The Souvenir (2019)

The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.


If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.

In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.

It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed  from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.

* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.

The Souvenir film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.

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Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.

Hail, Caesar! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016.

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

This is basically a horror film, trading in psychological terror with a distinctly European sensibility of long takes, artfully composed alienation, and a mounting sense of dread, as via flashbacks we learn about the murderous crimes Kevin has committed. Kevin is Eva’s son, and Eva is really the linchpin of the film, so it’s just as well Tilda Swinton is such a good actress. There are hints that she’s failed as a parent — too committed to working, living in a large unpleasantly empty and sterile home with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), and not good at empathising with her children — but those are just suggestions, perhaps more easily attributed to the film’s horror themes, in which failing as a parent is a more terrifying prospect than being the victim of a mass murderer. The problem I have with the film is that the ‘evil’ of Kevin seems rather one-note, with Ezra Miller (and his counterparts playing Kevin as a child) called on to perform a very limited range of glaring nastiness towards his family and those around him. At a certain level, it seems like an easy way to keep the film at a distance, thought that’s of a piece with its filmmaking style I suppose. In any case, for all its stylishness, I certainly wouldn’t want to watch this film if I were a parent.

We Need to Talk about Kevin film posterCREDITS
Director Lynne Ramsay; Writers Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver); Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey; Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015.

Trainwreck (2015)

I understand that Trainwreck has done pretty well, both commercially and critically, and I feel good about that for the most part. A lot of the blogs I follow are pretty down on Amy Schumer a lot of the time (possibly in the same way that they’re down on Lena Dunham, for not being, I don’t know, inspiring enough, feminist enough, or being too white, whatever), but she’s a pretty sharp comic writer and there are a lot of laughs in this film. Much of the time they come from that comedy of slight awkwardness, of people not quite knowing how to act around one another, but the casting of the right actors is pretty key in achieving that as well. As the male lead (sports surgeon Aaron Conners), Bill Hader is not your usual love interest, and though his great comic skills (honed over his years on Saturday Night Live) aren’t always showcased, he is pretty good at finding the right tone to play his scenes in order to set up the comedy elsewhere, and that’s a valuable skill. There are a number of other SNL alums in smaller roles (some barely there, although Leslie Jones’ cameo on the subway is worth it), but the real surprises are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s orange-skinned boss Dianna and a supporting turn from basketball player LeBron James as one of Aaron’s clients. For James, it’s unexpected because he’s known as an athlete, though he shows a good sense of comedy timing, whereas for Swinton — as ever for Tilda — it’s sheer WTF value, as once again she pops up and whirls offscreen leaving you wondering if that really is her.

Of course, the key is Schumer herself, who has a good sense of her strengths and weaknesses, no doubt honed over many years of running her own show. She allows herself to take a fair number of hits, but (at least initially) isn’t willing to fit into the female romantic lead stereotypes. Her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) is played with pathos, but is a philandering wreck, and there’s a subtle sense of how that has played out generationally. Where the wheels fall off is in moving towards a conventional resolution wherein she turns her back on her vices and makes up for some of the emotional turmoil she’s left in her wake — and I don’t really think she has much to apologise for. I daresay she doesn’t either; who knows, maybe this is down to test audiences or something? But it feels like Schumer is following the screenwriting rulebook, and it’s somehow sad that things take a Bridget Jones’s Diary turn in the man-chasing denouement. Following up on one of the assumed criticisms I opened my review with, it does sadly also feel like some of the racial jokes are a little misjudged, however much self-awareness the writing introduces them with.

But these ultimately are caveats which don’t change the affection I have towards much of the film — let’s say the first two-thirds (it’s somewhat overlong as well). Schumer puts together a character who is believable and likeable and unapologetic about herself, and if that’s what Aaron has fallen for, then it’s a quality that I think stands her in good stead. I certainly look forward to her future comedy moves.

Trainwreck film posterCREDITS
Director Judd Apatow; Writers Amy Schumer; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 18 August 2015.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The new Jim Jarmusch film starts on a turntable as a vinyl record spins, before cutting to matched shots circling first Tilda Swinton and then Tom Hiddleston from above, with them sprawled in poses of narcotic ecstasy in their respective homes. These are the doomed lovers of the title, Eve and Adam, and it’s a fitting start, putting us straight into the dizzying, woozy whirl of their lives. They move around a lot — he is based in Detroit, she in Tangier — but little really changes for them, for they are trapped in the eternal purgatory of being vampires, subsisting on packs of blood sourced from reliable local hospitals. It’s a film of beautiful textures — visual and sonic — and it feels almost autobiographical after a fashion, for the vampires are nothing if not artists, preying on millennia of culture as much as on blood.

Jarmusch’s style is particularly well-suited to these characters, because he’s never really been interested in plot so much as in atmospherics. Here the lack of momentum in the narrative is perfectly suited to characters for whom time is largely meaningless, a constant miasma of experiences that all blend into one another, even over centuries. They occasionally reminisce about the past, casually mentioning classical composers or feuds from the 16th century, and indeed one of their compatriots is Christopher Marlowe (a wizened John Hurt), which at least allows for some amusing Shakespeare gags.

There’s a constant undercurrent of deadpan black comedy that threads through their encounters, Eve with Marlowe, then Adam with the excitable wannabe Ian (Anton Yelchin), who helps him out with his artistic pursuits by sourcing vintage instruments and the like. Ian, like all the other non-vampires in the film, is a “zombie”, the term Adam and Eve condescendingly use to refer to mere mortals. They really are the ultimate hipsters: living a life of devotion to their art, citizens of the world recycling local influences and avoiding the corruptions of global capital (Detroit and Tangier are both places of largely forgotten and crumbling grandeur, and when Eve is booking a flight she is keen to avoid London at all costs), ultimately desirous of nothing so much as cult respect. Near the end, Adam encounters a performance by Yasmine Hamdan in a Tangier bar, and is told by Eve that “she’ll be famous one day” to which he snidely replies “I hope not! She’s too good to be famous.”

Music is a key to Jarmusch’s work, especially in this film. Given the essential stasis in the narrative, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the film stops to take in various musical performances, but integrating these is part of its method, whether Hamdan in Tangier, or psychedelic spacerock band White Hills in a Detroit club. Adam is a man after Jarmusch’s own heart, and indeed Jarmusch and his band Sqürl have provided a lot of the sonic textures for Adam’s artistic experimentation. Eve meanwhile is obsessed by literature, and when she travels books are all that she carries; we see her running her hand over their tactile pages as she packs them. Their seriousness is contrasted with Eve’s inane LA-based younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

Once you get into its slowly laconic rhythm, there’s a lot to like about the film. Tilda Swinton remains refreshingly disarming on screen and perfectly cast as this otherwordly being (harking back in spirit to Orlando), while Tom Hiddleston is a compelling presence, effortlessly assuming the pose of a debauched, self-serious artist. If everyone here just seems to be marking time, they certainly do it with style.

Only Lovers Left Alive film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Thursday 6 February 2014.