Film review – Photograph (Ritesh Batra, 2019)

Photograph is a sweet film that has the feel of being a western take on what Indian cinema is. It’s doesn’t have any large set pieces or emotional pyrotechnics, the character development is sparse and the ending is fairly predictable, but despite these the overall effect is largely positive.

Director Ritesh Batra has returned to ground familiar to anyone who saw his soaring debut The Lunchbox, which brought him to prominence in 2013. The concept of an unlikely friendship blossoming into an even unlikelier romance is revisited here, with a beautifully-shot Mumbai serving as the backdrop for both. Fans of his debut expecting another uplifting romance will feel a little shortchanged, so it’s best to appreciate with a fresh palate.

With Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Rafi and Sanya Malhotra as Miloni Shah, the film is in great hands. These are two complex characters and they’ve clearly thought through every move under the guidance of director Batra. Rafi has an underlying anger that is fully realised without he need to clumsily explore his past through flashbacks irrelevant to the main plot. He plays it perfectly – a man frustrated by the pressures of arranged marriages that are being compounded by the arrival of his meddling but well-meaning grandma (Dadi).

Equally, Sanya Malhotra negotiates her role delicately. Hers is a character who goes a long way to keep those around her happy, so starting a relationship with someone unknown to her family is a huge step. It’s a role relevant to so many global movements to ensure better rights for women, though some may question if her stance is a little too understated. Or perhaps it’s just more realistic in her situation than if she’d openly displayed anger.

The ending is effective, even though it was signposted from about ten minutes in. Yes, it’s a poor man and a rich girl falling in love, which is tried and tested ground for so many films – a fact they mention in the climactic scene – but it’s certainly not handled clumsily. Just because we’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.

It isn’t a groundbreaking film, but not every piece of cinema has to be to leave a lasting effect.

Advertisements

Film review – Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2017)

If you’ve seen Toni Erdmann, you may be forgiven for leaving the cinema mightily confused. Not because the film was overly complicated, but perhaps because you’d watched a film drastically wide of what you’d been expecting. Marketed primarily as a German-Austrian slapstick comedy (schpalschtick? I’m coining it now), what audience have instead been challenged to watch is an affecting tragic drama that deals with a man’s disjointed relationship with his career-focussed daughter and tries to cultivate some kind of relationship amidst the complicated web of activity she has built around herself.

Toni Erdmann is the alter ego name of Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), the father of Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). She is working as a business consultant in Bucharest, but returns to her hometown following the death of the family dog. When Winfried realises she is unduly stressed and taking a fake phone call in the back garden, he decides to follow her back to Bucharest and spy on her to find out more about her life.

 

One of the main polarising aspects of the film is the relationship between the father and daughter. Depending on how you interpret it, you might see him as a terrible father who is undermining his daughter’s progress in her career. She is trying her hardest to be taken seriously in her role in the midst of some terrible sexism in her workplace, but he is treating her whole life as a joke and she is right to distance herself due to the feeling of resentment over his actions. One cringe-worthy encounter involves an important business meeting with an important contact Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) at an evening drinks social, whereby she makes a serious suggestion on a business level, but instead is asked by the man to take his wife shopping, whilst Ines’s father – as the ridiculous titular Toni – is invited for more drinks. A frustrating scene that portrays the subtleties of sexism at their absolute worst.

However, if you side with the father and assume that he is a totally devoted father – or at least one regretting not being devoted in the past – then you can read it that he has seen his daughter struggling, depressed and stressed, and wants to help her realise that there is more to life than being stressed at work. When he sees his daughter being pushed around by her workmates and not being treated equally, then he realises he needs to step in and show her what she can’t see – that she’s wasting her time.

 

After contemplating the film for over a week, I’m still not entirely sure where I sit on this, though I’m leaning towards the latter.

There are moments of real comedy in the film, but they are often laced with tragedy serving to undercut any notion that this is a comedy. There is a memorable scene when she organises a birthday brunch, which is only organised because it offers an opportunity for work colleagues to socialise. However, when she gets stuck in her dress whilst getting ready, she decides to simply take the dress off and answer the door with no clothes on. Initially humorous, the ripples of laughter disintegrated as the audience in my screening realised that we were witnessing a woman having a breakdown.

It’s a truly intelligent film that refuses to provide any definitive interpretations on the situation, instead allowing the viewers to make up their own mind. Thought-provoking and well-executed – exactly what a film should be.

Der Letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (F. W. Murnau, 1924)

Alfred Hitchcock once described Murnau’s The Last Laugh as an “almost perfect film”. Watching it now it’s hard to disagree with him.

The film stars Emil Jannings as a nameless aging doorman at a well-respected hotel in Germany. The manager of the hotel notices him and decides he is too old to perform his job properly and is reflecting poorly on the hotel. He decides to demote him to the position of attendant in the washroom. Feeling demeaned and now without his uniform, the man slips into depression. 

It’s an astonishing and gripping performance from Jannings, and one that is rightly celebrated even ninety years on. The ability to fully engross the audience is formidable, with many long periods of the film simply focused on his facial expressions. It’s a one-man-show, and a film played out with just one intertitle. The basics of the plot can be explained briefly (see the second paragraph), but the meat of the story that makes it so special is acted out entirely facially through his animated grief.

Fortunately, the Masters of Cinema release includes the original 1924 Giuseppe Becce score, orchestrated and performed by Detlev Glanert. This single option takes out the uncertainty that often surrounds these classic films rereleased and the score is a perfect match for the visuals.

The epilogue following the only intertitle seems a little fanciful and at odds with the rest of the film. The intertitle even offers a disclaimer for it, almost apologising for not following through on the overly-realistic story it had played out in the previous sixty minutes. It provides a happy ending to the audience but feels a little like a studio executive has forced the ending on Murnau.

At the heart of it, it is a film that challenges the viewer to think about how we allow people to lose their confidence and treat older people with less respect than they deserve. It was, at the time, an unusual film with an extraordinary plot. Its success gave confidence to other directors to believe that a film could be whatever they wanted it to be. In that sense, it is one of the most important films of the silent era and one you should seek out as soon as you can.

[1] Bade, James, N. Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ and Hitchcocks subjective camera. Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 23 (2006).

Film review – Frantz (François Ozon, 2016)

Set primarily in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, François Ozon’s latest film is an emotional story portrayed almost entirely in black and white. It revolves around Anna (Paula Beer), a woman who is living with the parents of her lost lover and supporting each other in their collective grief. That man is the titular Frantz (Anton von Lucke), who we learn has lost his life in battle during the war. When a Frenchman by the name of Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up at Frantz’s grave to give his respects, he tells them of his close friendship to their mutually lost friend.

Adrien (Niney) and Anna (Beer)

Ozon is something of a prolific filmmaker on almost the same level as Woody Allen. Since his celebrated debut feature length film Sitcom in 1998, he has written and directed sixteen films, amongst them the critically acclaimed Swimming Pool and the highly successful Potiche. Yet Frantz is, by all accounts, a departure in style for him and sees him in relatively unfamiliar territory with a historical war drama.

It is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ by Maurice Rostand. Before writing his script, Ozon was unaware that the play had already been adapted by legendary filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch as the film Broken Lullaby in 1931, though when he watched the film he realised that it was a completely different treatment to the direction he wanted to go with Frantz. He wanted to give the focus of the film to Anna, who was on the losing side of the war, providing more empathy to her as the central character.

There is an interesting chemistry between Beer and Niney, both of whom are playing extremely complex characters. They share this individual that has had a huge affect on their respective lives and begin to grow closer. Providing convincing characterisations of such  conflicting emotions is a challenge both rise to and it is this that elevates the film above being a wartime drama.

It was amazing to learn that this was Beer’s first performance acting as a French-language character. Many successful actresses couldn’t achieve what she has here in their first language let alone their second one. She revealed in a post-screening discussion that she had to learn and develop the script twice. Initially she developed the emotional responses to the words in her native German, before relearning the entire segments in French to ensure her delivery wasn’t lacklustre.

This is a truly moving film that gives an interesting point of view to the fallout from war that hasn’t often been explored before. Superb delivery from the two complex central characters means this comes highly recommended.

Film review – Julieta (Pedro Almodóvar, 2016)

The latest film from Pedro Almodóvar, Julieta, is a stunning interwoven story of mystery and intrigue that the director takes great care in unraveling for our viewing pleasure.

Centred around the titular character, we are introduced to Julieta as she plans to move from central Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo. However, a chance encounter with a friend of her daughter causes her to completely rethink her decision. Her daughter, Antía, has been missing for several years and moving will mean any chance of reconnecting with her will be lost. She opts to stay behind and rent an apartment in the last known address that her daughter could contact her. She fills her time hand writing her thoughts on the events that led to her daughter’s disappearance, which play out in the form of a long flashback that makes up the bulk of the film.

It is an adaptation of three stories by Alice Munro taken from her 2004 award winning book Runaway, which Almodóvar first hinted at in his brilliant 2011 horror thriller The Skin I Live In via a Spanish-language version of the book being prominently read by one of the central characters.

The music in Julieta plays a critical part in setting the tone, switching it from serious drama to something slightly more sinister. It borders on sounding like a horror film at times, with the implied effect of hinting that whatever story has been revealed thus far still has more secrets within.


The success of the film ultimately lies on the two actresses who portray Julieta at various times through it her life. Fortunately, both Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte provide brilliant turns as the older and younger incarnations of Julieta, respectively. They are very different takes, resting either side of a devastating incident in her life. It works perfectly well and the change is handled with a certain elegance that ensures buy in from the audience.

Some ardent Almodóvar fans have been disappointed with his recent output, with some pointing to airplane-disaster-comedy  I’m So Excited as an indication that he’d lost his edge. Any doubts about how seriously he takes his work can be put to bed with Julieta – a beautiful work of art and a must see for anyone with a penchant for high quality cinema.

Julieta is available now on DVD.

BAFTA Nominees – A Closer Look

As we approach the Golden Globes tonight, what better time to take a closer look at some of the nominees for the BAFTAs, which take place on Sunday 8th February. Okay okay, it’s a daft time to look at them. Still, here we go.

Best Foreign Film
This is a really strong category, with all five films looking like a really strong contender for the top prize. I was really impressed by Two Days, One Night , and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was much celebrated following the focus created at the BFI London Film Festival (where it took the Best Film prize). However, for me the best foreign film of 2014 should go to The Lunchbox. Starring Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, The Amazing Spider-man and Nimrat Kaur (who you may recognise from Homeland), Ritesh Batra’s film was a really accomplished romantic drama that also dealt with aspects of loneliness, whilst capturing beautifully the claustrophobic life of the average Mumbai worker, in particular the dabbawalas delivering the lunchboxes from wife to husband. It didn’t really have a cutting edge political message for the modern viewers, but sometimes you just want to see an excellent film that lifts your spirits. This certainly does that, despite not following a path that we’ve come to expect from most European and American films in the same genre.

Rising Star Award
This is an interesting one. There has always been a level of scepticism attached to it because the winner is voted for by the public rater than industry experts (indeed you can vote for yourself here as long as you reside in the UK). The past results largely prove that the public have known what they’re talking about – James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Eva Green and Shia LeBeouf have all bagged this in the past. However, results like the 2012 prize going to Kidulthood star Adam Deacon really undermine its relevance (he was up against Thor and Loki, along with Eddie Redmayne and Chris O’Dowd). This year’s front runners for me are Jack O’Connell, star of two excellent films in ’71 and Unbroken, and Margot Robbie, who we saw a lot of in The Wolf of Wall Street. There are three other excellent nominees in Miles Telller (Whiplash), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars), but you have to remember that this is largely a popularity contest for the public to vote on, and a way to get people engaged with the awards. It’s also voted for by British people, and therefore it will more than likely be our boy Jack O’Connell happy on the night. This is good news, because his performances in Starred Up and ’71 were exceptional.

British Short Film and British Short Animation
There is a slight frustration with these two categories. Currently, there is a thriving short film industry globally as people make use of the easy distribution tools available to them via online media and streaming possibilities. So BAFTA have dedicated categories for short films and animated short films, which is great. Unfortunately not one of them is available to watch online. Trailers are there for most, but now is the time I’d be really keen to make my own mind up about what is nominated so I can form an opinion ahead of the ceremony. That’s the thing about fans of cinema – we really prefer to make or own mind up rather than be told what is great. I’m fortunate to have seen several of the heavily nominated films already, with only The Theory of Everything and Boyhood being missed. As a result, I can look at the top categories and agree or disagree with the result on the night. This lack of connection to the short film categories makes me frustrated as I’d love to be more engaged with these two categories. Last year they had a BAFTA shorts tour, and I hope they do the same again this time around, ahead of the big night.

Animated Film
Probably should go to The Lego Movie, which was brilliantly animated and hilarious from start to finish, but I’d tip The Boxtrolls to take it home. It was grotesque and surreal and full of wonderful voice acting, and I think the level of artistry and uniqueness involved may edge out the overall superior Lego Movie.

Documentary
As good as both 20 Feet from Stardom and 20,000 Days on Earth were, this has to go to Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour.

What Missed Out
I was disappointed that Lilting all but missed out completely, with director Hong Khaou the only nominee in the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer. The category will probably be awarded to Gregory Burke and Yann Demange for ’71 (which will be more than deserving anyway).

I was pleased to see Interstellar not have much joy, though I fear this won’t be the case when we get to the Oscar nominations on Thursday.

People talk of disappointment for Mr Turner, which completely missed out despite Timothy Spall getting a Cannes award for Best Actor. A surprise, especially as it is a British film.

I was personally disappointed Giovanni’s Island wasn’t in the Animated Film category, but it wasn’t a surprise. Big Hero 6 is unlikely to win and is probably only there to garner interest, but Giovanni’s Island had a really strong message and was one of my films of the year.

The BAFTA Awards take place on the evening of Sunday 8th February at London’s Royal Opera House and will be hosted by Stephen Fry.