The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.
Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, Sunday 1 March 2015)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographer Raoul Coutard | Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina | Length 99 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Saturday 16 May 2015 (and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 19 May 2015)
The first Pitch Perfect was not only a surprise hit, it was also quite an act for a sequel to match. This sequel is from the same writer, but it seems the brief has been to faithfully recreate the exact structure of this first film. So we get an embarrassing audition (for new girl Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld), a ‘riff-off’ scene, a romantic sub-plot (Amy and Bumper, but also, more boringly, Emily and Benjy), and a big show at the end (the Worlds) with a final song formed from snippets built up throughout the film. This means there’s still a lot of the same delights, but it just seems that little bit more tired. The first film’s stand-out performers are given more time (Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine as Fat Amy and Bumper, in particular), with Skylar Astin’s Jesse barely even registering. And while there are still plenty of laughs, particularly when building on established characters, the writing for the newbies can sometimes be lazy (Chrissie Fit as the embattled Guatemalan immigrant caricature Flo springs to mind), while director Elizabeth Banks and her comic foil John Michael Higgins as the announcers/a cappella bigwigs shade over rather worryingly from comedy sexism (which can at least be rebutted by Banks’s eye-rolling) into full-blown comedy racism towards the end (and as both are white, there’s no rejoinder to this unexpected nastiness). However, I enjoyed the rivalry with German a cappella villains Das Sound Machine, and Beca’s strange chemistry with their leader Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), and the largely unfamiliar songs grew on me with a second viewing. It’s not the classic of the first film, and probably not one I will be re-visiting quite as often, but it still certainly has its pleasures.
CREDITS || Director Elizabeth Banks | Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin) | Cinematographer Jim Denault | Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam DeVine | Length 115 minutes
I’ve been feeling uncomfortable about star ratings for some time now, so I thought I’d try out something a bit simpler, because the nuance should be in the text, not the rating. (Though I’ve retained the stars, in the categories, for old times’ sake.)
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Sunday 10 May 2015
You just have to look at the poster to get the sense that this will be (yet another) feel-good story of poor African people redeemed by magical white Western saviours, but — and I think most reviewers have pointed this out — that would be largely inaccurate. Even when Reese Witherspoon’s employment agency counsellor does appear, once our refugee heroes have made it to the United States, it’s made clear that she’s largely clueless about the refugees’ situation and constrained by many other factors from being of more help to them (though she does what she can). No, this ends up being a story primarily of three Sudanese men and one woman, in two acts: first, as they struggle as children to flee bloody warfare in the late-1980s, eventually reaching a Kenyan refugee camp; and then over a decade later when they are relocated to the United States (a programme which largely ceased in September 2001). It makes plain the struggles that they and their compatriots faced in this period — one which was never exactly top of the Western news agenda (where one African conflict somewhat shaded into all the others) — and imbues a great sense of empathy and humanity to these four embattled young people. Once the film moves Stateside (where we stay with the three guys in Kansas City, Missouri, while their sister is sent away to Boston), there’s a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and though one senses that the struggle narrative of the first half could easily be picked up and folded into tensions around immigrants and race, the film thankfully opts instead to embrace a hope for positive change. So The Good Lie may not be perfect, but it’s also warm-hearted and generous to its protagonists, and ultimately a fascinating story well told.
CREDITS || Director Philippe Falardeau | Writer Margaret Nagle | Cinematographer Ronald Plante | Starring Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon | Length 110 minutes
After so many period samurai-related collaborations between Kurosawa and his lead actor Toshiro Mifune, it’s somewhat jarring to see a story from these two which is set in the modern world, although the police thriller was another genre with which Kurosawa had plenty of familiarity, and this is far from shabby as a film. Shoe company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) starts out the film in his apartment, high above Yokohama, apparently battling with his board to take over his company, before the film adeptly and speedily veers away from what promises to be a business drama into something a bit darker, as a kidnapper calls him demanding a ransom for his child — except that it turns out the kidnapper has taken Gondo’s chauffeur’s child. The high and low, then (or “heaven and hell” in the literal translation), turns out to be a story of the class differences in a rapidly developing capitalist society — the high being Gondo’s splendid isolation in full view of the rest of the city, contrasted with the low of the kidnapper’s squalid dwellings amongst the sailors and the drug addicts in a close-packed streets and alleys of the city. But it’s also the difference between Gondo’s executive and his chauffeur, and between where Gondo starts off and where he ends up; it’s a productive dichotomy, certainly. The film is all crisply shot in monochrome widescreen, and structured in distinct acts — the first is a long sequence of elaborately long-take shots in Gondo’s apartment, before moving first to the cramped confines of a bullet train, and then to the police investigation around Yokohoma (led by Tatsuya Nakadai’s detective), in search of the kidnapper. The depiction of some of the city’s squalor doesn’t always convince (its drug den seems torn from the pages of a particularly sensationalist tabloid), but it does capture a good sense of the cosmopolitan spirit of this seaport town, and the story never lets up on the tension of the hunt.
Criterion Extras: There are some great bonus features here, including a 30-minute TV interview from the 80s with Toshiro Mifune as he looks back on his career, which touches only briefly on his years with Kurosawa but which remains fascinating, as he chain smokes his way through a series of exchanges with a cheerful Japanese lady host. The documentary It Is Wonderful to Create, from just before Kurosawa’s death, is more informative, featuring a number of interviews with key personnel, and which gets into details about how a lot of the film was shot and how certain scenes were put together, both technically and creatively. There’s also a commentary by an academic which is pretty informative, too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Sunday 15 February 2015
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni (based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain) | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai | Length 143 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Sunday 10 May 2015
I may go to see a lot of films, but the Indian film industry (Bollywood, if you will, at least when describing Hindi-language film production) is still largely a mystery to me. The popular notion is that it’s all glitzy overblown melodrama punctuated by dance numbers, but if anything Piku proves there’s still plenty of room for refreshingly grounded character-based drama. But Piku is a success no matter what country’s film output you’re used to watching, as it manages to find a light comedic tone even while dealing with some pretty big themes in an understated way. Key to that is the film’s central relationship, which isn’t a love story; in fact, the film should be commended for introducing a female central character (the Piku of the title) who lives independently, has a fulfilling and successful career and, even up to the very end, does not define her life (as some of those around her do) by whether or not she has a man. No, instead the film is largely a two-hander between the testy and stand-offish Piku — the resourceful and beguiling Deepika Padukone (who in the course of this one film has quickly staked her claim on my affections at least) — and her irascible father Bhaskor, the latter of whom is played by an icon of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, who turns out to have pretty deft comic timing. The film’s subtitle or maybe tag-line is “motion se hi emotion” which (as far as I can gather from, er, Google translate) means “motion leads to emotion”, where the ‘motion’ in question is at one level a reference to the film’s last third being a road trip, but more specifically refers to bowel motion, and indeed Bhaskor’s constipation is the film’s ongoing running gag — which to be fair does provide some intermittent amusement. If this were all the film had to offer, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it, especially as, for all the wit and vigour of Juhi Chaturvedi’s dialogue, the editing can get rather frenetic at times and the film doesn’t always entirely succeed in tying together a disparate range of genres. However, ultimately, the toilet humour is more a way to channel issues around ageing and death, as Bhaskor deals with his mortality and his relationship to his wider family, including his daughter. In the end, it’s touching, and while there is a romantic subplot of sorts (with Irrfan Khan’s entrepreneurial taxi company owner), the focus is firmly on the father-daughter relationship.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Sunday 10 May 2015
I’m a sucker for a good film set in London, and as someone who’s lived in Brixton earlier in my life, I found this story (which is set there) fascinating. That said, I don’t think its appeal is just to locals. Its themes are familiar: it’s a fish out of water story (our heroine Layla, played by the wonderful Jessica Sula) has just arrived in London from Trinidad; it’s a coming of age (she’s 15 and falling in love); and it deals with disaffected gangs of urban youth. Yet the film is careful not to just play on some sense of a threatening racialised Other — this is a community, and if Layla’s mother is wary and stand-offish, there’s a sense of bonding amongst the teenagers. And while their environment may be one of post-war council estates, these aren’t shown as dangerous concreted wastelands, but simply as the homes they were built to be. The film follows Layla, and the central drama is between her and two boys: the no-good yet effortlessly cool rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount), and her friendly classmate Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza). The antagonism between the boys, as well as Troy’s behaviour when he’s around his male friends and their casual sexism, is conveyed very well, and while Layla is in many ways strong-willed, she finds it difficult all the same to avoid the trap of a bad relationship, which is the tragedy the film moves towards. Stylistically, the film leans heavily on an elegiac aesthetic, with plentiful use of orchestral music to replace diegetic sound, not to mention slow-motion filming, which perhaps takes away some of the visceral sting from the characters’ actions at times, but gives the film a polished sheen. This is definitely a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on. Rebecca Johnson is in excellent control of her young actors and the way that the drama unfolds on screen, and Honeytrap suggests the possibilities still inherent in local stories.
It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).
All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).
I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.
Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, Sunday 8 February 2015)
Director Paul Verhoeven | Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner | Cinematographer Jost Vacano | Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer | Length 102 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Friday 1 May 2015
I mainly wanted to post a quick review here for my New Year’s resolution (it has a female screenwriter), which is the reason I made it along to an 11pm screening of this film (one of only two in London upon its ‘release’ — I guess the distributors are focusing on the home and VOD market). Those who are more knowledgeable about the horror film form may find more to like here than I did, and there’s a hint at some metatextual thought about acting and narratives: the central character is a down-on-his-luck actor, and scenes play on this self-referentiality. For myself, I found it a struggle to stay engaged, and though the effects have a pleasing visual grittiness, they are so manipulated as to suggest more of a comic book, dissipating any sense of terror (again, this is speaking for myself). Still, there is a really tactile sense of decay in the central setting of a crumbling housing estate, and an occasional voiceover monologue suggesting a more deranged Wong Kar-wai film.
CREDITS || Director Juno Mak | Writers Philip Yung and Jill Leung | Cinematographer Man-ching Ng [as “Ng Kai-Ming”] | Starring Chin Siu-ho | Length 101 minutes
FILM REVIEW Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015
The source for this film was a collection of short stories by the Australian writer Tim Winton, so the producers took the decision to make it a collection of short films, each directed and written by someone within the Australian arts world. Therefore you wouldn’t really expect it to hang together so well, but somehow — perhaps thanks to the strength of the underlying short stories — there’s definitely a thread that connects them all, not just thematic but in tone, too. There’s a sort of understated elegiacal atmosphere, of pregnant pauses and long lingering shots of the sky: this is a film very much invested in a vision of its part of the world, with laconic and weary characters. Each shares a story that deals with some kind of turning point in their lives, quite often young lives, but not exclusively. And despite the number of different works, there’s nothing that really stands out as particularly weak or out of place, given that sense of unity I mentioned earlier, though there’s one brief animation that opens the film (“Ash Wednesday”), a contemporary dance piece towards the end (“Immunity”) and another short film takes the form of almost documentary-like testimonies rather than acted scenes per se (“Boner McPharlin’s Moll”). It adds up to a strange, compelling view of Western Australia, though one that runs rather long.
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA, dir. Joss Whedon) [Sat 25 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Look at how crowded that poster is and you’ll get some sense of the film, assuming you haven’t already seen it. I enjoyed it perfectly fine, but I get the sense that whereas for the average punter, it’s a long film, for fans of yr Marvel Cinematic Universe and those who are heavily invested in these characters, it’s probably not long enough. They even add new characters (one of whose superpowers I’m still not clear about, but perhaps it’s the power to do whatever’s required by the narrative at any given point). The crowdedness of the ensemble cast is evident in the number of scenes where everyone’s just standing around, stepping forward periodically to deliver their line and then stepping back. Whedon does the best he can and adds those nice little self-aware lines which define his work (like Linda Cardellini’s “I’ll always support your avenging…”, not the mention the snarky asides) but it’s still a big pummelling superhero film that has a protracted denouement, a nonsense evil villain plan (though James Spader is always dependable in such a role) and lots and lots of CGI effects (which are at times so indifferently executed I thought I was actually watching a video game, as in the opening sequence). YMMV.
The Book of Life (2014, USA, dir. Jorge R. Gutiérrez) [Mon 6 Apr on a plane]. A film I missed when it came out was available on my trip over to the States, so I availed myself of the opportunity, and even given the small size of the screen, it still impressed by its artful and gorgeously-coloured use of Mexican motifs in its story of rival suitors for a lady’s affections. It nods towards female empowerment, even if it has an old-fashioned adventure feel, but ultimately it’s the richly textured design that saves it.
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France, dir. Roy Andersson) [Thu 30 Apr at Curzon Soho]. Its pace is slow and deliberate, constructed in a series of tableaux-like images which frequently fade to black before the next image commences, and in many ways it takes its cue from that first scene, in which a tourist couple examine birds in glass cases, one of which is the titular (stuffed) pigeon. The humans throughout the film are themselves as waxy and pallid as dead creatures placed on display, and the sets are deliberately minimal in a depressingly beige way. But while Roy Andersson’s film is nominally a (black, deadpan) comedy, it’s really a cautionary moral tale of the bleak dangers inherent in capitalism, as our two Beckettian like heroes wander through a glum dyspeptic world retailing their ‘comedy’ joke items to little interest. There are restrained outbreaks of weirdness — jaunty songs, alternate realities, dreams — which suggest something deeper is going on, and indeed I think this one will work in most people’s minds afterwards, even if it sometimes seems a little inert while it’s going on.
Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA, dir. Robert Schwentke) [Sun 29 Mar at Cineworld West India Quay]. Having enjoyed star Shailene Woodley’s work elsewhere, I decided to watch the first film in the Divergent series in anticipation of this new one (and reviewed it in my March roundup). Usually the way these kinds of series go is that they drop off in quality with each successive instalment, but the first set up such a ridiculous and unbelievable world (dividing everyone into mutually-exclusive castes based on ability) that the bar wasn’t too high, and indeed has been cleared by Insurgent. I’m not saying the second film is a triumph — the world is still constructed along weirdly rigid lines, and the test that evil leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) sets for Woodley’s Tris is a bit confusing — but it opens up its world in interesting ways and sets up a next episode that I’m actually looking forward to.
Notting Hill (1999, UK, dir. Roger Michell) [Sun 19 Apr on a plane]. I’m probably not supposed to like this, but what can you do. Every time it comes on — and I only tend to watch it when it’s there right in front of me — I end up watching the whole thing, and this has happened more than once, so it’s not just some kind of momentary weakness. I’ve not been sold on all screenwriter Richard Curtis’s films, though I’ve liked more than I’ve disliked, but Notting Hill just seems to work despite all its inherent naffness. Julia Roberts plays a big-time Hollywood star, Hugh Grant is a diffident English bookshop owner, they meet cute, one things leads to another, there are some funny setpieces, and well, it passes the time very pleasantly.
Pitch Perfect (2012, USA, dir. Jason Moore) [Fri 24 Apr at a friend’s flat]. I’ve reviewed it before, and it’ll probably show up on this list many times more in the future, because I do love Pitch Perfect. It’s not just Anna Kendrick, whom I’ve recently had cause to hymn once again for The Last Five Years, but the ensemble cast and the time-honoured building-to-a-big-showdown narrative construction, not to mention the hummable music.
Premium Rush (2012, USA, dir. David Koepp) [Sat 4 Apr at home]. At a certain level this is a fairly slight premise — Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s bicycle courier must deliver a package across Manhattan by a deadline, hotly pursued by Michael Shannon’s corrupt cop — but this is essentially an action film, and you don’t want to complicate the purity too much. That said, the filmmakers weave in a story of immigration and bureaucratic corruption without overwhelming the central chase motif, which is handled with a great deal of vigour and momentum. It also (as far as I can tell) charts a realistic depiction of New York geography as Gordon-Levitt frantically switches up routes to his destination.
Wild Card (2015, USA, dir. Simon West) [Tue 31 Mar at Cineworld Wood Green]. The great Jason Statham returns in another action romp which as per some other recent outings, shows just a hint of actorly character development around the edges, as he essays the role of Nick Wild, Las Vegas security specialist. Most of the big name cast members (and there are a few: Jason Alexander, Stanley Tucci, Sofia Vergara, Hope Davis, Anne Heche) are there for single scenes only, leaving the main showdown to be between Statham and Milo Ventimiglia as a narcissistic, abusive gangster. If you’ve seen a Statham actioner before, you’ll probably recognise the broad contours, but in the tightness of the filming and the polish of the script this one is probably his best since Safe.