Mustang (France-Germany-Turkey-Qatar, 2015)

In the shit

Not long after enjoying Kore-eda Hirokazi’s pean to sisterly love I came across another sister-centric film, this time directed by a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven. She grew up and was educated in France (her father was a Turkish diplomat) and was 37 by the time this, her first feature, was released. Hopefully, it will be the first of many however her second, Kings (France-Belgium-China-US, 2017) starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, hasn’t been released in the UK and scores 4.8 on imdb. Although the title Mustang refers to the North American horse, the film is firmly rooted in the conservative culture of Anatolia, Turkey.

The opening portrays the euphoria of the ‘school’s out for the summer’ moment and the five orphaned sisters, all brilliantly played, enjoy play-fighting with boys in the sea. A gossip tells their grandma and their house increasingly becomes a fortress to keep them away from boys before they are married off. The scenes of betrothal, in full view of the families who comment how the couple like one another (a version of fake news), are excruciating. The girls of forced to wear ‘shit coloured’, the youngest Lale’s term, clothes to cover themselves. What can’t be hidden, particularly in Lale’s case, is the girls’ life force that contrasts forcefully with the hidebound adults (with the exception of a friendly truck driver).

As a westerner it is easy to sympathise with the girls and in Turkey the film hit a discordant note with the forces of reaction, fuelled as they are by President Erdoğan. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Turkey where, in a tourist backwoods, I was struck by how many women toiled in the fields whilst the blokes put their feet up in the coffee houses: patriarchy feathering its comfort zone at the expense of women.

Mustang is a great rallying call for the oppressed and a lesson for the oppressors, if they’ll listen. It’s also a heart-filling portrayal of determination, through Lale’s character, that will not let the bastards get her down and she keeps on keeping on. I loved the last shot of the film suggesting that women can only save themselves.

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Widows (UK-US, 2018)

Doin’ it for themselves

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlant’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Sound interview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.

The Boston Strangler (US, 1968)

Straining to be modern

By the late 1960s the old Hollywood guard must have known their time was past; Jack Warner’s attempt to bury his own film, Bonnie and Clyde, lasted six months when, on its re-release, it became a hit. The Production Code, that had pickled representations for over 30 years, went the way of the moguls and Hollywood grew up. The push was more economic than cultural, the audience was disappearing because Hollywood was no longer in touch with the zeitgeist. The ’60s was the age of the teen and Aquarius as the counter culture, fuelled by Civil Rights and atrocities in Vietnam, was where it was at. In cinema, the French ‘new wave’ had affectionately broken the binds of classical Hollywood form and, by the end of the decade, was washing over Los Angeles.

The formal innovations of the time can be seen particularly in The Boston Strangler through director Richard Fleischer’s use of split screen. It is especially affective when characters are knocking on a door in one half of the screen; in the other we can see the strangler’s corpse awaiting discovery on the door’s other side. The last part of the film, a fanciful interrogation by the lead detective and the suspect in a mental asylum, gets ever more abstract (so not classical Hollywood) with the whiteness of the setting and the use of flashbacks; ‘fanciful’ because the film is based on an actual case (that has reared its head in numerous films) and this dialogue never happened. The roles are played by classical Hollywood stars, Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis, respectively. Curtis is far more comfortable, possibly because he was playing out of his ‘persona’ comfort zone, a psychopath rather than a charmer. His difference fits with the difference of the film whereas Fonda ‘good guy’ plodding belongs to another era.

Unsurprisingly not all the innovations have dated well. When Fleischer splits the screen even more, into a mosaic, it becomes difficult to know what to look at. Not that it was confusing as the subdivided frame was serving as a montage, but it was nevertheless distracting. In addition, the psychology espoused in the asylum no longer rings true. Cinema’s representation of psychology often has a loose relationship with the discipline as it’s used for dramatic purposes.

However, the film remains worth seeing as an example of the transition between old Hollywood and the New Hollywood of the early ’70s. Of course, most of the films emanating from California at the time were standard genre fare not suitable for experimentation. The Boston Strangler strains to be modern which is better than not being modern at all.

Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain, 2014)

In the quagmire

Between the victory for socialists in the 1982 election and Franco’s death, seven years earlier, Spain was in the quagmire of transition (La Transición) between a fascist dictatorship and democracy. Alberto Rodriquez’s (he co-wrote and directed) police procedural serial killer thriller uses this time to investigate what is was like to be stuck between the two worlds. 

The film starts with a particular time, 20 September 1980, when Eta (the Basque nationalist organisation) had killed four civil guards; TV footage shows us a crowd making fascist salutes. No doubt those who ‘did all right’ under Franco, and were without moral compunction, did not want change; particularly if they actively supported repressive policies. Mismatched cops Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), an ex-fascist, and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), a democrat unhappy with rate of progress away from Francoism, are thrown together in an Andalucian backwater to investigate the crimes. The extraordinary aerial shots (see above) of the title sequence give an other worldly feel to the place which, the cops soon find, works to its own rules. However Pedro notes it’s the same everywhere, meaning the forces of reaction are very strong.

If the narrative is sometimes creaky, the grotesquerie of the serial killings is never explained, the performances and cinematography more than make up for any failings. Although female characters are mostly victims, that was surely true to the time when machismo meant women was firmly planted in their ‘place’. Indeed, the murdered young women all had dreams of leaving the stagnant backwater.

After the death of Franco, Spain institutionalised ‘forgetting’ about the civil war as a way of forcing reconciliation (Hugo Blick’s brilliant TV serial Black Earth Rising, UK 2018, dealt with the same issue in Rwanda). When a socialist government comes to power this gets overturned in an attempt to confront the truth of the past before being revoked by the conservatives (what are they afraid of?). Currently, the past is being dug up (literally in the case of graves) again and films like Marshland are crucial in reminding us about the past so we can try to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

Panic in the Streets (US, 1950)

Palance representing the noir virus

It’s a long time since I’d seen Panic in the Streets and I don’t think I appreciated its brilliance on first viewing. One of the continuing attractions of film noir, I think, is its modernity in terms of the ideas expressed. The sickness in the human soul that noir portrays hasn’t gone anywhere, indeed it may be taking the ‘upper hand’ at the moment. So to see representations of evil is both cathartic and a warning. Richard Murphy’s screenplay has more than a human evil, personified here by the outstanding Walter Jack Palance (as he was credited), as the bubonic plague spreading in New Orleans.

The screenplay’s good, but the plaudits must go to Elia Kazan for his extraordinary direction. Kazan’s roots in documentary are evident with the location shooting which helps make the threat of plague seem real (as does the casting of non actors, in small roles, as people who are just trying to get on with their lives). Richard Widmark plays the public spirited health official who fights the complacent cops to get them to understand that a serious epidemic is possible. Palance plays Blackie who believes there’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’  (something extremely valuable) being hidden and his search takes him to the plague carrier: a wonderful metaphor for venality.

Location shooting adds to the tension

It’s not just the location shooting that gives the film a realist edge; Kazan uses some extraordinarily long takes (for Classical Hollywood) that add to the intensity as the drama plays out (for a short time) directly before our eyes (no cutting to signify mediation). This requires great acting and there’s plenty on offer in the film: the aformentioned Palance, his sidekick Zero Mostel (all sweaty obsequiousness) and Barbara Bel Geddes as ‘the good woman at home’. In addition, Kazan doesn’t simply let the long take impress us, but sometimes actors and/or the camera moves and the resulting compositions continue to be aesthetically satisfying. Often when a director uses a handheld camera to signify realism the balanced composition is lost in favour of directness. Kazan offers us both directness and meaningful mise en scene.

Finally, deep focus compositions, which by their nature tend to be expressionist due distortions created by the lenses, add to the sense of panic by both showing the narrative world in detail whilst subtly displacing its fabric. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, giving plenty of opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting and so brings the noir into the everyday world.

In addition, J.P. Teloitte  in Voices in the Dark shows how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite. Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.

Walk on the Wild Side (US, 1962)

Fonda brings modernity to Hollywood

The film seems to be most famous for the Elaine and Saul bass designed title sequence with a slinky black cat on the prowl however, for me, it’s Jane Fonda’s performance and charisma that mark it as a movie worth seeing. It also includes Barbara Stanwyck in one of her (coded) lesbian roles and Laurence Harvey, an actor I don’t usually enjoy, is excellent as the naive boy with a heart.

It has a classy cast, though one of leads – Capucine – seems to be in the role at the producer’s insistence rather than for her acting skills, and it is directed (though apparently not finished as it was a troubled production) by ‘classic Hollywood’ great, Edward Dymytrk. By having a brothel as a prime setting, and a lesbian as a lead character, Walk on the Wild Side was a thoroughly modern production for its time. Though because of the Production Code it had to imply anything that would be deemed untoward. Of course having Stanwyck, playing Jo the madam, as a lesbian who is cruelly manipulative is hardly a statement of tolerance.

Fonda plays a troubled youngster who just wants to ‘have fun’, though her attempts to seduce Harvey’s Dove Linkhorn are rebuffed. It struck me that her acting style was different to the Hollywood veterans in the cast. Apparently she insisted on changing her dialogue, maybe to make it more naturalistic, and she’s a very physical actor; there’s no standing around waiting her turn for dialogue, she is always engaging with the scene. 

Wild Fonda

She’s only in the film at the start and end but grabs the eyes when she is (and that’s not just to do with how she looks). She was 25 when the film was released and had only just started appearing in movies, after a career on stage. The scenes she has with Anne Baxter, who does her best playing a Mexican gas station owner, show the contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’: Fonda wriggles whilst Baxter is stately.

Although obviously hamstrung by the Production Code, the ending is suitably downbeat with the ‘law of compensating values’ (the bad need punishing) only fulfilled as an afterthought on a newspaper front page that’s been discarded. 

Cowboy (Vaquero, Argentina, 2011)

The wild frontier of acting

I don’t know if the term ‘cowboy’ in Spanish has the connotations of ‘wide boy/untrustworthy’ it has in English, in addition to its American frontier references. I suspect it might because Juan Minujin’s Julián is a self-centred actor seeking the big time with a role in an American movie (as a cowboy). Minujin, who also co-wrote and directed, is a top Argentinean actor and may reach a wider audience in the forthcoming British film The Pope, directed by Fernando Meirelles. He’s quite brilliant on screen and off screen – the direction is great.

Julián is in every scene and is privileged with a voice over as he enviously looks at other actors who he suspects are getting the better roles. We see him shooting a television drama and even then the voice over shows he’s distracted, thinking about working for a famed American director and so going through the motions in the moment. When he does get to audition for the role he covets the sheer anxiety of the experience is brilliantly conveyed.

Julián’s domestic life is as bad as his professional. He lives alone, spends his time thinking about masturbating, and the lurid green light that ‘litters’ his room gives an expressionist tinge to his envy of others. When he visits his family he’s as disconnected as he usually is, though this is understandable as his father repeatedly parrots about how good others are and his brother constantly eulogises how his son is good at imitating characters in television advertising.

There’s real skill in portraying bad acting and Minujin is totally convincing and somehow manages to remain sympathetic until his treatment of a make up artist later in the film. The final audition for the big role is a superb scene that manages to comment on colonialism whilst at the same time be excruciatingly funny. (Netflix)