posits Love as the connecting force, this seems far more tenuous here, though perhaps there’s something there, like an empathy which Björnstrand’s character so abjectly fails to achieve. One of Bergman’s better works, I think.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Max von Sydow, Gunnel Lindblom | Length 81 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 5 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 209: Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961)

I’m willing to concede that Bergman was a great filmmaker, and I have no doubt that if I came to this with the willingness to engage with it that Bergman comes to his filmmaking, then I’d probably connect with it more. It looks beautiful, to be sure, with lots of full-face close-ups, and that windswept Fårö scenery. It’s intense in its psychodrama, dealing as it does (and as is not unusual for the director) with faith, the connection with God, so tenuous and so alluring. The woman has mental health issues from which she’s recovering, and this much feels a little bit rote: beautiful women suffering for the love of God is something of a worn trope. But, as I say, were I to revisit this again, perhaps I would connect with it better, or perhaps if I came from a certain type of family, I’d appreciate the dynamics more.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Max von Sydow, Lars Passgård | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 207: Erogotoshitachi Yori Jinruigaku Nyumon (The Pornographers, 1966)

This Japanese film about a small-time filth merchant doesn’t actually feature any of what the title suggests (probably for the best) but is instead a sort of odd, madcap series of incidents that hangs together really strangely — although I admit I was a little drowsy when I watched it, which hardly helped me keep it all straight, though I don’t really think it’s interested in straightforward narrative storytelling. It has enough oddity to make it more of a satire, and it probably helps if you know the society to pick up on what’s being skewered.

Criterion Extras: Nothing but a trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura | Writers Imamura and Koji Numata | Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda | Starring Shoichi Ozawa | Length 128 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 April 2018

Criterion Sunday 206: Lola (1981)

I’d seen this before when I was younger, but perhaps I was an idiot, because I remember almost nothing about this film, and yet it is so very striking. It feels like finally, after years of flirting, Fassbinder completely nails the Sirkian aesthetic, in all its garish heady blend of colours and framing and little satirical nudges about Germany society in the 1970s. It’s a story of corrupt small town politicians and developers, and of course it’s also about sex and desire too. It’s a venal world, and apparently little is going to change that, but Armin Mueller-Stahl’s bureaucrat tries his best all the same. Every successive shot is a masterclass in lighting, all saturated colours and a strange blue highlight used for Mueller-Stahl’s eyes whenever he’s in his office. It’s a gorgeous film about — what else — but moral turpitude and the baseness of the human spirit.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer | Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger | Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf | Length 113 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018 (and before that on VHS in the university library in Wellington, March 2000)

Criterion Sunday 205: Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982)

One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer | Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger | Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library in Wellington, April 2000)