The Big Sick (2017) – Film Review

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Rom-coms are often dismissed as ‘guilty pleasures’ and fail to get much critical recognition, so it’s nice to see that this one has reversed the trend. As someone who believes that the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’ should’ve been binned the very moment that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden (or the moment that western countries spurned Christian cultural hegemony, take your pick), I say if you like something, then you should say it loud and like it proud.

So yes, I like rom-coms: Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, Four Weddings and a Funeral, (500) Days of Summer… These are some of my most-cherished and -watched films; easygoing, yet with more than a smidgeon of bite, like an autumn breeze or a chilled cocktail.

And when I ask myself why I like rom-coms so much, the answer always comes easily: romance and comedy, a.k.a. laughs, are two of the things that most make life worth living. Woody Allen admits as much in that famous scene in Manhattan, and so in its own way does The Big Sick.

Comedy and romance intertwine with refreshing ease in The Big Sick, and both are elements that combine to threaten the traditional Muslim values of Kumail Nanjiani’s family in the film. Kumail is a Pakistani living in Chicago, in his own flat, but beholden to his parents, who live close by and try to set him up with a new Pakistani woman every time he comes for dinner, and who also believe that he eventually intends to enroll in law school. Law being a respectable trade, unlike the stand-up career he so craves, and arranged marriage to Pakistani women being a continuation of their culture, unlike the dating of a nerdy white chick called Emily, with whom he quickly falls in love.

The ‘guilty pleasures’ of comedy and romance in Kumail’s life are therefore kept a secret from his parents, just as we are supposed to keep the ‘guilty pleasure’ of liking rom-coms to ourselves.

Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself (this is largely a true story), is too smart and decent to really believe that he should be guilty about any of his pleasures, which of course is why he’s made a movie about them. But he’s also decent enough to worry about the ways in which his parents might hurt if they found out. Of course these secrets are partly selfish though, because he doesn’t want to lose his parents or his freedom, and unwittingly these secrets might be damaging his otherwise healthy relationship with Emily (played admirably by Zoe Kazan – unusually for a male-directed rom-com, we get a strong sense of why she likes him).

Then the film takes a darker turn, with Kumail and Emily separating, shortly before she falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail admirably chooses to stay by her side throughout treatment, but this leads to a hospitalised Meet the Parents scenario as her mother (Holly Hunter, excellent as always) and father (Ray Romano, amusing or alarming?) air their own dirty laundry in front of him, whilst they all wait to see if Emily will ever recover.

This adds a bittersweet tinge to the usual Judd Apatow Productions antics: yes there’s lots of swearing, frank sexual talk and bodily fluids gags, mindless chatter. But there’s also a genuine, unforced tenderness exuding from these oddballs in love, particularly the way in which Kumail dutifully attends his beau in her time of need, and when he’s least wanted.

The film also tackles Islamophobia, at least in passing, and has a good stab at examining the ways in which lack of trust can sweep toxically through a relationship. So it’s meaningful, as well as frequently very funny (if never laugh-out-loud). Which altogether allows one to forgive the usual Judd Apatow-affiliated problems, from issues with pacing in the third act to one-dimensional supporting characters (leading to accusations of the film having an issue with Muslim women, which I think are overstated).

I don’t think this will have the endless replay value of any of the other rom-coms I’ve mentioned above. But it’s nevertheless a charming, engaging, and exceptionally likeable ride. I would’ve called it the best Apatow production since Bridesmaids, had I not recently caught the series Love on Netflix – check The Big Sick out first, then proceed to that little gem, if you haven’t already.

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Dunkirk (2017) – Film Review

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Christopher Nolan’s not one to shy away from big topics or Biblical running times – so it’s no surprise that his latest tackles the most spectacular and in many ways successful retreat in British military history, but it is a surprise that it lasts a mere 107 minutes.

Dunkirk’s a bit like the last half hour of The Dark Knight drawn out to feature length: lean, focused, people- rather than CGI-driven, and edited to within an inch of its life as Hans Zimmer ratchets up the orchestra to overdrive on top. It’s quite a spectacle, the sight of our finest young action director paring things down to essentials, and if you’re not thrilled, then check your pulse.

Despite its leanness, Nolan can’t resist chucking in some time-bending play, much like Inception or Memento, and the decision to cover a week on the beach, a day on the sea, and an hour in the air, crisscrossing between them, is either foolhardy or impressively ambitious, depending on your perspective. I think it’s a little of both – the film demonstrates how time appears mutable, lengthening or shortening according to where you are. In combat, an hour of fighting inside a cockpit might feel like a day, a day on a boat journeying into a warzone might feel like a week, a week of waiting onshore to be blown up or rescued might feel like a lifetime. But the jarring cuts from day to night and back again that the film undergoes thanks to its timehopping structure sometimes has the effect of distancing from the action, with thoughts leading to the construction of the film rather than the immediate peril of the men.

The film works best as a simple story of survival. The dialogue is clunky when it comes, which is not often, and when it does we long for them to shut up and carry on with the act of surviving.  So we really do hope that the soldiers make it back home, of course we do, but the script doesn’t give any impression of the men’s inner lives. Who is Harry Styles playing? Tom Hardy? Kenneth Branagh? They could be anyone, they could be cardboard cutouts, and when they speak that becomes apparent.

Nolan’s been interested in characters before – particularly the Joker, whose richness exposes the shallowness of all other comic book villains – but they’ve always come second to the relentless narrative drive of his films, and perhaps third to the pondering of big themes such as the nature of time, space and memory. Dunkirk abandons the formulating of characters altogether, and can be accused of a certain coldness. It only really displays emotion via a few tears from Kenneth Branagh, and at the end when it turns towards Spielbergian propaganda with a rendition of the famous ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches…’ speech accompanying the homecoming of survivors.

Yes, I’m aware that the lack of character development is deliberate, a rejection of the cheesy back stories that bog down so many war films. But I think the interchangeability of these men is a mistake, and that a little more effort spent colouring them in could have made for a much more memorable film. Tom Hardy in particular is wasted, playing a pilot whose performance mostly takes place behind a mask and in silence. Hardy’s an outstanding actor, and can do so much when given free rein. But here he’s only required to blink and move his hands a bit, which is a great pity, a really great pity.

Obvious flaws aside, it can’t be denied that this is an impressive film. Some of the action scenes are overwhelmingly visceral – point-of-view shots of planes being shot down are so close to the total immersion of video games that I almost had the urge to press ‘R2’ at the screen. But I can’t quite buy the argument that this film is a modern classic. I don’t agree that Nolan ‘eschews war porn’ in Dunkirk, not like Kubrick in Paths of Glory, because the way he films combat is so obviously ecstatic (although it’s stately, and at least you can’t sense Nolan jacking off by the side of the camera, like you could Mel Gibson with the dreadful Hacksaw Ridge).

Which is not to diminish either Nolan’s achievement or that of the British in Dunkirk: both are fairly wondrous success stories.

I salute it.

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Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – Film Review

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Available on Netflix.

With the UK’s media currently under scrutiny following the release of the BBC’s staff salaries, I was reminded yesterday to check out this Netflix documentary about America’s press under siege, and have been thinking about little else ever since.

It’s an unruly film that tries to logically link together three separate cases of the US media under attack – each time from billionaires, and for reasons of vested interest. The links could have been made more clear – it’s rather shabbily edited. But the conclusion drawn is obvious: the constitutional rights of the free press have never been under greater duress than at the present moment.

The first case Nobody Speak looks at is the least morally clear. It concerns the lawsuit brought against gossip website Gawker by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, after they leak a sex tape involving him doing the naughty with his best friend’s wife. As a freedom of speech issue it’s confusing, with the filmmakers inviting us to be confused. Should a ‘news’ website have the right to put out graphic, sensitive material into the public domain, and should it be protected under the First Amendment in doing so? Is a spurious organisation such as Gawker, who smack of this country’s Daily Mail, but with even less scruples, worth defending?

Nobody Speak bypasses these issues by choosing to follow the money behind the lawsuit. Its greatest concern is finding that Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook shareholder Peter Thiel, in an unprecedented move, is the one bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s case through the courts. Why? We can only speculate, because Thiel isn’t interviewed. But the film does reveal a number of articles that Gawker published about him, explicitly alleging his homosexuality and criticising his numerous business ventures. As such, it’s suggested that Thiel probably has a personal vendetta against them. So when Gawker are found guilty on all charges and fined $140 million, bankrupting them, we are invited to share the concern that a member of the 1% global elite has managed to fund the takedown of an entire news outlet. All on his own. Whatever our thoughts on the morality of said news outlet, the precedent set of capitalists using their influence to meddle in the media when it’s had the gall to affront them is still troubling. So sayeth the film, anyway, and I tend to agree.

The second case is a more straightforwardly abhorrent example of big money’s interference in the free press. It details the mysterious takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by… an unknown buyer. The journalists working there instantly smell a rat, and like good old-fashioned heroes from All the President’s Men, they use all of their resourcefulness to uncover a conspiracy. It turns out that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is behind it all, purchasing the company through his son-in-law in order to block certain columnists from writing criticism of him in its pages. The journalists with integrity are forced to quit, leaving behind what? An empty shell of a news journal, blocked from honest reporting by corporate interests. The title Nobody Speak continues to speak for itself.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, we are confronted with the hideous power mogul to end all hideous power moguls: Donald Trump. If the footage of Trump’s bashing of the media at his rallies, and his miserable cronies Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway crowing ‘fake news’ at any opportunity, have somehow managed to escape your notice, well, here they are in all their vulgar glory. Trump is like any of the other billionaire bullies in this film, using his power to attempt to silence the freedom of the press when it threatens to expose his vested interests. He sees himself as above interrogation, as supreme possessor of the only ‘truth’. The man’s an almost unimaginably awful threat to the founding principles of western democracy, but the film impressively shows him as being only a symptom of the ugliest, vulgarest side of capitalism: where if you have money, you can damn well bully whoever you want, including those protected by the First Amendment.

So it’s no surprise that Trump’s planning to make it easier for people (rich people) to litigate against the media, his only real passion in life being to silence those who oppose him.

It’s a concerning time, for sure, and Nobody Speak is a compelling diagnosis of our time. Does it leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth? You bet. We need to have our noses rubbed in the scummy earth of consumer capitalism once in a while, and we should thank the global corporation of Netflix for so obliging us.

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The Lost City of Z (2016) – Film Review

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It took me a while to ‘get’ this film, but certain imagery and sequences have kept coming back to haunt me, with a hallucinatory relentlessness that recalls fever dreams and Apocalypse Now.

Like that great film, this one is largely set in the jungle (this time in Bolivia), and features out-of-their-depth westerners traveling down a river (this time the Amazon) and out of their minds. You can feel the sticky heat oozing off practically every inch of every frame as British explorer Percy Fawcett (a real-life figure who partially inspired Indiana Jones), played by Charlie Hunnam, and his team venture downstream in the early 20th century. First they go in search of a conciliation between the Bolivian and Brazilian tribes at the border, in order to stabilise the price of rubber. Then they head off in search of a lost civilisation, which at times only Fawcett and the native Bolivians believe they will find.

Is Fawcett mad? Perhaps not in the literal sense of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre in Wrath of God: Fawcett is more practical, calm and collected than either of those conquistadors. He never resorts to indefensible violence against any of his co-explorers or the natives they encounter, and his thoughtful demeanour deflects accusations of delusions of grandeur. Yet there is a strange subconscious compulsion that draws Fawcett back, three times, to the dangerous Bolivian jungle in search of his lost city; just like Beowulf who fought monsters, three times, we know that it will inevitably end in tragedy. Maybe it’s a desire for prestige that drives him – we’re told early on that his father drank and gambled away their family’s reputation, so there’s clearly the concern of having to return honour to the family name. But in arguing for the existence of an intelligent tribe that predates white Europeans, Fawcett does take quite the gamble with his reputation, at the possible expense of his family’s wellbeing – remember this is stuffy, imperialist-minded Britain (MPs openly jeer him, like primates, at Westminster in one of the film’s best setpieces). Could it be that Fawcett’s interests are genuinely anthropological? Or is there something more basic about the rainforest that keeps on drawing him back, a primitivism that leans closer to God than he could ever have imagined?

So he’s a complicated chap, played with admirable reserve by Charlie Hunnam. Hunnam’s performance has unfairly been attacked for lacking charisma by some critics, presumably because he doesn’t go all bug-eyed schizoid on our asses like Martin Sheen or Klaus Kinski. But the film’s dreamlike logic tends to pull back from any literal interpretations, and Hunnam’s underacting considerably deepens both his character’s and the film’s mysteries.

The dreamlike vagueness does wonders for creating interest in the mirage personality of Percy Fawcett then, but the haziness also undercuts the efforts of the supporting cast in reducing their roles to anonymities. Robert Pattinson as a fellow explorer struggles to act his way through a stifling beard. Sienna Miller as the wife isn’t given enough time to explore the interesting oxymoron of her being a homebound feminist. And Tom Holland as the son is sullen and then suddenly in awe of his father in a way that doesn’t quite add up. They all leave only a slight impression, which I don’t believe is the fault of the actors but the fault of the director, James Gray.

Gray has shown brilliance before – take 2013’s The Immigrants, for instance – and though he orchestrates the photographic contrasts between London city life and the humid climes of Bolivia with a keen eye, and also writes dialogue with a distinct ear that holds you to the screen, I feel that his grip on The Lost City of Z is not quite tight enough. It’s easier to create an air of mystery than to offer specific answers to questions raised, particularly when filming in the wilderness of nature, and his dodging of narrative convention is sometimes intriguing but often structurally clunky. There is little forward-motion to smooth over the cracks.

In comparison, despite its many excesses, Apocalypse Now offers us a firmer vision: a delineation of human horror that is at once terrible, awe-inspiring, and exciting. Herzog’s films seem clearer on the mad pursuit of dreams. And last year’s The Revenant explores the intersection of mankind, nature, and God with greater depth.

Where does that leave us with The Lost City of Z? A somber, well-made film it most surely is, and the ending is so shrouded in the many mysteries that it has accumulated as to genuinely touch upon the unheimlich.

Yet like its hero’s quest, James Gray’s film never quite reaches its destination. Which is a shame. But perhaps it was the intention all along, for both of them.

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Risk (2016) – Film Review

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I get frustrated with those on the left – and I am on the left myself – who treat Julian Assange as some kind of anti-establishment hero, and as someone who’s somehow beyond criticism because of his imprisonment and ‘martyrdom’. We can believe in the principles of WikiLeaks, as I do, and believe in holding governments to account with absolute freedom of information, without elevating the organisation’s founders to Godlike (or at least, for radicals, Guevaralike) levels of irreproachability.

Risk comes as a vindication for those of us who have long mistrusted Julian Assange and his well-documented fascistic and sexist tendencies. Because, simply, they’ve never been so well-documented as they are here. Director Laura Poitras was granted unprecedented access to WikiLeak’s inner circle in her filming, and closely follows the team from the early days of enormous data leaks, through Chelsea Manning’s shocking arrest and 35-year prison sentence (of course she’s now freed), and Assange’s fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy where he is still shacked up. It would appear to be a tale of courage under adversity then, and that’s what Poitras initially set out to film. However, it becomes a much darker beast when Assange’s hostility and bullying nature starts to become self-evident both on and off camera. Laura eventually acknowledges around the half-way point that: ‘I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.’

The heart of WikiLeaks turns out to be a heart of darkness: Assange, as we know, was wanted for questioning in Sweden over four counts of sexual molestation, including the rape of two women. Although Sweden have since dropped its investigation, the allegations of the two women stand, and it doesn’t take much reading around to work out that these allegations are not fabricated by the US government, as conspiracy theorists would have you believe. Here are some revealing words, for instance, by James Ball (in a must-read article), who worked with Assange at WikiLeaks for a short time:

The details of what happened over those few days remain a matter for the Swedish justice system, not speculation, but having seen and heard Assange and those around him discuss the case, having read out the court documents, and having followed the extradition case in the UK all the way to the supreme court, I know it is a real, complicated sexual assault and rape case. It is no CIA smear, and it relates to Assange’s role at WikiLeaks only in that his work there is how they met.

I can’t, and won’t, speculate on the truth of the rape allegations either. However, one appalling moment in Risk demonstrates Assange’s misogyny in full bloom, and unequivocally on display: Assange responds to a female lawyer’s request for more conciliatory language towards his accusers by informing her that it’s all a ‘radical feminist conspiracy’ against him by women who run a ‘lesbian nightclub’. And then later, he tells Poitras in an interview that if the case ever reaches the courts, these women would ‘be reviled forever by a large segment of the population’. His victim-shaming starts to look like a Trump-level of egomaniacal delusion. Which is why, with breathtaking hypocrisy, considering what WikiLeaks represents, Assange apparently called his lawyers to demand these scenes were removed from the film and furiously texted Poitras that it was a ‘threat to his freedom’.

There are other uncomfortable truths that the film wisely covers in detail. For example, there’s the sexual abuse allegations made against another WikiLeaks operative, Jacob Applebaum, with whom it transpires Poitras once had a short affair before he abused one of her friends. Then there’s the 2016 Hillary Clinton email leaks scandal, in which Assange played a huge role, yet still denies collusion with Russia. Nobody could rationally blame the leaks for her election loss – it was likely more to do with a lacklustre campaign and already tarnished political reputation – however it does still smack of a personal vendetta against Clinton that’s disturbing. Where were the Trump leaks?

A portrait builds up of abuse of power amongst the founders of WikiLeaks that is deeply unsettling, and a far cry from the more straightforward heroism portrayed in Poitras’ award-winning Citizenfour, which was about the plight of the genuinely decent Edward Snowden. Yet though Snowden’s the better person, Risk is the better film, I think, because its moral haziness accrues ambiguities and causes all of us, and Poitras, to think hard about the efficacy of unaccountable organisations such as WikiLeaks, and not just unaccountable governments.

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Okja (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. In fact, exclusively available to watch on Netflix – this film is already infamous for getting booed at Cannes, following Netflix’s decision not to have it distributed in cinemas worldwide, provoking controversy amongst the international filmmaking elite. They’re quite rightly worried about cinema’s decline as a medium: the latest projections have forecast that Netflix and Amazon Prime will overtake UK cinema box office spending by 2020, for instance. The reasons for this are manifold and too detailed to go into here, but ticket price inflation (a dozen British pounds I paid to see the mediocre Wonder Woman recently) and the distances required to travel to see films in a theatrical setting, with no guarantee of their quality, seems to me of foremost importance, and could very well lead to the cinema becoming a rarified spectacle in the near future, reserved for special occasions much like the theatre. The monthly fee for Netflix is minimal in comparison, and the risk of expending time and money on a bad film simply doesn’t exist: if it sucks, you just turn it off and move on to something else, simple as, which is a power the cinema seat will never be able to bestow.

Even more importantly, Netflix are taking enormous risks with their homegrown projects, making, for instance, Disney’s cynical ploy of rehashing their old stock into ‘live action’ CGI-fests appear exceptionally unimaginative and even desperate by comparison – and let’s not forget the relentless chains of superhero ‘cinematic universes’ that are scripted and directed with a passion closely approximating to zero. As a film fan, looking up the films at your local Odeon can fill you with despair, whereas reading about the future of Netflix projects is enticing – the company’s attracting immensely talented directors to make original works, doubtless drawn to the streaming service’s instant audience of 100 million subscribers, and also Netflix’s laudable decision not to interfere in the creative production of their visions. They trust the talent they’ve hired and let them get on with it. Why on earth would you want to make another film for the Weinsteins, producers who will constantly try to interfere in the creative process and have a hack at the final cut for the sake of ‘commercial viability’, when Netflix can and will allow a free handle on the reins?

Stop booing everyone, and start applauding the fact that a company is using its profits to take risks and release otherwise unreleasable novelties such as the multilingual Okja, a film by the incredibly talented South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Before this, his last project was the terrific apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, which didn’t even get released in the UK by the Weinsteins, who couldn’t figure out a marketing strategy despite its having a cast that contained Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt. Go figure why Joon-ho’s chosen to move to Netflix with this one.

A good story is a good story, no matter the medium. And Okja has all the makings of one. It’s a simple tale at heart, about a Korean girl called Mija (13 year-old Ahn Seo-hyun, tough and likeable) whose best friend is the genetically modified ‘superpig’ of the title. After an idyllic start (reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro), she must chase Okja first across Seoul and then across America after the pig’s stolen from her by the shady Mirando Corporation, who are the company that crafted it in a laboratory in the first place, and who now plan to turn it into meat. Mija’s aided in her rescue mission by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of vegan terrorists led by Paul Dano (channeling a portion of his sanctimonious elan from There Will Be Blood, I think), who are determined to expose Mirando Corporation’s abuse and cruel slaughter of animals.

What makes this film interesting is that Mirando Corporation’s CEO, Lucy, rather than being depicted as a single-mindedly villainous entity, is actually concerned with softening her image and appearing as a do-gooder, in response to the hyper-capitalist drives of the company’s previous CEOs, her father and sister, who tarnished its reputation forever by dumping chemicals and causing a lake to ‘explode’. Lucy Mirando and her sister, Nancy, are played by Tilda Swinton (so memorably perverse in Snowpiercer), and she works very hard, and very admirably, to show the human failings at the heart of capitalism. Yes, Lucy is intending to slaughter all of the superpigs that she has cynically harvested, but with the good intention of using the meat to help feed millions of starving people around the world. It is up to you to decide whether her intentions are genuinely altruistic – Swinton gives you several clues, but the ambiguity is clearly an important part of the film, making it a more intriguing ride than just a bland ‘corporations are bad’ morality tale.

Also very sly is how the satire in this film, ably handled by Joon-ho and his cast, attacks not just the hypocrisies of the Mirando Corporation, which are obvious, but also the leftist insurgency of the Animal Liberation Front, whose mantras about not harming animals or people seem to dissolve quite quickly before the film’s end. This displays a South Park-level of appreciation that satire should tackle hypocrisy wherever it’s to be found, both on the left and on the right, regardless of the political bias of its writers. Organisations often have inbuilt double standards and moronic infighting, which dilute their impact considerably, and Okja’s beauty is of showing a 13 year-old girl, whose simple care in the world is to love her best friend, caught between the bureaucratic stupidities of two unwieldy and opposing enterprises.

On a more surface level of enjoyment, it must be said that Okja has tremendously filmed action sequences, including most especially a road chase through Seoul that’s far more exhilarating than any I’ve seen in the Fast and the Furious series. Its photography in the early sequences, of Mija and Okja roaming across the farmland and mountains of South Korea, is so stunning that, yes, you do rather wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen.

There are other reservations to be had: Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up too much as a fading alcoholic TV presenter, and although it looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had onscreen for years, his bug-eyed approach is good only for a few light chuckles, and it doesn’t justify his tendency to hog the screen.

But overall it’s a worthy experience that you will want to watch again very soon after it’s finished. And of course, on Netflix you can!

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Laerte-se (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. This documentary explores the life of Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho, who in 2004 came out as a transgender woman after nearly six decades of living as a heterosexual man. The death of one of Laerte’s sons seemingly triggered a bout of gender dysphoria. This led to an exploring of the titillating idea of transvestitism: firstly in the fictional cartoon strips that brought her fame, and latterly in the dressing of her own body. Laerte is not strictly transsexual – she damn well likes her penis, and is disturbed by the notion of losing it – although she’s perturbed by her scrotum and yearns for breasts. But as this film makes delightfully clear, gender is a spectrum that should be considered (celebrated, even!) as a separate condition from biological sex. Laerte decries certain ‘fascists’ in the transgender community who try to put her down for not having had breast implants, implying that she’s somehow less of a woman because of it, a line of argument she rightly dismisses as ‘corporatism’. If gender identity is fluid then it should be entirely about choice, and nobody should be able to dictate how your body corresponds to said choice. Laerte-se is a forceful argument in this vein: one striking shot sees Laerte shaving in the shower, her penis protruding slightly from in between her legs, reminding us that genital and (performative) gendered sex can be quite different things. Laerte herself, as a human being, comes across as warm and likeable throughout, but rather distant – there are emotional barricades she puts up, seemingly to bar this documentary from full access, so that by the end she still remains quite an enigma. Her cartoons, which are generously deployed, give a glimpse of a deeper malaise and dissatisfaction, yet they’re always smothered with black humour – hinting at a more intimate well of personality, which the filmmakers never quite unmask. Still, as an examination of gender fluidity first and foremost, Laerte-se’s both fascinating and prescient. And its profundity ultimately boils down to a simple statement, as most profundities do: ‘human beings should be allowed to enjoy themselves, regardless of gender.’ What kind of asshole would disagree with that?

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My Life as a Courgette (2016) – Film Review

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When people tell me they believe the quality of films are in decline, I like to remind them that we’re currently in a Golden Age for animation. Not just the consistent powerhouses of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, but also smaller studios from all around the world, are investing in carefully considered, thoughtful stories with absorbing narratives that just so happen to be animated. It’s incredibly lucky for all of us that as animation has moved into three dimensions, it has also moved closer to a multidimensional approach to characterisation and the perplexities of the wider world – as so far most inane comic book blockbusters have failed to do. A shortlist of brilliance, from this decade alone: Toy Story 3, Frozen, Despicable Me, Anomalisa, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince, Moana, Zootropolis, Your Name

Add to that list The Red Turtle, which I raved about last week, and the alternately adorable and harrowing My Life as a Courgette, which I’ll rave about now.

I haven’t seen a film quite so tonally audacious as this one for a very long time. There are moments with the sweetness and innocence of licking a lollipop in summer; there are other moments with the bitter and undeserved cruelty of finding you’ve dropped it. It’s a tale with an unsettling synopsis: a 9 year-old boy, Icare, nicknamed Courgette by his alcoholic mother, finds himself, due to a very dark twist of fate, landed in an orphanage with a group of kids who have equally turbulent pasts. Drug addiction, murder, sex abuse, and the deportation of immigrant relatives are just some of the issues these little – tragically little – human beings have had to face. One heartbreaking recurring moment, for example: a girl runs onto the orphanage’s porch whenever she hears a car’s engine, calling out ‘mum!’ We know, of course, her mum will never come.

What’s amazing is that these serious issues are never overplayed for easy, sentimental tears; nor do they ever threaten to cast a permanent shadow over the slight, 66-minute film, which in total is an uplifting experience. Scenes of a ski resort trip, a disco, a Halloween party, and many more are infused with such joy that I can only attribute them to a supreme empathy shown by the filmmakers in their depiction of childhood. Perhaps it’s the especially fractious nature of the world at this time that causes me to be so moved by these scenes of communal, shared enjoyment; perhaps it’s more simply a nostalgia for childhood days of yore, an emotion that I’m normally suspicious of, but not in the case of this film. It’s hard to be suspicious when you’re laughing your socks off, at the innocent ways in which these kids discuss the intricacies of sex. And when Courgette discovers love for the first time, it’s not only impossibly sweet, it’s also believably life-altering.

This film is both bitter and sweet to its core, an oxymoron that plays out in the technical accomplishment of the animation itself – a stop-motion universe of just about recognisably human figures who have exaggerated, sickly pale faces, as unnerving as a clown’s, yet with wide open eyes inviting empathy, and overt primary colours (garish dashes of blue, yellow, and red) shading their hair and the shadows around their eyes. It’s a striking palette that serves the story, even as it resists beauty in a way the Pixar and Studio Ghibli aesthetics, for instance, certainly don’t.

The beauty instead comes from the script, by the terrific Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Being 17), from a novel by Gilles Paris, which comprehends a child’s perspective so acutely, and with a warmth that’s impossible to resist. And of course credit is due to first-time Swiss director Claude Barras, most certainly a talent to watch, who so ably deals with the book’s, and Sciamma’s, sharp tonal shifts.

The greatest testament I can give to this rich film is this: despite everything the kids go through, it really makes you long to be a part of Icare’s life as a Courgette.

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The Red Turtle (2016) – Film Review

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If you have any doubts left that animated films can be amongst our most serious and profound artistic statements (you shouldn’t), this film should dispel them with the easeful grace of a turtle’s fin gliding through water. It doesn’t shout about how profound it’s being: quite literally, there’s no onscreen dialogue (beyond the odd ‘hey!’). It doesn’t beat you around the head with capital-S ‘Symbolism’, either. But in a hushed way, with only a whisper of pretension, its simple tale of a man washed up on an island who first attacks and then befriends a giant red turtle manages to convey all aspects of life from birth to romance to parenthood and death – and then back again to a kind of rebirth. All in just 80 minutes.

It’s a Studio Ghibli co-production, which might account for its radical simplicity -unshouted messages of environmental concern are at the heart of My Neighbour Totoro and many other of the great studio’s works. And indeed here too, exceptionally well-drawn backdrops of the natural world make an unshowy argument for the environment’s inherent beauty and the importance of our custodial duty in preserving it. Stormy seas and crystal blue waters, expanses of sand and towering palm trees, birds flying and turtles soaring – these are all exquisitely detailed and painstakingly coloured, as we’ve come to expect and now unfortunately take for granted with Studio Ghibli.

Yet The Red Turtle departs in many ways from the studio’s oeuvre, co-produced as it is with several other studios including France’s Wild Bunch and Belgium’s Belvision, whilst directed by an outsider: the Dutch-born, London-based Michaël Dudok de Wit. This seems to me a fittingly global setup, for international cooperation is the only way in which we can truly act to preserve the environment. But the difference is most apparent in the human figures: Studio Ghibli’s characters have always been clearly expressed through their eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. Here, the eyes take the form of just single black beads, which as many reviewers have pointed out owes a greater debt to Hergé’s Tintin comics than anime, and which means that we learn more about the character’s personalities from their overt body movements and physical interaction with surroundings. As such, the mise-en-scène is generally more distant, the camera tending to point down at the living figures from far above when they’re on land and far below when they’re in the sea, giving them space to move around and convey their emotions to us, cleverly, without the need for close-ups.

This distancing effect also powerfully conveys the film’s key message: that the natural world is far bigger than all of us tiny human beings who inhabit it, and surely it will carry on long after we’re gone. Our hero is dwarfed in almost every shot by sand dunes, enormous trees and rock structures, and in the film’s most dramatic moment a frightening tsunami. His vulnerability recalls last year’s The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio was similarly both oppressed and enchanted by his surroundings, but of course it also recalls all battles with nature that have been a consistent fascination in our narrative fictions from The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to Life of Pi. I’ve long believed that the stories we tell mirror the deepest fears in our collective subconscious, and the fear that the world we inhabit could one day swallow us all up and leave no trace of our existence is a common one, no doubt because it’s not just very likely to happen at some point but practically a certainty. As I’m sure I don’t need to stress, rising sea levels due to our incessant and stupidly short-sighted polluting makes our continued existence on this gorgeous planet diminishingly likely. In its final shot, The Red Turtle breathes a sigh of dismay at this future extinguishment, whilst showing us how nature will carry on regardless, like a newborn turtle making its first dangerous journey from sandy shore to the sea.

As you may have gathered, if you have children, this might not be the animated film to share with them at a young age. Or maybe it is – we do all need to understand, from a very young age, how the environment is so much more important than mankind’s ego-driven pursuit of profit, or else we run the Trumpian risk of speeding up our eventual demise. And this film is positive at heart: it believes that if we stop, look and listen to the natural world, rather than simply exploiting it, we can not only extend but, perhaps more importantly, also greatly enrich our species’ lifetime.

So do go to see The Red Turtle, please, and take as many people with you as possible: you will be enchanted by almost every one of its 80 minutes, I guarantee. You could just switch off and enjoy the extravagant visuals if you prefer – but I say choose to ignore the underlying message, and dismiss it as hippie nonsense, at all of our peril.

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I usually post a trailer at this point, but the one for this film gives away vital plot elements that I was careful to conceal in my review – and, what’s worse, it also contains a majority of the film’s most impressive shots. A common gripe with trailers, but particularly grievous in this instance. Avoid, and head straight to the cinema.

Frantz (2016) – Film Review

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François Ozon’s 17th film in 20 years (amazingly prolific for a 21st century director) is certainly one of his finest. It’s a bold idea: a remake of a 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby, by one of the greatest directors of all time: Ernst Lubitsch. Broken Lullaby is one of that sly master’s lesser efforts though, certainly more suited for a reboot than the eternally fresh To Be Or Not to Be or The Shop Around the Corner. And besides, Ozon takes intriguing liberties with his source, inventing a second half to Lubitsch’s tale (itself based on a play by Maurice Rostand), in which the supporting woman powerfully seizes centre stage away from what was previously a narrative concerning a returned soldier.

The woman is German and is called Anna (Paula Beer), and at the start of the film she’s mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz, at the end of the First World War. She finds out that a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) has been visiting her fiancé’s grave on a daily basis, for reasons that are initially unclear, but help to create a satisfying web of narrative suspense throughout the film’s first half.

Psychosexual implications abound, with the unsettling thought that Adrien might be trying to replace the deceased Frantz in Anna’s affections; this has an undoubted whiff of the ‘doubles’ and necrophilia of Vertigo about it. And, like that film, our understanding of the principle character’s motivations change with a perspective shift in the second half. It follows Anna in travelling to France, and so we start to see the more fantastical aspects of her obsession with Adrien.

We also witness the knife-edge tension between her home nation and his, and several scenes of xenophobic mistrust between French and German locals are very well handled by Ozon, demonstrating the colossal tensions brought about by the war even in the early years of peace. One particularly pointed scene sees Anna sitting in a French café as the locals stand up to salute a trio of soldiers with a loud rendition of La Marseillaise, and Anna’s uncertainty as to how she should act, her embarrassed awkwardness, accidentally exposes the veiled threat of nationalism lurking beneath even simple, understandable acts of patriotism. The Nazis could just have easily happened in France, had the economic situation been anywhere near as dire as Germany’s in the interwar period, and Ozon is quick and thoughtful enough to be aware of this.

Less well handled are the film’s lurching transitions between black and white and colour photography. These might be intended as a tribute to the truly great film about interwar Germany, Heimat, but they still feel heavyhanded. And the luscious colour photography in particular manages to overkill the Romanticism of the scenes of romance (scenes filmed in fields and forests and streams, with poetry recited). I wish it had stuck to the crisper black and white tones throughout, which reveal so much fascinating detail in the contours of the actor’s faces.

And what faces! Pierre Niney’s is thin and aquiline, inviting sympathy with his kindly eyes, yet also inviting suspicion with a hyper-alertness that seems to be working hard to mask some terrible secrets. And Paula Beer’s is pretty in a quiet way, searching and inquisitive and young (the actress is only 22), yet clearly downcast with the weight of the world already. Mature. François Ozon seizes on these unique features to exploit the finest two performances thus far in all of his films, using the complex shadows of Pascal Marti’s photography to maximise each one’s impact in a most impressive way.

Ozon’s got another film coming out this year, of course he does, but he’ll have a tough job matching the repressed passion of this one. Even if he could sometimes do with a wee bit more of Lubitsch’s legendary lightness of touch.

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