Forough Farrokhzad’s first and only work is a documentary short, or essay film, that examines life for leprosy sufferers in an Iranian colony. It’s a moving, admirable film, with Farrokhzad’s camera trained on the faces and affected body parts of patients; the editing is often quick, such as in the sequence that shows a number of people playing with a ball, as if the director is desperate to show us as many of them as she can; this is a film that, through its structure, seems to be reinforcing the idea that every single human life matters. (****)
An amusing and playful 1906 Gaumont short by Alice Guy-Blaché in which the traditional male and female roles of the age have been swapped around: women sit at tables drinking, talking, taking advantage of their status and generally being pains toward men, while the poor, put-upon blokes iron and sew clothes, look after babies and small children and are harassed and insulted. Judging by the handful of comments on YouTube its sarcasm and its clear point is still being misunderstood by idiots today; goodness knows how it was interpreted 100-odd years ago. (***½)
A competently made and occasionally handsome period drama from Amma Asante, which fictionalises the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an 18th century West Indian woman who was raised by a wealthy family in England, played here by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. While it’s an unusual British period piece precisely because of the lead character’s race, it’s conventional in every other sense, with its typicalities including such stock characters as the inappropriate love interest whose advances the poor woman must endure, the preferred love interest from a lower social standing, the dragon-like old dame with a venomous tongue, and the hard-nosed old patriarch – Tom Wilkinson as the 1st Earl of Mansfield – who must inevitably soften his stance on this, that and the other by the end of the story. The life of the subject is undoubtedly interesting, and the character of Dido’s even rather skilfully linked to the famous Zong Massacre case in the narrative, for which Mansfield was the judge (there’s actually no evidence to show that Dido had any influence over the ruling or anything to do with the case more generally, but it makes for a decent denouement). Aside from that, though, I feel like there’s too much here that I’ve seen many times before. Not bad, though. (**½)
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.
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.
Running Time: 83 minutes.
Though only in his late-20s, Brady Corbet has already worked (albeit briefly, on occasion) with a string of top European directors as an actor; the list includes Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, Lars von Trier, Mia Hansen-Løve, Bertrand Bonello and Ruben Östlund. There are similarities in terms of the directing styles of some of those named above, and certainly with regard to three or four of them in particular it’s fair to say there’s a kind of removed, icy feel to their best-known films. Corbet’s debut as a director, The Childhood Of A Leader, is a cold, dark and distant film, with cameras that constantly back away apologetically from the action, or that seem to linger without emotion or fascination on the characters at the end of some scenes (in order to emphasise the importance of what is happening, however unpalatable it may be). The film’s superb, atmospheric soundtrack, by Scott Walker, has jarring strings and occasional, strange electronic outbursts, which means that it too seems to fit with the dissonance between the characters on screen, of which few (if any) are sympathetic. It’s a film with a distinct look and feel that one would have every right not to expect from such a young director.
As the title suggests, we’re dealing here with the life of a boy (played by newcomer Tom Sweet) who will become a leader in the future, and there’s an ominous, bleak mood from the outset; given that the film is set in Europe just prior to the signing of The Treaty Of Versailles in 1919 – the resentment of which within Germany became an important factor facilitating the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what kind of leader the boy will become. He’s called Prescott, and he’s the son of an authoritarian American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and an austere French woman (Bérénice Bejo), who between them create a particularly stiff, puritanical home environment. The father’s role in brokering the Treaty is important, while he’s also having an affair with Prescott’s language teacher (Stacy Martin). The mother, meanwhile, shows some affection to her son, yet she too has a colder side, as witnessed when she summarily dismisses house staff who have years of experience in their jobs.
Corbet’s film – based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre – is split into segments (‘The First Tantrum’, ‘The Second Tantrum’, etc.), which detail outbursts by Prescott that are presumably supposed to be taken as grave indicators of what will follow in adult life, though one could just as easily argue that the child’s stubborn rejection of the hypocrisy and over-the-top punishments meted out by the Catholic Church are merely indications of someone being wise beyond their years, and that his parents are deserving of the scorn and embarrassment they receive. (I read a witty summation on Letterboxd that described the film as ‘a portrait of a spoiled, rebellious child of privilege who wants to get everything he sets his heart to and will one day be hailed as righteous by the general population’ before later pointing out that the same description could be applied to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)
The concept here is simple, and it’s presented to the audience in a straightforward, compartmentalised fashion that allows very little room for nuanced interpretation: Prescott is such a ‘perfect’ psychological case study it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s been dreamed up by writers (Corbet’s screenplay was co-written with filmmaker Mona Fastvold) to fit squarely with widely-held views on behavioural patterns. For me, then, The Childhood Of A Leader is more interesting for its formal qualities than it is as a study in child psychology. The tone is homogenous with films like Haneke’s The White Ribbon, or even 1970’s chillers like Richard Donner’s The Omen, with which Corbet’s film shares a sense of looming, impending dread. In fact this feels like a horror film at times, and so chaos and the unknown gradually take over from normality, as they do in horrors; the director and his cinematographer Lol Crawley manage to create a sense of a world going awry with disconcerting, circular camera movement throughout, which eventually leads to a topsy-turvy view on events in one scene, as the father chases the son so he can catch him, and punish him. The nausea-inducing, lurching camerawork of the epilogue is the grand payoff, and it reinforces the notion that this is a remarkably-assured debut feature.
We see plenty of evidence of Corbet’s care (and Crawley’s, perhaps) with regard to the blocking, staging and framing, too. Despite his stature Sweet is often placed at the centre of the frame, or if he isn’t in the middle his presence is amplified by the positions of other actors around him, or the angle of the camera. We see certain things – such as the signing of the Treaty, or the discovery of the father’s affair – from his perspective, and it’s also interesting to note how close or far away the camera is (or indeed the kind of lenses that are employed) during his rebellious acts or his tantrums; I’d need to watch the film again to confirm this, but my impression was that a greater number of close-ups were used as the film progresses, after some initial distance from the action. Does this make us empathise with the brat the longer the film goes on, when we should be tiring of his petulance? Perish the thought, given what he becomes.
Much of this is a long-winded way of me saying that Corbet has made a film that has clearly been constructed very carefully, and with much thought paid to the way in which everything fits together to make a coherent, cohesive whole. To reinforce the point or to support a claim that he could in future be a director of real prowess, I could mention other elements that help to cover up a rather middling plot: once again it’s worth reiterating the importance of Walker’s score, which oddly reminded me of Mica Levi’s Under The Skin soundtrack at times; the very good performances by Cunningham and Sweet in particular; the look of the film, from the enveloping darkness and the natural lighting to the attention to costume design and period detail, which (in tandem with the wintry setting) occasionally makes you feel like you’re watching a movie in black and white, such is the dearth of any striking colour; it’s also so damn heavy-feeling from start to finish, which will undoubtedly put some people off, though it’s also indicative of the director’s consistency with regard to tone. Corbet has clearly been paying attention to a variety of directors and other crew members on a variety of sets, though I wouldn’t want to suggest that this film is a mere imitation of a certain festival-and-critic-pleasing European arthouse style; there’s a strong voice here, and clear ambition, so I’m intrigued to see what he does in the future while admiring this assured debut.
Directed by: Brady Corbet.
Written by: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold. Based on The Childhood Of A Leader by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Starring: Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson.
Cinematography: Lol Crawley.
Editing: Dávid Jancsó.
Music: Scott Walker.
Running Time: 115 minutes.
Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert last appeared on screen together in Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou, but such is their combined talent they look like they’ve been playing married couples together all their lives in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley Of Love. It’s acting that appears easy, and effortless, when of course it isn’t, and the standards set by these two titans of European arthouse cinema turn a middling, slightly-odd film into one that’s well worth seeking out. It’s set entirely in Death Valley, and their two characters – named Gérard and Isabelle in a self-reflexive move by the writer/director – are both famous actors, confirming Nicloux’s preference for meta-moviemaking. (At one point Gérard is recognised by a hotel guest who can’t quite place him, so he snarkily signs an autograph with the name ‘Bob DeNiro’.)
The couple are separated, but have met up in the US because their 31-year-old son has committed suicide in San Francisco, and he sent the pair almost-identical letters before taking an overdose of pills that require them to meet up at a specified date in the National Park. They have been tasked with visiting five different spots within five days at certain times; their son has promised he will reappear before them at one of these places. Sounds crazy? It is, of course, but then Nicloux provides regular whiffs of the fantastical for it to seem vaguely possible, with the occasional bizarre, Lynchian scene popping up in-between Isabelle and Gérard’s conversations. There’s one clunky metaphor related to communication – both parents were estranged from their son, as well as from one another, and we see Isabelle struggling through numerous phone conversations as her signal keeps cutting out – but I can’t really find too much wrong with the film, in all honesty, though I’m sure it’s high concept nature will bother some people; it’s a solid piece of work, with some lovely shots of the scorched landscape, and as I said above the two leads deliver strong performances. Depardieu, whose own son died at the age of 37, has been making the news a lot of late as a result of a series of bizarre incidents, many of which have apparently been alcohol-related; the evidence here suggests that he has turned the corner, at least in terms of his acting, which is great to see.
Directed by: Guillaume Nicloux.
Written by: Guillaume Nicloux.
Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert.
Cinematography: Christophe Offenstein.
Editing: Guy Lecorne.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
I watched a total of 45 films during August, which is a ridiculous amount, considering I’ve also been on holiday for two weeks (to Budapest and then Jersey; both very nice in their own way, thanks for asking) and I’ve just started a new job. I had a couple of weeks of free time before starting work where I managed to cram in as much viewing as I could without becoming too jaded, though there are still so many 2016 releases I want to check out. When will this madness ever end? Anyway, of those 45 movies, 15 have been (or are currently) on general release in the UK in 2016, so I’ll quickly run through those in this recap.
After not really watching many comedies during 2016 to date, I finally caught a few in August. Keanu and Bad Moms certainly had their moments, and are worth a watch, while David Brent: Life On The Road struggled at times with a scenario that involved a lot of repetition; I still think that Brent is one of the finest comedy creations in living memory, and I’m glad no lasting damage was done. However the best comedy that I saw by a long, long way – although the humour is none more black – was Todd Solondz’s latest Wiener-Dog. That ending!
I also saw a few light-ish documentaries. The Last Man On The Moon – which is about the life and career of astronaut Gene Cernan – briefly appeared in cinemas several months ago, and it’s worth streaming or renting. I can’t say the same for Crazy About Tiffany’s, a sort of garish advert for the jewellers, but *whisper it* I only watched it as an exercise in cinematic sado-masochism anyway. It’s good to double check that the shit that used to get you angry still gets you angry, though there are certainly worse things in the world than frothy documentaries about diamond retailers. However the two docs I enjoyed most were Tickled – which tells the bizarre story behind a series of ‘competitive endurance tickling’ videos that have appeared online, and Weiner, a fly-on-the-wall account of Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 bid to become New York’s new Mayor.
I watched a few foreign dramas in August that were all notable for excellent performances by their respective lead actors. From France there was Catherine Corsini’s Summertime, from Japan Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean (review forthcoming), from Spain Cesc Gay’s Truman and also from France (by way of America) Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley Of Love, which pairs Le Gérard Depardieu avec L’Isabelle Huppert (review also forthcoming, if I pull my finger out). I’d recommend all four of these films, subtitle fiends!
That leaves me with three wildly different films left to mention, so think of this second-to-last paragraph as a kind of mongrel, or something: The Shallows is a half-decent shark attack B-movie and the kind of untaxing film that’s perfect if you just want to switch off, though I think it has been wildly overpraised; Big Tel Malick’s latest Knight Of Cups came out months ago but I’ve only just caught up with it, and to be honest despite all the attractive formal elements to the film I found it more than a little dull; while last, and certainly least, I was but one more sheep in the flock that went to see Suicide Squad. I’d read a large number of negative reviews beforehand (as well as a couple of positive ones, to be fair) and went in with low expectations and a fairly open mind, so wasn’t too surprised by the finished film, but it’s already had a kicking-and-a-half and I can’t be bothered adding any more to it here. Though I will just quickly state for the record that it’s a stain on humanity.
Without further ado…my film of the month for August is Wiener-Dog. Woof!