Posts Tagged ‘BFI’

AGWHAN_poster

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Country: Iran / USA

Runtime: 99 min

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains

Judging by the feedback of the London Film Festival audience for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there is a pretty good chance that this first full feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is going to become a cult classic. The story concerns a female vampire (“the girl”) who wanders the streets of an imagined Iranian town, Bad City. Her appearance is striking: she wears a chador open at the front to reveal a striped T-shirt, and her blank, uncomprehending eyes are ringed with dark mascara. In an early scene we get a glimpse of her fearsome power when she kills Saeed (Dominic Rains), a frighteningly thuggish pimp/drug dealer.

Subsequently, the film follows her developing relationship with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), who previously had his luxury car stolen by Saeed as payment for his father’s drug debts. There is a sense that both of them are lost. Arash is a typical young man, trying to forge an identity for himself, but being muscled aside by bigger, more confident men whilst trying to attract girls at a party. The girl encounters him whilst he is lost in the city at night, high on ecstasy. We do not know anything about her past or where she has come from, and she herself seems confused by her own existence. Strangely, though, although she does kill again, she seems only to kill those whose lives she judges to have little or no value.

Although I enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is somewhat flawed. On the positive side, much of the imagery and cinematography is beautiful. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the girl. The first 15 minutes or so are really quite enthralling, with a clearly-identified “good guy” (Arash) coming into conflict with an obvious scary villain (Saeed). However, having established Saeed as a seriously frightening bad guy, he then gets bumped off. The girl, who is also a deeply sinister presence to begin with later becomes a much softer and likeable presence. What starts out as a horror-drama gradually develops into a kind of comedy romance. The change was a little confusing for this viewer, at least.

After Saeed’s death the film drifts along a little, and there are some longeurs, but somehow it gets by on charm. Part of the charm comes from Vand’s lost and lonely vampire, who I just wanted to give a big hug, but much of it comes from Arash’s pet cat. Yes, you heard that right – a cat. Just as some suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis was an ironic comment on Blake Snyder’s screenwriting classic “Save The Cat”, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour seems to have unironically implemented the entire cat concept in this film. It does make for enjoyable viewing, but ultimately I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed the film rather more than it really deserved.

Rating: 6/10

Shown at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Advertisements

The Maltese Falcon

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston (from the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

Country: USA

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Taking film-noir to a whole new level

If the superior 1940 B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor can lay claim to being the first true film noir, then John Huston’s first directorial film, The Maltese Falcon, decidedly an A-movie, took the genre to a whole new level. A distinct visual style, a complicated plot, a hard-boiled private eye, a femme fatale, a cast of colourful supporting characters, and crackling dialogue, this film has them all.

The story (actually the third filmed version) is based on the novel by former Pinkerton agent, Dashiell Hammett, and features Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade. This prefigured by five years Bogart’s performance as Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep.  There are resemblances between the two, not least because Chandler himself was undoubtedly influenced by Hammett, and wrote approvingly of his detective fiction in the 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder. However, Sam Spade is actually a grittier and more cynical character than Philip Marlowe. When, at the start of The Maltese Falcon, he learns that his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been murdered, Spade barely reacts; shortly after this we discover that he is having an affair with Archer’s wife. The day after Archer’s death, Spade tells his secretary to have his partner’s name removed from the office signage.

The story begins with Spade being hired by beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy (a.k.a. Miss Wanderley) to find her missing sister. However, she is really hunting for the Falcon. Whereas femme fatales typically cause disaster for the leading man, in this instance Spade has her measure right from the start, taking her money but not believing her story. This does not stop him falling for her, and she apparently for him. The combination of love and lying makes for an intriguing cat-and-mouse game between the two.

Also hunting for the Falcon are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Lorre gives another superb performance as the (understatedly) gay Cairo, and probably relished this role, coming as it did in the wake of his nine performances as the Japanese detective Mr Moto. Lorre’s opening scene is a masterpiece in how to grab an audience’s attention. It was Greenstreet, though, who got the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the age of 61, it was the first screen role for this 20 stone performer. As Kasper “the fatman” Gutman, Greenstreet is a perfect combination of urbanity and amorality. Gutman is what economists would call a rational actor. He is only interested in what is good for himself. Other people matter only insofar as they have something to offer him and, consequently, he is continually weighing advantages and disadvantages, and is willing to shift alliances when circumstances change. Moreover, he is quite open about all this. When the time comes for him to sacrifice his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), he tells the young man “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon”.

Lorre and Greenstreet aren’t the only actors turning in top performances here. All the key figures are superb. For Bogart, the role of Sam Spade was an opportunity to break away from the bad guys he had been so used to playing, and to portray a rather more nuanced character; Spade is tough and flawed, but beneath it all there is a kind of rough integrity. Mary Astor is delightful to watch as she acts the innocent, vulnerable woman, whilst spinning a bunch of yarns to Bogart. Also turning in a fine performance is Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the young tough who is continually undermined by Sam Spade (Cook would later appear with Bogart in The Big Sleep).

Rating: 10/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September – October 2014.

Secret_Agent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Alma Reville and Jesse Lasky Jr.

Country: UK

Runtime: 86 mins

Cast: Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young

Secret Agent is something of a hiccup in Hitchcock’s development, but entertaining nonetheless

Loosely based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (but also drawing on other sources), Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) came a year after his classic The 39 Steps and two years later than The Man Who Knew Too Much. It features actors from both those earlier films, Madeleine Carroll from the former and Peter Lorre from the latter. However, whilst entertaining enough Secret Agent fails to match either of those previous efforts.

Set in 1916, it is a story of three British spies who are sent to Switzerland to locate and assassinate a German agent. This is somehow crucial to the success of the British campaign in Palestine. The three agents are Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud), Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), and a Middle Eastern character called The General (Peter Lorre). Ashenden and Carrington are to pretend to be married, though there is a sort of subplot concerning an American (Robert Marvin, played by Robert Young) who is trying to charm Elsa Carrington. However, Ashenden and Carrington fall for each other in reality and then start to have moral qualms about the job they are doing, especially after The General kills a man they believe to be the German spy, only to find that he was innocent.

In the preface to his screenplay for North by Northwest (1951), Ernest Lehman describes how that story was devised as a way of linking some set pieces that director Alfred Hitchcock already had in mind (the United Nations, crop-duster and Mount Rushmore scenes). Many Hitchcock films also revolve around set pieces, and Secret Agent is no exception, but in this instance the linkages seem somewhat mechanical and some of the scenes themselves do not ring true. For instance, the film’s opening scene has a group of dignitaries paying their respects before a flag-draped coffin, watched by a one-armed veteran. Once the dignitaries have left, the veteran attempts to lift the coffin from its mountings only to have the box crash to the ground, revealing that it is empty. That is obviously what Hitchcock wanted to show to us, but why would a one-armed man be trying to lift a coffin?

Likewise, there is a later scene where Ashenden and the General visit a remote Swiss church to make contact with the organist, supposedly a friendly agent but one whose loyalty is in question. Upon arrival they can hear that a single continuous note is emanating from the organ. You might think that they would quickly have suspected the truth – that the organist is lying slumped, dead, over the keyboard. Yet it takes them a good two minutes before they make their way across to him.

In terms of the actors’ performances, Madeleine Carroll is fine but the relationship with John Gielgud completely fails to achieve the magic of Carroll’s pairing with Robert Donat in The 39 Steps. The weak link is Gielgud himself, who just doesn’t work as a romantic lead or an action hero. He also suffers in the scenes with Peter Lorre, as the latter acts Gielgud off the screen in his role as the womanising, ruthless, and slightly crazed General. However, apparently audiences in 1936 also had some difficulty with Lorre’s character, as his performance as one of the “good guys” was not very different from his performance as the villainous Abbott in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Rating: 6/10

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the British Film Institute, London Southbank, September 2014.

West_Beirut

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Writer: Ziad Doueiri

Country: France / Norway / Lebanon / Belgium 1998

Runtime: 105 mins

A funny and moving account of growing up in a conflict zone

My first exposure to Ziad Doueiri’s directorial work was his excellent 2012 film The Attack (reviewed here on 27th February 2014), the story of an eminent Palestinian surgeon whose wife – unbeknownst to him – carries out a suicide bombing. Thanks to the British Film Institute’s “Discover Arab Cinema” strand, I have now had the opportunity to  catch up with one of Doueiri’s earlier films, West Beirut. Unlike The Attack, however, this film has a number of comedic elements that offset the more serious underlying themes. The story concerns the experiences of two friends, Tarek and Omar, growing up in the Beirut of 1975, the year in which civil war broke out and the city became divided into the Muslim west and the Christian east. Doueiri himself grew up in Beirut during this period and it is perhaps this experience that gives the film a sense of raw immediacy. HIs own son Rami plays Tarek the bigger (and possibly older) of the two boys, with Omar played by Mohamad Chamas. 

Tarek is a typically impulsive and rebellious teenager. In an early scene that is perhaps an ironic nod to Casablanca, we see him undermining the teacher at his French-run school by singing the Lebanese anthem through a bullhorn as she is leading the others in the Marseillaise. After giving him a lecture in the superiority of French civilisation she sends him out into the corridor, from where he witnesses gunmen ambush a bus in the street. The next day, there are militias on the streets and Tarek’s parents are unable to deliver him to school. They learn that Christian militias have blockaded routes into the eastern part of the city. 

As the civil war envelops Beirut tensions rise between Tarek’s parents. His mother wants to leave the city, but his father is adamant they should stay, pointing out that they aren’t guaranteed a warm welcome elsewhere. He notes that the Lebanese are regarded as “deluxe” refugees in Switzerland and that sniffer dogs are set upon them at Heathrow Airport. 

Meanwhile, Tarek himself is motivated by other concerns. After shooting some sneak footage of the attractive girlfriend of Omar’s uncle he is determined to get the film developed. Unfortunately, the processing shop is now behind a militia checkpoint and Tarek is not allowed to pass. Tarek hardly seems aware of the danger that he is putting himself in, but Omar has a greater political awareness and tries to restrain his friend. Omar is also exasperated when Tarek makes friends with a Christian neighbour, May (Rola Al Amin), who openly wears a crucifix. Omar considers that this friendship is putting them both in danger. A turning point comes when, by a quirk of fate, Tarek inadvertently finds himself in the one location where people from both the east and west can still congregate: Madame Oum Walid’s brothel. Here, militia men check their guns at the door and mingle freely inside. Tarek discovers that there is even an agreed-upon code that allows patrons to pass through otherwise hostile areas – they need to fly a bra from a prominent place, such as a car aerial.

As if to remind us how real these events were for the inhabitants of Beirut, the film is interspersed with archive documentary clips from that period. However, Doueiri does not involve us with political arguments and, indeed, there is a lot of humour. What is brilliantly conveyed in West Beirut is that most people caught up in the conflict are just ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives. They could be living anywhere. Tarek’s mother is a lawyer in the local courtroom. His father is currently trying to find work. The boys like pop music and Tarek has a Western sci-fi movie poster on his wall. One indication of the way in which people under duress might change comes from Omar, who tells Tarek that his father has decided their family should regularly attend the local mosque. In other words, this is religiosity arising from insecurity.

West Beirut is a hugely engaging and enjoyable film, ultimately very moving, and is one to look out for.

Rating: 9/10