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Monday, 20 January 2020

A New Film a Day (8) - QUEEN AND COUNTRY (John Boorman, UK, 2014)


Queen and Country  apparently sank without trace after it premiered to a good critical reception in the Quinzaine at Cannes in 2014. Then again I often claim something never appeared or sank without trace only to have supercinephiles like Barrie Pattison or Tina Kaufman promptly fire in corrections. 

The copy I just watched has Chinese titles all over the cover packaging. Otherwise the disc itself is the same as the Brit Curzon/Artificial Eye DVD release from back in the day. So without remembering its origin or source I suspect it’s a copy someone brought back from China and passed on. 

The sequel to Hope and Glory (1987),John Boorman’s previous autobiographical memoir about his childhood during WW2, Queen and Country follows Bill Rohan into his two years of National Service in the early 50s. They were years of the Korean War, the death of King George VI, loss of virginity and the relationships between officers and men on the army base where Bill serves out his time.Boorman treats much of it as fairly gentle comedy – incompetent, lazy and obsessive military officers, an NCO who has memorised the Army Act, a private who knows every trick, and the problems of young conscripts with young women, the latter always seeming to be smarter, more sophisticated and a lot sexier. Only in a visit to a Military Hospital where the eventually humiliated NCO is lying sequestered in deep depression, his world having crumbled around him, does a momentary serious edge take over from lightly satirical scenes involving the theft of a clock and a ridiculous court martial which in a matter of cursory moments sends Bill’s mate Percy to Military Prison.

Maybe the lack of interest was from the film either being not funny enough or not heart-rending enough or not anger-making-at-injustice enough. No Good Morning, Vietnam (or even Dad’s Army). No Last Detail.  No Paths of Glory or King and Country. Gentle nostalgia didn’t do it anymore.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

On DVD (from the remainder bin) – Barrie Pattison discovers AMERICAN ULTRA (Nima Nourizadeh, USA, 2015)


This scaled down Bourne ripoff, with a bit of A History of Violence and Telefon thrown in, appeared from nowhere and went back there, though headed up by hot couple Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart who register here as effectively as they did in Adventureland and Cafe Society.

Jesse is the town stoner clerking in the super market in fictional small town Liman, West Virginia with some time out drawing his King Kong Comic strip. Though the sheriff is tired of seeing him in his jail, Jesse has a panic attack whenever he tries to leave town. His narration describes him and girlfriend Kristen “We were the perfect fucked-up couple.”

However, in the first of the film’s moderately surprising developments, things are not what they seem and mean suit Topher Grace plans on putting them right by sending in the men in black, which upsets motherly Connie Britton. “We’re supposed to look after assets. We don’t kill them.”

After a flashback where the scenes are running in reverse (I thought that was great in the first film I saw it) and some so so digital footage of a satellite, guys in Hazmat suits are blowing things up and shooting people in a quite lively way. Psycho Walton Goggins is ticked off at losing his teeth and wants Kristen to watch as the car Jesse is trapped in goes up in a ball of fire - as if it was that easy. Her brandishing the paper clip triumphantly is a particularly nice moment. One of the things that lifts this movie out of routine is Stewart’s ability to produce reactions that make vivid the intention of her scenes. She’s so good that it’s a disappointment she still hasn’t had the breakthough part. Maybe Seberg will do it.

Topher has Tony Hale trembling at the prospect of being taken out of his office and shot on the spot for treason and the body count is getting a bit high even for one of these. It’s time for severe Bill Pullman in dark coat and hat to get in there and sort things out in the rain. This puts Connie on the spot but she comes through.

The movie’s last minute switch into Gary Leib’s animation is a welcome way to take the edge off some nastiness. “I didn’t know I could speak Mandarin.” 

First time director Nima Nourizadeh is not disgraced. The script has its moments. There’s money on the screen and the cast are way superior even though it’s a pity they don’t get value out of John Leguizamo and his fluoro nightclub. 

Why I had to see this one via a remaindered DVD takes some explaining.

Friday, 17 January 2020

A new Film a Day (7) – A CAUSE, A CAUSE D’UNE FEMME (Michel Deville, France, 1962)


Michel Deville was a director who started to direct his own movies around the time of the French New Wave. His first films, starting in 1958, had some of the same stars/actors that featured in  movies by the ‘official’ New Wave directors – the Cahiers group, the Left Bank directors Resnais, Varda, Demy, and the likes of Jacques Rozier, Jean Rouch and so on. I know, I know… But Deville, who began as an assistant in the early 50s, graduated to features much in the manner of Philippe De Broca. He made saucy films about young people with gorgeous young women (here it’s Marie Laforet, Juliet Mayniel, Mylene Demongeot, Odile Versois and Jill Haworth) and lots of fast-moving sexual intrigue. Deville’s biggest hit was the 1968 Benjamina sexy costume drama starring the young Pierre Clementi and scripted by Deville’s regular collaborator Nina Companeez. Deville’s career arc was similar to De Broca’s, graduating to bigger budget movies like Dossier 51  and Eaux Profondes/Deep Water (1981, Melbourne Film Festival, 1982).

Á cause, á cause d’une femme tries very hard to look like a New Wave movie. Black and white photography, lots of location shooting in the fancy parts of Paris and, as I said once already, gorgeous young women, a handsome leading man (Jacques Charrier, and another, German actor Helmut Griem, in a sympathetic secondary role). It starts with Charrier as Remi Fertet, leaving his current flame, being accosted by another flame before he has left the property and heading for the arms of another. After hooking up with her they head off for a drive in the country whereupon he’s promptly arrested for murder. He escapes police clutches and spends the rest of the movie in the arms of ever more women until he manages to prove his innocence. (Ooops. Spoiler Alert should have been inserted before that sentence.)

Charrier’s character is a lounge lizard and a creep but the women who fall for him seem to be somewhat accepting of these character traits. Oh well, this was the sixties where Mr Smooth alpha male heart throbs were all the rage in French movies. Jill Haworth explains her presence by saying she’s Scottish, in love with a German music producer (Griem) visiting Paris and staying at the Prince of Wales Hotel, and the only language they can communicate in is French. She’s gorgeous as are Laforet, Mayniel, Demongeot and Versois. But I said that already. 

One interesting credit. Pierre Rissient is credited as “Assistant Director”.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Rod Bishop dissects the reception for 1917 (Sam Mendes, USA/UK, 2019)

Among the serious Oscar contenders, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is one of the last to find its way into cinemas.
It opened in the United States and Canada on Christmas Day, in Australia and the UK on 10thJanuary and is scheduled for release in another 24 countries by 23rdof January.
Countless preview screenings would have occurred before those release dates, including the 87 Golden Globe voters who gave it Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Director (Motion Picture) earlier this month.
It has received 10 nominations for the coming Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director; nine nominations for the BAFTAs, including Best Film and Best Director and has won four of its eight nominations in the Critics Choice Awards, including Best Director.
On the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, at the time of writing, the film is currently running at 90% favourable for reviews (296) and 90% for audience votes (5060).
1917is clearly a big threat to the American filmmakers nominated in the Academy Awards Best Picture category – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Todd Phillips. It’s an American financed British film, that is, oh-so-British.
These are the days of dirty tricks campaigns for positioning and lobbying the Academy voters. Here’s hoping the following nonsense churned out by Richard Brody and Matthew Rozsa - given pride-of-place as the first two reviews featured on Rotten Tomatoes- aren’t part of that game.
Brody in The New Yorker opens his review with this paragraph:
The most vulgar special effect I saw last year…was in 1917, and depicted the death of a soldier in combat. The soldier is stabbed, and, as he bleeds out, his face is leached of pinkness and turns papery white just before he expires. The character’s death would have been as wrenching for viewers if the soldier’s appearance remained unaltered and he merely fell limp. Instead the director, Sam Mendes, chose to render the moment picturesque – to adorn it with an anecdotal detail of the sort that might have cropped up in a war story, a tale told at years’ remove, and that would have stood for the ineffable horror of the experience. Instead, rendered as a special effect, the character’s end becomes merely poignant – not terrifying or repulsive - making for a very tasteful death.”
Brody seems to be saying that writing about or orally describing blood draining from the face of a dying soldier is ok, but showing it in a film by a special effect is making the death “picturesque” “merely poignant” and “tasteful” instead of “terrifying or repulsive”. He thinks leaving the soldier’s appearance unaltered and having his body fall limp, would have been just as “wrenching for viewers”.
It’s an oddly distanced misunderstanding of the way cinema actually works, let alone the realism of a stabbing death. Things get worse as he opens his second paragraph:
That tastefulness [Mendes’ portrayal of the death] is the mark of the utter tastelessness of 1917…the simulacrum of…the so-called long take serves as a mask – a gross bit of earnest showmanship that both conceals and reflects the trickery and the cheap machinations of the script, the shallowness of the direction of the actors, and the brazenly superficial and emotion-dictating musical score.”
Not sure how a “so-called long take…conceals…the cheap machinations of the script” or even “the shallowness of the direction of the actors”. I would have thought it was just the opposite. Without quick-cut editing or the more-than-the-sum of-its-parts techniques of montage, a cheap script and poor direction of actors would be more exposed, not less, by long takes. In fact, I’m sure it would.
The Academy Awards crowd don’t think it’s a cheap script. They have nominated it for Best Original Screenplay. But what would they know?
And what would I know?  I’ve always - erroneously it appears - thought a major purpose of screen music was to underline the emotions in a scene. 
And then we have Matthew Rozsa at Salon.com who opens with:
1917 is a movie that perfectly fits Donald Trump’s agenda, even if the filmmakers did not intend for that…as I watched it, I felt very uneasy, not for aesthetic reasons, but for moral ones.”
His argument goes: any film set during World War I “…has a responsibility to account for the horrors of nationalism, much as a film that takes place during the Civil War must deal with slavery, and one that occurs during World War II must acknowledge fascism…to do otherwise is to make war seem impersonal, like a natural disaster or a plague, rather than as an affliction caused by human beings – and for which people should be held accountable.”
Natural disasters are impersonal? Try telling that to any Australian living through our summer of infernos.
Rozsa’s argument is all very nice and “woke”, even though I would have thought making war impersonal was more applicable to the USA dropping atomic bombs on Japan from a great height or using satellite technology to watch, on screen, as drones destroy buildings, explode cars and kill people – just like a video game. At least in 1917, the stabbing of the soldier is personal, whatever Richard Brody might think.
Wagging fingers at British filmmakers for not politically explaining the origins of World War I the way Rozsa might wish, is, of course, the right of any critic. But perhaps those filmmakers aren’t as certain as he is. After all, even a renowned American Nobel Prize winner for Literature feels: “The First World War, it came and it went, the reason for fighting, I never did get.”
And Trump? I’ve re-read Rozsa’s piece a couple of times and still struggle with the Trump analogy. Something about Trump’s appeal to nationalism, Mendes not dealing with the nationalist origins of World War I and his film just presenting war-as-hell.  His leap to “1917is a movie that perfectly fits Donald Trump’s agenda” eludes me.
What would he have said about Apocalypse NowFull Metal Jacketand The Deer Hunter? They are “war-is-hell” films that completely failed to address America’s imperialist intervention in a Vietnamese Civil War that left 2 million civilians dead and 5 million sprayed with Agent Orange? And in the case of The Deer Hunter, a film that presented war-as-hell, but many felt was actually fascist. 
1917deserves better critical thinking than Brody or Rozsa can muster. There’s something artificial about the arguments they raise.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Cinema Reborn supports a classic restoration at the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival - OLIVIA (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951)

Jacqueline Audry

CINEMA REBORN has been invited to be a partner in a retrospective screening of Jacqueline Audry's Olivia (France 1951). These notes below were written by Eloise Ross for a screening of the film at the Melbourne Cinematheque and were published by Senses of Cinema in its CTEQ Annotations on Film section. Thanks to Eloise for permission to reprint.

The film screens on February 22 and ticketing information can be found if you click here. The link will also take you through to the festival website

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Published pseudonymously in 1949 under the author name ‘Olivia’, Dorothy Bussy’s novel Olivia was likely written thanks to the influence of the 1931 German film Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform, Leontine Sagan). The film version, Olivia (Jacqueline Audry, 1951), was made from an adapted screenplay by the director’s sister, Colette Audry, and this trifecta of female authors is meaningful as their feeling resonates through the text. Olivia traces a similar track to the German film, taking place at a girls’ finishing school outside of Paris run by two headmistresses, Julie (Edwige Feuillère) and Cara (Simone Simon), who are each favoured by factions amongst the students. Jacqueline Audry worked with Max Ophuls in her early career in the film industry, and an influence from the older director can be sensed in her attention to the fascinations of a young woman, and her film’s fascination with the windows, staircase, and hidden spaces of a house. Apparently, Ophuls had wanted to make Audry’s earlier adaptation Gigi (1949), which also focuses on the passionate yearning of an adolescent girl.

Audry’s films are part of a sophisticated period of filmmaking in France, one that saw a wealth of literary adaptations and period films, with intricate characters and camerawork supported by dialogue. This may be a reason for her lack of recognition amongst critics and historians; her work was considered too traditional, lacking creativity and vision, and was disrupted by the irreverence of the French New Wave. But she is set apart by “her consistent interest in transgressive women figures”, something for which she should be praised, with note taken of her relationships with women in her life such as her mother and sister – who was close with Simone de Beauvoir – and also her connection with the professional work of the great early 20th century writer Colette. (As Carrie Tarr notes, Audry’s works are often shown in homage to Colette rather than as part of a focus on the director herself, as shown for instance with Il Cinema Ritrovato’s retrospective in 2017.) In some ways, perhaps Audry was as transgressive as many of her heroines, and tragically held back by a variation on this same conventional narrative – a woman forced to struggle for her own recognition.

While Julie and Cara vie for the students’ affections – Julie by taking advantage of her physical proximity to them, and Cara from the confines of her bedroom, afflicted by a real or imagined illness – they also vie for each other’s. Theirs seems like a relationship that may have existed prior to the film’s temporal spotlight, but was discontinued due to societal restrictions or the complications of desire – and in this space of doubt, Audry and her actors insert a great intensity. The staircase becomes a central element of the school and its entanglements, a place from which girls would observe others, or on which they would perform for others at the school. It is circular, snaking around the walls of the school’s antechamber, a link between the classrooms and the bedrooms of the girls, and leading, too, to Julie and Cara’s boudoirs. The camera, which often circles or moves freely through the building’s spaces and amongst its residents, has a sensual openness that aligns with the freedom given to the girls at the school.

When Olivia (Marie-Claire Olivia) first arrives at the school, she is greeted by Mademoiselle Julie; both characters are placed within the doorframe, the interior behind them bustling with schoolgirl activity. Thus, from this early moment, Olivia is separated from her peers, and her individual fascination with the school is differentiated from her alliance with the headmistresses. Later, Olivia flushes over the symptoms of desperate love and adoration to a friend, as though not recognising what they are signs of. Julie tells Olivia that she is too passionate, and yet cannot entirely hide that she is drawn to the student. Her intentions remain restrained, mysterious, and both women may be manipulative, but neither she nor Cara’s actions are seen as outright perverse; their behavior, instead, is tinged with sadness as they each abandon what they love. These are all moments that betray a confusion in the characters, suggesting that something so simple as a need for comfort is out of reach in their society.

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster includes Olivia in a genre she refers to as “lesbian soft-core, girls’-school films”, within which she also includes Mädchen in Uniform and The Wild Party (Dorothy Arzner, 1929) as films that deal with the very specific scenario of female bonding. Given that Audry was often criticised, or at least, like Arzner, left out of the spotlight for her adherence to conventional narrative and storytelling practices, it may be hard for some historians to consider her feminist. Yet perhaps it should emphasised that, as she was introducing non-traditional perspectives – including, for instance, those of cooks and service women in the school – into an otherwise classical format, she was in fact being more subversive than she’s given credit for. As Tarr writes, “Olivia’s discovery of love and desire is thus never experienced through feelings of guilt and shame, though it is accompanied by a realisation that such knowledge cannot be trusted to outsiders.” Her private moments shared with Julie are thus framed as extensions of the first moment they met, alone against a backdrop of students whose interests, although also directed towards the headmistresses, are much less intense.

There are almost no male characters in the film, and when on screen they are not privileged in the frame; seen only from behind, or in profile at some distance, they appear to enforce law from the outside world, with no interest in the minutiae of life inside the school. Their disinterest in the experience of the school, of the feelings and statements of women and girls as individuals and as a group, is symbolic of much of women’s suffering in a world in which women are treated as lesser than men and a hindrance to patriarchal order. This final appearance of a structure of male sensibility, presented without the male gaze, highlights further the misunderstanding amongst men and women; there are occurrences at the school that these men do not comprehend, and their attempts to present some solution render them all but useless.

In the United States, Olivia was released as The Pit of Loneliness, attributing to it some greater sense of melodrama than was contained in the film, and thus aligning it with a number of other Hollywood pictures about isolated women, like The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948). But Olivia has a lasting power and uniqueness, as much due to its classical French origins as in spite of them. That the actress playing the title role was prompted to change her name to Marie-Claire Olivia was perhaps due to the powerful sensuality of the script and of her interactions with Feuillère and Simon on screen. Whether or not you interpret Olivia as condemning lesbian desire, Audry’s film manages to explore complexities and subtleties in how women act in their relationships and in their professional spaces, precisely by allowing them an unresolvable ambiguity.


Monday, 13 January 2020

A New Film a Day in 2020 (6) – WOMAN IN HIDING (Michael Gordon, USA, 1950)


As part of a run through of Ida Lupino’s career, I came across this title, made at Universal in 1950 by the unfashionable Michael Gordon.

The convoluted plot is a breathtaker. Ida, as Deborah opens in a car careening far too fast along a country road until it crashes over a bridge into a river. Twenty seven minutes later it has been revealed just how all that happened and the sequence is replayed (spoiler alert) but this time we see that the brakes and doors have been tampered with. Deborah has married in a rush and the honeymoon night is ruined when her new husband’s old flame shows up with a gun.

Deborah makes her escape and goes searching for the old flame who, inconveniently, is out of town for a while. She takes on a new identity but the husband (stone-faced Stephen McNally) knows she’s not dead and wants to find her so that he can take over her family’s business. She is befriended by a smiling drifter (played by Ida’s then husband Howard Duff) but he’s interested in the reward money until….lashings of plot…

…and so on until a noir-filled ending in the much desired factory, the location where the husband has previously offed Deborah’s father via an ‘accident’. The black and white photography by William Daniels, especially in the climax, is, to put it mildly, sensational and Gordon even manages to get some semblance of suspense into the chase around the factory stairs. The villainess/thwarted lover is played by Peggy Dow, quite a beauty. 

A rip-snorting 92 minutes with Ida yet again demonstrating that she could do a woman in peril like no other. 

Sunday, 12 January 2020

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison unearths the South Korean blockbuster ASHFALL (Byung-seo Kim & Hae-jun Lee)

Cecil B. De Mille once explained that a good film should start with an earthquake and develop to a crescendoWell now we've got another one of those. After Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and the Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, include Byung-seo Kim and Hae-jun Lee’s Ashfall which is being pushed as an event film for South Korean cinema and is headed up by their big stars Byung-Hun Lee (I Saw the Devil, the new Magnificent Seven, P.S.A.) and Jung-woo Ha (The Handmaiden, 1987, Yellow Sea). Their unit are trying to do an effects super spectacle for a mere seventeen million U.S dollars. But that’s not the problem.

The opening holds promise with Ha’s team in their Hurt Locker gear digging out a rusted bomb.  But he is bored with all the procedures, takes off his face mask and bangs the thing with a spanner. They’ve never had one go off in the history of the unit and he’s only got a day to go before his retirement anyway. He’s going to take off with his pregnant wife Suzy Bae.

However, (the fictional) Baekdu Mountain volcano is about to blow and take three quarters of the peninsula with it. Scruffy professor Dong-seok Ma, who predicted it years back, has a plan. They have to send a unit into North Korea, steal the nukes they are surrendering there as part of the de-nuclearisation program and use them to blow up a copper mine next to the magma lakes. That will drain off the menace. So a secret nuclear explosion on the Chinese border without telling the Americans who are racing in with their weapons leveled. 

The plan’s guide is the imprisoned double agent Lee, located by a G.P.S. transmitter under his skin. He’s got issues of his own having been in the cage so long that his daughter by his junkie wife may not recognise him. To give them credit, none of the on-screen characters has much confidence in this. Well, it’s only a movie Ingrid.  

Never the less Ha and his (sadly under-characterised) lot suit up to fly the in the plane next to one full of elite troops who are going to do all the rough stuff. Of course Ha and Lee end up forming an uneasy partnership to complete the mission.

The explosions, earthquake and tidal wave are quite well realised and there are a few nice touches like using toppled statues of The Great Leader to locate their way through the chaos. Killer is that we keep on getting things that were better in other films – the quake fissure running along the buildings in Aftershock, the macho types dropping out to leave the tech guys to do the heroics in Executive Decision, the military only equipped with non-lethal ammunition in Southern Comfort, or the speeding escape vehicle showered with big bang debris in Chain Reaction just for starters. At least they don’t outrun the shockwave here.

We end up with an action effects piece undermined by familiar plot and visuals. Finally, it’s kind of boring – occasionally accomplished film making wrapped around a core of cliché. 

We’ve seen the leads do better.