The Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh 2021 runs from 25-31st October. It has live screenings in theatres but it also has a digital component which is free and accessible to all. We interview curator Kuan-ping Liu to discuss the highlights of this year’s programme: Archival Films, 8mm home movies, characteristic examples of New Taiwanese Cinema, classic Hokkien-language cinema from the 1960s and a strand of films directed by women.
As a preview of the Taiwan Edinburgh Film Festival (25 – 31 Oct), in the brief podcast below, we talk of the many pleasures incurred from watching Best Secret Agent. The film is definitely not a masterpiece of cinematic art. However, Best Secret Agent is a sexy melodrama, drawing on the Bond craze then current but putting it in the context of Taiwanese history and culture. Sometimes popular cinema can teach us at least as much as art. Charismatic stars, action, superb costuming and a director and cinematographer who can do wonders with lighting and composition make of Best Secret Agent a wonderful-looking film that never ceases being fun to watch. Moreover, unlike Bond, the protagonist and top agent here is a woman. Highly recommended.
Note that the podcast does let slip a key plot point so…. spoilers! if this type of thing bothers you, you may want to listen to the podcast after watching the film.
Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground is dedicated to Jonas Mekas; and the avant-garde permeates the whole film, whether it’s in its use of films by experimental filmmakers (and I recognised snippets of Maya Deren, John Smith, Kenneth Anger, Mekas himself, and others), poetry (Gisnburg), Pop Art (Warhol of course, but also whole array of Factory output is featured), musique concrete, queer cultures from the Kennedy era onwards, and so on. The film develops chronologically but feels synchronic through its use of split screens always playing with and against each other, bringing in other references and contexts, not usually used as mere illustration. It’s narrated but feels polyvocal through its uses of various voices and perspectives, both past and contemporary. A magnificent job of digging up archival footage, and a magnificent job of sculpting a structure through the editing, both of the images and the music, of which the film increased my understanding. David Bowie, Jonathan Richman, Amy Taubin appear to enhance understanding, which is occasionally also an understanding of limitations. The most arresting moment is Reed, looking gorgeous, wearing shiny but dirty metallic nail-polish, chatting to a very tired looking Warhol about painting and who of the Velvets he’s still in touch with. I loved it.
A greatly beloved work, a landmark of Algerian cinema. Filmed in 1976, in that period between the end of the Algerian War in 1962 and the start of what would become known as the black decade of the 90s, Omar Gatlato is a study of masculinity and the self-harm caused by a culture of machismo, a document of Algiers and Algerian popular culture in that period, an experiment in film form and one of the films Youssef Chahine recommended we see. I was very glad we did. The podcast below touches on all of these topics and more.
The Youssef Chahine Interview by Tom Luddy, translated by Ehsan Khoshbakht can be accessed here:
Indeed Omar Gatlato has interesting links with Khoshbakht’s observations on Iranian cinema during roughly the same period in Filmfarsi. Our podcast on the film and our conversation with Ehsan can be followed up here:
The Nightingale’s Prayer, based on a 1934 novel by renowned Egyptian author Taha Hussein, is an extraordinary melodrama, a critique of patriarchy anyone interested in cinema’s treatment of these issues should see. A philandering husband is killed for his actions. His shame extends to his family and his wife (Amina Rizk) and his daughters – Amna (Faten Hamama, the great star of Egyptian Cinema) and Hanadi (Zahrat El Ola, who faithful listeners might recognise from Jamila, the Algerian ) — are forced to leave the village and face all the travails of being three vulnerable women on the road. They eventually settle in a small village and get what they think are respectable jobs as maids. They don’t yet know that ‘putting out’ is an expected part of the job description when working for single men. Hanadi is seduced and made pregnant. She tells her mother, who tells her brother, who comes find her and kills his niece. He tells them to say it’s the plague; Amna tells him it was his duty to protect them and runs away on her own, to find that bachelor, kill him and avenge her sister. A film that is beautiful to look at, poetically structured through internal monologues, and successful at conveying and inciting feeling. We talk about all of this and more in the podcast below:
Daniel Craig’s Bond bids us goodbye in No Time to Die, the culmination of his fifteen-year tenure as the gentleman’s spy – but is it really Bond? The character, and the films in which he appears, have changed in tone and attitude in recent years, in response to several factors, including criticisms of misogyny and the cinematic influence of the Bourne series, all of which results, for José, in a film that while good, just isn’t Bond any more. We consider what makes No Time to Die‘s Bond different, discussing his clothing, the intensity of serialisation from one film to the next, and the Bond girl – and, as Mike suggests, the character’s key change in attitude: Craig’s Bond takes things seriously and is capable of being outraged.
Although we pick at these things, the film is easy to recommend. The action is well-executed, Rami Malek’s villain beautifully played (if lazily written), and the entire affair is hugely enjoyable. Where Bond goes from here, who knows, but No Time to Die is a good send-off for Craig’s incarnation.
We’re joined by Dr. Ben Lamb of Teesside University, television scholar and Sopranos megafan, to discuss The Many Saints of Newark, the prequel to The Sopranos. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, it depicts a young Tony Soprano – played by James Gandolfini’s son, Michael – and offers a portrait of the family, time, place and culture that shaped him, but focuses primarily on his uncle Dickie, to whom he looks up.
We also discuss the film’s incorporation of the 1967 Newark riots, and the black gang that rivals the Italians’; how violence is used and what it expresses about the characters; whether the film is cinematic; and whether some of its characters’ actions are believable. And, key to the discussion: While Ben and José are familiar with the show, Mike’s never made it past episode one, and that disparity raises questions – how much knowledge of the show is required to understand this film, how much does it reward fan investment, and does it inspire Mike to finally watch the series?
Current times demand that we focus on the present and rethink about the future and its conditions of feasibility. When we started designing this fifth edition of “Men in Movement”, we wanted to address the challenges posed by the connection between men and masculinities and current issues such as nationalism, the environment, bodies and sexualities and decolonisation. We had no idea, then, that a global pandemics would make thinking about our futures even more urgent.
This fifth edition of the international conference Men in Movement took place Barcelona from September 29th to October 1st, 2021, with the title “MIM V: Masculinities and Feasible Futures”. This title opens the room for scholarly and socially engaged dialogues concerned with the feasibility of the society in which we currently live and the kind of futures that it prefigures.
Below you’ll find some leading scholars and thinkers discussing their work and their various perspectives on the subject:
The panel can be seen here (fast forward to five minutes in):
Aretha Franklin, an icon of American music, receives a dispiritingly by-the-numbers biopic in Respect, which takes this perfect subject for such a film and does nothing very interesting with her. We discuss, among other topics, the film’s dependence on clichés, its poor lighting, Franklin’s relationship with her father and upbringing in a prosperous household, Jennifer Hudson’s performance in the central role, and that scene, so common to music biopics, in which the signature song is developed.
If one of the functions of the biopic is to introduce newcomers to a person’s work and provide an insight into what made them worthy of their story being told… then the Queen of Soul needs another biopic. Respect certainly isn’t devoid of entertaining and engaging moments, but, ultimately, it fails its subject.
The fairytale figure of the undine has been used and developed in the arts for two hundred years, and Christian Petzold, whose Transit we loved, brings his clear-eyed but sensitive aesthetic to it in Undine. Paula Beer plays the titular character with transparent emotion, in the opening scene regretfully informing her ex-boyfriend, as he dumps her, that she will have to kill him. It’s a moment that captures the timbre of the film that follows – fantastical, potent, full of drama, but grounded throughout.
We also discuss Undine‘s knowing and deliberate setting against a sociopolitical backdrop, the film devoting significant time to Undine’s lectures on the history of Berlin, tying them and the city to her relationships, and the way the film conveys the tactility of new lovers, unable to keep from touching each other. We disagree on the film’s greatness – to Mike, it’s something of a trifle, particularly in comparison with Transit, but José is in deep love with it. But we’re agreed that it’s well worth your time.
Let’s talk about ‘Let’s Talk‘, Marianne Khoury’s exploration of mother/daughter relationships across generations. The film is of interest to us because we wondered if it would enhance our understanding of Chahine’s cinema; and it does! Marianne’s mother was Chahine’s sister, and the raw materials of her story finds echoes in Chahine’s in Dawn of a New Day (1964). Khoury also demonstrates how part of the family’s narrative is the origin and source of strands of Alexandria …. Why (1979) and An Egyptian Story (1982), so the accounts on this film give us an interesting spin on how Chahine treats the same material. We discuss the relationship between Iris and Marianne and Marianne and her own daughter Sara: is it self-reflexive enough? Is the film aware of the historical context in which those lives were lived and various decisions were made? We discuss cosmopolitism and language (a gift/ a burden?); the pleasure of the old photographs and how they evoke whole ways of life; we rant about BFI Player; José purrs when he sees footage of the EICTV film school in Cuba and at the footage in Havana. We recommend as a film that enhances our understanding of Chahine’s work and also a film that is a very personal reflection of mother/daughter relationships.
Based on the trailer, Mike was interested in The Night House, a horror film about a recently bereaved woman and the secrets she discovers her husband was keeping – but it took him a good third of the film’s duration to remember why. It’s an ugly film, one of the poorest-lit you’re likely to see, and the culmination of its mystery is almost offensively stupid. José finds the thematic ground it covers has potential, and Rebecca Hall’s performance is very good – she’s unafraid to make herself unlikeable, which is likeable indeed. Still, she’s really the only reason to see it. If you actually can see it through the terrible lighting.
If I’d known the Mike Parker who wrote ON THE RED HILL was the Mike Parker from TV I might not have bought the book. But I’m glad I did. Mike and his boyfriend meet an elderly gay couple, George & Reg, become friends with them and inherit their house when they die. The book is an account of those lives, covering over a century between them, in the wider social and historical context of changing attitudes to homosexuality in the UK and in tension with how those lives are lived in their particulars, and not in the metropolis but in a small village in Wales. Each chapter in the book is divided into an element, a season, a cardinal direction and a person (thus Air, Spring, East, Reg). When it began with dense and lengthy descriptions of woods, and flowers and trees and moss and funghi I almost dropped it. But I persevered. Two homosexual Englishmen in rural Wales, one of German-Polish origin, makes for a fascinating story of lives lived on various kinds of margins, and the author weaves many explorations onto it (eg. Welsh history, migration, language, homosexual oppression, Foster and Carpenter, the ladies of Llangollen). I would have liked to have known more about George & Reg and less about the house and the landscape. But people who feel more attached to houses, gardens and nature than I might feel different.
A new day, a new entry in the MCU, and on this occasion we’re introduced to an entirely new set of characters and mythos: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fills us in on the history of a young Chinese-American man and his dad’s magical jewellery. Like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it’s a film whose connection to the wider MCU is light, establishing characters, a setting, and story elements that are certain to tie in to subsequent films, but free of the obligation to prioritise them at the expense of itself. And like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, that freedom works in its favour – it’s of a piece, interesting, pretty, and entertaining.
We discuss the film’s setting in a Chinese-American immigrant context, comparing it in particular to The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians: all three films dramatise the cultural differences between the new and old country, and the ways in which the younger generation might face challenges in visiting or returning to their ancestral home. Indeed, Awkwafina appears in all three films, and, even in supporting roles, expresses this subject all by herself. We also think about the MCU’s use of the film to address its own past, a character from Iron Man 3 returning: Shang-Chi not only rejects the way the earlier film totally reconfigured him from the comics, but also addresses the Orientalism with which he has historically been associated.
And there’s more besides – Tony Leung’s beautiful, evocative performance of a character that nonetheless doesn’t quite work; the quality of the action, much of it a cut above what we typically expect from Marvel; and that classic Disney trick – if in doubt, animate a cute animal. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a promising start to the MCU’s next phase, and we look forward to finding out how its world will integrate down the line, but it’s worth seeing on its own terms.
I wizzed through this yesterday. A highly readable, chronological account that gives a good overview of the studio. I sometimes quibbled with his opinions of particular films, though not often, mainly because this is a book that doesn’t deal much with particular films. It’s an overview of the studio, focussing mainly on personalities (Fox, the Zanucks) and technology (primarily CinemaScope). I also didn’t find any errors…and still. It feels a thin book, one based on secondary research done by an assistant and whose only primary research seems to be conversations with a handful of personalities (and really I don’t think it’s wise to take what Evie Johnson says at face value). On the other hand, the Lev and Wasser books on Fox, so rich and detailed, also seem less rounded an overview than this one (the Lev book focusses only on the years 35-65 but feels fragmentary even taking that into account). I’m a fan of Eyman and I’ve read most of his books. His latest before this, only last year, a very good one on Cary Grant. Is he writing too much, too quickly? The books with Wagner, enjoyable as they were, were good for movie star books. The book on the friendship between James Stewart and Henry Fonda was excellent for film buffs. But this is a writer who’s written important, enriching works on Lubitsch (my favourite of his books, from 1993), Ford, De Mille , Louis B. Mayer and so many others; and this feels like a come-down. On the other hand, it’s an erudite, fast-paced and well-written overview that is a pleasure to read. It would make an excellent gift for a sixteen year-old film buff.
I’m enjoying Jaguar, a Netflix series about Spanish survivors of German concentration camps who group together as Nazi hunters in early 60s Spain. The twist is not only that they’re Spanish but that they’re hunting down Nazis within a fascist regime. Action sequences are interpolated with brilliant young singers versioning the coplas of the period. Maria de Madeiros with her wide dark eyes and soft tentative voice, appears as the secret head of the operation, always at the Prado museum, framed against beautiful paintings that are a backdrop, a point of conversation between the characters, and an added signifier to the narrative. Madeiros is lovely to see. I also enjoy the animated credit sequence (though not the song). Only two episodes in; commercial fare not of the top rank; and stylistically it’s nothing to scream about, but the story is holding me, clichés and all. It’s on Netflix.
The show is set in the Spain of the early 1960s but looks nothing like it. No poor people. No peasants wondering around selling their garlic on street corners. Jaguar seems to have been made by a generation without memory, or is it perhaps just means? Pop music does help with this, Marisol singing Tombola; Spanish versions of Rolling Stones hits on the radio; you sometimes get the occasional poster (Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel appears as a background poster but even that, though correct to the period feels anachronistic).
Jaguar has a look that is out of time, contemporary, generic. A depiction of a Francoist Spain made by Spanish filmmakers who seem to have very little knowledge of it. There’s a bit where Blanca Suárez as Isabel Garrido/Jaguar, a waitress in an expensive restaurant frequented by Germans, walks around the streets of Madrid in trousers where you think ‘in Madrid in 1962? A waitress wearing trousers? Never!’ The upside to this ahistoricism, at least in relation to film history, is that the protagonist is now a woman, the head of the operation is also a woman, and one of the gang is a gay man struggling with his sexuality and finding sympathy and understanding from his colleagues (in a Spain with severe anti-gay laws and where there had until recently been concentration camps for gay men).
But perhaps none of this matters. I binged it, and did so with pleasure. It’s clichéd but competently done and moves along at pace. It’s comic book scenario — and this is not meant as an insult. I love comic books and I suspect that there’s a comic book the show is based on that’s better than the series — but with a great central idea, a modern approach to a Mission Impossible-type scenario (a group on a mission — in this case Nazi Hunters in Spain), the the narrative propulsion of a good serial or comic book, interspersed with pleasurable actions sequences throughout. I look forward to the next series.
I had to get it of course. Her films are my childhood. But a little more cheekiness would have made for a better book. It’s too Pollyanna-ish, overly determined to see the good in everybody, excessively kind, and so determined to see everybody’s point-of-view that it takes the shine off the extraordinary people she met – none were Saints –and the extraordinary circumstances she lived through…. Her father’s solicitor mishandles the trust set up for her movie money and she ends up having to hand over 91 % of it to the government when she turns 21, and this on already pre-taxed income; ie like so many other child stars she ends up with nothing. But she can’t bring herself to sue because the solicitor’s an old friend of the family. And this is before the ‘spiritual journey’ bit, at which point I almost gave up. It only takes us to the birth of her first child at 28 so I hope she learns to wink before she starts on the sequel.
Benedict Cumberbatch gets himself embroiled in the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Courier, a dramatisation of the true story of Greville Wynne, a British businessman recruited by MI6 to smuggle Soviet secrets provided by high-ranking GRU officer Oleg Penkovsky. It’s a film that offers pleasures in its performances and in the telling of a story you likely haven’t heard, but its storytelling is often banal and sometimes unclear, and, José contends, it’s full of tricks and tropes that are just there for effect – and often not very good ones. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, set in a similar period of the Cold War and also telling a true story of a citizen’s recruitment to engage in an overseas mission, is an obvious point of comparison, and perhaps The Courier‘s greatest gift is that its mediocrity helps to show off just how assured and polished is Spielberg’s cinematic technique, even if the ideological purposes to which he puts it leave us rolling our eyes.
The Courier isn’t a terrible film, and its performances do make it worth a look… but it isn’t a very good film, either.
We return to the work of Youssef Chahine, spurred on by by MUBI’s decision to screen a selection of his works, in what turns out to be marvellous copies. We focus on two of his films, Daddy Amin (1950) and The Devil of the Desert (1954), we compare the visual quality of the MUBI versions to those we saw previously, confirm our admiration for Youssef Chahine’s skills as a director, José takes a dig at the arrogance of a British film culture that assumes one can just move from writing or directing for the stage to directing a movie, and not even Richard can stop José from sighing over Omar.