It’s another week where I suspect most of us are still stuck at home, and it’s looking like it’s going to stretch on. I’m taking a new tack with my themed weeks. Rather than focus on films I’ve seen on various online streaming services I’m already subscribed to (Netflix and Mubi in past weeks), I’m highlighting films available on other streaming services — or at least films for which I’ve not yet posted a review here. I’ll start with the BFI Player, which as a branch of an official national institute to support film and the moving image, has plenty of free programmes of largely archival and historical interest, many of which are fascinating. They also (for UK citizens) have a subscription service that seems like pretty good value (£5 a month, with a 14 day free trial period), as well as offering a range of straight rental titles (which as far as I can tell are separate from the ones available to subscribers). There’s also a special section of LGBTQI+ titles because the BFI Flare Film Festival was supposed to be finishing yesterday, but sadly was not able to go ahead. Some of the new films are being presented online, so maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial and review one or two of those if I can. In the meantime, here’s one of the big British success stories of last year.
The title Bait suggests a creature feature, and the way it looks suggests something with a real experimental edge (it reminded me a little of Rey, another recent film with a very textural and worn sense of film stock, despite being screened digitally). However, once you get over that initial shock, it’s actually an engaging drama. Still it’s quite a shock: there’s the obvious worn and scratchy black-and-white celluloid look but it’s combined with a very confrontational soundtrack in which all the sounds (of feet walking down the street, and the dialogue too) seem somehow abstracted and overlaid onto the image in a way that only heightens the constructedness of the enterprise. And then there’s the editing, which aggressively cross-cuts between different actions both at the same time and in the past/future, and the soundscapes, which constantly suggest the imminence of violence through scraping and dissonance. However, for all this, the drama remains focused on a small fishing village in Cornwall which is undergoing an unpleasant (and sadly, in our times, unavoidable) bout of gentrification. Our lead character Martin (Edward Rowe) has sold his family’s home to a posh couple with an utterly awful son (the daughter is less terrible), who’ve done it up and are letting out the loft to holidaymakers. At every stage, their sense of entitlement butts up against the traditions of the village and the family, a legacy of fishing and living off the sea, that Martin is desperately trying to maintain despite dwindling money. It’s a singular and fascinating film that really stands out thanks to its odd production, but it tells a classic story of precarity and gentrification that’s all too familiar.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Mark Jenkin; Starring Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 30 August 2019.
Everything being well, this is a film I should have seen in a cinema two weeks ago, but I returned from holiday on Friday 13th, just on the cusp of the COVID-19 crisis, and sticking around in a central London cinema didn’t seem particularly sensible, and would increasingly seem less so up until the point cinemas closed a few days later. Well, it’s on Mubi now, where everyone can watch it — and I might add, without wishing to become some kind of sponsored content, that for UK viewers they currently have a deal to get three months for £1 so you have no excuse if you want to see this and some of the other films I’ve written about (there are also seasons dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, Park Chan-wook, Jean-Luc Godard, not to mention new films by filmmakers I don’t know yet but soon will). Mendonça Filho’s debut film Neighbouring Sounds, the one he made before Aquarius, is also there, and I feel like that’ll be another one I’ll check out soon.
There is no shortage of art dealing with the sometimes brutal intersection between the fast pace of modernity and traditional communities usually left unsupported by government and big business. In a sense, that’s what this film is dealing with, using a sort of generic template that traces its lineage back to The Most Dangerous Game or alternatively to 60s acid westerns (there is some ingestion of psychotropic drugs towards the end, but it’s not filmed in a trippy way). The first half of the film is about the little titular village in the outback of Brazil, tracing the family dynamics and the local life, which has been upturned by the death of one of its elder citizens. Right from the start there are these little clues towards the upheavals to come, such as the way the town has disappeared from Google maps, and the arrival of a mayoral candidate from a (disliked) local town sparks the ire of the locals, who are very efficient at hiding themselves away in a hurry (this becomes a plot point later on). Thus when Udo Kier and his gang of ne’er-do-wells arrives on the scene, we’re primed for something odd to happen and things slide downhill pretty quick, as the body count racks up. It’s brutal and gory in its way, but it’s also a film that’s angry about governments and about technology and about Western capitalism and probably also pretty angry about Bolsonaro and his ilk. And it’s an anger that will probably percolate for a while through the cinema of many nations now finding themselves perched precariously on the edge of this kind of rapacious economic system.
Directors/Writers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles; Cinematographer Pedro Sotero; Starring Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Udo Kier, Sônia Braga; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 26 March 2020.
Of the various strands of films that Mubi regularly presents, many of them are new restorations of world cinema classics, and one such was this early and key film in the development of the Iranian New Wave, The Cow. You can trace the influence from this through to many subsequent filmmakers, and there are often
Clearly, a key film in the development of Iranian cinema, such that you can easily see the throughline from this to the work of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and many others over the succeeding decades. As it is, though, The Cow is a pretty bleak parable, shot in luminous black-and-white but dealing with the death of the beloved titular companion to Masht Hasan (Ezzatollah Entezami). This event is initially covered up by the other villagers, but increasingly Mashti starts to lose his mind, as the film becomes even a little bit trippy in the way that the cow’s death starts to affect everyone. Clearly it must have struck a nerve in pre-revolutionary Iran, and was even banned for a time, suggesting that perhaps this story was smuggling in something political and satirical in its depiction of its simple-minded village folk — which wouldn’t after all be unusual for the filmmakers who followed Mehrjui.
Director/Writer Dariush Mehrjui داریوش مهرجویی; Cinematographer Fereydon Ghovanlou فریدون قوانلو; Starring Ezzatollah Entezami عزتالله انتظامی, Mahin Shahabi مهین شهابی, Ali Nassirian علی نصیریان; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.
Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.
- The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
- There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
- There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).
Jamshed Usmonov (sometimes spelled as Djamshed Usmonov) has made a small career in the Tajik film industry, which one imagines is not exactly a huge one, and parlayed it into a bit of international attention, with these small-scale dramas such as this one.
A small-town story about a low-life thug coming home to his ailing mother after 10 years in prison, in which a small boy, foisted on him as his son, somewhat plays the angel of his better nature that the title suggests. Hamro (Uktamoi Miyasarova) is a largely unrepentant character shaped by a village famed for its brutal nature, its inhabitants given few chances in life and eking out a rough existence, though he appears to soften as the film progresses. It’s dominated by long, slow takes with a watchful camera, and its characters never overstate themselves. It’s a fairly simple film, but affecting and nicely paced.
Director/Writer Jamshed Usmonov Ҷамшед Усмонов; Cinematographer Pascal Lagriffoul; Starring Uktamoi Miyasarova; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 28 March 2018.
For the next two weeks I’m in Australia, and even though I’ve already done one Australia theme week, here’s another. I probably don’t have enough films left to manage even one more week, to be honest, so I’m not sure what the theme will be next week, but here goes a few more Oz flicks.
Small town Australia in 1969 has the kind of vibe we’ve become accustomed to in American films about the 1950s, of communities made up of like-minded individuals with pent-up issues around women and racism that resolve themselves in violent, self-lacerating ways — the same director has already handled this very time period (albeit in a comedic musical format) with Bran Nue Dae (2009), while Celia (1989) deals with a similar small town vibe (albeit set in the 1950s). Jasper Jones is named after the part-Aborigine boy (played by Aaron L. McGrath) who is distrusted and blamed by most of this small community, but it’s really mostly about a kid called Charlie (Levi Miller) who gets involved with the (possible) suicide of a girl in the town, which he spends much of the movie trying to uncover the truth about. It’s a stylish evocation of a period, and is mostly very successful, with some fine filmmaking and acting (not least from the ever-reliable Toni Collette). After the initial shock of them finding the girl’s dead body, glimpsed only briefly (thankfully), the tone evens out into being a slow-burning drama about the secrets being hidden within this community. It may not perhaps be surprising, but it’s all done very well.
Director Rachel Perkins; Writers Shaun Grant and Craig Silvey (based on Silvey’s novel); Cinematographer Mark Wareham; Starring Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice, Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 22 December 2019.
It’s interesting to see some of the directions NZ film has taken, and as a showcase for a disparate range of indigenous Māori women directors, Waru is a fantastic project. It’s more cohesive than a simple anthology or portmanteau film, given it takes place over a single day and all the films deal with a single (tragic) event, but like any collection of shorts, some are better than others. Naturally, though, I hope for more from all of these directors, though it may be hard to find funding in such a small country, so I imagine many of them will see more work on TV.
I’ve seen a number of films that stitch together short films under a vague theme (the Australian film The Turning comes to mind in the last few years), but Waru has clearly considered how these separate films should come together most effectively, and all of them contribute towards a central narrative about a young boy’s death and how that affects a (largely) Māori community, and what actions need to be taken. If there are hints of a heavy-handed moral judgement guiding the story, then the filmmakers (all of them Māori women) largely manage to integrate it into the narrative very well — though for me the sequence dealing with the pākehā (white) media commentators, while understandable, didn’t quite spark as well as the other segments. Visually, the film is held together by a single cinematographer (Drew Sturge), who leans heavily on sinuous, unbroken handheld takes in some of the shorts, but elsewhere has an almost classical rhythm. There’s power to this tale which goes beyond a single-issue televisual film to speak more directly to the kind of society we want to live in.
Directors Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renae Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu Jones, Chelsea Winstanley [as “Chelsea Cohen”] and Katie Wolfe; Writers Gardiner, Kaa, Maihi, Smith, Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu, Whetu Jones and Wolfe; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Tanea Heke, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 14 May 2018.
With Agnieszka Holland’s newest film out in cinemas (I don’t imagine many of them) tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at two of her earliest films made in Poland, both of which deal with actors and (more in the latter film) their relationship to their directors. Both make for interesting portraits of the professional work of actors, not to mention a turbulent era in the country’s history.
Continue reading “Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)”
I concede this is a fairly tenuous connection to make in order to lump together reviews of these recent films by two of the most successful of recent Black women directors, but I wanted to give them some attention during my week of Black American women filmmakers, despite having reviewed already a good number of their more famous works.
Obviously Ava DuVernay has become the most well-known of the two, primarily for Selma (2014), but she made some low-key dramas like Middle of Nowhere (2012) and I Will Follow (2010) which I like even more, as well as documentaries starting with This Is the Life (2008) but recently the high-profile 13th (2016), and graduated to the big budgets with this Disney-produced fantasy adventure film.
Meanwhile, Dee Rees made a splash with one of the best coming-of-age movies of the decade, Pariah (2011), before turning her attention to the (in my opinion) underrated biopic of Bessie Smith, Bessie (2015). Her budget for her World War II-set period drama Mudbound may only have been a fairly modest US$10 million, but you can see a lot of that up on screen, one of the earlier films in Netflix’s recent run of big prestige productions which have had some crossover between online streaming and big screen presentation.
Continue reading “Two Black Women Filmmakers with a Budget: Mudbound (2017) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018)”
Lots of films are out in the UK on Friday, but one is the directorial debut of music video director Melina Matsoukas (think “Formation” by Beyoncé, for a start), called Queen & Slim. It’s had some mixed reviews from African-American critics, so I’m not the one who should best judge it, but it’s good to see more work making it to cinemas by Black American women directors. I’ve done an African-American cinema theme already, but this week is all about the women — many just starting their careers, like Nia DaCosta who directed the film I’m reviewing today — and a lot of their work (as I’ll probably cover this week) tends to make it out only on VoD or streaming platforms, if it gets any kind of release at all in the UK.
A quiet little small town drama of the type that isn’t uncommon (except perhaps in the cinema), but it’s still nice to see big stars like Tessa Thompson help to support this kind of filmmaking. It deals with a small rural community near the Canadian border, and gives a strong sense of what it’s like to eke out a living as a poor and underprivileged person in America, especially with respect to the (lack of) healthcare, which drives Thompson’s character to help smuggle drugs across the border. Nobody really wins here, as they’re all driven by desperation, but there’s compassion for these characters — especially from Thompson’s character, who despite the small-town gangster competition from Luke Kirby’s fellow grifter, is fundamentally doing what she does out of a good heart — and this is a solid little drama.
Director/Writer Nia DaCosta; Cinematographer Matt Mitchell; Starring Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 28 December 2019.