Under the Shadow (2016)

There have been a number of recent films from the Middle East that deal with living through wartime, and which employ supernatural or surreal themes, like the Syrian film The Day I Lost My Shadow. One such is strictly speaking a British film (co-produced with Jordan and Qatar), although it’s made by expatriate Iranians and set in Tehran.


This isn’t the only recent horror film to locate terror in the chador (there was vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night too), as the shadowy djinn in this film is a mysterious robed figure. It’s also not the only recent film to centre its story around a mother (hello The Babadook), also much mentioned by reviewers. So if it’s not exactly startlingly original, it’s also nice to see a horror film set in wartime Iran (the late-80s to be precise, when it was at war with Iraq). The horror thus becomes an externalisation of the terrors of that war, as well as fundamentalist post-revolutionary crackdowns on dress and on left-wing politics — our heroine Shideh (Narges Rashidi), is unable to re-enrol as a doctor after a period of seditionary political engagement, and encounters all kinds of judgement from her nosy neighbours. It has a requisite number of scary bits, but it also — and this is what I really like about the best horror films — manages to bring qualities that I love about films to the mainstream, which is to say, a sense of stillness, of suffusing quiet, of creeping dread about the world and the future. I could have happily watched 90 minutes of a woman and her daughter living by themselves in a middle-class Tehran apartment, driven slowly mad, but for the rest of you, well, there are frights and they work pretty effectively.

Under the Shadow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Babak Anvari بابک انوری; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Narges Rashidi نرگس رشیدی‎, Avin Manshadi آوین منشادی; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 4 October 2016.

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حقول الحرية Huqul Alhuriya (Freedom Fields, 2018)

Like so many in the region, Libya is a country with a troubled recent history, and so there has been little filmmaking as such from there. The documentary I cover in the review below is therefore primarily a British production by a British woman director (whose father was from Libya), and takes an unusual subject matter: women involved in sport. In that respect, it recalls for me the recent Canadian-Palestinian documentary Speed Sisters (2015).


Like a lot of documentaries this was a labour of love over many years with a lot of disparate sources of funding, but it remains a portrait of modern Libya as told through the stories of women on a Libyan football team (not really the national squad, exactly, because there’s little enough recognition for women’s football, but they might as well be). The strength of the movie — again like a lot of documentaries — is in its subjects, who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from well-educated middle-class daughters of prominent conservative families, to ones from various parts of the country covering differing ethnicities and backgrounds. One even hails from what is now a ghost town, from which its entire population was displaced due to conflict.

They are united by sport, perhaps, but maybe more by the desire for a different future, and of course we see a bit of the country’s political turmoil in the background — online images of conservative clerics, news footage of fighting and fires and revolutionary change — while the intertitles date the footage from the “Libyan revolution” (in this case, the civil war of 2011), but the film remains focused on the women. They express themselves on the field, and in rides with the director in their cars, where they sing along and eat ice cream and generally get to speak out more freely. That’s perhaps part of what the title is alluding to: this isn’t just about football (in fact, it’s not until quite late in the film that we get to see them actually competing), but about women’s liberation more generally, a struggle that’s ever continuing, especially in Libya.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Naziha Arebi نزيهة عريبي; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 11 October 2018.

آخر أيام المدينة Akher Ayam el Madina (In the Last Days of the City, 2016)

As one of the world’s great cities (and most ancient), plenty of films have been made and set in Cairo. Aside from the film in the title of this post, a pseudo-documentary fiction about the city focused on a filmmaker (for Cairo is also a centre for Arabic language filmmaking), I’ve also included a short review of a short film directed by the great Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine.


Somehow I’d got it into my head before going to see it that this was a documentary — a poetic documentary perhaps, a city symphony of sorts, but a documentary nonetheless. It’s not, but it does hover somewhere on a border that makes the fiction it tells somehow more imbued with melancholy and a sort of immediacy, even if it’s been over six years since the scenes were filmed. It also serves as an effective love letter to Cairo, a city in flux even as it was filmed, with buildings crumbling and disappearing. It uses the character of a filmmaker (Khalid Abdalla), making its fiction endlessly metatextual, as we see him manipulate the image, discuss the project with filmmaker friends, even commission the calligraphy which appears as this film’s title card in the end credits. There’s no grand plot besides his own work to finish the film, but there are threads of a life in turmoil: looking for a flat, nursing his mother, pining after his girlfriend, and fearing for friends in other war-torn Middle Eastern countries. It also doesn’t hurt that the Cairo the filmmaker captures is such a beautiful place, and plenty of the shots hardly need to do more than frame a sunset or a city skyline.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Tamer El Said تامر السعيد; Writers El Said and Rasha Salti رشا سلطي; Cinematographer Bassem Fayad باسم فياض; Starring Khalid Abdalla خالد عبد الله; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 27 September 2017.

Continue reading “آخر أيام المدينة Akher Ayam el Madina (In the Last Days of the City, 2016)”

Women Filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay

As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.

William Eadie in Ratcatcher
William Eadie in ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999)

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Lynne Ramsay”

Criterion Sunday 225: Tunes of Glory (1960)

I don’t think the liner notes are wrong to suggest this 1960 film is an underrated classic: like a lot of British movies of the period — ones which rely on solid acting and their carefully scripted themes — it sort of gets lost amongst the various European New Wave films which were making a splash with formal innovations and a looser street-bound sense of place. Instead this is largely based in the single setting, a barracks in Edinburgh, where two military officers with contrasting management styles face off against one another: the rowdy and boisterous (and flame-haired Scot) played by Alec Guinness, and his replacement, the controlled authoritarian Englishman played by John Mills. It becomes a film about the reverberations of class throughout the power hierarchies of British life, not to mention — at a more quotidian level — what it’s like to work under a bad manager. Both leads do excellent acting work, and there’s a coolness to the colour cinematography that’s also striking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer James Kennaway (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, John Mills, Susannah York, John Fraser; Length 106 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 220: Naked Lunch (1991)

I worry that this is a film for those who like to vaunt the magisterial status of author William S. Burroughs, or who laud the cinematically outré and self-consciously cultish qualities of David Cronenberg as director — and I assume many of the same people will rep for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam and/or Thompson) in many of the same ways, or perhaps something out of the filmography of David Lynch. For this is a film about being a writer as well as a habitual user of narcotics, and is made with an attendant kind of insane dream logic that leads to hallucinatory bugs-as-typewriters who speak through anus-like holes and set up complex plots in alternate worlds (the Interzone) that touch as much on Burroughs’ own life (his well-known murder of his spouse for one) as on any kind of verifiable reality. Peter Weller is a capable straight man for this carnivalesque creepshow, which has some of the qualities of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (maybe I’m thinking of the prosthetics) and a typically Gilliam-esque crowded mise en scène, while of course the spirit of Kafka seems to hover over it all… and if any of these swaggering artistic men do not thrill you, then perhaps this is not the project for you.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg (based on the novel by William S. Burroughs); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 16 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 213: Richard III (1955)

These grand and handsome stagings of Shakespeare made Olivier something of a predecessor to Kenneth Branagh towards the end of the century, and as with Branagh, I feel a little underwhelmed. It’s not that the acting is stodgy (there have been some patchy adaptations, but on the whole Richard III is well acted, without egregious hamminess), and it certainly doesn’t lack in visual splendour. In fact, the Technicolor Vistavision looks gorgeous, all saturated colours on beautifully theatrical sets (not quite the Brechtian level of, say, Rohmer’s Perceval, but still mightily stagy and unreal-seeming). I just find Olivier’s adaptations unengaging, with too many scenes that don’t really seem to grab much attention (Loncraine and McKellen’s adaptation seemed much stronger in that regard). I still think this is one of his better ones, and I prefer it to Henry V, so maybe I’m just being churlish.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Laurence Olivier (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Otto Heller; Starring Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Claire Bloom, Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke; Length 161 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 11 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 191: Jubilee (1978)

I don’t know what aspect of the punk spirit this speaks to — the messy avant-gardism and unpolished amateurishness, the gleefully garish colours (Toyah Willcox’s character Mad has hair which is a constant delight), the casual nudity, sex and violence — but it has a pleasingly anarchic, almost joyfully queer (although I suppose that’s not a word that would have been welcomed at the time), aesthetic that makes it still very compelling and watchable even as it must be now almost 40 years since its premiere. That said, it’s all very much of its time, a vision of post-apocalyptic England in a time of deprivation and uncertainty for which one can draw certain parallels, but a lot of which seems very much bound up in an era of political change. Jarman’s spirit is art school to the core, which made his film unpopular with the art school-bred punks (as Tony Rayns points out in a bonus feature documentary on its making), who preferred trying to come across as something more akin to brazen oiks. However, whatever Jarman’s own political take on things was, this is a still a bright, playful and inclusive vision of the end of days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Derek Jarman; Writers Jarman and Christopher Hobbs; Cinematographer Peter Middleton; Starring Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Nell Campbell, Toyah Willcox; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 January 2018.

Criterion Sunday 182: Straw Dogs (1971)

Sam Peckinpah undoubtedly has an ability to put together a film, maintain tension, choreograph an action sequence, and find exactly the right moment for a blast of strident bagpipe music. But modern cinema’s endlessly repeated theme — stuck in a groove like a particularly obnoxious record (let’s say, bagpipe music) — rears its evergreen head, namely ‘the toxic perils of masculinity’. It’s not something that doesn’t bear repeating, of course, it’s just the particular way that Peckinpah approaches it is to sacrifice everyone to it (and the title does, I believe, reference a ritual object). In this way, Straw Dogs ends up reminding me of the films of Michael Haneke, one of my least favourite auteurs (but if you love him, maybe you’ll get a kick out of this).

Dustin Hoffman plays a weedy American academic mathematician, in his young wife’s home town in Cornwall (England), where they are both swiftly targeted by the ruffian-like men who dwell there: him for having the temerity to not be from around there and thinking himself better, she for not wearing a bra (or so it seems). Anyway, she is certainly brought down a peg, the film’s editing repeatedly emphasising that he does not have sufficiently ‘manly’ attributes to protect his property (his cat, his wife, eventually his home). When he does eventually gain something of this presumably-failed masculinity, it’s one of those ‘ah ha DO YOU SEE, oh audience, how you are complicit in the violence inherent in our society’ kinds of ways so beloved of Haneke, and which you can either take as a masterstroke of authorial self-reflexivity, or, I don’t know, obnoxious and mean-spirited.

From my review, you can probably see the way I am critically leaning with Straw Dogs, and of course you may disagree. Yes, it’s a well-made film, but the way I feel about it is not so far from the way I feel about Dustin Hoffman these days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Sam Peckinpah; Writers David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah (based on the novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon M. Williams); Cinematographer John Coquillon; Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.

Criterion Sunday 162: Ratcatcher (1999)

It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
  • Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
  • There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
  • Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay; Cinematographer Alwin Küchler; Starring William Eadie; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019).