Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Back in the week commencing 15 May, I did a themed week around American indie films directed by women because of the release of this new Eliza Hittman film to VoD streaming services. I also reviewed her earlier film Beach Rats (2017) during that week. Naturally the new release was quite expensive those first few weeks but when the rental cost came down a bit, I did finally catch up with it, and I think it’s one of the strongest new releases this year.


I don’t think there can ever be enough stories of this nature, testifying to ordinary people and the lengths they need to go to in order to keep their lives on an even keel. This is about Autumn (Sidney Flanigan), a young woman in a small Pennsylvania town, who’s in high school and clearly gets trouble off her classmates for being too serious — we are introduced to her at a show where the evident theme is 50s Americana, but she sings a doomy song about the patriarchy. At home, her mom has her hands full with Autumn’s younger sisters, plus has a boyfriend who’s a creep. It’s a set up that’s anything but supportive, so when she finds out she’s pregnant (presumably to the dude who’s being particularly aggressively bullying towards her), there aren’t really any realistic options, and the local clinic, while friendly, have their own priorities, leading her to get on a bus with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) and go to NYC without telling anybody. Flanigan is really solid at the core of this film, and a lot of what she’s dealing with remains unaddressed in the dialogue, instead communicated by posture and body language, surly aggressiveness towards her cousin at times, but at other times softening. It’s a quiet, undemonstrative film that works its magic slowly, and it’s the scene that gives the film its title which is the emotional core of the film, which never lapses into melodramatic territory, but just stays with the choice of its protagonist and her seeing that through.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eliza Hittman; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Sidney Flanigan, Talia Ryder, Théodore Pellerin; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 9 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 326: Metropolitan (1990)

This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.

Criterion Sunday 318: Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games, 1952)

Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.

Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)

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.

Continue reading “Two Relationship Dramas by Nicole Holofcener: Friends with Money (2006) and The Land of Steady Habits (2018)”

Booksmart (2019)

Look, I tried to put it off, but after weeks dedicated to Netflix, Mubi and the BFI Player, I turn now to Amazon direct video and Amazon Prime. Whatever you think of Amazon — and I do earnestly encourage you to think bad things about them — they have been involved for a number years in producing their own original content, and have plenty of films (both new and old) available to watch. We’ve been paid-up members on and off (but mostly off) over the years for various reasons, usually because of deals or offers, and I cannot in all good faith tell you to give any more money to Amazon (their owner is offensively wealthy and its warehouse workers are grossly exploited). However, if you also happen to have Amazon Prime, you may be looking for things to watch, hence this week’s theme.


Some of the best American comedies are set in high school, and Booksmart is surely up amongst them. It has a kind of Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You vibe (every bit as broad and brightly-coloured in a constructed way, but with less self-consciously based-on-a-literary-classic inspiration), and doubles-down on the female friendship angle, as two best friends (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) increasingly desperately try to find a graduation party. Yes these characters are all insanely privileged but I see that as part of that particular lineage of teen genre films. Indeed, Beanie Feldstein’s opening ensemble is assuredly a reference to Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless (the film is filled with little vignettes that hark back to that film, both in the costuming and several of the scenes, like them being stuck in a remote location with no phone signal). In a very lowkey way it makes the valuable points that it’s possible to have fun at school and still do academically well, and although it does the obligatory high school cliques opening, it refuses to pit them against one another (unlike the rather darker Mean Girls). It has some nice bittersweet moments, but unlike the recent Eighth Grade, this film is not really trying to find the heartbreak (and truth, such as it is, is more in the feelings than in creating a realistic high school environment); rather it is just raucously fun. There are plenty of memorable small roles popping up (such as party girl Gigi, played by Billie Lourd) and strong, likeable, relatable turns from Feldstein and Dever in the lead roles.

Booksmart film posterCREDITS
Director Olivia Wilde; Writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman; Cinematographer Jason McCormick; Starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, 25 May 2019 (and most recently on Amazon streaming at home, London, Friday 3 April 2020).

Hidden Figures (2016)

One of the more successful biopics in recent years has also been one that has dealt rather more frankly with issues of racism and sexism in the workplace, hardly avoidable given that in Hidden Figures the workplace is NASA in the 1960s. Some have criticised it for its blandly mainstream qualities and some of the liberties it takes with the truth, but the acting is more than equal to the subject, and it’s a rousing film which presents a different view of a cinematically familiar era.


I thought that I might have a problem with clunky movie clichés about smart people, or period films dealing with racism, or against-the-odds stories, or big Hollywood dramas — you know the ones, like standing in front of a blackboard filled with mathematic equations, or racist white cops and loaded glances from rooms filled with white guys in suits, or that bit where our protagonist proves their essential worth to aforesaid rooms, or music cues that guide how you’re supposed to react — but it turns out I don’t, if those protagonists are played by Janelle, Taraji and Octavia. I would happily watch more of any of them running intellectual (not to mention sartorial) circles around hissable baddies like Kirsten Dunst and Jim Parsons, who in this movie are the very embodiment of white privilege. We need more heroes like these three, and if anything Hidden Figures makes me retroactively disappointed for all those other space race movies about the 1960s, which only had the rooms filled with suited buzzcut white men.

Hidden Figures film posterCREDITS
Director Theodore Melfi; Writers Allison Schroeder and Melfi (based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Friday 17 February 2017.

ハッピーアワー Happy Hour (2015)

So far in my ‘long films week’ I’ve focused on films which are long due to their aesthetic ideals of slow, long-form cinema which moves very and deliberately slowly, but there are other reasons films go long. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 derives its durational intensity from a series of acting improvisations that cohere around a mystery plot, and in this Japanese film from a few years ago it is again improvisational work (all with non-professionals) which provides the length, as the situations they work on start to build up in complexity and emotional resonance. In such cases, the length may feel necessary for a true depth of character, and makes such films rather closer to the TV mini-series format, whereby character takes prominence over plotting.


Much like the “happy hours” which are advertised in pubs and bars, you know that what you will end up getting will neither be an hour long nor ultimately result in happiness, and so it is in this film. It is five and a quarter hours long, and although it’s not exactly a tragedy, it does seem to deal with four different routes through unhappiness (some of which at least may end up somewhere positive).

It follows four women, all friends in their late-30s in Kobe, all of whom are first seen happily eating together on a hilltop promontory and planning a trip to a spa town. Three of them are married and one is divorced, and throughout the film we get a sense of each of their characters: Jun (Rira Kawamura), the linchpin who brought them together, unemployed and going through a divorce; Akari (Sachie Tanaka), the tough-minded nurse; Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), who keeps the home and raises her teenage son; and Fumi (Maiko Mihara), an administrator for some kind of a creative/arts space. As the film progresses, we get the sense of each of them, and their relationships (with men and with each other).

In taking on a story with four main characters, the film seems interested in the balance between them, and an extended workshop scene near the start facilitated by Fumi with an ‘artist’ (a shady character who comes across like the kind of role Adam Driver might play) uses trust exercises and the like to forge bonds between the performers, looking for natural points of balance in both furniture and people. If he seems to be on the make for a pick-up, the husbands aren’t very much better, being instead rather detached from their wives. Fumi’s husband is a literary editor working with a younger (woman) author, while Sakurako’s is well-meaning but a bit stupid (even his mother has to slap him upside the head at one point, in a particularly amusing moment amidst a family crisis that is not so).

Much of the acting seems to be deliberately downplayed, delivered frontally with clear diction and a noticeable lack of characters talking over each other. It suggests a heightened dramatic register that is perhaps borne out by the trajectories the characters take. The events of the film, indeed, might be considered melodramatic, but any such hint of that particular register is keenly avoided by the filmmakers at every step, and the performance styles certainly contribute to that.

There’s ultimately a lingering sense of mystery (one of the characters even largely disappears about halfway through, à la L’avventura perhaps except for the sense that she’s still in the world somewhere). Relationships are continually fractured and reconfigured, but there’s also a simple joy to the ensemble performances. There are also plenty of sublime moments. For myself, I want to mention the scene where Sakurako listens to the young woman author speak (her name is rather distracting for the English-speaking audience when transcribed: Ms Nose), and then at dinner afterwards offers her halting opinion: that she has shared the same experiences in the same place as the author, but is saddened because she never felt any of the same intensity of emotion — an observation hinting at the lack of stimulation Sakurako receives from life, and which the actor conveys so well in her performance. There are plenty of such observations in the film, and plenty of rewards to receive.

Happy Hour film posterCREDITS
Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi 濱口竜介; Writers Hamaguchi, Tadashi Nohara 野原位 and Tomoyuki Takahashi 高橋知由; Cinematographer Yoshio Kitagawa 北川喜雄; Starring Sachie Tanaka 田中幸恵, Hazuki Kikuchi 菊池葉月, Maiko Mihara 三原麻衣子, Rira Kawamura 川村りら; Length 317 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Saturday 10 March 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.

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.

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).