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

Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, 2009)

I suppose at one level nothing much really happens, nothing overtly melodramatic, but really everything does. There’s an entire relationship in these two hours — between Chris (Lars Eidinger) and Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr), on holiday in Italy — and for a change it’s a fairly believable one. It sort of channels the awkward, uncomfortable feeling you get when you’ve made a couple-y in-joke at an inappropriate moment in mixed company and your spouse glares at you and you shrink inside (well, that’s just Chris’s side). The extent to which you believe these two have a future probably depends on where you are yourself in respect to a relationship, but I’m inclined to the German Weltanschauung. I’m guessing hell is everyone else when you’re together (there’s a particularly dull second holidaying German couple introduced later on), or maybe it’s just these two. It’s a film that’s deeply suggestive (about love, about work, about possible futures) without ever tipping over into judgement.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Maren Ade | Cinematographer Bernhard Keller | Starring Birgit Minichmayr, Lars Eidinger | Length 119 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 16 January 2017

LFF 2016 Day Two

It’s that time of year: time for the London Film Festival (LFF)! And while I’ve not been doing a good job of getting reviews up on my site recently aside from my regular Criterion watch, I thought I’d best share the snippets of the films I’ve been watching at the festival. It’s unlikely any of them will break out as great successes in the coming year, because my policy these last two years has been to go and see films I don’t think will get another screening (with one or two exceptions).

Day One of the LFF was Wednesday 5 October, with its big premiere being the opening gala of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom which seems to be getting mixed reviews, though I shall go see it when it gets a proper release next month.

Day Two was Thursday 6 October, and I saw my first three films. Two of them I think are pretty obscure, but the Ava DuVernay documentary was always going to get a pretty strong release in the US election season and indeed, as I learned subsequent to purchasing my festival tickets, it’s already on Netflix.


Wild (2016)

Wild (2016, Germany, dir./wr. Nicolette Krebitz, DOP Reinhold Vorschneider)
There are some unsettling thematics being explored in this film about a young woman who is, essentially, in love with a wolf. Themes dealing with female sexuality, throwing off the burdens and expectations of bourgeois conformity, living outside the capitalist system, stuff like that. At times I felt the film wasn’t doing justice to all its ideas, but at other times it seemed pretty on the nose. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg, with the intensity of a young Sarah Polley) works as an IT person and general dogsbody at some kind of recycling company, while finding herself newly living alone and restless. The film has some nice little observations (all the women in the office picking up after their oafish boss Boris) and moments of great humour piercing the odd alienation that much of the film essays. It’s weird, but in a watchable way, and a provoking way. [***]


13th (2016) 13th (2016, USA, dir. Ava DuVernay, wr. DuVernay/Spencer Averick, DOP Hans Charles/Kira Kelly)
The thesis of this new made-for-Netflix documentary is that the prison-industrial complex of the modern United States is effectively perpetuating slavery by another name (the constitutional amendment of the title rescinds slavery except for convicts). It’s difficult to mount any criticism of it as a film* because it’s so focused — through sadness, anger and despair — on driving its message home that it’s hard to look away. A range of activists, scholars and politicians (of whom, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich doesn’t come off as being even close to the worst) comment on the legacy of America’s bitterly divided racial history in creating a massively commercialised and exploitative system that in preying overwhelmingly on the poor (often with little interest in their culpability for their charged crimes) also preys overwhelmingly on people of colour, deracinating communities and continuing to deprive them of voice in opposing the system’s swift extension during the 80s and 90s. Well, DuVernay certainly provides this voice and I can only hope it reaches the people it needs to. Sure it sometimes seems like it’s going after Trump and his cronies (and why not) but neither Clinton exactly comes out slathered in glory, and Obama is largely notable by his absence in this story. It effectively folds in police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also contextualises each as part of a history seemingly doomed to repeat. Sad but urgent stuff. [***½]

(* I only want to mention the endless gliding camera around its interview subjects; I found that technique distracting, but I daresay it works for Netflix, where it’s scheduled to appear on 7 October, and may many more see this film.)


Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women, 2016)

Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women) (2016, Egypt, dir. Kamla Abou Zekri, wr. Hanaa Attia)
Sometimes you can watch a film and the fact it exists and what it documents and the point of view it represents, the voice it’s presenting, is enough — to the extent that it hardly matters how ‘good’ a film it is. I guess that sounds like an apologia for not liking it, but really all I can say (not being Egyptian, not being a woman, not being a whole lot of things, a film writer not least) is that it’s not made for me, and that for what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a melodrama, with some good, subtle performances (and some which seem less so), about a community along a small alleyway in a big city, and the local pool which opens to women only on Sunday, and brings them all together. I liked the shared stories, the way they all have to step carefully on makeshift stones over a deluged alley to get to their homes, the incipient love affairs and personal turmoil each is navigating. Even the ‘simple’ woman and the ‘tramp’ archetypes were challenged by the end, and if nothing else it made a good case for safe spaces. [***]

L’Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

The last two films I’ve seen at the cinema have been this and Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos, both French films by directors with non-French ancestry, both set amongst a close-knit group of intellectuals gravitating away from the city, but otherwise films with quite a different temperament. For where Cosmos is dead set with every fibre of its creation against bourgeois affectations, Things to Come instead mounts something of an apologia for the bourgeoisie.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, and the comparison comes from happenstance, so I shan’t get too bogged down in such comparisons; suffice to say I enjoyed Mia Hansen-Løve’s new film very much (and I am clearly also partial to the consolations of the middle-class). Its pleasures are not immediate, but come from an intense focus on the character of Nathalie (played by an ever-excellent Isabelle Huppert), a philosophy teacher at a French high school, who prides herself on opening her students’ minds, even as her own marriage seems stuck. For characters whose lives are so mired in stasis (whether existentially or literally — there are a lot of very abstruse books, and most characters crack them open to read on a regular basis), the camerawork and staging for much of the film is filled with movement. My feeling of it, though, is that this constant movement settles down after a succession of personal setbacks (Nathalie’s husband resolves to leave her, and her mother dies suddenly). She is left to reassess her life, living for a while with her mother’s cat Pandora at a former student’s countryside commune.

As I said, the film’s pleasures are chiefly in the observation of Nathalie’s life’s rituals, and in little amusing details. I particularly liked, as just one example, the sequence where she tries to angrily consign her now-moved-out-husband’s consolatory flowers to the bin, but finding it too narrow for their showy proportions, bags them up in a blue Ikea bag and throws them in her flat’s rubbish skip, pauses, then goes back to retrieve the Ikea bag. I’m not even sure the divorce is really the key to the film (it seems central to a lot of the film’s write-ups), so much as a structural conceit. Things to Come is more interested in the life of a woman who has moved away from predicating her existence on men (or indeed any sense of community, it sometimes seems); it somewhat reminds me of Gertrud in this respect, even if it doesn’t share many of Dreyer’s formal qualities or staginess.

The film may not have the edginess or punch of some young directors’ works (or indeed that of Żuławski), but it is reminiscent instead of the best of bourgeois French cinema (Assayas, say, or Téchiné), seemingly gentle on the surface yet hiding barbed insights.


L'Avenir (Things to Come, 2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Mia Hansen-Løve | Cinematographer Denis Lenoir | Starring Isabelle Huppert, Roman Kolinka, André Marcon, Édith Scob | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 3 September 2016

As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Miguel Gomes | Writers Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla) | Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom | Starring Crista Alfaiate | Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3]

Victoria (2015)

This new German film has shown up at festivals and now on general release on a wave of film geekiness around the fact it’s shot in one continuous 138-minute take, which is of course impressive, but doesn’t make it de facto a good film. Other films have gone this route in the past (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark most notably, which I am embarrassed to say I found boring and inert, though I don’t mean to impugn its filmmaking credentials by any means), and far more films have pretended to (last year’s Birdman, or Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, most famously). Victoria seems to be the real deal, though, and technically yes it’s very accomplished.

As dawn rises over Berlin, the camera sinuously follows our eponymous protagonist (Laia Costa) from a club to palling around with some lads outside, chiefly the chatty Sonne (Frederick Lau), to getting sucked into a heist — which, as heists tend to do, goes badly wrong. If the method of presentation does anything it shows how easy it is to be pressured into something that turns out very badly for everyone, not to mention keeping an oppressively close focus on Victoria herself and her feelings, largely impassive though Costa’s face remains throughout.

Victoria’s backstory, the emotional crux of the film, is a short scene between herself and Sonne in the cafe where she’s working, about half an hour into the film, when she plays the piano for him. It highlights the struggle she’s had to make her way in life, and the bitter blow that this has dealt to her self-esteem, such that for all its genre trappings the film as a whole seems to really be about just how bleak the situation is for the younger generation (explaining to a certain extent why she’s willing to place herself in what seems to us complacent viewers as danger). For all her training and opportunities, she’s teetering on the edge of the precariat, living away from home (from Spain originally), speaking no German yet working a less-than-minimum-wage job at unsocial hours with no benefits or apparent prospects, certainly not much more than the lads she meets up with. It hardly seems surprising she should grasp at any opportunity, if not to succeed, then just to do something, and that’s an emotional nugget which the film seems to get right.

Still, given the way it’s filmed, Victoria is hardly action-packed, and there are long digressive stretches of quiet observance, for periods of which the sound is replaced by a musical score (perhaps the dialogue was less successful at these moments). Maybe the film shouldn’t work, and yet it largely does, thanks to the single-mindedness of its actors, its director and of course (as has been mentioned many times already) its indefatigable camerman Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.


Victoria (2015)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Sebastian Schipper | Writers Olivia Neergard-Holm, Sebastian Schipper and Eike Frederik Schulz| Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen | Starring Laia Costa, Frederick Lau | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 5 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

Min lilla syster (My Skinny Sister, 2015)

This well-meaning Swedish drama deals with two sisters, as you might expect from the title, one of whom has an eating disorder. However, rather than taking the more usual point-of-view of an authority figure like the parents (who here are clearly well out of their depth) or doctors, the film is told from the younger sister Stella’s viewpoint. Being around the age of 12, Stella has the curiosity of youth combined with a naïveté which actor Rebecka Josephson puts across quite well, as she is first perplexed by her sister Katja’s odd secretive habits and then starts to show more concern. Katja, an aspiring figure skater, is played by a Swedish pop singer (Amy Deasismont, who apparently performs under the name Amy Diamond), so just by the casting, the film is tying the story into a wider one of body image issues and creating a contrast betweeen the glamorous and apparently-confident older sister and the gawky younger one. There’s an underlying issue-film-of-the-week format lurking beneath the surface, which might have fitted it for a TV domain, but the filmmaking is too strong and the acting too interesting to totally fall into that kind of ghetto. There’s no glamorisation of the disease — it remains a nasty, pernicious thing — although perhaps the film suffers in comparison with the work of Catherine Breillat, whose masterpiece À ma sœur (2001) comes to mind when the initial sisterly drama is set up (of course the two films are ultimately doing different things, but there’s something of a physical resemblance to the leads). Whether Katja can break out of this eating disorder remains uncertain — as it should given the nature of the disease — but this is a worthwhile attempt to get inside the way this kind of illness can affect a family.


© Tangy

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
|| Director/Writer Sanna Lenken | Cinematographer Moritz Schultheiß | Starring Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 December 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg by this point is pretty adept at crafting a solid historical drama with period details and excellent ensemble acting. In this case, his current ‘everyman’ Tom Hanks is in the lead role as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer called on to defend an accused Russian spy in late-1950s New York. Donovan does what he can with an open-and-shut case, ensuring that the accused, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is not executed, an insurance policy which pays off years later (somewhat telescoped by this film) when surveillance pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and the two men are exchanged by their governments, with Donovan acting as the intermediary. There are, then, essentially two acts, with Hanks stepping up to the courtroom drama with aplomb, the screenplay hitting hard on ‘what it means to be American’ (i.e. follow the guiding light of the Constitution), although at the very least not in a way as facilely patriotic as in some other US films. The real revelation is theatre actor Mark Rylance, whose acting style notably contrasts with Hanks’ familiar good-natured shtick (although the character of Donovan has a hard edge in negotiations — if not in action — that Hanks does bring out well). The second act of the film is set in snowy Berlin, and is almost comedic in its portrayal of the competing bureaucracies of the Soviet Union, East Germany (rather sore at not being a recognised state) and the US, with a foolish university student pulled into the mix. There’s nothing shabby about the production as a whole and it’s put together with all of Spielberg’s well-honed craft, aided by the Coen brothers sharpening up the screenplay. It will probably win awards, and why not, eh?


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Steven Spielberg | Writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen | Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski | Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda | Length 141 minutes || Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Saturday 5 December 2015

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

A screening of a silent film, especially one that’s fairly obscure, is always an occasion to rejoice, because it’s (usually) more than just a film screening, but a live experience. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne didn’t disappoint either, seamlessly integrating piano, accordion and a few other exotic instruments — hinting at the pseudo-orientalist intrigue — into his score. It’s also wonderful to see the talented Anna May Wong on the big screen, still best known perhaps for her turn in the same year’s Piccadilly, but she is a luminous on-screen presence, and an underrepresented face in the pantheon of cinema. Wong doesn’t disappoint in the title role, as a lowly nightclub dancer in some vague Eastern city (Istanbul was suggested) who finds herself early on being attacked by a group of ruffians and saved by surly Jack (Heinrich George), a man seemingly on the down-and-out. Soon, Song forms an affection for Jack as they go into work together… for it turns out he is a knife-thrower! This is, however, where the film’s great weakness is exposed, for the script is full of this kind of scarcely believable whimsy, as it introduces a long-lost love for Jack in the form of the haughty ballerina Gloria (Mary Kid), her boyfriend, a rich impresario, and a plot line about Jack losing his eyesight after a heist gone wrong — although this does at least lead to some tension when he’s doing his knife act. By the time the impresario has promoted Song to lead dancer at his swanky club (shades of Piccadilly) and is asking her to choose between him and the cruelly-abusive Jack (who still pines for Gloria), the relationship drama has all become a bit ‘whatever’ for this viewer, but at least Anna May’s star still shines bright.


© Süd-Film

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Eichberg | Writers Helen Gosewish and Adolf Lantz (based on the novel by Karl Vollmöller) | Cinematographer Heinrich Gärtner | Starring Anna May Wong, Heinrich George, Mary Kid | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 15 November 2015