Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.


FILM REVIEW
Director Samira Makhmalbaf | Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf | Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori and Samira Makhmalbaf | Starring Agheleh Rezaie | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

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Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003)

Surely Charles Burnett is the most adaptable of modern directors, able to work successfully at all levels of production (indie and mainstream, feature-length, short film or, as here, hour-long History Channel-type TV documentary). This is a film about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave rebellion, but it’s equally about the impossibility of knowing or representing this event, filtered as it is through so many other voices, not to mention experiences of the troubling history of race relations in the United States. Burnett’s documentary presents not just interviews with historians and commentators, but also recreations, recreations of interpretations, and even behind-the-scenes of those recreations. It’s really excellent, powerful stuff, and surely the only film you need about not just Nat Turner, but about the pitfalls of historiography on screen.


FILM REVIEW
Director Charles Burnett | Writers Charles Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg | Cinematographer John Demps | Length 57 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 8 December 2016

Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003)

One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).

It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.

The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.

Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing | Length 551 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May…

New Releases (Cinema)

Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. Anthony Russo/Joe Russo) Surely many people are in the same position as me, of now being quite emphatically weary of superhero movies. I’d largely sworn off them this year (hence no X-Men: Apocalypse for me, no Batman v. Superman), but I dragged myself along to this third Captain America film (more if you include the Avengers ones which also feature most of these characters) because I’d liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) more than many other superhero flicks. Needless to say the demands on “fan service” (catering to the fans by featuring storylines for all the characters, which by now is getting to be quite a few) made it overlong, but there was a general avoidance of extended city destruction and it grappled with more complex moral issues than most of these films manage. [***]

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, dir. Richard Linklater) I saw this twice, because I wanted to be sure whether I really liked it. Granted, it has some serious problems, not least an overly affectionate regard for a group of people (and an era) some might say is beyond reclaiming. That affection goes for unironic female nudity (thankfully fairly brief) and lusty testosterone-fuelled sporting men (though that’s in the title), and yet I still find Linklater’s ability to put together a film pretty peerless, and for all that they were unlikeable characters (for the most part), I found it likeable watching these baseball players through Linklater’s fairly soft-focus filter. [***½]

Evolution (2015, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović) Seen for the second time also; I’ve written up my initial viewing at the London Film Festival last year. Still beguiling and mysterious, though even at its short running length and for all its excellent qualities, the sense of creeping dread and its ominous atmosphere means I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again in a hurry. [****]

A Flickering Truth (2015, dir. Pietra Brettkelly) A documentary about the beleagured Afghan film archives, and their attempts to preserve a film heritage which has suffered through various regimes and bitter warfare. Plenty of dusty shots of picking through rubble, and quite affecting in its interviews with long-standing workers there, who’ve dedicated their lives to these films, though it never really lifts off as a film. [***]

Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier) I wrote this up already here, though already its tinged with melancholy at the passing of its star Anton Yelchin. Now that it’s sat with me for a little while, I think if anything I may have underrated this gory siege film: it may not appeal to those who dislike this kind of content, but it’s done a lot more ably and interestingly — and stylishly — than many of this genre. [***]

Heart of a Dog (2015, dir. Laurie Anderson) A strange little personal documentary by musician/artist Anderson, who narrates a digressive story made up of animation, home-shot footage and various other media, in an attempt to deal with loss — ostensibly of her beloved dog, but at a wider level with her husband and with her own mortality. It seems too ragged to work initially, but it has a cumulative power. [***½]

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, dir. Miguel Gomes) I wrote this up with the other two already here. A bold experiment which didn’t entirely captivate me as it did other critics. [***]

Money Monster (2016, dir. Jodie Foster) There’s an oddly old-fashioned feel to this movie, perhaps because it harks back to Network and Broadcast News and other such newsroom-set movies. The hostage situation that TV host George Clooney finds himself in helps to draw in arguments about modern capitalism and recent financial woes, but in the interplay between Clooney and his producer Julia Roberts, this remains largely a story about a news anchor handling a complex situation. Like Our Kind of Traitor below, it may not be a major work, but it’s an enjoyable watch. [***]

Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, dir. Maïwenn) This relationship drama between Vincent Cassel’s self-assured chef and Emmanuelle Bercot’s (rather unbelievable) lawyer proceeds at a rather strained tempo. It’s not inherently bad, but your tolerance for melodramatic fireworks and exuberant Acting may affect how much you like it. [**½]

Our Kind of Traitor (2016, dir. Susanna White) A straightforward spy thriller with the terminally dull Ewan McGregor in the lead, though Naomie Harris as his wife is excellent, and Stellan Skarsgård runs away with the film as a Russian mobster/money launderer. Because of these performances, it’s actually a lot better than one might expect, and certainly passes the time ably enough. [***]

Special Screenings (Cinema)

Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, dir. Feriel Ben Mahmoud) It presents a broad sweep for an hour-long film and it does its best to fit in some key historical events and personas for a broad audience presumably unfamiliar with the subject. There are some interviews from interesting perspectives on the key issues as the film sees them, although these are predominantly polygamy and the hijab, which given the preponderance of French commentators is a little loaded. The audience I saw it with (primarily academic) came to the consensus that it was pretty simplistic, and notably omitted any class-based issues, not to mention focusing on key male figures in the early history. However, as a basic intro you could do worse, and it’s good to see another perspective on a narrative of Islam that doesn’t cleave to the usual subjects. [***]

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, dir. Aki Kaurismäki) A pendant to the BFI’s months-long Shakespeare season is this Kaurismäki film, which in its preponderance of plot puts it a little out of pace with his other films. That said, it still retains a mordant deadpan humour that works rather well, at least at times. [***]

Losing Ground (1982, dir. Kathleen Collins) I was trying to work up a review of this film, but I find it difficult to capture my feelings upon seeing it. More or less rescued last year by Milestone Video, the founders of that label provided a brief introduction. It’s one of the earliest feature films by a Black American woman (who sadly died only a few years after making it), and certainly doesn’t lack for the quality of its acting, or its unusual setting amongst fairly comfortable middle-class intellectual couple (she is a lecturer, he a painted) — indeed, eschewing the usual ghetto/violent setting of most African-American films probably didn’t help its commercial prospects at the time. In any case, I immediately bought a copy on DVD and advise anyone else to try and watch this film. Some of its technical qualities seem a little ropey, but it has a great energy and a keen visual eye. [****]

Radio On (1979, dir. Christopher Petit) A ‘mystery film’ screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, and it’s fair to say many of the audience were probably expecting something a bit more trashy, but Petit’s homage to German road movies (à la Wim Wenders) still has a sort of slow-burning spell of gloomy depressing English towns appropriately filmed in monochrome. It’s hard to make out all the dialogue, but there’s an energy to its peripatetic aimlessness which is helped along by the choice of music (Bowie, Kraftwerk, all the usual suspects) — well, aside that is from a cameo by one Sting. [***½]

Trouble Every Day (2001, dir. Claire Denis) A new feminist collective focusing on horror movies put on this screening as the introduction to their project, and as a fan of Denis’s work, I felt I should catch up with it. It’s a gory horror film with a hint of vampirism, but suffused with slow-mounting threat (though just looking at Vincent Gallo’s face will achieve that nicely). When it does go gory, nothing is held back, and the mood of frank eroticism only makes the bloody turns the more upsetting. Moreover it’s shot with a lot of extreme close-ups and a grainy weariness that only enhances that lack of distance. It seems to be saying something about the way love is (literally) an all-consuming passion, and in depicting that it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. [***½]

Home Viewing

Cold Comfort Farm (1995, dir. John Schlesinger) Broadly likeable in its way, though at times I couldn’t tell if it was going for warm-hearted satire on the ways of simple country folk, or nasty-edged class-based caricaturing of the yokels. Of course, Beckinsale’s Emma-like central character is little better, yet on the whole it remains fairly light in tone. [**½]

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, dir. Susan Seidelman) You don’t expect a mid-80s US film to recall Céline and Julie Go Boating, but then again why not? The playfulness and feminine camaraderie of that Parisian film transfers well to NYC, and the stars here never looking anything less than glorious — of their time, yes, but never ridiculous. It’s a film about performance and having fun and in the process finding out what you want. It’s a delight. [****]

Down with Love (2003, dir. Peyton Reed) I’ve reviewed this already here, but to recap based on yet another viewing, it’s a hugely underrated masterpiece of 2000s retro filmmaking which both delights in the costumes, set design, and possibilities of the widescreen frame which come from its early-60s NYC setting (although somewhat conflated with the 50s) via Doris Day comedies, Frank Tashlin satires and a hint of Nick Ray. Yet this isn’t ultimately nostalgia exactly — there are plenty of ways in which the zippy dialogue hides darker unpleasant facets to the era’s sexual politics. But chiefly this is a film whose real stars are its (nominally heterosexual, but that’s part of the satire one suspects) supporting players David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, so utterly perfect and so brilliantly played that even my usual dislike for McGregor and Zellweger is forgotten — though in truth, their goofy smiles fit the material quite well. Ah, “Catcher Block. Ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town.” I love this film. [****½]

Lemonade (2016, dir. Kahlil Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles Carter) I’ve listened to the album a lot since first watching this and it strikes me the film is quite a different proposition. If you can believe the album is just about her and Jay-Z you can’t really take that from the film, which broadens the focus, and really allows for a range of black stories and experiences, moving from the specific to the political. It’s ravishing, raw and moving, and it’s definitely one of the best films of the year. [****]

Lovely Rita (2001, dir. Jessica Hausner) As a big fan of Amour Fou, it’s interesting to watch this early film by director Jessica Hausner and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case. [***]

Luck by Chance (2009, dir. Zoya Akhtar) A likeable amusing behind-the-scenes take on Bollywood, ahem, the Hindi film industry. It’s a classic tale of the little guy getting a big break and (almost, maybe) getting corrupted in the process. If I were better versed with the context I’d have picked up on a lot more of the celebrity cameos and maybe a bit of the satire, but it all still works very nicely. [***]

My Life Without Me (2003, dir. Isabel Coixet) There’s a little clunkiness to some of the meaningful symbolism, but as far as films about women tragically dying young this is about as good as they can get, and its probably just as well it wasn’t directed by its producer Pedro Almodóvar. There’s a small dose of whimsical magic realism but it’s mostly grounded in the acting, primarily Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo. [***]

Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, dir. Lina Wertmüller) I was all set to detest this film at the start, with its grimy 70s palette and more to the point a protagonist who is vain, brutal, nasty, misogynist trash. And yet somehow it becomes something different by the end, as he undergoes a gradual dehumanisation when captured by the Nazis, as all of what he considered his integrity and morals (very little he had too, mostly around ‘protecting’ his sisters) are stripped from him. I’m not convinced by the use of concentration camps in this way, as it seems like a cheap exploitative means to making a moral point, but there’s no winners here after all so perhaps I’m overthinking it. In any case, it achieves some kind of cumulative power that is affecting. [***]

Picture Bride (1994, dir. Kayo Hatta) A sweetly sentimental film about early-20th century Hawaii and the practice of arranged marriage, focusing on city girl Riyo transplanted to a sugar plantation with a much older husband and coming to find some value in the life there. Nice performances and a surprise cameo by Toshiro Mifune as an ageing benshi. [***]

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, dir. Mary Dore) A very solidly made documentary about second wave feminism in the US which nimbly flits through a range of issues from a variety of women (of many races and classes), and also looks at some modern expressions of feminist action. I think it does a particularly good job of celebrating and honouring achievements while also acknowledging the range of opinions which exist (and have existed), and that continued action is necessary. It is ultimately about a certain period of history, but it’s not kept in isolation. There are still plenty of stories to tell. [***½]

Sisters in Law (2005, dir. Kim Longinotto/Florence Ayisi) Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one. [***]

Star Men (2015, dir. Alison Rose) A likeable documentary in which four British astronomers reunite in California 50 years after first meeting one another. It touches on the professional work and research each has done, as well as their respective personalities, and cannot help but address mortality. The filmmaker inserts herself as a sort of fan into the storyline, and her style (particularly with the music) seems to recall Errol Morris. Rather devolves into an extended hiking sequence towards the end, but does have some lovely nature photography not to mention some nice insights along the way (not least that evolution demands death to allow new ideas to take root, an observation by one of the elderly men). [***]

Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, dir. Darnell Martin) A very creditable film about one woman’s self-determination and struggle to find her identity in the American south, based on Zora Neale Hurston’s great novel (which I was reading at the same time). It’s made for TV and as such feels a little airbrushed around the edges (nobody really ages much despite its sweeping span), pushed perhaps more than it needs to be into a certain generic mould for such stories, but the acting is excellent across the board and the film is beautifully shot. [***]

Underground (1928, dir. Anthony Asquith) Excellent Tube-set London melodrama with a love triangle which goes awry. Expressive camerawork with a fine new score by Neil Brand. [***½]

L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, dir. Agnès Varda) There’s something almost disarmingly sweet-natured to this film about politically active 70s French feminists, but perhaps that’s the prevailing hippie vibe of its lead actor who travels around the country in a van singing right-on songs about a woman’s right to choose. It’s a good film though and it still looks great, with vibrant colours and a keen eye for framings. Its political message too is warmly inclusive while celebrating the right to a legal abortion. [***½]

Visage (Face) (2009, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) Every great director has their self-indulgent French film which premieres at Cannes and promptly disappears (well it passed me by at the time). It’s a typically visual film, with scenes that don’t seem to hang together, except perhaps as notes towards an essay on grief, loss, the passage of time, artistic creation, things like that. It has a lot of Tsai’s familiar motifs (it basically kicks off with a deluge) and has plenty of French acting greats. An interesting work that would probably benefit from being seen on a big screen. [***]

Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad) I found the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times, but basically it’s about a poor family whose son is struggling to make a better life for himself. Gets a little overwrought at times but mostly is a fine domestic drama. [***]

Criterion Collection Home Viewing

I also watched Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible) (1944/1958, dir. Sergei Eisenstein), L’avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), Pygmalion (1938, dir. Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard), Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee) and Gimme Shelter (1970, dir. Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin) as part of the Criterion Sunday series, but you’ll have to wait for those reviews.

Histoire de Marie et Julien (The Story of Marie and Julien, 2003)

French director Jacques Rivette’s recent death may not have been a surprise, but it was unwelcome for fans of his kind of long-form slow-burn filmmaking — always a rarity on the film landscape — which seems to have aged little in the intervening years, unlike some of his mainstream contemporaries. The 1970s was a difficult decade for a lot of the old nouvelle vague filmmakers — difficult in the sense of seeing them struggle to integrate narrative with a rapidly fragmenting anti-authoritarian politics, though plenty of essential works came out of it — but Rivette continued to put out excellent films in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s that repay the effort in watching them. The 2.5 hour running time of Histoire de Marie et Julien is about average for most Rivette films, but it allows for the development of feeling between two actors who seemingly couldn’t be more mismatched, Polish emigré Jerzy Radziwiłowicz as a clock repairer, and Emmanuelle Béart, who for various reasons doesn’t seem defined by her work. That said, the development of the story makes it clear that they’re not supposed to be, as there are increasingly odd hints that Marie isn’t what she seems. It’s all elaborated very subtly in the filming over the course of the four-act structure, with a certain quality of detachedness to Béart’s performance and the use of various mysterious objects imbued with an uncanny power (something of a favoured device for Rivette). As ever, Rivette’s cinema rewards greater attention from the viewer, so for my own part I can only confess to having watched it at home (never ideal) and that a cinema screening — should one ever come around, and one can only hope that there will be some retrospectives mounted over the next few years — may be the best way to experience his films.


FILM REVIEW
Director Jacques Rivette | Writers Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette | Cinematographer William Lubtchansky | Starring Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Emmanuelle Béart, Anne Brochet | Length 150 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 January 2016

March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.


The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare, 2003)

The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany, dir. John Irvin) [Sun 1 Mar at home]. A rather forgettable and silly little film about a group of musicians in Liverpool led by Colm Meaney’s gruff expat, convening on an Irish music competition in County Clare, where he works out some issues with his estranged brother (Bernard Hill, doing a rather patchy accent). It’s pleasant enough, in a passing-the-time sort of way. **


Divergent (2014)

Divergent (2014, USA, dir. Neil Burger) [Fri 27 Mar at home]. As the second one is out now in cinemas, I thought I’d catch up what I’d missed. There’s plenty to like here, especially Shailene Woodley in the title role of Tris, who doesn’t fit into her society. It’s based on a popular young adult dystopian novel cycle (one of several in recent memory), and I’d guess the vision of society is particularly appealing to teenagers who want to imagine themselves as standing out from the herds of their easily-categorised conformistly slavish peers. So it works on an emotional level, perhaps, but even a moment’s further thought about the practicalities of a society in which everyone is supposed to fit into a single personality type (Abnegation, Amity, Dauntless, et al) — except for (SURPRISE!) our heroine — reveals it to be particularly ridiculous. Still, it all moves along at a fair clip, and films about righteous revolutionaries challenging the basis of society are always fun to watch. **½


London: The Modern Babylon (2012)

London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK, dir. Julien Temple) [Sun 15 Mar at home]. This was always going to appeal to me, what with being quite a London-phile, so it’s hard for me to offer a perspective to those not quite so wrapped up in Britain’s capital city, but I really enjoyed this documentary assemblage of London throughout (visually-recorded) history. As one who has done particularly strong work documenting punk music in the 70s and 80s, Julien Temple naturally dwells at greater length on this era, but it’s fascinating to see the development of the city over time, using archival clips, film and TV footage, and contemporary interviews with witnesses to the past, including a vivacious Tony Benn. ***½


Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany, dir. Éric Rohmer) [Wed 4 Mar at the BFI Southbank (NFT1)]. This is quite the oddest film from a director otherwise known for his small-scale, intimate and improvised relationship dramas. It’s an adaptation of a medieval story cycle by Chrétien de Troyes, dealing with King Arthur and his court, specifically on the journey of the titular character (here translated as “Perceval the Welsh”) through youth to adulthood, as he undertakes tasks that prove his worthiness as a knight. This would be straightforward enough as a standard big-budget epic, but it’s rather as if Rohmer had seen Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac of a few years earlier and decided that that film, despite its cartoonish bloodletting and knights constantly clanking around in heavy armour, was just far too naturalistic. And so here there isn’t even the barest attempt to try and render the long-lost world of knights and chivalry with any realism, as it all takes place on a soundstage with colourfully-painted props and stylised two-dimensional trees, while dialogue is frequently delivered in the third person. There’s a chorus, too, of musicians and singers who stand to the side and narrate some of the action. However, after the initial shock, it all starts to exert a sort of fascinating hold and ends up working rather nicely. ***½


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).jpg

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA, dir. Stephen Chbosky) [Sat 28 Mar at home]. There’s never been any shortage of high-school-set coming-of-age films, and in a sense this story (adapated from the director’s novel about his own upbringing) offers little that’s particularly surprising. However, there are nice performances from Logan Lerman as the shy central character Charlie, and Emma Watson and Ezra Miller as the flamboyantly self-dramatising pair he latches onto, who help him to come out from his shell. ***


The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige (2006, UK/USA, dir. Christopher Nolan) [Sat 7 Mar at home]. I’ve never been particularly enamoured of director Christopher Nolan, who like his contemporary Paul Thomas Anderson has always seemed to craft films which are almost too self-consciously full of their own importance. However, Nolan has tended to show more interest in generic trappings, and at the very least this story of a pair of rival 19th century stage magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman) is plenty of fun to watch. The film delves particularly into class differences between the two, while using its setting and theme to pull some narrative tricks on the viewer, in ways that are far more satisfying than more recent fare like Now You See Me. ***

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

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, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.


© The Weinstein Company

Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.

The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.

D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.

Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.

Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.

© Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.

Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.

Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.

© Winchester Films

Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).

Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.


I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.

Down with Love (2003)

EDIT (May 2016): I’ve upgraded this from 3.5 stars (which I gave it when I reviewed it back in December 2013) to 4.5 because I’ve realised upon rewatching that it is clearly one of my favourite films. It is just such sheer delight to watch Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce in particular.

Occasionally when rewatching DVDs, I like to look back at its entry on Rotten Tomatoes and check what the critical consensus (in so far as it’s represented there) suggests about a film. Therefore I was surprised to find a distinct lukewarmness with regards to this brightly-coloured Technicolor pastiche of 1960s romantic comedies. Surprising because although I can’t honestly hold it up as a masterpiece [EDIT 2016: I can and I do], I do still love Down with Love (I own it on DVD after all). Perhaps telling you about how it provided me cheer on a dreary evening in Prague, when I was travelling around East Europe ten years ago, is hardly effective film criticism, but there you go: it is a zippy, frothy, stylish little film that doesn’t really set out to make any grand statements.

The leads are stylishly iconic journalist Catcher Block (Ewan McGregor) and arriviste naïf and newly-published author Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger), who do their best Rock Hudson and Doris Day impressions — appropriate, given that the film takes its most visible cues from such period comedies as Pillow Talk (1959). Yet, as much as you may imagine that I appreciate McGregor’s mellifluous name, I’ve never been a huge fan of either him or Zellweger as actors. It’s not that they have great chemistry here, but they certainly do both look the part. They wear the clothes well, in other words, and show a fair amount of gameness in putting across such gurning caricatured characters, blending effortlessly into the saturated colours of the mise en scène.

What really sells the film, though, are David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson as Pete and Vikki, the respective editors of the two leads. Sure, Pierce is doing a version of his neurotic character on TV show Frasier, which can hardly have been much of a stretch for him, but his performance also harks back to Tony Randall in such films as Frank Tashlin’s sparkling Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957, and which for the record is a masterpiece). That Randall himself makes a cameo appearance as the head of Pete’s publishing company is just another nod towards that rich filmic heritage. As for Paulson, seen most recently by me as the uptight sister in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), she is unrecognisable here, achieving some perfect comic timing in her delightful repartees with Pierce, and guiding Barbara towards her hard-headed feminist success. Both actors put across a degree of acting brio that lifts the film, and if it never really moves beyond pastiche, it is at least a very accomplished and enjoyable one.

I’ve mentioned the look of the film, all saturated colours in the set design and widescreen cinematography, and bold contemporary fashions. There are certainly far worse stylistic benchmarks to emulate than that of Frank Tashlin (whose pop culture films from the 1950s are particularly worth checking out). Elsewhere, there’s some predictably broad humour in some of the touches, like the anti-war protestors and the ridiculous use of iconic buildings in the intro sequence, where every change of shot — from Barbara’s arrival to her getting a cab uptown — showcases a different (and geographically impossible) New York sight. Elsewhere, use is made of the kind of split-screen techniques seen in Pillow Talk, but for groaningly double entendre purposes.

It would of course be very easy to marshal all this detail as successively damning points against the film’s sunny inanity — like baking a souffle, this kind of enterprise, aiming for light frothiness, can so easily collapse. Therefore it’s up to each individual viewer to judge whether it’s been successful. For me, though, Down with Love is a consistent joy, and one I like to revisit every so often.


© 20th Century Fox

FILM REVIEW
Director Peyton Reed | Writers Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Renée Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, David Hyde Pierce, Sarah Paulson, Tony Randall | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a cinema in Prague, Friday 3 October 2003 (and since then at home on DVD, most recently on Tuesday 10 December 2013 and Thursday 5 May 2016)

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)


FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director John Singleton | Writers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas | Cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti | Starring Paul Walker, Tyrese Gibson (as “Tyrese”), Eva Mendes, Cole Hauser | Length 107 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Sunday 12 May 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Universal Pictures

If the first film was a bit perfunctory with its plot, this second instalment pushes it into the entirely forgettable. The villain here is an unctuous drug dealer Carter (Cole Hauser), whose shadowy trafficking ring Customs have been trying to infiltrate. It’s when they capture the first film’s protagonist Brian (Paul Walker) at an illegal street race in Miami, that their plans take a new tack. Since the first film, Brian has been on the run from the law, making ends meet via winnings from street racing (illustrated in a short film/teaser trailer, included as an extra on the Blu-ray). With the promise of a clean slate, he is now conscripted back into the crime-fighting cause, and must pick a partner. He chooses former friend and ex-convict Roman (played by Tyrese Gibson).

Questions of exactly why Brian needs to get a partner, and just what value street racers have to Hauser’s drug lord, are barely addressed. Maybe they were and I wasn’t paying attention (I concede my mind may have wandered during some of the early scenes), or more likely they just don’t matter. In any case, the film has plenty of ways to distract one’s attention from the gaping plot holes.

Eva Mendes plays the drug lord’s girlfriend — and is possibly a federal agent as well, though the possibility is held out that she may have gone rogue — who glamorously crosses the screen in a succession of flattering dresses. The street racing is still going on, under the auspices of local impresario Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), who has his own little tricks for making the race scenes more exciting (a spectacular and ridiculous bridge jump in the opening sequence, which one of the drivers wisely opts out of). There’s even an all-woman racing crew under his sidekick Suki (Devon Aoki); I am particularly fond of the scene where the various drivers are tinkering with their engines, cosmetically daubed with oil, except for Suki, whose blindingly white dress is entirely free from any kind of smudges.

I’d hardly want to be particularly strident in proclaiming the film’s progressive agenda, though: there are still plenty of scantily-clad women dotted around, even if a macho misogynist Spanish driver gets his deserved and amusing come-uppance at Suki’s driving hands. It is, however, worth pointing out there’s a fairer racial balance in the film from the first one, with more of a buddy-sidekick dynamic at play between Brian and Roman. Some of this may be down to the film’s director, John Singleton — still most famous for his debut Boyz n the Hood (1991) — and if this outing is the most blandly commercial of his films, it’s still put together with plenty of zip (as you’d hope for in a film of this title).

Ultimately, like the others in the series, 2 Fast 2 Furious represents a throwback of sorts. Thematically it’s not unlike a juvenile delinquency film of the 1950s (the title of the series is after all taken from one such), and in style like an buddy-cop action film of the 1980s. This, combined with the sun-blanched Floridian settings, call to mind the recent action of Parker (2013). Neither are particularly groundbreaking, but they do have their transient pleasures.


Next Up: The series gets back on track with a new director and a new location in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006).

All the Real Girls (2003)


FILM REVIEW || Director David Gordon Green | Writers David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider | Cinematographer Tim Orr | Starring Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider | Length 108 minutes | Seen at Cameo, Edinburgh, Saturday 2 August 2003 (and on DVD, most recently Saturday 30 March 2013) || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Sony Pictures Classics

I started this blog as my cinema-going reviews, but I sometimes rewatch old films (or watch old films anew) at home, and I know it doesn’t quite fit into the ‘at the cinema’ theme, but I thought I’d try revisiting a film of the past. It’s now 10 years since All the Real Girls was released. I saw it in the cinema at the time, when I was roughly the same age as the film’s protagonists, and I accounted it my favourite film of the year when a few months later I made a list. I had very recently moved from New Zealand back to the city of my birth (Edinburgh). I was living in the basement under my aunt’s house, and feeling fairly disconnected: living on savings without a job, between relationships, feeling rather transient. I recount these autobiographical details, because more than most films, I really think such details are relevant to my response to this film. Somewhat like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) — which I may have been too young to really appreciate at the time, though I adore the follow-up Before Sunset (2004) — it is one so wrapped up in itself, in the narcissism of its twentysomething protagonists, that I can quite believe it would entirely pass under the radar of anyone outside that peculiarly self-involved age. In this case, the two people at the centre of the film are Paul (Paul Schneider), a directionless small-town lothario, and Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the sister of his best friend who has just come back to town after many years away; their relationship with one another, in the context of their wider circle of friends, forms the narrative.

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