FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Sunday 12 October 2014 || My Rating likeable
Jon Stewart is well-known already for his work as a comedian and host of The Daily Show, engaging on a regular basis with current affairs, world politics and the incompetencies of his own government, but with this feature he moves into filmmaking. Thankfully, on the whole it’s pretty well-made stuff with some entertaining digressions, about how journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested on a visit to his native Iran to cover the 2009 elections and accused of being a spy. In the lead role is Gael García Bernal, who may not be Iranian but seems to specialise in this kind of role these days (like in No), the small pawn ranged against wider governmental forces of oppression. He does pretty well at it, though the film is bogged down in its middle section by longueurs as Bahari is detained in Evin Prison, though enlivened occasionally by the dialogues with his captor, the shadowy figure known only as ‘Rosewater’ (played by Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian). It all looks great and is edited together skilfully, and though not perhaps as narratively compelling as Ben Affleck’s Oscar-baiting Argo of a few years back, I feel it avoids some of that film’s pitfalls in presenting Iran at times as an exotic, dangerous Other. What is emphasised is more of the shared experiences of people under that regime that may be common to journalists in similar situations around the world. It’s a fine first feature, and I only hope that Stewart continues to develop his filmic voice, though in the meantime his television show continues to do pretty well.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Jon Stewart (based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari and Aimee Molloy) | Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski | Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia | Length 103 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 13 October 2014 || My Rating very good
Films set at girls’ schools form a fairly distinct ‘coming of age’ subgenre by this point, many of them distinguished by their undertow of the uncanny. I’m drawn back to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004), ten years ago now but still provoking indelibly eerie memories, so the fact that The Falling even comes close to the power exerted by that film is, I’d say, a good thing. It too is shot by a French woman (Agnès Godard, frequent collaborator of Claire Denis) and like that earlier film, the rites of adolescence are intricately bound up with mystery and death. Set in 1969, it centres on two young women, Lydia (Maisie Williams) and the free-spirited Abbie (Florence Pugh), but mainly within the context of their time at school, as they and their classmates share experiences and set themselves against the brusque Miss Mantel (Greta Scacchi) and the airily unconcerned headmistress. What’s interesting is not so much what happens, as in the languorous atmosphere, in which significant events are revealed in an almost off-handed way at times. The camera frequently returns to a sylvan scene of trees looming over a small pond, often empty shots of threatening portent, as if summoning some Pre-Raphaelite vision of drowned maidens, and it certainly adds to the general sense of uneasiness. By the end, things get pretty charged in ways that I’m really hoping function as allegory (in a live Q&A the director was keen to stress that at least some of it wasn’t autobiographical), but as a piece it is stylish, and carried by some excellent acting.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Tuesday 14 October 2014 || My Rating very good
The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz makes very long films. By all accounts, last year’s Norte, the End of History was among his most accessible features, and it’s three-and-a-half hours long. This new historical epic is a full two hours longer than that. It deals with a small coastal village (or “barrio”) in the early-1970s, in a period leading up to President Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972. However, if at a certain level Diaz seems to be railing against that regime and what it did to the country — and rather strongly too, given the occasional apocalyptic imagery (burning houses, cattle hacked to death, a treacherous rock with imputed healing powers) — it can also be seen as a rural drama of a community torn apart. The chief characters are Itang (Hazel Orencio) who cares for her developmentally challenged sister with little support or means to make money, a winemaker Tony (Roeder) with questionable motives, a tribal elder Sito (Perry Dizon) who despite everything wants to stick with his rice farming but also seems to be called upon to adjudicate community squabbles, and the priest Father Guido (Joel Saracho) who visits from time to time. Of course, over such a long running time, the interactions are developed in plenty of detail, and there are many other characters involved, but these are the chief ones, and it’s around them that the themes coalesce. The cinematography (also by the director) has a precise framing and its black-and-white palette is sometimes strikingly deployed. What drama exists is unforced and unravels slowly, the chief mysteries being what’s been going on around the village, and the arrival in town of first an itinerant woman selling goods, and then the military. It may not wow its viewers with big setpieces in the way of Hollywood thrillers, but over such an extended running time, it cannot help but linger in the mind for some time afterwards.
CREDITS || Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Perry Dizon, Hazel Orencio, Roeder, Joel Saracho | Length 338 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Imax [3D], London, Monday 13 October 2014 || My Rating good
In writing about the most recent film I’d seen of director Jean-Luc Godard’s (Film socialisme, 2010), I tried to convey a sense that assigning a star-rating to it was largely futile. Godard’s practice by this point is increasingly experimental and beyond the bounds of conventional film narrative, moreso even than in his 60s heyday. So those who’ve seen anything he’s done in the last ten years won’t be surprised by Adieu au langage, just as it’s likely that those who only know him from his 60s pop-cultural pomp will recoil in horror. There’s still some of the same playfulness at work, such as when the film’s title pops up periodically as “AH DIEUX / OH LANGAGE”, or the repeated footage of a cheerful dog (Roxy, the real star of the film), or the title card with the word “2D” in the background and “3D” looming out front. For indeed, this film is in 3D, but pushed to its limits as grainy handheld video footage butts up against recycled film clips and more studied compositions. What narrative there is features a couple who fight and bicker, both of them often in a state of partial undress, but it’s very much just telegraphed hints towards Godard’s themes at this point. There’s a two-part structure, “nature” and “metaphor”, and the mood (as the most recent Godard films have been) is strongly elegiac — a goodbye not just to words but to a filmic language too, perhaps. You may love it, you may hate it, but you will probably still feel provoked and more than a little confused.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 9 October 2014 || My Rating very good
This last film by Russian director Aleksei German (or Guerman, or Gherman), best known for his 1984 film Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin), was completed and released posthumously by his wife (and co-screenwriter) Svetlana Karmalita. German is a director with few credits over his long career, and this film too was made over a long period, starting as far back as 2000. It’s an adaptation of a science-fiction novel and indeed shares some elements with it, but the overwhelming sense of period setting is rather more mediæval — the film is set in an alternate universe which is stuck in something more akin to our own so-called ‘Dark Ages’. The stark monochromatic visual world of the film is dominated by mud. There’s mud, blood, faecal matter, sweat and piss everywhere, permeating every shot, utterly inescapable. So dense are these textures that it is in fact very difficult to even follow what the supposed plot is, such that reading the plot summary on Wikipedia made me realise I’d taken almost none of this in. This should probably be a damning excoriation, then, except that the film is such an effective evocation of a thoroughgoing worldview, one of fleshy corporeality in all its excesses. The shots are often carefully choreographed, in what seems like a parade of squalor, as a series of mud-caked faces pass by the camera, often in close-up and frequently breaking the fourth wall, like the camera is moving across a vast Bosch-like canvas, revealing yet further depredations of humanity in extremis. This does mean that what plot there is can be rather hard to decipher, save that the central character is one Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), a nobleman who even amongst all the filth often manages to keep his white silk shirt spotless, who witnesses and comments on all the squalor he sees, as he searches for a mysterious character called Budakh. Beyond that, I really couldn’t say much, save that it is at its heart a spectacular visual work.
CREDITS || Director Aleksei German | Writers Aleksei German and Svetlana Karmalita (based on the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) | Cinematographers Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko | Starring Leonid Yarmolnik | Length 170 minutes
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 8 October 2014 || My Rating good
When an acclaimed ‘world cinema’ director makes their English-language debut, it’s usually that familiar route, by filming in an English-speaking country, or getting some more bankable English-language star as the lead. Prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo, however, may not perhaps be making the sort of films that attract interest from English-language producers, but he certainly isn’t the sort to do things in the customary way. Therefore, like last year’s Our Sunhi, what we have here is another entry in Hong’s increasingly familiar style, a sort of casual comedy of manners, still set in Korea, but with a Japanese protagonist (Ryo Kase as Mori) who doesn’t speak the local language, thus requiring most interactions to be in English. The setup is that Mori is in the country looking for an old flame, Kwon, but the framing story is her returning to find a bundle of letters from him, narrating his quest and his affair with a waitress called Youngsun (Moon So-ri). At some point near the start, Kwon drops the letters, so the scenes — flashbacks prompted by Mori’s words — come out of order. It’s all fairly slight as a setup, and indeed the running time is a very laconic 66 minutes, but there’s plenty of genuine humour, prompted by the second-language misunderstandings, the array of colourful smaller characters (including a hipster-ish Westerner), and the ersatz shooting style with its periodic zoom shots at moments of disquiet or confusion. Hong is certainly building up a persuasive body of work about feckless students and impulsive relationships, not to mention frequent scenes of drunkenness over restaurant tables, and it all serves to pass the time very agreeably.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo | Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol | Starring Ryo Kase, Moon So-ri | Length 66 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 23 September 2014 || My Rating good
John le Carré’s work was most recently brought to the screen in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), a film set in a world of muted colours, grey men in grey suits, smoking in drab offices. The palette of this new adaptation of a different Le Carré work updates itself to a more recent era, but in many ways there’s still the same sense of back-office drudgery. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles, unkemptly shuffles around, trying his best to blend into his urban surroundings, and constantly puffs on a cigarette. For, after all, this is a European thriller, set in the immigrant city of Hamburg, and as a nod to this, all the actors speak in German accents. They all do fine with it, but it’s more distracting than it probably needs to be. It doesn’t help too that the first hour flits around amongst a widening array of minor characters (including a criminally underused Daniel Brühl). All of them feed into the main story, but it takes its time to come together. When it does, it’s all rather anticlimactic, but you get the feeling that this is exactly what the filmmakers wanted, and Hoffman is a great actor for finding the best from this kind of setup. Appropriately for Anton Corbijn, a director who graduated to film via photography, it’s handsomely shot by French DoP Benoît Delhomme, all sleek lines and beautifully crisp, in many ways quite at odds with the characters. It’s no masterpiece perhaps, but it’s put together with care and acted with great resourcefulness, about characters who take their time to watch and observe. In that respect, it passes the time well.
CREDITS || Director Anton Corbijn | Writer Andrew Bovell (based on the novel by John le Carré) | Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme | Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe | Length 121 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Rio, Dalston, London, Friday 12 September 2014 || My Rating good
It’s easy to be dismissive of a certain strand of emotionally-manipulative feel-good films about small communities resisting state oppression, or maybe it’s just easy for me. I can be cynical. Pride recalls similar British films of the recent past, set in the same milieu (miners fighting for their lives and livelihood against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party), like Brassed Off (1996) and to a certain extent The Full Monty (1998). Still, it does the whole thing every bit as well as those films did, and further frames it within the (largely metropolitan) struggles for gay rights during the same era, a struggle marked in some measure by the scourge of AIDS and the Thatcher government’s almost dismissive response to it. (I was but a young lad in the 1980s, but I still remember the bleak finality of their TV ads about AIDS.) You could argue there’s a bit of rose tinting involved in taking two narratives permeated with real pain, death and indignity, and crafting something heartwarming and feel-good out of it. Sure, there’s a nod at the beginning to the unlikeliness of the (drawn from real-life) conjunction of two struggles in the form of Mark Ashton’s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist group, who collect money to help the embattled mining community. When they have their first meeting in London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop (still there, pleasingly), one man angrily denounces the way he’d been beaten up by miners when he was younger, stalking out of the shop and taking most of the rest with him. However, such unease is quickly smoothed over as Ashton (played likeably by Ben Schnetzer) finds a Welsh mining community who are willing to accept donations from the LGSM, and there follows a wary yet rather delightful rapprochement between the two very different camps, ably helped by wiser heads amongst the Welsh (including the very much not-Welsh actors Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy). And yet, whatever reservations one may have about the way things unfold, it has an irresistible charm, by turns funny, sweet and heartbreakingly poignant. It’s also an unapologetic flag-waver for the union movement, bookending the film with rousing pro-union anthems. Most surprisingly, the events of the film are all drawn from real life, so the film’s title is quite apt: it makes one proud, and not a little bit teary.
CREDITS || Director Matthew Warchus | Writer Stephen Beresford | Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe | Starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine | Length 125 minutes
FILM REVIEW || Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 18 July 2000 (and at home on DVD since, most recently Wednesday 6 August 2014) || My Rating excellent
I recently spent over a year reading Marcel Proust’s sweeping novel (so long mainly because I was doing it in the 10-15 minutes I had on a tube train every morning and occasionally on the way home, but also because it is a novel of fantastically dense and complex sentences which resist easy consumption). It may have taken me some time to read, but it certainly has a cumulative emotional effect as we are introduced at length to an array of society characters who flit in and out of the author’s life over the course of the novel’s seven volumes, but it’s an effect you can also get pretty well from this film adaptation by Chilean-born director Raúl Ruiz. It takes its title from the last of the novel’s volumes though it flits around to take in scenes from elsewhere: Ruiz’s method in his films has always felt a bit magpie-like and it’s a method well-suited to Proust’s dense and allusive text. Many people may be familiar with Proust’s famous image of the madeleine dipped in tea provoking in the grown man a rush of childhood memories (probably because it occurs only a few pages into the novel), but it’s one of the major themes of his work, and an idea to which he returns in many forms (like the little phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata, for example). Ruiz repeatedly invokes that sense of nostalgia with numerous flashbacks prompted by the author’s experiences at dinner parties and social gatherings (he is incidentally played here by the Italian Marcello Mazzarella, cutting an appropriately bland and retiring figure, and voiced by Patrice Chéreau). This serves to illustrate well one of Proust’s central themes — of the way that our past and present selves and experiences are always in dialogue — something only further heightened by scenes where younger actors step in to scenes featuring their older, decrepit incarnations. One of the questions a potential viewer may pose is of whether it will work for those unfamiliar with Proust’s work, and I think it does (I saw it for the first time having read very little of the novel). It’s a film of carefully-tuned performances by a coterie of French acting talent (and John Malkovich) enlivened by the director’s playful style, which passes by easily despite the film’s length. For all the hubris in taking on such an adaptation, it largely works, and does so very well.
CREDITS || Director Raúl Ruiz (as “Raoul Ruiz”) | Writers Raúl Ruiz and Gilles Taurand (based on the novel À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust) | Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich | Starring Marcello Mazzarella, Emmanuelle Béart, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Pérez, Catherine Deneuve | Length 162 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 14 September 2014 || My Rating very good
It’s over 25 years now that the Dardenne brothers have been making feature films, longer still documentaries, and I think it’s become obvious now that these two filmmaking modes have blended together somewhat in their output. There’s a fastidious, almost real-time focus on the ways events unfold in people’s lives, of the cascading impact of sometimes small events on a wide circle of people within a community (a family, a company, a town). So in many respects this latest film of theirs won’t seem a surprise or a departure for those who’ve already immersed themselves in their fictions, but it’s every bit as well-crafted as the others and packs a resonant emotional charge in this time of downsized jobs and recession-era austerity.