Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Fallen Leaves

Coming six years after Aki Kaurismäki announced his retirement from filmmaking, Fallen Leaves feels like a return to very familiar territory. The director’s last two features were unusually explicit in their commentary on the social issues of our time, with both Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017) engaging directly with Europe’s migrant crisis. Kaurismäki’s new film harkens back to the small-scale stories of ordinary Finns with which he made his reputation; in fact, it has been labelled a belated fourth instalment of his Proletariat Trilogy, which consists of Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990).

That’s not to suggest Kaurismäki is turning away entirely from current events. In Fallen Leaves, every time Ansa (Alma Pöysti) switches on the radio, she hears another grim update from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a conflict that weighs heavily on the Finnish psyche thanks to the country’s shared border with Russia. The precarious state of labour rights in the modern world is also at the forefront of Kaurismäki’s thoughts here. Ansa works as a supermarket shelf-stacker until she is reprimanded for giving expired food to a homeless man and taking a microwave meal home for herself rather than throwing it into the garbage as instructed. Employed on a zero-hours contract, Ansa is summarily dismissed with no compensation – and it was perhaps serendipitous that on the same day this reviewer watched Fallen Leaves, the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK) began a series of strike actions in protest at the newly elected right-wing government’s proposed changes to workers’ rights and welfare benefits.

Monday, November 27, 2023

"Marty and I share Michael and his movies, we share that legacy, and both of us want to do everything we can to sustain it." - An Interview with Thelma Schoonmaker

Tim Whitby/BFI

For more than fifty years, Thelma Schoonmaker's name has been associated with two of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history. As Martin Scorsese's editor, she has played an integral role in an extraordinary body of work. She first edited Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door in 1967, before union rules enforced a long separation. They reunited for Raging Bull in 1980 and she has subsequently cut every one of his films, including this year's magnificent Killers of the Flower Moon. Her work has earned her three Academy Awards to date, and her style has encompassed everything from the the drug-fuelled intensity of Goodfellas, to the elegant yearning of The Age of Innocence, the nightmarish mania of Bringing Out the Dead, the wild tonal swings of The Departed, and the overwhelming guilt and sadness of The Irishman.

The other director she has shared her life with is Michael Powell. They were introduced by Scorsese when he brought Powell to America in the late 1970s and they married in 1984, living together until his death in 1990 at the age of 85. During their time together, Schoonmaker helped Powell write and publish his wonderful autobiographies A Life in Movies and Million Dollar Movie, and since his passing, she and Scorsese have dedicated themselves to restoring and promoting his films – both the films he made with his partner Emeric Pressburger, under their banner The Archers, and the films he made alone. The fruits of that three-decade effort can be seen in the BFI's ambitious retrospective Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell and Pressburger, which involves nationwide screenings, screenings of new and archive prints, an exhibition and a number of book publications.

Thelma Schoonmaker was in London recently to promote the BFI season and present a number of events, and it was my great pleasure and privilege to spend time with her at the BFI Southbank to discuss her late husband's life and career.

There was a letter from Ian Christie in The Guardian the other day and he was talking about the Powell and Pressburger retrospective that the BFI held in the 1970s, which began the revival of their reputations.

Yes, it was very important. Marty came over and found Michael, I think in '75, and Ian was working with Marty too, showing him Powell and Pressburger films that he had never seen. That was an amazing retrospective, the first one. It was 38 films, I think. Then the Museum of Modern Art did a really big one in New York, after Marty started bringing Michael to America.

It's really shocking when you look back and contemplate just how forgotten they were before they started being rediscovered through these retrospectives. How do you account for that?

The more I'm here and talking to people, I've begun to see that when there was a big political change after the war, and the Labour government came in with the NHS and all these things, people thought that the films were old-fashioned and colonial, and they just threw the baby out with the bath water. It was terrible. I think the kitchen sink school is what most people knew, they just didn't know about these films. Somebody said to me it was considered almost a betrayal to look at them because they were 'colonial,' which they are not. They're about human beings around the world. Michael always said we should be making films for the world, not for Britain. I was once with him when he was on the stage answering questions, and somebody asked him, "What do you think about the terrible condition of the British film industry?" and Michael said, "Why should there be a British film industry? We should be making films for the world."

Of course, Emeric being European, and Michael having spent a great deal of time in France because of his father's hotel, he was interested in the world, he wasn't just interested in specific things, like the kitchen sink school was about. It was the end of the war, and maybe people had had enough of the war, and the films were made during the war, so maybe they just said, "I don't want to see any more of that, I've seen enough of that, let's move on." It was a terrible, terrible mistake and they suffered so badly, but Michael never became bitter and he kept on dreaming. He dreamed and wrote scripts for a hundred different ideas in the last thirty years of his life, which is astounding. He never gave up but it was a terrible blow and he was so financially strapped towards the end, when Marty came and found him.

I have to say, it's one of my favourite stories in film history, how Scorsese went and found this forgotten great director, brought him back to America, and then he met you and fell in love. It seems he got a whole new lease of life in this last decade and got the happy ending that he deserved.

Yes, and there's a wonderful picture of him in Seattle, where we had just screened I Know Where I'm Going! The audience went nuts, they were a very young audience, and Michael is standing like this [Thelma covers her face with her hands] because he's just so overwhelmed by this reaction! It's lucky that he did get to see it all come back. You know, he was an optimist and he had me put on his grave, 'Michael Powell: Film Director and Optimist,' and that's how he managed to survive these terrible years. Some people would have become bitter, I think.

Oh, most definitely, especially after the Peeping Tom reaction, which was so violent.

And I think that's because the critics couldn't handle feeling sympathy for him, it just flipped them out. Wait a minute, this man is a serial killer and I'm feeling sympathy for him? Michael described him as "attractive, gentle, sweet and completely mad," and that is such a powerful thing about the movie. He never made movies with heroes and villains, it was always something else in between, and that's the way Scorsese is. That's why these movies appeal to him, they are investigating things the way he does. It was a tragic thing but thank God we're living to see it come back, and he saw a lot of it come back.

It's interesting to look back at the reviews from even the celebrated Powell and Pressburger films from earlier. It seems like critics often struggled with these films and didn't quite know what to do with them.

Yeah, because they were unusual and they weren't telling you what to think – Marty hates that, when a movie is telling you what to think. They're full of surprises, they want you to engage. You know, how many films were these critics watching every week? They wanted something they could just write down, but here's this thing that's odd and very, very different, and they couldn't quite handle it. So Peeping Tom needed to be destroyed – this is evil, it's making us feel sympathy towards this killer – and they got so violent about it. Ian Christie says that some of the trade reviews were actually not bad and there was an internal memo about the movie, that Anglo-Amalgamated had hired somebody and he was very positive about the movie, but the distributors pulled it. Michael said, "I know the reviews are bad but leave it in the theatres, let's see what people think," and they didn't, and they should have, because maybe it would have survived.

He writes about that in his book, that he had more faith in the audience being grown-up enough to handle it than anybody else did.

That's right. He said, "I think the critics lead very sheltered lives." Now it's considered a masterpiece, you know? There was one print in America, I think some collector had it, and somehow that group of directors – Coppola, Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Lucas – they all saw the movie and knew about it when it wasn't available anywhere. Then Marty got it entered in the New York Film Festival, where it was a huge hit, and got it distributed in America very briefly.

It's always been a big presence in my life because when I first moved to London my office was right next to Newman Passage so I would think about Peeping Tom every time I went on my lunch break.

You know, he took Marty and me to Newman Passage. We had a wonderful dinner in his favourite restaurant, which was on Charlotte Street, and then walked over to Newman Passage, and that was so great for Marty.

I love reading Michael's memoirs and I know you spent many years in the 1980s helping him put those books together. What was that experience like for you?

Oh, it was so rich. What happened was, his eyesight began to fail from macular degeneration, he could see but he couldn't read. He wrote the first beautiful chapter of his childhood by hand, and it's a beautiful manuscript that I gave to Marty, I think it's actually at the BFI now. From that point on, I gave him a little recorder, and while I was editing, he would spend all day recording. No notes, he had to keep this all in his brain, I don't know how he did the structure of the book that way. Anyway, it was a thrill for me. I would transcribe what he dictated, and then on Sundays, our favourite day, we would never get out of our bathrobes and I would read back to him what he had written that week. We would construct it, edit it a bit, and it was a thrill to be sharing that with him.

There were times when both of us would break down. His mother was a great influence on him, she loved art of any form, and she made an artist out of Michael. At one point, she had never been to Stonehenge, and she was on a bike with Michael behind her, I think he was around ten. They were pedalling towards Stonehenge and there was a terrible storm, and she looked back at her son and she decided that she would never get to Stonehenge and she turned around. Michael and I would just burst into tears! So it was a thrill to work with him on it, and he's such a good writer, he could have been a writer instead of a film director except his mother took him to a silent film, and that was it! [Laughs]

That was also a very prolific period for you and Scorsese, so it must have been hard to balance that work with helping Michael produce these two very dense books.

It was hard, but of course Marty would do anything for Michael Powell, anything. He was also terribly important in getting it published in America. It was published here first, but the first volume was published in America by Knopf with a very great editor Robert Gottlieb, who has just died, but the person who took over from him just refused to do the second volume. Marty and I found somebody who would possibly publish it, we had him for lunch and we talked up Michael Powell, and the second volume got published by another publishing house. So Marty was always there for Michael, and I must say working on the book was heaven, it was a great thing to share. Marty and I share Michael and his movies, we share that legacy, and both of us want to do everything we can to sustain it. To be working as an editor on Killers of the Flower Moon and often talking about Michael Powell, to see if we can do this or get that done, it's pretty wonderful.

Scorsese also used Powell as a consultant on a lot of his movies in that period. I love the letter Powell wrote to Scorsese with his notes on the Goodfellas script. It must have been a year or so before he died but you can sense his enthusiasm and how fired up he still was by the business of making movies.

Well, he is responsible for it getting made. What happened was, on a Sunday when we had been working on the book, I had been talking to him about how Marty couldn't sell Goodfellas because the studio said you have to take the drugs out. He said, “That's the whole story, I can't take the drugs out!” and he was very depressed because he had tried over and over again. So Michael said, read me the script, so I read him the script, and he said, "Get Marty on the phone." I did and he said, "Marty, you have to make this movie, it's the best script I have read in twenty years. You have to do it." Marty went in one more time and sold it, and then Michael didn't live to see it, which was very sad. You know, he thought Mean Streets was a masterpiece and he would say to me as we were walking down the streets of New York, "Why isn't Mean Streets playing somewhere every day of the year here? This is an outrage!" [Laughs]

Scorsese has often talked about how Powell and Pressburger films influenced his lighting and framing of shots. As an editor, how were you influenced by them? I am always particularly taken aback by the beauty and imagination of the transitions in their films.

Yes, very much so. Scorsese is a great editor, he taught me everything I know. He is always thinking about transitions and he loved the transitions in the Powell and Pressburger films. We often think about them just for the influence of mood when making our films. The one important thing that Michael Powell said to us was, "Never explain," and that's what has happened in Killers of the Flower Moon. Marty said, "I am not making a documentary about the Osage nation, it's got to be something different with them completely involved." Michael also said that you have to always stay ahead of your audience because they are ahead of you, so what we love is that there is no explanation, there are surprises all the time. He's pulling you ahead as an audience, he respects you, and therefore he is willing to give you challenges that might make a studio say, "Oh no, that's too much." I mean, we fight that battle on every movie! But I'll never forget that from Michael...never explain.

He really loved Marty's films. He gave us the ending for After Hours and I'm sure you've read that he said to Marty that there was something wrong with the red gloves when he was watching the video of Raging Bull, and Marty said it had to be black-and-white. We had so much trouble with fundamentalists when we were making Last Temptation, we actually had bodyguards on Marty at that time. We screened our rough cuts quite a few times, and we'd recut and talk to people, and finally he allowed Michael to see it. Michael stood up at the end and there were tears running down his face. I looked at Marty sitting beside me, and I thought, Oh my God, what a gift! He was always there for Marty even in some troubled times.

Well, one of the key ideas in Michael's career is that art is worth fighting for.

Oh, absolutely.

It reminds me of a great bit in 49th Parallel where Leslie Howard is beating up a Nazi and as he punches him he's shouting, "That's for Picasso! That's for Matisse!" It's a funny scene but I think it represents something that he believed in.

That's right. When he made Peeping Tom he knew that it was daring. He always wanted to be ahead of his time and making something new and fresh and interesting, but he knew that if you were someone like that you were out on a limb and you could be easily sawed off, and that's what happened. He said, "I would rather be sawed off than be conventional," and that was very gutsy. He had seen great artists destroyed, you know, like Rex Ingram, Louis B. Mayer destroyed Rex Ingram. Michael adored Ingram and his brilliance. He was in LA when Black Narcissus got an Oscar for cinematography and he went to see Ingram, who hadn't made a movie in years. He was saddened to see him that way, but he knew because he was brave and daring, that's what happens.

Powell and Pressburger had their own battles in Hollywood with The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth. It must have been so hard for Michael to have his vision constrained in that way, because they had enjoyed such freedom in the 40s.

Exactly, and Marty says that during the war it was the most subversive period in filmmaking ever in a major studio, because nobody paid any attention to them. They were commercially viable except for A Canterbury Tale, so J. Arthur Rank just let them go until he saw The Red Shoes and that was it. He said it was terrible, he tried to kill it, and then it became one of the largest grossing movies ever. It was a very accidental thing that the war came at the same time so they were left alone, I mean, Marty is very jealous of that! We've had to fight so hard. We've fought on almost every movie, not the last couple, against some really stupid ideas, and we fight to the death.

One reason they were commercially viable was because they worked on quite modest budgets, and that's so hard to believe when you watch the movies. I mean, I don't think any film has ever evoked infinity like A Matter of Life and Death does. When I watch these films I often have no idea how they achieved what they did.

I know! Even the opening shot. We do visual effects all the time now, but how did they do that then without digital? Their budgets were terribly low, Michael only shot one take, and if you screwed up he could be rather nasty. But because they did only one take that meant they had less in the editing room than someone like Scorsese, who might do five or six and together we decide. They were very lucky, but boy, they paid so dearly later.

A lot of the conversation around The Archers tends to focus on a handful of great films. If there was one lesser known title you'd push people to see, what would it be?

I think Gone to Earth is one. Selznick was notorious for meddling and so he would send endless notes every day, which Michael would have his assistant put in a drawer, he never read them. But they knew from the experience with Goldwyn to put in the contract that if he didn't like the movie, they could have their own version. Now Kino Lorber has put out a blu-ray with The Wild Heart on the front cover and I'm so angry! That's not the authentic movie. Of course, we want to restore Gone to Earth but Selznick cut into the original negative and I don't know if we can ever get it back together, but that's one I would recommend to people.

I am looking forward to watching it this weekend on 35mm.

Not The Wild Heart!

No, I’m definitely watching Gone to Earth. There is actually a screening of The Wild Heart later in the season. I've never seen that cut, and I'm curious about it.

I've never seen it, I have to admit. In the documentary that we're making, we found a Canadian interview that nobody knew about with Michael and Emeric, and in it Michael says that when Selznick would come on the set, Jennifer Jones would throw things at him because she didn't want him telling her what she should do. She's terrific in the movie. I haven't seen much of her Hollywood stuff, but I'll bet you this is the best work she ever did, and she loved doing it.

I am so excited about Black Narcissus on nitrate as well. That's my personal favourite and I have been waiting for so many years to see it on a nitrate print.

Oh, it's incredible! I encouraged them to bring it because it really is stunning. There's nothing like nitrate, that silver. It's brilliant. Oh, it's so good that you have a ticket. I bet that has sold out.

Oh yeah, I had to be so quick to book it.

Isn't it wonderful, that the tickets are going so well? Sharing it with people too, Michael always said to me, "I didn't make my movies for someone to sit alone at home and watch them." When we did The Red Shoes restoration it was wonderful to be with people watching it, and I just think it's so great to have this celebration. Something has changed with the young people today, I've noticed. Ian Christie tells me they know the movies and they love them. Recently Scorsese interviewed Joanna Hogg for The Eternal Daughter and I went and there were these huge lines of young people, all under 25. I was one of the two grey heads in that audience! So something is happening, and it's so good to see.

Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger is running at the BFI and at cinemas nationwide until the end of the year.

Saturday, October 07, 2023

Peeping Tom: inside the restoration of Michael Powell’s shocking serial killer drama

If you associate Michael Powell with lush Technicolor dreams or spirited love stories and adventures, then Peeping Tom (1960) will undoubtedly come as a shock. Made three years after he and Emeric Pressburger parted company, Powell’s portrait of a serial killer stars Karlheinz Böhm as the young cameraman who murders women with the sharpened end of his tripod while capturing their agonised final moments on film. The way Powell implicates the viewers’ own voyeurism makes it a uniquely disturbing and provocative experience.

When critics saw Peeping Tom, the response was instant and vitriolic. The film was an aberration, a stain on the reputation of its great director, and the best thing for everyone would be for it to be disposed of and forgotten as quickly as possible. As Michael Powell wrote in his memoirs, the film’s producers gave the critics what they wanted: “They yanked the film from the Plaza, they cancelled the British distribution, and they sold the negative to an obscure black-marketeer of films who tried to forget it, and forgotten it was, along with its director, for twenty years.”

Thankfully, Powell lived to see the critical tide turn on Peeping Tom, and in the years since the director’s death in 1990, its reputation has continued to grow, as has much of Powell and Pressburger’s body of work, thanks in part to the ongoing promotion and restorations undertaken by his friend and admirer Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. It was Scorsese who spearheaded the rediscovery of Peeping Tom, getting it screened to wide acclaim at the New York Film Festival in 1979 and re-released the following year. He brought Powell over to share in the new reactions to the film, paying for the flight to New York, which Powell couldn’t otherwise have afforded.

“To create anything, whether it’s writing or painting or music or dance or cinema, you have to be obsessed,” says Scorsese. “But one can cross the line into danger, easily. Michael Powell didn’t just understand that danger – he lived it. And he actually expressed it in cinematic terms.

“Unlike The Red Shoes, set in the grand world of high culture, Peeping Tom is set at the rock bottom level of low culture, with a protagonist who has already crossed the line. On a plot level, it’s about a serial killer who murders women as he films them. On a deeper level, it’s a portrait of self-destruction by means of cinema – the lenses are scalpels, the splices real cuts that bleed, the celluloid razor wire, and the light of the projector blinding.”

This year, Peeping Tom will be back in the spotlight with a new 4K restoration by The Film Foundation and the BFI National Archive in association with StudioCanal. Ahead of its premiere at the London Film Festival, I spoke to some of the other key players involved in the restoration to find out what goes into such a project.

Monday, October 02, 2023

Dumb Money review

In Wall Street parlance, ‘dumb money’ is a catch-all term for individual and amateur traders, whose investments pale in comparison to the billions managed by hedge funds and capital investment groups. Rarely do the small fish trouble the sharks, but one such conflict occurred in 2020, when YouTuber Keith Gill (Paul Dano) told his small following about his investments in the videogame store GameStop, and the collective will of an online community briefly threatened to topple the hedge funds who had short-sold this stock. Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money positions this as a classic David v Goliath tale, where those with nothing have an opportunity to strike at the hoarders of unimaginable wealth. Each time a character is introduced, an onscreen caption tells us their net worth, from Citadel CEO Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), sitting on $29 billion, all the way down to debt-ridden student Harmony (Talia Ryder), $186k in the red.

Where the Wind Blows review

Where the Wind Blows
has not had a straightforward path to the big screen. Originally set for release towards the end of 2018 under the title Theory of Ambitions, Philip Yung’s follow-up to his acclaimed thriller Port of Call (2015) failed to win approval from China’s National Radio and Television Administration. After years of appeals and re-edits, the film’s premiere was rescheduled for the 2021 Hong Kong International Film Festival, but it was abruptly pulled three days before the screening. ‘Technical reasons’ were cited, although as Variety noted in their report on the incident, ‘technical reasons’ is widely understood in mainland China as a euphemism for censorship.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2023

Ever since I started attending Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, June has been the month I’ve looked forward to more than any other. This year, I had an extra reason to eagerly anticipate it. A few weeks before my regular Italian jaunt this summer, the BFI hosted the inaugural Film on Film Festival; a four-day celebration of celluloid projection in all its forms. Expertly curated by James Bell and Robin Baker, this programme caught the imagination of audiences and generated a buzz that I had never experienced on the South Bank. It was the closest thing to Bologna that I have ever felt in London, and it was a reminder of how special and singular the act of film projection remains in our increasingly digital and disconnected world.

This short festival also acted as a handy teaser for Il Cinema Ritrovato. One of the most exciting events was an ultra-rare screening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand on a nitrate print, which showed off the film's ravishing use of colour to eye-popping effect, and Mamoulian was undoubtedly the star of this year’s Bologna programme. Il Cinema Ritrovato has a history of celebrating studio directors who hopped from genre to genre and adapted to the changing fashions in careers that spanned decades, and through a selection of these features we can see the artistry and thematic consistency that defined these filmmakers.
The Mamoulian strand contained a number of his most celebrated works – including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight and Queen Christina – but I was excited to discover some of the less familiar titles. It was particularly interesting to see how Mamoulian’s style could elevate generic material in the pre-Code City Streets. It’s easy to imagine the mundane crime picture this could have become in the hands of many directors – there’s nothing new in its tale of a racketeer’s daughter (Sylvia Sidney) and her boyfriend (Gray Cooper) getting mixed up in bootlegging – but Mamoulian finds something interesting to look at in almost every scene. Consider the way he uses a burning cigar, or films two men walking down a corridor with one represented as a shadow, or shoots an expositional conversation between two characters by focusing on the cat statues that happen to be in the room.
His elegant direction similarly lit up one of the very best films I saw in Bologna, even though it’s a film that appears to have a poor critical reputation compared to Mamoulian’s other works. We Live Again is an adaptation of Tolstoy's novel Resurrection, and in its opening scenes I felt like I was about to understand why this picture hasn’t received widespread acclaim; the picturesque depiction of 19th century Russian life feels hokey and the dialogue given to Fredric March’s prince as he espouses his socialist ideals is blunt. But as the film progresses, it delves into much more complex emotional territory. After seducing the peasant girl Katusha (Anna Sten), March’s character rises through the ranks and forgets his earlier principles, while Katusha gives birth to a stillborn child and is cast out into the streets. The film becomes a story of a man realising that he has lost something valuable and striving for atonement, and much of this conflict plays out on March’s face, with the actor expressing his inner anguish in a few intense and nuanced close-ups. With sharp script contributions from Preston Sturges and gorgeous cinematography from Gregg Toland, this is a handsome and absorbing production, but what really sets it apart is its subtle approach to character, its frank take on sex (the ‘morning after’ scene made our audience gasp) and its sincere spirituality. It’s the ultimate example of what curator Ehsan Khoshbakht wryly described as Mamoulian’s ongoing fascination with “the holy and the horny.”

The other director receiving the retrospective treatment in Bologna this year was Teinosuke Kinugasa, whose work beyond A Page of Madness and Gate of Hell has rarely been seen outside of Japan. The selection presented here was a mixed bag, but there’s no doubting Kinugasa’s eye for a striking composition, even in a film as severely compromised as his 1935 version of An Actor’s Revenge, which was hacked down from its original five-hour running time and is now barely comprehensible. Kinugasa’s vision aligned most beautifully with the material in the epic drama Dedication of the Great Buddha, which details the creation of a Buddha statue in 8th century Japan. This is a film about the creative process, artistic jealousy and political machinations, as the humble sculptor (Kazuo Hasegawa) enlisted for the project has to face myriad rivals and antagonists who threaten to sabotage him. Kinugasa brilliantly creates an imposing sense of scale and the scenes of construction are worthy of comparison with the bell-casting in Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. It’s an astonishing film that poignantly expresses the toll that this arduous project took on the men who did it: "My life...for this."

The Kinugasa selection in Bologna was a mere fraction of this extraordinarily prolific director’s body of work. Others had a much more complete showing. Michael Roemer has had two theatrically released feature films, Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry, but the second of these was barely released at all. This drily comic portrait of a Jewish gangster emerging from jail to find his personal and professional lives in turmoil was shelved by its distributor for not being funny enough, and it wasn’t released until 1989, when it was widely acclaimed and nominated for six Independent Spirit Awards. What impact might it have had in 1971, when it predated Mean Streets, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the rise of Woody Allen? It’s a tragedy that Martin Priest and Ben Lang (both nominees in 1990) didn’t receive the recognition and career boost they deserved for their wonderful work here. Perhaps it’s easy to see why The Plot Against Harry was considered a hard sell  it’s a determinedly low-key picture, with the narrative essentially consisting of things just happening to Harry as tries to do deals and mend broken families ties, while simultaneously trying to avoid the stress that might afflict his enlarged heart  but I loved the film’s off-kilter sense of humour and its fascinating depiction of New York at a particular point in time. It deserves to be more widely celebrated.
These discoveries are what Il Cinema Ritrovato is all about. I love taking a chance on a film I’ve heard nothing about and leaving the cinema enraptured by the greatness I have just experienced. My knowledge of Syrian cinema is non-existent, but I’m so glad I caught Mohammad Malas’ Dreams of the City. Based on the director’s own childhood, this film centres on Dib (Bassel Abiad), who moves with his younger brother and widowed mother to Damascus, where they are forced to live with his taciturn and abusive grandfather. Set against the backdrop of Syria’s tumultuous political landscape in the 1950s, this is one of the great coming-of-age films, with Malas capturing such raw emotion in the relationship between Dib and his violent grandfather and heartbroken mother, and between the other characters we meet, who are turned against each other by the political climate. The film also gives us an invaluable look at the lost city of Damascus, beautifully photographed by Ordijan Anjin and splendidly presented on this excellent 35mm archive print. My only regret is that I didn’t see the other Syrian film in the programme, Tewfik Saleh’s The Dupes, which everyone I spoke to raved about, but such missed opportunities are par for the course here.

Not every print was a pleasure at this year’s festival, though. A number of 16mm screenings were programmed in that format’s centenary year, but these fragile prints often struggled to get through the projector. William Klein’s Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther broke twice during the screening, while the presentations of 1960s Italian music videos and a screening of Lucretia Lombard had to be abandoned. The latter was particularly frustrating, as the first couple of minutes of Jack Conway’s film had shown promise and the print failed just as Norma Shearer had made her first appearance. We did get to enjoy some other gems from 1923, though. Jean Epstein made his first solo effort as a director this year with L'Auberge rouge, and it was thrilling to see him pushing his technique in so many areas, with a boldly roving camera and some particularly potent point-of-view shots. I was also impressed by the visual imagination on display in Arthur Robison’s Schatten, which eschews intertitles and makes ingenious use of shadows as its characters are lulled into a dream state where their deepest desires are revealed. If Robison had known when to quit – ideally after the genuinely shocking climax – then I might be hailing this as one of the greats, but even if its impact is diluted slightly by the extended epilogue, it’s still a remarkable picture.
The most astonishing film from the 1923 strand came from a most unlikely source, however. I've enjoyed watching Ivan Mosjoukine in Bologna a number of times, and his performance in Le Brasier ardent is typically charismatic, lively and unpredictable; his introduction, where it is revealed that he’s been hidden in plain sight throughout the whole scene we’ve just watched, is a delight. But the revelation here is that Mosjoukine also directed Le Brasier ardent, and he proves himself to be an extraordinary talent on that side of the camera too. The film knocked me back in my seat in its opening few minutes, with an extraordinarily visceral, surreal and unsettling nightmare sequence, and throughout the movie Mosjoukine creates incredibly imaginative scenes, full of bizarre images and crazy production design. This film changed the course of Jean Renoir's life (“I decided to abandon my profession, which was ceramics, and to set about making films,” he wrote) but its poor reception at the box office sad killed a potentially thrilling directorial career.

I may go to Bologna primarily to venture into the unknown and unearth these hidden gems, but it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the most glorious experiences I had this year, with a film I have watched countless times. Black Narcissus played in Piazza Maggiore on a brand-new 35mm print, which brought an overwhelming clarity and vibrancy to The Archers’ awe-inspiring use of colour and ingenious art direction. The shot of Deborah Kerr standing in the lake during the flashback in Ireland, with the sunlight glistening on the water around her, was so dazzling on that huge screen it took my breath away. If the BFI led us into Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, then Bologna returned the favour with this screening, as this splendid new print is one of a few that have been struck for the BFI’s major Powell and Pressburger celebration later this year. I already can’t wait to see it again.

Monday, July 24, 2023

You Hurt My Feelings Review

The fact that Nicole Holofcener has named her seventh film You Hurt My Feelings makes complete sense – hurt feelings are this filmmaker’s stock-in-trade. From her 1996 directorial debut Walking and Talking onwards, Holofcener has established herself as one of the finest comic filmmakers working in American cinema, but beneath the laughs that she reliably serves up, her films always display an acute understanding of the myriad small ways in which people can wound each other. The importance of honesty within a relationship is a recurring theme in Holofcener’s work, and the truth usually hurts.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Barbie Review

Life in plastic is fantastic for the residents of Barbie Land, the vividly realised location where we spend the opening third of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Everything is perfect and everyone knows their place, but the complications of reality are beginning to seep into this fantasy. “Do you guys ever think about dying?” Barbie (Margot Robbie) suddenly blurts out during a dance number, a moment of introspection that sends her perennially pointed feet crashing to the floor and seems to knock her whole life off kilter. Yes, this Barbie is having an existential crisis, and Barbie’s screenplay, by Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, sends their iconic blonde protagonist to the real world on a voyage of self-discovery.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Full Time Review

Full Time
opens in the half-light of the early morning, with the credits unfurling over the slumbering form of Julie (Laure Calamy). The camera is inches from her face and the only sound we hear is her heavy breathing as she snoozes through the final minutes before her alarm rings. Enjoy this moment of calm, because such peaceful interludes are few and far between in Éric Gravel’s nerve-jangling film.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Under the Fig Trees Review

Erige Sehiri has adopted a deceptively simple structure for her debut narrative feature Under the Fig Trees. The film opens as the day breaks, with a small band of agricultural workers standing by the side of the road, waiting for their ride to work, and closes with the return journey. In between these commutes we spend a day in the orchard, where these people collect figs; we watch them work, listen to them talk, and gain a brief window into their lives.

The first words we hear in the film are “She took everything and left,” and while this stray comment doesn’t mean anything in the overall scheme of the movie – it’s just two women sharing a bit of village gossip – it does set us up for the film’s tendency to happen upon conversations in medias res and let us hear just a little of what’s being said before moving on. These snatches of talk suggest lives and relationships that exist beyond the confines of what we see on screen.

Thursday, March 02, 2023

Joyland Review

In Saim Sadiq’s 2019 short film Darling, the transgender actress Alina Khan played an aspiring dancer auditioning for a central role at a mujra theatre, only to be told by the manager, “In this theatre, the men only come to watch real girls.” To appear onstage, Khan’s character ultimately has to present herself as a male backing dancer to a female star. The strictures of gender roles in Pakistani society is a theme that Sadiq pushes further in his debut feature Joyland. Khan again stars as a mujra dancer – this time her character Biba is established as a regular attraction – but Sadiq expands his focus to take in several characters, each of whom is struggling within the bonds of familial and societal expectations.

Read the rest of my review at Sight & Sound