My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.
Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.
The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.
If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.
In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.
It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.
* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.
Gurinder Chadha is the director most famous for Bend It Like Beckham (2002), though she made a splash with her first film Bhaji on the Beach (1993). She’s a British filmmaker, born in a British colony (as Kenya was) and who has lived in London for almost the entirety of her life, and is particularly good at locating stories of characters with South-East Asian backgrounds within a diverse cultural milieu that never feels suffocatingly white (as it sometimes can in other middle-class middle-brow British films). That said, of course, racism is a persistent issue in the background of her stories, and we still see those who are intent on denying the multi-ethnic nature of British society, like the skinheads in this latest film.
It’s rare to see a film this earnest and dorky, but it’s honestly very hard to take against it, however much I found it teeth-grittingly cheesy at times. The thing is, it takes its premise — the real life story of Javed (Viveik Kalra, based on the screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor), a young Pakistani kid growing up in Luton discovering the music of Bruce Springsteen and finding connections to his own life — and plays it completely straight, without laughing at it or making jokes (though people certainly make fun of him). The first act sets up 1987 school life, complete with British versions of the classic American high school cliques, dominated by the sounds of the post-punk synth-based new romanticism of the mid- to late-80s, such that when our protagonist is handed some Bruce cassettes and starts listening to them, the music is quite different from what we’ve heard thus far. It even puts the lyrics up on screen to emphasise the effect, as he runs through a storm to the sounds of “The Promised Land” with back-projections on the council house walls: this is Gurinder Chadha’s version of total cinema, undoubtedly. It sorta works too, though I think I’d find it even more affecting to watch this on a plane, or on the couch when sick (that’s not a diss; it’s just one of those kinds of films, really comforting at a base soul level). The standout actor here turns out to be Javed’s Sikh best friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), who turns him onto Bruce, and whom I’d have been pleased to see a lot more of.
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor (based on his memoir Greeting from Bury Park); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Viveik Kalra, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Tuesday 13 August 2019.
It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).
As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.
Director Jennie Livingston; Cinematographer Paul Gibson; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016.
This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.
Director Don Cheadle; Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle; Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016.
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.
Director Jeanie Finlay; Cinematographers Mark Bushnell and Steven Sheil; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 29 September 2015.
The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.
Director Niki Caro; Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson; Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015.
What’s most surprising to me about this biopic of seminal late-1980s rap band N.W.A. is that it qualifies for my New Year’s Resolution by having a female co-writer. It’s not surprising in the sense of FINALLY PROVING that women can write rounded and realistic male characters (I jest), but because the women in the film are so peripheral to the story as to be little more than gyrating appendages in music videos (aside perhaps from Eazy-E’s widow Tomica, who’s also a producer on the film). It is, indeed, a very male-centred film about a group of friends and their rise from impoverished backgrounds in LA’s Compton neighbourhood to musical dominance as the progenitors of the ‘gangsta rap’ style. The film’s central players are introduced by on-screen captions, with the three most prominent members of the group being Ice Cube (played by his son, O’Shea Jackson Jr., as an embittered and angry young man), the focused Dr. Dre (Jason Mitchell), and the guy that helps to bring them all together, Eazy-E (Corey Hawkins), who true to his name has a more laidback lifestyle — which is to say, there are plenty of women and drugs involved.
The arc of the film is classic Hollywood biopic — rags to riches, complicated by egos and money — but in focusing its story on black characters, the film already moves some way towards redressing the whitewashing of (musical) history engaged in by other mainstream productions. Indeed, the casting of Paul Giamatti as manager Jerry Heller recalls his almost identical work in a very similar (and far whiter) film about Brian Wilson only a few months ago, and if Love & Mercy seemed to impart a good sense of how its music was made, Straight Outta Compton is most focused on positioning its protagonists within the wider social context of racial discrimination — looping in the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. However, perhaps even more than that, the film is concerned with the band’s contractual and label disputes, which is where Giamatti’s character comes in, not to mention Suge Knight and his roster of stars (Tupac Shakur pops up briefly, for example).
There are undoubtedly valid criticisms of the rampant chauvinism — which after all in a sense reflects the culture of this era and of these protagonists — and there’s also the not unrelated issue of the way the film occludes some of the characters’ more disturbing history with women, but that’s not really something for me to address. Suffice to say that it’s been written about by black women, whether those involved (Dee Barnes on Gawker.com), or in articles both critical of the film’s representation of women and more lenient (the latter two links from Bitch Magazine). However, for what it is, it’s fantastically accomplished, and as one might expect, it’s the live music scenes which are most compelling. Ice Cube’s anger is not only clearly contextualised, it’s sadly still necessary, which is what gives a song like “Fuck tha Police” so much power even after more than 25 years, meaning that N.W.A.’s music still has plenty to offer to audiences, whatever race they may be.
Director F. Gary Gray; Writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti; Length 147 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 31 August 2015.
I’ve been on holiday the last week, and have just returned home, so I’m a bit late in writing up this review. Apologies if it seems particularly weak as a result.
Director Gina Price-Bythewood’s most recent film Beyond the Lights was fantastic and an eye-opener for me, in being a serious-minded romance film that didn’t condescend or resort to sentimentality. Looking back at her feature film debut from 15 years earlier, all the elements were in place even then, though this story takes place against a backdrop of college basketball rather than music. Both leads (Omar Epps as Quincy, and Sanaa Lathan as Monica) are adept at their respective roles, and the film tracks their friendship (and courtship) over a period of years, from childhood moving into neighbouring Los Angeles homes, to professional careers in basketball. Along the way, Prince-Bythewood adroitly tackles the way that gender influences their respective careers, and though the women’s game is no less absorbing when we see it played, it’s clearly not the money ticket that Quincy has with the NBA. The roles of their parents (particularly Quincy’s father, himself a famous basketball player, played by Dennis Haysbert; and Monica’s mother, played by Alfre Woodard) are quite central to the film, which is a coming of age of sorts, and sets out the generational difficulties rather well, as the kids must emerge from their parents’ shadows.
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood; Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos; Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 31 August 2015.