Bessie (2015)

I may not always have felt bowled over by the filmmaking here — attractive and well-staged as it is, there is a sense of conventionality to its telling, with a script that rushes through Bessie Smith’s career, pausing for some portentous slow-motion flashbacks and overlaid by an orchestral score that often drowned out any subtlety — and yet, YET. The performances are all uniformly fantastic, starting with the wonderful, too often underrated Queen Latifah as the blues singer of the title, all a-sparkle in those glamorous 20s and 30s show dresses, but also conveying a naked vulnerability and a streak of wilful non-conformism. Latifah has been doing great acting for at least 20 years (at least in the roles that I’ve been seeing her in on screen, starting for me with 1996’s Set It Off), but the plaudits extend too to all the supporting cast. As this is an HBO production, many of them are most familiar from their television work (Michael K. Williams as Bessie’s partner, and Khandi Alexander as her sister are only the most prominent), but I don’t think anyone argues anymore that this is any lesser a platform for screen narratives, and I found myself wishing at times this had been a mini-series instead. But no, Latifah makes Bessie greatly watchable with a performance worth celebrating, whatever other drawbacks the film may have.

Bessie film posterCREDITS
Director Dee Rees; Writers Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois; Cinematographer Jeff Jur; Starring Queen Latifah, Michael K. Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mo’Nique; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 20 October 2016.

La Belle saison (Summertime, 2015)

Who amongst us isn’t a sucker for likeable sun-dappled French lesbian romances set against the background of feminist struggles in the early-1970s? This film focuses on a romance between two unlikely women — a young farmer’s daughter, Delphine (Izïa Higelin, apparently better known as a singer), and Carole, a Parisian feminist activist (Cécile de France, who despite her name is actually Belgian). Delphine struggles to hide her feelings from her rural family and friends, so moves to Paris, where she quickly falls in with the ostensibly straight Carole at a feminist meeting. This setting is familiar from earlier works like Agnès Varda’s L’Une chante, l’autre pas (1977), but it’s captured well here, with the fierce political polemics and passionate leafletting in support of a shared cause. The two women fall for one another of course, though not all the plot contortions are believable. Nor can I hardly speak to the emotional truth of what it is to be a woman in love with another woman, but I’m also willing to believe that the writers and director of this probably know more than the guy behind, say, Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Still, the performances by the two leads are vibrant and really nicely done, so I liked this film.

Summertime film posterCREDITS
Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Cécile de France, Izïa Higelin, Noémie Lvovsky; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 18 July 2016.

Maggie’s Plan (2015)

Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).

Maggie's Plan film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016.

Queen of Earth (2015)

Generally, I’m quite sceptical about films made by men about women’s experiences. There’s very much an arthouse tradition — perhaps going back to the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, but primarily derived from Ingmar Bergman — of this kind of tear-stained melodrama, of women pulling themselves and each other apart psychologically. Woody Allen took up that tradition in the 1970s, and this new film from young New York-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry seem to take it up too. Indeed, in many ways, it comes across as almost a throwback to the 70s, with grainy stock, murky close-ups, and of course Bergman-esque psychological torment aplenty. With unadorned actors attacking the script, this is a different beast from the director’s earlier film Listen Up Philip (2014), even as it seems to be capturing the same kind of lost spirit of writer-director filmmaking. Nevertheless, whatever my reservations, Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly terrific as Catherine, a woman coming apart at the seams — she may not be likeable, but you get the sense that she’s had a lot to deal with — not helped by her friend Ginny (played by Katherine Waterston). In its effect, it’s almost a psychological horror film, once you factor in the steady alienating thrum of the score, and it gives further evidence of Perry’s talent.

Queen of Earth film posterNEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry; Cinematographer Sean Price Williams; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Thursday 7 July 2016.

The Hard Stop (2015)

At a time when the US-focused Black Lives Matter movement is getting a lot of attention, it’s useful to remember that countries like the UK are no less problematic in the ways the authorities routinely target poorer, generally non-white, citizens. This documentary about Tottenham, a less affluent area of North London (representative of similar urban areas around the country), doesn’t have much that’s good to reveal about the police as it tracks the aftermath of the killing of Mark Duggan, via the prism of two of his friends, Marcus and Kurtis. Although Duggan’s killing kicked off a series of riots in 2011, the causes of those clearly are a lot wider and go a lot deeper than just police brutality. By closely tracking its protagonists and their lives in Tottenham — on the Broadwater Farm housing estate where they grew up (the site of the murder of a police offer at an earlier riot in the 1980s), their difficulties in finding housing and work (in one case requiring relocation to another county entirely), and above all their struggle to stay away from criminality — the documentary gives a sense of the background to those riots, even as its articulate subjects dissociate themselves from some of the ways that the 2011 rioting expressed itself. Clearly a lot of work still needs to be done — and there’s no real sense that similar riots aren’t still bubbling just under the surface of society — but it’s good to see two young men reflecting intelligently on their lives and the way they’ve been shaped by their surroundings, and looking for a way forward, both for themselves and for their community.

The Hard Stop film posterCREDITS
Director George Amponsah; Cinematographers Colin Elves and Matthias Pilz; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Tuesday 19 July 2016.

Bang Gang (une histoire d’amour moderne) (Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story), 2015)

Probably exactly the kind of film we won’t see much if we leave the European Union, it feels so quintessentially French, despite dealing with themes that seem to always be prevalent: the fear of young people and what they do in their spare time. There’s a certain prurience to the premise I suppose, but it’s all fairly artfully handled, with equal opportunity nudity for our youthful cast experimenting with sexual desires but actually using it to open the emotional wounds of growing up. There’s a slightly judgemental tone to the way it resolves but on the whole this is an earnest attempt to deal with teenage disaffection.

Bang Gang film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eva Husson; Cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup; Starring Marilyn Lima, Daisy Broom, Finnegan Oldfield, Lorenzo Lefebvre; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016.

The Violators (2015)

There’s been a lot of talk amongst my friends recently of hating other people in this country — for the way they vote, and for the opinions they seem to trumpet (or latch on to) — but desperate people have very little power and the more they’re ignored, left out in the cold with no options and no jobs, the more society will split apart. Now this isn’t immediately relevant to this film, first screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2015, but the film does give a vivid sense of life lived on the margins, and I think that’s always good to think about. If looked at as a story about the emotional toll of various forms of abuse (whether the societal burden placed on those without means, or, more immediately germane to the plot here, sexual), this is a persuasive film about one young woman (Lauren McQueen) living in a poor Northern town. It’s just that the film takes a swerve towards something more contrivedly ‘gangster’ towards the end, not to mention featuring a supporting character, a rich young woman called Rachel (Brogan Ellis), whose relationship to the lead is pretty confusing and the plot contortions that bring them together aren’t particularly persuasive. But even if it lost me a bit, it does set up a strong sense of a specific environment, and that’s worth something.

The Violators film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Helen Walsh; Cinematographer Tobin Jones; Starring Lauren McQueen, Stephen Lord, Brogan Ellis; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016.

Film Round-Up May 2016

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)

Continue reading “Film Round-Up May 2016”

Green Room (2015)

I haven’t been writing as many reviews recently, though I’ve been going to every bit as many films. Just one of those fallow periods I guess. There are still interesting movies coming out, though, and one that may have got missed in the glut of fine films is Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin. Aside from the colour-themed titles (which inflect each film’s respective cinematographic palette), the two films are linked by Saulnier’s reliance on mining genre conventions — in this case, he’s set up a tense thriller format in which our heroes, an anarchist punk band, gets trapped in a cabin in the woods by a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads. I’ve seen it called a horror film and perhaps those more familiar with that genre will find things in common, but to me there’s a lack of horror to the way the story is set out (though there’s plenty of tension). Sure, when things get going, the gore does properly fly, but the curious thing to me is the almost matter-of-fact way it’s presented. All the actors, even the ones playing the skinheads (led by Patrick Stewart), have a human quality, almost as if they all want the best for the situation even if their personal ideologies are inflected by hate (being set in the Oregon backwoods, so beloved of libertarians and survivalists, there’s a notable lack of any people of colour, so racism never really comes into play). It somewhat complicates the genre trappings not to have anyone to actively hate, and when our punk band get into the action, their violence is every bit as nasty as that inflicted on them. I suppose that makes it a film in which nobody wins, which perhaps accounts for the tone of the ending, but in any case it’s another strong cinematic outing for Saulnier.

Green Room film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jeremy Saulnier; Cinematographer Sean Porter; Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Macon Blair, Patrick Stewart; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 19 May 2016.

The Divide (2015)

There have been no shortage of either documentaries or fiction films about the post-2007/8 economic recession and its effects over recent years, though The Divide isn’t specifically concerned with this so much as widening wealth inequality within society generally (which has, if anything, only been exacerbated by 2008 and its fallout). The director Katharine Round, basing the subject of her film around a non-fiction book called The Spirit Level, does use knowledgeable talking heads (including the source book’s authors) to get some context on the issues, but the primary focus is a number of case studies on either side of the Atlantic. Because these interviewees are well-chosen, the film is never boring. These people range from the poorest folks in both countries (most notably a KFC worker in the US South, an former-alcoholic rapper in a grim bit of Scotland, and a prisoner caught by the USA’s “three strikes” rule who is intelligent and reflective but has also been startlingly worn down by the system) to the embattled middle-classes ever striving upwards (there’s a NYC psychologist with a nice apartment in New Jersey, and a very articulate mother living rather against her better convictions in a gated community). Moreover, it has a striking visual style with clean careful framings of its shots, and this visual excellence sets it apart from many documentaries. This style may make it a little easier to listen to some powerful individual testimonies about the effects of endemic poverty and the dangers of being trapped into a cycle of payments and fines, but it doesn’t dilute the anger you are ultimately left with at the end, which very briefly — and not entirely convincingly — suggests action is still possible, and change can happen. One can only hope it is, given some of the lives seen here.

The Divide film posterCREDITS
Director Katharine Round (based on the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett); Cinematographer Woody James; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 29 April 2016.