It’s pretty difficult to watch any classic movie with fresh eyes and I can’t pretend that I did that here. It’s a film I’ve seen before screened in a film class, and it has that patina of ‘classic’ that is pretty difficult to move past at times, especially as it’s been emulated so often in succeeding years, such that it’s difficult in my mind for me to think about old Westerns without thinking about a bunch of characters sharing a coach across dangerous frontier territory controlled by Native American raiding parties. That last part is of course the bit that has aged the least well, and the most I can say for it is that at least the Native Americans aren’t played by white guys in heavy makeup, a small consolation for what is still a pretty thankless part of old Westerns. However, that central chamber drama between the various passengers is played out remarkably well, and John Wayne still looks young and fresh-faced as a ne’er-do-well looking to reform himself and settle down. John Ford was a veteran director even by 1939, and he controls it all beautifully well, without flashiness but with plenty of clear vision as to what’s most effective on the screen. Well worth watching again, and perhaps I’ll try and see this on a big screen before another 20 years passes.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Ford; Writer Dudley Nichols (based on the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox); Cinematographer Bert Glennon; Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, George Bancroft, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 13 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, May 2000).
I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.
- On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).
Jane Campion’s latest directorial effort, her first feature film since 2009’s Bright Star, was the opening film of the New Zealand International Film Festival but it gained a cinematic release while the festival was underway so I went to see it just afterwards. It’s a film that doesn’t reveal its hand until fairly late in the piece, a classic slow burn story, and even by the end there’s still plenty of mystery to the characters, but that makes it all the more compelling in my opinion.
I am aware that this film isn’t for everyone, and honestly I approach this as someone who is not a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor or of Campion’s work this past decade (chiefly on Top of the Lake, though I adore all of her feature films). That said I feel there’s enough here that’s resonant and special, especially within the context of modern film production and certainly among films commissioned by Netflix. This is mostly a film of atmosphere and setting — narratively Montana, but it’s filmed in New Zealand, and I think that’s going to be fairly clear to anyone who’s from either of those places. It’s essentially a two-hander between Cumberbatch’s grizzled older rancher Phil and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, the son of Kirsten’s Dunst’s Rose (who marries Phil’s brother George, played by a doughy-cheeked Jesse Plemons).
There’s a subtle but unavoidable underlying homoerotic tension throughout the film — which mostly comes out within the screenplay as talk about Phil’s now-departed mentor Bronco Harry, but is also clear in some of the loving close-ups that really I can’t explain here but are evident when you see the film — and I think it starts to become clear that Phil has a lot of the same background as Peter. Indeed, he is in a sense a version of the latter, albeit one who has actively remoulded himself to meet the expectations of his era, of his surroundings and of his peers into a more ‘manly’ man. Some of the dramatic moves don’t quite work to my mind — especially the way in which Phil and Peter at one point start to become friendly — but there’s an underlying power to their scenes that has almost a classical tragic resonance as the power balance between the two starts to shift throughout the film. And while nothing much outwardly seems to happen, it’s clear that this subtly sketched yet evident mental struggle between the older and younger men starts to consume both their lives.
Director/Writer Jane Campion (based on the novel by Thomas Savage); Cinematographer Ari Wegner; Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Thursday 25 November and at the Light House, Wellington, Friday 24 December 2021.
I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.
Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.
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.
I think it’s time I did another themed week, as I’ve been relying a little too much on the Criterion Sunday reviews on this blog and have let it go a bit. So in time-honoured fashion, we return to Netflix, a number of whose films I’ve seen in recent weeks, and which range in quality from the ‘bad’ to the ‘pretty okay but not much better than just good’, which is to be fair essentially the range of most Netflix films (with a few exceptions). The first I’m covering is one I saw in a cinema, but came out on Netflix shortly after, where probably most everyone else saw it.
Tom Hanks often seems to pick roles that speak somehow to a facet of the American experience. Here he’s Captain Kidd, a newsreader, but a peculiarly 19th century, post-Civil War version of that, travelling around small Texas towns gathering up dimes for the villagers to hear him tell stories from the newspapers. The idea is that he’s selecting the stories of value to them, placing him somewhere between a preacher and an organiser at times, as when he foments rebellion in a particularly hellish county town, but to British viewers at least the film’s title places him in a lineage of tabloid journos, sometimes greatly elaborating these stories to make them play better, perhaps making them up wholesale. It certainly seems to widen the scope of the Spielberg film The Post about modern news journalism. Still, the heart of the film is Kidd’s relationship with a young girl he finds on the road (Helena Zengel), German by birth but raised by Kiowa people, and now orphaned from both. The story of them getting to know one another, learning bits of each others’ language, is perhaps too familiar and the film can seem quite lumpy at times. Still, it’s nice to the see the girl at the heart of System Crasher extend her range, while still exhibiting the feral quality that came over so strongly there, and Hanks is always dependable as a weathered but genial surrogate, plus it has a beautiful, sweeping quality that seems inbred into the Western genre and comes across well here.
Director Paul Greengrass; Writers Greengrass and Luke Davies (based on the novel by Paulette Jiles); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Tom Hanks, Helena Zengel; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 3 February 2021.
I took a break last week because I was on holiday (although didn’t end up leaving home), but this week I’ll be building up to my Global Cinema entry on Belgium (on Saturday). As a loose theme, then, I’m covering films with a Belgian production credit, though it turns out a lot of films with some Belgian financing aren’t particularly ‘Belgian’, whatever that might amount to. This one, for example, is an American film by a French director, also co-produced by partners from Belgium, Romania and Spain, so it spans plenty of countries, without really representing any of them exactly — except of course America, where it’s set. Still, it’s a way of looping in a lot of not very Belgian films into consideration this week.
This Western crime comedy drama is directed by a French man with an enormous number of production deals (the first title card of the film, as it builds up all its production and co-production credits, is itself somewhat hilarious) and surely has a lot of money on-screen in what I assume is a faithful rendering of Oregon and California in the mid-19th century. However, it does strike rather an odd tone, a sort of laidback melancholia with bursts of violence and goriness that leads up to a dream-like ending, a story of two brothers (Reilly and Phoenix) who have a quest, even if that quest largely loops back to a consideration of their own family and the way they have been brought up. The acting is, as you might expect, very solid, with no notable let-downs, and Phoenix is a particular good fit to his character. Some of the digital photography seemed just a little on the ‘uncanny’ side, but maybe that was just me or the screening I was at. In any case, there’s plenty to like here, but it is at the very least meandering.
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt); Cinematographer Benoît Debie; Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 20 April 2019.
She’s only made three feature films, but on the basis of just that work Valeska Grisebach is one of the most interesting German-language filmmakers of the last few decades. She was trained at the Vienna Film School, though she isn’t Austrian (she was born in Bremen), and is often included in the so-called ‘Berlin School’ with Angela Schanelec (whom I’ll cover later this week), Christian Petzold and others. She makes unglamorous films with non-professional actors that often resist the more florid aspects of storytelling, not a million miles from say Kelly Reichardt or Claire Denis. This perhaps accounts for why she’s been able to make so few, but those she has made are all excellent and well worth checking out (though her graduate film, Be My Star, is somewhat rougher aesthetically).
Continue reading “Films by Valeska Grisebach: Be My Star (2001), Longing (2006) and Western (2017)”
Everything being well, this is a film I should have seen in a cinema two weeks ago, but I returned from holiday on Friday 13th, just on the cusp of the COVID-19 crisis, and sticking around in a central London cinema didn’t seem particularly sensible, and would increasingly seem less so up until the point cinemas closed a few days later. Well, it’s on Mubi now, where everyone can watch it — and I might add, without wishing to become some kind of sponsored content, that for UK viewers they currently have a deal to get three months for £1 so you have no excuse if you want to see this and some of the other films I’ve written about (there are also seasons dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, Park Chan-wook, Jean-Luc Godard, not to mention new films by filmmakers I don’t know yet but soon will). Mendonça Filho’s debut film Neighbouring Sounds, the one he made before Aquarius, is also there, and I feel like that’ll be another one I’ll check out soon.
There is no shortage of art dealing with the sometimes brutal intersection between the fast pace of modernity and traditional communities usually left unsupported by government and big business. In a sense, that’s what this film is dealing with, using a sort of generic template that traces its lineage back to The Most Dangerous Game or alternatively to 60s acid westerns (there is some ingestion of psychotropic drugs towards the end, but it’s not filmed in a trippy way). The first half of the film is about the little titular village in the outback of Brazil, tracing the family dynamics and the local life, which has been upturned by the death of one of its elder citizens. Right from the start there are these little clues towards the upheavals to come, such as the way the town has disappeared from Google maps, and the arrival of a mayoral candidate from a (disliked) local town sparks the ire of the locals, who are very efficient at hiding themselves away in a hurry (this becomes a plot point later on). Thus when Udo Kier and his gang of ne’er-do-wells arrives on the scene, we’re primed for something odd to happen and things slide downhill pretty quick, as the body count racks up. It’s brutal and gory in its way, but it’s also a film that’s angry about governments and about technology and about Western capitalism and probably also pretty angry about Bolsonaro and his ilk. And it’s an anger that will probably percolate for a while through the cinema of many nations now finding themselves perched precariously on the edge of this kind of rapacious economic system.
Directors/Writers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles; Cinematographer Pedro Sotero; Starring Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Udo Kier, Sônia Braga; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 26 March 2020.
Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.
I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.