FILM REVIEW || Seen at friend’s home, London, Saturday 28 March 2015 || My Rating worth seeing
When you watch a music documentary about a band you don’t really like, there’s always going to be some difficulty in assessing it fairly, so my comments should be taken in that light. Manic Street Preachers are a Welsh band formed in the 1980s but who attained some of their greatest success in the following decade. As the documentary makes clear, however, this didn’t always translate internationally — there’s a series of vox pop interviews with New Yorkers on the street indicating how little they’ve heard of the band compared to MSP’s contemporaries — and yet this film is made by a primarily US-based crew and director. It does all the usual documentary stuff — talking heads interviews with band members and fans, archival footage of key points in their career, live gigs — and it covers controversies like the mysterious disappearance of original member Richey Edwards, all set against the three remaining band members rehearsing and working up a new album. No doubt this will appeal to existing fans (those I was watching it with seemed to like it well enough). It just doesn’t get under the skin of why the band have the success they do, or why a casual listener should be interested in them. Don’t get me wrong, they all seem like perfectly nice chaps and I wish them continued success, but as a documentary I was hoping for more insight.
CREDITS || Director Elizabeth Marcus | Cinematographers Mike Desjarlais and Chuck Miller | Length 96 minutes
I fear my post about this collection of BAFTA-nominated short films will be shorter than the list of credits below, but it was granted an official release to British cinemas so it falls under the ambit of my New Year’s resolution film-watching project. Needless to say, as with any such compilation, there are highs and lows, but the wonder of the short film form is that even if you get bored, there’s something else up in fairly short order.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 12 March 2015 || My Rating good
Out of the eight short films featured in this compilation, the highlight of the set is probably The Kármán Line and not just because it stars the always delightful and watchable Olivia Colman. It starts out as a rather whimsical tale of a woman who, pottering about at home with her stroppy teenage daughter one day, just spontaneously starts slowly floating upwards, as if caught in an invisible tractor beam. However, it quickly develops into a really very affecting story about death, loss and grieving, as the ramifications of the mother’s new situation slowly dawn on everyone.
Many of the other films also grapple with family sadness. Of the animations, The Bigger Picture is probably the most interesting, with its odd mixed-media painted aesthetic, and story of two brothers coping with their mother’s dying, while My Dad is a garishly-coloured portrait of an affectionate yet problematically racist father. Emotional Fusebox, meanwhile, is a gorgeously filmed and well-acted, if somewhat slight, story of a young woman uneasily pushed by her family towards romance, as we slowly gather why she’s living in the shed at home. The longest film is Slap, a coming-of-age story about a young man with a confused sexual identity, which follows some fairly familiar paths, as does Boogaloo and Graham, though its story of two young Belfast kids looking after some baby chickens during the Troubles has a refreshing sense of place and some fine child acting. The low-key but appealing domestic drama Three Brothers and oddball space-era Scottish animation Monkey Love Experiments round the programme out.
All the films are BAFTA-nominated for a reason, and show plenty of promise for their assembled casts and crews, so I look forward to some of them making the leap to feature filmmaking. Then again, as this programme reminds me, the short film has its own particular pleasures.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015 || My Rating excellent
There’s a scene towards the end of this excoriating French-Canadian family melodrama in which Diane (Anne Dorval), the mother of the title — after a fashion, which I’ll explain later — imagines the possibilities for her tearaway teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon) as he grows up. As a scene, it’s beautiful and uplifting, shot in a hazy nostalgic glow, and yet utterly heartbreaking, because it lands after about two hours of coming to grips with Steve and all his emotional problems, and by this point we realise that it’s an impossible dream.
Xavier Dolan, the director of Mommy is only in his mid-20s, but this is an utterly assured and properly cinematic film, filled with the kinds of juxtapositions and coups de théâtre that only the most accomplished of directors could pull off. It starts off with one such, as Diane’s car is sideswiped at a busy intersection, and the film doesn’t let go from then on. The square framing is another flourish, which almost seems to trap its characters, but at a key later moment it dramatically opens up, all too briefly, to suggest a hope that the film’s events don’t always bear out.
The film’s primary focus is on the home that Diane (“Die” for short) makes with her angry son, just returned from a stint in juvenile detention, and with their neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément) they form a mutually-supportive and slightly askew family unit. Diane is Steve’s mother, but the title refers to a piece of bling that Steve acquires for her — in a bravura scene that seems to vacillate moment to moment from tenderness to violence — naming a role that is as much in Steve’s imagination as within Diane’s ability. Certainly, Steve has what one might call ‘issues’ that are at times uncomfortably Oedipal, but for the most part the film is resolutely focused on the mother figure Diane, who starts out as a hectoring bully but ends up being a multi-faceted character that we genuinely feel warmth and understanding towards.
Mommy is one of the stand-out films I’ve seen so far this year. It heralds the further maturation of a prodigious cinematic talent, and is well worth checking out.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Xavier Dolan | Cinematographer André Turpin | Starring Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément | Length 138 minutes
Nobody ever said it would be easy, and after a run of what one might uncharitably term middlebrow sentimentality (or perhaps humanistic tales with a sense of moral responsibility), the Criterion Collection moves decisively towards showcasing films with a rather harder edge, of which this adaptation by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini of the Marquis de Sade is surely the most challenging. I’d seen this many years ago, and expected to not like it — and it is of course a nasty film in which many very vile things happen or are said, which can be extremely difficult to watch — but it’s also somewhat fascinating. It’s set almost entirely at an opulent country estate, at which stories are told by elderly society ladies while acts of degradation and depravity are committed by a cadre of four aristocrats/governmental figures (backed up by armed guards) upon a group of young men and women, all while one of the women accompanies on piano in a genteel manner. There’s a lot in the film that recalls the work of Michael Haneke (who is, as I’m sure I’ll one day post about, a director I consider among cinema’s most overrated). The final and most difficult passage of the film (entitled ‘Circle of Blood’) depicts various tortures being watched at a distance by the aristocrats through opera glasses in a manner that clearly implicates the film’s own audience, and yet it feels less overtly Do-You-See as similar Haneke strategies in films like Funny Games. The corruption of power is tied strongly in the film to the declining years of Mussolini’s rule in Fascist Italy, which perhaps gives it historical distance (like that final act, viewed through glasses), but also makes it a story about the interplay between the governed and the ruling classes. It is all too easy for someone on the left to imagine quotes like “It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of ‘the people’. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist” at a Tory party conference, and Pasolini must surely be channelling his own indignation at government here. Whatever it may represent, it still (necessarily so, perhaps) is a punishing watch, and not one that I would particularly rush to repeat any time soon.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday || Director Pier Paolo Pasolini | Writers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti (based on the novel Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage by the Marquis de Sade) | Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli | Starring Paolo Bonacelli, Aldo Valletti | Length 116 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2001 (and more recently at a friend’s home on DVD, Sunday 4 January 2015)|| My Rating very good
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015 || My Rating disappointing
There’s a lot of very intense thematic material in this Danish domestic drama (what the BBFC title card judiciously warns us are “bereavement themes”). It swiftly sets up the work life of Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as a cop, contrasting one of his cases — a thuggish heroin junkie who’s just relocated to his neighbourhood and has a maltreated baby and girlfriend in tow — with his almost-perfect home life alongside wife Anne (Maria Bonneville) and their tiny baby Alexander. Then horrible things happen, bad decisions are made, and tragic consequences are reaped, and well… it’s just not convincing, not the characters, and certainly not the choices they make. Andreas’s police partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) has his own generic and perfunctory character development, and comes in at the end to clear things up all too neatly. Sure, there are lots of lingering close-ups of furrowed eyes and harrowing music on the soundtrack to guide our feelings, so I could at least say there are some believable emotional arcs being expressed. It’s just that as a viewer I don’t feel any engagement or sympathy with Andreas or his wife or his partner, while the working of the plot suggests a madcap screwball comedy, not the stark grief-filled drama Susanne Bier and her screenwriter Anders Jensen have crafted. The contrast of Andreas’s life with that of the criminal family, along with a tacked-on coda, have the effect of pat moralising, and when the credits come up there’s a feeling you’ve been watching a TV social-issue-of-the-week movie. If you are a parent, it may be more emotionally engaging, but then again I can’t imagine a parent wanting to watch this film either, given the events it depicts.
CREDITS || Director Susanne Bier | Writer Anders Thomas Jensen | Cinematographer Michael Snyman | Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen | Length 105 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 22 March 2015 || My Rating very good
In many ways, it’s documentary films which prove there are still plenty of stories to tell in the world and plenty of ways to depict them. This particular documentary seems at first glance to be rather slight — watching as a family arrive in an arid desert and, before the land is drowned once again during the monsoon season, go through an eight-month cycle of preparing, making and harvesting salt. There is no voiceover or contextualisation (aside from some paragraphs at the end of the film), so as viewers we must rely on what we pick up from what the family say as they’re working and what we see happening. For the first half-hour or so it’s not even clear what exactly is going on, as they seem to be just mucking around in the dirt and mud. However, in a series of landscape tableaux interspersed with close-ups of weather-beaten faces and small domestic scenes, it all builds rather neatly and affectingly, with some breathtaking and beautiful images captured on film. The measured structure allows us to slowly get a sense of the sheer physical extent of these salt beds, and the exhausting work required to make and harvest such a seemingly plentiful and ubiquitous product.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Saturday 21 March 2015 || My Rating worth seeing
This is a very strange film, but watching it I am reminded of Compliance. In many ways The Voices is totally unlike that film — for a start, it’s pitched as a black comedy set in a small town with a hyper-stylised saturated colour aesthetic — but that’s the film I find myself thinking about (and not just because I confused Jacki Weaver and Ann Dowd playing similar authority roles in each). In both cases, I feel like the filmmakers are trying to make serious points about alienation and modern society, but in both my personal reaction has been closer to one of revulsion at a level of exploitation of delicate issues (however intentionally and meaningfully these might be deployed). Here, we have Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a workman in a bathroom factory, who hears voices and is seeing Dr Warren (Weaver) to deal with these issues. The voices manifest in the form of his (sweary Scottish) cat and (affectionate drawling) dog, and that domestic madness aspect of the film is indeed very funny. It’s just that the film starts to walk a very fine balancing line between psychological drama and stylised black comedy when it shows him killing off the secretarial staff at his factory (among whom number a feisty Gemma Arterton as Fiona, and a winsome Anna Kendrick as Lisa). I suppose different viewers will have their own take on this — there are quite a few fairly positive reviews out there — but my own is that it is a misjudgement, and that the film’s tone (its horror-comedy balance) goes seriously awry, especially with the first murder and subsequent dismembering of Fiona. The thing is, there’s a delightful, luridly coloured and light-hearted dance sequence in the end credits featuring all the film’s by-this-point dead characters (I shan’t say which ones here), and I just wish the rest of the film had been closer to the tone of that.
CREDITS || Director Marjane Satrapi | Writer Michael R. Perry | Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre | Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver | Length 104 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Thursday 19 March 2015 || My Rating very good
There’s something about this thriller that reminds me of the middle range of French films I used to see at film festivals back in the late-1990s, accomplished, well-crafted with a strong sense of style and excellent lead performances, but yet relatively restrained auteurist pretentions. Like Claude Chabrol’s films, then, perhaps, and his oeuvre has certainly come up in relation to this first film by filmmaker Jeanne Herry. The plot starts out with what is quite possibly my least favourite narrative trope — or at least what seems like it — the death of a woman to give emotional complexity to a male lead. I say it seems like this is the case because in fact this death leads pop star Vincent (Laurent Lafitte) into a series of increasingly foolish decisions, and it’s the character of his superfan Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain) which comes to take centre stage. The extreme situation is a vehicle by which to break down the relationship between fan and celebrity (the title, incidentally, translates as “she adores him”), as Vincent’s emotional stability becomes more and more tied to the actions of Muriel — the opposite of what had been the relationship up until then. It also seems to allow Muriel to rein in some of her own delusional fantasising and oddly to regain a healthier balance in her own life. This, though, would all be for nothing were it not for Kiberlain’s fantastic and inscrutable central performance, which slowly draws the viewer in and holds their attention, giving what might be a tedious psychological thriller an edge of blackly comic charm. Somehow, then, the film navigates its emotional terrain to become something almost rather delightful, after what seemed such an unpromising start.
CREDITS || Director Jeanne Herry | Writers Jeanne Herry and Gaëlle Macé | Cinematographer Axel Cosnefroy | Starring Sandrine Kiberlain, Laurent Lafitte | Length 105 minutes
The Duel at Ganryu Island is the final film in Inagaki’s trilogy about the famous 17th century samurai Musashi Miyamoto, and it follows on from the introduction of our hero as a young man in the first film and then his peripatetic years as a wandering ronin in the second. By this point he is widely renowned, and courted by powerful leaders, but elects instead to live in a humble fashion by a village. Again, there are reminders of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the way Musashi works to protect the village near which he lives from bandit attacks, but for the most part the film again focuses on his relationship with Otsu and Akemi, two women who’ve been in love with him for much of the trilogy’s running time. The visual palette is once again richly coloured, and Inagaki and his cinematographer (different on this film than the previous two) show a fondness for long shots with plenty of depth of focus. The big challenge for Musashi — and the conflict with which the film ends (at sunset once again, as with both previous films) — is his fight with the charismatic Sasaki Kojiro; both of them have been developing swordplay techniques which are put to the test here. The surprise for me has been quite how immersive and enjoyable this series has been, despite not being much aware of it beforehand. Inagaki has every bit the technical mastery of his more famous compatriots, and a sure sense of storytelling that still allows for plenty of character development. It’s a fine way to end an excellent run of films.
Criterion Extras: As a result of this project, I’ve been buying a lot of Criterion editions of the films, but it would surely be almost impossible (or would probably bankrupt me) to watch every film in its Criterion edition. However, where I have, I will add a note about the extras. I’ve mentioned already the beautiful colours of the film, and of course, as you’d expect, these have been rendered wonderfully by Criterion. As far as the extras go, all we have on the Samurai Trilogy are the original trailers, along with some short (c. 8-10 minute) video pieces in which an academic discusses the historical context for the real character of Musashi. These are all perfectly informative, if hardly up to Criterion’s usual standard.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday || Director Hiroshi Inagaki | Writers Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao (based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa and the play by Hideji Hōjō) | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamada | Starring Toshiro Mifune | Length 105 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 December 2014 || My Rating very good
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 16 March 2015 || My Rating likeable
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this scenario from the director of South African sci-fi film District 9, it’s just that as a finished film it feels a bit all over the place. The director returns to his homeland of South Africa for a story that examines dystopian class distinctions in a police state governed by a huge weapons corporation Tetravaal (whose CEO is played by Sigourney Weaver). If you think RoboCop (1987) you won’t go far wrong, especially as the film starts out with a fake news broadcast to set the scene, and has two competing robot-police projects — the “Scouts” (read: RoboCop) developed by earnest techie Deon (Dev Patel), and the “Moose” (read: ED-209) by gung-ho ex-military Vincent (Hugh Jackman, sporting quite the fiercest mullet and shorts combo ever seen on screen). After efficiently setting up the society and the company’s role, along with its warring developers, the film settles down to follow a group of gangsters (Yolandi and Ninja from the rap group Die Antwoord) who have stolen a Scout being worked on by Deon, the latter of whom has been working on developing a full AI including human emotions and learning. The gangsters proceed to name their stolen robot Chappie and inculcate him with their gangster lifestyle and values (the robot is voiced and ‘acted’ by Sharlto Copley). This would all be fine except that very little of the detail is believable: whether about the company itself (all its staff work in a small open-plan office, and security measures ridiculously lax) or about the interaction between the gangsters and robot. I found it very difficult to believe in the characters played by Die Antwoord or care about their story arc: Ninja is set up as a tyrannical and hateful father figure, but there’s a later twist in which we are required to care about his fate. The film skips back and forth between so many emotional registers that it can become exhausting, and it feels like its natural demographic should be young teenagers, though it’s probably too violent for them. Yet it shows a lot of promise in its filmmaking, in its excellent robot effects, and the big name actors were all a pleasure to watch. Enjoyable enough, but a missed opportunity all in all.
CREDITS || Director Neill Blomkamp | Writers Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (based on Blomkamp’s short film Tetra Vaal) | Cinematographer Trent Opaloch | Starring Sharlto Copley, Die Antwoord, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver | Length 120 minutes