Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

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La flor (2018)

There’s nothing out at the end of this week in UK cinemas that’s inspiring me to any themed week so I thought I’d return to some of the ones I’ve already done with follow-up reviews. I’ll start with my South American cinema week, which was on the occasion of the (necessarily limited) cinematic release of La flor. I spent three nights in a cinema for this one, so here is my review.


I can’t say if this movie is good in any traditional sense, but I suppose by the end of any 14 hour movie, anyone is likely to be a little unclear on critical categories, though the fact this is out there is in a sense worth more than any individual detail within it. It’s also not a film in which the visual style is its most important feature. The director, for example, is overly fond of shots with a shallow depth of focus, as figures move blurrily into the foreground. It’s also frequently discursive, sometimes in ways that are a little dull — I may have nodded off once or twice. The third episode out of six, for example, takes up the entirety of the second part (over five hours), itself split into three and then with countless other sub-headings as its spy genre drama flits between countries, and back and forth in time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a film that, at a formal level, is clearly intended to be screened (as I saw it) over three nights. Its director, Mariano Llinás, pops up in little interstitial scenes in each of its three parts, and makes reference not just to where we are within each part, but elaborates the overall structure via messy handwritten notes in his diary. He has a trolling sensibility too elsewhere, as quite aside from the (surely almost mandatory) scenes of characters relieving themselves deep into the epic runtime, he opens one section with loud snoring, cuts out the sound entirely for another episode, deploys ostentatious dubbing for foreign voices even while clearly using Argentinean actors (to our ears the American and British ones seem particularly ill-suited to their actors, and that’s quite aside from the presence of Margaret Thatcher as a character), he fiddles with the light levels even while a scene is playing out (rendering the subtitles briefly unreadable), and seems to have flies stuck to the camera lens at one point. In fact, episode four is structured around a paranormal investigator trying to understand the director’s own notebook, after an extensive sequence of him (played by an actor) dragging his forlorn crew around filming a drama about some trees.

Whatever else it might be, though, this is a film that is in love with the act of storytelling. Rivette’s Out 1 may be an obvious reference point in terms of not just a focus on acting (here the same four women play roles in all but one of the film’s six episodes), but also its use of secret societies and shady cabals pulling strings behind the scenes. However, La flor is mainly just obsessed with weaving plots, and Llinás uses genre cues to set them up, whether the long, tortuous espionage plot of the third episode (with flashbacks and sub-plots for each of its spies), the supernatural mummy of the first, or the fetching story of two singers who have divorced but still work together, intercut with a secret society working on a deadly scorpion poison, though at two days remove I can no longer remember quite how that works into the story of the singers. That said, none of the first four episodes have much of a resolution: the point, really, is in the telling of the stories, not where they go.

The lack of resolution, which the director’s diagrams suggest may be solved in the final two episodes, but these — which only come in the final couple of hours (a good half hour of which is taken up by the credits) — may prove to be unsatisfactory for those who have stuck out 12 hours in the hope that it will all come together. No, what this is all about is just a love of narrative and of acting, and the various ways that all of these roles and stories can be reconfigured and recombined. It’s perfectly happy along the way to poke fun at itself — the way his four leading ladies (witches, briefly, in episode 4) react to the idea that they might have to do another episode in French after the epic episode 3 (in which they play French-speaking spies) is particularly great, but then the film is filled with throwaway moments of fine acting and self-effacing humour. I can’t tell you that you’ll find it thrilling or promise 14 hours of non-stop fun, but it does have its rewards, and it’s clearly not willing to compromise either.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Mariano Llinás; Cinematographer Agustín Mendilaharzu; Starring Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, Laura Paredes; Length 807 minutes (not including intermissions).
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 13, Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 September 2019.

Criterion Sunday 224: Pickup on South Street (1953)

Sam Fuller had made a few movies by the time he made this, so he had started to hone his style a little, enough to make this fantastic, concise film noir about a man who pickpockets the wrong woman and finds himself mixed up with international espionage and Communist agents. The dialogue rattles off with all the appropriate relish, and it has a particularly great role for Thelma Ritter as an ageing stoolpigeon, sharing information to the highest bidder with a devil-may-care abandon — though even she has lines she won’t cross, and the Red Menace is one of them (well, it is a film from McCarthy’s 1950s, after all). Jean Peters is an actor who should have been in a lot more films, and the look of both her and the film is a constant delight, with the high-contrast monochrome photography affording the city a lustrous splendour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.

Criterion Sunday 163: Hopscotch (1980)

It’s difficult in our techno-spy thriller era to take seriously such a bumbling joking character as Walter Matthau’s CIA agent here, Miles Kendig. He’s running rings around his bureaucratic superiors (most notably Ned Beatty antagonist Myerson), but I’m not sure it is always believable. It’s more akin to a comedic farce really, likeable I suppose and impossible to really hate, but very much of its time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writers Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (based on the novel by Garfield); Cinematographers Arthur Ibbetson and Brian W. Roy; Starring Walter Matthau, Glenda Jackson, Sam Waterston, Ned Beatty; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 July 2017.

Criterion Sunday 137: Notorious (1946)

Top Hitchcockery here from the master of morally-dubious controlling men — and all the men really are very bad people (Cary Grant as government agent Devlin included, handsome a figure though he may be). Ingrid Bergman is lovely even as the daughter of a Nazi enlisted to spy on her father’s friends, and proves you don’t have to have done much to have a reputation. Then again, perhaps it is more than just she who befits the film’s title. She also brushes past all the insinuations with aplomb, at least until she cannot. Plenty of great but unostentatious camerawork and thrills aplenty, especially in an excellent wine cellar scene.

2019 UPDATE: Seeing this again on a big screen in a new restoration really underscores how excellent this film is, not just in the fluid use of the camera (there are some remarkable sequences) but also the way that actors and performance come together so well. Ingrid Bergman is trapped between two controlling men: she loves one (Cary Grant’s Devlin) but he knows that to be an effective asset she needs to sleep with the Nazi (Claude Rains as Sebastian). Much of this internal struggle is conveyed by glances and brief touches, but it’s perfectly clear at all times how the dynamics are working. And then there are all the supporting cast, moments of high camp harnessed into this taut moral psychodrama. My favourite gesture was the way that Sebastian’s mother lights a cigarette when she finds out her daughter-in-law is a spy, almost post-coital, but there are these touches throughout. The cinematography sparkles too, though at times the restoration feels almost too pristine (especially when there’s back projection of the Brazilian setting). Anyway, a grand achievement, one of Hitchcock’s finest.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writer Ben Hecht; Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff; Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 December 2016, and since then at the Watershed, Bristol, Thursday 26 July 2019.

Jason Bourne (2016)

Paul Greengrass is a good filmmaker and has a stylish command of the visual vocabulary of film — he’s done great work on the two previous instalments of this spy series, not least. It’s just that other pesky vocabulary — which is to say, the words the characters speak, their motivations, that sort of thing — which seems to elude him here somewhat. Coming after a previous non-Damon outing with Jeremy Renner, I never found this latest instalment of the Bourne series boring, but it’s very silly, and the very quality that is supposed to differentiate Bourne, of being recognisably grounded in our world, seems to slip away. Granted we get a few mentions of Edward Snowden, but otherwise characters do the same stupid things they do in countless other spy thrillers, like hacking into networks where covert operations are held in a file folder on the CIA mainframe called “BLACK OPS”, calling out to “ENHANCE!” grainy photos, saying “Let’s use SQL to hack into their system!” Computers do all kinds of whizzy things that just don’t ring true at any level, and character motivations seem flimsy at best, though at least some of the other details of setting have a certain feeling of authenticity, not least the opening sequence at an Athens anti-austerity protest. Moving from this, we get the usual Bourne stuff of whizzing about from location to world location, making deals, stabbing and backstabbing, running and shooting, and all that stuff. It’s all done fine on screen — as I said initially, with plenty of visual flair — it’s just a pity it had to be so stupid.

Jason Bourne film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Greengrass; Writers Greengrass and Christopher Rouse; Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd; Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 27 July 2016.

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.

Despite the Falling Snow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel); Cinematographer David Johnson; Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016.

Criterion Sunday 56: The 39 Steps (1935)

It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. It’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan); Cinematographer Bernard Knowles; Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 2015.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?

Bridge of Spies film posterCREDITS
Director Steven Spielberg; Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015.

1971 (2014)

The rise of the surveillance state has been a fertile area for films in recent years, following Wikileaks revelations and, more potently, the cache of information provided by Edward Snowden. This was most memorably covered in Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, and many of the crew for that (including Poitras as producer) are involved with this documentary looking back at an important historical precedent. Of course, as we’ve seen in plenty of paranoid thrillers of that era, the 1970s — riven particularly by opposition to the unpopular war in Vietnam — was another great time for questioning the liberties taken by the government, and the surveillance that was done back then was similar in certain aspects to intelligence programmes relaunched after 9/11. Perhaps the one with the most lasting fame was COINTELPRO (for Counter-Intelligence Programme), involving the systematic undermining of largely political targets by the FBI in ways that were entirely illegal. As 1971 makes clear, the revelation of this programme was largely due to the break-in to a small FBI office by a group of anti-war protestors in 1971, who for the first time appear on camera to tell their story. What’s affecting about it is that all of those involved are now in their 60s, with respectable jobs and families, who were acting out of disgust at the ways the US government was operating in the 1970s. In these reflective interviews, some of the participants waver in their youthful beliefs, but one couple at the centre of the break-in were very conscious of putting their whole family in jeopardy, and this comes to be the emotional core of the film in a way. At the same time, all the information which they revealed about the FBI’s operations of the time (still an organisation run by the feared J. Edgar Hoover) remains fascinating as an archival glimpse into fairly recent history.

1971 film poster CREDITS
Director Johanna Hamilton; Writers Hamilton and Gabriel Rhodes; Cinematographers Andreas Burgess and Kirsten Johnson; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 14 June 2015.