Nanook of the North – Inspiring Documentary Film 1922

Nanook of the North – Inspiring Documentary Film 1922

Goodness me, where to begin? It is not often that I notice a masterpiece while I am watching it, but Nanook was just that. This was a documentary film made in the early 1920s, after two failed attempts in the 1910s. It follows Nanook, a master hunter in the Ungava region of Hudson’s Bay in Canada, and his family through their life in the Arctic wilderness.

Inuits from the Ungava region of Hudson’s Bay, Nanook, his wife Nyla and their infant son survive the Arctic wilderness by adhering to traditional methods of ice fishing, igloo building, and walrus, fox and seal hunting.
This is a black and white, silent 100 year old film. This is a hard sell for many but I tend to throw myself into films without much research. This movie, directed by Robert J. Flaherty, was the first commercially successful feature length documentary film. Flaherty followed Nanook and his family for one year and portrayed the most surprising and harsh episodes from the life of the family. We see their eating habits, hunting, sleeping habits and even their building of an igloo. The film is silent but for some music, though I have seen some showings available with live music. This must be quite an experience!
Flaherty consciously selected his cast and suggested episodes to convey the harshness of Nanook’s struggle with his forbidding environment. But rather than breaking the rules of the still-undefined documentary tradition, Flaherty worked according to the principles of Inuit art, by which the spirit of an artefact emerges during its creation and not as the result of some preconceived design. Consequently, this remains a remarkable piece of film-making and humanist anthropology… Empire
Why do I like this film? I have read and can dismiss some of the critics’ concerns about the family’s clothing being old, the igloo being too large (to accommodate for the cameras) and the selected episodes chosen to convey some drama. However, in spite of this, I believe this to be a relatively faithful portrayal of a family’s life. Indeed, some of the members of Nanook’s family ended up helping the camera crew, manning cameras and fixing some of the tripod legs as filming went on. I was moved by the lengths to which Nanook would go to protect his family and provide for them in the almost un-livable wasteland they inhabited. The ingenuity of the Inuit methods of survival are such that at points I could not quite believe what I was watching. Overall this was a very impressive and moving portrayal of a family living in impossible conditions, and, as the director notes in the opening slides, being among the happiest people in the world in so doing.

Please do watch this film. It is on Youtube for free.

Operation Mincemeat – Historically Good Fun

Operation Mincemeat – Historically Good Fun

Operation Mincemeat itself was a successful 1943 deception operation, designed to convince the Nazis that Britain would invade Greece rather than Sicily. The result of this deception would be that the Nazis would move their resources to Greece, enabling the Allies to invade Sicily with little to no resistance. The deception method used was quite unique. Two British spies Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), working alongside Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), obtain the body of a homeless man, stash faked secret documents on it, invent a personality and background for him and have him wash up on a Spanish beach.

Though occasionally undone by its Sunday-teatime tendencies, this is a spirited and gently entertaining slice of wartime espionage, with sharp, wry performances from the ensemble cast.
This was a good film overall, the performances were solid and the two former Mr Darcy’s were a formidable team. The tension of the operation was well presented. I was not fond of the unnecessary and fruitless love triangle which distracted us from the main plot. Also there were two instances of gratuitous suggestive action on the part of a British double agent in Spain. These were totally unnecessary and rather put me off.
This is another of the “home front wartime” Britfilms, such as Munich: The Edge of War, Their Finest, The Imitation Game and Darkest Hour, all probably inspired by the Oscar-winning success of The King’s Speech, which have their emphasis on domestic morale, strategic ingenuity and political shenanigans, rather than battlefield action. Operation Mincemeat is watchable enough, but perhaps can’t find a fictional way into the stranger-than-fiction outrageousness of the scheme itself. Guardian
Overall however, this is a comfortable film, with excellent costuming, solid performances and wonderful set design. See the trailer below:
Everything Everywhere All At Once – Explosive, Visionary Brilliance

Everything Everywhere All At Once – Explosive, Visionary Brilliance

I almost feel that I cannot write this review. What I saw at the cinema was beyond my powers of description. Michelle Yeoh, James Hong, Stephanie Hsu and Jamie Lee Curtis are a powerhouse team. Evelyn (Yeoh) is juggling so many aspects of 21st Century living, while losing touch with her daughter (Hsu) and becoming estranged from her husband (Hong).

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is trying to complete her tax audit, throw a Chinese New Year party to impress her father (James Hong), navigate a possible divorce and avoid alienating daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). She’s also the last hope of the multiverse — tasked with fighting an evil entity threatening to destroy, well, everything. Empire

The first scenes of the film set out the difficulty of Evelyn’s situation. She ignores her husband who is filing for divorce, she has estranged her lesbian daughter, she is terrified of disappointing her father and worse, she must face Jamie Lee Curtis who plays a phenomenal role as a very physical tax auditor called Deirdre Beaubeirdra. Incidentally, Deidre has won multiple awards for her steadfastness. The shape of the award itself will not be described on this blog. From there, a version of her husband from a parallel universe (the Alphaverse, don’t you know), explains to her that a great evil is coming (Jobu Tupaki “an agent of pure chaos”)and that she was the only one who could save the world. He opens her mind to a multitude of alternative universes where she can be whatever she wants to be: a chef, a martial art star, and a famous actress. From the point where her Alphaverse husband passes her a note ending in “don’t forget to breathe”, the film takes off.

Evelyn must Verse jump to learn and use skills from her alternative selves and take on the forces of Jobu Tupaki. What follows are some of the wildest, most inventive, mind blowing fight scenes I have ever seen. There are so many things I have never seen in film before, and some things I hope never to see again (an alternative universe where Evelyn and Deirdre are lovers, with hotdogs for hands, for one).

It is thunderously cinematic, revelling in the simplicity of filmmaking’s most basic tools, while deploying them to their maximum potential. And it is brilliantly performed — Stephanie Hsu is revelatory as the multifaceted Joy; Quan is astonishing in his cinematic comeback, an action master who’ll make your heart explode too; Jamie Lee Curtis has a blast exaggerating the monstrous physicality of a no-bullshit tax officer; and Yeoh is perfection, drawing on every skill from every role she’s ever played to bring Evelyn’s many lives to life. Empire

The backbone of this extraordinary and sensory overloading film is that this is a family story. At its heart is a mother trying to re-connect with her daughter and husband, having allowed the noise of modern life to get in the way of what matters. There is a very touching scene where one of the universes visited saw Evelyn and Joy as two rocks, perched above a beautiful canyon. They are discussing the meaning of life and wondering whether they will discover some greater truth which will make them feel like “even smaller pieces of sh*t”. This film is about acceptance and it is wild in its portrayal of filial and parental duty. I shall leave Empire to have the final word, as their eloquence is something to which I can only aspire:

A pure firework display of technical bravado, wild invention, emotional storytelling, comedic genius, action mastery and outstanding performances, Everything Everywhere All At Once is everything cinema was invented for. Empire

Belle De Jour – A Catholic Film?

Belle De Jour – A Catholic Film?

Now, by the below description, one would not think about this movie primarily as a Catholic film, but perhaps it is worth talking about it a bit further. Referred to as Bruñuel’s most accessible film, we see the story of Severine (Deneuve) exploring herself through a serious of increasingly disturbing sexual experiences, much to the eventual chagrin of her husband (Sorel). There are spoilers ahead, of course.

While contentedly married to a doctor, Severine cannot bring herself to commit sexually. Instead, she indulges in wild erotic fantasies, leading her, unbeknownst to her husband, to become a prostitute in the afternoons.
In my research, it has been said that Bruñuel, born a Catholic, was highly critical of the Church while being unable to shake his ingrained convictions much in the same way that Ingmar Bergman was unable to shake his Protestant ones. Indeed in Bruñuel’s early films (Un Chien Andalou, and especially in L’Age D’Or) the church is criticised particularly as being an aged institution which gets in the way of one having perfectly natural and fun pre-marital sex. Belle De Jour seems, on first viewing, to be confirming the view he has espoused previously but ends up, in my view, supporting the Church’s position without perhaps the director being aware of it.

The principles and advantages of chastity are perhaps beyond the scope of this post (I try to keep them to 300 words but often fail!), however, it is clear that the director understands them. From the first, we see Severine distracted by dream sequences in which she explores her fantasies. There is an extraordinary opening scene where she is riding in a horse and carriage with haunting bells attached to the horses followed by a scene where Severine is tied to a tree and whipped by the carriage drivers. She then wakes up from this dream when her husband asks her what she was thinking about, she replies “I was thinking about us”. This is the first in a series of increasingly shocking dream sequences. Severine is aware that her thoughts are not helping her marriage and increasing the distance between her and her husband, but continues to have them throughout the film.

Severine being shown how to be a good employee

The main thrust of my argument was germinated in my mind when Severine is about to start working at the brothel. I say brothel but it more of a maison than an underground seedy club that one might more typically associate with the word. She looks down the stairs and has a flash back to being in church as a child, presumably during her first communion. She refuses the body of Christ to a much puzzled priest. Then she enters the brothel and things deteriorate from there for her. As she increases in proficiency at her work in the afternoons at the brothel, her dream sequences become increasingly more degrading. On one stage she is tied to a post and has mud flung at her by her husband and friend Piccoli (Henri Husson) while murmuring she loves her husband. This points to her deteriorating mental state, in my view on account of her employ. The multitudes of men, some in and one outside of the brothel, the degrading acts, colourful in their variety but never explicit, and the increasing distance that indulging in these fantasies puts between her and her husband puts Severine in a state of mental anguish.

The last half an hour of the film sees Severine meet her final lover, Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), whose casual encounter develops into an obsession on both sides. Severine’s husband confronts her while they are on a beach holiday. She keeps asking to go back to Paris and her husband begins to suspect that something is keeping her there. Though he does not make the obvious leap in logic until it is too late for him. The film culminates in the conclusion of Marcel’s obsession. Severine is confronted by Piccoli in the brothel and decides to quit forever, without telling Marcel. Marcel, an intuitive cocaine merchant and career criminal, has her followed home. He makes it into her apartment and threatens to wait for Severine’s husband and tell all. When Severine finally convinces him to leave, he picks up a picture of Severine’s husband and pronounces “voila l’obstacle”. He then goes down the stairs, shoots the husband, crippling him for life, and is subsequently killed himself by a Police officer who gives chase.

Severine looking after her husband

Why is this a Catholic tale? For me, on my second viewing of the film, Belle de Jour seems to warn against indulging one’s fantasies. It seems to showcase, at times dramatically, the possible outcomes of living an illicit life or by not investing the energy of sexual fantasies into one’s marriage. Indeed it seems to make the case for chastity, both in terms of self indulgence and taking multiple partners. Belle de Jour is stating in the clearest reading that indulging your fantasies will lead to the death of your marriage. While this is a comedic film, I don’t think even viewers without their red Catholic hat on can conclude that Belle did not come out better for her indulgences in the end. While Bruñuel seems to be criticising the Catholic church, he ends up quite supporting one of its core tenets, the call to be chaste, both inside and outside the marriage. The call to put the core of one’s sexual life in the other, in the proper context, not based in the self, as Severine’s is. The perilous outcomes are self evident from this film.

 

The French Dispatch – Latest Wes

The French Dispatch – Latest Wes

Is the French Dispatch Wes Anderson’s best film? I don’t think so. I enjoyed an evening at the Prince Charles Cinema in London which covered all of Wes’ films and advertisements up to and including The Grand Budapest. It was a delightful evening and helped me appreciate the full panoply of Wes’ genius. I feel at this stage that Wes has achieved everything he wants to cinematographically and is at the stage where he is having fun. The film is split into three distinctive chapters, none of which are really linked. It felt to me like a concise The Meaning of Life – itself a string of collected sketches with a vague almost superfluous backing direction.

Bill Murray as Arthur Howitzer Jr., the editor in chief of The French Dispatch

Tilda Swinton as writer J. K. L. Berensen

Owen Wilson as writer Herbsaint Sazerac

Adrien Brody as art dealer Julian Cadazio

Benicio Del Toro as Moses Rosenthaler, an imprisoned artist

Léa Seydoux as Rosenthaler’s prison guard and muse

Frances McDormand as journalist Lucinda Krementz

Timothée Chalamet as Zeffirelli, a student revolutionary

Lyna Khoudri as Juliette, a fellow student rebel

Jeffrey Wright as food journalist Roebuck Wright

The main premise of the film is that the editor of the French Dispatch, a newspaper, has died. His will contained a stipulation that the paper would be disbanded. Therefore the film shows how three journalists from the film put together articles for the final issue. The first ‘bit’ of this colourful triumvirate showed an enigmatic Owen Wilson, playing Herbsaint Sazerac, cycling around Ennui-sur-Blasé, a fictitious French town. He sets the scene for the film beautifully.

The movie takes the form of the magazine’s final issue, which features Howitzer’s obituary; a brief travelogue by a writer named Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), which shows, in a thumbnail sketch, how the publication’s tone and substance has evolved; and three long feature articles. The features, each running about a half hour, catch the grand preoccupations and varied subjects of the magazine’s writers, and the combination of style and substance that marks their literary work—and Anderson’s cinema. New Yorker

The first element of the film is strong, telling the tale of an artist in a mental asylum making sensational art with his muse, one of the prison officers. Tilda Swinton narrates this part in admirable fashion, bringing her full weirdness. The performance reminded me of the sterling job she did as Mancunian train warden in Snowpiercer. She and Wes are indeed uniquely suited for one another.

The first section, a portrait of a criminally insane artist (Benicio del Toro), is a sly pleasure, not least because it’s narrated by Tilda Swinton as arts correspondent JKL Berensen, a fabulously glamorous creature with buck teeth, a tangerine evening dress and the tantalising hint of a scandalous past. Guardian

The third element was a little contrived for me, telling the story of a chess loving, cheroot smoking student activist and his journey for some left wing ideal of other. In the process we get to see Timothée Chalamet in bed with Frances McDormand and other disturbing sights. There is a resplendent moment when he is on a motorbike with Lyna Khoudri, riding away, the lighting and slow motion of this film captures the beauty of juvenile freedom, likely based in ignorance, and the fresh untainted sheen of young love. A stirring moment which probably ranks as one of the high points of the film.

“The French Dispatch” contains an overwhelming and sumptuous profusion of details. This is true of its décor and costumes, its variety of narrative forms and techniques (live action, animation, split screens, flashbacks, and leaps ahead, among many others), its playful breaking of the dramatic frame with reflexive gestures and conspicuous stagecraft, its aphoristic and whiz-bang dialogue, and the range of its performances, which veer in a heartbeat from the outlandishly facetious to the painfully candid. New Yorker.

Finally, the third segment comprises “a food review turned heist thriller narrated by and starring Jeffrey Wright at his most mellifluous and charming (Guardian)”. This was the best part of the film, and I am not saying that only because I run a food ish blog. This was an exciting segment with rich sumptuous shots, with a mixture of live action and animation. The script was fantastic, the tension done perfectly, and the culinary direction was quite spectacular. This was all the more personal for the discussions of difficulties of being homosexual and black at the time the film was set, as well as the harrowing prospect of living in exile in Ennui, something Wright and the head chef Nescaffier (Steve Park) discuss towards the end of the segment.

Wright tells his story from the stage of a TV talk show (the host is played by Liev Schreiber, with a brilliant deadpan reserve), where he proves his “typographic memory” by reciting his article verbatim. It then gets dramatized onscreen, with Wright talking to the camera as the events unfold. New Yorker.

Overall, while I was dazzled by the visual artistry and delivery of this film, I can’t say it was my favourite Wes film. My favourite is, of course, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There were visual delights and monstrously strong elements in this film but it lacked a certain soul and direction. It was, as I have written, a pastiche of Wes-isms and an insightful journey into what an artist can achieve post-success.

Fargo – Politest Kidnapping Ever Attempted – 1996

Fargo – Politest Kidnapping Ever Attempted – 1996

The brothers Coen have succeeded in putting together a thrilling kidnap mystery. Set in snowy rural Minnesota, Fargo tells the story of a botched kidnapping plot hatched by an incompetent used car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), which is painstakingly and politely unravelled by ace trooper Marge Gunderson (Mc Dormand). Lundegaard hires two incompetent criminals (Buscemi, Stomrmare) to kidnap his wife and exact a ransom from her rich father. Minnesota is renown for being a particularly politely peopled place, and this film heaps niceties on you like spades, which is perhaps my favourite part of it.

William H. Macy … Jerry Lundegaard

Frances McDormand … Marge Gunderson

John Carroll Lynch … Norm Gunderson

Steve Buscemi … Carl Showalter

Peter Stormare … Gaear Grimsrud

Kristin Rudrüd … Jean Lundegaard

Harve Presnell … Wade Gustafson

Tony Denman … Scotty Lundegaard

The Coens are still a million miles from Hollywood staple, but with Fargo’s comic felicity, gun-packing coolness and ability to come up with the totally unexpected, they maintain their place among America’s most important filmmakers. Excellent. Empire
Gunderson’s investigation into the murder of a state trouper, killed during the botched kidnapping, is at times monotone but methodical and relentless. She breaks her politeness once saying to Lundergaard “you have no call to get snippy with me”, which in itself is sensational. See the snippy snippet below. I won’t share the whole scene as it does contain some spoilers. Why do I like this? Likely because it is one of the consistent comedic moments which are scattered throughout the film. We also have Showalter’s (Buscemi) constant and increasingly gory fumbles as he is trying to obtain payment for his illicit activities, which add a layer of levity to an otherwise quite serious topic.

 

The dark and cold weigh down everything, and in the middle, in their warm cocoon, are Chief Marge and her hubby, Norm, the painter of ducks. Without them, “Fargo” might have been “In Cold Blood” laced with unseemly humor. The Coens sometimes seem to scorn their characters, but their love for Marge redeems “Fargo.” Marge is the catalyst, and her speech at the end is Shakespearean in the way it heals wounds and restores order…Roger Ebert

Fargo is a dense film of tremendous merit. The dogged pursuit of the truth and exposing of the pathetic criminals trying to dupe Gunderson was destined to end poorly. There are so many memorable scenes and tropes: the coldness of the third rate kidnappers as contrasted with the coldness of Lundergaard’s father in law (Presnell), the disappointment of Mr Gunderson’s performance in a duck painting competition and the constant unending nightmarish pressure on Lundegaard himself make this a special film. I recommend it very highly indeed.