Vợ ba (The Third Wife, 2018)

Another strong area of interesting regional cinema in Southeast Asia has been Vietnam which, aside from a few films by Trần Anh Hùng I’d seen decades ago, I have regrettably not been very good at keeping up with in recent years. One recent example that got a UK release was this period drama directed by Ash Mayfair, a young Vietnamese woman director making her feature debut.


I really liked the languid pacing and style of this Vietnamese period film, about May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young girl who is married to a wealthy landowner as his third wife (the clue is in the title). Still, it’s a moving depiction of what in the period was not considered an unusual situation, and the film is about her contending with the familial situation into which she finds herself placed, negotiating her feelings with the other wives, and with the other family members. I can’t say that a great deal happens — there’s a secret affair that May witnesses, and meanwhile she strikes up her own feelings towards one of the other wives, but this all comes out in fairly oblique ways. Indeed, the woman directing the film is (understandably) good at avoiding sexualising or sensationalising the story, given the young age of her lead actress, and so it registers far more on an emotional level, though the visuals do have a real beauty to them.

The Third Wife film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ash Mayfair; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Nguyễn Phương Trà My, Mai Thu Hường, Trần Nữ Yên Khê; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 16 November 2019.

Your Sister’s Sister (2011)

Moving back to proper indie films is another of Lynn Shelton’s small but well-crafted features dealing with relationship dramas in the Pacific Northwest. She always worked with the finest actors, and it really pays off at times (though it’s not my favourite of her films, preferring Laggies and Touchy Feely). I’ll cover her final film tomorrow.


I like plenty about the improvisational aesthetic that this film fits into, that world of “mumblecore”, low-key relationship drama, situations focusing on believable people in relatable circumstances. I like all three of the actors, and Lynn Shelton is a fine director. I did, however, feel like the set-up here was a little bit overwrought, as if a plot discarded from a telenovela or soap, which meant I found it difficult to connect with the characters. That said, of course, the acting was all superb, and it’s largely set in a striking part of the Pacific Northwest.

Your Sister's Sister film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 April 2017.

The Invitation (2015)

The thing about devoting a week to American indie cinema of the last couple of decades is that it tends to cohere around a fairly self-contained representation of society, which is to say it’s very middle-class and white, with a lot of films about struggling post-university 20-somethings and relationship dramas. This is why I wanted to loop in more class-based dramas like Skate Kitchen which deals with a poorer subsection of the otherwise familiar New York City, and while today’s film is about well-off people having a talky social gathering, it does differ a least in tone as it increasingly moves towards horror. (Indeed, there’s actually a subgenre of “mumblecore” dubbed “mumblegore” and while this film isn’t that, it’s interesting to see the way that indie cinema has mutated and spread into genre filmmaking.)


Most horror films, I suppose, are based around the externalisation of fear as something which can attack you, but this one seems to be using grief instead. It’s about a man (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who are invited to his ex-wife’s (Tammy Blanchard) for dinner, where their relationship history is revealed (not such a surprise, but affecting) and something else seems to start taking place. There’s a sense of it developing like one of those Buñuel films, except replacing gradually-mounting absurdism with terror. The director shows her assured control here: there are some great compositions and a slow-building tension that grips throughout.

The Invitation film posterCREDITS
Director Karyn Kusama; Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; Cinematographer Bobby Shore; Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Tammy Blanchard; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 2 August 2016.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

Crystal Moselle is a New York filmmaker whose debut was a few years ago, so quite some time after the heyday of no-budget filmmaking in the 2000s, though her films have a similar observational, improvised quality (moving more into a documentary feeling). Certainly many of the filmmakers of that era and the stories they tell can be very white and middle-class, so it’s been good to see a new generation telling more diverse stories. Moselle’s first film was The Wolfpack (2015), a documentary which blurred the lines between real life and reenactments of movies, and one that was compelling although I didn’t love it. However, her first fiction feature is one I do unreservedly love, being a fictional narrative but which uses real people in a very unforced depiction of their lives, and which could probably be programmed together with the same year’s Minding the Gap. Moselle has a TV series now out on HBO called Betty which follows some of the same characters, and I’m certainly interested in tracking that down.


One of the things I hate in art/literature/journalism is when someone seizes on [thing the young people do now that we didn’t used to do] and makes it into some kind of big metaphor about how all of society is in decline and we should all just give up now, because how can we even function as humans anymore when things have come to this. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of hand-wringing about social media, and it’s tiresome. Anyway, I’m not even sure that little mini-rant is entirely justified, but yeah there are kids on their phones in this film (we only really see them on Instagram), and it’s just… not a big problem? Like, it’s how they meet up, and it’s fine and there’s no Weighty Statement being made.

I like the way this film approaches its story in an almost documentary-like way. Indeed, it feels like more of a documentary than a “real” one such as All This Panic (also about New York City girls), not to mention this director’s own first film, which has an archness to its choice of documentary subjects. The central drama here, such as it is, comes out as a sort of background detail, which is just as well because it’s pretty rote (overdemanding mother at home, friendship group interrelationships being stretched to breaking point by a boy). Instead what we get are lots of scenes of kids just hanging out, having a good time, sometimes getting into tussles, but it’s cool, they’re just down, doing their skating thing.

It’s really quite delightful. I love its sense of space, of the city as a character here, and the almost thrown-off haphazard way it takes in scenes. Also, the actors — who clearly are real skaters — have an unforced quality to them, and positively glow in the NYC light.

CREDITS
Director Crystal Moselle; Writers Aslıhan Ünaldı, Moselle and Jennifer Silverman; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 28 September 2018.

Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

There’s a certain strand of filmmaking that I like to think of as ‘low stakes cinema’ where nothing really bad happens or is likely to happen to any of the characters — no one’s actions are going to kill or seriously hurt anyone, and there might be a bit of embarrassment or hurt feelings, or even a relationship break-up at the very worst. Much of Nicole Holofcener’s cinema sort of fits neatly in there, and the lives she depicts are just a little more ragged around the edges than, say, Nancy Meyers’s (certainly their homes are less punishingly set designed). Both of these films deal with ensemble casts, groups of people defined by relationships, whether romantic or those of friendship, navigating through complications, without the kind of pat resolution you get with, say, sitcoms. In this way they fit somewhat into the same mould that younger ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers were doing at the same time, though her filmmaking seems closer to the kind of comfortable New York background of Noah Baumbach, something which traces its lineage back through Woody Allen. Between these two films below she made Please Give (2010, which I’ve seen and liked, though wasn’t able to rouse myself to write much about it) and Enough Said (2013), which is just lovely, and I think one of the last screen performances from James Gandolfini.

Continue reading “Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)”

Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)

Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.

Continue reading “Two Crime Thrillers by the Safdie Brothers: Good Time (2017) and Uncut Gems (2019)”

Unexpected (2015)

Another filmmaker working in the same vein of improv and talky comedy-drama as Lynn Shelton and the “mumblecore” scene is Kris Rey (née Williams), credited at the time of this, her third film, as Kris Swanberg, given she was married at that time to Joe. I think it’s fair to say she has her own sensibilities, of course, which find good expression in this solidly-wrought and well-acted small ensemble piece.


I wonder if maybe the title is a joke, because really there’s nothing particularly surprising that happens here, but maybe I’m just becoming used to Cobie Smulders appearing in this kind of low-stakes gently-twee American indie/improv film (she was in Andrew Bujalski’s Results the same year, as well). That said, focusing on a pregnancy isn’t all that common a theme — outside jokey Knocked Up-type films about loser dads — and everyone does a good job. Smulders is a teacher, while Anders Holm has another of those smugly infuriating nice guy roles as her husband (he had a similar role in The Intern, again made the same year). The film loops in class concerns by having a parallel story of one of her black school students (Gail Bean) who’s in the same situation, though without Smulders’ race- and class-based privileges that she is entirely unaware of, and that’s really what the film is interested in exploring. It may not be challenging, but it’s sweet and pleasantly undemonstrative and after some of her former-partner’s works that can definitely be a very good thing.

Unexpected film posterCREDITS
Director Kris Rey [as Kris Swanberg]; Writers Megan Mercier and Rey; Cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen; Starring Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 15 September 2016.

Beach Rats (2017)

The reason for this week’s themed focus on American films directed by women is because the director of today’s film has a new one out on streaming in the UK at the end of the week, the abortion-themed drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. This wasn’t her debut film, but it feels like some kind of breakthrough and got a fair bit of attention on the festival circuit. It’s a bleak gay story, as so many are, but with an artfulness helped by the cinematography of the great Hélène Louvart (who has shot Alice Rohrwacher’s films amongst others).


If I can be said to have a ‘type’ when it comes to movies, it’s probably the artfully distressed hazy focus-pulling indie intensity of this over the sun-dappled baroqueness of, say, Call Me by Your Name (the film I went to see just before this one) — but it’s not really fair to compare them, just because they both happen to have gay themes. In fact, this film seems to be more a film about everyone’s favourite post-millennial theme: toxic masculinity. It’s about a group of bros with short cropped hair and very well-defined abdominal musculature who aimlessly sit around and smoke weed. Our protagonist Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is dealing with some family drama, but seems to be sort of coasting, interested in men but also very much hiding it from those around him, performatively dressing himself up in hyper-masculine aggression and Instagrammable heteronormativity. I’m sort of over these kinds of stories (gay coming-of-age narratives) leading to bleak places, but in this kind of place, with these kinds of men, it all feels depressingly pre-ordained. Still, it grabs me as a real piece of filmmaking.

Beach Rats film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Harris Dickinson, Madeline Weinstein, Kate Hodge; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 November 2017.

Smooth Talk (1985)

It feels like there were a number of interesting films being directed by women in the American cinema of the 70s and 80s, which perhaps went a little under the radar and haven’t been so easy to find on home video. Smooth Talk was the narrative feature film debut of a long-time documentarian Joyce Chopra, and though the narrative feels like it may have been guided a little too strongly by the man doing the writing, it’s still great at building up a sense of place, and features the young Laura Dern.


As this opens, there are few films that can match the sheer 80s-ness of everything: the fashion and haircuts, the music (particularly on the soundtrack), the filmmaking techniques. It’s like a soap opera, and it paints a persuasive picture of a certain kind of Californian upbringing, hanging at the mall and being with your friends. Laura Dern is brilliant in the lead role, and does an effective job of conveying this young woman, hanging out late and being flirtatious, although every so often there are these creepy men hanging around. But then the movie takes a lurch into a weird terrifying stalker narrative, and Treat Williams is good but the film suddenly just seems to want to punish her for her sexuality (no less than any contemporary horror films would), and it becomes uncomfortable in more ways than perhaps the filmmaker intended. Still, there’s a lot of great stuff in here, not least the acting.

Smooth Talk film posterCREDITS
Director Joyce Chopra; Writer Tom Cole (based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates); Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 June 2019.

Honey Boy (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.

Honey Boy film posterCREDITS
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.