Another day of Amazon Prime films, and what do you know, today is the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover, so pesach sameach to those celebrating it, albeit in rather unusual circumstances this year, which somewhat torpedo the tradition of eating a meal together. Anyway, to celebrate this occasion, I’ve selected a movie with Jewish themes… broadly — look, it’s a comedy and it stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, so I think that’s probably qualification enough.
I’m not Jewish, and perhaps Barbra Streisand’s over-fussy mother might be grating if I were, but the family dynamic is still pretty familiar all the same. Seth Rogen plays a scientist and entrepreneur who’s trying to sell his ecologically-friendly cleaning product, and he takes his mother with him on his sales trip in order to reunite her with her college sweetheart. It’s a slender excuse really to get these two people in close confines with each other, and the road movie is a venerable format for two disparate characters to learn about each other, open up emotionally, and — in theory — grow. All that happens of course, and it skirts closely at times to being treacly, but there’s something in both Rogen (whom I’ve always found to be an engaging screen presence, though apparently he has his detractors) and Streisand which keeps it pretty level. I found this film likeable.
CREDITS Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Dan Fogelman; Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton; Starring Seth Rogen, Barbra Streisand, Adam Scott; Length 95 minutes. Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.
Much of my week themed around films I’ve seen on Mubi will be films, like this one, which are no longer watchable there because of their 30 day turnaround on everything (a new film every day, with only 30 films on the platform at any one time). However, I believe they give a sense of what’s available; at the end of last year for example they did a month of the decade’s classics, which is where I caught up with today’s film.
So, undoubtedly, I slept on this one. Despite making many best-of lists (for the year and now the decade), it sounded from what I heard initially like some kind of oneiric puzzle box of a film, a state-of-the-nation type disquisition perhaps, or some kind of grand folly (in which, after all, Carax has form), but I loved Pola X (1999) so I’m surprised I put this off. It does indeed follow its own strange logic, suggesting both every filmmaker’s favourite topic — a film reflecting on its own creation and the creative impulses of art itself — and something more intangible perhaps: a sense of the world and of shifting identities within it. On a single viewing at home, I can’t really hope to make sense of it all, but it’s a film that clearly contains many readings within it, a dense allusory text (not just to Eyes Without a Face but the presence of Édith Scob and that mask is certainly the clearest of all the film’s tips of the hat) and a magisterial visual style. It could of course be empty — and there are undoubtedly flourishes in there just for he hell of it, for pure fun — but this doesn’t feel like cinematic magic for its own sake, and Denis Lavant in himself has such an expressive register that you can’t imagine the film made with anyone else.
CREDITS Director/Writer Leos Carax; Cinematographers Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape; Starring Denis Lavant, Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue; Length 116 minutes. Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 3 January 2020.
The end of this week sees the release of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is directed by a white man but deals with the African-American experience in the United States (and reminds me of Barry Jenkins’ debut Medicine for Melancholy, also set in that city and grappling with gentrification and how it displaces longstanding communities). Given that racism has defined a large swath of American history, I thought it would be good to devote a themed week to films that deal with the African-American experience, whether from within the community or looking from outside. The first film I’m featuring is a documentary about a particularly racist incident in recent NYC history, dramatised this year by Ava DuVernay on Netflix.
The Central Park Five is a persuasive documentary that tracks the case of the rape and beating of a young woman running through NYC’s Central Park in 1989, and the subsequent arrest and trial of five boys which rested entirely on the evidence of their video-recorded testimony after days of interrogation, without any circumstantial evidence. Modern-day interviews are accompanied by archival clips from the era, and the vast holes in the prosecution’s case, not to mention the frequent corners cut by those involved, adds up to a fine entry in one of the most enduring genres of American documentary: an account of a wrongful conviction. It’s also very much a statement about the operation of race and class in American public and media life, about the way that certain facts about a case can conspire to increase or limit the audience, and the way the media reported on this particular case becomes as much a part of the context of the trial as anything said in court — to the extent that even now people still believe in the suspects’ guilt, against all persuasive evidence.
CREDITS Directors/Writers Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon; Cinematographers Anthony Savini and Buddy Squires; Length 119 minutes. Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 May 2019.
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.
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.
As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.
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.
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.
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.
CREDITS 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.
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.
CREDITS Director Lauren Greenfield; Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz; Length 100 minutes. Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.
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.
CREDITS Director Stéphanie Argerich; Cinematographers Argerich and Luc Peter; Length 100 minutes. Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.