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Let the Sunshine In

December 10, 2018

Let the Sunshine In (2018)
Director: Claire Denis
Actors: Juliette Binoche, Gérard Depardieu, Xavier Beauvois

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Synopsis: Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a fiftysomething artist who has a series of romantic and sexual encounters over a number of months.

Review: Arguably hamstrung by its overly cerebral approach to deconstructing the romantic genre, Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In is a film with an intent that takes some unpicking.

One of the more salient questions it poses is just where indeed is Denis positioning the audience and the moral of the story during the film? Conventional narrative proxies of chronology and character contextuality are bypassed for a whirring, episodic saunter through Isabelle’s love matches. This helps imprint that Isabelle’s psychology, and not her ever-changing cavalcade of suitors, is the film’s main focus, but, as mentioned earlier, that clear lack of moral positioning can frustrate.

There’s some merit in seeing the film as a relentlessly satirical snapshot of the intoxicating bourgeois maxim that finding love or “the one” is the true route to happiness and self-realisation, and that this tyranny enslaves people who fall outside its nuclear ideal in their middle-aged years. Thus, the focus of Isabelle’s encounters seems to be more the non-conversations, the non-sexiness of the love-making, the non-epiphanies. Is it even possible that casting Juliette Binoche in the lead role is the ultimate red herring, and that beneath the veneer of her character’s glamour and her cast of male suitors, her indefatigable quest for love is being mocked by Denis? That reading seems to bear fruit in the nicely gallows ending where Isabelle is engaged in further wrought, soapy analysis of her love life. Her ‘analyst’ in the scene – brilliantly incarnated by Gérard Depardieu, who, significantly, has just been shown by Denis to have broken up dramatically with a lover – is slowly revealed to be not an esteemed psychologist, but a mere clairvoyant, spinning his words to keep Isabelle on her endless carousel of romantic hope (as well as to presumably keep him in some money).

Deconstructing a genre is an ambitious ask in 90 minutes, and Denis will no doubt lose audience members along the way who fail to perceive the satire, but perhaps isn’t that Denis’ point? I’m sure she’s way beyond making concessions to her audience anyway. (December 2018)

Jeune Femme

December 9, 2018

Jeune Femme (2018)
Director: Léonor Sérraille
Actors: Laetitia Dosch, Souleymane Seye Ndiaye, Grégoire Monsaingeon

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Synopsis: A few chaotic weeks in the life of Paula (Laetitia Dosch), a woman recently broken up from her longtime partner, and battling to integrate herself into a ‘normal’ working lifestyle again.

Review: There is initial merit in Léonor Sérraille’s propulsive blast through a young woman’s increasingly desperate attempts to reestablish her purpose and agency in an unforgiving contemporary Parisian landscape, but Sérraille’s narrative becomes progressively less meaningful the more it descends into rote dramaturgy and prescriptive identity politics.

The film’s opening section is its most formally interesting and nuanced section as we are thrust viscerally into the very space and edgy mania of our proxy, Paula. Sérraille’s non-omniscient narration and the jarring use of jump cuts and sudden time lapses approximate Paula’s seeming unreliability. Paula functions as an antihero, and, if you’ll pardon the crude analogy, there’s a touch of the Travis Bickle about Sérraille’s intent to position us claustrophobically inside the unpredictable, evolving scenario of Paula’s attempts to make some connections to normative society through friends, strangers and potential employers.

At the end of its first act, just when the film has the audience right where it wants them, it begins this reductive devolution into cheaper rhetoric. Paula becomes a form of clown, reflecting back on a neatly unnuanced world of patriarchal and bourgeois villainy. The problem with this is that if it wants to place Paula as more conventionally sympathetic, it overlooks that much of her behaviour is morally questionable and that she is, quite simply, even more irritating and ideologically uninteresting than the majority of characters she spoofs.

The film’s crowing glory of its dramaturgical cop-out is when it introduces the cipher of bourgeois and patriarchal antagonism – Paula’s previously unseen ex, Joachim, a most conveniently written man-hating cliché of a sleazy, older Parisian intellectual. Sérraille’s machinations have him grovellingly want to make up with a newly emboldened Paula, even attempting to rape her at one point, just so it can confer greater nobility on Paula’s moral ascension by the close. A fact further embellished by the clumsy and inadvertently patronising conception of an African immigrant character, Ousmane, who only really serves as a blank canvas of well-meaning white liberal intention to enable Paula’s closing ‘epiphany’. (December 2018)


December 8, 2018

Shoplifters (2018)
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Actors: Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matusoka

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Synopsis: A makeshift family lives on the margins of society in a poor district in Tokyo. They ‘adopt’ a young girl both neglected and abused by her mother, and this sets in motion of chain of events that sees all the family members confronted with the repercussions of their lifestyle.

Review: Garlanded with almost uniformly ecstatic reviews and even this year’s Palme d’Or, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters isn’t quite a match on his finest films, After Life and Our Little Sister, but perhaps the Cannes award was as much a summative gesture after an incredibly prolific and impressive run of yearly releases.

My marginal misgiving with Shoplifters might be that – as per the loosely similar Nobody Knows – it is a touch sentimental and didactic, and Kore-eda plays into the pathos and irony of his alternative family unit a bit too much. This especially comes across in the conception of Yuri, the very young, neglected girl, whose gradual thawing to her new ‘family’ is one of the film’s main emotive conceits.

Nitpicking aside though, this is still another exemplar of Kore-eda’s refulgent humanity, evident skill as a dramatist, and, perhaps most importantly of all, as a deceptively clever visual artist. The family’s cramped and ramshackle home becomes an almost visceral presence in the film thanks to Kore-eda’s ingenious cinematography and sensory approach. You can almost taste the noodles, croquettes and other such foods the characters are scoffing down at regular intervals.

And, much like with his recent and masterly Our Little Sister, the film’s most moving scene is an idyllic family trip to the beach. After the dark and claustrophobic confines of their Tokyo slum, the characters spending a day by the sea is a stunning pictorial contrast to the preceding drabness with its blast of literal fresh air and a soothing blue palette. But also, it memorialises a brief transitory moment where these troubled individuals are able to escape their respective traumas and pressures to bask in the rewards of this new, loving family unit they’ve all helped create. (December 2018)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the Fallacy of Slow Cinema

November 29, 2018

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Ahead of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest release, The Wild Pear Tree, I remember two of his earlier films and his place at the heart of the diminishing debate on slow cinema. Follow below link for full article:

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 21, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Actors: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan

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Synopsis: Six short stories set in the Old West burst out of a dime novel, with the colour plate of each individual section providing the gateway into and out of its tale.

Review: This stupendously entertaining, but also decidedly wispy and airy, portmanteau of films really does see the Coen brothers back on top form. Having a series of short films bursting out of an old dime novel is a lovely conceit. It’s not overly pretentious; it’s simply an ingenious little parlour game to have one of those throwaway old Western yarns brought to life in under 20 minutes, and then jettisoned at a moment of ironic, deus ex machina climax. In a sense, the conceit becomes the film: by the last couple of episodes, we’re almost waiting to see how the tale will settle on the colour plate image, and we quickly grab a glance at the story’s closing sentences, before our unseen conduit turns the page over to our next adventure.

It’s got the whiff of something Wes Anderson or maybe even Quentin Tarantino might conceive of, but in the subject matter and the stories’ unified theme of the pathos-laden folly of man, it’s classically Coen. As is common with the short film format, it’s more about narrative sleight-of-hand than thematic sophistication, but each story has its own merits. Tim Blake Nelson’s titular turn as Buster Scruggs in the opener is hard not enjoy – it has a highly amusing, screwball feel with a surreal ending – and the following short starring James Franco as a hapless robber has a lovely little touch in its closing moments as he finds the time to appreciate a pretty young woman in the crowd, seconds before he’s about to be publicly hung.

Perhaps my favourite segment was the Tom Waits gold prospector tale. Whereas the other films are generally amusing but disposable, this has a sly allegorical air, as the little plot of paradise that Waits rudely disrupts with his gold-digging fervour acts as a microcosm for the ethos of the story of American continent from the 17th century on. (November 2018)

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

November 18, 2018

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)
Director: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston
Actors: Mackenzie Foy, Jayden Fowora-Knight, Keira Knightley

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Synopsis: On Christmas Eve, Clara (Mackenzie Foy) descends into a parallel world known as the “Four Realms” – where toys come alive and where she becomes immersed in settling the legacy of her late mother who was queen there.

Review: By and large a critic-proof enterprise, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is manifestly a Disney product aimed at the young child demographic and released to coincide with the Christmas feelgood factor.

On that level, it’s absolutely fine. It’s sweeping, visually comprehensible, and has a nice tactile, sensuous quality – especially through its colour scheme and mise en scène it so ravishingly lays out in the four opposite “Realms” Clara must navigate. All the actors play their parts with the requisite gusto; Mackenzie Foy, in particular, is a sensitive and stoical pivot around which the drama unfolds.

Not being hugely knowledgable about the ballet on which this film is based, I’m loath to comment too much, although it seems a shame that so much of the dancing has been jettisoned for a more conventional fantasy drama. That aside, I’m sure it will be enjoyed by its target audience, and kudos to directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston who open the film on a suitably magical, CGI-inspired swoop, as our perspective glides along the Thames one Christmas Eve before arcing over the Houses of Parliament down into the residence of Clara and her family – where the story then unfolds. (November 2018)


November 11, 2018

Columbus (2018)
Director: Kogonada
Actors: John Cho, Hayley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey

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Synopsis: Jin (John Cho) is a Korean-American who arrives in Columbus, Indiana to tend to his famous scholar of a father who is desperately ill. While there, he strikes up a friendship with young librarian and architecture enthusiast, Casey (Hayley Lu Richardson).

Review: What may at first seem like an overly studied exercise in visual metaphor is actually much less concrete and reductive. Instead, Columbus uses its architecture framing point, both dramaturgically and pictorially, for an anthropological essay on how spaces and locations can both govern, and be manipulated by, experience and memory.

As a renowned video essayist, Kogonada’s feature film debut has a cinephile’s context to it: the narrative set-up is a loose cousin of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and the closing montage of all the places Jin and Casey have left behind echoes the masterful end to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. And yet, Columbus feels entirely original.

What the scrutiny of Kogonada’s fixed gaze and his depth of focus institutes is the idea of contemplation and attention – something hinted at in one of Casey’s discussions with a fellow librarian on the subject of video games versus books. Kogonada creates a continual juxtaposition between the centre of the dramaturgy (where classical western cinema nominally places the audience) and the detached perspectives that he frequently allows his camera to wander into. This creates drama that isn’t based around a narrative parlour game, but one that allows richer, contemplative ideas to seep into the audience’s processing of the story and its geography.

Kogonada’s pièce de résistance of form merging with content is during one of Jin and Casey’s early saunters to a site of architectural interest in Columbus. Casey has inadvertently fallen into the role of tour guide, feeding Jin blithe soundbites about the value of each building. When Jin, at the third time of asking, probes Casey to articulate why she really likes coming to this place, Kogonada entirely flips the perspective to focus on Casey’s face, he silences her voice, and uses a beautiful synthesiser score to aestheticise Casey’s invitation to liberate himself from the received viewpoint on the building. What Kogonada is able to express here is that words alone do not suffice to convey experience; a fitting concept in many ways for the multi-sensory medium of cinema, and something Kogonada is clearly trying to provide a commentary on in this, an exemplary feature film debut. (November 2018)