Lebanon is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East (although it certainly hasn’t always been that way) and one of the most politically progressive. It is a country with a wide range of religious practices and ways of living, despite its small size, and it’s perhaps no surprise that a number of women have been involved in filmmaking in the country (for example, Jocelyn Saab, who recently died, was a pioneer back in the 1970s). Lebanon’s troubled recent history forms the basis of the two documentaries I review below, both directed by women, and both made in 2017.
It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.
- Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
- Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
- There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
- Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay; Cinematographer Alwin Küchler; Starring William Eadie; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019).
I’m still of the opinion that Kasi Lemmons is among the most underrated of directors currently working (if, as ever with African-American women directors, not nearly enough). Her film Black Nativity was largely ignored (though delightfully odd), and here, working within a fairly mainstream period biopic vein, she manages to wring something that feels fresh. Of course it helps to have such a great cast — and Cheadle, Ejiofor and, most of all, Taraji P. Henson are on top form. It takes the story of a Washington DC radio personality, Petey Greene (whom I’d never heard of, but that’s on me), and uses it as a starting point to make a story of America in the 60s and 70s. It’s not perhaps the deepest of works, and undoubtedly it takes liberties with the real Petey Greene’s story, but it works as a film and it’s made with grace and passion.
Director Kasi Lemmons; Writers Michael Genet and Rick Famuyiwa; Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine; Starring Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji P. Henson, Martin Sheen; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.
Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.
Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016.
I was born in the late-1970s, so I never really got exposed to Janis Joplin’s music much, which means I never really had much of a sense of her life or her career. She’s famous now, it seems, largely for dying young — the kind of story that’s sadly all too common — so this documentary makes a concerted effort to be more about a celebration of Joplin’s life and voice, rather than her demise. It leans heavily, as you’d expect, on archival footage of concerts and TV appearances, as well as the talking heads of friends, lovers and fellow musicians, who of course are all now in their 70s — giving that extra layer of disconnect when matching up these lined and aged faces with the youthful hippies in the old footage. A lot of this doesn’t really transfer well to the cinema screen — blown up, a lot of the sources look grainy and disfigured by digital compression — but what comes across clearly is both Joplin’s tremendous voice, but also her intelligence. As fond as she was of drugs, sex, dressing up and acting wildly in the public eye (an act that is perhaps stretched closest to breaking when she goes to a high school reunion in her small southern home town), she’s more often seen in interviews trying to make serious points while surrounded by a bunch of blokes whose progressive stance on free love and drugs just as often seems like little beyond schoolboy laddishness — though they’re nothing compared to the 50s-holdover model of masculinity as buttoned-down square so evident when she’s quizzed on a talk show appearance by Don Adams. Her mortal dalliance with drugs aside, Joplin comes across quite clearly as someone with talent and compassion and a far more interesting and appealing role model than perhaps she’s given credit for. And that’s the Joplin that Little Girl Blue is interested in.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Amy J. Berg | Cinematographers Francesco Carrozzini and Jenna Rosher | Length 103 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 February 2016
There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about this new film by Angelina Jolie (styling herself “Jolie Pitt” in the credits), set in the 1970s and to all purposes a throwback to that era — if not an earlier one indeed (hints of Michelangelo Antonioni perhaps, albeit without that director’s rigorously architectural framing). Needless to say, viewers familiar with the couple’s pairing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) will probably be taken aback here, as this is unapologetically an ennui-laden erotic thriller, where any eroticism is deeply tied up with voyeurism, not to mention a traumatic event which remains only hinted at for much of the film. The Pitts play a childless couple of 14 years, Vanessa and Roland, who have travelled to a small French seaside town for the summer. Their neighbours in the comfortably-appointed hotel are a newly-married couple on their honeymoon, Léa and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Thus begins a drama of erotic transference in which demons are unearthed, though at a glacial pace weighed down by long, pregnant pauses and periods of relative inactivity — Vanessa is a former dancer who mostly prefers to hide from the world (often under oversized hats), while Roland is a writer who mostly spends his time in the local cafe, drinking and chatting to proprietor Michel (Niels Arestrup). Jolie Pitt gives a steely performance, all the better given her character is so closed off from both the world and even her husband. For me it’s Brad Pitt who’s the weak link here (though he’s a fine actor), and though it seems like this must be quite a personal film, the casting also gives the sense of a vanity project. Needless to say, I think Jolie has crafted something really out of step with the rest of American film culture, and it’s all the more welcome for that.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Angelina Jolie [as “Angelina Jolie Pitt”] | Cinematographer Christian Berger | Starring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup | Length 122 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015
I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert | Length 80 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015
From the prominent BBC Storyville credits, I’m assuming this documentary was made for TV, and in a way it’s sort of appropriate to that format as it’s about a guy that time and fate has pushed into the background. Jimmy Ellis, who performed under a mask and the stage name Orion for a period in the late-70s and 1980s, was a tall man from Mississippi with a very distinctive singing voice, in that he sounded exactly like Elvis. However, he was no impersonator — he tended to distance himself wherever possible from Elvis — but just desperate to pursue a singing career. This is how, despite being brought up on a farm, he ended up taking a gig following the death of Elvis as the mysterious masked Orion, a mystique that his manager at Sun Records insisted upon as a way for him to succeed. The documentary makes its way through his life with some talking heads (including surviving family members) and testimony as to both how much he wanted the life, and how much he was exploited by those who saw the chance for a quick buck (very little of which Jimmy saw) out of this beautifully-voiced but fairly ingenuous guy. It’s a fascinating story for those of us (like me) unfamiliar with the legend, and a sad one, though that much seems clear from the outset — you never get the sense that Ellis was ever destined for real stardom. Still, it’s a sweet little film. Ellis seems like he was a gentleman, and those left behind remember him fondly, plus there are some surprises along the way (specifically about his possible genealogy), so it holds the viewer’s interest.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jeanie Finlay | Cinematographers Mark Bushnell and Steven Sheil | Length 86 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015
You can sort of understand why this film might be troubling to censors, who in the UK have slapped it with an 18 classification. It’s not that it’s particularly sexually explicit, or nasty or degrading, but that it deals with Minnie, a young woman of 15, having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. But probably more concerning to censors is that it’s entirely told from her point of view, in which adult characters have no moralising role in Minnie’s development (if anything her mother encourages her to flaunt herself more), and in which Minnie is unapologetic and unashamed about what she wants. But that’s a perspective so little seen in the coming-of-age genre, that it makes me wonder if my dislike for the genre is more its usual focus on gamine young women being objects of adoration seemingly unattainable to oily spotted teenage dudes, or other boring tropes of male self-actualisation like going out into the wilderness, or bonding with older guys to learn some Truth about masculinity. In any case, I imagine the thematic and narrative focus here partly has something to do with its setting in late-70s San Francisco, as well as being based on the autobiography of Phoebe Gloeckner, a cartoonist growing up under the artistic influence of such figures as Aline Kominsky (mentioned here, later married to Robert Crumb). I’ve read her first published anthology, A Child’s Life, and it’s fantastic not to mention quite boldly graphic (Gloeckner also spent some time as a medical illustrator). Some of the nastier edges have been toned down in the film, but there are still magical little efflorescences of animation that crop up every so often around Minnie. However, aside from its singular focus and unapologetic take on adolescent sexuality, the film also chiefly benefits from the performance of Bel Powley, largely a newcomer to film (although previously on TV in the UK, and the undoubted comic star of A Royal Night Out earlier this year), who impresses as Minnie largely for her unaffected ingenuousness and wide-eyed wonder, without ever feeling the need to dress up for the attention of men. As it’s based around her recorded diaries, there’s a fair amount of teenage solipsism, but this never overwhelms the story and is generally treated as gentle comic fodder, as Minnie knocks about from one adventure to another. Being told from Minnie’s point of view, Alexander Skarsgård’s Monroe is a sort of affable loser rather than anyone more threateningly creepy, while her mother just seems strangely absent (something Kristen Wiig, playing it straight, is very good at doing), though the appearance of her feared stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni) is a brief but enjoyable cameo and his advice sets up Minnie’s closure with Monroe perfectly, though you’ll really have to go see the film to know what I’m talking about. So I recommend doing that. It’s certainly not what you’d usually expect from an 18-rated film.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Marielle Heller (based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner) | Cinematographer Brandon Trost | Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015
A few years ago, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) achieved great success in depicting how life was lived in former-Communist East Germany, and now Westen builds on similar themes. Our protagonist is Nelly (Jördis Triebel), who at the start has gained permission somehow to leave East Germany with her son. After a stressful few hours having to undergo humiliating bureaucratic procedures, she makes it across and signs up at a refugee centre, where she is given a bed and a chance at freedom, but little more. Indeed, she finds herself going through much the same bureaucratic procedures, leading her to snap at her interviewers that this is exactly why she had left the East. The drama is located in Nelly’s struggle to gain the freedom she imagined she’d find in the West for her and her son — a matter of passing official inspections and gaining elusive stamps — where instead she encounters only the same petty mindedness and paranoia over Stasi spies that she felt before. There are some subplots of relationships she has with various men within the refugee compound, and her sometimes-fraught relationship with her son, soured by the paranoia she feels, but the film is focused most of all on Nelly herself. Being on screen for much of the film, Triebel does an excellent job in conveying a sense of her trepidation and paranoia — sometimes with very little in the dialogue itself, for she feels guarded and cagy in her interactions, an understandable holdover from her time in the East. The filmmaking style takes a leaf from the Dardenne brothers in its unmoored handheld camera style, often finding itself lagging behind the forward-moving figure of Nelly, though it’s not quite as relentlessly applied as in, say, Rosetta. A very fine drama, all told, and well worth watching.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Christian Schwochow | Writer Heide Schwochow (based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck) | Starring Jördis Triebel | Cinematographer Frank Lamm | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 15 June 2015