Criterion Sunday 142: The Last Wave (1977)

There’s a slow-building foreboding intensity at work here that sets up its mystery plot nicely — darkness, torrential rain, apocalyptic imagery. The film explores that liminal space between dreams and reality, underpinned by indigenous Aboriginal culture and beliefs. The film makes a lot of play on tribal affiliations and mystical rites and objects, which sometimes comes across as a bit naive, especially given Richard Chamberlain isn’t the most effective lead, and there’s a bit of condescension at work it seems to me. Still, the Aboriginal cast (led by David Gulpilil) are excellent.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir | Writers Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu | Cinematographer Russell Boyd | Starring Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil | Length 106 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 February 2017

Advertisements

The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992)

There’s a kind of solidly-realised unflashy, observant and quiet drama that gathers up awards when it’s released but then fades away from memory, its DVD cover yellowing slowly on an unfashionable shelf somewhere (something like The Kids Are All Right is a more recent example that comes to mind). I like those films, and I know this is one of them because, now almost 25 years old and very popular on its release (admittedly I was living in NZ so that may skew my memory), hasn’t racked up many views on most of the popular film websites like IMDb. Well, if nothing else, it reminds me that Kerry Fox is really one of the best actors, though it’s another New Zealander (Lisa Harrow) who steals the spotlight in this little family/relationship drama, as the older sister Beth to Fox’s younger Vicki, between whose affections flits fickle Frenchman J.P. (Bruno Ganz). It’s all done so well, so subtly, that you barely notice how affecting it all is as it unfolds.


FILM REVIEW
Director Gillian Armstrong | Writer Helen Garner | Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson | Starring Lisa Harrow, Bruno Ganz, Kerry Fox, Miranda Otto | Length 93 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 November 2016

Sherpa (2015)

It may not be the only documentary out this year that deals with snowy climates (a NZ effort earlier dealt with the Erebus disaster in Antarctica), but in portraying the native Sherpa community of Nepal, Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom finds a interesting way into a story that touches on a lot of issues of the moment, not least the corrosive effect of global capitalism on local communities. By living around the base of the Himalayas, the Sherpas pretty much single-handedly supply the workforce for the many expeditions of rich Westerners looking to scale the summit, as they seek closure of their respective personally-meaningful spiritual journeys or whatnot. It’s just that in doing the gruntwork the Sherpas are exposed to exponentially more danger than the pampered clients, without a great deal of reward or compensation when things go wrong, which they frequently do. Stories like this year’s blockbuster Everest tell of tragedies that kill (white) mountaineers, but in 2014, 16 Sherpas were killed on a dangerous iceflow, and that’s not particularly surprising to anyone interviewed here. And so the documentary moves from its inception as an unusually beautiful and lyrically-edited portrait of a community to being witness to a nascent political struggle, pitting that community against an unfeeling government, not to mention the rich adventurers who are as likely to compare them to terrorists for denying them their tedious pseudo-spiritual vision quests. Still, Peedom has a generosity of spirit which I lack, finding time to incorporate all these viewpoints and giving a real sense of what it is to be involved in the Everest industry.


© Felix Media

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jennifer Peedom | Cinematographers Renan Ozturk and Hugh Miller | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 22 December 2015

The Dressmaker (2015)

I’ve seen a fair few strange films this year but in some ways The Dressmaker might be the oddest of the lot, and the film it most reminds me of tonally is The Voices. There’s something to that blend of gruesomeness and light-hearted comedy which can often go wrong, and I’m not convinced that it’s been fully solved here, but it certainly finds a better balance than The Voices did. Largely that may be down to the bright, dusty, rural Australian setting, and to Kate Winslet’s spirited performance in the title role of Tilly Dunnage, returned to her hometown after 20 years, having left under the shadow of an unsolved child murder. The town she returns to has that Blue Velvet tinge of nastiness under the surface, and there are brief unpleasant hints of rape and spousal abuse that crop up and are just as swiftly dusted away (one hardly needs more than a hint of it to colour our perceptions of some of the characters). The town is filled with its odd local types, fairly broadly played in most cases (the hunchbacked pharmacist for example, or Hugo Weaving’s crossdressing policeman), and in others rather more delicately (nice to see Kerry Fox in a small role as a brutal schoolteacher). At a plot level, it swerves all over the place, and there are at least a few different endings that each have a finality in their own way, not least the budding romance between Tilly and the down-to-earth Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). The director and screenwriters (husband-and-wife team of Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan) do their best to keep it all together, but there’s a waywardness to the tone that at its best is delightfully barmy, but can get wearying at times. No, if this film is likeable it’s because of the winsome Winslet, and of course those glamorous 50s dress designs in which she soon has the town outfitted, for this is nothing if not a glamorous film.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse | Writers Jocelyn Moorhouse and P. J. Hogan (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham) | Cinematographer Donald McAlpine | Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving | Length 118 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015

LFF: Shanhe guren (Mountains May Depart, 2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director and leading actor Zhao Tao.


It feels like it’s been a long road for me towards appreciating director Jia Zhangke’s films properly since his first film Xiao Wu (1997), but Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was up there at the top of my year’s favourite films of last year. This new one also takes a multi-part approach to storytelling, but rather than four separate (if interwoven) stories, here it’s three focusing on the same characters but over time (1999, 2014 and 2025). It’s very easy to recount the key ideas which Jia is going for here and make them seem banal — I think we’ve all become familiar now with films that look at technology and social media as symptomatic of a modern social disconnection that we have from one another as people. With respect to China, there’s also a link made here with westernisation and capitalism, which makes the choice of the song with which the film opens and closes (“Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, accompanied by a delightful dance sequence) seem somewhat inevitable. And yet none of this is really quite as obvious while the film is playing: it’s instead a gentle and at times subtly harrowing story of a woman growing up in provincial China (Zhao Tao), the man she marries (Yi Zhang) whose life is dedicated to wealth-creation (leading him first to Shanghai and then Australia), and their son (Daole, or “Dollar”, played by Zijian Dong), who grows up with his father after the parents split, and finally has troubling reconnecting with his mother. Each of the three time periods is presented in a different aspect ratio, which lends further artfulness to the presentation. The long final stretch set in the future is probably the most challenging (not least because the characters all speak in English, Daole having lost the ability to speak his native tongue, and because Yi Zhang’s old-age look is so transparently unconvincing), but it’s also the most fascinating section, whereas the 1999 sequence has a sort of bright sheen of hopefulness (and even, dare I say it, a hint of televisual melodrama). It’s a strong work, if not my favourite of Jia’s recent output.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director/Writer Jia Zhangke | Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai | Starring Zhao Tao, Yi Zhang, Zijian Dong, Sylvia Chang | Length 131 minutes || Seen at Vue West End, London, Thursday 8 October 2015

Lore (2012)

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.


FILM REVIEW
Director Cate Shortland | Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate Shortland (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

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.


© Vendetta Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sophie Hyde | Writers Matthew Cormack and Sophie Hyde | Cinematographer Bryan Mason | Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane | Length 109 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015

Criterion Sunday 29: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Unlike the recent run of Criterion films, what’s challenging about this release isn’t anything that’s depicted on screen (there’s no violence or body horror or even bad language): it’s what’s not depicted. It’s an elegant, beautifully-filmed and languorous film, but there’s a gaping void at its heart, which is the lack of explanation for its central mystery — the disappearance of three young women and their teacher at the titular setting. It’s implied (both here and in the Joan Lindsay novel it’s based on) that the events really happened, but in a sense this is a red herring, because the events are pushed into a mythical realm of nostalgia and memory. The director, Peter Weir, and cinematographer Russell Boyd make bold use of a gauzy filter for the camera, imparting a hazy nostalgia to the proceedings. There’s also a bold stylisation to the acting (dreamy and absent gazes abound), while the scene of the girls’ disappearance as their classmate screams after them is a masterclass in channelling the uncanny through the simple expedient of not having them react or look back. More recent films like Innocence (2004) and this past year’s The Falling channel some of the same emotional terrain that Weir set out so long ago (40 years now!), but Picnic at Hanging Rock retains its eerie primacy.

Criterion Extras: David Thomson introduces the film in a short video piece, but the highlights are a contemporary Australian television on-set visit (featuring interviews with the novel’s author Joan Lindsay, and some of the key cast and crew), as well as a more recent return to interview Peter Weir and Anne-Louise Lambert among others. Finally, the dual format set comes bundled with a copy of the source novel, which makes for a fascinating comparison to the final film, and focuses quite a lot more on the aftermath of the events than the film does (I can recommend it, and doesn’t take too long to read).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Weir | Writer Cliff Green (based on the novel by Joan Lindsay) | Cinematographer Russell Boyd | Starring Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert [as “Anne Lambert”] | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 March 2015

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full.


Ari Kyohaku (Intimidation, 1960)

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara) [Tue 12 May at home]. You’ll have seen my Criterion Sunday series, working through all of the Criterion Collection releases in spine order week by week. Well, Criterion have their bare-bones sub-label Eclipse as well, but I shan’t take to doing an Eclipse Monday or anything, though one result of watching all these Criterion films is I’ve picked up a few Eclipse releases along the way. Intimidation is the first film in the five-film set by director Koreyoshi Kurahara, whose work (and indeed name) I must admit to being entirely unaware about before now. This film is a short feature (around 70 minutes) and an engrossing psychological thriller, focusing on a bookish bank clerk and his lackadaisical boss, the latter of whom due to various personal circumstances finds himself in the position of holding up his own bank. For the most part it’s tautly told through close-ups of the lead characters, who seem to be constantly calculating their meagre options. ***


Aventurera (1950)

Aventurera (1950, Mexico, dir. Alberto Gout) [Fri 1 May at Barbican Cinemas]. A short series at the Barbican focused itself on the ‘Golden Age’ of Mexican melodrama in the 1950s, and sadly this was the only film I made it along to. However, it is entirely delightful, dealing with Elena, a young woman (the ‘adventuress’ of the title) who finds herself alone in the world as the film starts, with only her wits to get her by, as she moves to the big city to make her way as a dancer. She’s entrapped by a dubious offer, and finds herself in the employ of shady brothel-keeper Rosaura, but there’s a TWIST and soon Elena is back in a position of power. There are double-crosses and twists of fortune, which at times suggest a rather more delicate staging of Showgirls (a classic ingenue-corrupted-by-the-system movie). There are also a handful of song numbers punctuating the melodrama, just to keep us going. ***½


Belle Epoque (1992)

Belle Époque (1992, Spain, dir. Fernando Trueba) [Sat 30 May at home]. A lightly comedic historical romp set not in fin-de-siècle France, but pre-Civil War Spain of the 1930s, which amounts to much the same thing I suppose. It’s a nostalgic time in which people take sides and fight for what they believe, though our republican hero has deserted his military posting and now finds himself holed up at a country home where he woos each of the four daughters of an elderly gentleman he has met. It’s all self-consciously light-hearted, and pleasantly diverting. It won Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, so that probably gives some idea of its artistic achievement. ***


The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010, USA, dir. Sylvester Stallone) [Mon 18 May at home]. A thoroughly overblown exercise in action film narcosis, which is somewhat enlivened by its star-studded cast of genre greats, led by director Sylvester Stallone, still game for a bit of running around and blowing sh1t up. It goes through the setpieces and fulfils the usual expectations, but I can’t pretend it’s not forgettable, because I can’t really remember very much of it at all. However, it does feature Jason Statham, for whose work I always have time. **


Hanna (2011)

Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany, dir. Joe Wright) [Fri 8 May at home]. Director Joe Wright has shown himself to be something of a film stylist with literary adaptations like Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Anna Karenina (2012), both of which I rather liked. However, this original screenplay seems to lack a certain something, maybe a sense of anything particularly personal. I love Saoirse Ronan as an actor, and she’s excellent here as in every role she’s played, but her teenager taught by ex-CIA father to be a lethal killer seems a bit by-the-numbers. Wright’s style is still in evidence — this is no straight action thriller, but indulges plenty of other expressive elements — though it is all carried along by a propulsive score in a post-Bourne style. **½


Hit So Hard (2011)

Hit So Hard (2011, USA, dir. P. David Ebersole) [Mon 11 May at home]. A fairly straightforward talking-heads and music-clip documentary charting the career of Patti Schemel, primarily known for her time as a drummer in Hole, of which band this film functions as something of an encomium. You get a sense of some of the tumult of the early-90s grunge scene, and especially touching are the home videos of the band with Kurt Cobain and his daughter with Courtney Love. Yet despite my love for the band and their music, there’s nothing especially inspiring in the filmmaking. **½


John Wick (2014).jpg

John Wick (2014, USA, dir. Chad Stahelski) [Thu 30 Apr at Cineworld Wood Green]. Like The Expendables above, in truth this taut revenge thriller does nothing particularly new, but the pleasure is in the way it does so, emphasising the physicality of the fight scenes — understandable, given the directors (one of whom, David Leitch, is uncredited) come from a background in stunt choreography. Indeed, unlike many such films it has a direct approach to conflict, emphasising the brutality underpinning the genre, as our eponymous protagonist (played by an ever-laconic Keanu Reeves) methodically despatches his adversaries, and even has to reload his weapon. It’s also nicely paced, starting out slowly, building Wick’s character and anguished personal life, before launching into the inevitable violence of the protracted denouement. ***


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA, dir. George Miller) [Sun 17 May at Cineworld Wood Green]. I never got around to writing a fuller review of this film, mainly because I struggle to find the kinds of superlatives which a lot of people have heaped on it. Undoubtedly it is a spare and at times electrifying chase movie within a dystopian sci-fi desert world — one in which water is a scarce resource, hoarded by a cadre of genetically-deficient mutant creatures who need the blood of the underclasses to survive. It’s in this context that we meet the title character (Tom Hardy), though his central role is swiftly supplanted by that of convoy driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). She is on a mission to liberate her enslaved concubine compatriots, and it’s her character that has understandably excited the internet. Quite whether this all amounts to some kind of feminist victory is unclear to me, though at the least it offers the rare prospect in this context of a kickass (yet believably human) female action hero with agency, and who is not reliant on the help of others (i.e. men) to succeed. Still, this is all but window-dressing to the almost unrelenting forward momentum of the thundering vehicular chase that is at the film’s heart, not that I mean that as a criticism exactly. It fulfils its action remit and does so in a way that largely avoids offensive stereotyping, which sometimes seems like victory enough. ***


Plemya (The Tribe, 2014)

Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy) [Sun 31 May at the ICA]. Another recent film that’s picked up plenty of critical love is this brutal, nasty film about a dystopian society of the underclasses in Ukraine, which has the novel quality of being entirely in unsubtitled (Ukrainian) Sign Language. Our characters are all deaf-mute and largely confined to the crumbling premises of their special school, which seems at the outset to have teachers and administration but is soon, we learn, largely operated by a cabal of brutally bullying students aided by a number of key members of staff. One, for example, exploits a couple of the girls as prostitutes to the local trucking community, and it’s into this milieu that newcomer Sergey is recruited. In some respects, The Tribe reminds me of Alan Clarke’s film Scum, dealing with English borstal life in the 1970s, and there’s plenty here that visually harks back to that decade, if only because one senses that everything we see has been left to decay since then. However, the film is vivified by bold directorial flourishes, including long tracking shots lifted from the Dardenne’s repertoire, as well as a casual brutality and dispassionate carnality that calls to mind Haneke. For all this — or perhaps because of it — The Tribe seems to me to be a hard film to really love. ***


Tomboy (2011)

Tomboy (2011, France, dir. Céline Sciamma) [Sun 24 May at the ICA]. Director Céline Sciamma’s most recent film Girlhood hit cinemas recently, giving me the opportunity to revisit an earlier film of hers. It again picks up on gender issues, but refracted through the story of Laure, a young girl who moves to a new neighbourhood as the film starts out, who amongst her new friends begins to play at being a boy under the name Mickaël. It’s a very subtly balanced film which avoids the expected moralising and overdetermined plot points, preferring a far more naturalistic ambiguity to some of the relationships (such as Laure/Mickaël’s affection for local girl Lisa). ***½

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.


© Level K

FILM REVIEW
1. Ash Wednesday (director/writer Marieka Walsh); 2. Big World (director/writer/cinematographer Warwick Thornton); 3. Abbreviation (director/writer Jub Clerc, cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson); 4. Aquifer (director Robert Connolly, writer Justin Monjo, cinematographer Denson Baker); 5. Damaged Goods (director Anthony Lucas, writer Kris Mrksa, cinematographer Jody Muston); 6. Small Mercies (director/writer Rhys Graham, cinematographer Stefan Duscio); 7. On Her Knees (director/writer Ashlee Page, cinematographer Miles Rowland); 8. Cockleshell (director Tony Ayres, writer Marcel Dorney, cinematographer Germain McMicking); 9. The Turning (director/writer Claire McCarthy, cinematographer Denson Baker); 10. Sand (director Stephen Page, writer Justin Monjo, cinematographer Bonnie Elliott); 11. Family (director Shaun Gladwell, writer Emily Ballou, cinematographer Jeremy Rouse); 12. Long, Clear View (director/writer Mia Wasikowska, cinematographer Stefan Duscio); 13. Reunion (director Simon Stone, writer Andrew Upton, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie); 14. Commission (director/writer David Wenham, cinematographer Andrew Commis); 15. Fog (director/writer Jonathan auf der Heide, cinematographer Ellery Ryan); 16. Boner McPharlin’s Moll (director/writer Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Andrew Commis); 17. Immunity (director Yaron Lifschitz, writer Circa Contemporary Circus, cinematographer Robert Humphreys); 18. Defender (director/writer Ian Meadows, cinematographer 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