Criterion Sunday 153: Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (General Idi Amin Dada, 1974)

An odd documentary, with a double focus. On the one hand this is the Ugandan dictator’s film, as he gives directions to the camera and stages scenes, rambles on about his political philosophy and shows all the strings to his bow — political speechmaker, military commander (in a particularly underwhelming run-through of a prospective attack on Israel), tour guide to the African wildlife, and even accordion player. The other side of the film is Barbet Schroeder’s inserts, a pre-credits sequence of mass killings, a mention during a particular grumpy meeting that Amin holds with the foreign ministry that the minister was found dead a few weeks later, questions about his views on Hitler after producing a letter sent to the IOC following Munich. It’s chilling in its way, this genial fool and the damage and death he caused, but always relevant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Barbet Schroeder | Cinematographer Néstor Almendros | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 April 2017

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As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Miguel Gomes | Writers Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla) | Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom | Starring Crista Alfaiate | Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3]

King Lear (1987)

It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.

Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.


King Lear (1987)

RETROSPECTIVE FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016

King Lear (1987)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare) | Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux | Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard | Length 90 minutes

Meetin’ WA (1986)
Director Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli | Length 26 minutes

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.


© BIM Distribuzione

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher | Cinematographer Hélène Louvart | Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015

Argerich (aka Bloody Daughter, 2012)

The family documentary film is a popular genre, and if you have an interesting story to tell, a rewarding one — after all, being related to the subject gives you somewhat privileged access. In this case, photographer Stéphanie Argerich focuses her camera on her famous mother, the concert pianist Martha Argerich, who was born in Argentina but since relocated to Europe. Given the point of view, there’s plenty of detail about Argerich’s relationships and children (Stéphanie’s sisters, the first of whom was raised more or less as an orphan, and only re-entered their lives later on). Through it, one gets the sense of Martha’s single-minded focus on her art — something of an occupational hazard at this level of musical achievement — and her prickliness when she’s the centre of attention. Both as a public figure and as a mother she comes across as uncompromising, but not aloof. To be honest, not being a classical music fan, I didn’t know Argerich’s name, but the archival footage of her is quite astounding, and it seems from what we see that her playing has only become quicker and more forceful with age. However unforced and verité it appears from the handheld camerawork, it’s clearly a carefully structured film, and presents an interesting story from a well-connected viewpoint, incidentally imparting a sense of the peripatetic lifestyle of the concert pianist.


© Idéale Audience/Intermezzo Films

FILM REVIEW
Director Stéphanie Argerich | Cinematographers Stéphanie Argerich and Luc Peter | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 July 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria (aka Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.


© Les Films du Losange

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas | Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux | Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz | Length 123 minutes || Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015

My Name Is Salt (2013)

In many ways, it’s documentary films which prove there are still plenty of stories to tell in the world and plenty of ways to depict them. This particular documentary seems at first glance to be rather slight — watching as a family arrive in an arid desert and, before the land is drowned once again during the monsoon season, go through an eight-month cycle of preparing, making and harvesting salt. There is no voiceover or contextualisation (aside from some paragraphs at the end of the film), so as viewers we must rely on what we pick up from what the family say as they’re working and what we see happening. For the first half-hour or so it’s not even clear what exactly is going on, as they seem to be just mucking around in the dirt and mud. However, in a series of landscape tableaux interspersed with close-ups of weather-beaten faces and small domestic scenes, it all builds rather neatly and affectingly, with some breathtaking and beautiful images captured on film. The measured structure allows us to slowly get a sense of the sheer physical extent of these salt beds, and the exhausting work required to make and harvest such a seemingly plentiful and ubiquitous product.


© Leafbird Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Farida Pacha | Cinematographer Lutz Konermann | Length 92 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 22 March 2015

LFF: Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014)

In writing about the most recent film I’d seen of director Jean-Luc Godard’s (Film socialisme, 2010), I tried to convey a sense that assigning a star-rating to it was largely futile. Godard’s practice by this point is increasingly experimental and beyond the bounds of conventional film narrative, moreso even than in his 60s heyday. So those who’ve seen anything he’s done in the last ten years won’t be surprised by Adieu au langage, just as it’s likely that those who only know him from his 60s pop-cultural pomp will recoil in horror. There’s still some of the same playfulness at work, such as when the film’s title pops up periodically as “AH DIEUX / OH LANGAGE”, or the repeated footage of a cheerful dog (Roxy, the real star of the film), or the title card with the word “2D” in the background and “3D” looming out front. For indeed, this film is in 3D, but pushed to its limits as grainy handheld video footage butts up against recycled film clips and more studied compositions. What narrative there is features a couple who fight and bicker, both of them often in a state of partial undress, but it’s very much just telegraphed hints towards Godard’s themes at this point. There’s a two-part structure, “nature” and “metaphor”, and the mood (as the most recent Godard films have been) is strongly elegiac — a goodbye not just to words but to a filmic language too, perhaps. You may love it, you may hate it, but you will probably still feel provoked and more than a little confused.


© Wild Bunch

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Fabrice Aragno | Starring Héloise Godet | Length 70 minutes || Seen at BFI Imax [3D], London, Monday 13 October 2014

My Rating 3 stars good

Golden Eighties (aka Window Shopping, 1986)

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 17 July 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pari Films

As the apparently-forbidding auteur of such austere 1970s masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, the last thing you might expect Belgian director Chantal Akerman to do is a musical, but that’s exactly what she did in the mid-1980s, even prefacing it with a work-in-progress feature of the same scenario called Les Années 80 (The Eighties, 1983). Of course, it may be somewhat unsurprising that the resulting product hardly throws its arms round the generic clichés of the musical romance, but it certainly shows an awareness of them. If it has a line of descent, it would be Golden Era Hollywood filtered via French director Jacques Demy (of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg fame). There’s a quotidian drabness to these shopworkers, almost entirely confined to a subterranean shopping centre, where Jeanne Schwartz (Delphine Seyrig) and her husband run a fashion boutique opposite a well-staffed hair salon belonging to the flirtatious Lili (Fanny Cottençon), while between them is Sylvie (Myriam Boyer) and her small bar which in the opening number almost seems to entrap her. There’s also a similar eye for the brightly-coutured; where Demy’s most famous film’s credit sequence opens with a top-down shot of umbrellas passing, here we get a ground-level shot of women’s feet moving briskly across the imitation-marble floor of the mall.

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Sicilia! (1999)


FILM REVIEW || Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the novel Conversazione in Sicilia by Elio Vittorini) | Cinematographer William Lubtchansky | Starring Gianni Buscarino | Length 64 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Pierre Grise

If you’ve been brought up on the action-oriented three-act-structured cinema of the classical Hollywood tradition with its star systems and psychological characterisation, then moving into the world of avant-garde European auteurism — with its loose sense of narrative structure and causation, and its use of non-professional actors — can sometimes prove difficult. I must say that I’ve been trying to watch films like this one for years with middling success, and the sense not that the films are bad as that I am not equal to enjoying them.

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