Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017

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Criterion Sunday 108: The Rock (1996)

The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay | Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse | Length 136 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 99: Gimme Shelter (1970)

The first of several Maysles Brothers films in the Collection (and the brothers were always very good at crediting their, often female, collaborators in post-production as co-directors), this is a fascinating documentary, at once a band-on-tour film with some great concert footage, and also a dissection of a national psyche. It’s made in 1969 in a nation coming down from the post-Woodstock belief in love and peace, and that seems to be the spirit that suffuses its darker recesses. The film is framed by the Rolling Stones together in the studio watching footage of the negotiations that led to, and then the on-stage drama at, their chaotic 1969 Altamont free gig. The Maysles are deft at showing their faces, as we read on them the realisation of how completely everything got screwed up in the process. As such, this is somehow more than just a music documentary (though if you like the Stones, there’s plenty of that there), and more a ‘state of the nation’ type piece, and it certainly seems as if the 1970s being ushered in would be a darker place.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles | Starring The Rolling Stones | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home, London, Friday 27 May 2014 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2002)

The Bigamist (1953)

Taking up some of the stylistic traits of the film noir, this early-50s film is from London-born actor/director Ida Lupino, and — I admit this is of quite incidental interest to most people I imagine — casts a number of actors who are originally English, not that you’d spot it. In any case, Lupino plays the femme fatale role, although the insight of the film is that it’s not quite so simple to categorise the women as simply free-spirited sexual adventuress Phyllis (Lupino) and frigid careerist businesswoman Eve (Joan Fontaine), though this is how the film sets them up initially. The title character is Harry, played by the solidly-built but slightly shambolic Edmond O’Brien, and if there’s obviously no surprise about his predicament, perhaps that’s because it’s not really about him. Finding himself sidelined in his own business by his more talented wife Eve, he embarks on a new life with Phyllis in Los Angeles while on the job as a travelling salesman. Class is enfolded into the mix, as Phyl (for short) leads a precarious existence of short-term work and unstable living conditions and relationship status. And if Eve is the one who’s hard done by, there’s a strange bond between her and Phyl by the film’s close. It may finish with a moral pronouncement from on high (a literal judge in a courtroom), but the messy tangle of relationships promises to carry on beyond the film’s snappy running time.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ida Lupino | Writers Collier Young, Larry Marcus and Lou Schor | Cinematographer George E. Diskant | Starring Edmond O’Brien, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn | Length 80 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 5 November 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

You can sort of understand why this film might be troubling to censors, who in the UK have slapped it with an 18 classification. It’s not that it’s particularly sexually explicit, or nasty or degrading, but that it deals with Minnie, a young woman of 15, having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. But probably more concerning to censors is that it’s entirely told from her point of view, in which adult characters have no moralising role in Minnie’s development (if anything her mother encourages her to flaunt herself more), and in which Minnie is unapologetic and unashamed about what she wants. But that’s a perspective so little seen in the coming-of-age genre, that it makes me wonder if my dislike for the genre is more its usual focus on gamine young women being objects of adoration seemingly unattainable to oily spotted teenage dudes, or other boring tropes of male self-actualisation like going out into the wilderness, or bonding with older guys to learn some Truth about masculinity. In any case, I imagine the thematic and narrative focus here partly has something to do with its setting in late-70s San Francisco, as well as being based on the autobiography of Phoebe Gloeckner, a cartoonist growing up under the artistic influence of such figures as Aline Kominsky (mentioned here, later married to Robert Crumb). I’ve read her first published anthology, A Child’s Life, and it’s fantastic not to mention quite boldly graphic (Gloeckner also spent some time as a medical illustrator). Some of the nastier edges have been toned down in the film, but there are still magical little efflorescences of animation that crop up every so often around Minnie. However, aside from its singular focus and unapologetic take on adolescent sexuality, the film also chiefly benefits from the performance of Bel Powley, largely a newcomer to film (although previously on TV in the UK, and the undoubted comic star of A Royal Night Out earlier this year), who impresses as Minnie largely for her unaffected ingenuousness and wide-eyed wonder, without ever feeling the need to dress up for the attention of men. As it’s based around her recorded diaries, there’s a fair amount of teenage solipsism, but this never overwhelms the story and is generally treated as gentle comic fodder, as Minnie knocks about from one adventure to another. Being told from Minnie’s point of view, Alexander Skarsgård’s Monroe is a sort of affable loser rather than anyone more threateningly creepy, while her mother just seems strangely absent (something Kristen Wiig, playing it straight, is very good at doing), though the appearance of her feared stepdad Pascal (Christopher Meloni) is a brief but enjoyable cameo and his advice sets up Minnie’s closure with Monroe perfectly, though you’ll really have to go see the film to know what I’m talking about. So I recommend doing that. It’s certainly not what you’d usually expect from an 18-rated film.


© Sony Pictures Classics

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Marielle Heller (based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner) | Cinematographer Brandon Trost | Starring Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Kristen Wiig | Length 102 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015

Inside Out (2015)

It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).

But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).

It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Pete Docter | Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley | Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black | Length 94 minutes (+ 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy) || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Another attempt to kick-start a veteran science-fiction franchise, this fifth Terminator film harks back to the first one, even repurposing footage from it to create an inter-generational fight scene, which is pretty much the best thing on offer here. That said, I find it difficult to write the whole thing off as awful, because despite a general lack of inspiration — bolstered by a largely vacuous young cast (Jason Clarke’s John Connor at least carries the wounds of war, but nobody really convinces as a battle-hardened veteran) — it never actively offended me, and even offered a fairly entertaining two hours. Sadly, the script is largely at fault, with characters being forced to spend large chunks of screen time explaining the convoluted time travel premise, which involves multiple timelines and allows Kyle (Jai Courtney) to retain memories from the other timeline. At least… I think? It’s hard to really be sure. The big (non-spoilery) twist is that Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor now takes the lead in her relationship with Kyle (thanks to tutelage from a second Terminator/Arnie). Beyond that, the film constantly references plot points and memorable images from the first couple of films, suggesting that were it not for the messy time travel narrative, it could have just been a simple reboot of the stripped-down original, and perhaps that would have been better.


© Paramount Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Alan Taylor | Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier | Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau | Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Chelsea [2D], London, Wednesday 8 July 2015

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.


Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA, dir. Don Hall/Chris Williams) [Wed 11 Feb at Cineworld O2 Greenwich]. There’s a lot of sweetness to this film, just as there’s a lot of sadness too, and I think for the most part the balance is really well maintained. The hero’s name is Hiro and his brother has created a big soft lovable health droid (voiced by the reassuring Scott Adsit), but when his brother dies in a mysterious lab fire, it’s down to this odd couple to solve the crime. It all gets a bit superhero-film towards the end, and there’s intermittent mawkishness, but for most part this is a delicate story of growing up, as well as an unashamed paean to technological geekery. Its fictional setting too, the Pacific city of San Fransokyo (a composite of American and Japanese culture) is beautifully rendered and makes one wish such a place really did exist. ***


Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA, dir. James Whale) [Wed 25 Feb at home]. A classic horror film which I’d never seen before, and indeed is quite excellent, including its use of beautifully-contrasted black-and-white photography allied to some quite nifty techniques on the part of the director James Whale. His life story provided its own interest in the 90s biopic Gods and Monsters, which lifts its title from a line in this film, and indeed Bride has plenty of good quotable lines in its story of Dr Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger in a superbly campy performance) who wants to create a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for Dr Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff). Most of the (relatively short) film is taken up with the machinations of Pretorius, though the story of the monster allows for some ever welcome lessons in tolerance and understanding of the Other. But at its heart this is a classic gothic horror film. ***½


Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi, 1966)

Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan, dir. Seijun Suzuki) [Tue 3 Feb at the ICA]. From the archival strand of a touring programme of Japanese films is this curious little number from the prolific Seijun Suzuki (most famous for the contemporaneous Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the film that got him fired from his studio). He has a real way with deliriously pulpy subject matter splashed across the widescreen black-and-white frame. This film takes themes from the opera of the name, by presenting our heroine Tsuyuko as a poor woman from a working-class suburb working her way up in the big city, including a stint as a hostess at a bar (given the period, it’s all fairly indirect, but seems to imply prostitution), but she’s knocked back by circumstance and some pretty terrible behaviour which affects both her family life, her relationships and her living situation. In fact, almost all the men here act callously, pushing her by turns towards a vengeful track, though the film withholds the kind of judgement you’d expect in a Hollywood morality play of the era. If the sheer force of events suggests a tragic dimension to the character, then this is partially countered by the forthright acting of the leading lady (Yumiko Nogawa), and the film offers much, too, in the way of stylish camerawork and staging. ***


Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988).png

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA, dir. Stephen Chiodo) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. Coming into this film with no prior awareness except to expect a certain level of trashy exploitation, I was pleasantly surprised at the consistent comic inventiveness of the premise. The title sets out a fairly self-explanatory story, but it’s the little details — like when the murderous alien clowns use balloons to make a sniffer dog to track down their human prey — which show the creators have made a real effort to follow through on their shonky premise. The acting is pitched appropriately, and the film delivers plenty of good fun. **½


Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985, USA, dir. Tobe Hooper) [Sat 21 Feb at a friend’s home]. I get the sense that a lot of thought has gone into this big budget space horror epic featuring naked vampire aliens running amok in London, but the execution is just a little iffy. There is, however, plenty of bonkers over-the-topness on show, plus a pleasing hamminess to a lot of the performances — particularly Peter Firth’s by-the-book SAS commander, as well as a short appearance for Patrick Stewart — but it’s all in the service of a leering story that lingers over Mathilda May’s body. Perhaps you could read it as a punishment for patriarchal oppression, but I can’t even convince myself of that. **


Lovelace (2013)

Lovelace (2013, USA, dir. Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman) [Thu 18 Feb at home]. I appreciate the film’s attempt at a sort of modern-day Rashomon in presenting two sides of the story of Linda Lovelace, protagonist of the 70s most famous p0rn film Deep Throat. She is alternately a bright young ingénue taking hold of her career, and someone unscrupulously exploited by her then-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) — though obviously the latter is given more prominence, surely being closer to the truth — but either way it’s clear that adult film was the not the world she wanted to be part of. There’s a deep strain of melancholy that runs through Amanda Seyfried’s performance in the title role, and this was clearly a difficult period of Lovelace’s life, but it’s something the film only intermittently captures. **½


Obvious Child (2014)

Obvious Child (2014, USA, dir. Gillian Robespierre) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A second viewing of a film I loved and reviewed last year, and it’s fair to say I still love it. Jenny Slate does some wonderful work. ****


La Reine Margot (1994)

La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy, dir. Patrice Chéreau) [Sun 22 Feb at home]. A lot of Chéreau’s directorial work for film was in comparatively little psychodramas, but his background in opera means I can’t imagine many others being able to handle such a grand spectacle of a film, and he does so very comfortably. The tendency with this kind of prestige production is to get bogged down by celebrity showboating and overblown melodrama, but despite having plenty of famous (French) faces and a long running time, Chéreau keeps it all in check, such that the details of what to foreign eyes is a relatively little-known period of European history becomes a vital and interesting study in corrupted power and its bloody effects. It’s been re-released recently in France in a longer cut, closer to the director’s original vision, but even the truncated version I watched had plenty to love. ***½


The Selfish Giant (2013)

The Selfish Giant (2013, UK, dir. Clio Barnard) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Clio Barnard’s earlier docu-drama hybrid The Arbor (2010) now receives something of a companion piece with this fiction film, also set in the grim industrial north, focusing on a couple of wayward kids living on a council estate trying to make ends meet. The particular path the two follow, of collecting scrap metal and racing horses in the street, seems like something from another era of British history, but despite dealing with a familiar coming-of-age loss-of-childhood-innocence character arc, the film’s performances and setting give it a freshness that this genre can so often lack. ***½


Somersault (2004).jpg

Somersault (2004, Australia, dir. Cate Shortland) [Tue 10 Feb at home]. This little Australian film shows a sure hand from its first-time feature director, with a great sense of its rural locale and a fine performance from Abbie Cornish as the young woman forced to flee home and live by her wits. It’s another coming-of-age but one done with sensitivity to its protagonist’s sexual awakening, along with the dangers attendant on that. ***


Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984, USA, dir. Jonathan Demme) [Sat 7 Feb at home]. Still a giant of the concert film, Demme’s staging and filming of a gig by the New York new wave band Talking Heads masterfully cuts to the heart of the music’s drama. Obviously, any concert film is going to stand or fall on how much you like the band’s music (I love it, having grown up with it), but it helps that frontman David Byrne is a compulsively watchable performer, and that there’s so much joy exhibited on stage, as the spectacle slowly builds up song by song. ****½

Godzilla (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 17 May 2014 [2D] || My Rating 3 stars good


© Warner Bros. Pictures

Remaking and reimagining the Japanese creature feature Gojira (1954) seems to be a periodic interest of filmmakers, especially those in massively capitalised industries like Hollywood. Therefore, it’s a bold choice to choose as director Gareth Edwards, whose previous credit was a low-budget feature, Monsters (2010), renowned for its relative paucity of monsters and featuring his own self-made special effects. If this, then, is a big step up for him in terms of budget and impact, Edwards and his writer have also been quite canny in the way the film introduces its titular monster, whose existence is only hinted at for the first half of the running time.

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Blue Jasmine (2013)

I should like to apologise that my output for the next few weeks is likely to be erratic, as I have family in town and have fewer opportunities for film-watching. I shall be attempting to keep my Godard director focus going, though it may be rather sporadic, even though I’m down to the last few films…


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Woody Allen | Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe | Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay | Length 98 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 2 October 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Sony Pictures Classics

The narrative that tells of a revered filmmaker’s ‘long-awaited return to form’ is a familiar one with plenty of history in film reviewing — it crops up from time to time with respect to Jean-Luc Godard, whose work I’ve been focusing on over the last month — but nowhere is it more commonly heard than with whatever the latest Woody Allen flick is. He churns them out at such a rate even now he’s in his 70s, that inevitably there’s one every few years that is heralded as a return. The critical consensus, it appears, is that Blue Jasmine is one such, seeing Woody return to the States, albeit to the West coast city of San Francisco. I, however, remain solidly unconvinced, though I concede it is a well-made film at least.

Continue reading “Blue Jasmine (2013)”