There’s an Algerian film called Papicha (2019) out in cinemas in the UK at the moment. I haven’t seen it yet, because I’m not exactly going out a lot, but I do mean to do so. Therefore, in honour of that I’m doing a North African cinema week, which will probably mostly be Tunisian and Egyptian films, because I’ve not seen many Algerian ones (and I covered one in my recent Global Cinema entry for the country). Turning to Egypt, I’ve covered Youssef Chahine’s films before, but he was responsible for bringing Omar Sharif to the screen. Sharif’s first two films for Chahine partnered him with Faten Hamama in the mid-1950s (though Chahine had made a few with Hamama before) and they have matching titles in the original, usually translated more literally as Struggle in the Valley and Struggle in the Pier. However, like many non-English language films in the period, distributors seem to have been fairly inconsistent and a variety of titles are attested. On Netflix they are The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters respectively (and that’s what I’ve used here), which have a more poetic ring perhaps, but either way both are full-blooded melodramas reminiscent of contemporary Hollywood productions.
A recent release (to cinemas! I wonder what those are like) has been the French science-fiction film Proxima from the director of Maryland. I’m very intrigued by it, even as I’m rather less comfortable with returning to a cinema, but this week I’m doing a science-fiction themed week. I’ll try to keep them all in a foreign language if I can, but I’ll start with Chinese blockbuster epic The Wandering Earth, which is on Netflix.
Recently my friends and I have taken to watching a silly, distracting film every Thursday; the week before we watched the baffling, bonkers and honestly quite bad Geostorm, which naturally led onto this week’s choice. It’s a Chinese action sci-fi film that mines, if you will, some of the same rich seam of nonsense, even if it’s all wrapped up in fairly believable scientific hokum about environmental catastrophe (albeit here it imagines that human civilisation actually manages to survive long enough for the Sun to die, which is the real stretch).
I’m not sure what’s specifically Chinese about it, given how earnestly (and successfully, in my opinion) it attempts to ape the form; perhaps it’s the rather dark and morbid cutaways that occur every so often, or the brazen willingness to sacrifice huge chunks of the world’s population in order to achieve the larger goal of survival. Like many a film before it (Armageddon comes to mind, if I’m recalling it correctly, though honestly it doesn’t exactly linger in the memory), it deals with a wearied yet rebellious dad (Wu Jing) who bucks the system (and MOSS, the HAL-like computer system) to sacrifice himself so that his estranged son (Qu Chuxiao) and billions of others may live. There’s also a quasi-Blade Runner aesthetic, the underground caverns recall Total Recall, and there’s a Starship Troopers vibe to the classroom scenes.
I guess I just don’t mind any of this frantic cribbing so much here (unlike in Geostorm), perhaps because it’s in Chinese (I’m a sucker for subtitles), but perhaps because everything is just pushed to ridiculous extremes. Like many, my highlight was the machine gunner who turns his bullets on distant Jupiter when it looks as if all is doomed. In other nice touches, the voice of international politics is French, and the voice of the evil computer MOSS is English. This film is genuinely utter nonsense, but I found myself increasingly drawn into it, even if there were still plenty of times I turned to group chat to ask yet again, “what the hell is going on now?”
Director Frant Gwo 郭帆; Writers Gong Ge’er 龚格尔, Yan Dongwu 严东旭, Gwo, Ye Junce 叶俊策, Yang Zhixue 杨治学, Wu Yi 吴荑 and Ye Ruchang 叶濡畅 (based on the novella by Liu Cixin 刘慈欣); Cinematographer Michael Liu 邁克爾·柳; Starring Qu Chuxiao 屈楚萧, Li Guangjie 李光洁, Ng Man-tat 吳孟達, Zhao Jinmai 赵今麦, Wu Jing 吴京; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 7 May 2020.
I’m taking a pivot today from documentaries to feature a very recent release on Netflix, the action superhero film The Old Guard, most notable perhaps for its star turn by Charlize Theron, but with I think quite a lot of hidden depth. It’s an odd outing for a director previously best known for romances like the stellar Love & Basketball (2000) and the equally excellent Beyond the Lights (2014), but a very solid one too.
I see this is pulling down a good range of opinions, but even as someone who hasn’t always been so thrilled with the comic-book adaptations/superhero genre in the past, I thought it was great, punchily shot and edited and with some fine performances. One could quibble that not all the writing was up to the same standard, but it almost doesn’t matter with supporting actors of the quality of Chiwetel Ejiofor or KiKi Layne. At the heart of the film though is Charlize Theron and her gang of immortals, and it’s a difficult thing to convey hundreds if not thousands of years of existence adequately, but I think Theron pitched it at the right level. The film allowed moments of existential reflection, not to mention moral qualms about resorting to violence — already more than most genre films manage — but they key is in the characters and the performances, I think. Plus it all fit together expertly, and while she may be better known for romances, director Gina Prince-Bythewood shows herself to be a solid action director too.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood; Writer Greg Rucka (based on the comic book by him and Leandro Fernández); Cinematographers Tami Reiker and Barry Ackroyd; Starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Marwan Kenzari مروان كنزاري, Luca Marinelli; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 16 July 2020.
Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
The thing about devoting a week to American indie cinema of the last couple of decades is that it tends to cohere around a fairly self-contained representation of society, which is to say it’s very middle-class and white, with a lot of films about struggling post-university 20-somethings and relationship dramas. This is why I wanted to loop in more class-based dramas like Skate Kitchen which deals with a poorer subsection of the otherwise familiar New York City, and while today’s film is about well-off people having a talky social gathering, it does differ a least in tone as it increasingly moves towards horror. (Indeed, there’s actually a subgenre of “mumblecore” dubbed “mumblegore” and while this film isn’t that, it’s interesting to see the way that indie cinema has mutated and spread into genre filmmaking.)
Most horror films, I suppose, are based around the externalisation of fear as something which can attack you, but this one seems to be using grief instead. It’s about a man (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who are invited to his ex-wife’s (Tammy Blanchard) for dinner, where their relationship history is revealed (not such a surprise, but affecting) and something else seems to start taking place. There’s a sense of it developing like one of those Buñuel films, except replacing gradually-mounting absurdism with terror. The director shows her assured control here: there are some great compositions and a slow-building tension that grips throughout.
Director Karyn Kusama; Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi; Cinematographer Bobby Shore; Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Tammy Blanchard; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 2 August 2016.
There’s a certain strand of filmmaking that I like to think of as ‘low stakes cinema’ where nothing really bad happens or is likely to happen to any of the characters — no one’s actions are going to kill or seriously hurt anyone, and there might be a bit of embarrassment or hurt feelings, or even a relationship break-up at the very worst. Much of Nicole Holofcener’s cinema sort of fits neatly in there, and the lives she depicts are just a little more ragged around the edges than, say, Nancy Meyers’s (certainly their homes are less punishingly set designed). Both of these films deal with ensemble casts, groups of people defined by relationships, whether romantic or those of friendship, navigating through complications, without the kind of pat resolution you get with, say, sitcoms. In this way they fit somewhat into the same mould that younger ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers were doing at the same time, though her filmmaking seems closer to the kind of comfortable New York background of Noah Baumbach, something which traces its lineage back through Woody Allen. Between these two films below she made Please Give (2010, which I’ve seen and liked, though wasn’t able to rouse myself to write much about it) and Enough Said (2013), which is just lovely, and I think one of the last screen performances from James Gandolfini.
I was unsure how to follow a week of American films directed by women, but the unexpected news of the death of director Lynn Shelton was on my thoughts this weekend. I’ve reviewed two of her films here already, Touchy Feely (2013) and Laggies (2014, known as Say When in the UK), the latter of which I think may be my favourite. I’m not much of a writer of obituaries, and I wouldn’t really know where to begin with her life, though she was a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest and made most of her films there, having started as an editor and done a little acting, such as in Nights and Weekends. She was inspired when she was almost 40 by hearing Claire Denis talk about her work, to start making her own films. She only had a decade and a half of that since her 2006 debut feature, during which time she worked in both cinema and on many acclaimed TV shows (titles like Mad Men, The Good Place, GLOW and the recent Little Fires Everywhere adaptation), and was, I think, really starting to flourish creatively. Her death is a sad loss to independent American cinema, and if you want to know more you could do worse than listening to the long-form interview on WTF Podcast. But as surely the best way to honour a director is to watch their films, I thought I would devote a week to that — not just her films (because I wouldn’t have enough reviews for a week), and not just the so-called “mumblecore” of the mid-2000s, but all the low-budget filmmaking since then (along with films by directors who came out of that), anything which shares a similar devotion to character and setting, and inevitably will touch on several more of Shelton’s films in the process.
This is another of Lynn Shelton’s wonderful, quiet little films about people dealing with heavy stuff in a low-key way. Like many such films, it features one of the Duplass brothers (Jay), here playing a guy called Chris, back in his small Pacific Northwest town after being released from a fairly significant stretch in prison. While there, he connects with his old teacher Carol (Edie Falco), who’d been campaigning on his behalf. There are naturally a few revelations about why he’d been in prison, but these come out rather by-the-by — there are some conflicts, but no huge melodramatic reveals, just a slow drip-feed of feelings that help us connect all these characters, and give a rounded sense of them dealing with various traumas, whether readjustment to civilian life, or a marriage breaking up, or just the sense of being in a small town with nothing much to do.
Director Lynn Shelton; Writers Shelton and Jay Duplass; Cinematographer Nathan M. Miller; Starring Jay Duplass, Edie Falco, Kaitlyn Dever, Ben Schwartz; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 13 July 2018.
We used to talk about films sneaking out under the radar on streaming services (or on home video back in the day), but right now online is the only game in town, so the difference is whether you’re seeing it on subscription services like Netflix, or pay-to-play VOD, and Netflix can be a bigger platform than some cinemas (though as they never release their viewership, it’s difficult to be sure, aside from the vagaries of cultural impact). This is the case for the release of the new film from Alice Wu, or should I say the second film she’s been able to make in over 15 years, disappointing given how fundamentally solid her writing is. Anyway, it’s worth checking out.
This is a rather sweet film, and it’s a shame that it’s been 16 years since the last (and first) film by the same director, Saving Face (which I also very much enjoyed) — though I daren’t assume that the market for Asian-American-focused gay love stories has become any more viable in the intervening years. This one rather soft pedals the gay love story, focusing more on the relationship that develops between the jock, Paul (an appropriately lunkish Daniel Diemer), and the bookish Chinese-American girl, Ellie (Leah Lewis), who helps him write a love letter to his (far smarter) enamorata, Aster (Alexxis Lemire), the daughter of a Spanish pastor. Like a lot of high school-set quirky comedy-drama coming-of-age stories, it gets a magical/cutesy at times, pushing its characters at times beyond credulity, but it’s in the service of what is essentially a character-led film about three people trying to find their way in a deeply conformist little corner of America (a fictional town in, I think, New York state?). The three leads are all winning and likeable in their own ways, and the film never really gets dark, beyond a bit of love-based humiliation, when Paul wants to open up about his love (also an awkward scene in a church near the end). It’s an easy watch that may capitalise on the success of To All the Boys, but definitely goes in its own specific direction.
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Greta Zozula; Starring Leah Lewis, Daniel Diemer, Alexxis Lemire; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 6 May 2020.
Today we sadly learned of the passing of the great Irrfan Khan, so I’m taking a break from this week’s theme on my blog to watch one of his performances; while this review below is unlikely to be of his best film, it’s still a decent crime investigation thriller in which he capably plays a slightly ambiguous character. Others have seen some of his higher profile films — of those, most in English, I’ve only seen Slumdog Millionaire (as well as smaller parts in Jurassic World and The Darjeeling Limited) — but I have enjoyed him in romcoms like Piku and the recent Qarib Qarib Singlle, and his career stretches back to a small role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988). He’s an actor that seemed able to play both complex less than heroic characters (as in this film), as easily as likeable easygoing charmers. In any case, he’s usually the moral centre of the films he’s in, all too often playing authority figures we can trust (even if that reputation is played with at times, as with this film).
One of the difficulties Talvar has to get over, in presenting its true-crime torn-from-the-headlines case of a young girl found murdered in her family home near their similarly-slain servant, is that it was never really solved. And so we get, in the now-cliched Rashomon-like way, flashback recreations of multiple different viewpoints on what happened, with all kinds of ridiculous suggestions being put forth (some of them reported gleefully in public) by first the police investigators and then the “CDI” (Central Dept of Investigation) of whom Irrfan Khan’s Ashwin is leading the case. Even more than the criminal investigation, the film is keen to show how messy and disorganised India’s justice system can be, with incompetent cops and bosses who seem (it is implied) more interested in ensuring their old classmates are exculpated of any wrongdoing than in getting a satisfactory conclusion to the case. There’s a hint of Touch of Evil too in the way that Ashwin’s methods can be little better than torture at times — if he’s the hero of the film, he’s an antihero at best — but he’s still more impassioned than most of the guys milling around him, who are mostly looking out for their own careers or their friends. I think it works well, and it’s all very well put together, even if the film itself has a bit of a TV true-crime thriller feel at times; it nevertheless maintains a consistent tone, anchored by Khan’s empathetic performance.
Director Meghna Gulzar मेघना गुलज़ार; Writer Vishal Bhardwaj विशाल भारद्वाज; Cinematographer Pankaj Kumar पंकज कुमार; Starring Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान, Konkona Sen Sharma কঙ্কনা সেন শর্মা, Neeraj Kabi नीरज काबी; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 29 April 2020.
A quick bonus post for the week of Netflix films for another recent Netflix original, and a very sweet and charming one at that. This kind of thing — the comedic coming-of-age — goes with the pastel-hued romcom (often with a seasonal theme) and the stand-up comedy special as one of Netflix’s staples, and they do it well. I have no doubt that future weeks will see me turn to other streaming services or sources of stay-at-home film-watching content for obvious reasons, and perhaps I’ll be back with Netflix again soon enough.
There are obviously limits to auteurism, and most mainstream cinema traditions are fairly effective at proving those limits; sure, Anne Fletcher is the director credited with helming one of my least favourite films that I’ve seen (2015’s Hot Pursuit, though I don’t daresay there are a million worse ones and I only watched that particular film because it’s by a woman director), but in most such cases, it’s the screenplay where one should be focused. In this case, the source material and its adaptation by Kristin Hahn is almost entirely on point — in no small way abetted by another fine and subtle writer on the soundtrack, Dolly Parton — and Dumplin’ thus exudes a genuine warmth. There are a few clichés of the genre, but all of them are in service to a message — about body positivity and personal growth — that avoids preachiness and shaming, and doesn’t allow its characters the cop-outs of success by the usual metrics of the genre (winning a prize, fitting in with the cool girls, getting the boy… well, to a certain extent, anyway). Millie, for example (my favourite character, played by Maddie Baillio), is never depicted as hating herself, or having a secret dark side behind her omnipresent smile, or as being in any way less than perfectly confident in who she was (albeit in need of a bit of coaching for a beauty pageant), and that was great. The ‘drag queens teaching the outsider girls to be more femme’ was a bit more stock, but overall I think the film creates enough of a positive feeling, and the actors put enough into it, that even that I think wasn’t too jarring.
Director Anne Fletcher; Writer Kristin Hahn (based on the novel by Julie Murphy); Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Danielle Macdonald, Jennifer Aniston, Odeya Rush, Maddie Baillio; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 11 December 2018.