Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017

The Intervention (2016)

I recognise that perhaps the setup for this film is not the most original, and the characters are fairly dull as characters (they’re mostly variations on entitled middle-class white people), but yet I really enjoyed this relationship dysfunction comedy because it’s funny, and I am a huge fan of the always-underrated Melanie Lynskey, not to mention Alia Shawkat. The former is playing within her comedic element, as Annie, a woman who invites all her closest friends to a retreat at a family home out in the countryside as the pretext for staging an ‘intervention’ for her friend Cobie Smulders’ marriage, which ends up giving Annie a chance to rethink some things for herself. The film’s narrative arc is fairly predictable as are the ways everyone falls out with one another and then comes together again, but this is all about the performances from its ensemble cast, who are uniformly delightful. It also, importantly, doesn’t overstay its welcome.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Clea DuVall | Cinematographer Polly Morgan | Starring Melanie Lynskey, Alia Shawkat, Clea DuVall, Cobie Smulders, Natasha Lyonne | Length 88 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 2 January 2017

La Captive (The Captive, 2000)

The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust) | Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin | Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar | Length 118 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017

Faaji Agba (2015)

In a manner not dissimilar to Buena Vista Social Club, this documentary tracks the efforts of Kunle, the owner of a Lagos, Nigeria-based record shop and label (Jazzhole Records), to bring together a disparate group of largely-forgotten or underappreciated older musicians from his country’s history, so that they can record their music and pass it on to a new generation largely unfamiliar with this musical tradition. His friend Remi Vaughan-Williams was on hand with a camera, and in due time (six years after she started filming in 2009) brought the footage together into this 90-minute film. Sadly, by this point many of the musicians have passed, but their legacy is vividly rendered here. There’s a lot of great music, in a variety of traditional styles (not just Afrobeat and Highlife, but others far less familiar to Western audiences), and some excellent footage of these musicians, as they come together, rehearse, bicker, fall out, reconcile and eventually put on a show in New York City. And although getting the music out to the Western world was never precisely the point of the project or the film, but it’s still obviously a big deal for the group and is given a fair chunk of the running time. The film itself is largely a one-woman operation, so there’s not a great deal of polish to the filmmaking itself — the camera jerks around shakily at times, while the editing tries to cram a huge amount of material in and so everything seems hectic and a bit rushed — but given the means available to Vaughan-Williams and her producer Kunle (i.e. next to none), it’s all fascinating and enjoyable stuff which conveys a great sense of change both in Nigerian music and in Lagos itself.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Black Star: Beyond Nollywood
Director/Cinematographer Remi Vaughan-Williams | Length 90 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 20 November 2016

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: French Film Festival
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid | Cinematographer Hélène Louvart | Starring Manal Issa, Vincent Lacoste | Length 119 minutes || Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016

Pojkarna (Girls Lost, 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.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
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

LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

LFF 2016 Day Seven

Another slight day, Tuesday 11 October, but my two films had their pleasures, and both were introduced by their directors, who did Q&As afterwards. I’m also realising I’m not getting sick of the BFI’s customary, endlessly replayed, trailer for its upcoming season, as I have in previous years. It’s for “Black Star” this time (a two month retrospective of Black American and Black British filmmaking), and I’m really looking forward to seeing some films during it.


Lovesong (2016)Lovesong (2016, USA, dir. So Yong Kim, wr. Kim/Bradley Rust Gray, DOP Kat Westergaard/Guy Godfree)
I am a sucker for films about women in love, even if, for whatever reason (the crushing power of heteronormativity perhaps?), they don’t always work out. I don’t want to spoiler anyone for this particular film, but there’s lots to enjoy in the details. The first half is filmed with a watchful, restless camera as leads Jena Malone and Riley Keough dance (not literally) around one another, Keough’s character Sarah looking after her daughter while apparently on a break from her husband, while Malone’s Mindy just rocks up like a free spirit. There’s then a slightly quieter view of them three years later, reconvening for Mindy’s wedding, uncertain about how they (still) feel. It’s a warm hug of a movie in many ways, even if it can also be a cold shoulder. I wanted more, but what I got was pretty great all the same. I knew Malone was great as an actor, but I’m won round by Keough most of all. [***½]


Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi, 2016)

Inhebbek Hedi (Hedi) (2016, Tunisia, dir./wr. Mohamed Ben Attia, DOP Frédéric Noirhomme)
There’s something going on here that’s not immediately evident while watching it. It seems to be the story of a tediously dull working man, doing a boring job unwillingly, walked all over by his mother, shuffling about with nary a smile as his family arrange his wedding. And Hedi is indeed irritatingly passive for much of the film, only belatedly brought out of his shell by Rim, a dancer at a hotel where he’s staying, part of the hotel’s rather pathetic entertainment for the few families who still come to visit at this time of political turmoil. So one could read it as yet another story of a dull man made somehow human by adulterously accepting the love of a free-spirited, warm-hearted woman. But there are allegorical levels to it in terms of its depiction of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary situation, a time in which perhaps Hedi, like many, wants to keep his head down, go along with his family’s time-honoured traditions, but is uncertain how to take control of his/his country’s future — and this is the drama the film is enacting. That all said and understood, Hedi can still seem like a very irritating protagonist. [***½]

LFF 2016 Day Six

I missed days four and five of the London Film Festival what with being away for the weekend for my birthday (I was in Manchester at a beer festival). Anyway, I returned on Monday 10 October and resumed watching films…


LoveTrue (2016)

LoveTrue (2016, USA, dir./DOP Alma Har’el)
Psychodrama is a new one on me, but it fits into a burgeoning interest in examining the intersection between the stories we have in us and the ways they can be presented: the focus seems very much to be on documentary-as-performance (with, notably, some acted recreations of events, though the actors are clearly identified and the nature of this collaboration becomes part of the film at several points). Here, there are three central protagonists (in Hawaii, Alaska and NYC) but the ways they deal with the other players in their lives, specifically at the level of love, are quite different. I think the achievement of Alma Har’el’s film is getting under the skin of characters who can be quite unlikeable (here I’m speaking chiefly of the men), and making them empathetic at some level. Romantic love almost seems like an illusory idea by the end, but there are definitely other forms of love that haven’t been abandoned in all three, and in the telling it goes in some surprising emotional directions. [****]


Interchange (2016)

Interchange (2016, Malaysia/Indonesia, dir. Dain Iskandar Said, wr. Said/June Tan/Nandita Solomon/Redza Minhat, DOP Jordan Chiam)
There’s an interesting film in here about the appropriative gaze of white colonialists, whose early-20th century photography was thought to steal the soul of tribal peoples. This idea is parlayed into a vampiric metaphor (people literally sucked of life and turned inside out) within a detective thriller genre framework, which would be fine if it didn’t rest its characters and narrative on so many other referential crutches (Se7en, Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Vertigo, not to mention a whole strand of Hong Kong police thrillers and that kind of thing). Ultimately I just couldn’t care about photographer Adam, or the police detectives — or anyone really — and too much of the characters’ dialogue was filled with portentous platitudes. Still, it never fails to look stylish, and there are some beautiful images. [**½]


Nong Hak (Dearest Sister, 2016)Nong Hak (Dearest Sister) (2016, Laos/Estonia/France, dir. Mattie Do, wr. Christopher Larsen, DOP Mart Ratassepp)
This is something unusual — a Lao-Estonian-French co-production — though as the director mentioned in a post-film Q&A, there’s no real Lao cinema to speak of (all her local actors are non-professional, even if they all do a great job). The film is ostensibly a ghost story, looping in supernatural lottery prediction, but the heart of the drama is of class and social mobility dividing the rich city woman Ana (who is losing her sight, her sense of perspective — do you see) from her poor country cousin Nok, whom Ana barely knows but who has been moved in to help her around the home by the rich woman’s white (Estonian) husband Jakob. The film is also canny about calling out the presence of western NGOs and their workers’ assumptions about Lao women. But this is not a film which fits into South-East Asian horror stereotypes, nor does it quite match up to the kind of slow-burn Thai weirdness of, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (though I’d put it closer to that). It has its own rhythms, and uses a tightly-focused handheld aesthetic to help put across some of the terror and uncertainty felt by its blind central character. [***½]

LFF 2016 Day Two

It’s that time of year: time for the London Film Festival (LFF)! And while I’ve not been doing a good job of getting reviews up on my site recently aside from my regular Criterion watch, I thought I’d best share the snippets of the films I’ve been watching at the festival. It’s unlikely any of them will break out as great successes in the coming year, because my policy these last two years has been to go and see films I don’t think will get another screening (with one or two exceptions).

Day One of the LFF was Wednesday 5 October, with its big premiere being the opening gala of Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom which seems to be getting mixed reviews, though I shall go see it when it gets a proper release next month.

Day Two was Thursday 6 October, and I saw my first three films. Two of them I think are pretty obscure, but the Ava DuVernay documentary was always going to get a pretty strong release in the US election season and indeed, as I learned subsequent to purchasing my festival tickets, it’s already on Netflix.


Wild (2016)

Wild (2016, Germany, dir./wr. Nicolette Krebitz, DOP Reinhold Vorschneider)
There are some unsettling thematics being explored in this film about a young woman who is, essentially, in love with a wolf. Themes dealing with female sexuality, throwing off the burdens and expectations of bourgeois conformity, living outside the capitalist system, stuff like that. At times I felt the film wasn’t doing justice to all its ideas, but at other times it seemed pretty on the nose. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg, with the intensity of a young Sarah Polley) works as an IT person and general dogsbody at some kind of recycling company, while finding herself newly living alone and restless. The film has some nice little observations (all the women in the office picking up after their oafish boss Boris) and moments of great humour piercing the odd alienation that much of the film essays. It’s weird, but in a watchable way, and a provoking way. [***]


13th (2016) 13th (2016, USA, dir. Ava DuVernay, wr. DuVernay/Spencer Averick, DOP Hans Charles/Kira Kelly)
The thesis of this new made-for-Netflix documentary is that the prison-industrial complex of the modern United States is effectively perpetuating slavery by another name (the constitutional amendment of the title rescinds slavery except for convicts). It’s difficult to mount any criticism of it as a film* because it’s so focused — through sadness, anger and despair — on driving its message home that it’s hard to look away. A range of activists, scholars and politicians (of whom, surprisingly, Newt Gingrich doesn’t come off as being even close to the worst) comment on the legacy of America’s bitterly divided racial history in creating a massively commercialised and exploitative system that in preying overwhelmingly on the poor (often with little interest in their culpability for their charged crimes) also preys overwhelmingly on people of colour, deracinating communities and continuing to deprive them of voice in opposing the system’s swift extension during the 80s and 90s. Well, DuVernay certainly provides this voice and I can only hope it reaches the people it needs to. Sure it sometimes seems like it’s going after Trump and his cronies (and why not) but neither Clinton exactly comes out slathered in glory, and Obama is largely notable by his absence in this story. It effectively folds in police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but also contextualises each as part of a history seemingly doomed to repeat. Sad but urgent stuff. [***½]

(* I only want to mention the endless gliding camera around its interview subjects; I found that technique distracting, but I daresay it works for Netflix, where it’s scheduled to appear on 7 October, and may many more see this film.)


Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women, 2016)

Yom Lel Setat (A Day for Women) (2016, Egypt, dir. Kamla Abou Zekri, wr. Hanaa Attia)
Sometimes you can watch a film and the fact it exists and what it documents and the point of view it represents, the voice it’s presenting, is enough — to the extent that it hardly matters how ‘good’ a film it is. I guess that sounds like an apologia for not liking it, but really all I can say (not being Egyptian, not being a woman, not being a whole lot of things, a film writer not least) is that it’s not made for me, and that for what it sets out to do, it does well. It’s a melodrama, with some good, subtle performances (and some which seem less so), about a community along a small alleyway in a big city, and the local pool which opens to women only on Sunday, and brings them all together. I liked the shared stories, the way they all have to step carefully on makeshift stones over a deluged alley to get to their homes, the incipient love affairs and personal turmoil each is navigating. Even the ‘simple’ woman and the ‘tramp’ archetypes were challenged by the end, and if nothing else it made a good case for safe spaces. [***]