52 Tuesdays (2013)

I saw this Australian feature right after The Diary of a Teenage Girl (they were both released in the UK in the same week) and the comparison between the two is in some way instructive. They’re both films dealing with a teenage girl’s coming of age, diarised in visual form, against a backdrop of parents who keep themselves at a distance from the protagonist’s life. In the case of 52 Tuesdays, whose protagonist is the 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), that distance is because Billie’s mother (Del Herbert-Jane) is transitioning to becoming a man called James. He therefore decides he needs time to himself (no easy decision of course), and so Billie is sent to live with her father for a year (also a fairly distant figure given his busy work life as a chef), visiting only on Tuesday evenings. It’s this premise — which comes about partly due to the filmmakers’ own work/life schedules — which gives the film its structure, as the weeks are counted off with intertitles. Some are very short snippets of conversation (or, more often, lack thereof), but others are extended, and for various reasons Billie doesn’t always visit her mother. The story of James’ transitioning is fascinating yet sensitively rendered, and the film deals to a certain extent with the fallout from that — both in Billie’s life and in James and those around him. But more central is Billie’s own sexual awakening, which comes about as she gets more into drama and filmmaking, recording video diaries which we see throughout the film. There’s a slightly mannered game going on here, limning the divide between fiction and documentary, but you could count the difference between the two films in the way this diary is used: in both films it becomes a point of generational conflict, but here it’s used as a method to try and control and limit Billie’s sexual expression, though this is surely partly due to societal shifts between the 1970s and now on such matters. Even if 52 Tuesdays moves towards a point of resolution that seems unmatched to the gaping emotional wounds that have opened up between its characters (and would surely require many more Tuesdays to reconcile), it’s still a fascinating film and well worth checking out.

52 Tuesdays film posterCREDITS
Director Sophie Hyde; Writers Matthew Cormack and Hyde; Cinematographer Bryan Mason; Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015.

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Palo Alto (2013)

I think we’re all familiar with this type of film. I mean, it’s not a million miles away from her sister Sofia’s work. Gia Coppola’s debut feature deals with white teens living in prosperity in the titular Bay Area city, but laden down with ennui, knocking disconsolately about from house parties to school to family homes, all empty with desperation. It’s an ensemble piece, based on a series of short stories by multi-hyphenate James Franco (who has a sleazy supporting role as a teacher here), but at the heart of this group of schoolkids is Emma Roberts as April and Jack Kilmer as Teddy. If those actors’ names sound familiar, it’s because they have famous actor parents (though Roberts’ aunt is probably more well-known on balance), so that gives a sense of the world of privilege we’re dealing with here. Still, I like this kind of thing, I like stories of aimless young people suffocated by their own artfully-designed solipsism. It’s called affluenza isn’t it? It’s all shot beautifully by cinematographer Autumn Durald, and comes together under Coppola’s steady direction, and I think it’s fair to see all these people know their subject well. It’ll be good to see where they go from here, but as for the characters, they’re largely left in limbo, but I’d wager they’ll probably be fine.

Palo Alto film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gia Coppola; Cinematographer Autumn Durald; Starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 7 August 2015.

Born of War (2013)

I really wanted to like this film. It seems like a worthwhile pursuit, recasting the internationally-set counter-terrorist action thriller with a female hero, fighting the good fight against a confluence of terrorism, governmental corruption and capitalist business interests while dealing with the trauma of her own family background. Sofia Black D’Elia in the central role of Mina does decent work limning these various divides, it’s just that she’s not really given much support from the other actors or, more importantly, the script. A lot of the plot contrivances feel fairly perfunctory in order to move the narrative along, and even veteran English actor James Frain seems a bit lost with some of his lines. It doesn’t help either that the villains lack a certain charisma, with the role of Mina’s tormentor/father, an interesting character certainly, succeeding neither at being a vengeful terrorist or a sympathetic freedom fighter. Still, it’s filmed with panache given the presumably low budget involved, and vigorously works through the (over-)familiar setpieces to set up a final confrontation with a female antihero.

Born of War film poster CREDITS
Director Vicky Jewson; Writers Ben Hervey [as “Alan Heartfield”], Jewson and Rupert Whitaker; Cinematographer Malte Rosenfeld; Starring Sofia Black D’Elia, James Frain; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 4 August 2015.

Butter on the Latch (2013)

I’ve spent my year watching female written/directed films at the cinema, and one of the things that’s becoming most clear is that women’s voices are not well represented via traditional modes of distribution (get an official release slot, arrange exhibitors, organise marketing, posters, promos, et al.). Some of the best work, some of the strongest and most interesting work, can only be seen at festivals or via alternative modes of distribution, with one of the most prominent of these in recent years being the value-added practice of appending Q&A sessions to touring (or live-streamed) programmes of small, independent films. This is the way that US director Josephine Decker’s two recent features have been packaged for the UK, doing a tour of receptive cinemas during early-August.

Butter on the Latch, to be fair, is probably a hard sell. It focuses on a couple of New York women (Sarah Small and Isolde Chae-Lawrence playing characters with their own first names) attending a musical camp/retreat out in the woods, and whose friendship is ultimately tested. But a recounting of the plot would only tell you so much, and would need to be hedged around with all kinds of qualifications, because the style of the film suggests something so much more volatile and evanescent. It has a sort of dreamlike fragmentary quality, leaning heavily on decentred close-up framings of women’s faces, often shot from behind, claustrophobic in its affect, and frequently out-of-focus. This disconnect feels of a piece with the emotional terrain, which I’d describe as being somewhat psychosexual — not perhaps to the extent of Decker’s follow-up film Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, but with strong hints at various dynamics at play between the two friends, as well as a man who is also attending the music camp. However, the febrile style seems to allow for all the possibilities to be in play simultaneously; indeed it would seem almost reductive to speak of events in the film at all except insofar as they reflect an underlying unease between the two women, in which the male character becomes almost fodder. There’s plenty of mystery underlying it all, and if the style can be challenging and even at times frustrating, it also holds things together with a really fascinating creative tension.

Butter on the Latch film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sarah Small, Isolde Chae-Lawrence; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.

Återträffen (The Reunion, 2013)

At a certain level The Reunion poses itself as a documentary about artist (and director/writer/star) Anna Odell confronting her high school experience after 20 years, but it’s never clear to what extent any of this is true or accurate, preferring to stay aloof from such quotidian issues. It poses questions about our relationship to our own past and how we deal with emotional traumas over time, via a two-part meta-fictional framework. In the first part, Odell stages an account of a class reunion in which she arrives and disrupts the nostalgic hazy view the others have of their youthful camaraderie, in a style reminiscent of the awkward puncturing of complacent bourgeois values in Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. The second, longer, part has her then confront the ‘real’ former classmates who were at the reunion to which she was not, in fact, invited. The film is stylistically of a piece for its entire running length, and the shot-reverse shot stagings of her interviews and awkward street encounters with her school colleagues (including one in which an actor who played a role in the first part is approached by the ‘real’ person the character was based upon) certainly distance it from straightforward documentation. It makes for an odd fictional exercise, in which the perpetually deer-in-the-headlights expression of Anna dominates and the audience is challenged to put themselves in her place, and in those of her classmates.

The Reunion film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anna Odell; Cinematographer Ragna Jorming; Starring Anna Odell; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 July 2015.

A Fuller Life (2013)

There’s no doubt that director Samuel Fuller had quite a life, and it’s his autobiography that forms the basis for this documentary by his daughter. The form is simple: a collection of actors and directors — both those who worked with him and admirers of his work — sit in his study and read from his memoirs. So we get the likes of actors James Franco and Constance Towers (whose towering peformance so enlivened his The Naked Kiss), and directors Wim Wenders and Monte Hellman, amongst many others. The first half of the film covers Fuller’s start as a newsboy and copy editor in New York, before moving on to his formative experiences in World War II, while the second half rattles through his film work over the following 30 years. The armchair-readings format is broken up with archival clips, many of them filmed by Fuller himself and taken from his own archives. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formal methods, though his daughter provides a memorable introduction as the camera roves across his study and all the artefacts within it, but this is a solid and fascinating film portrait of one of the great American directors of the 20th century.

A Fuller Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Samantha Fuller (based on the memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller); Cinematographers Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Tyler Purcell and Rachel Wyn Dunn; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015.

Westen (West, 2013)

A few years ago, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) achieved great success in depicting how life was lived in former-Communist East Germany, and now Westen builds on similar themes. Our protagonist is Nelly (Jördis Triebel), who at the start has gained permission somehow to leave East Germany with her son. After a stressful few hours having to undergo humiliating bureaucratic procedures, she makes it across and signs up at a refugee centre, where she is given a bed and a chance at freedom, but little more. Indeed, she finds herself going through much the same bureaucratic procedures, leading her to snap at her interviewers that this is exactly why she had left the East. The drama is located in Nelly’s struggle to gain the freedom she imagined she’d find in the West for her and her son — a matter of passing official inspections and gaining elusive stamps — where instead she encounters only the same petty mindedness and paranoia over Stasi spies that she felt before. There are some subplots of relationships she has with various men within the refugee compound, and her sometimes-fraught relationship with her son, soured by the paranoia she feels, but the film is focused most of all on Nelly herself. Being on screen for much of the film, Triebel does an excellent job in conveying a sense of her trepidation and paranoia — sometimes with very little in the dialogue itself, for she feels guarded and cagy in her interactions, an understandable holdover from her time in the East. The filmmaking style takes a leaf from the Dardenne brothers in its unmoored handheld camera style, often finding itself lagging behind the forward-moving figure of Nelly, though it’s not quite as relentlessly applied as in, say, Rosetta. A very fine drama, all told, and well worth watching.

West film posterCREDITS
Director Christian Schwochow; Writer Heide Schwochow (based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck); Cinematographer Frank Lamm; Starring Jördis Triebel; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 15 June 2015.

殭屍 Geung si (Rigor Mortis, 2013)

I mainly wanted to post a quick review here for my New Year’s resolution (it has a female screenwriter), which is the reason I made it along to an 11pm screening of this film (one of only two in London upon its ‘release’ — I guess the distributors are focusing on the home and VOD market). Those who are more knowledgeable about the horror film form may find more to like here than I did, and there’s a hint at some metatextual thought about acting and narratives: the central character is a down-on-his-luck actor, and scenes play on this self-referentiality. For myself, I found it a struggle to stay engaged, and though the effects have a pleasing visual grittiness, they are so manipulated as to suggest more of a comic book, dissipating any sense of terror (again, this is speaking for myself). Still, there is a really tactile sense of decay in the central setting of a crumbling housing estate, and an occasional voiceover monologue suggesting a more deranged Wong Kar-wai film.

Rigor Mortis film posterCREDITS
Director Juno Mak 麥浚龍; Writers Mak, Philip Yung 翁子光 and Jill Leung 梁禮彥; Cinematographer Man-ching Ng 伍啟銘 [as “Ng Kai-Ming”]; Starring Chin Siu-ho 錢小豪; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Friday 1 May 2015.

The Turning (2013)

The source for this film was a collection of short stories by the Australian writer Tim Winton, so the producers took the decision to make it a collection of short films, each directed and written by someone within the Australian arts world. Therefore you wouldn’t really expect it to hang together so well, but somehow — perhaps thanks to the strength of the underlying short stories — there’s definitely a thread that connects them all, not just thematic but in tone, too. There’s a sort of understated elegiacal atmosphere, of pregnant pauses and long lingering shots of the sky: this is a film very much invested in a vision of its part of the world, with laconic and weary characters. Each shares a story that deals with some kind of turning point in their lives, quite often young lives, but not exclusively. And despite the number of different works, there’s nothing that really stands out as particularly weak or out of place, given that sense of unity I mentioned earlier, though there’s one brief animation that opens the film (“Ash Wednesday”), a contemporary dance piece towards the end (“Immunity”) and another short film takes the form of almost documentary-like testimonies rather than acted scenes per se (“Boner McPharlin’s Moll”). It adds up to a strange, compelling view of Western Australia, though one that runs rather long.

The Turning film posterCREDITS
1. Ash Wednesday (dir./wr. Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (dir./wr./DoP Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (dir./wr. Jub Clerc, DoP Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (dir. Robert Connolly, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (dir. Anthony Lucas, wr. Kris Mrksa, DoP Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (dir./wr. Rhys Graham, DoP Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (dir./wr. Ashlee Page, DoP Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (dir. Tony Ayres, wr. Marcel Dorney, DoP Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (dir./wr. Claire McCarthy, DoP Denson Baker); 10. Sand (dir. Stephen Page, wr. Justin Monjo, DoP Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (dir. Shaun Gladwell, wr. Emily Ballou, DoP Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (dir./wr. Mia Wasikowska, DoP Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (dir. Simon Stone, wr. Andrew Upton, DoP Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (dir./wr. David Wenham, DoP Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (dir./wr. Jonathan auf der Heide, DoP Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (dir./wr. Justin Kurzel, DoP Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (dir. Yaron Lifschitz, wr. Circa Contemporary Circus, DoP Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (dir./wr. Ian Meadows, DoP John Brawley); Writers as above (based on the short story collection by Tim Winton); Length 172 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015.

A Vida Invisível (The Invisible Life, 2013)

I don’t imagine much of Portuguese cinema is strange, oblique and dark, but if you’re judging on the basis of what gets released over here, particularly the efforts of Pedro Costa, then you may come to that conclusion. This film fits into that terrain, and is directed by Vítor Gonçalves, on whose first (and only previous) film Costa was an assistant almost 30 years ago. Well, I’ve not seen that film (nor even heard of it), so the narrative of ‘cult filmmaker returns after long gap’ didn’t make much impression on me, but The Invisible Life is certainly not a film that makes anything in the way of compromise with the audience. It is largely the interiorised struggle of one man with his own vanishing aspirations, as he witnesses the lingering death of a colleague (who might as well be himself in 30 years’ time). I can’t say I followed every twist, especially not as I nodded off a few times early in the film (busy week at work is my excuse, even if the dully bureaucratic surrounds of our protagonist here make all other offices seem lively in contrast), but it impressed me with its single-mindedness.

The Invisible Life film posterCREDITS
Director Vítor Gonçalves; Writers Gonçalves, Mónica Santana Baptista and Jorge Braz Santos; Cinematographer Leonardo Simões; Starring Filipe Duarte; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 23 April 2015.