Criterion Sunday 121: Billy Liar (1963)

Someone had clearly been watching those recent French New Wave films and taking cues from Godard and Truffaut. Specifically, director John Schlesinger, one imagines, and he does a British version very well here. Billy Fisher is a chronic dreamer (I can only imagine he was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s own arch-fantasist Fischer) who just can’t be honest with anyone, least of all himself. It’s the 1960s and the film opens with a montage of modern housing estate developments; Billy lives in a northern city and works at a (literal?) dead-end job, not doing very well there. There’s an energy to Billy, as he bounces around the city from one failure to another, playing off his various fiancées, and enduring his parents’ scorn. There’s also a lovely role for Julie Christie, and while any character who has Julie Christie in love with him and doesn’t immediately ditch everything else to be with her is clearly a moron, Courtenay still manages to work up quite a bit of winsome charm. He’s still an idiot, though and his parents aren’t wrong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Schlesinger | Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based on the novel by Waterhouse) | Cinematographer Denys Coop | Starring Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie | Length 98 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016

Pojkarna (Girls Lost, 2016)

At one level this is a Swedish coming of age film, with intolerant school bullies picking on young women, who look to each other for love and support. However, it quickly becomes evident that one of them, Kim (Tuva Jagell), feels uncomfortable with her gender identity, while Momo (Louise Nyvall) has feelings for Kim. Via a fantasy expedient of a magical plant, the film allows the young women to transform Cinderella-like into men for a night, thereby experiencing facets of privilege and masculinist behaviour, in their interactions with a group of rebellious boys who go to their school. It’s actually done really well, at least from my admittedly gender-normative point of view. There’s a delicate artistry to the transformation sequences and it makes tangible, via its magical premise, some of the identity fluidity that’s (I think) natural when you’re growing up.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alexandra-Therese Keining (based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer) | Cinematographer Ragna Jorming | Starring Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, Wilma Holmén | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 November 2016

LFF 2016 Day Twelve

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun. [***½]


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise. [***]

LFF 2016 Day Eight: Certain Women (2016)

I saw just the one film on Wednesday 12 October due to competing plans, and despite my avowed desire to avoid ‘big’ films destined to return, I made an exception… and it turns out to have been my favourite so far (albeit no surprise, given the director).


Certain Women (2016)Certain Women (2016, USA, dir./wr. Kelly Reichardt, DOP Christopher Blauvelt)
I always knew I was going to like this film, because Kelly Reichardt makes films I always like. Her last film at the LFF was Night Moves (2013), and that was practically a genre thriller, albeit with Reichardt’s customary style, but this new one dispenses with the genre baggage. So we’re left with a sort of purity to the slow rhythms, the steady gaze, the emotional depth.

I spent much of the running time wondering where it was going and what it was trying to achieve — although liking it a lot, don’t get me wrong; the 16mm-shot cinematography is spectacular for its framing and the beautiful open landscapes which are captured. But then the film finished with three brief coda scenes, to each of the three narrative strands (one featuring Laura Dern, another with Michelle Williams, and a third with Lily Gladstone and Kristin Stewart), and it all came into focus for me a bit. Sometimes you just need that cinematic nudge. I don’t want to overplay it though: if you’re bored by the film, the ending won’t suddenly turn you around. But this is stark, emotional, yearning, bleak at times but absolutely masterful filmmaking.

There’s a desire for human connection that runs through it, and there’s sometimes a paucity of connection too. There’s a weariness to some of these women, and for good reasons, but there’s nothing forced about the way it unfolds. I had felt initially that Michelle Williams wasn’t quite ‘right’ as a mother, but now I think that feeling was a response to her role and the way she played it: lacking support from her (cheating) husband and teenage daughter, why shouldn’t she be cagy?

No, this is fantastic stuff, up there with Meek’s Cutoff, and I’ll happily see it again. [****½]

Criterion Sunday 96: Written on the Wind (1956)

Of all Sirk’s vibrantly-coloured over-the-top domestic melodramas of passionate lives curtailed by societal mores, for me Written on the Wind is the very finest. It sets up its privileged setting and protagonists over the opening credits: the Hadley family mansion in small-town Texas, where dissolute son Kyle (Robert Stack) and wayward daughter Marylee (Dorothy Malone) fight over the affections of stolid lower-class boy Mitch (Rock Hudson), an engineer who works for their oil tycoon dad, and has been friends with them all his life. Lauren Bacall plays Lucy, an advertising executive who gets married to Kyle and is able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint on the tumultuous story, but really this is about that three-way relationship triangle between the Hadleys and Mitch. This means that the homoerotic readings are certainly available, and there’s plenty of play with phallic imagery (Marylee caressing a model of an oil well is only the most memorable of many), but it all operates on that coyly suggestive level typical of the repressed 1950s. Malone won an Academy Award, but in retrospect her performance seems the very hammiest of the lot. That said, it works well within the film’s seething context, so perhaps those 50s Academy voters were just more aware of the many ironic levels of interpretation on offer here. It’s a masterpiece, in any case, and I love it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Douglas Sirk | Writer George Zuckerman (based on the novel by Robert Wilder) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 21 July 1999 (also on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 91: The Blob (1958)

Criterion occasionally pulls out a vaguely exploitational B-movie from the vaults, and this is no less enjoyable than, say, Carnival of Souls or Blood for Dracula, and hinges on a similarly low-budget aesthetic that maximimises the scares by only obliquely referring to the terror at its heart. In this case, it’s the gelatinous threat of the title, and the film’s unsurprisingly hokey effects are pushed into the background by a story that focuses on “teen” couple Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) and their friends in a close-knit small town. The teenagers aren’t the wild rebels that Corman had started to capitalise on earlier in the decade, but largely conservative law-abiding ones (they do all look firmly in their 30s, to be fair), and occasional moments of tension between them and the authorities are quickly subsumed by a shared desire to defeat the unknown threat. You get the sense, given the era, that this is allegorising any number of things, but most notably the Red Scare of Communism, meaning its outcome may never be in question but the ending has an amusingly provisional quality. Of course, if you remember anything, it’s likely to be the jaunty and goofy Burt Bacharach-penned title tune.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. | Writers Kay Linakar [as “Kate Phillips”] and Theodore Simonson (based on an idea by Irvine H. Millgate) | Cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding | Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 76: Brief Encounter (1945)

As a classic story of doomed love and repressed emotions, Brief Encounter leads in a direct line to an entire strand of English heritage filmmaking (not least plenty of Merchant-Ivory productions), but that’s no reason to dismiss it. Its structure — which loops back from the lovers’ final meeting to recounting their relationship in full — is also recalled by my recent favourite Carol, for example, both films very much grounded in a sense of the period and the way social structures control the expression of desire. In Brief Encounter‘s case, it’s the tail end of World War II (though that conflict is never mentioned, so we can assume it’s an imagined post-war world), and the repression comes from the intersection of social class and the institution of marriage. Celia Johnson’s Laura is a bored, solidly middle-class, housewife who comes into Milford every Thursday to do the shopping and catch a film, while Alec (Trevor Howard) is a married doctor who’s been posted to Milford one day a week, and by chance they meet in the railway station’s refreshment room as they wait for their respective trains home. They strike up a friendship, go to lunch and the movies together, and within only a few weeks are parting again rather painfully, by now clear about their love for one another. There’s a parallel storyline in the refreshment room involving its manager Myrtle (Joyce Carey) and station attendant Albert (Stanley Holloway), who being working-class are far less circumspect in expressing their feelings, though the film avoids too much heavy-handedness in the comparison. Indeed, it largely remains very controlled and understated, with the possible exception of Laura’s yearning voiceover, which seems a bit overdetermined to modern sensibilities. David Lean keeps expressive control over the camera, with a few little flourishes, such as the opening shot introducing the lovers over the shoulders of Myrtle and Albert, as well as a canted camera angle as Laura is swept into a moment of suicidal panic. It all seems dreadfully English, really, but I suppose it captures something within the spirit of the middle-classes, a certain resignation to the unexceptional.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean | Writers Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean and Ronald Neame (based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward) [uncredited] | Cinematographer Robert Krasker | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Tuesday 7 August 2007 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 24 January 2016)

Criterion Sunday 75: Chasing Amy (1997)

I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith | Cinematographer David Klein | Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee | Length 113 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016)

Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015)

Hirokazu Koreeda makes delicate small-scale films, often about familial relationships, and that’s certainly the case here, which as the English title indicates is about a group of sisters. That’s not to say the film is devoid of men, just that it’s very much focused on the sisters and their relationships with one another, and very little with their relationships outside the family unit. Indeed, despite some discussions from the middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) about moving on, the three of them still live together in their childhood home in their small seaside home town. When they go to the funeral of their father (who left them when they were young), they meet his teenage daughter Suzu (Suzu Hirose), and she moves in to the sisters’ home for a bit. The film depicts quite a bit of fluidity to familial relationships beyond the stable nuclear family unit, without pushing it too strongly, and indeed most of the film’s revelations are very much underplayed. That said, it’s not without sentimentality (it has a tone not too far from the director’s 2011 film I Wish), but it doesn’t wallow egregiously in this. It’s a comedic film not in the sense of being filled with jokes (there is some gentle humour), but because you swiftly get a sense that nothing really bad is going to happen to the family as long as these sisters stick together. This does mean that the narrative has a meandering aspect that never quite resolves on any particular moment of drama or crisis, but then again it’s never exactly boring either. A quiet mood piece, then, and rather a delightful one.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda (based on the graphic novel by Akimi Yoshida) | Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto | Starring Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 18 April 2016

Three Italian Giallo Films

I may have lived almost half my life (obviously this is a vague metric, but let’s be optimistic and just assume 40 is a median), much of it as an ardent fan of cinema, yet there are vast swathes of the seventh art which have passed me by. One such blindspot is the horror genre, and of this the so-called giallo films of Italian cinema (the word means “yellow”, from the covers to the pulp crime novels popular in the country at the time) are a particular mystery: for all their exploitational slasher origins, many of them are highly praised by critics for their artistic and narrative playfulness (as much as they are decried for their lapses into misogyny, though this could equally apply to much of slasher horror, surely). Directors like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava are frequently cited, the baroque titles of whose opuses have long taken up a small corner of my brain, even as I’ve never seen any of them. Therefore, I thought it only sensible to accept a recent opportunity offered by a horror-cinema-loving friend to visit and watch a number of these films back-to-back, with appropriate food, drink and enthusiastic company.

The pretense for this event was my friend Matthew coming across a film called Death Laid an Egg (1968) deep in Jean-Louis Trintignant’s filmography, and indeed this is the oldest (and perhaps oddest) of the three films we watched. It also has the most bankable stars of the three, with Trintignant and Italian actor (and 50s sex symbol) Gina Lollobrigida both receiving starring roles. In some ways, it seems to fit in more closely with trends in European art cinema, taking its cues as much from Michelangelo Antonioni’s architecturally-framed elliptical modernist narratives on the one hand and trippy, hippy late-60s head films on the other, as much as from traditional horror or crime genre tropes. It also features less overt violence towards women than the other films, though the staging of the opening shots does strongly imply that Trintignant’s poultry farmer Marco has a penchant for murdering prostitutes, which is the motivation for a plot against him and his wife Anna (Lollobrigida) by his cousin Gabri (Ewa Aulin). The idea of Trintignant and Lollobrigida as farmers isn’t in the end as absurd as that may seem, for the film is interested in a more coldly futuristic idea of the role, manipulating genetics and engineering the perfect animal from a lab, rather than mucking out cages or suchlike. The latter stages of the narrative are all set out in a rather maddeningly opaque way, such that it’s easy to miss some of the final revelations, but as a whole the film is nicely controlled.

More traditional, then, is Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), another rather oblique title which hints at perversions in its small-town Italian setting. A number of boys have been murdered, and a big-city reporter, Andrea (Tomas Milian), comes to town, with his tight jeans and archetypal 70s moustache, digging into the events. The film offers a number of possible suspects for the murders, including a mysterious witch-like woman (Florinda Bolkan), a hermit, a simpleton and a young priest, amongst others. The film is pretty sharp on indicting religious-based repression and the power of the local church and police authorities to turn local anger into murderous vendettas. It also gets over a good sense of atmosphere for its story, with outbreaks of gory violence to move things along.

However, best of the lot is the now-admired and acknowledged classic Profondo rosso (or Deep Red, 1975) directed by Dario Argento, towards the end of the first classic period of giallo filmmaking. A recent Blu-ray edition captures the beautiful cinematography of this slow-building mood piece, which features recurring sequences languidly panning across mysterious items in extreme close-up, not to mention an unfussy set design with a bar right out of Edward Hopper. The plot has jazz musician Marcus (David Hemmings from Blow-up) investigating a gory murder of a psychic, and his ensuing chase folds in all kinds of supernatural mystery to tinge the horror premise. Indeed, there’s a prominent role for a particularly spooky house which hides dark secrets (as such houses always seem to do). Despite its length, it all moves along without excessive flab, albeit taking its time to build up the eerie atmosphere nicely. It’s one of the few horror films I’ve seen that even I feel would repay multiple viewings, but Argento is clearly well in control of his craft by this time. A high point for Italian cinema of the 1970s.


La morte ha fatto l'uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

La morte ha fatto l’uovo (Death Laid an Egg, 1968)
Director Giulio Questi | Writers Franco Arcalli and Giulio Questi | Cinematographer Dario Di Palma | Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Gina Lollobrigida, Ewa Aulin | Length 90 minutes

Non si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling, 1972)
Director Lucio Fulci | Writers Gianfranco Clerici, Lucio Fulci and Roberto Gianviti | Cinematographer Sergio D’Offizi | Starring Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Florinda Bolkan | Length 102 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016

Profondo rosso (Deep Red, 1975)
Director Dario Argento | Writers Dario Argento and Bernardino Zapponi | Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller | Starring David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi | Length 126 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, Leighton Buzzard, Saturday 27 February 2016