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 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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Director Clio Barnard; Cinematographer Ole Birkeland; Starring Manjinder Virk, Natalie Gavin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.
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)
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.
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…
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Fabrice Aragno and Paul Grivas; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 9 November 2013.
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.
The key, of course, is the cartoonishness, and as with so many recent films, this one is based on a comic book. There are plenty of big action setpieces, but it’s all in aid of a very self-consciously old-fashioned story — something to do with the participants in a secret mission in Guatemala in the early-80s that went catastrophically wrong all being killed off to protect a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, which pulls us into that Cold War world of po-faced 1980s films like Salvador and Missing (one of the participants in that secret mission is played a familiar character actor from the 80s, James Remar), but with a comic cartoon spin. It’s a different way of lightly setting out the collusion of the US executive and military (not to mention the Soviets, who also show up here) with shady Latin-American governments in that era to further their own interests, the application of the military-industrial complex so familiar from, say, Oliver Stone’s films.
The cast is dominated by character actors, including Helen Mirren very much playing against type just by being in this genre (and no doubt she took the gig for the chance to do the action scenes), but also Brian Cox as a camp Russian spy, Karl Urban as an impetuous young CIA agent, and John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman as Willis’s fellow retired spies (“Retired, Extremely Dangerous” is the acronym that gives the film its title). There’s also a small role for Ernest Borgnine as an archivist, linking the film to the 1980s via a different route (Borgnine was a central character on the very much espionage- and military-obssessed, but rather less comic, Airwolf TV series). However, it’s the (comparatively) younger actor Mary-Louise Parker who walks away with the film as the viewer surrogate, Sarah, a regular woman holding down a job at a pension fund call centre, who coordinates a vast array of facial responses and sarcastic rejoinders to the ridiculous situations she’s put in. Some of these skirt all too close to a non-cartoonish world — as Frank, the main character, Willis breaks in rather creepily to Sarah’s apartment and kidnaps her (for her own safety), but the writers don’t shirk away from the implications of this (it’s not played as any kind of romantic gesture that will lead to their falling in love), and I think it’s handled as well as it could be, all things considered. For the most part though, Sarah has the upper hand even over the trained professional killers.
Already this year I’ve seen too many big blockbuster films that are filled with effects and whizz-bang boys-own nonsense but seem like joyless money-making enterprises (I’d say they were made more by accountants than filmmakers, but that’s too much of a cliché — I know some accountants and they’re lovely and interesting people, so I fear its the filmmakers’ fault). I’m hardly claiming that RED is not a money-making enterprise at heart, but at the very least it’s not joyless. It’s fun, and while thought-provoking moral conundrums can be nice, sometimes all you want from your summer blockbuster (or home video rental) is a bit of fun.
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 (and on TV at home, London, Sunday 11 August 2013).
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.
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), London, Saturday 27 July 2013.