NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Laurelhurst Theater, Portland, Oregon, Thursday 28 September 2014 || My Rating excellent
I’ve been on holiday in the United States for a few weeks and thus have not been seeing many films. However, thanks to the magic of cheap second-run cinemas (the wonderful Laurelhurst in currently-sunny Portland), I caught up with this comedy which is just being released in the UK. It’s been billed by various pundits as an “abortion romcom” although this is rather misleading and reductive, as the two aspects are fairly distinct. Abortion is hardly a laughing matter, nor is it treated as such; that the central character, Donna, a stand-up comedian, works it into a routine is more to do with her desperation and confusion at the way her life has been going. At the same time, the reality of abortion, and the importance of its availability, is not dodged either. It’s certainly something that could be an awkward blend for this kind of movie, but I think it’s all pulled off wonderfully, no little thanks to the excellent work of lead actor Jenny Slate, who had a single season as a cast member of Saturday Night Live before showing up in excellent smaller roles in TV comedies like Parks and Recreation (another training ground for many of the current generation’s finest comic actors). As Donna, she starts the film off on stage, joking about her relationship, which soon ends, leading a few nights later to some drunken sex with a cute, nice guy she meets at a bar, Max (played by Jake Lacy, who had a role in the last few seasons of The Office US series, and who has a similarly bland likeability here). The ensuing revelations are all handled well, with some low-key (and mostly self-inflicted) drama between Donna and her parents, as well as a series of awkward subsequent encounters with Max which are sympathetically handled, but not conclusively resolved. Quite apart from taking what remains a fairly hot-button issue (especially Stateside), this is a nuanced, well-made and very funny film that deserves every success, and is only more impressive for the sureness of its handling of the subject matter.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Gillian Robespierre (based on the short film by Anna Bean, Karen Maine and Gillian Robespierre) | Cinematographer Chris Teague | Starring Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann | Length 83 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 10 August 2014 || My Rating good
The films of Abel Ferrara are a bit of a challenge it must be said: aggressively confrontational and fascinated by the sordid depredations of fleshy corporeality. I haven’t seen his Bad Lieutenant (1993) for years, but this new film feels of a piece, being about a corrupt (and corrupted) public official, unafraid to let it all hang out and to flirt with a sense of quotidian ennui. On the first point, there’s the ageing Gérard Depardieu playing Georges Devereaux, a French bureaucrat heading an international financial organisation in New York, a man whose carnal tastes are pursued not only behind hotel room doors, but even in his office (after the credits, the film gets straight into a rather awkward business meeting). On the second point is the way all this is presented, at length and with the camera often uncomfortably close-in to proceedings — lengthy (and rather tedious) orgy scenes kick things off, but later, after Devereaux’s predictable fall from grace, there are similarly lengthy procedural scenes following him through the justice system to home imprisonment.
The story is a thinly-veiled rendering of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn abuse case (he was alleged to have sexually assaulted a hotel maid, but was never convicted). The film, though, maintains a self-conscious charade of fiction with habitual playful references to its own constructedness (a pre-credits sequence of Depardieu being interviewed about the role, and occasional breaking of the fourth wall by having him address the camera directly). All this is necessary because the character of Devereaux is never presented as anything less than fully culpable for his actions. The film thus becomes a character study of a bitterly pathetic man, one apparently at war with himself and with those around him. Following his arrest, his New York-born wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) enters the fray, a woman with the self-interested ambitions her husband lacks, and very unwilling to continue putting up with his behaviour. Like much of Ferrara’s work, it feels a bit like car-crash cinema at times: a film about repellent people presented in an at-times rather sleazy way, and yet it’s fascinating.
CREDITS || Director Abel Ferrara | Writers Abel Ferrara and Christ Zois | Cinematographer Ken Kelsch | Starring Gérard Depardieu, Jacqueline Bisset | Length 125 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD) [2D], London, Saturday 9 July 2014 || My Rating likeable
Having recently seen Step Up: All In, the latest instalment of this already numerous if relatively short-lived franchise, I thought I’d best fill out my viewing with the one considered (at least by my friends) as the weakest of the five. I’m pleased to report, though, that I find it just as well-made and enjoyable in a pulpy, generic way as the others. If it has a real weakness, it’s in the fairly bland leads — Rick Malambri as Luke, a dancer and prospective filmmaker, and the ‘mysterious’ clubgirl Natalie (played by Sharni Vinson) — though thankfully their story, which involves Luke’s ridiculously large loft apartment and high-end editing suite, is fairly unobtrusive. Taking the charismatic centre stage is series regular “Moose” (Adam Sevani), introduced in the previous film, and his are-they-aren’t-they love interest Camille (Alyson Stoner), returning from the very first film (where she played Channing Tatum’s little sister). Both are now students at NYU and studying for stuff that isn’t dancing, so their character arc is this tug-of-war between ‘respectable’ professions and the illicit thrill of the dance — and along the way there’s a very odd little hint that Camille is preparing to move on romantically from Moose to a girl in her class, something that’s treated without any fanfare whatsoever. In some respects, the plot is quite similar to the fifth and most recent outing, as the film opens with Luke interviewing street dancers about their tough lives and battle for acceptance in this competitive world, and moves on to the now familiar battle for supremacy with a black-clad macho crew etc etc… And yet, while it may all be blending into a single film by this point, it’s a colourful, frenetic and enjoyable one for all that, with a likeable ensemble dance cast.
CREDITS || Director Jon M. Chu | Writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer | Cinematographer Ken Seng | Starring Rick Malambri, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Sharni Vinson | Length 107 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014 || My Rating good
There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including a larger role for the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).
FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 5 August 2014 || My Rating excellent
It’s fair to say that Israel’s relationship with Palestine has always been a hot topic issue, but rarely moreso than now. Of course, anyone who engages with social networking even a little bit — whether online or with other human beings in what we call real life — will probably be weary of hearing further opinions on the conflict. There’s a lot of them out there, and most are backed up by very little historical context or understanding of the region, so needless to say, I’m not going to offer mine. However, what this recent documentary provides is a fascinating insight from within the leadership of one of Israel’s most shadowy organisations, the Shin Bet — their internal security service (presumably a bit like MI5 in the UK, or the FBI in the US). Six of its former leaders speak to camera about their experiences during their tenure, which cover the last 30 years of the region’s history. Being in such a politicised role, as basically the only publically identified representative of the organisation, each is understandably eloquent in recounting their viewpoint, though for the same reason surprisingly candid in their assessments of the situation. There’s some head-on engagement with the dubious morality of a lot of their work, and a frank appreciation of the need to constantly engage with and find a compromise with Palestine (a stance not always appreciated by hardliners within Israel, whose response to the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s and to their architect, Yitzhak Rabin, is one of the issues covered). As a documentary, it follows the talking heads format fairly closely, but intercuts archival footage (including some rather raw aerial footage of ‘terrorists’ being targeted on the streets and in their homes) as well as animations illustrating some key situations for which only still photos exist. What elevates it is the perspective its subjects offer, which is particularly interesting mainly because their tone is so far removed from the more breathless reportage that most media sources offer (this is not simplistic one-sided pro-Palestine or pro-Israel hectoring). The measured words and outspoken criticisms of these lifetime spooks is a rejoinder to any simple-minded analysis of the region’s issues, making one hope (even as such hope seems particularly stretched at the moment) that some resolution can someday be found.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 4 August 2014 || My Rating good
You can’t deny that Marvel Studios have done a good job at shaping their film presence over the last decade, in a way that goes well beyond just giving Stan Lee his surely contractually-obliged cameo (and yes, there’s one here too). It just seems, though, as someone who is coming over time to appreciate a well-written screenplay, that there’s an overabundance of detail (of plot, characters, worlds, special effects, music and noise): a sensory overload at times. Maybe that’s to do with the source material, but for a two-hour film, there certainly are a lot of distractions. Partly that goes with the fantasy sci-fi setting, but the opening half hour features plenty of breathless cross-cutting between all-but-identically-named worlds, blathering on about nonsense with silly names, trying to sketch out various tribal allegiances that you need series TV (or a comic book) to really do justice to. At the core of the plot, though, is a mysterious orb, a classic MacGuffin whose purpose and power is fairly redundant. After all, the point is surely the journey of the five outlaw protagonists, led by Chris Pratt’s likeable goofy Andy Peter “Starlord”, as they pursue this orb — and at that, the film succeeds.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 25 July 2014 (and at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014) || My Rating a must-see
Sometimes films come with such a weight of critical expectation that you can’t help but be a bit disappointed by them, and I confess the first time I saw Richard Linklater’s latest film, the one in which he has famously returned to the same actors each year over a 12-year period, I was a little unsure as to whether it was really all that interesting or original. For certainly, the concept is not unusual — a number of projects (primarily documentary) can attest to that. And yet, for its two-and-a-half hour running time, it exerts a real fascination, albeit one that’s difficult to quite pin down. It’s the same feeling you get from looking back at old photo albums, and in many ways that’s what Boyhood feels like: it feels like nostalgia for a life you’ve not even lived (and in that respect, it’s not unlike Marcel Proust’s grand novel À la recherche du temps perdu, “In Search of Lost Time”). As such, it’s the most refined expression yet of director Richard Linklater’s fascination with time and its passing — something he touches on in almost all his films, most notably the trilogy of Beforefilms which follow the same characters over the course of almost 20 years.
RE-RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 27 June 2014 || My Rating very good
When Chinese cinema is discussed, there’s a lot of love shared for this little film, a sort of proto-neo-realist take on Chinese peasantry via the medium of what is outwardly a melodramatic story of a three-way love affair. It wasn’t at all successful when released, but has since come to be seen as a key text, encapsulating through its beautifully subtle staging all the potential pitfalls of its story with far from the expected restraint but rather a bold acknowledgment of all its erotic potentials. Which isn’t to say it’s a bodice-ripper, just that it has the kind of candour you might naïvely think wouldn’t be present in this era and setting, a bombed-out rural house (calling it a village wouldn’t do justice to the fact that no one else aside from the four central household figures is even glimpsed). Here, following the war, Liyan (Shi Yu) recuperates from an unspecified illness, and with his young sister is looked after by his patient wife Yuwen (Wei Wei). An attractive doctor, Zhichen (Li Wei), arrives at the home, and it turns out he and the wife had some previous history, memory of which is provoked by his reappearance. There are no bad guys or overt judgements made on this three-way relationship, but as it unfolds — in scenes at the dilapidated house, and at some nearby ruined fortifications (a sort of objective correlative to her own heart, perhaps) — we get a sense of how conflicted Yuwen feels about Zhichen’s arrival and about her own husband. It’s such a small and minutely-observed drama that it can sometimes seem as if little is happening, but its slowly-unfolding and underdramatised style gradually grows on the viewer. If it doesn’t seem to me like the kind of masterpiece it’s often acclaimed as, that’s probably as much due to my own weariness when I saw it as anything else, and I have no doubt it would reward repeat viewing.
CREDITS || Director Fei Mu | Writer Li Tianji (based on a short story) | Cinematographer Li Shengwei | Starring Wei Wei, Li Wei, Shi Yu | Length 93 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 23 July 2014 || My Rating very good
One of the surprising things I’ve found in trying to write about this film five days after seeing it, is how much of it has already eluded my memory. I don’t necessarily think that’s the film’s fault entirely, but it feels appropriate in that it’s a film of fleeting feelings conveyed in jagged little domestic scenes both outside along city streets or in the tiny garret apartment inhabited by Louis (Louis Garrel) and his lover Claudia (the gorgeous and stylish Anna Mouglalis). Both are struggling actors (she is out of work), and as the film starts Louis has just separated from his wife, a silent and initially perplexing series of shots as seen from their daughter’s point of view. The way the film progresses is in further bursts, that gradually make clear Louis’s own fecklessness — though he loves his daughter, he is very much wrapped up in himself, and we see him frequently flirting with other women. However, as the film progresses, it’s revealed that both are unhappy in their own ways, and Claudia too has her own disappointments and dalliances, though as the film focuses itself around Louis and his daughter, we only hear about these in retrospect, as Louis learns of them. What sustains this evanescent little relationship drama is the fine acting and the assured control director Philippe Garrel exercises, with some restrained use of well-chosen musical cues, not to mention the stunning black-and-white cinematography.
CREDITS || Director Philippe Garrel | Writers Marc Cholodenko, Caroline Deruas-Garrel, Philippe Garrel and Arlette Langmann | Cinematographer Willy Kurant | Starring Louis Garrel, Anna Mouglalis | Length 77 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014 || My Rating likeable
There are Hollywood films where I sometimes wonder if the economics of the thing are driven by the idea of just putting some currently-hot talents in front of the camera even when nothing else seems to have been thought out (the script, usually) and the hope that everything will come together when the camera starts rolling. It wouldn’t be surprising, because sometimes I’ve enjoyed a film perfectly well based on the pleasure of watching some charismatic stars do their thing. I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I liked Begin Again, for example, which I only went to because it filled a gap while I was waiting to do something else. It features a handful of actors I really enjoy watching, who generally have the sense of people who are winging it (not necessarily always a bad thing). A particular stand-out is Mark Ruffalo, who does his usual rumpled washed-up shambolic thing with all his customary aplomb. In this, he’s Dan, a music A&R man who’s just been fired by his company, and in a night of disconsolate drinking happens across Keira Knightley’s singer-songwriter Gretta in a bar. She’s just been pulled up on stage during an open mic night by her equally unsuccessful friend Steve (James Corden), but Ruffalo sees something in her. We get this scene at least three times, from three different perspectives, and we quickly learn that Gretta’s split up with her rock star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine, himself a lead singer in some kind of rock band). Dan, too, is estranged from his wife Miriam (Catherine Keener) and daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), so this odd couple sort of help each other through their respective issues — I’d say it was another story about a damaged middle-aged male ego being restored by a spontaneous, impulsive young woman, but it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as all that. Nevertheless, as I’ve already hinted at above, these aspects of the story weren’t always convincing to me — certainly, Dan’s plan isn’t, the one to record an album with Gretta outdoors, as a sort of ode to New York — though we do get some nice details about the music industry along the way (with small roles for Mos Def and CeeLo Green). If I’d seen director Carney’s first film Once, I’d assume it was a retread of that with bigger names. Nevertheless, those actors do carry the movie a lot further than it sometimes deserves.
CREDITS || Director/Writer John Carney | Cinematographer Yaron Orbach | Starring Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Levine | Length 104 minutes