As a period-set detective film, this looks fabulous, as if a lot of money has been spent to recreate a sense of Calcutta in the 1940s. As the title character, Sushant Singh Rajput looks the part, fresh out of wherever detectives go to the school and eager to work. Aided by his geeky-looking sidekick Ajit (Anand Tiwari), Byomkesh soon comes up against a cabal of nefarious sorts. The film is heavy on plot, and if you’re not paying attention, you’re liable to lose track of who’s doing what to whom for what reason — and I’m not always convinced it’s particularly interesting if you do keep track — but just on the handsomeness of the sets and the costumes, this is a pleasant enough film to pass the time.
CREDITS Director Dibakar Banerjee दिबाकर बेनर्जी; Writers Banerjee and Urmi Juvekar दिबाकर बेनर्जी (based on the novels সত্যান্বেষী Satyanweshi and অর্থমনর্থম Arthamanartham by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay শরদিন্দু বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়); Cinematographer Nikos Andritsakis Νίκος Ανδριτσάκης; Starring Sushant Singh Rajput सुशांत सिंह राजपूत, Anand Tiwari आनंद तिवारी, Swastika Mukherjee স্বস্তিকা মুখোপাধ্যায়; Length 147 minutes. Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 1 January 2016.
Another film I’ve belatedly caught up with for my 2015 New Year’s Resolution (one of the co-writers is a woman), I must confess that I’m not familiar with the source material or either of the two previous films in the trilogy, so this is all a bit of a blur. However, it’s an attractively-mounted 19th century period film blur, awash with rich costume design and the swish of samurai swords. If anything, the film resists the lure of its comic-book origins to give in to a videogame or clip-show editing style, and instead essays an almost traditional filmic sense of the jidaigeki, the camera movements more calm than the frenzy of blades one might expect. That said, the heroes all have floppy fringes in the modern style, and beyond their matinee idol looks, I’m not entirely sure a lot more is going on. Still, it’s a good deal better than one might fear and if I just had an investment in the story, this might be a more attractive proposition.
CREDITS Director Keishi Otomo 大友啓史; Writers Kiyomi Fujii 藤井清美 and Otomo (based on the manga るろうに剣心-明治剣客浪漫譚 Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki 西脇伸宏); Cinematographer Takuro Ishizaka 石坂拓郎; Starring Takeru Satoh 佐藤健; Length 135 minutes. Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 30 December 2015.
Six months ago I posted a half-time report on my Resolution to watch all films directed by or written by women. It’s been a year of going to a lot more films than I usually do, but it’s largely been rewarding. For the sake of my own sanity I think I’ll restrict myself in future to just films directed by women, but I do want to continue. I’ve also had the realisation that a lot of the best or most interesting work often doesn’t get officially distributed, so it can be important to pay attention to the websites and Twitter accounts of the independent organisations and collectives which are making screenings happen, often in unusual or alternative venues.
I’ll post my overall favourite films I’ve seen this year in a separate post, although it’s fair to say the two lists will overlap pretty significantly. For now, here’s a list of all the films I’ve seen for my Resolution. The full list of all films directed and written by women, both ones I’ve seen and ones I’ve yet to see, is posted on my Letterboxd account (follow this link).
It may not be the only documentary out this year that deals with snowy climates (a NZ effort earlier dealt with the Erebus disaster in Antarctica), but in portraying the native Sherpa community of Nepal, Australian documentarian Jennifer Peedom finds a interesting way into a story that touches on a lot of issues of the moment, not least the corrosive effect of global capitalism on local communities. By living around the base of the Himalayas, the Sherpas pretty much single-handedly supply the workforce for the many expeditions of rich Westerners looking to scale the summit, as they seek closure of their respective personally-meaningful spiritual journeys or whatnot. It’s just that in doing the gruntwork the Sherpas are exposed to exponentially more danger than the pampered clients, without a great deal of reward or compensation when things go wrong, which they frequently do. Stories like this year’s blockbuster Everest tell of tragedies that kill (white) mountaineers, but in 2014, 16 Sherpas were killed on a dangerous iceflow, and that’s not particularly surprising to anyone interviewed here. And so the documentary moves from its inception as an unusually beautiful and lyrically-edited portrait of a community to being witness to a nascent political struggle, pitting that community against an unfeeling government, not to mention the rich adventurers who are as likely to compare them to terrorists for denying them their tedious pseudo-spiritual vision quests. Still, Peedom has a generosity of spirit which I lack, finding time to incorporate all these viewpoints and giving a real sense of what it is to be involved in the Everest industry.
CREDITS Director/Writer Jennifer Peedom; Cinematographers Renan Ozturk and Hugh Miller; Length 96 minutes. Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 22 December 2015.
This may not be the worst movie this year, nor is it even the worst movie that my New Year’s Resolution has brought me to (that was probably Hot Pursuit), but it feels like the laziest. There are plenty of excellent actors involved in the large ensemble cast, but the whole enterprise is coated in a layer of treacly sentimentality so thick that it’s difficult to perceive some of the film’s likeable qualities (there are one or two amusing jokes, and I think there’s potential in the Olivia Wilde/Jake Lacy pairing), and by the end it had entirely squandered any goodwill I had towards it. Diane Keaton and John Goodman play the central couple, at whose home the traditional Christmas gathering is taking place, with stray members of the family travelling to get there. Everyone does the best they can, I suppose, but matching up Keaton with Marisa Tomei as her sister, or Alan Arkin with Amanda Seyfried as a (sort-of) love interest seem like bizarre choices. However, the worst choice was to have the film narrated by the family dog, voiced by a particularly unctuous Steve Martin. Not destined to be a holiday classic.
CREDITS Director Jessie Nelson; Writer Steven Rogers; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Diane Keaton, John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Amanda Seyfried; Length 118 minutes. Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 16 December 2015.
Fitting into a sort of cinema-of-abjection continuum with the films of the Dardenne brothers (most notably their recent Two Days, One Night), not to mention a number of works coming out of post-Soviet Eastern European cinema (a number of Romanian films come to mind), this Bulgarian film tells a similar story of a woman who quite against her will or involvement finds herself pitted against capitalist bureaucracy and petty local corruption. In the case of Nadezhda (as excellently played by actor Margita Gosheva), our protagonist is a small town schoolteacher doing some translation freelance work on the side, who has been put into household debt because of her feckless husband’s financial mismanagement, and quickly finds herself at the wrong end of a system which is not set up to help her in any way. It is of course a pointed indictment of a system, and an empathetic scream on behalf of an entire class of those disenfranchised by financial systems, but it roots it in a family which is falling apart under these stresses — no one is exactly culpable, and they’re all good people, they’ve just been forced apart by circumstance. There’s plenty to like here, but you have to be a bit of a sucker for slow cinematic punishment to reach the film’s final ‘lesson’.
CREDITS Directors/Writers Kristina Grozeva Кристина Грозева and Petar Valchanov Петър Вълчанов; Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez Крум Родригес; Starring Margita Gosheva Маргита Гошева; Length 111 minutes. Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 17 December 2015.
One of the strengths of a traditional documentary is to shine light on something that is perhaps less well-known and bring it to life in some way. I can’t claim that this film makes any great formal advances, and some of the titling is a little clunky if I’m trying to pick holes, but it takes the life of a person I did not know very well except in passing as a name engraved on art museums (although her uncle Solomon is the Guggenheim behind the more iconic ones), and makes it into an enjoyable and fascinating story. The life of Peggy Guggenheim is told via talking heads interviews with those who knew and worked with her, archival photos from her life, snippets of film, images of the most famous artworks she collected and the places where they hang, but primarily via a voice recording she made with her biographer late in her life. This trope of ‘these recordings were believed lost, but have been rediscovered and are presented in this film for the first time’ is becoming one wearily familiar in the documentary world; I’ve seen a few already this year. However, Peggy’s voice is a wonder to hear, not just for her idiosyncratic delivery, but for her willingness to candidly talk about all kinds of subjects (her biography is noted by one interviewee as being a catalogue of the people she’s slept with). Her life becomes a distillation of bohemian allure and hard-nosed business deals, taking her from New York to Paris to London to Venice, combined with her winning ingenuousness and delight at the modern art she loved so much. It’s only a pity she’s no longer around, but her art galleries remain a testament to her vision.
CREDITS Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland; Writers Bernadine Colish and Vreeland; Cinematographer Peter Trilling; Length 95 minutes. Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015.
There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about this new film by Angelina Jolie (styling herself “Jolie Pitt” in the credits), set in the 1970s and to all purposes a throwback to that era — if not an earlier one indeed (hints of Michelangelo Antonioni perhaps, albeit without that director’s rigorously architectural framing). Needless to say, viewers familiar with the couple’s pairing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) will probably be taken aback here, as this is unapologetically an ennui-laden erotic thriller, where any eroticism is deeply tied up with voyeurism, not to mention a traumatic event which remains only hinted at for much of the film. The Pitts play a childless couple of 14 years, Vanessa and Roland, who have travelled to a small French seaside town for the summer. Their neighbours in the comfortably-appointed hotel are a newly-married couple on their honeymoon, Léa and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Thus begins a drama of erotic transference in which demons are unearthed, though at a glacial pace weighed down by long, pregnant pauses and periods of relative inactivity — Vanessa is a former dancer who mostly prefers to hide from the world (often under oversized hats), while Roland is a writer who mostly spends his time in the local cafe, drinking and chatting to proprietor Michel (Niels Arestrup). Jolie Pitt gives a steely performance, all the better given her character is so closed off from both the world and even her husband. For me it’s Brad Pitt who’s the weak link here (though he’s a fine actor), and though it seems like this must be quite a personal film, the casting also gives the sense of a vanity project. Needless to say, I think Jolie has crafted something really out of step with the rest of American film culture, and it’s all the more welcome for that.
CREDITS Director/Writer Angelina Jolie [as “Angelina Jolie Pitt”]; Cinematographer Christian Berger; Starring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup; Length 122 minutes. Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015.
The legacy of Saturday Night Live has always weighed strongly over American comedy since its debut in 1975, not least in the last 10-15 years. One of the strongest of the players in that time has been Tina Fey, lead writer at SNL before heading on to create and star in 30 Rock (itself loosely based on the show), and her friend Amy Poehler has often been involved in her work. In transferring the hit-and-miss variety comedy approach to film, this year has already thrown out Trainwreck (which shares a lot of SNL alumni), but Sisters is in an even more direct line, given its lead actors as well as its screenwriter Paula Pell, a long-term writer for SNL also. So it should be no surprise that it’s quite often very very funny. It’s also perhaps not so surprising that there’s a variable quality to the humour, and some lands a lot better than others (or maybe we can say it works better on different audiences). There’s also an undertow of sentimentality that becomes most evident towards the conclusion, but for the most part Sisters remains a solidly entertaining comedy based around the antagonism between the two leads — Fey as Katie, a mother with no ability to hold down a job; and Poehler as her younger sister Maura, far more responsible and in control of her life — as they return to Florida to help their parents move home. This premise could easily have bombed with smug male leads (and indeed I understand Vince Vaughn has already more or less made this film), as its one-last-party-gone-awry plot leads to an extended period of home-trashing, which would far more quickly have outstayed its welcome without the chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Bobby Moynihan’s superlative physical comedy is somewhat wasted in a supporting role, by requiring him (as in so much of his earlier SNL work) to be a sort of stand-in for Chris Farley, but it’s great to see comedians of this calibre get to deliver some really funny material. I’m just left wishing it was all a bit tighter and less gloopy towards the end, but maybe I’m being unfair. It’s worth a watch.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Jason Moore; Writer Paula Pell; Cinematographer Barry Peterson; Starring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Ike Barinholtz; Length 118 minutes. Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 December 2015.
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.
CREDITS Director/Writer Sanna Lenken; Cinematographer Moritz Schultheiß; Starring Rebecka Josephson, Amy Deasismont; Length 95 minutes. Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 December 2015.