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.
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
Fitting into the same general category as The Gatekeepers of a few years back, this new film to grapple with Israeli politics does so through the prism of the ‘Six-Day War’ of 1967, in some ways the foundational conflict of the state of Israel as it’s known today, in which a combined attack from neighbouring Arab states was repelled and new territory annexed. The film draws on recently released audio recordings with young Israelis involved in the fighting (including a young Amos Oz), many of whom were conscripted, and who are distinctly less than gung-ho after the decisive conclusion of the conflict. In order to give the film some visual impact, those same people, now rather old, sit next to the tape recorders and the camera watches their faces as their youthful words are summoned. Amongst this is interwoven archival footage which touches on what’s being discussed (even if, obviously, it’s not precisely of the situations being described). It’s useful once again to be given a sense that a range of democratic opinions are available in Israel, though the legacy of the conflict — an ongoing militarisation in response to a (perhaps not unreasonable) paranoia of being attacked — is not dwelt upon, except as a sort of shadow that lurks in the background. Indeed it’s clear from the final words, when these older participants are given a chance to reflect on their younger selves, that some have hardened in their opinions. However, for its (relatively brief) running time, Censored Voices provides an interesting perspective on a key 20th century conflict that continues to resonate in the region.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Mor Loushy | Writers Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan | Cinematographer Avner Shahaf | Length 84 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 19 October 2015
This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.
It may be a co-production between many different countries, while the title may be a little unwieldy, but this Vietnamese film is a serious and stylish take on one, relatively poor, young woman’s life. The lead character is Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), who lives in a little apartment by a railway line, just about making ends meet when she gets pregnant to her somewhat deadbeat boyfriend. Her resulting indecision about whether or how to get an abortion is partly what the title is alluding to, not to mention her boyfriend’s addiction to cockfighting that becomes one of the film’s key metaphors. Huyen’s repeated attempts to go through with the procedure never quite seem to work out for various reasons, and when she gets involved with sex work in order to pay her bills, her feelings alter subtly again when she meets up with a concerned client. One gets the sense at times that perhaps not all of this plotting is entirely believable if taken as naturalistic, but the film’s style pushes beyond that into a more dream-like world. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, though the film’s female first-time director never quite fetishises the poverty of the lead characters (as some other films are wont to do in this kind of setting). There’s a sense of eroticism throughout, as well, although this is sometimes resisted by Huyen as a character. The film ends on an unresolved note — an increasingly common practice these days I fell — but this works well within the narrative which the film has constructed. Definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and a film well worth checking out.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival, introduced by its director (with a small baby in tow) who stayed for a Q&A afterwards, which sadly I was not able to attend due to having another film across town.
I haven’t read many other reviews of this film as it’s quite recent, but I’m guessing a lot of them — including, oh hey, mine as well — are going to name-check Richard Linklater’s work, particularly Boyhood (because of its San Antonio, Texas setting), and they’re going to mention Juno (because of its teen pregnancy themes), but these are superficial reference points. If it has something of a thematic similarity to the latter, that’s pretty much where it ends, because Petting Zoo is very careful to avoid the writerly cliches and the self-conscious quirk of that style of film, preferring a far more naturalistic rendering of the world. The teens here talk like, well, like teens — with all the laconic self-absorption you’d expect, but also a healthy measure of unselfawareness. Layla (Devon Keller) is a good student, and has just received a scholarship to the University of Texas Austin, but has no real sense of direction or indeed much of a home life to speak of (her parents are only really around for one scene, enough for us to grasp why she might not want to live with them). As the film opens, she is hanging out with Danny, a guy her friends are quick to brand a loser when she just as quickly ditches him to move back in with her grandmother. So when she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s not obvious to her what she should do, especially when another guy, a much nicer one, shows up in her life. Acting awards tend to go to ostentatious displays of actorliness, but Keller does excellent, unshowy work at being sort of blank a lot of the time, which can be frustrating for an audience but is exactly right for where Layla is in life, and if there’s a sense of that life closing inexorably in (as so often there is in teen films, always heavy on the dystopia), it’s something the film never gives in to, though you worry at times that Layla might. For all its well-worn themes and situations, Micah Magee’s film nevertheless manages to find an interesting take on these turbulent life events.
This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A afterwards.
Naomi Kawase had a film out in the UK earlier this year (Still the Water), and judging from the two films side by side, she has an affinity for a sort of nature-based spiritualism, with evocations of the trees and the moon looming large for her characters. This aspect, however, is more muted in An, which focuses more clearly on two characters: Sentaro (Nagase Masatoshi), a chef making Japanese sweets (dorayaki, pancakes with a red bean paste centre, the latter of which is the an of the film’s un-googleable title) at a roadside canteen, and the elderly woman Tokue (Kirin Kiki) who drops by to offer to help him make the bean paste. Of course, one can sense the direction of the film fairly easily from the outset, as Sentaro at first resists the advances of Tokue and then at length gives in when he finally tastes her an, and it certainly plays well on a sentimental level. Yet this is generally underplayed and never overcomes the film, which remains resolutely low-key and gentle. Over its running time, it becomes clear that both these central characters, for all their differences, share a history of entrapment, which provides the film’s emotional payoff. Yet An never forces itself on the viewer with any urgency, preferring a narrative of gentle undulations, and when seen alongside other festival films dwelling on emotional alienation and terror, it’s quite a refreshing experience.
FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival Director/Writer Naomi Kawase (based on the novel by Durian Sukegawa) | Cinematographer Shigeki Akiyama | Starring Kirin Kiki, Nagase Masatoshi | Length 113 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank, London, Thursday 15 October 2015
There are a number of balls in the air in this film — two teenage girls’ desire to play football professionally, a three-way love triangle they have with their coach, the clash of races and cultures between Sikh and anglo populations in West London, and a coming-out story — and it’s to the director and writers’ credit that everything works out so well. That’s not to say it’s perfect — some of those resolutions are a little strained, and I’ve never been a fan of the angular Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an actor or as a love interest (though at least here he’s playing Irish) — but on the whole it’s all rather sweet. Parminder Nagra plays Jess, the character who dreams, as in the title, of bending the ball into the back of the net like her idol David Beckham, while Keira Knightley is Jules, who happens upon Jess playing with her (male) mates in the park and invites her to join their semi-professional local women’s team. Jess’s family have other ideas for their daughter of course (a solicitor, married to a nice Sikh boy), but the film is about Jess realising her dreams and still making her family proud. It all wraps up rather too neatly — and there’s definitely more than a hint of lesbian romance to the two women’s friendship, though that is quashed by the script via Jules’s mother, an underwritten sub-plot featuring the coach, and ultimately sidetracked into another story about one of Jess’s male friends. However, all that can be forgiven, because after all it’s a comedy and thankfully it’s intensely likeable, in no small way due to Nagra in the lead role, not to mention the interest gained from seeing her family’s story.
FILM REVIEW Director Gurinder Chadha | Writers Gurinder Chadha, Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges | Cinematographer Jong Lin | Starring Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 September 2015
The Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has relocated to nearby Georgia to make this film, a political allegory, set in an unspecified country ruled by an elderly military-garbed dictator president (Mikheil Gomaishvili). Apparent unrest has driven his family to fly out of the country on their private plane, though his grandson Dachi (Orvelashvili) prefers to stay, and as they return from the airport to the presidential palace, suddenly the revolutionary forces become evident and the president must go on the run. There’s relatively little I can say about it, as the story is fairly linear and tracks the president on his journey to escape notice and find a safe haven away from his angry people. However, that’s not to say it’s bad or lacks artistry, for every frame shows the evidence of an exemplary technical crew, while the insight at the film’s heart, though fairly straightforward (the dictator must learn what it is to be one of his own citizens), has plenty of moral power. This indeed is one of the traits of the Iranian cinema that Makhmalbaf has come from, to distill these rather complicated moral issues down to a relatively simple premise. It’s also an unusual perspective to take the viewpoint of the deposed leader rather than his struggling citizens, but it works rather well. It’s not that Makhmalbaf is on his side — no doubt he’s endured similar regimes — but it’s a bold move to situate a degree of empathy with the cruel and unjust. What results is a strong film, and, not incidentally, Georgia certainly has some beautiful scenery and striking architecture, all of which is captured very well by the local crew.
Pedantic Note on the Title: Most advertising and press material refer to the film as The President but the film’s title card omits the definite article, so that’s what I’m using here.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf | Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh Meshkiny | Cinematographer Konstantine-Mindia Esadze | Starring Mikheil Gomiashvili, Dachi Orvelashvili | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 30 August 2015