Blank City (2010)

As part of the my ‘documentaries about women image makers’ themed week, this documentary isn’t exclusively about that subject, but covers lo-fi no-wave indie filmmaking in New York from the late-1970s onwards, many of whose key creators were women.


An interesting enough documentary that marshals a number of clips, as well as rounding up interviews with the key participants in the so-called “no wave” film/musical movement in NYC in the late-70s and early-80s, as it morphs into an anarchic and nihilist cinema of transgression. It’s interesting to see how the early filmmakers were responding to the city they lived in, with all its chronic underinvestment, poverty, drugs and the resulting bohemian artistic scene. They were all largely based in the downtown area near the Bowery, where clubs like CBGB’s could be found, just after the first breaking of punk music and into the post-punk scene. Some of them went on to mainstream success, while others moved far more into the art world, with varying degrees of success. The film is also keen to stress the central role that women played, not just as stars but as creative participants and directors of films within the movement, and we hear quite a bit from them also, like Vivienne Dick, Sara Driver, Beth B, Susan Seidelman and others. In all, it’s an interesting introduction to a fecund era of artistic creation, which could be every bit as obnoxious and off-putting as it could be cool and inspiring.

Blank City film posterCREDITS
Director Celine Danhier; Cinematographers Ryo Murakami 村上涼 and Peter Szollosi; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 December 2018.

A Diptych about the Modern Philippines: “For Example, the Philippines” (2010/2015)

I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.

However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.


Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.

Wake (Subic) (2015)

Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).

If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.

Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)

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.

Continue reading “Two Films by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun: Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010)”

Somewhere (2010)

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.

Somewhere film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Harris Savides; Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

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.

The Kids Are All Right film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Lisa Cholodenko; Writers 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 (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 24 August 2015.

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

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)

Continue reading “May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Step Up 3D (aka Step Up 3, 2010)

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.

Step Up 3D film posterCREDITS
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.
Seen at home (DVD) [2D], London, Saturday 9 July 2014.

The Arbor (2010)

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.

The title is taken from Dunbar’s first play, itself a reference to the street on which she lived, Brafferton Arbor, on the Buttershaw estate in Bradford where both this documentary and the 1987 film were shot. Clarke’s film, as was his wont, opens with a long tracking shot around the estate, starting at its pub, the Beacon, where Dunbar later died. Barnard integrates some of these stylistic traits into her own work, recalling Clarke’s film with similar tracking shots, though most of the film has a sort of steely stillness to it, with clean unadorned frames (not unlike those of Errol Morris, who has his own stylised way with documentary material). The estate remains familiar almost 25 years on, although there are some signs of rebuilding and change to make it a little less unpleasant.

At the heart of the film’s method is oral testimony from those who knew Dunbar, primarily her family. But where a conventional documentary would use talking heads, this one recontextualises the interviewee’s actual words in the (lip-synched) mouths of actors arranged inside and outside their homes. The key voice turns out to be that of Dunbar’s mixed-race daughter Lorraine (acted here by Manjinder Virk), coming to terms with her mother, the upbringing she received, the sense of isolation she felt from her skin colour in such a predominantly white area, and the crime for which she was imprisoned. The other key structuring device is the staging of scenes from Dunbar’s plays in outdoor settings on the estate being silently watched by its residents, as a means of trying to get inside Dunbar’s own life from her perspective. The female protagonist of these plays (Natalie Gavin) is effectively a stand-in for Dunbar herself, and through her words we get a sense of how things were back in the late-70s and early-80s when she first started writing. Additionally, we get a little bit of archival video of interviews with Dunbar from the time.

There’s nothing in the content that sounds particularly groundbreaking, but the resulting film is a beautiful and thoughtful one about difficult lives, and the play of memory over the decades. Each of Dunbar’s three children has a different perspective on their upbringing and on Andrea’s legacy, and it’s perhaps fitting that it’s the theatrical setting where these stories all intersect (specifically, the restaging of a 2000 piece of verbatim theatre recounting some of the same events). It’s a testimony to voices that aren’t heard so much on the big screen, and its focus on the impoverished setting of their lives seems appropriate to a film made during a newly-resurgent Conservative government.

The Arbor film posterCREDITS
Director Clio Barnard; Cinematographer Ole Birkeland; Starring Manjinder Virk, Natalie Gavin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010)

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, perhaps, 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?

What this means in terms of the final film is that the plot’s longueurs are preserved, though I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily. It’s rare in a blockbuster for the action to slow down, but here it does on a few occasions: at one point for an extended animated sequence narrating the backstory to an arcane symbol, and at another for almost half an hour, as the protagonists try and figure out what they need to do, albeit set against some ruggedly beautiful scenic backdrops. It allows some of the interpersonal relationships to be teased out — the sense of resentment that Ron (Rupert Grint) has built up towards Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), and particularly Harry’s relationship with the more intelligent Hermione (Emma Watson). And when they do all figure things out a bit better, it makes them stronger as a group — necessary if they are to face up to the final, looming battle with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

But despite the tangled interpersonal web of the film, there’s also a relative freedom, in the sense that it is set more in nature than previous instalments. Sure, there are still hideaways like the Blacks’ home in London, and an enjoyable caper sequence set in the labryinthine underbelly of the Ministry of Magic (set up by the introduction of Bill Nighy as a new Minister), but elsewhere the film sets itself in the wide expanses of various far-flung locales: an undulating beach; a rocky coastline; a woodland clearing; Lovegood’s little cottage out in the middle of a plain. That freedom to run — whether in chase of or in flight from foes — is captured by the poster, a headlong rush by the characters that pushes the quest forward to the discovery of further horcruxes that will weaken Voldemort, but it’s a feeling that in the film is in tension with those scenes of the protagonists’ confusion, doubt and stasis.

At some level, I’m not surprised to see contemporary reviews exhibiting some disappointment with this instalment, given the way it slows things down in anticipation of a breathless conclusion still a year away. However, in retrospect and in the knowledge that I’m able to immediately move on to the second half, I really appreciate the way that Deathly Hallows Part 1 paces itself and gives more time to the central characters we’ve been following for so long; few other characters make much of a mark, as their illustrious actors are shuffled off into what are basically cameos. If it represents the confused calm before a gathering and inevitable storm, it’s a pause for breath that’s richly deserved by this point.

Next (and Last): Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 film posterCREDITS
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.

Film socialisme (2010)

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.

Next up: I do still intend to review Nouvelle vague and Histoire(s) du cinéma, but who knows when at this rate…

Film socialisme film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013.