Film review – Insyriated (Philippe van Leeuw, 2017)

Philippe Van Leeuw May have taken a cheap shot with the title of this film, but the shallowness starts and ends there. It’s an imperfect but nonetheless powerful film that takes a gripping story and frames it within the resonatingly-threatening streets of the modern-day war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.

Inspired by a real anecdotal stories of people living in Damascus, the action takes place entirely within the confines of a small flat over a 24-hour period. Inside the flat lives the matriarchal Oum Yazan (Hiyam Abbass), a mother trying to keep her family together, alive and safe through the ongoing battles. Lodger Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud) is planning to escape from Damascus with her husband Samir (Moustapha Al Kar)) and newborn baby.

The story starts in earnest when housemaid Delhani (Juliette Navis) witnesses a sniper shooting Samir, who collapses in plain sight of one of the windows. Confiding in Oum Yazan, the pair decide to keep the shooting a secret to help maintain the peace inside the besieged flat.

It’s a powerful story no doubt, but its strengths are heightened by some excellent performances by the three central female characters. It is essentially a cross-analysis of how far people go to maintain their own lives and the lives of those they love.

Of the three central roles, none are better delivered than the performance given by the relatively unknown Diamand Bou Abboud. It is certainly the most substantial of the roles: they are relatively outcasts in the group, she has a newborn baby and wants to protect it, but is new to motherhood. It is one late scene when there are two intruders in the house that serves as one of the most memorable and horrific of the year, proving that what we don’t see on screen can be far more powerful that what we do see. It is a heartbreaking and sickening moment in the woman’s life and challenges the viewer to decide what they’d do in her shoes or in those of her cohabiters. Abboud really proves her acting mettle here.

There is little in the way of musical accompaniment in the film, and the cinematography is tough to view critically due to the filming style and confined location. These facts don’t detract from the overall impact, which is more about telling a powerful story than wowing the audience with an elaborate production. As Van Leeuw states in his production notes for the film, “there are no tricks, no special effects, it is just a plain look at the drama of the situation.” [1]

Historically, Arabic-language films have limited appeal at the global box office. True, there have been a number of success stories in recent years (notably Naji Abu Nowar’s 2014 drama ‘Theeb’, which took $774,556 globally [2][3]), but it doesn’t appear as though Insyriated has bucked the trend. Its inevitably sluggish performance at the UK box office (£10,706 from 19 arthouse theatres [4]) means that the film will have to perform well on home streaming platforms in order to recoup the money. Fortunately it is available now through Curzon On Demand and iTunes for the same price as a cheap cinema ticket, along with the standard DVD releases.

It’s not an outstandingly brilliant film, but it is in turns moving, horrific, heartbreaking, shocking and thought-provoking. A solid achievement by the Belgian director and the strong cast. It deserves an audience and will hopefully get that over the coming months.

Notes:

[1] https://curzonblob.blob.core.windows.net/media/6010/insyriated-production-notes.pdf

[2] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=intl&id=theeb.htm

[3] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Theeb/United-Kingdom#tab=summary

[4] http://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Insyriated-(Lebanon)#tab=summary

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Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is. simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.

Film review – Beyond the Clouds (Majid Majidi, 2017)

Majid Majidi’s latest film ‘Beyond The Clouds’ received its world premiere on Friday night at the pop-up Embankment Garden Cinema, specially created for the BFI London Film Festival. The director was in attendance to introduce this most brilliant and vibrant of films, alongside cast members Ishaan Khatter and Malavika Mohanan and several members of the crew.

The Mumbai-set tale centres around Aamir (Khatter, in his cinematic debut), a 19-year-old who is making a living of kinds by dealing drugs around the slums and docklands of the city. After a drugs bust leads to a chase with the police, Aamir winds up at the doorstep of his sister Tara (Mohanan). She attempts to protect her brother, but she ends up in prison herself. He must quickly learn to take responsibility to save his sister and their relationship.

In its opening shot, striking in its simplicity, we see the overarching message of the film. We see a busy but cleanly neat overpass, cars flying by. An unknown boy stands at the side of the road. A car pulls up and hands him a package. As we follow this mystery person as the camera pans down, the short one-shot focuses on our protagonist as he takes a package through into the underbelly of the divided city. It is an underbelly littered with street-bound families and forgotten people.

Whilst this separation of classes is made clear, it is a film, first and foremost, about the brother-sister relationship between our two main characters. It is about how they have let their close bond slip, leaving them with nothing but emotional wounds and lost memories of better times before the death of their parents.

Given that getting this chemistry right was such an important piece of the filmmaking puzzle, it seems like a risk that director Majidi cast two relatively unknown actors in the lead roles. Speaking in the Q&A after the film, director Majidi said: “The presence of superstars is crucial for most Indian films, and perhaps particularly in India with 2000 films produced every year. The audience is really keen to see their favourite actors on the screen. Despite the fact that there are so many superstars in India I asked the producers to let me cast people who’d never acted in front of a camera before. I was lucky they agreed to let me do that.”

The actors may not be superstars now but they are clearly destined for greatness, providing two absolutely astonishing debuts to form the backbone to the plot. Mohanan has enjoyed previous successes in Malayalami films, though this is Khatter’s debut. “The casting process was extremely long and we’re very lucky that both main actors come from acting families,” he added.

Lead actress Mohanan was forthcoming in her surprise at the fast turnaround from casting to appearing on set. “I came on set one week before we started filming. The process started and it was incredible… we had so many creative highs.” She is clearly visibly excited to have been given an opportunity by a truly well-respected director, though it didn’t affect her on set. “I don’t think it really hit me until the shoot was over. I had no time to take it in! It was incredible and the journey was so beautiful. So many of my scenes were so intense. I’d never done that before and I didn’t think i could do that.”

Actor Khatter was equally positive about the process, praising the method Majidi used to get the most out of the cast. “He didn’t want to give us time to develop the character. He’d rather we did it on set.”

The results are astonishing.

A. R. Rahman provides the score. Rahman previously worked with Majidi on the film ‘The Prophet Mohammad: The Messenger of God’. In the two years it took to complete that soundtrack, they grew to be close collaborators. The score for ‘Beyond The Clouds’ ebbs and flows, allowing the picture to breathe around it. It is never more apparent than the opening scene, bringing to life an introductory montage that explains fully the character Aamir and illuminating the dark corners of Mumbai that the visuals reveal.

There are several key scenes that use silhouettes, which prove to be a recurring theme and are used to portray contrasting emotional situations. Early in the film Aamir witnessed the trafficking of women through a silhouetted screen, bringing him suspicion. Later on there’s a powerful scene involving an arresting sexual assault on a woman that plays out behind hanging sheets. It’s a simple framing device that runs throughout the film and each shot is captured perfectly by director Majidi working alongside cinematographer Anil Mehta.

Beyond the Clouds is a wonderful film. At 58, Majidi is still taking huge risks that are paying off. The result is a raw and believable story that has plenty of heart and a powerful message. Simply a must see.

Film review – Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2017)

On Thursday 20th September 1973, 55-year-old former male tennis pro Bobby Riggs took on then-current Women’s Wimbledon champion Bille Jean King in a $100,000 winner-takes-all exhibition match. Whilst the prize was significant – King won only £3000 for her Wimbledon title – the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ was more significant in terms of what it meant for the game itself. As King herself put it, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match. It would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”

Now, the match and the surrounding attention has been turned into a motion picture, courtesy of the directorial team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, their third feature film after debut Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006) and follow-up Ruby Sparks‘ (2012).

And it’s really rather good.

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King (Stone) and Riggs (Carrell) pose for the cameras.

The biopic stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. It is clear from the start that both actors are relishing the chance to portray such iconic characters. Both have stories worth telling, which makes the final result feel fast-paced.

Riggs is larger than life, spouting ridiculous phrase after ridiculous phrase in the hope of any kind of attention. Carell is perfect for the role and, as usual, delivers something remarkably entertaining, far beyond the abilities of someone many mistake for a simple comedic actor. It’s amazing that Carell avoids becoming irritating, clearly enjoying with aplomb the misogynistic phrases Riggs became famous for.

King’s agenda is to exact revenge on those who underestimate the abilities of women tennis players, epitomised by Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), and ensure that women tennis players were given a level of respect and pay equal to their male counterparts. It is a more complex role than Carell’s, especially when factoring in her failing marriage to Larry King (Austin Stowell) and her blossoming romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

Stone again proves her acting mettle with an absolutely brilliant performance. She truly is an actor at the top of her game. It is her first portrayal of a real person, but she has clearly benefited from time spent with Billie Jean King in getting her mannerisms perfectly nailed down.

Equally, be ready to gasp at the end when you’re reminded exactly how much Steve Carell looks like Bobby Riggs.

This is a story that is as important to the LGBT community as it is to discussions about women’s rights and equality in sport and, more widely, in every profession. Billie Jean King was the first prominent female athlete to publicly acknowledge that she is a lesbian. Whilst this tale isn’t fully explored – it is limited to the reactions of Billie Jean King, Larry King, Marilyn Barnett and rival tennis player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) – there is certainly a sense of the impact this would have had at a critical moment in the blossoming of the women’s tennis game.

It is rare that a biopic comes together with such a perfect cast and crew and tells a story so effectively and authentically. ‘Battle of the Sexes’ a fine achievement in filmmaking and one I will undoubtedly enjoy for a second time when it receives its full UK release later this year.

Film review – Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

As I sat alone in the local multiplex chain cinema, watching the fellow viewers trickling in, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the couple on a date a few rows in front of me. They’d stocked up for the next couple of hours with the standard fare: a popcorn tub bigger than their own heads, a couple of XL soft drinks, a pouch full of chocolate nibbles. They may well have been wearing Star Wars t-shirts, hoping to see lead actor John Boyega in something other than Poe Dameron’s jacket, but I didn’t quite see. The point is, they almost certainly had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. To some extent, neither did I.

As a British man in his early 30s, the real tragedy of the 1967 Detroit Riots were largely lost on me until the announcement of Kathryn Bigelow’s film. It’s a film seeking to shed light on the events that unfolded at the Algiers Motel as part of the 12th Street Riot. Whilst the motives behind making the film may have been perfectly justifiable when its production was announced in January 2016, the poignancy of its release over the backdrop of the recent events in Charlottesville could only be lost on the most unaware of cinema goers.

The film is split into three acts. The first provides a backdrop to the riots and the status of the never-ending and constantly evolving racial tensions across the USA. This act also serves to introduce some of the key players in the film: Boyega stars as diplomatic security guard Melvin Dismukes; Will Poulter portrays trigger-happy policeman Philip Kraus; Algee Smith is aspiring singer and performer Larry Reed; Hannah Murray features as young female Julie Ann.

The final act is essentially a courtroom drama that covers the fallout from the middle portion, which is a breathtaking piece of cinema that Bigelow has chosen to tell in realtime. Kraus heads up a police operation to discover what is believed to be a sniper rifle fired from the Algiers Motel, with a group of innocent black men standing accused along with two white girls. The racism is evident, driving the policemen’s actions and words to breaking point, leaving several people dead and the remainder with horrific memories of the night.

It is overwhelmingly upsetting and unsettling, made even worse by the fact it is based on accounts of real events. It seems unfathomable that anyone could watch this and not wince. It’s certainly something that has stayed fresh in my mind since I saw the film, which gives me a fraction of an idea of what it must be like for the survivors of the incident.

John Boyega’s performance is perfectly nuanced as he stands by almost helpless, doing what he can to keep the accused alive. As a security guard he is afforded a degree of respect, though it is respect that is only uniform deep. It’s not an easy role to pull off. The scene in the police interrogation room that kicks of Act 3 is almost as horrifying as what has come before, and it is in this scene that Boyega really shows his acting mettle.

Will Poulter is also worth pulling out as the extraordinarily derisible policeman Kraus. It may just be so good that he will suffer typecasting for the rest of his career. The role is written so you can do nothing but hate him, but not every actor can achieve this with such little charm. That’s deliberate and is thus a genuine triumph by Poulter.

Detroit has seemingly fallen away at the box office now, failing to recoup the production costs. In a week where The Emoji Movie continues to run having made a global profit of over $30m, I can’t help but wonder whether escapism is the order of the day for film fans at the moment. Why would we want to see a long film like this when it seems to be on the news every week anyway?

Film review: Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

When Christopher Nolan’s latest project was announced to be a big-screen interpretation of the famous evacuation of the Allied troops from Dunkirk beach in May 1940 during World War II, it seemed like an unusual choice. His recent output has concentrated on science fiction and fantasy; between directing the Dark Knight trilogy and his subsequent involvement with the Man of Steel films, he also found time to craft two epic science fiction films in the form of Inception and Interstellar.

A war epic felt like a shift into reality. Whilst nobody could doubt his credentials, such a film would certainly rely more on realistic-looking non-CGI special effects. It’s also true that getting these effects wrong would have ruined the authenticity of his art.

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In the run up to the release, the controversies and concerns trickled over the media, though they were far outweighed by the plaudits from those lucky enough to see the film in previews.

One of the biggest concerns was the casting of pop singer Harry Styles in one of the lead roles. I can confidently say that any worries about his ability to act are completely unfounded. He does an excellent job in his debut role.

The entire cast are excellent. The most well-known amongst them – Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hardy – need no praise to confirm their ability. It is the newcomers that really shine, amongst them Fionn Whitehead and Tom Glynn-Carney. The latter is a real coup for Nolan, having only acted on stage previously and even then in small quantities. He clearly has a bright future ahead of him.

Visually, the film is stunning. Everything feels real, rom the harshness of the conditions to the shock of the relentless attacks, and contributes to the most stressful and involved journey I’ve been on during a film since The Revenant. It is an ordeal from start to finish, with the stress reflecting in a small way exactly what the soldiers were going through at the time.

Nolan has made a bold but effective choice in the non-linear storytelling method utilised. It is told in three intertwining parts that slowly converge into one storyline. In ‘The Mole’, the soldiers stranded on the Dunkirk beach (Styles, Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard) have a gruelling week-long escape story as Branagh’s Commandor Bolton repeatedly tries to execute an escape route for his men. In ‘The Sea’, Rylance’s Mr Dawson takes his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) across the English Channel on a leisure boat to rescue evacuees, picking up an unnamed British soldier (Murphy) along the way, in a story that spans one day. In ‘The Air’, Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot Farrier’s story takes one hour to complete as he and Pilot Officer Collins (Jack Lowden) take out enemy planes in their Spitfires. As these play out, we often see visual reminders from the other storylines that serve to anchor each one alongside the others. The stories feel inextricably linked from the start, but it’s a joy to see them play out so perfectly together.

Hans Zimmer’s score is effective in unsettling the viewer throughout. It was explained recently in a fascinating article on Business Insider. “There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a ‘Shepherd Tone'”, Nolan informed them. “It’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone. It’s a corkscrew effect. It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range. And I wrote the Dunkirk script according to that principle. I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.”

This effect is never more evident than during the final climactic moments as the score track ‘The Oil’ plays out. It’s simply breathtaking.

Christopher Nolan has made a career out of crafting cinematic experiences that feel part of one person’s vision. Like other contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson or Nicolas Winding Refn, they are experts in their field partly because viewers can watch their films and within seconds recognise their work. They are auteurs. That Nolan seems to be achieving this in such a wide gamut of genres is all the more remarkable.

Dunkirk is a film you have to see right now. It is the film you have to see right now.

Film review – The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

Sofia Coppola’s choice to take on ‘The Beguiled’, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel ‘A Painted Devil’, could be considered a bold move. The novel served as the source material for Don Siegel’s 1971 film, also titled ‘The Beguiled’, with Clint Eastwood taking the lead role. Its popularity is evidenced by its 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating. A classic story about a soldier starring an all-time great film actor.

A simple remake would be drab, especially by Sofia Coppola. To reposition the whole story from the perspective of the women involved is a brilliant move and a gamble that pays dividends. The result is a swirling story of suspicion, falsities and lust that puts the central trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning at the forefront of the repositioned and wholly captivating story, reducing the central soldier figure to something akin to a supporting role.

The faded dresses the girls wear suggest a ghostly edge to their lives

The film is set in 1964 Virginia, USA, a prominent part of the Confederates States in the American Civil War. A young girl named Amy (Oona Lawrence) from a local Christian all-girls school is out picking mushrooms and stumbles across an injured solider. The man, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is a soldier fighting for the Union Army of the north who finds himself critically injured and behind enemy lines. She decides to help him by taking him back to the school grounds. The head of the school, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), treats his wounds and nurses him back to recovery, whilst teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst) and older student Alicia (Fanning) become immediately interested in this mysterious man who has unexpectedly entered their lives. This is the perfect invitation for McBurney, with little to lose, to begin a charm offensive and attempt to stay at the school and avoid returning to the war.

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A captivating scene between Farrell and Dunst

 

McBurney may have been reduced to a supporting role, but Colin Farrell makes the most of his screen time to make sure the frenzy of interest is well justified. As in the novel, the character is a man of Irish heritage and Farrell plays on the stereotypes of a cheeky and charming Irishman to great effect. His character needs to stay in the school for as long as possible and he does his best to ensure everyone there doesn’t want him to leave. For Amy he offers a best friend and father figure, for Alicia he offers lust, for Edwina he offers the chance to escape and for Martha he offers intelligent conversation and companionship. This plotting is ultimately his downfall, and when it is abruptly halted Farrell is equally adept at exploding with anger – the juxtaposition against his charm making his performance all the more shocking.

 

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Dunst and Farrell

Coppola has crafted a film that lives in a completely different time to that of her last film, 2013’s The Bling Ring. It was a move she actively sought to make, that film inhabiting an entirely more ugly modern world of theft, celebrity and social media that marked a departure from the norm for the director. It was a very good film, but was less well received than the likes of Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides; films that have helped define her as one of the most distinctive and identifiable directors in modern cinema. If The Bling Ring failed to speak the language we were used to, Coppola makes sure her voice is deafening in The Beguiled.

It is Dunst that eventually becomes the standout performer in a strong ensemble cast. She has been through a lot on film with Sofia Coppola, from a 15-year-old lustfully oppressed girl in The Virgin Suicides, to a precocious queen in the form of the titular Marie Antionette. In The Beguiled, Edwina is a character that could feasibly be lost alongside strong showings from Fanning and Kidman in roles of women who more clearly know what they want. Edwina is far more nuanced, at a juncture in her life where she feels lost. She is a woman who feels she is losing time and wasting her best years in a place far removed from a life. When Farell asks her what her one truest wish is, she simply responds that she wants to go as far away as she can from her current life. In the end, it was this character that I felt most sorry for, far more so that McBurney or any of the other girls.

For anyone wondering whether or not Coppola had lost her knack after an extremely strong start, a steady middle and a potential blunder in the form of A Very Murray Christmas, you will be pleased to know that The Beguiled is 100% a return to form. It may not go down in history as a great – as is the case with Lost in Translation – but it’s a fine film indeed.

Note: For further reading on Sofia Coppola’s response to controversies surrounding the omission of a slave girl from the original novel, read this article. I don’t see it as relevant to the discussion on the film so haven’t mentioned it in the main body.