Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Whatever else it might be accused of, it can’t be said that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film isn’t a coup du cinéma in its 70mm ‘roadshow’ version, harking back to a lost showmanship of printed programmes, overture fanfare, intermission and extra-wide widescreen format. There are many things indeed that I might accuse the resulting film of, yet I find it difficult to build up the necessary steam of self-righteous anger. In short, it is everything that everyone most vociferously damns it for: it is a distillation of all Tarantino’s most annoying tropes, all the abused women (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and their abusers (Kurt Russell), racist Southern rednecks (Walton Goggins) and gentlemen (Bruce Dern), noble yet weirdly homophobic black men (Samuel L. Jackson), and disarming patter of movie-literate self-reflexiveness against the backdrop of real and disturbing historical periods (the post-Civil War Reconstruction period). It sets up a beautiful wintery world using its widescreen palette, quickly drawing us into the single remote location where the eight title characters (as well as one nice guy, and some surprise late arrival characters vying for equal hatefulness, one of which is the director’s voice) spend much of the film battling for one-upmanship, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste as it descends into the usual Grand Guignol of bloodshed that you expect. However, Tarantino’s filmmaking is so desperate in its mugging for cinematic approval that even the nastiest events (with the exception of a hanging towards the end) just pass by with a shrug of my shoulders. Perhaps the title should be a hint that its protagonists are hardly likeable, but for me the film isn’t either and that’s a problem. It doesn’t seem to speak of anything so much as of all the films Tarantino has seen (so no change there). Others have enjoyed this opus, others have eviscerated it. Me, I just can’t be bothered anymore.


© The Weinstein Company

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino | Cinematographer Robert Richardson | Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern | Length 187 minutes || Seen at Odeon Leicester Square [70mm], London, Sunday 10 January 2016

Slow West (2015)

It’s always nice to see a movie western, even if it’s not shot in the United States, though I am partial to the New Zealand landscape as someone who grew up there. I would say it seems to me to be pretty distinctive as far as landscapes go, but then this is a film shot through with plenty of style (and stylisation). If some of the still-life framings are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s Dead Man (albeit in colour), a lot of the film’s tone comes closer to the deadpan of the Coen brothers, and is freighted with some of their archness as well. The narrative is based around a one-sided romance of one young Scottish lad, Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for Rose (Caren Pistorius). Rose has left Scotland to go on the run from the law with her father, while Jay pursues her out of love. He is taken in by Silas (Michael Fassbender), who turns out to be a bounty hunter on Rose and her father’s trail. As a film shot in NZ starring Irish, Scottish and Antipodean actors, it’s really strong on that sense of the modern US as a nation of immigrants, though the Native Americans get fairly short shrift (and one overtly comedy sequence of horse rustling gone awry). So even if I don’t wholeheartedly embrace it, there’s enough in the film to suggest interesting work in director John Maclean’s future.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer John Maclean | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Caren Pistorius, Ben Mendelsohn | Length 84 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 7 July 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dokhtari dar sab tanha be xane miravad, 2014)

There is a lot to like about this film. As a feature-length debut it casts a long (chador-clad) shadow, with a largely stylish use of its widescreen black-and-white frame, and a commanding central performance from the laconic Sheila Vand as the unnamed girl of the title. It’s a vampire film, but not a horror precisely, more of an existential mood piece, like the Jarmusch of Dead Man but without the deadpan humour, with a central character who takes her style cues from Anna Karina and the early nouvelle vague. It’s been called a ‘western’ as well, which I think gets at some of the frontier-like emptiness of its setting, nominally an Iranian town called “Bad City” but actually shot in California. But the style can be a weakness, as you get the sense that the project started with a visual motif — the forbidding figure cut at night by a woman wearing the traditional Iranian chador, the long cape-like black garment which is affixed over the head and billows out behind — with the film then being built up around this. So those sequences where Vand is walking down darkened streets have a compelling inky monochrome beauty, with her lithe movements practised at home in front of a record player, but when other characters are introduced — whether Arash Marandi’s putative love interest, or Marshall Manesh’s drug-addicted father — the narrative focus wavers a bit, as if uncertain what to do. At times, too, the film turns into something of a musical, as a track is cued up on the turntable then plays out at length, though the director’s taste seems geared towards mid-2000s indie rock, which doesn’t always seem to mesh with the forbidding atmosphere created by the musical score elsewhere. Possibly the most compelling other character is the even more laconic performance from Masuka, a cat, whose presence structures the film and also conveys key plot points to lovelorn Arash. However, for all this — and surely some of my reservations boil down to personal taste — it remains a strong and distinctive directorial debut with a compelling representation of female empowerment that undercuts the expectations created by its title.


© Vice Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ana Lily Amirpour | Cinematographer Lyle Vincent | Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh | Length 101 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 May 2015

The Ranown Cycle of Westerns

Randolph Scott in 'Seven Men from Now' (1956)
“Some things a man can’t ride around.”

Strictly speaking, the ‘Ranown Film’ credit applies to only two films (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), but it’s generally extended to refer to the cycle of six (or sometimes seven) Westerns directed over a five year period by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott (the latter names combining for the production credit). I haven’t seen 1959’s Westbound (a contract picture for Warner Bros. that Scott was tied to, and which Boetticher directed though didn’t personally consider part of the cycle), but certainly the other six combine to create a singular body of work. They’re united not just by their director, producer and leading man, but by their common shooting location in California’s Alabama Hills, and their themes — generally speaking, they’re about men and the manifestations (and perhaps, if we’re being generous, limitations) of masculinity. For these are very much manly films, though there are women in them (and some strong supporting roles at that, particularly Gail Russell in Seven Men from Now and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station). Indeed, “A Man Can Do That” is the subtitle of the somewhat patchy documentary about Boetticher included as an extra on the boxset of the latter five films, and much of the dialogue has that kind of laconic old-fashioned ring to it, along the lines of “A man gets to thinking…” that emphasise the hero’s status as a lone outsider forging his own way in a tough frontier country. No doubt some of this comes from Boetticher’s own interests and upbringing, manifested by his fascination with bullfighting (a subject he returned to in a number of his other films), but this is an enduring trope of a genre that has periodically returned to popularity since, but was still in its most classical phase in the 1950s, prior to the revisionism of the latter part of the 60s.

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Two Short Reviews of Recent Films Set in the 19th Century

Two more short reviews of films I just haven’t been able to summon up the enthusiasm to think about at great length. Not that either of them is bad, mind.


© Entertainment One

Mr. Turner (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014 || Director/Writer Mike Leigh | Cinematographer Dick Pope | Starring Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

This latest by Mike Leigh seems to have divided audiences and critics, though by most metrics it has done very well at the box office, a fine feat considering its length. Presumably it appeals to the heritage crowd, what with being a period film, and at that it does very well, conjuring a good sense of 19th century London, with its galleries and its fine houses, as well as its muck and dirt, not to mention the failings of medicine (Dorothy Atkinson’s servant gets progressively more blighted by psoriasis as the film goes on). At the film’s heart is Timothy Spall’s JMW Turner, a painter of some of the finest works of English art, who here is a gruffly monosyllabic grouch who communicates more in coughs and splutters than with words (Spall’s performance is in fact second only this year to Gérard Depardieu’s in Welcome to New York for guttural grunting). Yet it’s an oddly disjointed film, which moves along in vignettes — Turner at the Royal Academy disputing with his fellow painters, Turner at home, Turner on holiday in Margate, this kind of thing. To be fair, this gives it the sense of a series of (moving) paintings, much like Turner’s work, and like his work a lot of the film is very beautifully shot. However, even the most artfully composed film could never approach the breathtaking vistas of Turner’s later paintings, so perhaps my point of comparison is just unfair in the first place.


© Roadside Attractions

The Homesman (2014) || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 25 November 2014 || Director Tommy Lee Jones | Writers Tommy Lee Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones | Length 122 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Another film set in the 19th century — in fact, covering many of the same years as Mr. Turner, albeit on another side of the Atlantic — is this film by actor turned writer/director Tommy Lee Jones. His debut film as director was the wonderful and underrated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a film with a great feeling for border territories, and this new film is again set on a frontier of sorts. I’m tempted to call it a Western, though it’s not set in the west but rather in Nebraska, and it deals with a sturdy frontierswoman, Mary Bee Cuddy (played capably by Hilary Swank), who for various reasons has to accompany three mad women back to civilisation, where they can be (more) properly cared for. She soon picks up Tommy Lee’s disreputable George Briggs to help her, and thus begins their journey. It’s all very ably and attractively shot by veteran DoP Rodrigo Prieto, and in the two central roles Jones and Swank make for a fine odd couple. But things take a turn later on which is both unexpected and abrupt, though undoubtedly it suggests (and, more widely, the film does capture well) a sense of the difficulties attendant on life in this era and location. In which respect, of course, the roles for the mad women are rather thankless, amounting to little more than gurning and groaning at times. Yet, while it’s a film that feels as if it has two distinct parts, it certainly also has its virtues.

Go West (1925)

This screening was presented with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, whose work was excellent and deft as ever. I always worry I should try to have something more precise to say, but if he had been unduly drawing attention to his playing, it would hardly have been so successful; instead I was fully engrossed in the Keaton comedy.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Buster Keaton | Writers Raymond Cannon and Buster Keaton | Cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Bert Haines | Starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale | Length 80 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 21 January 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Metro-Goldwyn

There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled over the years (although that’s not entirely an apt metaphor for this modern era) discussing the differences between the various silent film comedians, along with people’s personal preferences. I’ve not seen enough by any of them (although I did, rather briefly, review a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! last year) to contribute much that’s worthwhile to that discussion — which I can only hope will be a blessed relief to readers, who should be free to make their own judgement on this matter. I will say that of the famous ones, I’ve seen the most films by Buster Keaton, a disparity that’s hardly going to be rectified by the BFI’s current Keaton retrospective season. Amongst his fine body of work, Go West is it seems a little underappreciated, but over a series of vignettes set in the Wild West, Keaton mines plenty of humour, and even a bit of pathos.

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The Return of Draw Egan (1916) / The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924)

The Cinema Museum logo These two full-length features (albeit short by modern standards) were presented with a short film and some amusing historical anecdotes by the film historian Kevin Brownlow to a packed audience of avid silent film fans at South London’s Cinema Museum, part of the regular ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night. Piano accompaniment was provided by Lillian Henley for ‘The Passer-by’, Cyrus Gabrysch for William S. Hart western ‘The Return of Draw Egan’, and John Sweeney for the Rin Tin Tin adventure ‘The Lighthouse by the Sea’. Although on such a sweltering Summer evening it was warm in the room, the evening was enjoyable enough that any discomfort was almost forgotten. As these were prints from Brownlow’s private collection they may not have been in the best condition (and their running time may have differed from the times given below), but all were projected very capably by the Cinema Museum staff. I should be clear that my ratings and reviews below are a rather futile attempt to judge the films like any others I’ve seen this year, and though they may have been hoky melodramas, the evening was superbly enjoyable and I’m glad to have seen all three.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 4 September 2013

The Return of Draw Egan (1916) || Director William S. Hart | Writer C. Gardner Sullivan | Cinematographer Joseph H. August | Starring William S. Hart | Length c50 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

© Triangle Distributing

By the time this Western was made, a couple of years into his film career, William S. Hart was already in his 50s but also one of the biggest box office draws in the country. Of course, the ‘Draw’ which is his character’s nickname in this film is less to do with his popularity, as with his quick-draw skills. Despite this, the life of an aging gunslinger is a solitary one, and Hart basically inaugurated the kind of weathered frontier cowboy image that would become a staple of the genre, tracing a direct line through to — taking some random examples — Randolph Scott’s collaborations with Budd Boetticher in the 1950s, or Clint Eastwood’s hard-bitten outlaw in Unforgiven (1992).

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