At the lighter end of any festival’s line-up (not least Sheffield Doc/Fest’s) are the films about films. 2018 saw Shirkers, though that investigation of a lost bit of cinema history blended personal essay with criticism and went rather dark in the process. A different approach is taken by this film premiered last year, that provides a bit of cinematic film criticism, entirely made out of clips from the genre suggested by the film’s title.
This personal essay film/reflection on the titular genre borrows a lot of its approach from Beyond Clueless (2014, directed by Charlie Shackleton né Lyne), from the clip-based structure, to the poster design right down to the musical collaborators (plus Mr Shackleton shows up as one of the commentators, which is one way that it differs from that film at least, which relied instead on a single narrator). It may not offer any insights that aren’t obvious enough to anyone who watches the films (that they glorify a lot of extremely creepy male behaviour, and pander to the patriarchy) but of course it’s nice to hear it all expressed in one place. It even, thankfully, moves into what is compelling about romcoms, why they continue to be made and gain a lot of success, though I did appreciate the way it used the genre’s format to pull in some other titles that aren’t usually considered as romcoms. Some of the use of the commentators’ voices was to speak to experiences outside that of our director/writer Elizabeth Sankey, namely those of women of colour and gay men, though those sequences were touched on only very briefly towards the end. What becomes clear is that the bulk of the form has long been dedicated to heteronormative, white, able-bodied, cisgender, middle-class desire, so while counterexamples exist (for at least some of those categories), the strength of the genre in future will rely on a far more equal acknowledgement of all kinds of love.
Director/Writer Elizabeth Sankey; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 16 May 2020.
Joe Swanberg is one of the linchpins of modern American no-budget indie cinema, with a string of improvised titles made quickly for no money, but often made in collaboration with stars and directors who would go on to even greater work on their own, whether his chief collaborator here (Josephine Decker, whose new film Shirley is out soon) or elsewhere with Greta Gerwig (on Hannah Takes the Stairs and her first co-directing credit on Nights and Weekends) and, of course, the recently passed Lynn Shelton (who acted in Nights and Weekends). Swanberg went on to dabble with higher budgets and bigger stars, as in Drinking Buddies, but this earlier work, made in surely his most prolific year (he put out six films in 2011), is both very independent and also boldly experimental, not always shining the most positive light on its director.
I used to live with a filmmaker who liked to make deeply self-reflective projects (you might call them self-indulgent, though I have a fondness for self-indulgence) with a minimal crew, a handful of actors, and usually focused tightly around relationships, but sometimes they were more straightforwardly about sex — and specifically the operation of power within sexual relationships (whether successfully or not is another question) — and this Joe Swanberg film feels like one of those. I appreciate the attempt to navigate an understanding of the messed-up power dynamic between the person wielding the camera and the people having sex in front of that camera, especially when the director is in love with his leading lady (Josephine Decker, whose own films are brilliant, while I’m mentioning her). For all of that, though, there’s a complete lack of any kind of erotic or exploitative feeling in the film (this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, itself p0rnographic). Instead, it’s narrowly focused on three people and the feelings between them (the third is Kent Osborne), and if it doesn’t always succeed that’s often because it feels like the camera is too far away from the actors’ faces, so it’s hard to know what exactly is going on between them. It also seems to end just as things are coming to a head, so like the film I’m just going to end this review abruptly.
Director Joe Swanberg; Writers Swanberg, Josephine Decker and Kent Osborne; Cinematographer Adam Wingard; Starring Josephine Decker, Joe Swanberg, Kent Osborne; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 31 May 2019.
The Israeli director who made Bombay Beach and LoveTrue — both of which I admired and both of which lurk uncomfortably somewhere between documentary and staged drama — gets an ostensibly fiction feature with this one written by its star Shia LeBeouf. However, it turns out to occupy a similar territory adjacent to Shia’s own lived experience, and tells a fairly traumatic story in an engaging and visually inventive way.
Shia LaBeouf is one of those actors I’ve always wanted to like — perhaps because some of the media excoriation of him has been so very ad hominem for so long — but finally this is a performance of his I can really get behind. He plays a fictionalised (only lightly, I gather) version of his own father in a screenplay he wrote and it very much puts him in the same territory that Joaquin Phoenix has been going over for years. It gets big and ugly at times, proper emotional turmoil, but it’s all underpinned by a deep vein of tenderness. That’s helped along significantly by Noah Jupe, who plays the younger version of himself, and very much holds his own in what is essentially a two-hander between the two actors (there are also some scenes with an older version of Shia, played by Lucas Hedges, but the dynamic between father and son remains similar). Director Alma Har’el has made a number of fine films in the past decade, which at least ostensibly have been documentaries, although these have always had a strong sense of performance at play — as if finding the characters at the heart of real people — so perhaps this step into fiction (but fiction based on reality) is a natural progression for her. In any case, she makes films with verve, humour and warmth, and that’s always evident.
Director Alma Har’el עלמה הראל; Writer Shia LeBeouf; Cinematographer Natasha Braier; Starring Shia LeBeouf, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges, FKA Twigs; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 6 December 2019.
Another film which comes on the heels of the same director’s excellent work on The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Can You Ever Forgive Me? and plunges her back into another gently middlebrow and lightly period piece about the anxieties of artists. I found it likeable, and it’s well worth checking out.
There’s something almost aggressively middlebrow about this film, indeed about a number of the season’s films, and perhaps I only say that because it fits into a certain kind of Oscar-ready category, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing here. It’s about a television personality (one I was not at all familiar with, as my upbringing did not feature Mr Rogers), and the film at times has a deeply televisual feel in the way it’s constructed — I don’t know that I can explain it, just that something about the way the shots were constructed, the musical cues, the scene transitions (both the editing and the interstitial model toy sets) felt almost uncannily like this film was intended to be a Very Special extended episode of Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood (though as mentioned above, I obviously don’t know the original show except as it’s shown within this film). But rather than the TV personality, the film’s story focuses instead on Matthew Rhys’s journalist, an angry resentful man who’s trying to find an angle on Tom Hank’s Fred Rogers; the film and Hanks’s performance almost seem to play along, and he has these ways of staring intensely that suggest some deep buried secret is going to come out — certainly the legacy of 70s light entertainers on British TV led me to worry where this might lead. But no, in fact, Rogers seems like a genuinely decent guy, who cares deeply about the way that children are spoken to, and I think that all comes across really effectively in the film. It would also make an interesting double-bill with A Hidden Life (which was out in UK cinemas the week beforehand, hence was on my mind), because I think both are films deeply imbued with a very Christian faith, though in rather more subtle ways here, expressed primarily by silence (there’s one particularly striking scene in a diner) and by a sense of ritual.
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (based on the article “Can You Say… Hero?” by Tom Junod); Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Chris Cooper; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 31 January 2020.
The biggest release of the past week in the UK has been this very minimal office drama, almost a chamber piece (it rarely moves outside of the office setting, aside from brief bookends of the darkened city streets), which engages with some of the dramas within the film industry in a frank way, while also making a strong point about casual misogyny ingrained in office culture, yet barely ever raising its voice, and a lot of that is down to Julia Garner’s performance (who until now has had more work on TV, as well as memorable supporting turns, such as in 2015’s Grandma).
This film is not quite what you expect when you read the précis, but if anything it’s more powerful for what it withholds as for what it shows — specifically, you barely ever actually see the Weinstein-like boss that our titular character works for. He is glimpsed, heard on the phone, read in subtly negging e-mails, and generally understood by everyone present to be the person being talked about when any talking happens about “him”. Of course it happens to be set in the world of film (and this one sure does have a lot of producers attached), but the non-specificity means it could be set in any office. It’s only as the film goes on that you start to pick up that he’s a film producer: the attractive women who always seem to be coming into the office; the tasteful poster art in the background; references to filming that become more pronounced as the story goes on, though the most we ever see of the actual art is a home-taped audition one of the women drops off (a woman who gets belittling comments once she’s gone, but, of course, she’s a good actor it turns out, not that anyone seems to care). What is effective (and affecting) is the way that it’s just the little microaggressions that build up, dismissive behaviour in the elevator, thrown bits of paper in the office, the expectation that she (of the three assistants, the other two are young men) will deal with “his” kids when they’re brought in, or will go fetch the food. As such, it requires a lot of discipline from Julia Garner as the lead actor — it’s very much her on whom the whole movie depends — and she does wonderfully well, and even the biggest setpiece (her confrontation with Matthew Macfadyen’s HR director) scarcely draws much more than a wounded look, as her defences are subtly but decisively battered down over a potential complaint she wants to make. This is in some ways a masterclass that shows how much you can achieve within a tight budget, evoking so much in its (long-)day-in-the-life portrait of this one woman.
Director/Writer Kitty Green; Cinematographer Michael Latham; Starring Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.
I couldn’t stay away from Japan for long, and this is actually a film I meant to include a couple of weeks ago when I was covering Japanese films, but I forgot. It’s a new release that came out on Mubi last month (though has since moved off there), and is a rather experimental work that reminds me a little of Rivette’s Out 1 in dealing with actors and rehearsals, if not quite possessing that film’s grand scope.
This is undoubtedly a rather challenging, experimental work. It has a structure which constantly loops back on itself — and which starts with a final confession of a murder that creates a simmering tension that runs through all the rather quotidian interactions which follow. Aside from the fiendish structure though, the experimentation is mostly in the acting, as footage of the actors performing their lines on location are interwoven with far more extensive scenes of them doing a table read beforehand and subsequent rehearsals, such that we hear bits of dialogue multiple times. This has the effect of sort of imbricating the past in the present, of creating a further level of awareness of what’s going on with the characters, though for me it wasn’t always successful and had an almost arid feeling at times. Clearly others have connected far more fully with this work, which is trying to stretch the means of cinematic storytelling in bold ways, and possibly would work better on a big screen with fewer distractions.
Director Natsuka Kusano 草野なつか; Writer Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yasutaka Watanabe 渡邉寿岳; Starring Asami Shibuya 澁谷麻美, Tomomitsu Adachi 足立智充, Tomo Kasajima 笠島智; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 9 April 2020.
Although this isn’t strictly a Japanese film — in fact, as mentioned in the review below, it feels very much French — it’s from director Hirokazu Koreeda, who rarely seems to do the things people want him to. He’s made his name with gentle family dramas like I Wish and Our Little Sister, but as I’ve covered in a post earlier this week, he also has a tendency to do odd little films that don’t quite fit in. This one doesn’t feel entirely successful, but it’s certainly a family drama, with rather fewer cute kids than some of his previous ones.
There are a number of reviews out there expounding on how very ‘French’ this film is, despite being written and directed by a Japanese man, but I suppose I can’t deny it. It’s essentially a two-hander between Catherine Deneuve as the film star diva mother and Juliette Binoche as her daughter, and I can’t think of any more iconic French stars of modern cinema. Binoche plays Lumir, now based in the States and married to Ethan Hawke’s somewhat less successful actor Hank, while Deneuve is Fabienne (which is her real middle name, suggesting to me some level of meta-textual play going on). It’s about families and about the stories they tell about themselves, specifically the stories that Fabienne tells about herself and her family in an autobiography she’s just had published (called La Vérité, obviously). Still, it’s not one of those films where half-lies tear a family apart, and maybe that’s the bit which comes from writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda — indeed there’s a touching, almost sentimental, sense in which maybe things can be patched up and even an old diva can learn humility. I wouldn’t place this in the first rank of Koreeda’s work, but it’s a sweet and well-acted film all the same, and I can certainly identify with Hank, who, as family drama constantly swirls in French around him, is just stuck there going “uhhhh, vin rouge?” to an indifferent room.
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda 是枝裕和; Cinematographer Éric Gautier; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Ethan Hawke, Ludivine Sagnier; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Curzon Home Cinema streaming), London, Saturday 28 March 2020.
Since seeing my first Studio Ghibli film in 2015, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, I’ve spent the last five years trying to catch up on some of their key works. That project remains ongoing, though the appearance of many of them on Netflix doesn’t hurt, but this documentary gives an insight into their working methods. It’s comforting to see these figures at work, knowing the care and effort they put into each film, which unlike a lot of contemporary animation in the cinemas, aren’t just blatant attempts to make money by any means necessary.
I’m fairly recently new to Studio Ghibli’s films, having spent much of my teens and 20s resisting going to see any (which in retrospect was obviously a very foolish decision), but watching these key figures in the world of animation at work — along with their studio of animators (and producer Toshio Suzuki) — is a fascinating insight. The gentle, beautiful, sometimes dark films of Miyazaki and Takahata are not born out of chaos and noise, but a similar kind of peaceful dedication to craft. Miya-san (as he’s called) wears an apron for much of when he’s working, while Paku-san (that’s Takahata) barely ever shows up at all, though he’s much discussed, not least his infuriating inability to complete projects to any kind of schedule. There’s a gentle humour at work, but also just a sense of a really grounded and open central figure in that of Miyazaki, as he works through the last year of making his film The Wind Rises. It may have been billed at the time as his last one, but even his retirement letter wished for 10 more years of work, and one can but hope to continue to hear from him (indeed, he has a film currently in production).
Director/Cinematographer Mami Sunada 砂田麻美; Starring Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿, Toshio Suzuki 鈴木敏夫, Isao Takahata 高畑勲; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 13 April 2019.
Recalling my recent week devoted to films available on Amazon, I’m delighted to say that the recent Naomi Kawase film I’m covering today is now on that platform. She is a filmmaker who makes often rather gentle films, often about women, that have a sensory quality and a fundamental compassion, whether that of the old lady in Sweet Bean or the grieving family in Still the Water.
Director Naomi Kawase has always had a very particular way with her films, about translating texture, touch, taste and other sensory experiences through sound and image, so it makes sense that this film deals with Misako (Ayame Misaki), a woman who writes closed captions for visually-impaired filmgoers. She’s working on an apparently very subtle film by an older filmmaker about a man grappling with mortality (while also herself dealing with an ageing mother who seems to be slipping slowly away). Misako’s job is to relate the film-within-the-film’s themes to her focus group of blind audience members, but she’s having trouble finding the right balance of description and subjective editorialising. This seems to be particularly irksome for one of the group, a slightly older man (Masatoshi Nagase) who used to be a photographer but has now mostly lost his sight. The themes, then, are fairly clear, about seeing and not seeing, using the imagination to experience and move with the characters on screen, and so the film-within-a-film is more heard than seen, as we try to connect using the words to what the protagonist is going through, and this film too is equally oblique in some ways. There’s a romance of sorts between the two central characters, but I wouldn’t characterise the film itself as a romance, except perhaps that between two people and the physical world.
Director/Writer Naomi Kawase 河瀨直美; Cinematographer Arata Dodo 百々新; Starring Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女, Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Saturday 18 April 2020.
Usually I like for my Friday review to be of a new release, to honour something that’s also newly out in cinemas (which this week is fantastic new Georgian film And Then We Danced), but I haven’t seen any recent ex-Soviet films. Therefore to fit with perhaps the musical qualities (if nothing else) of this week’s new release, here’s a film I saw earlier this year for the first time, as part of Kino Klassika’s sidebar to the BFI Musicals seasons (which also gave us Cherry Town). It’s a “Red Western” about the birth of cinema, made by the Soviet Union but set in the Old West of the United States, satirically of course.
I certainly can’t fault this film for giving me something I haven’t seen before, which is to say a Soviet musical ‘Western’ set in an imagined California (a town called Santa Carolina) at the birth of cinema — hence the title, which references the location of the Lumière brothers’ first public screening of their films. In it, a man called Johnny First (Andrei Mironov) arrives in an unruly town and brings them the magic of cinema, which soon converts them from lawlessness into docile respectability, but the dream is undermined by the saloon owner and the local priest — which already suggests a certain Communist critique of Western values and power structures, while still respecting the power of the moving image. Women, too, have a strong role in this film directed by a woman, and get plenty of opportunities to show their greater engagement with the social good and willingness to fight and win. The racial elements — caricatures of both Mexican and Native American people — have perhaps aged rather less well, but just seeing such stereotypes in a Soviet context is immediately odd, and while certainly racist, seem to work in different ways from what has become familiar from the American films this one is mimicking. Nevertheless, the core of the film remains with the filmmaker character and his audience, making it a self-reflexive satirical film, enlivened by some amusing recreations of early films, overblown fight scenes, and a bit of musical japery.
Director Alla Surikova Алла Сурикова; Writer Eduard Akopov Эдуард Акопов; Cinematographer Grigori Belenky Григорий Беленький; Starring Andrei Mironov Андрей Миронов, Aleksandra Yakovleva Александра Яковлева, Nikolai Karachentsov Николай Караченцов; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Wednesday 22 January 2020.