I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
Getting his start amidst the lo-fi low-budget talents of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in American indie cinema, Andrew Bujalski has somewhat carved his own place among filmmakers, progressively moving into territory both more quirky like Computer Chess (2013) or more mainstream with Results (2015). His most recent film (which I touched on in my London Film Festival 2018 round-up) has been his most polished — and somehow also most emotionally resonant — film yet, but he likes to dwell in the sometimes uncomfortable territory between comedic and dramatic registers, wringing laughs from his characters even as their situation seems a little more desperate.
Funny Ha Ha (2002)
Stylistically speaking, this seems like a quite different Andrew Bujalski from the one who made the recent Support the Girls (see below), but the sort of loose, improvisational, almost documentary-like style he uses here is very familiar from a lot of contemporary lo-fi filmmaking around the world. It’s all in that awkward staccato of campus conversation, as our protagonist Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) navigates the attention (or inattention) of a bunch of slightly stand-offish dudes, including a particularly annoying one played by the director. I liked the lead actor’s performance very much, which without being flamboyant (or particularly demonstrative) also made it clear where her personal lines were and her feelings towards her ‘suitors’. I think Bujalski only improved at this kind of observational content, and it’s what threads through his filmmaking.
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, 29 January 2019.
Support the Girls (2018)
I didn’t know who Shayna McHayle was before I watched this film, and it’s her first acting role, but she’s now my new favourite actress. Despite Bujalski’s indie-improv background, this feels like a different arena for him, and yet he brings something of that feeling to this piece. It’s a film ostensibly about one of the bleaker environments gifted to us by American late capitalism (a boob-centric suburban restaurant, or ‘breastaurant’ as it were, a family-friendly place in Texas where the waitresses flaunt their assets), but it does a great job of centring the women in this story, brimming over with generosity and care for the women who effectively run this place. None of the men come off particularly well but that’s perhaps no surprise given the establishment — not all of them are terrible, but there’s a lot of sadness, but then there’s a lot of sadness just generally in the film (even as there are plenty of laughs too).
Regina Hall pulls everyone together as the manager of this joint, who truly cares for and goes out of her way to support her staff, who are all much younger and more easily exploitable by the sleazy men in control, like her boss (played by James Le Gros). This allows for a proper ensemble to form around her, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, and finding a point of real warmth and generosity of spirit. There’s a clear story about unstable working environments and the kind of culture that leads to. Everyone is great in this, even when things seem to be falling apart for everyone, and it also manages to make its points about the precarious working lives women like the ones seen here have to navigate, and the untold amount of BS they have to put up with (for example the series of little vignettes of the dudes in the bar witnessed by McHayle’s Danyelle towards the end of the film which prompts her to a self-destructive moment). This really is a great actors film, and unexpectedly feel-good all things considered.
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 20 October 2018 (and again at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 July 2019).
The 1990s and 2000s were a fertile time for films about a very specific strand of Black American urban experience, specifically around gangs, drugs and violent crime. It is beyond the scope of my own lived experience to suggest how this media portrayal might have made an impact on society itself and the perception of African-American lives in the United States, but it is unquestionably the case that these are the topics which were getting funding by the studios, and so filmmakers used it to make some hard-hitting dramas about people living at edges of society. There were of course also a number of rather patchy, exploitative films that just gloried in the drugs and the guns, the hookers and the blow, but occasionally even in this crowded field, a film would have a more nuanced point of view, with expressive acting and a stronger screenplay than often required by those with the money.
There have never been any shortage of filmic depictions of the Black experience of inner city crime, both as victims of it and perpetrators, and there’s already a deep and troubling lexicon of terms to describe these experiences. It feels like the 90s were a particularly prolific era of films about hustlers and thugs in the ghetto, but Paid in Full rises above a lot of the sub-par efforts by telling a story that has sweep and a certain operatic trajectory, without succumbing to some of the mythologisation and worn tropes: in short, it feels rooted in real experiences. The acting is all excellent too, an early pre-The Wire role for Wood Davis as Ace, who sort of brings the whole story together, with more showy turns from Mekhi Phifer and Cam’ron as people more inured to this world. I’ll obviously never really be able to judge its accuracy, but I certainly enjoyed the compelling way it played out on screen.
Director Charles Stone III; Writers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis; Cinematographer Paul Sarossy; Starring Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam’ron; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 4 January 2019.
My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).
Of the horror films which are directed or written by women, ones that dwell on themes of body horror do seem to be popular, and I’m sure plenty has been written about that. Cannibalistic themes have been the focus both of Claire Denis in Trouble Every Day (2001) and more recently in Julia Ducournau’s Grave (Raw, 2016).
This may not perhaps be surprising, given this is a film about a woman progressively pulling away her skin as a form of self-mutilation, but this film is really intensely disturbing. Of course, like any good modern horror film, it’s not just a story of a particular woman (played by the director, Marina de Van), but in a sense a film about dissociative, destructive feelings towards one’s own body. Our lead character is successful in her business career, but there are throughout little vignettes with her work colleagues and her boyfriend, articulating small but noticeable ways in which they control her body — pervasive and persistent forms of abuse which set the stage for her own proactive extension of her bodily wounds. I think there’s plenty that’s fascinating going on here under the surface (if you will), though it all operates at such a pitch of studied, detached intensity that I continued to find it difficult to focus while watching.
Director/Writer Marina de Van; Cinematographer Pierre Barougier; Starring Marina de Van, Laurent Lucas; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 31 October 2017.
It’s probably different to watch a screening of this in a central London cinema followed by a Q&A with the director than to see it on TV at home, but I find it difficult to say anything too harsh about what is evidently an earnest attempt to move Britney out of a certain (virginal) stereotype, while also making a film far more concerned with women’s friendship over time. Some of the plot points are a little leaden, and at times strain too hard for melodramatic resolutions (the script is written by TV stalwart Shonda Rhimes), and there’s some overburdened symbolism (waves crashing to indicate female sexuality comes to mind). However, the film cannot help but exceed all these quotidian referents, by which I mean (and I’m no theorist) that it’s not just a film with actors playing characters following a narrative, but the very definition of what I suppose we would call ‘camp’. For, by virtue of its production and cultural moment, it is above all a Britney vehicle, with all the baggage that entails: it’s an important cultural text of the 2000s (not unlike perhaps Desperately Seeking Susan in the 80s, and indeed Madonna is referenced in the very first scene), so your usual film criticism canards won’t work here. That said, while I do feel Britney’s acting is perfectly credible, Zoë Saldana is the break-out star, stealing all her scenes. It’s an underrated film.
Director Tamra Davis; Writer Shonda Rhimes; Cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards; Starring Britney Spears, Zoë Saldana, Taryn Manning, Anson Mount, Dan Akyroyd; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 15 January 2017.
There are a number of balls in the air in this film — two teenage girls’ desire to play football professionally, a three-way love triangle they have with their coach, the clash of races and cultures between Sikh and anglo populations in West London, and a coming-out story — and it’s to the director and writers’ credit that everything works out so well. That’s not to say it’s perfect — some of those resolutions are a little strained, and I’ve never been a fan of the angular Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an actor or as a love interest (though at least here he’s playing Irish) — but on the whole it’s all rather sweet. Parminder Nagra plays Jess, the character who dreams, as in the title, of bending the ball into the back of the net like her idol David Beckham, while Keira Knightley is Jules, who happens upon Jess playing with her (male) mates in the park and invites her to join their semi-professional local women’s team. Jess’s family have other ideas for their daughter of course (a solicitor, married to a nice Sikh boy), but the film is about Jess realising her dreams and still making her family proud. It all wraps up rather too neatly — and there’s definitely more than a hint of lesbian romance to the two women’s friendship, though that is quashed by the script via Jules’s mother, an underwritten sub-plot featuring the coach, and ultimately sidetracked into another story about one of Jess’s male friends. However, all that can be forgiven, because after all it’s a comedy and thankfully it’s intensely likeable, in no small way due to Nagra in the lead role, not to mention the interest gained from seeing her family’s story.
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges; Cinematographer Jong Lin 林良忠; Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.
I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.
Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)
I was a bit underwhelmed I suppose by the first film in this series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and though I can hardly say the second part has assuaged my concerns and brought me fully into Harry Potter fandom, I can at least report back that it is no worse than the first part. In fact, it generally extends it down into the lower depths of Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures (thus bigger challenges) are lurking. If the shadowy (and non-corporeal) Lord Voldemort was alluded to a number of times in the first film, this is his first appearance as the actual antagonist, which makes it generally a stronger outing.
As it’s a film aimed at children, that still leaves us with the preppy and perky young trio as the leads, whose appeal I am still trying to appreciate, but which may never be possible at my advanced age. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have cannily recruited further British acting talent, this time emphasising the hammy, but in the best possible ways. Most prominently, we now have Kenneth Branagh playing, as he is wont to do (such as in My Week with Marilyn), a heightened and caricatured version of himself — or at least the self I want to believe is Kenneth Branagh. His Gilderoy Lockhart is a preening self-regarding celebrity-obsessed author whose cheerful pomposity is merely a cover for a lack of talent. And then there’s the wonderful Jason Isaacs fantastically overacting as a devilishly calculating Lucius Malfoy, father to one of the more interesting (because morally ambiguous) children, Draco.
However, for the rest of this (even longer) instalment, there’s still plenty of running about, doing stuff, discovering secrets and generally getting into silly japery on the part of the children. If it’s uninspiring in its details (those I can remember), it’s also undemanding on the viewer, though there a few little details added into the mix, such as the incipient racism trumpeted by Draco Malfoy, who objects to Hermione and Harry on the basis of their mixed-blood ancestry (part-wizard, part-human, or ‘Muggles’ as non-magical humans are called here, hence the portmanteau slur “Mudblood”). This is added to the first film’s blatant classism against Ron, ensuring that our trio of questing magical adolescents have at least our sympathy as viewers. The Chamber of Secrets thus keeps the story alive and moving forward, if not adding any greater insight into the trio’s developing stories, or extending the filmmaking skills on show beyond the merely workmanlike.
Next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 21 December 2013.
I suppose having plot-heavy action films is probably nothing new, but it seemed like something that really started to catch on after the success of 1996’s Mission: Impossible (incidentally, would that film be called a ‘reboot’ nowadays?). The Bourne films gave that kind of set-up a real-world torn-from-the-headlines spin, but in this Hong Kong film of 2002 the filmmakers’ plot maximalism is all in the service of very little more than diverting thrills. It does mean that it can be very difficult to figure just what’s going on, especially when there’s little compulsion to try and understand it. The point I suppose is to just go with it. At least one of the three female leads is going to end up on top, so the question is really just which.
The set-up involves some high-tech cyber-espionage, practised specifically by glamorous sisters Lynn (Shu Qi) and Sue (Zhao Wei). Hot on their heels is preternaturally-gifted detective Kong (Karen Mok), whose dorky assistant may be the only male cast member portrayed positively in the film, though there’s also Lynn’s boyfriend, a presence so forgettably underdramatised as to be non-existent. The point is that everyone else aside from these three is basically just a mark whom each effortlessly manipulates, and that’s just fine by me. It’s never really clear quite what Lynn and Sue are out to gain — if there is an explanation I missed it. You get the feeling that in an American remake the filmmakers would be at pains to show that the two sisters are out to avenge their father or some such, but here it’s largely immaterial.
The key to the film is the hunt by the detective for these two women, and what malign forces that hunt uncovers. It also motivates plenty of thrillingly action-filled fight sequences, using all the techniques which by this point have been mastered within the Hong Kong film industry. There are various kinds of weaponry deployed, wire-assisted balletic leaps and intricate martial choreography, aided by the stylised camerawork and vertiginous locations in high-rise buildings. It can all go past in rather a blur, but there’s panache to the editing, and it’s always clear what’s happening — at least within the fight scenes, if not the rest of the plot.
The acting is strong enough to give life to each of these three characters, and Zhao Wei really comes into her own by the close of the film, as her character moves into a far more active role. It’s not by any means a perfect film and the post-synching in particular is rather distracting at time (I understand it was dubbed from Mandarin into Cantonese for its release). However, it’s difficult to really take against it, daffy and digressive as it is, because it is, primarily, a lot of fun.
Director Corey Yuen 元奎; Writer Jeffrey Lau 劉鎮偉; Cinematographer Kwok-Man Keung 姜國民 [as “Venus Keung”]; Starring Zhao Wei 趙薇, Karen Mok 莫文蔚, Shu Qi 舒淇; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 10 November 2013.