Tuesday 31 December 2019

Cherchez la femme: "Long Day's Journey Into Night"

How to see out the year? Cinephiles who've exhausted the altogether limited options on offer at the megaplex might just plump for a long, slow throwback, an art film that invites reflection on all that has passed, and which seems to know in its very soul that all things must pass. The Chinese writer-director Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey Into Night forms a revival of the kind of moodpiece Wong Kar-Wai was manufacturing 15-20 years ago, before he got tangled up in his own aesthetic. It has the neon-lit longing and the gangsters and estranged lovers, shot through glass, grilles or doorways, the very framing leading us to question whether what we're watching is actually taking place, or a memory, or a dream; the key difference is that Gan replaces Wong's shimmering prettiness with damp, lived-in post-industrial vistas that recall Blade Runner before they do In the Mood for Love. See it in the right cinema, and when the title finally appears on screen - around the 75-minute mark - you'll be invited to don 3D specs for the duration of the exquisitely choreographed 50-minute single take that forms the movie's final act; these glasses will allow you too to roam among all this scrap and bric-a-brac, turning it over and piecing it together, and to join the film's protagonist in looking and maybe longing for someone who may be long gone.

Somewhere amid the mood and style, shuffling along beneath the ambient synthscapes and twangy-plangent Paris, Texas guitar, you may even detect a story, albeit what initially feels like a thin slip of a tale. It's the story of Luo (Jue Huang), a diffident smoker who returns to his hometown of Kaili in the wake of his parents' death, and is almost immediately beset by thoughts of the woman he once crossed paths with thereabouts some twenty years earlier. The woman is Wan Qiwen (Wei Tang), more of a girl or a moll back then, linked as she was to Luo's best friend, a low-level criminal doomed to meet a sorry fate at the bottom of a mineshaft. Within that overarching story, we hear smaller tales and testimonies, as Luo, suddenly bereft, drifts towards those who knew Wan to try and confirm her existence - to prove beyond doubt that he hasn't just dreamt her up. Gan is himself meandering towards some glinting, angular existential truth here, you feel. We've surely all been in relationships where the object of desire became so obscure we've wondered what just happened, or whether the relationship happened at all. (Consider, too, the inverse of those relationships: those that might have been - that were only ever a daydream or fantasy.)

The film made headlines in China a year ago after audiences turned out en masse for what had been loudly trumpeted as a romantic event movie; takings declined sharply, however, once word-of-mouth spread that, far from the stirring 3D spectacle it had been sold as, LDJIN was an experience closer to that sedate, meditative video art one might encounter in a backroom of the ICA. (The social-media hashtag it spawned translated as #CantUnderstandLongDaysJourneyIntoNight.) The stark tail-off is understandable: the multiplexers had been sold an unusually docile pup. Yet approach it on its own terms, and Gan's film proves quietly fascinating, if you allow yourself to be fascinated. For one thing, it has a great obscure object of desire in Tang, vastly more present and engaged than she ever was in the recent commercial thriller The Whistleblower: she compels a rapt attention even in an apparently throwaway insert of Wan succumbing to tears while shovelling citrus into her gob at the movies, the shot being both the kind of arbitrary memory our protagonist is clinging to and a tangy update of the magic Godard worked with the late Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie. Among the many things Gan is inviting us to miss or mourn in the course of these 134 minutes: a certain kind of auteur cinema, at once wispy, wayward and full of wonder.

You couldn't easily pitch Long Day's Journey Into Night, certainly, so dependent is it for its effects on the unlikely content of individual shots and sequences: a glass of water (half-full? half-empty?) being rattled inexorably towards the edge of a table, a distraught man wolfing down an apple, core and all, a very Béla Tarr-ish set-up involving a pedlar and a spooked donkey. Nor does it make commercial sense to peddle it as anything other than what it is: the message it sends us out into the cold midwinter's night with is the hardly consoling one that there are people that will get away from us, and that we're lucky even to cling onto trace elements of their being. Yet Gan whips up a rare, fatalistic poetry that is beguiling while you're caught up in it, and finally distinct from the wafty, jade-and-jasmine perfume-ad elegance Wong has typically traded in. Every frame of LDJIN is rooted in the everyday: smoky cinemas with beat-up seats, rundown workshops, tumbledown housing, and beneath all these, those mineshafts, a place you really have to dig to get to. The picture that connects them is near-unique as a realist reverie, one that ghosts sinuously through spaces that don't strike the eye as constructed or designed, rather abandoned and stumbled across, reclaimed as an authentically rough-hewn backdrop for a study in the primacy of seeing as believing. Those 3D glasses aren't a means of escape, for once, but a means of protection along the lines of a windshield or safety specs, put between the viewer and the hard, often melancholy facts life throws up as we move ever onwards and leave that which has passed behind. Have the happiest of New Years, everyone. If you can.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon.

Monday 30 December 2019

Good housekeeping: "Little Women"

The first question that popped into my mind watching Greta Gerwig's new adaptation of Little Women was this: how on earth did a creative who began the decade scratching around amid the generally scratchy and spendthrift mumblecore movement end it overseeing a major studio's lavish Christmas Day release? If nothing else, such rapid upward mobility suggests Hollywood has got something right, these past few years; that its collective eye for worthy talent and ear for a notable voice haven't completely abandoned it. Gerwig - one of the two or three mumblecore alumni who felt like a breath of fresh air, who opted out of the movement's shrugging indie-bro rhythms - always was a very modern screen presence, recognisably more of this century than the last. As a filmmaker, she brought a fresh pair of eyes to the push-me-pull-you mother-daughter bond at the heart of last year's Lady Bird; she achieves something comparable in tackling Louisa May Alcott's period go-to. The skittishness of Gerwig's onscreen persona persists in this Little Women's shuffled chronology - she blows through the text, which blows off any dust - and her knowingness is channelled into folding the writing of the book into the film itself. Her Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is explicitly positioned as a surrogate for Alcott, or Gerwig, or indeed any young woman with creative urges; that this is very much a writer's film is evident from the way its maker is often caught stepping back from the text to insert some valuable pause for thought. In doing so, Gerwig keeps opening up rewarding new perspectives on what's long been a fairly lovely world to spend any time in. Why, it's almost as though she was wasted on the love interest role in Russell Brand's Arthur remake.

That writerly quality is also there in Gerwig's determination to approach the Marshes less as a group - as I seem to recall Gillian Armstrong doing in her 1994 film - than as individuals going their own ways. We join the sisters as Alcott left them, and Gerwig makes the case for each: Jo taking her first steps into the publishing arena beneath the disapproving eye of the literary editor Dashwood (Tracy Letts); Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris with her aunt (Meryl Streep), taking up the paintbrush and crossing paths once more with the girls' teenage sweetheart Laurie (Timothée Chalamet); while the faintly conservative Meg (Emma Watson) remains on the homefront, watching over two children. What makes this an especially apt release for a moment where city dwellers the Western world over have returned to the family fold for the holidays is that it feels the pull of home so keenly. Alcott's main business - the detailed description of a Reconstruction-era household keeping itself going - is here rendered in flashbacks: the girlish mishaps with curling tongs and plaster-of-Paris, the games of dress-up, the first encounters and fallouts with the opposite sex. There's an element of paradise lost in all this - and, this being the America of the late 19th century, there is loss - except for the most part it all feels so alive, a brisk, spirited survey of the home that cradled, nurtured and forged these divergent souls, under the management of the loving mother (Laura Dern) who encouraged the Marsh girls to follow the paths we've already seen them on and thereby pull something together for themselves. The essentials remain, it's just that the cause and effect have been flipped. Of course we get the ice skating - would it be Little Women without it? - but its placement becomes doubly significant in a study of how and where young women find their feet.

From the early shot of a jubilant, just-published Jo tearing down the street to a final coach-and-horses dash to the railway station, this is an adaptation characterised above all else by movement, and that movement keeps stuffiness at bay; the shifts between the eternal present of the March homestead and the futures these girls fashioned for themselves equally never quite allow us to settle into the film (or, indeed, the past). Gerwig's stock-in-trade has always been agitation; it comes through here in her short, staccato, excitable scenes. Her players reassure us: this may well be the most perfectly cast studio picture of the decade, perhaps even of this century. So, yes, we spot how closely Ronan resembles Dern; but also that Gerwig has detected the meekness in Watson's screen persona, and that Chalamet is exactly that variety of young man - courtly, but with a hint of wildness - which all four sisters might fall for in their turn. She pours out the right amount of Streep for a period movie striving to avoid Silver Screen gentility; being the closest thing to a miracle worker the American cinema now has, Gerwig even gets Letts to soften and Louis Garrel (as Professor Bhaer) to smile. It does have the look of the most serene of shoots - the gathering of a happy family, surrounded by allies; a simple imprinting of personalities - which may have encouraged Gerwig to experiment in the edit, to set innocence against experience, and thereby gain in texture and depth. What she's intuited is that beneath that serene surface - and the fond memories her audience carries of this book - there exists a deeper sense of struggle: the struggles of any woman to make the right choices, to get by, to flourish. That's why she opens with a quote by Alcott herself ("I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly books"); it's an acknowledgement this was a story born of such turbulence, which may be why it continues to strike chords in turbulent times.

We might instructively link Alcott's "troubles" with Gerwig's struggle to set an oestrogen-heavy project like this before a modern multiplex crowd. You may have read the online reports of young male cinemagoers loudly proclaiming that they have no intention whatsoever of going near a film called Little Women, which I don't recall was the case with the Armstrong adaptation. (Of course, that was in those blissful days of pre-Twitter silence.) One line of thought is that the new film may not need them: even going up against the glitzier distractions of a new Star Wars and Tom Hooper's Cats, Little Women sold out twice in two days at my local bijouplex, and I was watching as one of a very small handful of men in a room otherwise filled by enthusiastic females. Another would be that this would be their loss, because the new Little Women is nothing if not a learning experience, a succession of formative or teachable moments climaxing in Jo's last-reel evolution from airy creative into a hard-nosed businesswoman. (A progression that, in its own way, explains Gerwig's rapid rise through the Hollywood ranks.) Look, too, at the way Laurie and the boys look at the March girls, which is something like the way the boys looked at the girls in Sofia Coppola's 1970s-set The Virgin Suicides, and not unlike the way Gerwig herself looks upon her 21st century actresses: with a mixture of recognition, fascination-bordering-on-awe, and sincere, heartfelt affection. There is a reason Alcott's book keeps cropping up as a set text for schoolchildren and studio executives alike: it knows - as the ultra-knowing Gerwig knows - that little women are compelled by events to grow, mature, progress. Could we say the same of our little men, at this juncture in time?

Little Women is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

Saturday 28 December 2019

In memoriam: Danny Aiello (Telegraph 20/12/19)

Danny Aiello, who has died aged 86, was a stout, dependable character actor who came to prominence in middle age, lending a doughy humanity to paternal or avuncular, typically Italian-American parts.

His enhanced visibility from the mid-1980s onwards was in part down to Madonna. In the promo for the singer’s 1986 chart-topper “Papa Don’t Preach”, Aiello played the patriarch agonising over his daughter’s life choices; within this somewhat stock melodramatic role, he conveyed mixed emotions – weariness, rage and, at the last, understanding – with consummate economy. The video proved impossible to avoid that summer: casting agents were reminded of what a bedrock Aiello could be, leading to roles in two very different productions.

In the enjoyable romcom Moonstruck (1987), Aiello was cast as Johnny Cammameri, the devoted albeit conservative fiancé Cher’s Loretta Castorini leaves behind for a fling with Johnny’s livewire younger brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Though much of the considerable critical praise went the way of his colleagues, Aiello brought a genuine poignancy to the part of Johnny, a mamma’s boy so devoted to the woman who raised him that he was willing to sacrifice his own shot at happiness.

In Spike Lee’s altogether more confrontational Do the Right Thing (1989), Aiello played Sal, owner of a Brooklyn pizzeria that becomes the locus for a vicious race riot on a sweltering summer’s day. Aiello was Lee’s second choice after Robert de Niro, and he expressed reservations about the implications of playing a heavy-set, pizza-slinging Italian. Yet empowered by the freedom to improvise scenes, he gave an indelible performance as one of several lives changed over a frazzling 24-hour period, earning Best Supporting Actor nods at both the Golden Globes and Oscars.

He was born Daniel Louis Aiello Jr. on June 20, 1933 in Manhattan, the fifth of six children raised almost singlehandedly by their seamstress mother Frances Pietrocova after her labourer husband, himself known as Danny, abandoned the family. It was a rough upbringing. The young Danny was sent out to shine shoes at Grand Central Station after his mother lost her eyesight; according to the actor’s 2014 memoir I Only Know Who I Am When I’m Somebody Else, he drifted into running numbers and robbing cigarette machines to help make ends meet.

Aiello found greater stability after three years of military service, marrying his teenage sweetheart Sandy Cohen in 1955. He found employment with the Greyhound bus company – working his way up from baggage handler to local president of the Amalgamated Transit Union – before finding his way into the spotlight in circuitous fashion.

Standing at 6’2”, with a bulky, Army-honed physique, Aiello was working nights as a bouncer at New York comedy club The Improv when he was asked to fill in for an emcee who had been taken ill. It inspired him to try out for acting roles, including that of an embittered barman in Lamppost Reunion, an off-off-Broadway production that grew in reputation as it toured through the 1970s.

Aged forty, he made his screen debut in the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), before popping up in several noteworthy films: he was the assassin Tony Rosato, adlibbing the line “Michael Corleone says hello” as he garrottes Frank Pentangeli, in The Godfather: Part II (1974), the police chief in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the useless husband Mia Farrow escapes in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and the gangster Rocco in Allen’s Radio Days (1987).

Aiello was never as prominent after his mid-Eighties moment in the sun, though he continued to compile credits. He won a rare lead role as JFK’s assassin in Ruby (1992) and his own Brando moment in the Mario Puzo-derived miniseries The Last Don (1997), but settled into secondary roles, appearing in Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter (1994) and alongside Rik Mayall in Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis (1997).

Increasingly, his creative energies were focused on a singing career. Proximity to Madonna imbued Aiello with renewed confidence: in 1987, he recorded a “Papa Don’t Preach” answer song called “Papa Wants the Best for You”, and he revealed a smooth facility with older standards in both the romcom Once Around (1991) and Hudson Hawk (1991), where he duetted with Bruce Willis on “Swinging on a Star”.

In 2004, his swing album “I Just Wanted to Hear the Words” hit #4 on the Billboard jazz chart; four subsequent LPs followed, including 2011’s “Bridges”, a collaboration with the rapper Hasan, on which he covered “Lady in Red” and “Let It Be”.

He was grateful for the opportunities that had come his way, however belatedly: “I was 40 when I did my first movie. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My interpretation of acting at the time, because I didn’t know how to build a character, was pure energy. People call me an instinctive actor. I used to consider that an insult early on, only because I had never studied. Now... I love it.”

He is survived by Cohen and three children, Rick, Jaime, and Stacey. A fourth child, the stuntman Danny Aiello III, died of pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Danny Aiello, born June 20, 1933, died December 12, 2019.

In memoriam: Rene Auberjonois (Telegraph 13/12/19)

Rene Auberjonois, who has died aged 79, was a beloved character actor who compiled a prolific number of stage and screen credits across his fifty-year career. Of these, he remains best known for his television work, settling comfortably into ensemble casts in a way that reflected his theatrical background.

Between 1980 and 1986, Auberjonois appeared in the hit US sitcom Benson as Clayton Runnymede Endicott III, the snooty chief of staff at a governor’s mansion. The role formed a primetime demonstration of his ability to humanise characters who might otherwise present as unsympathetic: within each half-hour episode, Auberjonois slyly attributed Endicott’s loftiness to a deep-seated insecurity.

Globally, Auberjonois would become celebrated for a part that streamlined his distinctive features (bulbous nose; kindly, inquisitive eyes) beneath layers of latex. A chameleonic security chief who sleeps in a bucket, Constable Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (1993-99) was an unusual role to assume, yet Auberjonois’ wryly philosophical responses to cosmic turmoil made him a firm fans’ favourite.

Over his career, he was unapologetic about his own shapeshifting, and unfussed by the prospect of not becoming an instantly recognisable face. In a 2011 interview, he shrugged: “I’m all of those characters, and I love that… I also run into people, and they think I’m their cousin or their dry cleaner. I love that, too.”

He was born René Murat Auberjonois in New York on June 1, 1940 to a wildly illustrious family. His father Fernand was a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who served as an advisor to Generals Patton and Eisenhower; his mother, Princess Laure Murat, was a painter who descended from the Bonaparte lineage. (His great-great-great-grandmother was Napoleon’s youngest sister.)

The family split their time between the US and France, where aged six, the young Rene underwent a Eureka moment while leading his classmates in a rendition of “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”. According to his website: “When the performance was over, Rene took a bow and, knowing he wasn’t the real conductor, imagined that he had been acting. He decided then and there that he wanted to be an actor.”

His parents relocated to an artists’ colony in upstate New York during his adolescence, where the producer John Houseman recommended him for an apprenticeship at a small playhouse in Stratford, Connecticut. During this period, Auberjonois flirted with the idea of changing his surname (pronounced oh-bear-zhon-wah, the French for armour-bearer) to the simpler Aubert, only to find his peers found that no less tongue-twisting.

Yet however theatregoers read it, the Auberjonois name soon began appearing on playbills with regularity. He joined the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1965, starring in its inaugural production of Tartuffe, turned to directing with the British comedy hit Beyond the Fringe in 1967, and made his Broadway debut in 1968 as the Fool opposite Lee J. Cobb as King Lear. Two years later, he won his first Tony for playing the flamboyantly gay designer Sebastian Baye in the Chanel musical Coco.

Like many unconventional performers, he received a profile boost from the New American Cinema of the 1970s. After uncredited appearances in Lilith (1964) and Petunia (1968), he fell into director Robert Altman’s ensemble of oddballs, essaying the exasperated Father Mulcahy in M*A*S*H (1970), a twitcher who transforms into a bird during Brewster McCloud (1970), the saloonkeeper Sheehan in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and one of the men closing in on Susannah York in Images (1972).

He chalked up TV guest spots in everything from The Mod Squad (1971) to Wonder Woman (1979), but movie credits kept betraying his position in the Hollywood pecking order: he was fourth-billed as the obligatory priest in disaster spoof The Big Bus (1976), fifth-billed in the King Kong remake (1976), before returning to fourth for The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

In the 1980s, he juggled Benson with stage work, earning Tony nominations for playing the con artist Duke in Big River (1985) and for his dual role in Tinseltown satire City of Angels (1989), and voice work, lending his professorial tones to such animations as The Smurfs Christmas Special (1982) and Duck Tales (1987). His most prominent vocal performance came at the end of the decade, as the French-accented chef Louis in Disney’s animated comeback The Little Mermaid (1989).

On screen, he’d become one of those hallowed “you know the face” actors, playing a mobster in Police Academy 5 (1988), dipping an uncredited toe into a soon-to-be-familiar universe in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country (1991), reteaming with Altman as one of those playing themselves amid The Player (1992), and showing up as the knowingly named Dr. Burton in Batman Forever (1995).

On TV, he played Frasier Crane’s mentor Dr. William Tewksbury in Frasier (2001), and earned a prime recurring part as the veteran lawyer Paul Lewiston on Boston Legal (2004-08); on stage, he was Professor Abronsius in the musical of Dance of the Vampires (2002-03) and directed himself alongside Roy Scheider in 12 Angry Men (2004); and he was often seen at Star Trek conventions, selling his own artwork and photographs for his favourite charity Doctors Without Borders.

Auberjonois drew no distinction between his prestige projects – forming a late-life alliance with emergent indie talent Kelly Reichardt on Certain Women (2016) and First Cow (2019) – and voicing 49 episodes of kids’ animation Pound Puppies (2010-13); to him, it was all just work, a way to continue exercising his gift. “I’m never going to retire,” he told one interviewer. “I’ll die with my boots on.”

He is survived by his wife Judith, whom he married in 1963, and two children, both actors: a son, Remy-Luc and a daughter, Tessa.

Rene Auberjonois, born June 1, 1940, died December 8, 2019.

In memoriam: Branko Lustig (Telegraph 20/11/19)

Branko Lustig, who has died aged 87, holds the distinction of being the only Holocaust survivor to have subsequently won multiple Academy Awards as a film producer.

His first Oscar was presented for Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Thomas Keneally novel about the German industrialist whose factory provided sanctuary for a thousand Jews during World War II. Upon meeting Spielberg to discuss the project, Lustig rolled his sleeve up to reveal the tattoo that marked him as prisoner number 83317. In a moment that sealed a long-standing affiliation, Spielberg kissed Lustig’s arm and insisted “You will be my producer”.

The film involved an arduous shoot, demanding the recreation of not just the camps but some of history’s direst episodes, yet it succeeded in setting the horrors of the Holocaust before a new generation; the attention it received from critics and awards groups seemed almost incidental.

Accepting his Oscar at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in March 1994, Lustig declared “It’s a long way from Auschwitz to this stage… I hope I fulfilled my obligation to the innocent victims of the Holocaust.” He donated his statuette to the Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and alongside Spielberg initiated a project at the Shoah Foundation to collect the testimonies of a further 50,000 survivors.

Branko Lustig was born on June 10, 1932 in the Yugoslavian city of Osijek to Croatian Jewish parents. Neither his waiter father Mirko nor his mother Vilma were especially devout, but the young Branko was often taken to synagogue by his grandparents.
He was deported, along with the rest of his family, when he was twelve years old. He had barely arrived at Auschwitz when he saw prisoners being put to death at the gallows. On Oscar night fifty years later, he vividly recalled the words the condemned cried out to onlookers: “Bear witness. Tell the story of our murder. Remember.”

At Auschwitz, he was assigned to open and close the camp’s front gates, inscribed with the deathly legend Arbeit Macht Frei. He attributed his survival to a bond struck up with a German officer who noticed him crying one day, and asked where he was from: it transpired the officer was from the same suburb of Osijek, and that he knew the boy’s father.

He spent two years at Auschwitz and Belsen-Bergen, where his grandmother died in the gas chambers. At liberation, the 13-year-old Lustig weighed just 66 pounds, and was so delirious from typhoid he believed he’d died upon hearing the bagpipes of his British liberators: “I thought, ‘I’m in heaven finally, and these are angels playing.’”

He was eventually reunited with his mother, though most of his family did not survive. (His father died at Čakovec in March 1945.) Of a Croatian Jewish community that numbered 39,000 in the pre-war period, only 9,000 returned to their homes.

After the war, Lustig studied at Zagreb’s theatrical academy and began working for the state-owned studio Jadran as a translator and production assistant. He apprenticed on local productions, often with a WW2 theme – earning an onscreen cameo in Kozara (1962) as a wounded German soldier – but soon became a valuable contact for overseas crews looking to showcase Yugoslavia’s natural beauty.

He took an assistant director credit on The Tin Drum (1979), and served as production supervisor for the Yugoslavian sequences of Sophie’s Choice (1982), before enjoying his first hit as an associate producer with the ABC miniseries The Winds of War (1983), an adaptation of Herman Wouk’s novel set in the months before Pearl Harbor, starring Robert Mitchum and Ali McGraw.

Its sequel War and Remembrance (1988-89) was notable for being the first commercial project to gain permission to shoot at Auschwitz, a point on which Lustig was insistent: “It is terribly important we make this picture here, because people are forgetting what happened.”

After Schindler’s List, Lustig joined the Spielberg-backed studio DreamWorks, overseeing the George Clooney/Nicole Kidman thriller The Peacemaker (1997) as well as forging a fruitful alliance with Ridley Scott, producing Gladiator (2000), for which he won his second Oscar, as well as Hannibal (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and American Gangster (2007).  

He formed his own company, Six Point Film, in 2008, and in May 2011, aged 78, he returned to Auschwitz to celebrate the bar mitzvah denied to him as a 13-year-old boy. He received the Sarajevo Film Festival’s Heart of Sarajevo award in 2012 and served as honorary president of Zagreb’s Tolerance Festival, part of a homecoming that also saw him win a seat in the Zagreb Assembly in 2017.

His last completed film project was the Igor Prizmic-directed documentary short May It Never Be Forgotten (2015), in which Lustig revisited Auschwitz with University of Zagreb students to plant a Croatian flag at the site, as part of its annual March of the Living; it screened on Croatian television the night of his death.

In a Los Angeles Times interview twenty years after Schindler’s List, Lustig spoke of the growing need to preserve his fellow survivors’ experiences for future generations: “Slowly, people are not making movies about the Holocaust. One day, they will stop… Maybe the reason I survived the camps was to help make movies about them, to show what happened.”

He is survived by his spouse Mirjana and daughter Sara.

Branko Lustig, born June 10, 1932, died November 14, 2019.

Friday 27 December 2019

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office 
for the weekend of December 20-22, 2019:

1 (new) Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (12A)

2 (new) Cats (U)
3 (1) Jumanji: The Next Level (PG)
4 (2Frozen II (U) **
5 (3) Last Christmas (12A)
6 (4Knives Out (12A) ***
7 (new) Dabangg 3 (12A)
8 (13) It's a Wonderful Life (U) *****
9 (6) Blue Story (15) ***
10 (14) Abominable (U)

(source: BFI)

My top five: 
1. So Long, My Son

2. Eyes Wide Shut
3. Long Day's Journey Into Night
4. Little Women
5. The Kingmaker

Home entertainment Top Ten (DVD/Blu-Ray/Download): 

1 (13) Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (18) ***

2 (2) The Lion King (PG)
3 (1) Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (12) **
4 (3Toy Story 4 (U) ***
5 (new) Angel Has Fallen (15) **
6 (7) Aladdin (PG)
7 (4Spider-Man: Far from Home (12) ***
8 (5) Elf (PG) **
9 (6Rocketman (15) ***
10 (new) Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG) ***

(source: officialcharts.com)

My top five: 
1. Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections

2. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
3. Dora and the Lost City of Gold
4. A Dog Called Money
5. Hail Satan?

Top five films on terrestrial television:
1. Babe (Saturday, five, 11.35am)
2. Edward Scissorhands (Monday, C4, 12.20pm)
3. The Apartment [above] (Monday, BBC2, 1pm)
4. Some Like It Hot (Monday, BBC2, 3pm)
5. Point Break (New Year's Eve, BBC1, 2am)

Living in another world: "The Kingmaker"

Lauren Greenfield is an American documentarist with a special interest in the thorny issue of privilege. She first broke through with 2012's The Queen of Versailles, which looks more than ever like one of the defining docs of a decade in which the rich got richer than ever before; after taking a pasting for 2018's Generation Wealth, which seemed keener to flaunt its own access than analyse what its interviewees were doing and saying, Greenfield has returned with a meaty subject and a fascinating, terrifying film. In 2014, the filmmaker was granted an audience with Imelda Marcos, as the shoe-loving widow of the disgraced Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos set out to elevate the couple's son Ferdinand Jr., known locally as Bongbong, to elected office. Presumably Marcos thought a film would restore the clan to the public eye (and their hearts) after several decades in which it had lain dormant. Throughout The Kingmaker, we witness the former first lady - now resembling an extravagantly pompadoured cross between Barbara Cartland and Kim Jong-il - playing up or putting on a show for the camera, blithely tossing banknotes to passers-by as her car idles at traffic lights, and leading Greenfield on a tour of a garden set up with framed photos of her many meetings with world leaders. (The stage management is rather undercut when Marcos stumbles into a table, smashing a couple of photos to the ground.)

Greenfield quickly grasps that her best bet is to allow her subject all the rope she might need to hang herself with, holding back from any direct intervention or interrogation, and sensing the tactic will in itself yield telling and revealing footage. For some while, it proves to be the correct tactic: a gap is opened up between the image the film's subject wants to present (that of the mother of the modern Philippines, who wants nothing more for her "children" - the Filipino people - than to transform what she perceives as a national hell into a paradise for all; once again, you note how capitalism requires its subjects to adopt the position and thinking patterns of credulous infants) and the reality the camera is recording. Yet this is one of those documentaries that visibly had to shapeshift alongside its subject, as a woman who first presents as a pitiful, past-it figure extended her tentacles beyond the reach of Greenfield's camera and began to reassert some malign influence over the wider world. The result is a film of particular relevance to Western audiences, not least for raising the following two questions. How long do we let our blowhards spout, in the hope they will eventually blow themselves out? And what happens when all this hot air begins to cost lives?

Greenfield lets Marcos run on, then yanks us all back down to earth with an alternative perspective. She hears out Marcos's gabbled account of buying up animals to stick on an island that served as the first family's private petting zoo - how whimsical, Imelda wants us to think, how wonderfully capricious - then speaks with representatives of the 250 families evicted to make way for this doomed venture, and cuts in footage of the poor, transplanted giraffes involved, their growth stunted, their insides riddled with rot. Marcos boasts of her generosity towards opposition leader Ninoy Aquino; archive footage shows Aquino's corpse laid out on the tarmac at what was Manila Airport. She talks proudly of the positive changes wrought by the imposition of martial law under her husband's regime; Greenfield talks to those who were raped or otherwise assaulted. It is a world within a world, ringfenced from the likes of you, me and reality, yet propped up by the people - literally so in the case of the swarming entourage Marcos waves in to fix her make up, chaperone her between suites or hold up newspaper headlines proclaiming her husband's innocence. Some of the most pointed testimony Greenfield gathers comes from old (Republican-leaning?) American pals of the Marcoses, who retained a foot in both camps, but who had somewhere else to go and could therefore maintain some distance: what they saw was how absurd the couple's lives were, how they operated entirely by rules of their own making.

Easy to understand why Greenfield should have brought this film to us now, with our own leaders drifting away from realpolitik and ever further into cloud cuckoo land. We get a photo of Imelda with Trump, possibly discussing how to consolidate ill-gotten gains with real estate deals; Marcos's use of the loaded term "sovereignty" to justify the use of martial law may strike a disquieting chord with UK viewers; and one of her maxims - "perception is real, and the truth is not" - could have been torn from the Bannon/Cummings playbook. (Greenfield yokes that more specifically to the election of Duterte, a self-described strongman who vowed to fix his country's problems overnight and passed himself off as a man of the people, no matter that his father occupied a prime seat in the Marcos cabinet.) What's vaguely reassuring is that The Kingmaker suggests all empires, especially those riddled with corruption, must eventually fall, because it's hard to keep grasping allies in place and the mob on side for long: at some point, the troubled history of the Philippines tells us, your co-conspirators will want more, while your aggrieved and oppressed citizens will want to trade in those empty promises for bread and a living wage. What's terrifying about the film is the suggestion our would-be overlords are getting ever wilier about extending their time on camera, and thus keeping their rotten ideas in play. 

What's interesting is how Greenfield forces us, scene by scene, to navigate our feelings towards Imelda and the comparatively open and unbriefed Bongbong, who may himself have been ringfenced from at least some of the privilege his parents enjoyed. (Challenged to repay what his folks stole from the Filipino people during a televised vice-presidential debate, he shrugs "I cannot give what I do not have", and your mind reels back to those shots of Imelda handing out banknotes like candy at that stoplight.) Do we feel something when we see Imelda Marcos being pushed around in a wheelchair, or when her memory seems to fail her, or when she betrays some delusion about her place in history? Yes, because we have empathy; unlike some of those currently occupying high office, we're not complete sociopaths. Yet the movie leaves us in little doubt that these most performative signs of weakness - as with any suggestion that Imelda might be considered a victim - may in themselves be a show, a form of spin, and that they are as nothing when one sets them against the lifetime of pain and suffering endured by the Filipino poor. Greenfield induces that wary, guarded empathy one might feel in close proximity to a wounded lion or wolf, creatures that, though laid low, may just rally long enough overnight to make a second lunge for your throat or chest. Even if they can't eat you, their more vigorous offspring still might.

The Kingmaker is now playing in selected cinemas.  

Monday 23 December 2019

On demand: "The Souvenir"

I've arrived at Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir late, and with some trepidation. Hogg's first features upon transitioning out of episodic television - 2007's Unrelated, 2010's Archipelago - marked her out as a promising observer of the British class system, but she blew much of this viewer's goodwill during 2013's Exhibition, a woe-is-me endurance test about the struggles of two artists to get the right price for their bijou split-level property in the London marketplace. I needn't have been so cautious: The Souvenir, which instantly slots in as Hogg's most complete and fascinating picture, is something like a British equivalent of Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye, First Love, poking through the ashes of a formative coup de foudre in order to see if any diamantine-hard, universal truths might now be recovered. Hogg sets about this task with an impressive precision. Choice soundtrack cues ("Ghost Town", The Fall, Robert Wyatt doing "Shipbuilding") and the faded-Polaroid hues of David Raedeker's expert photography combine with dinner party conversation about the IRA to establish the fact we're in the early days of Thatcher's Britain; it's here we meet a twentysomething film student called Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton), living in Knightsbridge yet with vague plans to undertake a project about the depressed communities around Sunderland. (The film opens with black-and-white photos of the area taken by Hogg herself in her younger days: already, the lines separating fiction from fact are being blurred.) The project seems to fall by the wayside, however, once Julie falls for Anthony (Tom Burke), a man from the Foreign Office she meets at a party. We can see why she falls for him: in everything from his suit and suspenders to the low, conspiratorial rumble of his voice, Anthony is very much a man, The Man. Yet with the benefit of Hogg's hindsight, we can also see why this is the kind of man a trusting young woman would do well to keep a certain distance from: one who displays the cold indifference peculiar to the English upper classes, born of not having to care too much, because he already has it all, nasty secrets included.

The drama that follows from this set-up confirms Hogg as a poet of prickly passive-aggression, and that poetry derives in large part from her improvisational methods. We know broadly where this relationship is headed (south), but the snapshots we get of it turn twitchy and unpredictable; there's something about the way she encourages her actors to circle lightly around the point of any scene that makes these characters appear grabby, even violent whenever they lurch towards it. Inevitably, it's the older, worldlier Anthony, not the recessive Julie, who asserts himself most often: asking to borrow a few quid from his squeeze, then making off with a tenner, or blithely sliding the bill for afternoon tea Julie's way. (Hogg identifies money as a rich source of English disquiet.) The part depends on Burke being masterful, and he is: the actor somehow makes Anthony impressive, bordering on attractive - it's in the way he speaks, and the natural air of superiority with which he holds a cigarette - without concealing the wreck of a man that must emerge once the suit comes off. (It's as if those suspenders are the only thing holding him together.) Opposite him, Swinton Byrne is mostly reactive - Julie's someone finding something out the hard way - yet while we wait for this bad penny to drop, Hogg grants her several of the year's most expressive close-ups; this actress has inherited from her mother the ability to compel simply by being before the camera. Julie might merely have been a flattering self-portrait of the creative in love, as so many male writer-directors have painted or doodled over the years, except Hogg the elder remembers how guileless this girl is and was, and spots how her capacity for forgiveness might be both the making and breaking of her. She instead becomes the image of the young woman carving her lover's initials into the tree in the Fragonard miniature from which The Souvenir borrows its title: a tall, upright streak of empathy whom seasoned onlookers will fear is about to get a little squashed, if not outright crushed. Where men bound into relationships with certainty, women must arm themselves with fragile hope.

There's something sociological about that observation, and The Souvenir proves scarcely less clinical in its make-up than Hogg's previous films. That shouldn't be taken as a negative, however: it suggests the filmmaker has obtained the necessary distance on these events (which I don't think she had on those of Exhibition), and it allows her to better understand Anthony's erratic and exasperating behaviour. (Much as Julie is laid low with an infection contracted from her wayward swain, so too Hogg has retained slivers of ice in her blood: some relationships stay with you in funny ways.) I do wonder whether this is one of those movies destined to play better with critics and cinephiles than it is with the wider public, partly because of that coolness, partly because of all the film school chit-chat going on in the background; in both its look and its core temperature, it's not a million miles away from the kind of film that emerged (and drew similarly rave reviews) in the British art cinema's Eighties heyday. Yet it exhibits a chilly fascination that may just draw you in as Julie is drawn into Anthony's orbit. We find ourselves in a period movie that refuses all complacency or comforting nostalgia, that keeps disrupting its own periodness via an offcentre perspective, an unlikely, too-loud soundtrack cue, an ugly, grainy image, a look at the camera, or some other form of bad behaviour. If The Souvenir feels unusually modern for a film set in the era of Bronski Beat, that's because the underlying dynamic (which is to say the power imbalance) between its lovers has hardly disappeared in the years since, and because the memories this narrative preserves clearly, vividly linger. We should note, too, the rare accomplishment of making a British period piece that never once feels remotely Tory: gimlet-eyed in its description of how easily vulnerable souls can fall under the spell of posh bullshitters, The Souvenir may just stand as the film that speaks most closely to the experience of living in the Britain of 2019.

The Souvenir is available to stream and on DVD through Curzon Artificial Eye.

Saturday 21 December 2019

For your consideration: my Critics' Circle votes 2019

Director of the Year
1. Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
2. Wang Xiaoshuai, So Long, My Son
3. Alice Rohrwacher, Happy as Lazzaro
4. Jia Zhang-ke, Ash is Purest White
5. Lulu Wang, The Farewell

(Honourable mentions: Jacques Audiard, The Sisters Brothers; Asghar Farhadi, Everybody Knows; Jordan Peele, Us.)

Screenwriter of the Year
1. Bo Burnham, Eighth Grade
2. Rodrigo Sorogoyen and Isabel Peña, The Candidate
3. Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers
4. Lulu Wang, The Farewell
5. Steven Zaillian, The Irishman

(Honourable mentions: Sara Colangelo, The Kindergarten Teacher; Asghar Farhadi, Everybody Knows; Christian Petzold, Transit; Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, The Sisters Brothers; Anubhav Sinha and Gaurav Solanki, Article 15.)

Actress of the Year
1. Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
2. Mei Yong, So Long, My Son
3. Gabriela Cartol, The Chambermaid
4. Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
5. Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher

(Honourable mentions: Awkwafina, The Farewell; Helena Howard, Madeline's Madeline; Lupita Nyong'o, Us; Charlize Theron, Long Shot; Mia Wasikowska, Piercing.)

Actor of the Year
1. John C. Reilly, The Sisters Brothers
2. Wang Jingchun, So Long, My Son
3. Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
4. Robert de Niro, The Irishman
5. Adam Driver, The Report and Marriage Story

(Honourable mentions: Sam Elliott, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot; Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Photograph; Antonio de la Torre, The Candidate; Franz Rogowski, Transit.)

Supporting Actress of the Year
1. Jennifer Lopez, Hustlers
2. Shuzhen Zhao, The Farewell
3. Julianne Nicholson, Monos
4. Laura Dern, Marriage Story
5. Sophie Okonedo, Wild Rose

(Honourable mentions: Julie Walters, Wild Rose; Penelope Cruz, Pain & Glory; Phoebe Nicholls, Mari; Madeleine Worrall, Mari.)

Supporting Actor of the Year
2. Al Pacino, The Irishman
3. Joe Pesci, The Irishman
4. Stephen Graham, The Irishman
5. Kulvinder Ghir, Blinded by the Light

(Honourable mentions: Denis Menochet, By the Grace of God; Josh Hamilton, Eighth Grade; Francis Magee, The Dig; Timothy Spall, The Corrupted.)

British/Irish Actress of the Year
1. Lesley Manville, Ordinary Love
2. Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose
3. Holliday Grainger, Animals
4. Sienna Miller, American Woman
5. Rosamund Pike, A Private War

(Honourable mentions: Seána Kerslake, The Hole in the Ground; Marianne Jean-Baptiste, In Fabric.)

British/Irish Actor of the Year
1. Josh O'Connor, Only You
2. Liam Neeson, Ordinary Love
3. Robert Pattinson, High Life
4. Taron Egerton, Rocketman
5. Stephen Odubola, Blue Story

(Honourable mentions: Viveik Kalra, Blinded by the Light; Kris Hitchin, Sorry We Missed You.)

Young British/Irish Actor of the Year
1. Jack Carroll [above right], Eaten by Lions
2. Noah Jupe, Le Mans '66
3. Louis Ashbourne Serkis, The Kid Who Would Be King
4. James Quinn Markey, The Hole in the Ground
5. Rhianna Dorris, The Kid Who Would Be King

Breakthrough British/Irish Talent of the Year
1. Mark Jenkin, writer-director, Bait
2. Harry Wootliff, writer-director, Only You
3. Georgia Parris, writer-director, Mari
4. Rapman, writer-director, Blue Story
5. Simon Amstell, writer-director, Benjamin

(Honourable mentions: Emma-Jane Unsworth, writer, Animals; Lee Cronin, co-writer/director, The Hole in the Ground; Jason Wingard, co-writer/director, Eaten by Lions.)