President (2014)

The Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has relocated to nearby Georgia to make this film, a political allegory, set in an unspecified country ruled by an elderly military-garbed dictator president (Mikheil Gomaishvili). Apparent unrest has driven his family to fly out of the country on their private plane, though his grandson Dachi (Orvelashvili) prefers to stay, and as they return from the airport to the presidential palace, suddenly the revolutionary forces become evident and the president must go on the run. There’s relatively little I can say about it, as the story is fairly linear and tracks the president on his journey to escape notice and find a safe haven away from his angry people. However, that’s not to say it’s bad or lacks artistry, for every frame shows the evidence of an exemplary technical crew, while the insight at the film’s heart, though fairly straightforward (the dictator must learn what it is to be one of his own citizens), has plenty of moral power. This indeed is one of the traits of the Iranian cinema that Makhmalbaf has come from, to distill these rather complicated moral issues down to a relatively simple premise. It’s also an unusual perspective to take the viewpoint of the deposed leader rather than his struggling citizens, but it works rather well. It’s not that Makhmalbaf is on his side — no doubt he’s endured similar regimes — but it’s a bold move to situate a degree of empathy with the cruel and unjust. What results is a strong film, and, not incidentally, Georgia certainly has some beautiful scenery and striking architecture, all of which is captured very well by the local crew.

Pedantic Note on the Title: Most advertising and press material refer to the film as The President but the film’s title card omits the definite article, so that’s what I’m using here.

President film posterCREDITS
Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف‎; Writers Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh Meshkiny مرضیه مشکینی‎; Cinematographer Konstantine-Mindia Esadze მინდია (კონსტანტინე) ესაძე; Starring Mikheil Gomiashvili მიხეილ გომიაშვილი, Dachi Orvelashvili დაჩი ორველაშვილი; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 30 August 2015.

Song One (2014)

There’s no doubt in my mind that where and how you watch a film can materially affect one’s appreciation of it, whether at the cinema or at home, with a large or small audience, a receptive or a hostile audience, in a community centre, a church or in a foreign country: all kinds of factors can weigh in. For me, a good film to watch on an inflight entertainment system can be markedly different from what I’d choose on land. I’ve enjoyed some pretty questionable movies when miles up in the sky, quite often fluffy romcoms. And while it may not fall into that generic category, I’m not convinced that seeing Song One on terra firma would improve my estimation of it. It shares elements with the altogether glossier and bigger budget Begin Again, overlaid with an illness framework — in this case, that anthropologist Franny’s (Anne Hathaway’s) brother has been hit by a car and is in intensive care. She comes from Morocco to be by his bedside with their mother Karen (Mary Steenburgen), and from there falls into the company of his favourite musician James (Johnny Flynn), who plays the same kind of folky indie rock that Begin Again dabbled in. Sadly Johnny Flynn is no Mark Ruffalo, nor even Adam Levine, and doesn’t exactly radiate screen charisma, though I daresay that’s the point. Hathaway is always watchable, and there’s an admirable improvised feel to the scenes — certainly, it seems there are a lot of children of Joe Swanberg around in the US independent cinema at the moment. Franny’s quest to use her ethnographical skills to record the world in all its sensory nature and bring it to her brother’s bedside has some of the same obsessiveness that Ruffalo’s character deployed as a producer in Begin Again, and at times threatens to tip into unbearably twee (there are gramophones and vintage keyboards!), yet somehow it’s grounded by Steenburgen’s performance as a liberal, free-spirited mother with a penchant for Paris in the 70s. I could talk myself out of liking it pretty easily, but somehow it worked for me. At least, when I was in the air above Europe desperately looking forward to returning to the comfort of home. The poster says “a moment can change everything”, but a venue can change a film.

Song One film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kate Barker-Froyland; Cinematographer John Guleserian; Starring Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen; Length 86 minutes.
Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

You could make a case — and I wouldn’t be entirely unreceptive to your viewpoint — that this film is a regressive form of faux-naïf haute bourgeoise naffery. I’m pretty sure New Waves have formed in opposition to less provocation, and even if it isn’t quite the desultory cinéma de papa of the past (it has a female writer and director, for a start), it’s hardly challenging in the laidback literary allusions of the screenplay and its bucolic country town setting. There’s also a self-aware subtext revolving around the fitting of literary archetypes to (overtly constructed) characters that reminds me of another French film starring Fabrice Luchini, Dans la maison directed by François Ozon — though that film was more aggressive in pushing its meta-narrative, so if forced I’d generally prefer Anne Fontaine’s filmmaking to that of Ozon.

But already I feel I’m pushing back too strongly against a film which, broadly, I rather enjoyed. If it has that self-aware constructedness that may perhaps be traced to the involvement on the screenplay of former film critic (and Jacques Rivette collaborator) Pascal Bonitzer, it could also be said to critique a masculinist construction of feminine identity by having our central character Martin (Luchini) — and despite the film’s title, his is the point of view around which the film revolves — carefully watch and steer the narrative path of Gemma Arterton’s title character. Arterton is a fine actor who does great work with what is ultimately a purposely thin character, existing in that sort of Daisy Buchanan mould as an object of male lust and projected fantasies of femininity. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it particularly challenging: Gemma is still largely a pawn to the (male-centred) narrative, and some of the comedy at the expense of Anglo-French relations can get a little strained (although there’s a very amusing smaller role for Elsa Zylberstein as a status-obsessed socialite). But as a testament to Arterton and Luchini’s excellent and subtle acting skills, Gemma Bovery does provide a pleasant divertissement.

Gemma Bovery film poster CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Fontaine (based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds); Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 26 August 2015.

Beyond the Lights (2014)

This was released at the end of last year in the US and it should by any reasonable measure have had a UK release too (after all, there’s plenty of dross which does). It’s a story in which the central character Noni and her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver respectively) are from Brixton, and it even has sequences set in this country. And yet it went straight to DVD, which is why the folks from the Bechdel Test Fest thankfully stepped in to give it a mere two (well-attended) cinematic screenings. The film is packed with powerful scenes that seem to be rendered out of raw emotion, not through some intensity of over-acting but just an acuity of writing on the part of director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who has sadly not been as active a filmmaker as her short but distinguished filmography suggests). That said, I’m not sure if I’m explaining its effect well. Maybe “raw emotion” is too portentous a phrase to convey how the narrative operates. It seems to tap into a wellspring of female-centred melodramatic tradition — of the artist (here a pop/R&B singer) trying to reconcile her work and public image with her private desires (towards cop and nascent politician Kaz, played by Nate Parker) — without actually quite being that. The plot synopsis could suggest some kind of Notting Hill refit, except that it’s not a comedy either. It’s a serious-minded romantic drama that treats its characters with respect, even when they don’t respect themselves. It’s also packed with some of my favourite scenes from any of this year’s films, just for their sheer straightforward punchiness, and for Mbatha-Raw’s wonderful performance, which calls on her to shed layers of protective emotional armour not in order to secure a man, but in order to find something within herself that she can be happy with. It’s quite an achievement and it deserves your time.

Beyond the Lights film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gina Prince-Bythewood; Cinematographer Tami Reiker; Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 2 August 2015.

Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg makes films like this one, self-contained little scenarios based entirely around his actors’ improvisations. By comparison, the previous year’s Drinking Buddies was a big budget blowout (even if it contained remnants of his cinematic style), but this is closer to his roots I feel. Swanberg plays Jeff, a husband to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), whose settled domestic life with their infant son is disrupted by the arrival of Jeff’s younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who stays in their basement while she gets over some situation or other. It’s an intimate little family drama played out over the holiday season, though that’s never really a big part of the film. Mostly it’s about these people interacting with one another, as Kelly is at first wary of Jenny’s youth and lifestyle, before finding some common ground and allowing Jenny to coax her into redefining certain aspects of her relationship with Jeff. Even recounting this plot makes it sound somehow more melodramatic than it ends up being, and undoubtedly not all audiences will connect with this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, but it feels like something more natural, reflecting something of real lived experience. Hearing Lynskey’s native New Zealand accent is also somehow reassuring, and reminds me of the vibrant improvised film scene when I was growing up in that country. I hope to continue seeing films like this from Swanberg; it marks a refreshing change of pace from the usual diet of slicker cinematic releases.

Happy Christmas film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joe Swanberg; Cinematographer Ben Richardson; Starring Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 July 2015.

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I mentioned a certain psychosexual element to Josephine Decker’s earlier film Butter on the Latch, and that’s a quality which is decisively extended with this film. The setting is now entirely rural, at a small farm where Akin (improv indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg) has been hired for the summer to help out Jeremiah and his daughter Sarah (Sophie Traub) with their work herding and milking the cows. Akin seems fairly straightforward — he’s a quiet man, married with a child, though he has been trying to hide this fact — but it’s Sarah who’s at the heart of the piece. She’s a complex character, at once ingenuous and manipulative, who apparently fits into a certain bucolic ideal of untainted femininity, but who has a much more earthy connection to nature and, more particularly, to her sexual desires. So naturally things get complicated when Akin arrives. Once again Decker’s filmic style has an elusive, oneiric and even spiritual quality, poetic in its use of out-of-focus shots and off-centre framings, but no mere pastiche of, say, Terrence Malick (go search out Ain’t Them Bodies Saints if that’s what you’re looking for). This all renders the latter part of the film a sort of nightmarish phantasmagoria, or perhaps it’s just a descent into familiar generic tropes, but I don’t think the film is quite that straightforward. It may even be a stronger work than Latch, because it’s in some ways even more challenging — if not necessarily at a formal level, certainly to the idea of male patriarchal violence that is encoded into its setting and which seems to dictate its denouement. Whatever one’s opinion, though, Decker is certainly a filmmaker to watch (which is another way of saying, I need to go back and see this film again).

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Josephine Decker; Cinematographer Ashley Connor; Starring Sophie Traub, Joe Swanberg; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 1 August 2015.

They Came Together (2014)

With 2001’s Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter made a name for themselves in genre parody, and where that dealt with the 80s teen summer camp genre (a largely forgotten straight-to-VHS phenomenon), here they go after the enduring success of the romcom itself. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler are the ever familiar faces at the centre of this one, and both are delightful at sending up all the genre trappings and narcissistic self-involved characters, while also imbuing them with real warmth and likeability. The plot is essentially a retread of The Shop Around the Corner via You’ve Got Mail (an underrated classic from the pen of Nora Ephron), except instead of bookstores we have candy stores, with Paul Rudd being the Hanksian corporate, and Poehler the Ryanesque indie. There are any number of cameos from familiar faces, and lots of big laughs — well at least, so I thought, so I’m surprised to see a number of lukewarm-at-best reviews around the place. It’s hardly substantial, and much of the detail has already passed through my head in the week since I saw it, but it effortlessly pleased me, so if you like any of the creative talent involved, you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

They Came Together film posterCREDITS
Director David Wain; Writers Wain and Michael Showalter; Cinematographer Tom Houghton; Starring Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 22 July 2015.

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.

The Wonders film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015.

Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert (13 Minutes, 2014)

After the commercial and critical disappointment of Diana a year or two back, director Oliver Hirschbiegel has returned to the subject that made his name (with Downfall), which is to say: Nazis. Specifically, this new film focuses on an unlikely resistance fighter, Georg Elser, who tried to assassinate Hitler at the outset of World War II. Obviously, even if one is unfamiliar with the plot, we all know how it’s going to turn out, hence the English title (the amount of time by which his bomb missed its target); the German title instead poses the idea that “he could have changed the world”, to which the unspoken rejoinder is obvious. After the initial excitement of the preparation and outcome of the plot, the bulk of the film lies in flashbacks exploring Elser’s life and influences for the actions he took, in which it becomes clear he acted on his own. Central to Georg’s backstory is a romance with a married woman, Elsa (Katharine Schüttler), whose abusive husband and the way the local village tolerates his evident failings, is symptomatic of a strand of close-mindedness to the threat posed by the Nazis. It is very easy to imagine one as a resistance hero under such circumstances, but the reality of the situation is that I imagine most of us would be like the village’s civic leader, fairly apathetic to the Nazis and happy to do whatever suits him personally. The film makes a great case for Elser’s exceptionalism in such a society, as once again (after the recent Amour Fou), Christian Friedel convinces as a troubled hero in the tragic romantic mould. That said, there’s also plenty of torture involved — those Nazis, they weren’t nice people — so it’s never an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile historical drama with plenty to recommend it.

13 Minutes film poster CREDITS
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel; Writers Fred Breinersdorfer and Léonie-Claire Breinersdorder; Cinematographer Judith Kaufmann; Starring Christian Friedel, Katharina Schüttler; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 19 July 2015.

She’s Funny That Way (2014)

At a certain level this film by ageing auteurist Peter Bogdanovich seems achingly archaic, a collection of neurotic New York archetypes owing more to a careful study of Woody Allen films (or indeed those of its producers, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson) than anything resembling what one might recognise as real life or believable behaviour. Its heroine, Izzy (Imogen Poots, an English actor going for a broad working-class Brooklyn accent, the success of which will probably depend on who’s listening), isn’t much more rounded a one-dimensional muse/prostitute character than Mira Sorvino played in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), and the pecuniary salvation offered by theatre director Arnold (Owen Wilson) is an almost offensively crass rehash of (the hardly any less crass) Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990). But that would be to miss the film’s point, as set up by its silent film-like title card invoking the ‘print the legend’ refrain of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), just one of many classical Hollywood films Bogdanovich tips his hat towards, i.e. that these are characters who exist solely in a self-referential world of films. That’s not to say it’s a consistent delight, as it still requires the viewer to sit through these hoary clichés (women as wives/mothers/whores, men as desperate cheating cads, a hundred scenarios you’ve seen a hundred times before), however knowingly they’re deployed. And yet there’s a simple pleasure to a lot of it, especially the screwball scenes of characters all converging on the same place in various configurations. There are also some fine performances in roles large and small, as it seems Bogdanovich has quite an address book to call upon — Joanna Lumley gets a credit at the end for a scene that only plays while her name is on screen, while other name actors appear only fleetingly. For me (being hardly a fan of her filmic work), the biggest surprise is probably Jennifer Aniston as a straight-talking psychiatrist (another character only ever found in the movies), who delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs through her energetic mugging. It may not amount to much more than a slight pleasure to anyone watching it, but that doesn’t feel like a failure.

She's Funny That Way film posterCREDITS
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten; Cinematographer Yaron Orbach; Starring Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.