Criterion Sunday 220: Naked Lunch (1991)

I worry that this is a film for those who like to vaunt the magisterial status of author William S. Burroughs, or who laud the cinematically outré and self-consciously cultish qualities of David Cronenberg as director — and I assume many of the same people will rep for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam and/or Thompson) in many of the same ways, or perhaps something out of the filmography of David Lynch. For this is a film about being a writer as well as a habitual user of narcotics, and is made with an attendant kind of insane dream logic that leads to hallucinatory bugs-as-typewriters who speak through anus-like holes and set up complex plots in alternate worlds (the Interzone) that touch as much on Burroughs’ own life (his well-known murder of his spouse for one) as on any kind of verifiable reality. Peter Weller is a capable straight man for this carnivalesque creepshow, which has some of the qualities of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (maybe I’m thinking of the prosthetics) and a typically Gilliam-esque crowded mise en scène, while of course the spirit of Kafka seems to hover over it all… and if any of these swaggering artistic men do not thrill you, then perhaps this is not the project for you.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg (based on the novel by William S. Burroughs) | Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky | Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 16 July 2018

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Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming (2016)

Watching this on a plane means I was probably more predisposed to tears than usual, but I did find the central character’s story to be rather affecting. It follows Rosie, a part-Chinese part-Iranian young woman, learning about her father and his life in Iran, and one can only assume that the director’s own mixed ancestry contributes to her feeling for the way Rosie is torn between two disparate cultures (or three indeed, given she lives in Canada). The animation is eye-catching and takes in multiple styles on various poetic digressions (formally integrated into the narrative, as Rosie is literally a poet). I also love diaspora/immigrant stories, though I did find the rendering of Rosie’s eyes distracting (in the sense of not feeling like I was getting the same range of emotions from them as from the animated non-Chinese characters). Still, it’s a lovely little work, which you might not get much of a chance to see if you don’t happen to fly via Canada.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ann Marie Fleming | Starring Sandra Oh | Length 89 minutes || Seen on a flight from London to Vancouver, Wednesday 5 April 2017

Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel) | Cinematographer David Johnson | Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016

Speed Sisters (2015)

There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)

Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.

The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.

The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.


Speed Sisters (2015)

ADVANCED SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Amber Fares | Cinematographer Lucy Martens | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016

Room (2015)

As with The Babadook a year or two ago, I’m again prompted to wonder how this film plays to parents and whether it doesn’t allegorise some of the fears and traumas involved in parenting. I open this way because of all the things the film touches on, it seems to me that the experience of being held captive by a rapist (which is, after all, sadly a real-life torn-from-the-headlines occurrence) is relatively low on the film’s list of interests, though it probably covers more of a realistic emotional arc than, say, the TV show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But I get that this is largely because the real-life cases are sensationalised media events, and Room is more interested in how that experience captures an (admittedly dark) side of both being a mother and, to a certain extent, being a woman within a society that empowers this kind of emotional (here literal) imprisonment.

So, yeah, it’s pretty bleak to watch — for all that it eventually opens out a bit — but most of what’s good about the film is in the script and in the acting, especially Brie Larson as the ‘Ma’ (her name is Joy, it turns out). It’s just that in the telling there’s an insistence to certain elements of the directorial style. It’s not merely that I dislike voiceovers (here, it’s the childlike wonder and naïveté of Jacob Tremblay’s Jack who does the duties), but in distancing itself from the kind of domestic horror that The Babadook or We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) did so well, it layers on rather too thickly a sweeping orchestral score and questing camera movements. The film ends up pushing emotional buttons as voraciously as González Iñárritu, which is to say I imagine it’s going to win quite a few awards, but for me that undermines what it’s trying to achieve in the script. Perhaps I just expected a bleaker and nastier film, but then if this is a film about the fears of parenthood — of inevitably having to let your children into an understanding of the worst of human experience — it’s a film about warmth and security too.


Room (2015)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Lenny Abrahamson | Writer Emma Donoghue (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Danny Cohen | Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 18 January 2016

The Forbidden Room (2015)

It might be possible to recount the plot of Guy Maddin’s latest work (made with co-director Evan Johnson, presumably as compiling all this material must have been an exhausting task), but it would probably not be advisable. It’s a series of nested narratives, little fragments of stories as if rescued from some ancient decaying store of early cinema nitrate footage, stitched together with perfunctory transitions, which loop into and out of an almost dream-like consciousness taking in mystery, thiller, adventure film, romance and more. It feels like a pastiche of silent film serials overlaid by noirish pulp fiction and a hefty dose of Canadian wintery surrealism, that will probably be more rewarding to those viewers who are somewhat au fait with early cinema or already know the film work of Guy Madin, and so have a fondness for his scratchy, grainy, alternately washed-out and hyper-coloured, stylised images. If it feels by the end a little long, it’s never short of inventiveness, and there’s a parade of guest actors, all introduced by a title card as they enter the narrative, without anyone really taking centre stage. Cinematic narcosis writ large.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson | Writers Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk and Guy Maddin | Cinematographers Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron and Benjamin Kasulke | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Arthouse Crouch End, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015

Brooklyn (2015)

This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.


© Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director John Crowley | Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín) | Cinematographer Yves Bélanger | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent | Length 112 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015

Criterion Sunday 21: Dead Ringers (1988)

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 Collection
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

Mommy (2014)

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.


© Les Films Séville

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Xavier Dolan | Cinematographer André Turpin | Starring Anne Dorval, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Suzanne Clément | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015

Enemy (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 10 January 2015


© E1 Films

I forget sometimes how weird and creepy Canadian films can be. There was a period in the 90s, on the back of Atom Egoyan’s festival successes, when a bunch of them made it to cinemas, but aside from David Cronenberg’s singular oeuvre, there have since then been only occasional examples that have made it through — most recently for me, 2012’s Upside Down. This film, too, is written by a Spaniard (based on a Portuguese novel), but thankfully it’s far better, while still retaining that brittle sense of cabin fever that so many Canadian films inspire, as if created in reaction to the blandly reassuring mainstream cinema from over the border (there’s a similar quality to New Zealand cinema, too, sometimes, which is where I grew up).

The central conceit, like last year’s The Double, concerns a person who meets their doppelgänger (both here played by a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal), but where that film (disappointingly for me) toyed with black comedy, Enemy is far more insidious. The film wastes no time in plunging us into a strange dreamlike world of alienation and dread dominated by an unsettling spider metaphor, so after those initial sequences have passed, there remains something a bit existentially bleak about our hero Adam’s life as a Toronto university lecturer delivering lectures about fascism and control to his students.

The introduction of his double Anthony, an actor, allows for a bit of back-and-forth between them, but aside from one dust-up, this is mainly a sort of psychic transference, as they begin to covet one another’s partner (Sarah Gadon and Mélanie Laurent, also superficially similar in appearance), while each starts to lose control and the two identities become less clearly differentiated. The film toys at a formal level with the doubling theme, repeating scenes, and looping back on itself a little, but always presents itself with a cold aloofness signalled by its yellowish colour filters and series of bleak, modern locations. The spider metaphor continues to reappear through the film, and results in an uncanny final scene, without which the film might have passed from my mind quicker, but its very opacity and inscrutability (as well as the suddenness with which it takes place and then ends) makes it something of an unexploded mine within one’s mind, and so the film sticks with me a week later, as I continue to ponder what it all means.


CREDITS || Director Denis Villeneuve | Writer Javier Gullón (based on the novel O Homem Duplicado by José Saramago) | Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc | Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent | Length 90 minutes