FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 April 2015 || My Rating good
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.
CREDITS || 1. Ash Wednesday (director/writer Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (director/writer/cinematographer Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (director/writer Jub Clerc, cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (director Robert Connolly, writer Justin Monjo, cinematographer Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (director Anthony Lucas, writer Kris Mrksa, cinematographer Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (director/writer Rhys Graham, cinematographer Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (director/writer Ashlee Page, cinematographer Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (director Tony Ayres, writer Marcel Dorney, cinematographer Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (director/writer Claire McCarthy, cinematographer Denson Baker); 10. Sand (director Stephen Page, writer Justin Monjo, cinematographer Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (director Shaun Gladwell, writer Emily Ballou, cinematographer Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (director/writer Mia Wasikowska, cinematographer Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (director Simon Stone, writer Andrew Upton, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (director/writer David Wenham, cinematographer Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (director/writer Jonathan auf der Heide, cinematographer Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (director/writer Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (director Yaron Lifschitz, writer Circa Contemporary Circus, cinematographer Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (director/writer Ian Meadows, cinematographer John Brawley) | Writers as above (based on the short story collection by Tim Winton) | Length 172 minutes
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 29 April 2015 || My Rating good
I could glibly try and claim this is the best drama about gardening released this year, but that wouldn’t really be much help would it? Certainly the subject matter is niche — aside from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), I can’t think of any films primarily dealing with the creation of a garden (in this case, the Bosquet des Rocailles, or Salle de Bal, at the Palace of Versailles). Of course, it’s really about plenty of other things, like the tentative love affair between Kate Winslet’s Sabine du Barra and Matthias Schoenaert’s André Le Nôtre (the chief designer of the gardens at Versailles, a real historical figure), or the fluid movement of relationships and the shadings of class within the French court of the 17th century. I’m not sure how much of this detail is true to the period — Sabine is a fictional character, and Winslet seems all too English, though the garden Sabine is working on is real — but it allows for some lovely little vignettes, as when Sabine interacts with the King (Alan Rickman) incognito as if he were a fellow gardener. There’s a smaller role for Stanley Tucci as a prominent nobleman within the French court, another excellent reminder of his talent for stealing scenes, while Helen McCrory rounds out the ensemble as Le Nôtre’s jealous and unfaithful wife. As director, Rickman certainly manages to round up a good cast (as you’d expect), so even if the film sometimes seems slight, it’s never anything less than enjoyable to watch.
CREDITS || Director Alan Rickman | Writer Allison Deegan | Cinematographer Ellen Kuras | Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory | Length 117 minutes
David Lean has always been an exemplar of a certain cinema-of-quality within the English-speaking firmament (big overstuffed period pieces, later taken up by Merchant & Ivory), so I didn’t expect much from this tourist’s point-of-view story of romance in Venice. It is indeed filled with picture postcard views as might befit the American tourist on holiday — albeit ones shot with an exemplary eye by cinematographer Jack Hildyard, packed with saturated colours and beautiful light — but there’s a surprising depth of pathos to the characters. Katharine Hepburn’s Ohio-born school secretary Jane, overseas for the first time, is shot through with an indefinable sadness, expressed through her buttoned-up (if nevertheless fashionable) dress sense and cheerful embrace of the pleasures of a solitary drink. Her repression is never explained precisely, but it’s suggested during her halting romance with Venice native Renato (Rossano Brazzi) that this is her first time in love. It’s a bittersweet story which doesn’t condescend to its two lead characters, though there’s plenty of caricature to be found amongst the supporting roles. Chiefly though, it’s Hepburn’s subtle performance and the Venice scenery which do much of the work here.
Criterion Extras: More than most releases, this one really is bare bones, having only a trailer on it. The focus of course is in the film transfer, which is excellent.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday || Director David Lean | Writers H. E. Bates and David Lean (based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents) | Cinematographer Jack Hildyard | Starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 February 2015 || My Rating good
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Empire Leicester Square, London, Monday 27 April 2015 || My Rating excellent
There’s no accounting for taste I suppose, so maybe you’ll want to set aside this whole review, but I just can’t fathom why there’s been such a lukewarm response to this film (or so it seems to me). I’ll state this upfront, just to be clear, but I think The Last Five Years is fantastic. I mean, I generally love Anna Kendrick, but here she’s playing to her strengths, which is being adorable in a musical setting. The film takes a little time to warm up, as it begins with Kendrick’s character Cathy in tears in a bleak, colourless New York townhouse, and this kind of emotional timbre is not Kendrick’s forte (or maybe I just don’t like to see her being sad). However, following this we start to discern the film’s narrative strategy, as it skips back five years to the start of the relationship between her and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) that defines the film’s structure, in a brightly-coloured romantic musical comedy number “Shiksa Goddess” (for Jamie is Jewish, and Cathy is not) sung from his point of view. The film then goes on to interleave these two stories in a ‘he-said she-said’ sort of way, as each reimagines the highlights but in a different temporal direction. In truth, there are no profound depths here, but putting on a musical about a failed relationship seems somehow a little transgressive in itself. Kendrick’s Cathy is the emotional linchpin, though, as Jamie, for all his initial likeability, is swiftly revealed to be egotistical and vain, and the imbalance in their respective successes — he as a novelist, she as a musical theatre actor — is both comedically skewered and also one of the causes of their relationship breakdown. Cathy has a particularly memorable musical audition scene (“When You Come Home to Me”) in which she sings her frustrations with the process while also delivering a delightful catty aside about Russell Crowe’s musical theatre talents, as well as a number sung from a small-time repertory company in Ohio, a job she takes to make ends meet. In its focus on quotidian setbacks and bittersweet emotions, it plays a little like an updated US version of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (one of my all-time top-five favourites), so how much you like it will probably depend on your tolerance for this kind of thing, but if you have any time for musicals at all, definitely check it out.
CREDITS || Director/Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the musical by Jason Robert Brown) | Cinematographer Steven Meizler | Starring Anna Kendrick, Jeremy Jordan | Length 94 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 27 April 2015 || My Rating good
There are certainly plenty of documentaries dealing with World War II, the Nazis, the Holocaust and its legacy, so it’s sometimes unclear what new perspective can be added. The Decent One focuses on Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and one of the most senior Nazi figures, the one probably most responsible for the Holocaust, so the title at one level is of course bitterly ironic. And yet the film takes its material from his personal letters and archives found at his home, which indicate he was (at times) a loving and respectful father, even if not the most constant husband. Actors read from these documents in chronological order, with title cards giving some context, while on the image track we see archival footage which illustrates the ideas being discussed, or hint at significant events that were happening at the same time. It’s a straightforward and restrained means to present an insight into what inevitably draws one’s mind to Hannah Arendt’s quote about “the banality of evil”, as tender letters to his wife cede over time to discussions of his role within the Party, or quotidian bitterness towards Jewish members of the community. A sense of the growing unease within the country during the 1930s comes as Himmler responds testily to requests from his father to look into summary arrests of friends and local community members around their home in Gmund. The chief manipulation that the filmmakers seem to have made here is to add sound effects to the documentary footage, which I’m sure opens up all kinds of professional arguments, but does at least make the footage a little more immediate (even if at times it seems in bad taste, as when we see grainy footage of mass executions). It’s never really possible (maybe it’s just not possible at all) to get a sense of the magnitude of what Himmler and the Nazis did, but The Decent One does give a small sense of how apparently easy it was for ideological motivations within everyday life to become dangerously twisted.
CREDITS || Director Vanessa Lapa | Writers Vanessa Lapa and Ori Weisbrod | Cinematographer Jeremy Portnoi | Length 94 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 23 April 2015 || My Rating very good
Like the Venezuelan film Pelo malo released here earlier this year, the Colombian film Gente de bien (“decent people”) uses a child protagonist to focus on issues around class and upbringing. And while it is specifically set in Bogotá, with a great sense of place, it still tells a very identifiable story. Indeed, much of the way that young Eric (Brayan Santamariá) acts could have been taken from my own childhood — even if I didn’t have much of a father figure, or have to deal with the poverty that he does. At the film’s start Eric is passed from his mother into the care of his deadbeat dad (Carlos Fernando Perez), who is loving and does his best to provide a decent living environment, but struggles to make ends meet with his furniture repair job. Aside from the anxieties Eric feels about fitting in with the other (more spoiled) kids, most of the film’s emotional core is in fact focused on the dad and the way that he reacts to the world. He has to take jobs with richer people, and when one of them offers to look after his son for a while, you can sense the way his feelings develop. There’s no strained melodrama to it, and that’s a good thing, for it means that it rings true as a story. As the title suggests, it’s a film about people who are fundamentally decent, trying to do the best they can.
CREDITS || Director Franco Lolli | Writers Franco Lolli, Catherine Paillé and Virginie Legeay | Cinematographer Óscar Durán | Starring Brayan Santamarià, Carlos Fernando Perez | Length 86 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015 || My Rating good
I don’t imagine much of Portuguese cinema is strange, oblique and dark, but if you’re judging on the basis of what gets released over here, particularly the efforts of Pedro Costa, then you may come to that conclusion. This film fits into that terrain, and is directed by Vítor Gonçalves, on whose first (and only previous) film Costa was an assistant almost 30 years ago. Well, I’ve not seen that film (nor even heard of it), so the narrative of ‘cult filmmaker returns after long gap’ didn’t make much impression on me, but The Invisible Life is certainly not a film that makes anything in the way of compromise with the audience. It is largely the interiorised struggle of one man with his own vanishing aspirations, as he witnesses the lingering death of a colleague (who might as well be himself in 30 years’ time). I can’t say I followed every twist, especially not as I nodded off a few times early in the film (busy week at work is my excuse, even if the dully bureaucratic surrounds of our protagonist here make all other offices seem lively in contrast), but it impressed me with its single-mindedness.
CREDITS || Director Vítor Gonçalves | Writers Vítor Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista amd Jorge Braz Santos | Cinematographer Leonardo Simões | Starring Filipe Duarte | Length 99 minutes
David Cronenberg’s films can be difficult to classify, and this certainly applies to Dead Ringers, involving as it does elements of horror and psychological thriller, as well as being a character study of a pair of twin gynaecologists, the Mantle brothers. In this role, Jeremy Irons is superb, managing to convey a distinct personality for each, meaning it’s (almost) never unclear which one is which, despite their largely similar look. The set design maintains a sort of creepy anonymity, as the film takes place in a series of almost indistinguishable blue and beige rooms, with the only really bold colour being the crimson red capes that the brothers wear in the operating theatre, recalling the garb of a 15th century cardinal (or perhaps even a plague doctor). The film manages a masterfully controlled slow build of tension and creepiness, as a famous actor (played by Geneviève Bujold) is pulled into their increasingly fraught orbit. There’s some dense ideas about individuality in there, but they never get in the way of the story. A film worth revisiting.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Sunday || Director David Cronenberg | Writers David Cronenberg and Norman Snider (based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Greasland) | Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky | Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 January 2015 || My Rating excellent
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 22 April 2015 || My Rating good
I’m not a horsey person, nor do I tend to ever watch horse racing, but when I was younger we did occasionally watch the Grand National, as it was always the one race on which my granny would have a flutter. She had also taken me a few times to horse racing meets, which always seemed to me a strange mix of impossibly posh with the shabby plebeian, and were usually good fun, even if I didn’t have half a clue about what I was supposed to see in the horses as they paraded by. However, despite all that, there’s plenty even for me to enjoy in this story of an unlikely alliance of villagers in Wales who stumped up some cash and helped to breed and train a horse, Dream Alliance, which made it as far as that most august of British sporting fixtures. The ups and downs of Dream’s career are part of the story, which was unknown to me, so I shan’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say this film has plenty of zip, with heavy use of musical score to hold together the talking heads and archival footage, keeping things moving along at a fair trot. The filmmakers are attentive to the disparity in class between the villagers and most other horse owners and trainers, and hints that maybe the rich owners have less love for the animals themselves as for the sport. However, the bulk of the film is buoyed by the engaging charm of the villagers in telling their unlikely and emotional story.
CREDITS || Director Louise Osmond | Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun | Length 86 minutes