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.
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.
Director/Writer Micah Magee; Cinematographer Armin Dierolf; Starring Devon Keller; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Friday 16 October 2015.
The feel-good sports film is a genre Kevin Costner has always had a good handle on, from his baseball films in the late-80s and Tin Cup (1996), a much underrated golf comedy. He’s done some others about baseball again, boxing and American football more recently, but I didn’t catch those. However, this Disney film about an against-the-odds cross-country running team in late-80s California is his latest venture, and most pleasing it is too. Whale Rider director Niki Caro has been drafted in, and crafts a solid story of some young underprivileged Latin American kids in a poor Southern Californian town who are helped towards unlikely sporting glory by their high school coach Jim White (played by Costner, and affectionately called ‘blanco’ by the kids). White spots their potential as they run to and from the fields where they spend hours before and after school in the back-breaking labour of picking crops, and the film incidentally gives a good sense of some of that hidden labour that underlies our modern food systems, not to mention the rather less-hidden dimension of class and race-based tension that is palpable when the team start to meet their wealthier competition. The (white) White family are ostensibly at the story’s heart, but the film gives plenty of time to the seven kids on the running team and their extended families, particularly the star runner Thomas (Carlos Pratts), so as to avoid some of the crasser dimensions of movies condescending to the yokels/poor/racialised Other. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of genre clichés, but they’re handled as subtly as they can be, without distracting from the team achievement at the film’s core. And of course, Costner once again proves dependable in the lead.
Director Niki Caro; Writers Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson; Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Kevin Costner, Carlos Pratts, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015.
I mentioned in my short review of Mean Girls that it beget a number of increasingly anodyne imitators. Well, Mean Girls 2 is one of them. It shares no cast or creative personnel with the original (save for Tim Meadows as the school’s principal), and the plot is content to largely copy wholesale from the original. So we get new arrival Jo (Meaghan Martin, a ringer for Taylor Swift) who has moved around the country with her NASCAR engineer dad, but now finds herself at North Shore, where she’s up against the school’s fashionable ‘Plastics’ (led by Maiara Walsh’s Mandi), but gains an ally in fellow outsider Abby (Jennifer Stone), who like the first film’s Janis has a history with the head Plastic. The lives of Mandi and Abby seem even more gratuitously dipped in wealth and privilege than the first film, and there’s a similar narrative arc for Jo. None of it has the wit of the first film’s script and so is all largely forgettable. It’s not utterly awful, it’s just disposable and pointless.
Director Melanie Mayron; Writers Allison Schroeder, Elana Lesser and Cliff Ruby; Cinematographer Levie Isaacks; Starring Meaghan Martin, Maiara Walsh, Jennifer Stone; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 15 August 2015.
Surely everyone who likes this genre of film (the high school teen comedy) has seen Mean Girls by now, and either they’re unimpressed or they’re constantly quoting writer Tina Fey’s catchiest lines, possibly online with some kind of animated gif behind them. It’s in a clear line of descent from Clueless (1995) and a template for plenty of other increasingly anodyne takes on the same setting. I’ll admit to loving it the first time around, but I’ve seen it a few times since and I think some of the shine has worn off. Possibly this is down to a certain level of nastiness at the core of many of the characters, Lindsay Lohan’s protagonist Cady included, as she is increasingly co-opted into the vain status-obsessed circle of school royalty, the ‘Plastics’ (Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried and Lacey Chabert). I mean, to be fair, that much is kinda cued up by the title, but it’s sometimes difficult to care about the fairly conventional sitcom-like narrative arc, as Cady goes from geeky outsider to cool leader-of-the-pack, then back to a point of (almost) harmonious resolution. Still, it does have plenty of great and quotable lines, I can’t deny that — it is the film’s greatest strength — and Tina Fey does double work as both the film’s writer and one of its (pretty large and impressive) supporting adult cast. Among the teens, Lizzy Caplan stands out as the alienated and sarcastic Janis, while I always enjoy the appearances of Kevin G and his Mathletes. So I certainly don’t want to write it off; it still has much to recommend it, even if it’s not the enduring class act of Clueless.
Director Mark Waters; Writer Tina Fey; Cinematographer Daryn Okada; Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lizzy Caplan, Amanda Seyfried, Lacey Chabert; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 15 August 2015 (and many times over the past ten years).
I think we’re all familiar with this type of film. I mean, it’s not a million miles away from her sister Sofia’s work. Gia Coppola’s debut feature deals with white teens living in prosperity in the titular Bay Area city, but laden down with ennui, knocking disconsolately about from house parties to school to family homes, all empty with desperation. It’s an ensemble piece, based on a series of short stories by multi-hyphenate James Franco (who has a sleazy supporting role as a teacher here), but at the heart of this group of schoolkids is Emma Roberts as April and Jack Kilmer as Teddy. If those actors’ names sound familiar, it’s because they have famous actor parents (though Roberts’ aunt is probably more well-known on balance), so that gives a sense of the world of privilege we’re dealing with here. Still, I like this kind of thing, I like stories of aimless young people suffocated by their own artfully-designed solipsism. It’s called affluenza isn’t it? It’s all shot beautifully by cinematographer Autumn Durald, and comes together under Coppola’s steady direction, and I think it’s fair to see all these people know their subject well. It’ll be good to see where they go from here, but as for the characters, they’re largely left in limbo, but I’d wager they’ll probably be fine.
Director/Writer Gia Coppola; Cinematographer Autumn Durald; Starring Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, Zoe Levin, James Franco; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 7 August 2015.
At a certain level The Reunion poses itself as a documentary about artist (and director/writer/star) Anna Odell confronting her high school experience after 20 years, but it’s never clear to what extent any of this is true or accurate, preferring to stay aloof from such quotidian issues. It poses questions about our relationship to our own past and how we deal with emotional traumas over time, via a two-part meta-fictional framework. In the first part, Odell stages an account of a class reunion in which she arrives and disrupts the nostalgic hazy view the others have of their youthful camaraderie, in a style reminiscent of the awkward puncturing of complacent bourgeois values in Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. The second, longer, part has her then confront the ‘real’ former classmates who were at the reunion to which she was not, in fact, invited. The film is stylistically of a piece for its entire running length, and the shot-reverse shot stagings of her interviews and awkward street encounters with her school colleagues (including one in which an actor who played a role in the first part is approached by the ‘real’ person the character was based upon) certainly distance it from straightforward documentation. It makes for an odd fictional exercise, in which the perpetually deer-in-the-headlights expression of Anna dominates and the audience is challenged to put themselves in her place, and in those of her classmates.
Director/Writer Anna Odell; Cinematographer Ragna Jorming; Starring Anna Odell; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 July 2015.
After my “Film Round-Up” posts of the last few months, I’m trying out another way to present shorter reviews of things I can’t bring myself to write up at greater length.
After a strong opening, this high school comedy about a washed-up drama teacher (Steve Coogan, playing American with middling effect) sort of peters out a bit. It’s a pity, because even if reminiscent of some of Rushmore‘s Max Fischer Players stagings, the film has the germs of a fine idea — that Shakespeare’s Hamlet can be improved upon and be inspiring to a new generation of students — but the film’s overall failure just reminds us how difficult comedy can be to get right. In the end, there are some good images that might suit an animated gif format (the “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” setpiece for example), but beyond that, probably best given a miss.
Director Andrew Fleming; Writers Fleming and Pam Brady; Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski; Starring Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Skylar Astin; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in March which I didn’t review in full.
The Boys from County Clare (aka The Boys and Girl from County Clare) (2003, Ireland/UK/Germany)
Divergent (2014, USA)
London: The Modern Babylon (2012, UK)
Perceval le Gallois (1978, France/Italy/West Germany)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA)
The Prestige (2006, UK/USA)
Continue reading “March 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”