A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.
CREDITS Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian; Starring Michelle Krusiec 楊雅慧, Lynn Chen 陳凌, Joan Chen 陳沖; Length 91 minutes. Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017.
There’s nothing particularly polished about this documentary, a sort of extended making-of feature, but it shines in what it captures of the struggle Samira Makhmalbaf undertook to make her film At Five in the Afternoon (2003). It’s also made by Samira’s younger sister Hana (yet another woman making excellent films under the Makhmalbaf Film House banner), herself a teenager at the time, which makes it all the more fascinating. Basically, we see a series of scenes of Samira battling to convince local Afghan actors to take roles in her film (which is primarily about the setbacks in educating women after the Taliban have been ousted from the country). She tries to convince a mullah to drive a cart, and when he starts to feel foolish or inadequate to the task (presumably), she has to convince him not to renege on his word as a cleric. Then there’s her lead actor (Agheleh Rezaie), who takes quite some persuading of the film’s merit, as baseless rumours fly around of the production’s immorality, and that it will kill kids (not to mention require people to wake at four in the morning for several months). Still, we know from the existence of the finished feature (which is excellent) that Samira prevails — the documentary finishes before shooting begins — and we have this document to prove it’s possible for women to make thought-provoking and polished films even under intolerant regimes.
CREDITS Director/Writer/Cinematographer Hana Makhmalbaf حنا مخملباف; Length 71 minutes. Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 31 May 2017.
It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.
CREDITS Director/Writer Amma Asante; Cinematographer Ian Wilson; Starring Stephanie James; Length 93 minutes. Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017.
Surely everyone who likes this genre of film (the high school teen comedy) has seen Mean Girls by now, and either they’re unimpressed or they’re constantly quoting writer Tina Fey’s catchiest lines, possibly online with some kind of animated gif behind them. It’s in a clear line of descent from Clueless (1995) and a template for plenty of other increasingly anodyne takes on the same setting. I’ll admit to loving it the first time around, but I’ve seen it a few times since and I think some of the shine has worn off. Possibly this is down to a certain level of nastiness at the core of many of the characters, Lindsay Lohan’s protagonist Cady included, as she is increasingly co-opted into the vain status-obsessed circle of school royalty, the ‘Plastics’ (Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert). I mean, to be fair, that much is kinda cued up by the title, but it’s sometimes difficult to care about the fairly conventional sitcom-like narrative arc, as Cady goes from geeky outsider to cool leader-of-the-pack, then back to a point of (almost) harmonious resolution. Still, it does have plenty of great and quotable lines, I can’t deny that — it is the film’s greatest strength — and Tina Fey does double work as both the film’s writer and one of its (pretty large and impressive) supporting adult cast. Among the teens, Lizzy Caplan stands out as the alienated and sarcastic Janis, while I always enjoy the appearances of Kevin G and his Mathletes. So I certainly don’t want to write it off; it still has much to recommend it, even if it’s not the enduring class act of Clueless.
FILM REVIEW Director Mark Waters | Writer Tina Fey | Cinematographer Daryn Okada | Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 15 August 2015 (and many times over the past ten years)
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.
Big Hero 6 (2014, USA) Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA) Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan) Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA) Lifeforce (1985, USA) Lovelace (2013, USA) La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy) The Selfish Giant (2013, UK) Somersault (2004, Australia) Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)
FILM REVIEW || Director Irwin Winkler | Writer Jay Cocks | Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts | Starring Kevin Kline, Ashley Judd, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally | Length 120 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 26 February 2014 || My Rating very good
I seem to have a rather conflicted relationship to self-awareness in films: I was quite unkind towards Anna Karenina (2012) and its efforts at presenting the action at times through a proscenium arch as if it were on stage, but elsewhere it’s the kind of thing I love, and I can’t really pretend I’m in any way consistent. The stage is a big feature of this biopic about the life of Cole Porter and his relationship with Linda Lee Thomas, too, but for some reason I’m more sympathetic towards it here. Perhaps that’s because Porter’s life is one very much lived out on and through the stage and performance, so presenting his life as a pageant to his older self, with periodic flourishes of artificial staginess, all seems of a piece to his story. It’s also filled with delightful musical performances of his work, such that whatever its shortcomings, it drew me in quite nimbly.
FILM REVIEW || Director Alfonso Cuarón | Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling) | Cinematographer Michael Seresin | Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon | Length 136 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 December 2013 || My Rating very good
I’d been told in advance that the third film is where the series gets good, and indeed the attachment of director Alfonso Cuarón should surely have been a good hint of this — even if I still at heart feel that this year’s Gravity was overpraised, it’s undoubtedly a visual tour de force, though even of his contemporary work, I recall enjoying his Great Expectations (1998) a great deal upon its cinematic release, primarily for its stylish visuals (if not its Gwyneth Paltrow turn). Something of the same trick has been conjured up here. In just about every respect, this is a far stronger film than the previous two, and it’s the first I can even imagine wanting to revisit.
What with some family commitments and the London Film Festival taking place in October, what I had originally intended to be a ‘Godard Month’ has rather stretched on, and I still have a few films left to review, therefore I may yet be posting Godard Month entries in November…
By the time of Godard’s previous feature, Éloge de l’amour (2001), he was starting to place things in a rather more elegiac emotional register. That film grappled with his ageing, while this one focuses on similarly weighty existential issues — war, death, heaven and hell. Like most of his feature films, it remains concise in its running time while also seeming expansive thanks to his knack of densely layering image, text, music and voices. If at times it feels perplexing, then that’s all part and parcel of Godard’s way of presenting his films, especially in this late period.
I’ve mentioned the dense layering effects Godard likes, but though these are definitely present here, there’s a more uncluttered narrative than has often been the case in the past. The structure of the film is a fairly straightforward tripartite one, split into the “Kingdoms” of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The first section consists of 10 minutes of archival footage and film clips spliced together with some sombre music, which suggests a certain mediated view of the horrors of war and conflict. The last section of Heaven is similarly brief, a pastoral scene (albeit one policed by military guards), featuring a character who has just been reported as having died. But for the most part (Purgatory), the film is set in Sarajevo, at an academic conference where Godard himself is a participant, delivering a lecture about shot/reverse-shot construction, transposing images in front of students just as he’s been doing on film for the previous 15 years or more.
Within this narrative are a couple of female Jewish characters, Judith (Sarah Adler) and Olga (Nade Dieu), each pursuing through their respective means (journalist and documentary filmmaker) an understanding of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. None of this is particularly straightforward and the points that Godard is trying to make are opaque as ever. However, the film is not about suggesting answers as about opening up arenas of discussion, such as the sites of wartime damage in Sarajevo, or the classroom where Godard lectures the students. At the close of this sequence, a question regarding the future of cinema is posed — about whether digital cameras will sustain cinema — and Godard, a shadowy presence in the half light, remains quite silent.
Like all of Godard’s films, especially the later ones, Notre musique remains a film of textures and ideas far more than of plot and characters, and the viewer has to keep that in mind. Still, it’s a film that poses questions about geopolitical security and humanity/cinema’s future, so it was never likely to have a clear conclusion, and the film struggles to outdo its brief but affecting opening sequence of Hell.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Jean-Christophe Beauvallet and Julien Hirsch | Starring Sarah Adler, Nade Dieu, Jean-Luc Godard | Length 77 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2013
My Rating good
Next Up: I’m finishing the chronological journey with his most recent film, Film socialisme. The only other two films I wanted to deal with in my Godard director focus are Nouvelle vague (1990) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998), which I shall try to do shortly, as this project is stretching on rather longer than I’d anticipated!
FILM REVIEW || Director Richard Linklater | Writers Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Kim Krizan | Cinematographer Lee Daniel | Starring Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke | Length 77 minutes | Seen at Ritzy, Brixton, London, 2 August 2004, at Curzon Soho, London, 29 August 2004 (and at home on DVD, Tuesday 18 June 2013) || My Rating masterpiece
There’s a lot to like and admire in Before Sunrise (1995), but in retrospect it comes across as merely a prelude to this second film in the series, which returns to the same characters nine years later. Both Jesse and Céline have moved on in life, and meeting again in Paris, it feels like so much more is at stake for them. This has the effect of sharpening the feelings we are left with at the film’s close, which again like the first is very much ambiguous.
The film itself comments on this ambiguity, by having Jesse address the question at an author’s talk that starts the film (he has written a novel about the events of the first film, and is on a European book tour). In fact, at several stages the characters show an awareness of these very fictional structures within which they exist. However, this never comes across as unduly precious or pretentious, because the film’s focus remains sharply on this specific time and place, and on their conversation.
Stylistically, this is emphasised by constructing the film to take place in ‘real-time’. There’s a brief prologue showing empty locations anticipating the couple’s conversation (just as the first film ended with those empty locations where they had been, presumably a nod to Antonioni’s L’eclisse). However, from meeting at the bookshop by the Seine, via meandering walks around the streets and parks of Paris, followed by a boat ride and a car ride, there are no (obvious) ellipses. Most of the shots are Steadicam tracking shots following the two, so there’s an even clearer sense of geography in place — it feels as if you could go to Paris and reconstruct their walk yourself.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Cinematographers Jarin Pengpanitch, Vichit Tanapanitch and Jean-Louis Vialard | Starring Sakda Kaewbuadee, Banlop Lomnoi | Length 125 minutes | Seen at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Sunday 24 October 2004 and Sunday 28 April 2013 || My Rating worth seeing
There is no doubting that Tropical Malady is a strange film. It is perplexing and operates in registers that few films do, and thinking back on it I really want to like it for what it does, and for being so resolutely unlike other films. It is a film that pushes at the boundaries of what being human means, and what separates us from animals, but it does so in a demandingly oblique way, so much so that I’d actually seen the film nine years earlier but could not remember it at all (though that may just be my own memory being terrible).