Khalik Allah has built up a distinct style over a number of short films and now a couple of feature films — lyrical imagery of people at the bottom of the power structure, previously the down and out denizens of NYC street corners (of his early shorts and first feature), as well as the inhabitants of Jamaica in his most recent feature Black Mother and an earlier short. His filmmaking seems to have predated his photography, but having taken up the latter form, it has become integral to his vision as a filmmaker, it appears. Sound and image, in particular, are usually rendered separately in his films, often working together but sometimes juxtaposed to make points that photography itself cannot always do so successfully. His art feels particularly masculine, though even in the gritty urban portraits there’s a softness to his approach, an empathy so often lacking in such environments. He has also notably contributed to Beyoncé’s film Lemonade as a cinematographer. A number of his short films are available on YouTube, which is where I watched many of them and hence I’m fitting this post into my seen-on-YouTube themed week.
This documentary work is a co-production between USA and a number of Eastern European countries, Poland among them, so it only tangentially fits into my themed week. However, it touches on a common figure in the folk mythologies of all these countries.
A beautiful film, strange and haunting, which fits into the poetic documentary category, for if it doesn’t have a clear ostensible subject, it nevertheless touches on many things in an oblique and allusive way. It’s centred in Eastern Europe and Russia, blending in the fairy tale of the title (told via animation) with images illustrating the continuation of customs in rural and city living in this part of the world, and the tension that exists between them. If I found myself sleepy during the film I was perhaps lulled by the strong sense of calm suffusing the film’s telling. I would want to revisit this though, and other films by the director, because it seems to be doing something more than just documenting the world, reaching to something even rather profound about human existence and the need for fear as a basis for humanity’s place within the world.
Director/Writer Jessica Oreck; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 3 October 2016.
There actually seems to be a large number of Filipino films directed by women, especially along the more commercial, mainstream end of film production. A swathe of comedies and romcoms have filtered through, in particular, to Netflix and much of them have a light, fluffy tone and likeable lead actors (who may be the same ones as we see in the serious arthouse festival dramas, but playing much different characters). Some are fairly tedious in the way of such films, but there are plenty which reward viewing and provide a rather likeable distraction from some of the more serious artfulness we associate with the Philippines and its cinema.
So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May. See below the cut for reviews of…
Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995, UK)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, USA)
Down with Love (2003, USA)
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, USA)
Evolution (2015, France/Belgium/Spain)
Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, France)
A Flickering Truth (2015, New Zealand)
Green Room (2015, USA)
Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland)
Heart of a Dog (2015, USA)
Lemonade (2016, USA)
Losing Ground (1982, USA)
Lovely Rita (2001, Austria/Germany)
Luck by Chance (2009, India)
As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Money Monster (2016, USA)
Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, France)
My Life Without Me (2003, Canada/Spain)
Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, Italy)
Picture Bride (1994, USA)
Radio On (1979, UK/West Germany)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, USA)
Sisters in Law (2005, UK/Cameroon)
Star Men (2015, USA/UK/Canada)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, USA)
Trouble Every Day (2001, France/Germany/Japan)
Underground (1928, UK)
L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, France)
Visage (Face) (2009, France/Taiwan)
Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, Iran)
There’s a slightly muckraking angle to the title which might be more suited to a tabloid, but for all its Nazi referencing (which turns out to be a relatively minor part of the tale), this is a story more about the power of the press at its best, hence the mention of Harold Evans, the key figure around whom the documentary is crafted. He’s the former editor of the Sunday Times newspaper — before one R. Murdoch bought it up, the film is keen to note — and a leading proponent of the kind of investigative journalism which is sorely missed these days as a means to hold the powerful to account. The documentary proceeds in a straightforward manner, using talking heads interviews with some of the key players, as well as archival documents and video footage, to set out its tale of, first, the creation and marketing of the drug Thalidomide by the now-defunct Distillers Group and, secondly, its disastrous physical effects on those exposed to it, particularly the children of pregnant women (the latter group targeted by the advertising). Despite clear evidence of these side effects, the drug continued to be promoted for several years, and then when it was withdrawn, the story of its effects was swiftly buried, largely due to the prohibitive effects of the UK’s libel laws. It wasn’t for some decades until Evans and his team started to expose the scandal, after changes in law and some very carefully-worded campaigning that led to questions in Parliament and therefore made the exposé legally more feasible. The film really does give a sense of the labyrinthine bureaucratic complications to simply reporting the facts, and that aspect of it feels like the kind of story that hasn’t moved on hugely in the intervening years; governments and corporations still regularly collude to protect their interests, and a strong free press is still urgently required to uncover these issues.
Directors David Morris and Jacqui Morris; Cinematographer Clive Booth; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 3 February 2016.
Clearly intended as an hommage to a certain strand of 1970s Euro exploitation flick (Strickland even uses one of Jess Franco’s actors in a supporting role), this is undoubtedly a very odd film. It strips away any of the more overt exploitative elements (there is no nudity or gore) to focus on the erotic transference between two women living together in a small, apparently self-contained, rural community which seems dedicated to the study of entomology — when we see them away from their home, they’re presenting lectures about bugs.
What’s also particularly notable is that there are no men shown on screen at all (or even referred to), so this could be construed as a form of science-fiction perhaps, though in fact there’s really no reason for their presence. The overriding tone is one of mystery, and it allows the story to focus on its chief theme, which is the use and manipulation of power within relationships. At first, it seems as if the older woman Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is dominant, but as the sexual games between the two are repeated, we come to understand that in fact it is Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) who has written these scenarios and is very much in control of the relationship’s dynamics. It’s only when Cynthia becomes bored and increasingly testy about the limits of her place does the drama start to unfold, but when it does it’s a fascinating struggle. For all that it may play out at an allegorical level, it’s also a finely acted chamber drama of sexual desire and control.
Director/Writer Peter Strickland; Cinematographer Nic Knowland; Starring Sidse Babett Knudsen, Chiara D’Anna; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 21 January 2016.
Another story of the New York middle classes from its latter-day poet laureate Noah Baumbach, and however insufferable one might expect it to be, While We’re Young actually treads a rather fine and well-judged line for much of its running time. The overall impression by the end is of it being more a drama than a comedy thanks to its extensive disquisition on ethics in documentary filmmaking, but in getting there it does a good deal of wryly amusing legwork as established filmmaker Ben Stiller finds himself being usurped by young pretender Adam Driver. It’s at its strongest in observing the generational differences between Stiller and his wife Naomi Watts, and Driver and his wife Amanda Seyfried, as the older couple find themselves inspired and energised by their youthful counterparts (I suppose one would call them hipsters). Unlike some of the film’s reviewers, I don’t find them particularly ridiculous, but it’s in the nature of Stiller’s characters to overanalyse such things to the point of ridiculousness, and at that he remains a master. Still, I do prefer Baumbach’s looser collaborations with Greta Gerwig (most recently, Mistress America).
Director/Writer Noah Baumbach; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Grodin; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 21 December 2015.
There’s a powerful intensity to the presentation of this film, which is essentially a courtroom drama. Partly that comes from the fact that it is pretty much confined to a single room, where wife Viviane (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) is attempting to obtain a divorce agreement (or gett) from her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian). The room has a bland, clean starkness, and there are only a few camera set-ups possible to capture the two benches where Viviane and Elisha sit with their respective counsels, and the three judges who sit listening to their arguments. But a lot of the intensity is to do with the mismatch between the unchanging solemnity of this bureaucratic setting and the absurdity of Viviane’s situation, which unfolds over five years, with frequent titles indicating the passage of months between appearances. It’s not just that divorce seems normalised to modern Western viewers, it’s that the religious demands of the Israeli society within which the Amsalems live place all the burden onto the wife, with the husband largely unpunished for making little effort to mount a defence. There are no grandstanding speeches (when Viviane’s lawyer or she herself attempt anything of this nature, they are quickly shut down by the stern men who sit in judgement), it just quietly goes about documenting the manifest absurdities of the process, meanwhile hinting at details of the couple’s life together and the reasons for her actions.
Directors/Writers Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ and Shlomi Elkabetz שלומי אלקבץ; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Ronit Elkabetz רונית אלקבץ, Simon Abkarian Սիմոն Աբգարեան; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 3 January 2016.
Another film I’ve belatedly caught up with for my 2015 New Year’s Resolution (one of the co-writers is a woman), I must confess that I’m not familiar with the source material or either of the two previous films in the trilogy, so this is all a bit of a blur. However, it’s an attractively-mounted 19th century period film blur, awash with rich costume design and the swish of samurai swords. If anything, the film resists the lure of its comic-book origins to give in to a videogame or clip-show editing style, and instead essays an almost traditional filmic sense of the jidaigeki, the camera movements more calm than the frenzy of blades one might expect. That said, the heroes all have floppy fringes in the modern style, and beyond their matinee idol looks, I’m not entirely sure a lot more is going on. Still, it’s a good deal better than one might fear and if I just had an investment in the story, this might be a more attractive proposition.
Director Keishi Otomo 大友啓史; Writers Kiyomi Fujii 藤井清美 and Otomo (based on the manga るろうに剣心-明治剣客浪漫譚 Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki 西脇伸宏); Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka 石坂拓郎; Starring Takeru Satoh 佐藤健; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015.
What better time than January to cast our minds back to some of those delights of a December spent at least partially at home, sipping port or whatever is your tipple, and flicking through your TV channels? If you’re in the same place next year you might come across some of these titles.
There are, it seems to me, many different types of film one might talk about. The kinds of productions usually reviewed on this site tend towards the prestige and high-brow — film festival-friendly films, with the occasional popcorn-munching blockbuster towards one end and the frankly experimental/avant-garde at the other, as the feeling takes me. Other sites focus more on cult or genre films (I’m thinking horror and slasher films, as an example) which make up a sizeable but largely submerged world of filmmaking which rarely pokes its head above the middle-brow surface of the kind of cinema I tend to skim across. And then there are various national cinemas: I’ve been dipping my toe into Bollywood over the last year, but it and the other cinemas of the Asian continent have their own almost-entirely-separate ecosystems. So within this vaguely aquatic metaphor I’ve deployed, I don’t quite know where made-for-TV films live — somewhere down in the trenches where weird-looking brightly-coloured sea creatures live — nor do I know quite how heated the discussion around them is, but I’m guessing there must be at least someone enthusiastically poring over the latest Hallmark Channel offering.
Even within this context — and to be clear, we’re not talking the growing arena of TV where quality, high production values and big screen actors make their living (this isn’t Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake I’m talking about) — even within this corny, cardboard and strictly-no-longer-than-90-minute domain, Christmas movies have their own special place. There are cable channels dedicated to them. There’s a whole world of filmographies that seem to include only films with the word “Christmas” in the title. It’s a permanently frosted, be-tinselled and sparkling place of elven delight and gnomic repartee. (Okay, maybe not gnomic.) My point is mainly to say there’s not really much I can tell you about these films, though one of them is ostensibly a more prestige production, made for Netflix under the auspices of famous director Sofia Coppola and with cameos by actually-A-list celebrities, but I’ll get to that later. No, the bread and butter of this genre is often almost indistinguishable when flicking through plot summaries on your favoured service.
All I Want for Christmas (2013) is largely typical of what I’ve seen: it’s filmed in the ever-sunny Los Angeles, in a series of unremarkable (if not bland) office, home and retail settings, with capable actors who probably get a lot of work but aren’t exactly stretched by the demands of a script which credits at least three or four writers. There’s room for a Santa’s elf with magical powers, but this isn’t Bad Santa (2003), and Martin Klebba might in any case be the best actor in this film — that distinction certainly doesn’t go to Tom Arnold, who is beyond wooden as the boss of Melissa Sagemiller’s Elizabeth. Anyway, thanks to magic and some credulity-stretching plotting, she ends up with (or does she?… okay okay you can probably guess which) Brad Rowe’s executive Robert, whom she first meets cute when she cuts in front of him at a coffee shop, allowing for a bit of comedy grumpiness back and forth for, oh, more or less the film’s entire running time. Anyway, at least I think that’s the plot. It’s been a few months since I saw it, and it blends together a bit with all the other Christmas films I’ve ever seen (I have a friend who likes them, and anyway look, you just need to be in the right frame of mind, which needless to say is certainly aided by mulled wine).
At a more competent level of quality (not even filmed in LA) is Hallmark’s 2014 production A Royal Christmas. To say it rips off elements of The Princess Diaries (2001, a film which in the context is a masterpiece) would be to deploy some pretty high-level diplomatic language, but for all that it passes by in exactly the kind of pleasing haze I hope the makers are happy to know they achieved. In comparison to Julie Andrews in that earlier work, Jane Seymour leans a little heavily on dismissive hauteur as the Queen of Cordinia, but Lacey Chabert has a goofy charm as seamstress Emily (yes, seamstress! her surname is Taylor!) who falls in love with normal guy-around-the-corner Leo (Stephen Hagan) who turns out to be… a Prince! Specifially, of the aforementioned Ruritanian kingdom, which luckily is English-speaking and looks like a pretty nice set. Once you have a sense of the contours of this genre, there’s really little point in saying very much more than that it’s performed with all the likeability that its programmatic plot allows.
And then there’s A Very Murray Christmas which is a film not dissimilar in its general effect — in fact, if anything it seems to be striving to be a pastiche of something the directors of the films above might have casually tossed off back in the ‘golden era’ of 50s US TV, and which has probably since been lost to time. It purports to present a seasonal live TV variety show hosted by Bill Murray, with the twist being that the hotel in NYC where he’s filming has been snowed in and none of the scheduled guest stars can get there, so it’s ironically distanced by showing the behind-the-scenes trauma of the staging, as a desultory Murray is consoled by his pianist Paul Shaffer and eventually co-opts some of the hotel’s other snowed-in residents (who are played by famous people, in any case). I admire its spirit of drink-sozzled cheer in the face of adversity, which eventually cedes to full-blown fantasia, but even over an hour-long running time it comes across a little uneven.
All I Want for Christmas (2013)
Director Fred Olen Ray; Writers Michael Ciminera, Richard Gnolfo and Peter Sullivan; Cinematographer Theo Angell; Starring Melissa Sagemiller, Brad Rowe; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (streaming), London, Sunday 8 November 2015.
A Royal Christmas (2014)
Director Alex Zamm; Writers Janeen Damian, Michael Damian, Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky; Cinematographer Viorel Sergovici; Starring Lacey Chabert, Jane Seymour, Stephen Hagan; Length c90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 28 December 2015.
A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director Sofia Coppola; Writers Coppola, Mitch Glazer and Bill Murray; Cinematographer John Tanzer; Starring Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 7 December 2015.