Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Criterion Sunday 435: The Furies (1950)

One of the things I love about this era of filmmaking is that the great stars were just these unassailable icons, and questions about how old the character they were portraying should have been (a lot younger) or how believable their relationship was with the inevitably dull and rather wooden guy cast opposite as the romantic lead (not particularly compelling) fade away almost to irrelevance. The fact — the only salient fact — is that Barbara Stanwyck is in charge here, and she’ll let you know it, like Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar a few years later: an icon. As it is here, another moral might be: don’t name your New Mexico landholding after vengeful characters of Greek mythology, because surely someone will be punished and it’s likely to be the one hubristic enough to have chosen the name, though in fact there’s just a lot of punishment to go round here and the look of the film emphasises that, all glowering monochrome skies weighing heavy on the actors. This is, looking back, a great film, more interested in the character dynamics between father and daughter than in the weedy guy (Wendell Corey) who for all his relatively young years when this film was made still somehow seems too old, too conservative, too boring for someone as flashy a character as Stanwyck’s Vance (though she is older). Luckily the father is played by veteran Walter Huston, in his last screen role, and the sparring between them is the core of the film, driving the narrative and providing plenty of fodder for the avenging deities to work with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Mann; Writer Charles Schnee (based on the novel by Niven Busch); Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 30 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 416: Fröken Julie (Miss Julie, 1951)

I’ve actually seen this Strindberg adaptation before (16 years ago), and I’ve seen others too, but I don’t really retain anything of it, perhaps because I don’t particularly get on with the text. It feels a little bit pointedly about the terrible toll that an interest in women’s rights might get you to from a tut-tutting older Swedish man, and that may be a little unfair, but at the very least it’s certainly melodramatic. That said, this film is a stylish adaptation at times, which takes the play and interleaves past and present in an almost modernist way. This is most evident when the camera sweeps around from the present to the past in a single fluid motion, as the title character recalls her unhappy childhood and her fiercely independent mother, who is seen framed by flames with a wry smile on her face at one memorable point. Then there’s Julie’s romance with the groom, Jean (Ulf Palme), a mere servant though splendidly attired, which starts out flirtatiously but eventually descends into all the metaphorical angst in the world (caged and crushed songbirds, grand paintings collapsing on our leading man, flames and madness licking around this rotten world). There’s certainly stuff to like here, and Anita Björk gives an impressively imperious performance, but it’s Strindberg’s vision of the world that probably puts me off.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Alf Sjöberg (based on the play by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Göran Strindberg; Starring Anita Björk, Ulf Palme, Märta Dorff; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 17 April 2005 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 18 April 2021).

LFF 2020: خط فرضی Khate Farzi (180° Rule, 2020)

Another of the MENA film selections, from Iran, a country with a strong film culture and a number of contemporary women filmmakers. I didn’t perhaps love this the most, mainly because it’s a tough watch and quite a wrenching and tragic story, but it has real filmmaking chops.


There is a lot of crying in this film, not least because it takes a trajectory of family tragedy, compounded by illiberal patriarchal restrictions which filter through a number of characters within the film. It’s difficult to always follow the contortions that mother Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) goes to in order to maintain her status in her husband’s (Pejman Jamshidi) eyes after the tragedy strikes, but you get that they are grounded in a sense of shock or hopelessness. There are no rewards at the end, and even a brief detente seems to lead into further spiralling guilt on the mother’s behalf. However, it’s all shot in elegant widescreen and is put together nicely, enough I think to allow you to follow Sara even in her darker moments.

180° Rule film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Farnoosh Samadi فرنوش صمدی; Cinematographer Masoud Salami مسعود سلامی; Starring Sahar Dolatshahi سحر دولتشاهی, Pejman Jamshidi پژمان جمشیدی; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)

There’s a lot of great Japanese cinema of the past and most of the famous names kept up a prodigious output of films, of which only a handful of ‘masterworks’ tend to get any kind of release (at least in the West). The great director Mikio Naruse, for example, has one film in the Criterion collection (1960’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs) as well as an Eclipse boxset of his four surviving silent films from the early-1930s, but otherwise is only known for a few 1950s films like Sound of the Mountain and Floating Clouds. However, given he made around 3-5 films every year, as you can see on his filmography, there’s a lot to watch and very few places to do so. Luckily, some kind soul has thought to upload a number of them to YouTube, albeit in fairly poor video quality (presumably from VHS rips), of which I’ve already reviewed one film, the biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936). I would love to see Naruse’s work on the big screen in a retrospective, but even Kurosawa rarely gets this kind of treatment so I suspect my chance to do so will be a long time coming (if I haven’t missed it already). In the meantime, here are a few of those 1930s sound films.

Continue reading “Three Films from the 1930s by Mikio Naruse: Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935), The Road I Travel with You (1936) and Avalanche (1937)”

Criterion Sunday 297: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).

LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)

My first day of four films was day five of the festival, which I started with an archive screening of a new restoration of Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity, with an alternative ending sequence thrown in at the end (wisely ditched from the original film in my opinion), then a new British film introduced by its director, a Tunisian-French co-production with a star more familiar with French cinema, and finally the last screening of Rose Plays Julie, part of the official competition, and a striking Irish film which bristles with technical sophistication.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Five: Sweet Charity (1969), Make Up, A Son and Rose Plays Julie (all 2019)”

Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.

Miss Julie (2014)

It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.

Miss Julie film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.

Honeytrap (2014)

I’m a sucker for a good film set in London, and as someone who’s lived in Brixton earlier in my life, I found this story (which is set there) fascinating. That said, I don’t think its appeal is just to locals. Its themes are familiar: it’s a fish out of water story (our heroine Layla, played by the wonderful Jessica Sula) has just arrived in London from Trinidad; it’s a coming of age (she’s 15 and falling in love); and it deals with disaffected gangs of urban youth. Yet the film is careful not to just play on some sense of a threatening racialised Other — this is a community, and if Layla’s mother is wary and stand-offish, there’s a sense of bonding amongst the teenagers. And while their environment may be one of post-war council estates, these aren’t shown as dangerous concreted wastelands, but simply as the homes they were built to be. The film follows Layla, and the central drama is between her and two boys: the no-good yet effortlessly cool rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount), and her friendly classmate Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza). The antagonism between the boys, as well as Troy’s behaviour when he’s around his male friends and their casual sexism, is conveyed very well, and while Layla is in many ways strong-willed, she finds it difficult all the same to avoid the trap of a bad relationship, which is the tragedy the film moves towards. Stylistically, the film leans heavily on an elegiac aesthetic, with plentiful use of orchestral music to replace diegetic sound, not to mention slow-motion filming, which perhaps takes away some of the visceral sting from the characters’ actions at times, but gives the film a polished sheen. This is definitely a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on. Rebecca Johnson is in excellent control of her young actors and the way that the drama unfolds on screen, and Honeytrap suggests the possibilities still inherent in local stories.

Honeytrap film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rebecca Johnson; Cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe; Starring Jessica Sula, Lucien Laviscount, Ntonga Mwanza; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Sunday 10 May 2015.