Criterion Sunday 121: Billy Liar (1963)

Someone had clearly been watching those recent French New Wave films and taking cues from Godard and Truffaut. Specifically, director John Schlesinger, one imagines, and he does a British version very well here. Billy Fisher is a chronic dreamer (I can only imagine he was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s own arch-fantasist Fischer) who just can’t be honest with anyone, least of all himself. It’s the 1960s and the film opens with a montage of modern housing estate developments; Billy lives in a northern city and works at a (literal?) dead-end job, not doing very well there. There’s an energy to Billy, as he bounces around the city from one failure to another, playing off his various fiancées, and enduring his parents’ scorn. There’s also a lovely role for Julie Christie, and while any character who has Julie Christie in love with him and doesn’t immediately ditch everything else to be with her is clearly a moron, Courtenay still manages to work up quite a bit of winsome charm. He’s still an idiot, though and his parents aren’t wrong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Schlesinger | Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based on the novel by Waterhouse) | Cinematographer Denys Coop | Starring Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie | Length 98 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 120: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 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

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan | Writers Neil Jordan and David Leland | Cinematographer Roger Pratt | Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016

Shoot the Messenger (2006)

A film made for TV in 2006 and rarely screened since, I saw this at a 10th anniversary show at the BFI (to tie in with their Black Star season focusing on black film talent), followed by a fascinating panel discussion afterwards which I think helped me appreciate it more by presenting a diverse range of responses and perspectives. It’s a film which sets up its unusual and challenging tone from the very opening shot of David Oyelowo’s character Joe stating direct to camera that all the problems he’s had in life are due to black people. It’s a deliberate provocation from a production with black writer, director and cast, and is said within a context of a drama which is hardly naturalistic — the film’s tone is much more black comedy or satire, even as it trades in some very harsh statements about systemic and ingrained racism within British society. Thus it’s made clear that Joe — a man who initially feels called upon to help improve the lives of minority ethnicities by becoming a teacher — is just the lightning rod for discussing these issues. From a stylistic perspective, the film also makes frequent use of direct-to-camera address from this unreliable protagonist — amplifying his voice and making it even more challenging — as he traverses a series of personal setbacks, all of which he pins to other black people. But the ostensible comedy in fact helps draw out all kinds of aspects of lived black experience — experiences within systems dedicated to education, mental health and employment, experiences with religion and the media, and within a society with deeply-ingrained messages around body shaming (specifically to do with hair, in this context). None of it feels like it should work — in some senses it comes across as quite a theatrical piece — but it’s in a great tradition of British television drama (I think back to the 1960s for the nearest comparisons, polemical films by directors like Alan Clarke). It’s rich in ideas, and Oyelowo is great in the lead.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Ngozi Onwurah | Writer Sharon Foster | Cinematographer David Katznelson | Starring David Oyelowo, Charles Mnene, Nikki Amuka-Bird | Length 89 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 15 November 2016

Generation Revolution (2016)

Seeing this kind of politically-committed documentary — about youthful revolutionary protestors (specifically people of colour in London) fighting against multiple intersections of oppression, whether racist, capitalist, sexist, imperialist — in a plush central London cinema feels strange. Indeed, this probably isn’t the kind of venue where it will get most traction; it’s surely more a means towards getting the message into at least the film columns of broadsheet newspapers. That said, although it’s about activists and conveys the potency of a very real and urgent struggle (ever more so since it was made, since events of even just the past week), it’s not simply a work of activist agitprop.

The film’s participants are careful and reflective about their voices and the ways they are trying to engage and confront a system of interrelated oppressions. They don’t always agree about either methods or ideology, but all of them are doing so much more than most of us, in our complacency (certainly those of us watching in posh central London cinemas, let’s be fair), and that’s important to see, just as it’s important to know and acknowledge this work is happening. My favourite participant is Tej, a sweet guy taking part in feminist consciousness raising, not to mention idealistically helping out homeless people and worrying over the details (whether his care packages are missing roll-on deodorant for example). There’s also the woman who calls out her fellow revolutionaries for being insufficiently inclusive, and the young woman near the end who bashfully admits she doesn’t know how to talk to people even as she strikes up an easy friendship with one unfortunate homeless woman outside Euston station.

Generation Revolution is filled with such portraits. It shows a side not just of political activism, but specifically of activism and community engagement amongst black and minority ethnicities in this country, that is rarely represented in the media, and gives me at least a strength of hope in future generations against what feels like a relentlessly cynical and ironic tone to much of the mainstream coverage of politics. It’s worth seeking out, as finding more ways to engage with political change is sadly becoming increasingly urgent in many parts of the western world.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors Cassie Quarless and Usayd Younis | Length 74 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 12 November 2016

Burn Burn Burn (2015)

I fundamentally liked this film, even if there was a lot of stuff I didn’t believe at all: because it’s set up as a sort of kooky comedy, it often seems a little too cutely precious in the way characters come together, while some of them seem to have been introduced just to push along a magical sense of healing (particularly re: mothers, which provides a little bit too much sentimentality towards the end for my personal liking). Indeed the entire framework — a road trip by two women to scatter a dead friend’s ashes, who addresses them via self-recorded videos (and quotes Kerouac) — could easily be too much self-conscious quirk. And yet there’s something about those three central performances (by Laura Carmichael and Chloe Pirrie as Seph and Alex, and as Jack Farthing as their dead friend Dan) that gets to a kernel of emotional honesty that I found unexpectedly moving. At its best it reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis (a film I adored) in acknowledging the way that emotional pain can cause people to act horribly to one another. Meanwhile, gosh, British filmmaking has no shortage of tall pretty posh young women with cut glass accents acting atrociously while being funny (see also the Fleabag TV series just for a start), though it also makes the all too brief appearance of Alice Lowe (most recently seen as director/star of festival favourite Prevenge) all the more delightful.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Chanya Button | Writer Charlie Covell | Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho | Starring Laura Carmichael, Chloe Pirrie, Jack Farthing | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 3 November 2016

American Honey (2016)

It’s a long, meandering journey across parts of America that too few other films have documented, and there’s a lot here that really is beautiful and diverting. To see those boundless roads, those sprawling suburban homes, the strip malls and motels that lie in the interstices, the young people living precariously, dumpster diving, doing rubbish jobs, all to make ends meet. It’s not entirely new exactly — exploring the lives of the young, suburban precariat seems to be something of a niche sub-genre these days — but there’s a genuine energy to Andrea Arnold’s use of non-actors and her beloved Academy ratio to box up an unpalatable society. At some level it’s possible to develop an empathy towards most of the characters — even Shia LaBeouf’s exploitative, slightly creepy boss Jake (and he is definitely on the abusive side at times, for all his charm at others), who himself reports to an even more venal and demanding one (in the form of Krystal, as played by Riley Keough) — not least newcomer Sasha Lane in the central role of Star, who does very well indeed.

And yet, for all that I admired about it (loved even at times, more than in many of Arnold’s films), I can’t say I fell for the film in its entirety. Much of the weakness I think lies in the script. Indeed, I didn’t really believe that the job the characters are doing (selling magazines door to door) still exists, and for me there was a strong sense that issues were being raised along the way that were never really tackled. For example, others have written persuasively (here’s one piece at Fishnet Cinema and here’s another at Gal-Dem, both by women of colour) about Arnold’s deployment of race: Lane is half-black, yet there are no other significant black characters in the film (a crack-addicted mother, and the almost-dreamlike — because so fleeting — encounter with another, black, crew). Much of the music is excellent, but a lot of it comes from a specifically black perspective, and using African-American vernacular which is parroted by Krystal’s crew without any apparent self-awareness (undoubtedly due to their youth; one gets the sense that the music itself may have come from the cast rather than Arnold). Krystal wears a Confederate flag bikini at one point, but her ‘redneck’ status never comes into play at a dramatic level. Moreover, there are no racialised conflicts in the film, though as a strategy Arnold seems in general to be avoiding overt conflict in favour of setting up situations that seem to be going that direction, before defusing them or taking another route. Structurally, the film does this continually: building up an impression for the audience of where it’s going before feinting in another direction. It’s a strength and a weakness, to my mind.

For all the reservations I have, though, as a loose, rambling take on the American journey in quest of an ever-illusory American Dream, it has a compelling quality.

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Andrea Arnold | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, Riley Keough | Length 163 minutes || Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Wednesday 19 October 2016

LFF 2016 Day Eleven

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular. [****]


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society. [***½]


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts. [****]


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold. [**½]

LFF 2016 Day Nine

Two films after work on Thursday 13 October, both of them very solid outings, and seen in the same cinema, but with quite a different vibe. The first was a rammed, sold out house who responded with glee to the film, whereas the second was very much a half-empty auditorium with a sense of detached weariness (maybe that’s me just projecting onto French arthouse lovers, or maybe I was just grumpy because of the smell of someone’s kebab behind me).


Prevenge (2016)

Prevenge (2016, UK, dir./wr. Alice Lowe, DOP Ryan Eddleston)
At this point in my life there are plenty of films which only remind me of other films, and that’s fine, but it’s nice to see something that feels a bit unexpected. Prevenge is a film made by a pregnant woman about a pregnant woman who is systematically taking her murderous revenge on her perceived enemies (to say more would probably constitute spoilers), and it somehow feels a bit new. Both those pregnant roles are taken by Alice Lowe as director/lead actor, who threw the project together very quickly for biologically obvious reasons. In its blend of black comedy and jagged emotional turmoil, it is never unwatchable and sometimes both affecting and very funny, and Lowe is particularly good at turning suddenly from chattiness to a deathly unsettling stare. It seems to be allegorising aspects of motherhood, but it’s also good fun if you can stand a little bit of gore — a staple of both horror cinema and maternity. [***½]


Voir du pays (The Stopover, 2016)Voir du pays (The Stopover) (2016, France/Greece, dir./wr. Delphine Coulin/Muriel Coulin, DOP Jean-Louis Vialard)
This is a film about French soldiers on the way home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, who go on a three-day retreat in Cyprus on what their army bosses call “decompression”, though I can’t think of a word further away from what happens in this film. Instead it’s very much a pressure cooker environment, as the soldiers go through group therapy reliving key incidents in their recent tour in which it quickly becomes clear that lives were lost and bad decisions were taken that various members of the group feel either responsible for or powerless in the face of. It’s also a film about women in the military and the specific pressures on them, not just in their job but especially from their male colleagues. Throughout there’s a tense atmosphere, as if hostilities are about to kick off at any moment, emphasised by the tight shot framing and the glass prison mise en scène of the luxury hotel, whose vistas promise such illusory freedom. In truth there are a lot of ideas kicking around here that never quite (for me) come together fully, but the actors are all excellent, not least Ariane Labed as Aurore — the reason I booked a ticket to the see the film in the first place, for she is among the finest currently working — and her tightly-wound friend Marine (played by a singer known as Soko). [***]