I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).
At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.
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
Another year (or two), another David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence, in what is becoming something of an end-of-year holiday tradition by this point. However, unlike 2013’s American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook before that, here Bradley Cooper is relegated to what’s little more than a supporting role, leaving Robert De Niro (another recent Russell stalwart) to step in as the main support to Lawrence, which doesn’t entirely pay off. Still, it does mean that romance very much takes a back seat to the ‘based on real events’ story of Joy, a frustrated American housewife who invents… a mop. You get the sense that this aspect of the story, the very ordinariness of her invention, was the draw for Russell, who uses it to craft an arc from Joy at home watching TV soap operas with her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen), to a literal soap opera in which her sudsy invention conquers living rooms across the country via the Home Shopping Network (which is where Cooper comes in). Along the way there’s plenty to enjoy, including a big performance from Isabella Rossellini as Joy’s financier Trudy, but it all fades in the memory rather quickly once the film’s finished.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director/Writer David O. Russell | Cinematographer Linus Sandgren | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 28 December 2015
If like me your experience of Taiwanese cinema is restricted to Hou Hsiao-hsien, then Our Times is going to come as a bit of a shock to the system. Or perhaps it won’t, as it fits pretty neatly into the mould created by US teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is not least because of its retro 90s setting, all bright saturated colours and perky kids, though as it happens the lead male actor (Darren Wang as school bad boy Tai Yu) also looks quite a bit like Andrew Keegan’s Joey in that film. The Taiwanese take on teen romance continues also to favour strong roles for its leading women — perhaps thanks to the women who wrote and directed the film. The story follows Vivian Sung’s dorky Lin Zhen Xin (“Lin Truly” as she’s called in the subtitles, no doubt to emphasise a key pun in the modern-day epilogue) through various travails of the heart (with heartthrob Tai Yu and the squeaky clean Ou Yang, played by Dino Lee). Where it differs from its US forebears is that the tone of Our Times strays frequently from comedy into overt (occasionally even tear-jerking) melodrama at several points, and lacks the tight script of the US film. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this broadly likeable film, even if many of the cultural references go far over your head — certainly the audience of young, presumably Taiwanese, women at my screening laughed and gasped at plenty of lines that meant nothing to me. There’s also an extended subplot (and obligatory cameo) featuring Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau, so that may or may not mean anything to you, but it hardly makes any difference to either enjoying or understanding the film, which is a candy-coloured delight.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Frankie Chen | Writer Yung-Ting Tseng [as “Sabrina Tseng”] | Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen and Min-Chung Chiang | Starring Vivian Sung, Darren Wang, Dino Lee | Length 134 minutes || Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director and leading actor Zhao Tao.
It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director/Writer Jia Zhangke | Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai | Starring Zhao Tao, Yi Zhang, Zijian Dong, Sylvia Chang | Length 131 minutes || Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015
With the London Film Festival just getting underway, I present short reviews of the four films I saw at the London Georgian Film Festival last week.
In a sense, this Georgian film set in the capital Tbilisi in 1992 tells a very specific story to that country, a time just after its independence from the Soviet Union when the country was embroiled in a civil war. Certainly there’s a pervasive atmosphere of malaise and nobody really seems happy, but for the most part the war is not seen, just something people mention that colours their interactions and moods. The film focuses on two teenage girls — the studious and dour Eka (Lika Babluani) and her more outgoing friend Natia (Mariam Bokeria) — who seem to be dealing with fairly typical stuff: boys being bullies, lack of interest in schoolwork, and so on. However, soon enough — subtly and gradually — the mood gets darker. For example, one of the guys who’s enamoured with Natia gives her a loaded gun as a present, ostensibly under the impression it will keep her safe in the lawless time. And so this gun is there, held in the girls’ purses, traded between them, and occasionally wielded in anger, creating an underlying tension throughout. And then, the gun aside, there are little outbreaks of almost inexplicable violence and threat (inexplicable, at least, to viewers unused to the setting). Notable is a rather disturbing sequence with Natia and Eka at a bread line, which leads quickly in to an apparently happy celebration — including a glorious dance sequence — but nothing quite seems right. What marks the film out as particularly good is the way it negotiates these tonal shifts, and frequently cuts away from (or leaves to the imagination) the tipping points of dramatic change, though the lead performances are faultless too. It’s definitely a film worth anyone’s time, whether those who are familiar with Georgia in the 1990s and those, like me, to whom it’s all new.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Georgian Film Festival Directors Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß | Writer Nana Ekvtimishvili | Cinematographer Oleg Mutu | Starring Lika Babluani, Mariam Bokeria | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 2 October 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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW 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.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood | Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos | Starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard | Length 124 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 31 August 2015
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at Odeon West End, London, Friday 17 October 2014 || My Rating excellent
Mia Hansen-Løve is a young French director whose work has been gaining some acclaim on the festival circuit, and this collaboration with her brother Sven apparently springs from his time as a DJ. It’s a sprawling film that charts around 20 years in the life of one central character, Paul (the winsomely smiling Félix de Givry), from 1991 through to 2013, though like most such undertakings he and those around him don’t seem to age markedly (aside from a little stubble and changes of hairstyle here and there). However, this doesn’t seem particularly troubling given the rut of perpetual adolescence he seems to be stuck in, thanks to his career spinning house records at French clubs. To be honest, this isn’t a musical scene of which I have any knowledge, and like most people it begins and ends at Daft Punk (whose twin creators Thomas and Guy-Man have a running gag in the film of being turned away from Paul’s club, due to their level of anonymity). The film does feature appearances from some key musical acts, and includes a brief visit to Chicago, but you hardly need to be au fait with the scene to enjoy the film, as it focuses mostly on Paul and his stunted development and relationships, as well as the rise-and-fall arc of his career. It’s just as well, too, that de Givry is such a likeable screen presence, because for most of the film his character has difficulty dealing with grown-up situations and feelings, and tends to push away those he most cares about. It’s a credit to the director too that such a character in such a setting can still compel, but it does, a beautifully-shot and losely-structured ode to music, and the difficulties inherent in trying to carve out a career within it.
CREDITS || Director Mia Hansen-Løve | Writers Mia Hansen-Løve and Sven Hansen-Løve | Cinematographer Denis Lenoir | Starring Félix de Givry, Pauline Etienne | Length 131 minutes
The cinema of Martin Scorsese quite often deals with self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled men. It’s a place to learn about the contemporary construction of masculinity more than anything else, and this is his latest chapter in that ongoing exploration, placing itself in the milieu of high finance — specifically a “boiler room” stockbroking firm from the late-1980s through the 1990s. This is the domain of self-made man — wise guy, almost — Jordan Belfort, played at full throttle by the still youthful-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, though he at least has the decency to look a little worn by the end. It’s been written up largely as a film of swearing, drugtaking and hedonism, but really it’s another periodic health check for the struggling ideal of the American Dream. It doesn’t preach or moralise, but the message is pretty relentlessly, propulsively, loudly clear for its three hours.
I made the error of looking at the recent 12 Years a Slave somewhat as a film trying to teach us about the evils of slavery — a lesson hardly needed, and certainly not at the heart of the film’s purpose. Likewise, you can’t really wonder if the The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to get across the idea that financial corruption is bad, or if the people involved are morally questionable. There is literally not a single character in the film that has any claim to our sympathies — the closest we get is the FBI agent Patrick (Kyle Chandler), but even he is given to pettiness, and hardly seems enthused by his life. I’d say there’s no one who is likeable, but most of them are likeable enough on their own level, which for most of them is a fairly amoral level. There’s pathos too (or perhaps I mean to say, most are pretty pathetic), but for the majority of the running time you can keep these guys at an arms’ length: they are not like us. They are embodiments of the primal, rampaging id, who have freed themselves from quotidian concerns through their relentless acquisition of wealth. It’s not until near the end, after nearly three hours of their childish petulance, that you get a sense for where it’s all headed — encapsulated by a underplayed final scene (introduced by the real Belfort) which brings Jordan back into something recognisably like our world.
Up to that point, though, things are blackly comic — madcap and slapstick at points — as Belfort struggles to build his wealth after the Wall Street firm where he begins his career goes bust in the 1987 crash. He restarts by trading penny stocks to working-class guys from a dowdy office in New Jersey, moving on to creating and enlarging his own firm with the help of his low-life friends, chief among them the garrulous Donnie (Jonah Hill in horn-rimmed specs and shell suits) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne), called “Rugrat” because of his glaring toupee. He marries a model blonde wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives a hard-partying lifestyle. The movie can indeed be charted largely by Jordan & co’s ingestion of narcotic substances, starting with a hit of a crack pipe with Donnie near the New Jersey office, before progressing primarily to cocaine (taken in various locations and, er, from various orifices) and Quaaludes. Most of the film is structured around Jordan getting loaded (making money, taking drugs), before the final act charts his rocky comedown — crashing not just from drugs and booze, but financially, maritally and even nautically.
It’s a classic story, and Scorsese really attacks it stylistically with all the tricks learnt from his many decades’ worth of filmmaking. It feels like the kind of free-wheeling spirit of Casino (1995), certainly in the glitziness of the enterprise, which matches that of the characters (or at least, their entitled sense of self-worth). DiCaprio gives a narration from Jordan’s point of view, even addressing himself directly to camera in a few scenes, as he explains his criminal enterprise with scarcely-concealed glee. There are freeze-frames and jump-cuts too, but this isn’t the vacuous-style-for-its-own-sake brand of filmmaking that you get from Scorsese’s latter-day imitators (to take one recent example amongst many, in Pain & Gain), but it adds to the deadening affect of this flamboyant world. Scorsese also reminds us that he is deft at comedy, whether it be the earnest discussions of humiliating excess (the dwarf-throwing that opens the film), or a marvellous sequence when DiCaprio needs to return home but finds himself floored by extra-strength Quaaludes — a scenario which might be done with all the hallucinogenic trippiness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but which Scorsese films from a fixed vantage point with no gimmicks or trickery, just documenting the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance, and which is all the funnier for it.
As a whole, the film feels a bit like this, like being the sober one at an increasingly riotous party, with people who are fun to be around initially, but whose drunken antics soon become quite draining. There’s no overt judgementalism about the narcotic excess (there are in fact many open proclamations of how enjoyable it is), but then there doesn’t need to be: this film hardly glorifies drug use, given it chooses avatars who are so existentially loathsome. If there’s a more potent criticism it would be that this remains very much a film about boys; there are women, but they are largely seen through the eyes of the (as I hope I’ve made clear, hardly upstanding) male protagonists, and therefore mostly sexualised and ultimately humiliated, although the warping power of money seems to blind everyone in the film to it. But despite this, it still feels fairly effortless as a film, while managing to give a real — and disturbing — sense of malaise, which, as we see in the final scene, is only just out of our reach and beyond our control.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne | Length 179 minutes || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 27 January 2014