The UK seems like a pretty horrible place to be right now — reading the news, there seems to be a lot of intolerance and judgment, and it primarily seems to flow from the top down (you just have to look at the current Prime Minister and those people vying to take over from him). Turns out none of this is new and you can hear this strain of small-minded authority figures lecturing down to poor working-class kids here too, in a film made at the tail end of the 1960s, in a mining community where young Billy doesn’t want to follow his family down the pit. There’s a lot of bleakness to this quiet story of childhood desperation, and then there’s the eponymous bird (a kestrel, of course) which seems to signify so much more potential to Billy’s world. I think Loach keeps this all in nice balance — the metaphors of freedom and the bleak reality of constraint — and though the grim constant grind that Billy lives under, the abuse of the school teachers (except for the one kind soul who encourages him towards the end), and his horrible brother, loom large they never quite become the whole story. Perhaps there’s hope, perhaps there’s not, you can read the film how you want to.
NB: This is listed as 1970 by the Criterion Collection, though it was screened at the 1969 London Film Festival.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ken Loach; Writers Barry Hines, Loach and Tony Garnett (based on Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave); Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022 (and earlier, probably on VHS in the 1990s).
Part of my own relationship with Netflix is not just to watch the mediocre romcoms it seems to endlessly generate, or the addictively trashy TV shows like Selling Sunset (for which I can effectively turn off my brain), but also to actively search out films directed by women, or from places or film cultures I’m less familiar with, which is how I got to this Malaysian film. Director Yasmin Ahmad died unexpectedly from a stroke at age 51, the same year this film was released, but she has an intriguing career, including studying politics in Newcastle, employed variously as a banker, a marketing exec, and an advertising director but also — and, inevitably, I quote Wikipedia — “she moonlighted as a blues singer and pianist by night”. I want to know more about that! Anyway, her last film is pretty good, and a few other ones are on Netflix too, so probably worth checking out.
Despite the English language title, this is a Malay film about a school’s talent competition, apparently a national series (whether in real life or within the world of the film). Indeed, part of the film is just dealing with the actual range of languages and cultures that exist in Malaysia (whether the broad Yorkshire accent of one grandmother, the Indian family with their deaf son Mahesh, the Chinese Muslim maid who is initially discriminated against by a posh Malay relation, and every other permutation of background).
I get the feeling that Malaysian viewers will get a lot more out of this in terms of references, but it still resonates because the story is pretty easy to relate to, being one in which a number of different school kids are going through their own family dramas (most notably Mahesh as mentioned above, but also Melur and Hafiz, the last of whom has a dying mother in hospital), but who all pull together at the talent competition. There are moments when this threatens to be a mawkish TV movie but mostly it avoids that by not overexplaining the situations and just letting the emotional moments linger quietly. It’s the last film by its director before her own untimely death, and she has a deft touch at delineating all these characters and finding a way to unite them despite everything.
Director/Writer Yasmin Ahmad; Cinematographer Keong Low; Starring Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Pamela Chong, Mohd Syafie Naswip; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 11 March 2021.
Earlier I covered Fan Girl, a recent Filipino film that’s on Netflix, a dark tale of dangerous desire if you will. However, these two films below are far more the usual range of regional cinema you’ll find (from the Philippines and Indonesia), both being fairly silly, fairly forgettable, ultimately mediocre but still quite fun comedies with some broad acting.
My Stupid Boss (2016) [Indonesia, certificate PG]
It’s nice to see that popular Indonesian cinema (although this particular film is set in Malaysia) has the same stupid comedies as are made in English, ones usually starring say Jennifer Aniston (and not just because this film’s title reminds me of Horrible Bosses). Well here we get Bunga Citra Lestari (popular enough in Indonesia to be known by the acronym BCL) as Diana, who has recently moved with her husband to Kuala Lumpur and takes on a temp job for her husband’s best friend, the title character (played by Reza Bahadian, who judging from photos on the internet is ordinarily far more attractive, and younger, than he appears here). I can only presume the entire film is based around getting to see BCL contorting her face to humorous effect at the enduring stupidity of her boss, which as a high concept almost works, and she certain is a very likeable lead. That said, “Bossman” is incredibly, monstrously stupid, even more so than The Office‘s David Brent or other similar characters, though the film takes a sentimental swerve towards the end to try and redeem him, meaning that it might be Diana’s husband (Alex Abbad) who is the worst character in this film. In any case, it never really goes much further than the précis above suggests, making it like an extended sitcom episode, but it passes pleasantly enough.
Director/Writer Upi Avianto; Cinematographer Muhammad Firdaus; Starring Reza Rahadian رضا رهادیان, Bunga Citra Lestari, Alex Abbad; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.
She’s Dating the Gangster (2014) [Philippines, certificate 12]
I see the word “cheesy” used in reviews of this quite a bit, and it’s an apt adjective. This is a very silly film, with a ridiculous plot that revolves around a mistaken identity, strung out into a love story, with some sentimentalised tragedy wrung out from terminal illnesses, plus plane-related subplots that don’t exactly make a great case for domestic Filipino air travel. At the heart of the film is the relationship between the two leads, seen in 90s flashback, a time of hairbands, grunge t-shirts and brightly-coloured clothing, in which Daniel Padilla is supposed to be playing the titular “gangster” Kenji, but perhaps that’s Filipino slang for a goofy long-haired dork because there’s very little of the gangster about him, and oddly he scrubs up into a contemporary teen heartthrob pretty well. Much better is Kathryn Bernardo as Athena, his (sort-of) love interest, who is watchably bubbly and likeable and does the apparently requisite tearful scenes of melodrama pretty well too, though there’s far too much of that in general. It’s interesting to track the influences in popular Philippine romantic comedy cinema, having the kind of wild take on genre that you’d expect in Bollywood, but with a treacly sentimentality that is more reminiscent of Japanese films, but perhaps they are entirely their own thing. Certainly I find it hard to really dislike, even if I never exactly got caught up in the emotion, but I have to admit I’m not the audience for this after all.
Director Cathy Garcia-Molina; Writers Carmi Raymundo and Charlene Grace Bernardo (based on the novel by Bianca Bernardino); Cinematographer Dan Villegas; Starring Daniel Padilla, Kathryn Bernardo, Richard Gomez, Dawn Zulueta, Sofia Andres; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 8 June 2021.
If there’s one thing you can rely on Netflix for, it’s formulaic teen movies and romcoms, and then maybe the intersection between those. They have lots of examples, yes, I’ve seen plenty, but mostly they’re pretty likeable I find, and it’s a genre they seem able to do quite well. So here’s another teen film and another dance competition film, with a little bit of romcom to it but not too much.
It would be easy to write this film off as formulaic, because after all it is formulaic: it follows the ‘let’s form a team and beat our peers in the big finale’ and it cleaves tightly to all the rules as we understand them. Plus, being set in a high school, it folds in all the rules around teen high school movies too (all those cliques to introduce). And then there’s the team in question, which is a dance troupe, and already this film feels very mid-2010s because we’ve seen all those movies already, and clearly so have the filmmakers. But I can’t write it off, because dance movies still spark joy in me however formulaic they may be, and this one isn’t entirely witless. Sabrina Carpenter in the lead is pretty good (except at pretending to be bad at dancing), her band of high school misfits endearing in almost exactly the same way as, say, Pitch Perfect, and the love story is almost perfunctory, but I found it all very likeable and watchable, once you get past the initial wobbles (where the screenplay tries to throw in of-the-moment buzzwords like ‘being cancelled’ in a really clunky way).
Director Laura Terruso; Writer Alison Peck; Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers; Starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Keiynan Lonsdale; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.
Still catching up this week with my favourites I saw last year, this one’s a bit of an anomaly. I saw it in that first flush of film festivals moving online, via a “Japanese Film Festival Magazine” website which was streaming a number of recent Japanese films, many by women directors. Perhaps it was seeing this during lockdown that made me respond positively, who knows, but I did very much like it.
There is, of course — given the title, which is reminiscent of the French adieu, in the sense of a final goodbye — a deep seam of sadness and melancholy that laces through this film. This much is clear in its setup: Yuki (Haruka Imo), who seems to be a fairly popular girl in her high school class, starts to become sullen and distant after her friend Aya (Kirara Inori) dies. Despite this, there’s something in the way that it unfolds that has a deeply-felt warmth to it; for all Yuki’s grief, it feels over the course of the film as if Aya’s death allows her to come to value what’s really important in her life. And so she finds herself cutting out the mean girls who share gossip about Aya (speculating that her death in an accident may have been a suicide and revealing that they never really liked her anyway) and starting to welcome new experiences, like going to gigs with the guys in her class who make an effort to reach out to her and don’t seem to hold her in the same shallow judgement. In flashbacks, she relives her times with Aya, rehearsing her grief and admonishing herself for not crying or being appropriately sad at her friend’s death, even as it’s perfectly clear to read on her face how she feels.
None of the drama comes in big gestures or speeches, just in little moments like a classmate shuffling shyly behind her at a school fieldtrip, in which you can see the classmate wanting to reach out to Yuki but opening rather gauchely with “Were you good friends with Aya?” to be rebuffed with a simple “Why?” before falling back, uncertainly, as they both walk on. A lot of the movement of the film is similarly captured by the camera in these emotional exchanges with a thankful paucity of dialogue, but it seems to me that this is as much about the writing and direction allowing this space as it is to the excellent acting of Imo. For all the film’s melancholy, it’s heartening and affecting, and ultimately is not so much about the death of a schoolmate as it is about another finding out how to live (which sounds so much more melodramatic when I write it down than it is in the film).
Director/Writer Yuho Ishibashi 石橋夕帆; Cinematographer Shu Hagiwara 萩原脩; Starring Haruka Imo 芋生悠, Kirara Inori 祷キララ; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Japanese Film Festival Magazine streaming), London, Thursday 14 May 2020.
My main instinct with this film is to hold it back for my Global Cinema series, as I can’t imagine there are a huge number of other Djiboutian films to cover. Still, I like a challenge so hopefully I can find another one to cover when I get to the Ds. In the meantime, this is one of the films I’ve seen in the cinema since I arrived in New Zealand, and I thought broadly favourably about it.
A lot of the drama within this film is somewhat programmatic, in the sense of taking three young women from different walks of life and pushing them together for the sake of narrative expediency. Still, I can’t fault any of the spirited acting from the three leads, and needless to say there aren’t a whole lot of Djiboutian films that I can think of, so it’s just interesting to get an idea of the country. It follows the familiar movements of the coming of age film, as all three study for the college entrance exam, with varying levels of commitment. I also occasionally got the feeling that it didn’t quite know how to resolve some of these storylines, but seeing any of the three smiling was just about the happiest experience, and I can’t blame the filmmaker for wanting the best for her characters.
Director Lula Ali Ismaïl لولا علي إسماعيل; Writers Ismaïl and Alexandra Ramniceanu; Cinematographer Jean-Christophe Beauvallet; Starring Amina Mohamed Ali, Tousmo Mouhoumed Mohamed, Bilan Samir Moubus; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Thursday 5 November 2020.
There’s a new American film out in cinemas that’s catching acclaim right now, Miss Juneteenth, but last week saw the belated UK release of Rocks, one of the stand-out films which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival (and Toronto too), and was originally slated for an April release. It’s great to finally have seen it, one of the recent highlights of a new crop of great British films that deal with real lives.
Watching this new and acclaimed British film, I find myself surprised because I sort of had director Sarah Gavron (unfairly no doubt!) pegged in my mind as a fairly bland middlebrow director, though perhaps I was just feeling uncharitable towards the very heritage-film-adjacent Suffragette (2015). However, this project is an entirely different story of quite different people in a different era (well, it’s set in the present). It’s clear, as the filmmakers discuss in a brief video intro that screens before the film, that this was very much a collaboration not just between the two writers but between them and the young first-time actors they found to play most of the roles. And it’s very persuasive (though co-writer Theresa Ikoko is right to question the meaning of the phrase “authentic”), if only — but not only, let me be clear — because it tells a story of characters who aren’t often foregrounded in British films.
Specifically it’s about a Black British girl of Nigerian descent, Olu, but nicknamed “Rocks” (Bukky Bakray), her small brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and her entirely believable set of friends, most notably the slightly gawky Sumaya (Kosar Ali). Rocks finds herself abandoned by her mother and takes a picaresque tour of all these friends’ lives and their disparate living situations. The film is shot by Hélène Louvart as a constant jumble of movement and faces against its East London backdrops (somewhat more close-in than perhaps intended for me, because the cinema I was in showed it in the wrong aspect ratio). Anyway, it’s a great film that deals believably with young British kids navigating their lives, played very much as teenagers with all the awkwardness with words and difficulty around emotions as is too little seen, and makes it into a moving drama.
Director Sarah Gavron; Writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 September 2020.
I avoided this when it was first released in cinemas, though I was about the same age as the characters in the film, because it was marketed as a stupid high school movie and it didn’t appeal to me at the time. It also had the sense of being a very indulgent nostalgic look back at the 70s, and that’s a criticism that’s more difficult to avoid because in a sense it is, in addition to which indulging his characters is very much a Linklater trademark. Watching it again many years on, though, that feels like the thing that’s aged best — this sense that almost all the characters have some redeeming quality even if they are sleazy creeps (like McConaughey’s older Wooderson, cruising the high school to pick up girlfriends) or big dumb jocks (like Sasha Jenson’s Don). There’s even a glimmer of humanity in Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion, but not much because he’s the real bad guy here, a grinning sadist who has to retake his final year at school. However, there’s no manufactured hostility between the jocks and the geeks here; sure there’s a bit of back and forth in the conversations, but nobody avoids anyone else and friendship groups seem to cut across these distinctions, plus there’s a sense of generational camaraderie even in the sadistic hazing rituals.
However, like much of Linklater’s oeuvre, it’s a hang-out film where nothing really happens. People just cruise around and ping off each other — not as literally as the tangential sidetracking of Slacker (1990) — but still with no clear sense that they’re all working towards anything except the next beer or the next party. But that sense of aimlessness going towards college and the future, which is encapsulated in the final shot on the road, that’s something that Linklater’s been doing for decades in many of his films, capturing a mood or an era, a sense of uncertainty in his characters, and it’s perfectly done here, with lots of people who would go on to have acting careers (or not), but who just seem right for the roles.
- There are plenty of extras, but the main one is Making Dazed (2005, dir. Kahane Corn), a pretty straight-down-the-line documentary about the making of a film, albeit one that had been in production for over a decade it seems. The director has extensive interviews with the cast both at the time of filming and a decade later, as several of them gather for an anniversary screening. Of course many of the faces are now familiar to us (or at least a bit more familiar) and they all clearly have fond memories of the film that was the first experience of filmmaking for a lot of them. It’s good to hear the stories, and see some of the making-of footage, and it’s good to think about how far some have come from these horny Texan teenagers, but it evokes a warmth of feeling at the very least.
- A lot of the footage from the making-of documentary is also available as extras, including the full clips of most cast members in the first week of filming explaining their characters, as well as interviews conducted on set and behind-the-scenes footage of the filming. Amongst these are also a few more recent interviews — including one with Linklater, his casting director and McConaughey speaking about how the latter got involved (some of which is also in the finished documentary) — and some brief footage from the anniversary cast reunion.
- Most of the audition tapes of the various cast members are also included as extras, which can be interesting to watch, although the quality is obviously rather poorer, being shot on video.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Starring Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Sasha Jenson, Parker Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Adam Goldberg, Ben Affleck; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 11 July 2020 (and earlier on TV at home, London, Saturday 19 April 2014).
I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.
See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.
Another filmmaker working in the same vein of improv and talky comedy-drama as Lynn Shelton and the “mumblecore” scene is Kris Rey (née Williams), credited at the time of this, her third film, as Kris Swanberg, given she was married at that time to Joe. I think it’s fair to say she has her own sensibilities, of course, which find good expression in this solidly-wrought and well-acted small ensemble piece.
I wonder if maybe the title is a joke, because really there’s nothing particularly surprising that happens here, but maybe I’m just becoming used to Cobie Smulders appearing in this kind of low-stakes gently-twee American indie/improv film (she was in Andrew Bujalski’s Results the same year, as well). That said, focusing on a pregnancy isn’t all that common a theme — outside jokey Knocked Up-type films about loser dads — and everyone does a good job. Smulders is a teacher, while Anders Holm has another of those smugly infuriating nice guy roles as her husband (he had a similar role in The Intern, again made the same year). The film loops in class concerns by having a parallel story of one of her black school students (Gail Bean) who’s in the same situation, though without Smulders’ race- and class-based privileges that she is entirely unaware of, and that’s really what the film is interested in exploring. It may not be challenging, but it’s sweet and pleasantly undemonstrative and after some of her former-partner’s works that can definitely be a very good thing.
Director Kris Rey [as Kris Swanberg]; Writers Megan Mercier and Rey; Cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen; Starring Cobie Smulders, Gail Bean, Anders Holm, Elizabeth McGovern; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 15 September 2016.