Cineaste treats on Freeview

BBC 4 Thursday 26th March at 10 p.m. and Saturday March 28th at 4.10 p.m.

We still miss the Hyde Park screening programme but there are at least two well made film classics on terrestrial television over the next few days. On Thursday we can watch a fine biopic of England’s greatest leader, Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell was written and directed by Ken Hughes. This is his best outing as director though an early ‘B’ movie, Joe Macbeth (1955) was an interesting variation of Shakespeare’s character; and The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960) was a convincing portrait with Peter Finch playing against type as Wilde. The merit of Cromwell is that this is a sympathetic treatment of a historical figure often vilified by conservation and reactionaries. Whilst he should be criticised for the suppression of the Leveller movement and the brutal invasion of Ireland, he led possibly the greatest transition in English history.

The stand-out aspect of the production is Richard Harris as the lead character. Harris almost seems born to play this powerful and committed military and political leader. From his early parliamentary opposition, through his reorganization of the People’s Army and to the setting up of a Republic, he dominates the screen and the other characters.

Alex Guinness provides a graceful performance as the ill-fated king, Charles 1st. There are some excellent battle scenes and a number of skilled British actors in supporting roles. This is definitely a better version that them later 2008 Cromwell.

Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography is excellent. The costume design won an Academy Award for Vittorio Nino Novarese. John Stoll’s production design is also very well done. The film was shot in 35mm Panavision and Technicolor; fortunate film buffs could also see it in 70mm.

And if you like period dramas then there is also an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s great novel, Jane Eyre on BBC2 on Saturday. This is the 1944 version with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Any day on which you can watch Welles is a good day.

What to do on Saturday night

BBC2 (HD) Saturday March 21st at 9 pm and 10:40 pm.

Stay Home, walk the dog, watch …

My condolences to fellow cineastes, but the closure of the Hyde Park Picture House has only come forward by a week or so. And the development work will continue. So there is a future after the crisis.

Fortunately terrestrial television is still screening a few quality films and on HD channels; two of these you may have seen at the Hyde Park. Both are well worth revisiting. The two films are fairly different but both privilege performances by two of the finest actresses in English language cinema. Both were circulated to cinemas on 2K DCPs so on TV HD the loss of quality is less than with 35mm film. They were though both shot on wide screen formats so they will be reduced.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

UK, 2017.

In fact this title offers two great Hollywood leading ladies; with Annette Bening playing the earlier star Gloria Grahame as she finds solace in later life and illness in one of Britain’s most distinctive cities. Gloria Grahame was a fine and attractive actress in the late 1940s and 1950s with a persona that fitted well in film noir; think In a Lonely Place (1950) and The Big Heat (1953). This story takes place between 1979 and 1981 when Grahame, acting in Britain, starts a relationship with a minor actor Peter Turner (James Bell). Later he takes her back to his home in Liverpool. The film apparently closely follows Turners own memoir of the same title.

The story is well acted by the leads and develops real emotion. And the film makes good use of Liverpool locations and a studio recreated California. A fine drama that only enjoyed a limited release.

You can read a fuller review;

Personal Shopper

France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium, 2016.

This film was written and directed by the French film-maker Oliver Assayas. He had Kristen Stewart in his mind as leading actor. He had already worked with her on Clouds of Sils Maria (2014); a film in which Stewart performed alongside Juliet Binoche. This was another fine film with both actors turning in excellent and convincing performances.

The ‘Personal Shopper’ of the title is Maureen (Stewart) who buys clothes and jewellery for a super-model Kyra. There are some intriguing sequences where Maureen selects commodities for her employer, not seen until late in the film. This is a situation in which a young American woman, with a strong sense of style, provides services for a wealthy and pampered celebrity. This aspect harks back to Clouds of Sils Maria.

However, the meat of the story is a dead relative and their house, apparently haunted. This is Lewis, Maureen’s recently deceased twin brother, with whom she shared both a heart condition and an interest in spiritualism. It is the exploration of this ‘other world’ that occupies most of the movie. There is though crime/thriller plotting late in the movie.

What the film does effectively is to conjure up the ‘other’ world, full of ambiguities for both the protagonist and for the viewer. Stewart is excellent; her performance here and in Clouds of Sils Maria made me go back and check out one of the ‘Twilight’ series. I was also impressed by her skills in the 2014 Still Alice.

The Guardian offered the release five stars, calling it

“uncategorisable yet undeniably terrifying”

I did not find the film at all terrifying though it does generate a disturbing air at times. But it is fascinating and fits more or less into the ‘haunted house’ / ‘ghost story’ genre. The languages – English, French, Swedish and German – have English subtitles where needed.

2019 in retrospect.

So, I found 2019 not a great year for new releases; lots of popular films but not that many outstanding ones. Those that stood out for me both in terms of craft and subject were:

Rosie, Eire. This was a drama about homelessness in Dublin. Very well done and the cast were impressive. It was distributed independently so I am afraid many people may have missed it.

Happy as lazzaro / Lazzaro Felice, Italy. A compelling drama, both of exploitation and the problems of migrants. One of the most imaginative stories I have seen for a  long time.

A Season in France, France. A drama about an African migrant family. This was a bleak tale but finely done.

Never Look Away, Germany. An artist travels from East Germany to the West and from Socialist Realism to the avant-garde. Fascinating.

Pain and Glory, Spain.  An exploration of sexual orientation and of cinema and of art; beautifully put together.

Bait, Britain. This title only qualified on 35mm. The digital version did not handle the distinctive techniques on the film well.

So Long, My son, China. One of several epic dramas from the territory presenting a canvas that was large in terms of time and space; a study of  the contradictions of family relationships.

We also enjoyed several screenings of classics in their original format of 35mm.         Sans Soleil / Sunless, France 1983 was part of a weekend of screenings curated by the Pavilion of the  Artist Moving Image Network. This is a classic documentary, visually stunning and with a complex tapestry of themes. Among the other gems of the weekend was Colloque de chiens, France 1977; a sardonic 20 minute film on 35mm and in colour. The canine characters were a metaphor.

So Long, My Son / Di jiu tian chang, China 2019

Friday December 27th at 7 p.m., Saturday December 28th at 3 p.m. and Thursday January 2nd at 7 p.m.

Some fortunate Friends enjoyed this film at the beginning of December, courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye and ‘The Guardian’. It would not surprise me if some of these returned to see again one of the outstanding movies released this year. It is a long title, running 185 minutes. Moreover, it has a challenging narrative which covers the periods from the end of the 1970s until the present. The different periods are presented in a series of flashbacks which are organised, not chronologically, but thematically.  And in the different periods the main protagonists move round Chinese urban areas.

This is a family melodrama centred on the couple, Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Wang Liyun (Yong Mei). They have two sons in the story, one adopted but both called Xingxing. Li Haiyan (Al Liya) is a friend of Wang Liyun and an official at a factory where they work. Also at the factory Shen Moli  (Qi Xi) is at first a trainee alongside Liu Yaojun. The latter two women also have sons who are important in the story. These adults age and change their appearance as the pilot develops. Whilst the offsprings appear at different ages played by different actors.  Having noted this the story does gradually fall into place and in the latter stages a viewer can discern the tragic relationships that befall this couple.

One aspect of the tragedy is the ‘one-child’ policy that operated for a long period in China. However, it is the relationships between characters, both in the factory workplace and in the residential blocks and housing, that is most important. Both aspects are afflicted by silences. This is disrupted at the factory when the workers angrily confront the mangers [‘bosses’] as they unveil the new economic [capitalist] policies. And in the family relationships it is the final breaking of another silence that brings some relief to the protagonists.

The director, Wang Xiaoshua, has sixteen previous credits not all of which have been released in Britain. One film that was released, Shanghai Dreams / Qing hong (2005) shared one aspect of the plot in this later release: the policy in the 1970s and 1980s of moving large numbers of workers to new industrial zones. But in this feature the protagonists move from employed workers to self-employed. Another comment on the changing economic  world in China.

I have not found a translation for the original Chinese title, but the director sees this as the first in a trilogy of ‘Homeland’ movies. And he talks of charting the effects of the ‘shattering’ changes in the last three decades in China.

The feature has fine production values. There is excellent cinematography and sound; whilst the editing carefully knits the disparate periods and setting into a dramatic tapestry. It is in colour and standard widescreen with the Mandarin dialogue translated in English sub-titles. Chinese films have been a prominent part of quality cinema this year. Earlier titles like An Elephant Sitting Still / Da xiang xi di er zuo and Ash is the Purest White / Jiang hu er nü offered visual and aural pleasure with complex but fascinating stories. This title offers the same pleasures and three hours is not too long to savour these.

 

Knives Out, USA 2019

Daily from Friday till Monday and again on next Thursday

The drama opens with two German shepherds running across a darkened lawn outside an old and large mansion  in the early hours. The two dogs are not developed as characters but they turn out to be important clues in the solving the question posed in the story. This is a self-conscious exploration and exploitation of the classic  country-house murder mystery. It is a very entertaining presentation of the genre, at times with the air of pastiche. It offers frequent references to both cinematic and literary precedents, especially that of the Agatha Christie oeuvre.

A family patriarch (Christopher Plummer) is dead; the question whether is this suicide or murder? And if the latter, who is the killer? The investigation is in the hands of a gentleman detective (Daniel Craig). Possible suspect include all the members of the family who stand  to inherit a fortune; (Toni Collette, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Dom Johnson). They are an unprepossessing group of nouveau riches. The key witness, possibly also a suspect, is the nurse and carer (Marta Cabrera).

The plot is labyrinthine and fairly implausible. But the scripting has created this complicated series of events and exposures with real skill. Moreover there are many witty scenes where the excellent cast exploit the changing aspects of the story to the full. The production values are good. And the characters and unfolding plot hold the attention well; though the film is slightly indulgent and slightly over-long. As the title suggests knives matter and the patriarch’s portrait is a recurring prop.

As well as paying homage to a long-running and successful genre the title updates the premises to skewer some of the foibles of the modern USA. One family member  tells the nurse, who is [possibly and variously] identified as coming from Brazil or Paraguay or Uruguay, that

‘You’re not even an American!’

If this is not a quote from Donald Trump it sounds like one.

Bait, Britain 2019

Fri 6th December at 8.50 pm, Sun 8th December at 8.30 pm and  Wed 11th December at 1.30pm and 6.30 pm

This new independent British film returns to the Picture House in a 35mm print. It was shot on a 16mm Bolex and the director, Mark Jenkin, processed the film himself. It seems that he wanted to make the film look like older titles that originated on ‘reel’ film and in the processing added some of the signs of age and usage with scratches and the like. It first circulated on a digital transfer and, to be  honest, the effects that Jenkin aimed at did not translate to that format; they looked artificial. On 35mm the 16mm original should look as intended; so this is a film worth revisiting if you have already seen it.

It is a powerful drama set in a Cornish village. The film, through the use of camera techniques such as large close-ups and a non-linear narrative develops a intense feel  and effect. The village in this film is an old fishing port which has now become a summer venue for holiday-makers. The conflicts generated by these two separate worlds are personalised in two leading characters, brothers born and raised in the village.

The form and the style of the film is at times challenging but always absorbing. It is definitely a stand out film drama from this year’s selection of British film. And, like the earlier and equally fine  Gods Own Country  (2017), finds drama and compelling characters away from the urban settings that are more common in film stories.

It Must Be Heaven, (France/ Qatar/ Germany / Canada/ Turkey / Palestine, 2019)

Monday November 18th at 8.3. p.m. and Wednesday November 20th at 6.30 p.m.

This year’s Festival of Palestinian films launches, as usual, with this title screening during the Leeds International Film Festival, Already screened at the London Film Festival which provided this description:

“The beard is now inflected with grey and the eyelids hang a little lower, but for Elia Suleiman, the deft comic touch and wistful regret for a home just out of reach remain strong in It Must Be Heaven. The Palestinian film-maker fourth feature film – and his first in a decade – revisits similar themes to his earlier work, once again employing himself as the near-mute central character. This time, however, Suleiman transposes much of the action to Paris and New York. The upheaval across the Arab world since 2011 has seen the Palestinian struggle for statehood lose some of the existential urgency it once had to outsiders. Suleiman’s film is a delicious reminder of both the vitality of the cause, and the vibrancy of his artistry.”

His earlier features have been screened at the Hyde Park over the years. His last, the very fine The Time That Remains (2009), was part of an ealier Festival of Palestinian films. This most recent title runs 97 minutes, in colour and in English / French / Arabic / Spanish / Hebrew [English sub-titles, it has an unusually wide ration, 2.66:1.

LIFF 2019 Preview: Retrospective

Verna Fields

The Festival Retrospective this year offers a distinctive programme:                              ‘Mother Cutter Women Who Shaped Film’.

The women shaping film in this case are the editors, an important aspect of film-making which women have often dominated and which for much of the industry history has been one of the few areas where women had similar opportunities to men; another interestingly is scriptwriting.

The retrospective title is that of the nickname of Verna Fields, a long-standing editor in Hollywood. Her work included such disparate titles as Medium Cool {1969) and Jaws (1975). The former, a classic of the counter-culture, is the title screening in the Retrospective.The programme screenings are split between The Victoria at the Town Hall and the Hyde Park Picture House. Note, some titles are screening twice, some only once; so check the Brochure and calendar.

With the exception of the most recent ‘Mad Max’ release all of the titles were produced using photo-chemical film with the appropriate techniques. This means that the editing not only involves viewing, selecting, and arranging the complex tapestry of film shots and sequences in relation to sound tracks; it was physical manipulation,  cutting and splicing reel film, nearly always 35mm. So it is a little disappointing that only four of the titles in the programme are being presented in this format. All screen at the Hyde Park Picture House.

‘Beau travail’

Beau travail (1999.) [Wednesday 13th and Friday 15th November].

This is an adaptation of Herman Melville’s story ‘Billy Budd,Sailor’ by the director Claire Denis with Jean-Pol Fargeau. There have been other film versions of the Melville story but this is the most ambitious, with the narrative moved from a ship-o’-war to a Foreign Legion outpost in North Africa. Two important collaborators on the film were cinematographer Agnès Godard and film editor Nelly Quettier. Both have worked on other important films. Agnès Godard was cinematographer on a fine Italian film Golden Door / Nuovomondo (2006). Nelly Quettier worked on the equally fine and more recent Italian film Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice (2018).

‘Dancer in the dark’

Dancer in the Dark (Denmark and thirteen other territories, 2000)                                    [Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th November].

This is a post-Dogmé film from Lars von Trier. As you might expect it moves to a harrowing climax. Before that a young immigrant single mother [played by singer Björk) is living in rural USA in 1964. Her world of escape presents musical sequences set in her factory workplace. The film was edited by Molly Malene Stensgaard who had to manipulate DVcam video before its transfer to 35mm film. She has worked on a number of Lars von Trier titles, including the outstanding Melancholia (2011). This film won the prestigious Cannes Palme d’Or.

‘Movern Callar’

Movern Callar (Britain, Canada 2002).                                                                                                        [Tuesday 19th and Wednesday 20th November].

This was the second feature directed by Lynne Ramsay. This, and the earlier Ratcatcher (199),.seem to me better than her later films with US participation. Samantha Morton in the title role plays a grieving young woman who goes on a journey and an odyssey to Spain. The film was edited by Lucia Zucchetti. She also edited Ratcatcher, and, a little later, the highly successful The Queen (2006).

‘The Tempest’

The Tempest (Britain 1979). [Monday 11th and Wednesday 13th November].

The talented and subversive Derek Jarman adapts William Shakespeare: later he added Christopher Marlowe Edward II (1992). ‘Such stuff as dreams are made of …’ in a completely distinctive treatment. The editor Lesley walker, in only her second feature, provided an editing style that matched the unconventional style of Jarman. Her later work includes popular hits like Mama Mia (2013) but also other unconventional titles like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). The film originated on 16mm.

Esfir Shubb

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie dinastii Romanovykh (USSR 1927),        [Monday 11th November].

This title, originally on 35mm, is screening from a 16mm print; the format used in film societies and by Kino in 1930s, when Soviet films were almost impossible to see in Britain. Directed and edited by Esfir Shubb, this is a pioneer compilation documentary. Shubb worked through thousands of metres of stock footage, short films and newsreels to produce 1500 metres that traced the the developments in Russia from 1913 to the revolutionary year of 1917 and the final dissolution of the Russian ruling class. Shubb could be called the ‘mother cutter’ of Soviet cinema. Many of the famous talents learned from her tutelage, including the young Sergei Eisenstein. The film has no sound track but uses title cards and will have live musical accompaniment by Jonathan Best at the piano.

These five films are the only photo-chemical prints in the Festival. The number seems to go down year by year; so apart from the quality of the films these screenings are also an opportunity to enjoy a’ vanishing prairie’ of reel film.

************************************************************************

Note: a bonus.

Green for Danger  (Black and White, 1946) by Lauder and Gilliat is also a 35mm print, the second screening is on Thursday a,m. This is a murder mystery with a fine performance from Alastair Sim. Edited by Thelma Myers [later Connell]. She learned her craft on films like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and worked on many more titles including the fine black and white drama The Hill (1965).

I can also happily report that the 35mm prints of The Tempest and Green for Danger  were both good and that for Beau Travail was excellent.

 

The Last Tree, Britain 2019

Screening on the coming Saturday, Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday

This is the second feature both written and directed by Shola Amoo. It is fine production, beautifully put together. The cast are good with a fine leading performance by Sam Adewunmi as Femi. The film follows his development as a young boy with a foster-parent, through life with his actual mother up until his late teens. The setting move from rural Lincolnshire to urban inner-city London. Visually and aurally the film is a pleasure. There is fine cinematography by Stil Williams, fine editing by Mdhamiri Á Nkemi and excellent sound design by a team of engineers.

The narrative and representations are less sure. Both the supporting characters and the settings tend towards stereotypes. This is partly because they are undeveloped; for example, we never really get a proper back-story either for the foster-parent or for Femi’s actual mother. Underneath some distinctive settings and plotting there is a fairly conventional narrative.  The music is judicious but I think that it [deliberately] emphasises the conventional aspects of the story.

The script uses a number of extended ellipsis and I think this introduces an element of fragmentation into Femi’s story. This seems to me an example where the director would have benefited from a fellow scriptwriter.

Even so it is an absorbing title and is great to both watch and listen to. And the subject is both interesting with a contemporary relevance. Definitely worth going to see at the cinema as it is in both colour and full widescreen.

Review: Transit, (Germany / France 2018)

This is the latest release by the German film-maker Christian Petzold. He has already had three of his fifteen credits released in Britain; all fine movies. The last, Phoenix  (2014), was a powerful and stylish drama set in Berlin and exploring changes of identity in a story full of noir tropes. This new title has parallels with the earlier one; the question of acquiring an identity, the displacement of war and the impact of a radical new situation for the main characters.

The title refers ‘transit zone’ where people wait for the official papers to leave; they are displaced and where

“here’s no fixed home. Home is basically homelessness.” (Christian Petzold in the Press Notes).

The story comes from a novel by Anna Seghers from 1944. The settings are Paris and then Marseilles. This adaptation treats period ambiguously so we seem neither in the past nor the  present. This can challenge the audience but emphasizes the  situation of the protagonists:

“They’re borderline phantoms, between life and death, yesterday and tomorrow.” (Petzold).

There are a number of key characters but at the centre is a man seeking transit papers  Georg  (Franz Rogowski)  and the wife of a writer Marie (Paula Beer). So there is a love story in the plot but this has to try and work itself out in a world where war has produced chaos, where police are a threat and officialdom is both remote and overwhelmed.

The idea of ‘transit’ has raised parallels with both Casablanca (1942) and Port of ShadowsLe quai des brumes (1938). And there is a reflexive narration which Petzold himself has compared to Barry Lyndon (1975). In both its plot and narration it also reminded me of The Sheltering Sky (1990) with two young US characters adrift in North Africa..

There was a single presentation at the Picture House which was well attended. However, it seems no other cinema in the area has screened the title. The production is distributed by Curzon/Artificial Eye who rely as much on online as theatrical. And the title has not been helped in Sight & Sound where it received a normal review in September 2019 whereas a title I felt was inferior achieved the two-page spread offered to only three releases  an issue. My colleague on ‘The Case for Global Film‘ rates it one of the best new movies of the year and I absolutely agree. Hopefully it may return for another screening at the Picture House; I should certainly like to enjoy it a second time.