Women Filmmakers: Annemarie Jacir

I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.

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Women Filmmakers: Sólveig Anspach

I’ve not been having the greatest success at keeping my ‘Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday’ strand going, so I’ve decided to change it up a bit to be more film-focused. I recently watched two films by French-Icelandic director Sólveig Anspach, and they each struck me as interesting works. Digging into her biography, she was born in 1960 of an Icelandic architect mother and a German-Romanian father who had fled Nazi Germany. She studied psychology in Paris, and then filmmaking at FÉMIS, and lived much of her life in France. She sadly died of cancer not so long ago (2015) at the age of only 54. She has a number of documentary works to her name, as well as these feature films below (two of six features she made in total, or seven if you include her TV film) — for some reason each of them having an English language title, even in France. Needless to say, I believe she deserves to be better known.

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Bachelorette (2012)

Like Bridesmaids before it, and the more recent film Sisters, Bachelorette is a comedy about adults misbehaving which is written by and primarily stars women, and which if written by and starring men would probably be atrocious. (These scenarios have almost certainly already been made in that guise. They probably star Vince Vaughn.)

Sadly, Bachelorette doesn’t quite attain the hilarity of those other films, but it’s also fascinating in a quite different way, because all the central characters are uniformly awful, unlikeable people. Sure, there’s a move towards softening some of these characteristics by the end (which, for a film about marriage and strained friendships, is of course a wedding), but that’s really just the very final scene (it’s a bit soppy). For the most part the film doesn’t spare these characters, and yet despite that, the film mostly kinda works.

As for the storyline, it’s Rebel Wilson’s Becky who’s getting married (Wilson sounding weird doing an American accent), but the film is most interested in her closest friends, Regan (Kirsten Dunst), Katie (Isla Fisher) and Gena (Lizzy Caplan), none of whom are particularly happy, and who manifest this in various ways. When they accidentally ruin the bride’s dress (for the benefit of a particularly nasty joke at Becky’s expense), they end up having to call in favours and run around figuring out how to fix it, and it’s this almost-slapstick set-up which is probably the weakest part of the film. However, there are plenty of observant moments for each of these characters, and the acting is of a high calibre, such that it’s never quite as bad as it feels it should be. It’s even a little bit refreshing.

Bachelorette (2012)CREDITS
Director/Writer Leslye Headland (based on her play); Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, Isla Fisher, Rebel Wilson; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 5 January 2016.

Lore (2012)

We’ve all seen a hundred films set amongst the European ruins and detritus of World War II, but this film from Australian director Cate Shortland has an interesting angle to it, as it tracks the travails of Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), a young woman living out in the Black Forest, who finds herself as head of the family when her apparently fairly senior Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. However, it’s filmed from her point-of-view, so the war itself is a spectral background presence and her parents’ fates are mysterious and elliptically presented. The film settles down to being a sort of fractured road movie, as this new family unit moves across the country towards Hamburg and the home of their grandmother. The abiding quality of these (blonde and blue-eyed) children making their way through the contested space of post-war Germany is akin to that of The Road or other similar apocalyptic visions, as every space seems to be suffused by the constant fear of death, or worse. It’s interesting that despite its Australian genesis, the film is shot in German and acted by German actors, which would usually be the kind of weirdly international co-production that should act as a red flag to potential viewers, and yet it’s all done very well and with plenty of emotional power, as Lore finally comes to get a sense of the new reality from which she and her family had until then been so isolated.

Lore film posterCREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert); Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Saskia Rosendahl; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2015.

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

We’re surely all familiar with pop culture focusing on the lives of the ultra-wealthy, whether reality TV shows or movies that lavish attention on their homes, their cars, their social lives and parties, their style, clothes, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. There are film genres (the teen film for example) that have almost entirely rededicated themselves to this niche category of existence, because it’s the American Dream writ large: come from humble beginnings, play the capitalist game, rake in unimaginable wealth on the backs of life’s losers (who slide further into poverty and addiction, something not generally acknowledged), and cash in with homes, cars, et al., mi(se)rabile dictu. So it’s a strange thing indeed to be made to feel… what’s this emotion, sympathy (?!)… for one of these blessed people, Jackie Siegel, a 40-something former beauty queen who married David, a property multi-millionaire, now facing hard times after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage stock market crash. The couple had been building the country’s largest mansion in Florida, modelled after that at Versailles, but it was left an empty shell as work came to halt. It’s clear that their money is built on exploitation and hucksterism (time-share properties), and that they’re still on paper phenomenally wealthy, it’s just that suddenly this family of husband, wife and seven children no longer have the cashflow to indulge their every whim. It’s strangely affecting to see Jackie visit a childhood relation in her cramped suburban property, to see the family have to feed their pets personally (pity the unfortunate lizard), or tidying up after themselves — in short, having to deal with all the detritus and maintenance required by their massively oversized lifestyles. Their marriage is put under strain, as is their relationship with their children, their socialite friends, their family and their company. Lauren Greenfield’s film takes all those glitzy surfaces and scratches away at them, not itself wallowing in the family’s misfortune (though we as viewers may do so) but anatomising its footprint and effects. In doing so, it weaves an entertaining and watchable tale that incidentally becomes a treatise on American capitalism in crisis.

The Queen of Versailles film posterCREDITS
Director Lauren Greenfield; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

Argerich (aka Bloody Daughter, 2012)

The family documentary film is a popular genre, and if you have an interesting story to tell, a rewarding one — after all, being related to the subject gives you somewhat privileged access. In this case, photographer Stéphanie Argerich focuses her camera on her famous mother, the concert pianist Martha Argerich, who was born in Argentina but since relocated to Europe. Given the point of view, there’s plenty of detail about Argerich’s relationships and children (Stéphanie’s sisters, the first of whom was raised more or less as an orphan, and only re-entered their lives later on). Through it, one gets the sense of Martha’s single-minded focus on her art — something of an occupational hazard at this level of musical achievement — and her prickliness when she’s the centre of attention. Both as a public figure and as a mother she comes across as uncompromising, but not aloof. To be honest, not being a classical music fan, I didn’t know Argerich’s name, but the archival footage of her is quite astounding, and it seems from what we see that her playing has only become quicker and more forceful with age. However unforced and verité it appears from the handheld camerawork, it’s clearly a carefully structured film, and presents an interesting story from a well-connected viewpoint, incidentally imparting a sense of the peripatetic lifestyle of the concert pianist.

Argerich film posterCREDITS
Director Stéphanie Argerich; Cinematographers Argerich and Luc Peter; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA)
The Book of Life (2014, USA)
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France)
Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA)
Notting Hill (1999, UK)
Pitch Perfect (2012, USA)
Premium Rush (2012, USA)
Wild Card (2015, USA)

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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, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)

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שומרי הסף Shomrei Hasaf (The Gatekeepers, 2012)

It’s fair to say that Israel’s relationship with Palestine has always been a hot topic issue, but rarely moreso than now. Of course, anyone who engages with social networking even a little bit — whether online or with other human beings in what we call real life — will probably be weary of hearing further opinions on the conflict. There’s a lot of them out there, and most are backed up by very little historical context or understanding of the region, so needless to say, I’m not going to offer mine. However, what this recent documentary provides is a fascinating insight from within the leadership of one of Israel’s most shadowy organisations, the Shin Bet — their internal security service (presumably a bit like MI5 in the UK, or the FBI in the US). Six of its former leaders speak to camera about their experiences during their tenure, which cover the last 30 years of the region’s history. Being in such a politicised role, as basically the only publically identified representative of the organisation, each is understandably eloquent in recounting their viewpoint, though for the same reason surprisingly candid in their assessments of the situation. There’s some head-on engagement with the dubious morality of a lot of their work, and a frank appreciation of the need to constantly engage with and find a compromise with Palestine (a stance not always appreciated by hardliners within Israel, whose response to the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s and to their architect, Yitzhak Rabin, is one of the issues covered). As a documentary, it follows the talking heads format fairly closely, but intercuts archival footage (including some rather raw aerial footage of ‘terrorists’ being targeted on the streets and in their homes) as well as animations illustrating some key situations for which only still photos exist. What elevates it is the perspective its subjects offer, which is particularly interesting mainly because their tone is so far removed from the more breathless reportage that most media sources offer (this is not simplistic one-sided pro-Palestine or pro-Israel hectoring). The measured words and outspoken criticisms of these lifetime spooks is a rejoinder to any simple-minded analysis of the region’s issues, making one hope (even as such hope seems particularly stretched at the moment) that some resolution can someday be found.

The Gatekeepers film posterCREDITS
Director Dror Moreh דרור מורה; Cinematographer Avner Shahaf אבנר שחף; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 5 August 2014.

Upside Down (2012)

I saw this as the closing film of London’s Sci-Fi Film Festival in May, and I was hoping to write about it earlier, but what I can say, it took me some time to come to terms with what must surely rank as the silliest film I’ve seen in the last year. There is quite a lot to enjoy in the film, especially at the level of set design, special effects and cinematography. Sadly this doesn’t extend to the script, with its ridiculously improbable physics and reliance on creaky plot devices that would have seemed cliched in a romantic movie of a hundred years ago and which lack the classic timelessness that perhaps the writer/director hoped for. It probably doesn’t help that the young leads — an English actor with whose work I was not previously familiar, and the perky Kirsten Dunst — don’t really have the charisma to make these lovers fully believable. However, the chief issue is also the central premise of the film: that there are two planets so closely interrelated that buildings can be constructed between the two, but between which characters are not allowed to travel (it’s the classic upstairs-downstairs class-based scenario). In some ways it’s a productive metaphor, this idea that different classes literally live on different planets which are nevertheless so close that they can be seen from one another. The two central characters thus only meet because they’ve managed to find a secretive mountaintop that brings them almost within touching distance — a mountaintop, it must be said, that only they appear to know about and which they seem to be able to reach at very short notice. And then there’s the way the gravitational pull of each planet exerts itself only over those who are from that place, along with an extra kicker that you gradually burn up the longer you spend away from your home, meaning our male protagonist must weight himself down in order to visit his beloved on her planet and can only be with her for a short time. Oh and the writer has added a bit of selective amnesia for the heroine. The more one thinks about these plot manipulations, the more one’s head hurts, but it’s never really possible to overlook them or excuse their stupidity, no matter how compelling the film can be in other respects. A noble failure, then, perhaps.

Upside Down film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Juan Diego Solanas; Cinematographer Pierre Gill; Starring Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Sunday 4 May 2014.