The Levelling (2016)

As a film about guilt and grief, those mainstays of the low-budget indie drama repertoire, this does better than many films. It gets into the character of Clover (Ellie Kendrick) very well, as we get to understand her relationship to her father Aubrey (David Troughton) and recently deceased brother better over the course of its taut running time. There are thriller elements as she slowly gathers the information about her brother’s last days and hours, but there’s also an almost documentary interest in the day-to-day running of her dad’s farm, from which she left (or was forced out) to go to university. The acting has a peculiar way about it, perhaps from the screenplay, and to me it all seems a bit too stagy, deliberate and careful, but those are positive attributes in the editing and pacing of the film, which remains quite beguiling. I’ve seen a lot, lot worse films in this vein.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hope Dickson Leach | Cinematographer Nanu Segal | Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton | Length 83 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 May 2017

Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming (2016)

Watching this on a plane means I was probably more predisposed to tears than usual, but I did find the central character’s story to be rather affecting. It follows Rosie, a part-Chinese part-Iranian young woman, learning about her father and his life in Iran, and one can only assume that the director’s own mixed ancestry contributes to her feeling for the way Rosie is torn between two disparate cultures (or three indeed, given she lives in Canada). The animation is eye-catching and takes in multiple styles on various poetic digressions (formally integrated into the narrative, as Rosie is literally a poet). I also love diaspora/immigrant stories, though I did find the rendering of Rosie’s eyes distracting (in the sense of not feeling like I was getting the same range of emotions from them as from the animated non-Chinese characters). Still, it’s a lovely little work, which you might not get much of a chance to see if you don’t happen to fly via Canada.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Ann Marie Fleming | Starring Sandra Oh | Length 89 minutes || Seen in-flight to Canada, Wednesday 5 April 2017

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

Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

For all the rippling abs and tattoos sported by hero Inder (Harshvardhan Rane), there’s something old-fashioned to the way this film plays out (which may perhaps be due to the fact that there have been several films of this title over the years, not that their plots seem to bear much similarity). It’s a romantic melodrama, in which two neighbouring young people from either side of the metaphorical tracks fall for one another. Saraswati (Mawra Hocane) is a frumpy librarian (of course!) from a good family whom nobody wants to marry, and Inder is a sexy ex-con with a very long line in laconic brooding and trouble committing to relationships (although there’s a hint that he may have a backstory of privilege). When they are caught talking in his apartment (she wants a makeover to snag herself a business school graduate), her father dramatically severs all ties and performs funerary rites for his now-dead-to-him daughter.

To be honest, for all its big soap-operatic storylines, the film largely had me in its thrall up until the interval. Hocane is delightful as the dowdy Saru, with big dorky glasses looking for all the world like Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (2001; a masterpiece, of course). This does all mean that inevitably there will be a makeover scene, and there’s a song and dance to go along with it that’s quite fetching. Meanwhile, the film spares no effort in showing quite how ripped and sexy Inder is, as he’s constantly caught topless (certainly, he’s never without at least three buttons undone on his shirt), or doing pull-ups in his apartment, throwing glances Saru’s way and even joining the library so he can bump into her. Naturally Inder has feelings for Saru that go beyond her looks, but he isn’t able to express himself (because backstory… it all comes out later on), and so every time they’re together (which is most of the time), there’s a whole lot of longing looks and sultry gazes off camera, eyes filled with conflicted emotions — you know the drill, really. Their relationship feels even a little transgressive, as they fall in love in spite of their families’ wishes (both have strained relationships with their dads, and that’s a big issue in this film, and one imagines in wider Indian society).

It’s just that the last third wraps things up just a little too neatly. Things take a sudden tearjerking turn as an illness plot is introduced, seemingly to punish Saru for her feelings (or maybe to punish her father). Needless to say, the patriarchal needs of society are healed, and it’s too bad for our lovers. Sure, doomed love is a plot as old as time, but when you care about your characters, sometimes you hope for something more.


Sanam Teri Kasam (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru | Cinematographer Chirantan Das | Starring Harshvardhan Rane, Mawra Hocane | Length 154 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 9 February 2016

The Closer We Get (2015)

I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.


© Somewhere

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie | Cinematographers Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope | Length 91 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 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

La Famille Bélier (The Bélier Family, 2014)

Comedy, it is often said, doesn’t travel very well. I understand (from googling it) that this film, in which a young woman (Louane Emera) breaks away from her deaf family to pursue her passion for singing in Paris, has been very successful in France, though the article I found placed it in the august company of a whole bunch of other incredibly successful French comedies that I’ve never heard of. Still, perhaps that’s a particularly condescending way of writing it off; I’m sure there’s plenty here for Francophiles and fans of heartwarming feel-good comedy alike. Lartigau’s film is definitely sweet, with a streak of unabashed sentimentality, and has all the elements of a broad mainstream success in any country: a name star for the poster (Karin Viard in this case, as the mother Gigi); a teenage reality TV singing sensation (Emera); a deft hook for the screenplay (her mother, father and brother are all deaf, and yet she is a singer! to think!); and the tender gravitas in the musical oeuvre of a (presumably) big-name French singer to tug at the heartstrings in the finale (Michel Sardou). Look, clearly I just cannot shake off my sarcasm when I’m talking about this film, because there are so many elements to it that just make me want to roll my eyes when I call them to mind, but in truth, La Famille Bélier is a likeable concoction with visual flair (thanks to veteran DoP Romain Winding) and some fine performances, particularly from the dad (François Damiens), as a farmer with local political aspirations, who needs to break through the close-mindedness of his fellow community members. I can’t help but sense a slightly paternalistic attitude towards the family’s deafness — it’s unclear why they shouldn’t be able to get along without their daughter to translate — but the conceit pays off with a strong emotional punch in the film’s big Paris audition finale. It’s no masterpiece, but it shows some promise.


© Mars Distribution

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Éric Lartigau | Writers Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Thomas Bidegain and Éric Lartigau | Cinematographer Romain Winding | Starring Louane Emera, Karin Viard, François Damiens | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 15 September 2015

Trainwreck (2015)

I understand that Trainwreck has done pretty well, both commercially and critically, and I feel good about that for the most part. A lot of the blogs I follow are pretty down on Amy Schumer a lot of the time (possibly in the same way that they’re down on Lena Dunham, for not being, I don’t know, inspiring enough, feminist enough, or being too white, whatever), but she’s a pretty sharp comic writer and there are a lot of laughs in this film. Much of the time they come from that comedy of slight awkwardness, of people not quite knowing how to act around one another, but the casting of the right actors is pretty key in achieving that as well. As the male lead (sports surgeon Aaron Conners), Bill Hader is not your usual love interest, and though his great comic skills (honed over his years on Saturday Night Live) aren’t always showcased, he is pretty good at finding the right tone to play his scenes in order to set up the comedy elsewhere, and that’s a valuable skill. There are a number of other SNL alums in smaller roles (some barely there, although Leslie Jones’ cameo on the subway is worth it), but the real surprises are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s orange-skinned boss Dianna and a supporting turn from basketball player LeBron James as one of Aaron’s clients. For James, it’s unexpected because he’s known as an athlete, though he shows a good sense of comedy timing, whereas for Swinton — as ever for Tilda — it’s sheer WTF value, as once again she pops up and whirls offscreen leaving you wondering if that really is her.

Of course, the key is Schumer herself, who has a good sense of her strengths and weaknesses, no doubt honed over many years of running her own show. She allows herself to take a fair number of hits, but (at least initially) isn’t willing to fit into the female romantic lead stereotypes. Her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) is played with pathos, but is a philandering wreck, and there’s a subtle sense of how that has played out generationally. Where the wheels fall off is in moving towards a conventional resolution wherein she turns her back on her vices and makes up for some of the emotional turmoil she’s left in her wake — and I don’t really think she has much to apologise for. I daresay she doesn’t either; who knows, maybe this is down to test audiences or something? But it feels like Schumer is following the screenwriting rulebook, and it’s somehow sad that things take a Bridget Jones’s Diary turn in the man-chasing denouement. Following up on one of the assumed criticisms I opened my review with, it does sadly also feel like some of the racial jokes are a little misjudged, however much self-awareness the writing introduces them with.

But these ultimately are caveats which don’t change the affection I have towards much of the film — let’s say the first two-thirds (it’s somewhat overlong as well). Schumer puts together a character who is believable and likeable and unapologetic about herself, and if that’s what Aaron has fallen for, then it’s a quality that I think stands her in good stead. I certainly look forward to her future comedy moves.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Judd Apatow | Writers Amy Schumer | Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes | Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 18 August 2015

Le meraviglie (The Wonders, 2014)

This is, to my mind, a very strange film. It’s the kind of film where I’m left at the end wondering if I’ve just seen some kind of masterpiece, or something no more than merely a little bit odd and quirky. I can’t pretend to be able to resolve that issue, but the fact that it leaves me uncertain as to my response is, I think, a good sign. Partly the effect is to do with the odd blend of realisms both neo- and magical. For the former, it’s not just that the film is Italian, but it’s in the rural setting, the story of a family ekeing out a meagre living against the odds, the unflashy cinematography and the unglamorous actors. The family is a stern and humourless father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck), a caring but busy mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) and four daughters, the eldest of whom is Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). They live and work in a shabby old rundown property, where they raise bees and harvest them for honey, and there’s plenty of detail about the day-to-day grind of making and selling honey. However, at some point, Gelsomina learns about a TV contest to find the best local artisanal producer, and she enters her family (much to the anger of Wolfgang). And this is where the magical bit seeps in, the sense of otherworldiness coming not just from the TV host (Monica Bellucci) but in subtle little ways — of which the family’s pet camel is probably the most overtly humorous — all fully integrated into the neorealist progression of the narrative. However you take to these touches, it’s still at heart a coming of age story, and a family drama, and a sensitive depiction of rural apiculture in a capitalist world that wants to fetishise such production far more than effectively support it. It exerts a strange fascination — despite the domineering patriarch, it’s a film filled with female creativity and imagination (quite aside from all the core technical credits, it also features a fantastic performance from unaffected newcomer Lungu as the central character) — and it’ll probably be a film I want to return to in a few years. Maybe I’ll have grown into it by then.


© BIM Distribuzione

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher | Cinematographer Hélène Louvart | Starring Maria Alexandra Lungu, Sam Louwyck, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci | Length 110 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 23 July 2015

Piku (2015)

I may go to see a lot of films, but the Indian film industry (Bollywood, if you will, at least when describing Hindi-language film production) is still largely a mystery to me. The popular notion is that it’s all glitzy overblown melodrama punctuated by dance numbers, but if anything Piku proves there’s still plenty of room for refreshingly grounded character-based drama. But Piku is a success no matter what country’s film output you’re used to watching, as it manages to find a light comedic tone even while dealing with some pretty big themes in an understated way. Key to that is the film’s central relationship, which isn’t a love story; in fact, the film should be commended for introducing a female central character (the Piku of the title) who lives independently, has a fulfilling and successful career and, even up to the very end, does not define her life (as some of those around her do) by whether or not she has a man. No, instead the film is largely a two-hander between the testy and stand-offish Piku — the resourceful and beguiling Deepika Padukone (who in the course of this one film has quickly staked her claim on my affections at least) — and her irascible father Bhaskor, the latter of whom is played by an icon of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, who turns out to have pretty deft comic timing. The film’s subtitle or maybe tag-line is “motion se hi emotion” which (as far as I can gather from, er, Google translate) means “motion leads to emotion”, where the ‘motion’ in question is at one level a reference to the film’s last third being a road trip, but more specifically refers to bowel motion, and indeed Bhaskor’s constipation is the film’s ongoing running gag — which to be fair does provide some intermittent amusement. If this were all the film had to offer, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it, especially as, for all the wit and vigour of Juhi Chaturvedi’s dialogue, the editing can get rather frenetic at times and the film doesn’t always entirely succeed in tying together a disparate range of genres. However, ultimately, the toilet humour is more a way to channel issues around ageing and death, as Bhaskor deals with his mortality and his relationship to his wider family, including his daughter. In the end, it’s touching, and while there is a romantic subplot of sorts (with Irrfan Khan’s entrepreneurial taxi company owner), the focus is firmly on the father-daughter relationship.


© Yash Raj Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Shoojit Sircar | Writer Juhi Chaturvedi | Cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi | Starring Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Irrfan Khan | Length 125 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 11 May 2015