Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017

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Shoot the Messenger (2006)

A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ngozi Onwurah | Writer Sharon Foster | Cinematographer David Katznelson | Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird | Length 89 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016

Là-bas (Down There, 2006)

A Nos Amours, a collective dedicated to the highest ideals of cinema as art, has been screening month by month over the past few years all the works of Chantal Akerman, of which this was the penultimate instalment. So it was hugely saddening to hear of her death since I saw this film only a week ago. She will always be remembered for the great Jeanne Dielman (1975), not to mention her other major films of the 1970s including Je tu il elle (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978), a personal favourite. Her newest film, No Home Movie, will be screening on 30 October (I already have my tickets) and there’s a major installation/exhibition at Ambika P3 starting on that date also, so there remains a chance for film lovers to celebrate her work here in London.


I don’t think there’s any easy way in to Akerman’s work, but Down There probably isn’t it. It makes very few concessions to audience pleasure, but it is after its fashion very rigorous about what it presents. The film consists mostly of fixed views from within a Tel Aviv apartment, shot on a grainy video through the close-set blinds of the apartment, both showing the world outside (neighbouring apartment blocks and these vague glimpses we get of their residents going about their lives) at the same time as presenting an idea of entrapment. It’s a personal essay film, dealing with Akerman’s time living in Israel and her relationship to that country, which can at best be said to be ambivalent. Periodic voiceovers have Akerman musing on her situation, on what’s been happening outside her apartment block (a recent explosion) and on her family history, while we also hear her take phone calls and brush people off. It makes for a suffocating sense of (self) imprisonment only lifted towards the end by a brief sequence on a beach, and some shots that aren’t taken through the blinds. Down There may not be the easiest film to approach, but it feels like a very intimate, artistic take on personal history and Jewish identity.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: A Nos Amours Chantal Akerman Retrospective
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman | Cinematographers Chantal Akerman and Robert Fenz | Length 78 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 1 October 2015

Material Girls (2006)

It turns out I wasn’t done with the trashy post-Mean Girls teen films this weekend, because on Sunday I watched this effort showcasing Disney Channel stars the Duff sisters (Hilary and Haylie) with an obviously referential title (it even uses similar graphic design on the poster). It also gained some really very negative reviews but it’s not quite as bad as those suggest. Not that I’m trying to reclaim it as a misunderstood masterpiece: it’s pretty stupid. Basically our wealthy teen heroes, Tanzie and Ava, live as socialites on their late father’s cosmetics empire wealth, while occasionally stopping by the office to check in with managing director Tommy (Brent Spiner). Well, events transpire, their company is under threat, their wealth is taken from them, and in a moment of stupidity Tanzie burns down their mansion, leaving them to live with their housekeeper and do things like regular people. And so… look I can’t even be bothered continuing the plot summary. Who cares? There’s a surprising range of roles for proper actors (Anjelica Huston and Lukas Haas both pop up), called upon to prop up a ridiculous plot that barely makes sense at times, but I found the leads to be more charming than their Razzie Award nominations suggest, and it has a sort of easily digestible soap opera likeability.


FILM REVIEW
Director Martha Coolidge | Writer John Quaintance, Jessica O’Toole and Amy Rardin | Cinematographer Johnny E. Jensen | Starring Hilary Duff, Haylie Duff, Brent Spiner, Anjelica Huston, Lukas Haas | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 16 August 2015

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. ***

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)


FILM REVIEW: Fast and Furious Week || Director Justin Lin | Writer Chris Morgan | Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon | Starring Lucas Black, Sung Kang, Nathalie Kelley, Bow Wow | Length 104 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), Tuesday 14 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

Sharing none of the cast of the previous two films in the franchise (save for a very brief Vin Diesel cameo near the end), I was not expecting to like this third instalment at all. But in some respects, this may be the best of the first three films; it’s certainly the one I’d most want to watch again. It may even be the reason for the franchise’s continued presence on our screens (though its lower box office takings suggest that may not be strictly true). In any case, the director of this film — Justin Lin, an American of Taiwanese extraction — went on to helm the following three films, so the producers clearly saw something here too.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)


FILM REVIEW || Director Gore Verbinski | Writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio | Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski | Starring Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Bill Nighy | Length 151 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 23 April 2013 || My Rating 1.5 stars disappointing


© Walt Disney Pictures

Whatever the drawbacks of its source material (it’s based on a carnival ride at Disneyworld, after all), the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003) was at least proficient entertainment with some good actors thrown into the mix. In extending the franchise, the filmmakers have crammed in a whole lot more attractively-shot theme park diversions but seem to have lost a few elements that (for me, at least) make for a good film watching experience.

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