The filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been turning out warmly-received films since his fiction feature debut Maborosi in 1995. Many of them — certainly, it seems, all of the most acclaimed — are warm-hearted family dramas, whether dealing with children directly as in I Wish (2011), with parents of kids in Like Father, Like Son (2013) or with young people in Our Little Sister (2015). However in many ways that’s only half his output, as he’s also made plenty of films that don’t fit quite so neatly into this framework. I was planning on writing a post about maybe one of these, but then I realised I had a vast cache of reviews of films that really aren’t very well known by this famous director, and I wonder how many great directors could have made great films if they’d been given as many chances. For one example not even covered here, there’s his latest English/French-language The Truth (to be reviewed here later this week), but there are also these four films reviewed below: a film about terrorists; a period drama; a sex drama; and a legal thriller.
An enormously silly movie. The gang is still led by Vin Diesel’s Dom, but his allegiances are placed into question by the arrival on the scene of cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). The script still throws around the word “family” the requisite number of times, and truly my heart is warmed by seeing Jason Statham properly brought into the fold — even if he’s still somewhat an anti-hero, he is at least now aligned with the forces of good, with a rather heavy-handed Hard Boiled hommage which nevertheless plays into Statham’s established heroic character trait of protecting kids. And yet… and yet, I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced by Dom’s actions, nor by Charlize’s villain — though, incidentally, possibly the most furious thing in the film is the fingers of her and Nathalie Emmanuel’s hacktivist Ramsey (introduced in the last film), as they (ridiculously) hack and counter-hack one another. I’m also not convinced by the fate of poor Elsa Pataky, sidelined since Michelle Rodriguez returned in the sixth film. Look, I still like everyone involved and I’ll still go see number nine (can I get an early vote in for some kind of K9 pun?) but this isn’t their finest work.
Director F. Gary Gray; Writer Chris Morgan; Cinematographer Stephen F. Windon; Starring Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Friday 14 April 2017.
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.
Critics directed quite a bit of derision towards this new Michael Mann film when it came out last year, and it’s certainly a very odd film in many ways. For a start, most obviously, it’s about computer hacking, a notoriously difficult thing to make visually interesting, though Mann does his best with an opening sequence tracking computer data transfers via swooping CGI shots along lit-up wires and through circuits across the world. More noticeably, he has Chris Hemsworth play our computer-hacking hero Nicholas — perhaps a suspension of disbelief too far for some — who is seen at the start locked up in prison, which can surely be the only excuse for his taut, muscled body. Then on top of this is added a bunch of fairly straightforward action scenes involving running, kicking, jumping, explosions, all the usual stuff, because basically the film quickly moves from the realm of cyber-terrorism to real-world undercover policework, as some FBI handlers are introduced (Viola Davis, most notably) and then Chinese government officials (Leehom Wang as Captain Chen, and Tang Wei as his sister Lien, also an IT specialist, and putative love interest for Nicholas). Setting all this aside — and there’s some slightly patchy pacing on the way as the story develops — it’s actually fascinating for being a mainstream big-budget Hollywood action-thriller which has a genuinely diverse cast. Sure, Bond and Bourne jetted around the world, but they don’t feel as properly international as this film does. My feeling is that opinion will shift over time to regard it rather more positively, as I think it moves the genre in an interesting direction, and there’s rarely so little of interest to most action thrillers.
Director Michael Mann; Writers Morgan Davis Foehl and Mann; Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Chris Hemsworth, Wei Tang 湯唯, Leehom Wang 王力宏, Viola Davis; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 13 February 2016.
There are, I suppose, two intertwined stories in this documentary, subtitled “Malian Music in Exile”. One is an affirmative and upbeat story of the creativity and energy of Mali’s musicians, working across a range of styles (whether traditional, rock or even rap). The other is the precarious political situation in the West African republic, where the northern part of the country has long been contested by native Touareg peoples and whose leadership has in recent years been the subject of various takeover attempts by insurgent al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist forces, one of whose edicts included the banning of all music. This background is dispatched fairly quickly by a rapper who opens the documentary, though a sense of the region’s conflicts returns periodically, sometimes as an aside to the musicians’ stories, and sometimes taking centre stage. The key figure in this regard is ‘Disco’, an outspoken critic of the Islamist policies and rule, who is married to a senior figure within the Touareg political community, himself a former Army commander within the Malian government. Disco and her compatriot Khaira Arby have been displaced by the fighting but are keen to return to their native town of Timbuktu as soon as the way is clear for them to make music there. In tandem with this narrative are two other stories of musicians who have had to leave the north of the country. Moussa is another Touareg musician, whose wife still lives in the north, meaning he is torn between staying in exile in Ouagadougou (in neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire) and returning home, despite the distinct threat of violence which forced him out — primarily that, as neither an Islamist nor a Touareg rebel, he is caught between the two sides and in danger from both. Meanwhile, the members of Songhoy Blues (from a different community of northern Malian people) seem to have found a more settled existence in Bamako, to the south of Mali, and even a degree of international fame thanks to Western projects that have brought them to recording studios and concerts in London. All these strands are kept expertly in play by documentarian Johanna Schwartz, without losing sight of the wider political dimensions of their situation. In the end it’s a broadly life-affirming story about the power of music to bring communities together, in which the lurking political dangers are fairly downplayed (although there is some rather graphic footage of dismembering near the outset, to give a sense of the insurrectionary forces and their mangling of Islamic principles), and a more rounded sense of what it means to be a refugee from their point of view (rather than the rather more hostile one of the countries where they end up, as is more commonly portrayed by the media).
Director Johanna Schwartz; Cinematographer Karelle Walker; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Saturday 24 October 2015.
As one of the big cinematic releases here in the UK this autumn, Suffragette goes back to a fertile period of modern history — the 1910s shortly before the outbreak of World War I — tackling a story that’s certainly well-known to people at least in passing, if rarely thus far attempted on the big screen. Partially that may be due to the rather limited scope of the so-called ‘suffragettes’, being the militant wing of the campaign for women’s suffrage (voting rights); they were, after all, engaged in a domestic form of terrorism, albeit directed at manifestly unjust laws (not even all men had the vote in this period). Moreover it’s debated amongst historians quite how effective their campaign was, and it’s suggested that women’s involvement in work during World War I was more decisive in swaying political opinion on the matter (in 1918 women over 30, along with all men over 18, were awarded voting rights). However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a stirring story of a small number of women who campaigned passionately for something they believed in enough to suffer abuse and imprisonment (and in some cases even death), and which continues to have resonances today, judging from the list that ends the film of when various countries finally allowed women the vote. It’s unquestionably a handsomely-mounted piece, with plenty of detail in the costumes and setting, and although most of the central characters are fictional creations, they are in some cases (most notably Helena Bonham Carter’s militant pharmacist) based on some aspects of real life figures, while there are effectively cameos from the movement’s leading lights (including Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press as Emily Wilding Davison). However, in some ways the film’s real achievement is in focusing on one working-class family woman (Carey Mulligan’s Maud, married to Ben Whishaw’s Sonny), rather than the upper middle-class ladies who are usually the linchpin of such stories. It’s her realisation of the importance of political representation, as effectively contextualised within her unfavourable working environment in an East End laundry, that moves the narrative along, and all the details of her working life are the most persuasive aspects of the drama. There are indeed many more stories of this type to be told about women in history — the past hundred years of cinema has provided rather a surfeit of tales of chauvinist political machinations — and Suffragette should be welcomed as a big-budget evocation of an important, if under-represented, story.
Director Sarah Gavron; Writer Abi Morgan; Cinematographer Edu Grau; Starring Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 22 October 2015.
I really wanted to like this film. It seems like a worthwhile pursuit, recasting the internationally-set counter-terrorist action thriller with a female hero, fighting the good fight against a confluence of terrorism, governmental corruption and capitalist business interests while dealing with the trauma of her own family background. Sofia Black D’Elia in the central role of Mina does decent work limning these various divides, it’s just that she’s not really given much support from the other actors or, more importantly, the script. A lot of the plot contrivances feel fairly perfunctory in order to move the narrative along, and even veteran English actor James Frain seems a bit lost with some of his lines. It doesn’t help either that the villains lack a certain charisma, with the role of Mina’s tormentor/father, an interesting character certainly, succeeding neither at being a vengeful terrorist or a sympathetic freedom fighter. Still, it’s filmed with panache given the presumably low budget involved, and vigorously works through the (over-)familiar setpieces to set up a final confrontation with a female antihero.
Director Vicky Jewson; Writers Ben Hervey [as “Alan Heartfield”], Jewson and Rupert Whitaker; Cinematographer Malte Rosenfeld; Starring Sofia Black D’Elia, James Frain; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 4 August 2015.
Timbuktu is set in the Malian city of that name (albeit filmed in the director’s native Mauritania) as ISIS militants ride into town to take control. This sounds like a deeply depressing subject matter — and there certainly is a lot to be depressed by — yet the film manages to find an affecting balance between two apparently disparate emotional registers (comic and tragic). There’s a tension between these fundamentalists and their set ideas, and the reality which they face in the quietly observant population, who have little desire to change their ways — nor indeed, as their imam puts it to the fundamentalist leader, any real religious failing they need to correct. And so, as the film goes on, the wry comedy and easy laughter of the early sections — small acts of defiance towards the occupiers (a football game without a ball, singing and playing music at night) — tips towards revulsion at the way the fundamentalists push their largely pointless agenda and punish the locals. In some ways what’s most difficult to deal with, but which also allows a small potential for hope, is that everyone in the film has a basic humanity, and has reasons for acting the way they do. The ISIS leaders show a willingness to talk issues over, while also being unable to always live up to their own ideals (the leader played by Abel Jafri sneaks away to smoke a furtive cigarette at one point). Meanwhile, the locals have their faults too: one of the big dramatic arcs in the film deals with Ibrahim Ahmed’s cattle herder Kidane, who accidentally kills a fellow townsman in a petty squabble. If there’s no black-and-white judgements on display here, there is instead a certain moral clarity: bad people sometimes do decent things, and vice versa, but they still approach the world and its problems in fundamentally different ways. It’s the resistance to the occupiers’ petty bureaucratic mindset that the film valorises, and which continues to resound after the film has finished.
Director Abderrahmane Sissako; Writers Sissako and Kessen Tall; Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Ibrahim Ahmed [as “Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino”], Abel Jafri عادل جفري; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 2 June 2015.
On first look, The Long Good Friday is a film very much of its period with its clothes and hairstyles, its clunky technology and pulsating synth-led score, but there are a few reasons for the film’s resilience. It was made at the tail end of the 1970s as the UK was anticipating its new right-wing Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and thus a period of intense business investment and privatisation, and the plot taps into that, as Harry Shand (a mesmerising Bob Hoskins) tries to leverage his gangland supremacy into business success by redeveloping an area of the defunct docklands in the East End. Of course, as we’ve all seen in many subsequent films and TV shows (The Wire season 3 is one that springs to mind), whatever control gangsters may exert over people are as nothing to the coldly brutal machinations of global capital. However, the very area where this film is set was to become a symbol of 80s property developers’ greed and corporate excess — no doubt the local government corruption and dubious investment practices charted here was a factor in real life. (Indeed, the huge Canary Wharf project that did away with many of this film’s locations not long after it was made became a victim of the 1987 crash and it was quite some time before it recovered to become a shining beacon of capitalism.) Still, at the heart of the film is a simple tale of gangland revenge, as Harry’s business dealings are put in question by a series of anonymous attacks on him. Thus it very much hangs on Hoskins as an actor to hold things together, and in this he does marvellous work (the director’s confidence in his actor is suggested by the final long take of Hoskins’ face), ably assisted by Helen Mirren as much more than merely a gangster’s moll, but a strong and equal partner in developing Harry’s business concerns. There’s plenty of iconic lines as well as small appearances from familiar faces (it even nods to last week’s Alphaville with Eddie Constantine as the American businessman). It’s not always a vision of London that one wants to get behind, but Hoskins makes it compelling.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Mackenzie; Writer Barrie Keeffe; Cinematographer Phil Meheux; Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 8 March 2015.
Jon Stewart is well-known already for his work as a comedian and host of The Daily Show, engaging on a regular basis with current affairs, world politics and the incompetencies of his own government, but with this feature he moves into filmmaking. Thankfully, on the whole it’s pretty well-made stuff with some entertaining digressions, about how journalist Maziar Bahari was arrested on a visit to his native Iran to cover the 2009 elections and accused of being a spy. In the lead role is Gael García Bernal, who may not be Iranian but seems to specialise in this kind of role these days (like in No), the small pawn ranged against wider governmental forces of oppression. He does pretty well at it, though the film is bogged down in its middle section by longueurs as Bahari is detained in Evin Prison, though enlivened occasionally by the dialogues with his captor, the shadowy figure known only as ‘Rosewater’ (played by Kim Bodnia, also not Iranian). It all looks great and is edited together skilfully, and though not perhaps as narratively compelling as Ben Affleck’s Oscar-baiting Argo of a few years back, I feel it avoids some of that film’s pitfalls in presenting Iran at times as an exotic, dangerous Other. What is emphasised is more of the shared experiences of people under that regime that may be common to journalists in similar situations around the world. It’s a fine first feature, and I only hope that Stewart continues to develop his filmic voice, though in the meantime his television show continues to do pretty well.
Director/Writer Jon Stewart (based on the memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari مازیار بهاری and Aimee Molloy); Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski; Starring Gael García Bernal, Kim Bodnia; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Odeon West End, London, Sunday 12 October 2014.