The tours de force of Jean Dujardin

As a graduate in French and Film Studies, I have always been interested in France’s filmic output. Jean Dujardin, a French comedian turned film star, first came to my attention over a decade ago when I saw his first of several collaborations with director Michel Hazanavicius, OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006), a spy comedy which is both a spoof of Connery-era James Bond films and a tongue-in-cheek homage to the other so-called “Eurospy” thrillers of that era. Dujardin plays the film’s namesake, agent OSS 117, an agent for the French Secret Service in the 50s and 60s. If this first film could be considered a pint of bitter, its sequel, OSS 117: Lost In Rio (2009) was the vodka chaser, a headier adventure film featuring Neo-Nazis, crocodiles, and the sexual excesses of late 60s hippiedom. Dujardin’s cat-like walk and humorous facial expressions certainly gave him that je ne sais quoi.

However, Dujardin and Hazanavicius truly struck gold when they collaborated on The Artist (2011), a truly wonderful black-and-white and predominantly mute homage to silent-era filmmaking in which the career of actor George Valentin is cruelly compromised by the introduction of sound technology. Following Dujardin’s success in the film, Hollywood beckoned and he went on to star in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men (2014) and Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013). Despite his success, however, Dujardin has not forgotten his native France, returning last year to Laurent Tirard’s Return Of The Hero. A Napoleonic Wars-era romp, the film tells of the dandyish Captain Neuville (Dujardin) who, engaged to be married to Pauline, a young woman of noble stock, is called up to the Austrian front. After his promise to write to her every day is not fulfilled, her sister, Elizabeth, steps in and writes impassioned love letters in his name. As one can imagine, comedic events ensue, in particular when Neuville, presumed dead, turns up alive…

Despite the old British stereotype of thinking the French are a humourless lot, they really do comedy like no other nation and we have much to thank them for. For instance, would Rowan Atkinson have been able to create the character of Mr. Bean without the visual influences of French film icon, Jacques Tati, and his Monsieur Hulot character? Going much further back, let’s not forget the influential theatre-inspired silent comedies made by one of cinema’s fathers, George Méliès, which fed into the international category of silent comedy. Vive la France! Vive les comédies!

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(Jean Dujardin) Copyright: Edinburgh Film Festival

Forbidden Fruit: A look at “Rafiki”

Kenyan drama, Rafiki (2018), directed by Wanuri Kahiu, which was domestically banned following governmental disapproval of its subject matter: a lesbian coming-out story. In fact, this very prejudice towards homosexuality is, ironically, shown in the film to be a pervasive trait in the Republic of Kenya (exposed same sex relationships are met with prison sentences of 14 years). The film is adapted from a Ugandan short story entitled Jambula Tree by Monica Arac de Nyeko, and the setting is a Nairobi housing estate in which daily life is very much al fresco and privacy is limited. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are two girls who long for a life which goes beyond the archaic mantra: “Good Kenyan girls become good Kenyan wives”. In a sort-of riff on Romeo and Juliet, their two families are political rivals. However, they resist this difference and, as love grows between them, they are forced to pay the price of choosing between happiness and safety.

Rafiki was highly praised at the Cannes Film Festival, and elsewhere, and director, Wanuri, has been credited as the creator of the “Afrobubblegum” film genre, which represents, according to IMDb, “fun, fierce and frivolous black content that celebrates joy and hope”. Further to her work as a filmmaker, Wanuri has gone on to great things as a fellow of the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) organisation responsible for their increasingly popular TED talks made by influential individuals, which are widely watched online. She is also a cultural leader for the World Economic Forum.

Her film has been compared to Maria Maggenti’s The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls In Love (1995) and Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011), two much respected independent lesbian movies from America. Personally, though my knowledge of films in the LGBT category is very limited, I was put in mind of the cause célèbre that was Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 French-language award-garnering lesbian drama, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, in which high-school student, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulous) begins to explore her burgeoning sexuality and finds no satisfaction in the company of men. Much like Rafiki, this film also deals with interpersonal problems such as rejection and homophobia. Adèle sets eyes on Emma (played by the then little-known actress, Léa Seydoux), a free-spirited girl who is shunned by Adèle’s own friends due to her sexuality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by association, Adèle is soon rejected by these friends herself. Thus, Adèle and Emma are similarly left alone to face a heady period of social isolation mixed with sexual experimentation.

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Copyright: Roger Ebert (still from “Rafiki”)

La Dolce Vita? : Musings on Italian Cinema

For me, Italian cinema is a film category bedecked with jewels. In my eyes, the Italians can do very little wrong with cinema. The war and post-war eras brought us hard-hitting, thought provoking neorealist drama in the form of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s undisputed classic, Bicycle Thieves (1948). Moving into an era of post-war recovery and prosperity, the maestro, Federico Fellini, showcased the nascent opulence of the 1960s with films such as La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963), which are forever etched into the cinephile’s mind, not least because of the style icon which was the suave, besuited Marcello Mastroianni, or, in the former, the sensuous Anita Ekberg. Fellini’s contemporary, Pier Paolo Pasolini, sought to radicalise cinema and push the boundaries where possible. Even today his subversive take on The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964) is as fresh as it imaginably was when it came out.

Fast forwarding through much of the cinematic dross of the 1970s which encompassed schlock horror and sexploitation flicks, Fellini’s treatment of decadence was somewhat restored with the filmmaking of Paolo Sorrentino with titles such as The Great Beauty (2013) and, latterly, Loro (2019), both starring the incomparable Toni Servillo. Modern Italian cinema is, indeed, opening itself up to other independent talent. A short while ago, Lincoln Film Society did an experimental showing of the coming-of-age drama, Imperfect Age (2018) by relative newcomer, Ulisse Lendaro, which featured as part of last year’s Indie Lincs Festival (an event which, incidentally, has just enjoyed its fifth successful year).

The recent Happy as Lazzaro (2018) by Tuscan director, Alice Rohrwacher, is a film which tells of the exploitation of an unwaveringly kind Italian peasant (Adriano Tardiolo) and his family by a tobacco baroness. The film deals more profoundly with the themes of the end of rural civilization and the migration to the city of those who knew nothing of modernity. Film critic Erika Balsom opines: “Alice Rorhwacher holds a holy mirror to the persistence of injustice”. Lazzaro was the recipient of Best Screenplay at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a nominee for the coveted Palme d’Or. So, Italian cinema over the years deals alternately with the themes of affluence and servitude. Life itself might not always be roses but one cannot deny that when you’re a spectator of Italian cinema, it’s always la dolce vita.

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Image from La Dolce Vita (1960). Copyright: Empire

 

What Coronavirus Means For UK film

In some ways, I’m loath to talk about coronavirus, but there’s certainly no getting away from the subject. With the virus making an increasing impact on our daily lives and our health, it seems somehow frivolous to talk about UK film, and the acute battering the industry has taken. However, talk about it I shall. Of course, multiplex cinemas such as Odeon and Cineworld have shut their venues in the last month. In anticipation of dwindling audiences and, in consequence, poor box office results, many hyped-up blockbusters have been shelved, the most high-profile of which is surely Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die, Daniel Craig’s final chapter as James Bond. At least fans of the franchise have been assured that a November release date has been secured for the film. Other highly anticipated films, such as the reimagining of Disney’s Mulan, and Marc Munden’s adaptation of The Secret Garden, have been shelved indefinitely.

Despite these negative stories, Universal Pictures, in a fit of inspiration, has decided to make new films which it is distributing available to stream on their cinema release date.  It has been reported that other major Hollywood studios are sure to follow suit. Universal releases already in the cinema, such as The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss, will apparently be available soon for digital rental. So, while we cannot currently engage in the immutable social experience of cinemagoing, at least we can avail ourselves of current releases in domestic company. As tragic as our current state is, hopefully isolation will provide film bonding experiences rather than the comparatively solitary experience of one person viewing a compressed cinematic film on an iPhone, complete with earphones, which, until recent events, has been a commonplace sight on public transport.

I want to end this article on a positive note and talk about a recent film release which, having had a great reception in the U.S., had recently entered UK cinemas before the shutdown. That film is Todd Haynes’ conspiracy thriller, Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo who plays a real-life lawyer who has battled against the chemical company, DuPont. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in recent times with arresting performances and I hope it’s one marked for immediate home release. Stay safe.

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Copyright: Barron’s

Dancing To A Discordant Tune: Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot (2017)

Israelian director, Samuel Maoz’s drama, Foxtrot (2017) documents, in three segments, the malaise of present-day Israel. In the first sequence, a middle-aged married couple are visited by soldiers who deliver the news that their son, Jonathan, has been killed in action. The second, or “middle” section, brings us to a remote checkpoint in the desert where jaded soldiers pass the time, sharing stories, listening to music and, as the title suggests, dancing. (The trailer for the film features the cleverly incongruous scene from the film in which a soldier dances facetiously with his rifle in the absence of a dance partner).

The third and final sequence takes us back to Jonathan’s parents who are trying to make sense of their new lives. However, all is not what it seems, as lies and cover-ups bubble under the surface. Faintly reminiscent of Sam Mendes’ gulf-war drama, Jarhead (2005), Foxtrot picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2017 and represents a follow up to Lebanon: The Soldier’s Journey (2009) which followed a dispatched paratroopers platoon as they search a hostile town during the First Lebanon War of 1982. This film is especially poignant as Tel Aviv-born director, Maoz, was himself, at the age of 20, a gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in that war. For Lebanon (2009), Maoz also won the Golden Lion in Venice that year, so you could say that he is on a directorial winning streak.

The themes of loss and grief reminded me readily of Spanish director, Carla Simón’s largely autobiographical film, Summer 1993 (2018), shown at Lincoln Film Society early last year. This is a moving picture about life through the eyes of six-year old Frida as she attempts to navigate her “second life” with her extended family following the unexplained death of her mother. Following our original theme of conflict and its effects, I was reminded also of Simón’s compatriot, Victor Erice, and his film, The Spirit of The Beehive (1973) about a girl (Ana Torrent) who becomes obsessed with the film, Frankenstein (1931) after seeing it at her village cinema, and goes in search of the monster, fixating on the spectral presences of Spanish Civil War-era Spain. These films also attest to the significance of memory, however painful it can be.

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Copyright: IMP Awards

Film in 2020: Let’s go see a MUBI

We’re very much living in an era which could be subtitled: “Battle Of The Streaming Services”. For this article, I have decided to look at MUBI and how it stands against the competitors, the most prominent of which are, of course: Netflix; Amazon Prime; and Apple TV+. If you hadn’t gathered already, the title of my article is ironic for two reasons. Firstly, with the advent of streaming services, it seems that people barely “go anywhere” anymore to see a film, opting instead to stay at home, glued to a comparatively small screen (or not, in the case of those who think they can watch something on a domestic screen and look at their phones simultaneously). This is scarcely the social experience that leaving the house and going to the local cinema once was. Mercifully, the work of Film Societies is doing much to salvage this communal experience.

My headline is doubly ironic given that MUBI, actually, unlike the majority of streaming services, makes it common practice to lease its films to the cinemas and Film Societies before it puts them on the streaming service, an initiative named MUBI GO. So MUBI, in fact, stands out as a supporter of cinema. Jon Barrenechea, VP of Marketing at MUBI, has made it clear that the company privileges its audiences over all other concerns and is open-minded in its approach to, amongst other things, make new industry-wide partnerships. And, in a way, this action of delivering films to the big screen lives up to its branding. Unlike the others, MUBI, in a similar vein to BFI Player, sets itself up as a more high-brow streaming service, for discerning consumers of film, and is very meticulous about its selection of, crucially, international cinema, providing usually 30 titles at a time, which are constantly curated.

For many who are used to the expanse of titles on Netflix, for example, this may seem frustrating. However, in a way, MUBI seems the much “healthier” choice as it limits scrolling time and the frustration that comes with not being able to decide on a title. Cognizant of the rapidly-changing landscape of moviedom, MUBI is set to move for the rest of 2020 with much agility and a willingness to learn from both its failures and successes. MUBI GO, indeed!

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Copyright: Observer
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Copyright: Lifewire

Bulldog Drummond: Imitation Bond….and insurance underwriter. A look back at Deadlier Than The Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969)

Classically trained British actor Richard Johnson was allegedly Terence Young’s original choice for the role of James Bond and rumour has it that Johnson was, at one time, offered the part, before turning it down. Perhaps, therefore, it was fate that led him subsequently to the role of fictional hero, Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond, in two pseudo Bond films from the 1960s, Deadlier Than The Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969). Prior to these films, Drummond was a well-known character from literature, film, and radio, created by H.C. McNeile using the nom de plume, Sapper, for the original books. (Gerard Fairlie would continue writing the novels following McNeile’s death in 1937). The original Drummond character is a First World War veteran who, tired of his sedate lifestyle, becomes a gentleman adventurer on a quest for action, coming up against various nemeses, the most prominent of which is Carl Peterson.

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(From left: Daliah Lavi; Richard Johnson; and Vanessa Howard (?)). A promotional shot for Some Girls Do (1969). Copyright: The Times/Rex Features

Released by British filmmaking institution, The Rank Organisation, the aforementioned films sport a reworked Drummond befitting the 1960s, a bon vivant who is also (somewhat humorously) an insurance underwriter. Like vintage Bond, he is something of a man of mystery who spends most of his time thrill and pleasure-seeking, whether he be relaxing in some exotic locale, practising karate, paragliding, or chasing beautiful women. Indeed, scantily-clad women are a prominent feature of the films (unsurprisingly given the titles – the scene at the beginning of Deadlier where “lethal lovelies” Elke Sommer and Sylvia Koscina come out of the sea with nothing but skimpy swimsuits and harpoon guns has undeniably embedded itself in pop culture history). The objectification of women would indeed give the contemporary so-called “woke” generation much to talk about. However, as with all things, I believe the films should be appraised with respect to the attitudes of the times in which they were made. Let’s not forget that the Connery and Moore Bond films were not without their share of “dolly bird” characters. Incidentally, considering Drummond’s rich appetites, perhaps we have a case of life imitating art as Johnson, the actor, is shown in an adventurous light water-skiing between takes in a featurette on the making of Deadlier (which can be viewed on the DVD/Blu-Ray of the film by Network Releasing) and was, reputedly, a ladies man, marrying several times, most notably to Hollywood actress, Kim Novak.

Firstly, Deadlier Than The Male tells of an oil tycoon, Henry Keller, who is killed by an explosion while journeying in his private company plane. Drummond (Johnson) is called in to investigate Keller’s mysterious death as his company was insured with Drummond’s firm. Drummond begins a quest to find out who would profit from Keller’s death and all tracks lead to the aforementioned Carl Peterson (reincarnated by British acting stalwart, Nigel Green) who is residing in a remote castle in Italy surrounded by a cohort of highly-trained female assassins, who try to derail Drummond at every opportunity. Deadlier has been wonderfully restored in high-definition for a Blu-Ray release by Network. The title itself has also embedded itself in popular culture, emanating from poet and novelist, Rudyard Kipling’s words: “The female of the species is more deadly than the male”, which had, in turn, inspired the fifth Bulldog Drummond novel, The Female Of The Species, published in 1928. Moreover, the film carries a Bondian opening sequence with a belter of a theme song by pop sensations, The Walker Brothers (the late Scott Walker would years later sing David Arnold and Don Black’s slow jazz number, Only Myself To Blame, on the soundtrack to The World Is Not Enough). Look out also for the cleverly constructed penultimate scene in which Drummond and Peterson, weapons cocked, chase each other through an electronically-operated life-size chess board.

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Copyright: Amazon

If Deadlier Than The Male can be thought of as a pint of bitter, it is followed by the vodka chaser that is the euphemistically titled Some Girls Do, a headier film than its predecessor with hints towards the “sex comedy” which would become popular fare in the following decade. This time around, a more world-weary Johnson as Drummond is called into action to investigate the accidents befalling people connected to the development of the world’s first supersonic airliner (SST1). The man who seeks to gain financially from the project’s ruin turns out to be, predictably, Carl Peterson (played this time with considerably less aplomb by veteran British actor, James Villiers, who would go on to have a small role in For Your Eyes Only as M-substitute, Tanner).

Hot on his trail, Drummond eventually ends up at Peterson’s Bond-esque lair atop a cliff, which is surrounded by armed yet suggestively dressed female robots at his command. Peterson’s right hand woman is Helga (played by 60s film regular, Daliah Lavi, who also starred in the James Bond spoof, Casino Royale, as one of several iterations of “007”). It’s not hard to see where Mike Myers and co. got inspiration for Austin Powers years later. Despite the heavier tongue-in-cheek vibe of the sequel, the film does sport a catchy opening song by the relatively unknown Lee Vanderbilt sounding uncannily like Johnny Mathis, and penned by lyricist and Bond regular, the aforementioned Don Black (who wrote the themes for Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever, The Man With The Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies (Surrender) and The World Is Not Enough – copies of the original record release on the United Artists label are few and far between these days).

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Copyright: Amazon

Furthermore, the film has some amusing and redemptive Bond-esque one-liners. While Drummond is sat having dinner with an elaborately costumed Peterson and his entourage, the latter says: “History repeats itself. Napoleon dreamt of the entire universe thronging to his door. Now I shall fulfil his dreams”, after which Drummond asks quizzically, “Dressed as the Duke Of Wellington?” Peterson replies: “Well of course, my dear fellow. Never back a loser”. This is only slightly funnier than the incident in Deadlier when one of the scheming women’s hair-pieces turns out to have an explosive device inside it, prompting Drummond to quip: “that’s what comes of letting success go to your head”. Some Girls Do has also been released by Network Releasing and still only exists, in moderately restored form, on a DVD double-bill with Deadlier. Let’s hope a Blu-Ray rerelease is in the pipeline. While considerably outmoded, I still believe Deadlier and Some Girls Do are both entertaining fare for any Bond fan and are something of a tribute to the liberal culture of the late 1960s and Connery-instigated Bond mania. (Trailers below).