LFF 2016 Day Seven

Another slight day, Tuesday 11 October, but my two films had their pleasures, and both were introduced by their directors, who did Q&As afterwards. I’m also realising I’m not getting sick of the BFI’s customary, endlessly replayed, trailer for its upcoming season, as I have in previous years. It’s for “Black Star” this time (a two month retrospective of Black American and Black British filmmaking), and I’m really looking forward to seeing some films during it.


Lovesong (2016)Lovesong (2016, USA, dir. So Yong Kim, wr. Kim/Bradley Rust Gray, DOP Kat Westergaard/Guy Godfree)
I am a sucker for films about women in love, even if, for whatever reason (the crushing power of heteronormativity perhaps?), they don’t always work out. I don’t want to spoiler anyone for this particular film, but there’s lots to enjoy in the details. The first half is filmed with a watchful, restless camera as leads Jena Malone and Riley Keough dance (not literally) around one another, Keough’s character Sarah looking after her daughter while apparently on a break from her husband, while Malone’s Mindy just rocks up like a free spirit. There’s then a slightly quieter view of them three years later, reconvening for Mindy’s wedding, uncertain about how they (still) feel. It’s a warm hug of a movie in many ways, even if it can also be a cold shoulder. I wanted more, but what I got was pretty great all the same. I knew Malone was great as an actor, but I’m won round by Keough most of all. [***½]


Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi, 2016)

Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi) (2016, Tunisia, dir./wr. Mohamed Ben Attia, DOP Frédéric Noirhomme)
There’s something going on here that’s not immediately evident while watching it. It seems to be the story of a tediously dull working man, doing a boring job unwillingly, walked all over by his mother, shuffling about with nary a smile as his family arrange his wedding. And Hedi is indeed irritatingly passive for much of the film, only belatedly brought out of his shell by Rim, a dancer at a hotel where he’s staying, part of the hotel’s rather pathetic entertainment for the few families who still come to visit at this time of political turmoil. So one could read it as yet another story of a dull man made somehow human by adulterously accepting the love of a free-spirited, warm-hearted woman. But there are allegorical levels to it in terms of its depiction of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary situation, a time in which perhaps Hedi, like many, wants to keep his head down, go along with his family’s time-honoured traditions, but is uncertain how to take control of his/his country’s future — and this is the drama the film is enacting. That all said and understood, Hedi can still seem like a very irritating protagonist. [***½]

Suzanne (2013)

I think there’s something to be said for Little White Lies‘ marking system, with separate marks for ‘anticipation’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘in retrospect’, as it really gets towards a sense of the different stages of appreciating a film (though perhaps the third mark can only be filled in a few weeks or months later). In trawling through online streaming content for something to watch of an evening, there’s often little enough to arouse any anticipation, but however unassuming it looks from a mere description, Suzanne turns out to be a really very well-judged and interesting film. Ostensibly it presents a character study of the wayward daughter to single father Nicolas (François Damiens) and older sister to Maria (Adèle Haenel), as she grows up over the course of 20+ years, rebounding from one major life decision to another. However, the film largely eschews psychologising or explanatory dialogue, as we see only disconnected fragments from her life — a few minutes of her childhood, some poor teenage decisions involving her getting pregnant, moving out of town, being in jail — although frequently landing on some telling moment. The film is like a photo album of Suzanne’s life, linked by the power of Sara Forestier’s cagy performance in the central role. It’s a fascinating narrative strategy, and by making Suzanne something of an absence at the film’s heart, it puts more emphasis on the dynamics within her family, as well as giving the audience a little more work to do, but Suzanne’s dramatic arc definitely satisfies as a story of a person learning to live with themself and others.


FILM REVIEW
Director Katell Quillévéré | Writers Mariette Désert and Katell Quillévéré | Cinematographer Tom Harari | Starring Sara Forestier, François Damiens, Adèle Haenel | Length 90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 4 January 2016

Sunset Song (2015)

This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel — which my mother will be disappointed to hear I haven’t yet read, but I’m pleased to register does feature a key character with my own name — has been many years in the making, but Terence Davies has previous form with fine period literary adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and the underrated The Neon Bible all fall into this category, and are all excellent). What he’s done here fits into that continuum, and there’s a really handsome visual quality to the staging, all rolling vistas and sweeping location shots — which I trust are of Aberdeenshire, although I know some of the filming took place in New Zealand, and this latter may be why the accents don’t always fully convince. In the lead role of Chris Guthrie, the farmer’s daughter who finds herself rather put upon by circumstance — not to mention by her gruff father (Peter Mullan, of course) — Agyness Deyn (hitherto a fashion model, I am given to understand) does excellent work. However, clearly director Terence Davies has worked hard with his actors to find a register which is not quite naturalistic, but which strikes a balance between the immediacy of the characters’ emotions (the plot, set on the cusp of World War I, is rich with melodramatic detail) and creating a stylised distance for viewers that self-consciously reminds us that this is both an adaptation of a beloved literary work and one which is set a hundred years in the past, in a world which is largely lost. Davies has always been apt to find this balance, particularly by interpolating traditional songs (he does it here, when the characters sing after a wedding), but elsewhere there’s an almost theatricality to the staging. As to the world the film depicts, it’s hardly an idyll of course, but one of the themes is the way that modernisation has largely supplanted (if not destroyed) traditional methods of working and living, and shaken up familial relationships, which is only cemented by the outbreak of war. I suspect this is a film that needs a second viewing to appreciate fully, but it’s certainly rich in detail.


© Hurricane Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon) | Cinematographer Michael McDonough | Starring Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015

Brooklyn (2015)

This blog has been a fan of young Irish actor Saoirse Ronan since we (ahem, I) first encountered her only a short couple of years ago in Byzantium (although of course her career stretched back some time before this, as I’ve been belatedly catching up with). It would be difficult to claim any of the films in which she takes a lead role as particularly great (I remain fond of How I Live Now, but perhaps I’m in a minority there), but these — and even the ensemble casts she’s been amongst — have all been enlivened by her facility for getting inside a character. Her latest character is Eilis, an impoverished small-town girl in early-50s Ireland who moves across the Atlantic for a chance at a better life. It’s an immigrant’s story, told with generosity and affection, as she is torn between the new life she’s making for herself and the old country. A friend of mine calls the film “low-stakes” in the sense that it becomes clear that things will work out for Eilis whatever happens — at a story level, she has a choice between two good, decent men (Emory Cohen in New York, and Domhnall Gleeson in Ireland) — but from the character’s point-of-view these choices are pretty critical, and the very fact that men and matrimony should play a central part also reflects on her society and its limitations on her own aspirations. That said, she works hard to achieve a career in book-keeping, and the film’s focus remains on Eilis and her own future, meaning it’s far from depressing. It’s also curious the extent to which it avoids any overt sentimentality (orchestral score aside, though even that is a lot more sympathetic than it could have been in the wrong hands), achieving a rich emotional register without being melodramatic. To that we can credit screenwriter Nick Hornby, a dab hand at this sort of thing, as well as director John Crowley, and the glorious images conjured up by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. But most of all, we can credit Saoirse Ronan, an actor who can improve even the patchiest of source materials, and this source is not patchy at all.


© Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director John Crowley | Writer Nick Hornby (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín) | Cinematographer Yves Bélanger | Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Julie Walters, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent | Length 112 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 10 November 2015

Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

There’s not a great deal to say about this new film from Ondi Timoner, the director of the enjoyable bitter-rivalry music documentary Dig! (2004). It premiered at the London Film Festival, was in cinemas a week or two later, and now already is on Amazon Instant Video, which may suggest it’s not that good, but actually just means that its real audience is largely online. Most people in the UK, after all, are likely to have an opinion about Russell Brand, because he’s certainly not been shy in broadcasting his own personality and views far and wide. He’s already been the subject of one documentary this year (somewhat more hagiographic one presumes), but this one purports to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Whatever my own opinion about the man, it’s certainly clear that many of his views have been misrepresented by the media, or — perhaps more accurately — not addressed at all, through gales of mocking laughter, a lot of which has the nasty tinge of classism (Brand comes from an impoverished Essex background). A few of those media figures (like news anchor Jeremy Paxman) are interviewed here about Brand’s political statements, while Timoner is able to convey a sense of Brand’s life, his comedy, and his very public struggles with his family, with his relationships, and with drug addiction. It’s never particularly boring, but it certainly may suffer in your opinion if you’ve already got a strong dislike for Brand’s antics. I can’t say it gave me a new-found insight into Russell Brand, but I do believe it at least gives his views a fair hearing.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ondi Timoner | Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko | Starring Russell Brand | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 14 November 2015

Afternoon Delight (2013)

This is an odd film, and there are things about it I really like, but ultimately it just comes across as somewhat introspective and petit bourgeois. It’s about suburban ennui, specifically that felt by middle-class mother Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). She’s married to the slightly boring Jeff (Josh Radnor, the most annoying character on How I Met Your Mother), and does her best to work through her issues with her offbeat psychiatrist Lenore (Jane Lynch, with quite the most distracting glasses seen in recent cinema). The plot stretches credulity somewhat in orchestrating her becoming friends with a stripper, McKenna (Juno Temple), but once that initial meeting is out of the way, it starts to promise something rather radical in exploring the overlap between McKenna’s sex work and Rachel’s frustrated desires, although it feels to me like it doesn’t quite deliver on that. There’s some melodrama, but the film remains closely focused on Rachel breaking out of what ultimately feels like a mid-life crisis. Still, Hahn does well with the central role, and there’s some excellent supporting work (notably Michaela Watkins as a hyperorganised busybody in Rachel’s Jewish women’s group).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jill Soloway | Cinematographer Jim Frohna | Starring Kathryn Hahn, Juno Temple, Josh Radnor, Jane Lynch, Michaela Watkins | Length 97 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Friday 30 October 2015

Somewhere (2010)

Even by the standards of Sofia Coppola’s films about ennui amongst the lives of the rich and overprivileged, Somewhere is a slow one, but that feels of a piece with its protagonist, movie star Johnny (Stephen Dorff). We open with him speeding around a race track, the camera unmoving as his car loops into and out of frame, repetitively, for several minutes. Other long takes show him sitting prone on his bed or a sofa, watching identical twins give him a pole dance in his Château Marmont hotel room where he’s living. It’s a carefully-delineated existence of perfect boredom, alleviated only by occasional desultory sex with pliable women, and drinks with his friend, all of this taking place again in his hotel room. It’s only when his young daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for a day, and then again for a longer period during which time they jet off to Milan for a press junket, that Johnny slowly starts to re-form emotional connections. Watching this painfully slow process unfolding, via almost impercetible changes in his mood and activities, is the core of Coppola’s film, beautifully shot by her regular DoP Harris Savides. It’s less accessible perhaps than Marie Antoinette before and The Bling Ring after, both dealing with similar themes, but it still has an almost hypnotic beauty to it that rewards attention.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola | Cinematographer Harris Savides | Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning | Length 98 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015

Burnt (2015)

A friend enjoys food-related films, so what can I say, I went along to see Burnt despite its almost uniformly terrible reviews. Therefore my first observation is that the end product is nowhere near as bad as those suggest. Of course it’s still essentially that — Hollywood product, albeit set in London and ticking off a lot of the tourist views of that city — but it coasts by on the charisma of its lead actors, all of whose work I enjoyed even if they’re hardly stretching themselves. If it’s a “comedy”-drama, then the comedy is in the broad strokes; I wouldn’t call it laugh-out-loud funny or anything. It’s more of a character study of one borderline-unstable man trying to find himself by learning to work with and trust other people. The film’s greatest weakness then is undoubtedly in the screenplay. The characters are stock and overly familiar (Gordon Ramsay is an executive producer, and Bradley Cooper’s Adam Jones isn’t far from his own carefully-constructed and endlessly-repeated media stereotype of the highly-strung rebellious bad-boy chef). The exposition, too, is wretchedly clunky, with characters like Omar Sy’s sous-chef Michel expected to recount their past dealings with Adam when meeting him, so as to catch us all up (oh sure, Adam’s drink/drug-fuelled youth is called on as a reason why this is necessary, but it’s a thin veneer). There’s lots of tedious to-do about Michelin stars, which as someone who used to care about such things when eating out is boring enough (I’m so done with tasting menus by the by), but will surely be of less than no interest to the rest of us (Jon Favreau’s Chef dealt with street food last year, which may not have been any less predictable a script, but it was at least a more likeable milieu). Worst of all is Adam’s hackneyed character arc, plotted out with plodding predictability, as he learns to work with others, repair his relationships, learn to temper his controlling behaviour, blah blah blah. But it all looks very nice, the actors have an easy charm, and I quite like workplace dramas even if every plot point here is punctuated by food p0rn.


© The Weinstein Company

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director John Wells | Writer Steven Knight (based on a story by Michael Kalesniko) | Cinematographer Adriano Goldman | Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy | Length 101 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 7 November 2015

Criterion Sunday 49: Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957)

© The Criterion Collection

Looking over a plot summary for Nights of Cabiria, I admit I found myself somewhat exasperated to see yet another Fellini film based around a happy-go-lucky prostitute. Surely a male-authored fiction by one such as Fellini (whose co-writers all look the model of patriarchal entitlement) could be counted on to treat sex workers as little more than adolescent male fantasies of sexual availability. After all, I found some of the treatment of the prostitute character in 1973’s Amarcord to be rather puerile and breast-fixated — hardly uncommon in 1970s cinema in particular, and that particular film was clearly made from the point of view of teenage boys. In any case (to return to the film under discussion), here, earlier in Fellini’s career, the spirit of his filmmaking seems different, closer perhaps to the neo-realism of his roots. There’s a real generosity towards the title character (played by Giulietta Masina), introduced being pushed into a river by a boyfriend who makes off with her purse, and who goes on to be screwed over by a succession of further weak men. She’s had a difficult life, but she has a strong friendship with a neighbour (and fellow prostitute), Wanda, with whom she has plans to get out of the game once they’ve paid off their mortgages. It’s once again a film with an episodic, wandering narrative, but at the core of everything is Cabiria, who despite her many setbacks manages to retain a cheerful if at times sarcastic demeanor. This is hardly to say it’s a feminist masterpiece, but it’s certainly got a lot more depth than I’d initially given it credit for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini | Cinematographers Aldo Tonti and Otello Martelli | Starring Giulietta Masina | Length 118 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 August 2015

Tig (2015)

Now that I’m a regular habitué of online streaming services, I’m increasingly wading into the murky but usually very time-friendly (given most are around an hour long) subgenre of stand-up comedy sets. One of the recent stars of this scene, who’s been doing the stand-up round for years, is Tig Notaro, though filmically I’d only previously seen her in a small cameo in In a World… This documentary, however, isn’t just a record of one of her stand-up sets, so much as how that set in August 2012 intersected with her life and those around her in some surprising ways. Those who have seen Louis CK’s TV show, or the film Obvious Child (and if you haven’t, seriously, rectify that) know that stand-ups frequently draw from their own experiences in ways that can sometimes be quite uncomfortable for audiences, and in drawing on her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, Notaro ends up challenging a number of ideas about the disease. The most notable, perhaps, is that she can’t have a baby, and indeed although her body may not be capable of carrying a child anymore, we see her enter a stable relationship and forge forward with plans to have children. Because of its likeable subject, the documentary feels like a relatively easygoing watch despite some tough subject matter, but that’s not to diminish its achievement, and one can only hope for the best for Notaro herself.


FILM REVIEW
Directors Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York | Cinematographer Huy Truong | Length 95 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Saturday 31 October 2015