Film Reviews

Blind Spot: City Lights

[Note: this is the tenth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]

Talking pictures were becoming increasingly popular during the years that Charlie Chaplin spent writing, planning and shooting 1931’s City Lights, the film that many critics and fans describe as the pinnacle of his career (though I’ll happily state my preference for 1936’s Modern Times). There’s a vaguely-amusing rebuttal of talkies at the beginning of this comedy, with two characters garbling noises into a telephone, which confirms Chaplin’s dismissive attitude to the development at that time; he felt talkies were cynical and faddish, and that if he used dialogue it would undermine his status as a ‘pantomimist’. However, inspired by a trip to Bali, he was actually working on a script at the same time, which he intended to make as a satire on colonialism; he kept it to himself, and the treatment only came to light five years ago when it was discovered in the family archives. Anyway, after a brief look-in the rest of City Lights is silent (except for the score, of course, which was mostly written by Chaplin; his failure to give the Spanish composer and pianist José Padilla a credit for his Flower Girl Theme led to a court case, which Chaplin lost).

It wasn’t unusual for silent comedy stars to write and direct their movies as well as appear in them, though Chaplin’s position as editor, composer and producer of City Lights (in addition to being the lead actor, writer and director) reveals an incredible feat, and is indicative of the great man’s talents and confidence; it also shows just how much power some stars were beginning to wield in Hollywood. The film itself is a rather simple romance involving Chaplin’s famous Tramp character and a blind flower seller (played by an acquaintance of the director, Virginia Cherrill), but their tale is set against the backdrop of a busy city, which makes the small, personal love story seem all the sweeter. It also focuses heavily on the Tramp’s burgeoning friendship with an eccentric millionaire (Harry Myers), to the point where Chaplin probably shares more screen time with his male co-star than he does with Cherrill. But that’s OK, as some of the film’s funniest moments involve Myers: there’s a terrific scene in which the Tramp and the millionaire have a night on the town and drop in to a nightclub/restaurant, where Chaplin proceeds to do interesting things with a bowl of spaghetti. The pair exhibit some great comic timing as chairs are pulled away from under the bums of various patrons – including our two hapless heroes – just as they go to sit down.

The very best parts of the film also involve Cherrill, though, and are less reliant on Chaplin’s physical humour. I’ve yet to see a more moving finale in a silent comedy than the one that’s included here, despite the best efforts of similar shy, romantic goofs like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, et al. The Tramp has by this point endured a prison sentence which he didn’t deserve, and bumps into his true love on the street; since he last saw her she has paid to have medical treatment using money that he passed on, and her sight has been restored, though it is his touch that she recognises. It’s a lovely moment in which the co-star gets to shine, and one can understand why Chaplin went to the trouble of reshooting the ending after production had ended, in order to get it right. It’s hard to find much fault with the way the romance plays out, except to say it obviously falls in line with the gender politics of the era, and it’s hard to find anything of note that’s wrong with the rest of the film: the meandering, time-filling scenes that feature Chaplin alone and wandering the city are top draw, and the extended boxing match sequence – which really has little bearing on the love story or anything else – is a joy. I could watch him on this form all day long, and every twitch of the moustache and blink of the eyes works wonders.

Directed by: Charlie Chaplin.
Written by: Charlie Chaplin.
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Florence Lee, Hank Mann.
Cinematography: Gordon Pollock, Rollie Totheroh.
Editing: Charlie Chaplin.
Music: Charlie Chaplin, José Padilla.
Certificate: U.
Running Time: 83 minutes.
Year: 1931.

Film Reviews

The Infiltrator

Apologies in advance if this comes across as unduly dismissive, but if I were to mention a few key words relating to Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator – let’s say “Cranston”, “cocaine”, “high-finance”, “undercover”, “Escobar”, “Florida”, “Leguizamo”, “1980s” – then you can probably imagine exactly what the film is like: the visual style, the kind of scenes that end up being key, the soundtrack, the types of performances we get, the dialogue, the story, the beats that it hits and the locations used all feel very familiar, and time-worn, and perhaps that’s why it’s solidly-entertaining but ultimately a little underwhelming. However, I’m duty bound to expand on the plot, so, briefly: this is a crime movie in which Bryan Cranston stars as Robert Mazur, the undercover agent who in real life infiltrated the world’s largest drug cartel during the 1980’s, helping to uncover the money-laundering operations of a certain Pablo Escobar; his findings also contributed to the demise of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, who were heavily involved in ‘washing’ Escobar’s cash.

Where the TV series Narcos has its own fictional version of the Colombian drug lord front and centre, in this film his absence is noticeable. He appears only briefly, but his reach, his ruthlessness and his power are constantly felt; there are many people doing his bidding, and his name strikes fear into pretty much everyone whenever it is invoked. Rather than focusing on Escobar himself, Furman – working off a screenplay by Ellen Brown Furman that is based on Mazur’s own book – stays with the money, and therefore there are as many scenes involving bankers, accountants and high-level financiers as there are scenes involving enforcers, drug dealers and other street-level thugs. That said, as is standard with modern, sprawling crime movies, the criminal lifestyle is fetishised, and we get to see how seductively lavish it can be. Some of the material does feel rote: loose cannons and other characters misbehave or fly off the handle in restaurants and nightclubs; terrifying gangsters execute people they are in business with or have known for years without compunction; the story briefly dwells on the protagonist’s state of mind once he is ‘in too deep’, and the impact of the undercover work on his family life, only for said protagonist to carry on regardless; and there are scenes that emphasise his acceptance into the cartel ‘family’ before the inevitable, hurtful betrayal of those who trusted him.

Despite the fact that much of The Infiltrator is predictable and familiar it’s often still enjoyable. Following the money is more interesting than you might expect it to be, though Furman wisely moves away from the bank boardrooms regularly, and incorporates doses of leery glamour, violence and tension. There are a couple of nail-biting scenes, for example, in which Mazur and fellow operative Emir Abreu’s cover comes close to being blown, though a couple more sequences as exciting certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss. The cast is good: Cranston isn’t at the peak of his powers here, but there are flashes of excellence, while there’s solid work from Leguizamo and Diane Kruger as Mazur’s fellow operatives Abreu and Kathy Ertz. Arguably the most impressive performance here is by Benjamin Bratt, who plays Roberto Alcaino, a smooth and wealthy Chilean jeweller who is also the main money transporter within the Medellín cartel. (Hello to Jason Isaacs, as well.)

The story is largely set in Florida to begin with, and expands to several other locations as it progresses, so it has that sprawling, globetrotting nature we associate with crime epics; cinematographer Joshua Reis has a field day in the Sunshine State, with blue skies dominating during the daytime, sunsets and neon in the evening; the colours get stronger as things get weirder during a couple of Colombia-set scenes. It’s a very bright, vibrant piece, and although some may find the occasional unpalatable, lurid moment I liked the look of the film very much. So there’s certainly plenty to recommend it, if you like this kind of thing… it’s just a shame that The Infiltrator never quite breaks away from being slightly better than average, and suffers a little from some jumbled plotting along the way. It has to go down as a missed opportunity.

Directed by: Brad Furman.
Written by: Ellen Brown Furman. Based on The Infiltrator by Robert Mazur.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger, Benjamin Bratt, Yul Vazquez, Rubén Ochandiano, Juliet Aubrey, Amy Ryan.
Cinematography: Joshua Reis.
Editing: Luis Carballar, Jeff McEvoy, David Rosenbloom.
Music: Chris Hajian.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 127 minutes.
Year: 2016.

Film Reviews

The Magnificent Seven

Of course we all know the main reason a studio remakes a 56-year-old enduringly-popular western (itself a remake, of course) is to earn more money for itself. Consequently, I can’t be bothered discussing this film in any great detail, and feel that the cynicism lying behind the production should be met with an equally cynical shrug of the shoulders. But briefly: Peter Sarsgaard is fun (and underused) as the evil capitalist villain – surely director Antoine Fuqua could have included him in more than four scenes, given that the 2016 update of John Sturges’ classic western The Magnificent Seven is two hours long. Sarsgaard’s character is thinly-drawn, like all the others, including – rather oddly – Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisholm, very much a typical western ‘man in black’ (though of course it’s still unusual to see a black actor in a lead role within this genre). Chisholm’s back story is saved for the final scene, to add further drama to proceedings, but unfortunately it just leaves you thinking ‘that’s actually interesting…why didn’t you tell us that earlier?’ Anyway, he’s the leader of the Seven, and this film’s counterpart to Yul Brynner’s gunslinger; Denzel’s as charismatic as usual, here.

Joining him is Chris Pratt, who wisecracks away in the Steve McQueen role, but looks for all the world like a man appearing in a TV sketch show skit of a western, Saturday Night Live-ing his way through one cliche after another (though his performance does at least echo the playful tone of Sturges’s earlier film). Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke are the other big names in the cast, and they fare slightly better with the material, while the team is rounded off by the less-well-known actors Byung hun-Lee, Martin Sensmeier and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, who play ‘East Asian’, Comanche and Mexican characters respectively. I’d love to celebrate the inclusivity here, but can’t really get past the feeling that it’s very obviously an exercise in racial box-ticking, and a marketing ploy to attract as wide an audience as possible; the film doesn’t really explore the experiences of any of its minority characters as they relate to the setting or period. Um…what else? It’s a boys club again, so only one woman (Haley Bennett) has a part of note, and in fact only one woman in addition to Bennett gets to read a line. You could argue that the way the late composer James Horner’s soundtrack references Elmer Bernstein’s original score is subtle, but I’m not feeling particularly charitable, and I’ll say instead that it’s too restrained for my liking (a fact made all too clear by the joyous burst of this brilliant, inspiring, romantic theme during the end credits). Finally, and somewhat disappointingly, the director makes a bit of a hash of the big gun battles. The last of these sees a seemingly endless number of non-descript, villainous henchman bite the bullet, and is a muddled, sloppy affair: how on earth is it possible to confuse the geography of a town with just one street? But…y’know what? I can’t say that I wasn’t entertained at times, and there are worse ways of passing a couple of hours, especially if you have a fondness for westerns generally, or those ‘putting-the-team-together’ movies of yore. It’s just that…beyond the issue of making money…what exactly is the point?

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Nick Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk. Based on Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent d’Onofrio, Byung hun-Lee, Martin Sensmeier, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard.
Cinematography: Mauro Fiore.
Editing: Josh Refoua.
Music: James Horner, Simon Franglen.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 132 minutes.
Year: 2016.

Film Reviews

Recent Viewing #7

By Our Selves (Kötting, 2015): A fascinating experimental work by Andrew Kötting that shares a psychogeographical link with the only other film of his that I’ve seen, 1996’s Gallivant. This one’s about the poet John Clare, who left an asylum in the 1840s and walked 80 or 90 miles from Waltham Forest in Essex to Northampton, via Peterborough, charting his thoughts and experiences along the way. Toby Jones plays the wandering Clare, and Jones’s father Freddie – who played Clare in a BBC play 40-odd years ago – also appears. Kötting doesn’t try to disguise the sights and sounds of modern life (cars on main roads, overpasses, etc.) or his own film crew (the boom operator often appears in shot) while recreating the journey, which adds a certain laid-back charm to proceedings. That’s enhanced by the strong, pastoral feel: Jones’s Clare wanders through fields of swaying grass and down quiet woodland paths, and though the film is in black and white you’re almost tricked into thinking that you can see all the lush greens that surround him. The calm and tranquil nature of much of the film is regularly interrupted by loud, shrill noises and Olde English oddness (animal masks, straw men), and the journey is also punctuated by illuminating, intelligent interviews involving the likes of Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair. It’s a curio, and won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I liked it.

Louder Than Bombs (Trier, 2016): I wanted to write a longer review of this new film by Joacham Trier, as it deserves more than a paragraph, but sadly I’m pushed for time. It’s a low-key and very effective look at a family still coming to turns with the death of a loved one, several years after the event, from an excellent writer/director partnership. There’s no grand, Hollywood-style resolution for the grievers at the end, which is welcome, and I enjoyed the brief flights of fancy that peppered the story, which offer occasional respite from the heaviness. Also, rather unusually, it’s a film that manages to incorporate MMORPGs in a way that helps to tell the story, albeit briefly. It stars Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and David Strathairn, among others, and each actor turns in a strong performance, even if no-one’s on career-best form.

i_am_belfast_10I Am Belfast (Cousins, 2016): Mark Cousins turns his creativity, energy, intelligence and boundless enthusiasm to Belfast, the city that he was born and raised in. A documentary with fictional elements, it’s as much a lesson in the art of seeing and listening as it is a potted history of the place or a study of its people; Cousins shows the beauty and drama in ‘ordinary’ street scenes and occurrences, even managing to wring tension out of a scene in which a lady accidentally leaves her shopping at a bus stop. He also interviews a couple of locals and visits a few places that, for him, seem to sum up the city in some way or other. Belfast is presented as a feminine entity, with Helena Bereen playing a (wo)manifestation of the capital, which Cousins explains away eruditely in the DVD extras; these are all worth a watch, too.

Bronenosets Patyomkin (Battleship Potemkin) (Eisenstein, 1925): Battleship Potemkin is often described as a film that’s easy to admire but difficult to like; I’ve seen it described as lacking in warmth, though I completely disagree. Sergei Eisenstein’s interest partly lay in the workings of the ship, and there are plenty of eye-catching formal elements to marvel at, but the film’s famous emotional sequences (the onboard mutiny being every bit as impressive and empathetic as the more celebrated Odessa steps passage), and the number of arresting close-ups on various characters, reveal a director with as much interest in humanity as anyone else working during the same period. It’s raw, and moving. And yes, the rhythm created by the editing, the various aspects of the cinematography, and the way that these factors combine as scenes build to a crescendo, confirms this as a fine achievement of the silent era.

Haunted Spooks (Goulding, Roach, 1920): Starts off pleasantly enough, with Harold Lloyd at his best during a sequence in which his character repeatedly tries to kill himself (and fails, natch), but sadly the final third depicts black house staff in a racist way. You sit there cringing for five or ten minutes, in no mood for pratfalls.

end-of-the-tour-03The End Of The Tour (Ponsoldt, 2015): A well-written and surprisingly engrossing take on the journo vs subject battle of wits, starring Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone scribe David Lipsky and Jason Segel as the late author David Foster Wallace, whose 2008 suicide is dealt with in a forward-flashing prologue. Segel is particularly impressive as the guarded interviewee, showing that he’s a much better actor than many people probably thought (i.e. this is not just another Apatagonist we’re dealing with, here). It’s set during the final few days of the promotional tour for Wallace’s best-known book Infinite Jest, but knowledge of the novel or the author isn’t a prerequisite.

Truth (Vanderbilt, 2016): This recent journalism procedural flopped at the box office, perhaps because the cinema-going world was enamoured with Oscar-winner Spotlight at the time, which is to an extent a film that covers similar ground. Where Spotlight concentrated on a team of investigative journalists at a newspaper, Truth is about some of the women and men responsible for CBS’s 60 Minutes, who were caught in an ethical storm 12 years ago over the Killian documents controversy (basically an investigation into Dubya’s military service that was carried out during the 2004 presidential election). Cate Blanchett stars as producer Mary Mapes and Robert Redford lends further pedigree as anchor Dan Rather (while also reminding viewers of an earlier, far better political journalism-related movie). They’re both quite good – particularly Blanchett, who has some enjoyable scenes near the end as Mapes takes on a room full of male CBS lawyers who are out to destroy her reputation. Faring less well are Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid, who form the rest of the reporting team; their roles are undeveloped and Moss in particular looks like a spare wheel in every scene she appears in. When all five are together the montages of them putting the show in question together never really ring true in the way that Spotlight’s editorial conflabs do, and first time director James Vanderbilt (writer of Zodiac) has given the film an unnecessary slickness that does for any sense of realism; one case in point is a terrible sequence in which each member of the team makes a call to a potential source within the military only to be given short shrift. The actors here always look great and wear lots of make-up, so when the shit hits the fan you never believe that these people are going through the most hellish fortnight of their professional careers; that’s kind of acceptable in terms of the camera-facing Rather, but not with regard to other characters; for example Grace’s unconventional livewire reporter (questionable methods/gets results, etc. etc.) has the plasticky sheen of a Nickelodeon presenter throughout. There are comments here on the influence of government and advertisers on the media, on the freedom of the press, and some exploration of sexism within the industry (it’s based on Mapes’s own account and has been heavily criticised by CBS), but as a news procedural there are more thorough, more involving options available.

Omoide No Mānī (When Marnie Was There) (Yonebayashi, 2016): When Marnie Was There is a quiet, measured treat from start to finish. It’s a Japanese animation from Studio Ghibli – probably not its last, as the studio’s use of the term ‘hiatus’ suggests future projects will be developed – that explores loneliness, unhappiness, deep-rooted family issues and a sense of belonging. These are common themes in many animated films, particularly those which are aimed at children, but Marnie addresses them in a way that is considered, intelligent and not in the least bit patronising. It looks as marvellous as you’d expect, and it’s a lovely way for Ghibli to temporarily sign-off. Again, I’d have liked to have written more on this, but time has got the better of me.

mov_remember3_2496Remember (Egoyan, 2016): I’ve not kept up to date with his career of late, but Atom Egoyan’s latest is interesting and if I can find the time I’ll try and check out some of his other recent films. The story here follows a Holocaust survivor (Christopher Plummer on great form) who is convinced by another aging victim of Second World War atrocities (Martin Landau) to leave the retirement home they live in, in order to exact revenge on the former Auschwitz Blockführer who killed their families. The ex-Nazi in question has changed his name to ‘Rudy Kurlander’, and there are four Rudy Kurlanders in the US, so each must be visited in turn to establish the correct, intended target. Difficult enough in itself, but made harder due to the fact that Plummer’s character is suffering from dementia. Egoyan and writer Benjamin August aim for a drama that’s part-Memento memory puzzle and part vengeance thriller (with a touch of exploitation unexpectedly thrown in), and it’s pretty good for a while, though sadly it all falls apart during the final act and becomes rather silly. A shame, to be perfectly honest, as Plummer shares some excellent, gripping scenes with the likes of Bruno Ganz, Jürgen Prochnow and Dean Norris beforehand.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsay, 2011): I wish Lynne Ramsay would make more films; both Morvern Callar and this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel are visual delights, and she is surely one of the most interesting British directors working today. We may be seeing more of her work in the next year or two, with the Joaquin Phoenix-starring You Were Never Really There slated for a 2017 release, and a bizarre-sounding take on Moby Dick that’s set in space currently in development. (Or, y’know, someone’s been fucking with her Wikipedia page and this blog’s Captain Ahab has fallen for the bait hook, line and sinker, as it were.) Anyway, We Need To Talk About Kevin is really good, but you probably know that already; Tilda Swinton is excellent as the mother who can’t seem to find any love in her heart for her son (at least not until he’s done something truly terrible), and Ezra Miller impresses as teenage Kevin, the boy whose own malevolent streak may be innate or may be partly due to experience (i.e. his mother’s exasperation and distance). It’s a terribly sad, necessarily miserable film: her love of travel – and seemingly any enjoyment of life that she had – is ended by her pregnancy; and her marriage to John C. Reilly’s Franklin is doomed from the off. Kevin, meanwhile, is rarely anything other than difficult, and we find out early on what becomes of two members of the family. The flashbacks fill in the details, and it’s all so very stylishly rendered by Ramsay and her DP Seamus McGarvey. With a typically-discordant, off kilter soundtrack, Jonny Greenwood provides the viewer with constant reminders that horrors are looming. Cold but crisp, and potentially Swinton’s finest performance.

Film Reviews

Zir-e Sayeh (Under The Shadow)

This atmospheric, increasingly-creepy horror is ostensibly an Iranian film, though like last year’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night it’s actually a more multinational affair than such a phrase suggests. The dialogue is in Farsi and it’s set in late-80s war-torn Tehran, but Under The Shadow is a joint United Kingdom/Qatar/Jordan production, with a German-Iranian lead actor (Narges Rashidi) and an Iran-born, UK-based director (Babak Anvari) helming proceedings. It was shot in Jordan, thereby avoiding the censorship of the Iranian authorities, and is the UK’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for next year’s Academy Awards.

The story largely takes place within one Tehran apartment, in 1988; this is after the Iranian Cultural Revolution but during the Iran-Iraq war. A family of three is split up when the father – a doctor – is conscripted into the army; meanwhile, the man’s wife, medical student Shideh (Rashidi), stays at home to look after her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). In an overt comment about Iran’s differing treatment of men and women, an early scene shows Shideh being informed that she will not be allowed to continue her own studies, as she has been associated with radical left-wing politics in the past. This undermining and rejection of her skills is a catalyst, and winds up being crucial to her behaviour throughout the rest of the story. Unable to attend university, she works around the house and works out to (illegal) Jane Fonda videos. When Shideh’s mental well-being starts to become a cause for concern it’s possible that the absence of her husband, or the fact that he is on the front line, is a contributing factor. The war is to blame in other ways, especially when Saddam’s forces score a direct hit on the building Shideh and Dorsa live in; though the shock of the shell coming through the roof kills a neighbour, luckily the warhead does not explode.

This bomb seems to bring with it an evil force – the djinn of Arabian literature and Islamic mythology more generally. I’m not keen on describing such things in terms of ‘western’ equivalents, but I’m aware that most people reading this blog live in Europe, Australasia or North America, so for anyone who doesn’t already know I guess I should point out that djinn are genies, but the way that one is represented here is similar to the concept of poltergeist: it’s a malevolent spirit that haunts and causes turmoil in the family home. The question the narrative asks is whether it even exists at all: Dorsa believes in djinn because a local boy – who is supposedly mute – tells her about them; but Dorsa is a child, and children are prone to flights of fancy. Her life, due to circumstances, is in as much turmoil as anyone else’s. Shideh is a religious skeptic, but as possessions start to go missing and a chādor-clad figure appears in and outside the apartment, she is forced to accept that something strange is happening. For the viewer it’s less certain: weird events seem to happen at night, while Shideh is asleep. Are the djinn’s appearances simply vivid dreams or waking visions? She does sleepwalk, after all. Does her fragile mental state explain away the sudden manifestation of this strange, ghostly presence? Why does Dorsa see them, too?

The film starts slowly, and for the first hour it’s more low-key social realist drama than horror. However, a series of effective jump scares and a frazzled Babadook-style psyche narrative combine for an unsettling second half, in which the apartment becomes ever more claustrophobic: it’s spacious but there’s just one exit and entrance door. The two main characters are rarely seen leaving together; each time sirens go off and the pair have to go to the basement shelter (where the numbers of sheltering neighbours dwindle as the film progresses and more and more people flee Tehran), one of them will invariably go back for something that has been forgotten. In Dorsa’s case it’s her doll, which would seem to be the key to the whole mystery. Windows in the flat are repeatedly taped up as a security measure, the x-shaped patterns of the masking tape serving to remind us of the constant threat of Hussein’s missiles. Yet despite attempts to keep the household safe it’s impossible for Shideh to do so, and her own stubbornness at not wanting to leave for the countryside puts her and her daughter at great risk (though her defiance of others in doing so is also rather admirable, oddly enough). After the bomb hits the building Shideh’s ceiling has an ominous crack in it, too – another constant reminder of the war and its inherent dangers. Is this how the djinn has managed to get in?

Under The Shadow is one of those horror films where – like Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish Civil War-set movies – the real-life threat is greater than the supernatural menace. The djinn is scary, sure, and Anvari has a talent for spooking the audience, but is it as frightening a concept as a genuine unexploded missile hanging delicately over the lounge? Is it as scary as the armed soldiers or the hardline cleric Shideh encounters as she flees the apartment in the wake of one terrifying episode? I don’t think so, and I like the conept a lot, though one wonders whether there’s much mileage left in it. Anyway, the film straddles these twin threats – one very real, one possibly real – with ease and subtlety, and its writer-director is certainly worth watching over the coming years; this is a confidently-made debut, for sure.

Directed by: Babak Anvari.
Written by: Babak Anvari.
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi.
Cinematography: Kit Fraser.
Editing: Christopher Barwell.
Music: Gavin Cullen.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 84 minutes.
Year: 2016.

Film Reviews

Little Men

Ira Sachs makes beautiful, intelligent films that are filled with smart observations about his characters (often middle class families and/or couples). Little Men, his latest, sees the American writer and director returning to subject matter that he also covered in last year’s poignant and moving Love Is Strange: gentrification. In that earlier film a couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina were priced out of the New York neighbourhood they’d lived in for years, but also temporarily separated as they searched for somewhere new to live. Despite being able to call on the generosity of neighbours and family members in times of help, ultimately house prices had risen so steeply the two men could no longer afford to live together in the area of their choosing, and were subsequently kept apart for much of the film. In Little Men, we see similar events from several different perspectives as a family inherits and then moves into a building in Brooklyn.

Sachs also explored family and inter-generational dynamics in Love Is Strange, and that’s something he returns to here as well. Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle play Brian and Kathy Jardine, who move into the property in question with their teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz). We discover that Brian is struggling to make a living as a stage actor and that Kathy – a psychotherapist – is the family’s breadwinner, though even her relatively-high earnings are not enough to support their lifestyle, which includes Jake’s school fees. The Jardines move into an upper floor apartment, while in the same building on the ground floor Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García) has owned and run a clothes shop for a number of years. Judging by the amount of time we see Leonor in the shop behind a sewing machine she is a hard worker, though the longevity of her business is also due to the leniency of the previous landlord – Brian’s father – who enabled her to keep trading by charging a small amount of rent each month. Brian and Kathy have plenty of compassion but no great attachment to their new neighbourhood, and with pressure from his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) combining with his own financial concerns, Brian is forced to increase the rent on the shop. This leads to strained relationships with Leonor, whose own son Tony (an excellent turn by newcomer Michael Barbieri) has formed a fast friendship with Jake.


Paulina García and Greg Kinnear in Little Men

Much of the film concerns Jake and Tony’s friendship, which may or may not include a degree of sexual attraction on Jake’s part (Sachs wasn’t keen to be drawn on this when pressed in publicity interviews, arguing that he felt it was unimportant). The two teenagers are from different backgrounds but they soon find they have a lot in common, and they become very close very quickly. However, the story gradually becomes more concerned with the way that adult behaviour and decisions made by the boys’ parents impacts on their friendship; the escalating clash between Leonor and Brian over the shop – which is surprisingly gripping in and of itself – ends up ruining what looks like a stable, promising relationship as the two boys get unwittingly caught up in matters (they are used, rather unfairly, as pawns).

Both of the younger actors give terrific performances, the highlight undoubtedly being Barbieri’s scene in an acting class, during which he is forced to rapidly trade lines with the teacher, though it’s Taplitz who really shines during the film’s final and most poignant moments, which seem to offer a resigned shrug about class divides in modern New York. Their two characters are the ‘little men’ of the title, but the phrase also refers to Brian, who has not lived up to his father’s expectations (and is cruelly reminded of the fact by Leonor on more than one occasion). Kinnear is such a dependable actor, and his scenes with both García and Ehle are uniformly excellent. In fact it’s one of the strongest ensemble pieces I’ve seen this year; Sachs is clearly able to coax consistent, unshowy but solidly-impressive work out of his actors, and it’s nice to see Alfred Molina joining in too, albeit in a brief supporting role. The film and the characters are well-written, and Sachs continues to prove himself as a talented purveyor of low-key, sympathetic, modern New York stories.

Directed by: Ira Sachs.
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias.
Starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Paulina García, Jennifer Ehle, Talia Balsam, Alfred Molina.
Cinematography: Óscar Durán.
Editing: Mollie Goldstein, Affonso Gonçalves.
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe / Tindersticks.
Certificate: PG.
Running Time: 83 minutes.
Year: 2016.

Film Reviews

The Girl With All The Gifts

What a shame that this debut feature by Colm McCarthy – based on Mike Carey’s novel The Girl With All The Gifts – can’t sustain the quality of its excellent first act, which is as good an opening to a zombie* film as I’ve seen since Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. McCarthy – clearly a director who does not want to waste a moment of the running time – drops the viewer right in the middle of the action without any explanation as to what is happening or even much in the way of contextual information: we meet a young girl named Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua) who is sleeping in a makeshift prison cell in a military bunker. A pair of soldiers wake her up and act nervously around her, despite the fact they are both heavily armed. From this we can deduce that she is dangerous, but when we see her heavily-strapped into a wheelchair and wheeled around the complex it seems overly-cautious, and cruel. Other adults treat her in the same way as the two soldiers, but when Melanie joins a group of normal-looking children in a classroom – all similarly-restrained – they all seem harmless enough. What gives, exactly?

Answers are not easily forthcoming, and as it turns out the characters in The Girl With All The Gifts are too busy concentrating on the present and the future to provide much exposition by discussing past events, though Melanie is a subject of interest for pretty much everyone else in the story. Soon enough we learn that a virus has infected most of the British (world?) population, so cities and the countryside are overrun with flesh-eating twats – here referred to as ‘Hungries’; because of the constant threat posed by these vicious, relentless creatures – who mainly respond to natural human body odour – the survivors that we encounter have no time to lose, or to dwell on losses incurred, and no truck with slackness or risk-taking.

Four main adult characters guide us through the story, each forming a different kind of bond with Melanie as the film progresses: Gemma Arterton has a starring role as kind-hearted teacher Helen Justineau, but her warmth and idealism may be a hindrance and a danger to others; Paddy Considine is brusque soldier Eddie Parks; Glenn Close plays a doctor, Caroline Caldwell, whose tunnel-vision search for an antidote to the virus forces her to ignore any long-standing ethical concerns; and Fisayo Akinade is another soldier, Kieran Gallagher, who may as well be carrying a sign around his neck bearing the legend ‘Dead Meat’ throughout.


Glenn Close in The Girl With All The Gifts

The first 45 minutes takes place in the bunker before these characters, and Melanie, move outside and set off on a journey to London, aiming to meet up with fellow survivors. The opening is excellent, with Carey – who has adapted his own book – asking questions about human behaviour, science, evolution and the form that survival might take during an apocalypse. However, as these themes are established, we are also treated to visceral thrills: the Hungries in full flight are a terrifying prospect, and their first en masse appearance brings edge-of-your-seat tension. Afterwards, the film becomes more and more concerned with the natural world and natural order, remaining on the more fascinating, intelligent end of the horror scale, but it also gradually takes on several familiar genre tropes and design influences that I feel just slightly undermines an otherwise original, intriguing movie. There are nail-biting walks through crowds of docile zombies, a la The Walking Dead; the shots of overgrown London – where all the grey, Brutalist concrete has gradually been covered by plant life – echoes the ravaged cities of The Last Of Us (though older viewers may think of Day Of The Triffids); the use of empty London streets and occasional familiar sights recalls 28 Days Later; and as with any zombie film the shadow of Romero looms large – there are ripples of Dawn Of The Dead, among others. All good cultural touchstones, yes, but sadly all combining to highlight the typicality of the final hour of this film.

Still, it’s hard to create something entirely new in this field, especially given the popularity of zombies within pop culture during the past 30 years, and Carey, McCarthy and the cast and crew have clearly tried hard to do so; they even managed to for close to half of the film, which is impressive in itself. It looks good, too, despite a relatively small budget of £4 million.

The actors do decent jobs, though some of the quality drops off during the final hour, and for the most part Nanua impresses in the key role. I won’t go into the ending too much but it’s a little too neat for my liking – and it drew a few snorts of derision in my local cinema – though some may find it clever. So, overall, it’s worth a watch, but particularly for the first 40-45 minutes; during that I briefly thought that I was watching one of the better films of the year. McCarthy is worth keeping an eye on.

*As has been the case in numerous  postmillennial ‘zombie’ films, the flesh-eaters in this film can run, which I gather upsets some purists, who argue that they’re not technically zombies as a result. However, for sanity and ease of reviewing I’ve referred to them here as such. Eat it, nerds!

Directed by: Colm McCarthy.
Written by: M.R. Carey. Based on The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey.
Starring: Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Fisayo Akinade.
Cinematography: Simon Dennis.
Editing: Matthew Cannings.
Music: Cristobal Tapia de Veer.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 111 minutes.
Year: 2016.