Shirkers (2018)

The UK today sees the limited cinematic release of a new documentary Be Natural, about silent film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché. I’ve covered a number of other documentaries about women filmmakers, but this intriguing one released on Netflix tells an autobiographical story of a young woman in Singapore trying to make her own film.


The director of this documentary was like many of my friends in the 1990s: putting together zines, writing about indie underground culture, and obsessing about movies. Unlike those friends I had, Sandi made a for-real legit on-film-and-everything movie. It was pretty much the first proper indie film made in Singapore, written by Sandi and produced by her friends, who all pretended to be competent and older than their teenage years in order to secure funding (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just doing that makes them pretty damn competent), and directed by a film school professor called Georges. The film was never released, though, because after filming had been completed, Georges absconded with the reels, never to be seen again by any of them. So this is the story of a lost film, in a sense (though the reels were recovered 20 years later after his death), and then an incomplete film (because the soundtrack was never recovered).

It’s a fascinating project, and the original film of Shirkers (it had the same title as this documentary) seems to share all kinds of resonances with contemporary 90s movies, and from what we see here, it looks like it was pretty interesting. The story of the missing director Georges, of Sandi and her friends’ subsequent careers, and of Sandi reassessing her youthful persona with hindsight and the help of her interviewees, as well as the recovered footage of her film, is of course the real story, and it’s a fascinating one.

Shirkers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sandi Tan 陳善治; Cinematographer Iris Ng; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 26 October 2018.

Visages villages (Faces Places, 2017)

Agnès Varda made a lot of documentaries, and her final one, Varda by Agnès (2019), was the most direct film to deal with her own work. However, this penultimate film — while ostensibly being about pseudonymous French street photographer and sort-of-graffiti artist JR — is about her own practice as an artist in some way, or at least captures something of the spirit she brought to her feature filmmaking.


This is a sweet film in much of the way of Varda’s documentary works (a lot of which are extras for DVD releases, and all of which are worth watching), a very self-consciously confected tale of two people meeting and collaborating on artworks across a series of small French villages. JR’s art seems to involve photographing people and pasting them on buildings and other large-scale public spaces, which is fairly whimsical, and then there’s a made-up meet-cute and they hit the road in a picaresque tale of encountering small-town people on their level and then (very literally) aggrandising them. I’d feel weird about seeing myself on walls, but most of the people here don’t, and perhaps that’s Varda’s power. She is so sweet but always there’s that slight undercurrent of shade, such as hinting at JR being a Godard-like figure and then revealing later that Godard is a bit of a pr!ck (or a lot of one, though she’s quite nice about it). It ambles along amiably enough as a film, and perhaps that’s all any film needs.

Faces Places film posterCREDITS
Directors Agnès Varda and JR; Writer Varda; Cinematographers Romain Le Bonniec, Claire Duguet, Nicolas Guicheteau, Valentin Vignet and Raphaël Minnesota; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.

She Goes to War (1929)

Closer to the template for a war film, but with a woman as the protagonist (dressed up as man to fight in the trenches), and in dire need of proper restoration, is this late-silent film by Henry King, which screened as part of a retrospective on the director at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.


For a film that’s been utterly mangled by history — a strange hybrid of sound and silent filmmaking that was more or less lost upon its 1929 release, re-edited to half its length in 1939, and re-released with a sententious prologue that suggests it’s telling the TRUTH about war without bias, but in fact seems more keen to say “please America don’t join the current conflict” — this is a fascinating document. It doesn’t work very well at all dramatically: after an initial parade and soldiers shipping out, there’s a cut direct to a shot of a cemetery and thence an extended period of time with the soldiers in the trenches. Dramatic irony is deployed as one woman sings a song (aided by a ukulele for a bit) about a happy land while soldiers fall down dead around her (the happy land being Heaven, of course), and then the film only really gets going in the last third, as one woman disguises herself as a man to see the front, where she gets tediously mocked by the guys who’ve figured out her game, but eventually proves herself somewhat. There’s a terrifying sequence of tanks rumbling through flames, but this is a film crying out for proper restoration.

She Goes to War film posterCREDITS
Director Henry King; Writers Rupert Hughes, Fred de Gresac, Howard Estabrook and John Monk Saunders; Cinematographers John P. Fulton and Tony Gaudio; Starring Eleanor Boardman, John Holland; Length 50 minutes (as it currently exists, but originally 87 minutes).
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Battles (2015)

This Friday sees the UK release of war film 1917, so I’m looking at some war-themed films, though not all exactly in the ‘war film’ genre. Today, for example, is a fascinating and beautifully-shot documentary that is more about the visible presence of a history of war within the landscape, sometimes in quite subtle ways.


There’s such a range of documentaries in the world, it’s sad to think that some people might link the form solely with talking heads and archival footage. This strange Belgian piece (with many other countries co-producing) manages to sustain its enigmatic tone throughout its whole 90 minutes and four sections, such that it’s hard precisely to say what’s going on, just that all of it is related to the (sometimes unusual) ways in which a 20th century history of war has manifested itself throughout continental Europe. There’s a woman who sits in her flat in the morning eating breakfast, then puts on a military uniform and travels to the woods to some of kind of training facility — or maybe it’s just an elaborate ‘escape room’-type game for people with too much money — where she translates another instructor’s barked orders into English. There’s another where a man sits in his home basking in the dappled light coming through the windows before at length we discover it’s a former bunker. And then there is the inflatable weaponry. It’s all inscrutably presented, even a little comical at times, but it’s never boring thanks to the careful editing and very precise and lustrous framing of each shot.

Battles film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabelle Tollenaere; Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 17 April 2018.

Holiday (2018)

I couldn’t find a category in my themed weeks in which to house this Danish-Dutch-Swedish co-production (albeit set in Turkey). There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about what a “#MeToo” film might look like, but there have always been filmmakers making dramas about the psychological violence of patriarchy, and this is very much a film about that, which may not make it the film you most want to watch when you’re winding down at the end of a year — this is absolutely not to be confused with the more seasonally-appropriate The Holiday (2006), a very different film entirely — but it’s a compelling and direct drama all the same.


It’s probably fair to say this isn’t an easy movie to watch. The exquisitely poised formal style of the film, people framed in bright open, modern spaces (it’s set at a beach house in Turkey being rented by criminals) and with a largely fixed camera, creates the impression of a languid atmosphere, but yet there is evident tension reverberating through every frame. This is created from the start by situating us with a young blonde woman, Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who is being picked up by an older man. It’s not clear what their relationship is, but it becomes evident that he is not happy with her and when he slaps her it immediately puts the whole audience on edge. This man turns out to be a minor side character who’s not seen for much of the rest of the film, and when the filmmaker, Swedish director Isabella Eklöf, moves the action on to Sascha with her boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) at the beach house, she momentarily allows us to feel relaxed by their apparently loving interaction. However, it soon becomes clear that he’s keeping her (she refers to him as her boss at one point) and that he’s involved with shady business, so his behaviour towards her and around her slowly comes to seem a little more creepy and insidious, especially when she makes friends with some other tourists in their resort. Although the film follows Sascha, she never gets any monologues to explain how she feels, and much of the emotional journey is mapped out on her face and through her actions. What we’re left with is a film that seems to inscribe patriarchal violence into every frame, into the setting, the architecture, the vehicles, but that hardly lessens those scenes where it erupts into actual violence (even when it’s implied or just heard off-screen), and the transfigurative effect that it plays on the psyche of those like Sascha who are abused; her own turn towards the end of the film feels entirely within the scope of this story.

Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabella Eklöf; Cinematographer Nadim Carlsen; Starring Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Lazzaro felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018)

As I do a few weeks’ of some of my favourite films I’ve seen this year, ones I haven’t already covered, I can’t possibly miss out this Italian film, which much to my surprise was one of my favourites and is sure to do well in the end-of-year polls (at least, in my one).


I never much connected with The Wonders (2014), though I felt that was largely down to me (there’s a lot that I liked about the film even so), so it’s with some relief that Alice Rohrwacher’s follow-up film really grabbed me and never let go. It’s unassuming in its way, with that 16mm photography by Hélène Louvart imparting an almost nostalgic air to proceedings, with the frame’s gently rounded edges and dust accumulating around the edge of the image (all of which is appropriate, perhaps, given the sort of timeless, cut-off, rural setting in which the film opens). Yet this is no rustic peasant drama, and pretty soon the film starts to take turns that make it feel like a fairy tale or a morality play, and by the time our wide-eyed Lazarus figure is reborn (played by Adriano Tardiolo), it starts to take on the feeling of an almost religious parable.

There’s a lot going on here — mostly revolving around themes of exploitation of labour and of compassion — but there are moments of pure lyrical poetry such as are rare in any films, a blending of image, movement, music and sound that elevate individual moments somehow, perceptibly, into a rapturous ecstasy (before returning to the squalor of everyday life). Which isn’t to say it’s a film that’s all off in the clouds like a Malick picture, because it always has that neo-realist feel, it’s just that even through these down-and-out characters, the grime amongst which they live, the few opportunities they’ve been given in life, there’s also something transcendentally cinematic about the storytelling, and a search for some kind of meaning that puts it among some of the more spiritual films I’ve seen (and I suppose makes it appropriately Italian).

Maybe I’m putting too much on it; it’s a film whose abiding mystery is such that I can’t quite express what I particularly loved about it. Generally, too, I am suspicious of any films that may make claims on some kind of vaunted artistic status (though I don’t think the film itself is pushing that), but this really does feel special.

Happy as Lazzaro film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Adriano Tardiolo, Alba Rohrwacher, Nicoletta Braschi, Sergi López; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 9 April 2019.

Hustlers (2019)

There’s been a lot of discussion about the best films of the year, possible awards contenders for performances, and the like. I don’t quite think Hustlers ranks as the best film of the year, but it’ll probably be somewhere in the mix. However, it did make for a bracing change from a lot of the multiplex fodder, and it’s good to see more women directors getting work. Her earlier films The Meddler (2015) and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) showed plenty of promise, which I think Hustlers has started to deliver.


I don’t think that at a filmmaking level this is quite as great as it could be, at least visually, though it makes great use of period costuming (it’s largely set in the late-2000s), and it’s all very nicely lit. If with its strip club setting and on-stage sequences it seems at times like a music video, then it’s also willing to poke some fun at itself in this regard, as when it has Usher playing himself raining money on all the women while his own hit plays on the soundtrack. Indeed, generally, the film has some really effective (and distinctive) uses of musical cues — I always like to see Scott Walker getting some love (via “Next”, one of his 1960s Jacques Brel covers in this film’s case). But this is a film primarily built in the script and performances, as Jennifer Lopez (who is, in case it has been missed anywhere, 50), playing veteran Ramona, takes Constance Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy under her wing, and together they unlock their potential in making money off the sleazy guys who come to see them. That said, it’s not interested in demonising the profession from either end: it’s made clear that there’s no shame in stripping, it’s a dependable job in an economy like that of the States, and the guys they’re fleecing are the filthy rich (Ramona breaks down the various categories of clientele), who ultimately don’t deserve our pity. If anything, the filmmakers are only too happy to make that clear by having Julia Stiles’ reporter (and audience surrogate) basically exculpate them. No, this is a film that is about — what else — the corrosive effects of capitalism, and the paths it drives people down when they’re desperate, and it makes those points pretty clear and pretty effectively. Also, it has an effortlessly diverse and interesting cast, who each get their moments.

Hustlers film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lorene Scafaria (based on the article “The Hustlers at Scores: The Ex-Strippers Who Stole from (Mostly) Rich Men and Gave to, Well, Themselves” by Jessica Pressler); Cinematographer Todd Banhazl; Starring Constance Wu, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Vue Islington, London, Sunday 15 September 2019.

Atlantique (Atlantics, 2019)

One of the strongest and strangest debut films this year was by French-Senegalese director Mati Diop, the niece of filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. Over the past decade she’s made a number of beguiling short films (a personal favourite is Snow Canon) and her latest has had distribution from Netflix, which means a smattering of cinema screenings and a permanent home online. I would love to rewatch this and think it would reward such an effort greatly, not least due to the wonderful cinematography from Claire Mathon, who also shot another of the year’s most beautiful films (and another of my favourites), Portrait of a Lady on Fire.


This is a beautiful, strange, but poetic film about migration — whether the kind we’re familiar with from the news, or the transmigration of the soul (what the ancient Greeks called μετεμψύχωσις metempsychosis), because both of these feature in the film. Indeed, they are in some sense intertwined in enigmatic ways that the film never explains or simplifies, it’s just present in the text which seems to effortlessly find a mythical quality to its storytelling, helped by the beautiful visuals and the specific performance styles which are elicited from the actors. It’s set in Senegal, as Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young middle-class woman, secretly meets with a young construction worker, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), though her family want her to marry Omar, a wealthy socialite who flatters her with gifts of rose gold iPhones as if they’re nothing. The problem is that Souleiman and his compatriots, being exploited by wealthy bosses over their pay, leaves to seek a better life in Europe, leaving Ada behind to deal with the fallout. The plot is largely incidental to the atmosphere created in this seaside city where the crashing waves along the shore become a constant refrain to the movement of her life, as a young cop starts sniffing around, certain that things aren’t what they seem. It reads as a genre piece, but it plays out as something far more mysterious, sensual, beautiful and intoxicating. Ten years ago director Mati Diop made a short film of the same name which had men sit around a beachside campfire speaking about their hopes from migration, and now finally she has this feature film which is so much more. I can see myself rewatching this, because it tells a specific story of people living their lives in Dakar, but it tells another story too, a stronger and more pressing one, in which those who exploit others to their deaths are still called upon to pay the ferryman.

Atlantics film posterCREDITS
Director Mati Diop; Writers Diop and Olivier Demangel; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Mame Bineta Sane, Ibrahima Traoré; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Saturday 30 November 2019.