The Sisters Brothers (2018)

I took a break last week because I was on holiday (although didn’t end up leaving home), but this week I’ll be building up to my Global Cinema entry on Belgium (on Saturday). As a loose theme, then, I’m covering films with a Belgian production credit, though it turns out a lot of films with some Belgian financing aren’t particularly ‘Belgian’, whatever that might amount to. This one, for example, is an American film by a French director, also co-produced by partners from Belgium, Romania and Spain, so it spans plenty of countries, without really representing any of them exactly — except of course America, where it’s set. Still, it’s a way of looping in a lot of not very Belgian films into consideration this week.


This Western crime comedy drama is directed by a French man with an enormous number of production deals (the first title card of the film, as it builds up all its production and co-production credits, is itself somewhat hilarious) and surely has a lot of money on-screen in what I assume is a faithful rendering of Oregon and California in the mid-19th century. However, it does strike rather an odd tone, a sort of laidback melancholia with bursts of violence and goriness that leads up to a dream-like ending, a story of two brothers (Reilly and Phoenix) who have a quest, even if that quest largely loops back to a consideration of their own family and the way they have been brought up. The acting is, as you might expect, very solid, with no notable let-downs, and Phoenix is a particular good fit to his character. Some of the digital photography seemed just a little on the ‘uncanny’ side, but maybe that was just me or the screening I was at. In any case, there’s plenty to like here, but it is at the very least meandering.

The Sisters Brothers film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard and Thomas Bidegain (based on the novel by Patrick deWitt); Cinematographer Benoît Debie; Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 20 April 2019.

Okja (2017)

Okay for my science-fiction week I’m going to have concede the ‘foreign-language’ aspect is really that most of them are from non-English-speaking directors or produced in other countries, because this is largely an American production, albeit by the noted Korean director Bong Joon-ho (whose rather more famous recent film Parasite will eventually come up in my Criterion Sunday series).


Tonally, this film is very odd. There’s an almost childlike sentimentality around animals and farming, which is altogether too clean (the genetically mutated pig-like creature at the film’s heart never seems to be caked in sh!t like real pigs usually are). And then there’s the corporate satire, all gurning faces and ridiculous over-the-top performances by Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV scientist and Tilda Swinton as the evil company CEO, going several steps beyond Gilliam to full comic book. Indeed, I’d say this is the closest film has got to capturing the feeling of one of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, although by virtue of visually depicting the nasty stuff adults get up to, its 15 classification puts it rather beyond children. It heartens me to see this much mainstream attention paid to the way animals are treated by the meat industry, though this is hardly vegetarian propaganda. And if ultimately it’s an emotional story about a country girl and her animal best friend, it’s an affecting and effective one with some excellent CGI.

Okja film posterCREDITS
Director Bong Joon-ho 봉준호; Writers Bong and Jon Ronson; Cinematographer Darius Khondji داریوش خنجی‎; Starring Ahn Seo-hyun, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 10 July 2017.

Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Everyone’s ever so slightly neurotic and has trouble living with themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s films (most recently in 2013’s Enough Said). I’d say they’re generally white and middle-class too, although here the matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has a young black adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin). Anyway, if it’s a formula, it’s one that makes for enjoyable, watchable films, because Holofcener writes observant character studies of people who you imagine it might be difficult to live with, but not to watch on screen for 90 minutes. As ever, Catherine Keener is the film’s real star, here playing Michelle, a struggling artist who feels like she’s wasting her life, so takes a job at a photo booth with a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile there’s her sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress feeling fragile due to body image worries, no thanks to the superficial men she needs to court jobs from. It may not build to any big melodramatic climax, but for its brief running time it feels like it’s touching on feelings that are common and understandable and not always related in American comedies.

Lovely and Amazing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener; Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian; Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 10 January 2016.

Accidental Love (2015)

Originally entitled Nailed and directed by David O. Russell, this troubled production began in 2008 and is only now getting a release, with Russell’s name removed from his directing and writing credits (in favour of “Stephen Greene”). If it remains remembered in future at all, it will almost certainly be for this story than anything actually in the film, though despite a healthy portfolio of negative critical reviews, it’s not actually all that awful. It’s disjointed certainly, with an uneven tone (slapstick is difficult to get right), and some of its jokes don’t land very well at all — there’s a scene of Gyllenhaal’s Congressman character Howard cringing through his fingers which could easily have been me at points. And yet Jessica Biel’s naive small-town girl Alice has a winning charm not unlike that of television’s Kimmy Schmidt. Alice gets a nail accidentally shot into her head but is uninsured and so needs a change in the law to allow her to have it removed, thus avoiding long-term damage. As a political satire, made at a time before President Obama brought in healthcare coverage, it does pretty well, giving a sense of the absurdity of the system, something you’d imagine the film’s writer might have experienced a little of as Al Gore’s daughter. It’s Catherine Keener’s conniving senior politician who is the film’s bad guy, though James Marsden’s schmuck-like local police officer Scott — engaged to Alice before taking it back, and overly fond of putting percentage chances on everything — comes close. I can’t in all honesty recommend Accidental Love wholeheartedly, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the beating it’s received from some quarters.

Accidental Love film poster CREDITS
Director David O. Russell [as “Stephen Greene”]; Writers Russell [as “Stephen Greene”], Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser (based on the novel Sammy’s Hill by Gore); Cinematographer Max Malkin; Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Showcase Cinemas Newham, London, Sunday 28 June 2015.

Enemy (2013)

I forget sometimes how weird and creepy Canadian films can be. There was a period in the 90s, on the back of Atom Egoyan’s festival successes, when a bunch of them made it to cinemas, but aside from David Cronenberg’s singular oeuvre, there have since then been only occasional examples that have made it through — most recently for me, 2012’s Upside Down. This film, too, is written by a Spaniard (based on a Portuguese novel), but thankfully it’s far better, while still retaining that brittle sense of cabin fever that so many Canadian films inspire, as if created in reaction to the blandly reassuring mainstream cinema from over the border (there’s a similar quality to New Zealand cinema, too, sometimes, which is where I grew up).

The central conceit, like last year’s The Double, concerns a person who meets their doppelgänger (both here played by a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal), but where that film (disappointingly for me) toyed with black comedy, Enemy is far more insidious. The film wastes no time in plunging us into a strange dreamlike world of alienation and dread dominated by an unsettling spider metaphor, so after those initial sequences have passed, there remains something a bit existentially bleak about our hero Adam’s life as a Toronto university lecturer delivering lectures about fascism and control to his students.

The introduction of his double Anthony, an actor, allows for a bit of back-and-forth between them, but aside from one dust-up, this is mainly a sort of psychic transference, as they begin to covet one another’s partner (Sarah Gadon and Mélanie Laurent, also superficially similar in appearance), while each starts to lose control and the two identities become less clearly differentiated. The film toys at a formal level with the doubling theme, repeating scenes, and looping back on itself a little, but always presents itself with a cold aloofness signalled by its yellowish colour filters and series of bleak, modern locations. The spider metaphor continues to reappear through the film, and results in an uncanny final scene, without which the film might have passed from my mind quicker, but its very opacity and inscrutability (as well as the suddenness with which it takes place and then ends) makes it something of an unexploded mine within one’s mind, and so the film sticks with me a week later, as I continue to ponder what it all means.

Enemy film posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Javier Gullón (based on the novel O Homem Duplicado by José Saramago); Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 10 January 2015.

Nightcrawler (2014)

This film, which appears to be largely a family affair (director, producer and editor all hail from the Gilroy family, the first of whom is married to the female lead), is another flourish of retro respect towards the scuzzy lo-fi VHS aesthetics of the 80s, a very literal ‘video nasty’ in many ways, which at certain levels reminds me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It’s a character study of Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal, lean, slick of hair and with a stooped shuffle), a low-life criminal and sociopathic grifter just looking for a career, who stumbles into filming real-life crime footage for breaking news items on cable news. In finding his niche, Lou is at some level just exploiting the already dubious ethics of TV news journalism, though in his own work he pushes at these pretty hard, and it doesn’t take long before he’s breaking police lines and moving bodies for a better shot composition. And yet it’s also a subtly twisted satire on management techniques, as Lou takes on the naïve and desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, lecturing him on being a good employee and deploying all his online business learning in negotiations first with Rick and then with the TV station and its producer Nina (Rene Russo). There are plenty of laughs in fact, though a lot of them are of the excruciatingly uncomfortable variety, as we recognise the intensity of Lou’s delusional beliefs being played out, an unfettered id wreaking havoc with real-life consequences. All this is shot in an immersively lo-fi digital video format (notably by Robert Elswit, a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and who has in the past inveighed against digital), which gives it all an extra level of discomfiting presence. Ultimately, how the viewer responds is likely to be related to their tolerance for these techniques, not a million miles from the morality plays of Michael Haneke if (thankfully) lacking some of the more acute skewering of audience complicity. It’s certainly a strong directorial effort for Gilroy, and a fine performance for Gyllenhaal.

Nightcrawler film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dan Gilroy; Cinematographer Robert Elswit; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 5 November 2014.