Grave (Raw, 2016)

Horror movies at their best allegorise traumatic experiences and Raw — or Grave in its original French title, which means something more like “serious”, and is a phrase thrown around a few times during the film in reference to lead character Justine’s changes — takes on that transition to university with aplomb. It is, to be sure, rather more disturbing than my own time as a first year but it captures something of that desire to fit in and also be a part of a larger group. Here the students are aspiring vets largely isolated at the edge of a small town, somewhere removed from society, running amok at parties in between scenes of lab dissection. There are other elements thrown in — the exploration of sexuality, most notably — which add further resonance to the film, as Garance Marillier’s Justine is led on by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). In this particular intersection of sex and gore, the film is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (though with less Vincent Gallo, thankfully). It looks great, it has a carefully chosen soundtrack, and there are some great trippy shots. Also, can I just add that I love the poster. It’s been all over the London underground for the last month or so, and it’s just the right balance of unsettling and suggestive without being graphic.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 15 April 2017.

Peur de rien (Parisienne, 2016)

I love films about immigrant experiences, as they render tangible how a person encounters another society and negotiates their place within it (a feeling that I can relate to, in however limited a way) — and the outside perspective can provide real insights into the society under discussion, in this film no less. Parisienne (or “fear of nothing” in its original French title) is about Lina (played by radiant newcomer Manal Issa), who has moved from Beirut to Paris in 1993 — this, it turns out, is a period film, with requisite careful detail of fashion and music (and it seems the director was really into Frank Black back then). Lina is dealing with a volatile family situation and responds by throwing herself into her studies, not to mention a succession of somewhat interchangeable French boyfriends. In this respect, I really like the way the director Danielle Arbid sets up unequal relationships of power for her teenage protagonist, in some ways the core of the film’s characterisation — from early scenes as she fights off the untoward attentions of her uncle, to these entitled, slightly older, white guys (including Vincent Lacoste), most of them well meaning, but just unrelenting in their insistence; there’s a sublimated violence to their advances that’s nicely brought out (I don’t know whether on purpose but it seemed to be there).

At a narrative level, the film is somewhat meandering, and the camera echoes this at a formal level, being given to wandering off, or cutting in close-ups of gesture and set decoration. If at times it feels like there’s no real message exactly, then that is surely of a piece with the storytelling: Lina is a young woman still forming her ideas and trying these on via various social connections (she even falls in with some skinheaded neo-Nazis at one point, leading to a bit of discussion of Le Pen père, which suddenly feels not so distant in time). It’s a film about finding strength and seeking identity, and in that it’s very successful.

Parisienne film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Danielle Arbid دانيال عربيد; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Manal Issa منال عيسى, Vincent Lacoste; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Thursday 17 November 2016.

Mistress America (2015)

Screwball comedy seems to be back in with US cinema at the moment, perhaps an expression of yearning for a long-gone era when filmmakers got to just indulge their borderline-sociopathic characters with witty wordplay, showing little regard for the naturalism that seemed so important to the New American Cinema of the 60s onwards. It allows for a rush of pure cinephilia, but unlike Peter Bogdanovich’s recent She’s Funny That Way, Noah Baumbach’s film, co-written by his star Greta Gerwig, has a more contemporary feel. It’s still based around suffocating WASPy upper-middles making their idle way through life, a milieu familiar from Frances Ha (or the sitcom Girls, featuring co-star Lola Kirke’s sister), but it mines that for some excellent laughs. Much of this is at the expense of Kirke’s first-year college student Tracy and her pretentious literary fellows (she’s a budding writer), but the source is Gerwig’s irrepressible Brooke, just turned 30 and still living precariously in New York City. Brooke has big plans but a history of others taking them on to achieve the success she can only fantasise about, and Tracy steps into this role as a potential sister-in-law (thanks to their parents’ impending marriage). One imagines the film could collapse at any moment — plenty of the relationships within it do — but it all manages to nimbly keep afloat and keep the laughs coming, even when some of the emotional terrain becomes more fraught. Gerwig’s Brooke is a complex character, at once warm and good to be around but also with a streak of mean self-absorption, nothing near as excoriating as the literary poseurs of Listen Up Philip (another film sharing some of the same terrain), but certainly challenging to those around her. Baumbach’s style though seems to be lightening up a little, making for more enjoyable films, and this one is equally driven by its musical soundtrack, heavy on the 80s synth sounds of such bands as Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark — and that at least is enough to keep me happy.

Mistress America film poster CREDITS
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Lola Kirke, Greta Gerwig; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 17 August 2015.

Dear White People (2014)

It’s worth celebrating this film for what it is and what it achieves, rather than cavilling about the things I wish it had done. After all it is rare enough to see a mainstream depiction in a film from the United States of lives other than privileged white kids, especially within a stylistic framework that equally evokes Wes Anderson (the Ivy League-like setting additionally recalls his Rushmore) and Stanley Kubrick (whose Barry Lyndon gets referenced via some of the classical music cues), amongst others. In fact, given the film’s budget, it’s a wonder that it looks as good as it does, shot in crisp bright colours, beautifully lit and with a lot of frontal framing of the film’s black faces. It’s in these boldly direct images that the film scores highest, with challenges to such things as racial power dynamics (the myth of black ‘racism’ for example) and the crassness of media representations of minorities, generally delivered by its forceful leading lady Tessa Thompson (playing a character called Sam White, head of her college house’s student body).

Aside from the titular radio show in which Sam delivers further challenges to her collegiate audience, the film is filled with other references to the co-optation of ‘authentic’ black experiences by privileged white people (all the college’s houses are named after black jazz musicians, there’s a reference to the audience for aggressive rap music largely being non-black, while the denouement involves a staging of a hiphop-themed party at a white fraternity). Meanwhile, its other lead character, the student journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), moves from being stand-offish around his black colleagues as a show of resistance to black stereotypes, to being part of their movement to challenge campus-based racism. His arc seems to reference Spike Lee’s Mookie in Do the Right Thing, though his climactic rage at the white fraternity he was a part of has less of the power of Mookie’s trash can moment in that film, possibly because none of the white characters here are in any way sympathetic (or indeed given particularly rounded roles — not that that’s a problem, of course). The narrative also becomes more conventional as the film progresses, dissipating some of the early excellent character work and humorous barbs.

However, much as I wish it had been angrier — its target seems almost quaint within a media landscape currently dominated by stories of murderous police aggression — it never allows the power of its black protagonists to be co-opted or dissipated within the dominant power structures. I look forward to further films from this cast, and from writer/director Justin Simien.

Dear White People film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Justin Simien; Cinematographer Topher Osborn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Brandon Bell, Teyonah Parris; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 July 2015.

22 Jump Street (2014)

I’m quite sure this film doesn’t need my review, and those who want to see it will go and see it regardless. I myself certainly wasn’t expecting it to be as fun or as silly as the original 2012 reboot of creaky 80s high school detective TV series 21 Jump Street, but I wasn’t expecting it to push through silliness to something quite so generic. Of course, having fun with genre signifiers is part of what it’s playing at, and there’s even a speech by the chief (an enjoyably Ron Swanson-ish turn by Nick Offerman) which could read as a meeting between the filmmakers and the studio about the need to do exactly the same thing in the sequel — a premise which sees this film move to a university for its otherwise identical drug-ring-busting plot, but also allows for the most fun bit of the film which is the end credits sequence imagining further sequels. I feel as audiences we’ve got used to the trope of ‘a film that looks like it was fun to make’ as code for ‘but not fun to watch’ and if it’s not ever entirely tedious (it has a few laughs), it certainly does skirt close to being that. The university setting allows for lots of jokes at the expense of its stars (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) and their age, which is a canny way not to alienate an adolescent audience, I suppose, yet it feels a bit condescending at times, though at least the scenes of deadpan student Mercedes (Jillian Bell) poking fun at Hill’s age are among the film’s funniest, and Mercedes gets to come into her own in the denouement. However, in riffing on audience expectations from this type of film, the filmmakers also spend a lot of time trying to push the cop buddy-film homosociality towards something affecting, but it never comes off as anything more than sophomoric, and the sheen of engaged awareness doesn’t elevate the bromance beyond pseudo-homophobic locker-room crassness. Which is all by way of saying, I didn’t really like it as much as I perhaps expected to, given the fine pedigree of its directors and cast at doing this kind of thing, though at the very least it is certainly aware of exactly what it is doing. And it was probably a lot of fun to make.

22 Jump Street film posterCREDITS
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; Writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (based on the TV series 21 Jump Street by Patrick Hansburgh and Stephen J. Cannell); Cinematographer Barry Peterson; Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Jillian Bell; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 22 June 2014.

우리 선희 Uri Seonhui (Our Sunhi, 2013)

It takes dedication to continue making the kinds of films that Korean director Hong Sang-soo specialises in. He crafts slight, occasionally comedic relationship dramas with a handful of central characters, including at least one self-involved young man often chasing a young woman. Perhaps he’s going for a latter-day Woody Allen, and certainly his characters can at times be as infuriating as any in Allen’s comedies. Yet Hong’s films have their charms, perhaps for not sharing quite the same bitter worldview as Allen, putting him more in the company of French director Eric Rohmer.

Our Sunhi is no different from many of his films, though is a little more overtly comedic. It centres on the eponymous young woman (played by Jung Yoo-mi), who is in her late-20s and wants to pursue further study in the United States. She returns to her old campus film school after many years incommunicado, and there runs into a trio of men who all imagine themselves to have her special affections, though she is clearly wary of all of them. One is a fellow student, Munsu (Lee Sun-kyun), who was her boyfriend before she disappeared (and who has apparently since made a bitter film about their relationship). Another is a professor, Choi (Kim Sang-joong), from whom she wants an academic reference. The third is Munsu’s fellow filmmaker Jaehak (Jung Jae-young), and all three of course know one another — but not that each knows and admires Sunhi.

What follows is a delicate comedy of manners and misunderstandings, often conducted over restaurant and bar tables. Indeed, there’s a lot of drunk acting throughout, though, despite the omnipresence of chicken dishes, very little eating (they probably would have been wise to eat more!). And as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that each man has his own idea of who Sunhi is and what she’s like, and they keep forcing these opinions on her — to greater comical effect with each repetition, until eventually they’re left just telling each other about Sunhi in her absence. Hong seems to be self-aware about his propensity for writing films about enigmatic, unknowable women, as it’s the male characters here who repeatedly deny Sunhi her own identity, becoming in the process progressively more ridiculous.

It’s all very nicely judged, though it has an almost televisual quality to it with its two- and three-person setups, and awkward little zooms in on faces at key moments. It certainly has no grand pretensions as art cinema, which makes it refreshing in the context of a film festival, and it’s always good to see this kind of small, character-focused human drama.

Our Sunhi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hong Sang-soo 홍상수; Cinematographer Park Hong-yeol 박홍열; Starring Jung Yu-mi 정유미, Kim Sang-joong 김상중, Lee Sun-kyun 이선균; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 15 October 2013.

At Berkeley (2013)

This is the second film I’ve seen this year set at a university, but I feel it presents a rather more nuanced view than the comedy Admission. As it happens, we do hear from an admissions officer here (in relation to the recruitment of international students, specifically), but also from a wide variety of faculty (academics), administrative staff and students. In such a huge institution covering so many subjects, it can’t be comprehensive, but at four hours it’s certainly multi-faceted and fascinating, touching on many of the big educational discussions of the modern era (‘touching’ being the key word here), while harking back to those of a generation or two before — a tradition on which some of the University of California, Berkeley’s reputation is founded.

The structure is deceptively straightforward in Wiseman’s time-honoured way (he has after all been making films for over 40 years) presented within a crisply clean frame unencumbered by titles, which can be a problem for some in the audience, but as Wiseman says when addressing questions after our screening, the importance of the people seen (if not their names and job titles) can be deduced from the context, and it allows the viewer to focus on the words they’re speaking. Scenes play out at length — not least because academics love to talk — showing lectures as well as management meetings, seminars, support groups and, memorably, a student protest. These are intercut with quiet scenes around the campus showing students studying, lying in the grass or performing, as well as the service and maintenance staff going about their vital quotidian work.

Yet it’s artfully done. The opening scenes are of a senior-level management meeting in which swingeing cuts to state funding and their effect are discussed, alongside a class debating attitudes to poverty and how this ties into changes to the global political and educational environment. Students lucidly (if at times naïvely), present their views on these issues, intermingling thoughts on class and race. Further scenes of management meetings cover crisis management, the retention of top academics in the face of competition from private institutions (the federal University of California system is public) and how to ensure their institution remains world-class. That this is the case seems clear from the classroom scenes we see — whether former high-ranking government officials talking about management, or an astronomy class which I concede was in English but not a single word of which made sense to me. Students at times may look bored, but compared to my own university experiences, they do seem far more engaged.

That said, we don’t see very much in the way of genuine debate, and none at all in the pedagogical setting (as an audience member noted after my screening). Classes are presentations to students, and even the seminars just show students giving their opinions and respectfully listening to one another rather than the clashes of opinion one might expect on such divisive subjects as poverty and class. At the administrative level, while we see senior managers (including the permanently grinning face of the Chancellor), there’s no sense of how the policies they are debating are felt within the academic community or by the rest of the administration.

There is of course a student voice but if anything, it’s the relatively brief sequence of the student protest that affirms Wiseman’s place on the side of the management. Then again, the nature of modern discontent seems particularly nebulous, as the issues with which students are struggling are matters of wide-ranging policy changes over time combined with cost of living increases, rather than any single totemic issue as was the case in the (much-harked-back-to) 1960s. The students here, holed up in the campus library, present a laundry list of grievances that management are hard-pressed to address coherently aside from a vague statement lauding the students’ goals, leading the protest leaders to sneer at their response. Implying the protestors have nothing more specific to demand, Wiseman cuts straight from this to a now empty library followed by a student meeting with a state legislator where students indicate an erosion of support for the recent protests. It is thus clear that Wiseman is on the side of the bureaucracy, against both students and academics.

These issues aside, ultimately it’s a clear-headed but sympathetic look at running a top modern public educational institution. The difficulties are certainly there, but Wiseman seems hopeful that with so many intelligent people around — students and staff — the great service Berkeley provides will be able to continue.

At Berkeley film posterCREDITS
Director Frederick Wiseman; Cinematographer John Davey; Length 205 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 14 October 2013.

Pitch Perfect (2012)

The last film I saw in 2012, and one I enjoyed so much I immediately went and ordered the Blu-ray from the USA where it had already been released, is this campus comedy tapping in to the (presumably burgeoning) activity of collegiate a cappella singing. And yes, although that’s the kind of thing that TV series Glee does, this film feels far more fresh and interesting.

I admit I have next to no interest in the subject matter per se, but as ever the nominal subject is just the euphonious background to a drama of fitting in. Anna Kendrick plays outsider Beca, arriving for her first day at leafy liberal arts university Barden. We are introduced to her outside an airport terminal, wrapped up in her own little world of mixes and mash-ups, headphones on, wearing heavy eyeliner and a stand-offish attitude to everything, especially other students. However, her lecturer dad offers her an ultimatum: he’ll let her pursue her music production dreams if she gets involved in student life, leading her to cautiously nose around the student fair, where she meets uptight blonde Aubrey (Anna Camp) and the more relaxed Chloe (Brittany Snow), who run the Barden Bellas, the only all-woman a cappella society on campus.

In truth, the way the plot unfolds hardly challenges any expectations, but it’s the film’s fondness for its characters that’s more interesting. Aubrey and Chloe’s tug-of-war over the group’s leadership runs throughout the film, but the standout is Australian actress Rebel Wilson as ‘Fat’ Amy (her name for herself), who it’s clear has improvised a lot of her dialogue. You can tell both because of the extensive outtakes of her ad-libs on the DVD extras, but also because of the way the other actors react around her: there’s a nice scene at an a cappella society social mixer where Anna Camp can do little more than just grin and nod awkwardly as Wilson makes outrageous (and slightly insensitive) jokes, while on a bus ride, Wilson’s comedic pauses in explaining why she has the phone number of their male nemesis Bumper is accompanied by Kendrick discreetly cracking up in the background. It shows a generosity towards the improvisational nature of good comedy that the filmmakers have left these little puncturing moments in the film.

There are, though, plenty of other comic highlights, whether the previously mentioned Bumper, egotistical dictator over the Barden Treblemakers, played with brittle self-mocking humour by Adam DeVine, the bitterly sarcastic championship commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, or Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), a Japanese girl who speaks in a barely-audible whisper and manages to use the resultant extreme close-ups of her lips to great effect. Alongside these strong characters, Skylar Astin’s Jesse makes for a blandly unaffecting male romantic lead, though his story sets up the many Breakfast Club references.

The plot may not take any risks, but the focus on the women’s group with its strong characters is refreshing, and it’s their characters that really make the film. And though I didn’t know much about the world of a cappella singing, the many stage performances are delightful to watch — they may not be overtly comedic, but there’s definitely an underlying ridiculousness to the undertaking that the film is very aware of, without being in any way nasty about it (the appearance of the older Tonehangers is a particular stand-out). It has proved to be a film I’ve enjoyed watching on many occasions already this past year. Quite whether it stands the test of time will be interesting, but for now, this is one of the best teen films out there.

Pitch Perfect film posterCREDITS
Director Jason Moore; Writer Kay Cannon (based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin); Cinematographer Julio Macat; Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Monday 31 December 2012 (and also on Blu-ray at home on numerous occasions, and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Saturday 27 July 2013).

Admission (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Paul Weitz | Writer Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz) | Cinematographer Declan Quinn | Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen | Length 97 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 14 June 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Focus Features

This new film pairing Tina Fey and the seemingly unaging Paul Rudd has come in for some fairly disappointing reviews since it was released in the States earlier this year, but I rather liked it. It certainly isn’t a spectacular example of the romance genre (terrain familiar to both lead actors), but its virtues are solid and it has a good supporting cast of characters to enliven proceedings.

As it happened, I saw this back to back with Stuck in Love, another film set amongst bookish intellectuals inhabiting the cynical north-east of the United States, and if it’s possible Admission is even less nuanced with its character arcs. Fey plays Portia, a cynical, uptight and childless middle-aged admissions clerk at Princeton University, while Rudd is John Pressman, a free-spirited progressive educationalist with an adopted family whose star student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) wants to go to Princeton. So far, so predictable, and in truth there’s little that shakes the viewer from that early assessment. Portia shelters herself from family commitments within her protective Ivy League enclave, while Pressman flits around the world engaging with developing communities to much the same end, so there’s little surprise in way their journey progresses. It’s never quite clear why Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton or whether this kind of elitist education is genuinely worthwhile, but it allows for some gentle comedy at the clash of cultures between the Ivy League and the liberal do-gooding of Pressman’s academy (which incidentally doesn’t seem to be at all academically rigorous in its methods).

Whatever its merits, it is worth noting that Admission is a comedy only in the broadest sense: there are few laugh-out-loud moments. In keeping with its pretentious milieu, the comedy in it is far more about wry smiles and occasional embarrassment such as at Portia’s ineptitude with the younger generation. Continue reading “Admission (2013)”