Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

Hot Girls Wanted (2015)

Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015

This doesn’t technically qualify for my New Year’s Resolution, as it wasn’t officially released to cinemas, but instead premiered on Netflix.

© Netflix

It makes for fairly depressing viewing, this documentary, and I’m not convinced that any film about the porn industry could ever fail to be, at least a little bit. Then again, there are times during Hot Girls Wanted when I can’t help but feel we’re only being given part of the picture. It’s clearly an exploitative profession, and the film’s focus is on young women who have just turned 18 getting into the business, so the angle is that these women are prey for a rapacious industry that demands constant turnover of talent. And yes, quite a bit of the work we see them doing is blatantly misogynist, particularly the unsettling abuse porn. But at the same time it’s refreshing to hear from the women themselves, all of whom, despite their ages, are intelligent and self-possessed and hardly seem particularly ingenuous about what they’re getting involved with. The film makes it clear that most women are in the industry for only very short amounts of time (less than 6 months in most cases), though the end titles reveal that two of the five young women who are featured most prominently are still in the industry, so perhaps there’s an angle with their stories that wasn’t quite so evident. What the film prefers to focus on is the importance of social media (particularly Twitter, which informs the film’s on-screen titling), as well as the way that the work influences the women’s families and relationships, and to a lesser extent the casually possessive and derogatory way of some of the (male) filmmakers and agents. Perhaps indeed more regulation is required, and this feels like the film’s big message, but from what we see it almost looks like a quaint cottage industry (our talent scout is a puppy-loving 23-year-old dude, and the male actors all seem little more than pathetic). That said, I’m hardly about to mount a vigorous defence of pornography. Another of the ideas the film toys with in an early sequence is the way that the pornography industry redefines how people see and present themselves and the way that this affects their interactions at a far wider level (and social media certainly plays a part there) — and I think there’s a far more angry film to be made about that. However, as a film about the human cost of working within this world, I’d have liked to have heard more from the women who stuck around. In some ways, I think that might have been more challenging.

CREDITS || Directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus | Writer Brittany Huckabee | Cinematographer Ronna Gradus | Length 84 minutes

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015

© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).

But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).

It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.

CREDITS || Director Pete Docter | Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley | Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black | Length 94 minutes (+ 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy)

They Came Together (2014)

Short Review: They Came Together (2014)

With 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter made a name for themselves in genre parody, and where that dealt with the 80s teen summer camp genre (a largely forgotten straight-to-VHS phenomenon), here they go after the enduring success of the romcom itself. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are the ever familiar faces at the centre of this one, and both are delightful at sending up all the genre trappings and narcissistic self-involved characters, while also imbuing them with real warmth and likeability. The plot is essentially a retread of The Shop Around the Corner via You’ve Got Mail (an underrated classic from the pen of Nora Ephron), except instead of bookstores we have candy stores, with Paul Rudd being the Hanksian corporate, and Poehler the Ryanesque indie. There are any number of cameos from familiar faces, and lots of big laughs — well at least, so I thought, so I’m surprised to see a number of lukewarm-at-best reviews around the place. It’s hardly substantial, and much of the detail has already passed through my head in the week since I saw it, but it effortlessly pleased me, so if you like any of the creative talent involved, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

FILM REVIEW || Director David Wain | Writers David Wain and Michael Showalter | Cinematographer Tom Houghton | Starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd | Length 83 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Wednesday 22 July 2015

Chalet Girl (2011)

Short Review: Chalet Girl (2011)

Coasting through the dregs and ephemera that crop up on the various streaming services, a wealth of films with stars you may have heard of but which have more or less been forgotten to history (usually for good reason), leads you down some odd little alleyways. This one, for example, is a snowboarding romcom leaning heavily on the upstairs-downstairs dynamic between an ordinary girl just looking to make some money to help support her single-father family, and the plutocratic capitalists on their winter jollies who have their own Austrian ski chalet. It capitalises on the charm of its rising-star lead actor Felicity Jones (as the girl, Kim, who has a perfunctory background as a skateboarding prodigy), and the chiselled jaw of television leading man Ed Westwick (best known as cad Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl, playing not far from type as Johnny, the scion of wealth and privilege). It also rounds up some likeable supporting performances from Tamsin Egerton as posh ski instructor (or ‘chalet girl’) Georgie, and Bill Nighy as the (as always) likeable father of Johnny, as well as Bill Bailey and Brooke Shields for bonus WTF points. Everyone else in this refined society, though, is just a one-dimensional upper-class berk with few redeeming features (though I don’t take particular exception to that). The resulting film may be as light and powdery as the snow that settles on their Austrian mountain, but there’s plenty to like all the same, whether the winning acting, or the actually rather sharp and deftly-put together script by Tom Williams, someone I’d not previously heard about, but a strong enough effort to make me want to seek out other things he’s done. Certainly worthwhile if it’s late on a weekend evening, you’ve had a few drinks, and you want something to pleasantly pass the time.

FILM REVIEW || Director Phil Traill | Writer Tom Williams | Cinematographer Ed Wild | Starring Felicity Jones, Ed Westwick, Tamsin Egerton, Bill Nighy | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 25 July 2015

Exeter (aka The Asylum, aka Backmask, 2015)

Exeter (aka The Asylum, aka Backmask, 2015)

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 July 2015

© Viva Pictures

I watched this for completism’s sake, but I can’t profess to any great fondness for the gory side of the horror film (whereas the psychological stuff I’ve enjoyed in, say, The Babadook). Once it gets going, there’s certainly plenty of gore in Exeter, but the build-up is fitfully enjoyable (just an aside on the film’s name: it was retitled The Asylum for the UK market, possibly to avoid confusion with the county, but originally entitled Backmask, which I can imagine was picked because it sounds cool, though there’s only a passing reference to the urban legend of backwards satanic messages being hidden in rock music). As the makers seems to have started filming back in 2011, one can only assume there were problems in delivering the final cut, but thankfully it all looks very stylish and professional on screen. The setting is an eerie and dilapidated building (of course) hidden away in some rural backwater (naturally), which used to be a mental asylum (what else?) and is supposedly haunted by the lost souls who were dumped there to be forgotten (you get the gist). A group of youngsters camp out for a party and soon strange stuff starts happening. There’s a creepy priest who shows up early on, and elsewhere there are plenty of nods to The Exorcist. Otherwise this is a straightforward gory frightfest, with a disturbing sideline (thankfully fairly minor) in women being sexualised and then brutalised, surprising not least because the film is written by a woman. However, this is deeply embedded in genre territory, so there are rules to be followed, and the film does play by them. If you enjoy this kind of thing, then my review has probably been misleading, and this is a minor masterpiece. I just don’t tend to enjoy this kind of thing.

CREDITS || Director Marcus Nispel | Writer Kirsten McCallion | Cinematographer Eric Treml | Starring Kelly Blatz, Brittany Curran | Length 91 minutes

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015

© BIM Distribuzione

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.

CREDITS || Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher | Cinematographer Hélène Louvart | Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci | Length 110 minutes

Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert (13 Minutes, 2014)

Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert (13 Minutes, 2014)

Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 19 July 2015

© NFP Distribution

After the commercial and critical disappointment of Diana a year or two back, director Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to the subject that made his name (on Downfall), which is to say, the Nazis. Specifically, this new film focuses on an unlikely resistance fighter, Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler at the outset of World War II. Obviously, even if one is unfamiliar with the plot, we all know how it’s going to turn out, hence the English title (the amount of time by which his bomb missed its target); the German title instead poses the idea that “he could have changed the world”, to which the unspoken rejoinder is obvious. After the initial excitement of the preparation and outcome of the plot, the bulk of the film lies in flashbacks exploring Elser’s life and influences for the actions he took, in which it becomes clear he acted on his own. Central to Georg’s backstory is a romance with a married woman, Elsa (Katharine Schüttler), whose abusive husband and the way the local village tolerates his evident failings, is symptomatic of a strand of close-mindedness to the threat posed by the Nazis. It is very easy to imagine one as a resistance hero under such circumstances, but the reality of the situation is that I imagine most of us would be like the village’s civic leader, fairly apathetic to the Nazis and happy to do whatever suits him personally. The film makes a great case for Elser’s exceptionalism in such a society, as once again (after the recent Amour Fou), Christian Friedel convinces as a troubled hero in the tragic romantic mould. That said, there’s also plenty of torture involved — those Nazis, they weren’t nice people — so it’s never an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile historical drama with plenty to recommend it.

CREDITS || Director Oliver Hirschbiegel | Writers Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorder | Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann | Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler | Length 116 minutes

Criterion Sunday 34: Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andrei, 1966)

© The Criterion Collection

Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library in September 2000)

Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writer Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn | Length 205 minutes

That Thing You Do! (1996)

Short Review: That Thing You Do! (1996)

Tom Hanks has been one of Hollywood’s most likeable and charismatic stars for years, and it turns out this touch transfers well to his first directorial effort (though he’s only directed one other film in the intervening 20 years). It helps that this 1960s period story, about a bunch of young American lads chasing the success of the British Invasion bands (specifically the Beatles), is fairly light-hearted and coasts through on the screen appeal of its young leads, including an early role for Steve Zahn. It follows a familiar arc of early beginnings, growing commercial success, band friction and dissolution, but it does so in a very easygoing way that never outstays its welcome (there’s a longer director’s cut, though I’ve not seen that). Cheerfully coloured era-specific set and fashion design enlivens the whole thing, making for a satisfying weekend matinee movie experience.

FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Tom Hanks | Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto | Starring Tom Everett Scott, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Liv Tyler, Tom Hanks | Length 108 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 June 2015 (and years earlier as well)

Bin Roye (2015)

Bin Roye (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 20 July 2015

© Hum Films

There’s definitely a strain in the cinema of India and Pakistan (or Bollywood and Lollywood if you prefer) which slip effortlessly into grandstanding melodrama of the soap operatic variety, and such is the case with Bin Roye, which I can easily imagine on television, maybe a short mini-series. It even builds to a crescendo just before the intermission (all films I’ve seen from these countries have intermissions), which hasn’t always been the case in my experience, as some directors have trouble finding a natural place to break for 10 minutes. It starts out all light and fluffy with the household of heroine Saba (Mahira Khan) getting ready to celebrate Eid; she’s young and girlish at this point, looking out for the full moon eagerly, and pestering family friend Irtaza (Humayun Saeed) to take her to the bazaar to buy bangles. Of course, she’s in love with Irtaza in an adorable puppyish way, but he’s a bit older than her and has his sights set on his business career in the US and Saba’s sister Saman. And this is, of course, where everything starts to go wrong for Saba. The filmmakers pile on the ridiculous twists of fate, relying primarily on transport-related accidents, and as the years pass Saba noticeably loses her joie de vivre. It starts to go a bit weird (at least by my standards) when Irtaza basically forces Saba to be his wife, taking her away from her family and leaving her in seclusion. There’s a sort of parallel between these two halves — of her loving him in vain at the start, and then later on him starting to fall for her despite her lack of reciprocation — but it never quite seems convincing as a relationship, although Saba’s emotional trajectory at least feels relatively believable under the (extreme) circumstances. As ever, it’s a well-produced film with a glossy sheen and colourful set design, and it owes a lot to its leads’ gorgeous looks and effortless on-screen charisma, but it can be difficult to follow it down some of its twisting emotional alleyways (at least for me, who has no context to place it in).

CREDITS || Directors Momina Duraid and Shahzad Kashmiri | Writer Farhat Ishtiaq (based on her novel Bin Roye Aansoo) | Cinematographer Farhan Alam | Starring Mahira Khan, Humayun Saeed | Length 150 minutes