Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014

O le tulafale (The Orator, 2011)

I was given a DVD of this years ago, but I haven’t watched it until now for whatever stupid reason. Anyway, I guess there aren’t really that many stories out there, because there are familiar contours to this one (a family split apart, further feuding after a death, a person who feels set apart from the others), but by grounding it in a culture that, I imagine, most of us are unfamiliar with, this film makes it all seem new and fresh. Set in Samoa, Saili (Fa’afiaula Sagote) is a man short in stature and husband to a woman who has been rejected by her tribe and family. He’s the son of a deceased chief, but, perhaps due to feeling shunned for his height, has never claimed the right to be chief — and therefore orator of the film’s title, because public speaking is one of the community’s chief virtues in this film (though arguments that aren’t solved this way involve rock-throwing instead). Nevertheless, the film builds a quiet power, with beautiful cinematography and just the right pitch to acting. It could easily tip over into the unbelievable or melodramatic, but by virtue of its very quiet focus, it never does.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Tusi Tamasese | Cinematographer Leon Narbey | Starring Fa’afiaula Sagote | Length 110 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017

LFF 2016 Day Eight: Certain Women (2016)

I saw just the one film on Wednesday 12 October due to competing plans, and despite my avowed desire to avoid ‘big’ films destined to return, I made an exception… and it turns out to have been my favourite so far (albeit no surprise, given the director).


Certain Women (2016)Certain Women (2016, USA, dir./wr. Kelly Reichardt, DOP Christopher Blauvelt)
I always knew I was going to like this film, because Kelly Reichardt makes films I always like. Her last film at the LFF was Night Moves (2013), and that was practically a genre thriller, albeit with Reichardt’s customary style, but this new one dispenses with the genre baggage. So we’re left with a sort of purity to the slow rhythms, the steady gaze, the emotional depth.

I spent much of the running time wondering where it was going and what it was trying to achieve — although liking it a lot, don’t get me wrong; the 16mm-shot cinematography is spectacular for its framing and the beautiful open landscapes which are captured. But then the film finished with three brief coda scenes, to each of the three narrative strands (one featuring Laura Dern, another with Michelle Williams, and a third with Lily Gladstone and Kristin Stewart), and it all came into focus for me a bit. Sometimes you just need that cinematic nudge. I don’t want to overplay it though: if you’re bored by the film, the ending won’t suddenly turn you around. But this is stark, emotional, yearning, bleak at times but absolutely masterful filmmaking.

There’s a desire for human connection that runs through it, and there’s sometimes a paucity of connection too. There’s a weariness to some of these women, and for good reasons, but there’s nothing forced about the way it unfolds. I had felt initially that Michelle Williams wasn’t quite ‘right’ as a mother, but now I think that feeling was a response to her role and the way she played it: lacking support from her (cheating) husband and teenage daughter, why shouldn’t she be cagy?

No, this is fantastic stuff, up there with Meek’s Cutoff, and I’ll happily see it again. [****½]

Queen of Earth (2015)

Generally, I’m quite sceptical about films made by men about women’s experiences. There’s very much an arthouse tradition — perhaps going back to the Hollywood “women’s pictures” of the 1930s, but primarily derived from Ingmar Bergman — of this kind of tear-stained melodrama, of women pulling themselves and each other apart psychologically. Woody Allen took up that tradition in the 1970s, and this new film from young New York-based filmmaker Alex Ross Perry seem to take it up too. Indeed, in many ways, it comes across as almost a throwback to the 70s, with grainy stock, murky close-ups, and of course Bergman-esque psychological torment aplenty. With unadorned actors attacking the script, this is a different beast from the director’s earlier film Listen Up Philip (2014), even as it seems to be capturing the same kind of lost spirit of writer-director filmmaking. Nevertheless, whatever my reservations, Elisabeth Moss is undoubtedly terrific as Catherine, a woman coming apart at the seams — she may not be likeable, but you get the sense that she’s had a lot to deal with — not helped by her friend Ginny (played by Katherine Waterston). In its effect, it’s almost a psychological horror film, once you factor in the steady alienating thrum of the score, and it gives further evidence of Perry’s talent.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Alex Ross Perry | Cinematographer Sean Price Williams | Starring Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Thursday 7 July 2016

Green Room (2015)

I haven’t been writing as many reviews recently, though I’ve been going to every bit as many films. Just one of those fallow periods I guess. There are still interesting movies coming out, though, and one that may have got missed in the glut of fine films is Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to Blue Ruin. Aside from the colour-themed titles (which inflect each film’s respective cinematographic palette), the two films are linked by Saulnier’s reliance on mining genre conventions — in this case, he’s set up a tense thriller format in which our heroes, an anarchist punk band, gets trapped in a cabin in the woods by a bunch of neo-Nazi skinheads. I’ve seen it called a horror film and perhaps those more familiar with that genre will find things in common, but to me there’s a lack of horror to the way the story is set out (though there’s plenty of tension). Sure, when things get going, the gore does properly fly, but the curious thing to me is the almost matter-of-fact way it’s presented. All the actors, even the ones playing the skinheads (led by Patrick Stewart), have a human quality, almost as if they all want the best for the situation even if their personal ideologies are inflected by hate (being set in the Oregon backwoods, so beloved of libertarians and survivalists, there’s a notable lack of any people of colour, so racism never really comes into play). It somewhat complicates the genre trappings not to have anyone to actively hate, and when our punk band get into the action, their violence is every bit as nasty as that inflicted on them. I suppose that makes it a film in which nobody wins, which perhaps accounts for the tone of the ending, but in any case it’s another strong cinematic outing for Saulnier.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jeremy Saulnier | Cinematographer Sean Porter | Starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat, Macon Blair, Patrick Stewart | Length 95 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 19 May 2016

Midnight Special (2016)

I’m not quite sure the extent to which this film has penetrated mainstream consciousness, but like Jeff Nichols’s last film Mud (2012), everyone in the critical community (and online chatterers such as myself) is talking about Midnight Special. Now, I didn’t like Mud, for the most part due to its reliance on coming-of-age archetypes, though I admired the way it opened its story, and its sense of place. Nichols hasn’t strayed too far away geographically for this latest film (it starts in Texas), and again his storytelling instincts are very strong: there’s a palpable sense of mystery and threat that hovers over much of the film from the outset. This may partially be because I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject matter in advance, but really there’s so much mystery embedded in the film — mystery which is never fully resolved — that it creates a strong desire in the audience to want to know more.

Quite whether you’ll be satisfied with how Nichols’s screenplay answers that desire is going to be a matter of difference (I’m not quite sure I am), but the acting within those key roles is rock solid, particularly from the dependably intense Michael Shannon as Roy, and Joel Edgerton as his childhood friend Lucas. We open on a cultish religious community, from whom has been kidnapped a boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher); the kidnappers are Roy and Lucas, and Alton turns out to be Roy’s son. This is all set out fairly quickly, but there’s clearly a lot more behind this fairly straightforward set-up, something touching on profound mysteries involving the boy, his origins and powers. In a sense, it’s like a science-fiction blockbuster film refashioned as a low-key indie road movie, which gives it a fascinating dynamic that some have linked to cerebral 70s efforts like those of Steven Spielberg, though perhaps his more recent work A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000) would be more apposite — Lieberher reminds me particularly of that film’s Haley Joel Osment in both looks and the mysterious blankness of his character.

For me it’s a flawed film with a lot of ambition, but it has the filmmaking nous to be able to realise what it sets out to achieve, especially in those opening stretches.


Midnight Special (2016)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Jeff Nichols | Cinematographer Adam Stone | Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst | Length 111 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Monday 11 April 2016

Mustang (2015)

There’s no shortage of coming of age movies, which makes their general contours rather over-familiar and sometimes wearisome. Still, the world is large enough and inspiration diverse enough that it should always be possible to make something seem fresh, which is what Turkish-born French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has done here. It’s a story of five sisters growing up without parents (their guardians are their uncle and grandmother) — which has given rise to superficial comparisons with The Virgin Suicides (1999) — whose burgeoning awareness of themselves comes into conflict with the repressive mores of their rural community, kicked off with a carefree frolic in the waves with some schoolboys. Their uncle then progressively starts entrapping them further within the home until their (arranged) marriages, making their acts of rebellion ever more circumscribed. Unlike Coppola’s film, Mustang is grounded within the experiences of the sisters, and it’s their point of view — specifically that of the youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), who also narrates — which the film explores.

It would be misleading to call it triumphant, as there’s plenty of unsettling content: in terms of its setting, it seems less about the specifics of rural Turkey as of traditional patriarchal society where women’s sexuality is feared and controlled, and this is expressed via several means (an initial series of micro-aggressions which swiftly pile up). Yet this is all touched on in an artfully distanced way that almost lulls us into believing these characters are protected from the worst outcomes of patriarchy (they’re not of course), but which also preserves vestiges of hope for the sisters (who are presented with little more hope than for a good match to a tolerant husband). These manifest as little shards of narrative possibility: weaknesses in their fortress home; the presence of a nearby road and the uncle’s unguarded car. In these ways, by the end we are able to cheer small acts of defiance which also build their own momentum of resistance. It’s all directed with a deft touch and acted sensitively by (mostly) non-professionals. There’s hope for the coming of age film yet.


Mustang (2015)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven | Writers Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Alice Winocour | Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok | Starring Güneş Şensoy | Length 97 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 28 February 2016

Sunset Song (2015)

This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel — which my mother will be disappointed to hear I haven’t yet read, but I’m pleased to register does feature a key character with my own name — has been many years in the making, but Terence Davies has previous form with fine period literary adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and the underrated The Neon Bible all fall into this category, and are all excellent). What he’s done here fits into that continuum, and there’s a really handsome visual quality to the staging, all rolling vistas and sweeping location shots — which I trust are of Aberdeenshire, although I know some of the filming took place in New Zealand, and this latter may be why the accents don’t always fully convince. In the lead role of Chris Guthrie, the farmer’s daughter who finds herself rather put upon by circumstance — not to mention by her gruff father (Peter Mullan, of course) — Agyness Deyn (hitherto a fashion model, I am given to understand) does excellent work. However, clearly director Terence Davies has worked hard with his actors to find a register which is not quite naturalistic, but which strikes a balance between the immediacy of the characters’ emotions (the plot, set on the cusp of World War I, is rich with melodramatic detail) and creating a stylised distance for viewers that self-consciously reminds us that this is both an adaptation of a beloved literary work and one which is set a hundred years in the past, in a world which is largely lost. Davies has always been apt to find this balance, particularly by interpolating traditional songs (he does it here, when the characters sing after a wedding), but elsewhere there’s an almost theatricality to the staging. As to the world the film depicts, it’s hardly an idyll of course, but one of the themes is the way that modernisation has largely supplanted (if not destroyed) traditional methods of working and living, and shaken up familial relationships, which is only cemented by the outbreak of war. I suspect this is a film that needs a second viewing to appreciate fully, but it’s certainly rich in detail.


© Hurricane Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon) | Cinematographer Michael McDonough | Starring Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan | Length 135 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015

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.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Jocelyn Moorhouse | Writers Jocelyn 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

LFF: Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival, with no introduction or Q&A.


It strikes me that I’ve been a bit withering about filmmakers taking inspiration from Terrence Malick over the years as indicative of some kind of creative rut, but there are ways to do it well (generally, ditch the poetic voiceover), and it seems to me that Songs My Brothers Taught Me is both its own film and also channels the best of Malick — which is to say the gorgeous cinematography which presents characters in a close relationship to a spectacular natural world. The drama itself focuses on the residents of a Native American reservation in South Dakota, where alcohol is banned but problems still persist. Most of the characters have the same names as the actors, suggesting perhaps that a lot of them are not indeed trained as such, and so there’s a natural edge to John Reddy’s laconic performance as lead character Johnny Winters (some of the best films about teenagers are at their strongest when their characters say less rather than more). His father has just died, and in coming together for the funeral you get the sense of the many connections within the reservation, as it turns out Johnny and his little sister Jashaun (JaShaun St. John) are only two of 25 or so siblings from multiple different mothers. Johnny is caught up in a bit of illicit alcohol trafficking, and smokes plenty of pot, but really he’s just a normal kid trying to make the best of bleak opportunities. The narrative proceeds in fragments and ellipses, as Johnny decides to leave for the West Coast to join his girlfriend, but the drama is largely in creating a thumbnail portrait of the reservation, from the prison where his brother lives, to his mother’s hard-fought struggle for family stability, to the ex-cons trying to make a living selling by the roadside (with whom Jashaun strikes up an unlikely but sweet friendship), to the school where in one memorable scene students struggle to imagine their futures while petting a variety of dangerous-looking animals. However you respond to the film’s slow-building atmosphere, there’s a lot to like in this.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Director/Writer Chloé Zhao | Cinematographer Joshua James Richards | Starring John Reddy, JaShaun St. John | Length 98 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Saturday 17 October 2015