The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.
The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).
It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 October 2018.
Upon the UK cinematic release today of comedy-drama Brittany Runs a Marathon, I’ve been looking back at this popular hybrid generic form, and wanted to finish with one of the best American examples of the past year, which deftly blends a pathos-filled dramatic story of a writer hitting the bottom with clear comedy notes (impossible to avoid with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as your leads), with a side of criminal capers.
What I’ve enjoyed most about both of Marielle Heller’s films as director (she also made 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is the empathy and humanity she affords to people who are, pretty clearly, quite bitter and caustic people — the sense that maybe the way they are has been shaped by their environment and their struggles with depression, and that maybe they’re not fundamentally bad people. Melissa McCarthy’s washed-up novelist Lee Israel (and as with Destroyer, I’m reminded this is a generic archetype more usually played by grizzled older men) may be getting involved in criminality but it all seems so very low stakes after a fashion, and she shows apparent creativity in the process of pastiching various authors’ personal style. McCarthy is excellent at getting into this shuffling, self-loathing character, but for me the film is made by Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells in the supporting performances, not to mention the other wonderfully weary bookshop owners who just have such a genuine thrill at these almost-forgotten names from a more literate past. Grant seems to be largely reprising his Withnail performance, with the hindsight of age and mortality, and (notwithstanding the very late and unconvincing swerve into AIDS themes) it’s an act that works beautifully. Dolly Wells’ Anna may be even more heartbreaking in the way she wants to but is unable to connect with Israel. Overall, and despite its embittered central character, the film just oozes with warmth, and a strange glow cast by antiquarian bookshops and squalid NYC apartments.
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based on the memoir by Lee Israel); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 4 February 2019.
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.
Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Twelve: So Long, My Son and Bombay Rose (both 2019) and House of Hummingbird (2018)”
I reviewed Korean-American director Kogonada’s Columbus (2017) the other day, but today’s film is far more specifically about the Korean-American experience, specifically as filtered through the lens of the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles. It’s about battered and impoverished communities trying to co-exist, expanding significantly on the sideplot of Korean shop-owners in Do the Right Thing (1989).
An interesting premise from a different viewpoint which takes the context of the ’92 LA riots and uses it to tell a story of tensions between the African-American and Asian-American communities (specifically, Korean in this case) in LA. It’s all filmed in a languorous black-and-white, though there aren’t really any white characters, and that’s one of the film’s strengths: that it’s about communities you don’t often see portrayed on screen. However, beyond that it feels like some of the ways the film is tackling its themes are buried in the dramaturgy, engineering conflicts and pushing them to a head with a death that feels like a cheap tactic given what has preceded it. The writing emphasises some of the ways that poverty begets violence, as characters seem to have no other outlet for their feelings than with violence, which just infects everyone to the extent that otherwise sensitive, thoughtful people are just screaming profanities at each other senselessly at times — this film is therefore pretty removed from the Tarantino model of urban warfare. Still, for all that I didn’t particularly warm to that aspect of things, it was good to see some of these performers and filmmakers, and I’d certainly like to see more from them.
Director/Writer Justin Chon; Cinematographer Ante Cheng; Starring Justin Chon, David So 데이비드소, Simone Baker; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 18 March 2018.
I have been doing a week of South American cinema building up to the release in UK cinemas today of the Argentinian epic La flor (2018), so I am finishing the week off with a review of a recent Chilean film (albeit with financing from around the continent, including Argentina). I saw this film at last year’s London Film Festival, and it featured high in my favourite films of 2018. It was given a UK cinematic release in 2019 and I got to see it again, and still very much liked it.
There’s a sense in which this film reminded me of the previous year’s Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017), being a Spanish language film about young women set in the 1990s in a verdant forest setting at the edge of civilisation, but beyond that I should probably accept they are doing quite different things. For a start, the protagonists of this film are largely older (there’s one young girl, Clara, who I interpreted as the director’s surrogate) but this mostly focuses on Sofia (Demian Hernández) and her relationship with various boys (and her dad) in the small commune they live in just outside Santiago. It never feels so much driven by a plot as by a need to represent all the different people within the community, and with great economy show how they feel about one another, and it’s Sofia and Lucas (Antar Machado) who become the film’s focus — though never to the exclusion of others.
That may all make it less immediately accessible than Summer 1993, but it’s somehow even more beautiful and poetic in the way that it conjures an era, never heavy-handed in the way it layers on these meanings — there aren’t even any on-screen titles suggesting when it’s set, given away just by the absence of electronics, the older models of car, some of the clothes (though the fashion wasn’t emphasised), the toys, and the music choices (a piece of music by Mazzy Star — in a particularly beautifully-shot scene in a bathtub — suddenly took me back 25 years, and I suppose that was precisely the point). It’s about a time in history when Chile was emerging from a period of dictatorship, but it’s also about the director’s childhood, and it’s about growing through that turbulence and into yourself as a person. Also, there’s also rarely a scene without a dog in it, who become almost as important to the community as some of the adults (at least to the kids, who have pretty conflicted feelings about their parents).
Director/Writer Dominga Sotomayor; Cinematographer Inti Briones; Starring Demian Hernández, Antar Machado; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 14 October 2018 (and most recently at ICA, London, Saturday 1 June 2019).
Another recent filmmaking talent who straddles both American and British film cultures is Desiree Akhavan, who was born and brought up in the States, but lives in London. Her film work feels very US-centric, but she’s also made a British television show, The Bisexual, which like her films explores queer sexual identities.
I’ve been waiting a long time for a Chloë Grace Moretz film I could really get behind (she’s done some good work in some sub-par films), and this film goes some way further towards proving she’s an actor with range — here never better than when she’s just quietly observing. That said, the actor I want to see more work by is Forrest Goodluck, who plays one of the misfits at a Christian ‘gay conversion’ camp to which Moretz’s title character is sent following a rather telegraphed same-sex coming-of-age story. However, in a sense, everyone there is a misfit, and that does seem to be the point the film is working towards.
This is quite tonally different from director Desiree Akhavan’s first film Appropriate Behavior (2014), for though it has moments of levity, it’s mostly quite a quiet reflective film about traumatic events. I was expecting more anger, given the subject matter, but it’s set in the early-90s and so takes on a tone of, if not nostalgia, a sort of hazy ruefulness about past life events. It’s a film about trauma from the point-of-view of someone who has (presumably at great length) started to move past it.
Director Desiree Akhavan; Writers Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele (based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth); Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Ehle; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Sunday 9 September 2018.
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.
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.
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.
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.
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.
Director Frankie Chen 陳玉珊; Writer Yung-Ting Tseng 曾詠婷 [as “Sabrina Tseng”]; Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen 陳國隆 and Min-Chung Chiang 江敏忠; Starring Vivian Sung 宋芸樺, Darren Wang 王大陸, Dino Lee 李玉璽; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015.