Film Reviews by PD

Welcome to PD's film reviews page. PD has written 42 reviews and rated 134 films.

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Pain and Glory

underwhelming

(Edit) 05/02/2020

Largely agree with TE's review. In the film there's a poster on a wall advertising Fellini’s 8 1/2, and this is one of those type of films which pretty much all directors of a certain age feel the need to make - that self-disclosing semi-autobiographical drama in which they look back on their youth, career, trials and tribulations & so on. It works to a degree - not least because of a superb, nuanced performance by Antonio Banderas as an ageing, gay, Madrid-based auteur; and there are some lovely touches, especially in the flashback scenes to his childhood and his relationship with his mother. But the film is a little self-indulgent, as these sort of films tend to be, and it tends to be much heavier on the 'pain' than the 'glory' (I find people snorting heroin impossible to watch, and there's an awful lot of this - agree with TE that 'Addiction' would have been a more apt title), although the last half hour certainly leaves us on much a much more uplifting note. Rather than having a plot as such, the film slips from one short story to the next, and whilst I've not a problem with this at all in principle, I must admit I was left a little underwhelmed by it all somehow. This leads me to suspect that unless you're die-hard fan of Almodóvar, you'll most likely see it as not one of his best.

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Animals

Plenty to admire, but ...

(Edit) 25/01/2020

Plenty to admire here - but for me the many strong component parts of the film don't coalesce effectively enough for it to be (unlike Emma Jane Unsworth's novel) nearly hard-hitting enough. It's basically a comedy but with some dark edges about an underexamined subject (in film anyway) of female friendship, touted by some critics (not entirely without merit) as a 'Withnail & I' with women. Holliday Grainger and Alia Shawkat are pretty good as hard-partying, cocaine-snorting millennials, and many will be able to relate to the decrying of the conventionality of marriage and monogamy often declaimed by Shawkat's character Tyler. It's often insightful about the complexity of female friendships, and the interplay between Laura and Tyler is a very plausible mix of co-dependence, platonic desire and sisterly intimacy.

But .... despite the feisty amusement with which Shawkat dishes out her lines, with Grainger bantering back at equal pace, the dialogue often falls rather flat, and sometimes sounds surprisingly (given Unsworth's involvement) amateurish. Tyler is also too often Laura's foil, and although Grainger nails the Dublin accent and various local performers fill out the cast, these young folk don't sound much like Dubliners to me, and the 'sense of place' as it were feels weirdly artificial, like a very studious reproduction of Dublin youth culture made by someone who's never actually been there. Meanwhile, there are some truly awkward touches, such as some shots of urban foxes (to underscore the characters' supposedly animal natures?) which border on the trite. So all in all for me watchable enough but not one I'll be particularly recommending, especially to those who enjoyed the book.

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3 Faces

Impressive and brave

(Edit) 17/01/2020

This latest offering from Iranian director Jafar Panahi is another not-so subtle political allegory, with the director taking twinned roles of director and driver, as in 'Taxi Tehran'. He again plays himself (or at least a version of himself) and spends a large part of the film behind the wheel motoring through the Iranian countryside to help an actress (Behnaz Jafari, also playing herself) find a missing woman. In so doing they also find other women, including one who remains invisible to the camera, and thus is raised the theme of gender division that runs through the film. The division between fiction and documentary, performance and 'real life', and the intimate claustrophobia of the car, becomes an emblem of the larger interior-exterior divide faced by all the characters, particularly the women; the question of a woman’s proper role — onscreen and off — is raised time and time again. There's also some quirky touches and gentle humour, particularly in scenes involving the villagers, although perhaps the humour isn't quite as cutting as it was in 'Taxi Tehran'.

Quite a few of the plot twists are perhaps a tad contrived, and the defiant ending seems rather implausible to me, but this is still an impressive and brave piece of work.

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Support the Girls

Very clever, subtly feminist piece.

(Edit) 09/01/2020

This film is set in 'Double Whammies', one of those (to an English eye) bizarre places in the US that rest on the rank exploitation of certain-looking young women. But we soon get the point that to gaze upon Double Whammies’ worn wooden surfaces and bleak staffroom is to know any sticky venue or chain restaurant where the staff are all easily replaceable and the (inevitably male) bigwigs work less and are paid far more. And in case you think this is going to be some sort of feel-good comedy, you know immediately that it will be anything but, with the opening scene showing Lisa (the quite superb Regina Hall) already crying in her car. The cause of the tears — which she deftly blots away before they smudge her silver eye shadow and give the lie to a cheery smile — are unknown, but from that point her day descends into a mess of marital rows, endless staffing issues, attempted robberies, casual misogyny and so on.

Lisa’s job it is to nurture and protect her fleet of scantily clad charges and keep her peppery boss (James Le Gros) from sticking his nose in too much. Regina Hall brings a stoicism to Lisa that steals whole scenes, even when the mayhem has ebbed away. Surrounding her are strong performances from Haley Lu Richardson as Maci and Shayna McHayle as Danyelle. The former fizzes with a stream of unbridled, cheerful energy that never feels fake (“Chocolate milk rules!” she yells, and she makes us believe her), while the latter taunts the manager’s unwritten policy that only one black woman can work per shift, but sucks it up for Lisa, whom they both adore. Indeed, the gaping issue of institutionalised racism and sexism is very subtly raised early on, as a batch of new recruits learn the ropes. Writer-director Andrew Bujalski is sure not to make light of the matter, but spins it to make the bonds between the women tighter - their lives may seem 'ordinary', but their battles are universally relatable.

There's some rather stereotypical views of Texas on offer, and the film perhaps goes too easy on the males, who are typically portrayed as easily manipulated fools. But it's a rallying cry for any woman who has been put through the ringer in a man’s world and still been there for the people around her. “Sad dudes is my business,” she tells her soon-to-be ex. Bujalski also observes with some subtlety the social divide that makes Lisa pick these blue collar burger-eaters over the rich folks she used to serve at her former steakhouse. At least here, she can kick the worst idiots out. Hall’s performance — tender, tough, empathetic, controlled, crumpling from tears to laughter in a blink, is something else, and the low-key but terrific ending is worthy of some of the great directors. A very clever, subtly feminist piece.

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Dirty God

Brave and powerful

(Edit) 08/01/2020

This first English-language feature from Dutch director Sacha Polak boasts a stand-out performance from Vicky Knight, who gives an unflinching portrait of a strong-willed yet immature and not very likeable protagonist facing a radical change in how the world looks at her, as well as how she sees herself, after an acid attack.

Polak sets the tone immediately with unsettling widescreen close-ups of acid-damaged flesh, the camera capturing the mass of ravaged, puckered tissue covered in shallow ridges. Although Knight was herself scarred from a burning accident, the makeup department apparently enhanced the disfigurement for her character Jade, thus ensuring that viewers confront the discomfort of watching a woman whose blonde good looks would conform to Western notions of beauty were it not for the scarring on large portions of her face and upper body.

We first see Jade the day she’s discharged from the hospital, and the film spends considerable time examining Jade's relationships. Firstly, there's her mother, Lisa (Katherine Kelly), a volatile woman with a black-market business selling stolen goods; then some particularly painful scenes involving her two-year-old daughter, Rae, who turns hysterical on seeing her mother’s damaged face encased in a temporary protective clear mask. Of particular significance is the relationship with her best friend, Shami (Rebecca Stone), whose unfazed ebullience seems to be just what Jade needs, but, as a night out with her old mates proves, re-integrating into her life is going to be a challenge she’s ill-equipped to handle, and that with Shami’s boyfriend, Naz (Bluey Robinson), who continues to play on the sexual tension that existed between him and Jade before the attack.

Jade’s now starved for the attention she once took for granted, resorting to video-camming on chat sites while keeping the camera off her face. It’s a release of some sort but also becomes an avenue for humiliation, further reminding her that with the loss of her looks came a loss of empowerment. The doctors tell her there’s little more they can do cosmetically, and, lured by by idea of plastic surgery, gets a job at a telemarketing company to pay for it, facing down the stares and taunts of colleagues (whose hostility is perhaps a little overdone - a rare wrong note).

As in her previous films, Polak includes moments of striking dark humour, such as a scene in which Jade dons a niqab and swirls across her apartment building’s balcony, finding confidence in her ability to hide while spectacularly displaying herself at the same time, whilst two brief nightmare scenes in which her attacker appears in a collar of black cock feathers, hovering by her face, are intriguingly ambiguous but don't quite come off.

While the script’s attempt at transforming the character from victim to resolute survivor doesn’t entirely succeed, this is on the whole a brave and powerful piece.

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Never Look Away

Watchable but forgettable

(Edit) 02/01/2020

'Never Look Away,' (for once, the English title is more apt than the original ('Werk Ohne Autor' / 'Work without an author') follows protagonist Kurt (played as an adult by Tom Schilling) from his boyhood in the 1930s to his career breakthrough 30 years later. The film traffics in all kinds of thorny, ambiguous material: family secrets, psychological misdirection, the sometimes uncanny harmonies between artifice and reality, and, as with Von Donnersmarck’s first feature, 'The Lives of Others,' unpacks some of the moral baggage of the former East Germany. Not quite a biopic, this one hovers between psychological drama and period romance — and tries to achieve a similar blend of ethical ambivalence and excitement. It's generally engaging, partly because von Donnersmarck possesses an old-fashioned Hollywood showman’s sensibility, partly because of the rich, striking images (for which Caleb Deschanel received an Oscar nomination) but perhaps mostly because of strong performances from the cast. Schilling has a sensitive, sympathetic demeanour; he rarely gives anything away verbally but communicates effectively just by a look. As a child (played by Cai Cohrs), he is initiated into the mysteries of art by his aunt Elisabeth (wonderfully played by Saskia Rosendahl), who takes him to the Nazis’ exhibition of 'Degenerate Art,' where the two find clandestine inspiration. When Elisabeth is diagnosed with a mental illness, the full cruelty of the regime reveals itself. The links between Kurt and the man responsible for this atrocity and others like it, Carl Seeband (played with great panache by Sebastian Koch), become the focus of much of the rest of the film; what keeps us guessing is when, how or whether Kurt will learn the truth. Seeband’s magnetism and his transparent evil undermine a potentially central line of moral inquiry in the story, having to do with the ways Nazism embedded itself in ordinary German life.

But, but ... unfortunately, despite its considerable length (we're kept for 3 hours, and it felt like it), the film largely shies away from depth or difficulty, whilst structurally speaking the relationship between Kurt and his girlfriend Ellie, which should be its emotional axis, is a pallid romance (and one punctuated by some truly awful, cliched film sex — the kind that is supposed to reflect profound feelings through the use of candles and graceful changes of position). And whilst the first section of the film is totally gripping, the following sections rather lack the intensity of the first, and there's far too many doses of melodrama and sentimentality for the film to entirely 'work' given the seriousness of the subject matter, sadly. So all in all, watchable but ultimately forgettable.

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Non-Fiction

Hit & Miss

(Edit) 11/12/2019

Olivier Assayas’ latest offering concerns the impact of digital technology on media and the arts, literature in particular, although it could refer to developments in cinema also. The film follows two Parisian couples in which the husbands are connected to the world of publishing; there's no 'action' as such, 'just' rounds of conversations on this subject plus such matters as the rise of e-books, and quite a few of those modern Englishisms such as “le streaming,” “post-truth”, “fake news” and “autofiction.” The characters are preoccupied with — and have varying professional stakes in — the enormous changes that have already happened or are just about to happen, and their jobs, (as with their relationships with their partners) are in flux. Whether with grim resignation, shrugging amusement or evangelical zeal, everyone declares that everything is different, everything is new, although now and then, someone will demur: “But some things don’t change.”

In the vast majority of scenes, Assayas stages his arguments about the digital future in bars, restaurants and cafes, over informal dinners or hasty breakfasts, or else, a bit less often, in stretches of pre- or postcoital discourse. People almost always meet at table or in bed, (and in one case both at once). There are maybe 10 minutes in the whole film that don’t involve the immediate prospect of eating, drinking or sex. Hey, it's a French film. The original French title of “Non-Fiction” apparently means “Double Lives,” and the couples concerned dwell in a virtual world of data, social networks and endless quantification, a world that feeds their appetites for abstraction and disputation.

It's either a comedy of adultery disguised as a meditation on the future of civilisation, or the other way round - the fact that the one who works in politics is the least cynical, most ethical player in this game counts as a sly joke. Her job, which takes her away from Paris, gestures toward a dimension of reality that lies beyond the hermetic concerns of the others, but the film doesn't get into this in any depth.

There's some good moments, but it’s also very much a symptom of the condition it diagnoses, namely the profound complacency of the cultural elite (in France here, but of course could be anywhere). And whilst both 'Clouds of Sila Maria' and 'Personal Shopper' kept me engaged with the characters concerned, I found myself not really caring about this lot - you just wish they'd meet some 'real' people and get out of their little narcissistic worlds, and whilst I get that this is exactly what we're supposed to feel and that to react this way is to recognise them, and thus to be implicated their vanity, duplicity, self-delusion & whatnnot, it takes a Woody Allen or a Michael Haneke to bring this off and in the end I don't think Assayas has done so here. So well worth a look but don't get your hopes up.

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First Man

watchable but unmemorable

(Edit) 07/12/2019

Damien Chazelle’s intimate new film takes the conquest of difficulty as its inspiration. Retelling the story of the American space programme from the early ’60s to the Apollo 11 mission through the lens of Armstrong’s professional and personal life, Chazelle (drawing on James R. Hansen’s biography) unfurls a chronicle of setbacks, obstacles and tragedies on the way to eventual triumph. The film is good at helping us appreciate, almost 50 years later, how many times, and in how many ways, the moon landing almost didn’t happen. It's pretty good at restoring a sense of uncertainty of the vast unknown that Armstrong and his colleagues faced, and finds fresh set of images to convey the strangeness and sublimity of those moments at Tranquility Base just after the “giant leap,” so we might intuit at least a glimmer of the awe that Armstrong must have felt (although the music score is just a bland distraction). The rattling din of ascent and the eerie quiet of zero-gravity are also impressively rendered, whilst the fact that space travel, viewed from the inside, could look and feel so much more abrasive and hazardous than we might ever have thought is part of the film's power, the ships creaking and rattling like tin cans in a hurricane, and there's a great, darkly humourous moment just before lift-off when some guy asks for a Swiss army knife to fix something.

Chazelle’s interest in Armstrong is as much personal as historical: bureaucratic snags, political-turf battles and engineering puzzles provide the narrative machinery, but feelings are the film’s fuel. Armstrong’s progress from pilot to celestial pioneer traces an epic arc, and like some of the ancient epics “First Man” is primarily a character study, a space odyssey with a diffident and enigmatic Ulysses at its centre, and his Penelope — loyal, anxious, angry, exhausted — is wife Janet. Neil and Janet’s grief over the loss of their daughter Karen serves as a kind of Rosebud, a half-buried centre of emotional and psychological gravity, a source of motive and meaning. And Karen’s is not the only death to be mourned. Janet sometimes seems to move through her days in anticipation of widowhood, and the progress of the Gemini and Apollo programs is measured partly in lives lost. Even for viewers versed in NASA history, who will know the fates of certain characters as soon as they are introduced, the deaths come as a shock. They are dramatised with cinematic tact, so that what you register is not horror but a sudden, disorienting absence, as if the men had vanished into space.

But the film's centre is its attempt to illuminate the inner life of Armstrong, and this doesn't quite come off for me. It can be hard to tell if Neil possesses an extra-dry wit or if he’s just literal-minded. (When the astronauts are asked at a news conference what they’d like to bring to the moon with them, his answer is “more fuel.”), and he remains an enigma to everyone, including his wife & family. But Chazelle rather lacks confidence that the audience will warm to such a man, and so he pipes in a layer of sentimentality which I found simply irritating.

From time to time, grumbling is heard about the point of it all — the actual Apollo programme, that is, which gobbled up public money at a time of social unrest and military conflict. Chazelle cleverly inserts a performance of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” a bitterly satirical protest song, although such dissent is washed away by the sheer sublimity of the astronauts' achievement. But ultimately the film is also strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment — into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination, that the film is too careful, too earthbound, as it were, to attempt. So all in all a watchable piece but one, I fear, that won't be remembered for too long.

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Apollo 11

Missed opportunity

(Edit) 28/11/2019

I'm afraid I was bit surprised at all the very positive reviews of this in the press. For it’s a special sort of achievement to take a collection of footage of the Apollo 11 mission and make it rather dull. For that, unfortunately, is what director Todd Douglas Miller has (for the most part) done here. Despite the attempt to focus on the heroic actions and extraordinary experiences of the three astronauts, and to display the vast concerted effort on the ground that their flight required, Miller manages only to provide a sketchy overview of the historic event, only intermittently and fleetingly illuminated by a telling or surprising detail.

The concept of a film composed entirely of found or pre-existing material is a radical one. It asserts that the material deserves to be treated as something special and invites an artistic approach that’s similarly distinctive. Fine in principle, but the composition and the editing, by contrast, have no identity, no form that reflects the discovery of the material, the sheer wonder of its very existence. Rather, the film sketches the story of the mission in haste, hitting dramatic high notes and scooting onward, and formulates the episodes of the mission superficially, in familiar chronological manner, as if working from a wikipedia entry .Throughout the film, the voice-over of Walter Cronkite, taken from news reports at the time, describes in grave tones the succession of events as they unfold onscreen; and the effect is to simply retransmit the long-sedimented version of the mission rather than redefining it on the basis to what the filmmaker experienced in the newly found footage itself. If you’re old enough, imagine the History of the FA Cup as narrated by David Coleman.

That sense of personal experience is what’s missing. (Peculiarly, the graphics, which provide intermittent breakdowns of particular stages of the mission, often have a greater sense of immediacy and drama.) Miller’s guiding principle appears to be shoehorning as much and as varied an array of footage as possible into the film's brief span and to edit it into a smooth unity. He hardly works closely with the images themselves, whilst the musical score, which is part action film banality and part lift musak, has the effect of cushioning the images to fit them into the standard audiovisual aural-wallpaper of Hollywood and television.

But the figures who suffer most from Miller’s approach are the astronauts themselves. You get a sense akin to those awful royal documentaries, that straightjacketed official portraiture; we remain remote from the astronauts’ characters, their own sense of experience. The one time the film does try to get close is a woefully misjudged montage, patched into a sequence of the astronauts suiting up that shows a brief flurry of their personal still photographs, depicting in flashes the Kodak moments of their earlier years, as if suggesting that, at the moment, those memories passed through their minds. The concept is both banal and superficial.

Some of the film’s most striking footage shows the hundreds of people who worked in Mission Control: rows and rows of scientists at long tables, each staring at monitors, banks of buttons & switches, some taking notes on paper. These images recur, and one in particular, a long tracking shot revealing vastly many rows of technicians, tightly arrayed in long lines, is awe-inspiring—but, inevitably, the speculative wonder that it inspires is instantly thwarted, because Miller never conveys the slightest sense of what any one of them is doing, so they become mere extras in the drama (take a look at James Burke's old 1979 documentary to see how it could be done).

The new footage is amazing, with plenty of fascinating incidental details, but the film's style, borrowed from conventional, documentaries, merely turns the whole thing into something bordering on the soulless. For enthusiasts like me, therefore, this felt like a missed opportunity.

2 out of 6 members found this review helpful.

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Gwen

Hardyesque tale of fear and isolation

(Edit) 19/11/2019

Writer-director William McGregor’s debut film is more Thomas Hardy than Hammer Horror, and is all the better for it, in my view. The film is carried by a quite superb performance from Eleanor Worthington-Cox, whose bewilderment, fear, strength and sheer spiritual force is Tess of the D'Urbervilles meets Sue Bridehead. For this is a film where a lot more is going on than meets the eye, notably, what happens when a young person’s faith gets shaken, as Gwen begins to doubt her mum has what it takes to lead her out of the family's predicament - there's a great, very brief moment, when she throws a cross on the fire. And also, aka Hardy, it's about social change and the possibility that what Gwen’s family is facing isn’t a disease or a demon, but rather the inevitable end of agrarian life - for nothing could be more frightening than the inevitable industrial takeover. 'Gwen' is a well-crafted folk-style tale of fear, suspicion and isolation, nestled deep within the Snowdonian mountains, where the mundane quickly becomes sinister. Laughter turns into screaming, a passerby becomes a threat, and reality and nightmare bleed into each other. Gwen (and the audience) want answers – but we rarely get them, for McGregor does not pander to the audience.

It's not without its weakness, for while Maxine Peake is very good as the overbearing mother figure with hints of a gentler soul underneath, there's not quite enough to really get under her skin for me, whilst pretty much all the other characters are mysterious types, their motives and concerns unknown to us. And if you're going to do something unremittingly bleak (no problem with this at all in principle, and there are some truly skin-creeping moments, particularly when viewed as they are from Gwen's perspective) then somehow the audience has to be sustained along the way, and occasionally it is in danger of falling under its own weight, whilst the ending (for me) is not handled in such a way to make it convincing. Nevertheless, McGregor ultimately succeeds in creating a distinctly creepy, socio-political narrative.

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The Sisters Brothers

Ironic and subversive

(Edit) 19/11/2019

Based on a 2011 novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, Jacques Audiard brings a distinctly outsider’s view to the western genre, one that both revels in the genre whilst subverting it.

At first glance the Sisters Brothers, aka Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), seem like tough prairie assassins, as fearsome as Clint Eastwood’s iconic 'man with no name' anti-hero. But the more time we spend with them, the more we realise that this pair of fortysomethings are actually childish, bickering improvisers who rarely know what they’re doing, nor, crucially, why they’re doing it. As with Cassidy and Sundance, they're fun to be with, and Phoenix and Reilly dig into their juicy roles with relish, with Reilly stealing the show as the big brother who touchingly imagines a quieter, more settled life whilst Phoenix plays Charlie as one who sees no sense in settling down. There are shootouts at every turn, but as the film proceeds we care more and more about what happens to these two uncivilised men grappling with the onset of civilisation. As the sensitive, prickly, blabbery Eli, Reilly is tremendous at bringing to life an essentially sweet soul who pines for the girl he left behind, and watching him get to grips with a toothbrush, a miraculous new invention, is like watching Homo sapiens experiment with fire for the first time. Phoenix, meanwhile, has a rare twinkle in his eye as hard-drinking, slightly mad Charlie. And their interplay is, aka Waiting for Godot, delightfully pugnacious but affectionate, with lots of gentle humour en route amidst the violence. As the film trundles along, it develops as a four-hander, and Riz Ahmed is fascinating as the film's cleverest and most idealistic character, a man who dreams of a utopian society and one who thinks he knows how to achieve it.

The film is deliberately meandering, unhurriedly throwing the shambling brothers into one awkward scenario after another. This West is undoubtedly wild, and brutal, and surreal, but Audiard paints it with an ironic eye, constantly puncturing the puffed-up posturings of the tough guys who inhabit it. Often restlessly moving his cameras rather than employing grand John Fordianesque compositions, Audiard keeps things authentically grubby, and it’s beautifully anti-mythmaking - the sort of film John Wayne would hate.

As with the book, the final section of the film is a bit contrived, and it's perhaps a pity that the book's ending has been changed which for me would have worked well on screen. Some might also say the film falls between two stools, being too 'light' for an insightful drama but too 'heavy' for a thriller or comedy. But on the whole I think the director has just about managed to pull it off, and comparisons with the Coen brothers are not far-fetched. Highly enjoyable.

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Pin Cushion

Deliberately disturbing tale of bullying

(Edit) 19/11/2019

Writer-director Deborah Haywood’s feature is interesting, challenging and very, very dark. Anchored by superb performances from Joanna Scanlan and Lily Newmark, Pin Cushion's complex portrayal of female relationships is a chilling reminder of how bullying can easily seep from school into adulthood. It's a bit uneven - some scenes are rather heavy handed, and she perhaps ultimately sells short the characters’ inner depths. It's also rather short and feels rushed in places as a result, whilst the ending is a tad contrived and (incongruously) sentimental. But the film is saved by the two leads' performances - Scanlan makes Lyn’s loneliness and pain tangible beneath the hand-knitted jumpers, and Newmark is absolutely terrific as the terribly vulnerable teen desperate to be part of the cool in-crowd whilst deep down knowing she doesn’t fit in at all. Deliberately disturbing stuff.

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Capernaum

Compelling piece of angry social realism

(Edit) 19/11/2019

Nadine Labaki’s film is a truly astonishing piece of stark social realism generally told (apart from some pieces of rather irritating syrupy strings) without sentimentality. Set in Beirut, it starts off with the audacious (and admittedly rather dubious) premise of a young boy who's suing his parents for having him, and over the course of its two hours, by following the point of view of her young protagonist Zain, Labaki successfully articulates the impossibility of the lives that were bestowed upon him and other children he meets.

The title takes its name from the ancient fishing town of Capernaum, which in turn became the namesake for a word meaning 'disorderly accumulation of objects' or, simply, 'chaos'; and in the slums that Labaki’s characters inhabit, people, especially children, come to be a part of that disorderly accumulation as well. When the film opens, Zain (the incredible Zain Alrafeea), who guesses he’s 12 but whose stunted body looks much younger, is being taken out of prison to face his parents in court. He has a lawyer, and even though he’s already stood trial for a stabbing (the details of which we’ll come to learn) he's now the plaintiff: here to make the case that his very birth was a crime of neglect. Alrafeea is a startling, unforgettable presence, and his anger at the various cruelties and injustices around him surely mirror the director's - it's a very angry film. From the courtroom, we flash back to the series of unfortunate events that landed Zain in prison, starting with the heartbreak of seeing his 11-year-old sister Sahar sold off to be the bride of a grown man for a few chickens. It’s a devastating sequence, and 15 minutes into the film, we’re already sufficiently annoyed to wish for a life sentence for Zain’s parents. Much of the remainder of the film charts the developing relationship between Zain and Yonas, the baby boy of Rahil, an Ethiopian immigrant, and as their situation goes steadily from bad to worse, the film sometimes feels at risk of buckling under the weight of its own suffering, but is ultimately saved by the director's empathy for those lives attempting to survive in such squalor.

There's a touch of melodrama at times and some somewhat implausible sequences, but the sheer emotional force of 'Capernaum' makes this compelling viewing.

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Happy as Lazzaro

Neo-realism meets magical realism - an instant classic

(Edit) 19/11/2019

The first half of Alice Rohrwacher’s deliberately disturbing new film, takes place in a rugged valley somewhere in central Italy miles away from anywhere. The residents, an extended clan of sharecroppers, grow tobacco, lentils and chickpeas on land belonging to an aristocratic family. Though there are a few signs of modernity — a few electric lights, some motorised vehicles, a mobile or two (but no signal) — the feudal structure and pastoral rhythms of existence in this place seem timeless. The farmers, exploited and oppressed by an ancient social order, are sustained by their stoicism and solidarity, but Rohrwacher isn’t in the business of picturesque nostalgia or political piety. She draws from the past (tapping into literature and folklore as well as film) to forensically interrogate present conditions.

The film, a perfectly balanced combination of neo-realism and magic realism, centres around the 'happiness' of the title character (Adriano Tardiolo), a kindhearted young man of uncertain parentage. His contentment is genuine, in spite of his harsh circumstances; both simpleton and saint in the 'holy fool' tradition, he stands as an exception to the general human tale of treachery and domination. He is happy because he is good. By contrast, the noblewoman who owns the land — the Marchesa Alfonsina De Luna (Nicoletta Braschi) is brutally exploitative, whilst insisting that her power over her tenants, who are perpetually in her debt even as she appropriates the fruits of their labour, represents the natural order of things. While the workers mostly despise her, and engage in small-scale acts of resistance against her and her overseer, they are powerless to change anything: exploitation is as much part of the landscape as the trees and rocks, and a distinct change of scene half-way through the film merely leads to the replacement of one form of organised cruelty with another. For just as we’ve accepted the semi-fantastical parameters of Lazzaro’s world, notably his unlikely half-secret friendship bond with the Marchesa’s son, Tancredi (Luca Chikovani), our perspective suddenly changes. We suddenly see the landscape from above and hear an ancient folk tale in a woman’s voice, and the film takes a double swerve, into both a harsher realism and more explicit magic.

A rich sense of mystery pervades the film, and we find ourselves trusting the teller even when we don't fully understand the tale or know where it’s going. What makes it a great film though is the piercing clarity of Alice Rohrwacher’s vision. Even at its most fatalistic, the old cinematic neo-realism was grounded in an idea of progress, in the leftist faith that after feudal paternalism and predatory capitalism a better, more humane future could be imagined and struggled towards. The eclipse of that faith has had consequences for politics and also for narrative: if the passage of time merely led to one form of injustice being supplanted by another, the possibility of a happy ending, or an ending of any kind, seems out of reach. And to this end, the tragic final scene of “Lazzaro” is devastating but also fully convincing. An instant classic.

3 out of 4 members found this review helpful.

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An Elephant Sitting Still

Sophisticated and moving portrayal of a society in crisis

(Edit) 19/11/2019

I was going to watch this 4-hour piece by director Hu Bo in short instalments, but found myself totally spellbound and instead watched it all the way through with the odd wine-break and gasp for air. I’ll be giving it another go after it has sunk in.

It’s an unremittingly bleak piece, depicting a world (literally and metaphorically) without colour - a world from which pretty much all human feeling has been lost. Instead, mistrust, manipulation, bullying, aggression, cynicism are what dominate; everyone on screen is involved in some way and to a greater or lesser extent with life's daily struggle and sheer survival.

Taking place over a single day and following the overlapping, increasingly desperate itineraries of four people, the film encompasses two suicides, several beatings, a shooting and the death of a dog; periodic eruptions of violence being a synecdoche of a deeper, widespread cruelty and alienation. For while the characters’ paths cross and recross, Hu’s sombre, careful compositions and slow takes emphasise their isolation and the social conditions that make solitude and defensiveness a protective strategy. There is occasional tenderness, but it seems fragile and fleeting, unlikely to survive the Darwinian realities: in this world, being selfish, suspicious and mean is a condition of entry.

“An Elephant Sitting Still” shows the influence of Jia Zhangke, arguably modern China’s principal cinematic depictor of disaffection and dislocation. But unrelenting as Hu’s anatomy of moral drift may be, his empathetic attention to lives defined by disappointment and diminished hope doesn’t leave us entirely bereft: by the end, the viewer is likely to feel soul-searched and deeply moved rather than simply beaten down.

But then, any catharsis may well be over-shadowed by the knowledge that this will be Hu’s only film — the sole testament to a career that ended when the 29-year-old director committed suicide in 2017. It would, of course, be a mistake to draw too direct a connection between that and what is displayed onscreen, but it’s also hard to avoid the impression that this persuasive portrait of a society in crisis reflects a deeply personal vision. Highly sophisticated and rewarding work.

1 out of 2 members found this review helpful.
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