Uncertain (2015)

At a certain level, this could be a documentary about the crippling environmental effect of a fast-spreading algae across an inland lake on the Texas-Louisiana border, by the town of the film’s title… Except it’s not really about that, it’s instead about a few of the town’s residents, men lost to the world and to themselves, just trying to get by, find meaning, abide. The film creates a deep atmosphere of damaged people trying to repair their lives, while in the background others try to save the lake by essentially introducing the kind of biological conflict the humans have been trying to move away from (weevils that attack the algae; violence permeates the film). Anyway it’s all beautifully shot, with some of the finest scenery you’ll see.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands | Cinematographer Ewan McNicol | Length 82 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 16 March 2017

The Levelling (2016)

As a film about guilt and grief, those mainstays of the low-budget indie drama repertoire, this does better than many films. It gets into the character of Clover (Ellie Kendrick) very well, as we get to understand her relationship to her father Aubrey (David Troughton) and recently deceased brother better over the course of its taut running time. There are thriller elements as she slowly gathers the information about her brother’s last days and hours, but there’s also an almost documentary interest in the day-to-day running of her dad’s farm, from which she left (or was forced out) to go to university. The acting has a peculiar way about it, perhaps from the screenplay, and to me it all seems a bit too stagy, deliberate and careful, but those are positive attributes in the editing and pacing of the film, which remains quite beguiling. I’ve seen a lot, lot worse films in this vein.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hope Dickson Leach | Cinematographer Nanu Segal | Starring Ellie Kendrick, David Troughton | Length 83 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 May 2017

Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

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