The Films of 2015: The Assassin

The Assassin, the new film by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is set in ninth-century China, and in many ways it feels like an artifact from that era: finely wrought, obscure, inert.  Ostensibly the story of a young and beautiful female assassin tasked with killing the cousin to whom she was betrothed as a child, the film is stripped of any modern narrative conventions or psychological motivation.  The characters are rendered as flatly as those on a piece of pottery or a tapestry, and are acted out with the impassivity of the puppets from Hou’s own The Puppetmaster (1993).  Where most narrative features take their cues from the realist novels that were popular in the late nineteenth century when cinema was invented, The Assassin models itself on a medieval romance or myth, in which a series of actions succeed one another without comment, emphasis, or inflection.


Six Cinderellas

Above: an image from Georges Melies’ 1899 Cinderella, probably the first film adaptation of the fairy tale ever made.  My boyfriend and I have been talking about the Cinderella story a lot lately, having recently watched the most recent film version together (which we both found disappointing).  He’s convinced that the story is, inherently, a dud; I maintain that, when done well, film versions of “Cinderella” deliver romance and drama, a compelling heroine, and durable supporting characters.  Here are five more Cinderellas, all of which are superior to Kenneth Branagh’s. 

A classic family film in Europe (where I’m told it runs on television at Christmas), Vaclav Vorlicek’s Three Wishes for Cinderella (1973) is slightly cheesy and thoroughly charming.  This Czech Cinderella (Libuse Safrankova) is something of a tomboy, having been taught to shoot and ride by her late father, but her assertiveness doesn’t feel like a calculation on the part of the filmmakers.  In place of a fairy godmother, she’s helped by three magic hazelnuts and a pet owl named Rosie.  Highly recommended.       

I’m especially fond of the 1985 version shot for Showtime’s Faerie Tale Theatre, which stars Jennifer Beals as Cinderella, Matthew Broderick as the Prince, and Maureen Stapleton as a winsome, Southern-fried Fairy Godmother.  Beals is immensely appealing, and her chemistry with both Broderick and Stapleton is lovely—this “Cinderella” is rich in warmth and humor.  Eve Arden makes an appropriately bitchy stepmother, and Edie McClurg and Jane Alden are delightfully obnoxious as the stepsisters.   

Tom Davenport’s Ashpet (1990) is, like his Snow White re-telling Willa, sadly underseen.  It moves the story to rural Virginia c. 1942, where instead of a ball Ashpet (Cinderella) attends a town dance for departing G.I.s.  The Internet’s social justice contingent would no doubt condemn Louise Anderson’s “Dark Sally” as “problematic”—a variation of the Magical Negro stereotype.  But she’s unquestionably the best thing about the film, a fairy godmother like none other.  

Like many children born in the television age, I grew up on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella musical, which has been filmed for TV three times.  I have fond memories of the 1965 version starring Lesley Ann Warren and Stuart Damon.  Re-watching this recently for the first time in probably twenty-four years I was surprised by how adorably cheap it looked, and surprised by how funny Pat Carroll was as the burlier and more hoydenish of the stepsisters.  The songs, too, remain fine, especially “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?”

Disney’s 1950 animated film remains the best-known and most divisive adaptation.  Most of its critics complain that this Cinderella is too chirpy and passive; my issues have more to do with the animation of the human characters (which looks too obviously Rotoscoped) and the preponderance of Looney-Tunes style comic gags (parodied hilariously in Tex Avery's The Peachy Cobbler).  The settings, however, are beautifully evoked: Cinderella’s house is drenched in Gothic shadows, and the middle sequences of the film sparkle with lush 1950s glamour.  And, as always with Disney, it’s got a villain who will haunt your dreams long into adulthood.       


The Films of 2015: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is about two men who are too clever for their own good.  The first is Steve Jobs, who, as played by Michael Fassbender in a witty, sharp, slightly campy performance, is a man you love to hate—vain, uncompromising, egomaniacal, cold.  He makes unreasonable demands on his staff, takes credit for other people’s work, and generally drives everyone around him crazy.  Over the course of the film he’s compared to Napoleon, William Randolph Hearst, and both God and the devil.  His tragic flaws are misappropriation and the refusal to acknowledge others: he’s haunted (and hunted) throughout the film by his former collaborator Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), who pleads with Jobs to publicly credit his contributions to Jobs’ work, and by his tightly-wound ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who demands that he assume responsibility for their daughter Lisa.  The film takes place at three different points in Jobs’ career, as he prepares to unveil the Macintosh (1984), the NeXT (1988), and the iMac (1998), and has the feel of a backstage drama.


The Films of 2015: Beasts of No Nation

Beasts of No Nation, which opened in select theaters and on Netflix this past weekend, is a coming-of-age saga of uncommon brutality.  Set in an African country that is never named, it concerns Agu (Abraham Attah), a boy of about twelve who, in the wake of a violent insurgency, is conscripted into a rebel army of child soldiers led by the fearsome, charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba).  If the general contours of the story seem familiar (a young hero learns to make his way alone in a dangerous and chaotic world), they’re effectively re-interpreted within the bracing context of a war-torn Africa.  Imagine Oliver Twist as crossed with The Last King of Scotland and you have some idea of what Beasts of No Nation is going for.


In memoriam: Chantal Akerman, 1950-2015

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle (1975).

It wasn’t until I was a senior in college that I first heard the name Chantal Akerman.  Her films didn’t play on cable TV when I was growing up and were not easily available on video, nor do I ever remember seeing them mentioned in any of my books on European cinema.  She never seemed to be listed among the ranks of great European filmmakers.  Then, when I was twenty-one, I listened to Todd Haynes’ audio commentary for [Safe], in which he names Akerman and Kubrick as two influences on that film.  I had seen all of Kubrick’s films; I had never seen a single film by Akerman.  

Acquainting myself with her work proved difficult.  At that time virtually none of her films were available on DVD in North America.  I eventually found a PAL-encoded European DVD of Jeanne Dielman (1976), which (after some toggling with the region-encoder) I was able to play on my laptop.  I watched it over the course of several nights while eating dinner, a domestic routine that seemed to match those of its title character, who is famously shown making meatloaf and peeling potatoes in real time.  

Akerman in her first film, the short Saute ma ville (1968).

Akerman’s films are now more readily available to North American viewers, thanks largely to the efforts of The Criterion Collection.  But they threaten to remain inaccessible to many viewers as a result of their supposed severity and their difficulty.  For many (especially those who have not actually sat down with her work), Akerman would seem to epitomize European art cinema—or, more specifically, European feminist experimental cinema—at its most rarefied and pretentious.  Citations of her films are often reductive and make them sound gimmicky.  To describe Jeanne Dielman as I myself have just done, as an audacious exercise in minimalism, is to risk overlooking its wittiness, its formal beauty, and its oddly lulling, repetitive rhythms.  It’s about a lot more than just peeling potatoes.

Jeanne Dielman will probably always be Akerman’s masterpiece, partly due to its ambitious length.  (Running three and a half hours, it could be said to have invented a new genre—the domestic epic.)  But Akerman’s other films afford other pleasures.  Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) (which I’ve written about here) is darkly comic in its interrogation of feminine behavior and affect.  Je Tu Il Elle (1975) (discussed here) is avant-garde cinema at its most unexpectedly confessional and sexy.  And Akerman’s 1997 reflections on her own filmography (discussed here) are playful, reflexive, free-wheeling.  The long stretches of Je Tu Il Elle in which nothing seems to happen are the opposite of boring; Akerman had a way of finding intimacy and drama in the mundane details of everyday life.  In the wake of her death last week she leaves behind a body of work that every cinephile owes it to himself to discover—challenging, yes, but also bold, sensuous, and very much available. 

Delphine Seyrig as Jeanne Dielman.


The Films of 2015: Cinderella

“Have courage and be kind.”  These are the dying words of Cinderella’s mother in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action mounting of the classic fairy tale (which takes most of its cues from Disney’s 1950 animated version).  As platitudes go, it’s not bad; God knows it could have been worse.  But it’s repeated so many times and in so many different contexts over the course of the film that it comes to feel less like a notion and more like a bludgeon.  It’s typical of the film’s determination to leave no point un-emphasized, no moment un-underscored.  This is a Cinderella so crammed full of costume changes, set pieces, plot devices, in-jokes, music cues, special effects, Motivating Factors and Meaningful Gestures that it has no room left for the one thing the story needs: a light touch.