Meet Me in St Louis, USA 1944.

Sunday December 16th at 5.30 p.m. Friends of the HPPH Xmas screening.

This is the Friends’ Christmas movie though technically it is not a seasonal film The plot actually covers the summer of 1903, then autumn, winter and spring. However, the Christmas sequence is one of the most memorable in the film, indeed in all Hollywood. It is full of seasonal tropes and motifs and features the wonderful ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The film is a musical and one of the classics produced by the M-G-M Studio.

The plot follows the domestic and romantic developments in the household of Mr Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames) and Mrs Anna Smith (Mary Astor). Their family includes four daughters; Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll and “Tootsie” (Margaret O’Brien). There is a single son, Lon Jr. (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.). There is also a youthful Grandpa (Harry Davenport) and a maid with a tart tongue, Katie (Marjorie Main).

The cast are excellent and one of the great pleasures of the film. Judy Garland, in her nineteenth feature, is in her youthful and vibrant mode rather than the darker and more emotional tone of her later years. Her songs are done with accomplishment, especially my favourite ‘The Trolley Song’. Margaret O’Brien, in her tenth film, is a well-practised scene stealer but always entertaining. The story does tend to sentiment but Marjorie Main’s Katie continually inserts a more caustic note. The beaux of Rose and of Esther are not quite as interesting as the girls [neither in Lon Jr.), but this is [among other things] a woman’s picture.

Much of the film is in bright sunshine and vibrant Technicolor. But autumn introduces a darker tone with some fine chiaroscuro. And winter offers both twilight scenes and plenty of snow. The director, Vincente Minnelli, is a fine craftsman and he is a master of musical genre; he would later direct The Pirate (1948) and An American in Paris (1951). Early in his career he was a production designer and Minnelli makes use of splendid mise en scène and has a preference for fine travelling shots. In this he is aided by the excellent craft personnel of M-G-M. The Art Direction is by Lemuel Ayres, Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith; the Set Decorations are by Edwin B. Willis with the costumes designed by Sharaff. They all look and meld beautifully. The cinematography is by George Folsey, who had a long and distinguished career. The Technicolor is excellent and the sequence shots are finely smooth; watch the way the camera handles the opening number, ‘Meet Me in St Louis’.

The screenplay was adapted from a series of short stories by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoff. They have succeeded in blending these into a complete and integrated story. The songs are a medley from many sources including that of the 1904 Great Exhibition with which the film ends. Most of the score was adapted by Roger Edens but clearly also involved Arthur Freed. Freed is the guiding spirit behind the cycle of classic films from M-G-M, of which this is one of the finest.

The film was a major success on release, coming second in the annual box office. It received four nominations in the Academy Awards though it failed to win one. However, since then it has been listed among the American Film Institute’s ‘Greatest American Musicals’ and two of the musical numbers made it into the AFI’s ‘100 years … 100 songs’. It remains a perennial, classic. 113 minutes of pleasure in glorious colour, songs and unrivalled Hollywood production values. Happily the film is screening from a 35mm print so it can be enjoyed in its original format.

Shoplifters / Manbiki kazoku, Japan 2018

From Friday December 7th until Thursday December 13th

This film was the worthy winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and of the the Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Feature Film. It came fourth in the Audience voting at the Leeds International Film Festival; to my mind an underestimate. I rate it one of the three or four best films released this year.

The film is was written, directed and edited by Koreeda Hirokazu. His previous films include the very fine Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary (2015) and I Wish / Kiseki (2011). Like his earlier films this fits into a cycle of titles that explore representations of the family. Koreeda has done this in a variety of genres but the films all fit into a Japanese genre known by scholars as ‘shomin-geki’, the lives of the common or ordinary people. A major influence here, acknowledged by Koreeda, are the films of Naruse Mikio, one of the masters of classical Japanese cinema. Both directors present portraits of people from the petit-bourgeois, working class and, even the lumpen-proletariat.

The title of this new film describes an activity practised by the main characters. But there is much more to the film than this. As in his other films the cast are excellent and the characterizations and the relationships between kith and kin are both fascinating and complex. The film is realist but with elements of melodrama and moments of intense emotion.

The production values are great. Both the cinematography by Kondo Ryuto and the music by Haruomi Hosono are visually and aurally impressive. The title screens from a DCP but was filmed on 35mm and several digital formats, including Arri and Canon cameras. There are particular moments of superimpositions and one very fine overhead shot that recall the recent The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin (2017) and the earlier Our Little Sister. This film is in colour, standard widescreen and has English subtitles. It runs 121 minutes. I cannot think of a better two hours spent at the moment.

If you have never seen a film by Naruse Mikio the BFI do have a 35mm print of his 1964 title Yearning / Midareru. This not only has a fine narrative but is graced by the presence of the great Japanese star Takamine Hideko. To see this would be a treat and an interesting comparison with the work of Koreeda.

1945, Hungary 2017

Tuesday December 4th at 6.20 p.m.

This new title has a very limited release in Britain so this is a rare opportunity to see a very fine film. It is set on August 12th 1945, commencing precisely at 11 a.m.  as a train arrives at the railway station in an unnamed Hungarian village. The location seems to be south of Budapest not far from the Danube river.

The train deposits two figures dressed in black and accompanied by two large boxes. Over the next 85 minutes we watch as their boxes are carted into the village. We also watch the responses of the inhabitants, and occasionally Soviet soldiers, part of the liberating armies in Europe. What gradually emerges is a secret guilt over events that occurred under the Nazi occupation.

The film is happy to only gradually reveal the nature of the events and the rather differing responses of the inhabitants. Unlike in some westerns with similar plots the two visiting protagonists do little and, apart from one scene, do not address the villagers. The resulting slow pace and series of ambiguities contribute to the drama and tension developed in this film.

Beautifully shot in black and white with a minimal but effective accompaniment this production offers excellent characterisations from the cast and a convincing representation of place and period.

This will be a fine screening and possibly the only opportunity to see the film in its proper theatrical form. [A longer review is here].

The Blues Brothers

Showing Saturday 24th November 10:30pm


Sister Mary Stigmata (Kathleen Freeman) to the Blues Brothers: “You are such a disappointing pair. I prayed so hard for you. It saddens and hurts me that the two young men whom I raised to believe in the Ten Commandments have returned to me as two thieves, with filthy mouths and bad attitudes.
Get out, and don’t come back until you’ve redeemed yourselves.”

‘Joliet’ Jake Blues (John Belushi): “We’ll put the band back together, do a few gigs, we get some bread. Bang! Five thousand bucks.”

Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd): “We’re on a mission from God”.

The Blues Brothers takes us into the world of Joliet Correctional Center, honky-tonks and sleazy backstreets, the “L” train, shopping malls, the Chicago Cubs, gas stations, Bob’s Country Bunker, the Palace Hotel Ballroom, and Chicago City Hall; a world of music, carnage and mayhem,  not to mention a varied diet of soul food, prawn cocktails, beer, dry white toast, cocaine, and Cheez Whiz.

Theirs is a world populated by nuns, gospel choirs, Holiday Inn resident musicians, Illinois Nazis, Good Ol’ Boys, and jilted sweethearts. The music and dance numbers are fabulous and fun. Get rocking with the Blues Brothers band, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker, amongst others. There’s country and western too (“We got both kinds”).

But Elwood has run up 116 outstanding parking fines and 56 other traffic violations. The authorities are after them. Use of unnecessary violence in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers HAS been approved. But the cops haven’t reckoned with the Bluesmobile (an ex-police Dodge Monaco).

Elwood: Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don’t fail me now.

The car chases involved more than 40 stunt drivers, plus many stunt pedestrians. 103 cars were wrecked during filming (a world record at the time).

Bill with the Bluesmobile in Illinois

So can Jake and Elwood outwit the cops, the SWAT teams, Sherman tanks, helicopters, the Nazis, the mystery woman (Carrie Fisher), and the Good Ol’ Boys and accomplish their mission?

The Lord moves in mysterious ways!

This cult film was made for the big screen. So dig out your trilby fedoras and  Ray-Ban Wayfarers, and get yourself down to the late night screening of The Blues Brothers at 10.30 pm on Saturday November 24th.


Bill Walton

Wajib (Palestine, France, Germany, UAE 2017)

Tuesday November 20th at 6.30 p.m.

This is the second title in the Leeds Palestinian Film Festival following on from the very fine Reports on Sarah and Saleem in the Leeds International Film Festival. It testifies to the variety of Palestinian film that whilst the latter film was in part a thriller this is essentially a road movie. The journeys involve delivering invitations for a forthcoming Palestinian wedding in Nazareth [the meaning of the Palestinian title is ‘duty’]. This event is both an important traditional occasion in Palestinian culture and a regular feature in Palestinian films; notably in the pioneer feature A Wedding in Galilee (Urs al-jalil, 1987).

This new film is written and directed by Annemarie Jacir. She has written and directed a number of films; the earlier When I saw You / Lamma shoftak (2014) was set in 1967 amongst Palestinian refugees in Jordan. This was a splendid drama that I saw at a screening organised by Reel Solutions in Bradford. Her new release has already won awards including being selected as ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Actor’ by the Arab Critics assembled in Cannes this year.

The film works partly as a family drama and partly as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’. The treatment of the political situation is handled with subtlety. It was shot in colour and is in Arabic with English sub-titles. It has received very good reviews; you can check out one here.

Daughters of the Dust, (USA 1991) – Leeds Film Festival Screening

Tuesday November 12th at 1230 p.m. and Wednesday November 14th at 3. 15 p.m. at the Hyde Park Picture House.

 

The film is screening the ‘Time Frames’ series. It was directed by an Afro-American woman, Julie Dash. It is a seminal film for both the Afro-American and the USA Independent cinemas. The basic story-line follows the migration from a Georgia island by women from an isolated and creole speaking community, once enslaved on plantations, in the early 1900s. However, the film has an unconventional use of time and space and an unusual narrative voice. This enables Julie Dash and her team to provide a film that is full of vivid imagery, metaphors and symbolism. It also dramatises the clashes within Afro-American cultures between tradition and the modern.

The film is full of poetic mages whilst the dialogue is in a form of Creole. The cinematography by Arthur Jafa is particularly fine, offering sumptuous images to accompany the characters and story. It won the Cinematography Award at the Sundance Festival and the film has since been included in the Library of Congress National Film Register

The film was partly funded by PBS American Playhouse after being turned down by major studios. Unfortunately none of Dash’s subsequent productions have received proper distribution. It remains her only well-known title despite a considerable output for cinema and television.

The film could be challenging; apart from an unconventional narrative it eschews sub-titles for the Creole [mostly understandable]. But it is a rich and compelling work. The film was originally shot on 35mm in colour and standard wide screen. It has now been restored and is distributed in a digital format. Hopefully this will do justice to the original. For two decades after its initial release it was not seen at all in Britain, so this is a welcome return. The film runs 112 minutes.

Reports on Sarah and Saleem (2018) Leeds Film Festival Screening

Screening at the Vue in the Light on  Saturday 10th November at 1030 a.m. And on Sunday 11th November at 3.30 p.m.

This is a new film from the developing Palestinian Film Industry and it is both a welcome feature in LIFF and [as in previous years] launches the Leeds Palestinian Film Festival which runs on until December.

The film deals with an affair between two married people, a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman. Affairs between Palestinians and Israeli’s have been a staple of the cinemas of both Palestine and Israel but adding marriage to the complications is rarer. The film combines the thriller genre with the romantic drama genre. The film is the work of director Muayad Alayan and [his brother] writer Rami Musa Alayan. They have worked together on both a feature and short films but I have not seen any of these. As is often the case the production relies on funding from a number of different countries, Netherlands, Palestine, Germany and Mexico.

The film was shot digitally in both East and West Jerusalem with their contrasting cityscapes and cultures. It is in colour and a 2.35:1 ratio with Arabic, Hebrew and English dialogue and sub-titles in English. It promises to be an engaging and thought provoking film. Palestinian film-makers have become expert at combining cinematic genres with political issues and characterisations.

NB. The Festival online pages do not seem to have an straight alphabetical listing,; I found the title under country [Palestine].

Monsters and Men, USA 2018 – Leeds Film Festival Screening

Vue Monday November 5th at 2 p.m. and Wednesday November 7th and 3.45 p.m.

I was very impressed with this new title. Set in New York it presents the responses of three different characters to a shooting of an African-American male by the New York City Police. Thus it addresses one of the most contentious issues in the USA today.

The shooting occurs at the start of the film and then we follow the three very different protagonists – John David Washington as Dennis Williams, Anthony Ramos as Manny Ortega and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Zyrick – as they grapple with the event and the fallout both in the Department and in the local community. The setting is the 84th Precinct in Brooklyn. The plot follows each man in sequence, though they also appear in each other’s story, providing an underlying and binding narrative.

But we watch more than just these three men. An aspect of the film that I especially liked is the way that it represents the family and community lives of the protagonists. We see parents, partners, offsprings, friends, colleagues and the activists in the community. Whilst the action is the streets is often dramatic the domestic scenes have a different tone but are equally fascinating.

This is a fine socially conscious drama but also a drama that holds the interest all the way through. It is in colour and full widescreen, running 95 minutes. The cast, both leading and supporting players, are excellent. The cinematography by Patrick Scola and the editing by Justin Chan and Scott Cummings is very well done. The film relies very much on location shooting. There is an excellent and not over-intrusive music score by Kris Bowers.

The Festival catalogue lists the film as an 18 Certificate. There is not yet an entry on the BBFC web-pages; whilst there is violence and strong language at times I find this an overly unnecessary classification. The title is screening in 11 at Vue, a large auditorium with a large screen. The level of illumination during a feature is suitably low, not always the case at Vue. However, they do not mask ratios that differ from the 16:9 screen. And there is a central aisle, a design weakness as you get latecomers blocking views as they enter. In the case of this title we had a group wander in, climb up to the back, sit down, start talking, switch on a mobile phone and then get up and leave. Clearly the wrong feature for them: a recurring problem in multiplexes.

My 20th Century / Az én XX századom, Hungary, West Germany 1989

Tuesday  October 30th at 6.30 p.m.

This was the first feature directed by Ildikó Enyedi and won the Golden Camera at the Cannes Film Festival on its release. Ildikó’s more recent film, On Body and Soul, won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlinale. The 2018 Festival featured a digital restoration of this film in an excellent 4K format which retained the cinematic qualities of the original. The Hyde Park screening will only be 2K but I reckon the film will still look great.

It was an impressive feat for a first-time film-maker. Ildikó also scripted the film which combines, history, politics and surreal fantasy. Much of the pleasure is to be had from the beautiful black and white cinematography by Tibor Máthé. The images are really luminous and range from wonderful wintry landscapes to night-time chiaroscuro. The editing by Tibor Máthé ably follows the eccentric plot line as we switch between settings and dates.

The lead actor is Dorota Segda who plays identical twins, born in Budapest in 1879. Separated, their paths cross once more in 1899, making this also a New Year movie. The dates are significant in the film. 1879 takes in Thomas Edison’s first successful demonstration of the light bulb. And the film makes great play with the inventor and with cinematic references, both silent and sound. Indeed the film features tropes from the silent film era, homages to the film-maker’s predecessors.

The film takes great pleasure in presenting

“a romantic love story, a poetic fairy tale, an erotic riddle ..”

Note, it has a 15 Certificate in Britain. A real treat on offer for cineastes.

 

Faces Places / Visages villages, France 2017

Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday afternoons in the coming week

Happily here is one more chance to see the most recent film by Agnès Varda. Now ninety years old Agnès Varda has graced the world of film since the days when the nouvelle vague transformed both French and European cinemas. Her style is often eclectic and she has a whimsical turn of cinematic phrase. But she always brings a real empathy to her subjects and her films are fascinating but at the same time complex essays into contemporary society. Her new film follows a journey and odyssey with a French photographer known as JR. His approach to the medium is eccentric and unique. Travelling round in a vehicle shaped like a camera he snaps people in places and produces seriously enlarged copies of the image. This is followed by pasting the pictures on public places, mainly walls of buildings. This practice sheds a whole light on the subject and on photography itself.

In the course of their odyssey Agnes and JR discuss topics, revisit places and people and reminisce. Both are often playful but there is an underlying seriousness to their work. And the tone of their encounters and of their installations generates real charm.

A number of titles from Varda’s work over the years have been screened in programme ‘Gleaning Truths: The Films of Agnès Varda‘. These have included features like her early and seminal Cleo from 5 to 7 / Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) or her documentaries like The Beaches of Agnès (2008) Les plages d’Agnès (2008); films from either end of her long career.

The latter film like this new title is less a documentary and more like a film essay; the forte of one of her peers Chris Marker. This friend and peer is referenced in the film by the ubiquitous cats; another peer, Jean-Luc Godard has a less happy reference. The film is in colour and with English sub-titles, running for 94 minutes.