The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Short Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

It must be easy to take against this film, after all it has pretty much no likeable characters. The title character, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), is a sociopathic grifter in the 1950s, taking advantage of opportunities to inveigle himself into the company of the wealthy, upper-class New York set, sponsored to fly out to Italy by the father of dissolute Ivy Leaguer Dickie (Jude Law), who is living la dolce vita with his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), playing jazz and mooching from seaside resort to bustling city. Dickie is an entitled asshole, friendly to a point, with friends (like Freddie, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who are even worse. And along the way, Ripley manages to win the attentions of Cate Blanchett’s heiress Meredith by pretending to be Dickie, which leads to some almost-screwball situations (the comedy premise somewhat attenated by the resulting murders). Only Marge manages to be in any way pleasant, but she’s as much a product of her upbringing as Dickie, though she comes to see through Ripley’s dissimulations. Still, it may run long, but it’s all acted extremely well, with Jude Law particularly rising to Dickie’s arrogant golden boy, and John Seale’s cinematography looks great, though you can’t really fail with locations like Venice. Matt Damon plays Ripley very inscrutably, and the filmmakers toy with a gay subtext though they thankfully stop short of having it explain Ripley’s sociopathy. It’s a strong psychological thriller, and among Minghella’s finer films.

FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith) | Cinematographer John Seale | Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman | Length 138 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 29 August 2015

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Short Review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

It can be easy to write reviews of films which are a bit rubbish for whatever reason, but sit me down to try and set out my thoughts about a well-made, well-acted and enjoyable low-key drama in a naturalistic mode, and I’m a bit stumped. That’s the case with this film about the children of a lesbian couple looking for their donor father. It’s an excellent ensemble cast (with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, as ever, standing out as being particularly good), and it doesn’t feel false, not least because the director, Lisa Cholodenko, seems to be drawing from aspects of her own life. Ruffalo’s Paul is living a bachelor life running an organic food shop and restaurant, when Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gets in touch via the sperm donor centre on behalf of her younger brother Laser (yes, that’s his name apparently and no one seems to find it particularly silly; played by Josh Hutcherson), who is curious as to his parentage. The film is trying to get at what it means to be a parent, articulated most clearly by Annette Bening’s character Nicole, a doctor and somewhat controlling mother figure who doesn’t take particularly well to Paul’s appearance in their family life. I liked the characters, I felt I could identify with them (maybe that’s a middle-class aspirational thing) and believe in their motivations. but beyond that I can’t really be any more helpful. A fine piece of work.

FILM REVIEW || Director Lisa Cholodenko | Writers Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg | Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo | Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Mark Ruffalo | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015

Lore (2012)

Short Review: Lore (2012)

We’ve all seen a hundred films set amongst the European ruins and detritus of World War II, but this film from Australian director Cate Shortland has an interesting angle to it, as it tracks the travails of Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), a young woman living out in the Black Forest, who finds herself as head of the family when her apparently fairly senior Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. However, it’s filmed from her point-of-view, so the war itself is a spectral background presence and her parents’ fates are mysterious and elliptically presented. The film settles down to being a sort of fractured road movie, as this new family unit moves across the country towards Hamburg and the home of their grandmother. The abiding quality of these (blonde and blue-eyed) children making their way through the contested space of post-war Germany is akin to that of The Road or other similar apocalyptic visions, as every space seems to be suffused by the constant fear of death, or worse. It’s interesting that despite its Australian genesis, the film is shot in German and acted by German actors, which would usually be the kind of weirdly international co-production that should act as a red flag to potential viewers, and yet it’s all done very well and with plenty of emotional power, as Lore finally comes to get a sense of the new reality from which she and her family had until then been so isolated.

FILM REVIEW || Director Cate Shortland | Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate Shortland (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert) | Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw | Starring Saskia Rosendahl | Length 109 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2015

We Are Your Friends (2015)

We Are Your Friends (2015)

Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Thursday 27 August 2015

© Warner Bros. Pictures

There’s a sense in which this new movie about a DJ and his three friends living in Los Angeles’ Valley and trying to carve out a place for themselves is like a sub-Entourage story about flagrant wealth and dudebros being alpha 4ssholes (not that I’ve seen Entourage, but that seems to be the gist of it). Except that criticism seems unfair to me. Yes the film deals with some unpleasant male pathologies of entitlement — focused around Wes Bentley’s veteran DJ James, who has the apartment and the lifestyle — but our central character Cole (Zac Efron) and his buddies are very far from the wealth and the glitz, and the film is never less than clear that their lifestyle and aspirations are rather pathetic. That’s not enough to redeem the film — just because it knows these guys are d1cks, doesn’t make it any more fun to watch them — but for me, Zac Efron’s charismatic leading role just about is. Efron is one of the finest actors of the modern era, a smouldering pin-up Disney poster boy originally, but with the ability to infuse even the most wan and underwritten characters with genuine pathos. His inscrutable air seems to lend moral depth where there probably is none, making his Cole here a compulsively watchable protagonist. Still, it’s not quite enough to redeem a film that, even for one such as myself who is not nor ever has been a dance music DJ, seem facile: there’s an over-reliance on on-screen graphics to get us into the mindset of a DJ, all x-ray vision of hearts beating, and text hymning the power of 128 beats-per-minute (even as we learn there are other dance music styles which are slower and faster than this), and when it gets to its core message about finding one’s own voice, emphasising the musical authenticity of sampling real-world sounds and actual musical instruments, it kinda loses me. It also ropes in its female lead and Cole’s love interest, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), for one particularly flat scene where she just has to dance seductively at him while he plies his magical art and mansplains a bunch of stuff that she at least has the acting talent to pretend isn’t really obvious, but the audience surely aren’t so fooled. So yeah, these guys, they’re not my friends, and I remain unclear as to why some of them are anyone’s friends, but the film makes Los Angeles look pretty special, and it proves once again that a poor script and a dudebro mentality is no impediment to the pure expression of Efron’s acting art (not that I’m about to watch That Awkward Moment to bolster my argument).

CREDITS || Director Max Joseph | Writers Max Joseph and Meaghan Oppenheimer | Cinematographer Brett Pawlak | Starring Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski | Length 96 minutes

Criterion Sunday 39: Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter, 1966)

© The Criterion Collection

Seijun Suzuki’s final film for Japanese film studio Nikkatsu was Branded to Kill (covered last week, as the films are numbered in reverse chronological order by Criterion), but it shares certain generic traits in common with the previous year’s Tokyo Drifter. They’re both yakuza gangster films with outsider protagonists, but where the later film dealt with a hitman (whose work is naturally lonesome), here our hero is pushed into his drifter lifestyle. Tetsuya Watari plays a gangster of the same first name (generally abbreviated to Tetsu) whose boss has retired. When he turns down the advances of a rival, his peripatetic fate is sealed. Plotwise, there’s other stuff in there (a girl, a double-cross), but as always with Suzuki it’s the style that shines through. Tetsu isn’t just a drifter, he’s a drifter with a catchy title song that crops up throughout the film, and as the initial black-and-white scenes soon break into vibrant colour, it’s quickly established that he has a quirky style, dressed in a powder-blue suit on his journeys. There’s not a huge deal of depth to it, but it’s a concise film with a sure sense of its own stylishness.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2015

Director Seijun Suzuki | Writer Yasunori Kawauchi | Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine | Starring Tetsuya Watari | Length 82 minutes

Estate, a Reverie (2015)

Estate, a Reverie (2015)

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 28 August 2015

© Fugitive Images

Most of the documentaries that gain an official release tell a story, usually about an interesting individual or group of people who have done something special or unusual (I feel like I’ve seen quite a few of these this year), but outside the mainstream of distribution there’s a space for a greater range of stories or styles. The gentrification of our inner cities, and the marginalisation of the poor and unwell within our society, are all topics which deserve angry, passionate, partisan and activist responses but Estate, a Reverie, as the title suggests, moves down a more self-consciously art-film route. In part this is because its particular subject, the Haggerston Estate in the London Borough of Hackney, is already part of the past: the last of its blocks was finally demolished in 2014.

However, the film is in its own way doing activist work, by instead documenting the lives of the people on the estate over the seven years in which it was filmed, and suggesting the value of the idea of social housing (however diluted and precarious that has become). Some of its subjects — who speak movingly of their childhoods during World War II, or their travels from far-off lands to end up in Hackney, or the illnesses they struggle with — never made it off the estate, a few we see evicted by a seemingly unfeeling council, while still others have been successfully rehoused. Yet the arguments of the film’s images and interviews — that nobody deserves to be excluded from society, that communities like that of the Haggerston Estate are vital for our health as a nation — remain as strong as ever.

It’s impossible to live in a city, especially a wealthy and increasingly gentrifying one like London, and be unaware of the urgent need for more strategies to deal with the lack of affordable housing: it’s one of the great issues of our lives, and one to which the government of the time thought they had an answer when the Haggerston Estate was built in the late-1930s. The documentary frames its interviews within this historical continuum. We see what looks like 1980s TV footage in which the Estate is framed as a social blight, we see Charles Booth’s late-19th century maps charting poverty and criminality in the area, and we learn that it was once the location of that other kind of estate, the moneyed one of the landed gentry, exemplified by the trajectories of the characters in Samuel Richardson’s morally-improving novels of the 18th century (after whom the Estate’s blocks were named). In this respect, the documentary stages little periodic irruptions of surrealism, like the brief images bookending the film of farmyard animals rooting about on the grounds, or when some residents dress up as Richardson’s characters and enact scenes from his novels.

Testimony from the residents is at the heart of the film, and each is introduced with a title that gives the number of years they’ve lived on the Estate, but we also spy some of the external forces that are shaping their fate. The vibrant orange boards that block up the empty flats are the most visible sign of this intervention from the local council, whose workers are only ever spied in passing, as when a flat’s doorway is being bricked up. But there are also the middle-class tours organised by the Open House London weekend every September, and one of these is shown at the Estate, engaging in what could be described as a form of poverty tourism. Certainly this seems to be how the documentary presents them (and one chap getting a photo of an elderly resident does a good enough job of indicting himself), though it’s without any underlying rancour or “hipster” namecalling — this is a reverie after all, not a call to arms. And I’m not entirely free of implication in this ‘ruin p0rn’, in evidence of which is my photo from 2009 of the Estate’s pub, boarded up prior to demolition, with the estate block in the background, orange boards clearly visible:

Overdraught, Haggerston, E8

So perhaps my interest is that of someone who has passed by the Estate myself, and many others like it in London, and has seen the deleterious effect of chronic underinvestment. However, Estates, a Reverie shows with piercing clarity that the view from the inside is not the story we get from the media. It counters propaganda about sink estates and the social evils of poverty (‘benefits cheats’, ‘scrounging migrants’, all those hateful ideologies) with its own form of propaganda, something closer to the truth: that this is a vibrant community of people who are houseproud and care about where they live, who are engaged with society and try to help each other, and who struggle with neglect that every passing year gets ever more difficult to deal with. It’s not framed here with anger, and it doesn’t need to be. I can only hope the film gets seen more widely and made more available, because though I can’t be entirely sure (given it’s about my back yard), I feel like it’s a film about cities and capitalism, and not just about London.

CREDITS || Director Andrea Luka Zimmerman | Writers Adam Rosenthal, Gareth Evans and David Roberts | Cinematographers Taina Galis, Lasse Johansson and Andrea Luka Zimmerman | Length 83 minutes

NB: Just a pedantic note to close. The film’s website and production company give the date of the film as 2015, though as the poster included here shows, it had screenings at Dalston’s Rio Cinema in late-2014. I can only presume these were of an unfinished cut or weren’t open to the public, but I’ll go with the production company’s date. Also, the title is sometimes written with a colon, and is cited with no particular consistency on the official website, so I’ve gone with the comma, because I like it better.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

Gemma Bovery (2014)

Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 26 August 2015

© Gaumont

You could make a case — and I wouldn’t be entirely unreceptive to your viewpoint — that this film is a regressive form of faux-naïf haute bourgeoise naffery. I’m pretty sure New Waves have formed in opposition to less provocation, and even if it isn’t quite the desultory cinéma de papa of the past (it has a female writer and director, for a start), it’s hardly challenging in the laidback literary allusions of the screenplay and its bucolic country town setting. There’s also a self-aware subtext revolving around the fitting of literary archetypes to (overtly constructed) characters that reminds me of another French film starring Fabrice Luchini, Dans la maison directed by François Ozon — though that film was more aggressive in pushing its meta-narrative, so if forced I’d generally prefer Anne Fontaine’s filmmaking to that of Ozon.

But already I feel I’m pushing back too strongly against a film which, broadly, I rather enjoyed. If it has that self-aware constructedness that may perhaps be traced to the involvement on the screenplay of former film critic (and Jacques Rivette collaborator) Pascal Bonitzer, it could also be said to critique a masculinist construction of feminine identity by having our central character Martin (Luchini) — and despite the film’s title, his is the point of view around which the film revolves — carefully watch and steer the narrative path of Gemma Arterton’s title character. Arterton is a fine actor who does great work with what is ultimately a purposely thin character, existing in that sort of Daisy Buchanan mould as an object of male lust and projected fantasies of femininity. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it particularly challenging: Gemma is still largely a pawn to the (male-centred) narrative, and some of the comedy at the expense of Anglo-French relations can get a little strained (although there’s a very amusing smaller role for Elsa Zylberstein as a status-obsessed socialite). But as a testament to Arterton and Luchini’s excellent and subtle acting skills, Gemma Bovery does provide a pleasant divertissement.

CREDITS || Director Anne Fontaine | Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Anne Fontaine (based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds) | Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne | Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng | Length 99 minutes

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 23 August 2015

© Magnolia Pictures/Evergreen Pictures

We’re surely all familiar with pop culture focusing on the lives of the ultra-wealthy, whether reality TV shows or movies that lavish attention on their homes, their cars, their social lives and parties, their style, clothes, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. There are film genres (the teen film for example) that have almost entirely rededicated themselves to this niche category of existence, because it’s the American Dream writ large: come from humble beginnings, play the capitalist game, rake in unimaginable wealth on the backs of life’s losers (who slide further into poverty and addiction, something not generally acknowledged), and cash in with homes, cars, et al., mi(se)rabile dictu. So it’s a strange thing indeed to be made to feel… what’s this emotion, sympathy (?!)… for one of these blessed people, Jackie Siegel, a 40-something former beauty queen who married David, a property multi-millionaire, now facing hard times after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage stock market crash. The couple had been building the country’s largest mansion in Florida, modelled after that at Versailles, but it was left an empty shell as work came to halt. It’s clear that their money is built on exploitation and hucksterism (time-share properties), and that they’re still on paper phenomenally wealthy, it’s just that suddenly this family of husband, wife and seven children no longer have the cashflow to indulge their every whim. It’s strangely affecting to see Jackie visit a childhood relation in her cramped suburban property, to see the family have to feed their pets personally (pity the unfortunate lizard), or tidying up after themselves — in short, having to deal with all the detritus and maintenance required by their massively oversized lifestyles. Their marriage is put under strain, as is their relationship with their children, their socialite friends, their family and their company. Lauren Greenfield’s film takes all those glitzy surfaces and scratches away at them, not itself wallowing in the family’s misfortune (though we as viewers may do so) but anatomising its footprint and effects. In doing so, it weaves an entertaining and watchable tale that incidentally becomes a treatise on American capitalism in crisis.

CREDITS || Director Lauren Greenfield | Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz | Length 100 minutes

The Wolfpack (2015)

The Wolfpack (2015)

Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 23 August 2015

© Magnolia Pictures

At the heart of this new documentary is a fascinating subject, the Angulo family, whose parents have raised their seven children largely in insolation from the city around them (New York). It brings to mind films like Werner Herzog’s Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974), and this idea of children raised away from any socialising influence — whether kept in isolation like Hauser, or raised in the wild by animals, or just cut off from mainstream society like the Amish — is a commonly recurring trope in fiction. So to have found a real-life example in the middle of such an enormous city is a coup for director Crystal Moselle, who has clearly filmed them over the course of some time.

The oldest of the children, Mukunda (their names are taken from Hindu scripture) is now 20, and he tells of how he first left their Lower East Side apartment on his own at the age of 15, and promptly got arrested for his choice of papier mâché mask. As it turns out he and his brothers (the youngest Angulo child, the daughter Visnu, is largely absent) have had much of their socialisation via films, so their dressing up and recreating the films (most notably those of Quentin Tarantino) is the hook that The Wolfpack uses for its poster and trailer. However, there are other questions that are soon raised, like the role of the family’s mother and father, the latter of whom is not particularly well-loved by his children it turns out. This is for good reasons, of course — from their point of view he’s kept them isolated for their whole lives and had controlled their access to the outside world — though the film’s underlying sadness is that his fear of the dangers the outside world poses are quite understandable at a certain level. Both parents after all had come from rural backgrounds and if they’d not been trapped by poverty into their current situation, one senses events might have turned out differently.

The attitudes of both the parents and their children are fleshed out over the film’s running time, as the parents must start to accept their children are coming of age and have a natural curiosity about the world outside. It’s never quite made clear how active a role Moselle herself has taken in this process, or at what exact point in their lives she entered, but there’s a sense a lot of the emotional maturation the film covers had already taken place. Moselle deftly structures her film, though, only slowly adding in the stories of the family’s mother and father. Whatever questions one might reasonably pose (I wonder about how the daughter feels she fits into the family’s dynamic, as just one example), it remains a compelling study of an unusual family dynamic.

CREDITS || Director/Cinematographer Crystal Moselle | Length 90 minutes

Touchy Feely (2013)

Short Review: Touchy Feely (2013)

I gather from the internet that not everyone loves this film, which is both a shame, and understandable to an extent — it shares certain qualities with other low-budget improvised films (like Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas). You may know the kind of thing: that tentative awkwardness of the actors as they navigate conversations for the first time, not to mention some of the darker recesses of the characters’ emotions — the kinds of things that mainstream films tend to shy away from. For all that it’s clearly made as a labour of love, and it looks very polished, with a photographer’s eye for framing and cutting together. Rosemarie DeWitt plays the central character of Abby, a massage therapist who starts to become averse to skin, while her brother Paul (Josh Pais) is an introverted and unsuccessful dentist who suddenly finds popularity due to his presumed healing powers, and caught between these two are Paul’s daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) and Abby’s boyfriend Jesse (Scott McNairy). It’s a film of people who have trouble relating to one another, and who exhibit all kinds of social anxieties that may explain a low-level attachment towards various alternative New Age-y therapies — things that wouldn’t usually make for gripping cinema, which is probably why it’s not going to be a big hit with everyone. However, it does so in an attentive low-key way that pays off dividends in Shelton’s more recent Laggies, which marries some of this psychological character work to a bigger budget and stars.

FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Lynn Shelton | Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke | Starring Rosemarie DeWitt, Ellen Page, Josh Pais, Scoot McNairy, Allison Janney | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 20 August 2015