Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.
Director Samira Makhmalbaf سمیرا مخملباف; Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف and Samira Makhmalbaf; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Samira Makhmalbaf; Starring Agheleh Rezaie عاقله رضایی; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017.
It’s an odd manga this, a wellspring of melodramatic feelings, though it does throw a lot of ideas out along the way, particularly notable in the way it often frames people by their hands, feet or other extreme close-ups. It’s a story about a no-good school bully Shoya Ishida (voiced as an adult by Miyu Irino) who goes a step too far with a deaf girl and is shunned. Years later he comes to realise what an awful person he was and seeks to make amends. That said it’s one of those films where two awkward and socially inept people try to heal their broken hearts… but will it be with one another? The motif of having people’s faces covered by a big X when he has fallen from grace with them is perhaps a little heavy-handed, and the reflective tone can be saccharine, but ultimately this is a very sweet film about trying to be a better person.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Naoko Yamada 山田尚子; Writer Reiko Yoshida 吉田玲子 (based on the manga by Yoshitoki Oima 大今良時); Cinematographer Kazuya Takao 髙尾一也; Starring Miyu Irino 入野自由; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 27 March 2017.
I hope Kelly Fremon Craig gets to keep making movies, and I hope she takes over from Richard Linklater’s deeply boycentric visions, which I’m only reminded of because Blake Jenner must be going through the ‘sensitive jock’ phase of his career. But no, this is a film about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and it’s wonderful. It has great timing and an ear for dialogue, whether comic or dramatic (and it does certainly run the gamut). The score isn’t too assertive, even if I did spend the first 10 minutes thinking it was a retro 80s film (fashions come around, I guess). I didn’t buy everything that happened, and the ending felt more than a little bit tacked on — the character cycle Nadine is trapped in doesn’t seem like it’ll have a happy resolution, but the film is above all generous to its characters. However, it felt particularly right in its character interactions and in the moves from angst (no Nadine, stay away from Jordan Catalano… or whatever his name is in this film*) to very droll comedy to lacerating drama, like any good coming of age film. And it’s definitely a good one.
[* It’s Nick, and he’s no good.]
Director/Writer Kelly Fremon Craig; Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Leicester Square, London, Tuesday 6 December 2016.
At one level this is a Swedish coming of age film, with intolerant school bullies picking on young women, who look to each other for love and support. However, it quickly becomes evident that one of them, Kim (Tuva Jagell), feels uncomfortable with her gender identity, while Momo (Louise Nyvall) has feelings for Kim. Via a fantasy expedient of a magical plant, the film allows the young women to transform Cinderella-like into men for a night, thereby experiencing facets of privilege and masculinist behaviour, in their interactions with a group of rebellious boys who go to their school. It’s actually done really well, at least from my admittedly gender-normative point of view. There’s a delicate artistry to the transformation sequences and it makes tangible, via its magical premise, some of the identity fluidity that’s (I think) natural when you’re growing up.
Director/Writer Alexandra-Therese Keining (based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer); Cinematographer Ragna Jorming; Starring Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, Wilma Holmén; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 November 2016.
I suppose one could call this Wes Anderson’s breakthrough movie after his debut Bottle Rocket (1996). It’s certainly eye-catching, with its saturated colours and carefully-honed set design and graphical effects, like the bold blocky typeface that sets out the titles and immaculate calligraphy, the theatrical curtains that part to open each chapter, and its clearly elaborately-storyboarded shot sequences. In fact, it’s one of the films that mines the most comedy I know just from the framing of the characters, as when Jason Schwartzman’s perennially overambitious underachiever Max Fischer steps into a two-shot with Bill Murray’s property developer Herman Blume, who looks suitably flabbergasted to find himself in such tightly-framed confines. This in many ways seems like his special skill — as if the fictional character had the power to force the film’s director to re-frame him in ways more befitting his overinflated sense of himself. In being such a boundary-busting egomaniac, Max is for much of the film an only barely-likeable dick, and much of the film’s pleasure lies in those supporting performances from Murray, from Brian Cox as Rushmore Academy’s matter-of-fact headmaster, and from Olivia Williams’ accommodating schoolteacher Rosemary Cross. If in looking back at Rushmore, it all seems a little bit arch at times, a little bit too-perfectly constructed and orchestrated — in ways that hamper the kind of emotional transference that Anderson’s later films would more successfully achieve — it’s still an excellent calling card, in many ways quite out-of-step with what was being made in the late-1990s and all the more refreshing for that.
Criterion Extras: There’s a rather fuller schedule of extras with this edition, all of which are interesting. First off, the commentary by the director, co-writer and star is chatty, with Anderson and Wilson taking up much of the chatter in the early portions, and Schwartzman pitching in more later. There’s a rather slight ‘making-of’ by the director’s brother Eric, some scratchy video audition footage, and some short works by the ‘Max Fischer Players’ that present amateur theatrics productions of scenes from three other nominated movies of the 1998 season. Most substantial is the episode of The Charlie Rose Show which features a lengthy interview with Bill Murray, who seems relaxed and talks at length about the film and some aspects of his career and persona, as well as a shorter head-to-head with the director.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson and Owen Wilson; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Olivia Williams, Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Saturday 22 May 1999 (and subsequently at home on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray, on many occasions, most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 12 December 2015).
The American teen comedy is by now a venerable institution, which in its current guise basically traces its lineage back to Clueless (1995), though you can also discern traces of the 80s John Hughes films, not to mention that era’s prurient frat/sorority comedies. All those characteristics that have become so codified by now — whether the brightly coloured accessorising, the mean girls, the jock boys, the inevitable run-down of campus cliques, and Ken Jeong as a teacher — are all in place in The Duff. In many ways this film would not be particularly remarkable at all except that it’s pleasantly amusing throughout, and it offers a twist on the jock vs nerd story in its central romance. However, most of all, it features the brilliant Mae Whitman in the lead role of Bianca, the “DUFF” of the title — which stands for “designated ugly fat friend”, though, as the film is keen to point out very early, these are relative qualities. There’s not a whole lot more to say really, and you’ll probably know already whether you’re going to enjoy this film or hate it.
Director Ari Sandel; Writer Josh A. Cagan (based on the novel by Kody Keplinger); Cinematographer David Hennings; Starring Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 2 January 2016.
The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.
Director Kenny Ortega; Writer Peter Barsocchini; Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó; Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015).
If like me your experience of Taiwanese cinema is restricted to Hou Hsiao-hsien, then Our Times is going to come as a bit of a shock to the system. Or perhaps it won’t, as it fits pretty neatly into the mould created by US teen comedies like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). This is not least because of its retro 90s setting, all bright saturated colours and perky kids, though as it happens the lead male actor (Darren Wang as school bad boy Tai Yu) also looks quite a bit like Andrew Keegan’s Joey in that film. The Taiwanese take on teen romance continues also to favour strong roles for its leading women — perhaps thanks to the women who wrote and directed the film. The story follows Vivian Sung’s dorky Lin Zhen Xin (“Lin Truly” as she’s called in the subtitles, no doubt to emphasise a key pun in the modern-day epilogue) through various travails of the heart (with heartthrob Tai Yu and the squeaky clean Ou Yang, played by Dino Lee). Where it differs from its US forebears is that the tone of Our Times strays frequently from comedy into overt (occasionally even tear-jerking) melodrama at several points, and lacks the tight script of the US film. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy in this broadly likeable film, even if many of the cultural references go far over your head — certainly the audience of young, presumably Taiwanese, women at my screening laughed and gasped at plenty of lines that meant nothing to me. There’s also an extended subplot (and obligatory cameo) featuring Hong Kong pop star Andy Lau, so that may or may not mean anything to you, but it hardly makes any difference to either enjoying or understanding the film, which is a candy-coloured delight.
Director Frankie Chen 陳玉珊; Writer Yung-Ting Tseng 曾詠婷 [as “Sabrina Tseng”]; Cinematographers Kuo-Lung Chen 陳國隆 and Min-Chung Chiang 江敏忠; Starring Vivian Sung 宋芸樺, Darren Wang 王大陸, Dino Lee 李玉璽; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 24 November 2015.
Based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of growing up, this 1960s coming of age film put star Carey Mulligan in the spotlight, and deservedly so. She is excellent in the central role of Jenny, a smart and studious schoolgirl in the prim suburbs of ‘swinging’ London who meets socialite David (Peter Sarsgaard) by chance and soon gets caught up in the romance of his whirlwind life, itself largely built on lies and deception. Her education, then, is not of the academic variety, but amongst the chancers and hangers-on of the real world. It’s all very handsomely mounted in its period detail and settings (though one gets the sense that these leafy West London residential streets haven’t necessarily changed all that much), and tells its story with economy and verve, thanks to Nick Hornby’s script and the help of an extensive range of English acting talent.
Director Lone Scherfig; Writer Nick Hornby (based on the memoir by Lynn Barber); Cinematographer John de Borman; Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015.