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.

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Film review – ការពារឧក្រិដ្ឋជន / Jailbreak (Jimmy Henderson, 2017)

Shot on a budget of just $260,000, Jimmy Henderson’s latest release ‘Jailbreak’ is an impressive and resourceful film that is far beyond the sum of its parts.

The film is set almost entirely in the Phak Kai Prison complex, where a small team of police officers are sent to deliver the notorious criminal Playboy (Savin Phillip) to his cells under the belief he is the leader of the notorious Butterfly Gang. Aware that he is going to reveal her true identity, real gang leader Madame Butterfly (Céline Tran) instigates a prison riot to attempt to capture and murder Playboy, which leaves our team of police – including Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our and Tharoth Sam – to fight their way out of the prison complex and avoid being killed.

London-based stuntman and actor Jean-Paul Ly was on hand to introduce the film before its screening at the London Film Festival. He has an illustrious stunt career, recently working on Lucy, Doctor Strange and Now You See Me 2. His role in Jailbreak was two-fold. Not only did he star in the picture but he also trained all the stunt team involved. “There is no action film industry in Cambodia, which means that there is no stunt actor industry in Cambodia,” he said, recollecting the project. “I said ‘Where are all the stunt people?’ and (producer Loy Te) said ‘There’s nobody any, so you’ll have to train extras!’, which I thought was a joke but he was deadly serious.” They trained every weekend for sixteen hours and ended up with 80 extras all capable of performing in action films.

The results are incredible, especially considering the background to the production. The bokator fighting style, one of the oldest traditional fighting systems in Cambodia, features heavily in the action sequences.

Te and Henderson enlisted Cambodian MMA champion Tharoth Sam as the sole female police officer. She’s capable of holding her own in a fight and is also responsible for most of the best one-liners, using great comic timing to stop the all-male cast dragging the film back into the 1980s.

Céline Tran also appears in her first action film role, following a successful career in the pornographic film industry. She’s a great antagonist as Madame Butterfly and clearly has a lot of fun in the role, eventually getting a one-on-one fight with Sam towards the end of the film.

The Cambodian action film industry is, essentially, in its infancy. With films like this and Jimmy Henderson’s previous effort Hanuman leading the light, there is every chance that we’ll see an swell of quality films over the coming years that will help to grow the industry.

If they can do this for $260,000, we can only imagine what they could do with a Hollywood budget.

Film review – Verónica (Paco Plaza, 2017)

Director/writer Paco Plaza latest horror film Verónica received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this week. The film’s short running time ensures that there are few dull moments, though a pulsating finalé does its best to make up for a lack of characterisation beyond the titular lead.

Based on a real life police report, the film opens with a frantic emergency call and response. It is June 1991. Madrid. A girl screams down the phone that there is someone in their house. Once there, the police officers discover evidence of paranormal activity and it becomes the first official officer report to corroborate evidence of the occult. It is that real-life report that Plaza uses as a starting point.

Verónica (debutant Sandra Escacena) is a teenager who is trying to cope with the death of her father. Busy with her school work, looking after her siblings full time (her mother is around but works long hours), but feeling outcast at school, Verónica is a girl mature beyond her years in many respects. However, she seeks an escape from her isolation in the form of a ouija board séance, which she plans to carry out during a solar eclipse with her school friends Rosa (Angela Fabian) and Diana (Carla Campra).

The three girls conduct the séance in a manner that ticks off very much every quintessential horror trope. The glass smashes, the lights go out, the board rips, panic ensues. It’s ticking all the right boxes but doesn’t ever feel like it’s convincing in any of it.

Indeed, throughout the film there are a number of typical plot points that serve to underline Plaza’s love of the genre, which some will see as a love letter to the genre. Many, however, will see it as a lack of ideas.

At times, it felt like there wasn’t enough time to explore the relationships between the main characters. Seemingly pivotal lead characters in the first act are largely forgotten by the end, whilst the mother changes from negligent workaholic to loving mother over the course of three days, without ever feeling like there’s a strong bond between her and her children.

Conversely, there is clearly a playful rapport between all of the children. Twin sisters Lucía and Irene (Bruna González’s and Claudia Placer respectively) have a real bond and it is in some of their natural banter that the film sparks into life. Their younger brother Antoñito inspires a lot of sympathy due to his hopelessness, which Iván Chavero portrays wonderfully. Together the results are great and the scenes they share are entirely believable.

Another positive is Plaza’s deliberate lack of use of CGI effects, which serves the film well. Black, monstrous hands appearing from out of a bed is something that is so easily done as a practical effect, but yet this seems to be something many modern directors would add in the CGI studio at a later date. The terror felt by the children is palpable.

By the conclusion of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the story had been embellished based on the police report. What we have is an isolated, depressed teenage girl who is obsessed with the occult. The police may have been called to the house, but it would be negligent to blame the occurrences on the occult based on the scant evidence available. This is clearly a girl in need of attention and mourning the loss of a father, unable to find an outlet.

In cinematic terms, that can all be forgiven with a pulsating climax that feels pacy and realistic, making any worries about the plot slightly moot. Sometimes horror is just about delivering thrills and making your audience share in the terror of the main characters. For the last fifteen minutes that’s exactly what we get.

Film review – 夜明け告げるルーのうた / Lu Over The Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Japanese anime? Quirky soundtrack? Human forms an unlikely bond with a fish person? Yes, it may look on the surface to be just like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2010 film ‘Ponyo’, but Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Lu Over The Wall’, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this weekend, is far from a simple rip-off.

The second release from the Science Saru Animation studio, after Yuasa’s earlier ‘The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’, centres around Kai (voiced by Suma Saitō), a gloomy and distant music-creating teenager living in a small fishing town in Japan with his father and grandfather. Kai is pestered into joining a band by two of his schoolmates. Their first rehearsal, on the abandoned Mermaid Island, awakens the interest of Lu (voiced by Kanon Tani), a mermaid who is vulnerable to sunlight but loves to listen to music and dance. Following a confrontation with bullies the band catch illegally poaching fish, Lu comes to the rescue and forms an unlikely bond with Kai and his bandmates as she joins the group and they are handed the opportunity to perform at a local festival.

This is a bizarre film that provides some genuine laughs throughout. The music is quirky, leading to some pretty imaginative reactions from the villagers when they first hear Lu singing. One suspects that this scene was exactly what the director Yuasa had in mind when he started, building the rest of the general idea towards making sure he got the best laughs out of these scenes. It’s daftly entertaining and really hits the spot.

There are more laughs when Lu breaks into a centre for stray dogs and releases them to create a wave of mer-puppies. It’s easy to imagine how much fun the animators and story writers were having when they conceptualised that.

‘Lu Over The Wall’ won the top prize at this year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival, and there is good reason. Park the inevitable comparison to ‘Ponyo’ and seek out this fun and fancy free animation.

Then spend the rest of the day trying to get that music out of your head.

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 – Arabesque (Stanley Donen, 1966)

“Our only hope is to make it so visually exciting the audience will never have time to work out what the hell is going on”. This damning statement by director Stanley Donan about the film ‘Arabesque’, as recalled by cinematographer Christopher Challis in his 1995 memoirs ‘Are They Really So Awful?‘, explains quite a lot about the final product. It had reportedly already cost $400,000 to have the script rewritten several times, partly due to the casting of Gregory Peck instead of the preferred choice of Cary Grant in the lead role. The result is a film that is almost the definition of style over substance, with a feeling of a real missed opportunity to something truly special.

The confused and therefore confusing script centres around Professor David Pollack (Grant), an expert in ancient hieroglyphics. He is approached aggressively by Middle Eastern Prime Minister Hassan Jena (Carl During) and his ambassador to Great Britain, Mohammed Lufti (Harold Kasket), who offer him £20,000 to solve a hieroglyph-based riddle, the answer to which is highly urgent. Pollack is forced to work inside the mansion of shipping magnate Nejim Beshraavi (Alan Badel), where he also meets the infinitely distracting Yasmin Azir (Sophia Loren), though he quickly realises that he will be killed once he has solved the riddle and decides to escape, with Yasmin in tow, triggering a chase across the brilliantly-captured 1960s London.

Stanley Donen had risen in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s following a prolonged successful run of musical films, primarily with MGM. Having made his name as a Hollywood choreographer in the 1940s, he helmed such classics as On The Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957) and The Pajama Game (1957). He was, by the end of the 1950s, regarded as one of the great directors from the golden era of Hollywood.

Donen then set his base in London, a move that coincided with the breakdown of his marriage to Marion Marshall. This film is one of a handful that were produced during Donen’s British period, which defined a decade of his career throughout the 1960s. The period was a fruitful one, yielding such films as 1960 ‘Once More, with Feeling!‘ and ‘Surprise Package’ (both 1960), ‘Charade’ (1963), ‘Two for the Road and ‘Bedazzled (both 1967) and the now-hard-to-find camp comedy ‘Staircase‘ (1969).

Arabesque‘ could be seen as Donen’s attempt to make a film in the style of Hitchcock, with the feeling of a political suspense mirror reminiscent of ‘Torn Curtain‘, which had been released in 1966. If it was, it was a failure, with any feeling of suspense being lost amongst a clumsy plot that is tricky to follow.

For all the failings of the plot, the sheer beauty of Sophia Loren cannot be escaped. Dressed in the exquisite fashion of Christian Dior, she is the perfect example of elegance in film. Indeed, it is a point the studio and director were clearly keen to underline, with a special note during the opening credits that reads “Miss Sophia Loren’s wardrobe specially created by Christian Dior”. One can’t help but contrast this with the epic failure of Donen’s final box-office release ‘Blame it on Rio’, which feels comparatively devoid of any artistic merit and relies on smut and nudity to progress the plot.

To begin to enjoy this film, one must suspend the entirely noticeable fact that there are a handful of Arabic characters that feature in the film, none of whom are of Arabic descent. It’s something that simply isn’t commonplace in 2017, which may be jarring to the modern viewer, though cinephiles will surely have to cope with much worse as they explore further back into the history of cinema.

Whilst the first two acts plod from plot twist to excruciating plot twist at a terrifying rate that feels both too fast and too slow to elicit any kind of positive response, the same cannot be said of the final act. It is here that we are finally rewarded for sticking with the film and are rewarded with a chase scene across some famous landmarks that feels as spectacular as any of Donen’s dance routines of his early career.

The question remains whether or not the audience should be made to work for around 90 minutes for such a pay-off, but regardless of this fact there is enough going on here to warrant a viewing. It’s not so much style-over-substance and style-then-substance. If you’re happy for this imbalance as the two factors are tragically compartmentalised, then you’ll find a fairly decent piece of cinema awaits you.

Film review – Little Evil (Eli Craig, 2017)

If the thought of a horror-comedy fills you with dread, if not for the scary monsters then more for the fact that they usually fall short of whatever they’re trying to achieve, then fear not. Little Evil may not truly be a great horror film, nor is it a hilarious comedy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. For those wanting something lighthearted this Halloween there are much worse ways to spend 95 minutes.

Adam Scott stars as Gary, a real estate worker who has married Samantha (Evangeline Lilly), who comes with baggage in the form of her son Lucas (Owen Atlas), who Gary suspects may be the Antichrist. As he unravels the truth behind his new stepson, he is forced to form unlikely bonds in a race against time to save his family and the world.

There are supporting roles from the brilliant Bridgett Everett, Donald Faison, Chris D’Elia, Kyle Bornheimer and a surprising cameo by Sally Field, though this is less surprising when you learn that director Eli Craig is her son. It’s an ensemble cast that are able to provide plenty of humour to keep the wagon rolling without ever feeling like it stutters.

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The film is peppered with nods to horror greats, presumably so that fans of the genre will giddily point at the screen and say “Oh, that’s the clown from Poltergeist!” at their less-versed friends. Of course, the more likely reaction is a roll of the eyes and silence, but the references are done in good faith. Sure, giving the child a 6th birthday on 6th June is fairly obvious, but not all comedy has to be subtle to be successful.

There is a worry that the film lacks any memorable gags and also fails to produce any striking horror set-pieces, though the movement of the buried-alive scene to the start of the film provides an impactful opening.

Adam Scott is a great leading man here, producing a relatable everyman who wants to make things work despite obvious signs that something is awry. There’s an art to his delivery of disbelief that only he seems to notice that Lucas is hiding something. It’s good to see him in a more prominent role than he is usually given.

Eli Craig has produced a fine follow up to his breakthrough film Tucker and Dale vs Evil. It has found a suitable home on the VOD service Netflix, which reduces the risk of it being a flop at cinemas and will undoubtedly increase viewership in the October double-header of Friday 13th and Halloween. It is notable, however, that it has quickly vanished from the front page of the service, making foot-fall traffic a little less likely.

Incidentally, Tucker and Dale vs Evil is also available on Netflix. If you’ve seen neither, Little Evil should be the one you approach second.