Carol (2015)

There’s always been plenty for film fans to fetishise about their favourite medium, whether the unstable nitrate stock used in early cinema (I seem to recall David Fincher’s Se7en was initially released on some kind of ‘silver nitrate’-enhanced print), the threading up of 8mm home movie footage, or the epic splendour of 70mm. In this modern digital age, just seeing a film on 35mm celluloid is enough of a treat for plenty of film fans, and the fact that some screenings of Carol have been on this antiquated stock has been enough to get many excited. Resistant as I’ve been to this level of film stock fetishisation, the cinematography of Ed Lachman (who used 16mm cameras when shooting) does come across particularly nicely, and there is a sort of cultish mystique to seeing Carol projected on film stock, though it still works fine on digital too. No, scratch that, it works great, because I’ve seen the film three times already in the last week, and I continue to want to go and see it. I love Carol, certainly more than any other film this year, possibly more than any film this decade.

As for explaining why, it’s not just the film, and it’s not just the period clothes and settings — although those are, it has to be said, fantastic. There’s seldom been so powerful an advertisement for the joys of sipping gin martinis in plush hotel bars, or lighting up a cigarette, for that matter. That grainy film stock really gives a tactility to this evoked world, just as it seems to make it impossibly distant. Director Todd Haynes emphasises this by frequently shooting his actors through glass, often fogged up or dirty, using reflections which fade away into darkness or into the film grain. Carol, more than anything else perhaps, is a seance with something unattainable — whether the texture of the historical past, or the ineffability of rendering something so fragile as love on screen. But in acknowledging this distance, it also heightens the emotion of evoking it.

Still, all this would be for nothing without the performances. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet does her best to hold herself in check despite a sort of giddiness to her youthful acceptance of the world at times, and you can see those emotions fighting within her, especially evident in that opening scene which the movie at length loops back to. Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, though, is acting in almost a different world, yet her connection to Therese remains palpable, other characters seeming to fade away in their exchange of glances. Blanchett modulates her voice, giving an almost neutral flatness to some of her line readings, though it’s in her eyes and the curl of her lips that the real heavy lifting is done. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend Abby, who surely remains the best supporting actor around. Abby’s exchange with Carol somewhere in the middle of the film — “Tell me you know what you’re doing.” “I don’t. I never have.” — pretty much destroys me every time and feels like the film’s emotional core (that and Carol’s “living against my grain” in the custody hearing).

I’m unequal to telling you all the ways I love this film. I haven’t even really conveyed the story, but it’s fairly straightforward in some ways (two people fall in love). Still, there are moments here that are as rich in magic as any other film I know (although I’ve already seen a number of critics resisting the film’s charms, so I can’t claim these effects are universal). Still, it works for me, and perhaps yes there is a level of fetishisation to it. Maybe I’ll go see it again tonight, or tomorrow, while I can, before it disappears forever, lingering only in distant, impossible memories.

Carol film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writer Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central [35mm], London, Monday 30 November 2015; Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015; and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015 (so far).

The Dressmaker (2015)

I’ve seen a fair few strange films this year but in some ways The Dressmaker might be the oddest of the lot, and the film it most reminds me of tonally is The Voices. There’s something to that blend of gruesomeness and light-hearted comedy which can often go wrong, and I’m not convinced that it’s been fully solved here, but it certainly finds a better balance than The Voices did. Largely that may be down to the bright, dusty, rural Australian setting, and to Kate Winslet’s spirited performance in the title role of Tilly Dunnage, returned to her hometown after 20 years, having left under the shadow of an unsolved child murder. The town she returns to has that Blue Velvet tinge of nastiness under the surface, and there are brief unpleasant hints of rape and spousal abuse that crop up and are just as swiftly dusted away (one hardly needs more than a hint of it to colour our perceptions of some of the characters). The town is filled with its odd local types, fairly broadly played in most cases (the hunchbacked pharmacist for example, or Hugo Weaving’s crossdressing policeman), and in others rather more delicately (nice to see Kerry Fox in a small role as a brutal schoolteacher). At a plot level, it swerves all over the place, and there are at least a few different endings that each have a finality in their own way, not least the budding romance between Tilly and the down-to-earth Teddy (Liam Hemsworth). The director and screenwriters (husband-and-wife team of Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan) do their best to keep it all together, but there’s a waywardness to the tone that at its best is delightfully barmy, but can get wearying at times. No, if this film is likeable it’s because of the winsome Winslet, and of course those glamorous 50s dress designs in which she soon has the town outfitted, for this is nothing if not a glamorous film.

The Dressmaker film posterCREDITS
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse; Writers Moorhouse and P.J. Hogan (based on the novel by Rosalie Ham); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015.

我的少女時代 Wo de Shaonu Shidai (Our Times, 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.

Our Times film posterCREDITS
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.

Brand: A Second Coming (2015)

There’s not a great deal to say about this new film from Ondi Timoner, the director of the enjoyable bitter-rivalry music documentary Dig! (2004). It premiered at the London Film Festival, was in cinemas a week or two later, and now already is on Amazon Instant Video, which may suggest it’s not that good, but actually just means that its real audience is largely online. Most people in the UK, after all, are likely to have an opinion about Russell Brand, because he’s certainly not been shy in broadcasting his own personality and views far and wide. He’s already been the subject of one documentary this year (somewhat more hagiographic one presumes), but this one purports to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Whatever my own opinion about the man, it’s certainly clear that many of his views have been misrepresented by the media, or — perhaps more accurately — not addressed at all, through gales of mocking laughter, a lot of which has the nasty tinge of classism (Brand comes from an impoverished Essex background). A few of those media figures (like news anchor Jeremy Paxman) are interviewed here about Brand’s political statements, while Timoner is able to convey a sense of Brand’s life, his comedy, and his very public struggles with his family, with his relationships, and with drug addiction. It’s never particularly boring, but it certainly may suffer in your opinion if you’ve already got a strong dislike for Brand’s antics. I can’t say it gave me a new-found insight into Russell Brand, but I do believe it at least gives his views a fair hearing.

Brand: A Second Coming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ondi Timoner; Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko; Starring Russell Brand; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 14 November 2015.

The Closer We Get (2015)

I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.

The Closer We Get film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie; Cinematographers Guthrie and Nina Pope; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015.

Favourite Women Filmmakers

I was reading online about the #FavWomanFilmmaker hashtag campaign, to highlight awareness of film directors who are women — still statistically unfavoured by various movie industries, as I’ve certainly been discovering this year. Anyway, as this seems like something everyone should get behind, and as I do love lists (I have a page dedicated to listing all the films by women I’ve seen since I started this blog), I wanted to contribute.

First, though, there are so many women directing excellent films right now, I don’t even know where to begin, and choosing one favourite seems impossible. So in the absence of any better criterion, I’ll start autobiographically.

I grew up in New Zealand, so it’s fair to say that Jane Campion has been pretty inspiring. Her early feature films Sweetie (1990) and An Angel at My Table (1990) are both fantastic, and she has taken up the long-form TV format of the latter recently with Top of the Lake (2013) to quite a bit of success. I’m perhaps less enamoured of The Piano (1993) than most people, but I’ll rep for The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), In the Cut (2003) or Bright Star (2009) at a moment’s notice. She has a fantastic and consistently excellent body of work.

Still, I can’t leave this at just one, so — using from here a strictly alphabetical ordering system — the other key directors who were putting out films in my early filmgoing years (the 1990s), and who are still active, include:

  • Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: an Iranian director too little of whose output I have seen, but whose Nargess (1992) I adored as much as her recent film Ghesse-ha (Tales, 2014);
  • Catherine Breillat: she has a series of tough-minded explorations of female sexuality, most notably À ma sœur! (Fat Girl, 2001), but I also have fond memories of that same year’s Brève traversée (Brief Crossing), which I must revisit;
  • Claire Denis: seriously guys, Beau travail (1999) is one of the greatest films ever, full stop;
  • Sally Potter: you’ll know many of her more famous works, but I want to highlight the underrated The Tango Lesson (1997).

Looking back to earlier decades, trailblazers in many ways:

  • Chantal Akerman: sadly died just this year, but has a peerless body of work dating particularly to the 1970s with such films as Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna, 1978) and Jeanne Dielman (1975);
  • Dorothy Arzner: had a strong Hollywood career in the 1930s and 1940s with such key works as Dance, Girl, Dance (1940);
  • Vĕra Chytilová: for Sedmíkrásky (Daisies, 1966) if for nothing else (that I’ve seen, and that’s my failing);
  • Danièle Huillet: directed and edited a series of bold and perennially-divisive structuralist works with her husband Jean-Marie Straub, like Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, 1968);
  • Larissa Shepitko: a career cut tragically short, but Voskhozdenie (The Ascent, 1977) should live forever at the top of best-ever lists;
  • Agnès Varda: a key figure in the French nouvelle vague whatever the auteurist male critics may try and suggest.

More recent directors to have caught my attention in a big way have been:

  • Andrea Arnold, a bold stylist of the cinema;
  • Sofia Coppola for her deceptively gaudy Marie Antoinette (2006) and above all The Bling Ring (2013);
  • Josephine Decker, who has a far more delicate touch in many ways, making these weird, evanescent but harshly uncompromising stories about women;
  • Mia Hansen-Løve, who can even make self-involved dudes seems interesting, as in Eden (2014);
  • Kim Longinotto, whose films (like this year’s Dreamcatcher) intersect unapologetically with social justice issues in communities around the world;
  • Sarah Polley, a Canadian actor more recently turned director, with a great feeling for compelling narratives;
  • Kelly Reichardt, whose attention to landscapes and a sense of place has been particularly peerless;
  • Céline Sciamma for her stories of fluid gender identities, particularly Tomboy (2011).

A few directors who urgently need to be making more films:

And finally, some whose names I look back on and wonder whatever happened to their feature film directing careers. I don’t daresay there may have been reasons that extend beyond the contours of industry sexism, and I know some are still active in other media, but it’s still a pity. Unless of course it turns out they’re still going strong in which case, hey distributors, WTF?

  • Carine Adler Under the Skin (1997)
  • Allison Anders Grace of My Heart (1996)
  • Sadie Benning some fine short films in the 1990s like Flat Is Beautiful (1999)
  • Lidia Bobrova V toy strane… (In That Country, 1998)
  • Émilie Deleuze Peau neuve (New Dawn, 1999)
  • Marleen Gorris Antonia (Antonia’s Line, 1995)
  • Alison Maclean Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • Moufida Tlatli Saimt el Qusur (The Silences of the Palace, 1994)

Those are just some names that come to mind. There are directors I’ve missed off, and there are directors whose works I haven’t yet caught up with. In short, there is, I believe, a bold and inspiring future for films directed by women.

शानदार Shaandaar (2015)

Like many a Bollywood romcom (at least of the ones I’ve seen this year), this is glitzy, glossy, silly and set in an magical exotical foreign wonderland. Which would be Yorkshire, obviously. So we get the mist hanging close to the green fields, horse-riding and tweedy ensembles, people rolling around in Rolls’s, and humble homes straight out of Downton Abbey (although it seems the main mansion setting was filmed in Poland). There’s a dance sequence set in a barn, where everyone’s dressed up in their best Barbour, while the bride-to-be (Sanah Kapoor) jumps up on some kind of draycart outfitted with handpulls and bottles of real ale. It is, if I haven’t covered this already, dreadfully silly. But that’s fine, really, or at least it’s fine with me. The film is at least up-front about its wistful magical dream world, as via a short animated sequence it sets up how our heroine Alia (the winning and delightful Alia Bhatt) can’t ever get to sleep and has dreams drawn for her by her apparently-adoptive father Bipin, played by Pankaj Kapur, the actual father of the film’s male lead, Shahid Kapoor (playing wedding planner Jagjinder Joginder). There are periodic little outbreaks of this kind of animated fantasia world, but mostly the suspension-of-disbelief is at the vast enormity of the grandness or the blinginess of the bling (the gold-plated Magnum revolver constantly waved around by the film’s nominal bad guy, Mr Fundwani, is only the most ridiculous — that is until a diamond-encrusted pump-action shotgun arrives). It doesn’t all work — there’s a pair of txt-speaking girls whose stereotypical vapidity quickly gets wearing — but when it does, as in a fantastic battle-of-the-sexes dance number, it really can be quite special. Somehow by the end (just of that song, frankly), they’ve managed to lampoon laddish bantz, fat-shaming, rape culture and fit in a line about the groom-to-be being a “misogynistic prat” (although even he turns out to be not irredeemable). After a string of serious-hued nonsense, it’s refreshing to find this level of escapism, but I concede not everyone may be so charmed.

Shaandaar film poster CREDITS
Director Vikas Bahl विकास बहल; Writer Anvita Dutt Guptan अन्विता दत्त; Cinematographer Anil Mehta अनिल मेहता; Starring Alia Bhatt आलिया भट्ट, Shahid Kapoor शाहिद कपूर, Pankaj Kapur पंकज कपूर, Sanah Kapoor सनाह कपूर; Length 144 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 2 November 2015.

Mississippi Grind (2015)

Searching for images from the film to put at the top of my review, there’s a lot of the two stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn at the craps table, or playing poker, and it’s true these images have a hint of glamour to them. But that’s not what I think of when I think about Mississippi Grind. It’s a film that lives more in the moments at the bar after the game, as these two sup on a bourbon, get drunk and fantasise about what could be. Because, yes, this is indeed another movie about the faded lustre on the American Dream, which channels a story that touches on the peculiar way that class manifests itself in America via money, the pursuit of it, and more often the lack of it, the difficulty in getting it, and how not having it can ruin your life.

The gambling plays its part in this allegory, but is not depicted as inevitably doomed (though of course that does colour the tension going into a lot of the scenes), but rather as having its ups and downs, as indeed it does in life. And these two guys have their personal ups and downs as they travel the byways of the American heartland, down the Mississippi River and a series of small, faded American gambling towns. For Mendelsohn’s Gerry, you get a sense of a lot more downs, but part of the film is in teasing out exactly what’s behind Reynolds’s mysterious Curtis, who shows up at Gerry’s poker table at the start and is quickly seized on by him as a sort of lucky mascot, into which fantasy Curtis is happy to play for a while. As a marker of his aspirations is his insistence on drinking Woodford Reserve bourbon, both a product placement and something that plays a role in defining their relative paths. Narratively, though, this isn’t tight in the sense we’ve come to expect from US cinema, but has a meandering looseness that harks back to an earlier era (I’ve seen the 1970s mentioned a lot by critics, and that seems fair).

The charm of the film — in a quote that’s recited by the characters a few times — is that it’s about the journey, and in that sense it has a lot of false endings: in a way you can choose whether these guys are successes at life, or losers, and you get the sense that it will continue to go either way for them if they keep at the gambling. But for a couple of hours, it’s an enjoyable amble through some of the less lustrous landmarks of the American Dream at its most capricious.

Mississippi Grind film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; Cinematographer Andrij Parekh; Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 26 October 2015.

They Will Have to Kill Us First (2015)

There are, I suppose, two intertwined stories in this documentary, subtitled “Malian Music in Exile”. One is an affirmative and upbeat story of the creativity and energy of Mali’s musicians, working across a range of styles (whether traditional, rock or even rap). The other is the precarious political situation in the West African republic, where the northern part of the country has long been contested by native Touareg peoples and whose leadership has in recent years been the subject of various takeover attempts by insurgent al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist forces, one of whose edicts included the banning of all music. This background is dispatched fairly quickly by a rapper who opens the documentary, though a sense of the region’s conflicts returns periodically, sometimes as an aside to the musicians’ stories, and sometimes taking centre stage. The key figure in this regard is ‘Disco’, an outspoken critic of the Islamist policies and rule, who is married to a senior figure within the Touareg political community, himself a former Army commander within the Malian government. Disco and her compatriot Khaira Arby have been displaced by the fighting but are keen to return to their native town of Timbuktu as soon as the way is clear for them to make music there. In tandem with this narrative are two other stories of musicians who have had to leave the north of the country. Moussa is another Touareg musician, whose wife still lives in the north, meaning he is torn between staying in exile in Ouagadougou (in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire) and returning home, despite the distinct threat of violence which forced him out — primarily that, as neither an Islamist nor a Touareg rebel, he is caught between the two sides and in danger from both. Meanwhile, the members of Songhoy Blues (from a different community of northern Malian people) seem to have found a more settled existence in Bamako, to the south of Mali, and even a degree of international fame thanks to Western projects that have brought them to recording studios and concerts in London. All these strands are kept expertly in play by documentarian Johanna Schwartz, without losing sight of the wider political dimensions of their situation. In the end it’s a broadly life-affirming story about the power of music to bring communities together, in which the lurking political dangers are fairly downplayed (although there is some rather graphic footage of dismembering near the outset, to give a sense of the insurrectionary forces and their mangling of Islamic principles), and a more rounded sense of what it means to be a refugee from their point of view (rather than the rather more hostile one of the countries where they end up, as is more commonly portrayed by the media).

They Will Have to Kill Us First film posterCREDITS
Director Johanna Schwartz; Cinematographer Karelle Walker; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Saturday 24 October 2015.

Suffragette (2015)

As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.

Suffragette film posterCREDITS
Director Sarah Gavron; Writer Abi Morgan; Cinematographer Edu Grau; Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015.