Recently, I reviewed the French-set Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017) directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, but his earlier works were made in his native country of Chad, which he left in the early-1980s. As becomes clear in these films, his is a country torn apart by Civil War — more or less constant, but flaring up regularly, since the country’s independence in 1960 — and a result of colonial-era divisions between Arab Muslims in the north, and Christians in the south.
Even by the standards of Sofia Coppola’s films about ennui amongst the lives of the rich and overprivileged, Somewhere is a slow one, but that feels of a piece with its protagonist, movie star Johnny (Stephen Dorff). We open with him speeding around a race track, the camera unmoving as his car loops into and out of frame, repetitively, for several minutes. Other long takes show him sitting prone on his bed or a sofa, watching identical twins give him a pole dance in his Château Marmont hotel room where he’s living. It’s a carefully-delineated existence of perfect boredom, alleviated only by occasional desultory sex with pliable women, and drinks with his friend, all of this taking place again in his hotel room. It’s only when his young daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for a day, and then again for a longer period during which time they jet off to Milan for a press junket, that Johnny slowly starts to re-form emotional connections. Watching this painfully slow process unfolding, via almost impercetible changes in his mood and activities, is the core of Coppola’s film, beautifully shot by her regular DoP Harris Savides. It’s less accessible perhaps than Marie Antoinette before and The Bling Ring after, both dealing with similar themes, but it still has an almost hypnotic beauty to it that rewards attention.
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola | Cinematographer Harris Savides | Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning | Length 98 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015
It can be easy to write reviews of films which are a bit rubbish for whatever reason, but sit me down to try and set out my thoughts about a well-made, well-acted and enjoyable low-key drama in a naturalistic mode, and I’m a bit stumped. That’s the case with this film about the children of a lesbian couple looking for their donor father. It’s an excellent ensemble cast (with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, as ever, standing out as being particularly good), and it doesn’t feel false, not least because the director, Lisa Cholodenko, seems to be drawing from aspects of her own life. Ruffalo’s Paul is living a bachelor life running an organic food shop and restaurant, when Joni (Mia Wasikowska) gets in touch via the sperm donor centre on behalf of her younger brother Laser (yes, that’s his name apparently and no one seems to find it particularly silly; played by Josh Hutcherson), who is curious as to his parentage. The film is trying to get at what it means to be a parent, articulated most clearly by Annette Bening’s character Nicole, a doctor and somewhat controlling mother figure who doesn’t take particularly well to Paul’s appearance in their family life. I liked the characters, I felt I could identify with them (maybe that’s a middle-class aspirational thing) and believe in their motivations. but beyond that I can’t really be any more helpful. A fine piece of work.
Director Lisa Cholodenko | Writers Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg | Cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo | Starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson, Mark Ruffalo | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full. Find reviews for the following below the cut:
Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD) [2D], London, Saturday 9 July 2014 || My Rating likeable
Having recently seen Step Up: All In, the latest instalment of this already numerous if relatively short-lived franchise, I thought I’d best fill out my viewing with the one considered (at least by my friends) as the weakest of the five. I’m pleased to report, though, that I find it just as well-made and enjoyable in a pulpy, generic way as the others. If it has a real weakness, it’s in the fairly bland leads — Rick Malambri as Luke, a dancer and prospective filmmaker, and the ‘mysterious’ clubgirl Natalie (played by Sharni Vinson) — though thankfully their story, which involves Luke’s ridiculously large loft apartment and high-end editing suite, is fairly unobtrusive. Taking the charismatic centre stage is series regular “Moose” (Adam Sevani), introduced in the previous film, and his are-they-aren’t-they love interest Camille (Alyson Stoner), returning from the very first film (where she played Channing Tatum’s little sister). Both are now students at NYU and studying for stuff that isn’t dancing, so their character arc is this tug-of-war between ‘respectable’ professions and the illicit thrill of the dance — and along the way there’s a very odd little hint that Camille is preparing to move on romantically from Moose to a girl in her class, something that’s treated without any fanfare whatsoever. In some respects, the plot is quite similar to the fifth and most recent outing, as the film opens with Luke interviewing street dancers about their tough lives and battle for acceptance in this competitive world, and moves on to the now familiar battle for supremacy with a black-clad macho crew etc etc… And yet, while it may all be blending into a single film by this point, it’s a colourful, frenetic and enjoyable one for all that, with a likeable ensemble dance cast.
CREDITS || Director Jon M. Chu | Writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer | Cinematographer Ken Seng | Starring Rick Malambri, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Sharni Vinson | Length 107 minutes
FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014 || My Rating very good
I recently watched the 1987 film Rita, Sue and Bob Too, because I’m a huge fan of director Alan Clarke and had somehow never got around to it, despite it possibly being his most successful film commercially. It’s billed as a comedy, but it feels of a piece with his other films, which often deal with the violence and degradation inherent in state-sponsored systems of control. The nominal plot involves two teenage girls in Bradford (to the north of England) having a fling with an older married man, but really it’s about the way that working class lives are affected by living on a vast council estate, socially engineered (it seems) to entrap its undervalued residents. While watching it, I flicked over to Wikipedia, as you do, to read up on the film’s background, and there came across the page for Andrea Dunbar, its screenwriter and author of the original plays on which the film was based. Even in the broad strokes of this short entry, it makes for unhappy reading. Dunbar died only a few years after the film, at the age of 29, while her heroin-addicted daughter Lorraine was later imprisoned at much the same age for causing the death of her baby. It’s these events which form the basis of Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, an experimental blend of documentary and staged scenes.
FILM REVIEW || Director David Yates | Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling) | Cinematographer Eduardo Serra | Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Nighy | Length 153 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 1 January 2014 || My Rating very good
It seems nowadays like almost a cliché of the tentpole blockbuster adapted from a popular source text, that the final book will be split into more than one film — as if it’s just so sensible a commercial manoeuvre that why would we question it? It happened with The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (2011/12), and is set to happen with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014/15) — and then there’s The Hobbit (2012/13/14), which has been split into three — so it’s worth recalling that before Deathly Hallows there hadn’t been much of a precedent for this kind of thing (Kill Bill? Though that wasn’t from a novel). Wanting to be faithful to the text and make the inbuilt fans of the franchise happy, and wanting to create a good cohesive piece of narrative cinema, can often pull filmmakers in two directions, so splitting a text can also be a means to ensuring there’s enough time to do justice to the author’s intentions (see also: making a miniseries). And it’s true that previous instalments have had so much plot in them, that just trying to keep up with what’s going on is quite an exercise. So going into the denouement to this wizarding saga, the producers have decided two films are necessary, and who am I to argue?
I had not intended to review this most recent of Godard’s features, but then I had forgotten I’d put it on my rental list, and it just showed up the other week, so here we go. I could tell you that there’s a tripartite structure, like Notre musique (2004), and that there’s even a plot of sorts threading its way through the film (a young woman’s investigation into some gold which went missing during World War II). However, none of that would really capture Godard’s style, which is so elliptical and opaque as to make the film far closer to poetry than narrative. But if it’s poetry, it’s a densely allusive poetry that draws on influences that are largely unknown to me, meaning that like many of Godard’s late-period films, I find it difficult to connect with.
The bulk of the film is shot on board a cruise liner, intended by Godard to perhaps be the locus of late-Western capitalism in all its excesses (and a location which in real life, perhaps fittingly, came to its own rather controversial end a few years later, being the Costa Concordia). There are characters who flit in and out of the flow of scenes, but the chief way of describing the film is in the textures of its images — digitally shot, but alternately clear and cleanly framed, and degraded and pixellated, overlaid with white noise. There are certainly some beautiful shots, but by this point Godard’s cranky sense of “beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order” has become a knotted tangle.
I don’t want to just write it off because it’s not to my taste. It’s just that there’s less a sense of characters and stories involved here, as ideas and themes. They are certainly grand themes at that, taking in the political history of the twentieth century (if not the whole sweep of Western civilisation) and all its traumas. Like Notre musique, Godard remains particularly interested in Israel’s relationship with Palestine, and Jewish and Arabic characters show up throughout. The film concludes with a brief section (“nos humanités”) taking in six sites of conflict from earliest times (Egypt and Greece) to the most recent (Barcelona in Spain, where the recent economic downturn has hit hardest).
The film moves from this wide focus, taking in the locations of world-changing events, to the minutiae of one family living in provincial France at a petrol station, but retains an interest in the grandest of themes (specifically those of the French Republic: liberté, egalité, fraternité) as the two children question their parents. However, by this point I must confess my attention had started to stray under the burden of the film’s unrelentingly discursive style. Perhaps it could be shown on loop in a gallery, but as a cohesive feature film, it is undeniably demanding, and for those with a taste for Godard’s allusiveness, it may well be a rewarding one. I fear I am not yet equal to it.
DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas | Length 99 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013
My Rating worth seeing
Next up: I do still intend to review Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinéma, but who knows when at this rate…
FILM REVIEW || Director Robert Schwentke | Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer) | Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus | Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 9 November 2010 (at at home on TV, Sunday 11 August 2013) || My Rating very good
At some level this is an unlikely franchise — it’s basically just an excuse for lots of quite famous actors to have a bit of fun and, for many of them, to do the kind of action film they don’t generally get to appear in — but as both this and its sequel RED 2 (2013) show, actors having fun can sometimes, very occasionally, translate to an enjoyable cinematic experience for the audience. It may not be thought-provoking or particularly original, but it’s good to pass a few hours with some laughs in the company of some pleasant people.
FILM REVIEW || Director Will Gluck | Writer Bert V. Royal | Cinematographer Michael Grady | Starring Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow | Length 92 minutes | Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Saturday 27 July 2013 || My Rating very good
Easy A is a late entry into that cycle of ‘classic texts given a high school teen film twist’ — the genre largely inaugurated by Clueless 15 years earlier and continued most effectively by 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) — but a surprisingly deft one.
I would, however, put its success largely down to Emma Stone who is wonderfully engaging and funny in the role of Olive, whose character must endure the gossip and slurs of others at school for her easily but inaccurately-acquired reputation for being ‘easy’. In this respect, the lineage it most evokes is Mean Girls (2004), though it lacks that film’s, well, mean streak. That’s not to say that Easy A entirely avoids any slightly lazy stereotyping. For example, having your lead villain (Amanda Bynes) be a bitchy and hypocritical Christian conservative student is hardly a stretch, though it makes her nastiness easy to ignore. It’s also interesting in that I read recently that young Americans who practise religion are often more liberal than their parents’ generation, with so many of those touchstone issues having little traction amongst the young. This all goes to making this film’s ‘social problem’ seem that much more anachronistic: it’s surely not believable that in 2010, a young woman would be the object of so much speculation for this kind of transgression (sleeping around). If it’s a ploy to tap into and comment on current forms of social networking, then the film is doubly out of step, preferring to focus on (strangely high-definition) webcam confessionals.
And yet despite feeling like a throwback to another era, I still find the film by and large charming. After all, this is a constructed movie world, where everyone looks glamorous and your teachers are played by Lisa Kudrow (who seems to be minoring in this kind of film, after her appearance in the woeful Bandslam, and whose guidance counsellor character is sadly no Ms. Perky) and Thomas Haden Church (delightful). Better even than the teachers are Olive’s parents; Olive earlier berates her best friend’s folks for being ‘hippie’, but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s characters are the proper hippies — free-spirited and supportive — and steal the film whenever they’re on screen. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, especially the male leads, but that’s fine: this is a film primarily about women relating to one another and the boys at school — in the film as in the film’s plot — are expendable.
If it’s a minor film in the scheme of things, it’s at least a sweet one. It won’t corrupt anyone (whatever its classification, though a 15 rating seems strangely high), nor will it provoke one to worry about the youth of today. I’m really more worried about the screenwriters.