Tag Archives: America

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: DANCER IN THE DARK (2000)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW: DANCER IN THE DARK (2000)

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Produced by: Peter Aalbæk Jensen, Vibeke Windeløv

Written by: Lars von Trier

Cast: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare, Joel Grey

Music by: Björk

Cinematography: Robby Müller

Edited by: François Gédigier, Molly Marlene Stensgård

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



Rather incredibly, until very recently, I had never seen DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). However, it has quickly gone up the ranks in my mind as one of the best musical films I have ever seen. Having given it a lot of thought, it was difficult to place my review of Lars Von Trier’s eccentric, magical and moving tragedy. I could have reviewed it as a cult or under-rated classic film, but it was too high profile really; AND it won the Palm D’Or at Cannes. Thus, I decided, because it is such a compelling story and told in a magnetically creative style it definitely qualifies as a classic film.

Set in Washington State, circa 1964, the story centres on the life of Selena Ježková (Bjork), a Czech immigrant, who works in a factory supporting herself and her teenage son, Jean. She is good friends with co-worker Kathy (Catherine Deneuve), and has a good relationship with her landlord, a police officer called Bill (David Morse), and his wife, Linda (Cara Seymour). Selena is also romantically pursued by Jeff (Peter Stormare). Yet despite him being a pleasant and easy-going guy she prefers to be just friends. Selena is an admirable character because she works round-the-clock with at least two jobs, striving to make ends meet. But she also hides a secret. She is, in fact, going blind. Kathy helps cover for her where she can at the factory, however, the condition is irreversible. Selena is extraordinarily brave, but foolhardy too. Her condition puts herself and factory productivity at risk. Yet, this is merely a suggestion of the drama and tragedy which later befalls her. Because someone close to her will betray a trust, setting in motion a series of extremely depressing eventualities.



In order to escape the trials of her everyday existence, Selena often daydreams in song and dance form. These fantasies are further contextualised by Selena and Kathy taking part in a town production of THE SOUND OF MUSIC, plus their visits to the cinema to watch Hollywood musicals. Von Trier is careful though to establish verisimilitude and plausible reality prior to the first musical number. Even so, it is initially extremely jarring when the song begins. Nonetheless, the power of surprise provides an electrical surge to the narrative and Selena’s characterisation. The first number set in the factory finds the mechanical sounds of the machinery providing a metronomic rhythm to the song and dance routine. Furthermore, songs such as, I’ve Seen It All (with the sequence set on a locomotive), and Smith and Wesson link Selena’s character to metal, machines and American industrialisation. Essentially, Selena’s experiences as a working class immigrant find her attempting to escape via song, but being trapped by American machines and later on in the film, their justice system too.

Filmed on digital cameras the presentation is arguably inspired somewhat by Von Trier’s established Dogme 95 style. In terms of content, DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), combines elements of melodrama and film noir reminiscent of films by Douglas Sirk. Such thematic and visual cues are then filtered through a meta-textual inversion of the Hollywood musical. While the classical musical is all about joy, love, family, companionship, song and performance, Von Trier effectively represents these genre tropes, but twists them into calamitous trials and tribulations for Selena. I for one felt such pain, regret and sympathy for her character. Indeed, Bjork, who had never acted before and has rarely acted since, gives an incredibly moving and soulful performance as the dedicated mother only trying to do her best for her son. Similarly, the songs she co-wrote with Mark Bell, Sjón Sigurdsson and Lars von Trier, sparkle and spike and tug at the heartstrings passionately.

Lars Von Trier is a divisive filmmaker and personality. He has always sailed close to the wind in regard to his challenging filmmaking style and content, as well as causing dissension over the years with his perceived outrageous comments. Moreover, Bjork herself spoke openly about a “Danish filmmaker” who oppressed and harassed her persistently on set. One must deduce that this indeed was Von Trier, thus I must respect and sympathise with the anguish she felt while filming, DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). Lastly, reviews of the film at the time were equally dichotomous. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian dubbed it the: “most shallow and crudely manipulative film of 2000. . . and one of the worst films, one of the worst artworks and perhaps one of the worst things in the history of the world.” Yet, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times stated: “It smashes down the walls of habit that surround so many movies. It returns to the wellsprings. It is a bold, reckless gesture.” Personally, I am with Roger Ebert, as I found the film to be one of Lars Von Trier’s most emotionally moving, stylistically daring and human dramas.


BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

BFI FILM REVIEW: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991)

Directed by: Julie Dash

Produced by: Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa, Steven Jones

Written by: Julie Dash

Cast: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore etc.

Music by: John Barnes

Cinematography: Arthur Jafa

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“I didn’t want to tell a historical drama about African-American women in the same way that I had seen other dramas. I decided to work with a different type of narrative structure…[and] that the typical male-oriented western-narrative structure was not appropriate for this particular film. So I let the story unravel and reveal itself in a way in which an African Gullah would tell the story, because that’s part of our tradition. The story unfolds throughout this day-and-a-half in various vignettes. It unfolds and comes back. It’s a different way of telling a story. It’s totally different, new.” — Julie Dash

If you didn’t know the British Film Institute (or BFI) is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It is a cultural charity that: presents world cinema for audiences in cinemas, at festivals and online; cares for the BFI National Archive, the most significant film and television archive in the world; is a registered charity that actively seeks out and supports the next generation of filmmakers; organises and runs the annual London Film Festival; and works with the government and industry to make the UK the most creatively exciting place to make film internationally. As my wife and I are members we get sent films on Blu-Ray/DVD as part of the membership. These can be re-released classics or remastered arthouse masterpieces such as Daughters of the Dust (1991).

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was a labour of love for writer and director Julie Dash. Originally inspired, way back in 1975, by her father’s experiences, she strived to create a short, poetic and cinematic account of a Gullah family’s migration from idyllic island life to New York at the turn of the century. Eventually, and after many year’s of development and struggle, PBS’ American Playhouse would grant the low budget for a feature film. The film is set in 1902. It tells the story of three generations of Gullah women in the Peazant family and their varying viewpoints, thoughts and philosophies in regard to the move from Helena Island.


Daughters of the Dust review – the dreamlike film that inspired Beyoncé's  Lemonade | Film | The Guardian

Daughters of the Dust (1991) was made for a reported $800,000, but it looks worth far more in terms of cinematography, costumes and settings. Arthur Jafa’s camera placement and use of the natural light, on the beach and swamp land especially, conjures up some magical imagery. The iconic images of the women on the beaches in their bright white dresses are stunningly memorable. While watching I felt like I was viewing a gallery of moving paintings, such was the exceptional nature of the composition. Again, despite a low budget and use of actors from independent cinema, Julie Dash, gets some incredibly natural and compelling performances from her cast. It’s all the more amazing as most of the cast had to learn the Gullah language employed from scratch.

Thematically the film is very powerful too. Conflict derives from dialectics such as the clashing of elder versus younger people, ancient beliefs versus Christian religion, African heritage versus Neo-American capitalism and nature versus technology. Julie Dash structures these themes and the character’s desires in a non-linear fashion over a period of a long weekend. There are poetic flashbacks and flashforwards too as the imagery is supported by a voiceover from a yet to be born child of parents, Eli and Eula. Ultimately, this film is a very immersive experience. There are no subtitles, so the language can be tricky to understand, but for me that enhanced the desire to feel the narrative. Indeed, the lyrical beauty of Daughters of the Dust (1991), combined with the humming percussion-driven music, stunning landscapes and inventive cinematic language mean you are swept out to sea by the powerful emotions of Julie Dash’s spectacular vision.

Mark: 9 out of 11


THE FAREWELL (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

THE FAREWELL (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Written and directed by: Lulu Wang

Produced by: Daniele Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou

Main Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Jiang Yongbo, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara etc.

Cinematography: Anna Franquesca Solano

Music: Alex Weston

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**


High concept film pitches usually take a tremendously marketable idea that can hook you in seconds, but also cost tens of millions of dollars to make. Sometimes though you’ll get a lower budget, more art-house character film, which will have an equally alluring premise for a fraction of the price. Lulu Wang’s second directorial release, The Farewell (2019), is one such film.

Based on a true story or “actual lie” as the prologue text reveals, the narrative revolves around a Chinese family and their decision not to reveal to their paternal Grandmother, or Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), that she has terminal cancer. This leads to a bittersweet series of scenes, full of comedy and pathos, as the whole family must keep the secret while arranging a fake family wedding in China.



While it is an ensemble cast generally, the audience conduit is Awkwafina’s Billi Wang. As her character, along with her mother and father, have lived in America for several years she believes that the Grandmother she loves has a right to know about her illness. As the scenes unfold, she clashes with various family members creating a palpable suspense as to whether Billi will reveal the truth. Moreover, we get many scenes where the family debate the various cultural and philosophical reasons why Nai-Nai should or should not be told. These I found very thoughtful and engaged both my heart and mind in equal measure.



Overall, it’s a low-key character study but nonetheless gripping, funny and sad throughout. I was especially drawn in because I wondered what I would have done in that situation. Personally, I think it is best to tell the person they are ill, but as the film wore on, I could see the other side of the argument too. In other hands this could have been turned into a poorly conceived farcical comedy, but as this is based on the writer and director’s Lulu Wang’s real-life experiences, we ultimately get a very touching film about life, death, family, love, culture and truth.

Personally, I would have liked Billi’s character to have been a bit more fleshed out at the start. Mainly because I was unsure of her personality and she just seemed a bit depressed. I mean was she a writer or a pianist and what was her job? Having said that, Awkwafina provides subtle brilliance in her role as Billi, yet, Zhao Shuzhen steals the show as the effervescent Nai-Nai, whose character shows an unabated lust for life throughout this fine film.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #15 – JACQUES AUDIARD – WITH: THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #15 – JACQUES AUDIARD

Experienced French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, makes what I call proper films. I mean, have you watched the cinema of yesteryear, notably the 1970s, with stories about characters that are deeply flawed and even possibly unlikeable. Well, Audiard still makes those kind of films. He takes risks representing human beings on the edge of society and perhaps struggling with life; people who often make left-field decisions to improve or escape their existential plight.

For my latest piece in the My Cinematic Romance series, I will look at some key Audiard films well worth watching. I will also incorporate a mini-review of his most recent release, tragi-comedy Western, The Sisters Brothers. If you haven’t seen much of Audiard’s work and are drawn to intense human character studies with absorbing narratives, then I highly recommend it.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Starring a quartet of fantastic scene-stealing actors in: Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, this Western bends the genres between drama, comedy and tragedy. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s critically acclaimed novel, the film is set in the 1850s during the Californian Gold Rush. It centres on the titular brethren, easier-going, Eli (Reilly), and drunken Charlie (Phoenix); hired bounty hunters who kill mainly for an enigmatic individual called the Commodore.

The film unfolds in what I would call a curious romp fashion; and it is certainly guaranteed to attain future cult status. Moreover, it also echoes the tone and eccentricity of recent Westerns like: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) and Slow West (2015). While Reilly and Phoenix’ characters form a humorous double-act in terms of verbal exchanges, their actions betray the fact they are cynical, hard-bitten and murderous. A product of their amoral milieu they remain the antithesis of the stylish and charming outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Their latest quarry and target for the Commodore is Ahmed’s idealistic chemist, Herbert Warm. Assisting them is Gyllenhaal’s likeable tracker, John Morris. The brothers’ haphazard pursuit of Warm is a fun and bloody journey replete with: chaotic shootouts, barnstorming brawls, hilarious bickering and right-turn narrative twists. Overall, it’s probably too idiosyncratic to impact the box office, yet, Audiard directs with his usual love for morally ambiguous characters. Lastly, the natural lighting and colour scheme is beautifully shot throughout; while Alexandre Desplat’s score resonates impeccably. Thus, these elements plus Phoenix and Reilly’s tremenodous on-screen sparring make this a very enjoyable picaresque Western tale.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11

OTHER RECOMMENDED AUDIARD FILMS

READ MY LIPS (2001)

This Audiard thriller centres on Emmanuelle Devos’ office worker, Carla, and has echoes of Hitchcock and Coppola’s paranoiac classic The Conversation (1974). Hiding her deafness from colleagues, Carla enters into a robbery plot with Vincent Cassel’s ex-con and a fascinating serpentine double-crossing narrative ensues.

A PROPHET (2009)

This is one of the best prison films I have ever seen. It is a perfect example of the emotional power of linear filmmaking. As we follow Tahar Rahim’s lowly prisoner rise through the prison ranks using: violence, luck, cunning and smarts, we feel every emotion and tension he does during an incredibly compelling journey.

RUST AND BONE (2012)

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts fizz with passion, star quality and brute sexuality in this “opposites-attract” romance drama. Cotillard is a Marine Park employee who falls for Schoenaerts low level criminal but obviously the path of love is a jagged one. Full of beautiful imagery and brutal violence, it’s a memorable character drama full of bitterness, redemption and pain.

DHEEPAN (2015)

Dheepan starts as a humane story of survival and the immigrant experience, before crossing over into explosive thriller territory by the end. Further, Audiard casts his leads with unknown actors and wrings every ounce of feeling from the sympathetic characters. As the Sri Lankan Tamil, Dheepan, and his “wife”, struggle with life on a Paris council estate, what may seem small in scale is in fact emotionally very epic.

HBO’S DEADWOOD (2004 – 2006) – CLASSIC TV REVIEW

HBO’S DEADWOOD (2004 – 2006) – CLASSIC TV REVIEW

ORIGINAL NETWORK: HBO – CURRENT NETWORK: SKY ATLANTIC

CREATED BY: David Milch

STARRING: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Powers Boothe, Dayton Callie, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, and Robin Weigert etc.

SEASONS: 3 – EPISODES: 36

ORIGINAL RELEASE: March 21, 2004 – August 27, 2006

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The blood and sweat and liquor seep into muddy earth as wood creaks, leather cracks and barrels roll within the midst of morning in Deadwood town. Horses cry readying themselves for the work ahead as the hangover of alcohol, greed and necessity fill men, women and children’s hearts not knowing how the day will end. They could be destitute, broke or worse; six feet under from a gunshot or plague or had their throat cut during a game of poker. Or they could be richer than a King or Queen having struck lucky in the goldmines of Montana. These are desperate times brimming with whores, bandits, con-artists, killers and unbelievably twisted optimism. There’s hope that striking gold will change lives forever and bring about fortune and prosperity. More often than not though it simply brings about death.

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David Milch’s formidably researched Western TV classic was a show I’d never ever seen so I took great pleasure drinking in its’ flavours and palette at the end of 2017. I recall when released the tabloid newspapers were forever reporting the controversy of the colourful industrial language. While the language is indeed profane and sometimes enough to make a football referee blush it is the stand-out element of the scripts. Because Deadwood is one of the most brilliantly written shows I’ve seen; and while the dialogue is clearly anachronistic it feels paradoxically authentic. Throughout the thirty-six episodes the monologues sing from the screen as a litany of character actors drawl and deliver words of filth, comedy and great tragedy. At times the dialogue is so dense it reaches sonorous Shakespearean heights.

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The narratives of each season feature characters based on real people from history (Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock et al); all presented via a daily slice of mining camp life through an incredible ensemble cast. There are no heroes to hang our desires on but rather a rag-tag clan of flawed human beings presented as: killers, cowards, thugs, addicts, prostitutes, card sharks, immigrants, gold-diggers, crooked politicians and morally dubious law representatives. The amazing cast, led with frightening acting acumen by: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Robin Weigert, Brian Cox and Powers Boothe spit words as weapons, while the glint of gold drives humanity, creating a hard-bitten early representation of the American dream.

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Here the early realms of civilization and society are shown to be full of issues relating to: race, capitalism, prostitution, misogyny, violence, politics, and immigration. Thankfully, things have changed now and we live in a near-perfect society with no problems today. NOT! Deadwood may represent a series of distant Wild West memories but its’ grizzled and bloody vision of humanity is just as valid today. The streets of society now may have pavement and tarmac and skyscrapers but they are still besmirched with blood and greed and alas that will never change.

Mark: 10 out of 11

HOSTILES (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

HOSTILES (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by:                      Scott Cooper

Produced by:                    Scott Cooper, Ken Kao, John Lesher

Screenplay by:                 Scott Cooper

Story by:                            Donald E. Stewart

Starring:                            Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Adam Beach

Music by:                           Max Richter

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Death and America seem to go hand in hand down the realms of history; entwined bedfellows with society, industry and apparent civilisation being watered by blood and bone and marrow of humanity. The coagulation of Native American lives spread to the dust could be argued to be one of the most despicable genocidal acts ever perpetrated against a generation. And what was it all for? So, human beings from one side of a huge ocean can take what essentially belonged to the indigenous men, women and children of what we now know is called the United States of America. Red dust scorches that land and people and it’s a stain which will never ever be removed.

Even in the last one hundred years and more the Neo-Americans have militarized and invaded many other countries borne, on occasion for the greater good but generally to colonize, re-politicize and scavenge the goods of those said lands. Thus, it is never surprising when the natives choose to repel their invaders as they’d prefer their land to remain their own. For the price of defending their land history has named them savages and other cruel labels in an attempt to differentiate their culture and make them the enemy. Of course, there are good people within the U.S.A who oppose such invasions but the truth remains even they live on blooded ground.

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The weight of guilt and pain and death hang heavy in Scott Cooper’s slow-moving and elegant Western. It’s a character driven piece with Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi and Rory Cochrane putting in dominant performances which convey the depressing murderous times borne out of the heinous and greedy need for progress. White man / woman’s guilt drives the narrative as at first Bale’s soldier refuses to accompany his enemy back to his homeland. Is it more because of the deaths of his own men on the battlefield or because he does not want to face up to his own crimes against the Native Americans?

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There are no easy solutions in this glacial paced, beautifully shot Western. The audience is required to analyse the characters actions and make up one’s own mind. There are no black hats or white hats save for the denouement involving the four horsemen that drift over the horizon with death in their eyes. Even the Comanche horde who perpetrate the wicked attack on Pike’s family at the beginning, while unsympathetic, are a product of the barbarity committed by the American army. Overall, this is a genre-defying Western built more on character rather than all-out action. Each slow plot turn went against my expectations and that was a positive. It’s a rich, deep and heavy film which benefits from great performances and an incredible Max Richter score.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)