Wo De Shao Nu Shi Dai (Our Times, 2015)

Wo De Shao Nu Shi Dai (Our Times, 2015)

Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015

© Hualien Media International

If like me your experience of Taiwanese cinema is restricted to Hou Hsiao-hsien, then Our Times is going to come as a bit of a shock to the system. Or perhaps it won’t, as it fits pretty neatly into the mould created by US teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is not least because of its retro 90s setting, all bright saturated colours and perky kids, though as it happens the lead male actor (Darren Wang as school bad boy Tai Yu) also looks quite a bit like Andrew Keegan’s Joey in that film. The Taiwanese take on teen romance continues also to favour strong roles for its leading women — perhaps thanks to the women who wrote and directed the film. The story follows Vivian Sung’s dorky Lin Zhen Xin (“Lin Truly” as she’s called in the subtitles, no doubt to emphasise a key pun in the modern-day epilogue) through various travails of the heart (with heartthrob Tai Yu and the squeaky clean Ou Yang, played by Dino Lee). Where it differs from its US forebears is that the tone of Our Times strays frequently from comedy into overt (occasionally even tear-jerking) melodrama at several points, and lacks the tight script of the US film. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this broadly likeable film, even if many of the cultural references go far over your head — certainly the audience of young, presumably Taiwanese, women at my screening laughed and gasped at plenty of lines that meant nothing to me. There’s also an extended subplot (and obligatory cameo) featuring Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau, so that may or may not mean anything to you, but it hardly makes any difference to either enjoying or understanding the film, which is a candy-coloured delight.

CREDITS || Director Frankie Chen | Writer Yung-Ting Tseng [as “Sabrina Tseng”] | Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen and Min-Chung Chiang | Starring Vivian Sung, Darren Wang, Dino Lee | Length 134 minutes

Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

© The Criterion Collection

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015

Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond | Length 143 minutes

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 15 November 2015

© Süd-Film

A screening of a silent film, especially one that’s fairly obscure, is always an occasion to rejoice, because it’s (usually) more than just a film screening, but a live experience. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne didn’t disappoint either, seamlessly integrating piano, accordion and a few other exotic instruments — hinting at the pseudo-orientalist intrigue — into his score. It’s also wonderful to see the talented Anna May Wong on the big screen, still best known perhaps for her turn in the same year’s Piccadilly, but she is a luminous on-screen presence, and an underrepresented face in the pantheon of cinema. Wong doesn’t disappoint in the title role, as a lowly nightclub dancer in some vague Eastern city (Istanbul was suggested) who finds herself early on being attacked by a group of ruffians and saved by surly Jack (Heinrich George), a man seemingly on the down-and-out. Soon, Song forms an affection for Jack as they go into work together… for it turns out he is a knife-thrower! This is, however, where the film’s great weakness is exposed, for the script is full of this kind of scarcely believable whimsy, as it introduces a long-lost love for Jack in the form of the haughty ballerina Gloria (Mary Kid), her boyfriend, a rich impresario, and a plot line about Jack losing his eyesight after a heist gone wrong — although this does at least lead to some tension when he’s doing his knife act. By the time the impresario has promoted Song to lead dancer at his swanky club (shades of Piccadilly) and is asking her to choose between him and the cruelly-abusive Jack (who still pines for Gloria), the relationship drama has all become a bit ‘whatever’ for this viewer, but at least Anna May’s star still shines bright.

CREDITS || Director Richard Eichberg | Writers Helen Gosewish and Adolf Lantz (based on the novel by Karl Vollmöller) | Cinematographer Heinrich Gärtner | Starring Anna May Wong, Heinrich George, Mary Kid | Length 94 minutes

Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn (2015)

Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015

© Lionsgate

This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.

CREDITS || Director John Crowley | Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín) | Cinematographer Yves Bélanger | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent | Length 112 minutes

Saul fia (Son of Saul, 2015)

UKJFF: Saul fia (Son of Saul, 2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by the Festival’s director, who, given the screening location and the film’s subject, also briefly addressed and offered condolences for the recent events in Paris. It was followed by a Q&A session involving a number of prominent British film critics (for which I did not stay).

Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Saturday 14 November 2015

© Sony Pictures Classics

Ever since details of it first emerged, there’s been a powerful cinematic history of representing the Holocaust (or Shoah) on screen. Many of these works can be quite oblique, whether Chantal Akerman’s documentaries that touch on her mother’s experiences, or dramas that evoke the horrors through a structuring absence or by focusing on audience-surrogate characters who come into touch with those affected. Films such as Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) used archival footage, while Spielberg recreated the ghettoes and camps wholesale in Schindler’s List (1993), yet there’s generally been a sense since Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah (1985) of the impossibility of providing a visual depiction of the Shoah. Needless to say, much has been passionately written on the subject and I’m very far from an expert, but it must be challenging to any filmmaker intending to broach the subject. That said, it’s not enough to laud Hungarian director László Nemes merely for his attempt — many have tried and failed, however noble their intentions — but for what he achieves in doing so.

Nemes deploys a distinctive visual strategy of focusing his camera in on the face of protagonist Saul (Géza Röhrig) and pushing the atrocities beyond the frame or out of focus in the background. The effect of the camera following Saul’s constant movement is reminiscent of the Dardenne’s Rosetta (1999), albeit if that film had been set in a Nazi concentration camp. Saul is working as part of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau when he comes across a young man while cleaning out the the gas chambers, who it transpires may be his son; quite whether this is literally true, or an effect of his working conditions, is never answered and in a sense isn’t truly important. However, Saul immediately seeks to try and preserve the boy’s body and find a rabbi to conduct the proper funerary rites. In following this quest, Nemes gives a peripatetic tour of the camp and its environs, providing an overview of the horrific existence that Saul and his fellow inmates experienced and which gives an emotional pull that is so notably repressed in Saul’s expressions — his stony face in response to even the most horrific events undoubtedly deriving from the survival instincts necessary in such an environment.

Given the subject matter and setting, Son of Saul makes for difficult viewing. There’s no particular hope for the salvation of those shown onscreen, though the film does close with a curious form of redemption, which links in with the phantasmic theme of fathers and sons that has built up over the film’s running time. A worthy inclusion on the short list of great films about this most terrifying aspect of 20th century history.

CREDITS || Director László Nemes | Writers László Nemes and Clara Royer | Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély | Starring Géza Röhrig | Length 107 minutes

Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

Short Review: Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

There’s not a great deal to say about this new film from Ondi Timoner, the director of the enjoyable bitter-rivalry music documentary Dig! (2004). It premiered at the London Film Festival, was in cinemas a week or two later, and now already is on Amazon Instant Video, which may suggest it’s not that good, but actually just means that its real audience is largely online. Most people in the UK, after all, are likely to have an opinion about Russell Brand, because he’s certainly not been shy in broadcasting his own personality and views far and wide. He’s already been the subject of one documentary this year (somewhat more hagiographic one presumes), but this one purports to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Whatever my own opinion about the man, it’s certainly clear that many of his views have been misrepresented by the media, or — perhaps more accurately — not addressed at all, through gales of mocking laughter, a lot of which has the nasty tinge of classism (Brand comes from an impoverished Essex background). A few of those media figures (like news anchor Jeremy Paxman) are interviewed here about Brand’s political statements, while Timoner is able to convey a sense of Brand’s life, his comedy, and his very public struggles with his family, with his relationships, and with drug addiction. It’s never particularly boring, but it certainly may suffer in your opinion if you’ve already got a strong dislike for Brand’s antics. I can’t say it gave me a new-found insight into Russell Brand, but I do believe it at least gives his views a fair hearing.

FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Ondi Timoner | Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko | Starring Russell Brand | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 14 November 2015

Hotline (2015)

UKJFF: Hotline (2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, and there was a Q&A afterwards. I didn’t stay for this, as I couldn’t stomach the idea of politicians bickering with journalists about Arab-Jewish relations and the wider regional conflicts the film engages with.

The treatment of refugees by the governments of developed nations has been a big topic for some time, and continues to crop up in all kinds of discussions (whether related to refugees or not; the last few days have seen that they provide a convenient figure of blame in all kinds of crises). The recent conflict in Syria has seen a huge influx into mainland Europe, but Israel has had its share of refugees too, primarily coming overland from North Africa via the Sinai peninsula, as revealed in this documentary. The ‘hotline’ of the title isn’t really a telephone call centre, but an NGO dealing with the plight of refugees, and the statistics presented by its charismatic and outspoken director Sigal Rozen reveal that Israel has granted refugee status to virtually nobody since 1951. Rozen and her staff are seen helping the refugees to navigate the tedious bureaucratic processes from their small Tel Aviv office, as well as stumping for them in community meetings and in parliamentary committees. The film largely opens with one such meeting, where Rozen is almost literally attacked by the aggrieved residents, to whose vicious taunts and hate speech she can only counter by repeating her message that this is a problem created by politicians and that needs to be addressed by them; her office can only try to help the migrants to settle where the government allows. In the process, we get plenty of this kind of head-to-head (or head-to-brick-wall) conflict over matters of basic human decency, but we are left with a picture of how difficult it is in modern democracies to really deal with such urgent matters when there is no political will to do so. Of course it’s a complicated subject, and though the film engages with some entrenched and specific local issues that exist in this part of the Middle East, one can imagine the same events taking place in small underfunded offices across Europe.

FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival || Director/Cinematographer Silvina Landsmann | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 12 November 2015

The Closer We Get (2015)

The Closer We Get (2015)

Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015

© Somewhere

I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Karen Guthrie | Cinematographers Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope | Length 91 minutes

Afternoon Delight (2013)

Short Review: Afternoon Delight (2013)

This is an odd film, and there are things about it I really like, but ultimately it just comes across as somewhat introspective and petit bourgeois. It’s about suburban ennui, specifically that felt by middle-class mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She’s married to the slightly boring Jeff (Josh Radnor, the most annoying character on How I Met Your Mother), and does her best to work through her issues with her offbeat psychiatrist Lenore (Jane Lynch, with quite the most distracting glasses seen in recent cinema). The plot stretches credulity somewhat in orchestrating her becoming friends with a stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), but once that initial meeting is out of the way, it starts to promise something rather radical in exploring the overlap between McKenna’s sex work and Rachel’s frustrated desires, although it feels to me like it doesn’t quite deliver on that. There’s some melodrama, but the film remains closely focused on Rachel breaking out of what ultimately feels like a mid-life crisis. Still, Hahn does well with the central role, and there’s some excellent supporting work (notably Michaela Watkins as a hyperorganised busybody in Rachel’s Jewish women’s group).

FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Jill Soloway | Cinematographer Jim Frohna | Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 30 October 2015

Princess (2014)

UKJFF: Princess (2014)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, reading from the festival brochure.

This recent Israeli film makes a fascinating companion piece to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, released earlier this year. I loved that film intensely, but there’s definitely another side to that film’s coming-of-age story. Whereas Diary hardly depicted a healthy set of relationships (whether between the protagonist Minnie and her mother, Minnie and her mother’s boyfriend, or between the two adults), the film via its narrator seemed intent on locating some kind of power within these, however tenuous. In Princess, Adar (Shira Haas) is also alienated from her studies and starting to show interest in a wider society, particularly latching on to the androgynous Alan (Adar Zohar Hametz), but the persistent attentions of her mother’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer), which begin innocuously and even playfully, are by several orders creepier and more difficult for her to repel than in the US film. Still, for all its similarities in set-up (and even the actors have a broad physical resemblance; at many junctures I could imagine Kristen Wiig in the same role as played here by Keren Mor), this is a quite different film in tone. There’s a persistent thread within the film of gender-fluid identities, recalling the French films of Céline Sciamma. Alan and Adar are filmed at times interchangeably, such that you’re not entirely sure at the start of the scene who we’re watching, given their broadly similar shape and hairstyle. Meanwhile, Michael teases each with gender-swapped names (he uses “Prince” for Adar). There’s a languid narrative and filmic style, as the film builds its characters incrementally, only slowly introducing the full of extent of Michael’s abusive relationship with the younger characters, and the way that Alma isolates herself from this. There may be no easy way forward for Adar, and no easy way for the film to conclude, the nurturing relationship between her and Alan does at least provide some small window of hope.

FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: UK Jewish Film Festival || Director/Writer Tali Shalom Ezer | Cinematographer Radek Ładczuk | Starring Shira Haas, Keren Mor, Ori Pfeffer, Adar Zohar Hanetz | Length 92 minutes || Seen at Everyman Hampstead, London, Wednesday 11 November 2015