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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.

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Lines often lead the eye to Prescott (Tom Sweet, right), who is a key presence in each of his scenes despite his diminutive stature

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.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
115 minutes.
Year:
2016.

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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!

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Palo Alto (Coppola, 2014): Gia Coppola shares her auntie’s affection towards listless, occasionally-irritating and fairly affluent Californian high school kids, and to a certain extent there’s a similar aesthetic going on here as there is in Sofia Coppola’s films Somewhere and The Bling Ring, but damn Palo Alto never stops chasing its own tail for the entirety of its running time, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care all that much about most of the characters here. The adult male characters are mostly sleazy predators, and you could say that about one or two of the younger ones as well, who seem to have poor attitudes towards their female peers (the film labours the point that the male role models in school and at home are fucked up). Emma Roberts plays the most sympathetic figure – a teenager who enters into a brief affair with her soccer coach (James Franco, who wrote the short stories that Palo Alto is based on) – and I enjoyed the film more when she’s on screen, but otherwise…meh.

Crazy About Tiffany’s (Miele, 2016): A feature-length advert for the American jewellery store masquerading as a documentary. I freely admit I’m not exactly the target audience for this kind of thing, so perhaps I have less tolerance for the endless procession of rich (and stupid and rich) people appearing here than others might, but I defy anyone to watch 90 minutes of young and old people extolling the virtue of expensive, shiny things without getting at least a little bit irritated. There’s only one dissenting voice, when a very wise woman (didn’t catch her name, sorry) points out that Tiffany’s advertising reinforces certain old-fashioned, sexist attitudes with regards to the roles of men and women in relationships (while also remaining mostly geared towards white people), but otherwise it’s a film beset by the vapid and shallow nature of both the subject matter and many of the talking heads. And of course there’s no mention of this kind of thing. Awful.

1443017168420_0570x0400_1443017232100Truman (Gay, 2016): I really enjoyed this well-scripted Spanish drama, in which Ricardo Darín’s 50-something actor – who has terminal cancer and has decided to refuse further treatment – straightens out his relationships, searches for a new home for his dog and sorts out other affairs, all with the help of his best friend (Javier Cámara), who has flown from Canada to Madrid to see his dying best friend for the last time. It’s a little contrived, as the pair travel around the city and repeatedly bump into people they know, but underneath that there’s a poignant, moving and often funny film, one that shares in the kind of barbed, loaded and self-reflecting dialogue one might expect from a Pedro Almodóvar movie, though I dare say I’m thinking about that director because of the Spanish capital setting and the presence of Cámara, an Almodóvar regular. It’s also a film that offers a mature, affecting take on friendship and family bonds. Darín is excellent; this is the fourth film I’ve seen him in now, following Nine Queens, The Secret In Their Eyes and Wild Tales, and he’s fast becoming one of my favourite actors. A gem.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, 2013): A rewatch (first review here) of this languid, narcotic, offbeat vampire love story. I liked it even more the second time around; it’s funnier than I remember it being, for starters, with all those little barbs at Los Angeles that pepper the script, while the way that this movie looks and sounds – plus the way that it fetishises old objects – makes me go way more tingly than most other things. Even Jim Jarmusch’s other movies. And I don’t mind the fact that the wasted, strung-out rock-star / vampire comparison is a little bit laboured, simply because it’s pretty damn cool.

P'tit QuinquinP’tit Quinquin (Dumont, 2015): Originally made as a miniseries for French TV but released internationally as a 200-minute-long feature, Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin starts off as an intriguing comedy/mystery, in which two seemingly useless, constantly-distracted policemen attempt to investigate a series of murders in a small, coastal town in northern France; for the most part detective Van Der Weyden (a terrific Bernard Pruvost) exclaims ‘Let’s roll!’ as he gets into their shared police car, which is usually followed-up by long-suffering underling Carpentier (Philippe Jore) performing a three-point-turn or somesuch, which becomes a terrific metaphor for their stalling, uninspired investgiation. We see events that happen within the town from their point of view, to a certain degree, but also from the perspective of Quinquin (Alane Delhaye), a young farmer’s boy with a wild streak, and Quinquin’s friends. While the surface layer of Clouseau-style comedy remains intact throughout, as does the murder-mystery, the longer the film goes on (and therefore the more time we spend within this community) the more we see darker, related undercurrents: the eerie, constant physical reminders of World War II and the prospect of very different kinds of wars to come; the racial, cultural and religious intolerance and ignorance within the town that exists among both groups of children and groups of adults, leading to tragic events (a microcosm of the rest of France); and the effect that small, ongoing personal conflicts can have on individuals of all ages. Dumont cast a number of actors who don’t fit the usual bill of physical screen perfection and seems to use the unusual features and disabilities of his characters – Van Der Weyden suffers from constant tics and a gammy leg, Quinquin has a cleft palate and a hearing aid, and so on – in order to hint at something, but I’m not quite sure what. An odd film – and the depiction of the region hasn’t gone down too well with locals – with some great performances, and it’s utterly captivating for the entire three-and-a-half-hours.

21 Jump Street (Lord, Miller, 2012): There are a few very funny moments here, and…uh…entire scenes where men just shout about their dicks at one another (‘Eat it!’, ‘Suck it!’, ‘Beat it off!’, etc.); such is the way of the universally-lauded comedy in the modern age, I guess. Still, 21 Jump Street is better than I thought it would be, mainly because Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are a good double act, but also thanks to all the gleeful, on-the-nose lampooning of cop/buddy movies that takes place.

Knight Of Cups (Malick, 2016): Late-period, ultra-productive, semi-autobiographical Malick is, of course, the cinematic equivalent of Marmite, and I guess by now most people who read this blog will have their own opinion about his recent output, and whether it’s starting to become a kind of self-parody or whether it’s the work of a single-minded artist who cares little for the appeasement of wider public tastes. (Both of these opinions are valid, and of course other opinions also exist.) Regardless, the content and style of Knight Of Cups will surprise no-one who saw Malick’s recent To The Wonder, and there are times when this feels like an extension of that earlier film, albeit with different characters: Emmanuel Lubezki’s constantly-moving camera is often at waist level or hovering just behind the shoulder of star Christian Bale; there’s a post-golden hour milkiness to Lubezki’s images; and editors Geoffrey Richman, Keith Fraase and AJ Edwards create a sometimes-disorientating collage of those pictures, cutting across different periods of time and different locations, usually with far less clarity than cinemagoers are used to or would like, at least if closely following a narrative is a priority. Then there’s the dialogue, which is half-heard, muted or sometimes cut mid-conversation, and the voiceover narration, in which we hear the spoken thoughts of several different characters, with most of the main actors forced to employ that breathy, whispered, rambling type of introspection that the director seems to love.

"Knight of Cups"Malick has made great work in the past, but I find that film-by-film my own interest in his current output is rapidly waning, to the point that I’m utterly ambivalent about the further three productions he has slated for the next three years at the time of writing (I’m assuming they are finished and released on schedule, naturally, which seems unlikely). I couldn’t imagine feeling such a lack of anticipation as recently as five years ago, when The Tree Of Life arrived in theatres. Part of the problem here, for me anyway, is the content, though I hasten to add that doesn’t mean that I find the technical side of things mentioned above particularly palatable, either. Yes the director is attempting to grapple with big questions about religion and the place of humankind or individuals within the natural world again, but watching Bale’s enigmatic screenwriter Rick float around LA as night bleeds into day and day bleeds into night is intensely dull, however abstract you try and make it look. A series of ingenue-types (Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer) dance around him – sometimes literally – while there are brief appearances by other women that Rick has wronged in the past or fallen out of love with (Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett). We also see in roughly equal measures grand Hollywood mansions, the beach and the sea, glassy, tall office buildings and fancy, extravagant parties as background fodder. Some of it looks very good indeed, but come on, it’s the arthouse Entourage, isn’t it?

That Sugar Film (Gameau, 2015): Entertaining documentary that follows the Super Size Me model, only with regard to sugar (obviously). It’s more offbeat segments are quite noisy and colourful, so in a way it feels like you’ve eaten lots of sugar while you’re watching it, but the quieter, reflective moments are far more effective. And sugar is bad, m’kaaaaay?

Haywire (Soderbergh, 2011): The ever-eclectic Steven Soderbergh turned his hand to the spy / trained government assassin genre with this action-packed thriller, but the plot is thin, the dialogue is weak and overall it feels very rushed and slapdash (not that I crave perfection all the time but the blown highlights during the Barcelona-set scenes in particular were a problem for me). The colour palette, too, is rather drab and a little predictable: it moves between yellow-brown hues for action taking place in sunnier climes, and a blue tint over everything else, but all of it seems subdued because of the excessive vignetting employed. Oh, and Ewan McGregor delivers another one of those terrible mid-Atlantic accents. Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying the film whenever it slips into action mode. There’s an ass-kicking female lead as a Bourne-esque deadly killer on the run, played by mixed martial artist Gina Carano, and the fights she has with several interchangeable male adversaries (played by Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender et al) are very well-choreographed, with bone-crunching blows coming thick and fast. It’s a nice treat to see a female hero within this genre, though it’s disappointing that Carano – not a natural or charismatic actor, judging purely by this film alone – is subjected to the male gaze on occasion, while her character is fighting: whenever you get a tough female assassin / generic badass in a film directed by a man you can bet your bottom dollar she’ll be strangling some dude between her thighs at one point, and sure enough even someone as switched-on as Soderbergh incorporates this fantasy (Matt Damon, for example, has never been asked to do this kind of thing in the Bourne films, and neither has Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series, though his recent female co-star had to within ten minutes of her character’s first appearance). There are other middling elements: it’s poorly-lit, the score by David Holmes is OK but lacks the pizzazz of his earlier Soderbergh collaborations, and brief cameos by the likes of Michael Douglas and Antonio Banderas are distracting – but the brisk pace keeps you interested until the end.

infinitely-polar-bear-2-credit-seacia-pavaoInfinitely Polar Bear (Forbes, 2015): This bright, well-acted, late-1970’s-set indie drama came and went without much fanfare last year, which is a shame as it’s well worth seeking out. Mark Ruffalo plays Cam, a man suffering from bipolar disorder, and Zoe Saldana plays his wife Maggie, who moves away from the family home for 18 months in order to study for a business degree at Columbia University. Cam – who regularly experiences bouts of mania and depression – stays behind to look after the couple’s two young girls (played with much charm by Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky), and the film largely concentrates on him as he struggles with the responsibility (even though he clearly loves the kids very much and is as devoted to them as he can be). Maya Forbes wrote and directed the film, casting her own daughter Wolodarsky, and supposedly the story is semi-autobiographical; there’s certainly plenty of affection toward the characters and the complicated relationship between Maggie and Cam rings true, which all suggests a personal touch on behalf of the writer. Ruffalo is a real presence, and he shows his considerable range in a demanding role, though I dare say a better judge of his performance would be someone who actually suffers from bipolar disorder. Forbes’s screenplay, meanwhile, subtly touches on changing attitudes within American society during that decade, paying regard to mixed race marriages, class, education and feminism.

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Bande De Filles (Girlhood) (Sciamma, 2015): My second viewing of this excellent French film, which was one of my favourites of 2015, and it’s just as good this time round. A wonderful coming-of-age story dealing with femininity, appearances, bonding, crime, sisterhood, prospects and the different kinds of threats that are posed by some men within the banlieues of Paris. Funny at times, very moving at others, and directed with verve and confidence by Céline Sciamma.

The Mechanic (West, 2011): Bi-annual fix of The Stath, and The Mechanic is every bit as preposterous (and oddly entertaining) as his other films, with a slight amount of extra class added by Ben Foster and Donald Sutherland. I think my favourite thing about it is that Jason Statham’s hitman’s thing is to listen to classical music on vinyl, and he methodically polishes the records before the stylus hits the groove like some kind of fucking weirdo, which is supposed to let the audience know how thorough he is. It’s a remake of the Michael Winner/Charles Bronson flick from the 1970’s, which isn’t particularly great but it’s certainly superior to this.

last-man-on-the-moon-1The Last Man On The Moon (Craig, 2016): Going up into space and walking on the moon. What a trip. Can you imagine? Gene Cernan was the last person to do so, over 40 years ago, and this well-made documentary by Mark Craig examines his life and career as a pilot with the US Navy and as an astronaut with NASA. It’s insightful, and if you’ve got a soft spot for incredible feats of achievement and the wonder of exploration – which you should have, really – there’s a lot to enjoy here. The film contains some fascinating archive footage, tearjerking passages and plenty of considered reflections by Cernan himself, who acknowledges that his fantastic career has come at a price (he feels there have been times when his family have been neglected). He seems like a humble guy, and I like the fact that his first steps on the moon were not accompanied by a (subsequently iconic) rehearsed line like Neil Armstrong’s “It’s one small step for man…”, but instead a rather surprised exclamation of “Oh my golly! Unbelievable!”

Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington (Junger, 2013): Photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington was killed in 2011 while reporting on the front line in Misrata, Libya, during the country’s civil war; the explosion that took Hetherington’s life also claimed that of photographer Chris Hondros and severely wounded another, Guy Martin. This documentary – made by Hetherington’s co-director on the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, Sebastian Junger – is a fitting portrait of the man which largely concentrates on his work in Liberia, Libya and Afghanistan. It offers insight into war, the desire and bravery of those who strive to document it, and it details Hetherington’s warm, compassionate and friendly personality. A sad loss.

BBjESvx.imgMad Max (Miller, 1979): George Miller’s low budget exploitation film/road movie is understandably a little rough around the edges – part of the charm for many people – but every time I’ve watched it I’ve been left frustrated by its shortcomings. Some of the editing makes the story a little incoherent – perhaps unsurprising, given that the original editor, Tony Patterson, had to leave the production before it was completed – while additionally the dialogue is often cringe-inducing and the acting throughout leaves a lot to be desired. Still, it’s a cheap B-movie, and the performances are at least entertainingly enthusiastic; you’re thrown into this post-apocalyptic landscape without much in the way of an explanation as to why it has deviated from our own recognisable status quo, but it’s fascinatingly sparse and filled with odd moments and odder characters, and the actors certainly do their bit in creating a sense of society descending into anarchy and chaos. Miller’s flair for filming car chases is also obvious in this initial chapter; we even see stuntmen leaping onto moving vehicles with the use of pole vaults, a trick that he would reprise in later Mad Max installments. The film hasn’t aged well, but if you enjoy looking at burning rubber, shots of chrome vehicle parts, crashes, leather and the like it’ll hold your interest, and the film’s more gruesome elements are fun. (Whisper it: I kind of wish I’d rewatched David Michôd’s Mad Max homage The Rover, instead, but at least this’ll lead me on to seeing Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior again.)

The Propaganda Game (Longoria, 2015): An interesting documentary about life (or the imitation of life) in North Korea, made by a Spanish filmmaker and, rather weirdly, featuring a fellow Spaniard who has denounced western imperialism and capitalism and has pledged allegiance to Kim Jong-un, effectively becoming a kind of high-profile cheerleader for the Workers’ Party and its ideology. There are some attempts to find answers to all our obvious, long-held questions about the country, but predictably director Álvaro Longoria is never left alone while he’s filming in the country and interview subjects tow the line professionally or look incredibly nervous, possibly because of the presence of watching or translating party stooges. Much of what the filmmaker sees and is shown – and in turn what we see – is staged, presumably, though some of it is so well done it’s hard to know how much of it precisely is smoke and mirrors; for example a Christian church service looks normal enough, but Longoria guesses that it’s fake because the singing by the congregation is note-perfect. There’s an interesting parallel drawn between the propaganda of the Workers’ Party and the propaganda about North Korea that exists within western media, and the film also forces you to question how readily and easily you believe the tabloid-style headlines and TV reports about the country that many of us in the west tend to see. Well-balanced and often fascinating.

SuffragetteSuffragette (Gavron, 2015): Sarah Gavron’s film is a well-intended and long overdue dramatisation of the women’s suffrage movement within the UK, and it’s a movie that by and large seems to handle the weight of expectation placed upon it, as well as the need to do justice to those who campaigned for the right to vote (particularly Emily Davison, who gave her life for the cause by running in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby). A classy cast has been assembled, with Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter, Brendan Gleeson, Meryl Streep and Ben Whishaw all providing support to star Carey Mulligan, who anchors the film with a strong performance as a politicised working class washer woman, wife and mother; Mulligan is very good (as always), as are the cast generally, though as suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst Streep just seems to be carrying on from where she left off in The Iron Lady (in which she played Margaret Thatcher). The scenes of police and prison worker brutality are quite heavy, and the scenes of protest and action taken by the suffragettes ring true, but sadly the film also has several flaws. First, how on earth does Brendan Gleeson’s character know in advance where every single protest or act of civil disobedience is going to take place, for example, unless he’s operating with the help of Ye Olde GCHQ? Secondly, the incesseant camera shake is needlessly distracting. And thirdly, considering this is such an important political story in terms of the UK’s recent history, the film’s actually very light on high-level politics (come on, audiences aren’t that scared of a little Houses-of-Parliament discourse). That all said, I thought the decision to show the relationships that various female characters endure with the men they live with and work with was a good one, and it’s a decent watch, when all is said and done, with plenty of attention to period detail.

James White (Mond, 2015): Intense indie by Josh Mond about a young guy whose life goes off the rails as he deals with his father’s death and his mother’s cancer. It’s depressing, as that synopsis suggests, and I dare say any cynics out there who have seen their share of indie dramas will be rolling their eyes, but this is heartfelt, intelligently-scripted and Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon are both excellent in the two main roles. A very promising debut by Mond, who previously produced Martha Marcy May Marlene, and a fine showcase for Abbott, who goes from bruised vulnerability and compassion to coiled-spring aggression in a believable and smooth manner.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (Miller, 1981): The best entry in the Mad Max franchise, and another slice of Ozsploitation that takes the successful elements of the first film – the campness of the villains, the steampunk/dieselpunk look (before that was a thing), car chases, boggle-eyed supporting actors, stunts, schlock, silly humour – and ramps it all up tenfold. It also makes full use of a coherent (and simple) story, which is a bonus after the messy first act of the original, while simply reducing the hero’s personality to badass loner was a good move, and a clever way of linking back to the events of Mad Max. Obviously it isn’t intended to be taken seriously – the chief bad guy wears a hockey mask and a studded leather mankini, after all – and if you’re in the right frame of mind this is a lot of fun, right down to the long, thrilling multi-vehicle chase at the end, in which director George Miller finds time for sporadic moments of humour (there’s slapstick when the gunner on Max’s truck sets his own hands on fire, and there’s lots of exagerrated, barbaric yawping and quipping from the antagonist gang members). It’s the closest of the original trilogy in spirit to Miller’s more recent offering Mad Max: Fury Road, though a far better and more engaging movie for my money; its just a shame that Miller failed to develop the Furiosa-style character here (Warrior Woman, as played by Virginia Hey), who is killed off during the final act. But at least that wrong was eventually set right.

dope-voiceDope (Famuyiwa, 2015): Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is at its best when its three leads – playing a trio of 90’s hip-hop-obsessed, pop culture-savvy geeks – are together on screen and trading lines; it’s a little less successful as a drug-dealing caper, but it certainly maintains a feeling of freshness and a strong, freewheeling sense of style throughout. It’s unusual to see a ghetto setting for a coming-of-age high school film, although for all its gang-related violence and threats this is still recognisable first and foremost as one of those films, with all the usual familiar scenes and characters: the misfits, the encounter with a bully by the lockers, the college application, the main character’s disastrous attempts at losing his virginity and the senior prom as a backdrop for the ending. Yet if you take it as a ghetto crime movie it’s also a very different kind of film to other crime-related films that we’ve seen over the years, particularly those that are also set in LA, simply because of the mix of types of people featured in the story. There’s a great soundtrack too, if you’re into the golden age of hip-hop.

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Izïa Higelin and Cécile de France are both very good as a pair of lovers in this early 1970’s-set French romance, which has a strong theme of female empowerment running through the story, as well as a fresh take on that age-old dilemma about living life in the city or life in the countryside. Higelin plays Delphine, the daughter of farmers in the Limousin region, who we initially find in a secret relationship with another woman (secret because the woman in question is about to marry a man, because of conservative attitudes to lesbianism in rural France at the time, and because Delphine has not yet told her parents about her sexuality). When Delphine is subsequently dumped she decides to leave the countryside behind and moves to Paris. It’s here, by chance, that she meets Carole (de France), a prominent activist in the city’s women’s liberation movement; in fact Delphine actually rescues Carole when a stunt – a group of women run along a street slapping the backsides of random men – turns into a fairly ugly scene. Delphine is inspired by the politics and spirit of those involved in the movement and is also attracted to Carole; the feeling is mutual and soon enough the pair enter into a relationship.

Catherine Corsini’s film attempts to highlight some of the differences between urban and rural life at the time, though thanks to one scene showing a public anti-abortion meeting it’s not as if Paris is solely portrayed here as an ultra-forward-thinking, progressive city; the countryside is, however, shown to be conservative by comparison. At one point Delphine chooses to give up her life in the French capital and returns home to help out on the farm when her father becomes ill, and Carole follows her to the countryside, happily helping out on the farm at first before gradually growing more and more frustrated by the newly-clandestine nature of their relationship; Delphine’s mother (Noémie Lvovsky) does not know that her daughter is gay, and there’s a suggestion in the story that Delphine feels she won’t be taken seriously by other local farmers in the event of her sexuality being made public, despite the fact that she can clearly run a farm on her own. And so the principal question is whether they will survive as a couple, with one drawn to the city and one controlled ultimately by a sense of familial duty, with one determined to be open about her sexuality and the other hesitant. Simultaneously, Carole realises that she doesn’t belong on the farm, but the lifestyle is in Delphine’s blood, and part of her wants to stay at home despite having to hide her love, deal with gossip-mongering male farmers and fend off the misguided attention of childhood friend Antoine (Kévin Azaïs, impressive here after a good turn in last year’s Les Combattants, aka Love At First Fight).

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Kévin Azaïs in Summertime

There’s a lightness of touch throughout from the director, who films the more intimate scenes between the two women in a tender, straightforward fashion while also drawing on the bucolic setting to create a viewing experience that is often restful and unhurried. Simply watching Carole and Delphine strolling around together in golden patches of light or working on the farm – lifting bales of hay, driving tractors, etc. – becomes quite pleasant in and of itself, though there is a point of course at which the drama must take over. It does so in a mostly satisfactory fashion, building to a tearjerker ending that long feels inevitable, with Corsini and co-writer Laurette Polmanss using the rather clichéd but still-powerful setting of a train station at a crucial juncture. There are strong performances by Higelin – a musician who has only recently started acting – and de France, and in their scenes together they share an easy and believable chemistry. Somewhat pleasingly the film also incorporates a rather positive and affirmative coda that – pure speculation here, I admit – a male writer or director might not think to include, and unlike some epilogues it feels wholly necessary with regard to the two characters and the way in which their personal and public lives are to be perceived by the viewer.

Directed by: Catherine Corsini.
Written by: Catherine Corsini, Laurette Polmanss.
Starring: Izïa Higelin, Cécile de France, Noémie Lvovsky, Kévin Azaïs.
Cinematography: Jeanne Lapoirie.
Editing: Frédéric Baillehaiche.
Music:
Grégoire Hetzel.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
105.
Year:
2016.

 

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I watched this musical 24 hours ago, at the time of writing, and I still have mixed feelings about it. It has been adapted for the big screen following a successful stage run at the National Theatre in London, and I suppose the most obvious thing to say about it is that the upbeat musical score is heavily juxtaposed with the lyrics (and the subject matter more generally): London Road is about the 2006 serial murders of five women in the Ipswich area – all of whom had been working as prostitutes – by a man named Steven Wright. Except it isn’t. It’s actually more specifically about the effect the murders had on the local community, mainly the residents of London Road who were Wright’s neighbours at the time, but also (and in a much less-comprehensive fashion) other women who worked as prostitutes on the very same street. It begins before Wright’s arrest but after all five of the women have been murdered – we do not see them on screen – and the script and lyrics comprise lines taken directly from real interviews people gave to lyricist and writer Alecky Blythe at the time. All of the pauses and ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ that one might expect to hear in the original recordings are left in, and the songs are half-sung, half-spoken, with certain lines repeated by characters and choruses for effect. It certainly captures the feeling of a town and a community in shock; at first there’s suspicion and fear while the killer is still at large, then the neighbours struggle to deal with the ensuing media frenzy, and later on they are seen to be taking clear and direct steps to help each other move on, even holding a street party in an attempt to ‘reclaim’ their road. There’s a distinct sense of positivity that permeates as the narrative progresses, which I can only assume is something that Blythe picked up on while she carried out her interviews in 2006, as well as a clear message that good things can come out of pure evil. It’s actually quite an accurate representation of how a community in England functions, with lots of disparate and shared views mixed together, and the film’s quite astute in the way that it explores the psychology behind home ownership, especially the way that some characters feel the road has been tainted and want to move away, while others have the will to stay and make things better.

The film’s general release last year was greeted by a smattering of controversy, with some people making the valid point that a jaunty musical might not be the best or most sensitive way of dramatising these killings, and one does wonder what the friends and families of the women who were murdered made of London Road‘s existence as a piece of entertainment (whether you’re talking about a London-based musical playing in a theatre that attracts a particular demographic, or a film that largely played in arthouse cinemas, again primarily to a particular demographic). I also wonder whether the fact that the murdered women worked as prostitutes makes the existence of a stage or film dramatisation somehow more palatable for critics and anyone else who watches it; I can imagine much more outrage if an uplifting and slightly-comic musical was made about, say, a similarly-high profile UK murder involving a woman of a different age or with a different kind of background. Should London Road be championed as an act of artistic bravery? It’s certainly uncomfortable and unusual viewing material, and it directly forces the viewer to address how they feel about such a clash between form and content, so I can see why some have suggested it’s an interesting and/or important work. Yet it could just as easily be dismissed as a blatant act of sensationalism that has been designed to attract the attention of theatregoers and filmgoers within a competitive, crowded market. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, personally, but nevertheless I did like the fact it seemed original to me, and I also appreciated the fact that most of the original stage actors were re-cast (albeit with a few additions, such as Olivia Colman and Tom Hardy).

Directed by: Rufus Norris.
Written by: Alecky Blythe, Adam Cork. Based on London Road by Alecky Blythe, Adam Cork.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Anita Dobson, Kate Fleetwood, Clare Burt, Janet Henfry, Paul Thornley, Jenny Galloway, Gillian Bevan, James Doherty, Tom Hardy, Nick Holder.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
Editing: John Wilson.
Music: Adam Cork.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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With each Charlie Kaufman film – and I make no distinction between those that he has written and those that he has both written and directed – there lies a central question: what, exactly, is he getting at? Each of Kaufman’s screenplays examines the collective psyche of westerners (more often than not, Americans), filtered through a male protagonist, and does so while ensconcing that character in extreme, entertainingly quirky scenarios: gameshow hosts serve as CIA stooges, a theatre director’s life becomes a play, a man can access the mind of John Malkovich, and so on. Each scenario serves as a hook, but however weird things get it’s always abundantly clear that Kaufman is a writer who is primarily obsessed with people, and how they operate and interact with one another. Each new work highlights different human frailties and foibles, pointing out the absurdities of his well-observed characters and the absurdities of the modern world around them.

Anomalisa, Kaufman’s latest film, is a droll, stop-motion comedy drama that he has co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, the pair securing funding through a Kickstarter campaign. It’s set for the most part in a Cincinatti hotel called The Fregoli, and the story follows an unhappy, lonely customer service guru named Michael Stone (David Thewlis), who is in town for a night prior to delivering a keynote speach at a conference. Michael has become distanced from his wife and son, and we soon discover that his alienation has extended beyond the confines of his home: he perceives everyone he sees to be identical. The majority of parts in Anomalisa – male and female – are therefore voiced by one actor, Tom Noonan, because we are seeing things almost entirely from Michael’s perspective, while additionally the faces of these characters appear to be interchangeable, a move that recalls the numerous talking Malkoviches in Being John Malkovich.

It would appear that Kaufman is having fun at the expense of those who work in customer-facing roles, even though it’s the main character who is perceiving them as no-name automatons; we even see the joins where each person’s face can be taken off, the suggestion being perhaps that people are afraid to be themselves any more and keep their true nature hidden (witness Michael’s own horror on the one occasion he lets his mask slip, as it were). Stone – an expert in customer service, lest we forget – is a curmudgeon, and his attitude to the various workers he comes across during the story means he’s not particularly likeable, but perhaps we can forgive his tired exasperation to an extent. First he comes across a taxi driver at the airport who wants to make small talk and doesn’t pick up on Michael’s cues for silence; then a hotel receptionist freakishly never breaks eye contact while checking him in. The person he speaks to on the phone when he orders room service robotically runs through a long description of the food Michael orders, even though it isn’t necessary.

As the main character becomes more and more concerned with questioning his own life, identity, previous love affairs and current level of happiness, he begins to experience a gradual meltdown (or, perhaps more accurately, I should say his condition worsens); we subsequently see a lot of action on screen – some of it bizarre, some of it not so bizarre – that is presumably taking place in Michael’s head, often signposted by the use of excessive backlighting (and here the hotel setting, with all its artificial lighting and big windows, comes into its own). Michael’s evening features an awkward encounter with an old flame and an odd visit to a sex toy shop, before the film hoodwinks the viewer into thinking they’re watching a straightforward love story, of sorts. Stone hears a woman talking in the corridor outside his room whose voice is different to everyone else; this is Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is in town for the conference and staying at the same hotel. Michael is instantly smitten, and sets about wooing his fellow guest. Whether the sexual encounter that occurs between the two – which is surprisingly graphic and realistic, for an animated film – actually takes place or not depends on the viewer’s interpretation of events. Kaufman offers a few small clues that tantalisingly suggest it’s all a figment of Michael’s imagination: why else would Lisa have a scar in the same place as the antique Japanese sex doll Stone purchases? (That’s the same sex doll that later…um…well, I won’t divulge.)

Johnson’s animation skills are impressive, while the work of the three actors is also worth a mention; Thewlis is a master of exasperated annoyance, and his Michael will remind anyone who has seen Mike Leigh’s Naked of that film’s gobby, nihilistic anti-hero Johnny. (Jeniffer Jason) Leigh plays a far more likeable character in Lisa, and does a good job of emphasising her vulnerability and self-doubt, particularly in the build up to sex. Noonan, you might argue, has the toughest job of all, given that he has to play everyone else. Most of his characters are all distinct from one another, due to size, clothing, haircut and so on, though the actor’s voice never wavers. Yet Anomalisa is most notable for Kaufman’s enigmatic writing, which will at the very least keep you thinking about the film after it has finished, even though you’ll probably want to forget his main character as quickly as possible. Flights of fancy and strange occurrences are Kaufman’s invitations to try and figure out what he is getting at, though he remains equally adept with the more straightforward, crowdpleasing stuff, incorporating humour that’s actually funny and penning convincing relationships, too. He’s still one of the most intriguing writers working today.

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson.
Written by: Charlie Kaufman.
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.
Cinematography: Joe Passarelli.
Editing: Garret Elkins.
Music:
Carter Burwell.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
89 minutes.
Year:
2016.

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