Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
There are, I suppose, no shortage of films — no shortage even of woozy impressionistic documentaries — about the teenage experience of girlhood, but this one seems pretty engaged. Its New York-based subjects are, for example, hardly idiots (frustrating, piqued, flighty at times, but not stupid). Indeed, there’s some discussion amongst its (mostly white, mostly upper-middle-class) subjects of how young female voices are routinely mocked and ignored — an argument I’ve seen recycled quite a bit over this past winter of Teen Vogue‘s growing political ascendancy. Well, there’s no such danger here, as we watch this loose group of friends grow up and go to university (or not). It’s sweet, sad, and hopeful, often all at once. It’s also shot in tight close-ups, hazy in the camera’s focus, and always gorgeous to look at.
Director Jenny Gage; Cinematographer Tom Betterton; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 25 March 2017.
I hope Kelly Fremon Craig gets to keep making movies, and I hope she takes over from Richard Linklater’s deeply boycentric visions, which I’m only reminded of because Blake Jenner must be going through the ‘sensitive jock’ phase of his career. But no, this is a film about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and it’s wonderful. It has great timing and an ear for dialogue, whether comic or dramatic (and it does certainly run the gamut). The score isn’t too assertive, even if I did spend the first 10 minutes thinking it was a retro 80s film (fashions come around, I guess). I didn’t buy everything that happened, and the ending felt more than a little bit tacked on — the character cycle Nadine is trapped in doesn’t seem like it’ll have a happy resolution, but the film is above all generous to its characters. However, it felt particularly right in its character interactions and in the moves from angst (no Nadine, stay away from Jordan Catalano… or whatever his name is in this film*) to very droll comedy to lacerating drama, like any good coming of age film. And it’s definitely a good one.
[* It’s Nick, and he’s no good.]
Director/Writer Kelly Fremon Craig; Cinematographer Doug Emmett; Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Leicester Square, London, Tuesday 6 December 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.
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.
Criterion occasionally pulls out a vaguely exploitational B-movie from the vaults, and this is no less enjoyable than, say, Carnival of Souls or Blood for Dracula, and hinges on a similarly low-budget aesthetic that maximimises the scares by only obliquely referring to the terror at its heart. In this case, it’s the gelatinous threat of the title, and the film’s unsurprisingly hokey effects are pushed into the background by a story that focuses on “teen” couple Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Aneta Corsaut) and their friends in a close-knit small town. The teenagers aren’t the wild rebels that Corman had started to capitalise on earlier in the decade, but largely conservative law-abiding ones (they do all look firmly in their 30s, to be fair), and occasional moments of tension between them and the authorities are quickly subsumed by a shared desire to defeat the unknown threat. You get the sense, given the era, that this is allegorising any number of things, but most notably the Red Scare of Communism, meaning its outcome may never be in question but the ending has an amusingly provisional quality. Of course, if you remember anything, it’s likely to be the jaunty and goofy Burt Bacharach-penned title tune.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.; Writers Kay Linakar [as “Kate Phillips”] and Theodore Simonson (based on an idea by Irvine H. Millgate); Cinematographer Thomas E. Spalding; Starring Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 10 April 2016.
Probably exactly the kind of film we won’t see much if we leave the European Union, it feels so quintessentially French, despite dealing with themes that seem to always be prevalent: the fear of young people and what they do in their spare time. There’s a certain prurience to the premise I suppose, but it’s all fairly artfully handled, with equal opportunity nudity for our youthful cast experimenting with sexual desires but actually using it to open the emotional wounds of growing up. There’s a slightly judgemental tone to the way it resolves but on the whole this is an earnest attempt to deal with teenage disaffection.
Director/Writer Eva Husson; Cinematographer Mattias Troelstrup; Starring Marilyn Lima, Daisy Broom, Finnegan Oldfield, Lorenzo Lefebvre; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 22 June 2016.
Sometimes I like to watch innocuous frothy light-hearted brightly-coloured romantic comedies, the kind of thing which has always been considered the dispensable filler and fodder of the film world. I don’t really ever expect much from them, nor do they always deliver very much either, except something aimlessly diverting. I don’t even expect the protagonists to be people I actually like or deeply identify with — the title characters here (played by Victoria Justice and Pierson Fodé respectively) are self-involved narcissistic young New Yorkers, which is fine by me but I could see it might grate with others. Ely is gay; Naomi is his BFF; and together they have a list of people they both have crushes on but who are out of bounds (hence the title). The main thing is that there be a lightweight off-hand feel to the way things spool out, enlivened perhaps by some enjoyable supporting turns. And that much is in place here, with a range of love interests, friends and roommates who — in a touch which is perhaps slightly too precious — have matching names (Girl Robin is played by High School Musical‘s Monique Coleman, and there’s a Boy Robin too; there are also a couple of Bruces), but all are played with brio. Stretching credulity is that the building’s doorman is also a hunky young guy, Gabriel (played by the winsome Matthew Daddario), but it points to the film’s genesis in Young Adult fiction. Indeed if there’s anything interesting about the film, it’s that it integrates gay characters and a three-way love plot with a somewhat Disney Channel/Nickelodeon-esque inoffensive brightness. Perhaps I’m too easy on it, but it passed the time.
Director Kristin Hanggi; Writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer (based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan); Cinematographer Anka Malatynska; Starring Victoria Justice, Pierson Fodé, Matthew Daddario, Monique Coleman; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 29 February 2016.
I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.
Director Kenny Ortega; Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott; Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016.
The American teen comedy is by now a venerable institution, which in its current guise basically traces its lineage back to Clueless (1995), though you can also discern traces of the 80s John Hughes films, not to mention that era’s prurient frat/sorority comedies. All those characteristics that have become so codified by now — whether the brightly coloured accessorising, the mean girls, the jock boys, the inevitable run-down of campus cliques, and Ken Jeong as a teacher — are all in place in The Duff. In many ways this film would not be particularly remarkable at all except that it’s pleasantly amusing throughout, and it offers a twist on the jock vs nerd story in its central romance. However, most of all, it features the brilliant Mae Whitman in the lead role of Bianca, the “DUFF” of the title — which stands for “designated ugly fat friend”, though, as the film is keen to point out very early, these are relative qualities. There’s not a whole lot more to say really, and you’ll probably know already whether you’re going to enjoy this film or hate it.
Director Ari Sandel; Writer Josh A. Cagan (based on the novel by Kody Keplinger); Cinematographer David Hennings; Starring Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Saturday 2 January 2016.
The conclusion to one of film’s most joyful trilogies finds Kenny Ortega with a far higher budget and even a cinematic release. He doesn’t squander the pennies, either, in mounting a few glorious numbers, including “I Want It All”, which liberally tips its fedora to similar sequences in classic Hollywood films. Sure, as a whole it doesn’t sustain the momentum quite as well as the second film — Gabriella and Troy remain an underwhelming screen couple, and the other pairings are sidelined by a largely charisma-free bunch of new recruits (who I believe were originally intended to take the series forward into a new generation) — but it’s in the musical sequences that it finds its raison d’être. There’s little more invigorating in cinema than a good dance number, and High School Musical 3 has several, even if some of the fashions and heteronormative couplings already seem a tad old-fashioned.
Director Kenny Ortega; Writer Peter Barsocchini; Cinematographer Daniel Aranyó; Starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Lucas Grabeel, Corbin Bleu; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 March 2011 (and many more times on DVD, most recently Saturday 19 December 2015).