Dheepan (2015)

I get the sense that as a Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, this was a controversial choice, but when you watch it, it makes total sense. Quite aside from its genre trappings (which only really assert themselves towards the end, when the vengeance becomes rather more gung-ho), it’s a warmly humanist film about refugees which strikes a strong note of tolerance and understanding. That’s not to say the title character is a hero — as played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, he’s a flawed, slightly bitter man, whose experiences as a Tamil Tiger soldier have shaped him, and are the reason he’s driven to seek a better life. In doing so, he adopts a new name, picking up a similarly desperate woman in the refugee camp to be his ‘wife’ (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn essentially barters for a motherless child to be their ‘daughter’ (Claudine Vinasithamby). Their new location in France is a forbidding housing estate called ‘the field’, which is indeed surrounded by greenery, albeit the scrubby suburban variety, but which is a crumbling place ruled by gangs (led by a James Franco-alike turn from Vincent Rottiers). From thereon in, the film works to get across a sense of the “family”‘s life in France, at work and at school, beset by a series of small bureaucratic aggressions which take their toll, but never overwhelm the three. It’s never quite feels like the masterpiece the award suggests it should be, but it’s still a fine film from a director with some form on this ground.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jacques Audiard | Writers Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré | Cinematographer Éponine Momenceau | Length 115 minutes | Starring Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Wednesday 13 April 2016

Miles Ahead (2015)

This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Don Cheadle | Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle | Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer | Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 75: Chasing Amy (1997)

© The Criterion Collection

I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith | Cinematographer David Klein | Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee | Length 113 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016)

Zootopia (aka Zootropolis) (2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore | Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston | Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate | Length 108 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 74: Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985)

© The Criterion Collection

After a period working on documentaries, particularly in the USA (some of these have been released on Criterion’s Eclipse sub-label), Varda had one of her biggest commercial successes with this story of a drifter called Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire) found dead in the south of France. As is typical of her filmmaking style, Vagabond (the French title translates as “Neither roof nor law”) has a powerful documentary quality, being structured around a series of interviews with those whose path Mona crossed, sometimes breaking the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera. Varda’s fluidly moving camera tracks Mona in her movement from one place to another, as she finds temporary respite or shelter, and occasionally even a companion (though she is as likely to shuck these people off without any apology as the opportunity arises; scenes sometimes start with her walking beside someone, and then just leaving them, unprompted and unremarked upon). It’s a master class in filmmaking style, accomplished in framing and movement without being show-offy, but it’s also a deeply empathetic portrait of an often unlikeable central character, whose direction is largely her own choice — at least within the limits of the harsh wintery environment, not to mention those forces of authority she meets. Bonnaire is riveting in the central role, as she becomes ever dirtier (contrasted with other female characters, who are sometimes seen bathing to emphasise the contrast) and is gradually divested of her possessions as her shoes inexorably wear down, though she never loses her dignity or desire to keep moving. There are so many little moments of good humour, fleeting portraits of people living with what they have (but more often have not) got, that the film is never boring, and it’s certainly never condescending.

Criterion Extras: The director has filmed some excellent extras to this disc, which given her strength in the documentary format, are all well worth watching. The most significant is Remembrances (2003), in which Varda looks back on the film and its impact and talks to her star Sandrine Bonnaire as well as other people who appeared in the film, revisiting some of them and asking what they remember about the film (in much the way their characters recall Mona within the film). She also amusingly reveals that in fact trees were central to her original idea, hence the long digression about canker in the film and the presence of Macha Méril’s character, who looks after dying plane trees. The Story of an Old Lady is meanwhile a shorter piece she shot at the time of making the film, about the rich old woman played by Marthe Jarnias (herself far from rich), though the film is presented as it survives, rotten with mould. There’s a short contemporary radio interview with novelist Nathalie Sarraute (to whom the film is dedicated), prefaced by Varda, though as the interview makes clear, Varda isn’t exactly sure where the inspiration lies exactly. There’s also an informative conversation between Varda and the film’s composer in Music and Dolly Shots (2003), where she talks a bit more about the key lateral tracking shots which structure the film and how these were combined with the musical score.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda | Cinematographer Patrick Blossier | Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Macha Méril | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 January 2016

Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015)

Hirokazu Koreeda makes delicate small-scale films, often about familial relationships, and that’s certainly the case here, which as the English title indicates is about a group of sisters. That’s not to say the film is devoid of men, just that it’s very much focused on the sisters and their relationships with one another, and very little with their relationships outside the family unit. Indeed, despite some discussions from the middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) about moving on, the three of them still live together in their childhood home in their small seaside home town. When they go to the funeral of their father (who left them when they were young), they meet his teenage daughter Suzu (Suzu Hirose), and she moves in to the sisters’ home for a bit. The film depicts quite a bit of fluidity to familial relationships beyond the stable nuclear family unit, without pushing it too strongly, and indeed most of the film’s revelations are very much underplayed. That said, it’s not without sentimentality (it has a tone not too far from the director’s 2011 film I Wish), but it doesn’t wallow egregiously in this. It’s a comedic film not in the sense of being filled with jokes (there is some gentle humour), but because you swiftly get a sense that nothing really bad is going to happen to the family as long as these sisters stick together. This does mean that the narrative has a meandering aspect that never quite resolves on any particular moment of drama or crisis, but then again it’s never exactly boring either. A quiet mood piece, then, and rather a delightful one.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda (based on the graphic novel by Akimi Yoshida) | Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto | Starring Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 18 April 2016

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel) | Cinematographer David Johnson | Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016

Motley’s Law (2015)

This is another of several recent fascinating documentaries which touches on the evolving situation in the Middle East, specifically the slow rebuilding of Afghanistan, via an American woman who works as a lawyer there for part of the year. As with any documentary, choosing your subject wisely is half the work, and Kimberley Motley jumps off the screen as a big personality, and the fact of being the only foreign lawyer working within the Afghan justice system is certainly an unusual selling point for the story. In the end, it really is a film largely about her, as it contrasts her work in Afghanistan with her family life back home in the USA, and increasingly is about the challenges she faces juggling these commitments. She’s no social justice warrior, or someone out to make a point about US involvement in the Middle East — though there’s an unintended irony about security as her husband’s own story takes a shocking turn — she just needs to make money to support her family life. Indeed, one gets the sense that this is a defining story of a generation, looking for opportunities and seizing upon them despite the risks. These risks start to overwhelm her story towards the end, though Motley remains indefatigable in the face of them, even as the Danish documentarians who’ve made the film are seen becoming increasingly fearful.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicole N. Horanyi | Cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen | Length 85 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 April 2016

Criterion Sunday 73: Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cléo from 5 to 7, 1962)

© The Criterion Collection

Film texts and websites are apt to call director Agnès Varda “one of the best female directors of her generation”, but let’s start right off by saying the “female” caveat is nonsense. Even amongst the creative wellspring of the French Nouvelle Vague — which arguably began with Varda’s own debut feature La Pointe courte in the mid-1950s — she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her more feted (male) compatriots Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Resnais, Demy, Rohmer and Marker (amongst others). And as a demonstration of her talents, Cléo is pretty much peerless. It tracks in real time (albeit from 5 to 6:30pm), 90 minutes out of the life of its heroine Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), as she awaits the results of a biopsy. Yet, despite this morbid premise, the film is utterly filled with the vibrancy of life, specifically that in the French capital, as Varda inserts semi-documentary interludes into Cléo’s travels around Paris, shooting street views through the windows of various cars and trams, crowded café scenes, or pavement attractions she passes by. There’s even an amusing silent film pastiche starring Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina. As in her husband Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a few years later, the Algerian conflict lurks in the background as another pull towards the precariousness of life within an existential framework. However, the chief interest of the film is in the construction of Cléo’s identity, as she catches sight of herself in mirrors and is constantly looked at (and, she presumes, judged) by others. She changes hats, clothes and even hair throughout the film as a means to confound this gaze, as the film becomes the chronicle of her discovering how to live life on her own terms, such that the impending death sentence she believes the doctor will give her at the film’s end seems to be commuted by the sheer force of will of the film and of her, its heroine. It’s a glorious example of the best of early-60s French cinema, in beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography and with a spirited lead performance.

Criterion Extras: There’s a clutch of high quality extras on this disc, no little thanks to Varda’s skill at the documentary. Her Remembrances (2005) reunites her with Marchand as well as a number of other actors in the film, and revisits some of the locations. She talks of the importance of the trees, as well as getting all the clocks seen in the film to be accurate. Better yet are some contemporary short films, including the luminous L’Opéra-mouffe (1958), a glorious piece blending a modernist score by Georges Delerue with documentary footage and avant-garde reflections on personal experiences like pregnancy and drunkenness; it’s the very soul of the nouvelle vague. Another aspect on this movement is Les Fiancés du pont Mac Donald (1961), much of which is seen within the film, being a silent slapstick pastiche with Godard and his then-wife Anna Karina, and which warns of the dangers of wearing glasses (a sly dig at Godard’s self-mythologising by Varda). There’s also a short travelogue filmed from a scooter which traces Cléo’s path through Paris, with an overlaid map in the corner and occasional inserts of film stills to show where the scenes were set. Finally, there’s a short French TV clip of Madonna lauding Varda’s most famous film, as well as a gallery of paintings by Hans Baldung Grien which inspired Varda. Oh and a trailer, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Agnès Varda | Cinematographers Jean Rabier and Alain Levent | Starring Corinne Marchand | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 January 2016

Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.


Midnight Special (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols | Cinematographer Adam Stone | Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016