Toni Erdmann (2016)

It’s been quite the festival darling, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe one’s reaction to it really does depend on being in the right room filled with the right group of people reacting favourably. I mean, I hardly disliked Toni Erdmann (and even laughed at a number of sequences), but it doesn’t quite elicit from me the same rave reviews others have been giving it. Calling it a “comedy”, for a start, is a bit misleading, as like the other films by director Maren Ade I’ve seen (2009’s Everyone Else and 2003’s The Forest for the Trees) it’s essentially about a person profoundly failing to connect with other human beings, so there’s a pretty deep sense of pathos to it — but then, that wouldn’t be unusual for the comedy genre.

The title character is an alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), the father of corporate consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller), and the film’s centre of attention shifts between them, following him for the first section, then her, then him again. She has a client in Bucharest, and so, feeling like she needs some further direction in life, he arrives unannounced to visit her. He’s a practical joker, she’s a business woman, and that’s where the comedy really comes from: that sense of hyper-awareness about how his actions are being seen by her, and some of the biggest laughs come from the abject fear you can sense behind her eyes, though she remains outwardly composed for those around her. Yet for a film that sort of bases itself in the comedy of humiliation, and as someone for whom that humour (mostly found in the sitcom format) is among my least favourite things, it never feels quite as squirm-inducing as I worried it would become, and perhaps the length at which it allows its scenes to unfold help with that (it’s not a short film).

It touches on a lot of issues pertinent to the modern world, and sure, locating a malaise at the heart of corporate culture isn’t exactly startlingly new, but it does it very nicely all the same. The generational disconnect is explored winningly too. And even if it never quite struck me as a masterpiece (cf. also La La Land), I certainly enjoyed it and for all that the characters may have been bored at times (or rather, perhaps, filled with ennui), I never found it boring to watch.


ADVANCE SCREENING NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Maren Ade | Cinematographer Patrick Orth | Starring Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek | Length 162 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 22 January 2017

Dear Zindagi (2016)

This isn’t perfect as a film, far from it — our heroine (Kauri, or “Koko” for short, played by the lovely Alia Bhatt) spends much of the time acting like an entitled brat, for which there’s an explanatory backstory near the end which is far too neat and allows for a perfunctory ending that stretches credulity — but I really liked this film. It has its heart in the right place. Maybe it’s better to say what it’s not: it’s not a film in which a wayward heroine is cured by a hunky love interest (though the reliable Shah Rukh Khan does play a key role as a therapist, while the film at one point even suggests Kauri may be lesbian, and there’s a little coda that plays with gender identity); and it’s also not a film that stigmatises mental health issues (even if I don’t believe Khan’s therapy sessions at all). It has visual flair, and I really wished Kaira’s job as a cinematographer were more developed than the opening half hour, but it shows plenty of promise.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Gauri Shinde | Cinematographer Laxman Utekar | Starring Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan | Length 150 minutes || Seen at Cineworld O2 Greenwich, London, Monday 28 November 2016

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

Criterion Sunday 101: Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972)

The experience of working through the Criterion Collection is one of having a slightly patchwork introduction to the ‘great directors’. We’ve had a few Fellinis, a bunch of Kurosawas and a clutch of Bergmans, amongst smatterings of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger, so I’m by no means an expert on these grand old men of the artform. However, my feeling is that for Ingmar Bergman, having largely moved on from his early, funny stuff (and I’m a fan of his 50s comedies like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), he went through a more bleak period of introspective psychodramas, and amongst these Cries and Whispers is perhaps a good — if not the archetypal — example. It’s a chamber film, largely set in a single home in the late-19th century, as two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), take care of their dying third sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson), with the help of the family’s maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan). No one really has much love for anyone else, save for Anna’s love and affection towards Agnes, as we learn in flashbacks. These depict each of the four struggling with earlier relationships, such as that of Karin with her husband, or Maria with a young doctor, and each is bookmarked by a brief image of the woman’s face in close-up, looming out of a red-filtered darkness. Indeed, red is a key colour in the film: formally, Bergman employs frequent fades to red to mark scene transitions, and in terms of the set design, one of the room’s in the home is the “red room” — truly a vision of bourgeois hell, though at least each of the sisters makes sure to wear white when they’re in there. It’s hardly genteel either, as under this etiquette-ridden formally-dressed exterior are all kinds of roiling emotions, expressed most forcefully by one scene of Karin’s self-mutilation in order to escape her husband’s attentions (which I’m sure didn’t escape Michael Haneke either). It has a certain cumulative force to it, though whether you love it depends on how you respond to Bergman’s moralistic hand-wringing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Harriet Andersson | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 June 2016

Adult Life Skills (2016)

There are, sadly, too many new films where I have to really struggle to say nice things when the film ultimately underwhelms me by overreaching with bad dialogue, over-elaborated symbolism or clunky metaphors. Indeed, all of the above, quite often. This has frequently been the case with new British films (and I can only imagine the situation getting worse in our post-“Brexit” world as European film financing dries up). Thankfully, then, this recent debut is on the whole rather delightful, even if it does have a certain twee and precious quality: its protagonist Anna (played by Jodie Whittaker) makes lo-fi films using her thumbs as characters; there’s a child portentously dressed as a cowboy (Ozzy Myers); and a love interest for Anna with a Jemaine Clement level of deadpan delivery (Brett Goldstein’s part-time estate agent Brendan). It’s certainly better than the director’s short film of a couple of years ago, for in expanding the premise of a 30-year-old woman living in her mum’s shed, it also adds to the pathos of her situation without overlabouring some of its plot parallels (the child whose situation mirrors her own could have been done so much more clunkily). Perhaps it’s just that Whittaker’s s gentle Yorkshire accent makes everything sound more agreeable, but I think this is on the whole a solid debut film and I look forward to more from director/writer Rachel Tunnard.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rachel Tunnard | Cinematographer Bet Rourich | Starring Jodie Whittaker, Ozzy Myers, Brett Goldstein | Length 96 minutes || Seen at Stratford East Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 28 June 2016

Umimachi Diary (Our Little Sister, 2015)

Hirokazu Koreeda makes delicate small-scale films, often about familial relationships, and that’s certainly the case here, which as the English title indicates is about a group of sisters. That’s not to say the film is devoid of men, just that it’s very much focused on the sisters and their relationships with one another, and very little with their relationships outside the family unit. Indeed, despite some discussions from the middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) about moving on, the three of them still live together in their childhood home in their small seaside home town. When they go to the funeral of their father (who left them when they were young), they meet his teenage daughter Suzu (Suzu Hirose), and she moves in to the sisters’ home for a bit. The film depicts quite a bit of fluidity to familial relationships beyond the stable nuclear family unit, without pushing it too strongly, and indeed most of the film’s revelations are very much underplayed. That said, it’s not without sentimentality (it has a tone not too far from the director’s 2011 film I Wish), but it doesn’t wallow egregiously in this. It’s a comedic film not in the sense of being filled with jokes (there is some gentle humour), but because you swiftly get a sense that nothing really bad is going to happen to the family as long as these sisters stick together. This does mean that the narrative has a meandering aspect that never quite resolves on any particular moment of drama or crisis, but then again it’s never exactly boring either. A quiet mood piece, then, and rather a delightful one.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hirokazu Koreeda (based on the graphic novel by Akimi Yoshida) | Cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto | Starring Suzu Hirose, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Tuesday 18 April 2016

Mustang (2015)

There’s no shortage of coming of age movies, which makes their general contours rather over-familiar and sometimes wearisome. Still, the world is large enough and inspiration diverse enough that it should always be possible to make something seem fresh, which is what Turkish-born French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has done here. It’s a story of five sisters growing up without parents (their guardians are their uncle and grandmother) — which has given rise to superficial comparisons with The Virgin Suicides (1999) — whose burgeoning awareness of themselves comes into conflict with the repressive mores of their rural community, kicked off with a carefree frolic in the waves with some schoolboys. Their uncle then progressively starts entrapping them further within the home until their (arranged) marriages, making their acts of rebellion ever more circumscribed. Unlike Coppola’s film, Mustang is grounded within the experiences of the sisters, and it’s their point of view — specifically that of the youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), who also narrates — which the film explores.

It would be misleading to call it triumphant, as there’s plenty of unsettling content: in terms of its setting, it seems less about the specifics of rural Turkey as of traditional patriarchal society where women’s sexuality is feared and controlled, and this is expressed via several means (an initial series of micro-aggressions which swiftly pile up). Yet this is all touched on in an artfully distanced way that almost lulls us into believing these characters are protected from the worst outcomes of patriarchy (they’re not of course), but which also preserves vestiges of hope for the sisters (who are presented with little more hope than for a good match to a tolerant husband). These manifest as little shards of narrative possibility: weaknesses in their fortress home; the presence of a nearby road and the uncle’s unguarded car. In these ways, by the end we are able to cheer small acts of defiance which also build their own momentum of resistance. It’s all directed with a deft touch and acted sensitively by (mostly) non-professionals. There’s hope for the coming of age film yet.


Mustang (2015)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven | Writers Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour | Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok | Starring Güneş Şensoy | Length 97 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 28 February 2016

Les Adoptés (The Adopted, 2011)

Actor/director Mélanie Laurent (still most frequently credited as one of the leads in Inglourious Basterds) picked up quite a few plaudits for 2014’s Respire (Breathe), but it’s been a couple of years and still no sign of it in the UK so I can only assume it never got picked up for distribution. Thankfully her first film is available online, and it’s certainly a stronger debut than many actors manage. The story itself has a downbeat cast as it follows a pair of sisters, Lisa and Marine (played by the director and Marie Denarnaud), the younger of whom is adopted — a detail which seems from the title like it must be central to the film, but isn’t really — and who falls into a coma following an accident. The tripartite structure means that each of the three leads, including Marine’s boyfriend Alex (Denis Ménochet), gets to be the central character for a bit, and this gives a little bit more depth to the evolving drama. There’s some nice stylish camerawork and framing, an underlying sense of referentiality (Marine runs a bookshop specialising in anglophone authors and watches plenty of Hollywood films), and the film generally looks lovely. It’s certainly worth watching.


FILM REVIEW
Director Mélanie Laurent | Writers Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Perez and Christophe Deslandes | Cinematographer Arnaud Potier | Starring Mélanie Laurent, Denis Ménochet, Marie Denarnaud | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 26 January 2016

Dedemin Fişi (2016)

There are few things more disorienting in a cinematic context than going to see a film that’s made within a foreign film industry and which is not intended to be seen outside that country (or at least, by people who are not embedded within that industry’s cultural context). You can usually tell such films when they show up here by the fact they are only screened at cinemas near an existing ethnic population, and that their titles are rarely translated into English. So I can’t tell you exactly what the title of this film means, but it’s something to do with a grandfather dying, because that’s the film’s premise: a family are brought back to their home town (Malatya in Eastern Anatolia) to be by the bedside of their ailing patriarch, who has a number of commercial concerns which need to be divvied up amongst his kids and grandkids. Another thing I gather from the internet is that this film brings together the cast and crew from a popular Turkish TV show, which may explain its broadly caricatured comedy and extensive ensemble cast. From an outsider’s perspective, then, the humour doesn’t translate particularly well — it leans rather heavily on frantic mugging and comedy misunderstandings, which are probably more amusing if you know the actors, though there’s an amusing running gag about the Malatya-based wife (Özge Borak, I think), whose presentation plate set gets progressively smashed during the film. Less successful is the brief bit where the wife of the German-based son harangues her husband in German while Nutella is smeared on her upper lip in a familiar moustache-like shape. Still, I’m hardly in the best position to judge, except that it’s all very colourful and seems to be well-meaning.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Meltem Bozoflu | Writers Eray Akyamaner, Sila Cetindag, Ugur Güvercin, Murat Kepez, Ayberk Sak and Sükrü Özbey | Cinematographer Turksoy Golebeyi | Starring Alper Kul, Erdem Yener, Özge Borak | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 30 January 2016

Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Everyone’s ever so slightly neurotic and has trouble living with themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s films (most recently in 2013’s Enough Said). I’d say they’re generally white and middle-class too, although here the matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has a young black adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin). Anyway, if it’s a formula, it’s one that makes for enjoyable, watchable films, because Holofcener writes observant character studies of people who you imagine it might be difficult to live with, but not to watch on screen for 90 minutes. As ever, Catherine Keener is the film’s real star, here playing Michelle, a struggling artist who feels like she’s wasting her life, so takes a job at a photo booth with a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile there’s her sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress feeling fragile due to body image worries, no thanks to the superficial men she needs to court jobs from. It may not build to any big melodramatic climax, but for its brief running time it feels like it’s touching on feelings that are common and understandable and not always related in American comedies.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 10 January 2016