幕末太陽傳 Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, aka Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 1957)

It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.


I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.

CREDITS
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.

The Favourite (2018)

Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.


Yorgos Lanthimos can go either way really can’t he? I didn’t even see his The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I really liked The Lobster, and then there’s this, which seems like a carefully controlled “fvck you” to the whole industry of heritage filmmaking. It has the sumptuous sets and glorious frocks and the use of baroque music pulling it back to something like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon but then it just throws a bunch of stuff in that feels less like ‘let’s try and get the historical details exactly right’ (as many historical dramas are wont to do) and more ‘let’s do some free-form historical cosplay’. Needless to say, I think the latter is a far more rewarding strategy at this point in time, though given all the fun dance sequences, the chucking rotten fruit at bewigged naked guys, and the racing of lobsters, they might as well have cast more people of colour in prominent roles. Still, it’s a great film for it’s three leads (Colman, Weisz and Stone), and the way they just talk down to and over the men, who clearly think a lot of themselves but are also fools. The filmmaking feels at once liberated in the way it tries out ideas, but also very precise and controlled in the way it’s all filmed and put together.

The Favourite film posterCREDITS
Director Yorgos Lanthimos Γιώργος Λάνθιμος; Writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 28 December 2018.

Карнавальная Ночь Karnavalnaya noch (Carnival Night, 1956)

Obviously this Soviet comedy-musical from the 1950s is not about Christmas, because Christianity wasn’t exactly a state-sanctioned religion at the time. However, it’s set around the same time of year and deals instead with a New Year’s party. Still it feels somehow Christmassy, and was presented somewhat as such at a screening introduced by the Guardian‘s film critic Peter Bradshaw, so I’m including it here.


A delightful Soviet musical comedy about a bunch of plucky kids putting on a fun New Year’s party being constantly criticised and belittled by a pompous apparatchik bureaucrat (Igor Ilyinsky) determined to stamp out all the joy and replace it with long disquisitions on topics of pedagogical improvement: he intends a number of lectures, including from himself; he wants old men to play serious music rather than a young band of jazz neophytes; he wants a sad song from the librarian and a fable from the accountant; he completely reworks a bawdy clown routine in every element; the list goes on. So the entire film is just the kids finding ways to thwart this dull and lifeless man, who nevertheless manages to steal the show with his immaculate comic timing and ridiculously puffed-up self-importance. It manages to both satirise some of the humourless tendencies of the Soviet leadership, while also being genuinely rather fun.

Carnival Night film posterCREDITS
Director Eldar Ryazanov Эльда́р Ряза́нов; Writers Boris Laskin Борис Ласкин and Vladimir Polyakov Влади́мир Поляко́в; Cinematographer Arkadi Koltsaty Аркадий Кольца́тый; Starring Igor Ilyinsky И́горь Ильи́нский, Lyudmila Gurchenko Людми́ла Гу́рченко, Yuri Belov Юрий Белов; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 4 December 2018.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Upon the UK cinematic release today of comedy-drama Brittany Runs a Marathon, I’ve been looking back at this popular hybrid generic form, and wanted to finish with one of the best American examples of the past year, which deftly blends a pathos-filled dramatic story of a writer hitting the bottom with clear comedy notes (impossible to avoid with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as your leads), with a side of criminal capers.


What I’ve enjoyed most about both of Marielle Heller’s films as director (she also made 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is the empathy and humanity she affords to people who are, pretty clearly, quite bitter and caustic people — the sense that maybe the way they are has been shaped by their environment and their struggles with depression, and that maybe they’re not fundamentally bad people. Melissa McCarthy’s washed-up novelist Lee Israel (and as with Destroyer, I’m reminded this is a generic archetype more usually played by grizzled older men) may be getting involved in criminality but it all seems so very low stakes after a fashion, and she shows apparent creativity in the process of pastiching various authors’ personal style. McCarthy is excellent at getting into this shuffling, self-loathing character, but for me the film is made by Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells in the supporting performances, not to mention the other wonderfully weary bookshop owners who just have such a genuine thrill at these almost-forgotten names from a more literate past. Grant seems to be largely reprising his Withnail performance, with the hindsight of age and mortality, and (notwithstanding the very late and unconvincing swerve into AIDS themes) it’s an act that works beautifully. Dolly Wells’ Anna may be even more heartbreaking in the way she wants to but is unable to connect with Israel. Overall, and despite its embittered central character, the film just oozes with warmth, and a strange glow cast by antiquarian bookshops and squalid NYC apartments.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? film posterCREDITS
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based on the memoir by Lee Israel); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 4 February 2019.

당신자신과 당신의 것 Dangsinjasingwa dangsinui geot (Yourself and Yours, 2016)

Sticking with non-American comedy-drama films, one of the masters of this particular blend is the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who seems to put out several films every year each telling a complicated story of fraught relationships often (though not always) with a comic undertone. He made three films in 2017 for example, at least one of which (Claire’s Camera) is definitely in the same vein and picks up more closely on the Éric Rohmer influences given its French seaside setting (a director well worth checking out for his comic relationship dramas). You could also look back to 2013’s Our Sunhi as another excellent example of his particular touch.


Quite what’s going on with the characters at the heart of this film isn’t ever clear — the leading lady may or may not have a doppelgänger, or an identical twin, or maybe it’s just a game, or some kind of memory issue, or maybe it’s just cinema — but it does that familiar Hong thing of following young people in and out of various bars, where they are seen eating and drinking. There’s even a character who’s a film director. The leading man is working through his feelings about his girlfriend going out drinking heavily with other men, as reported second-hand and then constantly commented on by a variety of friends and barflies. But really, that’s what the film is all about — fragile male insecurity — and it does so very nimbly, with a typical (for this era of Hong’s style) Rohmeresque lightness of touch. His individual films may feel slight at times, but I believe Hong’s body of work is likely to compare with many of film’s greats.

Yourself and Yours film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Kim Joo-hyuk 김주혁, Lee Yoo-young 이유영; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.

洗骨 Senkotsu (Born Bone Born, 2018)

Heading out further into non-American films that explore the space between comedy and drama, I move to East Asia, where there have been a number of Japanese films in this register. This feature was directed by a noted Japanese comedian, so it has a strong handle on the overtly comic elements of the story, but it also delves into some pretty serious and sombre territory too, given its unwieldy English-language title refers to a funerary practice.


It’s fair to say that reading the synopsis of this film makes it sound like pretty heavy stuff, and at times it really is — there’s nothing like a funerary ritual involving washing and packing away one’s dead relative’s bones after they’ve lain in a cave for four years to spark joy in a viewer. But the way that the director (known best in Japan as a comedian) approaches the material is to find the laughs as well: it feels like every moment of genuine melancholy is leavened with a moment of laugh-out-loud humour, but not in a way that’s jarring but one earned by the situation. Plotwise, it centres around Yuko (Ayame Misaki), the heavily-pregnant daughter of the deceased Emiko, who returns to Okinawa for the bone-washing rite of the title, and whose pregnancy becomes the centre of attention for her family and the community (who is the father, why isn’t she with him, etc.). However, the film itself is about more than her situation, ill-advised as it seems, and it never gets bogged down in sentimentality (how could it, given the subject matter the title suggests), but is instead about the bonds that bring families together. This is all expressed via this ritual which links the characters with the reality of death in a way that’s fairly rare in modern globalised society, and thus seems particularly fascinating. The performances are all excellent, not least my favourite: the leaden-faced and rather hilarious aunt figure who is introduced shouting at a character whom I really identified with (the guy who goes to the funeral and ends up claiming all the uneaten food to take home). For all that you might think this film could be, it turns out to be really rather touching.

Born Bone Born film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Toshiyuki Teruya 照屋年之 [as “Gori” ゴリ]; Cinematographer Takahiro Imai 今井孝博; Starring Eiji Okuda 奥田瑛二, Michitaka Tsutsui 筒井道隆, Ayame Misaki 水崎綾女; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 10 February 2019.

Private Life (2018)

Another excellent recent American comedy-drama film is this one by Tamara Jenkins, returning after over a decade since her previous film (not, apparently, a break that was self-imposed) to make a film for Netflix, which turned out to be one of the year’s finest. As ever, it’s a relationship — and the stress of trying to conceive a child — which provides the dramatic notes, but there’s a finely attuned sense of comedy throughout.


Every time I think about watching a film with Paul Giamatti, I get very unenthusiastic — inexplicably so, because every time I actually watch Paul Giamatti give a performance, I think he’s a really sensitive and finely-honed actor who pulls you into his characters in a way that not many others do, although frankly Kathryn Hahn is also pretty amazing at that as well, especially here. Watching another feature about well-off New Yorkers with fractious private lives seems like being condemned to a particular circle in American indie filmmaking hell — because haven’t we seen enough of that — and yet the subject matter and the way it’s done is really so very skilful. It doesn’t do the big attention-seeking formal stuff that you see in say Roma (or if I’m feeling less generous, the films of Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson, or any of those other NYC auteurs), but it’s just so carefully focused on the plot that it almost passes beneath notice. There is exquisite comedy, and also a real pain here that the comic touches masks to a certain extent but also brings out really well, about the way these two characters want a child but due to various biological causes, are prevented from achieving — and yet they have some really strong relationships with younger people which it takes them some time to realise, but that also becomes a source of pain in the end. I guess what I’m saying is I recognise these characters, and maybe even aspects of myself (not in the ‘having a child’ part, admittedly), and it feels sad to think about these things, but it’s also a film which is trying to map a way through one’s middle age.

Private Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tamara Jenkins; Cinematographer Christos Voudouris Χρήστος Βουδούρης; Starring Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 28 December 2018.

Animals (2019)

Moving in my theme week to a non-American setting, this is a film by an Australian director but set in Ireland (although the original novel was set in England). It’s very much less a comedy in generic form, although Alia Shawkat’s character has a black comedic spirit, and somehow infuses the dramatic elements with a sense of playfulness. It’s fair to say that not every critic was particularly enamoured of this film, but like a lot of the comedy-drama films I’m covering this week, it’s the relationship elements that complicate the story and create a darker undertow, which I think is well exploited here.


I don’t really know sometimes why I give ratings to films, but there’s an allure to it, the possibility of further stratification and classification for the unruly diversity of filmmaking, though it’s mostly just a way to easily indicate that I liked or disliked something. I have tried to simplify it to a sort of traffic-lights system, which is much the same as thumbs-up/thumbs-down simplification with an extra category for ‘meh’. Needless to say, it’s an inadequate way of assessing a film, and so the vast majority of my ratings are ‘GOOD’ (or if we’re doing star ratings, *** or ***½, perhaps) and those could go either way: they could be bad films I’m trying to find something nice to say about, or great films I need some time to sit with before I’m willing to take the extra step of proclaiming their greatness. Maybe in fact, the idea of talking about good or bad, great or failed, is just a bad way of talking about films; it should really be about what they inspire us to think about, or how they make us feel, or how they make us want to think differently about life and some peoples’ experiences of it.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I think I really liked Animals but maybe I’m not exactly sure. After all, the characters themselves are pretty unlikeable people, though Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat are both very good at making them appealing despite all their flaws, and their increasingly tedious commitment to partying and getting drunk. Watching Shawkat minesweeping all the leftover white wine in a bar helped to really make me feel all that drinking in a visceral way, and I too know the bitter reality of waking up the next morning after too much white wine (and the white stuff is very much their drink here, though there’s plenty of other controlled substances too). It’s a film about feeling like maybe you’re growing out of your 20s, and maybe you need something more, but not being sure about what that “more” might be. You (and in this film, that “you” is Grainger’s Laura) think it might be about settling down, getting married, moving out of your shared house with your best friend (that’s Shawkat’s Tyler), or maybe it’s about applying yourself to the creative work you really want to do but have never managed to focus on — but it’s equally clear that maybe you don’t have a clue.

I love Alia Shawkat, and she is excellent at embodying this unruly young woman, but her Tyler isn’t unlike the one in Fight Club, a sort of unknowable character interpreted by those around her (chiefly Laura, for Laura’s is the film’s point of view for the most part), a cipher, an enabler or just a convenient excuse for the life you’re living and the decisions you’re putting off. Appropriately, then, she is given some rather arch and unnatural dialogue at times, as if to almost highlight her place is within this narrative of Laura’s journey. Grainger is the one who shines most as an actor, conveying the confusion of her age, and of the expectations placed upon her (gently, or by herself, but nevertheless very palpable). The men, and there are several, seem almost forgettable by contrast, but really this is a film about female friendship above all and that’s what I loved about it, for all that both are quite difficult and unlikeable as people. I probably shouldn’t have cared about them, but yet I ended up doing so (that’s the acting) and feeling like maybe they were the ones who should have been in a relationship, and maybe they were.

Animals film posterCREDITS
Director Sophie Hyde; Writer Emma Jane Unsworth (based on her novel); Cinematographer Bryan Mason; Starring Holliday Grainger, Alia Shawkat, Fra Fee; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 3 August 2019.

A Simple Favor (aka A Simple Favour, 2018)

Moving forward to a film from the past year, today’s film doesn’t really feel particularly serious (I’m probably stretching the definition of ‘drama’ in this case), but it’s certainly not just a straight comedy, for all that the appearance of Anna Kendrick sort of primes you for that. It attempts to find its place amongst a very shifting emotional and melodramatic tone that encompasses various generic formats, that can seem to swing wildly but I think is anchored by the comedic elements that recur throughout.


I feel like this movie has been misrepresented, as much by its own marketing perhaps as by critics. I’ve been told over and over that it’s tonally all over the place, but I don’t agree with that: yes, it’s a film with plenty of twists, but I think it admirably sustains its tone through all of the many shifts its narrative takes. It feels to me like what a successful blend of action, comedy and crime drama should be — in other words, what The Spy Who Dumped Me recently failed fully to achieve. Through all the psychological drama, the mystery and thrills, it maintains an underlying comic tone (there are even laughs at a funeral scene), and it sets up it its carefully poised blend of comedy and creepiness right from the start. Anna Kendrick’s acting chops have been well discussed (and I mostly love her), but Blake Lively is the underrated artist here, compulsively watchable as the bad girl, a fashionable icon with a taste for the outré. Then there’s the narrative itself, which manages to have elements of Personal Shopper (ghostly presences, taking on identities, elements of class-based envy) but reworked into a hyperactive mystery structure which maybe gets a little overcooked towards the end — at which point it is largely sustained by Lively and Kendrick. Still, the soundtrack is packed with French pop songs and it’s great fun.

A Simple Favour film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Feig; Writer Jessica Sharzer (based on the novel by Darcey Bell); Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Wednesday 26 September 2018 (and again on Netflix streaming at home, London, Monday 19 August 2019).

Two Comedy-Drama Films by Andrew Bujalski: Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Support the Girls (2018)

Getting his start amidst the lo-fi low-budget talents of the so-called “mumblecore” movement in American indie cinema, Andrew Bujalski has somewhat carved his own place among filmmakers, progressively moving into territory both more quirky like Computer Chess (2013) or more mainstream with Results (2015). His most recent film (which I touched on in my London Film Festival 2018 round-up) has been his most polished — and somehow also most emotionally resonant — film yet, but he likes to dwell in the sometimes uncomfortable territory between comedic and dramatic registers, wringing laughs from his characters even as their situation seems a little more desperate.


Funny Ha Ha (2002)

Stylistically speaking, this seems like a quite different Andrew Bujalski from the one who made the recent Support the Girls (see below), but the sort of loose, improvisational, almost documentary-like style he uses here is very familiar from a lot of contemporary lo-fi filmmaking around the world. It’s all in that awkward staccato of campus conversation, as our protagonist Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) navigates the attention (or inattention) of a bunch of slightly stand-offish dudes, including a particularly annoying one played by the director. I liked the lead actor’s performance very much, which without being flamboyant (or particularly demonstrative) also made it clear where her personal lines were and her feelings towards her ‘suitors’. I think Bujalski only improved at this kind of observational content, and it’s what threads through his filmmaking.

Funny Ha Ha film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Kate Dollenmayer, Christian Rudder, Andrew Bujalski; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, 29 January 2019.


Support the Girls (2018)

I didn’t know who Shayna McHayle was before I watched this film, and it’s her first acting role, but she’s now my new favourite actress. Despite Bujalski’s indie-improv background, this feels like a different arena for him, and yet he brings something of that feeling to this piece. It’s a film ostensibly about one of the bleaker environments gifted to us by American late capitalism (a boob-centric suburban restaurant, or ‘breastaurant’ as it were, a family-friendly place in Texas where the waitresses flaunt their assets), but it does a great job of centring the women in this story, brimming over with generosity and care for the women who effectively run this place. None of the men come off particularly well but that’s perhaps no surprise given the establishment — not all of them are terrible, but there’s a lot of sadness, but then there’s a lot of sadness just generally in the film (even as there are plenty of laughs too).

Regina Hall pulls everyone together as the manager of this joint, who truly cares for and goes out of her way to support her staff, who are all much younger and more easily exploitable by the sleazy men in control, like her boss (played by James Le Gros). This allows for a proper ensemble to form around her, pitched somewhere between comedy and drama, and finding a point of real warmth and generosity of spirit. There’s a clear story about unstable working environments and the kind of culture that leads to. Everyone is great in this, even when things seem to be falling apart for everyone, and it also manages to make its points about the precarious working lives women like the ones seen here have to navigate, and the untold amount of BS they have to put up with (for example the series of little vignettes of the dudes in the bar witnessed by McHayle’s Danyelle towards the end of the film which prompts her to a self-destructive moment). This really is a great actors film, and unexpectedly feel-good all things considered.

Support the Girls film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, James LeGros; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 20 October 2018 (and again at the Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Monday 8 July 2019).