La Captive (The Captive, 2000)

The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust) | Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin | Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017

Kimi no na wa. (Your Name., 2016)

I feel like I’ve seen live action versions of this mystical, supernatural, body-swapping elegiac romance but animating it somehow makes the sentimentality more palatable. Also, let’s be fair, it makes it gorgeous to look at. There’s a lot going on here under its slightly twee premise — an attempt perhaps to grapple with a troubled 20th century — and the storytelling is quite dense (a lot of play on language means subtitles at the top and bottom of the screen at times), but it creates a wonderful atmosphere.

(PS Also, yes, the full stop is part of the film’s title.)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Makoto Shinkai (based on his novel) | Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 113: I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958)

Apologies for this remarkably brief review; I watched it in a state of half-sleep, though I found it likeable, I don’t really have much to contribute…

A jolly Italian farce modelled on Rififi and the like, in which a bunch of fairly incompetent criminals try to take on a job they’re not really equipped to do. There are some good comic turns, and it moves along at a clip.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mario Monicelli | Writers Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amore and Mario Monicelli | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 August 2016

O le tulafale (The Orator, 2011)

I was given a DVD of this years ago, but I haven’t watched it until now for whatever stupid reason. Anyway, I guess there aren’t really that many stories out there, because there are familiar contours to this one (a family split apart, further feuding after a death, a person who feels set apart from the others), but by grounding it in a culture that, I imagine, most of us are unfamiliar with, this film makes it all seem new and fresh. Set in Samoa, Saili (Fa’afiaula Sagote) is a man short in stature and husband to a woman who has been rejected by her tribe and family. He’s the son of a deceased chief, but, perhaps due to feeling shunned for his height, has never claimed the right to be chief — and therefore orator of the film’s title, because public speaking is one of the community’s chief virtues in this film (though arguments that aren’t solved this way involve rock-throwing instead). Nevertheless, the film builds a quiet power, with beautiful cinematography and just the right pitch to acting. It could easily tip over into the unbelievable or melodramatic, but by virtue of its very quiet focus, it never does.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Tusi Tamasese | Cinematographer Leon Narbey | Starring Fa’afiaula Sagote | Length 110 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017

New Year’s Resolution 2017

In 2015, I made a New Year’s resolution to watch all films directed by or written by women which were released in UK cinemas, which it turns out was just a little too much of a project to achieve (I came pretty close though!).

The following year, the American group Women In Film came up with a similar idea (I’m no kind of innovator; it’s hardly original) and got #52 Films By Women trending on various social media sites, and so I just sort of allowed 2015’s resolution to continue, albeit with a somewhat less strenuous target. That said, in the end I saw 189 feature films directed (or co-directed) by women in 2016, which ended up being 53 more films by women than I saw in 2015.

This year, I thought I’d be a little more targeted. I keep spreadsheets of my viewing (because of course I do), and I noted that 43% of my total feature films seen in 2016 were directed by women. At the same time, 26% of the total feature films I saw in 2016 were directed by people of colour (being the currently-accepted phrase in the US to designate non-white people), up by 10% on the previous year. For the first time, too, the total number of feature films I saw which were directed by white men dropped to under 50% of the total (45%) in 2016.

So my 2017 New Year’s Resolution is to focus on diversifying my film viewing — not just films made by marginalised communities within anglo-dominated countries, but films from parts of the world which aren’t Europe (I do love French films, it’s true). I want to try to up those percentages to 50% for films directed by women, and 50% for films directed by people of colour. Whether I’ll achieve this remains to be seen. It’ll probably be very difficult unless I watch a lot of films by women of colour, so of course the other side of my resolution is that I go to every film given a release in the UK which is directed by a non-white woman (though that’s admittedly not going to be a huge number).

I have also — and I more or less started doing this a few months ago — but, aside from Criterion Sunday, I’ve stopped posting reviews on this site of films directed by white men, because why should I bother? I still watch them, but they get plenty of awards and media coverage. #sorrynotsorry

Love Jones (1997)

I guess there are elements here that seem dated (no one having cellphones, spoken word clubs, some of the fashion) but they’re part of a rich texture that evokes an era and a place and a group of people — which is to say, Chicago in the late-1990s. Twenty years on and this film is excellent at giving a sense of this group of friends and acquaintances, and what it’s like to be around them. As the film progresses, so from out of the group emerge the two protagonists, Darius and Nina (played by Larenz Tate and Nia Long), who fall in love, sort of, then actually, then not so much. It creates a bewitching atmosphere, never needy and boisterous (like, say, the more overtly comedic The Best Man a couple years later), and never reliant on the ubiquitous 1990s tropes of black filmmaking (drugs, violence, ghettoes). As the star of both those films Nia Long should have been everywhere (maybe she was; her career is a blindspot for me and I need to remedy that), and this director should have defined romance in film for the following decade, but that didn’t happen and who knows why. This is great.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Theodore Witcher | Cinematographer Ernest Holzman | Starring Larenz Tate, Nia Long | Length 108 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 112: Play Time (aka PlayTime) (1967)

The films of Jacques Tati have never really been about the plot. Even his earliest efforts are more interested in the visual gag, how it’s set up and how it is executed, far more than in finding any kind of narrative-led justification for getting there. Play Time (or the camel-case PlayTime as Criterion prefers) is arguably Tati’s greatest achievement — it’s certainly my favourite of his films — and the refinement of his lifelong work on this pure gag-based visual technique. It’s essentially an absurdist avant garde film, almost entirely lacking in any kind of plot aside from having Tati’s familiar Hulot character bumbling around a gargantuan modernist set of his own devising. He encounters various people — bureaucrats, attendants, service workers and tourists — but it’s never clear what he’s trying to do or where he’s trying to go. Maybe I just missed something, but I’ve seen the film four times now and I’m no more the wiser. That said, I don’t really care. The visual world he creates is an advance on Mon oncle (1958), which contrasted the futuristic minimalist modernism of the nouveau riche upper-middle-classes with a decaying old world of Hulot. That latter world is entirely gone, aside from brief sightings of various familiar landmarks (like the Tour Eiffel and Sacre-Cœur) as reflections in the glass doors of Tati’s grim, grey concrete and steel office blocks. Hilariously, even tourist posters of other world cities just show these grey office blocks with their familiar tourist sights in the background.

A lot of the humour is of this variety and requires an active viewer scouring the many corners of the image to find them. Rarely is there a close-up to focus our attention, and many gags are played out across the space, sometimes with multiple different gags happening at the same time. One example might be when M. Giffard, a bureaucratic functionary, needs to give some data to a visiting American businessman, who calls his office from another in a series of hive-like cubicles viewed from above; Giffard then proceeds to leave his cubicle, open a filing cabinet on the outside of the office the American is calling from, and then returns to his own to relay the information back. All the while Hulot is standing in the extreme background waiting for Giffard to leave so he can speak to him (about what is never made clear). It’s this kind of long-shot staging that means the film is best seen on a 70mm print in the cinema, so for viewing at home, a big screen is almost required. Thankfully the Criterion edition presents the film in a pristine digital restoration that makes these kinds of setups clear, but no viewer will get everything going on in a single viewing, especially during a scene as hectic and extended as the bravura restaurant sequence that dominates much of the second hour.

Just recounting all the ways in which Play Time brilliantly uses its space to tell visual-led gags would take up far too long. Not all viewers will connect with this style, and I’ve certainly heard some say the film is boring or arid. It certainly makes little concession to the audience and requires an active, attentive viewing of the film — for example, there’s a 10 minute sequence inside an apartment which is viewed entirely from the street outside, and so we hear nothing of what is said by the characters. That said, it develops some of the most beautifully understated comic sequences in all of cinema, few of which even require the subtitles to be understood (there is some language-based humour emerging from the babble of voices, amongst which French, German and English dominate, but Hulot barely speaks at all), and all of it takes place on a set presenting a vision of modern times so self-contained and overwhelming that the experience can be a little deadening. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement all the same, and one that Tati would never again be given the same budget to achieve.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange | Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 12 September 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999 and August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 24 July 2016)

My Favourite Films of 2016

I like to start these posts with statistics. Extending my 2015 New Year’s Resolution with the #52 Films By Women pledge that a number of people were doing online (here’s a link to my Letterboxd list of all the films I saw under that pledge, which amounted to far more than the required 52), I saw ever more films in 2016 than I did in 2015.

In total, I saw 436 medium- or full-length films (I consider a medium-length film one that’s between 30-60 minutes in length, though there’s no fixed standard for that), 183 of which were in the cinema — which means that, although I saw many more films, fewer of them were at the cinema than in 2015. I have an account on Letterboxd, where I’ve ranked all 2016’s films (this will continue to be updated as I see more of them into 2017) and another of my favourite films released in the UK in 2016 (which is slightly different as many of them were 2015 films). The list below is sort of a combination of these two.

While I’m on the stats, 43% of the films I saw were directed (or co-directed) by women, where I saw 37% in 2015 and 13% in 2014, which is a pretty clear result of my resolutions mentioned above. I also increased the number of films directed by people of colour (this seems to be the accepted online term at the moment). This year 26% of the films I saw were by POC, as opposed to 16% in 2015, and 13% in 2013. It also means the number of films I saw directed by white men finally dropped beneath 50% (from 53% last year to 45% this year). It’s likely that this will be more of a focus for my resolutions going forward.

In terms of quality, 2015 may not have been a brilliant year compared to 2014, but I thought there were plenty of fine films in 2016. It’s just that, as ever, many of my favourites haven’t actually been released in the UK and I even held off seeing some films at the London Film Festival because I was assured they’d be back, so I’ve yet to see many critical favourites (La La Land, Aquarius, Personal Shopper; there are plenty of others). I’m not going to do a least favourite films list, though, because as with last year any such list would be dominated by women filmmakers, which hardly seems fair to all the terrible dreck made by men, whose work I would have avoided.

I also caught up with one or two films which would assuredly have made my favourite 2015 films list last year, if I’d only seen them in time (but which I can’t in all good faith include below). I have another Letterboxd list here of my favourite new-to-me films I saw in 2016. Therefore honourable mentions go to Magic Mike XXL and Taxi, both definite top 10 contenders.

25 Lovesong

Lovesong (2016)
A tender love story between two women, which has a coyness to it, but also a lot of genuine feeling [festival screening].

24 Queen of Earth (2015)

Queen of Earth (2015)
Corruscating Bergmanesque drama which sort of does the opposite to the film above, as it’s about two friends tearing each other apart.

23 Speed Sisters (2015)

Speed Sisters (2015)
Enjoyable documentary about a Palestinian team of racing car drivers, with some socio-political context.

22 Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water (2016)
As good a modern western as any in recent years, it has a great sense of space and wistfulness.

21 The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
Increasingly prophetic tale of a boy whose upbringing has gone awry, resulting in an origin story for a fascist dictator.

20 Réparer les vivants (Heal the Living)

Réparer les vivants (Heal the Living, 2016)
It never quite lives up to its brilliant pre-credits sequence, but it’s beautifully made and moving [festival screening].

19 Where You’re Meant to Be

Where You're Meant to Be (2016)
On the road with dour Scottish singer Aidan Moffat, but finds plenty of pathos in Scottish folk music.

18 Weiner

Weiner (2016)
Shouldn’t work, and subsequent revelations about its subject make sympathy ever more difficult, but this film attempts to do so; also very funny.

17 LoveTrue

LoveTrue (2016)
Tracking the lives of several people living in remote areas, finding and losing love, with a solid directorial style [festival screening].

16 La Permanence (On Call)

La Permanence (On Call, 2016)
A film about a hospital in Paris treating refugees, filled with empathy [festival screening].

15 American Honey

American Honey (2016)
Excessive in every sense, but somehow it all works.

14 The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Coming of age films can be bad, they can be very bad, but this one has genuine humour amongst a better-than-average engagement with teenage angst in a bourgie milieu.

13 Baden Baden

Baden Baden (2016)
A Belgian-French co-production which took me by surprise, for its deadpan humour and winning protagonist.

12 Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015)

Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015)
I underrated this a lot when I first saw it, being the director’s familiar blend of sweetness and low-key storytelling about family relationships, but it’s only grown in my estimation since.

11 Mustang (2015)

Mustang (2015)
Another coming-of-age story, which tries to get at something of what it means to be a teenager and find oneself, via the device of setting it within an orthodox, repressive family.

10 Nie yin niang (The Assassin, 2015)

Nie yin niang (The Assassin, 2015)
Glorious and beautiful and confusing, I know only that I need to see this again on the big screen.

9 Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship (2016)
One of the year’s funniest films, a comedy of etiquette and misbehaviour.

8 L’Avenir (Things to Come)

L'Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)
It’s very difficult to encapsulate what I love about this sensitive film, but Huppert helps.

7 Paterson

Paterson (2016)
The way that Jarmusch goes big is at a conceptual level — Adam Driver plays a bus driver called Paterson in a town called Paterson in a film called Paterson — but it’s consistently sweet and amusing.

6 Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea)

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea, 2016)
Another documentary dealing with refugees, and again filled with empathy, always needed, especially now.

5 Creed (2015)

Creed (2015)
Critics in the US had this on their lists last year, but it only got a UK release earlier in 2016, and it is fantastic. I never expected to like a Rocky movie so much, or a boxing film, but there you go.

4 Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)
Not properly released here until 2017, but this is an exciting, beautiful, tonally-perfect story of black coming-of-age that subtly gets at a lot of the undertow of American society [one-off screening]

3 Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016)
I know a lot of people that hated this film, but I did not; I laughed at it (never always out loud, but I was consistently amused), and I’d never have predicted five years ago I’d put the Coen Brothers so consistently in my top-10 lists.

2 Lemonade

Lemonade (2016)
Barely over an hour, and yes it’s not had any cinematic screenings (it deserves them), this is more than simply a collection of music videos (Beyoncé did that for her last few albums), but more of an avant-garde mood piece that examines American society, race relations, love in extremis, self-identity, and Black visual history [online release].

1 Certain Women

Certain Women (2016)
Easily tops this list. Loved it [festival screening].

Criterion Sunday 111: Mon oncle (aka My Uncle, 1958)

Jacques Tati, having gained access to a more significant budget, paves the way towards his later masterpiece Play Time (1967) with this film, in which he constructs a large minimalist modern house almost all powered by electricity to contrast with the shabby, crumbling old world harking back to Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). The central character of that earlier film, played as ever by Tati, returns here as brother to Madame Arpel, the aspirational wife of a besuited businessman, seen in these fancy new digs. Hulot’s role is mainly to bumble about looking confused, and indeed many of the characters seem waylaid by all the confusing trappings of modernity. There is little enough plot, but elaborating on the theme of social class mobility and the depersonalising effects of the modern world, there are some wonderful running gags — not least that of Mme Arpel’s decorative fish-shaped fountain, which she turns on every time there’s a buzz at the door, and then turns off depending on the social class of the visitor. For me, it feels like notes towards Play Time, but it’s still an excellent film in its own right, and will no doubt also repay further repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Jean L’Hôte | Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 110: Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday aka Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953)

The Mr Hulot character is probably director-writer Jacques Tati’s most enduring comic creation. He’s a bumbling, almost speechless chap bent over a cane, with a distinctive floppy hat and long pipe, who wanders around getting involved in comedy situations, though just as often merely witness to the these (certainly by the time of later films like Mon oncle and Play Time, he’s more audience than actor). With a plot that sees Hulot off on his holidays in a rickety old car to the beach, we get to see him striding around the guest house, eating in the restaurant, taking sun on the beach — all very reminiscent of, and undoubtedly mined by, later British comedies like Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. There’s an implicit contrast between Hulot’s backward ways and the big modern cars, private cabins, and antisocial behaviour of the aspirational holidaymakers. It all moves along in a very likeable way, with nice careful use of sound effects, creating a very quiet, almost contemplative, atmosphere in which the comedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet | Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2001)